Religion and Rules


Lesson: Luke 13:10-17

The closing ceremony for the 2016 Olympics is tonight, and I, for one, am sad. I’ll miss the breathtaking daring of the gymnastics; the excitement of a sprint; the sheer skill, effort and dedication of the athletes, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.[1] Especially this year, when it not only gives us a break from the presidential campaign news but also lifts up values sometimes missing in that campaign, values such as international cooperation and friendship, and good sportsmanship.

I’ve been intrigued by some of the Olympic’s arcane rules. Did you know that a false start in a track race results in automatic disqualification? Talk about heartbreaking. You prepare for years to get to the Olympics; one false start and it’s over. You go home without even running the race. Anyone in the pressure of the moment, with the whole world watching, could make a mistake like jumping the gun. It happened to several runners this year and it even happened to Usain Bolt in a world championship in 2011. So I looked it up. It used to be that one false start resulted in a warning to all the runners. Anyone in the same race who jumped the gun a second time would be disqualified, even if it wasn’t the first offender. But what was happening was that slower runners would jump the gun on purpose to throw off everyone else’s timing and give themselves an edge.[2] So in 2010, they changed the rule.[3]

So there’s a good reason for this harsh rule. In today’s passage in Luke, Jesus is confronted with a rule that, in this context, seems harsh. The disagreement arises when a woman with a debilitating spinal condition shows up on a Sabbath while Jesus is teaching. Jesus sees her, touches her, heals her. The indignant religious leader fumes: “There are six days on which work ought to be done.” He’s referring to the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”[4] Read more →

Interpreting the Present


Lesson: Luke 12:49-56

I’d guess many if not most of you were a little uneasy about saying, “Thanks be to God” in response to this particular Scripture passage. With what’s going on in our world in general and in the presidential campaign in particular, it seems as though the last thing we need is a gospel text that encourages more division. This is not a reading for Sunday school. It’s not a reading that offers comfort. But hang with me here. Jesus did not have an evil twin or suddenly get a personality transplant. This is the same Jesus who reminded us that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.[1]

First of all, Jesus is frustrated. He says as much, and if nothing else, this passage shows Jesus responding to stress in a very human way, a way with which most of us can identify. He says he has work to do and he’s under incredible stress to complete it in the time he has left. Who wouldn’t be frustrated? Now, does that mean Jesus knew for sure he was going to be arrested and crucified? Maybe, or maybe it just means he knew the risks of putting love of God and love of neighbor first. Read more →

Just Beyond Our Grasp


Lesson: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

“Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”  ~ Frederick Buechner

Today, a day we celebrate both sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, is a terrific day to talk about faith. We’ve just recited beliefs together, as part of the baptism. We used to say the Apostles’ Creed when we celebrated Baptism and received new members. Some of you know the Apostles’ Creed by heart, but if you’re not familiar with it, it’s at page 35 in the front of our hymnals. A church member told me that years ago, one of the former pastors of this church led an adult education series on the Apostles’ Creed. At one point, the pastor read through the creed, line by line. With each line, he invited people to raise their hands if they believed it. Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? Do you believe that God was the creator of heaven and earth? And so on. What was astounding, said the church member, was the number of times that long time church members, faithful church folks, did not raise their hands.

That’s because faith and belief are not the same thing. People often confuse them. A belief is an intellectual acceptance of God, or believing certain doctrines are true. Those beliefs may be good, and important, but belief isn’t all there is to faith, and isn’t the most important aspect of faith. There’s even a way that belief can get in the way of faith. When people are very attached to what they believe about God, they can begin to think that their beliefs define the limits of God. Which is nothing short of audacious. As if God will fit into the box we’ve imagined for God. What tends to happen then is that people fight over the shape and size of the boxes they’ve imagined. Take baptism, for example. Some believe you should only baptize those capable of choosing to be baptized, so, never infants or children. Some would say only full immersion “counts” as a real baptism. People have had big fights over this; churches have split over it. I can’t imagine that’s what God intends. Because if we look at the stories in Scripture, we’ll see that God won’t be hemmed in by our expectations and beliefs. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “The Bible is one long story about how God demolishes human beliefs in order to clear space for faith.” Read more →

Where is Your Trust?

Today’s sermon was preached by Patrick Kiptum, a student at the San Francisco Theological Seminary and out seminary intern

As we walk through life, what is our perspective? What lens do we use to view the world? In our society, some would argue that we have been polarized between a biblical worldview and a scientific worldview. There are those who want us to trust in science, and leave God out of the picture, and those who want us to trust in the God of the Bible and leave science out of the picture. I am not against science at all; I see no conflict between science and scripture. My aim is to talk about where our ultimate trust is placed, and what Jesus is trying to teach in this parable.

Jesus in this parable of the rich farmer is teaching us to have a larger perspective in life. He is describing where we can have our frame of reference in our walk in life. He is teaching us where we can place our trust. This parable arose because someone in the crowd asked Jesus a question. This person asked Jesus if he could help to solve a problem that as arisen between him and his brother over the splitting of their inheritance.

We are not given any information in regards to his brother. We do not know if his brother is older or younger. Neither are we given his name. We do not know how large of an inheritance is involved. Some believe the person asking the question is older, and the older brother should get double the inheritance. Yet we do not know if this man asking the question got any of the inheritance. Did he get some, and now he wants more? We do not know. What we know is that Jesus answered him.

But Jesus, instead of answering yes or no, answered with a question. Who made me a judge? Jesus goes on to warn his disciples   “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  The word greed in Greek is πλεονεξίας (pleoneksía), which comes from the word pleíōn, which means to desire more. Jesus is warning his disciples to avoid excessive desire of possessions. To explain what he means by excessive desire of possession, Jesus tells them a parable.

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4 Versions of the Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer
4 versions based on Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4
(Also see sermon “Teach Us To Pray” from Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ground of all being,
Mother of life, Father of the universe,
Your name is sacred, beyond speaking.
May we know your presence,
may your longings be our longings in heart and in action.
May there be food for the human family today
and for the whole earth community.
Forgive us the falseness of what we have done
as we forgive those who are untrue to us.
Do not forsake us in our time of conflict
but lead us into new beginnings.
For the light of life, the vitality of life,
and the glory of life are yours now and for ever. Amen.
~The Casa del Sol Prayer of Jesus, The Rev. Dr. J. Philip Newell

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Teach Us How To Pray


Lesson: Luke 11:1-13

One of my favorite prayers, one that I’ve recited numerous times over the years, goes something like this…
Dear Lord,
So far I’ve done all right.
I haven’t gossiped,
haven’t lost my temper,
haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God,
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on,
I’m going to need a lot more help.[i]

The prayer I probably say the most is very similar to Anne LaMotte’s “Help me. Help me. Help me. Now. Now. Now.” This morning our scripture includes possibly the most famous prayer of our tradition, what has become to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” It begins with the disciples asking Jesus about how to pray. Jesus responds with this prayer. It is one of two places where this prayer is recorded in our scriptures, the other being the gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s version has a few more lines and a little closer to the Lord’s Prayer we all probably know by heart.

You may wonder what is so special about this prayer? Well, it is the only time Jesus gives instructions on how to pray. Jesus prays quite a bit in the gospel of Luke. Luke records that Jesus prays here and there, after this event and so forth, but this is the only passage where we learn a little bit about how Jesus prays. We call it the Lord’s Prayer because our Lord, Jesus, taught it to the disciples. The direct connection to Jesus gives it an extra importance and spiritual weight, if you will. It is one of the actions we can participate in along with him and the ancient disciples.

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Mary vs. Martha?

Detail Mary and Martha

Lesson: Luke 10:38-42

As a child, the Bell side of our family lived close enough to gather for big family dinners at holidays and birthdays and sometimes just for fun. Typically we would all gather at my grandmother’s home which was just large enough for most of the women to talk and work in the kitchen, the men to sit in the living room, and the cousins to divide ourselves among the parlor and office to play. I would like to note that if you didn’t help cook, you had to clean which meant the guys scrubbed all the dishes.

As child I would play with my cousins until the meal was served. There were eight of us and I was the third in birth order. But really, my oldest cousin was 4-5 years older than I so it felt to me like my cousin who was ten months older was the leader of the pack, so to speak.

At some point this cousin was asked to help put drinks on the table for the rest of the children. I remember thinking I was glad it was her and not me because I could keep playing. But, then there was a point, Read more →

Who Is My Neighbor?

Lesson: Luke 10:25-37

This morning’s parable is familiar, and even beloved. Many of us learned it in Sunday school, and practically know it by heart. A man was robbed and was left for dead; a priest and a Levite pass right by; and a Samaritan stops and helps. The Samaritan, showing mercy, shows us how to be a neighbor. We should do likewise. But is that it? Certainly there’s nothing wrong with reading the Good Samaritan parable as a “Go and do likewise” kind of story. After all, we are called as Christ’s disciples to imitate him, and so to help, to show concern, and to offer compassionate care to those in need. The Good Samaritan offers us a beautiful example to follow.

Or did Jesus have something more provocative in mind? When I was in seminary, I learned that while myths and fables “create” worlds, in other words, create a framework for why the world around us makes sense, parables “explode” worlds. A parable is supposed to turn our current understanding of the way things work on its head. We’re not supposed to read it, nod agreeably, and walk away comforted.

So what is it in this parable that explodes worlds? A lawyer approaches Jesus with a million dollar question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Inheriting eternal life” is not just another way of saying “What must I do to go to heaven?” We could translate this, “What could I do to be really alive, so that my life is not a life for death, but a life for life, a life forever?”[1] The lawyer is saying, “Show me the good stuff, Jesus. Show me the path to the life of God.” Read more →

The Kindness of Strangers

Lesson: Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

The title of this morning’s sermon comes from the most famous line in Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Blanche DuBois speaks the line at the end of the play as she’s being led away to a mental institution following a breakdown. It’s supposed to signal to us that Blanche has slipped further into a fantasy world she always inhabited to some extent. She has always had to rely on the kindness of others, and thereby give up some control over her life, because she’s always been out of touch with reality.

Which makes relying on the kindness of strangers sound like not such a good thing – a vulnerability we might like to avoid. Maybe even out of touch with reality. And yet in today’s passage in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers that’s exactly what they must do. He’s sent them out to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God “has come near”[1] – in other words, that the reality of life lived as though God is the ruler of our hearts and minds is available now. He instructs them to take nothing with them, so they have to rely entirely upon the hospitality and generosity of others for their meals, for a place to stay, for everything.

If Jesus really is sending out these 70 disciples as lambs in the midst of wolves, shouldn’t they be more outfitted, not less?[2] Why, in a potentially hostile environment, would you make the sharing of God’s peace so unavoidably reliant on the kindness of strangers? Don’t Jesus’ instructions seem more than a little out of touch with reality? Read more →

Drop Everything


Lesson: Luke 9:51-62

Nearly every Sunday for several years now, we include in our morning announcements an invitation that goes something like this: “Wherever you are in your faith journey, there is a place for you here at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo.” What we mean to communicate is that we recognize that people come into this sanctuary from different faith backgrounds and from no faith background; some know exactly what they believe and some aren’t sure; some aren’t sure they want to believe anything but maybe they’re curious. Maybe they like the feeling of community, or they like that we host a shelter during the winter, or have a great choir, or tackle justice issues like anti-torture, which you can learn about following worship today.

Belief can be hard and it’s worth acknowledging that. So when we say, “Wherever you are in your faith journey, there’s a place for you here,” we’re saying we welcome both believers and skeptics to process their doubts and beliefs here. And let me be really clear about one thing we are not saying. We are not saying, “We want you to hang around here long enough that you come to believe exactly that way the rest of us do.” For starters, if there are 150 people in this sanctuary this morning there are probably 150 ways of believing, too. So there is no lock-step approach to faith here.

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