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 →

Marin’s Best Kept Secret

Lesson: Matthew 5:14-16

If you google “Marin’s best kept secret” you’ll find lists of things you’ve probably already heard of, especially if you’ve been in Marin a few years. Things like the statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones in Imagination Park, and Phoenix Lake. The one thing I came across I actually hadn’t heard of was “the hippie tree” in Tiburon. It’s a big eucalyptus up the hill from St. Hillary’s School, with a wooden swing. How does a swing turn a tree on a hillside into a “hippie tree”? Beats me. Maybe that’s the part that’s the secret.

There are, in fact, bigger secrets in Marin than the hippie tree or Phoenix Lake. Like this congregation, for instance. Oh, I know we’re not literally secret. We’re right here on the corner of Kensington at Ross and Mariposa big as life. Although – I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but you have to be standing right on Kensington looking at the front of the sanctuary to know this is First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo. There are no signs on Ross or Mariposa that would give you a clue what we are – or welcome you in – and we need to fix that. And you’ve probably noticed that we’re tucked away back here in this sleepy neighborhood. I’ve told people who’ve been in Marin for years what church I pastor, and they have no clue where it is until I say, “You know those castle-like buildings on the hill in San Anselmo? Well, down the hill from that.” Read more →

Remember the Punch Line

Today’s sermon was preached by The Rev. Louise Conant

…Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

—Lk 24: 27

Easter was only two weeks ago, but that can seem like a long time. We’ve eaten the last scraps of ham, and the Easter lilies have turned brown, and it can be hard to remember what all that glory was about. The good news of Easter is so enormous that we just can’t take it all in. Like Jesus’ first followers, we have a story to tell, but we may struggle to make sense of it. What was that? And what can it possibly mean?

And so our readings give us several weeks after Easter to live with that good news, to come at it in different ways and try to figure out what it has to do with us. This week we have the story of the road to Emmaus, as one piece of the post-Easter puzzle. And of all the congregations I know, this is the one that least needs the sermon I’m about to offer you. Last week was our annual “Holy Humor Sunday.” Maybe the best one yet. So in a sense, you already know what I’m about to tell you. But this year, of all years, it needs to be said again and again. So: Holy Humor, chapter 2.

Beginning with my mother-in-law.

She was in many respects a bright and competent woman. And she loved to laugh, and loved to tell jokes. But she could never remember the punch line.

She’d give us the setting, and the characters, and part of the story. But then her eyes would glaze over, and she’d say, “I can’t remember what comes next.”

I think that’s often our problem too. We forget the punch line. And that’s easy to do these days, in this season. The events before that first Easter had no humor in them at all. They were full of terror, betrayal, terrible pain and loss, the sky going dark. And sometimes it seems that we’re now living in a time like that. Much of what we’d hoped and prayed for, much of what has been built over time, is at risk. Justice and mercy and the freedoms we’ve cherished are in question, all over the world. There’s nothing funny about any of that.

But here is a wild idea: that when Jesus meets two grieving followers on the road, what he does is to draw them into a great, glorious joke.

In general, f you try reading his words assuming that he has a twinkle in his eye much of the time, especially when he’s talking to the terribly serious Pharisees, you might discover a whole new side of him.

This notion is troubling to some people. After all, what could be more serious than the matter of our salvation? Why would you ever consider taking it lightly? Wouldn’t that be an insult to God?

Many years ago, I was a field education student in a very proper suburban parish. It was large enough to have half a dozen home Bible study groups. They met once a month, and the practice was to collect all the designated leaders-for-the-month and brief them on the passages to be covered. That was the job of my supervisor, Elsa, and once she invited me to sit in.

The particular passage that day was the one about the sower who went out to sow, and tossed his precious seed all over the place: on the path, where it was stepped on and eaten by birds; or on the rocks, where it dried up; or among thorns, which choked it. Only a little fell on good ground, but even so, it flourished. (Lk 8: 4-8)

Some editor had stuck on some stiff morals after that, but Elsa insisted that Jesus had no such purpose. Jesus was talking to a bunch of farmers, and they would have been horrified by this reckless fellow. In that dry land, every seed was precious, and had to be tended and guarded. This sower must be crazy!

That’s exactly the joke, said Elsa. The sower—who stands in for God—is so extravagantly loony that he scatters grace and love and mercy all over the place, without thinking about who deserves it or will respond to it. And yet the crop is abundant. What a fine theological joke! And she and I chuckled.

Our audience of six women sat stone-faced. Not even a smile.

We were baffled. Elsa and I went on to talk about some other biblical stories that made us laugh. Sarah cracks up behind her door at the news that she’ll have a baby at 99, and when he’s born, she names him Isaac: “the laughing one.” A bunch of scruffy slaves is set free from Pharaoh and called God’s chosen people. Jonah throws a temper tantrum when his fierce preaching actually makes Nineveh repent, so he doesn’t get to watch God blow them apart. Even Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus contains four scandalous women.

And just when the Pharisees think their challenges have Jesus cornered, he tells them—surely with a grin—“You’re asking the wrong question.” All of these surprising. And then, as we think about them, we said to the women, maybe evidence of God’s great sense of humor.

Their faces stayed grim.

“What’s the matter?” said Elsa. “Is it so hard to imagine Jesus with a sense of humor? But Jesus was human, and human beings have a sense of humor!”

Said one woman: “Not all of them.”

So I realize that there may be some resistance to my idea: Jesus as a holy comedian, a divine jester. But imagine this: The two men on the road to Emmaus tell the stranger a story of tragedy and horror, and some sort of weird tale told by women, whom nobody believes anyway. But they have no idea what’s going on. They forget the punch line.

So Jesus, tongue in cheek, gives them clues. He tells some stories of his own, and we’re told that they’re all ultimately about himself. What stories would those be? Could they be the one about God being with Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden? Or the one about Moses calling on a raging God to forgive the Israelites for the golden calf, so as to save God’s reputation? Or the one in which Isaiah insists
that beyond great suffering, Israel will be redeemed from Babylon by a heathen king, of all people? Or the ones about Sarah, and about Jonah, and about all those unclean women in his ancestry? Never naming himself, but showing them again and again how God acts in love for our sakes. Has been doing so all along. Especially now.

Every one of these stories has a punch line, that shows an irrationally, unconditionally loving God. But they’ve forgotten it, or not added them all up. So he teases them. Are you guys EVER going to get the message? What will it take?

What it takes is bread and wine. The familiar ceremony of taking the bread, breaking it, giving it. Jesus himself, given for us. And now risen. Love always wins. That’s the punch line.

And can you imagine everybody, especially Jesus, bursting out laughing? In that rare, full-hearted laughter of surprise, relief and release, fear gone, guilt and despair and grief swept away, only joy left. And laughter.

Roget’s Thesaurus has many words for “laugh.” Titter, chortle, snicker, snigger, guffaw, cackle, sneer, jeer, ridicule, deride. And we need to do all that sometimes, to release the tension. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Think instead of some of our most gentle and gracious women members, delighted with themselves because they’ve made bright pink pussy hats. Think of what they and others reported, that in a vast crowd of women in pussy hats, there was no bitterness, no contempt, but only light, lovely, surprising laughter.

An old friend of mine sends me many jokes about the state of the country and the world, and for all the pain in them, once in awhile I can really laugh. It can be hard, because so much is at stake. But sometimes the laughter breaks through. Beyond the caustic or sardonic or scornful laughter that infects us sometimes. But a freer sort of laughter, a healing laughter, that comes from a long familiarity with God’s
mischievous and even playful ways, and all those unimaginable endings to God’s

My friend wants to create a whole explosion of festivals, all over the country, where the best comedy of our time will be collected, where people can just come together and maybe wear their pussy hats, and see it and hear it and maybe start to get the joke, and be set free by it.

Here’s what a website called “Christian Inspiration” has to say about the origins of Holy Humor:

Hundreds of years ago…a monk whose name has been lost to history was pondering the meaning of the events of Holy Week, with its solemn observances of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the astonishing, earth-shaking events of Easter. “What a surprising ending, “ he thought. Then suddenly… he had a new insight. His hearty laugh startled his fellow monks…. “Don’t you see,” he cried, “it was a joke: A great joke! The best joke in all history! On Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, the devil thought he had won. But God had the last laugh on Easter when He raised Jesus from the dead.”

And from that insight came the tradition of telling jokes, and laughter, in homes and churches, and especially in monasteries, right after Easter. I’m told that in some places it includes dousing everybody with buckets of water. Something about baptism, but mostly about goofy joy. We could try that next year.

The poet Anne Sexton’s last book is called, “The Awful Rowing Toward God.” And in the very last poem, “The Rowing Endeth,” the speaker arrives at last on an island where God challenges her to a poker game. She has a royal straight flush, and she’s sure she’s won. But God has five aces! The joke’s on her. And both of them burst into rich, gorgeous laughter.

God wins. God always does. That’s the punch line.

May we never forget it. Amen.

Day by Day

Lesson: Acts 2:42-47

My first thought, when I hear this passage in Acts, is, “OK, well, that communal living thing lasted for about – what – a day?” In fact, there are still a few Christians who model their economic lives after these verses in Acts. My mother was from Alberta, Canada, and her sister married a farmer near the Saskatchewan border. One year when we visited my aunt’s farm, we were invited to the nearby Hutterite colony. The Hutterites have no personal property. Everything is owned in common by the community. They’re “plain;” that is, men have beards, women cover their heads, and they use almost no decoration, like the Amish – but unlike the Amish, they are not at all opposed to technology. They have a website.  And they’re exceptionally successful farmers, in part because they use the latest farming technology.[1]

But the Hutterites’ success is the exception. Only three chapters later in Acts, things get ugly. A husband and wife defraud the Jerusalem community by pretending to turn over all their property, when in fact they’re holding back some of it.[2]   After that, the commune idea seems to go out the window because it’s not mentioned again in the New Testament.

Still, this description of the early church draws us in because it’s dripping with joy and hope. This is a, “You should have seen it!” or “You should have been there” story. The people devote themselves to learning from the disciples – presumably about Jesus and his teachings. They spend time in prayer. They see signs and wonders; they feel awe. Two aspects of their life together are mentioned not once, but twice: fellowship, and breaking bread together. Read more →

The News from San Anselmo 2017

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.  We’re in the peak of Northern California’s version of the “Super-bloom.”  Poppies, lupine, Douglas iris, the exceedingly rare Tiburon Mariposa lily, and loads of ordinary but lush mustard cover the hills, still green because, wonder of wonders, it keeps on raining.  You won’t hear many folks in Marin complain, unless they have allergies.  Then they won’t stop complaining. Earlier this month, Jerry Brown proclaimed that the drought is over, but scientists say it’s too early to parade in our rain, so to speak.  It takes a long time to recover from the worst dry spell in 450 years. Just ask Zac Efron or Meg Ryan.

It isn’t just the wildflowers that are putting on a crazy show.  San Anselmo is in full bloom, too.  A walk through the neighborhood right now reminds me of walking past the fragrance counter at Macy’s: you’re bombarded with scents whether you like it or not.  Except instead of too much patchouli, we get wisteria, jasmine, Mexican sage.  These are the fragrances that wafted through the late afternoon air as Rachel walked Sparky, her aging black Lab, over to Bouick Field a couple of weeks ago.  She wasn’t listening to a podcast, as she usually did.  She needed a break from the juggernaut of the 24-hour news cycle.  She’d sworn off Facebook multiple times since the election but it was sort of like driving past a car wreck.  It’s hard not to look. Read more →

We Rise

Lesson: Colossians 3:1-4 (from The Message); Matthew 28:1-10

I heard a true story last week about a priest. It was Easter morning mass. The priest went to the pulpit and said, “You’ve heard the story. Think about it.” And then he sat down.

It’s tempting. How do you explain a story that defies explanation? I realize the question on many minds this morning is, “Did the resurrection really happen? Was Jesus raised from the dead?” I get it. Even though we all joined in saying, “Christ is risen!” in our call to worship, I know that if I asked you to be as honest as possible in answering the question, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” we’d get about 250 different answers on a spectrum ranging from, “Yes, absolutely,” to “No way” and everything in between.

Matthew’s version of Easter morning doesn’t make it any easier. Of all the Gospels, Matthew’s version probably wins the prize for “least believable.” Only Matthew has the earthquake, a bookend to the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death.[1] The earthquake announces the angel, who really knows how to make an entrance. His appearance is “like lightening”[2] – I picture him sort of sizzling and popping with power, radiating danger; I’d cast Chris Hemsworth in the role, so just picture Thor in dazzling white clothing.[3] In the other gospels, the tomb was already open when the women arrive, but this buff angel rolls back the stone right then and there, as the women look on. Jesus is gone; apparently, the stone was no obstacle for him. The angel sits on the stone, crossing his angelic arms, and glances over at the security guards – only Matthew mentions these guards[4] – who are in some sort of terror-induced coma. You see the irony: the living look dead and the dead are alive? The angel doesn’t speak to them. His assurances are for the women only: “You don’t need to be afraid.” Read more →

Peace March

Lessons: Matthew 21:1-17

You may have noticed on your bulletin covers that today is Palm/Passion Sunday. I grew up with Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday “Hosannas” were followed a week later by Easter morning “Alleluias,” with nothing in between. If my childhood Presbyterian churches even had Holy Week services, I didn’t know about it. Sometime after I quit going to church, Presbyterians switched to Palm/Passion Sunday. The “passion” comes from “the Passion of Christ,” the phrase used to describe Jesus’ arrest, trial, conviction and execution. One theory I’ve heard is that churches started telling the Passion story on Palm Sunday because so few people show up to hear it on Good Friday.

But all by itself, Palm Sunday is a hinge. It isn’t all hosannas. Palm Sunday turns us toward Holy Week. To begin with, Jesus’ triumphal entry wasn’t a first-century version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a meant to be a statement. It was powerful street theater. Matthew is clear: Jesus rode into town as a returning king. That’s what the colt and the donkey mean. They hearken back to Old Testament passages describing triumphal entries of kings.[1] Moreover, the crowds greeted him as such. They greet him as the Messiah; “hosanna” means “save now.”[2] These crowds expect Jesus to overthrow the Romans, and the Romans take note. Don’t forget: this was just before the Passover celebration in Jerusalem.[3] Passover was a tricky problem for the Romans. They couldn’t ban it because there’d be an uprising, but the Passover festival is all about deliverance from slavery and freedom from oppression. It’s hard to imagine that when the people celebrated Passover, they weren’t also hoping to be delivered from the Romans some day. Passover wasn’t good for the Empire. Read more →

We Can Do Hard Things

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Before I read the Ezekiel text, I’d like everyone to take a deep breath. Fill your lungs; then breathe out. The Hebrew word for breath is ruach,[1] and it can also mean “spirit,” as in “Spirit of the Lord” or the spirit of a person; and it can mean “wind” – a breeze or strong wind. Ezekiel uses the word ruach in all of these ways. As I read from Ezekiel 37, listen for “spirit,” for “breath,” and for “wind,” keeping in mind that the ancients would have heard all of these as one word.

Read Ezekiel 37:1-14

A recent Barna study ranked U.S. cities that are the most “post-Christian.” It’s not surprising that the San Francisco Bay Area lands in the top ten.[2] Personally, I was surprised we were just 6th, rather than first or second.[3] We’ve all seen the signs: Dwindling church attendance. Little League games, dance recitals and birthday parties on Sunday mornings. People who raise their eyebrows when you mention that you go to church. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is when people are sure they know how you think, believe and vote when you say you’re a Christian, when they really don’t. Have we – the Christian Church – taken up residence in a valley of dry bones – the valley of despair, the valley where there is no hope?

Ezekiel prophesied to a people in exile. A people filled with despair, beyond hope. When the leaders of Judah were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were free to live pretty normal lives there. They were even free to worship, but that was hard because they couldn’t imagine worship apart from the temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. It’s a tragic irony of the soul that sometimes, we find it most difficult to worship when we need it the most.[4] Read more →

Fear No Evil

Lessons: 1 John 4:16b-21; Psalm 23

Last Wednesday we learned of a terrorist attack outside London’s Parliament.[i] In response, British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stirring address to Parliament, which began, “Mr. Speaker, yesterday an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy. But today we meet as normal – as generations have done before us, and as future generations will continue to do – to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid.”[ii]

“We are not afraid.” “I will fear no evil.” I don’t know about you, but I long for these words to be true for me. Sometimes they are true. Other times they are a hope. I’m not saying I wish I were never, ever afraid. Fear is a necessary part of being human. There really is such a thing as healthy fear, as every parent of a teenager wishes kids would remember. Fear helps keep us safe, and we are hard-wired for self-preservation.[iii] Fear can even be a powerfully creative force. If people didn’t fear the dark, they’d never have invented the electric light bulb.

But fear can also be unhealthy and unreasonable. Sigmund Freud said it’s reasonable for a person to be afraid of snakes in the heart of the jungle, but it’s not reasonable to be afraid of snakes under the carpet in your apartment in the city.[iv] Unhealthy fears control and consume us. Fear can paralyze us and rob us of joy. Fear can make us hide our true selves and live a diminished life. Fear can also cause us to try to control or dominate others, develop hatreds and prejudices, build up armies, start wars, commit acts of terrorism, and fail to stand up for what we know is right. Rather than preserve us, these fears poison us. Read more →