Posts by The Rev. Dr. Joanne Whitt

How Can We Love Our Enemies?

Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48

I follow a Methodist pastor named John Pavlovitz on Facebook and Twitter. Pavlovitz has an excellent blog called, “Stuff That Needs to Be Said.”[1] A few days after the presidential election, he posted this on Twitter – or “tweeted” this, to be perfectly correct: “That whole ‘love your enemies’ thing Jesus preached? Much harder to do when you actually meet your enemies, ain’t it Christians? #GutCheck.”

Isn’t that the truth? We’re again looking at Jesus’ challenging teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. We might think about his words this morning in the same way C. S. Lewis thought about forgiveness: “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.” Likewise, loving our enemies is a beautiful concept until we’re facing an enemy who is destroying our world before our very eyes and we’re unable to stop it. An enemy, perhaps, like ISIS; perhaps the suicide bomber who walked into a Sufi shrine in Southern Pakistan a few days ago with enough explosives to kill himself and at least 80 other people. Or – maybe the teacher who’s bullying your child. Could it be the Breitbart editor who tried to speak at UC Berkeley last month – or those who shut him down? Or the neighbor who lets his dog bark all night long? The current administration – or the mainstream news media?[2] Or that kid who convinced your son or daughter that using drugs was cool? Read more →

It’s All About Relationships

Lesson: Matthew 5:21-37

Before I read this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel I want to warn you that it is a tough passage. Like many Bible passages, if you read it in isolation, without understanding the context and as though it weren’t part of a larger message of good news, you might think it is the opposite of good news. So hang with me, please. We’ll get through this together. One side note: When I read the passage, I’ll substitute the original Greek word “Gehenna” for the word that our pew Bible translates very poorly as “hell.” Gehenna is not hell. It was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem that burned perpetually, just like the Great Tire Fire on “The Simpson’s.”

[Read passage]

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. Some people are big fans of Valentine’s Day and some aren’t; and I’m not just talking about men, either. Personally, I’m not nuts about the romance-according-to-schedule aspect of Valentine’s Day. If you need to be reminded by a Hallmark holiday to be romantic, isn’t it, well, less romantic? Besides, Valentine’s Day feels like a trap for the unwary. You know something is expected of you, but you’re not sure what. Are flowers and a card enough? Should you get the candy, too? Or are flowers and candy clichéd, unimaginative, and what you’re really supposed to do is rent a yacht for a moonlight champagne dinner cruise for two, or book a surprise trip to Paris? See, somewhere between flowers and a trip to Paris – that’s your dilemma. Valentine’s Day seems designed to set us up to fail.

This was something like the state of the Torah, of Jewish law, in the first century, when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. There were 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament – the five books known as the Torah. 613 laws to remember and keep in order to be righteous, right with God. The Talmud, the written commentaries on the law that interpreted and expanded them, wasn’t in place yet, but in Jesus’ time there was already a large body of oral interpretation developed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The point of these interpretations was to make sure no one would break God’s law even by mistake. So, for example, to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, they refused to pronounce God’s name at all. To avoid violating the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as work[1] – including the healing that got Jesus in trouble on a number of occasions. Read more →

Salt and Light

Lessons: Matthew 5:13-16

Barry White, not the R&B singer with the low, sultry voice, but a fifth grade English teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a different, elaborate, personalized handshake for each and every one of his students. Every. Single. One. His morning ritual is to “shake hands” with each student as he or she arrives to class in the morning. Says White: “They know when they get to the front door we do our ‘good mornings,’ and then it’s time to go … I’m always pumped up and then we start doing the moves and that brings them excitement and pumps them up for a high-energy class.”

This is one of those times I wish we had a good, reliable video set up. It is amazing and inspiring to see White and his students do these intricate handshakes, each one different, each one inspired, says White, by the student’s personality. White came up with the idea watching LeBron James, who does the same thing with his teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers. “You see that bond and how close they are,” White says. “I wanted to bring that feeling into the entire 5th grade.” Read more →

What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus?

Lessons: Matthew 4:12-23

The Bible is full of scary stories. Stories full of violence, intrigue, betrayal, generally despicable behavior; stuff we rarely read in church and with good reason. When I hear someone’s planning to read the entire Bible cover to cover, I often quote Mark Twain. Responding to a letter suggesting that Huckleberry Finn belonged in the children’s section of the library, Twain wrote, “I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.”

Of all the Bible’s scary stories, perhaps this morning’s text in Matthew’s Gospel is more disturbing, more terrifying, to the average Christian sitting in the pew than any of them. I’ve always wondered what Zebedee said to his wife when he got home from work that day.

Zebedee trudges into the house, shouting his usual, “Honey, I’m home!”

His wife shouts from the kitchen, “Oh, hey, Zeb; dinner’s almost ready.” She looks up and does a double take. “Wait a second. Where are the boys?”

“Um ….” How did he explain to her that they jumped up and left him in the boat to follow Jesus, the carpenter’s son? How did he explain that they seem to have left the family business? How does he explain that they won’t be home for dinner, and he’s not sure when – or if – they’ll be home at all? Read more →

When Only a Sad Song Will Do

Lessons: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Lamentations 2:18-19, 3:22-24

The choir’s anthem this morning was really the perfect introduction for the sermon.  Thank you for that moving rendition of “Deep River.”  Sometimes we need a song, a sad song, to unlock our hearts, to break us open so we can feel what’s going on with us, in us.

Do you have a sad song you listen to when only a sad song will do? Country music seems to capture loss and heartbreak exceptionally well and so two of my sad songs are “Love Has No Pride” by Bonnie Raitt, and “Desperados” by Linda Ronstadt. But my saddest of all sad songs has no words at all: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Gets me every time.

For each of us, for all of us, sometimes only a sad song will do. Adam Brent Houghtaling, who wrote, This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music, believes our culture undervalues doom and gloom. He explains that depression and melancholy are two very different beasts. Depression is a disease, but melancholy, the fancy word for plain old ordinary sadness, Houghtaling says, “is a tool for reflection and a catalyst for creativity.” There are healthy aspects of sadness, he writes, and “To do battle with that is to struggle against what it is to be human, to misunderstand happiness, and to dismiss the possible catharsis afforded by” all those sad songs.[i] Read more →

A Light to the Nations

Lessons: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9

We usually leave our Christmas tree up until Epiphany at my house, until January 6th, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the day the Church celebrates the visit of the magi. This year, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I was ready to put away Christmas on January 1st. I waited until January 2nd so I could get the help and cooperation of the rest of my family, but as I told my husband and our son, I was so over it.

I actually love Christmas. Our Advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship here at First Presbyterian Church are so special; so rich with joy and mystery. This past Christmas Eve, the pageant was not only fun but thought-provoking, and the music at our 9:00 p.m. candle light service was transcendent. Thank you, Daniel, John and the choir. So I’m not sure why I was so ready to move along, but it does mean that for once I’m in tune with the church calendar, which always seems to rush us after Christmas. At the end of Chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is a small child. Fast forward thirty years or so. The very next time we meet Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is in this morning’s passage. He’s about thirty and he’s come all the way from Galilee to the wilderness of Judea – perhaps about 70 miles – to join with the rest of the people Israel in being baptized by John the Baptist[1] in the Jordan River. Read more →

In Folks Like Us

Lesson: Luke 2:1-20

Here’s a Christmas challenge for you. Try to find a painting of the nativity that is not … sanitized. Almost all the paintings I found show Mary and Joseph and everybody else as very … cleaned up. Mary and Joseph are well dressed, calm, and serene. They seem fully ready to play host and hostess to shepherds and magi. They don’t look like terrified young parents with no mother-in-law or grandparents around to pitch in with their first child. They’re always surrounded by cows and donkeys and sheep, but no one in these paintings seems to notice that these farm animals smell like farm animals.

Most of us are here today because the Christmas story is familiar and comforting. We’re used to paintings and carols that surround the story with a rosy hue. When you’ve heard the Christmas story over and over, often read in hushed tones by candlelight, it’s easy to miss the mess of it. The humanity of it. But also, the surprise of it, the incongruity of it. Here we have Augustus Caesar and King Herod on the one hand, and these poor nobodies, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, on the other. Read more →

A Little Jazz Mass by Bob Chilcott

Lesson: Isaiah 35:1-10

During Advent we read Scriptures that invite us to imagine the world as it could be, as God wants it to be. Few passages paint a more glorious picture of the future to which God calls us than Isaiah chapter 35. The original audience of these verses lived under the oppression of foreign rule. “Saving” in this context means actual freedom from political captivity. That’s why the people are invited to imagine journeying back to Jerusalem. The author says it’s not just those who were taken into exile who will travel joyfully to Zion, but anyone and everyone who wants to come.[1]

This passage presses us to imagine how God’s activity might bring real release and healing to people living with real-life suffering now. It presses us to look at our world, and see the beauty, the joy, the freedom that could be there, that God intends for everyone. And to move toward it.

Which is also the function of jazz. Colleen Shaddox writes, “I believe in the fundamental optimism of jazz. Consider the first four notes of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ … It’s saying, “Something monumental is going to happen. Something that’s never happened before. And you are alive to witness it.”[2] Read more →

Dare to Believe

Lesson: Luke 1:5-55

Imagine a woman in the ancient world who longs to have children. It’s her goal; it’s what’s expected of her; it’s really the only thing that will give her life any meaning in her culture. Let’s say she married young, maybe around the age of fifteen. At sixteen, she’s not pregnant yet. At twenty, she’s praying hard. By thirty, still no pregnancy and her prayers are mixed with shame and disappointment for herself, and for her husband. At forty, imagine hope slipping away.  Imagine her sense of loss and regret at age fifty. Why even bother to pray now?

This was the story of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, back in the book of Genesis. It’s similar to the story of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in the book of First Samuel. Both these ancient stories are echoed in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us about Elizabeth, married to a priest, Zechariah. They prayed for a child, but none came. One day as Zechariah is doing whatever it is priests do, an angel appears and announces that his prayers for a son will be answered. Zechariah says this is impossible. “I’m an old man,” he says, “and Elizabeth is past her prime, too!” The messenger tells him that because of his skepticism, he won’t be able to speak until the baby is born.

Usually Zechariah’s muteness is treated as a punishment for his doubt, which is a little disturbing. Who wouldn’t doubt this? But another way to look at it is that his silence is a gift to him – as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, an enforced sabbatical “during which the seeds of hope were sown again in his hushed soul.”[1] Maybe, like so many of us, he can’t learn anything while he’s talking.

The stories of Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth are, in a way, a window onto the experience of the people Israel. The prophets had inspired them to dream of a better day. Their prophecies echoed the first promise to Abraham: that everyone everywhere would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. But those promises had been delayed and frustrated and delayed again, until it seemed ridiculous to keep the dream alive. Read more →

How Shall We Wait?

Lessons: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Who likes to wait? Let’s see a show of hands.

Waiting is not a skill we cultivate in 2016, is it? Most of us hate being put on hold, or getting stuck behind that driver who’s going 15 miles an hour slower than the speed limit. I confess I’ve walked into shops, seen a long line, and turned right around and left without whatever it is I wanted. I’ve left restaurants rather than wait for a table.

Sometimes we can choose not to wait, but sometimes we can’t make that choice, and sometimes there’s more at stake than a table at a restaurant.

Like waiting for a diagnosis. Waiting for the pain to stop. Waiting for a loved one to heal, or for a loved one to die. Waiting to hear whether you got the job, or whether you’ll lose the job. Waiting for a child to be born, or a child to grow up. Waiting for justice. Waiting to be loved.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of the church calendar. As our Jewish neighbors begin the day at sunset, so Christians begin the church year in the darkening quiet of ever-deeper winter. Advent is the night of the Christian year.[1] Night is all about waiting, and waiting is, to some extent, about helplessness. Waiting for dawn or light or love or relief, we are helpless to turn back the darkness or hurry the clock along so that it says 7:00 a.m. instead of 2:00 a.m. There really are some things we can do nothing about. That is hard news for many of us who like to think we’re in control of our lives. We want to be proactive – which is good and right and faithful. But sometimes we have to wait. Read more →