This is our second annual “Throwback Sunday,” where we look at a theological concept that many of us might have grown up with and where we also engage in gastronomic rituals that many of us may have grown up with. This year, we’re having a jello salad extravaganza! And I’ll be talking about eternal life. I also have to say that this passage from John is written in a context where the Jews who follow Jesus and the Jews who don’t are starting to have much more conflict and hostility between them, and you can hear that antagonism in much of John and certainly in the passage we just heard. Let’s remember these words from John are not justification for anti-Semitism today; how could they be? They are recording an intra-Jewish conflict, for the most part.
So, for many of us who grew up in church, that last verse we heard read— John 3:16 — was the most important verse in the Bible. It summarized the essence of our faith: that we are sinners who should be condemned to death because of our sin. But God, out of love for us, decided to send a substitute — his Son, Jesus, who was sacrificed on our behalf. And now, if we believe in Jesus – believe that Jesus is God’s son and believe in his saving work on the Cross – then we can avoid the fiery pits of hell and go to heaven after we die and be there with our beloveds in the faith who have died before us. We can have eternal life. Sound about right?
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
It felt like a punch to the gut to learn about another shooting in this country yesterday in El Paso. And then this morning while preparing for worship to learn about Dayton. And this follows less than a week after the tragedy in Gilroy at the Garlic Festival, which is very close to home. A member of our congregation had attended the festival the day before the shooting.
Lord have mercy. These are difficult times. What words of hope are there? What words of comfort in the face of loss and trauma?
I’ve found some solace immersed in the Psalms and reflecting on God’s steadfast love. In the NRSV the first verse is translated to include the word “steadfast.” It reminded me this week of a song I learned in childhood:
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
We do what’s possible and God does what’s impossible. That is the actual title of my sermon, it was just too long for the bulletin.
One of my favorite places these days is the Faith in Action office located at the corner of Folsom and Cesar Chavez. I walk in the door saying “Hola, como esta?” and giving hugs and kisses all around the table. I’m usually one of the only people in the room that doesn’t speak Spanish but that hasn’t gotten in the way of getting to know these neighbors. And thankfully someone is always gracious enough to translate for me.
At a Faith in Action meeting this week we began by answering the question: Where have you sensed the Spirit of God in our work together?
The other day, I walked the dog in my neighborhood on a morning that was just right. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. It was just right. The sun was warm on my skin, the birds were singing, flowers were blooming. And then, I saw him: a thin man in his early 20s, standing in the middle of the street on this just right morning, barefoot, tattered, talking to himself, arms waving above his head like he was fending off a swarm of bees. As I walked near him, he turned an eye to me, and the look he gave me was wild. I had no idea what he was going to do next, what vision he was seeing as he looked at me. I found myself glad that my little guard dog DeeDee with me. As I turned the corner onto another street, I looked back and saw that he was taking off his clothes, still standing in the middle of the street. I wanted to help him — he was some mother’s son, not much older than my own — but I was afraid to and didn’t know how.
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.”