Sermon: “Welcoming the World into Wellbeing” (Luke 10:38-42) [7/21/19]

[Larry Burke sings, “Deportees”] 

 

“32 Are Killed in California Plane Crash;  28 Mexican Deportees, Crew, and Guard Victims in Coastal Range Disaster.  Fresno, California, January 28, 1948.  Associated Press.  

            “A chartered Immigration Service plane crashed and burned in western Fresno County today, killing 28 Mexican deportees, the crew of 3, and an immigration guard.

            “An hour after the airliner appeared to explode over Los Gatos canyon near Coalinga, shortly after 10:30 a.m., 19 bodies had been recovered from the smoldering wreckage…

            “Irving F. Wixon, director of the U.S. Immigration Service at San Francisco, said the Mexican nationals were being flown to the deportation center at El Centro, California, for their return to Mexico.”   

 

            Subsequent newspaper articles named the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant, and guard:  Frank Atkinson, Marion Ewing, Bobbie Atkinson, and Frank E. Chaffin. In the days after the crash, a couple of articles attempted to name the other 28 who died, but lists were inconsistent; mistakes were rampant.  After that, the 28 remaining passengers who died in the crash were listed only as “Deportees.”

Image result for 28 mexican citizens picture memorial

Seeing one of those articles, poet and songwriter, Woody Guthrie, seethed that no one cared enough about the humanity of those 28 people to learn the most fundamental piece of their humanity–their names.  Guthrie poured his anger into the poem that became the song Larry just sang.  (Guthrie’s words were later set to music by Martin Hoffman.)  “All they will call you will be deportees.”

We’re seeing so many images from the border these days.  The two that have lodged in my brain are the ones of children in cages and hundreds of people standing around in enclosures underneath overpasses.  Each of those people, each of those children has a name.  Each has a story.  None would have chosen to be held behind chain-link fencing.  Had conditions been livable and safe, it’s likely they would much rather have stayed in their home countries.  But they have fled in terror.  Only to meet a different kind of terror thousands of miles from home.

Each one has a name.  Each one has a story.  Each one is as much a human being as any other person.  Each one is as much a human being as any of us here today.

The familiar story of Martha and Mary’s welcoming of Jesus in today’s Gospel story has gotten lots of press over the years.  Some folks fault Martha for focusing only on the details of cleaning.  Indeed, Jesus encourages her to soften her obsession with being a good host.  Other folks (likely from Martha’s spiritual tribe) fault Mary for shirking her hosting duties to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him.

While Jesus seems to favor Mary’s approach in this story (“She has chosen the better part”), it’s clear that both approaches to hospitality are needed.  A case in point:  Friendship Time. What happens here in worship is important.  But the really important stuff happens downstairs after worship.  We visit with each other.  Back in the Baptist church, we didn’t have friendship time.  After becoming a pastor in the UCC, I learned how IMPORTANT coffee hour is to congregationalists.  It’s, like, IMPORTANT.  It’s important because it gives us a chance to get to know each other, to check in with each other, to spend informal time together, plotting, planning, laughing, sharing.

But what happens when the details aren’t attended to?  What happens when the Kuerigs aren’t brought out, or we run out of cups or creamer?  What happens when no one stays to clean up?  If all the little nuts and bolts of the snack part of Friendship Time aren’t attended, the anxiety level in the room rachets up.  As the anxiety goes up, the quality of the visiting goes down.  In order for the visiting part of Friendship Time to go well, the many details of the snack part must be attended.

And, of course, if we only come down to ooh and aah over the well-appointed refreshment tables and efficient clean-up crew, then we’ve missed the point of Friendship Time all together, which is to visit.

Friendship Time needs both Marys AND Marthas.  For all of it to work, we need both attention to the details of snacking as well as a willingness to share our lives with each other.

Perhaps what’s good for Friendship Time also will be good for our country’s immigration policy.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, our country’s immigration issues right now are very complex.  We can’t simply open our borders willy-nilly.  We’ve got to have laws governing how people come into our country.  I suspect Martha would be closely involved with that aspect of immigration.

At the same time, though, like Mary, we also must stay tuned in to the humanity of every person who appears at our border.  Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and soaked up every word he said.  She opened her mind and her heart to Jesus.  If our immigration laws and practices do not honor the humanity of emigrees and refugees, if we don’t expend the effort to learn people’s stories, their reasons for seeking asylum, if we don’t care enough to learn people’s names…

…when we don’t acknowledge and honor the humanity of other people…do you see that when we ignore the humanity of other people, we lose a little of our own?  Do you see that?  A key part of what it means to be a human being is to acknowledge the humanity of other people…of all other people.

In my newsletter article this week, I invited you to wear clothing in shades of brown and black today…as a way–especially for those of us who are white–to remind ourselves of the humanity of those whose skin is darker than our own.  It grieves me to say this, but we all know it’s true–our world runs on color.  Anywhere you go, the lighter the skin, the greater the privilege.

At music camp last week, a young woman who was born and raised solidly middle-class in Rio de Janeiro, teared up as she told us what it’s like to go from being white in her native Brazil to becoming “just another brown-skinned latina” in our country.  Her skin tone is exactly the same.  But the perception of color in our country means that she is treated differently here.

In a recent Facebook post, a singer-songwriter friend wrote, “As a citizen of this nation, a Black male traveling musician, I have NEVER felt as unsafe and needful of being aware, cautious and on point as I now do since…unexpressed demons of hate and prejudice have been unleashed in our nation. The anger and uncompromising acts of rage have increased exponentially in the wake of non-stop assaults on people of color, women, and people from the LGBTQ community.  The looks I get from people in rest stops and stores are unbelievable.”

Our world runs on color.  It sorts us into categories of worthiness based on something as arbitrary as the amount of melatonin in our skin cells.  It’s absurd.  And it’s real.

We spend a lot of time in our Racial Justice Team meetings talking about how helpless we feel in addressing racial injustice.  The problems are so huge, so intractable…and for most of us, our skin is so white.  What can we possibly do to act people of all melatonin distribution levels into wellbeing?

Today, we’ll start by reading aloud the names of the 28 initially unnamed people in reports of the Los Gatos plane crash in January 1948.  Thanks to the investigative work of author Tim Hernandez, those 28 people have been identified.  In 2013, the original memorial plaque that read, “28 Mexican Citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga, California, January 28, 1948. R.I.P.” was replaced with a new plaque.  This new plaque now includes 28 names.

A 2013 editorial in the New York Times ended with these words:  “America has changed a lot in 65 years, but not enough. We are still a country that eagerly, if not desperately, accepts the labor of immigrants but is slow to acknowledge their humanity. When singers perform Guthrie’s song today, not a word is out of date.”  (NY Times editorial, 9/7/13)

We’ll end today by speaking aloud the names of all 32 people who died in the crash on January 28, 1948.  We say their names to acknowledge their humanity…and to remind ourselves that every person in detention at our southern border, every parent carrying children through the Mexican desert desperate for a better life, every child who cries herself to sleep at night in a strange home wondering if she’ll ever see her mother again…we say these names to remind ourselves of the humanity of us all.

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Miguel Negroros Alvarez.  Francisco Llamas Duram.  Santiago Garcia Elizondo.  Rosalio Padilla Estrada.  Tomasa Avena De Garcia.  Bernabe Lopez Garcia.  Salvador Sandoval Hernandez.  Severo Medina Lara.  Elias Trujillo Macias.  Jose Rodriguez Macias.  Tomas Padilla Marquez.  Luis Lopez Medina.  Manuel Calderon Merino.  Luis Cuevas Miranda.  Martin Razo Navarro.  Ygnacio Perez Navarro.  Roman Ochoa Ochoa.  Ramon Ramirez Paredes.  Apolonio Ramirez Placencia.  Guadalupe Laura Ramirez. Alberto Carlos Raygoza.  Guadalupe Hernandez Rodriguez.  Maria Santana Rodriguez.  Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wencealado Ruiz.  Jose Valdivia Sanchez.  Jesus Meza Santos.  Baldomero Marcas Torres. 

Francis “Frank” Atkinson, pilot.  Marion Harlow Ewing, co-pilot.  Lillian “Bobbie” Atkinson, flight attendant.  Frank E. Chaffin, immigration guard.

In Fresno, Calif., a new gravestone lists 28 Mexican victims of a plane crash, unidentified for 65 years.

 

Descansa en paz.  Amen.

 

 

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2019

 

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Ordination: 20th Anniversary!

Twenty years ago today, I was ordained by Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  As a Southern Baptist girl and woman, the journey to ordination was arduous. In 1988, I went to seminary to become a children’s minister…because that’s all I’d seen women do in church.  By the time I graduated, I had embraced my calling to pastoral ministry. But in 1992, the SBC was taking yet another hard right turn. Finding a church to pastor wasn’t an option.

 

I entered the PhD program at Emory University.  A year after I moved to Atlanta, the saint of a man who would become my husband, Allen Mullinax, moved down.  He became the Minister of Music at Virginia-Highland. After we married in 1995, I began attending Virginia-Highland, as well.

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At that point, the congregation was small…but, oh, how they loved me!  And helped me to affirm my gifts for ministry and my call to pastor. I will forever be grateful to Rev. Tim Shirley, who gave me numerous opportunities to “practice” ministry.  And I’ll always be grateful to Virginia-Highland for ordaining me.

 

In 20 years of ministry, I’ve been blessed to serve three congregations.  I served a year and a half at Virginia-Highland as its Associate Minister for Christian Nurture.  It was part time, but very fulfilling. It’s also the first time Allen and I served on church staff together, which was a joy.

 

In 2001, I was called to my first full-time pastorate, Pilgrimage UCC in Marietta, Georgia.  In so many ways, I became a pastor at Pilgrimage.  I learned so much from those good and loving people!  And for 11 of the 16 years I served there, Allen and I worked together…which was another deep joy.  

 

As I reflect on my time at Pilgrimage, two things stand out.  First, I learned a lot about what it means to navigate the world as a transgender person.  I’ll always be grateful to the members who shared their lives with me and with our congregation and taught us so much.  The second big thing I learned–was just how beautiful and inspiring stained glass windows can be.

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I moved to my current call a year and a half ago.  When I came to First Congregational UCC in Asheville, NC, I thought I’d learned all there was to learn in my 18 and a half years of ordained ministry.  I know now that I was just getting started! The generosity of the folks at FCUCC, the creativity, the support, the strong commitment to social justice and peacemaking…I am growing as a pastor in my work at First…we are growing together as a congregation.  I am DEEPLY blessed.

 

On this 20th anniversary of my ordination, I am awash in gratitude.  What grace! What love! What joy!

 

Kim

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Sermon: “Acting the World into Wellbeing…Together” (2 Kings 2:1-14) [7/7/19]

A pious man once was caught in rising floodwaters.  He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him.  A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”  “No thanks” replied the pious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house.  Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.” “No thanks” replied the pious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

Eventually, a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said,“The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.” “No thanks” replied the pious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the pious man drowned.  When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” God replied. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. But you never got in.”  https://storiesforpreaching.com/i-sent-you-a-rowboat/

It’s an old story…but it describes Namaan to a T.  He was a strong man, important in his country…and he had leprosy, some sort of skin disease.  A young girl who’d been taken as a slave from Israel spoke to her mistress saying, “There’s a prophet back home who could heal him.”  The woman tells Namaan, who tells the king, who writes a letter asking the king of Israel to ask the prophet of Israel–Elisha–to heal Namaan.

Namaan travels to Israel and gives his king’s letter to the king of Israel.  The king of Israel thinks it’s a ploy, an excuse for the king of Aram to come conquer them.  Elisha hears about it and tells the king to send Namaan his way.  “Let him know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

So, Naaman comes with his horses and chariots, and halts at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sends a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  But Naaman becomes enraged and stomps off, saying, “I thought that for me he surely would come out, and stand and call on the name of his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”

What a great image.  This foreign military leader arriving at the prophet’s house with all his horses and chariots and the people on them, suffering with leprosy, on a wild goose chase to get healed, a goose chase started by a little girl…he’s finally gotten an audience with the man who can heal him, he comes with all his horses, chariots, and people…and the prophet can’t deign to come to the door?  He sends a messenger to tell him what to do?

“God, why didn’t you heal my leprosy?”  “Ah,” says God.  “I sent you a little girl, I sent you to Israel, I sent you to the prophet of Israel’s house.  He sent you the instructions on how to be healed.  But because the help didn’t come in the precise way you wanted it to come, you became enraged and refused the help.”

Fortunately, Namaan had something the man in the flood story didn’t have–wise people, servants, at his side, basically, to help Namaan get over himself.  “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” his servants say.  “How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  So what if the prophet didn’t come to the door himself?  It’s such a simple thing.  Why not try it?

So, Namaan goes down and immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

In my newsletter article this week, I suggested that one of the greatest gifts the church has to give to the world is the gift of community.  Thankfully, many people across the globe, through activism and service, are acting the world into wellbeing.  The difference for us followers of Jesus is that we engage in activism and service from the context of a faith community.  Our actions are rooted in prayer; our activism is a spiritual practice.  And we have the nurture and support of a community as we engage in that activism and service.  In a society that seems intent on splintering, a big gift we followers of Jesus can give is a demonstration of what community, what the common good looks like.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the story of Namaan is that it took a village to get him healed.  It took a foreign enslaved child, it took her mistress, it took two kings and a prophet, it took more servants…If Namaan–with all his horses and chariots and power–could have healed himself, he would have.  But for all the things he could do, he couldn’t do that.  To heal, he needed the community around him.

That’s what’s so vital about what we do here each week.  If we are to be strong in our activism, if we are to sustain the action out there that is so needed, we have to nurture our own spirits, we have to nurture our own community.  What happens in this community–the internal spiritual work we do, the ways in which we care for each other–is vital to the work of acting the community out there into wellbeing.  And–as Namaan’s story suggests–every person in the community plays a role.  Had Namaan not listened to the children, the women, the slaves, the servants, the foreigners, he would not have found the healing he so desperately needed.

Do you listen to everyone in the community?  Do we as a community listen to everyone?  It’s human nature to listen mostly to “PLU”–people like us.  PLU get us.  They say the things we like to hear in the way we like to hear them.  But sometimes, the healing word comes from someone not like us.  Sometimes, the healing word comes from someone who’s been there all along, but whom we’ve never really seen.  Every person in a community is vital.  Every single person, regardless of status or ability or likability, every single person in the community holds a precious piece of this community we’re all a part of.

The cathedral in Winchester, England, is known for its exquisite stained glass windows, particularly the Great West window.  In 1642, the anti-King factions that were terrorizing the country came to Winchester.  After they had defeated the town, the soldiers–for spite–took their muskets into the cathedral and shot out its beautiful stained glass windows.  The townsfolk were devastated.

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In their despondence, they did an audacious thing.  Quietly, carefully, and without drawing too much attention from the soldiers, the people salvaged what they could from the destruction. Pieces of glass were carefully collected and stored, ready for the day when the fighting would end and peace would return. 

For two decades, the Cathedral was an empty shell with holes in the roof and no glass in the windows. Wind and rain blew through adding to the feeling of sadness and desolation. In Parliament the subject of Winchester Cathedral was discussed. Some thought it beyond repair. ‘Knock it down!’ they said.  But the people of Winchester loved their Cathedral. Yes, it was damaged, but it was their cathedral!  They set out to repair it. 

Diamonds of clear glass were cut and fixed into place in the window spaces around the Cathedral, blending in with areas of old glass which had managed to survive. Pieces of glass of all shapes, sizes and colors were collected and fixed together and placed in the frame of the old west window, bringing the Cathedral to life again. 

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Careful examination of the window would reveal the faces of angels, disciples and kings, all jumbled up with pieces of colored glass. Small fragments of writing in Latin, next to drawings on glass of clothes, hands and feet. Bit by bit the window space was filled in with old glass until the window was completed. A feast for the eyes, and a thing of beauty. https://www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/The-Story-of-the-Great-West-Window-web-version.pdf

Joyce Rhymer’s son visited Winchester Cathedral a few weeks ago.  When she shared this story with me a couple of Sundays ago, I immediately thought of today’s sermon.  It is a remarkable image.  Every member of the community, holding one precious piece of glass, one precious piece of the community.  Keeping that piece safe until the time came to gather the pieces together again, to put their church back together again.

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The image is so great, in fact, we’re each going to get a piece of colored glass.  (Distribute pieces of glass.)  May it remind us that each of us holds one precious part of our FCUCC community…and that healing can come from any one of us.  May it remind us to care well for our one precious part.  May it remind us of the beauty that can be created when we join our bits of glass together.  May this tiny piece of glass remind us that we are not alone.  And may it remind us that our FCUCC community is among the greatest resources we have for acting the world into wellbeing.  May it remind us that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to act the world into wellbeing together.

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: “Picking Up the Mantle” (2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14) [June 30, 3019]

            In last week’s episode, the prophet of Israel—Elijah—defeated the prophets of Baal.  The powers that be were not pleased.  They set out to kill Elijah.  Elijah ran.  He slept.  He ate.  He whined.  Eventually, he found God in the sound of sheer silence then got called to his next assignment.  It might not have been Elijah’s brightest moment, but even in his weakness, Elijah did the important prophetic work to which God had called him.

Now, Elijah is getting up in years.  It’s time to train his successor.  In his prophetic work, Elijah has planted the seeds of trees in whose shade he will not sit.  Elijah understands all this….

…which is why he takes a younger prophet, Elisha, under his wing.  Through several seasons, Elijah mentors Elisha.  Elijah teaches his protégé how to read and interpret Scripture and the political and social conditions in which they live.  Elisha has observed the prophetic actions Elijah has taken.  He’s been soaking it all up….learning, learning, learning…

But now, Elijah knows it’s time for him to leave the scene, which means it’s time to pass the torch.  The time has come to anoint Elisha as the new prophet of Israel.

But Elisha isn’t having it.  The shift from protégé to prophet is a big one.  Doing what someone tells you to do is so much easier than figuring out for yourself what needs to be done.  And working with a mentor… Have you had a mentor?  It’s such an intimate, sacred relationship, isn’t it?  Mentors see things in us we can’t see ourselves.  From their wisdom, they teach us.  They point out where growth is still needed.  They walk alongside us as we grow.

It wasn’t for very long, but I am profoundly grateful to have been mentored by Paul Gillespie until he died last April.  Those of you who knew Paul know he wasn’t one to hold back feedback.  If he saw you doing something that wasn’t productive, he told you quickly and clearly what he thought.  Then, as you were leaving the conversation, he often would say, “I love you!”  I took all the feedback Paul gave me because I knew he only wanted me to be the best pastor it’s in me to be….and because I knew he loved me.  I miss Paul.

The prospect of losing Elijah makes Elisha reluctant to say goodbye.  As they’re walking along, Elijah keeps trying to fake Elisha out.  “You stay here while I run over there for a minute…”  he says.  But Elijah has done his work too well; he’s taught Elisha how to read and interpret the present circumstances.  Elisha knows what’s going to happen… which is why he refuses to leave his mentor’s side.

Finally, they get to the Jordan River.  On the bank, Elijah takes his mantle, rolls it up, and strikes the water.  The water parts and the two of them cross over on dry ground.  Sounds like what happens in the Exodus story, right?  When the Egyptians were after the Israelites and the refugees arrived at the Reed Sea, Moses raised his arms and the sea parted.

This time, Elijah parts the river with his mantle–the symbol of his wisdom and teaching.  The wisdom of the mentor is what creates the path for Elijah and Elisha to follow.  They follow the path to the far side of the river.  They—literally—enter new territory.

When the Israelites entered new territory, their identity shifted.  No longer were they enslaved individuals; now, they were a free people.  When Elijah and Elisha cross the river, Elijah moves to retirement; Elisha transitions from protégé to prophet.

As their roles are reversing, Elijah asks Elisha:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  To that point, the question always had gone the other direction.  Now, as protégé becomes prophet, it falls on Elisha to assess what’s going on and make a plan for moving forward.

Here’s his plan.  He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  Elisha knew that doing what Elijah did was going to require twice as much of whatever Elijah had to do it.  Elijah says it’s a hard request, then tells Elisha:  “Yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

This is significant.  Elisha will get what he needs to do the work that must be done if–and only if–he sees his teacher leave.  If he doesn’t witness the departure, he can always imagine that Elijah is just in the next room.  If Elijah is just in the next room, there really isn’t a need for Elisha to claim his own power to do what needs to be done.  He needs to see Elijah leave the scene so he can understand completely that the work is now on his shoulders.  He might feel inadequate, but the work now rests solely on him, regardless of how he feels.

As gut-wrenching as it must have been to watch his beloved mentor be carried away in the chariot, watching the departure was vital to Elisha’s being able to answer his call to act the world into wellbeing.  Elisha grieves, to be sure.  When the chariot is finally out of sight, he falls down and tears his clothes, a sign of deep mourning.

Once his mourning is done, though, Elisha picks up his mentor’s mantle.  That image—of picking up the mantle—is so clear, so powerful in this story, that it’s become a near-universal symbol of carrying on a mentor’s work.  Like so many people have picked up the mantle for LGBTQ rights from the people who were present at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago this week.  Like the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have picked up the mantle from the Civil Rights leaders who came before them.  Like Matt Watroba, who will be with us in a couple of weeks, has picked up the mantle of community singing from Pete Seeger.

Once Elisha picks up the mantle, he does the same thing his mentor had done just a little bit before, he rolls up the mantle up and strikes the water.  The water parts again, and Elisha crosses the river back into Israel.  He left Israel as a protégé.  He returns as a prophet.

All week, as I reflected on these crossings of the Jordan River, I couldn’t get another image out of my mind.  I’m sure you’ve seen it.  The haunting image of that young father and his daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande.  Where was the mantle that would have made it possible for that father and his 23 month old daughter to cross the Rio Grande safely last Sunday?  Where was the wisdom that would have made a path for them?

It’s a challenge knowing how to preach each week.  There are so many places of brokenness in our world, so many people who need to be acted into wellbeing.  And because so many of the changes that need to happen are systemic, the fixes aren’t quick and easy.  Adequately addressing issues like poverty and climate change and racism…I can talk about those issues, but if we don’t take action, then sermons are nothing more than brokenness reports.

But offering brokenness reports isn’t enough.  We must take action.  And I know we can’t take action to address all the brokenness in the world…we’re a small congregation with only so many resources.

But when I saw that picture…When I see reports of how our country is treating children and families…Isn’t depriving detainees of food a form of torture?  Isn’t forcibly taking children from their parents and taking them to undisclosed locations kidnapping?  Isn’t putting people in cages inhumane?  When I saw that picture this week, something inside me broke.  Something inside me said, Enough!  Something inside me said I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say what is happening to children at our border is insane.  And cruel.  And evil.

And.  We.  Must.  Do.  Something.  We cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus if we don’t.  It’s as simple as that.  I know there are lots of other places of brokenness in our world that need attention and care and justice.  I know many of us are working in some of those other places.  I know we need to continue that important work.

But this cruel treatment of children at our border must stop.  Now.  If we Americans allow our government to perpetrate this kind of action against children, we have lost our sense of justice, we have lost our compassion, we have lost our souls.

Have we?  Have we lost our souls?  Did anyone just hear Paul Gillespie shout “NO!” At Paul’s memorial service, I invited us to live our lives in ways that would elicit one of those full-throated “Amens!” from Paul.  I suggested that might be a way of continuing to feel close to Paul.  I know we lost Paul before any of us was ready to let him go, but in his time with us, Paul Gillespie mentored us well.  He taught us what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.  He showed us how to stand up to injustice.  He saw things inside us and inside this church that we couldn’t see for ourselves.  Paul isn’t here anymore.  Paul hasn’t seen the disturbing photo we’ve seen this week…But as our mentor, Paul gave us what we need to continue the important work of justice.  Paul gave us what we need to address the cruelty being perpetrated by our government at our country’s southern border.  And when Paul died, he laid down his mentor’s mantle.

We’re going to take a moment of silence to reflect.  Reflect on everything you’ve heard about what’s happening at the border.  And reflect on everything you learned from Paul while he was with us.  If you didn’t know Paul, reflect on a mentor you’ve had, one who’s no longer here but who you wish was here to help us figure out how to respond to what’s happening at the border.

As you reflect, think of what Paul—or your mentor—would say in response to what’s happening at our border.  Then think, based on all you learned from your mentor, how you would respond.  How you will respond.  What can you do, what can we do as a community in response to what’s happening at our border that will elicit a full-throated “Amen!” from Paul?

In the silence, let us reflect.  (Silence)

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

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Sermon: “Using Our Humanity to Act the World into Wellbeing” (I Kings 19:1-15) [6/23/19]

Elijah was a prophet of God…and a thorn in the flesh of the King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  The conflict culminated in a contest between Elijah and Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets of Baal to see whose God was the true God.  Elijah won…which enraged the king and queen.  They were so enraged, in fact, they put a hit on Elijah.

The besieged prophet ran and ran and ran into the wilderness.  Finally, he collapsed under a broom tree and asked to die.  “It is enough; now, O God.  Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  As soon as he spoke the words, Elijah promptly fell asleep.

Hopelessness is exhausting, isn’t it?  When you try to live a good life, when you try to do right by your parents, children, partners and friends, when you do everything right and the world still falls apart, hopelessness is tempting.  Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to pull the covers over your head, go to sleep, and forget it all.

That’s what Elijah does.  He goes to sleep.  When he wakens, an angel is there with food and water.  “Get up and eat,” the angel says.  Elijah does, then… immediately falls back asleep.  When he wakes up the second time, the angel is there again with food and water.  “Get up and eat,” the angel says again, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

It’s easy when our world falls apart to neglect the things that nourish us.  We forget to eat.  We stop praying.  We avoid the faith community that nurtures us.

The angel reminds Elijah that even when life goes off the rails, it is vital that we continue doing the things that feed us—physically and spiritually.  If we don’t…if we don’t get the rest we need, if we don’t eat good food at regular intervals, if we neglect nurturing our spiritual selves, then the journey to a better, more hopeful place will be too much for us.

After a couple of good long naps and some nourishing food and drink, Elijah sets out.  “He goes in the strength of that food for 40 days and 40 nights to the mount of God.”  Then what does he do?  He finds a cave…and falls asleep again.

When he wakes up, God asks Elijah:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah responds:  “I have been very zealous for God; the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets.  I alone am left and they want to kill me, too.”  Even after fleeing from those who wanted to kill him, getting some rest and nourishment, and journeying to the mount of God, Elijah still feels hopeless.  At least now he wants to live; that’s progress, I guess.  But he’s still in pity party mode.

What are you doing here today?  Are you here because this is just what you do on Sunday mornings?  Are you here because somebody made you come?  Are you here because you truly want more ideas about how to act the world into wellbeing, because goodness knows that’s what the world needs?  Are you here because, like Elijah, you’re just hanging on by a thread and desperately NEED to experience some glimmer of hope?

So, Elijah is asked what he’s doing at the mount of God, he does his whiny, hopeless thing, then Spirit tells him to wait for God, who’s about to pass by.

“There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”

Then–you’re going to love this part–God’s Spirit asks again, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  You’d think after experiencing the wind, earthquake, fire, and sheer silence, Elijah would have been moved to respond differently.  He isn’t.  his response is exactly the same:  “I alone am left of the Prophets of God…and they’re trying to kill me.”

So…a terrified Elijah runs from Ahab and Jezebel, collapses under a broom tree, sleeps, is tended to by messengers of God, who make sure he gets food and water and more sleep.  Then he journeys 40 more days, sleeps some more…and THEN has this revelation of God in a moment of sheer silence.  All that happens, and Elijah’s mood hasn’t changed one iota.  His pity party is still going strong.

After all this work with Elijah–which seems to have accomplished nothing–what does God’s Spirit do?  The last verse of the story. “Then God said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.”

Despite his whininess, despite his loneliness, despite his despondence….despite everything that had happened, God uses Elijah anyway.  Elijah responds the same way at the end of the story as he does at the beginning of the story….and God uses him anyway.

This summer, we’re exploring the resources we have to act the world into wellbeing.  By acting the world into wellbeing, I mean, actively sharing God’s love in the world.  Kind of like Martin Luther King said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  That’s our calling as followers of Jesus–to share God’s love in public, to act the world into wellbeing.

So, this summer, we’re reflecting on the resources we have here at First Congregational actively to share God’s love in the world.  Our friend Elijah reminds us of a key resource each and every one of us has–our humanity…not our humanity as we want it to be, but our humanity as it is.  Whether we’re fearful or exhausted or despondent–we still have something to contribute to the work of acting the world into wellbeing.

Here’s a thought.  I wonder if God didn’t use Elijah despite his human flaws, but in light of them?  Maybe Elijah’s fearfulness, loneliness, and despondence actually helped him do the work to which God was calling him.

In a book titled Lincoln’s Melancholy:  How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, author Joshua Wolf Shenk reflects on Abraham Lincoln’s struggle with depression, then suggests that it was Lincoln’s depression that gave him the insight he needed to lead a country at war with itself.

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Lincoln seems to have struggled with depression most of his life, from major depressive episodes in his 20s and 30s, including two breakdowns, to chronic depression later in life.  Shenk’s thesis is that from his depression, Lincoln learned that true happiness always would elude him.  Not waiting for an elusive happier day to come freed Lincoln up to see reality as it was…which is exactly what a country in the midst of a civil war needed.  War is no time for rose-colored glasses.

Shenk also suggests that Lincoln’s personal acquaintance with deep suffering gave him insight as he guided a country also plunged into deep suffering.

Often, when we name resources–including our personal resources–for acting the world into wellbeing, we focus on our strengths, the material resources we have, the knowledge and skills and personal attributes we have.  All the things we might put on a resume.

The stories of Abraham Lincoln and the prophet Elijah remind us that our strengths aren’t the only resources we have to act the world into wellbeing.  The parts of us that feel less strong also can be tremendous resources as we seek to follow Jesus in acting the world into wellbeing.

When the Voices of Hope choir from the Swannanoa prison choir came to sing for us a couple of months ago, a woman named Taylor told us her story.  Taylor’s undiagnosed mental health challenges shaped and guided her life…and caused great suffering for Taylor and for many others.  They’re also what led to her incarceration.  Now that she has received the medication and other help she’s needed, she’s able to share her story with others.

As a pastor, hearing Taylor’s story was a wake-up call to me to be as vigilant as I can be to guide people who are struggling with mental health challenges to the resources they need.  I’ve been committed to talking about mental health challenges in church for a long time.  But Taylor’s story showed me just how much suffering can come from people not getting the resources they need to deal with mental illness.  By telling a very painful part of her story, Taylor is acting the world into wellbeing.

What are the painful parts of your story?  A struggle with depression?  A chronic illness that saps your energy?  A phobia that keeps you isolated from others?  Deep wounds from physical, emotional, or religious abuse?  Addiction?  Age?  Rage?  Grief?  What are the painful parts of your story?  What things don’t feel strengths for you?  What things prevent you from doing more to act the world into wellbeing?

What if those things that don’t feel strong might be the very resources that will help you act the world into wellbeing?  What if the parts of yourself you hide from others—perhaps, especially at church—are the very things God wants to use in sharing God’s love in the world?  What if God wants to use ALL of who you are, like, ALL of who you are to act others into wellbeing?

And what if you did?  What if you did use all of who you are to act the world into wellbeing?  What might happen?  What might happen to you?  What might happen to this church?  What might happen in the world?

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: “Following the Spirit of Truth in Acting the World into Wellbeing” (John 16:12-15) [6/16/19]

 

(Play, “The Truth,” by Precious Bryant.)  Remember the truth?  Back when I was a child, it was common for people—I know this sounds crazy!–but back in the day, people told the truth.  Crazy times.  These days, when videos are altered, when a national newspaper has a fact-checker column with Pinocchio noses (the more lies told by politicians, the more Pinocchio noses are colored in) and keeps track of our president’s falsehoods (We’re closing in on 11,000 since he took office.)… These days, it’s a challenge to know what’s true and what isn’t.  These days, Pilate’s question to Jesus feels exceedingly relevant:  “What is truth?”

Today’s Scripture comes from Jesus’ last words to his disciples the night before his death.  Jesus, sensing that his death is imminent, says everything he’d been meaning to teach his disciples before departing the scene.  Kind of like a professor who comes to the last day of class with half of the syllabus yet to teach.

Among the points Jesus makes… We should love one another as he has loved us.  Through him, all his followers are connected–as a vine has many branches.  Later, Jesus will offer the prayer that our own UCC has adopted as its motto:  “That they may all be one.”

In today’s verses, Jesus acknowledges that everything he’s telling the disciples isn’t going to sink in.  That’s when he promises the “Spirit of Truth.”

“I have much more to tell you,” he says, “but you can’t bear to hear it now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth.

Doesn’t that sound great?  “When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide us into all truth.”  Cool.  That means we’ll always have access to the truth, right?  We’ll know at any given moment the right thing to do and the best way to respond, right?  Of course!  That’s why followers of Jesus around the globe agree on everything and live their faith in the same ways!

Yeah.  That’s a lie.

So, if the Spirit of truth has come, why aren’t we–at least we followers of Jesus–if the Spirit of truth has come, why aren’t we on the same page more of the time?  If the Spirit is there, guiding us into all truth, why is the world such a mess?

Maybe it’s because, unlike Precious Bryant, we don’t really like the truth.  Or maybe, per Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, WE CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

Like, oh, the truth at our country’s southern border?  There’s currently an art installation in New York City.  It represents a child covered in one of those shiny blankets inside a chain link fence.  A recording of actual children at the border crying out plays constantly.  Five Guatemalan children have died after crossing the border in the last 6 months.  That’s the truth.  Hard to handle.

What about the truth about racism?  At a workshop on Racial Equity at the Southern Conference Annual meeting this week, the presenter took us through statistics from every sector of society—incarceration rates, healthcare, education, nonprofits (which includes churches), business, and government.  In every area, African Americans fared worse than every other population in our country.  The gap between blacks and whites was the widest.

When I first learned about “the talk” African American parents have with their children, …the talk that tells them what to do if they are pulled over…and how to talk with and behave around white people… When I learned about “the talk,” and how African American parents have the talk with their children, literally, to save their lives…That was when the lightbulb came on for me.  That’s when I realized just how white I am.  That’s when I recognized the privilege I have simply because of the color of my skin.  That’s the truth.  Hard to handle.

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What about the truth of sexism?  Our U.S. women’s soccer team–which is tearing it up at the World Cup–makes much less money than players on the U.S. men’s soccer team.  Still.  We just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment.  Great.  But Equal Rights still aren’t the law of the land.  That’s the truth.  Hard to handle.

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What about the truth of climate change?  This might be the hardest truth of all.  Ecological devastation is snowballing…an ironic metaphor considering how rapidly the polar ice caps are melting. Species are going extinct at an accelerated pace.  Water levels are rising.  The intensity of storms keeps racheting up.  These are the truths of climate change.  Hard to handle.

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It’s great that Jesus gave us the Spirit to guide us into all truth…but maybe the truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Maybe the truth is too hard to handle. Maybe we can re-gift it. If only…

Here’s another hard truth:  as followers of Jesus, we don’t have that option.  As followers of Jesus, as people who seek to act the world into wellbeing, we don’t have the option of discarding or glossing over the truth.  We might not want to handle the truth, but as followers of Jesus we are called to face it.

We’re called to face the truth in our own lives—truth about our spirits, truth about our relationships, truth about our health.  Mostly, though, we’re called to face the truth in the world, particularly the truth of the lives of the least of these, the lives of those who suffer.

How do we learn the truth about the lives of those who suffer? We listen to them. We open our minds and our hearts to them. Then we use what we have to act them into wellbeing.

An early scene in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel shows an elderly woman (played by Maggie Smith) on a stretcher in the hallway of a British emergency room.  Obviously unhappy, the woman begs a nurse passing by to get her a doctor.  The nurse reminds the woman that several doctors have come to see her, but the woman has refused to let any doctor who is not white examine her.

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Much to her dismay, the woman, Muriel, learns that the best and quickest treatment she can receive is hip replacement surgery at a hospital in India.  Reluctantly, she goes.  The quirky hotel in which Muriel and several other retirees from England stay, employs a young woman to cook and clean.  Anokhi works efficiently, but, of a lower caste, she keeps her eyes down and rarely speaks.

After her surgery, Muriel begins to soften.  Slightly.  She looks at Anokhi.  She sees her.  She makes eye contact.

On an outing one day, Muriel’s guide pushes her wheelchair into a small, crowded family home.  Anokhi, surrounded by her large family, welcomes Muriel and offers her food. Muriel is horrified.  “Why have you brought me here?” she demands.  The guide tells her that because of Muriel’s kindness, the young woman wanted to introduce her family to Muriel.  “But I haven’t been kind!” Muriel insists.  “You are the only one who acknowledges her,” the guide says.  When some of the children begin playing with her wheelchair in the front yard, Muriel snaps and yells at them.  The young woman’s face falls.

A few days later, Muriel asks her guide to take her back to Anokhi’s house.  Anokhi  recoils when she see Muriel…but this time, Muriel tells the woman her own story…How she cared for a family in England, managed the books, cooked, cleaned, cared for the children as if they were her own.  But when she got too old in their eyes, they replaced her with someone younger.  “All I was to them was a servant,” she said.  Just before leaving, Muriel gives Anokhi a pack of her favorite biscuits.  Hobnobs.

In the midst of her own struggles and her own prejudice, Muriel got a glimpse of the truth of Anokhi’s hard life, a life, it turns out, Muriel knew well.

Here’s the thing, though.  The hard truths weren’t the only truths Muriel encountered.  Muriel also allowed herself to be guided into a truth about herself—the truth that she was kind and compassionate and still very capable of helping others with the struggles of their lives.

This summer, we’re looking at the resources within our community we might use to act the world into wellbeing.  Today’s Scripture reminds us of one of those resources—the gift of the Spirit… It’s true that Spirit guides us into seeing the hard truths of the world.  But Spirit also guides us into this truth:  we are kinder, more compassionate, wiser, and more powerful than we know.   Looking at the hard truths about the world, it’s easy to become overwhelmed… What might happen if, instead of letting ourselves get overwhelmed, we allowed Spirit to guide us into the truth of our wildly compassionate hearts?  What if we allowed Spirit to guide us into the truth of all the wisdom that lives inside us and inside this community?  What if we allowed Spirit to guide us into our own depths and to hear the beautiful truth of the message of our soul?  (Asher Leigh sings, “Message of Soul”)

 

 

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Sermon: “What Does This Mean?” (Acts 2:1-21), PENTECOST [6/9/19]

I spent Easter night with some friends.  Of course, the big news that day was the pastor tilting the Christ candle during Children’s Time and a little oil oozing out.  At which point, I made the joke that if the candle lit like usual, we’d have Easter.  If the oil caught on fire, then Pentecost would come a little early this year.

One of my friends, who didn’t grow up in the Christian tradition, said, “I don’t get it.  What is Pentecost?”  So, I explained it…the people gathering 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection.  God’s spirit blowing in.  Little flames of fire alighting on each person’s head….  The more I explained, the more fantastic it sounded.  Finally, I said, “So…fire is a symbol of Pentecost.”  “Ahh,” he said.  I don’t think he’ll be converting any time soon.  🙂

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It is a fantastic story, isn’t it?  No wonder when the wind and fire came, when everyone could understand each other despite speaking different languages…no wonder when all those things happened, even the faithful asked:  “What does this mean?”

What does Pentecost mean?  What does this old story of Pentecost mean to us followers of Jesus nearly 2,000 years later?  You saw what happened with even the threat of fire on Easter.  People gasped, the pastor said, um, an un-pastorly word…  And what about that day when a strong gust of wind came up and shook our windows?  More gasping, right?

Unexpected wind and fire can be disconcerting.  They also can be energizing.  On Easter, I set that candle upright right quick!  And I think we got a few more donations for the repair of the windows the day the wind blew.  🙂  (Donations are still be received!)

Wind and fire.  What do they mean?  And why has the church seized on these elements to represent its birth…and re-birth?

Perhaps it’s about power.  We’ve seen the catastrophic damage done by tornadoes this Spring…and from hurricanes in the past couple of years.  It will take some communities generations to recover, if they ever recover at all.  And the wildfires in California–and wildfires here a few years ago–remind us of the devastation of uncontrolled burns.

Wind and fire are powerful.  Unchecked, they can over-power.  Harnessed, they can do tremendous good…like controlled burns in forests that create space for new life.

Or like what happened in the early 2000s in Malawi.  Severe flooding, followed by an even more severe dry season, and exacerbated by unrestrained logging led to near-famine conditions.  Farmers despaired when crops couldn’t grow, or—when they did grow—were underpriced or stolen.  The Kamkwamba family worked their farm hard.  Proceeds from their farming had put their daughter through school.  They were proud to send their 13 year old son, William, to school, as well.

But the rains, then the drought, the low prices, and the theft–reduced the family to subsistence living.  In one poignant scene in the movie that tells the story, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the father tells the family they must now eat only one meal a day.  He asks each member which meal it should be.

Even after he is expelled from school because his family is unable to pay tuition, William finds a way to continue visiting the school’s library.  He keeps going to the library because he’s had an idea.  Seeing that the light on his teacher’s bike shines when the bike is pedaled, he asks his teacher how it works.  His teacher tells him it’s a dynamo, a device that uses magnets and electricity.  William’s idea is this–to create a dynamo that will supply electricity to his village.

In the library, he finds a book that details the process for making windmills, devices that harness wind to create electricity.  From drawings and explanations in the book, William’s plan begins to form.

His first stop is the junkyard.  He collects old PVC pipes, motors, and electrical wires.  He finds an old fan.  He obtains the dynamo from his teacher’s bike light.  The last item he needs is his father’s bike, the family’s only means of transportation.  His father resists sacrificing his precious bike, even when William assures him that he can build a windmill that will run the water pump that will make it possible to plant crops year ‘round, even in the dry season.  Eventually, William’s father relinquishes his bike.

The whole village works to build the windmill, cutting down trees, creating an irrigation system.  Once the windmill is completed and the fan begins to turn, the villagers leave the machine to do its work charging the battery that eventually will power the pump.

When the villagers gather again, they stare expectantly at the water hose.  When the pumped water begins sluicing down the waterway, their joy explodes.  The crops grow, the village is saved.  William goes back to school and eventually graduates from Dartmouth College with a degree in engineering.

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On the face of it, this might not be the most obvious of Pentecost stories.  But then again, “harnessing the wind” is pretty much what Pentecost is all about, isn’t it?  God’s Spirit blows in unexpectedly, which is wonderful and energizing…but if we don’t “harness” that wind energy, if we don’t convert that spirit energy into a usable form, it won’t be able to sustain us.

If the church is to grow and thrive, it’s got to have a steady source of energy.  And we have to have a means of accessing that energy on a consistent basis.  So, how will we harness the wind of Pentecost here at FCUCC?

Let’s look again at how William harnessed the wind in his village.  First, he was deeply immersed in the life circumstances of his family and the rest of his village.  He saw how hard everyone worked and how little they received from that work.  He watched and worried as his loved ones slowly starved.

William also knew how his mind worked.  He understood machines and electricity.  He knew how to fix things.  He had confidence in his engineering mind, even when those around him lacked that confidence.

William also knew how to assemble found objects into workable machines.  Hence, his frequent trips to the junkyard.  William could see the dire circumstances facing his family and village, he trusted his ideas about how to solve their problems, and he knew how to use the objects at hand to build the machine that would solve their problems.

What I’m trying to say is, William used what he had to act those in his world into wellbeing.  And he did it by harnessing the wind.

Our summer theme officially begins today.  “Using what we have to act the world into wellbeing.”  The question for us is similar to the question that guided William’s work with the windmill.  “What resources do we have?  How might we use those resources to act the world into wellbeing?”  How might we use the gifts of the Spirit in this community for the common good?

There’s a brief scene in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”  William has just collected several items from the junkyard for his windmill project.  You can almost see his mind working as he surveys the items arrayed in front of him, imagining how each part might fit into the overall project…imagining how a windmill will improve drastically the lives of his family and fellow villagers.

That’s the scene we’ll be living this summer.  As we discern where God is leading us as a church, as we imagine together how we might use the gifts of the Spirit to this community for the common good, the first step will be to assess what those gifts are.

Each week, we’ll look at a different set of resources to help us in our work of acting the world into wellbeing.  You’ve got a copy of the resources we’ll be looking at each week.  Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive…but it will at least give us a place to start as we seek to identify the gifts and resources within our community.

When I came here 16 months ago, I was a bit giddy.  Such euphoria over being called to serve with this vibrant congregation!  Sixteen months in?  I confess that I’m even giddier (if that’s a word).  Y’all!  This is an amazing congregation!  Seeing new life around the place the past couple of weeks–landscaping out front and the window work….Have you seen the window work?  Now you can tell from the outside that our church has stained glass windows!  With the plastic covering the windows before, you couldn’t tell.

Somehow, the facelift our building is getting is reminding me of just how strong and beautiful this community is.  There are still so many ways–new ways, exciting ways, creative ways…there are still so many ways to act the world into wellbeing!  All we have to do is harness the winds of Pentecost.

So, Church.  How will we do that?  How will we harness the winds of Pentecost?  How will we use what we have to act the world into wellbeing 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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