Tabitha, Get Up!


Lesson: Acts 9:36-43

I learned about the poet, Billy Collins, at a memorial service for one of our dear departed saints – a saint not unlike Tabitha in today’s passage in Acts, a woman who was devoted to doing good works for this community and for the world beyond; a woman, like so many other people in our community, that we mourned as irreplaceable. One of her granddaughters read a Collins poem during the service. Billy Collins is an American poet, and he teaches poetry, as well. In one of his poems, called “Introduction to Poetry,” he describes the frustration of a poet trying to teach non-poets how to read a poem. I won’t read the whole poem, but it includes these lines:

“I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.”


Then Collins expresses his exasperation with his students:


“But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.”[1]


Today’s story in Acts reminded me of this poem. The account of the raising of Tabitha is a short but enigmatic and challenging. For starters, someone is brought back to life after having died; and not even by Jesus, for crying out loud, but rather, by Peter. It’s a tough miracle to swallow. In our scientific age, we’re tempted either to come up with a rational explanation for such biblical miracles, or to dismiss a passage as pointless. For example, I ran across an article detailing the scientific evidence that Jesus might have been walking on barely detectable patches of ice when he was described as “walking on water.”[2] I don’t discourage any inquiry, really, especially if it helps someone’s faith, but the biblical writers weren’t worried about science. They cared about what they remembered, and they cared what God was saying to them. Our task, today, is to figure out how God is still speaking through this story, the story the community remembered, without tying it to a chair and beating a confession out of it. Read more →

The News from San Anselmo 2016


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. It’s April; it’s the season of wildflowers and we’re enjoying an abundance of wildflowers, thanks to El Niño. The poppies are magnificent, especially against brilliant green hills. It seems those hills haven’t been this green in a long time.

Did you notice that even during the worst of the draught, no one ever said, “Drink less coffee; it’ll save water”? Like most Marin County towns, San Anselmo not only has an abundance of wildflowers but an abundance of coffee options. You pass a coffee place about every fifty feet or so on San Anselmo Avenue. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but only slight. A person’s choice of coffee place has more to do with instinct and other mysterious unconscious factors than with reason. There’s the classic Marin Coffee Roasters, right in the middle of downtown. It’s been the destination of weekend bicyclists since before it moved from down the street. Or you could choose San Anselmo Coffee Roasters at the north end of downtown. The owner chose the name intentionally to confuse patrons of Marin Coffee Roasters. Why he chose the 1973 time warp décor remains a mystery, however. Read more →

Held Fast: The Room Where It Happened


Lesson: Luke 24:1-12

This past winter, I made a deal with our daughters that if they read a book I thought was important, I’d listen to the soundtrack of the Broadway show, “Hamilton,” which they thought was important. They read the book, and I downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes, and while they found the book moderately useful, I found myself absolutely hooked on “Hamilton.”[1] “Hamilton” is the Grammy-winning Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton – yes, that Hamilton, the one on the ten dollar bill. It’s a highly entertaining history lesson set to irresistible rap music – yes, rap music. I’ve learned more about the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution from “Hamilton” than I did from any of my U.S. history classes.

This morning’s sermon title comes from a song from “Hamilton.” In 1790, Virginians Jefferson and Madison opposed young Treasury Secretary Hamilton on just about every issue, but in particular, they staunchly objected to his financial plan for the new nation. It was good for the North, where Hamilton lived, but bad for the South. Then over dinner one night, the three reached a compromise: Jefferson and Madison would support Hamilton’s economic proposal, and somehow, thrown into the deal, the nation’s capital would move from New York City to the banks of the Potomac – closer to home for the Virginians. No one knows exactly what took place to change the minds of these three strong-minded men with seemingly intractable opinions. No one knows the conversation, the trades offered or the chess pieces sacrificed, so to speak. It’s all a mystery because, as the song says, “No one else was in the room where it happened.”

Isn’t that where we find ourselves on Easter? We have no firsthand account of the resurrection itself; no one witnessed the first gasp for breath or the shudder of limbs as a heart beat once more. No one was with Jesus when he shrugged off the linen cloth and stepped out of the tomb. No one saw it happen. No one else was in the room where it happened. Read more →

Held Fast: Blessings

Three young men walking together on a field

Lesson: Luke 19:28-42

I, like many Americans this week, was drawn into a reality-show like drama based in the DC area. No, I’m not talking politics. I’m referring to the live video feed from the American Eagle Foundation. A pair of bald eagles nested in the National Arboretum and people around the world have tuned in to two, high definition video cameras streaming 24/7 coverage as watchers counted down for two eggs to hatch.[i] And hatch they did! The first eaglet came out of his/her shell Friday and the second hatched earlier this morning. I don’t mind telling you…they are cute!

I have not been glued to the screen, because birds sitting in a nest do not make for good TV. However, the anticipation and communal joy of reading tweets (#dceaglecam), posts on Facebook, and seeing coverage by not once but twice(!) is more than a nice break from the political saga storming my inbox and my brain these last few months.

Read more →

Held Fast: Compassionate


Lesson: John 12:1-8

Things start normally enough in this morning’s passage in John’s gospel: just a dinner party with good friends – except for the remarkably abnormal fact that one of the hosts is Lazarus, recently resuscitated after having been dead for three days. And except for the fact that it’s an odd time to throw a party. The raising of Lazarus is a turning point in John’s gospel. The authorities realize that when the news about Lazarus gets around, even more people will follow Jesus. They’ll think he’s some sort of savior and if that happens, the Romans will wreak havoc on everyone. “We’ve got to put a stop to this; better to have one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed,”[1] they decide.   So they begin plotting his death. Passover is coming up; everyone will be in Jerusalem. The authorities plan to grab Jesus when he shows up for the festival.[2]   Jesus’ days are numbered, and he knows it.

Maybe, after all, that’s the perfect time to shut out the world for a night and enjoy the people you love. So Jesus dines in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, with his dearest friends: Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. At some point in the evening, without explanation, Mary breaks open a bottle of nard,[3] an incredibly expensive perfumed ointment. Mary lets her hair down in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does.[4]   She pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, not his head. If you’re going to anoint someone, the head is the place to do it. She touches him – a single woman touching a single man’s feet – not done, not even among friends.[5]   Then in the oddest move of all she wipes off the perfume with her hair.

Oh. My. Gosh. Is anyone else a little bit uncomfortable with this? Or – a lot? I mean, maybe she is overwhelmed with gratitude for what Jesus did for their brother,[6] but the whole incident is not only one of excess but of eroticism. We have to be in utter denial to pretend there’s nothing going on here, at least as far as Mary’s concerned. Just exactly what isn’t clear, but Mary has stepped far outside the bounds of convention, teetering on the edge of scandal.[7] Read more →

Held Fast: Forgiven


Lesson: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of my all-time favorite Scripture passages. Many people love it; but sometimes familiarity gets in the way of understanding a parable. One of my professors used to say that while a myth is the kind of story that builds a world, a parable explodes worlds, blows to bits the way we think things ought to work. If we don’t feel a bit like heading for the bunkers after we’ve heard it, then we’re not dealing with a real, live parable.

The story begins as Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with the wrong kind of people: sinners, tax collectors, outcasts. In Jesus’ day, this was a critical, religious issue, but it looks to the Pharisees as though Jesus doesn’t care. In those days, sinners fell into five basic categories. There were the people in unacceptable occupations, like tax collectors, who worked for the Romans and benefitted from graft and corruption. Next there were people who did immoral things; O.K., fair enough. Then there were Samaritans and Gentiles – you could be a sinner just by being born into the wrong culture. Finally there were people who didn’t keep the law to the rigorous standards of the religious authorities – which included most of the ordinary working folks who just didn’t have the luxury of being able to sit around debating the finer points of religious law all day long.[1] The question for us, and Explosion Number 1 of this parable, is this: Putting aside the first century definitions of who was a sinner, who would you be scandalized to see having breakfast with Jesus at Hilda’s? An ex-convict? Your ex-spouse? A terrorist? Someone in human trafficking? Someone currently running for President? The relative who made off with Grandma’s silver tea service an hour after she died, the guy who bullied you every day all through middle school? Whose name is crossed off your guest list forever? That’s who’s at the table. Read more →

Held Fast: Trusting


Lesson: Isaiah 55:1-9

There is an old story (perhaps you’ve heard it) of a little boy whose mom asked him to go to the back porch and get the broom. It was dark and the little boy was scared. The mom said, “it’s all right; you can trust that Jesus is always with you.” To which the little boy responded as he opened the kitchen door, “Psst, Jesus, hand me the broom.”[i] The faith of a child: bold, sincere, and literal. It’s both refreshing and understandable.

As I worked on my sermon this week, I was also preparing for our middle school youth to cook and serve at this Friday’s REST shelter. I kept wondering how this morning’s passage of God calling to the people of Israel to come and eat, trust and all will be provided might resonate to one of our homeless brothers or sisters? I wondered if it would be soothing? Or, might it be off-putting? Does Isaiah or God have some explaining to do? Do I? Would the people the words were originally spoken to have wondered whether God was promising a literal dinner or a spiritual one? Where would they have placed their trust?

We could break down the metaphor and discuss it’s meaning in ancient days, but I’d rather stick with the question of trust. Jesus isn’t standing around handing us brooms. God isn’t taking our lunch orders precisely. So what might it mean to trust God to take care of our needs? What might faith look or feel like today?

Another way to approach this question would be to ask, what is the opposite of faith, trust, or belief? How might we know if it’s missing? The most interesting answer I’ve come up with suggests that the opposite of faith or trust is not certainty, but rather anxiety. The philosopher Kierkegaard says that faith is like floating in a vast body of water. If we are anxious and fearful, we thrash around and eventually sink and drown. But, if we trust that the water will keep us up, we float.[ii] How do we learn to trust the water? Practice? Deep breaths? Prayer? And, more prayer? And, more prayer? How do we trust the water when life feels like a tempest rages and the waters are far from calm? What does it take for us to relax, trust, and let God hold us?

An old friend of mine, Chef Mandy, plans to open a sustainable café called, “Big, Big Table.” (Yes, she gave me permission to share her story with you today.) The café’s name comes from the lyrics to a very popular Christian pop song from our youth. The chorus goes like this: “Come and go with me, to my Father’s House. It’s a big, big house, with lots and lots of room. A big, big table with lots and lots of food. (There were hand motions…) A big, big yard, where we can play football. A big, big house, it’s my father’s house!” [iii] The image of a big, big table stayed with her and now Mandy’s love for cooking, church and community has a focus and a name.

Mandy’s business model is deceptively simple: come, eat, be filled, and pay what you can. She is part of a growing movement called Community Cafés who are dedicated to a pay what you can economy. The website name clearly states their mission: The group is a loose affiliation of café’s that share their best practices. The network extends all over the United States with planned expansions all over the world including Hebron, Palestine, and Oakland, CA. Big, Big Table, is planned for northern New York state where Mandy and her family live. Chef Mandy has received enough in-kind donations to outfit the kitchen and the dining area. She’s spoken with chefs and restaurants that are willing to donate food at the end of the night so that Mandy can repurpose it for her cafe the next day. This not only cuts down on food waste and costs it will also keep Mandy on her culinary toes. The menu will feature a few staples such as quesadillas, but what’s between the tortillas and cheese will rotate depending on donations and what’s available from local farmers…It’s a restaurant and farm to table café.

Patrons are welcome to contribute in whatever ways work for them. Showing up to eat and to be part of the community is enough. Suggested donations are appreciated. Volunteering some time to help out organizing or cleaning is also encouraged. The café depends on people giving, as they are willing and able. The goal is to feed people’s spirits as well as their bodies.

Despite the good will she’s cooked up, Mandy has numerous unforeseen complications to getting her café off the ground. You see, a few years ago Mandy was diagnosed with a very rare neurological disorder similar to and yet different from multiple sclerosis. Two years ago she was in and out of the hospital. A year ago she was in a wheelchair. She was in town a few weeks ago. As I walked in the room, she proudly stood up to greet me and gave me a hug. Then she sat back down and continued making cookies as we chatted. Mandy’s thirties are not what she had envisioned for herself. And she wonders, not just about the future, but about how to get through each day. She told me that, “Right now she’s literally and figuratively learning to walk again.” Yet the vision of the café helps keep her going. I mentioned the floating image to her and asked about what helps her trust God to keep going.

Mandy proudly showed me her new tattoos on the inside of each forearm. One is a spoon and the other a fork. They are images of the serving utensils her father and stepmother used to teach her how to cook as a child. She literally took these utensils into the parlor so that the artist would be able to copy the details. She said they remind her of her family and of relationships that have fed and nourished her. Indeed the love that was poured into her has been giving back in the form of delicious treats and hearty meals for family and friends for years.

At the bottom of the fork, there’s a Biblical verse, “Feed my sheep.” The words are written facing toward her so that she can read it as a prayer. This was an intentional decision because she knew she would need a steady reminder. These three words have become a prayer mantra of sorts that brings her back to her purpose and give her a sense of calm throughout her day. It lessons her anxiety and helps her float.

Life throws hard curves. Innocent people fall prey to illness, tragedy, and unjust systems. People go to bed hungry – even here in northern California. And in the midst of all the chaos and pain, we hear God calling out in love, asking us to trust, offering nourishment, and inviting us to rest in God’s gentle embrace. “Almost nothing is more difficult for (some of) us to imagine than something coming from nothing. Yet isn’t that the exact signature of the presence of God, the Creator of all things.”[iv] Lent is a time of letting go and being held in our awareness of God’s vast abundance. We are called to “feed God’s sheep” but in Lent we give ourselves special permission to allow ourselves to be fed, too. We cannot put a price on the gifts God offers, so may we turn away from the things that leave us hungry and anxious, and toward that which is good and rich—that which can satisfy.[v] May it be so for you and for me! Amen.

© Diana C. Bell, 2016


Image: Nicky Daly; Newbury, Berkshire, UK; courtesy of Getty

[i] Fletcher, Judy Record, “Stormy Water – Faith” Horizon’s Come to the Water Bible Study p. 43.
[ii] As introduced by Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian p. 122.
[iii] Audio Adrenaline, 1993.
[iv] Allen, James. “Lectionary column for Sunday, March 3, 2013” The Christian Century. Feb 19, 2013.
[v] Heath, Emily “Lectionary column for February 28, 2016.” The Christian Century. Feb 9, 2016.

Held Fast: Courage


Lessons: Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

Yet another superhero movie opened last week, the definitely-not-for-families[1] film, “Deadpool.” Apparently at least 63 new comic superhero movies are planned for release in the next 3 years.[2] It makes me wonder: What is this obsession with superheroes? With so much going on in the world – acts of terrorism at home and abroad, struggles over immigration and refugees, wide-spread poverty, global climate change and this crazy campaign season, are people feeling especially powerless right now? I guess it’s understandable, isn’t it, that folks want to sit back with a $25 small bucket of popcorn and feel safe, knowing they’re in good hands? Knowing that the bad guys will lose, and not just lose but be totally annihilated? Maybe we can’t control what’s going on in the world but Batman and Superman can, and they will.

What a contrast to our story in Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus displays a very different kind of heroism, a different kind of courage. The Pharisees warn Jesus to go into hiding because Herod is out for his blood. We don’t know what motivates these particular Pharisees. Are they really concerned about Jesus, or are they trying to scare him off? We do know that Herod kills the people he finds inconvenient.[3] We also know that Jesus refuses to run. He’s very direct: Go and tell that fox I’m going to keep right on healing people until I finish on the third day. Luke’s early readers would understand this as a reference to resurrection; his work won’t be done until then. In the meantime, Jesus is heading into Jerusalem, knowing that spells danger. Read more →

Held Fast: Enough

Daughter hugging her mom

Lesson: Luke 4:1-13

I ran across one of those funny but not-so-funny-at-all-when-you-think-about-it New Yorker cartoons last week. A man is standing in a broken down city – presumably Baghdad – wearing an “I love USA” T-shirt. The caption says, “Liberated Iraqi.” The cartoon bubbles coming from his head show us he is thinking thoughts like, “Is my breath OK? Am I gaining too much weight,” “Do I need a new car?” “Am I losing my hair?” “Are my teeth white enough?” “Is my deodorant letting me down?” and “What’s on TV?[1]

Ouch. The cartoon pokes fun at or maybe sheds painful light on our culture’s “never enough” problem. Brené Brown writes that people cover their faces with their hands, and say “shut up” or “get out of my head” when she asks them to fill in this blank: “Never [blank] enough.” It takes only a few seconds before people fill in the blank with their own sense of “never enough”:

  • Never good enough
  • Never perfect enough
  • Never thin enough
  • Never powerful enough
  • Never successful enough
  • Never smart enough
  • Never certain enough
  • Never safe enough
  • Never extraordinary enough[2]

Brown says we live with this sense of scarcity for a handful of reasons. We learn it in our families and we’re often comparing our lives to unattainable, media-driven visions of perfection, or to our own made up story about how great someone else has it. Brown says that worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD. It happens when we’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.[3]

Angry and scared and at each other’s throats. As I said to the folks who were here on Ash Wednesday, when our worship planning team met to plan Lent, this is what was on people’s hearts. Looking around at the world in which we live in 2016, the loudest voices seem to be speaking from a place of fear and anger. And so we talked about how we as people of faith might respond faithfully. We know we don’t want to be swept up in the fear and anger. So how do we face life with courage, integrity, faith, compassion – with wholeheartedness – instead of with “lock and load”? Read more →

Listen to Him


Lesson: Luke 9:28-36

Our Scripture passage today is Luke’s version of the highly symbolic story called the Transfiguration. Luke’s account is nearly identical to those in Matthew[1] and Mark.[2] We’re far enough into the gospel that Jesus’ ministry is causing quite a stir. Jesus has told the disciples about the challenges ahead in Jerusalem, and now he takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. While in prayer, Jesus’ face is transformed and his clothes become dazzling white. The glory of God shines forth from him.

Then Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets, and they speak with Jesus about what will happen in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel is the only version that tells us what they discuss: they speak of Jesus’ death – his departure – the word in Greek is exodus. Like the exodus from slavery in Egypt, this new exodus also will lead God’s people to freedom: freedom from slavery to sin and death.

The disciples shake off their drowsiness and Peter suggests they capture this Kodak moment by setting up three tents. But the gospel writer tells us Peter doesn’t get it. He wants to hold onto the moment of glory or enshrine the three shining figures, but God intervenes, terrifying the disciples in the process. God announces from a cloud, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” Our response to this glory, this mystery, this announcement that Jesus is God’s chosen, is to listen to him.

Listen to him. This sounds easy enough, right? David Lose says, “I like the fact that God doesn’t say, ‘Become exactly like Jesus,’ or ‘Take up your cross.’ Just, ‘Listen to him.’ Now, see, that’s something I can probably do. I can do that. I can listen. That’s something we can all do.”[3]

But – maybe it’s not as easy as it sounds. Think about listening to someone who contradicts some of your treasured beliefs. Think of something you feel very strongly about, something you don’t want to let go. Think of our current political climate. Read more →