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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Sermon: “Nevertheless…” (Luke 18:1-8) [10/20/19]

Jesus told the disciples a parable on the necessity of praying always and not losing heart.

Anybody here losing heart?  Easy to do these days, isn’t it?  Climate change, war, abhorrent treatment of immigrants, corruption…oh, yes.  These days, it’s easy to lose heart.

Curious about what led Jesus to tell his disciples this parable, I read the verses that come before.  In Luke 9, Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem.”  On the way, Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for the day when he’ll no longer be with them.  The times he describes are dire.

When the disciples anxiously ask where these terrible things will happen, Jesus says:  “Wherever the carcass is, there will the vultures gather.”  Not the most calming image in the world.  So, Jesus follows it up with this parable on the need to pray always and not lose heart.

There’s a judge who fears no one, not even God.  A woman, who has no other support, keeps coming to the judge, asking for legal protection from her opponent.  For a while, the judge stands firm, but finally relents.  ‘This woman won’t leave me alone.  I’d better give her the protection she seeks, or she’ll keep coming and wear me out!’”

Sometimes persistence is the only thing that leads to justice…to keep on and on making your case until the person to whom you’re making it relents.  That the judge in the story doesn’t care about anything or anybody highlights the fact that the only thing that makes him change his mind is the annoyance he feels at the woman’s persistent requests.

I don’t know yet what it’s going to look like when we begin living with more intention as a Just Peace church.  Here’s what I do know.  If we’re going to do it well, we’re going to need to pray like that woman who annoyed the judge.  If we’re not to lose heart, we’re going to have to pray persistently, consistently, doggedly.

So…drum roll please…it’s time to introduce the idea of living as a Just Peace church.

At the heart of the UCC’s understanding of “just peace,” is the Hebrew concept of shalom.  In the book, A Just Peace Church, the authors quote “Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, who defines ‘shalom’ not as some inner… pietistic possession, but as a communal wellbeing in which God’s creation is justly ordered.  It is a state of existence in which all aspects of God’s creation play their individual roles harmoniously for the good of the whole.” 

That is the goal of any justice work in which we engage– “a communal wellbeing in which God’s creation is justly ordered…a state of existence in which all aspects of God’s creation play their individual roles harmoniously for the good of the whole.”

At this week’s Racial Justice Team meeting, someone asked how the work of Racial Justice intersects with Just Peace.  If your skin has more melanin (not melatonin, as I mistakenly said several weeks ago), how easy is it to “play your individual role harmoniously for the good of the whole?”  How about for those of us who have less melanin?  The power dynamics in our world are so whop-sided, none of us is playing the role creation assigned us.  Some of us have more power than we were created to have; others have less.  Because none of us is playing our natural role, none of us is at peace.  Peace only comes when we can live fully as who we’ve been created to be.  Thus, those working for racial justice seek shalom–authentic wholeness–for all who are diminished by systemic racism, which is everybody, right?

The same is true for those who are working for environmental justice.  Are we living “harmoniously for the good of the whole” in relation to creation?  No.  But those who are persistently working for environmental justice–through legislation, like the Citizens Climate Lobby, or through direct activism, like Sunrise Movement–are seeking shalom, “a communal wellbeing in which God’s creation is justly ordered” for all creation.

Another vital part of just peace/shalom is recognizing the dynamic relationship between cultivating inner peace and working for peace in the world.  Just Peace work begins within.  That means that our classes here, our prayer groups, our worship services, all of that is just as important to our work of peacemaking as justice work we do out there…because how can we create shalom out there if we’re at war internally?  How can we work for the harmonious good of the whole if cacophony rules our spirits?

There’s an insert in your bulletin.  On it, you’ll find the proposed covenant for FCUCC’s Just Peace process and the motion for the congregation to approve it.  This version is from 2013.

On the other side of the insert, you’ll find a worksheet.  Yes.  More homework.  In the middle of the worksheet, you’ll see the definition of shalom I read earlier.  Around that, you’ll see listed various ministries of our congregation.  Based on the definition of shalom provided, how does each ministry connect with Just Peace?  What ministries have I forgotten?  How do those ministries engage in the work of shalom/just peace?  In your personal life, how are you living just peace and shalom?  How are you, personally, working for the good of all?

True or false.  There is an International Day of Peace.  (Responses)  What’s the date?  (Sept. 21)  How long has the day been celebrated?  (In its present form, since 2002.)  Do you know how was the day established?

Image result for peace one day pictures

Peace One Day is a film that documents British filmmaker Jeremy Gilley’s work to establish an International Day of Peace.  In 1998, Jeremy became overwhelmed by the state of the world, particularly, all the war and the suffering it causes.  He decided to begin working to establish a global day of cease-fire with a fixed date.  If his efforts failed, he decided, he’d have a great film.  If his efforts succeeded?  That could be huge.

As his work began, Jeremy learned that, in 1981, the UN had passed a resolution– sponsored by Costa Rica–establishing an International Day of Peace.  The date was set for the third week in September, to coincide with the opening of the UN General Assembly.  The Day of Peace did not include a global cease-fire.  The film chronicles Jeremy’s dogged persistence in working for an International Day of Peace with a fixed date that included a global cease fire.

In the film (which is available on YouTube), you see Jeremy meeting with diplomats from countries around the globe, several Nobel Peace Laureates, the General Secretary of the UN.  You see his efforts to enlist the United Kingdom and Costa Rica to co-sponsor the new resolution.  You see more than a little bureaucratic rigamarole.  You also travel with Jeremy to places of unrest in the world—like Somalia.  You see Jeremy meet with the United Arab League and be brought up short when the film he shows about the Peace One Day movement includes a clip of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, but no Arab leadership.

You also see Jeremy in the General Assembly on September 7, 2001, when the UN approves the resolution for establishing an International Day of Peace with a fixed date of September 21 and a call for a 24 hour global cease-fire on that day.

You also see Jeremy four days later at a gathering outside the UN.  Children are playing violins.  People are gathered to hear UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, ring the Peace Bell and announce the new resolution for an International Day of Peace.  The cameras also catch a shot of an airplane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers.  Suddenly, the process of getting the word out about the International Day of Peace gets much more complicated.

The film ends with an interview with Ahmad Fawzi, Director of News and Media Division, Department of Public Information at the UN.  Mr. Fawzi had been a conversation partner for Jeremy throughout the four year process of getting the Day of Peace resolution passed.  It’s October 2003.  Two International Days of Peace are in the books.  There has yet to be a cease fire.  Jeremy asks Mr. Fawzi, What gives?

In a poignant moment, Fawzi acknowledges that, two years in, the International Day of Peace is more of an abstract celebration for most people, a day to dance and sing and hug each other.  Getting countries actually to practice cease fire on September 21st every year?  That will take a lot more work.  After a pause, Fawzi says, “It’s not one film, Jeremy.”  One film won’t do it.  “It’s going to take dozens of films, dozens of books, dozens of actions.”  The first expression on Jeremy’s face when he hears these words is despair.  But then you see the light dawn.  All of the individual actions we take are part of a greater effort.  And, as persistent as he had been for five years, as much of his life as he had given to the movement, in many ways, the process had only begun.

Three years before this meeting with Mr. Fawzi, the Dalai Lama had said this to Jeremy.  “Peace is our moral responsibility.  Make the attempt!  It doesn’t matter if it happens in our lifetime or not.  We are human beings.  We have the responsibility to show the right path…or at least make an attempt for a better future.  We might not enjoy that brighter future.  It doesn’t matter.  This is meant for humanity, meant for the world.  So, it doesn’t matter how limited the effect.  We must make every effort for the promotion of peace and inner values.”

As we seek to engage in the work of just peacemaking here at FCUCC, may these words and the example of one persistent woman inspire us to pray always and not to lose heart.

 

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: “Hoping for Peace” (Psalm 85) [10/6/19]

Several years ago, while reading through the obituaries in the Atlanta paper, I ran across one for a Mr. Jones, who’d just died at the age of 104.  The piece noted that, at his death, Mr. Jones was still working for a car dealership and that he was still paying into his 401K.  You know what that man had?  That man had hope.  A lot of hope.

Do you?  Do we, as a community, have hope?

For those who haven’t been here the past couple of weeks, here’s what’s been going on.  I’ve been trying—unsuccessfully—to introduce a new church theme.  The theme is Just Peace.  I planned to roll it out two weeks ago, but realized we needed to set the context first.  Remember the context?  The universe.  All creation.  Yeah.  That narrowed it down nicely.

Then I thought I’d roll out the theme last week, but I realized talking about peacemaking without first talking about hope didn’t make sense.  Why work for peace if you don’t have hope that work will be effective?

The Monday before, in her speech to the UN, Greta Thunberg had said to the world’s adults:  “You look to us young people for hope.  How dare you!”  As we wrestled with Greta’s words, we realized that we can’t pawn hope off onto the next generation.  We adults–and especially we followers of Jesus–have a responsibility to nurture our own hope, to tend to the thing with feathers perched in our own souls.  We looked at the story of the imprisoned prophet, Jeremiah, buying a piece of property as a sign of hope that the people who had been taken into exile would return home again.  “Fields and property will again be purchased in this land.”

During the conversation about, of all things, financing repairs to the sanctuary, I kept hearing whispered “Hope!  Hope!  Hope!” popcorn across the room.  Suddenly, it seemed, we were starting to think about hope, to tentatively try it on for size, to see how it fit.

Then, on Tuesday, I checked my email.  There was a note, a thoughtful note…that declared, “There is no hope!”  The email reminded me that talking about hope and actually hoping are two different things.  Nurturing hope takes work.  Lots of intentional work.

And sometimes, hope shows up unannounced, barges in without knocking, and plops down right in the middle of the community before we even know it’s happened.  That happened on several fronts this week.

I listed some of those signs of hope in this week’s newsletter…the Interfaith Peace Conference at Junaluska that Andrew is on the planning team for.  The conference focuses on using the arts in peacemaking.  Educational opportunities are brewing.  I got an email from Rollin Russell offering to share his experiences with the process that led to the original Just Peace resolution with the national UCC.  Rollin was working with the UCC’s Church and Society team at the time.  Last week, I mentioned FCUCC, Hendersonville’s reaching out to us as they begin the Just Peace process there.  They are potential partners with us in this process.

Now, for the really hopeful thing.  Casey came to me week before last to share a request to use our space.  Casey doesn’t share every rental request with me, but she felt this one could be important.  She was right.

Sunrise Movement describes its mission this way.  “We’re building an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.”  “Together,” they say, “we will change this country and this world, sure as the sun rises each morning.”

Two weeks ago, during prayer time, I suggested that, if we’re looking to draw more young people here, we will have to address climate change.  The circumstances are becoming so dire, that a church that doesn’t address climate change will be irrelevant to young people.  When I played back the recording of the prayer time, I was surprised to hear that I was beating the pulpit through that entire statement.  I guess I had some feelings about it.

So, I said all that, then–just a few days later–Casey gets the call from the folks at Sunrise Movement.  Here’s what that tells me about hope.  Sometimes–and this makes total sense–we want assurance that our hope is well-founded.  We don’t want to risk hoping for something unless we already know there’s a good chance the hope will be fulfilled.

What I’m coming to find, though, and the call from Sunrise Movement confirms it–sometimes, it’s not hopefulness that emerges from hopeful circumstances, but the other way around.  Sometimes, hopeful circumstances have been there all along, but we couldn’t see the circumstances as hopeful because we weren’t open to seeing them that way.  Maybe it’s not the assurance of hope that comes first, but hope itself.

In your bulletins, is a sheet listing the Sunrise Movement’s principles.  I encourage you to read it.  Visit their website.  As we learn about what Sunrise Movement is doing, I invite us to open our hearts to hope.  I invite us to open our imaginations to all the possibilities of having this group use our space.  How might we support them?  How might we learn from them?

I also invite you to join me this afternoon at 4:30 in welcoming the group to FCUCC.  All we’ll do is say hello, then leave.  We don’t want to horn in on their meeting.  Remember, we need to tend to the thing with feathers in our own souls.  But we do want to let them know we are glad they are here and that we, too, are committed to acting Earth into wellbeing.

I got another email this week.  The sender posed an interesting question. I have been thinking a great deal about our environment and it seems to me that our internal environments and that of Earth are inextricably bound. I wonder if we have been taught to plunder our own internal resources in the same way we do those of our planet. And I wonder if we admit to the need to renew our internal resources as we endeavor to renew our planet, if this will create greater sustainability. 

I think this person is on to something…as are those who follow Richard Rohr’s idea of contemplative action.  It’s easy sometimes to think of ourselves as only contemplative or only activist.  The deeper truth–the truth Jesus lived–is that one without the other is only half a spirituality. If we focus only on our interior lives–unless we’re called to be a monk–we’ve missed the opportunity for acting the world into wellbeing, for healing the world.  By the same token, if we focus only on social activism without nurturing our own spirits, we will not be able to sustain the good work we do.

As the emailer’s question suggests, what we do in the world has roots in what’s going on inside us.  If we tend well to what’s going on inside us, actions we take in the world will be healthy and whole-making.  Action is important…as is contemplation.  A whole spirituality includes both:  contemplative action.

Planning worship each week is…interesting.  (I started to say “terrifying,” but we’ll go with interesting. 🙂  Some folks love silence and want lots more.  Others consider communal silence a form of torture.  Some folks appreciate sermons that passionately address issues of social justice.  Others prefer calm sermons related to our interior lives.  Some folks want a nice, traditional, structured service.  Others want lots of creative music and readings and dance.  Basically, every time I enter the pulpit is a crapshoot.  I roll the dice and hope for the best.

Because I believe contemplative action is the most effective means of acting the world into wellbeing, I try in every worship service to create invitations to contemplation and action.  In the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize that my sermons tend to focus more on the action side of things.  Today, as we contemplate hope…and peace…and harmony among the nations–particularly on this Sunday of World Communion–I invite us to spend some quiet time with today’s reading inspired by Psalm 85.  Listen.  Receive these words.  Take them in.  Find peace in them.  Find hope.  Let us pray.

Beloved, how gracious You are to your people;

You restore our souls time and time again.

You forgive our distractions

when we wander far from You;

You give us new life.

 

Yes, You bless us and raise up new hope;

You awaken our hearts to love.

 

Restore us again, O Spirit of Truth;

burn us with the refining Fire of Love!

We cannot live separated from You;

cast out the demons of fear, doubt, and illusion.

Revive us again, we pray;

may your people rejoice in You!

Have compassion on your people, O Holy One,

and grant us your forgiveness.

 

Listen, O People, in the silent Chapel of your heart;

and the Beloved will speak of peace to you,

to the hidden saints, to all who turn their hearts to Love.

Surely new life is at hand for those who reverence Love;

O, that harmony might dwell among the nations.

 

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

righteousness and peace will embrace one another.

Wisdom will spring up from the ground

and truth will look down from the sky.

Yes, the Eternal Giver will grant what is good,

and the lands will yield abundantly.

Mercy and compassion are Love’s way;

You will guide our footsteps upon the path of peace

as we recognize with open hearts that You are our peace.

 

Peace Round:

What a goodly thing; If the children of all Earth

Could live together in peace. 

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Sermon: “The Thing with Feathers” (Jeremiah 32:6-15) [9/29/19]

Image result for picture hope is the thing with feather

About a week into my recovery from foot surgery, I had a sleepless night…one of those wide-awake-staring-at-the-ceiling-all-night-long nights.  I started off worrying about the world–climate change, the border crisis, hunger, war, racism, sexism, incivility…politicians…

When I got done worrying about the world, I started worrying about church.  That was the night I began to wonder if we, church and pastor, have been spinning our wheels a little.  This was before I remembered that times of wheel-spinning are a sign the congregation is ready to move forward, that wheel-spinning actually can be a good thing.

On that sleepless night, though, I panicked.  “What are we going to do?  With so many people going in so many different directions, how are we all going to get on the same page?  How do we live our passions for contemplation and social justice with equal intentionality?  How do we find more young people to come to church… especially when church is becoming increasingly irrelevant to so many people?  And, oh, my goodness.  What are we going to do about the crumbling plaster in the sanctuary?  How are we going to re-bind that plaster?  What will bind us together as a community?”  It was a very long night.

The next morning, I started reading a book.  A few pages in, I realized I had found a resource to guide us into a new vision.  Before I tell you about that book, though, I want to talk about something else, something Greta Thunberg said at the UN this week.

I’m always inspired by Greta, but one thing she said on Monday brought me up short.  To the adults of the world she said, “You look to us young people for hope.  How dare you!”

How dare we?  Isn’t that what woke adults are supposed to do–look to the next generation for hope?  What did she mean, how dare we?

As I wrestled with Greta’s words, an uncomfortable question hit me square in the heart.  I wonder if, in looking to young people for hope, we adults have abandoned our own.  I wonder if we wring our hands, confess our sins, then punt hopefulness to the next generation… perhaps even as a way to avoid nurturing hope in ourselves?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that’s happening in the world–greed, violence, corruption, the climate crisis.  But when we throw up our hands, allow ourselves to sink into cynicism…when we tell the next generation we’ve messed up and the future is up to them, when we do that, we’re giving up the one thing, the only thing that can save us:  hope.  Our own hope.

Today’s story about Jeremiah is a lesson in hope.  Jeremiah was a prophet in 6th c. BCE Judah. That’s when Babylon invaded and conquered the country and took many Judahites back to Babylon in exile.  Jeremiah was among those who were held back in Jerusalem.

While under something like house arrest, Jeremiah has a vision. A distant relative named Hanamel will arrive and ask Jeremiah to purchase a plot of land belonging to the family.  Later, Hanamel, as predicted, shows up.  He says to Jeremiah:   “Buy my field at Anathoth in Benjamin. You have the right of redemption to purchase it as next of kin.  So why not purchase it?”

Why not purchase a piece of property in a country that’s just been conquered?  Let us count the ways.  The country is in shambles.  Many of its people have been exiled to another country.  Jeremiah himself is under arrest.  There’s no telling how long before the exiles return and Jeremiah is released.  Oh, there are many reasons not to purchase that property.

And yet…Jeremiah does.  He describes the purchase in minute detail. “So I bought the field in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money—seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed and sealed it, had it witnessed and then weighed out the money on a scale.  I took the copies of the deed of purchase—both the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions and the unsealed copy— and gave them to Baruch ben-Neriah ben-Mahseiah in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and all the people of Judah who happened to be in the court of the guardhouse.

Then he says: “I gave Baruch these instructions in their presence: “Thus says the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and the unsealed deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they may be preserved for a very long time.” 

What we have here is the most detailed commercial transaction in all of Scripture.  Why is it so detailed?  Why do we detail commercial transactions in our own world?  Because we want to be clear about the transaction that’s taking place.  We want to make sure every i is dotted and every t is crossed.  We want there to be no confusion about what is happening…and we certainly don’t want someone to question the validity of the sale later on and sue us.

The same is true for Jeremiah.  He wants everyone to know–with certainty– that the exiles will return, that the people will regain sovereignty, that God still loves them.  “For this is what God says,” Jeremiah writes.  “Houses, fields and vineyards will once again be purchased in this land.”  In making this purchase, Jeremiah is staking his claim on hope.

Spending time with Jeremiah and Greta this week, I’ve gotten clearer about what’s going to hold us together, what’s going to light the way forward for us here at FCUCC.  When the world seems to be falling apart, when so much seems so seems hopeless… Here’s what we followers of Jesus are called to do.  When everything seems hopeless:  We are called to hope.

And by that, I mean we are called to hope ourselves…no more pawning hope off on the next generation…no more cynicism…no more villifying individuals, even those in high offices… no more us-and-them… no more stewing in our own despondency because we think we’re powerless…

Because we aren’t!  We aren’t helpless!  We can act!  We can do whatever we want to do, if we dare to hope…even in a world that’s going crazy…even in a world that’s lost its moral compass…even in a world we no longer recognize…even in this world, we people of faith, we followers of Jesus, we have the most powerful tool in the entire world:  we have hope.

…or we can have it, if we nurture it.  How do we nurture hope?

One of my seminary professors, Andy Lester, once contrasted hoping and wishing.  He said that wishing begins with the assumption that the object of the wish is unattainable… like, I wish I hadn’t gotten cancer.  Hoping, on the other hand, begins with the premise that the object of the hope is attainable.  “I hope this new treatment for my cancer works.  If it doesn’t, we’ll try the next treatment.”

Wishing is easy.  You can sit on the couch all day and wish to your heart’s content.  Hoping, on the other hand, takes work.  If you hope for something, you’re also committing to doing whatever you can to fulfill that hope.

Today’s sermon title comes from Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins, “Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all.”  Here’s the last line:  “I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.”  Yeah.  I don’t agree with that last line.  I believe hope does ask something of us–and not just a crumb.  Wishing asks nothing of us…but hoping requires work….imaginative, creative, persistent, and loving work.

But what does the work of hoping look like?  Hi hope, hi hope, it’s off to work we go!  As both Dr. Lester’s description of hope and Jeremiah’s attention to the details of his land purchase suggest, the work of hope is grounded in reality, it’s attainable, it’s doable.

And I’ve got an idea about how to engage in that hopeful work.  The best means we have of moving forward, the idea and the vision that will hold us all together, the best way to nurture hope in ourselves, in our church, and in the world has been displayed on the wall for at least the whole time I’ve been here…right over there:  Just Peace.

I had planned to roll out the Just Peace theme last week–September 21 is World Peace Day…but I realized we’d need to lay some groundwork before getting into it. That’s what we did last week. Then I thought I’d roll it all out this week.  But I realized it would be pointless to talk about working for peace if there’s no hope it’s going to work.  So, today, we’ve talked about hopefulness.  Greta’s words on Monday crystallized the need to reflect some on hopefulness.

So…beyond naming the theme of Just Peace, there’s not much more we can do today…unless you want to stay in worship another hour or so? 🙂  I do invite you to do some research about that banner.  Where did it come from?  Who made it?  Why is it there?  What does it mean?  The book I mentioned earlier–the one that gave me hope after my sleepless night?–is called “A Just Peace Church.”  You might like to check that out.  Or peruse the UCC website–ucc.org–to see what’s there on Just Peace.  Reacquainting ourselves with our Just Peace covenant is going to take some time.  We’ll take that time over the next few weeks.

Today, we’re going to stay focused on hope.  When you look at the world and see all that’s happening, what gives you hope?  What isn’t yet reality, but feels like it could be?  What feels attainable, possible, doable?

After some time for reflection, we’ll transition to our prayer time.  In addition to Joys and Concerns, I invite us also to name our hopes.  When you’ve named your hope, you may say “This is my hope.”  We’ll respond, “Your hope is now our hope.”  What a resource we have, this hope!  We can change this world with hope…if we dare!

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

 

 

 

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