Sermon: “Standing on the Side of Love” (Advent 4, LOVE) Mt. 1:18-25 [12/22/19]

Image result for picture love fourth sunday of advent

So, some things happened in Washington this week.  The last time a president was impeached (in 1998), I sat riveted to the TV.  This time, I read Thursday morning’s paper, saw the news and said, “Oh.  That was yesterday.”

The consensus of pundits is that the process of impeachment has become so partisan, it no longer carries the moral weight it once did.  Perhaps the most perplexing–and troubling–reality of politics these days is how, now, value is determined, not by truth, but by polls.  Not by a concern for the common good, but a personal concern for reelection.  How did we get to this surreal place where truth has so little meaning?

A lot of people, I’m sure, were happy with the House vote on Wednesday.  A lot of people cling to the hope that the president will yet be removed from office.  I confess that I haven’t put all my eggs in that basket…because I think the crisis in our country runs far deeper than a president who struggles with the truth and basic norms of civility.  No person becomes president in a vacuum.  A person becomes president in a specific historical context.  Little by little, we allow our values to slip until, pretty much, anything goes.  Or perhaps I should say that, little by little, we have allowed our values to slip until, now, pretty much, anything goes.

When the Access Hollywood tape came out three weeks before the election in 2016 and it didn’t even phase the American electorate, I knew our country was in a crisis–a crisis of character.  That crisis has only deepened.  Removing the president wouldn’t change that fact.  Our work as Americans—and as followers of Jesus–is the work of rebuilding character.  Of speaking only what is true.  Of working together for the common good.  Of just being good people.

How appropriate on this Sunday, after this week in Washington, to hear again about Joseph…a man of sterling character, if ever there was one.  Joseph gets a lot of attention for what happens after the angel Gabriel makes his visit, that is, taking Mary as his wife, despite the fact that she’s pregnant.  And certainly, Joseph’s actions after Gabriel’s visit demonstrate just how good a person he was.

But Joseph didn’t need an angel’s visit to show him how to do the right thing.  Joseph’s true character is revealed before Gabriel shows up.

This is how the birth of Jesus came about, Matthew writes.  When Jesus’ mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together…  It was the custom among Jews in 1st century Palestine to have a period of betrothal.  As a betrothed woman, Mary was exclusively bound to Joseph.  So, when she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit…  It’s important to note here that, while Matthew lets the reader know that the pregnancy comes from the Holy Spirit, Joseph doesn’t know that yet.  He won’t know it until Gabriel comes to visit.

Sidebar…Y’all know this is a story, right?  It’s not a factual, historical accounting.  And it’s certainly not a scientific article.  It’s a story…a really good story.  Some might even call it a fantastic (or fantastical) story.  But it’s a story.  We do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss the lessons to be learned from a story by trying to make it bear scientific accuracy.  If I want to talk science, I go to Chris Cain or Jim Beggs.  If I want to enter a story and, potentially, be changed by it, one of the places I go is the Bible.  So.  Back to the story.

In the context of this story, when Mary is found to be pregnant, Joseph’s options are limited.  When Jewish law first was written, the punishment for adultery was death by stoning.  By the first century, the rabbis had moved away from capital punishment, but the punishment for adultery was still severe…and publicly humiliating, especially for women.

Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy reveals what kind of person he was. As Mary’s husband, Joseph had certain rights according to Jewish law.  As an “upright” or “righteous” person, Joseph was committed to following Jewish law.  Yet, despite his commitment to following the law, Joseph was unwilling to disgrace Mary… As strong as his commitment to following religious law was, Joseph’s compassion was stronger.  His concern for Mary’s dignity superseded even the possibility of his own public embarrassment.  Unwilling to disgrace her, Joseph decided to divorce her quietly.

As I’ve reflected on Joseph’s character and the actions that flowed from that character, the line that keeps coming to mind is the motto of our UU friends:  “Standing on the side of love.”  If anyone in Scripture stands on the side of love, it’s Joseph.  Based on what he knew at the time–that the one to whom he was betrothed was pregnant–Joseph understood what rights the law afforded him…and yet, he chose not to avail himself fully of that law.  Why?  Because to do so would have demeaned Mary…and that’s not a line Joseph was willing to cross.  Joseph refused to disgrace Mary.  He refused to treat her as if she were less than fully human.

We talk about love a lot here at FCUCC.  That’s appropriate.  We are a church, after all.  At the heart of our understanding of love–of the love Jesus taught and lived–is justice.  Love is the power to act each other into wellbeing.  Justice is the means by which we take that loving action.

Love, justice, all of it begins by acknowledging the full human dignity of every single person.  Every.  Single.  Person.  If all of us could see the profound dignity in every other human being, if all of us could recognize that of the divine in each person… If we could do that, if we were to treat every person with equal dignity, the world would be an infinitely kinder and more peaceful place.  It also would be a whole lot closer to the world of which God dreams.

The movie, Hidden Figures, tells the story of the three African American women calculators, whose computations were key to the success of NASA in the early 60s.  In a pivotal scene in the film, Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, comes out of his office and angrily asks Katherine Johnson why she is leaving the room again at such a critical time in their work.  “Where do you go for 40 minutes every day!” he demands.  “To the bathroom, sir,” Katherine says.  The answer angers Harrison.  “Why do you spend that much time going to the bathroom?” he shouts.  “Because there’s no bathroom for me here,” Katherine says.  “What do you mean, there’s no bathroom for you here?”

Finally, Katherine releases all her frustration, all her anger, all her humiliation.  “There are no colored bathrooms in this building…or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away.  Did you know that?  I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself…I work like a dog, day and night, living off of coffee from a pot none of you want to touch!  So.  Excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”

After Katherine leaves the room, a stunned Mr. Harrison slowly walks to the table holding the two coffee pots and removes the “Colored” sign scotch-taped to the smaller one.  A later scene takes place outside a nearby restroom.  Mr. Harrison walks up to the bathroom door and swings an axe at the “Whites Only” sign attached to the wall above it.  It takes several whacks, but, eventually, the sign falls to the floor with a dull clang.  Mr. Harrison says to the workers gathered in the hall:  “No more colored restrooms.  No more white restrooms.  Just plain old toilets.  Use whichever one you want…”  To Katherine, he says:  “Preferably, the one closest to your desk.”

Yeah.  That’s definitely a move from Joseph’s playbook.  Al Harrison stood on the side of love.  It’s where we all must stand.  We all must stand on the side of human dignity.  We all must stand on the side of grace.  We all must stand on the side of compassion.  We all must stand on the side of love.  If there is any hope of creating the shalom of which God dreams, we all must stand on the side of love.

I leave you with these words of 14th century mystic, Hafiz.  “I have come into this world to see this:  the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of their arc of anger…because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound and it is his—the Christ’s, our Beloved’s.  I have come into this world to see this:  all creatures hold hands as we pass through this miraculous existence we share on the way to even a greater being of soul…

“I have come into this world to hear this:  every song the earth has sung since it was conceived in the Divine’s womb and began spinning from the Beloved’s wish, every song by wing and fin and hoof, every song by hill and field and tree and woman and child, every song of stream and rock, every song of tool and lyre and flute, every song of gold and emerald and fire, every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity to know itself as Beloved; for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching…

“I have come into this world to experience this:  people so true to love they would rather die before speaking an unkind word, people so true their lives are the Beloved’s covenant—the promise of hope.  I have come into this world to see this:  the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of their arc of rage because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound.”

If this is so—that we are one flesh—how can we not, every minute of every day…if we are one flesh, how can we not stand on the side of love?

 

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019

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Sermon: “Swords into Plowshares” (Is. 2:2-5) [12/1/19] Advent 1, Hope

‘Tis the season!’  But ‘tis the season for what?  According to any retail outlet, since about mid-October it’s been the Christmas season, the season to buy, buy, buy!  Does it sometimes feel as if the retailers get the better end of the Christmas deal?  After all, they get to celebrate Christmas for two and a half months (or more…).  We Jesus-followers only get to celebrate it for twelve days…and the first of those days isn’t until December 25th.

Oh, the pain of Advent!  For those of us who celebrate Advent, now ‘tis the season to wait.  We’re waiting on the baby Jesus.  Again.  Just like every year.  ‘Joy to the world, the Lord will come!’ we sing….as we wink to one another over the tops of our hymnals.  We wink because we know.  We know the end of the story.  We know that the world celebrates joyously because the Lord has already come.  We know the baby Jesus will come again…just like he always does.  We go through the motions of the Advent story every year because it’s familiar.  And who doesn’t love a familiar story, especially one with a happy ending?

But I wonder.  Do we know for certain the baby Jesus will show up this year?  Yes, he’s shown up every previous year…but this Advent is different.  After a year of experiences, we’re different people than we were this time last year.  We’ve gotten older.  We’ve lost loved ones.  We’ve said hello to new family members.  We’ve adjusted to difficult diagnoses and recovered from accidents, falls, and surgeries.  And not only are we in different places as people, the world is a different place than it was last year, too.  Did you see the report that came out this week?  Climate change is going significantly faster than anticipated.  Protests continue to roil across the globe.  In our own country, we’re more entrenched politically than we’ve ever been.

Waiting for the Christ-child, waiting for God’s presence to dwell with us is different this year because we are different people; the world is a different place… Yes, Jesus has shown up every year prior to this one, but will he show up again?  Will our waiting bear fruit, like always?  Will God really come to dwell with us again?

Several years ago, the church I served needed a new crèche.  Have you ever tried to find a manger scene where the baby Jesus is not attached to the manger?  It isn’t easy!  We looked everywhere for an unattached baby Jesus.  Finally, Allen and I found one in Adel, Georgia, of all places.  Why is that?  Why is the baby Jesus so often so firmly attached to the manger?  Oh, sure.  The baby Jesus is small and we want to be sure we know where he is come the Christmas Eve service!  Better to attach him to something bigger, like the manger, than to risk losing him.

But again, I wonder.  Are we afraid of losing a small piece of ceramic?  Or we scared that this might be the year the Christ-child doesn’t come at all.  Yes, in ancient times, God said God wanted to be with us.  God actually did dwell with us for a while.  But that was then.  Now we live in (what feels like) a much more complicated world.  There’s so much pain and grief and meanness.  Does God still desire to dwell with us?  Will God-with-us really come again?  I wonder if we like an “attached” baby Jesus because the empty manger makes us nervous.

Waiting is a messy, nervous-making business.  But it always seems easier when we have something to do.  So, what are we to do during this season of waiting?  What shall we do while we wait again for the Christ-child to come?

Isaiah has some ideas.  “In days to come the mountain of God’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” 

We 21st century folk understand God to be present in all the world, not just on mountain tops or in sanctuaries.  But let’s go with this image for a minute.  First, we have a mountain, taller than all other mountains.  And on top of this mountain is the house of God, a place to worship God, to learn from God. And from as far as the eye can see, people are streaming to this mountain.  From every direction, people of different races and ethnicities and nationalities and languages and sizes and shapes and colors and dress are streaming to the mountain of God.  They get to the bottom of the mountain and they start climbing up.  Why are they climbing up the mountain of God?  Because they want to get close to God!  They want to learn from God!  And so, they start climbing up the mountain.

And here’s the interesting thing.  As they’re climbing up the mountain, all these different people, as they’re climbing up the mountain trying to get closer to God, look at what else is happening!  As the people get closer to God, they also get closer to each other…so that, by the time they get to the top of the mountain to commune with God, they’re sitting right next to each other!  And what do they do once they get there?  They learn from God’s ways so they might walk in God’s paths.  And what are God’s ways?  God’s ways are whatever it takes for these people of different shapes and colors and nationalities to talk to each other and be with each other.  What a beautiful image for this Sunday of hope!

But the prophet doesn’t just offer an image of a better world.  He also offers an image of how to get there.  Listen:  ‘For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of God from Jerusalem.  God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!

Swords into plowshares.  Also a powerful image…if you know what a plowshare is.  I looked it up.  A plowshare is the blade of a sickle.  It’s used to harvest grain.  So you can see the significance of the image of turning a sword—a weapon—into a farm implement, an implement of peace.

Home

In your bulletins, you’ll find several pictures…you see the words of Isaiah 2:4 on a wall at the UN:  ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ You also see a picture of a sculpture of a plowshare created, in part by melted down guns.  You’ll also see farm implements and shovels created by melted down guns.  There’s even a guitar created out of guns.

Artist Pedro Reyes

            Perhaps the most powerful artistic rendering of Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” image is a nine-foot sculpture that stands in one of the gardens at the UN.  In that sculpture, a muscular blacksmith is beating a sword into a plowshare.  What the blacksmith has is neither sword nor plowshare.  It’s something in between.  The blacksmith is in the process of making peace.  He’s in the process of conversion.

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“Swords into Plowshares” sculpture at the United Nations

            As are we.  Oh, to live in a world where nations do not lift swords against each other!  Oh, that war-making could be removed from our collective curriculum as obsolete!  Unfortunately, for us—as for the prophet Isaiah—our conversion process is not yet complete.  We live in a world where nations do war, a place where senseless violence still occurs.  It’s hard—so hard—for us to imagine a world without war or violence, but that’s why God gave us prophets.  Prophets help us imagine.  And Isaiah helps us to imagine a new day, a day where people of different backgrounds and faiths and colors meet together on the mountain of God in peace.  Isaiah helps us imagine a world without war, a world without violence.

Our work of Advent is like the work of the blacksmith in the sculpture at the UN:  the call this Advent is to be about the process of making peace.  We may not make it up the mountain of God.  We may not even make it to the mountain of God.  And our arsenals may be better-stocked at this point than our barns…But now that Isaiah has helped us imagine it, let us work toward peace, a just peace.  Let us continue walking in the light of God, searching for God’s mountain.  And let us scale that mountain together.  And let us encounter God there. And let us meet God’s other children there, our sisters and brothers.  And let us find peace there.  And as we work together and seek God’s peace, let us also keep one eye on our tasks and one eye on the empty manger.  For we may discover that—just as we hoped—God is indeed with us.

 

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

 

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019 (2013, 2001)

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Sermon: “Guide Our Feet in the Way of Peace” (Luke 1:68-80) [11/24/19]

Luke is the original Broadway Gospel.  Every time something big happens, the story’s characters break into song.  When the pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she breaks into song.  (#119) “My soul gives glory to my God…” When angels appear to shepherds in the field, they break into song.  (#125) “Gloria!  In Excelsis Deo!”   When Mary and Joseph present the infant Jesus at the temple, the elder Simeon breaks into song.  (#807): “Holy One, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled.”  Luke’s John the Baptist doesn’t break into song, but when Godspell’s John the Baptist does, it feels pretty Lukan.  Shall we sing it together?  Prepare ye the way of the Lord. 

Of all the songs sung in Luke’s Gospel, perhaps the sweetest is the one sung by the priest  Zechariah.  Though deeply faithful, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth remained childless.

Once a year, a priest was selected to go into the temple to make a special offering for the people.  On Zechariah’s year, an angel appears and tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are going to have a baby.  They’ll name him John.  Zechariah’s response to this joyful news?  “How will I know this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  And the survey said, BLAST!  Wrong answer.  Zechariah’s punishment for not believing the angel’s good news?  “You will become mute until these things occur.”

Struck mute.  Man, that had to be hard for Zechariah.  Maybe not so much for Elizabeth… but for Zechariah, really hard.  Which had to make his joy at the birth of his son that much more joyous.  No wonder he breaks into song!  Let’s sing that song together.  (#110)

Now bless the God of Israel, who comes in love and power,

Who raises from the royal house deliverance in this hour.

Through holy prophets God has sworn to free us from alarm,

To save us from the heavy hand of all who wish us harm.

 

Remembering the covenant, God rescues us from fear,

That we might serve in holiness and peace from year to year;

And you, my child, shall go before to preach, to prophesy,

That all may know the tender love, the grace of God most high.

 

In tender mercy, God will send the dayspring from on high,

Our rising sun, the light of life for those who sit and sigh,

God comes to guide our way to peace, that death shall reign no more.

Sing praises to the Holy One!  O worship and adore.

 

If this number were being staged, Zechariah would be holding little John, singing these words as a lullaby.  “And you, my child, shall go before to preach, to prophesy, that all may know the tender love, the grace of God most high.”  Here’s how the last verse of Zechariah’s song reads in Luke 1:  “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  To guide our feet into the way of peace.  Then we’re told that “the child grew and became strong in spirit…”  Growing up hearing his dad sing these kinds of songs to him, to pray these kinds of things for him?  It’s no wonder John became “strong in spirit.”

But peaceful?  I’m not so sure John got that message.  Later, we see that John did fulfill his dad’s vision of his “going out to preach and prophesy.”  Here’s his first sermon:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”  Preach, yes.  Peace?  It sounds like John was still trying to figure out the peace part.

How about you?  Do you have the peace thing figured out?  Do you pray for God to guide your feet into the way of peace?  Do you know when you’re actually walking in that way?

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It took her 15 years to figure it out, but a woman who took the name Peace Pilgrim, let her steps be guided by peace.  A typical teenager and young woman, Peace loved fashion; she sought the good life.  But on a walk through the woods one evening, a voice came to her.  She began to question her choices in life.  She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but she began listening to the voice inside her….and slowly—bit by bit—her life changed.

It began with helping her neighbors, staying with a sick friend during that friend’s convalescence, assisting troubled youth.  During her years of discernment, she began to feel the burden of ownership…so she started getting rid of her possessions.  (Peace Kando-ed before Marie Kando was even born.)  In a palpable way, the strong connection between inner peace and world peace began to crystallize for Peace.

Finally, Peace knew what she was being called to do:  she would walk across the country spreading the message of peace….she would walk, in fact, until world peace had been achieved.

She began, of all places, at the Rose Bowl Parade, New Year’s Day, 1953.  Here’s the explanation Peace shared with people during seven trips of walking across the United States:

“You may see her walking through your town or along the highway—a silver-haired woman dressed in navy blue slacks and shirt, and a short tunic with pockets…in which she carries her only worldly possessions.  It says, “PEACE PILGRIM” in white letters on the front of the tunic and “25,000 Miles on Foot for Peace” on the back.  She has walked the 25,000 miles.  However, she continues to walk, for her vow is, “I shall remain a wanderer until (hu)mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.”  She walks without a penny in her pockets and she is not affiliated with any organization.  She walks as a prayer and as a chance to inspire others to pray and work with her for peace.” (vii)  Peace walked until she died—ironically—in a car accident in 1981.

Are you ready to sell everything and start walking around the country for peace, walking until you’re given shelter and fasting until you’re given food?  Not to worry.  Peace Pilgrim was clear from the beginning that embarking on a peace pilgrimage was her calling, a calling it took her 15 years to discern.  A big part of her mission was to invite others to think about what their calling to peace might be.

What do you imagine your calling to peace might be?  I was a little hard on John the Baptist earlier, with all that brood of vipers stuff.  Truth is, when his listeners began pushing back, he gave them some good ideas about how to create peace:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Luke tells us that “even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?  He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’  Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’  He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

It’s interesting that these last two suggestions are made to people in specific professions, tax collectors and soldiers.  John tailors his responses to those people based on where they are in life….because that’s where the way of peace begins, isn’t it?  Not necessarily on some grand pilgrimage around the country, but in the small actions of our everyday lives.

It’s good to hear about people like John the Baptist and Peace Pilgrim, people who were able to commit every aspect of their lives to the way of peace.  But what about us?  How will we commit ourselves to the important work of peacemaking?  How will we—in the context of the lives we already are living—create peace in the world?  How will we contribute to the world and its people becoming a little more whole?

In a recent Monday’s Musings, I confessed that all those times I’d been asking you all if you didn’t feel overwhelmed by all the broken places in the world, I was actually talking about myself.  Oh, yes.  I see all the mending the world needs and it mostly makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.  It’s true that a big part of my personal calling in the work of peacemaking is the work I do here at church—preaching about peace, working with the Faith Formation team to provide classes on peace (Rollin’s class), working with the worship team on peace, being in conversation with Earth, Racial Justice, and Benevolence teams on the important work of acting the world into wellbeing.

But when it comes to engaging in peacemaking outside the church?  That can get overwhelming.  How does one decide?  There is so much work to do, all of it important, crucial work…but there are only so many hours in the day.  How do you decide?

Then I signed up to preach once a month at the prison.  Bingo!  I’m a preacher; they need preachers.  There’s a lot of brokenness in the world that I’m never going to be able to mend.  But the second Sunday of the month from 6:30 -7:30 p.m.?….yeah.  I can mend that tiny bit.

What tiny bit might you mend?  What skills or passion from your day job—or your pre-retirement job—might you employ in mending one tiny piece of the world?  And what might happen if each and every one of us tends to mending one or two tiny bits?  If each of us diligently works to create shalom in our small corner of the world, might shalom then become more real for the rest of world?  What say we give it a try?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019  (2016)

 

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Sermon: “Making God’s Dreams Come True” (Isaiah 65:17-25) [11/17/19]

 

Five of us went to prison last Sunday evening.  (Beaver, Peggy, Mary, Tisa) Thankfully, they let us back out.  While we were there, we shared in worship with close to 100 women.

Here’s the thing about worship at the prison–it’s about as real as it gets.  Oh, sure.  Some of the women come just get out of the dorms.  But a lot of the women come because they need the worship, they need that connection with God.  For those women, God keeps them sober.  God keeps their children safe.  God gives them hope they’ll be able to make better decisions when they get out.  Stripped of just about everything else, those women hang onto God for dear life.  Literally.

Preaching in prison is very different from preaching outside.  On the outside, we have so many choices, so many options of what to do with our time…what clothes to wear, what job to take, what continent to visit on our next vacation, what justice work we want to do, what to wear to church, what to eat after church.  Who to vote for.  Whether to vote at all.

We even have the luxury of whether or not to believe in God.  There’s so much we can do for ourselves, belief in God’s not really necessary for living successful, even, happy lives.  Many of us–perhaps even most of us–do choose to believe in God, but for most it’s not a life-or-death prospect.  Preaching at the prison is giving me a whole new perspective on what it means to depend on God…and on what it means to be in constant conversation with God about how to make the world a better place.

Today’s passage from Isaiah is that kind of conversation.  It happens after Judah has been defeated by Babylon and many of their people taken back to Babylon in captivity.  (Talking about the Babylonian Captivity inside a prison takes on a whole new meaning.)  The people have now returned and have been in the rebuilding process for a while.  As we heard last week when we talked about rebuilding the temple, the people had become discouraged.

Discouragement often comes when we lose a vision of where we’re headed.  Isaiah senses that’s what’s happening…and so he shares the vision he has received from God, a vision of what God dreams for the world.  I invite us to hear the prophet’s words once more.  May we receive them as a clear picture of what God dreams for the world.

A reading from Isaiah.  For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Asheville as a joy, and its people as a delight. 

I will rejoice in Asheville, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by God— and their descendants as well. Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking, I will hear. 

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says our God.

Yeah.  Okay.  I was a little sneaky there, substituting Asheville for Jerusalem.  Strange how easily God’s dreams from two centuries ago are still relevant today, isn’t it?  The line that always slows me down is They shall build houses and inhabit them…  How many people who build some of these mansions on the tops of mountains inhabit them?  Probably not many.  On the other hand, that’s exactly what happens with Habitat for Humanity.  Folks who buy Habitat houses work on them then inhabit them.  I suspect this verse was very much in the minds of Millard Fuller and Clarence Jordan when they first thought up the Fund for Humanity that became Habitat for Humanity.

Another line that gives me pause is this one:  I will rejoice in Asheville, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  One commentator I read wondered what it would be like to live in a city where no one wept or cried out in distress.  Can you imagine?  An Asheville where everyone has an affordable place to live?  With adequate heat?  Where everyone has enough food to eat?  Where everyone has easy access to adequate health care?  Where everyone has meaningful, well-paying work?

My point today is not to convince you that, as people of faith, this is the work we’re called to do.  Many of you have been doing this kind of justice work for longer than I’ve been alive.  And it gives me great joy–and hope–to see our children and teenagers actively engaged in this work, as well.

So, if convincing us to engage in justice work isn’t the point of this sermon, what is?  The invitation today is to a subtle shift in thinking…a shift from seeing ourselves as “doing God’s work in the world” to understanding ourselves as “working with God to transform the world.”  One commentator on this passage asked, “What are the capacities of God?  In our mystery-stripped world, we tend to focus on human capacities.”  In our “mystery-stripped world”…what a beautiful–and accurate–line.  We really have lost a sense of mystery, a belief that sometimes, things or beings beyond our control can help us in acting the world into wellbeing.  So often, we try to do everything ourselves.  We focus only on human capacities.  We rarely ask what God’s capacity might be.

Maybe we avoid asking about God’s capacity because we don’t want to practice bellhop theology–that, like a bellhop in a concierge hotel, God is there simply to do our bidding.  We’ve grown way past that theology.  In an effort to distance ourselves from it, though, I fear we have–in functional terms–done away with God entirely, except maybe here in church on Sunday.

So, what might happen if we invite God into a more active role in our justice work…not to do the work for us, but to partner with us in this important work?  What if we open our minds and hearts to the divine presence in the work of racial justice and economic justice and gender justice and health justice and the vital work of peacemaking?  What if we didn’t try to go it alone, but actively engaged every activist action with prayer?  What if we invited God back into the work of social justice?

What if we saw our work of repairing the world more literally as the work of making God’s dreams for the world come true?

I’m going to read another piece we’ve already heard this morning, the book I read to the children earlier, God’s Dream.  As I read this simple rendering of what God hopes for the world, keep in mind who wrote it–Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa…he who helped people keep the faith during Apartheid, he who regularly spoke truth to power, he who was instrumental in the Truth and Reconciliation process after Apartheid ended.  This one who had been through and seen hell all around him still had enough faith, enough love, enough belief in God, enough hope to write this book for children.

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Dear Child of God, What do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams?  

Do you dream about flying high or rainbows reaching across the sky?

Do you dream about being free to do what your heart desires?

Or about being treated like a full person no matter how young you might be?

 

Do you know what God dreams about?

If you close your eyes and look with your heart, 

I am sure, dear child, that you will find out.

 

God dreams about people sharing.

God dreams about people caring.

God dreams that we reach out and hold one another’s hands 

and play one another’s games and laugh with one another’s heart.

 

But God does not force us to be friends or to love one another.

 

Dear Child of God, it does happen that we get angry and hurt one another.

Soon we start to feel sad and so very alone.

Sometimes we cry, and God cries with us.

But when we say we’re sorry and forgive one another, 

We wipe away our tears and God’s tears, too.

 

Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us.

And when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole.

 

God dreams that every one of us will see that we are all brothers and sisters–

yes, even you and me–

even if we have different mommies and daddies or live in different faraway lands.

Even if we speak different languages or have different ways of talking to God.

Even if we have different eyes or different skin.

Even if you are taller and I am smaller.  

Even if your nose is little and mine is large.

 

Dear Child of God, do you know how to make God’s dream come true?

It’s really quite easy.

As easy as sharing, loving, caring.

As easy as holding, playing, laughing.

As easy as knowing we are family because we are all God’s children.

Will you help God’s dream come true?  

Let me tell you a secret…

God smiles like a rainbow when you do.

 

Will we help God’s dream come true?

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

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Sermon: “Mending the World” (Haggai 1:15b-2:9) [11/10/19]

 

 

Some of the people gathered that morning in the footprint of the old temple remembered the former temple’s glory…the tall pillars, the broad areas for prayer and study, the entrance to the Holy of Holies, where God once lived.  They remembered pilgrimages to the temple, making their offerings, and, especially, the excitement of the high holy days.

They also remembered receiving word that the temple had been destroyed.  The news hit like a shot.  Gone?  How could the temple be gone?  Then came the question that rattled them to their core, the question that hung over them in exile:  Where was God now?

After nearly 70 years, the exiles have returned to Judah.  They’ve slowly begun to rebuild…first, the protective wall around the city, now, the temple.  After laying the foundation for the new temple, they apparently had grown discouraged.

Sensing that discouragement, Haggai–feeling a nudge from God–speaks to Judah’s governor, high priest, and people.  The prophet asks those gathered around the empty space where their beloved temple used to be:  “Who here is left among you who saw this Temple in its former glory?”  I suspect a few aged arms were lifted.  “And how does it look to you now?” the prophet asks.  I imagine heads dropping in sadness.  Perhaps the prophet’s voice got softer here.  “Doesn’t it seem like nothing in comparison?”  Were those sighs the prophet heard?

The grief–and disappointment–must have been overwhelming.  To have lost your country…to have lived in exile…to have returned from exile only to find things a mess, still in need of rebuilding.  Of course, the people were discouraged.  Of course, they had lost hope.

When I first read this text last summer, I thought we’d be using it to talk about the recently-completed renovation of our sanctuary.  Plans changed.  We might still reminisce about the good old days of horsehair plaster and how, maybe drywall wouldn’t be so bad.  We could do that…but I think if we did, we’d be missing the prophet’s point…

…because I don’t think Haggai was really talking about a bricks-and-mortar temple that morning.  He was talking about something deeper, something that went to the hearts of those discouraged people.  Haggai was talking about hope.

Interesting, isn’t it, that on this journey of living as a Just Peace congregation, we keep circling back around to hope?  The people Haggai addressed had lost hope.  Without hope, they couldn’t rebuild.  Without hope, they couldn’t even imagine rebuilding the temple.  Without hope, they could not re-form themselves into a new version of the strong, faithful community they once were.  Without hope, the community would die.

When I realized today’s sermon likely would not be about horsehair plaster or drywall, I began to wonder what it would be about.  That’s when it hit me–it’s about the world.

As a Just Peace church, we’re committed to creating peace–working for shalom–in the world…all kinds of peace, all kinds of justice–economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, just relations between countries, which means working to end war…As a community, we’re committed to doing everything we can to create peace, to act the world into wellbeing.

But, like those ancient Judahites, I imagine us, too, standing around, thinking about the former glory of our world–the celebrations of signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, women in Saudia Arabia receiving driver’s licenses, women in our own country getting the vote a century ago.  The passage in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act, then a year later, the Voting Rights Act (which was not renewed).  In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act.  So many amazing things have happened in our world.  MARRIAGE EQUALITY!!!!  Unimaginably good, wonderful, glorious things happened…in the old days.

But now?  So much seems in ruins.  How are we ever going to rebuild?  How are we ever going to create peace in this world?

As I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the idea of Just Peace, I’ve been drawn to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world.  16th c. rabbi Isaac Luria told this story.

Before God created the world, the entire universe was filled with a holy presence. God took a breath to draw back and make room for the world. From that first breath, darkness was created.  And when God said, “Let there be light,” lightness was created filling vessels with holy light. God sent those vessels to the world, and if they had each arrived whole, the world would have been perfect. But the holy light was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels split open sending sparks flying everywhere. Some of God’s holy light became trapped inside the shards of the vessels.  It is our job to release and gather the sparks.  When enough sparks have been gathered, tikkun olam, repair of the world will be complete.

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This story is breathtaking in its beauty….that every person, every part of creation carries within us a spark of God’s light…that the path to shalom, peace, wholeness involves releasing those sparks of light so that all the sparks might be gathered together…that the wholeness of the world will come through connection, not domination, through openness, not division.

Another beautiful thing about this story is that it begins with brokenness…yet even in the midst of the brokenness, sees the light in it.  It’s like the second question Haggai asks.  First, he asks:  ‘Who is there left among you who saw this Temple in its former glory?’  The question no doubt, brought to mind pictures of the temple as they remembered it.  With the picture of how things were lodged in their minds, Haggai then asks, ‘And how does it look to you now?’

It’s a brilliant question.  The first question invites people to imagine the past.  When Haggai asks “And how does it look to you now?” he’s inviting the people back into the present, to look clearly at the reality in which they actually are living.

Perhaps the people had gotten stuck.  In their grief over losing what had been, maybe they were struggling to move forward.  Maybe they had thought they were ready to rebuild, but when they actually started gathering the stones and mortar, when they saw the gaping chasm between the tangible materials of rebuilding they held in their hands and their memories of what had been, maybe the grief overwhelmed–even paralyzed–them.

Haggai’s question, “And how does it look to you now?” is perhaps the most prophetic thing in this whole passage.  Because it invites the people to look at reality as it is.  Acting the world into wellbeing, repairing the world–we can’t build that work on our remembrances of how wonderful things were in the past.  If we are to do our work well, we must begin where things are.  Here.  Now.

A great example of this is Bill McKibben’s book, Eaarth.  That’s Eaarth, with two a’s.  The thesis of this book, which was written in 2010, is that climate change would soon reach the point where we would not be able to reclaim the Earth we once knew.  Because we no longer inhabit Earth.  We now inhabit a new, less people-friendly planet named Eaarth, with two a’s.  If we begin, not by trying to recapture old glory days, but grounded instead in what’s real today, if we accurately identify the places where our beloved Eaarth is broken, we’ll be better able to repair the world.

Once Haggai asks the people to remember what the temple had been, then to name what they see in front of them, he gives them space to grieve.  “Doesn’t it seem like nothing in comparison?”  And indeed it did.  What they saw in front of them, literally, was nothing.  Grief does that to us sometimes, doesn’t it?  We can’t see what’s actually in front of us because all we can see is what isn’t in front of us any more.  Haggai gives the people a moment to grieve.

Then he invites them to crawl out of their stuck place and get cracking.  But take courage now, Zerubbabel!— it is Yahweh  who speaks.   Courage, High Priest Joshua ben Jehozadak!  Courage, all you people of the country!—it is Yahweh who speaks.  To work!  Isn’t that a beautiful translation?  To work!  I am with you—it is Yahweh Omnipotent who speaks.  As I promised I would be when you came out of Egypt, and my Spirit remains among you.  Don’t be afraid!  For Yahweh says this:  

 A little while now, and I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land…The new glory of this temple is going to surpass the old, says Yahweh  Omnipotent… And here’s a remarkable statement…The new glory of this temple is going to surpass the old… and in this place I will give peace.’

In this place, I will give peace.  Peace won’t come from their remembrances.  Peace is going to come from looking at things as they actually are.  With these bricks.  With this mortar.  With this world.  With its current state of brokenness.  As we look squarely at what is broken in our world, then we’ll be able to repair it.  When we see what precisely in the world needs to be mended, then we can begin the needed mending…one stitch at a time.  When we release the spark of divine light from our own beings and gather our sparks with others’ sparks, then the world will become whole.  Then the world will achieve shalom.  Then the world will be at peace.

And so, people of God:  Take courage, it is Yahweh who speaks.  To work!  To work!  To work!

Larry sings, “If Not Now.”

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

 

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019

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Sermon: “White Humility” (Luke 18:9-14) [10/27/19]

 

 

Remember what we did in worship the first Sunday in January?  It was Epiphany, the day we tell the story of magi following a star to Bethlehem and finding a babe lying in a manger.  On that day, we each received at random a paper star with a word on it.  (Terri)  The invitation was to allow that word to guide us through the year.  (If you weren’t here that Sunday and would like a star word to guide you the next three months, there are some on the table.)

Some of us liked our words immediately.  Some of us did NOT.  Humility.  That was my word.  I did NOT want humility to be my guide through the year.  What about discernment or transformation or, my spouse’s word, joy?  No.  I had to get humility.  Epiphany night, at the choir party, I was hounded.  “What was your word?  What was your word?”  I told them I was too embarrassed to tell them…at which point, Cara piped up:  “Humility!”  Thanks, Cara.

The parable Jesus tells “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” is the quintessential story of humility in Scripture.

Two people go to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee thanks God he’s not like thieves or rogues or adulterers.  And he’s sure not like that tax collector over there!  He fasts twice a week and tithes to the temple.  The Pharisee–if you ask the Pharisee–is a very righteous person.

The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off, out of earshot.  So aware is he of his failings, the tax collector can’t even look up to heaven.  He simply asks God for mercy.

Jesus commends the tax collector–assumed to be a sinner by the “holy” people– as the one who went home justified.  The Pharisee–who took pride in his righteousness– did not.

Humility.  What is it?  And what role might it play in our Just Peace efforts?

The Rule of St. Benedict includes 12 steps–yes, 12 steps–of humility.  I would not recommend reading the original version of those steps.  Humility looked a lot different 1500 years ago than it does now.  Instead, I would commend to you Sr. Joan Chittister’s current day interpretation of Benedict’s take on humility.

Sr. Joan notes that “Benedict tells us that true humility is simply a measure of the self that is taken without exaggerated approval or exaggerated guilt.”  A lot of times, when we hear “humility,” we think “humiliation.”  In her description of humility, Sr. Joan makes clear the distinction.  She says that true humility isn’t demeaning or shaming.  True humility is knowing our place in the universe, or as poet Mary Oliver says, “knowing our place in the family of things.”  The truly humble person doesn’t inflate their personality.  Neither do they deflate it.  True humility happens when we are simply ourselves.

Which seems to be what’s going on in today’s parable.  The Pharisee’s prayer isn’t a prayer at all.  He uses the prayer as an opportunity to convince others, God, maybe even himself, that he’s a righteous person.  The Pharisee thinks of himself as greater than he actually is…probably out of fear that he is less than he actually is.  His inability simply to be himself prevents him from attaining the true righteousness he so desires.

The tax collector uses his time of prayer to come clean.  He is as honest as he knows how to be about who he is and what he’s done.  It’s in facing himself as honestly as he can that the tax collector experiences true redemption.  It is he who goes home justified.

We often think about humility in terms of individual spirituality, which is appropriate.  If we aren’t honest about who we are, how can we grow, spiritually or otherwise?

But it’s also important to remember that we don’t live in a vacuum.  We live our lives in the context of the rest of the universe.  As Sr. Joan says:  “Humility is the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth, and even our way of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn, without put-downs, without disdain, without self-centeredness.  The more we know ourselves, the gentler we will be with others,” (98).

Humility being my star word, I’ve looked at just about everything through that lens this year.  Because the preacher told me to.  Taking up the tin whistle and starting to play in the Irish Music Session in Black Mountain…has been a very humbling experience for someone who’s already a musician.  I’m finding, though, that I make more progress when I’m honest about my actual skill level than when I try to pretend I know more than I do.  If I try to play tunes I don’t actually know, the results are, well, humiliating.

Another place I’ve been thinking about humility is in relation to white supremacy.  For those of us with white skin, reckoning with our whiteness is, perhaps, the hardest thing we’ve ever done.  I suspect it might be even harder for those of us from the South.  To wake up to the fact that life is much easier for us because we are white?  That many of the advantages we have in life aren’t due solely to our own hard work, but also because the deck is stacked in our favor?  That recognition–especially for those of us who are committed to social justice–can be devastating.  Even humiliating.

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Several of us gathered here Friday before last to watch “13th,” a documentary by Ava Duvernay that follows the unbroken progression from slavery, through convict leasing during Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, to the current plague of mass incarceration of people of color.  All 16 of us there Friday night are white.

After the film, I asked how people felt.  The first response was, “sick.”  One person said they felt physically ill.  Another person said they felt “foolish” for not having known about the racist actions of our government in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that led to mass incarceration.  One person said they felt ashamed.  Many admitted to feeling angry.

I asked the question about feelings Friday night because it’s not one I often hear in conversations about white supremacy with white people.  In fact, in most conversations around race, the feelings of white people often are discounted and dismissed….or labeled as “fragile.”  A meeting I attended earlier this year is a case in point.

In a gathering of white and black folks to talk together about racism and white supremacy, a white person made a passing reference to being afraid.  An older black woman spoke up.  “Don’t tell me about being afraid.  I’ve been afraid all my life!”  The white person shut down.  All of us white people shut down.  We shut down because we knew that African American woman was exactly right.  Walking through the world in her skin, she’s experienced far more fear than those of us with white skin will ever experience or understand.

I hear that woman’s words.  I believe them.  I want to do everything I can to make the world a place where people don’t have to be afraid to walk through the world as themselves.  But what’s becoming clear to me is that white people ignoring our feelings of shame isn’t helping to dismantle white supremacy.  In fact, ignoring our feelings, shoving them down, or allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by them—and this next statement might get my liberal card revoked—but if we white people don’t face our feelings of shame, white supremacy will only get stronger.

…Because dismantling white supremacy requires true, heart-deep transformation.  How can we experience heart-deep transformation if we aren’t completely honest about who we are?  The tax collector went home justified—transformed—because he faced up completely to who he was and what he had done.  The Pharisee denied his true feelings, he covered over his feelings with literal self-righteousness…and left the temple in exactly the same state as he’d entered it.  No social system in which he participated got changed by the Pharisee’s trip to the temple.  Because of his transformation, though, the tax collector was prepared to change the unjust system in which he participated.

Dismantling white supremacy requires active work…the work of relationship-building, of legislative action, of intentional reform efforts in relation to every social system we have—criminal justice, economic, housing…all of it.  We must engage in actions that will lead to racial justice in our community, our country, the world.  I’m not denying that.  At all.

What I am suggesting—and what today’s story of the tax collector and the Pharisee suggests—is that we’ll be better partners in that work, we’ll be able to engage more skillfully in those actions, if we’ve first confessed—fully—who we are and what we’ve done.  If we are to deal with the shame of racism in our world, we must first face the shame of our own whiteness.

And the best place to do that confessing…is right here in worship.  Until recently, we haven’t been consistent on having an actual confession each week.  Confession has only happened some Sundays.  I realize now that I’ve been remiss in omitting the Confession some weeks.  Why deprive us of the chance to confess fully who we are—all we’ve done—and leave here with our hearts transformed?

If our hearts are transformed, won’t we then be better able to do the justice work that’s so desperately needed in the world?  If our hearts are transformed, won’t we feel freer to create just peace in our community?  If our hearts are transformed, won’t we then be better equipped to make God’s dreams for the world come true?

I want to end with a confession of my own.  (Get guitar)  A first step in my own struggle to deal with my participation in white supremacy as a white Southerner is to acknowledge my own family’s practice of enslaving other human beings.  (Sing, “Who Built this House?”)

 

 

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Poem: “Portrait of Doug”

Image may contain: one or more people

Portrait of Doug

 

I did not know him,

the man himself.

But I have felt his presence—

in the tunes

in the welcome

in the far-off looks and sighs

of those who knew him—

 

sighs of sorrow,

looks of love.

 

I feel his welcome

in the welcome of others.

After just a few months

I’m hopelessly inclined

to love tunes he loved.

I search for connection with him

when I play the flute

given by the one

who loved him most.

 

But I did not know him,

the man himself,

will never know him

as others have known him.

 

And yet…

 

In the portrait created

by another who loved him,

I see him—

 

not only in the white hair

trimmed beard

and wrist-protector sock

 

not only in the mandolin

rimmed in light

resting on his knee

 

not only in the glasses

and necklace

and wedding ring

 

not even only in the expression

of studied concentration,

meditation…

 

I learn the most about this man

I will never know

from the light

hovering between man

and mandolin.

 

Does the light shine on the man?

Or does it shine from him?

 

I think from.

I hope from.

 

If the light shines on the man,

I will only ever know him

as others have known him.

 

If the light shines from him

then he is still

somehow

here…

still

somehow

knowable.

 

I’ve heard many stories

about the man of which I write.

I’ve been glad to hear them,

to know of the clarity and love

with which he lived his life…

 

The artist, though,

has given me a

greater gift.

 

Seeing the man

through her loving, skillful eye,

I—finally—have met him for myself.

 

I sense his presence.

I see his light.

I feel his challenge

to help him live on

by sharing that light with others.

 

I will.

 

I will.

 

kjb

10/25/19

 

Doug Murray led the Irish music session I play in at the White Horse in Black Mountain.  My first time to attend was the first Tuesday night session after Doug’s funeral.  I never got the chance to meet Doug, but his spirit very much lives on.  Many thanks to Puck Askew for her amazing artwork!

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