How Shall We Wait?


Lessons: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Who likes to wait? Let’s see a show of hands.

Waiting is not a skill we cultivate in 2016, is it? Most of us hate being put on hold, or getting stuck behind that driver who’s going 15 miles an hour slower than the speed limit. I confess I’ve walked into shops, seen a long line, and turned right around and left without whatever it is I wanted. I’ve left restaurants rather than wait for a table.

Sometimes we can choose not to wait, but sometimes we can’t, and sometimes there’s more at stake than a table at a restaurant.

Like waiting for a diagnosis. Waiting for the pain to stop. Waiting for a loved one to heal, or for a loved one to die. Waiting to hear whether you got the job, or whether you’ll lose the job. Waiting for a child to be born, or a child to grow up. Waiting for justice. Waiting to be loved.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of the church calendar. As our Jewish neighbors begin the day at sunset, so Christians begin the church year in the darkening quiet of ever-deeper winter. Advent is the night of the Christian year.[1] Night is all about waiting, and waiting is, to some extent, about helplessness. Waiting for dawn or light or love or relief, we are helpless to turn back the darkness or hurry the clock along so that it says 7:00 a.m. instead of 2:00 a.m. There really are some things we can do nothing about. That is hard news for many of us who like to think we’re in control of our lives. We want to be proactive – which is good and right and faithful. But sometimes we have to wait. Read more →

We All Have Questions: How Was the World Begun?


Lesson: Genesis 1:1-2:3

In 2001 I graduated college and moved to Pensacola, Florid. Yes, do the math, it was fifteen years ago. I was no different from many other twenty-something. I was anxious to figure out my place in the world and make a difference. I had my first job as a retail supervisor for a big-box clothing store. I played Ultimate Frisbee each week with a diverse group, but I knew I wanted more. Added to my personal angst of being where I was in life, was the extra layer our country faced after 911. New York was still digging out the rubble and we were bracing for war. I remember being afraid, truly afraid, for immigrants, people who were asking questions, soldiers, and the people of Iraq. When I needed to find solace in the midst of the chaos, I would go and sit on the beach with my toes in the water. Pensacola Beach is made of white, sugary sand. The water from the gulf heats up to bath-like temperatures and because of the white sand, the water is clear and stunning. I would listen and pray, journal and think. Somehow sitting on the beach I felt connected. Each wave would lap up and I would imagine people on the other side of the gulf or the ocean doing the same thing. Somehow the majesty of Mother Nature overwhelmed me every time I listened to the waves. Each time I connected, re-connected with a deep sense of awe. Answers to my personal questions of career and purpose did not usually become crystal clear, but I would often walk away feeling comforted, energized, and more peaceful.

Read more →

We All Have Questions: What’s the Difference Between God’s Forgiveness and Our Forgiveness?


Lessons: Exodus 34:1-7; Matthew 18:21-34

This question was posed to me, for consideration in our sermon series about faith questions: “What is the difference between God’s forgiveness and ours?” Forgiveness: What a timely topic. Or not. Maybe for some of you it’s too soon to talk about forgiveness. I’m not sure I’m ready, either, but it feels like the Holy Spirit at work that I was handed this for today.

There’s a lot of hurt in our country right now after Tuesday’s election. There’s a lot of hurt here in this congregation. If you aren’t hurting this morning, think of it this way: Let’s say you never liked your best friend’s husband. And then he dies. You would not then say to your best friend, “Well, I never liked him anyway.” Instead, your heart would break for your friend, because her heart is breaking, and you love her. If you’re satisfied with the election results, I invite you to sit in that place for this morning, the place of understanding that people you love are grieving. I, personally, have been circling in no particular order through all five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not to mention fear.

This week is a good reminder that forgiveness is easy to talk about when it’s in the abstract, when it’s a story in the Bible or when someone else clearly needs to forgive and move on. Forgiveness sounds good on paper. And then something real happens to us. Something bad. And suddenly we realize how hard forgiveness is.

Where do we even start with forgiveness in this presidential election? The media? The ease with which we hunker into our own information silos? The pollsters? The nearly 50% of eligible voters who didn’t bother to vote? The people who voted for a third party candidate? The electoral college? Our reality TV culture? The candidates themselves? Or – our own Northern California blue bubble that keeps us from seeing what the world looks like for other voters? It will probably take years to sort out what happened, who is to blame, what caused the election to go the way it did. In the meantime, many of us grieve. Read more →

We All Have Questions: What Is God’s Will?


Lessons: Romans 12:1-2, 9-21; Matthew 6:9-10

One evening a family gathered around the dining room table for a dinner, and the five year-old son blurted out, “It’s my turn to say grace!”

Mom replied, “Great. Go for it!”

Instead of his usual, “God is great, God is good,” the boy asked if he could say the Lord’s Prayer, and his impressed parents said, “Of course.”

The family bowed their heads and he began to pray. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He stumbled a bit over “hallowed” but kept going, saying next what he thought he’d heard in church every week: “My kingdom come. My will be done.”

His parents smiled at his youthful mistake, but after dinner when they were alone, his mom said, “It made me think. How many times during the day do we act as if we’re praying, “MY kingdom come, MY will be done?”

My or thy, such tiny words, such an enormous difference. Those small words just might be the basic difference between people of faith and people of no faith. Is it all about me and what I want, or is life richer, happier and more hopeful when I want what God wants?

But – what does God want? What do we mean when we say, “God’s will”? More than once in the last few weeks when I mentioned I was preaching about God’s will today, the response was a grimace. The will of God is rarely a happy topic. Which is why this topic ended up in our sermon series on questions about faith. Read more →

We All Have Questions: Should the Church Be “Political”?


Lessons: Psalm 24, Matthew 22:15-22

A church member referred me to an article on the front page of last Monday’s Marin IJ about “election stress.”[i] Yes. Yes indeed. Can I see a show of hands of people who will be glad when this presidential election is over, even if you do care desperately about the outcome?

And so it’s with some trepidation that I bring up politics, especially when many of us need a break, a Sabbath, from all the craziness and incivility. I’ll do my best to land somewhere short of crazy and uncivil this morning. This fall, we’re looking at the questions people have about faith, and one very common question is whether the church ought to be “political.” “Political” is in quotation marks because it can mean everything from elections to governing to anything to do with the use or abuse of power, and often what people really mean when they ask this question is, “Should the church talk about things that make me uncomfortable?”

Oddly enough, some point to today’s passage in Matthew as proof that God and politics should be kept separate. Others have cited this passage as proof that Jesus taught that our duty as Christians is to support the government no matter what.[ii] But something else is going on here; something entirely different. We’re told from the outset that the Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus. To do this they join forces with an unlikely ally – the Herodians. This is one of those, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” situations. The Pharisees were highly observant Jews who despised Rome and Roman rule of their homeland. The Herodians, on the other hand, supported the Romans. They both want to get rid of Jesus. They form a super PAC. Read more →

We All Have Questions: What Do We Believe About Other Faiths?

Lessons: John 10:11-18, John 3:16-21

Why did the chicken cross the road? I learned last week that this old joke really is very old – it appeared in a New York magazine in 1847 and was so well known by the 1890’s[1] that it was already being lampooned. I’m awful at remembering jokes but my personal favorite variation is actually one of the few jokes I can remember. Why did the punk rocker cross the road? Because he had a chicken stapled to his lip. I don’t think they told that version in 1890.

The chicken joke is funny because the answer is not funny. When someone tells you a joke, you expect funny. When what you get instead is literal and obvious and not funny, like “to get to the other side,” it reverses our expectations and that’s what makes it funny.

Brian McLaren used his version of this joke as the title for his book about Christian identity in a multi-faith world: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?[2] Before looking for a punch line, just imagine the scene. Four of history’s greatest religious leaders, not fighting, not arguing, not condemning one another to eternal damnation, not launching crusades or jihads, but walking together. Doesn’t that already reverse some of our expectations? Doesn’t it reveal our unspoken expectation – that different religions are inherently and irreversibly incompatible, even hostile toward each other?[3]

Take, for example, the way that the Christian Church – at least much of the Church for much of its history – has interpreted John 3:16. John 3:16 may win the prize for the best-known Bible verse. It shows up at sporting events and on In-n-Out beverage cups. Certainly, it offers comfort to many people. But what is Jesus saying here? Jesus says “everyone who believes…” will have eternal life. To be sure, the writer of John’s gospel thinks that making a decision about Jesus is earth-shaking. In Greek, John 3:16 actually says, “whoever believes into” Jesus shall not perish. The same Greek word that is translated as “believe” in the passage is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as trust or loyalty or faithfulness. So this is about trusting Jesus enough to follow him. Trusting him enough to become his body in the world. Read more →

We All Have Questions: What is the Bible?


Lessons: John 1:1-14; Genesis 1:1-3

Note: today we welcome guest preacher The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, San Francisco Theological Seminary. Ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Norton is completing her doctorate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

Greetings friends! It is wonderful to be with you on this beautiful fall, California morning.

Please join me in prayer: God, grant that your peace, grace, and mercy abide with us in this space. Call us to those things that are bigger than ourselves. Let your Word prevail. Let your people be reminded of your presence with each breath. Amen.

So I before I begin this morning, I must confess that I spent the better part of the last two months trying to figure out what I did to your pastor during my interview process at SFTS. I assume that I must have done something wrong because while I was delighted to receive an invitation to be with you all this morning and I am always humbled by a pastor’s invitation to stand in the pulpit and profess something, the invitation to answer the question “what is the Bible?” on World Communion Sunday in 20 minutes or less seemed like a bit of a set up!

It is a big question!

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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