Posts by The Rev. Dr. Joanne Whitt

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 →

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My Labor, My Work, My Ministry 2017

On the Sunday before Labor Day, Christian Vocation Sunday, 3 church members share how they live their Christian faith and discipleship in the workplace or in their vocation. This year’s speakers were Cheryl Prowell, Senior Water Resource Control Engineer at California Regional Water Quality Control Board; Daniel Ferreira, Baker, M. H. Bread and Butter; and Jo Gross, Spiritual Director.

Cheryl Prowell 

As you heard in the children’s sermon, growing up, my gifts were not athletic. My mother was a librarian and my dad was a computer scientist, they helped me develop a love of reading, and math, and logic puzzles. When I went to college and needed to pick a major, I settled on engineering, because even though I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an engineer, I knew engineers used math and science to solve problems. In college I was introduced to the field of environmental engineering, and that felt like my calling.

Environmental engineering is a broad field. It can involve trying to prevent climate change, designing safeguards so that chemical plants shouldn’t catch fire even in natural disasters, or redesigning our consumer products so that they are less toxic in the first place. My niche is investigating and cleaning up after chemical spills, especially when chemicals have seeped into the soil, and groundwater. Read more →

The Summer of Love: The Broken-Open Heart

Lessons, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Mark 8:34-36

In the romantic comedy, “The Wedding Singer,”[1] Adam Sandler plays Robbie, a wedding singer in the 1980’s when bands, rather than disc jockeys, were fixtures at wedding receptions. Robbie loves his work, but then he’s left standing at the altar at his own wedding. His pain and anger at being jilted spill over his next wedding gig, where he startles the newlyweds by serenading them with the J. Geils Band rant against unrequited love, “Love Stinks.”[2]

I thought about naming this sermon, “Love Stinks.” After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Anyone who has lost a loved one knows this. For that matter, anyone who’s been a parent, or who’s been married more than a couple of years, or who’s tried to get along with a sibling or a co-worker – anyone who has tried to love anyone knows this. First Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous chapter on love, is usually read at weddings, and in that setting of high hopes and romance, the passage sounds romantic. “Love is kind … Love never ends,” Hallmark card stuff. A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to read First Corinthians 13 at a memorial service. That knocks the hearts and cupids off of this passage. When you’re reflecting back over a life, you can see the hard work of love in tough times. Read more →

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 →