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Lesson: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a
About a hundred years ago, in eastern Tennessee, a congregation was given a piece of property upon which to build a church. When the elders went to see a lawyer about drawing up a deed, they were able to persuade him to list the owner as “The Lord God Almighty.” This was fine, until a few years ago when the congregation decided to sell the building and lands in order to relocate to a larger site.
Because the property was listed as being owned by one “Lord God Almighty” and not “The Carter County Church of Christ,” the elders had to get a quitclaim deed before they could sell it. And to get a quitclaim deed, they had to show that the previous owner did not exist or couldn’t be found. So the county sheriff was issued a warrant to locate Lord God Almighty. He went over to the coffee shop on the square across from the courthouse, had his coffee and read the paper and then came back and signed the papers attesting that Lord God Almighty could not be found.
While he was having his coffee and crumb-cake, the sheriff happened to mention this little legal maneuver to the editor of the local paper. The next day the headline read, “Lord God Almighty not to be found in Carter County, Tennessee.”
In today’s passage, we learn King David’s plan to make sure the Lord God Almighty could be found in Jerusalem. This summer we’ve been following Israel’s transition from a loose collection of tribes to a kingdom. In this seventh chapter of Second Samuel, David is riding the crest of the wave. “Now when the king was settled in his house,” the passage begins, “and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.” Just a chapter later, we learn this isn’t exactly true, so this is a clue that this story might have been dropped in here, at another time, for some reason. But in any event, at this point in his reign, David’s approval ratings are sky high. Eventually this goes to his head, and we’ll get a glimpse of that next week in the incident with Bathsheba. For now, the world is David’s oyster. His counselor, the prophet Nathan, obviously believes this, too, and so when David proposes to build God a house at least as grand as his own cedar-paneled executive mansion, Nathan doesn’t even have to pray about it before giving David the go-ahead. Nathan comes pretty close to saying, “If you do it, God approves.” Now, this is pretty scary when you think about it. Some of us remember the outrageous words of Richard Nixon in the David Frost interview: “If the president does it, it is not illegal.” If David does it, it is the will of God. By definition. Read more →
Lesson: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
This morning we continue our journey through Israel’s transition from a group of tribes to a kingdom. We’ve seen the people demand a king, even after God warns them it’s a big mistake. We’ve seen God decide to go along with the king idea but the first king, King Saul, doesn’t work out and so God has the shepherd boy David anointed in secret. Young David fights with King Saul against the dreaded Philistines, but eventually it dawns on the Saul that the hugely popular and politically savvy David is a threat. David flees from Saul, hiding out with the Philistines. Yes – the same Philistines.
Saul is so badly injured in a battle with the Philistines that he asks that he be killed, because he can expect worse than death from the enemy. Saul’s sons have been killed as well and so the door is now wide open for David to grab the throne, which he does. He’s crowned king at Hebron, which serves as his capital. Then he accomplishes what Saul could not: soundly defeating the Philistines. On the heels of this victory he decides to change the capital to Jerusalem and celebrates this by moving the neglected Ark of the Covenant to a place of honor there, making it truly the City of David. That’s where we catch up with the story this morning.
Anyone who’s seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” knows that the Ark of the Covenant is a wooden box covered with gold and you seriously don’t want to mess with it. The ark was a precious and powerful symbol of God’s presence. It’s first described in the book of Exodus. The Israelites were instructed how to build the ark so they could carry the covenant – the law God gave them at Sinai – as they traveled through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The ark is described at several places in scripture as God’s throne. God was believed to sit right there on what was called the mercy seat, between the two winged cherubim on top of the ark. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” agrees with scripture to the extent that the ark represented the kind of holiness that can be a holy terror. The ark helped win the battle of Jericho, and when the Philistines captured it, it made everyone who came near it so sick that they got rid of it. If you touched the ark, looked at it the wrong way, or talked about it the wrong way, it just might be the last thing you did. All this sounds pretty foreign and pretty ancient but then, we are dealing with a very foreign and very ancient text. The idea behind these stories is the Old Testament theme that no one can see God and live. Read more →
Lesson: 1 Samuel 24
Today’s service was an At Table worship where we gathered around tables, shared food, and worshipped in the spirit of ancient Christian meals. The scripture lesson was told as a (truncated) story, “Along in a Cave,” from The Children’s Bible Story Book. The bulletin image was from the pages of their book. (Anne Degraff, editor, illustrations by Jose Montero)
The homily, or storytelling, was a reading of a second story. Here is my introduction and a link to hear the story told by the author with visuals from the book.
I want to share with you a second story today. We’ve already heard a story from the Old Testament. This story was inspired by true events from a protest and counter protest rally in Tennessee in 2007. These stories may seem very different at first, but there are elements in both that I’ll point out. Both stories engage questions of justice (right/wrong), persecution, rights, God’s will, anger, violence, and responses to anger and violence, interruptions in the pattern of violence. In other words, freedom, equality, and the pursuit of God’s love in our world.
Our second story is told in the form of a poem written by a singer/songwriter and activist David LaMotte. This story is about two parades – one is of a bunch of KKK members and the counter demonstration is a bunch of clowns. The poem is called, “White Flour”: [link to the LaMotte reading from his own book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05etFVZasyg]
The author of the poem, David Lamotte says that, “Peace is not placidity, and peacemaking has nothing to do with inaction. … Peacemaking is not passive. It is about engaging conflict in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. Note the verb there: engaging.”[i]
Engaging something – especially when we might be afraid – is an especially brave and vulnerable choice. Vulnerable because of the risk involved: the risk of failure, the risk to love “them,” the risk of interrupting the cycle of violence, the risk of being misunderstood and dismissed.
At your tables, I invite you to consider these two stories. I wonder if you can name actions that are: Vulnerable? Brave? Where do you see God in these stories? How might you be more brave and more vulnerable in your life with God’s help?
© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015
[i] LaMotte, David. “Kansmen, Crips, Clowns, Memphis and Me,” from the blog at DavidLaMotte.com. http://www.davidlamotte.com/2013/klansmen-crips-clowns-memphis-and-me/
It is good to be here at FPCSA on this Pride Sunday – on the Sunday after the Supreme Court’s decision holding that same-gender couples have the fundamental constitutional right to marry. Just like everyone else.
It is good to be here in this congregation – where you have worked so hard for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and our families – in the full life of the church and in the world — where you have done so much so that we – so that I – might freely serve in the church – where you have loved us and our families and affirmed our marriages and our ministries. It is good beyond words to stand with you here in worship this morning. Thank you.
And, it is good to be here with you – dear friends – in this incredibly painful week – as our nation continues to reel from the terrorist attack at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston – as we continue to mourn the deaths of 9 remarkable, loving, faithful people – and as we are left with the task of at long last doing something about the raw and gaping wound of racism that has plagued this Nation since its founding. When we face times like this, and challenges like these, it is good to be together.
Lessons: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Who doesn’t love an upset? Who doesn’t love it when the underdog wins; when the little guy wins? We’ve just lived through our own David and Goliath story here in the Bay Area with our Warriors defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers. Doesn’t it feel good to be on the team of the little guy who slayed the giant? Even if the NBA is the only place Steph Curry, who’s 6 foot 3, would be considered a little guy, and even if LeBron James apparently is one of the nicest human beings on the planet.[i] The little guys won! We love that.
And we love this Bible story. If you learned it in Sunday school, you remember it forever, and if you didn’t learn it in Sunday school, you still couldn’t avoid knowing something about it because the phrase “David and Goliath” has become synonymous with improbable victory of the little guy over the giant. Read more →
Lessons: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
In last week’s news we heard that the immense hack of millions of government personnel files likely included the background checks the government does for security clearances. This caught my attention because I was the subject of a federal background check when I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney a million years ago. The form you fill out for a security clearance asks for names and contact information of every supervisor you’ve had on every job, including summer jobs, and of all your family members: parents, siblings, spouses, ex-spouses and kids. It asks for the address of every place you’ve ever lived since 1937, which, for the youngsters who might have trouble figuring out how old I am, is many years before I was born, and that means I had to scramble for the addresses of every place I’d ever lived. Then the FBI contacts all the people you name – visits most of them in person – plus your next door neighbors whether you know them or not, to verify what’s on the form and ask questions about your character.
When it’s all over, you have the feeling that the government knows pretty much everything there is to know about you, and still, it turns out not to be foolproof. People are given security clearances who should not be given security clearances. Today, we learn about the process the people of ancient Israel use instead, and it isn’t foolproof, either. This morning we continue our summer sermon series focusing on the Old Testament stories that tell us how Israel went from being a loose confederation of tribes to becoming a kingdom – the stories about Saul, David and Solomon. Last week, in spite of the prophet Samuel’s misgivings and God’s dire warning, the people demanded a king. This week we pick up the story after Saul has been anointed as king, and already proven to be a colossal disappointment. So disappointing that God is over him, has moved on and already has someone else in mind to take his place. Read more →
Lessons: 1 Samuel 8:4-20
This morning we begin our summer sermon series focusing on the Old Testament passages in the lectionary – the lectionary is the list of readings chosen from the entire Bible that we follow over the course of the church year. This summer, the Old Testament passages tell us how Israel transitioned from a loose confederation of tribes to a kingdom.
From the time they arrived in Canaan after their escape from Egypt, the people had been led by what were called judges. The judges were wise men and women who helped the people follow the law that God had given them at Sinai, and helped them resolve conflicts.
Samuel is such a judge, and he’s been doing a very good job of it, but he’s old and the people are anxious about who will take his place. They’re afraid his sons might be his natural successors. In the verses just before these, we’re told Samuel’s sons didn’t inherit his sterling character. They’ve taken bribes and been unfair.
So the people tell Samuel, “Give us a king.” Give us a king so we’ll be like all the other nations. Give us a king who will lead us into battle. The backstory here is that for most of Israel’s history, this little sliver of land on the Mediterranean epitomized the African proverb, “When elephants fight, the grass gets crushed.” One superpower or another was constantly invading or threatening Israel: Egypt to the south, Babylon and Assyria to the east, Aram/Syria to the north, and still farther north, the Hittites. This conversation about kings between the people and Samuel comes at a time when those superpowers are distracted by their own internal issues. It seems like a unique opportunity for the tribes of Israel not only to cast off foreign domination but to form a mini-empire of their own. Read more →
Lesson: Romans 8:(12-13)14-18
Translation: The Inclusive Bible (Rom 8:14-18)
Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For the Spirit that God has given you does not enslave you and trap you in fear; instead, through the Spirit God has adopted you as children, and by that Spirit we cry out, “Abba!” God’s Spirit joins with our spirit to declare that we are God’s children. And if we are children, we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing in Christ’s suffering and sharing in Christ’s glory.
I didn’t read the first two verses. Did you notice? The bulletin says verses 12-18, but read 14-18 instead. It wasn’t a trick to see who’s paying attention. [Although…] It wasn’t a misread on my part. It was intentional. Verse twelve begins with “So then…” or “therefore” which tells us this passage is a summation or culmination of a longer conversation. The longer conversation involves seven chapters of the apostle Paul trying to describe and argue about who is IN and who is OUT of God’s favor and what one has to do to be IN. His concerns make plenty of sense given his place in history, but the nuts and bolts are out of sync with modern concerns. Moreover the metaphor he employs requires quite a bit of explanation: flesh verses spirit; Jews verses Gentiles, the Law verses the Spirit. So, rather than try to translate his logic, I think it’s more important for us this morning to consider his conclusion.
Lessons: Acts 2:1-21
I heard for the first time last week that Martin Luther King didn’t arrive at the podium during the March on Washington in 1963 ready to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. He’d prepared a different speech. But Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind him, said, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” What followed, straight out of his heart and mind apparently, is a rhetorical and theological masterpiece that transformed the March on Washington, and transformed America. It is also a compelling and maybe even a little disturbing illustration of the power of the Holy Spirit, particularly to those of us who wouldn’t think of leaving our manuscripts even if Mahalia Jackson told us to do it.
Today we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and how it changed the disciples, changed the course of history, even changed the world. The passage in Acts we heard today is supposed to be the biblical equivalent of pulling out all the stops in our organ: a sound like rushing wind, descending fire, a babble of languages – we are supposed to get it that what happened knocked everybody’s socks off. You know how it feels when something huge happens and then you try to explain it to your friends, and words fail, and all you can do is shake your head and say, “I wish you’d been there”? That’s what’s happening here.
Based on the power of that experience, Peter, like Martin Luther King, gets up and gives a sermon; the first ever Pentecost sermon – again, no manuscript – and at the heart of it he quotes the prophet Joel’s promise that God’s spirit plants dreams in all of us – young and old, male and female, slave and free. All of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have been commissioned to be official Christian dreamers. Peter is saying that even though the people listening to him thought the time of the prophets was over, in fact, God gives the power of the prophet to everyone – all flesh. The power of the prophet is not foretelling the future, not reading crystal balls and tealeaves as we sometimes think, but speaking truth to power, and dreaming – holding up the dream of what could be, what is actually possible even though all the voices of fear and scarcity and cynicism say it is not. That is a pretty astounding power, when you think about it. And it is given by the Spirit to each and every one of us.
It’s interesting that being called a dreamer isn’t necessarily a complement these days. Often it means someone has lost touch with reality. But a dream, a dream powered by the Holy Spirit, has a firm handle on reality, although that gets tricky: what is real, and what isn’t?
Let me explain what I mean with something near and dear to me, and I hope to you: The state of the church. In particular, the mainline Protestant church, and even more particularly, our church. Lately church leaders are being inundated with articles, blogs, books and Facebook posts with titles like, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” “The Death of the Church,” “The Five Ways the Church Shot Itself in the Foot,” “The Fifteen Ways the Church Is Going to Hell in a Hand Basket,” “The 257 Million Things Millennials Would Rather Do on Sunday Morning Instead of Going to Church,” and “Why No One in His Right Mind Under Age 90 Will Ever Walk into Your Church.” OK, I made up some of those titles, but not all of them.
You could start thinking that’s reality. You could start thinking we just have to face the facts. OK, then, let’s face the facts but let’s face the real facts: Somebody does want to go to church. YOU want to go to church. You are here this morning. And some of you are even under 90.
If you buy a red Dodge pickup truck, suddenly you see red Dodge pickup trucks everywhere you look. Pregnant women appear out of nowhere about eight months before your baby is due. In the same way, if you shine attention on obstacles and problems, they multiply before your very eyes. What these doomsday books and articles point to are cultural trends that may or may not have anything to do with you, me, and First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo. They create in our minds a story of fear and scarcity that is not actually about the way things are but if we let them, can shape us and what we do – in other words, these stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies. What we say creates reality. How we define things sets up a framework for life to unfold.
So we need to be careful that we look at the way things really are, not somebody’s glass half-empty version of the way things are. After all, the so-called optimist, the one who describes the glass as half-full, is the only one who is describing something real, something really there, a substance actually in the glass.
Let’s look at some actual facts: Worship attendance here at First Presbyterian Church goes up and down, if you look at the numbers month to month and year to year. Membership has stayed very close to even for ten years, going up a few people in some years and going down a few people in other years. As far as worship attendance and membership, our congregation is one of the larger churches in our presbytery. We have lost some dear saints in recent years and among the people who died were people who gave very generously of their financial resources. Although there are still profoundly generous people in our congregation, our budget feels the loss. This is not a dire situation. It is a problem to solve. That is why we’re holding our two visioning conversations. The first one was May 3rd, when about 65 people filled Duncan Hall with tremendous energy. The take away, in a too simple nutshell, was that our congregation has a strong sense that God is calling us to a ministry of social justice and great music. The second event is next Sunday, May 31st, when you’ll be invited to look at ways to sustain our ministries financially. The little slip of paper in your bulletins is there for you to suggest a strategy for doing that, to put in the suggestion boxes either in Duncan Hall or the narthex this morning.
As we work through this process, I invite you to remember, allow and expect the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all flesh. I invite you to dream. All the assumptions, all the stories that people are telling themselves and that we might be telling ourselves, the many things “everyone knows” about the future of the church need to be called into question by some active dreaming that invites the Spirit to help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before.
Let’s dream, beginning with what we really do know. We really do know that many people are busy on Sunday mornings. You know this. I know this. Kids’ sports, dance classes and birthday parties are on Sunday mornings. People hike, visit relatives and sleep in on Sunday mornings. So why fixate on Sunday mornings? A couple of weeks ago, 250 people “came to church” on a Saturday night to hear “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.” They experienced the gospel. They saw and heard the Word proclaimed. Every couple of months we have between 50 and a hundred people here on a weeknight for the Green Chautauqua speaker. I dream of a church that measures success by hearts transformed and lives touched, not by counting people on Sunday morning. I dream of a church that isn’t defined by what members practice when they gather together, but by how they live when they’re apart.
Another thing we know is that we’re coming out of a period of history when people participated in church because it was considered the respectable thing to do. Which is ironic for two reasons: Jesus was pretty close to the opposite of respectable his whole life, and he saved his harshest critique for religious hypocrites. I dream of a church that celebrates that the people who find their way into the church today aren’t here for show, or because they have to be here. I have a dream of a church that rejoices that people are here because of a genuine desire to explore what it means to be disciples. I dream of a church that welcomes people who are struggling with questions.
Reading Scripture, another thing we know is that Jesus’ ministry was to heal, to transform the world one person at a time, one heart at a time. I have a dream of a church that embraces healing, and that doesn’t care whether that healing happens through some other religious tradition or through secular practices such as Twelve Step groups, meditation, psychotherapy, self-help, just as examples. Because healing of the individual in turn results in healing of relationships, and then healing of families, and then schools, and then communities, and then economic structures, and then nations and then the planet – beginning with one person at a time. I read an article last week in which a Christian blogger was receiving hate email telling her she isn’t a Christian because she meditates, which according to her detractors, isn’t Christian. But Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” I dream of a church that joins hands and links arms with people of other faiths and of no faith, people doing the work of healing and justice. I dream of a church that says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
My friends, the truth is that our church is pretty darn close to my dream. But I also have a dream that we figure out what it is we don’t know. What do our neighbors need – our neighbors here in this little corner of San Anselmo? Do they have spiritual longings? Are they worried about raising their kids with good values? Are they trying to figure out how to get off the treadmill of overscheduling? Do they need help figuring out how to balance life and work? Do they need a night out, a tutor, a place where young moms can gather, an intergenerational experience, a book group, affordable housing, help negotiating health care options, a way to feel useful or find meaning? Do they just want one day that they don’t have to get up and dressed and out of the house? Is the last thing they need one more responsibility, one more activity? A church member reminded me a couple of days ago that two wonderful things about our contemporary culture are that people are more participatory and empowered. As much as I appreciate this congregation’s affirmation of my sermons, do people not want a church experience that’s a one-way discussion? What is possible that hasn’t occurred to us because we are so used to doing things the way we do them? I’m not talking about organs versus guitars. That is an old and worn out argument. I’m talking about more radical change. I’m talking about aligning ourselves with like-minded people to accomplish God’s work. I’m talking about changing our language and the way we tell stories so we don’t exclude people. I dream of a church willing to hear God’s revelation to us through our culture and world, recognizing that the church doesn’t control the voice of God.
And I wonder: What is God already doing in our neighborhood in which we could join, in which we could participate? What might we learn if we canvassed our neighborhood? Let’s not assume we already know; let’s not assume they are not already dreaming, too; and let’s not assume they don’t want to hear from us. “Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, ‘I have a dream. Of course, I’m not sure they’ll be up to it.’”
This morning’s passage in Acts tells us that all around us is God’s vibrancy and energy; God’s creative power. We call it the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that passionate energy to connect, express and communicate; to heal, to touch, to join. The Spirit lights “sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. Sometimes the sparks ignite a blaze; sometimes they pass quietly, magically, almost imperceptibly, from one to another.” This still happens. Pentecost was not a one-time event, never to be repeated. And so here is the most important question of all: What, if anything, is getting in the way of our hearing the Spirit roar through this place, empowering us to catch the vision, and dream the dream?
There’s an old story about a shoe factory that sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying, SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES. The other writes back triumphantly, GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES.
Which story are we telling ourselves? Are we allowing God to dream God’s unlimited possibilities through us? That piece of paper in your bulletin. Please tear it in half. On one piece, write your strategy for financial sustainability. On the other piece, tell us your dream. Your dream for our church. Begin it with, “I have a dream…” or “My dream is…” Put that in the suggestion box, too.
I have a dream. May it be so for you, as well. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.
 John M. Buchanan, https://jmbpastor.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/more-thoughts-on-the-dream/.
 Thom and Joani Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: And Four How Acts of Love Will Make Your Church Irresistible (Loveland. CO: Group Publishing, 2013).
 Mike Regele, Death of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
 Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), p. 110.
 Zander and Zander, pp. 109-110.
 Benjamin Zander, “The Transformative Power of Classical Music,” http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion?language=en.
 Zander and Zander, p. 139.
 Zander and Zander, p.9.