The Practice of Prayer

The third Sunday of the month is Family Sunday at First Presbyterian Church.  This sermon was a hands-on, interactive sermon in conversation with the young people of the congregation, and intended for everybody.

Lessons: Psalm 139:1-12; Philippians 4:4-7

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and during Lent we are talking about ways to practice our faith – ways to practice loving God, our neighbors, our selves and the earth.

Remember the hearts we made a few weeks ago? SHOW HEART (A construction paper heart with the words, “God loves everybody, including me, and including _____.”  The children were asked to fill in the blank with the name of someone they do not like.)

That was a practice. The heart helped us to remember that God loves everybody.

Today we are going to talk about the practice of prayer.

On the cover of your bulletin, it says that prayer is paying attention to God. And in the passage Isaac read,[i] the apostle Paul says we are to pray to God about everything. Absolutely everything. Bring everything, every part of our lives to God.

First, let’s talk about prayers.

We say prayers in church: Prayer of confession, the Lord’s Prayer, silent prayer, Prayer of Dedication, and so on.

Read more →

The Practice of Paying Attention

Lesson: Mark 9:2-9

Everyone knows safety on an airplane is important, but almost no one pays attention to the safety instructions. Whether it started with the flight attendants themselves or elsewhere, airlines have found a solution. Flight attendants inject humor into the routine safety speech: “If you are sitting next to a small child, or someone who is acting like a small child, please do us all a favor and put on your own mask first.” “Please refrain from smoking until you reach a designated smoking area, which for California, is Las Vegas.” “Your menu choices are chicken or pasta. If we’re out of your choice by the time we get to you, don’t worry; they all taste the same.” “We just found a wallet in the aisle. Now that we have your attention here is some important safety information.”

Sometimes it takes something special to get people’s attention. That’s part of what’s going on in today’s passage in Mark. It’s a story we find in Matthew and Luke as well;[1] a story we hear every year on Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, and there, Jesus is “transfigured.” His clothing becomes white with a brightness that’s not of this earth. Two other figures appear – Moses the lawgiver and the prophet Elijah. Don’t ask me how the disciples can tell who they are. They just know. Then God speaks: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Suddenly they understand in a new and unforgettable way who Jesus is and what he is doing. Read more →

A Deserted Place

Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

I suppose it says something about me and my life that I find it more thought-provoking and even challenging that Jesus took time off to pray by himself than that he healed Simon’s mother-in-law. I’ve never liked that story much, anyway. Not only is she nameless, but as soon as she’s healed of her fever, she’s expected to play the hostess. Come on, now; couldn’t the disciples get up and get their own drinks for a while, so she could rest up? The point, say biblical scholars, is that in an honor/shame culture like first century Palestine, a crucial part of the story is that Jesus has restored her to her place in the community. In her case, that means showing hospitality to guests in her home; that’s what gives her honor.[i] Okay, I get that; but still, it’s Jesus’ retreat from the clamoring crowds that catches my attention. With the whole city gathered around the door, with his own disciples hunting for him, he still takes time out in the early morning before dawn to find some solitude and pray.

He must have needed it. He needed time away from the noise and all the demands to devote to his prayer life, his spiritual life; he needed to spend quality time with God. Jesus needed this. Jesus. Jesus needed to spend time on his relationship with God. What does that tell us about what we need? Read more →


Lesson: Mark 1:21-28

I went to high school with a kid everybody knew as Ted, but his real name was George. I don’t know why his nickname was Ted, but he hated to be called George. No one ever called him George, except every year on the first day of class, when a teacher who didn’t know him yet called roll. Except for one teacher I’ll never forget. Instead of calling roll from the sheet of paper the office had provided, this teacher went down the rows of desks and asked each of us to say our names. For the first time, Ted was just Ted. The teacher also learned that E-V-A was pronounced “A-va,” and that you don’t pronounce the “g” in Montinguise. It was the first thing he did. It told us a lot about him, right off the bat. He cared enough to ask us what we wanted to be called and how to say our names.

First things matter. In this morning’s passage in Mark’s Gospel, the very first thing Jesus does is pick a fight with an unclean spirit, and it tells us a lot about him, right off the bat. It happens on the Sabbath, the day of worship and rest, in the synagogue. Jesus, a young rabbi, teaches. That’s not so unusual, but the people are unusually interested in what he says. In fact, Mark says, “they were astounded” because he taught “with authority.”[1] What does “with authority” mean? That he was confident, that he was persuasive or charismatic or said what people wanted to hear … or what? We don’t know for sure. But I bet there was something authentic in him that the people could see. I bet they could tell that he honest-to-goodness believed the kingdom of God was at hand. He could feel it, taste it, see it, and he wanted others to, as well. Read more →

Changing One’s Mind

Note: Today’s sermon was preached by the Rev. Scott Clark, Chaplain of the San Francisco Theological Seminary

Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10

This morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures takes us right into the middle of the story of Jonah – you know, the story of the prophet who was thrown into the belly of the whale.  But these verses from Chapter 3 don’t really make complete sense without the rest of the story.  It’s not a long story, and it’s a good story. So why not tell the whole thing:

One day, the word of God comes to Jonah. The word of YHWH, the God of Israel — comes to Jonah, a prophet of Israel.  YHWH says to Jonah, “Arise, go, and cry out to the City of Ninevah!”  (Now Ninevah is a foreign city; it’s actually the capital of a powerful Empire.)  The Word of God comes to Jonah – prophet of this tiny Israel, and God says, “Arise, go, cry out to Ninevah – because their wickedness has come before me.”

So Jonah, arises, and goes… to Tarshish, just as far away from Ninevah as he can.  Are you kidding me?  You want me to go where, and say what?  Jonah heads to Tarshish, and to get to Tarshish he has to cross the sea, so he hires out a boat.

But God doesn’t make it easy.  The ship sets sail, and God hurls a violent storm at them.  The boat is crashing through this storm – everyone thinks they are doomed – so all the sailors start praying to their different gods – they start throwing cargo overboard – as if to appease the angry gods of the sea.  And Jonah… is down in the bowels of the boat… sound asleep.

Read more →

Choosing God’s Voice

Lessons: 1 Samuel 3:1-9, John 1:43-51

God is not dead. God is not silent. God is alive and speaking. Is anyone listening? That is the meaning of today’s scripture readings. I will propose that they lead us to listen for the voice and call of God and reflect them in God-inspired actions throughout our lives.

But first, Bob Coote tells the story of a seminary student who asserted that God spoke privately to him.  Bob said in response to him, “Shame on you.”  I thought of that in preparation for today’s sermon when I asked the question, “does God still speak?”  I risk Bob’s shame when I answer, “Yes, God still speaks.”  But I will take some time to qualify that assertion with some conditions, cautions, and lessons. God still speaks inside us, but there is the danger that God’s message will be obscured by that louder internal voice, what Sigmund Freud called the id.  The id is highly susceptible to fear, mendacity, and greed, and is too readily a mirror of the actions of a hating and violent mob. We have a President of the United States who has given over his ego solely to the id. We must be cautious in any claim to hear God speaking lest we are misled by the voice of the id.

Read more →

Accept That You Are Accepted

Lesson: Mark 1:4-11

I’ve spent my whole life spelling my name. When someone says, “Name, please?” I rattle off “Joanne Whitt, W-H-I-T-T.” Just like that, every time. Whitt doesn’t sound complicated but it’s often confused with the more common German version, Witt, W-I-T-T, or someone tries to add an “e” to it to make “White,” which seems to makes more sense to people. If I’d taken my husband’s last name, it’d be even worse. Not only does he do the same thing: David Buechner, B-U-E-C-H-N-E-R, but people routinely butcher his name even if they’re looking right at it. Buckner, Buschner, and Beekner, because of author Frederick Buechner who spells his name exactly the same way but for some reason pronounces it differently. My daughters’ last name is Meredith. More than once, someone would ask for their last name and when they’d say, “Meredith,” the person would smile indulgently and say, “No, sweetheart, your last name.”

Even if you don’t have a hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-spell or unusual name, I’ll bet it’s important to you that people get your name right. I’m not saying you throw a tantrum or anything; just that our names remind us who we are, and in this world, it is hard enough to remember who we are. In order to be what we are supposed to be and do what we are supposed to do in this life, we need to remember who we really are.

That isn’t always easy, is it? Not for anyone; not even for Jesus. At Christmas a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated not just his birth but “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us,” that God took on the human experience. If Jesus really were a human being then he had to struggle with who he was, what his purpose was, why he was here, just like us. That is what humans do; it’s what we all do. Read more →

New Every Morning

Note: today’s sermon was preached by the Rev. Sue Fleenor, retired pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa

Lamentations 3:1-2, 17-27, John 1:1-5, 14

After serving primarily as a small church pastor thirty-five years, now that I am retired one of things I miss in this holy season is the wonder and delight of children dressed up as shepherds and sheep, angels and Magi. The prologue of the Gospel of John would be very difficult to do as a children’s Christmas pageant. Unlike Luke, in John’s “Christmas” there is no Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to register for the census.  There is no Mary giving birth to a baby boy and laying him in a manger. And there are no angels singing good news or shepherds who heard their song.  Unlike Matthew, in John’s “Christmas” there are no Magi from the east following a star to pay homage to a new born king.  And there are no gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And whereas Mark is silent about the whole thing, John does have something magnificent to tell.

John gives glorious testimony to the good and wonderful news that God became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth. Just as God in the Exodus story commanded the Israelites to pitch a tent in the desert so that God might dwell among them; in the flesh of Jesus God “pitched a tent, tabernacled” among us, so we would know that God is the Emmanuel, God with us.  God chose to put skin on and to live and walk among us,  to enter fully into the human experience, to move into our lives and neighborhoods, so that we might know what God is like, abounding in steadfast love and mercy, and from that abundance we have received grace upon grace upon grace. Yes, this is the glorious good news of Christmas, news of great joy, as proclaimed by John the Gospel writer.

Read more →

Let It Be

Lessons: Luke 1:26-38

A priest tells a story about a boy named Danny who went to his mother demanding a new bicycle for Christmas. “Danny, we can’t afford it,” his mother said. “Write a letter to Jesus and pray for one instead.” I’m not going to address the theology implied in writing Jesus for a bicycle – it’s just a joke, right? So Danny writes, “Dear Jesus, I’ve been a good boy this year and would appreciate a new bicycle. Your friend, Danny.” Now, Danny guessed that Jesus really knew he hadn’t behaved very well at all. So he gave the letter another try. “Dear Jesus, I’ve been an okay boy this year and I want a new bicycle. Yours truly, Danny.”   Well, this wasn’t exactly true either, so Danny tore it up and tried again. “Dear Jesus, I’ve thought a lot about being a good boy, so may I have a new bicycle? Danny.” Finally, Danny thought better of making these false claims and so he ran to the church. Making sure no one was looking, he stole a small statue of Mary, high-tailed it home and hid it under his bed. Then he wrote this letter: “Jesus, let’s face it, I’ve broken most of the Commandments. I’m desperate. I’ve got your mother, and if you ever want to see her again, give me a bike for Christmas. (Signed), You know who.”

The priest says this story contains a serious lesson about Mary. Throughout Christian history, there are those who have hijacked the memory of Mary to support their own understanding of how women should behave in society. As a result, Mary often is presented as meek and mild, pure, passive and subservient. The problem with this view is that it’s impossible to reconcile it with the ten stories in which Mary appears in the New Testament, including this morning’s story, known as the Annunciation.[i]

Read more →

What Does God Want?

Lessons: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46b-55

This is one of those times I wish we had video in the sanctuary. Last December on his late night show, Stephen Colbert showed a video of Liam Neeson auditioning to be a shopping mall Santa Claus.[1] As the video opens, the beardless Neeson is wearing a department store Santa costume, but he’s both a little thinner than your average Santa, and a lot more intense. He puts on this incongruous Santa hat, glares into the camera, and says in a low, growling whisper, “I see you … when you’re sleeping. I know … when you’re awake.” The director says, “Okay, that’s good. Let’s try it again; maybe a little more jolly.” Neeson smiles, but his smile somehow comes across as even more malevolent. I can’t do it justice. There will be a link to the video in the printed sermon and online.

“He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. So you’d better watch out …” Is anyone else a little creeped out by the lyrics from this Christmas song? I’d guess most of us grew up with it. And here’s the thing: I’m guessing this portrait of the all-knowing, constantly judging Santa is pretty darn close to the image of God that many of us grew up with, too. Author Jon Sweeney writes, “As a young child, I felt that my life was under constant, divine surveillance. … God watched with unblinking constancy as I played, walked to school, obeyed and disobeyed my parents. … I remember being quite sure in the first grade that God even used the television set to keep an eye on me inside the house. I would quietly interrogate the tube when I was alone in the room: “What do you want?”[2]

Read more →