I’m reading a book in which the author, Cheryl Strayed, talks about working with poor, white middle school girls who were deemed not just “high risk” but “highest risk” by the school they attended. These girls had had the roughest of lives before they were even technically teenagers. Poverty, incarceration, missing or drugged-out or abusive parents. They girls told her, as Strayed put it, “ghastly, horrible, shocking, sad, merciless things. Things that would compel me to squint my eyes as I listened, as if by squinting I could protect myself by hearing it less distinctly… Endless stories of abuse and betrayal and absence and devastation,” many of which were still happening. She told the girls that what was happening to them was not okay. It was unacceptable. It was illegal. And that she would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop. It never did. Not once did a police officer or a child protective service worker ever come and help any of the girls during the year that Strayed worked with them. Finally, Strayed asked a child protective services worker why no one came, and she explained that there wasn’t enough money to go around and so they had to do triage. They would intervene quickly with a child under the age of 12, but for those over that age, they put their name on a long list of children whom they hoped they could check up on someday when there was enough money to do so. The woman told Strayed that it would be better if the girls ran away from home, because there was more funding for runaways.
By Sheri Hostetler
Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43
Our story from Acts takes place in Joppa, a coastal town about 35 miles west of Jerusalem. It is now a suburb of Tel Aviv. Dorcas, or Tabitha (the Hebrew version of her name) — actually, I’m going to call her Tabitha because I can’t get this middl-school snicker out of my mind whenever I hear the name Dorcas. Tabitha is one of the main disciples of a small community of Jewish followers of Jesus that has formed in Joppa. Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity, the text says; she was a beloved person in this community, caring for the most vulnerable by making garments for them. Today, in our world of fast fashion, we might not realize what a big deal this was. Clothing back then was major expense — one cloak might cost more than half of the annual wages of a poor person. Tabitha was seriously into the redistribution of wealth by giving widows and poor people clothing.
This is how our story begins: “On the first day of the week, when it was still dark, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” When it was still dark, the women who loved Jesus set off to do the equivalent of a first-century embalming — taking spices and oils to put on Jesus’ body to slow down the decay. So, clearly, they were expecting to find a dead body. Clearly, they were not expecting resurrection. They thought they knew what had happened and what was going to happen. Jesus had died, and he would remain dead. He would not save them; his movement would not overthrow the Roman Occupation and inaugurate the kingdom of God, that place of peace and justice and liberation and enough for all. That hope was over. Dead, just as Jesus was, killed by the very forces of injustice they thought he would overthrow. At his death, says the Gospel of Matthew, darkness fell upon the whole land.
By Sheri Hostetler
Our Lenten series is “Spiritual Resilience in a Time of Chaos.” This is the second sermon of that series.
There is a memory etched in my mind from the last week of my Mom’s life. Her church women’s group has come to sing to her, as they have many times before during her long decline from Lewy Body Dementia. My Mom is sitting in a chair, slumped, with barely the strength to sit up, mouth open, like this is the only way she can get enough breath. She is so tired, so weak. She hasn’t been able to talk for months, and she hasn’t eaten for days. The women form a circle with her. They all sing beautifully, except for one woman who — convinced she can’t sing — whistles. She’s actually a really good whistler! This is what it sounded like (plays recording).
After each song, the women would decide what to sing next, and sometimes they’d take a few minutes figuring this out, or they would start talking about something else. When this happened, my Mom somehow found the energy to do this (move finger slightly), which meant “Stop talking and sing!” Once or twice, I saw my Mom mouthing the words.
By Sheri Hostetler
Our Lenten series is “Spiritual Resilience in a Time of Chaos.” This is the first sermon of that series.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun, well-known writer and a passionate advocate for justice who has lived in Christian community for more than 60 years. So, she knows community. She tells a story about working with new members of her order, in which she asks them why they go to prayer. Benedictines pray together anywhere from four to seven times a day, so, it’s a big part of their life together. If you go to a Benedictine community for a retreat, which I have, the bell that signals the start of prayer rings a lot, and it really impresses upon you how much their lives are steeped in prayer. So, how these new “recruits” to the community regard prayer is key to their formation. Chittister says that the newbies’ answers are often full of a sort of piety that ones gets from reading books.
By Sheri Hostetler
Zacchaeus appears only once in the New Testament, in this story from the Gospel of Luke, but he is an unforgettable character. Too short to see Jesus in any other way, he climbs onto a limb of a big sycamore tree as Jesus walks down the road into Jericho. Zacchaeus is willing to go to some length to get a closer look at this holy man he’s heard so much about.
Zacchaeus was a Jew who worked for the equivalent of the Roman IRS; he went around collecting the hated taxes for the hated occupying Empire. So, he’s already seen as a kind of traitor by his own people. In addition, it was common practice for tax collectors to collect more money from people than what they actually owed to the Roman government; they would give the Romans what they expected and kept the rest. Zacchaeus must have extorted a lot of money from other Jews because the scripture says he is “rich.” So, even more reason to hate this guy. When people saw Zacchaeus coming down the street, they crossed over to the other side but not before spitting on the path he would walk on. And so, these same people watch with anticipation as Jesus looks up, sees Zacchaeus in the tree, stops and opens his mouth to speak. They just knew that this holy man was going to give that shyster a real sermon.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12
While watching the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” a few months ago — a biopic about Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of “Queen,” my absolutely favorite rock group in high school and still to this day — I found out that his family were Zoroastrians, a religion that I thought had disappeared a few hundred years ago. Come to find out it hasn’t, and, indeed, California has one of the largest concentrations of Zoroastrians outside of Iran and India.
Third Sunday of Advent: Dreams, Signs and Wonders
I was talking to one of you the other day about beloved Christmas traditions we had growing up. I mentioned the Christmas pageant the Sunday School kids from my church would do every year. I made it my mission in life to be chosen as Mary when I was in the 6th grade. Only 6th grade girls could be Mary, which gave me time to study the situation. I gradually learned that you had to have long hair to be chosen as Mary, and preferably your had to have blonde or light brown hair, which is just so wrong. I had light brown hair, which I started growing long in the 4th grade and — voila! — I was Mary in the 6th grade Christmas pageant.
That was probably the last time I wanted to be Mary. As a budding feminist, I associated Mary with a gentleness and meekness that I did not wish to emulate. She was portrayed as this sort of empty vessel with little to no will of her own. Who wanted that? When I was doing my masters in feminist liberation theology, I and my classmates would roll our eyes whenever someone mentioned Mary’s reply to the angel Gabriel, when informed that she was about to conceive the Messiah: “Here I am, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.” We saw this as the epitome of what feminist theologian Mary Daly called the “totaled woman.”
Second Sunday of Advent: “Dreams, Signs and Wonders”
For four years while Jerome was getting his Ph.D., we lived on the grounds of and worked at Piedmont Community Church. One of our co-workers had these things she’d say over and over again — many of us do — and one of them was this thing she’d always say whenever we were talking about solid, dependable, ordinary folks who were respected by others. She’d say, “They’re good people. Good people.” You might be charismatic or rich or incredibly talented. You might be a CEO (there were plenty of them in Piedmont) or a high-powered attorney in San Francisco, but only a certain type of person earned the title “good people” from my co-worker. It was her highest praise.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are “good people.” The author of Luke goes out of his way to establish their “good people” cred. They “lived blamelessly,” says the text, which meant they kept all 613 mitzvoth or commandments of the Jewish faith. What’s more, Zechariah is a priest and Elizabeth is a descendent of priests. Elizabeth shares the same name as that of the wife of Aaron, Israel’s first priest. This might all sound rather “posh,” as the Brits would say, but it wasn’t. There were supposedly 18,000 priests in Israel at this time, divided up in 24 different sections. There were so many priests that each priest was only on “active duty” two separate weeks a year at the Temple in Jerusalem. These priests were like reserve foot soldiers — set aside for intermittent service, respected but not particularly distinguished.
First Sunday of Advent: “Dreams, Signs and Wonders”
We don’t like to wait. It’s almost a cliche to say it, but it’s true. Almost every technological change that has occurred during my lifetime has been an effort to reduce our need to wait. We used to have to wait so much more. Do I sound like a cliche of somebody who’s getting older? I remember anticipating for months annual TV Christmas specials like a “Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Once I watched them, I’d have to wait another 12 months for them to be aired again. Now, we can instantly call up those shows on Netflix or Amazon. About once or twice a year, we’d order new clothes from Sears. To do that, we’d have to drive to the small Sears catalog storefront in Millersburg, where you would fill out a form in triplicate with your order. You’d wait about three weeks, and then you’d get a call that your order had come in, and then you’d drive to Millersburg again to pick up the package. Now, I press a button on a screen and a day later, a package arrives on my porch. When I used to wait for the school bus to pick me up, I waited. I didn’t look at Instagram or listen to music or text my friends. When you used to call somebody and they weren’t home — now, you digital natives may have to pay close attention here — you’d have to put down the phone and wait until you thought they might be home to call them again. Because there weren’t any answering machines or voice mails and there certainly weren’t phones you carried around in your pocket. I could on and on.
By Sheri Hostetler
About a month ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) released another landmark report saying that, yes, climate change is really happening and we’re already seeing the effects of just one degree Celsius of warming and those effects are bigger than we even thought they were going to be. Droughts are more devastating, hurricanes are more damaging, wildfires are more intense and frequent. We know what this is doing to people and other living things from Yemen to Puerto Rico to Paradise, California.
Because these effects are bigger and happening more quickly than scientists thought they would, the report said we need to keep warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, not the 2 degrees originally agreed upon by world leaders in 2015. This half degree of difference could make a world of difference. It could leave our children with a planet that sort of looks like our own. There will be big environmental challenges and changes with 1.5 degree Celsius warming — there are already with 1 degree. But with 2 degree Celsius, we’re talking more about the end of the world as we know it, especially for the poor and vulnerable. Says Debra Roberts, the co-chair of an IPCC working group: “(1.5 degrees Celsius) is a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now.”
Earlier this week, I was on my weekly morning walk with my friend when — for some reason — we began talking about plastic flowers. I think it was because the Beverly’s crafts store had closed down in Alameda several months ago, and we were regretting not having a fabric store in town anymore and then we got curious about who bought all of those plastic flowers that took up the entire front part of the store. I told my friend of all the folks I know back home who buy plastic flowers and said they would have been able to keep Beverly’s in business.
“But my Mom,” I continued, “she never liked plastic flowers. Instead, she grew her own flowers that she dried and made into arrangements. And she got so good at it that she started her own dried flower business called Bev’s Everlastings.” “That’s so cool,” my friend said. “How did she preserve the flowers?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I have no idea.” And just like that…. my grief hit. I realized, in that instant, that I will never know how my Mom dried her flowers. Because I can’t ask her. Because she died four years ago. Such a simple question for which there will never be an answer.