by Pastor Bernt

We’ve been in that Fall planning phase, figuring out class schedules, music lessons and getting kids to college. I also looked ahead at the scripture readings we’ll be hearing this Fall on Sundays. What might God be saying to us, in our busyness?

A common theme in the readings is God’s loving regard for people who are otherwise looked down on or neglected – in other words, God’s grace. Some examples:

  • (September 10): Jesus says we’re to confront wrongdoers, not to expel them, but to regain them as companions.
  • (September 17): Jesus commends the forgiveness of debt as a reflection of God’s mercy.
  • (September 24): God’s generosity, says Jesus, is like day laborers who work a half day getting paid just as much as those who worked a full day.

To say “all people deserve love and support” sounds obvious. But in our society, there’s not much grace: wrongs just aren’t easily let go of. Debts crush without relief. In our “meritocracy” there’s not much generosity; many people will never catch up.  Even those deemed successful may doubt their own worth. We need mercy.  We need to belong. With Paul, we need to find out that “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (October 10 reading)

So, at Christ’s invitation, we gather. Rally Day, the beginning of Fall programming, is September 10. There are ordinary reasons to come to church, like, I don’t have other important things going on, or I agreed to host coffee, or I agreed to be pastor. 🙂 But ultimately, we come for grace. It’s good to remember what church is for: that we would experience God’s loving regard for all people, and show that love to others.

And it’s fitting that we gather on Sunday, because on that day Christ was raised from total human shame to glory, from lost cause to new found hope, from death to life. Grace isn’t just a commendable attitude; it’s the actual future God is making real. Because Christ was raised, Sunday, the first day of the week, is also the first day of new creation, always for us a new beginning

How have we experienced this grace and hope? Maybe just when we feel glad to be together. I also think of the gracious warmth in which you both welcome and share musical gifts, whether vocal or instrumental. And how you feast: on a recent Sunday, a refugee we know shared the Venezuelan food she hopes to be able to sell in our area as she did back home. We got to try and express our loving regard for her and the food she makes. All Sundays are Feast Days, anticipating God’s great, final banquet of joy not just for the inside few, but all people (in the readings, October 15).

The Festival of All Saints (November 4) will be the culmination of Fall worship (and a turning point towards Advent). Having heard the Book of Revelation set to music with Don Knuth’s Fantasia Apocalyptica (October 20-21) and a pledge invitation based on Revelation 22, we’ll gather that Sunday to hear from Revelation 7. That text promises victory for people who are lost causes, looked down on and helpless, crushed by injustice and put to shame:

“the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them,
  nor any scorching heat;
 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
 and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Image above:

View near Rouen, Richard Parkes Bonington, British ca. 1825

Our online presence on zoom remains a real gift, even with the pandemic behind us.  It allows us to provide a worship connection with the homebound, those who live far away, are traveling or are new to the church but not ready to visit in person.  Our current equipment setup, however, was meant to be temporary.  We’d like to take the next steps to set up a better system that will keep us on zoom for years to come, and we could use your help in doing so.  Here’s the plan:

  1. Declutter the sanctuary.  Currently, a large computer cart stands right next to the lectern, three microphones are on stands, and various wires are taped to the floor.  It’s unsightly, sometimes a tripping hazard, and difficult to remove or replace as needed for a concert or recital.  Let’s relocate what we need to the balcony, leaving our sanctuary clean and beautiful.
  2. Install more versatile video and audio.  Some of our current equipment was scrapped together from what we had around, and some is on loan.  Let’s get more suitable equipment, such as …
    1. Two good cameras installed in the balcony: you’ll be able to see more of what’s going on in the sanctuary, zooming in close as needed, and not be limited to the one lectern view.  
    2. A new audio interface, enabling us to use existing wireless and hanging microphones, so you can hear more clearly what people say or sing all around the sanctuary.

Other equipment is needed as well, such as a computer that’s capable of running the equipment (we’re happy to share details). We are blessed to have FLC members and friends who are able and willing to put this system together on a volunteer basis.  Estimated total cost including equipment, installation (with hired labor as needed) and incidentals is: $8000.

We invite you to make a gift to help cover this cost, in support FLC’s future online presence!  Checks can be made out to First Lutheran, with “zoom worship” on the “for” line.  If you’d like to make a gift using paypal, just send a note along to the Financial Secretary using this link.

If we’re able to raise funds above what’s needed, excess funds can be applied for further facility improvements, such as audio and video equipment for the fellowship hall.

Zoom worship equipment team: Dick Grote, Michael Angeletti, Kelly Harrington, Jeff Grafton, Pastor Bernt

In the news I’ve seen various numbers: that nationally, 25% or 30% or even 40% of those who attended church before the pandemic, aren’t really back.  We’re glad so many FLC people and new members have shown up and even brought new energy.  But some people have moved or have other changes in life circumstances that challenge their schedule.  And we all probably have a different mindset now than we had a few years ago; different habits and patterns of life.

I’ve been thinking about our local Philz Coffee.  Before the pandemic, that’s where you could find me on any Saturday morning when I was on for the next day’s sermon.  I’d feel “off” if I had to break this routine.  I looked forward to seeing Karen Nelson and her husband Paul, as they would inevitably show up and stop by to chat for a minute (they’ve since moved back to Canada).  But during the pandemic I stopped hanging out in public, indoor places.  And as of yet, I still haven’t been back to Philz.  It’s not really because of Covid.  It’s more like I got used to life without coffee shops, and just haven’t gotten around to it yet.  

I’m curious if others feel similarly about certain places or habits, even church? Our theme for the year has been Sunday as “First Day.”  It’s a simple idea: we’re celebrating the bedrock thing we do as Christians – we do Sundays.  We worship, we feast.  But on an even more basic level, Sunday is about coming together.  Just assembling, being present, connecting – in person and online- may be more important than we know.  Lately it seems like a lot is being said about how loneliness and isolation are growing problems in American life, for teens, the elderly, and many others.  “Church” as such (from the Greek ekklesia, meaning “assembly”) can be a needed gift.  

In this time between Christmas and Lent, the readings in worship are about assembling.  A bunch of sinners gather at the river to repent and be baptized, and the sinless Messiah – who you’d think would have better things to do – still shows up to join them. He then starts assembling people around him.  They ask “where are you staying? He says “come and see.” To a people split by exile, broken by conquest he says “follow me.” Paul will say that the community itself is the temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3) and the very body of Christ (1 Cor 11-13), each person not just valuable but essential for the whole to be what it is.

Not that we’re always going to want to show up.  But as I tell the kids, “you don’t know how much people appreciate your being there,” even wearing those cruddy shoes and acting slightly annoying.  The message is that each of us is a precious gift, let Sunday be a day to receive one another!

by Pastor Bernt


Early in November, I made my third visit to El Salvador, my first as chair of our Global Missions Advocacy team. The occasion each time was to attend the Encuentro, a management consulting meeting hosted by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church with mission partners (sister parishes and companion synods across the United States and from other countries) to hear reports about the ministry since the last Encuentro, and to help develop 1 strategic plan for the next three years.

Each time, I’ve been able to pair my attendance at the Encuentro with a visit to First Lutheran of Palo Alto’s sister parish, Rios de Agua Viva, for Sunday worship and an ensuing fiesta.

This time, I arrived after an overnight flight from Los Angeles at 6:45 on Sunday morning, November 6th, the day before the meetings were to begin.. A Synod van met me at the airport and brought me to the Synod headquarters. Then my hosts brought me to a coffee house/restaurant where I had a tasty, and quite inexpensive, breakfast. We got back in time for Pastora Vilma Rodriguez to pick me up and bring me to worship at Rios de Agua Viva.
Rios is a lively and now quite young congregation. Most of the worshippers are kids, teenagers and young adults who were kids when I began my visits. The first Sunday of the month is Youth Sunday, with the worship led by the older young people, some of whom are on the pathway towards eventual ordination. It was a challenge for me to recognize who was who, since they’ve all grown much in the four years since my last visit!

A new group in the congregation is several adult women who busy themselves weaving hammocks for sale to benefit the church. They gifted me with two of them, which I have brought back to First Lutheran. After the service we had a fiesta with cake to celebrate the month’s birthdays and a piñata. After the party, Pastora Vilma and her daughter Adrianna, who visited First Lutheran with a group from Rios when she as a teenager, her husband Jose Rendon and daughter Pauli, went out to lunch at a great little brew pub. Then it was time to go back to Synod headquarters to board busses to go to the retreat center up in the mountains very near the Honduran border, in La Palma. Pastora Vilma had meanwhile gotten word that her sister had just passed away, so she did not attend the meetings.

The agenda for the meetings was similar to that of the previous Encuentros. We spent a day hearing reports about the ministry of the past four years. That was preceded by a brief worship service and an appearance by Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is ill with advancing Parkinson’s disease. Originally, it had been intended to have a new bishop in place, but there had been no process for an election – Bishop Medardo has been the only head of the Synod since its formation as a mission within the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. So the long process of establishing an election procedure had to be created from scratch and has taken longer to work out than expected.

Since Bishop Medardo was so ill, he left the presiding of the rest of the Encuentro to a very able assistant, Rev. Christian Chavarria, who has visited California on a number of occasions as Bishop Medardo’s chief emissary, including our Synod Assembly last spring, where he gave a keynote speech and preached at the concluding worship service. He is the one who makes decorative Salvadoran crosses, both small ones to wear, and large decorative crosses, like the 6-foot cross that graced Sweden’s 500th Anniversary service of the Reformation at which Pope Francis preached. He owns a guesthouse and is a parish pastor as well. He is also fluent in both English and Swedish. He is a very smart and talented person.

The second day of the Encuentro, we split into two groups to visit one of two parishes. My group visited Spiritu de Guzo (Spirit of Joy) in the southern part of the Northern Microregion, on the slopes of a dormant volcano (Guezapa) near the town of Guezapa. It was a couple of hair-raising miles off of the main north-south highway up a narrow dirt road. Our small bus nearly got stuck at one point. The church is surprisingly large building, about the same size as First Lutheran. Several nearby congregations exhibited aspects of their ministries and there was a video program from a number of other congregations as well. Also, a very tasty lunch was served.

Afterwards, we got on the bus and made our way back to La Palma, visiting the downtown shops for a while before returning to the retreat center for dinner.

The third day of meetings was devoted to strategic planning for the next three years of ministry. We broke into smaller groups to develop plans in a number of areas, and compiled specific goals, then we relaxed over dinner and a party.

The last day, we packed up after breakfast and rode back to a closing worship service and lunch at the Resurrection Church in San Salvador that is now the Lutheran Cathedral and just about completed after years of renovation. After many farewells to both old and new friends, it was off to the airport for another overnight trip home.

Our Synod’s delegation consisted of me and Sue Hertless, a member of Good Shepherd in Concord, who has been very active with El Salvador and is also on the Global Missions Advocacy Team. We were also joined by a member of St. James in Redding, which is considering taking on a sister parish, and her daughter, whose tenth birthday we celebrated.
Joseph Haletky

We’ve said a theme for our year together is “First Day,” with a focus on our Sunday experience together.  Jung Jin has organized new ways to get involved with music, such as ensembles (such as Isaac & Dolly’s recent violin duet) and a monthly pickup choir (“Day by Day” was wonderful!).  In September, a lively group met on our beautiful front patio to do some planning around Sunday children and intergenerational activities.  You’ve probably already read about some of these plans, such as: Beth is involving kids in ringing the bells, Margaret is organizing dramatized scripture readings, Sonia T. met kids after worship to talk about church and life in Jamaica, Wendy will lead an ornament-making activity, Carol and the Willrichs and others are organizing a Sunday lunch and presentation on the Children’s Health Council.  And the list goes on – updates will be on the website.  Fresh new day, “first day” energy! 

Not that the goal is to make Sundays super busy.  What is Sunday about?  Consider the traditional “Sunday theme prayer” the pastors say or chant each week: “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy that we should at all times (not JUST on Sunday) and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our Savior Jesus Christ; (NOW the Sunday part): who on this day overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” 

This prayer is the preface to Communion: a meal – a feast – which Christ hosts.  So: to say Sunday  is a “feast day” isn’t just to say it’s celebratory in some general way.  In everything Christ says and does, he’s the host sharing extravagantly with his guests.  What Christ shares at this feast is life: his own life and presence (John 14:6, 17:3), everlasting life and a future (John 3:16, 11:25), and life richly abundant (John 10:10, or John 2: turning water into fine wine at a wedding feast). The purpose of Sunday is to enjoy and share this feast, these gifts: the presence of God, hope for the future, and the fine wine of life. 

At a Council meeting we read about how the first Christians (Acts 2:42-47), upon receiving the Holy Spirit, were all about sharing (that’s what “communion” means): shared meals, prayers, teaching, gladness, need, possessions, time together. I like how it’s put in this Salvadoran song: 

Let us now go to the banquet, to the feast of the universe. The table’s set and a place is waiting; come, ev’ryone, with your gifts to share. I will rise in the early morning; the community is waiting for me. With a spring in my step I’m walking with my friends and my family … 

Come everyone, with your gifts to share: the gifts we bring on Sunday – whether music, muffins, money, a lesson for kids, a craft to do, a word of encouragement, or just our presence – all we offer as part of Christ’s banquet, this weekly festival.

So what’s next with the First Day Theme?

  • Holy Communion (Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist) is at the center of our Sunday.  We’d like to engage a few people in planning how we set up and offer this meal in this post(?) pandemic time (common cup? Sacristans? Old traditions?  New ones?).
  • Online Next Steps: It looks like we’ve finally found some audio / visual specialists to help us with a more permanent online worship setup.  We may ask for contributions.   This would likely involve moving all the gear into the balcony, using cameras that can view the whole sanctuary, and various other updates and fixes.   Questions are raised: what do we want online worship to be like going forward?

Questions and insights always welcome.  More information about these next steps will come soon. – Pastor Bernt