Sermon – Diving Deep January 10, 2016

Sermon:  Diving Deep

January 10, 2016

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                        Baptism of Jesus Sunday


Scripture: Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22 (MSG)


15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

16-17 But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the Jordon river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

21-22 After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”


Dear God, may your story become our story as we read and live your word.  Amen.

Our Experience

Having been through this recent drought and now having experienced a week of rain and being promised the El Nino season to end all El Nino’s I am discovering a new relationship with water.  I have a Southern California wardrobe which I pretty much take for granted, after all we normally have two seasons, right:  green and less green. I realized last week that my closet full of Crocks doesn’t fair too well in the downpours, and so looking at the prospect of even more rain, a lot more rain, I am reassessing both footwear and the meaning of water in my life. Let me illustrate:                 In “Called to Lead”, Tony Robinson (2012/pg.32) tells us something that his daughter learned while working on a huge cattle ranch in the Australian outback.  The land was so vast and arid that the ranchers don’t rely on fences to keep the cattle from wandering off.  What keeps the cattle around instead of physical barriers is a deep well of pure water.  Cows and bulls may not be the smartest of creatures, but they have managed to figure out not to wander too far away from the well, their only source of water. Perhaps we can learn something from these cattle.                                         Our Experience Expanded                                                                       Water is life-giving.  We all need it and without it we would die.  For those of you who have been to the Holy Land, although not as barren as the Australian outback, it is arid and water from both wells, lakes and rivers (in today’s story the Jordon River) play a critical role in our scripture stories.               The folks of Jesus’ time focused on a well or a river or a lake because they needed the life-giving water that could be found there.  We have our center in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our story today centers around John the Baptizer and his ministry of watering souls.  As the rumors about him got around, people began to trust him, and they were baptized by him in a muddy river.  These people trusted that the water was enough, it was more than enough to draw them in and keep them close.

Our Traditions

A sense of immersion lies at the root of the meaning of baptism. As twitchy as we mainline Protestants may be about the depth and quantity of water used in the baptismal sacrament, we have to acknowledge that to be baptized is to be immersed, to surrender to the flow. It is all about diving deep into the grace that is offered in this sacrament.                                            Peter Woods (I Am Listening, 2013) states that as he reads Luke’s gospel “I become aware of two immersions. There is the immersion of Herod into constriction and darkness. Herod, who decided to take the low road and earned the derision and disgust of John the Baptizer, then adds to the depth of his darkness and has John thrown in to prison, and from there to a later beheading. In contrast there is the immersion of Jesus into the mission of the God; diving deeply into light and opening.”    1                                                Listen to Luke, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”               Wood’s continues, “Herod’s is an immersion into walled off imprisonment. He ends up every bit as confined as John whom he has locked up. Jesus’ , on the other hand, is an immersion into openness, with the heavens exposed, the Spirit descending and voices speaking. We all know the power of our addictions to imprison us. To wall us in and ultimately make us lose our heads (or at least our minds). That is the Baptism of Herod. Yet every now and then, grace on grace, we are able to immerse ourselves into the Other. To do what is required, to pray, and like Jesus, to find ourselves opening up to light and heaven and to hear the flutter of Spirit wings, that is the baptism of Jesus. And as his followers we are expected to dive deep.

Re-mything Our Traditions

About a year ago, Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber was interviewed on the radio program “Fresh Air.” She mentioned the earnest seminarian who at one of her speaking engagements asked, “Pastor Nadia, what are your ways, your spiritual practices, for getting closer to God?”    “Why would I want to get close to God,” responded Nadia. “Whenever Jesus gets close to me I end up having to love someone I hate, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.” She went on to say that in her life it feels more like “God has come after me.”               We often seem to think of the Christian faith as our human search for God, our feeble attempt to get close to God. The Bible tells a different story, one more in line with Pastor Nadia’s experience: the story of the God who keeps showing up, intruding, refusing to leave us alone, searching for us. A God who won’t take “no” for an answer. A God who loves us even when we can’t imagine God doing such a thing.                                                        As I worked on this sermon I began to think of all the rain and the “diving deep” and I came to the conclusion that Baptism isn’t about sin as much as it is about love. Maybe it isn’t about our attempt to get close to God; maybe it’s about God loving us. How did our life and faith story get so confused that we even posture thoughts about whether God loves us or not? Blessings to each and every one of you, and may the rain remind us of the Holy Spirit raining down upon us, diving deep inside us – just as it did on Jesus at his Baptism in the River Jordan. Amen.


Thank you, God, for the living water that keeps us alive and refreshes our spirits.  Help us to stay close to the source of that water this day and in the days to come.




Sermon – Being Hard Headed February 7, 2016

Sermon:  Being Hard Headed                                      February 7, 2016

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles                                                         5th Sunday after Epiphany

Transfiguration Sunday

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2


12Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to Jesus, the veil is removed. 17Now God is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from God, the Spirit.


41Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.


Holy God, enthroned above, you are exalted over all creation!  We gather now to praise your awesome name, for you alone are holy.  Prepare us to hear your message of justice and equity, O God, as we worship at your feet this day.  Answer us, as you answered our spiritual ancestors, when we call upon your name.  Speak to us, forgiving God, as we lift your holy name.  Amen.

Our Experience

One of the symbols in our stained-glass windows that we explored last week is the Dedicated or Kingdom Heart.  Some of us recognized it as a Catholic symbol for the Immaculate Heart.  Our Wednesday afternoon Bible Study has been doing a study of the hard saying of Jesus.  You know – “If your hand offends you cut it off.”   The conversations have been remarkable and the difficulty of achieving a “Kingdom Heart” has been recognized on any number of occasions.  It is like we are rediscovering our hidden life in God. It is even a bit like the game “hide and seek.” We hide – God finds us.        The movie “John Q” depicts the plight of a father (Denzel Washington) willing to lay down his life for his son. As a social commentary, it stabs our conscience about a society with medical services for those who can afford them and death for those who cannot. As redemptive drama, it also shows the metanoia (change of heart) or reversal of thinking in several characters who broker the power of the HMO medical system. In the end they ultimately side with the powerlessness of John Q. and his son.                            A Kingdom Heart is a heart that knows it is deficient and thus depends totally upon God to guide and direct all actions; so Jesus begins working, not on our actions, but in our thought-lives.  Our thoughts are the truth of who we are.   A Kingdom Heart always cares first about others. A Kingdom Heart places the highest value on the protection of another, not the protection of the self.  It desires first and foremost to feed and nurture another, not to feed one’s own appetite at the expense of another.  As could be seen in the movie “John Q” survival of the fittest is humanity’s biggest lie.  Truth is the salvation of all, even ‘the least of these’. To be fit for the kingdom is to be the kind of person whose feet, eyes, hands, heart and all the rest simply walk within the good policy that he or she has adopted because of the knowledge that it is good and right.  This is what I call wholehearted living.  I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for Black History Month.

Our Experience Expanded

What creates in someone a Kingdom Heart? Claudette Colvin was born Sept. 5, 1939. Today she lives in the Bronx, NY.  On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous arrest, Claudette Colvin was dragged from a Montgomery bus by two police officers, arrested and taken to an adult jail to be booked. She was only 15 years old and was the first person to be arrested for defying bus segregation in Montgomery.                    Unfortunately, her arrest and her story have long since been forgotten, but it provided the spark for the Black community in Montgomery that ultimately led to Parks’ actions, the bus boycott, and the Supreme Court ruling to end segregation on buses.                                                            Claudette may well have been the 1955 version of Black Lives Matter.  Imagine, 15 years old and willing to be arrested for what she thought was right.  Such authenticity is rare, but is such a critical part of the courage it takes to lead a protest. Maybe she channeled Sojourner Truth.                  Benjamin Singleton lived from 1809–1900 and I have to wonder if he is related to our own Singleton clan here at St. Paul’s.  Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was an African-American activist and businessman best known for his role in establishing African-American settlements in Kansas.                              Held in slavery in Tennessee, Singleton escaped to freedom in 1846 and became a noted abolitionist, community leader and spokesman for African-American civil rights. He returned to Tennessee during the Union occupation in 1862, but soon concluded that Blacks would never achieve economic equality in the white-dominated South. And yet, his was a resilient spirit and he spent most of his 91 years trying to make the world a better place for his Black brothers and sisters.                                                                 Matthew Henson was born on Aug. 8, 1866 and died on March 9, 1955.  He had been born to sharecroppers on a farm in Nanjemoy, MD, and he became the first African-American Arctic explorer. He is credited by many as the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909.                                              Henson was an associate of the American explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years.  Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit natives even learning their language. He was known as Peary’s “first man” when it came to tackling the arduous expeditions. Henson was seen as a very intuitive person and he no doubt had a tremendous amount of trusting faith to engage in such dangerous adventures.

Our Traditions

Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  We all know the story or the stories.  Moses spent so much time with God up on a mountain and became so infused with light that when he came down off the mountain he had to cover his head with a veil so as not to blind his fellow Israelites.  And Jesus in much the same fashion met God on a mountain and began to radiate bright light, so much so that it frightened the disciples.  These two men were changed, transformed by their encounters with God.  And it is an attention grabber to be sure — to see someone, particularly a community or religious leader all lit up like a Christmas tree would get our attention, would it not? But if we were doubters by nature, it our Kingdom Heart was being dictated to by our hard head, then how might we process something like this?  I believe this was one of Paul’s concerns in his second letter to the Corinthians.                                                                                                Although Paul wouldn’t have used this language much of what he wanted from the folks involved in the early Christian Movement was vulnerability, openness to doing things differently, a willingness to embrace new and different things.  Remember these folks were under siege.  They were being persecuted and imprisoned, not unlike our early Civil Rights activists.  They were willing to share an unpopular opinion. A 15-year-old Claudette stood up for herself.  Both Singleton and Henson were able to ask for help, Henson from people he had to learn how to talk with.  I think the finest example I know of being vulnerable is saying, “I love you” first without knowing if you’re going to be loved back.                                                     Paul also acknowledges the presence of shame in our lives.  Paul understood that you can’t shame someone into changing, but he also knew that shame was how the world works.  It is certainly how advertising works, marketing, it’s how a lot of parents’ work, it’s how a lot of school systems work.  So why do we cling to something so time worn?  Go figure!

Re-mything Our Traditions

Last week the Black Presbyterian Church and the world lost a truly renaissance man. Rev. Dr. James Anthony Noel, the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr. Chair of African American Christianity, Professor of American Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary, died Sunday evening, January 31, after a valiant fight with cancer. He was 68 years old. Dr. Noel was also Pastor of New Liberation Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.                               A gifted painter, his vibrant artwork is on display throughout the SFTS campus and in numerous art galleries throughout the Bay Area. He said of his paintings: “They contemplate, celebrate, and represent the African Diaspora’s social, religious, and cultural experiences in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. I wanted to capture the beauty and dignity of Black folk as a reality as well as an ideal.”                                         He was also a 7th Dan Tae Kwon Do Master, a Korean martial art, which he began studying when he was in his late teens. He developed his own system, which he practiced and taught, neh kong do (way of inner strength), which he felt was “more fluid and gentle.”                                      Blessed with a rich, mellifluous bass voice, Noel would often break into song, especially a Black spiritual, during a lecture or a sermon. His voice commanded attention and his words spoke to the heart of things. He was a person of sharp intellect, deep feeling, and enormous passion. He could be angry and impatient, but also tender and gracious. Few others equaled his knowledge of the African diaspora, African American history, and the Black Church. The breadth of his network of scholars, activists, and pastors was truly impressive.                                                                              James Anthony Noel was born on January 1, 1948, in Queens, NY.  He received his B.A. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969, a Master of Divinity degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1975, and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in 1999.               As an undergraduate at Berkeley, he met Raam Somayajulu, a researcher in physical chemistry.  Away from class, Somayajulu gathered people together to discuss quantum theory, yoga meditation and consciousness, body energy and the teachings of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras.  These conversations led Noel to follow a path that led to practicing tae kwon do. After he entered SFTS with the idea of studying comparative religion, he read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17.  In it, Jesus led his disciples to the top of a mountain where he glowed like the sun.  Then Jesus led his disciples back down the mountain where he performed a healing. “I realized all of a sudden that Jesus was my guru,” Noel said. “I thought the spiritual practices I was doing would lead me to enlightenment, only to discover that Jesus had already done it for me.”              From 1976 to 1987 he served as pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. One of his parishioners there, author Anne Lamott often referenced Dr. Noel in her writings. He also served as interim pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, CA, in the mid 2000s.        While at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Dr. Noel and others formed the Marin City Community Economic Development Corporation to purchase land in the community on which to build affordable housing, provide essential services, and support the local economy. He served as the first Chairperson of the Community Development Organization of Marin City, which developed 40 acres of land into a shopping center, condominiums with access to housing for low-income families, and a new building to house the St. Andrew’s congregation.                                                                     Rev. Noel joined the SFTS faculty in 1988, after serving a year as the seminary’s Director of Continuing Education. He became a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, where he was also the convener of the Black Church/Africana Studies Certificate Program. In 2012 his GTU colleagues honored him with the distinguished professor award, given to those “who embody the scholarly standards, teaching excellence, and commitment to ecumenism that define the GTU.”                   His achievements, contributions, and accomplishments are manifold. He was a towering figure in many different communities, networks, conversations, always bringing the prophetic word and challenging us to address the basic issues of justice related to race and poverty.  (SFTS obituary, 2-1-16)                                                                                           I witnessed how effortlessly he was able to touch people’s lives. It was my pleasure to have known James Noel and I can tell you he had a Kingdom Heart. He is going to be deeply missed. He was through-and-through a man of faith and prophetic witness to the God of love and justice, whom he knew through Jesus Christ, who lived among us as a slave, suffered with us even to the point of his death on a cross, and who showed us a still more perfect way.  James believed in the resurrection and he lived a life of hope and courage based on it. He has entered into the communion of saints and joined that cloud of witnesses who now encourage us and urge us on. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. For they shall rest from their labors and their deeds follow them.” Amen and Amen.


O God, you are beyond words and description, your love is beyond knowledge and explanation.  Make our hearts ready to receive you. Change us, we pray, that our lives may reflect the glory of your transfiguration.  We rejoice in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sermon – Wait, Wait! Please Tell Me! November 29, 2015

Sermon:  Wait, Wait!  Please Tell Me!                      November 29, 2015

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                   First Sunday in Advent


Scripture: Luke 21:25-36

25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘me coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the dominion of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Most Holy.”


On this First Sunday in Advent, give us grace, that we may cast off the shadows of our lives and put upon us the armor of light. Amen.

Our Experience

There is a news-based quiz show on NPR called “Wait, Wait! Don’t Tell Me.” I love listening to it and even though a whole week can go by without my going near a newspaper I always seem to enjoy guessing the answers.  I even come up with quite a few right ones. The panel is always fun and they manage effortlessly to find humor in world events.                                      Advent is also about waiting.  We are waiting for Christmas; for the baby Jesus to come into our lives.  I can remember as a child taking the Sears Christmas catalog into my room and closing the door and sitting on my bed by the hour going through it page by page picking out Christmas presents while listening to the Three Chipmunk’s Christmas album on my record player – the very same one I told you about taking apart in a recent Children’s message. I developed to a fine art our spiritual disciple for today:  Yearning – well, at best I endured the waiting with a whole lot of wishing.          I now understand that yearning is the force field of desire that draws us to God. It grows out of our sense of incompleteness and our deep need for something more which we know can only be met by The Holy One and not found in the Sears Christmas Wish Book. The hunger and thirst that becomes yearning is characterized by a restlessness in our souls. It is most present when we desperately want to move beyond the petty wants of the ego and break out of the self-constructed prisons that confine us.                     We can practice yearning for the Holy One by constantly rekindling our desire through seeking, study, and devotion. I invite you to pay attention to who and what pulls you, tugs at your heart, particularly during this season of Advent. I then invite you to honor the fluid, boundless, and timeless qualities of this capacity. We have to allow ourselves to reach for fulfillment, in all likelihood it will not just fall into our lives.

Our Experience Expanded

During this season of Advent, we are called to watch and to wait.  We are looking for Jesus, but where do we look for him? In a baby? A family? A retail chain? A tradition? A memory? A scripture? Looking and waiting for Jesus, yearning for the saving grace of Jesus is a traditional theme for Advent.                                                                                           A block to the practice of yearning is being stuck in the status quo, unwilling or unable to move. We may be satisfied with the way things are. But that does not mean that everything is hunky-dory. No, our world is probably too small; it may feel safe, but we need to realize there is a much bigger one available to us.                                                                               We may also stifle our yearning out of fear or a need for stability. We
may be too cynical or pessimistic to believe that any life other than the one we are used to is possible. We’ve seen these same tendencies get in the way of other spiritual practices.

Our Traditions

Advent can be filled with the guilt of old memories and unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. I know a lot of people who truly hate Christmas and the Christmas season.  We understand what Jeremiah means when we read “The days are surely coming…” (verse 14). We feel the pressure. Scripture invites us not in to guilt but to mindfulness: “Be on guard…” (Luke 21:34). Each new Advent we are invited to start again with God teaching us the paths. Advent is also a call to mindfulness. Remember when mindfulness was one of our Spiritual Literacy practices? One ways of increasing mindfulness and keeping that for which we yearn in focus is to say the prayer: “O my God, in you I trust” (Psalm 25:2a).        Another way  is to read the signs – those from our passage fro Luke and others.                        Rather than “Wait, Wait, don’t tell me” during Advent, it is “Wait, Wait.  Please tell me.” That is what is at the heart of this holy season. Our passage from Luke speaks directly to us — we who live much of the time in the confusion and fear– are waiting not just at Advent, but at all times for the advent of light, of that ultimate light that is redemptive and terrifying at the same time. “Please, Please, we pray.  Show us the way.”

Re-mything Our Traditions

My first exegesis class in seminary was taught by a Professor named Herman Weitjen.  He assigned us three books to readOne I cannot remember, but the other two were Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly and the Autobiography of Malcom X written by Malcom and Alex Haley.  I began reading the Autobiography of Malcom X on a Friday afternoon after I got off work and I read non-stop until Monday morning.  I took food and bathroom breaks and that was it.  I was mesmerized.  Never in my sheltered life had I met anyone like this man.  I remember relating all of this to my professor in a paper I wrote on the book and I remember him telling me that I should have the same response to reading the Bible and hearing stories about Jesus.                                                                                                 Reading Malcolm’s autobiography as a narrative of spiritual quest, spiritual yearning as it were, his spiritual anguish, occasioned by his loss of faith, is generally viewed as part of the initiation a seeker undergoes before achieving spiritual enlightenment. Yes, it is important that our yearning be for this which is true and good and righteous.  Malcom’s betrayal by Elijah Muhammad can be seen as a trial by fire, testing Malcolm’s spiritual commitment.  Although it is not explicitly stated in the book, that shattering of his faith in the spiritual messenger must have led him to question the meaning of religious and spiritual practice in a corrupt world.  During this time, Malcolm so anguished in spirit, felt he was losing his mind.  Shattered and broken in spirit, he was more tormented than he was during the time of his confinement in prison.  He was spiritually tried.  The spiritual lesson Malcom learns from this trial is that divine power can never be seen as exclusively embodied in one individual.  After his break with the nation of Islam, Malcom goes to Mecca, making the journey to express and renew his faith.  That journey also provided a space where he could contemplate all that had happened — a significant part of yearning and desire:

In Mecca, too, I had played back for myself the twelve years I had spent with Elijah Muhammad as if it were a motion picture.  I guess it would be impossible for anyone even to realize how complete was my belief in Elijah Muhammed.  I believed in him not only as a leader in the ordinary human sense, but I believed in him as a divine leader.  I believed he had no weaknesses or faults, and that therefore, he could not make mistakes and that he could do no wrong.  There on a Holy World hilltop, I realized how very dangerous it is for people to hold any human being in such esteem, especially to consider anyone some sort of “divinely guided” and “protected” person.    (quote from bell hooks)

According to bell hooks in her book Yearning:  Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (2014), “In this passage Malcolm repudiates the belief that humans can embody the divine.  Had he lived long enough to encounter other spiritual messengers, different from Elijah Muhammad, he might had altered his perception.”  (page 87)                                                                    So to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is not just a passive thing, a pious, prayerful, churchly thing. It is a yearning for the sake of the soul we are talking about. Just think about the aspect of hope that helps define our yearning during this season. To wait for Christ to come in his fullness is above all else to act in Christ’s stead as fully as we know how. To wait for Christ as best we can, to be Christ to those who need us, to be Christ to them most and to bring them the most we have of Christ’s healing and hope is our calling. Unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all. May it be so. Amen.


God of our future, our present and our past, your son told us that he would come again and so we wait. But God we are most impatient because we live in a time of instant gratification. We are like a child who wants what we want and we want it now. And so, dear God, we have a hard time waiting for his promised return. And yet we wait not knowing when, yearning, uncertain of the day and time. Help us to live the hope and yearn for the love and grace which the Holy Child will bring.  Amen.




Sermon – “A Different Kind of Joy” December 13, 2015

Sermon: “A Different Kind of Joy”                                                 12-13-15

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                                   Third Sunday in Advent


Scripture: Philippians 4:4-8

4Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. God is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


O God of the exiles and the lost, you promise restoration and wholeness

through the power of Jesus Christ.  Give us faith to live joyfully, sustained by your promises as we eagerly await the day when they will be fulfilled for all the world to see, through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our Experience

Zeal is not a word I see or use a lot, but it is the last word of the 30 I

introduced you to earlier this year as our Year of Spiritual Literacy.  The Talmud tells us that God wants the heart and we are wooed and won by grace.  Our response is to be motivated to exhibit a life of faithful discipleship.  What would our commitment to Jesus look like without zeal or passion? For that matter what would a well-developed sense of spirituality look like or feel like without some sense of enthusiasm?                                     We are called to cherish every moment and I try not to miss a thing.  Sometimes that can be a bit crazy-making.  As I have followed the aftermath of quandary and supposition brought on by the mass shooting in San Bernardino I have become keenly aware of, among otherthings, my own mortality.  None of those 14 folks enjoying each other’s company and the fellowship of a holiday party at the IRC in San Bernardino that morning knew that they would not be home for dinner that Wednesday night.  We can never really know and totally understand that our time here on earth is limited and we certainly have no way of knowing that our time is up, but several of the survivors have vowed in TV and radio interviews to live each day to the fullest as if today is the only one they have.  One woman commented that she knew in the back of her mind that something like this or a traffic accident could happen on any day, at any moment, and it shouldn’t take a mass-shooting to wake people up to this vulnerability.                     To be motivated and really engaged with life is to feel a kinship with other people.  We have to begin to think of each other as potential brothers and sisters ofwe are going to conquer the craziness of these mass shootings.  The story of Ralph Lazo illustrates this.

Our Experience Expanded

“We all know about the xenophobia following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese-Americans in a gulag of detainment camps. I have visited the best preserved of these sites – Manzanar National Historic Site in California’s Owens Valley. There I learned the stories of many Americans who suffered from this outbreak of racial hysteria (not at all unlike what we are seeing and hearing about Muslims today). When you read through the stories of those incarcerated at Manzanar you come across Ralph Lazo who was not even Japanese. His heritage was Mexican and Irish, but at age 16, when he saw his Japanese friends being forcibly rounded up and relocated, he joined them on the train. Camp officials never questioned his heritage or his presence in this concentration camp. Lazo remained at the camp as an act of conscience and solidarity. He was even elected President of the makeshift Manzanar High School. He was drafted into the US Army in 1944 from the camp and later received a Bronze Star for heroism in the South Pacific during WWII.  (1)         Lazo had that gift!  He honored the ties that bound him to his Japanese friends.  Fuller professor Lewis B. Smedes stated, “Human fellowship and sturdy joy come to us as we create and keep on re-creating our fragile human relationships making them last through the power of car-ing love. To dare to make and care to keep commitments, this is love.” (2)             To be motivated, filled with joy, and experience zeal is to give of ourselves in service to the common good, to do our small bit for our extended family.  I truly hope that the world will be a better place for my having occupied space in it.  Helen Keller is quoted as saying, “I long to establish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”  (3)  And she was deaf and blind!

Our Traditions

Scripture asks us to be so motivated by life that we let our hearts take us where we are needed. Every week the preacher who stands in this pulpit extends to you an invitation to discipleship.  For those of you who have made the commitment of membership at St. Paul’s the call is to a renewed effort, a re-joicing, as it were. For others it is a call to do whatever kindles loves in you, and if membership at St. Paul’s is a part of that we hope you will think about joining up. It is the wonderful realization that grace is the place where it all begins and ends.                                                  Our passage from Philippians this morning reminds us that “Joy in God is of great consequence in the Christian life; and Christians need to be again and again called to it.” According to Matthew Henry, “It more than outweighs all causes for sorrow.”    One of the blessings of preaching regularly to the same group of people is the joy of seeing folks journeying in discipleship. Sometimes the signs are small, sometimes significant, and occasionally there is a need to encourage people to stand their ground, to keep going when the going gets tough, to keep on keeping on. And there is no hiding the reality that the challenges on the road of discipleship are many, varied, interesting and can requiring daring as well as zeal.                                        The passage before us (Philippians 4:4-7) comes in the context of an awareness that some of those who have not only begun well, but have journeyed well, and struggled for the gospel now appear to be having second thoughts. Perhaps they are counting the cost of following Jesus and are hesitating, and even now contemplating turning back.  In our hearts – the very ones captivated by our love of Jesus — we know that we can only go forward, but sometimes we also know that we get in the way.  We lose sight of the “Yes, if. . . not no because.”

Re-mything Our Traditions

For us to fully engage in the passions and the joys of this life there are 10 phrases (4) we must never utter.  They are considered to be joy and zeal busters:

1. That isn’t my job. Really?  How many times a day does something take us outside our comfort zone?  Maybe we absolutely can’t, but can we possibly suggest someone who can!

2. I’m just following orders. As disciples we give our very best to Jesus and this statement implies that we really don’t care about the outcome. Our call to discipleship comes with the expectation that we will give above and beyond the bare minimum and we will do so joyfully!

3. I know what I’m doing. Unsolicited advice.  We get it daily.  It can be insulting, but it may just take a few minutes to clarify the other person’s misconception. Maybe what they have questioned is legitimate. . .

4. I just have a lot on my plate right now.  It is not hard for me to convince myself that my time is more valuable than everyone else’s.  Not!

5. This wasn’t my fault. Having grown up with four younger brothers who could blame each other (or me) for just about everything that happened in nanoseconds, my mother’s response was always “take responsibility for your part.” How did she always know. . . . ?

6. I deserve more. (Also I don’t deserve this!)  OK – so who actually thinks they of overpaid, over valued or underworked? This statement (I deserve more!) begs for research and logical evidence.  What can I say. . . ?

7. I have a stupid question. OK! Either we haven’t been listening and our question has already been answered or our idea or thought isn’t well-throughout but we are going to put it out there anyway.  This is an image buster – don’t go there!

8. I would have done that differently.  Don’t focus on criticizing the past, or others, or changing the future, and please, don’t seem lazy in the present.

9. I don’t know how to do that. OK!  Try to figure it out on your own, but never be afraid to ask for help!

10. I don’t care.  Think it, maybe, but don’t say it!  Work hard, show your commitment, and don’t pass off work you can handle to others.  People of faith care about everything!

Thirteenth century mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg gives us a beautiful image to contemplate as I close my message.  She said: ”The Holy Spirit is our harpist and all strings which are touched in love must sound.”  Let the music of our hearts play every day in every way with joy and zeal. Amen.


God of joy and exultation, you strengthen what is weak; you enrich the poor

and give hope to those who live in fear. Make us grateful for the good news of salvation and keep us faithful in your service until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives in our hearts for ever and ever. Amen.



(1)    Sources:  Krin Van Tatenhove, 12-9-2015, Facebook, Happy to Be Presbyterian and

(2)    Lewis B. Smedes, Caring and Commitment

(3)    Helen Keller,

(4)    Jason De Mers (

Sermon – “Where Our Feet Take, Us, That Is Who We Are” December 6, 2015

Sermon: “Where Our Feet Take Us, That Is Who We Are.”       12-6-2015

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                               Second Sunday in Advent


Scripture: Luke 1:68-79          (The words of John the Baptizer)

68“Blessed be the God of Israel, for God has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them. 69God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of the servant David, 70as God spoke through the mouth of a holy prophet from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered the holy covenant, 73the oath that was sworn to our ancestors Sarah and Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before the Holy One all our days. 76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before God to prepare a way, 77to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Savior.  Amen.

Our Experience                                                                                                                                                             Dr. William Menninger is quoted as saying: “Life is a flowing stream of opportunities, challenges, and problems which demand that in so far as our capacity and emotional response permit, we adjust and readjust to them.”  Dr. Will, as he was known, didn’t live long enough to see small children and their teachers gunned down in their classrooms or San Bernardino County workers murdered in cold blood at a Holiday party; he died in 1966.  Psychiatry was his specialty, but he didn’t feel that psychiatry could save the world all by itself.  For him psychiatry helped people understand themselves and he determined that it could also help us to understand each other better, too.                                                                                          For Dr. Bill a healthy mind helped us adjust to the world and to each other with a maximum of effectiveness and happiness.  That is the ability to maintain an even temper, an alert intelligence, participate in socially considerate behavior, and maintain a happy disposition.  He claimed that for maturity everyone had to have a cause, a purpose, something constructive.  For him it was being a medical missionary in psychiatry.  He was also very engaged with the Boy Scouts.                                                              Dr. Bill would have welcomed the word today from our Year of Spiritual Literacy:  You.  And he would be the first to recognize that there may be lurking deep within our hearts a fear that there is something wrong with us and that we might from time to time need help.  He would also point out that much too often we simply engage in denial about this. He recognized that there are many sides to each of our personalities and as we grow up those parts – our intelligence, our social roles, the power to make our own choices and decisions, our perceptions, and other aspects of our personalities – make us into a totally mature person. What actually happens is that very often we grow up in some areas of life, but stay childish in others.  It is my experience that it is often easier to see this in others than it is to recognize it in myself.  And, have you ever noticed how that really annoying behavior in someone else is also something that you really dislike about yourself?

Our Experience Expanded

In light of what happened in San Bernardino this past week and apparently 355 other times this year around the country let me ask you all some questions about human behavior:

  • Are people today any more or any less happy than they were in more difficult or primitive cultures or in other civilizations?
  • Has our progress in the field of pragmatic materialism blighted or minimized our aesthetic and spiritual values?
  • Have scientific, technical, and industrial developments, which have so greatly increased our material comforts, robbed many people of deep-seated satisfactions without offering suitable substitutions?
  • Have those great technological advances, which make it possible for us to defend ourselves against an enemy, stimulated our instinctive, hostile aggressiveness beyond our capacity to handle it?
  • Is the resistance to change in human nature so great that anxiety has been aroused by the speed of our technological development?

I know that these or similar questions are on our minds as we sift through the debris left behind including the fate of a six-month old baby girl and I

also know that as yet no group or field of human study has come up with adequate answers to our questions or addressed our confusion.

Our Traditions

As people of faith we look to scripture as a source of understanding. John the Baptizer tells us today that our Advent path will be made smooth by our repentance, yours and mine. Verse 79 states we are called “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The path is cleared by our being reconciled to God and to one another. I believe that John expects us to do this now with intentionality and with hope. His is the only invitation we will receive. There is a sense of urgency in John’s words, there does not appear to be an option to procrastinate and do it later. Indeed, seeking to mend, to heal and to find ways to begin all over again are only weakened by our choosing to not do so sooner. Now, to be sure, it is always our choice and we can say “no”, but to what end?  Where our feet take us, that is who we are. . .                                         John the Baptizer didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage-sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time. Advent suggests that God wants us to wait, but God seems to also have great expectations of us, as well. God seems to know that the immediacy of desire is not the same as experiencing the fullness of life in the moment.                                    Just like John we are each called as the living embodiment of Jesus to remind each other that God is at work in and through our lives for the sake of the world God loves so much.  The path, the Advent journey, life’s highway to salvation and the Word of God as you have heard me say any number of times comes from and to the least likely people and places we can imagine.   God does God’s best work with the unlikely.

Re-mything Our Traditions

The most important single solution to our problems is our potential capacity to care for each other, to love in the truest and broadest sense of that word, and to increase that capacity throughout our lives. This is the “You” that is us. We are spending billions of dollars every year combating crime in the United States, no small part of it for the care and correction of hundreds of thousands of juvenile offenders and African American males.  The rate of divorce is now one in two and steadily increasing.  We now rely on guns to solve our problems without even giving other means of peace keeping a chance.                                                                         What happened in San Bernardino last week and Columbine 15 years ago and Boston three years ago all have marked our lives with tension, mistrust, suspicion and selfishness.  We are not unaware of the physical and emotional suffering that affects the majority of people in the world. We have figured out how to eliminate space and annihilate people, but we still lag far behind in learning how to get along with each other.  Our freedom and liberty are believed to be things that are God-given, and too few of us have assumed responsibility for earning and justifying our possession of it. John’s words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” needs to be engraved upon our hearts and souls.  The following words are an excerpt from Frederick Buechner’s book The Alphabet of Grace:

“The way I understood it,” my grandmother says, “you were supposed to devote these talks to religious matters. Incarnation and Grace and Salvation were some of the noble words you used.” I say that feet are very religious too. She says that’s what you think.

I say that if you want to know who you are, if you are more than academically interested in that particular mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer. Introspection in the long run doesn’t get you very far because every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except for the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for. And so on. Since the possibilities for drawing back seem to be infinite, you are, in your quest to see yourself whole, doomed always to see infinitely less than what there will always remain to see. Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”


So let me close with more questions:    (Give yourself a number between 1 and 10!)

  • How well do you function when the going gets really tough?
  • How flexible are you?
  • How free are you from symptoms produced by tensions and anxieties?
  • Do you find more satisfaction in giving than you do in receiving?
  • How well do you get along with other people?
  • How do you handle your hate? (anger, rage?)
  • How do you express your love?

The only neutralizing we know of for hate is love, love in the broad

sense; love that makes us want to do something constructive rather than something destructive. The business of learning how to love is probably the most important lesson anyone of us ever learns in life, if we are fortunate enough to learn it at all. This epidemic of mass shootings is telling me that we need to do a much better job of learning this lesson.  Some of us were fortunate that we had parents who cared about us, loved us, and who thereby taught us to love them in return. We learn care because we love, and that alone makes us constructive and neutralizes the hate that is in the souls of all of us.  It is my hope and my prayer on this second Sunday in Advent – in the keeping of the promise of the peace candle – that the very future of the world rests on enough people embracing the legacy of the baby Jesus and becoming mature enough to love, to express that love, to reduce in some small way the hate in the world around us. What will you do about it?


Living Word of God, live within us, live within our hearts. Let your light and love overflow more and more each day as we await your coming. Amen.