Sermons

Drop Everything

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Lesson: Luke 9:51-62

Nearly every Sunday for several years now, we include in our morning announcements an invitation that goes something like this: “Wherever you are in your faith journey, there is a place for you here at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo.” What we mean to communicate is that we recognize that people come into this sanctuary from different faith backgrounds and from no faith background; some know exactly what they believe and some aren’t sure; some aren’t sure they want to believe anything but maybe they’re curious. Maybe they like the feeling of community, or they like that we host a shelter during the winter, or have a great choir, or tackle justice issues like anti-torture, which you can learn about following worship today.

Belief can be hard and it’s worth acknowledging that. So when we say, “Wherever you are in your faith journey, there’s a place for you here,” we’re saying we welcome both believers and skeptics to process their doubts and beliefs here. And let me be really clear about one thing we are not saying. We are not saying, “We want you to hang around here long enough that you come to believe exactly that way the rest of us do.” For starters, if there are 150 people in this sanctuary this morning there are probably 150 ways of believing, too. So there is no lock-step approach to faith here.

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Legion

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Lessons: Luke 8:26-39

I remember the first time it struck me how challenging life is if you’re tormented by your thoughts. I was a young Assistant U.S. Attorney, and the lawyers in the office took turns dealing with people who dropped in with off-the-wall complaints, which happened more often than you might guess. One day when it was my turn, I was sent to the reception area to meet with a man who wanted to bring an action against the F.B.I., because, he said, F.B.I. agents were trying to kill him by poisoning his breakfast cereal. I was stunned, and it was a little scary. What I remember thinking was that, otherwise, he seemed pretty functional. He was dressed normally; he’d found his way to the U.S. Attorney’s office by getting on the right bus.

In 2016, we use medical terminology to describe mental illness, but my encounter with this man helped me understand why people might describe mental illness in terms of possession, of being held captive by a power beyond our control. Now, years later, I’m not sure I know anyone whose family isn’t touched in some way by mental illness. And yet it is still our culture’s last “leprosy” – it’s still frightening to many, it is dealt with inadequately and it leaves the people impacted feeling both shame and somehow “unclean.”

The man in today’s highly symbolic story in Luke’s gospel is considered unclean because he is possessed by what Luke calls demons, and what we might call schizophrenia. He is out of his mind. He is not at all functional. He’s so violent that he’s taken to living in the tombs, among the dead – an unclean place. Read more →

Who Needs Forgiveness?

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Lesson: Luke 7:36-8:3

We always pray for “illumination” but what’m really praying for is God’s help this morning as I preach about forgiveness the same morning we’ve learned that 50 people have died in yet another mass shooting, this time in Orlando.  Today’s sermon deals with God’s forgiveness and our own sense of being forgiven.  What we should forgive, and when; how we can begin to forgive atrocities – these are topics for another day.  However, knowing we’re forgiven by God fuels our compassion to forgive others – so today’s topic is relevant to this morning’s news, as well.

This morning’s passage in Luke’s gospel seems familiar. A woman, ointment, Jesus’ feet: haven’t we heard this before? Yes, and no. While all four gospels feature a version of this scenario, Luke’s version is the one that’s not like the others. It doesn’t point us toward Jesus’ impending death, and it has a surprise ending. In Luke’s version, we are at a dinner thrown by a Pharisee named Simon, whose guests are likely as prominent in the community as he is. At the center of this meal is Jesus, the prophet everyone is talking about. We don’t know why he was invited. Are Simon and his friends admirers, or just curious, or is this something of a test? We don’t know.

Then a woman crashes the party because Jesus is there. Luke tells us she’s a sinner, but we aren’t told the nature of her sin. It could be anything, and the assumption made by past commentators that she’s a prostitute says more about the commentators than about the woman. Her sin might not have been sexy. It might have been cruel or calculating or mean. Whatever she’s done, Simon, at least, and perhaps the other guests as well, seem to have heard about it. Read more →

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 →

No More Divisions (aka The Worm Sermon)

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Lesson: Acts 11:1-18 (The Message)

Worms. Yes, this morning I’d like to discuss worms. Worms are really interesting looking when eaten by Timon and Pumbaa in the movie The Lion King. Disney can draw some pretty bugs! Bright, exotic colors make beetles and worms and all sorts of creepy crawlies reminiscent of high-class tropical living. Hakuna Matata! It means no worries. Indeed. Bugs for dinner? Why not? “Tastes like chicken,” Timon the meerkat says. “Slimy, yet satisfying!” chimes in Pumbaa the warthog.  But, I still get a little shiver down my spine when Simba, the lion cub, eats his first worm. After a big gulp he realizes bugs aren’t so bad. It’s a transformation point. Simba starts his new life with his new friends in the jungle as a freewheeling bugatarian.

Here is my problem with eating worms…I think it is gross.  Worms, grubs, or larvae are things that are supposed to be fed to iguanas or lizards or used in science experiments. They aren’t proper lion food. Or people food. Right?

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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 →