by Rev. Sarah Buteux
(Painting above by Morgan Weistling)
I’ve got two words for you this morning: Pecha kucha.
Has anyone here ever experienced a pecha kucha?
Does anyone here know what a pecha kucha is?
Isn’t that a south American herb that can be steeped into a hot beverage?
No, that’s Yerbe Matte?
Is it a pre-Columbian Inca site in Peru?
No, you’re thinking of Machu Pichu.
Is it a little yellow Japanese monster?
Nope, I’m pretty sure that’s Pokemon, but hey now we’re getting close, because Pecha Kucha is a Japanese concept.
Pecha Kucha, which is actually the Japanese word for chit-chat, is a method someone devised to re-invigorate the good old power-point presentation we all don’t love so much.
When someone presents a pecha kucha, they can’t read slowly through bullet points as they drift from slide to slide. They need to keep their presentation moving because the image above them changes every 20 seconds whether they are ready or not, and the whole presentation is limited to 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
It’s a format that allows you to hear from multiple speakers in a short period of time, and it was all the rage for like a red hot minute a few years back when I was down in Memphis for a church conference.
I actually heard 18 Pecha Kucha’s back to back in one afternoon. It was total information overload, but it was awesome. People spoke about everything from the spiritual discipline of running to the value of holding church in your local pub.
They talked about art, music, raising children, even duck hunting. But there were 2 presentations I distinctly remember – both created by women – the first of whom talked us through her vacation to NYC.
Now I’m not going to presume to know how old Suzanne was, but when she got up on the stage let’s just say she was more baby boomer than Gen-Xer, and definitely not a millennial.
So I thought she had a lot of guts to get up on that platform amidst all those tech-savvy “kids” and tell us about the trip she and her husband took to the Big Apple to celebrate their anniversary. But she nailed it.
If I remember correctly, Suzanne was married to Joe, a former Catholic priest. Her photos took us through their tour of the city, past bakeries and fancy stores, all the way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where they arrived just in time for worship.
However, because of Joe’s status as a former priest and their membership in the Methodist church, neither of them were fully welcome at worship or able to partake in the Eucharist.
And so, rather than head toward the center of the Cathedral – a place where her husband had belonged for the better part of his life – Suzanne and Joe kept to the margins.
They moved quietly and reverently around the edges. Joe lit a candle before the patron saint of his former order. Prayers were whispered. Tears were shed. And then they headed out the door to go see the Broadway musical “Once.”
Suzanne told us about the play and the love story at its center, and then told us how, at the end of the show, all the scenery was pushed aside, a bar was moved in, and everyone was invited up on to the stage to share a drink with the performers. All the boundaries melted away as actors and audience members shared a pint and got to know one another.
She didn’t come right out and say it – she didn’t have too- but it was clear where they found communion that day in New York. Banned from St. Patrick’s, Suzanne and Joe celebrated on Broadway. If her Pecha Kucha had a title, it would have been, “Where I Found Jesus on my N.Y. Vacation,” …and it wasn’t in the church.
The second presentation I remember came from the Pastor of LaSalle Church in Chicago, a racially diverse congregation with a past that is so complicated I can’t tell you what denomination it belongs to and I’m not sure they can either. But I think it would be fair to call it a progressive evangelical church.
Her talk was about the price of that progress.
Laura Truax, the pastor, shared for 6 minutes and 40 seconds about her church’s journey toward full inclusion for all LGBTQ people, and how hard and yet grace filled that journey was.
She told us that when she began her ministry at LaSalle, sure everyone was welcome in their church, but it was more of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” sort of welcome.
The trouble was that people needed to tell. They needed to tell who they really were and be told that who they really were was really and truly welcome in God’s house.
Because the truth – as far too many of you know – is that it’s terribly hard to be an authentic person of faith when you feel you have to check the better part of your identity at the door.
So the folks at LaSalle carefully and prayerfully and at times painfully began a conversation about what it would mean to be a truly inclusive community.
And, as you might expect, people left… they always do. Pledges dropped. The Seminary down the street banned its students from attending, and for a time there it was hard. It was really hard. Like, they thought they might actually have to close the church level hard.
But, given that their vision of who God was calling them to be was centered around being an authentic community of faith, it was also necessary.
Laura closed by saying that people often ask her if it was worth it, at which point the slide behind her revealed an image of Jacob and an angel.
“I tell people about how hard we wrestled, with God and as a community, to get to this place,” she said, “and there is no doubt that we are walking now with a limp, but we’re still walking. There is a price to pay when you engage in something like this. But the price is worth it,” she said with a smile, “because God…God is always on the side of the oppressed.”
God is always on the side of the oppressed.
If you want to know the presence of God, head to the margins.
We know and believe and act as if this is true here at First Churches, don’t we? It’s one of the reasons I am so thankful to be here. After 44 years in the church, I walk with a limp too – as do many of you – but it’s so nice to finally have a found a church where I don’t have to fight with people about doing the right thing or loving the wrong people.
Here at First Churches, you’ve been living into what it means to be an Open and Affirming church for over 20 years. We proudly celebrate open communion. If Suzanne and Jo had come to Northampton for their wedding anniversary, we would have welcomed them up to this table without a second thought.
If Joe had been a Josephine we may have welcomed them even more. Here at First Churches, we don’t come to this table because we are worthy but because we are welcome…just as we are…no matter how lost or confused or different we might be.
Making space for Cathedral in the Night, showing up at Jericho walks, feeding people at the cot shelter, scholarships for students in Haiti, surrounding refugee families with a circle of care, showing up for day long anti-racism trainings, even our kids, who are right now making rice krispie treats to raise a little money for the animals at the shelter…this is a church full of people who feel deep in our hearts that God always sides with the little ones and the lost ones, be they people or puppies.
Connie, it is so good to see back you in church today, because my daughter has been asking me, “Where’s that woman who kicked the priest in the shins when he wouldn’t serve her father communion?” This is a church full of people like Connie, people who seem to know instinctively that the moment you draw a line and say everyone’s welcome except for those people…Jesus steps over the line and joins them. Anytime you invite a chosen few to the front, Jesus starts making his way to the back.
But what you might not always know is that we don’t do that as a church because we’re namby-pamby, bleeding heart, mainline protestants who don’t care what the Bible sys. We do these things because we’re namby-pamby, bleeding heart, mainline protestants who do.
We don’t do these things in spite of the fact that we’re Christians, but because we are trying to follow Christ, and he has a way of leading you to some of the strangest places.
And yes, I know it can get confusing. I know how easy it can be to lose our way and assume that just because someone is better or more important or holier than other people down here, that it must mean they are somehow more important to God up there.
But Jesus – from the moment he was born to the moment he died – came to show us that God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t think that way. God doesn’t ascribe value that way.
In fact, if Jesus’ life demonstrates anything, it is a preferential option not for the privileged and powerful, the holy and mighty, but for the poor and powerless, the unloved and unlikely.
Born in a stable, raised in Nazareth (“can anything good come from Nazareth?”), baptized in the wilderness, Jesus began his life on the margins and remained there throughout, ministering on the fringe to those on the outside and underside; a shepherd of lost sheep, a physician to those who could never hope to pay the bills.
Even in today’s story, a story we tend to think of as nothing more than a straight up account of Jesus’ miraculous powers, even this story bears witness to his heart for those on the margins.
Jesus and his ragtag new band of disciples are at a wedding.
The wine runs out.
Quite possibly because Jesus and his ragtag new band of disciples are at the wedding.
Yeah. Never thought of it that way, did you?
And Jesus’ mother, not wanting the host to be shamed, or perhaps feeling some responsibility for her son’s behavior, calls Jesus’ attention to the fact.
“They have no more wine,” Mary says to Jesus.
“Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” He replies.
And Mary gives Jesus the look. If you ever met your mother, you know the look I mean.
“My hour has not yet come” says Jesus.
And Mary looks a little harder…until Jesus breaks and takes a sudden interest in his sandals. At which point, Mary calls some servants over and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”
And what does Jesus do? He steps outside. As the party continues without him, he walks around the great stone jugs that have been put in place so people can wash themselves before they leave for home and he asks the servants to fill them with water.
“Now draw some out,” says Jesus, “and take it to the chief steward.” The servants comply and the chief steward is amazed! But notice that he is not amazed because Jesus has just preformed his first miracle. The truth is, he has no idea that a miracle has even occurred.
He is simply amazed because the wine is good – really good – much better than anything they’ve yet brought out. The steward says as much to the groom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
The groom, for his part, has no idea what the steward is talking about and it doesn’t matter because the crisis is averted. The party goes on. The wedding is saved. Only no one on the inside knows how or why.
This is the first of Jesus’ signs, his first miracle as recorded in the gospel of John, and one of his most famous miracles to boot, but only his mother – a woman who is of so little importance she is not even named in this gospel – a handful of servants, and his rag tag bunch of rather tipsy disciples, know it has even occurred.
The people at the center of this story have no idea that God is present and at work, but -as is so often the case – it is the ones on the margins that do. The people on the margins know Jesus because that is where Jesus is and that is where Jesus remains, in story after story, in verse after verse.
Jesus didn’t just identify with the underprivileged – the poor and the hungry – he renounced his privilege even though it left him poor and hungry. He chose to live and work and love at the edges of this world and he calls his followers to do the same.
And church, I know I don’t have to tell you this, but I’m doing it anyway because sometimes I think you need to be reminded, amidst all the good you do, just how faithful you truly are.
Sometimes I think you need to be reminded of just how brave you are.
And sometimes I think some of you need to be reminded that it’s ok to admit out loud that all the good you do is done in the name of Jesus and because of your belief in Jesus and your relationship with Jesus, because people need to see that there are just and generous ways to be a follower of Jesus in this world and that’s what I see you doing every time you head out that door to do all the good and beautiful things you do. I see you following Jesus.
In the words of Edwina Gately:
It is time. It is time for all of us who follow Christ to recognize him and to proclaim him. It is time to be prophetic about the Christ we know is present in the folks who are pushed aside, dismissed, left out, undermined, underfed, unhoused, or simply unseen and unheard. It is time for the people of God to stop marching along with the status quo in search of security, power, and control, but to stumble instead towards the margins where we will encounter a magic and a mystery that will plunge us trembling but rejoicing into the Realm of God.
Suzanne and Joe stumbled into the kingdom in a makeshift bar on Broadway. Laura and her congregation stumbled in when they were willing to sacrifice their church in order to be the church for the queer folk in their midst.
And I give thanks everyday that I get to be part of a church like this one, where we can limp our way toward the margins, and stumble into God’s kingdom together. Thank you for getting it, First Churches.
Thank you for welcoming me in as you have welcomed so many others.
Thank you for being you. Let us pray…