Posts by The Rev. Dr. Joanne Whitt

Sowing Bountifully

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Desperate times call for desperate measures, maybe even a little arm-twisting, some magical thinking and a few rash promises. At least that seems to be the case for the apostle Paul in this morning’s passage. This passage in Second Corinthians might be the church’s first-ever annual giving campaign letter. Paul sounds desperate because he is: the church in Jerusalem is in dire straits, experiencing real poverty and hardship. In the past, the church in Corinth had been generous in contributing to the needs of their fellow churches. Now, for some reason, their zeal is lagging. Paul is worried. Maybe that’s why he says, “Give, because giving benefits the giver.”[1]

But is it true? Are givers enriched? Well, yes and no. In a time of famine, a starving mother who gives her last bite of food to her child does not automatically receive more food; she only dies more quickly. The senior citizen who contributes beyond his means to a disaster fund doesn’t receive any increase in pension.[2] When Paul says, “the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully,”[3] he is just a hair short of something called “the prosperity gospel;” that is, promising material rewards for faith. Many would argue, myself included, that the prosperity gospel is not the gospel at all. But Paul is so anxious about Jerusalem that he doesn’t think it’s wrong to prod the self-interest of the Corinthians. He figures it’s better that they contribute for the wrong reason than that anyone die of hunger.

But here’s the thing: It is indeed magical thinking to believe that material rewards always follow generosity. Nevertheless, Paul is on solid ground in arguing that in giving, we receive; that the one who sows bountifully reaps bountifully. The Transition Support Group is reading The Book of Joy, a book-long interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. On the topic of generosity, Tutu says, “I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much about math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way … you gave and it then seems like in fact you are making space for more to be given to you. … And there is a very physical example,” says Tutu. “The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give. And we are made much that way, too. I mean, we receive and we must give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, and more, and more joyful.”[4] Read more →

How to Wait

Lesson: Matthew 25:1-13

This morning I am deeply grateful that this is not the only parable about the Kingdom of God. I’m grateful for the mustard seed and the yeast, and for the other wedding described just a couple of chapters earlier in Matthew where the king sends his servants out into the highways and byways to invite everyone they can find to the great feast. I’m glad there are other ways to describe God’s Kingdom that don’t involve bridesmaids and oil and doors that lock half of us out, just because we’re a little late.

Often one or the other of my daughters will ask what I’m preaching on Sunday. When I told them about the parable of the ten bridesmaids they both had the same question. “Why did they have to have their own lamps?” If I had a flashlight and you didn’t, you’d just walk with me, right? We’d get along just fine by the light of one flashlight. “Good question,” was the best I could come up with. This parable raises many questions like this. If for some reason they couldn’t share the lamps, then why not share the oil? Isn’t sharing what we’re supposed to be doing? The lesson of the loaves and fishes, as you’ll recall, was not, “There were only five loaves and two fish so a few people ate and everyone else went hungry – too bad for you if you didn’t bring your own lunch.” So why isn’t sharing the point here? Why were the young women sent off to buy oil at midnight to a store that was probably closed? Can you ever really be too late – too late for the Kingdom of God? Why the closed door – where’s the hospitality and grace in that? Why is it the bridesmaids who suffer, just because this bridegroom is late? You’d think that having to buy a dress you’re never going to wear again and wearing dyed-to-match shoes is punishment enough.

We aren’t told why this bridegroom is late but we know the parable was actually put in written form fifty or so years after the Resurrection, when the early church was expecting Christ to return at any moment, but it was taking much longer than they’d hoped. It’s possible that the focus of this parable may have shifted because of the church’s concern that the bridegroom – Christ, that is – was delayed. In this time of anxious waiting, the early church uses this parable to say just that: There’s been a delay. Don’t be surprised, don’t panic, and don’t give up. It doesn’t mean our faith is pointless.

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To Be Human

Lessons: Matthew 5:1-12; Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Two or three times a year, someone shows up at the doorstep of the church, so to speak, and says, “My mother died” – or a brother or son or wife – “and I live nearby and you’re a church so … can you do a service?” And if I have the time and the bandwidth, I like to say yes; I like for us to be the community’s resource for such things. I had the privilege of taking part in such a service this past Friday, a graveside service for a man who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart event at the age of 53. His father told me his son was not religious but he was very spiritual in his own way, which gave me the opportunity to say at the graveside that if Jesus is any indication, and I believe he is, God doesn’t seem to care as much about whether we’re officially “religious” as about whether we appreciate God and God’s creation, which includes, of course, all God’s creatures. I was touched by the honesty and vulnerability of the family members who spoke at the service. A sister said grief is messy, and so hard; so tinged with regret for the things you wish you’d said, and for the things you did say that you wish you could take back. She said that in her big family she tended to be the one who hid – she gave the example of being on a long and complicated family email thread and never chiming in – just “lurking,” as she put it. When one of her sisters made a wisecrack that maybe this sister had died, she did speak up, and said, “No; I’m doing what people in our family always do when things get tough; I’m hiding.” Her brother, the man who had died, replied, “Yup.” And in that one syllable, the sister had felt seen and heard, known and understood, and it meant the world to her.

The father talked about the old Irish ballad, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.” He shared that he’d known his son as an infant and toddler, as a Little League baseball player and a rebellious teenager, and later as an artist, adventurer and free spirit. But his son’s friends had sent photos and stories that made him realize he only knew a fraction of who his son was: “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.”

That is my experience with memorial services here at this church, as well. People know each other for years, and inevitably after a service say something along the lines of, “I never knew Betty helped to found KQED,” or “I never knew Roger was an artist.” There’s always more to people, isn’t there? Read more →

Things That Are God’s

Lesson: Matthew 22:15-22

It’s been a tough couple of weeks and I have never been so grateful for rain as I was on Friday. If you weren’t here last Sunday, you may not know that we set aside time during worship to lift up our prayers and concerns for all those impacted by the wine country fires: people evacuated, first responders, people who lost homes or businesses and even lives and loved ones. Last week the general anxiety level was palpable and I think that’s what happens when people experience trauma, even if it’s secondhand. We can’t just barrel through as if nothing happened; a catastrophe takes its toll. So before I talk about today’s passage I want to offer encouragement that we all be kind to ourselves in the midst of all this; and that we be kind to each other. I’ll say more, later, about things we can do to help, but it will take time for the region, and for us, to recover. There is no switch to flip. Now that we can take a deep, relatively smoke-free breath, we need to do that.

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath before he responded to his interrogators in today’s passage. One of the most iconic moments of the original Star Wars movies came to my mind, when Admiral Ackbar shouts, “It’s a trap!” in the third movie as the rebels realize they’re surrounded by Imperial ships. That’s what I want to shout to Jesus, but I think Jesus’ impulse to take a deep breath, or at least a pause, before responding to the Pharisees and Herodians is the wiser, less anxious choice.

We’re told from the outset that the Pharisees, fed up with Jesus, are plotting to entrap him. To do this they join forces with an unlikely ally – the Herodians. This is one of those, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” situations. The Pharisees were highly observant Jews who despised Rome and Roman rule of their homeland. The Herodians supported the Romans. They both want to get rid of Jesus. Read more →

Bread for the World

On Bread for the World Sunday, our guest preacher was the Rev. Dr. James McDonald, President of San Francisco Theological Seminary and past Vice President of Policy and Programming for Bread for the World.

Isaiah 58:6-10; Mark 8:1-10

Loaves and fishes. One of Jesus’ many miracles. A story told in every Gospel, and twice in Matthew and Mark. The connection between Christian faith and ending hunger has always been strong and clear. The Bible is full of stories of hunger and bread and feeding. The story of manna in the wilderness. The gleaning laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The prophets’ calls to Israel to remember the orphan, the widow, the sojourner, the alien, the poor – the most vulnerable. Remember the words of Isaiah (58)?

If you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

Jesus’ earthly ministry had hunger and bread and feeding as a central element — the feeding of the multitudes; meals with Pharisees, tax collectors, the poor, the outcast, and despised; the Last Supper, breakfast on a lake with his disciples following his crucifixion, bread broken on the road to Emmaus. Food seems a sure sign of resurrection and especially a sign of God’s presence. Christians affirm the connection between hunger, bread and feeding, when say the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to “give us this day our daily bread.”

Whether it’s Church World Service, or World Vision, or Catholic Relief Services; or Feeding America or Catholic Charities, or Marin’s REST program, or any number of church and humanitarian agencies who are at work in this country and across the world – with food aid, or digging wells and improving agriculture, or working in health clinics and schools, treating diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria and tuberculosis, Christians express their faith by financially supporting, and volunteering, or working full-time for agencies that improve the lives of people struggling with hunger, poverty and disease. Read more →

Tenants

Lessons: Matthew 21:33-46

This is not the parable I’d have hoped would pop up in the lectionary this week. Haven’t we had more than enough violence, this week? This is not a pretty parable. It begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner does everything he needs to do to establish a working, productive vineyard and then he leases it to tenants to run things while he’s away. At harvest time, he sends his servants to collect his share as the owner and entrepreneur. But the tenants beat and even kill his servants. He sends more servants, and the same thing happens. And so then he sends his son, and the thugs kill him too, hoping that if there’s no heir, and the landlord stays abroad until he dies, then maybe they’ll inherit the vineyard.

It seems like a hair-brained scheme. Do they really think they’ll get away with it? It reminds me of an “I Love Lucy” or “Seinfeld” plot, except it isn’t remotely funny – but then, I never thought Lucy or Seinfeld were funny, either. Don’t these people – Lucy, Seinfeld, the tenants – don’t they all realize that eventually all the lies will unravel and they’ll be exposed? Jesus seems to think so. After telling the parable, at least according to Matthew, Jesus asks, “When the owner of the vineyard returns, what will he do to those tenants?” Right on cue, the religious leaders fall for the trap hook, line, and sinker: “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who’ll give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Okay, first notice that it wasn’t Jesus who said those words about the miserable wretches. It was his audience that assumed the vineyard owner would be vengeful and violent. Still, Jesus follows with the punch line to this dark joke. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures? The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.” Jesus didn’t make many friends that day. After that, they begin plotting to kill him. Read more →

By What Authority?

Lessons: Matthew 21:23-32

From the perspective of the religious leaders, Jesus came to Jerusalem looking for trouble. First he paraded through the streets on a donkey. The common folks welcomed him like the long-awaited Messiah, like the king they could call their own.[1] What will happen if the Roman garrison gets wind of this? Then he disrupts business in the temple square by driving out buyers and sellers, and knocking over tables.[2] No wonder the religious elites are upset.[3]

So when he shows up at the temple to teach the next day, they ask him, “By what authority are you doing all this?” In other words, “Who do you think you are?” Just who do you think you are, Jesus? It’s a question that people ask when they think they belong here, and they want to let you know that you don’t. It’s what people say when they are trying to put you in your place.

Jesus says he’ll answer their question if they answer his question. When John baptized the crowds at the Jordan River, was he inspired by God, or was it just a human invention? It’s a trick question. If the religious leaders say “from God,” they’ll be exposed for ignoring God’s will because they didn’t listen to John. But if they say “from humans,” the crowd, who loved John, will turn on them. They’re in a bind, so they plead ignorance. “We don’t know.” Read more →

What’s Fair?

Lessons: Matthew 20:1-16

Many of Jesus’ stories illustrate what he called the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s gospel, he calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the same thing. What he was describing was a new reality, a radically different way of being in the world and being with each other. I can’t emphasize enough – I can’t put enough exclamation points around the importance of the Kingdom of God to Jesus’ ministry and message. It was the core of what he taught, what he was pointing toward. In a nutshell: The Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven is the world – this world – as it would be if we followed God’s ways instead of human ways – and as it is, here and now, around us, in us, among us, when we do. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, it left his listeners then just as baffled as it leaves many of us today. He invited his audience to wonder what the world would be like if, say, we loved our enemies, or did good to those who sought to harm us, gave away our possessions, or lived as though everything we are and have belongs to God. In other words, Jesus very often didn’t make sense. So he tried to help by telling stories. We call them parables. Sometimes they touched people. Sometimes they baffled people further. Sometimes they infuriated people.

This morning’s passage is one of the infuriating parables. Some would even say offensive. Jesus says that the disciples will be rewarded beyond their imagination. But, he adds, the last will be first and the first will be last. And then he tells this story to explain what that means. A landowner goes to his town’s equivalent of Marin’s Andersen Drive in San Rafael, where day laborers line the streets and wait, hoping to be hired. He hires one group at sunrise. He returns to the labor pool at 9:00, noon and 3:00 p.m., and hires three more groups. And at 5:00, not long before sunset, he hires a fifth group to help finish the job. Read more →

Forgiving Is Hard (Do It Anyway)

Lessons: Matthew 18:21-35

As many of you know, my father died two weeks ago. I’m deeply grateful for your prayers and warm condolences; I feel very supported. When you ask me how I am, and I say I’m okay, it’s the truth, because it is okay to be grieving; we need to grieve when we lose someone we love. As people do at times like this, my sister and brother and I have been sharing stories, both the stories about my dad and the stories he told. One of our favorite stories about my dad’s rather colorful family was the one about his great uncle Kirk. Kirk was his nickname; his full name was Lykircas Delancey DeMasters, and that is not the strangest name in father’s family tree. The family legend is that Uncle Kirk died of injuries sustained when he was run over by a wagon pulled by a team of horses somewhere near Tulare, California. The story, or legend, or myth, was that he easily could have moved out of the way to avoid this eventually fatal accident, but he didn’t. When someone asked him why, Kirk said, “I was there first.”

My family definitely has its share of stubbornness, and more than its share of people who need to be right, and so this story has served as a cautionary tale. Being right isn’t always what matters most.

I tell this story because it reminds me of forgiveness, although the connection may not be obvious – yet. The sermon title this morning tells us a couple of obvious things about forgiveness. Forgiving is hard. I’m not talking about those times when you feel generous and laugh off a minor slight. Forgiving is hard when you’ve been hurt seriously, cut to the heart, and when the person refuses to take responsibility, let alone apologize; “those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them …. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”[1]

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Where Two or Three Are Gathered

Lessons: Matthew 18:15-20

If you’ve been around churches even a little you’re probably familiar with verse 20 of this passage, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”[1] It’s usually trotted out when attendance at some church gathering is low. Maybe we’d hoped for at least a dozen folks at a Lenten Bible study, for example, but only two people show up, the same two people who always show up. You can almost guarantee someone will say, “There aren’t many of us here, but, ‘Where two or three are gathered …,’” and usually, they don’t even need to finish the verse. It’s understood.

This is a fine way to use this verse, and yet, there’s more to this passage. The verses leading up to verse 20, including the formula for handling church disputes, are more challenging. Confront someone? Uh-oh! We’re Presbyterians after all; confrontation doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We think it’s none of our business, or that we should bear everything in silence and turn the other cheek. We figure why not just focus on God’s love and move on, and if you have to talk about it, then talk with folks who agree with you, and maybe even over in the parking lot.

Then there’s that bit about shunning those who refuse to listen, treating them like a Gentile or a tax collector – which doesn’t sound at all like Jesus, the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners. And I just don’t know what to do with that wild promise at the end that if two people agree on something, God will do it.

But when I read the passage carefully, I recognize that Matthew’s deep concern in this passage is community – honest-to-goodness, authentic Christian community. Now, community is one of those feel-good words we tend to idealize. Maybe we imagine the TV show, “Cheers,” a place where you’re accepted for who you are, where you’re never lonely, and where, of course, everybody knows your name. But the really difficult thing about community is that it’s made up of people. And people – not any of you or me, of course, but other people – can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Community is messy. I can honestly say, with a deep sense of gratitude, that First Presbyterian is not a community wracked with division and turmoil. Our spirit of unity and graciousness is not only a precious gift, but, as I’m learning now that I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, not something to take for granted. Even so, our community, like all churches, is made up of human beings, and wherever two or three human beings gather, Christ might be there but there’s also the potential for hurt feelings, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. Read more →