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 →

The Hometown Crowd


Lesson: Luke 4:21-30

Last week a church member told me about a project to try to figure out what Jesus actually looked like. Most of us grow up with a Sunday school image of Jesus gleaned from Bible storybooks and maybe renaissance art. In my case, my family had a volume of Bible stories called Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, published in 1947,[1] and on the cover was a famous portrait of Jesus by Warner Sallman, Sallman’s “Head of Christ.”[2] This was the image of Jesus I carried for years and years, and to some extent, to be honest, I still do. Sallman’s Jesus has light-colored eyes, and while it’s hard to tell exactly what color his long, flowing hair is, the lighting makes him look pretty blond. He’s definitely lean, fair-skinned, Northern European-looking. But we know this can’t be right. Even though Jesus’ appearance is never described in Scripture, according to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion, Judas Iscariot had to give a sign to the soldiers so they’d know who Jesus was.[3] That means he couldn’t have looked that different from the disciples around him. Jesus must have looked like a typical, first century Middle Eastern man.

So using forensic anthropology, British scientists and Israeli archeologists have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history. The result, part science and part artist’s interpretation, is a portrait of a Middle Eastern man who was about 5’1”, 110 pounds, with short, dark hair – short hair would have been the acceptable style, not flowing locks – with swarthy skin and dark eyes, a robust beard, extremely bushy eyebrows, and a weathered face and muscular build from all those years working outdoors as a carpenter.[4] He looks to me a lot like a former Lebanese pop star named Fadl Shaker, and in the printed and online versions of the sermon I’ll give you a link both to the recreated portrait of Jesus and to a photo of Shaker and you can decide for yourselves.[5] Read more →

Six-Word Mission Statements


Lessons: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

If you could choose the words that might encapsulate who you are, the words that would best communicate the essence of yourself, your life, your commitments, what would they be? Last November at the Presbytery of the Redwoods retreat at Westminster Woods, we played with an art form called the six-word memoir. It’s fun and also a bit addicting, but the idea is to come up with six words that tell who you are. People went in all sorts of directions with this. For example, I could choose, “Neither the oldest, nor the boy.” The reason that’s important is that as the middle kid in my family, and a girl, I had more room to be myself than my older sister, who had to deal with all the oldest kid pressures, and my younger brother, who suffered from the “only son” pressures. What I ended up choosing, however, and this is true confession time, folks, is “I want to get an A,” because that’s an aspect of myself, being the person who’s always striving for the good grade, that isn’t always helpful. It’s something I’m working on.

The six-word memoir is a fun and thought-provoking exercise. But then, at the retreat, we took this a step further. We developed what we called a six-word mantra, or a six-word mission statement. I came to think of it as my six-word pep talk. My six-word mission statement is what I tell myself when I need to focus on my core values, and on what I aspire to do, regardless of what’s going on around me.

Knowing your mission is important.  I’d say it’s crucial, because it centers you, focuses you, keeps you on track. A mission statement points in the direction you want to go, and calls to you from the future you hope to reach. Read more →

I Will Not Keep Silent


Lessons: Isaiah 62:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I want to thank Ms. Williams from the bottom of my heart for singing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” this morning. If she had not sung it today, we would have; it’s in our hymnal, Number 339. It’s often referred to as “the Black national anthem.” The song began as a poem, written by James Weldon Johnson. The poem was read aloud for the first time in 1900 by 500 school children at the segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, where Johnson was the principal. Eventually, the poem was set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and soon adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, as its official song. Today “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is one of the most cherished songs of the Civil Rights Movement.[1]

In her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes how eighth grade graduation was a big event in the lives of the black families at her school in Stamps, Arkansas. The year she graduated, the white commencement speaker bragged about the improvements in the local schools, taking special pride in the new lab equipment for science classes in the white schools, thanks to his efforts. Then he talked about the fine athletes that had graduated from Angelou’s school. This distinction wasn’t lost on Angelou’s classmates: science labs for the white schools; athletics for the black schools. Angelou said her classmates hung their heads in shame. The white speaker rushed off after his talk, and was followed by Henry Reed, the class valedictorian. Henry spoke with strength and clarity but Angelou reacted with cynicism and pessimism. Then Henry turned his back to the audience and led his classmates in “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Angelou listened to the words of the song for the very first time. The words spoke to her of hope and pride. Her cynicism vanished.[2] Read more →

The Other Christmas Story


Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12

The last couple of times I drove from Marin to Modesto to visit my father, there was a giant sign way up on a hill above 580 before you reach Dublin. I imagine it’s lit up at night but I passed it during the day. The sign says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I certainly understand this sentiment: A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that while nine in ten millennials say they celebrate Christmas, more think of it as a cultural holiday than a religious holiday.[1] But I don’t begrudge anyone a holiday as wonderful as Christmas; really, I don’t. And if you were here on Christmas Eve, you know that plenty of folks still want to keep Christ in Christmas.

Or, maybe, they are looking for some kind of sign. This Wednesday, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas – December 25th being the first day of Christmas. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we usually celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday closest to January 6th. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “revealing,” and it’s used to describe an experience of sudden and striking realization. It can apply in any situation in which a new insight brings understanding from a deeper perspective.[2] In other words, it’s about reading the signs. Read more →

Tired of Waiting: A Blue Christmas Sermon

Blue Christmas Cover

This homily was delivered at our Blue Christmas service, a service for those who struggle during the holidays with grief, bad memories, loneliness, illness or anything else that makes Christmas less than merry.

Lessons: Luke 2:1-8; Psalm 13

It’s hard, getting through Christmas when your world feels more like Good Friday. It’s hard, when tidings of comfort and joy are mostly just lyrics to a song, bearing little resemblance to real life. It’s hard when you’re waiting for things to get better; waiting for God to act, to speak. Or even just to show up, somehow.

You might be surprised how many people tell me they can’t find God, can’t figure out whether God is really there or how to tell if God is there. One woman know says she picks up the receiver but there’s no one on the other end of the line – obviously that’s an analogy that worked better when phones actually had lines, but you get the idea. I think people think maybe I know some secrets, some tricks. I don’t. Read more →

Waiting with Love

Advent 4

Lesson: Luke 1:39-55

My family joined millions of other folks at the movie theater Friday night to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Episode 7 of the Star Wars movies. I’m not going to give away any of the plot in case some of you plan to see it, but I’ll mention one aspect that’s been in the news and so won’t give away too much. It’s an ensemble cast, as were all the other Star Wars movies, with no single “star.” But the character who turns out to be the closest thing to a hero, a real action hero, is a woman. On our way home from the movie, I was delighted when our 14-year-old son said that she was a great character. I grew up at a time when women characters were admired and seen as role models only for women. That’s still true to some degree. I remember reading that J. K. Rowling said she made the main character of her Harry Potter books a boy because, otherwise, the books would have been pushed aside as girl’s books. Books about girls are for girls, while books about boys are for everybody.

But perhaps we’ve turned a corner with “The Force Awakens,” and that gives me hope for the main characters of this morning’s scripture passage. Historically, Mary has been held up as a role model for women. That’s not such a bad thing, except that in order for her to be the role model for women that suited the purposes of the culture, both ancient culture and more recently, she’s been reinvented as meek, mild, passive. The flowing, modest blue robe; downcast eyes; covered head. That Mary bears very little resemblance to the Mary in this morning’s passage. Read more →

Waiting in Joy!

Advent 3

One Sunday during Advent, we hear the Word proclaimed through music.  This brief homily introduced the music.

Lesson: Zephaniah 3:14-20

The prophet Zephaniah deals with the questions, “What would happen if God interrupted us? What in our world would change? What fears would be dispelled? What injustices overturned?” And that, too, is the message of Advent. “The Lord, your God, is in your midst … God will renew you in God’s love,”[i] says Zephaniah. In these words we hear echoes of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son.” Although Zephaniah is not short on judgment and consequences for bad behavior, he concludes that ultimately, God’s entry into the world brings celebration, restoration, and new life.

So halfway through Advent, the season of preparation for Christ’s coming, we allow ourselves a little celebration. The Savior is coming! Rejoice! We’re waiting, and we will wait longer still, but God is coming. Read more →

Waiting on Peace: Star Wars

advent 2a

Lesson: Luke 3:1-6

I have conflicting emotions this morning as I feel compelled by the conversation in the media on gun violence – I want to talk about how we can curb the use of weapons. And yet, just minutes ago, I handed out light sabers here in our sanctuary. Yes, these are toys. Sometimes the line between pretend and reality can be blurry. Sometimes we need to be consistent in our messaging. And, sometimes we can relax and wonder in the catharsis that comes in times of worship and play. Sometimes we need to stretch our imaginations in order to break out of patterns and hear old lessons and stories with fresh enthusiasm.

So, first the old, old story from time that may seem like a galaxy far, far away. Our first scripture from the book of Isaiah is from a time when the Israelite people were living in a time when an oppressor was knocking on their door. The Assyrian Empire was preparing to invade. And the people dared to hope and to pray. They imagined a day when the world would be so right, with God’s help, that the natural order as they knew it would disappear and wolves and lambs would cozy up together for naps, lions would prefer vegetarian diets, and babies would reach into the snake’s den and touch a friend. We encounter similarly epic metaphors in Luke. Luke is actually quoting another passage in Isaiah: the windy roads will become straight, the mountains and valleys will find equilibrium and balance will be restored.

The communities that wrote these scriptures needed change. They had to wait even after they made their prayers for peace. They waited in hope. Does this mean that they sat around distracting themselves while they waited for God to fix it? No, we Christians know that God doesn’t typically fix things by Her/His-self. Rather God works collaboratively through time and through people –always has, always will. During Advent we wait on peace to be meaningful in our world. We wait for the birth of Christ – a baby who’s meek and mild. And, we know that waiting does not have to mean doing nothing. Instead, as we wait, we prepare the way.

There’s the other ancient story of John the Baptism. John the Baptist, in some circles, was a revolutionary. John was part of the resistance to Roman occupation and oppression. There are stories about his birth and his father Zachariah singing praises about the work that he will do. We heard that scripture earlier during the candle lighting. John’s the chosen one – chosen to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus the Christ. It’s no small feat. He comes out of nowhere – the wilderness – out of obscurity – to rile the people up. He has a way of speaking to the discontent of the masses – discontent of poverty, random acts of violence, oppression by an unjust Roman system. Rome ruled in fear through soldiers, troopers who’d storm through the streets to “keep the peace.” The emperor, Tiberius , had vast amounts of power and could and would change the game to suit his needs. Ultimate power corrupts and so it did.
There are echoes of this situation in our country and certainly in our world today. Fear combined with anger lead to darker paths. Hope and trust lead towards the light. This ancient understanding holds true in our faith and it translates well to the big screen.

Yes, I am excited that the new Star Wars movie is coming out in a few weeks. Yes, I’m a nerd and while I recall loving the movies as they came out on television in the early 80’s. I guess I have a younger brother to thank for preparing the way, so to speak, and introducing me to Star Wars books and fan fiction.

Star Wars is an epic adventure with archetypical characters in a cosmic struggle between good and evil forces. The original movie begins with the dramatic plea for help relayed by the droid, R2D2, to the reclusive Ben Kenobi, “Help us Obi Wan Kenobi, we need your help!”

Spoiler alert, it takes quite a bit more than one person to save the day. Obi Wan Kenobi knows as does John and as do we that it takes a community to come together to make changes that are as dynamic as winning a rebellion against an evil empire, mountains and valleys becoming level, or a winding road becoming straight (our country doing something to curb gun violence). For this magnitude of change it takes young men from the wilderness of Tatooine, Palestine, or who step up to lead, rogue mercenaries who become converts to friendship and love, princesses with grit and determination, and Jedi Masters teaching and defending justice. It takes everyone – wookies and droids, too – preparing the way.

Part of the fun today is that I’ve invited some young Star Wars fans to tell you about their favorite character and his or her relationship to peace in a galaxy far far away. Let’s hear from some Star Wars characters.

Yoda (Diana) – Jedi Master Yoda is a fascinating creature, a Jedi Master of the highest caliber. Yoda is legendary for his supreme fighting skills (episodes 1-3), and his abilities and perceptions using the Force – or being in touch with the spiritual dimensions of the galaxy. Yoda is a highly respected teacher filled with the wisdom only years of intentional training and experience can give. Here are some famous Yoda-isms: Size matters not. “Do or do not.” “There is no try.” “Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.” We’ve already heard his words about fear that leads to anger and suffering. Speaking of peace, I appreciate this phrase: “A Jedi uses the force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Yoda is truly the master teacher who points toward peaceful resolutions of problems, warns against allowing anger to rule your actions, and will defend the innocent against aggressors. In my mind he’s a leader toward building peace in our lives and the entire galaxy.

Padm’e Amidala (4th grade) – I chose Padm’e Amidala from the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith because she is a strong female character and stands up for what she believes will benefit the republic. After her term as Queen of planet Naboo has expired , she is asked by the new queen to serve as Senator but she has secretly married Anakin Skywalker who as a Jedi is forbidden to fall in love. In Revenge of the Sith she finds out that she is carrying twins and right before she gives birth, she learns that Anakin has turned to the dark side. And because of that after she gives birth to Luke and Leia Skywalker she dies from a broken heart. Padm’e’s peaceful legacy lives on in her children.

Han Solo (2nd grade)- My name is Han Solo. I am from the manufacturing planet Corelia. I was captured by a space pirate but I escaped when I was a teenager. I entered The Imperial Academy On the planet Carida. I met my copilot Chewbacca when I saved him from severe damage at the Academy. I won my ship, The Millennium Falcon in a game of sabacc.
I remember Luke and Obi Wan coming to ask me for a ship. I said I wanted 10,000 credits for the ship but they offered 15,000 credits on arrival. I agreed to drive them. I helped rescue Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia Organa from the base of our enemy, The Death Star. Afterwards, I assisted Luke Skywalker In destroying the Death Star.
I am a Hardworking Smuggler that will do what’s right for a good cause.

Mace Windu (kindergarten) – Hello, I am Mace Windu. I am a Jedi Master. I would like there to be peace for the universe. I work hard to avoid war. But I am willing to die to keep peace in the universe. I am a guardian of the force. Beware of the Dark Side but remember I am here to protect you.

Anakin Skywalker (2nd grade) – I chose Anakin Skywalker because he was on the Light Side and the Dark Side during his life. He followed the light side of the Force, but he always craved power, especially for saving people he loved. When Anakin turned to the Dark Side he became Darth Vader, a powerful Sith Lord. The Sith use the Force for evil not good. He did many selfish things until he faced his son, Luke, in light saber combat. Luke resisted the temptation of the Dark Side even though his father begged him to turn. Darth Vader didn’t listen to Luke when he said, “There is still good in you. I know it!” Later Darth Vader realized that what Luke said was true and he killed the emperor and saved his son. In the end Darth Vader dies for his son to create peace in the galaxy.

Emperor Palpatine (8th grade) – My character is Emperor Palpatine. He is the ultimate evil, the most powerful bad guy in the entire series. He does almost nothing but destroy peace and spread discord through the rebellion. He takes young Anakin Skywalker under his wing with the pretense of teaching him to have more power, but his ulterior motive is to turn him over to the Sith, or dark side. This is achieved and Anakin becomes Darth Vader. Palpatine has the most powerful connection to the force (except for maybe Yoda), and that might be why he can shoot lightning from his fingers. I think Palpatine represents temptation and the way people are tempted by power. He tempts Anakin with the lure of more power and Anakin gives in. This is a metaphor for giving into temptation. When Anakin turns dark, he gives in and becomes a Sith. When we give into temptation, we as well become a little Sith-y ourselves.
(Diana continues…) As my colleague Marci preached last week, “If there was any hope in the Star Wars movies, it was the hope that came when people came together to contribute to a better world, each of them using the particular gifts they’d been given.” Such hope might start with a holographic recording or a street preacher shouting on the corner, or newspapers and citizens holding public officials accountable. We prepare the way. We work as we wait.

John prepared the way for Christ – our way of light and peace. The world changed because of Christ’s presence. And, the world didn’t get better for everyone immediately. We continue the fight today. We continue to need to shed light in our own hearts and around the world to remember that there is work to be done. It takes all of us. And, it takes time. The road to peace is long, but we hope and pray that our work leads to fulfill the scripture: “The whole human race will see God’s salvation!’” because the whole of humanity is needed to take part in restoring creation to God’s glory. May we do so together in God’s name. Amen.
© Diana C. Bell, 2015

[1] This section adapted from Glass, “A New Hope”
[2] Glass, Marci “A New Hope.”

Waiting in Hope


Although this sermon was to end with a video, projector malfunction prevented that.  I have left the reference to the video, and a link, so that those who read the sermon on line might enjoy it as it was intended. – J. Whitt 

Lesson: Luke 21:25-36

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows an asteroid careening toward a man standing at the window of a fast food place. He says to the man behind the counter, “Actually, I will have fries with that.”[1]

Our passage this morning in Luke’s gospel addresses the question: How do people live if someday Christ will be returning, and, as the passage puts it, “heaven and earth will pass away”? Do they go ahead and order the French fries, and leave it at that? Or is there a more significant, more faithful response?

These verses are apocalyptic and scary and I’m sure I’m not the only one who hears them and thinks, “Is this really what we need right now, in this scary world? More scary predictions, this time from the Bible; this time in church?” Wouldn’t we rather just stick with chestnuts roasting on an open fire this time of year? Your second thought might be, “OK, so when is this supposed to happen?” or even to wonder “Is it now?” Things do seem pretty dire in our world right now. Are these the signs of the end that Jesus was talking about? But then I think about all the many other dire points in human history: 911. The Holocaust. The world didn’t end. And I think about the fact that we don’t necessarily notice the signs when the bad stuff is happening in another part of the world. We’re even less likely to notice when we ourselves cause the bad stuff. Perhaps the Native Americans thought the world was coming to an end when the Europeans brought smallpox and genocide. Perhaps the West Africans thought the world was coming to an end when the slave ships arrived. It makes me step back and say, “Wait a minute; this passage is about a bigger picture.” Read more →