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 →

O That You Would Listen Today

Lessons: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-9

A New Yorker cartoon shows a couple of women sipping cocktails by palm trees and a swimming pool. One says, “It’s so nice being on vacation and having different things to complain about.”[1] It seems complaining is part of the human condition. Complaining, in fact, becomes a defining theme of the Exodus journey. Miraculously, God’s people have been set free from slavery. Maybe they thought everything would be a bed of roses here on out. Now they discover that it’s hard being free. The verses that Maureen read from Chapter 17 are the fourth time the people have complained about the travel arrangements since leaving Egypt. In chapter 14, when the Israelites reached the shores of the Red Sea and saw the Egyptians in hot pursuit, they complained, “What – there weren’t any graves in Egypt – you brought us to die here? We’d rather be slaves than die in the wilderness.”[2] God parted the sea, and the people crossed in safety. Three days later, the only water they can find is bitter. The people complain and Moses uses a piece of wood to turn the water sweet.[3] A few weeks later, the people are hungry and, once again, complain, “If only we’d died in Egypt, where we had plenty of good food, instead of starving here.”[4] God sends manna and quail for the duration of the journey.

In today’s passage, water is the issue again. There’s no water at all, bitter or otherwise, and the people blame Moses. “Give us water to drink! Why’d you bring us out of Egypt, anyway: to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”[5] Moses fears the people are angry enough this time to kill him. God tells him to go on ahead, taking his magic staff and some of the elders with him.[6] At the right place, Moses is to strike a rock with the staff, and water will pour from it. Moses does exactly that and then names the place Massah, from the Hebrew word meaning “put to the test,” and Meribah, from the Hebrew word meaning “quarrel, strive,” because the people wondered, “Is God among us, or not?” Read more →

With Whom Do You Cry?





This introduction preceded a dialogue sermon between Pastor Joanne Whitt and church member Peter Anderson.  The dialogue sermon is available here:

Lesson: Esther 4:10-17

Like Esther, my friends, we are standing at a dangerous point in history, a confluence of issues that threaten our well-being and our freedom. As someone said this past week during my study leave retreat, “This is not a fire drill.”

So the question with which we are faced, as people of faith, is, “How do we seize the moment in a faithful way, in a creative way, in a courageous way?”

Our Scripture this morning is about one person’s faithful response to an urgent crisis. One person who recognized she was in a position to do something. The story begins when Esther, a Jewish woman of beauty and intelligence, is chosen by the King of Persia to be one of his wives – to be part of his harem. The king loves Esther, and eventually he makes her his queen. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that she is Jewish.

Haman, one of the king’s officials, is ruthless and power hungry. He orders all the people in the kingdom to bow to him. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, refuses on religious grounds. The people of God do not worship any human being. Infuriated, Haman plots to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai hears of the plot and asks Esther to act, to petition the king on behalf of her people. But here’s the problem: In order to do this, Esther will have to go to the king without being summoned. The the penalty for such presumption is death – unless the king decides he’ll hear you and extends his golden scepter. Mordecai presses Esther to take this risk, saying, “…who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Who knows whether you are here, at this place and this time, so that you can do this risky, courageous thing, and save your people? Read more →

Trying to Fill a God-Shaped Hole

Lessons: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

We always begin Lent with Jesus’ forty-day journey into the wilderness before he begins his public ministry. Lent, itself, is modeled on this story: Jesus fasted and prayed in order to learn what God was calling him to do, and who God was calling him to be. We’re told he was led by the Spirit to be tested; to build the spiritual strength and integrity to accomplish the work ahead of him. In the same way, we now begin a period of reflection and prayer so that we can learn what it means for us to be Christ’s followers.

The first verse in the Matthew passage tells us, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Before you’re distracted by who this devil is and whether people really believe this stuff, Matthew just doesn’t tell us. The Bible doesn’t have anything like a consistent understanding of some being called the devil, or even a consistent understanding that such a being exists. Just know that the meaning and value of this story doesn’t turn on whether you think this “devil” is a literal being or a symbolic one – symbolic of the voices both within and outside of us that try to get us to do what we really don’t want to do, at least in our better moments.

But devils aside, if we start at verse one of Chapter 4 without looking back at why Matthew says, “Then,” “THEN Jesus was led,” we miss a crucial point of this story. It would be like starting to watch “The Lion King” when Simba is running away from the pride, without having seen the part where his father dies. Or watching “The Wizard of Oz” after Dorothy has landed in Munchkin Land, but never having seen the farm hands, Miss Gulch and the traveling fortuneteller who are transformed into the characters she meets in Oz. Read more →

How Can We Love Our Enemies?

Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48

I follow a Methodist pastor named John Pavlovitz on Facebook and Twitter. Pavlovitz has an excellent blog called, “Stuff That Needs to Be Said.”[1] A few days after the presidential election, he posted this on Twitter – or “tweeted” this, to be perfectly correct: “That whole ‘love your enemies’ thing Jesus preached? Much harder to do when you actually meet your enemies, ain’t it Christians? #GutCheck.”

Isn’t that the truth? We’re again looking at Jesus’ challenging teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. We might think about his words this morning in the same way C. S. Lewis thought about forgiveness: “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.” Likewise, loving our enemies is a beautiful concept until we’re facing an enemy who is destroying our world before our very eyes and we’re unable to stop it. An enemy, perhaps, like ISIS; perhaps the suicide bomber who walked into a Sufi shrine in Southern Pakistan a few days ago with enough explosives to kill himself and at least 80 other people. Or – maybe the teacher who’s bullying your child. Could it be the Breitbart editor who tried to speak at UC Berkeley last month – or those who shut him down? Or the neighbor who lets his dog bark all night long? The current administration – or the mainstream news media?[2] Or that kid who convinced your son or daughter that using drugs was cool? Read more →

It’s All About Relationships

Lesson: Matthew 5:21-37

Before I read this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel I want to warn you that it is a tough passage. Like many Bible passages, if you read it in isolation, without understanding the context and as though it weren’t part of a larger message of good news, you might think it is the opposite of good news. So hang with me, please. We’ll get through this together. One side note: When I read the passage, I’ll substitute the original Greek word “Gehenna” for the word that our pew Bible translates very poorly as “hell.” Gehenna is not hell. It was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem that burned perpetually, just like the Great Tire Fire on “The Simpson’s.”

[Read passage]

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. Some people are big fans of Valentine’s Day and some aren’t; and I’m not just talking about men, either. Personally, I’m not nuts about the romance-according-to-schedule aspect of Valentine’s Day. If you need to be reminded by a Hallmark holiday to be romantic, isn’t it, well, less romantic? Besides, Valentine’s Day feels like a trap for the unwary. You know something is expected of you, but you’re not sure what. Are flowers and a card enough? Should you get the candy, too? Or are flowers and candy clichéd, unimaginative, and what you’re really supposed to do is rent a yacht for a moonlight champagne dinner cruise for two, or book a surprise trip to Paris? See, somewhere between flowers and a trip to Paris – that’s your dilemma. Valentine’s Day seems designed to set us up to fail.

This was something like the state of the Torah, of Jewish law, in the first century, when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. There were 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament – the five books known as the Torah. 613 laws to remember and keep in order to be righteous, right with God. The Talmud, the written commentaries on the law that interpreted and expanded them, wasn’t in place yet, but in Jesus’ time there was already a large body of oral interpretation developed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The point of these interpretations was to make sure no one would break God’s law even by mistake. So, for example, to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, they refused to pronounce God’s name at all. To avoid violating the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as work[1] – including the healing that got Jesus in trouble on a number of occasions. Read more →

Salt and Light

Lessons: Matthew 5:13-16

Barry White, not the R&B singer with the low, sultry voice, but a fifth grade English teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a different, elaborate, personalized handshake for each and every one of his students. Every. Single. One. His morning ritual is to “shake hands” with each student as he or she arrives to class in the morning. Says White: “They know when they get to the front door we do our ‘good mornings,’ and then it’s time to go … I’m always pumped up and then we start doing the moves and that brings them excitement and pumps them up for a high-energy class.”

This is one of those times I wish we had a good, reliable video set up. It is amazing and inspiring to see White and his students do these intricate handshakes, each one different, each one inspired, says White, by the student’s personality. White came up with the idea watching LeBron James, who does the same thing with his teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers. “You see that bond and how close they are,” White says. “I wanted to bring that feeling into the entire 5th grade.” Read more →