Sermons

Things Fall Apart

Today’s sermon was preached by our seminary intern, Patrick Kiptum

At the turn of the last century, colonization was in full blossom in most parts of Africa, my homeland. The British came to my homeland and they stayed and everything changed. For my people, our entire way of life changed. The Europeans came and they introduced Christianity and traditional African civilization crumbled in their wake.

Almost all African tribes and cultures had elaborate civilizations before colonization. They all had the taboos and traditions. Each tribe had its own form of worship. As part of worship, each tribe had its own rituals. For example, I am from the Kalenjin tribe in the Great Rift Valley.  In my culture, one of our rituals was to perform rain dances as a form of prayer for rain each spring.  My tribe offered corn, milk and alcohol to the spirits, in hopes we would be blessed with good rains.

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The “Spirit” in “Spiritual”

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Lesson: Acts 2:1-13; John 14:8-17

Americans are getting less religious but more spiritual, according to the Pew Research Center.[1] Those terms are more than a little vague but in this particular study, “religious” is measured by how important people say religion is to them, and by how often they attend worship services and pray. Which I would argue are also “spiritual” practices but I’m getting ahead of myself. People are classified as “spiritual” in this study if they say they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being, as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe.[2]

Behind this, I suspect, is the cultural shift that contrasts “spiritual” against “religion,” by which most people mean, “organized religion,” by which they actually mean what’s perceived as the negative aspects of organized religion. “Religion,” says much of our culture, is full of unreasonable rules and rigid beliefs; it is old-fashioned, judgmental, boring, and irrelevant – and those aren’t even the worst things people come up with. This is why “spiritual but not religious,” or “SBNR,” for short, has become the fastest growing approach to religion in the country – or rather, to non-religion.

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Aftershock

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Lesson: Acts 16:16-34

Yesterday was the Kentucky Derby, and as they do every year, racing fans at Churchill Downs wore crazy hats, guzzled mint juleps, and broke into a passionate rendition of Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” It’s highly likely that the people who sang, “Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home” think it’s a nostalgic ode to missing home, home in Kentucky in particular, but also, any home we’ve ever left behind. Doesn’t it make us feel good to remember the happy home we’ve left behind? But according to a report on NPR, the Derby fans are disconnected from the song’s history. Stephen Foster wrote the song in 1852, before the Civil War. He was writing about people who were enslaved – slaves who had to leave their “happy home” in Kentucky because they’d been “sold down the river.” The phrase, “sold down the river,” has come to mean ultimate betrayal, but it comes from the slave trade. After slave importation was outlawed, people were sold from what were thought of as “slave-growing states” – yes, incredibly enough, that’s a thing – “slave-growing states” like Kentucky to the cotton plantations further south, down the Mississippi River. And that was tantamount to a death sentence.[1]

So “My Old Kentucky Home” isn’t a romantic song about home. But even Foster missed this crucial fact: There was no good place to be a slave. The sun never shines bright on slavery. Not even in Kentucky.[2]

It’s a good reminder of how easy it is to miss something, not to see something, because we don’t need to, and especially, because it might make us uncomfortable. This morning’s Acts passage challenges us with what we might miss – what even the apostle Paul or Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, might miss. Paul and Silas have been meeting with the congregation in Philippi, enjoying the hospitality of Lydia, their first convert there, but Paul is increasingly irritated by a girl who is enslaved who follows them everywhere. She’s possessed by “a spirit of divination,” which supposedly allowed her to tell people’s fortunes. She shows us she’s clairvoyant by shouting at Paul and Silas: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Read more →

Meals Matter

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So much of the New Testament is about table fellowship. The Eucharist we celebrate this morning has us discern the body of Christ in the elements and in the faith of those around us.

The parable of the Prodigal Son speaks of the necessity of sacrificing the fat bull at the return of the son. The story of the Prodigal son displays a high theology of banqueting as reconciliation.

In the Gospels, there is something about Jesus that draws supper companions. Because of his humanity, he welcomed them, sat with them and ate with them. Something happens when we eat together.

Social distances lessen.

We are no longer distinct strangers but friends.

Our stories merge, the distinctions between us disappears as we pass the potatoes, as my friend Hope Attenhofer says.

Letting Jesus in changes everything.

So it is in this morning’s reading that we meet Lydia, a wealthy dealer in purple cloth. After hearing him preach, she prevails upon Paul and his followers to visit and sup with her household. This is after she has found faith from Paul’s preaching. Her first recorded act of faith is hospitality. Read more →

Tabitha, Get Up!

Lesson: Acts 9:36-43

I learned about the poet, Billy Collins, at a memorial service for one of our dear departed saints – a saint not unlike Tabitha in today’s passage in Acts, a woman who was devoted to doing good works for this community and for the world beyond; a woman, like so many other people in our community, that we mourned as irreplaceable. One of her granddaughters read a Collins poem during the service. Billy Collins is an American poet, and he teaches poetry, as well. In one of his poems, called “Introduction to Poetry,” he describes the frustration of a poet trying to teach non-poets how to read a poem. I won’t read the whole poem, but it includes these lines:

“I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.”

 

Then Collins expresses his exasperation with his students:

 

“But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.”[1]

 

Today’s story in Acts reminded me of this poem. The account of the raising of Tabitha is a short but enigmatic and challenging. For starters, someone is brought back to life after having died; and not even by Jesus, for crying out loud, but rather, by Peter. It’s a tough miracle to swallow. In our scientific age, we’re tempted either to come up with a rational explanation for such biblical miracles, or to dismiss a passage as pointless. For example, I ran across an article detailing the scientific evidence that Jesus might have been walking on barely detectable patches of ice when he was described as “walking on water.”[2] I don’t discourage any inquiry, really, especially if it helps someone’s faith, but the biblical writers weren’t worried about science. They cared about what they remembered, and they cared what God was saying to them. Our task, today, is to figure out how God is still speaking through this story, the story the community remembered, without tying it to a chair and beating a confession out of it. Read more →

The News from San Anselmo 2016

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Lesson: John 20:19-34

Note: On the Sunday after Easter, we celebrate Holy Humor Sunday by presenting worship in radio show format, “A San Anselmo Home Companion” (our thanks to Garrison Keillor). The sermon or proclamation of the Word is this work of fiction, “The News from San Anselmo.”

It’s been a quiet week in our hometown of San Anselmo, nestled against the edge of the Marin hills. It’s April; it’s the season of wildflowers and we’re enjoying an abundance of wildflowers, thanks to El Niño. The poppies are magnificent, especially against brilliant green hills. It seems those hills haven’t been this green in a long time.

Did you notice that even during the worst of the draught, no one ever said, “Drink less coffee; it’ll save water”? Like most Marin County towns, San Anselmo not only has an abundance of wildflowers but an abundance of coffee options. You pass a coffee place about every fifty feet or so on San Anselmo Avenue. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but only slight. A person’s choice of coffee place has more to do with instinct and other mysterious unconscious factors than with reason. There’s the classic Marin Coffee Roasters, right in the middle of downtown. It’s been the destination of weekend bicyclists since before it moved from down the street. Or you could choose San Anselmo Coffee Roasters at the north end of downtown. The owner chose the name intentionally to confuse patrons of Marin Coffee Roasters. Why he chose the 1973 time warp décor remains a mystery, however. Read more →

Held Fast: The Room Where It Happened

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Lesson: Luke 24:1-12

This past winter, I made a deal with our daughters that if they read a book I thought was important, I’d listen to the soundtrack of the Broadway show, “Hamilton,” which they thought was important. They read the book, and I downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes, and while they found the book moderately useful, I found myself absolutely hooked on “Hamilton.”[1] “Hamilton” is the Grammy-winning Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton – yes, that Hamilton, the one on the ten dollar bill. It’s a highly entertaining history lesson set to irresistible rap music – yes, rap music. I’ve learned more about the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution from “Hamilton” than I did from any of my U.S. history classes.

This morning’s sermon title comes from a song from “Hamilton.” In 1790, Virginians Jefferson and Madison opposed young Treasury Secretary Hamilton on just about every issue, but in particular, they staunchly objected to his financial plan for the new nation. It was good for the North, where Hamilton lived, but bad for the South. Then over dinner one night, the three reached a compromise: Jefferson and Madison would support Hamilton’s economic proposal, and somehow, thrown into the deal, the nation’s capital would move from New York City to the banks of the Potomac – closer to home for the Virginians. No one knows exactly what took place to change the minds of these three strong-minded men with seemingly intractable opinions. No one knows the conversation, the trades offered or the chess pieces sacrificed, so to speak. It’s all a mystery because, as the song says, “No one else was in the room where it happened.”

Isn’t that where we find ourselves on Easter? We have no firsthand account of the resurrection itself; no one witnessed the first gasp for breath or the shudder of limbs as a heart beat once more. No one was with Jesus when he shrugged off the linen cloth and stepped out of the tomb. No one saw it happen. No one else was in the room where it happened. Read more →

Held Fast: Blessings

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Lesson: Luke 19:28-42

I, like many Americans this week, was drawn into a reality-show like drama based in the DC area. No, I’m not talking politics. I’m referring to the live video feed from the American Eagle Foundation. A pair of bald eagles nested in the National Arboretum and people around the world have tuned in to two, high definition video cameras streaming 24/7 coverage as watchers counted down for two eggs to hatch.[i] And hatch they did! The first eaglet came out of his/her shell Friday and the second hatched earlier this morning. I don’t mind telling you…they are cute!

I have not been glued to the screen, because birds sitting in a nest do not make for good TV. However, the anticipation and communal joy of reading tweets (#dceaglecam), posts on Facebook, and seeing coverage by NPR.org not once but twice(!) is more than a nice break from the political saga storming my inbox and my brain these last few months.

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Held Fast: Compassionate

Lesson: John 12:1-8

Things start normally enough in this morning’s passage in John’s gospel: just a dinner party with good friends – except for the remarkably abnormal fact that one of the hosts is Lazarus, recently resuscitated after having been dead for three days. And except for the fact that it’s an odd time to throw a party. The raising of Lazarus is a turning point in John’s gospel. The authorities realize that when the news about Lazarus gets around, even more people will follow Jesus. They’ll think he’s some sort of savior and if that happens, the Romans will wreak havoc on everyone. “We’ve got to put a stop to this; better to have one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed,”[1] they decide.   So they begin plotting his death. Passover is coming up; everyone will be in Jerusalem. The authorities plan to grab Jesus when he shows up for the festival.[2]   Jesus’ days are numbered, and he knows it.

Maybe, after all, that’s the perfect time to shut out the world for a night and enjoy the people you love. So Jesus dines in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, with his dearest friends: Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. At some point in the evening, without explanation, Mary breaks open a bottle of nard,[3] an incredibly expensive perfumed ointment. Mary lets her hair down in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does.[4]   She pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, not his head. If you’re going to anoint someone, the head is the place to do it. She touches him – a single woman touching a single man’s feet – not done, not even among friends.[5]   Then in the oddest move of all she wipes off the perfume with her hair.

Oh. My. Gosh. Is anyone else a little bit uncomfortable with this? Or – a lot? I mean, maybe she is overwhelmed with gratitude for what Jesus did for their brother,[6] but the whole incident is not only one of excess but of eroticism. We have to be in utter denial to pretend there’s nothing going on here, at least as far as Mary’s concerned. Just exactly what isn’t clear, but Mary has stepped far outside the bounds of convention, teetering on the edge of scandal.[7] Read more →

Held Fast: Forgiven

Lesson: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of my all-time favorite Scripture passages. Many people love it; but sometimes familiarity gets in the way of understanding a parable. One of my professors used to say that while a myth is the kind of story that builds a world, a parable explodes worlds, blows to bits the way we think things ought to work. If we don’t feel a bit like heading for the bunkers after we’ve heard it, then we’re not dealing with a real, live parable.

The story begins as Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with the wrong kind of people: sinners, tax collectors, outcasts. In Jesus’ day, this was a critical, religious issue, but it looks to the Pharisees as though Jesus doesn’t care. In those days, sinners fell into five basic categories. There were the people in unacceptable occupations, like tax collectors, who worked for the Romans and benefitted from graft and corruption. Next there were people who did immoral things; O.K., fair enough. Then there were Samaritans and Gentiles – you could be a sinner just by being born into the wrong culture. Finally there were people who didn’t keep the law to the rigorous standards of the religious authorities – which included most of the ordinary working folks who just didn’t have the luxury of being able to sit around debating the finer points of religious law all day long.[1] The question for us, and Explosion Number 1 of this parable, is this: Putting aside the first century definitions of who was a sinner, who would you be scandalized to see having breakfast with Jesus at Hilda’s? An ex-convict? Your ex-spouse? A terrorist? Someone in human trafficking? Someone currently running for President? The relative who made off with Grandma’s silver tea service an hour after she died, the guy who bullied you every day all through middle school? Whose name is crossed off your guest list forever? That’s who’s at the table. Read more →