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Reflection March 26

Published on April 12, 2017 by in Reflections

I Samuel 16: 6,7; John 9: 30,32

Keeping the Faith 4: Be receptive

Friends, Dutch people have an expression which I am sure I have shared with you before:”What the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat.”  It’s all about being receptive to new foods and new experiences and new ways of seeing.

We continue with our series of reflections on Keeping the Faith, especially when Christians like ourselves disappoint us. The first Sunday we concluded that if we let ourselves be disappointed in others, we must begin by not wearing rose colored glasses when it comes to ourselves. We must be truthful about ourselves and our own flaws. Next we learned that it is important to understand that the world does not revolve around us, that it does not exist to make us happy only. Last week I emphasized the importance of genuine conversations, because in fake encounters nothing spiritual can happen. In other words it is hard for God to be present there. Today we talk about being receptive, about opening ourselves to new wisdom and insight wherever we may find and it that way rediscover our contribution to the world around us. (compare Bob Burg and John David Mann’s “law of receptivity” in their book “the Go-Giver”).

Friends, in our Old Testament text Samuel has an experience he never expected he would and it pushes him toward actions he did not anticipate.  He goes and finds a king and he thinks he knows which son of Jesse this will be, but he and all the people there get it completely wrong.  God gets him going where he did not expect to go, because it is God who spins him around.  The people there are not receptive to what God has for them.  In the Gospel of John Jesus heals a blind man in an unusual way, using spit and mud.  After being healed he is peppered with questions about this Man Who has healed him.  The blind man is new to sight and of course he never saw Jesus before he was healed. .  Jesus then uses this whole event to talk about sight and blindness in a metaphoric way, the same way He spoke about water last week.  He goes into an explanation of how those who cannot see can have sight and those who do have sight can be blind.  While the Pharisee want to question His validity, Jesus turns the whole discussion upside down. In the process their eyes are opened and they have a chance to learn about faith. Ironically it is the man who has had no any sight who sees who Jesus really is.

About ten years or so ago Jack Nicholson starred in two movies with similar very general titles.  One was “As Good as it Gets” and the second was “Something’s Gotta Give.”  In the first he is a rude, obsessive compulsive writer with money who befriends a waitress with a son with medical problems.  He says the most upsetting things to people, but he is actually a very generous person. The movie is about him opening up to the world around him.  It is the waitress played by Helen Hunt who makes him want to be a better man.  She is the one who makes him receptive to other opportunities in his life.  In the other movie he is still kind of a scoundrel (Nicholson tends to play rather unlikeable men).  He is a rap music producer who dates, surprise-surprise, much younger women.  One of the women takes him home to her mother’s house where he becomes ill.  Let’s just say that he is not open to women his age like the mother of the girlfriend but that he becomes more and more receptive.

Friends, as long at it makes us better and wiser, kinder and more compassionate.  There is goodness in allowing ourselves to be baffled and puzzled and stunned, if it leads to new ways of seeing. . Jesus knew what He was doing. He knew He was confusing the people around Him, but He had a purpose with that.  He knew people had to be disoriented sometimes to reorient themselves toward God.  So, friends, allow yourself to get spun around once in a while may God give you direction. We have to be receptive.  We have to allow ourselves to see what we don’t expect to see.  We are not wired for that.  We have these preconceived notions about how because of our age or gender or ethnicity or level of education there are certain things we can contribute to people around us.  But you’d be surprised how often we make an impact where we least expect it, doing or saying something that we are not even an expert at.

Friends, just because people we know or don’t know very well or don’t know at all do not behave according to their faith, this is no reflection on God. God’s Holy Spirit is still at work.  God ‘s race continues.  It’s like a friendly river.  It doesn’t go through obstacles usually and fortunately, but it goes around, makes new paths.  The river eventually makes its way to the sea.  Friends, go with the “flow.”  Be receptive to new ways of being a vehicle of God’s grave. May God give us wisdom.

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Reflection March 19

Published on April 12, 2017 by in Reflections

Exodus 17: 2,4; John 4:7,9,10

Keeping the faith 3: Have genuine conversations

We are in the third of a series of sermons on keeping the faith. It is all about how to keep the faith when people do seem not act like Christians and this could include ourselves. Two weeks ago we concluded that we must tell the truth about ourselves if we are going to keep our faith and keep faith in those who disappoint us, we have to be truthful. If we are not up front about who we are, then how can we expect others to be?  Last week we talked about the difficult notion that not everything is about us or about how satisfied we feel, that there is a bigger picture of God’s work and that we should not expect to be at the center of everything.  However we should expect to be deeply loved by God.  If we can step back and see our place in perspective, our philosophy changes. Today we move to conversations and it is important that we are genuine.  I saw a great cartoon (in the Christian Century) that showed a television broadcast.  It was the moment to share the weather.  One anchor said: “That was Brad with the Democratic weather and now we have Tammy with the Republican weather.”  Boy that cartoon tells the truth, doesn’t it?  We live in a country where we at the point that the weather is point of contention.  Maybe not so much if it will rain, but what causes the weather these days.  We have so many choices about where we get our news that we can switch the channel if we don’t like the news that’s presented. Social media is set up so we get the see the news we would like to hear, not what’s actually the most important. Otherwise we would be hearing about famines.  Then we see so much manipulation and game playing in language on tv, that everything is a smokescreen.  You do not get what’s real anymore.  Everything is disingenuous.  In the midst we hear the message from Jesus.  In that climate we have to talk to each other.

Friends, what is a good conversation? One where everybody said the right thing, but didn’t mean it? I don’t think so.  One where one person knew everything and looked down on the other? I don’t think so.  When people are asked about what a good conversation is, they will often say: there was sincerity and caring, there was wit or humor, there was relevance, it was original, there was clarity, it was informative. Now I don’ know if the conversation in today’s passage would be all of the above,  but something’s real is going on here.  In Exodus the people come to Moses and genuinely air their frustration: “ Did you take us out of Egypt so be could die of thirst,” they ask.  And Moses complains about the people’s lack of patience and  gratitude.  Then there is humor. The places where all this happening are called Massa and Meribah, words that mean testing and quarrelling in Hebrew.  This is very symbolic. Both parties are telling their truth and they get their issues out, but they are not exactly doing it is a way that furthers and strengthens the relationship. The conversation that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman is different.  Two people come together at Jacob’s well. One is a Samaritan woman of Jewish and local blood. The other is Jesus, the Jewish healer and teacher.  Like the conversation between Moses and the people, they seem to be talking about water, but it is really about something deeper.  The woman misunderstands Jesus when He is speaking about water.  She thinks he means it literally while Jesus is speaking metaphorically and spiritually about “living water.” The Samaritan woman speaks the truth and more than anything Jesus speaks the truth.

Friends, so many conversations that we are witness to in front of the tv, in the workplace or on the street or even that we are a party to are not real conversations.  They aren’t like that encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Look at what Jesus does: He tells the truth, but He also accepts her when she tells her truth, He names what is going on, but He does not humiliate her and in this process He transforms and heals.  This is what real conversations are about: they are truthful, they don’t humiliate and they transform and heal.

This is, friends, why I think a church community like this is important. It can help create a setting where people can be real with each other. I think this congregation is healthy and alive largely because you tend to have genuine conversations.

Friends, all of us know people whose voices aren’t heard.  Listen to a partial statement from the PCUSA peacemaking program:” Some people have voices we choose not to hear.  Some people have voices we ignore. Some people have voices we force to the margins.  Some people have voices we oppress, repress, suppress. Some people have voices we have silenced, sometimes for a long time, but all people have voices. “ Friends, are some of those voices from people we’d rather not listen to?

We cannot give up on people. Whether that is someone with a political opinion that twists your stomach or a relative whose behavior you find appalling, we cannot give up. The Hebrew people were almost impossible to talk to. The Samaritan woman was not ok to talk to.  If we are going to be Christians we have to keep engaging others, even though either we do not want to, like Moses, or it is not culturally acceptable as with Jesus. But let’s be real. May God give us wisdom and strength.

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Reflection March 12

Published on April 12, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 12: 1,2; John 3: 8; Romans 4:1

Keeping the faith 2: It’s not about you

Last week , in our first reflection  in the series “Keeping the Faith,”  we started taking how other people of faith, specifically other Christians, can disappoint us.  Then we started thinking about how we could keep the faith when we see that happening.  We realized we needed to focus on ourselves, that we must tell the truth about ourselves.  Like all people we get distorted by the things that happen to us and the things that we are exposed to.  This moves us further away from the self we are supposed to be.

Today we continue by reminding ourselves that we may be the center of the universe for ourselves and at most of one or two or three others, but that the world is not about us.

We are juggling three texts today from our lectionary and the fourth one is our call to worship. In Genesis, childless Abraham the old man gets the call to leave his land and become the father of a whole new nation in a new Promised Land to the northwest. Abram does not desire this task but he also does not resist it. He is obedient, even when his wife Sara laughs at how ridiculous the whole enterprise appears to be.  In his letter to the Romans Paul instructs two groups of people about what Abraham’s sacrifice means. The first group, Jews living in the capital of the empire, can claim Abraham as an ancestor. The other can claim to live in the capital of a huge powerful empire and such have co-ownership of its history and culture.  What a difference in the way these young Christians see themselves? Both are proud of what they bring to the table.  It was quite a task for Paul to address both groups. It was even harder for him to make them focus not on themselves, but on the humility of Abraham.  Finally in John 3, in one of the most well-known chapters in the Bible, Jesus speaks of the power of the spiritual and of renewal and rebirth. I chose verse 8 because it creates the metaphor of the God’s Holy Spirit as the wind which no one can stop or control. When we put this together, these  three texts from different times, we get a visual.  First we see an old man, tired from his labor, starting on a long journey to an unknown place, obedient and full of faith; next we see Jesus speaking in next “clip,” telling His audience that God’s Spirit is in charge, and that we should yield to it. Finally Paul reminds his new congregation that is part of this new spiritual movement in the center of power that they must remember this old wandering man and try to emulate him, for this Abraham is not proud like Paul’s audience.  Friends, you put these texts together and you get the message: the story is not about them.

This week in the Hirshhorn museum in Washington there is an exhibition of the work of 87 year old Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama featuring infinity mirrors.  When she was a child, Yayoi had a vision of polka dots which led her to a neurosis. Now polka dots are a prominent part of her work. She has set up very small rooms it the museum they say.  One of those rooms is white and visitors are asked to place polka dots all over that white room, on the white cups, on the white chair and on the white fruit. Eventually the polka dots will overtake everything, because the room will stay a room and the dots will keep on coming.   In another mirrored room a journalist (BBC) feels happy at first standing among pumpkins covered in polka dots of one color, but then she says you really get this sensation of infinity.   She reports that she really felt overwhelmed “by how insignificant you really are.”  It was not a good feeling.

So, friends, now let’s juxtapose this exhibit with the three snippets from the ancient book called the Bible and a picture emerges of people being polka dots, specks in a giant universe.  Ironically Abraham says he will become the father of a nation that will be as numerous as the grains in the sand.

So into the small room of Abraham’s life comes this message from infinity telling him to leave and start a new nation.  But as Paul says Abraham would not boast about that and neither should he.  He knew it wasn’t about him.  This is what Paul is trying to teach his new converts. God’ Spirit is like the wind, it moves at will, through our lives, across the face of the earth and through infinity.

So friends as we feel disappointed about the state of the world church and the people it consists of, let us remember  the greater picture of God’s work and that we are mere dots. Yet at the same time all those dots together can do something great and beautiful if we would only remember like Abraham that it is not just about us.  There is hope here, because the power behind that universe is loving toward each one of us with an infinite, unfathomable love.  Thanks be to God.




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Reflection March 5, 2017

Published on April 12, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 3: 21-24; Matthew 4: 1-4

Keeping the Faith 1: Tell the truth about yourself

Carolyn showed me a small white bowl we have had many decades. Turns out it goes back further than that.  Her family got that little bowl (which we use all the time) from church people when she and her family arrived in the US as refugees in 1975.  This was a surprise to me. “Make sure to keep this,” she said:” I have kept all those years” to remind myself where I came from.”  That bowl symbolizes what she was so many years ago.  Friends, you and I all have objects that remind us who we are at our simplest level.  These simple objects tell us that we are not made off the things we have or the things we have achieved that society considers important.  We all came from a simple little bowl.  Lent tells us to jettison all the stuff that keeps us from the simple faith, all the stuff that keeps us from seeing who we really are when we scrape back the layers.  Frederick Buechner wrote many books and in one of his last ones “Telling Secrets” he says that Genesis points to an original self we are born with “with the print of God’s thumb still on it.” It “is the most essential part of who we are and is buried deep in all of us as a source of wisdom and strength and healing which we can draw upon.”  He writes that “This is the self we are born with, and then of course the world does its work….the world sets into making what it would like us to be , and because we have to survive after all, we try to make ourselves into something the world will like better….That is the story of all our lives, needless to say, and in the process of living out that story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.”(p. 44/5).

Friends, we forget who we really are. Sometimes we can no longer access to it. I saw a poster with had the following words by the writer I just mentioned:” There is something deep within us…, that gets buried and distorted and corrupted by what happens to us.”  Lent calls us to that true self that is in touch with God with full honesty.

In our lectionary passages The power of evil tempts Adam and Eve in the Old Testament and they give in. The power of evil tempts Jesus in the New Testament and he does not give in. Symbolically Jesus is supposed to be the New Adam.  Adam finds himself outside of the Garden and outside of God’s good graces.  Jesus is right where He should be: very much in God’s good graces. The power of evil says to Adam: this is what people do, this is what people want: they want more power.  Adam bites, literally.  The power of evil says to Jesus: here, let me show you what You can have. This is what humans want, so why should you not take it?  The passages tell the truth about the darker side of human nature, about the things we humans crave: power, adoration and our name in lights. But the reason we crave those things is because we have trouble getting what we really need: unconditional love and companionship and the freedom from suffering. The passages are about us, not about Jesus. That was the miscalculation of the temptation. It would have worked on pretty much anyone but Jesus.

In this Lenten series we are talking about Keeping that Faith. The backdrop of this is the disappointment we feel with people of faith who so often behave in a less than stellar fashion.  We are included among those people.  We too disappoint people. We make decisions that are not Christian, we make remarks that are not Christian, we show impatience and irritation and are often unkind.  But is the disappointment realistic if we all get if all of us are distorted and corrupted by what we get exposed to: war, discrimination, grief, bullying, oppression, false information, bad parenting etc. etc?

Friends, in today’s message, the first in the series about keeping the faith, we take the first step and realize that no one is pure. It doesn’t matter how religious we may seem, or how piously we talk or how many people praise us, we are all distorted in one way or another by our desire to be successful in the world we know.  All of us are constantly tempted to be less true, less honest and less authentic than we aspire to be.  Friends in our quest to keep our faith in a time when we do not agree with what many Christians profess, let us not only hold them accountable, but let us look in the mirror and see the things that distort us. Let us see where we can improve. Let us then be realistic about humanity.  Others are accountable for their faith, we must be accountable for ours. May God grant us wisdom.


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Coach’s Corner

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Coach's Corner

Attitude points

Dear friends,

Last month I laid out the reality of being Parkview in this day and age. You had almost a month to chew on that. Now I would like to weigh in on what our attitude should be to that reality.

Jay Wright, the coach of the men’s basketball team at Villanova University, has written a book called:”Attitude.”  He has taken advantage of having won the NCAA title last year. He talked about his coaching philosophy in a recent interview on Charlie Rose. He said:” I tell my team we are not responsible for our success, but only for our effort.”  Then he went on to say that he gives his team points for attitude. They get points for staying focused on the play at hand.  He tells them they lose “points” for the time they spend celebrating themselves and their plays or making a face at a referee’s call or beating themselves up after a missed play.  All those reactions just make them lose energy.

I think this applies to the church also and our congregation in particular.  We as a congregation are not responsible for thriving or not. That is the job of God’s grace in our lives.  We are not responsible for how society has changed or how busy people are or how people are less interested in church than they used to be or even how many kids and youth are part of our community.  We are not responsible for who shows up on Sunday.   We are only responsible for our efforts and commitment in the moments at hand.   Thinking of what the national Church used to be like in the fifties, sixties or even seventies just drains energy unnecessarily.  All we can do is give our best effort in the now.

Lately the reality of not having a parking lot has taken energy. That problem is now behind us for the foreseeable future.  We are renting a significant portion of the parking lot we used for free for many years. We have found a way to make up half that cost which leaves us to find only $5 per space per month (the cost of a fancy Starbucks drink).  So the parking lot issue should be behind us now.

This brings me back to an issue I have brought up occasionally over the years in these Coach Corners: “how to create energy in the church rather than lose it.” This leads to a discussion at the session retreat on how we organize and plan events and how to make all Parkview family members feel included in those events.  For a small congregation we have a good number of operating groups (Parkview Presbyterian Women, Mariners, Jujikai, Men’s, youth, choir, golf group and even the beginnings of a biking group). All these groups organize one or more events every year.  Then of course we have Eddie and Yvonne’s invaluable Crew who head more than four fundraisers every year.  They draw support from all those groups. The session sees the value of groups, rather than individuals, being responsible for making one or more events happen.   However, the session also sees value in a new coordinating group with representatives from the different groups (and Eddie’s Crew), joining hands, hearts and minds in planning events that become part of a central calendar.  We believe the joining of planning efforts will create energy, reduce overlap and encourage more (and especially newer) members of our Parkview family to participate.  It may also lead to a greater balance of events (i.e. social, games, service, outreach, outside and inside, entertainment, dining, sports and physical activity and travel etc.). On March 12 after the service we would like to get your ideas about this. Please join us. Remember, we’re only responsible for our effort right now. See you in church and may God bless our ministry. Aart

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Reflection February 26

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

Exodus 24: 15,16; Matthew 17: 5,6,7

Limited Visibility

So once again we talk about a high point of Jesus’ time on earth, the Transfiguration. It is also the experience that seems the farthest removed from earthly life.  Several disciples go up with Jesus to the top of the Mountain, traditionally considered to be Mount Tabor, overlooking the Megiddo valley and looking toward Mount Carmel.  This is a mystical experience for them as they have a vision of Elijah and Moses and of Jesus with His garment dazzlingly white and His face bright as the sun.  But the text says the disciples’ vision is obscured by a cloud above Jesus as He talks to Elijah and Moses. Pity the disciples, professional fishermen just a short time before and now witnesses to the high point of Jesus’ revelation as the beloved by God. They’re trying to make sense of it all.

The text in Matthew points back to Exodus where Moses goes up to the mountain, not in Northern Israel this time, but beyond its furthest border in the Sinai.  There on top of the mountain the text says he is in a cloud for six days, just waiting there until God calls him out.  I like the idea of the cloud image in both text. I like this reality of limited visibility. The lack of visibility of Moses on the mountain hundred of years and hundreds of miles away from Peter, James and John on the mountain to the north, both trying to figure out what’s beyond the cloud. It goes back to this Old Testament concept of God Who is so holy that God cannot be seen, so holy that God’s name cannot even be spelled out.

Friends, in the movie Twentieth Century Women the viewer is effortlessly transported to the nineteen seventies in Santa Barbara during the presidency of Jimmy Carter and we see a single mother born in 1924 whose behavior is excused by all the young people because “she was the Depression.” She is quite modern in her own way, but she prefers fifties music and she claims she can smoke because she started when it was fashionable and not unhealthy. She also does not like frank talk about intimacy.  She has the burden of raising a young teenage boy. She feels ill equipped and asks for the support of two young women who float in and out of her old bungalow.  The three of them try to raise this boy, but he doesn’t need much raising really and they wind up confusing him.  It is as if they are just making things up. Even though all the days in the movie are sunny, the characters have no clue what they are doing.  They are making it up as they go along. They have limited visibility.

Friends, like the mortals in text, we are the ones in the clouds or trying to see through the clouds.  We are dealing with limited visibility, trying to piece together what it is we are dealing with.  This is not just the case with God. God is the biggest mystery. We can’t quite get the full picture of God, we have to leave a lot to our imagination.  If the Bible is any indication, God appears to like it just fine that way.  God can never be captured and if think we can capture God fully, we are probably on the wrong track.  But this limited visibility is something we deal with all the time really.  And I am not talking about driving in the valley fog. I am talking about adolescence and marriage and parenthood, about our economic future and more recently the direction of our country.  We have limited visibility. We are trying to piece together our journey forward in each of those aspects of our lives with less than the information we need.  Life is a lot like putting together a piece of IKEA furniture without the instructions. With the manual it’s challenging already, without it we will have to try every screw, every bolt and every bar in different places. We make things up as we go along.  Let’s face it, friends, a lot of life is winging it.  Imagine Moses on the cold mountain in fog for days wondering what on earth he is waiting for. Imagine the disciples scrambling to be helpful and appropriate, awkwardly offering to build a booth for Elijah, Moses and Jesus each, not realizing they were dealing with a vision. Both scenes are among the most supernatural in the Bible, but when we look closely there is a real humanness we see.

Once on an October morning I tried to retrace the steps I took with a high school group I had helped lead into the Desolation Wilderness and I walked past Echo Lake, through the trees, higher up toward the next lake and I was in the clouds. It was in that brief period of my young life when I was an accomplished hiker.  This is far behind me now. Anyway, there was no one there.  Suddenly the clouds lifted, revealing the first dusting of snow of the season.  Limited visibility, that’s true, but then more than once the clouds do life and we get a view that makes all the fumbling worth it.

Friends, welcome to the cloud, and I do not mean the sphere where we store your data without a clue about how that’s done.  No, welcome to the reality of a world where clouds drift in and out of our lives, where we are always winging it no matter how prepared we are.  The clouds come more often than usual this season it seems. As we figure things out, may we trust God’s grace and may we be commit to being good, loving justice and being compassionate as the Bible teaches us. May God help us.

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Reflection February 19

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

Matthew 5: 43,44: I Corinthians 3: 11, 18,19

Foolish faith

I am telling you today that foolishness can be good, because that is what our lectionary readings tell us. But there is a problem with this.  We really don’t believe that.  We generally don’t think foolishness is good.  We do whatever we can to keep our kids from doing foolish things, without curtailing their freedom of course.  There is no good side to foolishness.  Once in a while we accept it when we see movies. It’s kind of a cliché: There is always someone who is averse to risk taking and then someone else encourages them to do some wild or rather…foolish things. In the movies those things always work out and never result in tragedy.

I finally went to see the movie La la land. It was turning into a cultural icon and I needed to see what it was about, partly because it takes place in our state. The freeway signs directing us to it are just a block away.  The characters in the movie are caught between common sense and foolishness.  The foolishness lies in believing you can accomplish something everyone wants to accomplish: stardom.  Common sense tells you this is not possible. In days gone by we believed more that all of us could accomplish what we wanted if we have talent and we try hard enough.  That’s never been true of everyone and it is less so today.  We can do a lot of things with technology that we couldn’t do before, but that is a different issue. What makes the movie work on the level it does is that isn’t about sappy love only or about foolishness only. It is about both. You see, what it comes down to it the only time foolishness really makes sense is when it is put in service of love.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that “the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” What he means by the “world” are the things that people care about most: power, sexual opportunity, money, fame.  These often lead to abuse, promiscuity, greed and lies.  Some of the attitudes of the world are mentioned in our call to worship.  Jesus says: “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone asks for your coat, give them your cloak.  Give to anyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ And then the zinger: “Love your enemies.”  Now I don’t know about you, but I am feeling pretty inadequate up here.   Our response at best is : “yes, but…. What if the person asking for a coat is severely mentally ill and has three coats in his shopping cart under the cotton wood tree in Discovery Park? What if the coat he wants is the one your grandmother bought for you at Christmas at full price from her fixed income?  What if thirty people in a row in a five minute span ask for money on K Street?  How will I have money for gas to get home?” Believe me, that’s not a stretch. “What if your enemy killed your most beloved relative?”  Jesus calls for an ideal world where the common sense of the times is turned on its head.  Transformation is what Jesus is after.  Now there is one thing that probably needs to be mentioned and that is the Jesus’ followers saw the coming of the kingdom of heaven as something that could happen at any time.  Nevertheless we cannot reason away Jesus’ call to extreme compassion. Yet in terms of the “world” as I just described it, what Jesus saying is total foolishness.  But it works because the foolishness is put into the service of love of God and of other people.

Friends, for those who think Jesus was just a wise teacher with deep insight or who think God is a figment of the imagination, a church such as this is foolishness.  For can you imagine every week, with clockwork, for a hundred years, organizing a party where the guest if honor would never physically show up? There are songs, there are speeches, there are prayers, there is food, rain (mostly not) or shine, in cold or hot weather. Of course we believe otherwise.   Could it be friends that Paul does not just acknowledge that the life of the Church is foolishness to the “world,” but that he actively encourages us to embrace foolishness?

Friends, it may be hard to hear this, but it is not irrational to say that our faith in Christ is foolish. In fact it is the opposite. I am never shocked when someone says they are an agnostic or an atheist.  That is a rational point of view. It is also a sad and dark point of view.  For what then do you base your life on?  To put our life in the service of faith is a huge risk of turning us into fools.  It is a risk I have been willing to take. I trust you will continue to do so also.  For what better foolishness is there than to put our foolishness in the service of a love that will never die.   “Go ahead,” Paul says: “Be foolish. Have faith. Believe.” Thanks be to God.

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Reflection February 12

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

I Corinthians 3: 5-9

Our place in time

I know you waited in suspense. Would it happen? Would Tom Brady win his fifth Super Bowl trophy?  Could it happen that the man who already has everything got some more?  Okay, you didn’t care either. You have to give to him and his coach for a total commitment to quality and preparation. At the ceremony Brady celebrated with such passion that he looked like a man who had just won the lotto after forty years of trying.  How you interpreted his response to his victory depends on your perspective.  Perhaps he felt he had now truly surpassed his hero John Montana as well as Terry Bradshaw. Perhaps he felt vindicated because he had been suspended earlier this year because of underinflated balls and still won. Or perhaps he is one of those people who always have to win. Or maybe it’s all of the above. I can just say that it really bored me stiff to football. After the concussion reports and with all the commercials after every kick and run, I think this may add to the demise of football.  When is enough enough for the Patriots?  Everyone plays their hearts out and the Patriots win. Let’s skip the next season and go straight to the fourth quarter of the Superbowl. I think maybe we can say God does not care about equality in sports: here’s a statistic for you.  Throughout sports history, when you count championships in major sports, Boston: 37, Atlanta 1.  This must not sit well in the heart of Dixie.

We are a nation of teams. Sports teams, political teams, religious teams.  We tend to be true to these teams.  The reason is because our identity and self-esteem get wrapped up with those teams.  Which fan is objective about the calls of referees?  If our team does well, we are worth more in our own eyes.  Who wants to wear the jersey of the team that has never made the Superbowl. In Corinth people are picking teams and they are picking leaders.  Paul has to play referee, even though he is the leader of one of the teams they are choosing.  We have talked about today’s Bible passage where Paul is referring to his relationship with the congregation at Corinth. Paul has not spent that much time with this diverse community of new Christians and is spreading himself pretty thinly across the whole of the northern Mediterranean.  He talks more to his followers as if they were children. Paul has pulled their hair out over the behavior of their people.

Paul has to deflect his congregation away from the competing teams and their leaders.  His wisdom really shines through. He turns himself and the other man, Apollos, into joint leaders of the same team: ”I sowed and Apollos watered.” It is the same ministry with different moments. It is not about who gets the trophy or the credit. “Only God makes things grow,” says Paul.

I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of times during my life when I wanted people to admire me.  And we do things to get that result.  But as you get older, you realize that the people who might have admired you won’t recognize you on the street ten years later or have forgotten completely who you are.  Friends, you and I do so much to please the people in our lives: our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our schoolmates, our colleagues, our college friends.  So much effort is put into proving that we are smart, kind cool and lovable.  We all have awards that would have been nice to get, but I am learning that what we need to be after is a sense of peace.  With sense of peace I mean that we slowly become comfortable with our contribution to the world, the feeling that we do not say wow (in a positive way that is) when we look in the mirror in the morning (who does anyway?), but that we are comfortable with the person behind that aging face. Now that is not easy to achieve and it takes a lifetime, but I think that is what we should be after.

I think this is partly what Paul is trying to tell the people in Corinth in his letter: It is not whether you are on the winning team and it is not whether you get the credit for the endeavor, it is whether you are playing your role in God’s work on earth.  That puts things into perspective.  I truly hope Tom Brady has a sense of peace after his fifth trophy that he did not have after his fourth and I hope all the sportsmen and women are at peace with never having won anything that made the news.  For that feeling is more important than all the accolades we pick up along the way.  Friends, whenever we are not in touch with that experience of peace, may we find what it would take to get it.   May God give us wisdom.

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Reflection February 5

Published on March 2, 2017 by in Reflections

Isaiah 58: 4-7; Matthew 5:13,14

Being salt AND light

“Dat slaat als een tang op een varken.” This is a strange Dutch expression that is hard to translate. It is something like: “that applies like a pair of pliers applies to a big.”  Or “that makes as much sense as a pair of pliers on a big.” Or:”those statements belong together as much as a pair of pliers on a pig.”

When we spend some time talking about the two verses in Matthew, we could ask that question:” are salt and light as qualities of the Christian not like a pair of pliers and a pig? How are they the same?” Yet the text has Jesus mention them almost in the same breath.  On top of it he doesn’t mention others.  But we must assume there is a reason for it.  Then it occurred to me that salt is of the earth and light is beyond earth, heavenly if you will.  Then I found in an article (in the Christian century) that both light and salt have one thing in common: they both dissipate. They do their magic but disappear having left their mark.  Let’s talk about light first.

In the current Netflix series “The Crown” Winston Churchill sits for a portrait commissioned by both houses of parliament.  He develops a relationship with the painter and they talk about their grief together.  However, when the painting is finally revealed, Churchill is irate. It shows him as the eighty year old man who is not in good health.  The painter explains that he paints truth, but Churchill winds up burning the painting in his garden.  He can’t bear that the light is no longer on him as the younger, powerful man he once was.  He can’t accept that the light he shed on the nation cannot stay on him.

Let’s assume there is a reason they are together

We are also talking about salt today, what the properties and characteristics of salt are and about how Christians are supposed to be “salt” to the world.  This is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5.  So we have done some reflecting about that.  We have talked about the verse in question and we talked about the Old Testament lectionary reading in Isaiah for today.  Isaiah does not mention salt at all or any other ingredient for that matter, but he does talk about food or rather the withholding of food for religious reasons, namely fasting.  Isaiah questions the sincerity of those who do the fasting.  He thinks it’s just for show. It is an act of blandness.  These people fasting are not the “salt of the earth.” Isaiah says :” Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…?”  In other words, Isaiah is accusing the people of not connecting to life and the suffering of the people around them.  It’s almost as if they going through the motions of the ritual of the fast, floating above the world in a way and not connecting with it.  They are detached from the suffering world in which they live.  This is unacceptable to God.

We have talked about the properties of salt, about the vital nature of salt in the human body, we can talk about Gandhi’s long walk to the coast to make salt to tell the British that his people were alive.  There are a number of things about salt that speak to how we should live.  First, salt gives taste. It fights the blandness of food.  To a lot of people today life is bland, it has no taste. They live lives without meaning, focused only on themselves and how to meet their every day needs and wants. They are bored and they feel irrelevant.  They feel no one needs them or that they don’t have the skills to help someone who needs them. This also has to do with traction. On icy freeways, salt can give traction.  Even when we are not detached from the lives of others, we do not feel we have much traction.  It’s as if we cannot firmly plant our feet on this world, make a difference, or change where it is going. Then we get to preservation. This is another way salt contributes to our lives. Salt helps preserve.  When we are salt in the world, we preserve the tradition of thousands of years that proclaims God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Finally, salt purifies. It cleans.  We gargle with salt, we ease sore throats with salt water.  We chemically rebalance ourselves with salt. Sometimes we need to put salt in the wounds by speaking the truth adamantly.  May God help us to give taste to, to find traction on, to preserve the faith in and to touch the wounds of our earth. (Northern California born Richard Rodriguez (Darling) quotes) William Saroyan, the Fresno Armenian American writer (who) has kind of been forgotten. Saroyan calls all of us human beings to an engaged life. This is what he said:” Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive.” It as Saroyan’s advice to a young writer.  It could also be advice to us.  We must be the salt of the earth and the light of the world as long as we can.  May God help us.

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Coach’s corner

Published on February 9, 2017 by in Coach's Corner

Swimming upstream

Dear friends,

Occasionally it is fitting for a pastor to address his or her congregation in terms of a stark realism so that the people may discover a fresh hopefulness.  I think now is such a time.

Pity the poor salmon having to swim upstream against the river current after the deluge our region has been experiencing.  Fortunately for the energetic creature the strong waters have come after the spawning season.

This past summer Carolyn and I spontaneously decided to rent a kayak near our house one Saturday and propel it past the old Folsom bridge into the canyon. A strong current ran between the Folsom and Nimbus dams and it took us more than two hours.  I consoled my tiring spouse that the same current would carry us swiftly back to where we started.  I was wrong.  By the time we turned around a stiff wind was blowing toward us and it took us even longer, zigzagging for the leeside of the lake from shore to shore, all that on the fuel of one bottle of water and a granola bar.

Sometimes that is how life is and for some life is almost always like that.  It’s like swimming or boating upstream.   Aware or not as we may be, this congregation has swum upstream for about a century, against an inhospitable ethnic environment,  against the cruel government imprisonment orders of the Second World War, against the forces of secularism that saw traditional Christian faith as antiquated  and irrelevant and against the competition of so many new forms of entertainment.  The thinning mainline Church and the decreasing enrollment at seminaries have resulted in less interest in our groundbreaking residency program than we had anticipated.  Now suddenly the country’s political divisions have crested into the noxious slick of a dark spirit of discrimination, misogyny, disrespect and intolerance flowing down the water ways of our nation and into the ocean we share with the world. This is dampening our optimism and draining our positive energy.  The Church must avoid being carried off in this slick, double down on swimming upstream toward clearer waters and speak with an authentic voice, lest we will be held responsible for the poisonous atmosphere by a young, inclusive and incredulous generation.

Now as a congregation we are forced to deal with the reality of a changing city that is hungrily looking for land to fill in and redevelop.  Partly because of this we will be losing the use of the parking lot which has been a free blessing to us for nearly two decades now.  We knew this was inevitable, but still it has us eyeing the future somewhat anxiously.  For congregations in other parts of the world this would be a laughable hindrance, but this is America where we have become dependent on the automobile.

This is why I am planning to do a Lenten sermon series on “How to Keep the Faith” starting the first Sunday in March.  May we be reminded that being Christ’s church entails a long, persistent swim upstream. The current is particularly strong right now. Start doing your pushups while wondering: “What would Jesus say?” May God bless our ministry.  See you in church. Aart

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