Tag Archives: First Mennonite Church of San Francisco

Advent: That “c” word is with us, for better or worse

The season ahead signifies a most incredible claim: that God does not live in the clouds beyond but right here, now, among us. Christians call it Advent, which means exactly that, Christ with us. It signifies the birth of a very human man, Jesus, who made outlandish claims to be the Son of God.

This Thanksgiving, a kickoff to Advent on the spiritual calendar, I am trying to think about all the human challenges ahead, about how I can resist hate and not become hateful, how I can listen more, and what in the end is really important. I want to consider more deeply, what brings me purpose, joy and a glad heart, you know, the stuff I’m “thankful for.”

I know it has something to do with this notion of Advent, that God is here with me in all the sordid places I have dragged Her and yet loves me even still.

God’s love–and grace– compelled me to write my manuscript No Religion, Too.  It urges me to better understand the divine while resisting the American brand of Jesus as represented by those who speak the loudest. It demands that I love even while seething against those who take the Lord’s name in vain every time they take to the stage, the radio, the internet or perhaps even in public prayer.

I believe God is with us, and I believe She is pissed.

These thoughts kicked into high gear after I read an email sent to the members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco by Pastor Sheri Hostetler (Sheri plays a vital role in my life, sort of a spiritual tuning fork. I am the worst church member–something about never going to church plays a part– but Sheri treats me like a vital cog,  which is a bit like Advent: God with me).  As I read about the notion of Christ with us, I realized how uncomfortable I am with Christ–not the person, but the brand, which is often very confused. This is the challenge Pastor Sheri addressed when she wrote:

“Most of us would rather talk about Jesus, the historical man, than Christ. We feel on surer footing talking about Jesus the wise teacher, whose parables confound and delight us; or Jesus the compassionate healer, whose miracles of wholeness we try to translate into our life and times; or Jesus the revolutionary liberator, who denounced the political, economic, social and spiritual oppressions of his day and who was killed as a threat to Empire.

“But, as we approach the Christ-mas season, as we sing hymns proclaiming that “Christ is born today,” we are confronted once again with the “c” word — Christ.  Christ is a confusing concept for many of us. Just who is Christ? How is Christ different from the human person named Jesus?”

Which spurred me to wonder how we can ransom Jesus back from his kidnappers. I think I am not alone when I say, I want God with us and I want  this cooked up Christ dismantled.

This real Christ is confounding, to the point that the dark history of atrocities done in the name of Jesus “have made it very difficult for some of us to want to even claim Christ. So, on top of our confusion about who Christ is, we have to add our profound discomfort with the very concept,” Sheri wrote.

So this is my challenge this Advent season, a time when the ugly energy of hate and fear rises with a new American Theocracy about to come to power.

“I hear a deep spiritual wisdom — that if Christ-ians were to reclaim the true Christ, it might actually contribute to the healing of the world. That if we were to allow the true Christ to be born in us today, the world might change for the better. That if we were to more fully embody and experience the wise, healing, liberating energy that is struggling to be birthed today, we might see new manifestations of healing and hope,” she added.

Which again brings me back to where I’ve so often been in times of trouble. Here, present, waiting, listening for the touch of God coming near.

For this, I am forever thankful.


Consider your role in structural sin this Lent

As a Catholic kid growing up Lent mostly sucked. It pretty much took the usual layers of fear and guilt and heightened it even more with obligation. Year after year during my childhood  my vows to “give something up for Lent” failed faster than my pickup lines during my teen years. Eventually I pretty much gave up giving something up and Lent hasn’t bothered me much since.

Thankfully dynamic communities of faith are recalibrating the ancient spiritual traditions that have fallen out of favor because of obligation, fear and drudgery, all things I am convinced suck to God as much as they suck to us.  The purpose of these spiritual calendar events get lost in the translation. Now some, like First Mennonite Church of San Francisco are bringing them back.

But don’t let me tell you, let Pastors Sheri and Joanna invite you:

Lent is a season during which followers of Jesus are traditionally invited to repentance and renunciation of sin — which means, literally, “to miss the mark.” But of what sin are we to repent? Christianity, as we know it today, almost entirely emphasizes personal sin — greed, sloth, lust, lying — with little notion of “structural sin” or “systemic evil.” Yet most of the sin in which we engage is structural or systemic in nature, encoded in unjust power arrangements that form our economic, political and cultural systems.

However, this structural injustice is relatively invisible to many of us. The first task of repentance is to literally see structural sins such as racism and classism. To see the children who do not eat because their farmlands grow our exported strawberries; to see the worker whose low wage keeps the cost of our goods cheap, forcing them to choose between paying for medicine or food; to see the criminalization and mass incarceration of African-American men and the detention of immigrant men, women and children.

Fortunately, the Bible sees structurally and gives us a rich understanding of structural sin. From the Hebrew prophets to Jesus, Scriptures cry out against the “domination system” of that day and proclaim an alternative kingdom based on “upside-down” power arrangements and nonviolent love for all of us enmeshed in these structures.

During Lent, we hope to hone our moral vision, to begin to see structural injustice and to develop a common language and understanding together. Each Sunday will feature a sermon plus two “mini-stories” of how people in our community have experienced structural injustice. Each Sunday will also feature special music and singing that will stir our souls and embolden us to resist injustice.

Adult Education during Lent will delve further into the content of each worship service using case studies, discussion, a “people’s history” tour and other learning tools. In addition, Joanna and Sheri will be sending out a weekly Monday email that will provide additional educational resources to engage the past Sunday’stopic. 

It’s not too late to find genuine spiritual motivation to make the world a better place and live out the Godly vision of unleashing the plan of God here “on Earth as it is in heaven.” For more about FMCSF click here.  Located in the Mission District on 16th street and Dolores, FMCSF meets in Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Below is schedule for Lenten services.
Feb. 22: Introduction
Sheri will give an introduction to our series. Heidi Gray and Nathan Yergler will share stories.
March 1: Seeing Structural Sin
Sheri will preach on how we begin to see structural violence/sin — the physical, psychological and spiritual harm that certain groups of people experience as a result of unequal distribution of power and privilege. Rachel Stoltzfus and Joel Tarman will share stories.
March 8: Countering Moral Oblivion — the Problem of Privilege
Sheri will preach on the moral oblivion that hides or legitimates structural sin. We’ll look at the problem of privilege — how it blinds those of us with it to the privilege we have within the system, the ways we are diminished, and also the violence and harm experienced by those without it. Nigel Blackwood-Chirchir and Claire Haas will share stories.
March 15: Having Eyes to See
Since structural injustice works by being invisible to those with privilege, developing moral vision means that we need to perceive reality through the stories and experiences of subjugated people. We will wrestle with what it means to be an ally and “do our own work” as people of privilege.  Joanna is preaching; stories TBA.
March 22: “People’s History” Tour
Joanna, Rachel Stoltzfus and Ben Bolanos will lead us on a “People’s History Tour” of our neighborhood around the synagogue. The tour will help us to see some of the structural realities in this neighborhood and challenge us to continue this learning in our many contexts around the Bay. Worship will prepare us for the tour, which will take place during fellowship time and Education Hour. A time to debrief will follow.

Interfaith effort equals acts of courage in age of intolerance

I spent my birthday being courageous and I didn’t even know it. All I felt was blessed.

Those who were paying attention knew Pope Francis was a true profile in courage from the moment he took the name he did and spurned the extravagance of the papal residence. We knew he had a certain fearlessness when he dived into crowds, kissed babies and generally scorned the high-security pope mobile that had long kept our pontiffs, like our presidents, out of our reach. But never have we seen the depths of his courage when Pope Francis humbly faced East, bowed his head and stood next to the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in November.

The act is so simple we might have missed just how courageous praying with those of a different faith can be, especially for the leader of the Church of Rome. But we can’t miss the violence carried out throughout the world every single day by ardent believers of various faiths who simply believe the only way to serve God is to kill in His name. What we believe and who and how we worship can get us killed any day in any country in the world. Such is the nature of divided religion in the 21st century.

Thankfully the Pope did not alone use the lens of the Thanksgiving holiday to draw attention to the need for peace among believers of different faiths. I know similar services likely take place all across the globe, but until my birthday this year I’d never experienced a Thanksgiving multi-faith service like the one I attended in a San Francisco synagogue, hosted by the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and the Congreation Sha’ar Zahav.

I sat in awe as Jews wearing yarmulkes and Muslims wearing hijabs and Christians carrying crosses or rosaries and Buddhists sounding bells gathered together to celebrate their commonalities instead of their vast differences.

At times it felt like bathing in wisdom passed down through the centuries from all parts of the globe as Jewish poems, Muslim scripture, Christian songs and Buddhist practices were presented.  At least a half dozen languages were represented. Gay and straight were represented. Black, white and in between were represented. Young and old. Male, female.

At one point, as a Jewish cantor and a Mennonite song leader sang, I stared to the rafters where large massive beams held the protection over our heads and I felt for a moment transported. We were those beams, the various shapes, all connected powerfully into a force of collective strength by the One who transcends.


I had no idea that I’d be given the gift of experiencing just a slice of what heaven must be like on my birthday. It was a memorable present, one that exemplifies the high prayer of Jesus, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Because that’s the point of all this here on Earth right?

As it turned out, the simple gathering was anything but. After the service I learned how fractured, difficult and tenuous the planning of the entire event had been. Deference was paid to all. Great care and planning took place, and still some dropped out before the service. It barely came off.

As the service proceeded in its careful, easy pace, I knew that people die for courageous acts like these. I can’t understand why. Especially being there and seeing it for myself, I can’t imagine why we so often use religion as a tool of hate, violence and oppression. But it happens. We know this all too well. We live in an era of religious crusades, as if the first ones weren’t devastating enough.

Hating and killing and degrading are still so much easier than loving, empowering and respecting.

The Pope’s act and this service remind me that God’s mission on this Earth is the unleashing of heaven the way it was intended in the first place. Imagine how much easier that job will be when those God loves so much that She created us in Her image stop destroying that creation and begin to participate in the reclamation project. Because that’s the point of all this here on Earth, isn’t it?

Which is exactly why it is so courageous in the first place.