Sermon: God in the Darkness

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

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

During this season of Lent, we are on a journey into the unknown, where much has been stripped away from us. It’s a journey that’s lonely, as we are isolated from others, and the path forward is dimly lit, at best. It’s a time when there are possibilities for justice to break through oppression and possibilities that inequality will become even more death dealing than it already is.

Fifty two years ago yesterday Dr. King was assassinated and one year earlier in his powerful Beyond Vietnam speech he called for a radical restructuring of society. This is a radical restructuring we need now more than ever, as 1,000s of people are forced to live on the street in San Francisco and 10s of 1,000s across this state, in the midst of a global pandemic. Their vulnerability illustrates the death dealing nature of our economic system, and the callousness of political calculations, weighing their lives against a budget’s bottom line.

These personal and political realities bring to life Jesus’ journey toward the cross in powerful ways. Today we began our service with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and will end with Jesus on the cross. This sermon is a bible study on the passion story, making sense of it within its own context and also within our world today.

We are in a dark time societally and this a dark story. It is also a complex narrative given the layers of imperial Christian theology and the anti-semitism it perpetuates. In the excerpts I read today, which are pulled from our Maundy Thursday litany, a few words might jump out at you: namely Judean and Yeshua.

The Gospel texts are Greek translations of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his followers. In ancient Greek, the same word designated someone who was a Judean and someone who was a Jew. So, whenever it’s said that the “Jews” wanted to harm Jesus, the correct translation could very well be that the “Judeans” wanted to harm him. One theory among Biblical scholars is that the Galilean, “country” followers of Jesus did not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus (why would they? they were Jews themselves) but blamed elite Judeans living in Jerusalem. For this reading, I will be referring to “Judeans” whenever the word “Jews” would appear in the text to open up another way of understanding it. I will also use the name Yeshua instead of Jesus, to remind us that he was a Jewish man.

Let us begin the story with the plot hatched to destroy Yeshua following his celebrative entry into Jerusalem.

It was two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The religious leaders who collaborated with the Roman Occupation, perhaps fearful of the security of their own positions, were conspiring against Yeshua, who they perceived as a rebel leader. They were all planning to arrest and destroy Yeshua quietly so as to avoid a popular revolt among the people.

Given the stark economic inequalities in first century Palestine, the Roman occupiers and the property-owning elite, were constantly on the lookout for rebel groups that might incite uprisings. Passover was a time when crowds of people descended on Jerusalem, so the ruling class was on high alert. There is record of extreme security measures, including soldiers posted throughout the city with license to violently suppress any rabble rousers.

Yeshua knew he was a target because he was leading movement of poor people from the countryside. For this reason it’s no surprise that the last meal he had with his disciples needed to be held in a secret location in Jerusalem. You might remember the instructions he gave to his disciples in find the place… look for a certain person (man carrying a water jar) and he will lead you to the place where you say the password to gain access to the room. Yeshua was also aware by this point that his inner circle was infiltrated by a betrayer.

So we come to the Last Supper

As they were eating, Yeshua took bread. After reciting the blessing, he broke it and gave it to his disciples as he said,

“Take, eat; this is my body.”

Then taking the cup with the traditional blessing, he gave it to his disciples as he said,

“This is my blood of the covenant which is being shed for many. I tell you in truth that I shall not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it fresh in the Kingdom of God.”

What does this meal mean? One way of understanding it is that Yeshua knows suffering is coming. He will pay a price for challenging the powerful. He is knowingly offering himself in place of other sacrifices. He knows the imperial system and its allies will exploit and sacrifice anything to maintain power and control. He is willing to face that violence head on and he is inviting his disciples into that practice through this shared meal. He believes that his vision of the Kingdom of God will prevail.

But they are not ready to follow Yeshua on that path. After the meal they walk to a garden.

Yeshua halted at an olive grove called Gethsemane. Then going apart with Peter, James and John, he left them on watch and continued a little farther alone. There he fell on his face in anguished prayer. Soon he returned to the three on watch and found them sleeping. Rousing them, he asked Peter,

“Could you not watch with me for just one hour? Watch and pray that you are not put to the test; for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

As the text later describes, they were not able to watch and pray with Yeshua. In his book, “The Four Vision Quests of Jesus,” Choctaw theologian, Steven Charleston reflects that what was so disturbing to Yeshua in the garden was that he was alone on his path to the cross. It became clear that he would journey to the cross abandoned by his closest community. “The anguish of the Garden vision,” he writes, “is not about death. It is about being alone.”

And then Yeshua is arrested.

Immediately the soldiers laid hands on Yeshua and held him fast. Then one of the disciples with Yeshua drew his sword and cut off an ear from the slave of the high priest, but Yeshua said to him,

“Sheathe your sword. All who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Do you not know that I can call upon my Abba who will respond at once with more than twelve legions of angels?”

Then turning to the mob, Yeshua continued,

“Have you come for me as against a rebel bandit with swords and clubs? Why did you not seize me in the Temple, where I sat teaching by day? Were you so afraid of the Jewish people that you must come for me by stealth? Nevertheless your actions are fulfilling the words of the prophets.”

The nature of his arrest communicates just how afraid the authorities were of Yeshua. They come armed at night to ambush their target. They most likely expected armed resistance. Given rampant economic inequalities, there were many bandits like Robin Hood or Poncho Villa during that time. Yeshua names the fear of those arresting him. And then he identifies himself with the prophets… and by extension the fate of the prophets. Some biblical scholars note that this may have crushed any remaining hopes the disciples had that Yeshua would lead a revolution against their oppressors. The disciples flee into the night as he is taken away.

Following his arrest, Yeshua is brought to trial.

Yeshua stood before the Roman governor Pilate as the accusers made their charge.

“We found this man perverting our nation. He was forbidding us to pay taxes to the Emperor and proclaiming himself Anointed King.”

The governor asked, “Are you the King of the Judeans, of the Jews?”

Yeshua replied, “You say so.”

The chief priests were accusing him of many things. Therefore Pilate again spoke to Yeshua. “Have you no answer to give? Look at how many accusations they are making!”

Yeshua astonished Pilate by remaining silent. 

The historical record shows that Pilate was particularly ruthless among Roman leaders in Palestine, and there’s no way he could have been manipulated by Judean leadership to do their bidding. Biblical scholars put it this way, “On the contrary, Pilate was expert at playing the local aristocracy against each other for his political ends. Historically, therefore, the fact that Pilate signed off on Yeshua’s crucifixion, which was the Roman penalty reserved for those convicted of insurrection, can only mean he judged Yeshua to be a substantial threat to imperial security.”

Furthermore, “to Pilate, Yeshua is merely ‘King of the Judeans or Jews,’ as opposed to the nationalist title ‘King of Israel.’ The former designation, held by Roman client-rulers such as Herod, was a contemptuous reminder that the Judeans or Jews were not sovereign in their own land.”

Knowing that his trial was a farce, Yeshua says next to nothing in response to Pilate. He knows that Divine wisdom is foolishness to those in power.

And he is thus sentenced to death by crucifixion.

They brought Yeshua to a place called Golgotha (which means “skull”). There, they crucified him. They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he refused it. His garments they divided among themselves, casting lots for them. Over his head they inscribed the charge against him, “The King of the Judeans. ” Also there were two insurrectionists crucified with him, one to his right and one to his left. Those who passed by were shaking their heads in derision and saying, “So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Save yourself. Come down from the cross.”

Notice the starkness and cynicism of this scene. Yeshua, choosing faithfulness to the end, is nailed to a cross, struggling to breath, and below him people are gambling for his clothes. Above him a sign declares Roman domination. On either side of him hang men who were also threatening to Roman power. And then there are those walking by, which communicates the everyday nature of this kind of torture.They are walking by and sneering. Another day, another poor person dying on a cross. This is what you get if you mess with the powerful.

Where is God? Where is God when Yeshua is witnessing this scene around him? Where is God as Yeshua’s followers see their teacher and friend struggling to breath on the cross? Where is God as people casually dismiss another state-sanctioned execution of a poor person?

God is there, in the darkness. God is there just like God was there when the Hebrew people were subjected to slavery under Pharaoh. God is there just like God was there weeping by the rivers of Babylon. God is there, just like God was there guiding Harriet Tubman through the night to freedom. God is there, just like God was there with Oscar Romero as he read the names of the dead during Mass in El Salvador. God is there, just like God was there at Standing Rock in the sweat lodge that was violently destroyed by armed officers. God is there, just like God is here, in the midst of a global pandemic. God is here on the streets of San Francisco, in the tents of our neighbors who are crying out for shelter. 

The God of our scriptures is the God of the poor, the dispossessed, the slaves, the sick, the losers and the executed. This God is well acquainted with darkness. God is with us in our darkness and in the abandonment of these days.

The offertory we’ll hear following a time of silence is a song by the late Leonard Cohen. “You want it darker,” he sings. “Hineni. I’m ready, my Lord.” The Hebrew word, Hineni, means “Here I am.” We are here in the darkness with God, and ready to face it with Spirit’s help.

May the sacred darkness of this holy week invite us into deeper connection with the Spirit. May the sacred darkness of this holy week create space for our grief. May the sacred darkness of this holy week inspire us to fight for the radical restructuring of society that we desperately need.

Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us. AMEN



  • The Four Visions Quests of Jesus by Steven Charleston
  • Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship by Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor
  • Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus by Richard Horsley with John S. Hanson

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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