We All Have Questions: Where Is the Spirit?


Lessons: Galatians 5:22-23; John 14:15-17

My ninth grade English teacher, Miss Hall, seemed to me to be about a hundred years old. She wore old lady dresses and old lady shoes and had old lady hair. It was years later I realized she couldn’t have been much older than in her mid-sixties, which gets younger every day. Whatever age she was, Miss Hall was definitely old school. She’d made it her crusade to teach serious, hardcore grammar, spelling and – believe it or not – penmanship. I come from a family that’s probably already too attached to grammar. The other day I almost bought one of my siblings a t-shirt that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” But Miss Hall taught me things I did not know. The conditional tense. The use of the possessive with gerunds. I know; I’ve already lost most of you.

Miss Hall had us memorize grammar and spelling rules, and carefully write them in our best penmanship. We also had to memorize and write lists of words, the longest being the list of prepositions. For those of you who haven’t thought about the parts of speech for a couple of decades, in simplest terms, a preposition is a locater word. It tells you where something is in space or time. The alphabetical list of prepositions began with “aboard, about, above, across, after, against …” and ended with “…up, upon, with, within, without.”

I hadn’t thought about this list of prepositions for a long time, until, in response to our inviting people to bring us their faith questions, a church member asked, “Where is the Holy Spirit?” Read more →

We All Have Questions: Why Do We Pray?


Lessons: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-26; Philippians 4:4-7

You are in my prayers. Please pray for me. Let us pray. These words trip easily off our tongues in the church. Praying is what we do. Prayer and Scripture are the pillars of our worship and much our life together.

And yet, I probably hear more questions about prayer than any other spiritual issue. Behind these questions lie our beliefs about what prayer is. Most people think of prayer as asking God for something. Our Scripture passages today support this. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In the First Thessalonians passage, he writes, “Beloved, pray for us,” meaning something like, “Pray for our well-being, for our ministry, for our ability to persevere.”

The challenge in looking at prayer as asking for something is that is raises more questions than it answers. Doesn’t God already know what we need? Doesn’t this kind of prayer assume God is some kind of Wizard of Oz, or some kind of divine jukebox: plug in your prayer instead of a quarter, and get your wish? What about all those people praying their hearts out who don’t get the job, don’t get cured of cancer, don’t avoid foreclosure, don’t manage to keep their kids off drugs? What about all the people whose lives are scarred by terrorism, wildfire, earthquake, warfare? Did they just not pray hard enough? As a philosophy professor once put it, “If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant.”[1] Read more →

Doubts with a Cherry on Top


Lesson: 1 Corinthians 13:9-13

Today’s sermon was a conversation between our two pastors about their questions and doubts about faith. It is the introduction to our fall sermon series, “We All Have Questions.”

We welcome your questions!

Together we serve,
Joanne and Diana

Image credit: Zechariah Judy, “ice cream Sunday” 2010

My Labor, My Work, My Ministry

On the Sunday before Labor Day, we hear from people in our community of faith about how they respond to God’s calling in their work. Our speakers this year were Dale Steinmann, Sharon LeClaire, and Chuck Wright.

Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-7

Dale Steinmann, Marin’s Math Mentor

A while back I walked through those doors with two little girls in tow. They had just turned age two and four.  Those little girls are now 23 and 25.  Maggie has just moved to Boston where she is embarking on a Masters of Nursing program.  Carter graduated from Mills College last year, she is gainfully employed, supporting herself, and enjoying the life of an urban hipster in Oakland.  I want to thank all of you for being their church family and helping me in my efforts to be a good Dad as they were growing up.  Since we are here to talk about vocations, I am very clear on the fact that raising those children was the most important work I will ever do in my life.   Certainly the most important God-centered work I will ever do.  I realize how blessed I am to have two grown children who still like me, most of the time, and still make time for me in their lives.

On the topic of important work in which I have been involved, I would like to mention that for over a year I invested every Monday night in the Pastoral Nominating Committee that called Rev. Whitt to our pulpit.  I am as proud of that work as any I have done.  I would also like to say to my sisters and brothers on the committee and Chairman Phil Heinecke, thanks for putting up with my contrary opinions on all those Monday nights.

Read more →

A Piercing Quiet


Lesson: 1 Kings 19:1-15a

First a note about the story I’m about to read from our scriptures. I think you may appreciate a bit of background. Elijah is a prophet of God who lives in the kingdom of Israel. The prophet Elijah is like the Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt of prophets. He is the best of the best and just swept the medals at the religious Olympics – no one came close to matching what he and God can do. Case in point, the story that leads into today’s passage.

King Ahab is the current ruler in the Israelite kingdom and part of his job is to ensure that all the people are following God appropriately. However, King Ahab took Jezebel, a princess from another land, to be his queen. Part of their marriage agreement was that she would bring her own prophets and would worship her own god, named Baal. This was not good news to Elijah or to God. The religions clashed. Read more →

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.

Read more →

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

Read more →