Posts by The Rev. Dr. Joanne Whitt

The Summer of Love: The Love that Pursues Us

Lesson: Psalm 139:1-18

When my kids were little, they loved the book, The Runaway Bunny. A little bunny tells his mother he wants to run away from home. His mother doesn’t stop him, but she warns, “If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.” The bunny and his mother then share an imaginary game of hide and seek. The bunny says if his mother follows him, he’ll become a fish in a trout stream and swim away from her. If he does that, says the mother, she’ll become a fisherman, and fish for him. The bunny says he’ll become a rock on the mountain, a crocus in a hidden garden, a bird, a sailboat, and a circus acrobat. The mother answers each plan of escape with a way to be with him no matter what. Finally, the little bunny gets the point. “Aw, shucks!” he says, “I might just as well stay home and be your little bunny.” Which he does.[1]

My children found this story profoundly comforting. To my surprise, I’ve since discovered that some parents think The Runaway Bunny is stifling, even creepy. Likewise, I was surprised to learn that people have similarly opposite reactions to today’s psalm, Psalm 139. While it’s probably my favorite psalm, others have told me they hear not comforting reassurance, but something more threatening, along the lines of “I know where you live.” For some, this psalm is God as Stalker.

But it’s exactly God’s initiative to pursue us that fascinates me. It’s a radical idea, when you think about it. For the entire sweep of human history, people have assumed that we have to seek God. That’s one way to look at religion: the organized attempt to find and connect with God. And so we create rituals, duties, and beliefs designed to access an elusive, mysterious God; to explain or define God; sometimes to put God in a box of our own making. Read more →

The Summer of Love: Your Neighbor As Yourself

Lesson: Leviticus 19:13-18; Mark 12:28-34

Our summer sermon series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love of 1967, when an obscure intersection in San Francisco became known to the whole world and a symbol of counterculture. Haight-Ashbury gave us an different way to look at authority, consumerism, materialism, personal freedom, government, and war and peace. Like many social experiments, it had its up sides, and a whole lot of down sides. It was one of the defining moments of a turbulent decade, leaving a lasting impact on American culture and especially, on a generation of young people.

The phrase, “the Summer of Love,” was first used in a San Francisco Chronicle article from 50 years ago last Thursday – June 22nd, 1967. In a front page article with the headline, “Hippies Begin Their Summer of Love,” Chronicle journalist Jack Viets quoted a hippie who’d attended a summer solstice celebration: “‘There were strong vibrations of love,’ said Randall DeLeon. ‘People really got along well.’”[1]

How much actual “love” was there during that summer of 1967? It depends on what you mean by “love.” If what you mean is fuzzy feelings of goodwill and physical attraction, and “people really getting along well,” I guess you might say there was plenty of love. When I toured the de Young’s special exhibit on the Summer of Love a few weeks ago, however, it struck me that 1967’s version of love might not pass muster today. The leadership and the loudest voices that summer were all white, male, straight, and middle to upper middle class, and mixed in with the idealism and naiveté was a fair amount of greed and exploitation. Read more →

In the Beginning

Lesson: Genesis 1:1-2:4

Apollo 8, the first mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968. That evening, the astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders did a live television broadcast showing photos of the Earth and Moon from space. Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” The astronauts ended the broadcast by taking turns reading the ancient poetry of the first chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I was a teenager, and I remember listening along with the rest of the world to those poignant words coming through the crackly radio transmission, punctuated with NASA beeps. Planet Earth never looked so beautiful, so mysterious, so much a whole, perfect organism. So good.

The exquisite poetry of Genesis has been dismissed by critics and distorted by believers. As Diana Butler Bass tweeted earlier this year, “Most of the time when there is a supposed-conflict between faith & science, bad theology is at fault.” The bad theology in this case is treating Genesis 1 as anything other than what it is: a story. Not science. Not history. As David Steele wrote, it is a “B.I.F.” story: “Before the Invention of Fact.” The lesson of these verses is not how or when the world was made, but who made it, who called it good. The science in this passage, if you can even call it science, is about three thousand years out of date. The writers of these verses believed the world was a flat disk held up on pillars – standing on who knows what – and surrounded by a large, clear dome that held back the waters that filled the universe. That explained to the ancients why the sky looks blue – because you could see the waters through the clear dome. Read more →

A Prayer for the Planet: The Duruflé Requiem

Twice a year, we hear the Word proclaimed in music.  This is the introduction to “A Prayer for the Planet: The Duruflé Requiem.”

Lesson: Acts 2:1-4

The reading today is from the book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 1 through 4. If you would like to follow along in your pew Bibles, the passage may be found on page 90 in the New Testament section. It describes what the disciples experienced on the first Pentecost.

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

While we include music as a regular and very important part of all of our worship, twice each year we acknowledge music is a language through which God speaks to us. It is most appropriate that we do this on Pentecost, when we celebrate that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in such a way that all were able to hear the good news and understand it in their own languages. Sometimes music can reach us in ways that words cannot.

Although he was born in 1902 and died in 1986, French composer Maurice Duruflé is not a typical 20th-century musician, compared to, say, Bernstein, Stravinsky, or Shostakovich. He was a conservative in a radical world. In 1969, for example, he was scandalized when he heard a jazz mass. He was trained as an organist at an early age, and was recognized as the greatest organist of his day. He had an unparalleled understanding of harmony and Gregorian chant. Read more →

Pause to Prepare

Lesson: Acts 1:6-14

It’s a holiday weekend, and I confess that as I stand here on the Sunday before Memorial Day, the song going through my mind is not the song I just taught the children, “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” but an old Four Seasons’ song, “See You in September.” Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, when neighborhood pools open, white shoes come out of the closet, and people head off on their summer vacations.

You may not know that Memorial Day isn’t the only holiday this weekend. The Feast of the Ascension is traditionally celebrated on the fortieth day of Easter. We Presbyterians observe it on the Sunday after – that is, today. Although, the truth is that we Presbyterians don’t really pay too much attention to the ascension; maybe because it’s one of the stranger stories about Jesus.

Only Luke and Acts describe the ascension.[1] The thing to remember is that Luke, who wrote both Luke and Acts, is not a reporter. He’s a preacher. He’s not as interested in the who, what, where, or when of a story as he is in its meaning and why it’s important. As one commentator put it, there’s more “theological poetry” in Luke than history.[2] The question to ask about the ascension, as with most of the Bible, is not, “Did it really happen just like that?” The question is, “What’s the message?”

According to Acts, the resurrected Jesus has spent time with the disciples, teaching and inspiring them, and now it’s time for them to graduate, so to speak. Jesus is speaking with them, and the question they ask – now will you restore the kingdom to Israel? – is proof that they still don’t get it, even after the resurrection.[3] Jesus says they don’t need to know God’s timing. What they need to do now is get going as witnesses to the good news that God is breaking into history. Suddenly, as they look on, Jesus is taken up into heaven, like Elijah in the Old Testament,[4] but without the fiery chariot. To speculate about where the journey into outer space ended or whether Jesus would have shown up on radar as a UFO is to miss the point. This is Luke’s colorful version of the meaning of Easter: Jesus, who has been raised from the dead, now has been taken into the presence of God. We affirm in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, and as Martin Luther said, the right hand of God is everywhere. After the Ascension, Jesus is no longer confined in his ministry by time and space and history. Read more →

Bring Christ

Lesson: Acts 17:22-31

The apostle Paul had been traveling through the Mediterranean world with Silas, spreading the good news about Jesus. Their routine was to start at the local synagogue, where Paul would argue about the scriptures with anyone who came along. Paul was good at this; he could argue for three straight weeks, if necessary, and sometimes did.[1] Sometimes the people were receptive. Sometimes they weren’t. Paul was used to leaving a town in a hurry if he had to. Just before our story this morning, his stay in Thessalonica ended abruptly when the local folks made it abundantly clear he was no longer welcome. His friends whisked him out of town to safety, and sent him off to Athens, saying they’d catch up with him later.[2]

While he was waiting in Athens, Paul had a chance to see the sights. For some reason, he was “deeply distressed,” even outraged, by the statues of the Greek gods.[3] Probably it was the deeply monotheistic sensibility of a man born a Jew. So he was itching for argument, and he went first to the synagogue, but he also argued in the marketplace. Now, the Athenians practically invented argument, and Luke, who wrote Acts, reports that the Athenians were always looking for the latest idea. While some of the Greeks who heard Paul in the marketplace thought he was babbling nonsense,[4] others invited him to the join them on the Areopagus, the place of debate. They politely asked Paul to clarify his views.[5] That’s where we pick up the story this morning. Read more →

Marin’s Best Kept Secret

Lesson: Matthew 5:14-16

If you google “Marin’s best kept secret” you’ll find lists of things you’ve probably already heard of, especially if you’ve been in Marin a few years. Things like the statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones in Imagination Park, and Phoenix Lake. The one thing I came across I actually hadn’t heard of was “the hippie tree” in Tiburon. It’s a big eucalyptus up the hill from St. Hillary’s School, with a wooden swing. How does a swing turn a tree on a hillside into a “hippie tree”? Beats me. Maybe that’s the part that’s the secret.

There are, in fact, bigger secrets in Marin than the hippie tree or Phoenix Lake. Like this congregation, for instance. Oh, I know we’re not literally secret. We’re right here on the corner of Kensington at Ross and Mariposa big as life. Although – I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but you have to be standing right on Kensington looking at the front of the sanctuary to know this is First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo. There are no signs on Ross or Mariposa that would give you a clue what we are – or welcome you in – and we need to fix that. And you’ve probably noticed that we’re tucked away back here in this sleepy neighborhood. I’ve told people who’ve been in Marin for years what church I pastor, and they have no clue where it is until I say, “You know those castle-like buildings on the hill in San Anselmo? Well, down the hill from that.” Read more →

Day by Day

Lesson: Acts 2:42-47

My first thought, when I hear this passage in Acts, is, “OK, well, that communal living thing lasted for about – what – a day?” In fact, there are still a few Christians who model their economic lives after these verses in Acts. My mother was from Alberta, Canada, and her sister married a farmer near the Saskatchewan border. One year when we visited my aunt’s farm, we were invited to the nearby Hutterite colony. The Hutterites have no personal property. Everything is owned in common by the community. They’re “plain;” that is, men have beards, women cover their heads, and they use almost no decoration, like the Amish – but unlike the Amish, they are not at all opposed to technology. They have a website.  And they’re exceptionally successful farmers, in part because they use the latest farming technology.[1]

But the Hutterites’ success is the exception. Only three chapters later in Acts, things get ugly. A husband and wife defraud the Jerusalem community by pretending to turn over all their property, when in fact they’re holding back some of it.[2]   After that, the commune idea seems to go out the window because it’s not mentioned again in the New Testament.

Still, this description of the early church draws us in because it’s dripping with joy and hope. This is a, “You should have seen it!” or “You should have been there” story. The people devote themselves to learning from the disciples – presumably about Jesus and his teachings. They spend time in prayer. They see signs and wonders; they feel awe. Two aspects of their life together are mentioned not once, but twice: fellowship, and breaking bread together. Read more →

The News from San Anselmo 2017

Lesson: John 20:19-34

Note: On the Sunday after Easter, we celebrate Holy Humor Sunday by presenting worship in radio show format, “A San Anselmo Home Companion” (our thanks to Garrison Keillor). The sermon or proclamation of the Word is this work of fiction, “The News from San Anselmo.”

It’s been a quiet week in our hometown of San Anselmo, nestled against the edge of the Marin hills.  We’re in the peak of Northern California’s version of the “Super-bloom.”  Poppies, lupine, Douglas iris, the exceedingly rare Tiburon Mariposa lily, and loads of ordinary but lush mustard cover the hills, still green because, wonder of wonders, it keeps on raining.  You won’t hear many folks in Marin complain, unless they have allergies.  Then they won’t stop complaining. Earlier this month, Jerry Brown proclaimed that the drought is over, but scientists say it’s too early to parade in our rain, so to speak.  It takes a long time to recover from the worst dry spell in 450 years. Just ask Zac Efron or Meg Ryan.

It isn’t just the wildflowers that are putting on a crazy show.  San Anselmo is in full bloom, too.  A walk through the neighborhood right now reminds me of walking past the fragrance counter at Macy’s: you’re bombarded with scents whether you like it or not.  Except instead of too much patchouli, we get wisteria, jasmine, Mexican sage.  These are the fragrances that wafted through the late afternoon air as Rachel walked Sparky, her aging black Lab, over to Bouick Field a couple of weeks ago.  She wasn’t listening to a podcast, as she usually did.  She needed a break from the juggernaut of the 24-hour news cycle.  She’d sworn off Facebook multiple times since the election but it was sort of like driving past a car wreck.  It’s hard not to look. Read more →

We Rise

Lesson: Colossians 3:1-4 (from The Message); Matthew 28:1-10

I heard a true story last week about a priest. It was Easter morning mass. The priest went to the pulpit and said, “You’ve heard the story. Think about it.” And then he sat down.

It’s tempting. How do you explain a story that defies explanation? I realize the question on many minds this morning is, “Did the resurrection really happen? Was Jesus raised from the dead?” I get it. Even though we all joined in saying, “Christ is risen!” in our call to worship, I know that if I asked you to be as honest as possible in answering the question, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” we’d get about 250 different answers on a spectrum ranging from, “Yes, absolutely,” to “No way” and everything in between.

Matthew’s version of Easter morning doesn’t make it any easier. Of all the Gospels, Matthew’s version probably wins the prize for “least believable.” Only Matthew has the earthquake, a bookend to the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death.[1] The earthquake announces the angel, who really knows how to make an entrance. His appearance is “like lightening”[2] – I picture him sort of sizzling and popping with power, radiating danger; I’d cast Chris Hemsworth in the role, so just picture Thor in dazzling white clothing.[3] In the other gospels, the tomb was already open when the women arrive, but this buff angel rolls back the stone right then and there, as the women look on. Jesus is gone; apparently, the stone was no obstacle for him. The angel sits on the stone, crossing his angelic arms, and glances over at the security guards – only Matthew mentions these guards[4] – who are in some sort of terror-induced coma. You see the irony: the living look dead and the dead are alive? The angel doesn’t speak to them. His assurances are for the women only: “You don’t need to be afraid.” Read more →