Sermon: A Time to Grow Our Souls

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”

John 15:1-17

Over the last week elders have been on my mind. Elders who are made vulnerable by the spread of COVID-19. Elders in San Francisco who Faith in Action is organizing people to call. Elders in my family and in the families of friends. I’ve also been thinking of elders who have passed on and what wisdom they would have for us right now.

The title of the sermon today comes from a quote by the late Grace Lee Boggs, who was an elder and visionary movement leader from Detroit. In the midst of challenges and insurmountable odds she would say, “This is the time to grow our souls.” I feel that and I know I need that.

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Sermon: Resistance

This is the third sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”

John 15:1-17

Back in the mid-1990s, I was on retreat at a small retreat house near Carmel run by Catholic nuns. It was one of the the first retreats I had ever done, and it wasn’t a “programmed” retreat. It was me, at a house with three Catholic sisters, trying to figure out what it meant to be on retreat. I was in my early 30s, and I was in a kind of crisis. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still hadn’t landed in a satisfying vocation, and I felt adrift in the universe. 

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Sermon: Abide in Me

This is the second sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.” 

John 15:1-17

When I was growing up, we went to outdoor tent revivals put on by Helen’s uncle, George Brunk. Growing up in an isolated Amish-Mennonite farming community, we didn’t have ready access to live theater or dance clubs. Plus, all the drama and ecstasy you would want was more than present at George Brunk’s tent revival meetings. I can still smell the sawdust put down on the hay fields to keep the dust under control; I can still see hundreds of my neighbors gathered on a May evening, under the bright light of a string of bare bulbs, the dark fields right outside; and I can feel the powerful Spirit that was present when George Brunk spoke. Brunk was an amazing preacher. Helen gets her gift of drama genetically. With his thunderous voice and imposing presence, you could easily believe God was speaking directly through him. When he gave the altar call at the end of each evening, droves of people would get up out of their seats and, with tears in their eyes, walk to the front of the tent to dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to God. 

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Sermon: Naming and Claiming Spirit and Power as our Own

This is the first sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.” 

John 15:1-17

Have you ever had the experience, sitting with people in meditation or worship, where you felt this energy in the room or within yourself, like some bigger Spirit or bigger Power was present?

Have you ever been pierced by beauty  — El Capitan at sunset, the eyelashes on a child’s face, a piece of music that you had to listen to over and over again?

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Scripture Reflections

This Sunday, two members — Kenda Horst and Jim Lichti — offered reflections on a lectionary passage of their choice.

Reflection on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 — Kenda Horst

First, a short preamble: After I said yes to Sheri, I sat down at my computer and, seeing the blank screen, thought to myself: “What did I just do?” That said, I actually did consider Sheri’s invitation, however briefly, before saying “yes.”

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Sermon: The Foolish Wisdom of God

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

This year in discipleship group we’re reading the book “Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice,” and reading the book of Romans. It’s my first experience with the writings of Paul in quite awhile and it has been illuminating in a number of ways. The authors of Romans Disarmed make the case that Paul’s revolutionary message has been co-opted by the forces of imperial Christianity. In the book they challenge followers of Jesus to re-examine Paul’s writings and reclaim them as an invitation to resist empire and demand justice.

Last week during discipleship group we discussed how we orient ourselves to reading Romans. Because, one might argue, since the book doesn’t address empire explicitly, any interpretation with that lens is unnecessarily politicizing the text. So we clarified that it’s true that Romans is not talking about empire. It’s talking through empire. Empire is the context not the content. With empire as the backdrop, Paul is talking about faith in Christ as salvation for all humanity, and rooted in the Jewish tradition.

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Sermon: Nativity Remixed

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:1-12

Today my sermon is an experiment in imaginative storytelling. I’m going to retell the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the wise people. In my story I’m going to bring to life Tree’s drawing of the holy family in a tent on the streets of San Francisco and what it means for our understanding of Epiphany in this time and in this place.

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Sermon: The Sacred Way

This sermon is the third in an Advent series on “Spanning the Space Between.”

Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11

I recently saw a photograph of last spring’s “super bloom” of California wildflowers. It looked like someone took a palette of paints and dumped them over the desert hills — purples, oranges, yellows, blues. Supposedly the bloom was so colorful that it could be seen from space. To make it even more crazily colorful, millions of painted lady butterflies showed up because of the bloom, filling the skies. I had never seen anything like it, and it made me upset that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to see this super bloom in person. Because super blooms don’t come around very often! You need a long rainy season but not just that. Super blooms tend to be more super after several years of drought because some seeds need to lie dormant for awhile to truly erupt into a super bloom.  As one writer said, “Hard, undesirable conditions over many years seem to pave the way for the stunning explosion of a super bloom.” 

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Sermon: The Unquenchable Fire

This sermon is the second in an Advent series entitled “Spanning the Space Between.”

Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

A few years back, Jennette arranged a camping trip to Lake Tahoe for our church. It had been awhile since I’d been there, and I was surprised and saddened by the sight of so many dead pine trees. Instead of seeing one long swath of green over the mountainsides, there were whole chunks of forest that were brown with dead trees, and other chunks that were a mottled mix of green and brown. In fact, tree die-off is happening all over our western forests, from the Yukon all the way to Mexico.

Why is this happening? On the surface, the culprit is drought and insects, particularly the bark beetle. As our climate warms, winters shorten and droughts in western forests intensify, weakening trees, which then makes them easy prey for the beetles. But the real culprit may actually be that there’s not enough fire.  Scientists and forest managers now believe that decades of suppressing forest fires in the interest of protecting private property has resulted in forests that have too many trees in them. It used to be that fires would happen about every 10 to 15 years, which kept the forest from getting overcrowded. Such forests could better sustain periods of drought because there wasn’t so much competition for water and other resources.  But suppressing fire produces too many trees that are then all more susceptible to drought and bark beetles. In addition, fire suppression paradoxically produces bigger and more violent fires because there’s so much more fuel to burn in an overcrowded forest.  We need fire. It’s destructive; it’s dangerous; it’s hard to control; it’s scary. But we need it.  

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Sermon: Keep Awake, Therefore

This sermon is from the first Sunday of our Advent series, which has as its theme “Spanning the Space Between”

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

We had a discussion last Sunday during Education Hour about the holidays — how we feel about them and where they are in tension with our values. It turns out the holidays are deeply unsettling for many of us: the consumerism and the destruction to our planet and its people that it represents, the compulsion to be merry when we are lonely or grieving or just don’t feel merry, the consumerism, the pressure of family rituals that are no longer life-giving or meaningful, the consumerism. 

And then, there are others of us who love Christmas. I count myself among them. While acknowledging all of the above, I also think we as northern hemisphere dwellers need this kind of winter festival. Long before there was a Christmas or even Christians, people held festivals of light around the winter solstice. To people without benefit of our scientific knowledge, this time of weakening daylight could be a time of fear: Would the sun — the giver of all life —  return? It the sun did not return, or if it returned only incompletely, they would die. And so ancient peoples would hold festivals to honor the sun, to encourage it to come back quickly. They lit bonfires on the hills, decorated groves of oak trees with candles  – all to drive away the darkness of fear and uncertainty and usher in the light.

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Reflections on “Trusting Provision”

Matthew 6:25-34

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, Philip McGarvey and Tree gave reflections on what it means to live a life of trusting provision, trusting that our needs will be provided for — by the Divine, by the land, etc.

The first reflection is by Philip:

Dear friends,

I’m writing to you from the south slope of our mountain up in the redwood forest where I’ve lived since last April.  My feet are propped up on a dying madrone, and my head is leaned back against a fir.  There are a lot of birds making noise today.  I laid here all morning for my mind to slow down enough for words to come.  I was asked to write something about land and food.  It is hard for me to know what to say.

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Sermon: How to Survive an Apocalypse

Luke 21:5-19

On the morning that I had set aside to begin this sermon, I kept not getting to it because I kept getting news of people dying. One was Kent Barnes’ father, who death was somewhat expected and was, in many respects, a mercy. But another one was Karen Bennett’s brother-in-law, who had gone into surgery for a minor operation and died a few days later, for reasons that are still unclear. He was 68. I had met Mike when I officiated Karen and Peter’s wedding and at the memorial service for Karen’s father. Mike was a physically big man with an even bigger presence, the kind of presence we call “commanding.” I told Karen that I couldn’t remember his face, but I remembered how much energetic space he took up during the reception after the memorial. “That’s Mike,” Karen said. And she paused. “It’s implausible that he’s not here anymore.” 

I think every death is an implausibility. My experience is that even when someone dies expectedly as opposed to unexpectedly, even when you know their death is going to happen and have been praying for this mercy, when they actually die, you say to yourself,  “What just happened? They were here and now they’re not? That’s implausible.”

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