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.
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.
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Today I want to pick up where we left off last week with these words at the end of Sheri’s sermon: “In our present time, when paranoid kings rule, and when the life of the planet is literally at stake, I think it is more important than ever that we come together to listen for the Spirit and to seek the Spirit’s guidance.”
She continued, “I think we need more than our conscious intellect, our rational mind, to get ourselves out of this mess we are in. I think we need to hear the Spirit’s voice in many ways, new ways, perhaps ways we haven’t been as attentive to before, as we observe the glimmers of light that have appeared in the dark and move toward them, together.”
What does it mean to listen for the Spirit and seek the Spirit’s guidance? How do we do this with more than our rational mind? What might the Spirit illuminate and how will we respond in this season of Epiphany?
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.
A sermon preached by Thomas Merton (as channelled by Pat Plude) at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. For a link to this sermon with footnotes, please click here.
Introduction by Sheri Hostetler: A few years back, we did a series that resonated with many of you on the archetypes of the warrior, monk and mystic. We said that while we may gravitate toward one of these archetypes, to be a faithful follower of Jesus, we ultimately need to embody all of them. Thomas Merton has long been one of my spiritual teachers because he did faithfully embody all of them. He was literally a monk, a Trappist monk, at Gethsamani Abbey in Kentucky. He was a mystic with a deep connection to the Source of life, which he experienced in prayer and ritual but also in nature and music. And he was a prophet. Without leaving his Abbey, he became a powerful public prophet, speaking out against the war in Vietnam and militarism and violence in general and standing up on behalf of racial equality.
During our “Speaking the Truth in Love” series, we talked about the importance of sharing our feelings rather than our thoughts (or judgments) when speaking our truth. It is sometimes difficult to figure out the two, however! This Feelings List from the Bay Area Nonviolent Communication chapter can be very helpful with that. You can find out more about their work at www.baynvc.org. The List is used with permission.