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.
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.”
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
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?
Reflections by Sharon Heath, Andrew Ramer and Bart Shulman
A Story Of Liberation
by Sharon Heath
Every year at Passover, Jews remember and re-tell the story of their slavery in Egypt and how God rescued them from bondage and brought them into freedom. The ritual retelling of the Passover Story is called a Seder. What I am about to tell you is the story of the passage from bondage to freedom of gay men and lesbians in the U.S. It is our Passover Story.
As I look around this room this morning, I’m struck by the fact that very few of us can remember how it was before Stonewall. Many of us have lived in San Francisco so long, or were born so recently, that we can barely believe that the Love that Will Not Shut Up was ever the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name! So I want to tell you a short story about How It Used to Be and How It Changed.
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 Joanna Lawrence Shenk
I think it was sometime in 2012 I was invited to speak during an evening, student-led, chapel service at the conservative Christian college from which I graduated. This was about 7 years since I had graduated, so the current students didn’t know me, but some of my friends were on staff and many of the professors remembered me. I had been student body president and very involved in campus life while in college. I had also worked on staff as a Resident Director for two years after graduating. Although I had changed a lot since my college days, it still felt like a homecoming.
I was invited to speak by a friend who was on staff with the campus ministry department. He had heard me speak in another venue about faith and identity and thought it would be a good message for the students. I was looking forward to the opportunity because I felt like I could say things that would challenge the students who thought they had all the good Christian answers.
By Chude Allen and Rachel Stoltzfus
On June 9, 1964 I stood in front of the pews of an Episcopal church in a small town in Pennsylvania. I was about to go to Mississippi to be a freedom school teacher as part of what is now called Freedom Summer. I asked the parishioners for donations and their prayers.
When I was in Mississippi I wrote my parents that when I returned I wanted to speak again in the church, that I believed God would speak through me. My minister, however, would not allow me to speak during a service, only in the parish hall at an evening educational. Today is only the second time ever I have spoken during worship. Of course Spirit does not only appear in places of worship, but there was and is a power that comes when we join together in acknowledgement of something greater than ourselves.