By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
This sermon was preached on All Saints Day.
Selections from Isaiah 40
We are made from this earth. God took the dust of the ground — adamah in Hebrew — and breathed into it to make us — adam. And one day, we return to it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our name — human — comes from the same root as humus, which means soil, specifically, the most fertile kind of soil made up of decomposed leaves and organisms, the kind of soil made up of dead things, the kind of soil in which something living can be grown.
To paraphrase Carl Jung, “Only that which can die is that which can be truly alive.”
On the last Sunday of October, many Mennonite churches in the United States observe Mennonite Heritage Sunday, a day set aside to remember the gifts that our spiritual ancestors have bequeathed to us. Our Anabaptist ancestors participated in one of the biggest religious, social and economic upheavals in European history. The 1500s were a time when the structures that had governed society for centuries were being actively challenged and dismantled by the masses, who were seeking to transform these economic and political and religious structures to be more egalitarian and just. It was an apocalyptic time, a time of violence and fear and hope and vision when the world truly seemed to be ending and something new truly seemed to be happening. Sound familiar?
Our social context today is similarly apocalyptic — a time of transformation, when centuries-old structure are failing and something new is desperately trying to be born. Our service today will look at how we in this church are participating in the many moments for transformation swirling around us. Kate Irick, Jim Lichti and Helen Stoltzfus will be offering reflections on that theme, which follow.
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fifth sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Scripture excerpts from Judges, Samuel and Kings
In the sermon today we have another great sweep of scripture to cover: Judges, 1 and 2 Sameul and 1 and 2 Kings. In the Hebrew bible these books are known as the former prophets and they are understood to be a theological commentary on the events leading up to destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the Babylonian exile.
These books explain why things happened the way they did. They are not a historical account. I’ve also realized in writing this sermon that I’m reflecting less on specific prophets and specific kings, and more on the scope of these prophetic books and how they reflect on the transition of Israel, from a tribal confederacy to a united and then divided monarchy.
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fourth sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Scripture excerpts from Exodus – Joshua (see below)
We have a lot of ground to cover today so we’ll be reading excerpts from scripture throughout the sermon. The scope of the sermon is Exodus through Joshua… Suffice it to say this sermon wins the hot mess award for our series this fall.
Last week Sheri talked about the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. “Being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re God’s pampered favorite child and you can throw tantrums and steals toys and treat everyone around you like crap. It means you’ve been chosen for a divine purpose and that God has blessed you for that purpose.”
Members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco joined thousands who marched in the Global Climate Strike and March in San Francisco on Friday, September 20, 2019. It was a great day of Global Solidarity as marchers and protesters joined an estimated 4 million protesters or more, worldwide, to demand solutions to the Worldwide Climate Crisis.
Here are some of the First Mennonites at the Strike and March who marched and carried First Mennonite Church’s “Solidarity” banner:
And the following picture shows the First Mennonite Church banner amidst the tumult of thousands of marchers and protesters heading down Market Street in San Francisco:
-Submitted by Jim Musselman, for the Green Team and Climate Justice Group of FMCSF.
This is the third sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Before we continue telling the story of the Bible, I want to say about how I think of story. Stories do not have to be literally true to be profoundly true. Stories do not have to be factual to tell us the truth about the human condition and our relationship to the Sacred. When I approach Bible stories, I often think of a saying that has been attributed to a Native American storyteller: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” We listen to these stories again and again to try to find the truth in them and to orient our lives by that truth.
And so… We started our series on the story of the Bible two Sundays ago with — creation! It was good, very good. A beautiful garden abundantly filled with life! Humans created in the image of God! And then, last Sunday: the fall. Humans — desiring to be like God — go beyond God-given limits and broken relationships result, with God, ourselves, each other and creation.