The Gift of the Truth


Lesson: John 18:33-38

Who, besides me, is a little bit hesitant to turn on the news these days? A lot hesitant? It almost makes you wish we were part of one of those religions that turns its back on the world, that gives up the whole world as a lost cause. It’d be a lot easier, right?

But we aren’t. In this morning’s passage Jesus faces Pontius Pilate. The local religious authorities have hauled Jesus before the Roman prefect because the Romans can impose the death penalty for sedition, which is something like treason. This crime with this punishment isn’t available to them under their own laws. So Pilate questions Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Now, some bibles translate this as, “My kingdom is not of this world…” as though somehow we could withdraw, as though we could turn our backs on our world. Or even to imply that Jesus isn’t concerned with this world. But the Greek says that Jesus’ kingdom is not derived from this world – and a better translation of the phrase “this world” here might be “this system,” or “the version of reality that most people accept.” Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t come from this world. In this world, the chief tools for establishing and keeping power are violence and inhumanity.[1] What Jesus is saying is that were he and his followers from this world, then naturally they, too, would use violence to keep him out of Pilate’s clutches. They’d storm the Praetorium; they’d have fought off the guards back when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. But at Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.[2] Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. To bring the kingdom about by violence would be to violate the central truth of this kingdom, and cause its destruction. Read more →

Meditation for the Memorial Service of Luda Lee, November 7, 2015


Lessons: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Roman 8:38-39; John 11:20-27

On behalf of the congregation of First Presbyterian Church, I welcome you. We are deeply grateful, and feel very privileged, that Luda chose this church as her church home. We are deeply grateful that she found her way here, and that she loved this congregation, as we loved her, although we are knew her, and loved her, for far too short a time. That is one thing we all have in common today. Luda was with us – all of us – for far too short a time.

There’s so much about Luda’s death we don’t know and can’t understand. There are so many questions we want to ask, don’t know how to ask, or are afraid to ask. Such as, “Why Luda?” Why someone who was so young, so beautiful, so talented, so brilliant, such a terrific mother, wife, daughter, student, colleague? Ask anyone here, anyone who knew her. People will tell you Luda was exceptional. There was something about her. She had the gift of bringing light and love with her into a room; she had energy and Spirit. I’m glad we’re just a week beyond All Saints Day because it means most of you have been reminded recently that in our Presbyterian tradition, a saint is not someone who performed miracles or lived an exceptionally holy life or even someone who is dead. According to Scripture, all of us who strive to live in the kingdom of God, past, present and future, are the saints. Yet there was something about Luda that made that more apparent, more real. I like the way Paul Tillich put it: A saint is not a saint because she is perfect, but because she is transparent. Through her, something bigger and better and more glorious shines. That was Luda. Read more →

As Yourself


Lessons: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-34

We’re in the thick of the pre-presidential primary campaigns. Don’t worry. We only have a about a year to go before the election. A week or so ago, there was a flurry of news about the questions the press asked the Republican candidates in the last debate – whether they were insulting and nasty, merely disguised attacks, intended more for their “Gotcha” effect than to help the public get to know the candidates. One seasoned politico says the Republican presidential candidates are right: the questions asked at the CNBC debate were awful. But the candidates complained for the wrong reasons. Gary Pearce, who has prepped candidates for over forty years, says that by straining to ask “tough” questions, the panel actually made the debate too easy on the candidates. He says less is more. CNBC’s John Harwood asked Donald Trump a long, rambling question ending with, “Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?” Pearce says a politician looks at a question like that the same way a home-run hitter looks at a fat, slow pitch right down the middle. “This one’s going out of here, baby.”[1] And yes, now that baseball season is over, I am hungry for baseball metaphors. Pearce says the hardest questions to answer are short, sharp and simple. Questions like, “Do you think Social Security and Medicare should be fundamentally changed? If so, how?” or “Do you think the richest 1 percent of Americans have too much power?”

The exchanges at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Mark, before our verses this morning, remind me of the campaigns. The authorities question Jesus, debate him, even try to trap him. Jesus makes an opening statement: a parable about the vineyard owner who sends his son to collect the rent but the son is killed, and so the owner boots out the tenants and gives the vineyard to new folks. The religious leaders aren’t clueless; they’ve figured out Jesus is talking about them, so they start asking the kind of questions that no matter how you answer, you’ll offend someone. Questions about taxes, about marriage, about who gets to tell women what to do – some things don’t change. Read more →

O Blessed Communion

Communion of saints4

Lesson: Revelation 21:1-6

When I was a child and there were no such things as DVDs and Netflix, every year around Halloween one of the three main television networks would broadcast “The Wizard of Oz.” For most of my childhood, I watched it on a black and white TV, which meant that scene where Dorothy opens the door to her house and, for the first time, glimpses the Technicolor of Munchkinland, was a little bit lost on me.

The movie is as good an example of the purpose of apocalyptic literature as I have found. Dorothy’s sepia-toned life in Kansas is filled with despair. We don’t know what’s happened to young Dorothy’s parents, but we can imagine. She lives with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry who are kind but harried, struggling to keep the farm going. Dorothy is in trouble with a mean-spirited neighbor who’s intent on destroying her dog Toto, but no one will listen to Dorothy’s concerns. Everyone seems to think she’s in the way. Then there’s the tornado, which threatens everything and everybody. Who wouldn’t prefer to imagine another place, a Technicolor place, somewhere over the rainbow? A place where there isn’t any trouble?

When people are miserable, first they try to change their situation through peaceful means. If that doesn’t work, they rebel or revolt. If the risk of revolution is too great, they subvert or sabotage; they go underground like the French Resistance or the Underground Railroad. And when it appears that nothing can be done, that resistance is futile, people look for hope in an intervention from beyond themselves. They look for rescue. They hope that something, probably dramatic and cataclysmic and certainly miraculous, will come from outside and turn the current situation on its head. Read more →

Jesus Stood Still


Today’s sermon was given by The Rev. Louise Conant, an ordained Episcopal priest (retired) in the diocese of Massachusetts, an affiliate member of our congregation, mother of David and grandmother of James, Sarah, and Claire.

Lesson: Mark 10:46-52

About thirteen years ago, when my grandson James was just three years old, I came into the kitchen and found him making pancakes.

I don’t mean that he was emptying a box of pancake mix into a bowl. Nor was he just pouring out already measured cups of flour and sugar. He was doing the measuring himself, and adding the oatmeal and baking powder—and since these were very fancy pancakes, the cloves and cinnamon and allspice as well. And as he prepared to crack and add the eggs, Rebecca, his mother, who was on the far side of the kitchen, stood still.

Please hold on to that or a minute, while we look at what I think is one of the most wonderful scenes in Mark’s Gospel and maybe in any of the Gospels. The story of Bartimaeus is a sort of lens, concentrating the meaning of Jesus’ last three years.

Read more →

To Serve


Lesson: Mark 10:35-45

When humorist Dave Barry was a college student, he landed an internship with a magazine in Washington D.C. He says that in college, your standing in the community was based on whether you were a good guy and willing to let a friend borrow your car, so he wasn’t prepared for “the great Washington totem pole of status.” Barry writes, “Way up at the top of this pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, and other power players, holding thousands of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances that only Washingtonians are capable of grasping. For example, Washingtonians know whether a person whose title is ‘Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary’ is more or less important than a person whose title is ‘Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary.’”[1] Washington parties, Barry says, were serious affairs at which “everybody made an obvious effort to figure out where everybody else fit on the totem pole, and then spent the rest of the evening sucking up to whoever was higher up.” Barry hated this, in part because interns rank almost as low as members of the public.[2]

Dave Barry eventually figured out not everyone in Washington is status-obsessed but his experience is an example of what happens when people are way too concerned about how important they are. Jesus sees this attitude creeping into his little group of disciples when the brothers James and John ask for special treatment. Interpreters disagree about what motivates them. Could James and John be so clueless about who Jesus is that they’re imagining a triumphant, regal scene with themselves sitting in positions of honor and power at King Jesus’ right and left? Or is it that Jesus has just told them for the third time what lies ahead in Jerusalem – suffering and death – and they’re naturally starting to wonder about their own futures? Read more →

When God Is Silent


Lesson: Job 23

There is a beautiful children’s book of pen and ink drawings called A Day, A Dog, by Gabrielle Vincent. There are no words, but it is not a picture book for the faint of heart. It is basically the day in a life of a dog in sorrow. His family moves and he is left behind. He chases the car until he loses sight of them. A number of pages hold only the image of the abandoned dog. Tongue out, panting. Weaving in and out of traffic. Whether he goes forward, backward, left, or right, [north, south, east or west] he is alone.

It is a break – your – heart book. With the turn of each page, hope plummets, as there is another picture of the abandoned animal. No the family does not come back in the end. No, there are not lots of nice people offering him food and water. It is not an easy read. Neither is today’s scripture passage.

We are faced with a similar story. Job has lost about all one can lose. He’s been arguing with his friends for twenty chapters, swearing that he is innocent and has done nothing to deserve the anguish that has befallen him. This is a bold move because he lived in a world where they thought good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. So, Job must have done something wrong. He must deserve this punishment. Job knows he does not deserve the pain. We know that Job did nothing wrong. We know that God knows Job did nothing wrong. These layers of knowing add to the pain of listening to Job’s heated anger and pleading with God to show up and explain what is going on.

If only Job could talk with God, he would prove that he did nothing wrong, God would agree, and God would make it all better. “And once I am tested, I will be as pure as refined gold,” Job says. If only Job could find God. If only they could meet and talk this out. If only God were not hiding. If only I knew where to find the Almighty, so I could approach the Judgment Seat! / But if I go east, God isn’t there; if I go west, I find nothing. / When God is working up north, I can see no one; when God turns south, I don’t even catch a glimpse. God is nowhere to be found. This faithful servant of the Lord is at a loss.

It reminds me of an old, beautiful prayer and invocation that I know we are all familiar with. Come by here Lord, someone is praying, Kumbaya. Kumbaya has come to be shorthand for dismissing the weak, fluffy “other.” But, it used to mean something quite powerful. It is an African American spiritual from the Gullah language that was developed on the Georgia Sea Islands off the cost of the Carolinas.1 It has been a song that brought great strength and hope to people who were enslaved and for those living in the pain and suffering of reconstruction and Jim Crow. It once gave strength to civil rights leaders and marchers as they sang with arms linked in protest. Come by here, Lord. Someone’s crying my Lord, come by here. Someone’s praying, Lord, come by here. Life’s really hard, come by here. Be more present. Be more obvious. Lord, hurry up! Show up! God we need you, come closer. Kumbaya!

These callings out to God, asking God to be real, be present and be quick about it… these are faith-filled desires and emotions. They are real. They are normal. And, they tend to be discounted in our culture. Somewhere along the way we Christians decided that faithful meant rushing through the deep, dark pain and jumping right into the light.

Frequently when we are faced with great pain in our lives, or the lives of someone we care about, we typically have one of two reactions: ignore or fix. If we want to fix the pain and make it go away we may try to jump from pain right into joy and the silver lining.

I am reminded of the well meaning yet painful things people say when trying to comfort someone during a time of suffering: “God has a plan!” “God never gives us more than we can handle!” “He’s gone to a better place.” Or, “I know how you feel.” These phrases can be off-putting to those experiencing abandonment and grief. How can Job believe in God’s plan when he’s not sure God is even paying attention? If God is paying attention…Job is truly terrified by God. What kind of God is he following? Too much to handle? Everyone has limits in body, mind, and soul. A better place? Prove it. We cannot really know how another person feels, not really.

The problem is, when we say these types of things, we, like Job’s friends, are talking about God and trying to fix the situation. We are jumping ahead to a time when someone might be able to say, yes, God was definitely leading me through. We are jumping ahead to when the person is out of the valley and can look back, and take stock. When what the suffering person needs is a friend to be present to his emotions and the dark night of the soul –someone who will be with them IN the valley.

Sometimes the best words of comfort and scripture to offer the lonely and suffering are not words or verses of cheer or joy. Sometimes the best words we can hear are the words of one who knows what it is to question faith. Our scriptures, just like our lives, are full of verses crying out to God.

“The psalmists, the prophets, the priests – even Jesus himself – knew what it was to rage at God, to shake their fists, to raise their voices in challenge, and to call God to account. The Scriptures know nothing of a passive “just accept God’s will” kind of faith. Rather, a deep and committed trust in the promises of God give legitimacy to an honest, passionate and faithful conversation with God in the midst of life’s pain and grief. Those who put their trust in God knew that God had made promises to protect and provide. They also knew what it was to feel that God had failed in keeping God’s promise. They were unafraid to bring their anger and disappointment to God in prayer.”2 This is the tradition of lament, or a third way to deal with life’s pain.

Laments are characterized not by speaking ABOUT God. Rather it is the practice of speaking directly TO God: crying out, complaining, and reminding God to take care of us. God, where are you? My God why have you forsaken me? I am still bitter in my complaint. Part of lamenting is also trusting that God will hear us. As long as we are questioning, there is hope that God will respond.

A friend, deacon or pastor who has walked through dark times themselves can often help hold the space for us. “Loss is the way of life.” It is a human experience and no amount of faith or trust will keep loss away. When God is silent we need others who can come alongside us. We need friends to show us the way because they, too, have argued with God and know the power of lament.

On last page of the book, the abandoned dog meets a young boy with a smile on his face. A good ending, I hope! A new beginning. Eventually, God answers Job, but it is not the answer Job was looking for. God does not answer his questions or justify God’s seeming inaction. Rather, a new, much more complex understanding is born. Isn’t that what happens during the dark nights and the painful times of life? We come out on the other side changed. Whatever we thought we knew about God changes and grows. Sometimes there are silver linings, but we have to give ourselves time to process and get through the pain before we can make such claims.

I heard a story about the faculty of Luther Seminary in Minnesota who after World War II invited a refugee, Dr. Johansen Rosenthal, to join their faculty to teach New Testament.3 The professor was from Latvia, had survived the world war, a refugee camp, and finally made it to the United States. Soon after he arrived his wife died. The trauma and tragedy was too vivid, and he lost his faith. He walked into the seminary president’s office and resigned. How could he keep teaching without faith? God was silent. Was God even there at all? The seminary president, Alvin Rogness (1954-74), said he did not accept. Instead he said, “You keep teaching and we will believe for you.” The president knew as many of us do that there may be long nights of the soul. There are times in our lives when God is silent and seems out of reach. We look all around us and we do not see God or any trace that God is real, let alone compassionate and worthy of relationship or praise.

This is part of faith. Loss is part of life. God can seem silent and far away. God wants to be in relationship with ALL of us – especially when times are tough and all we can do is shake our fits. Thanks be to God for communities to help us walk through dark valleys and painful silence; who help us cry out, who pray kumbaya with us, and who fill the loving gap when God is silent.

© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015

1. “When did kumbaya become such a bad thing?” NPR January 13, 2013
2. van de Laar, John. “Lament: The Cry Of A Broken, Worshiping Heart,” (rough quote)
3. Lectionary podcast for Oct 11, 2015

Pray with Your Feet

People hold hands as they pray during a memorial service outside the Aurora Municipal Center in Aurora, Colorado. The memorial was for the victims that were killed and wounded during the mass shooting at a movie theater last Friday. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Lesson: James 5:13-20

Early this past summer, the New Yorker ran a Roz Chast cartoon with the heading, “Prayers for Agnostics.” The cartoon had three panels. The first showed a grim man at the dinner table with the caption, “Heavenly Whatever, on the off chance that you’re there …” The second showed a woman at the bus stop and the caption, “To the powers that might or might not be …” The last panel was a man in bed under the caption, “Sorry in advance for being so bad at believing, but …”[1]

I had to wonder whether Roz Chast realizes how realistic that cartoon is, not only for agnostics but also for a whole lot of church folks. I probably hear more questions about prayer than any other spiritual issue: How should I pray? What should I say? What good does prayer do, anyway? Doesn’t God already know what we need? Doesn’t 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? Does prayer change God’s mind? 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? Could God really be that petty?

At first blush, today’s passage in James’ letter might seem to make things worse instead of better. If “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,”[2] as James describes it, why is the person I love still sick? Does that mean that prayer isn’t powerful after all? Or does it mean that my prayer failed because I’m not all that righteous? Then he seems to pile on more guilt by comparing all of us to Elijah. Elijah, by the way, was an Old Testament prophet who performed miracles,[3] heard the voice of God,[4] and didn’t die, because he was taken up into the heavens in a fiery chariot.[5] So, Elijah and us – just like two peas in a pod, right? As one commentator writes, “There’s a veritable mine field of broken hopes and false expectations … in this passage. Sometimes people are healed, and that is wonderful. Sometimes they do not get any better, and it is hard, even when you have resurrection hope, even when you have faith, even when you’re trying your best to pray … .”[6] Read more →

The Good Wife

Elderly couple at golden wedding holding hands

Lesson: Proverbs 31:10-31

There is a reason that romance movies end with a wedding instead of beginning with one. There is a reason that some of THE MOST ROMANTIC movies are the ones in which the couple does not end up together, but instead, their Great Love – that’s with a capital G and a capital L – is thwarted, and brought to an untimely end. Think about it: “Casablanca.” “Roman Holiday.” “Shakespeare in Love.” “Brokeback Mountain.” “Titanic.” “Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s because after the wedding is when the hard stuff starts. Which isn’t usually what anyone expects. Glennon Doyle Melton describes it this way:

“The Way We’re Told It Goes:

Meet The One

Fall In BUTTERFLY Love, Have all the Feelings

Date, Accept Proposal


You’re done! Congrats, Cinderella! All that’s left now is: Happily Ever After!!!!!

The Way It Has Worked For Me:

Meet A Special One

Fall in Butterfly Love, have all the feelings


Have a Wedding – AKA Cross the STARTING LINE.

You’ve begun. [Stuff] gets real. Grocery shopping and children and assembling furniture and navigating each other’s families and demons and other confusing, terrifying things keep happening. Slowly understand that marriage is not what you thought it would be and your husband is not who you thought he’d be and additionally you are not who you thought you’d be.

Notice there are no more butterflies. Panic like bloody hell. Understand with mounting dread that LIFE has killed the butterflies and this must mean you have “fallen out of love.”

Look into separation.”[1]

There is much more to Doyle Melton’s story and we’ll get to that. Her honesty about the expectations people bring to marriage is startling. This morning’s passage in Proverbs hints that even when people’s expectations of marriage were entirely different from ours today, there was still this problem of unrealistic expectations. When I read today’s passage about the capable wife, my first impression was that, obviously, some man wrote this, my first clue being that there’s no parallel passage describing the ideal husband. Well, as it turns out, the author might be a woman. If you read the first 9 verses of this chapter, you’ll see that this passage is remembered as wisdom passed on to King Lemuel by his mother, telling him what to look for in a wife.[2] Read more →

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 Margaret Melsh, Patrick Kiptum, and Al Nelson.

Margaret Melsh, Emergency Management Consultant:

When someone asks what I do for a living, I say “I’m an emergency management consultant.” Noting the puzzled look, I quickly add, “I write disaster plans.” Then there’s a nod, indicating they understand. For my government and nonprofit clients, I also provide training, exercises, and technical assistance. It’s rewarding work, and I love it!

I fell into this field of endeavor quite by accident. My first disaster was the San Anselmo flood of 1982. As the town’s volunteer coordinator, I and a colleague were assigned to coordinate the massive cleanup effort. Over the years, emergency planning and response became an integral part of my job with one of Marin’s leading nonprofits. Then, after directing a regional disaster response organization for 12 years, I left in 2006 to become a self-employed consultant.

Faith enters into my vocation in several ways and I want to share a few of them with you. Read more →