Shabbat: Joys and Challenges

(words from a local Jewish studies teacher who plans to join our adult forum for a session … excerpt from a reply to Pastor Bernt’s questions about Sabbath)

Bernt, your astute question about the joys and challenges of practicing Shabbat brought much to the surface for me as I reflected on your email. Just about one week ago I heard a GREAT story from a Jewish studies teacher at [a Jewish day school] that is definitely apropos. She described the way Shabbat would commence for her family when she was a little girl. In the couple of weekdays leading up to each Shabbat her mother already would have begun a flurry of preparations shopping, cleaning, and cooking. By Friday afternoon her mother’s pace reached a frenzy as she hurried and scurried, working so hard to get things in order for the beginning of Shabbat.  The teacher and her siblings knew that they had better do what mother barked at them to do, (“Clean your room! Don’t get crumbs on the floor! Take your showers! Help in the kitchen!), and they knew not to challenge her or ask her for ANYTHING when she was in that mode, like an angry, irritable commander in the army.  Then, just before nightfall, mother would kindle the Sabbath lights, covering her eyes, as is customary, as she recited the blessing. “Magically”, as soon as her blessing left her lips, her hands would open from her face, and a soft, sweet, smiling, gentle voice would emit the most inviting, comforting wish to her children of a “Shabbat Shalom”, (a peaceful Shabbat).  As a little girl, this teacher could not comprehend how her mother could transform almost instantly from a wild, raving, commanding, demanding, tornado force to a peaceful, present, glowing, embracing source of love.  She decided that there had to be something like a little angel that crawled up her mother’s arm, underneath her two hands covering her mother’s face, who did some magic to transform her mother, pushing her mother’s frown into a smile.  As a little girl, she would try so hard to pry her mother’s hands away from her face during the blessing in order to witness the angel doing its magical work! 

I was recently reflecting on how not peaceful my family’s Friday night Shabbat dinners at home were for so many years when our kids were younger.  The start of our blessings and dinners were fraught with the cries and needs of toddlers, the rush to cook dinner, the scowls of pre-teens/teens, the exhaustion from the week of work, and I remember thinking “who were these Rabbis who thought Shabbat is meant to be peaceful??? Were they with their families???” And then, our kids grew up a bit more, and became a part of the preparations, and also started to really value that family together time. Finally, we got to a place where the commencement of the “time of rest” felt real.  Our Friday Shabbat blessings and dinners have truly become a time of peace, togetherness, and distinction from the craze of the rest of the week. So, for sure, there are joys and challenges, even in the effort to initiate this sacred time.  

Then, the challenge of actually experiencing Shabbat for 24 hours, not just the ushering in of the day of rest, is also something many Jews wrestle with. Could I, should I, turn off my cell phone and skip a day of email? If I’m doing something enjoyable on a screen or taking a drive to the beach are those considered work or rest? Should I run my errands that I have no time for during the work week? Is there a way I can actually drop my worries and petty thoughts and focus on joy, gratitude, humility, family, and community? What counts as experiencing the Shabbat?

Adult Forums

Centennial bio: Dager

Provide backpacks for children in need – 2021

The Women’s Group  is participating in a project to purchase backpacks and school supplies for the children of Seton School in Palo Alto.  Backpacks may be purchased in any color except RED or BLUE from Costco, Target, etc.  There are three ways you can participate:

1) Make a financial contribution by check made out to Saint Elizabeth Seton School, write “backpacks” on the memo line of your check and mail to Sharon to arrive by August 4th.

2) Donate backpack and supplies.  See the list of school supplies and indicate the grade level on the front of backpack.  Supplies can be purchased at Staples, Office Max, etc.

3) Donate only supplies and indicate grade level on bag containing supplies.  See list of school supplies for the grade level you choose.

Here’s a list of supplies: Seton School Class Supplies List

Please bring donations to Sharon Roeser leave on Pastor Kate’s porch no later than August 4th.  On line orders can be delivered directly to Sharon’s house.  Financial contributions (checks) should be made out to Saint Elizabeth Seton School (a non-profit) and mailed to Sharon.

You can contact Sharon here for further information and address for shipping:

Contact Sharon

Many of these children arrive the first day of school without backpacks or supplies, since they do not have the resources to purchase them.  We have an opportunity to make a difference in their lives!




Called to Care

Lutherans against meritocracy?

by Pastor Bernt

Since Lutheran Christians like to talk about Paul’s “saved by grace apart from works,” it’s interesting we don’t speak out against meritocracy.  I recently read “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good” by the philosopher Michael Sandel – who’s Jewish – and was struck by what he says about Martin Luther: “Luther’s stringent doctrine of grace was resolutely anti-meritocratic. It rejected salvation by good works and left no room for human freedom or self-making” – well, I think Luther was saying self-centered ambition just isn’t true freedom – but anyway, Sandel continues: “And yet, paradoxically, the Protestant Reformation he launched led to the fiercely meritocratic work ethic the Puritans and their successors would bring to America.” (pg.39)  Meritocracy, says Sandel, is itself somewhat religious, with roots in how some of those ‘other Protestants,’ the Puritans, viewed prosperity as a sign that you were among the true saved.  And even today when we say “nothing is impossible if you try” or “I deserve this success because I earned it,” aren’t we making statements of faith? (Sandel brings up the Book of Job – which FLC recently studied as a congregation – as taking a contrary position: the good aren’t always the ones who prosper).

Sandel isn’t saying that rewarding merit is always bad: it’s best to pick the most qualified candidate for a job, to reward hard work and initiative, to be able to freely pursue dreams.  But meritocracy has a dark side and has become something of a tyrant, in several ways:  If I believe my success is my doing and not luck or grace, I’m tempted to be prideful, while those on the bottom don’t just feel unfortunate but humiliated.  Think of the contempt, resentment, mistrust in our society (hesitancy to take a vaccine made and promoted by elites).  Also, our meritocracy doesn’t reward what should be rewarded.  Why should Wall Street gamblers earn so much more than school teachers?  And obviously, it’s just not the case that most people on the top are there because of merit.  Wealth, race, gender and our natural abilities or lack thereof mean that we’re not really competing on an “even playing field.”

Meritocracy feels like a hot topic these days.  But isn’t the Lutheran view on grace and works really about something else? Final salvation, heaven and hell?  I’ve been pondering what I read once from German Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer.  Bayer points out that in the Catechism we all use in Lutheran confirmation, in Luther’s explanation of the Apostles Creed, mention of merit doesn’t come up in the articles about the Son and the Spirit, but in the first article, on the Father and creator:

“I believe that God has created me together with all creatures; he has given and still preserves for me body and soul; eyes, ears, and all members; reason and all senses; in addition: clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and child, fields, cattle, and all goods; he richly and daily provides me with all necessities and nourishment for this body and life; shelters me against all danger; guards and protects me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, all without my merits and worthiness.  For all of this I am responsible to thank and to praise, and because of this to serve and obey him.”  (italics mine)

So that’s clothing, food, house, family and goods, safety  – “richly and daily” provided – “all” of it, everything, a gift of God apart from my merit and worthiness.  To say “I trust in” this God, it seems, does seem to put us against the claims of meritocracy. “I didn’t deserve this, neither did you.”  At a most basic level, says Bayer, Christian faith believes that “ life and what is necessary for life has been given to me,” even when we don’t yet have these gifts but must wait and reach for them. (Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: a Contemporary Interpretation, pg 100).

I just finished Sandel’s book and I have a lot to still think about here – provocative stuff!  (I’d be interested in how criminal justice and mass incarceration fit in to the big picture).  One other theme I have to mention: Sandel talks about the need for “distributive” justice, everyone having enough money, but also the overlooked need for “contributive” justice: that people find dignified work and other ways to contribute to the common good (lack of this dignity for people, he says, is a big part of what led to the rise of Trump and deaths of despair).  Sandel doesn’t mention that this is another key Lutheran theme: that of vocation.  In his own time, Luther challenged the idea that religious and monastic vocations were superior to ordinary jobs like being a parent or a farmer.  In our time, as Sandel puts it, the jobs that require advanced degrees are those considered superior, while the two-thirds of Americans who don’t have college degrees are looked down on.  “Learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.” (pg 191)

This was quite a book to read in Palo Alto, a real center of meritocracy.  How might a church challenge meritocracy in some way, or offer a “grace-ocratic” alternative?  How can we show grace to people in high pressure situations, such as in academics, competitive jobs or in the high school college application process?  What about connecting with and lifting up people who don’t have sophisticated credentials?  Sandel talks about solidarity and the common good.  What about recognizing with Paul the forgotten excellence of love itself, which bears faults, accepts and nurtures the gifts each person brings?

Story, Vision, Institution

I’m always going back to the most basic question: “what is this whole Christianity thing about?” What should be our focus?  And why should anyone care?

I’m intrigued by little books that present a version of basics, like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. New Testament professor C. Kavin Rowe, in his book Christianity’s Surprise, brings up three ways Christianity seemed surprising and new to the world when it first appeared: first, in the kind of overarching story it told about everything; second, in its vision of what humans are; third, in its institutions.  We discussed his ideas in some recent adult forum classes.

First, says Rowe, Christians have a story: not just a collection of bible fables and sayings to believe in or reject, but a shared “this is who we are” story that gives us a place in this world -a  ‘why we’re here’ and a ‘where we’re headed.’’ Think of how your grandparents told you how they got through the Great Depression, adding “you too can get through what you face.” Our story is hopeful: as Rowe emphasizes, it’s centered on Jesus’ defeat giving way not to disaster but surprising new life, resurrection.

Many would say the most basic thing about Christianity is its ‘message’ – but that word makes me think of a sentimental one-liner on a greeting card or tweet. ‘Story’ sounds more grounded, personal, open-ended, adventurous. The ELCA recently said the goal is to tell lots of people the story of Jesus, but maybe what needs to be told are stories, plural: my story, your story, and his- all connected, going somewhere together.  The theologian John Webster said Christian hope involves looking backward and forward, at promises made in the past that we can trust and act on as we enter the future.  It seems like that kind of hope is what Christians are after.

People do DNA tests; they try to find their ‘tribe,’ they need roots and a story.  As Rowe, Stanley Hauerwas (5 and 1/2 minutes in or so in this sermon) and others say, we too often learn that ‘freedom’ means being autonomous and detached.  “My story can only be the story I choose for myself.’  I cut myself off from belonging and from obligations to others (as one class participant observed, people say ‘I’m not racist’ while ignoring the history and systems of racism we’re implicated in).  Christianity is about being gifted with a story and roots we didn’t know we had.  The baptized get to spend their days learning what it means to be children of God and to belong to one another.

Which gives us to Rowe’s second theme: Christianity’s vision of the human.  What makes us human?  Why are we of value? Again, it’s not the life we’ve created for or the story we’ve told about ourselves or anything particular about us, such as our ability to use reason or to be moral agents or some status we have. We’re human in that God has identified with us; we’re part of Jesus’ family, ones for whom Christ died and was raised.  Indeed, we can say Christ is the human.  To be in Christ’s presence is always to be drawn deeper into the human family: with the incarcerated, the poor, the sick and those whose value as humans seems questionable to this world (see Matthew 25, which Rowe discusses).  I felt this chapter was a little underdeveloped, but it reminded me of a passage from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.  God establishes a most intimate unity with this … While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human … In the human Jesus Christ the whole of humanity has been judged; again this is not the uninvolved judgement of a judge, but the merciful judgement of one who who has borne and suffered the fate of all humanity.  Jesus is not a human being but the human being.  What happens to him happens to human beings.  It happens to all and therefore to us.  The name of Jesus embraces in itself the whole of humanity and the whole of God.  (from pg84-85 of new hardback Fortress edition).

Class participants seemed to be of the opinion that the most basic element of Christianity is love.  I think Rowe here is getting at what’s lovable about people and how love transforms the way we see each other.

Finally: the third aspect of Christianity that was new and surprising, says Rowe, were its institutions.  Isn’t that what’s wrong with religion?  When it gets institutional, and isn’t just a free-flowing social movement? Obviously, we need some level of institution, like meeting places, times, who’s in charge of what. Says Rowe, we need institutions to maintain the story and vision and practices of the church.  Hospitals where any human would be cared for were first created by Christian bishops and monastics, Rowe claims.  I recently heard Henry Louis Gates Jr. talk about the vitality of the Black Church as an institution during slavery: if you were a child and your parents were suddenly sold, you at least have a somewhat consistent church family that will support you; songs and stories that keep you going. The question is, what institutions does Christianity need today?  How can we keep alive the story, the hope, a sense of being connected to all of humanity?

Rowe’s framework is very intriguing. One big remaining question is whether these aspects of Christianity really set it apart from Judaism, let alone other religions.


The cross is upside-down

Sermon for Good Friday, based on the passion story of St John

I probably watch more horror movies than most Lutheran pastors – not so much the gory as the spooky ones.  Rosemary’s Baby: maybe that’s the first horror movie with an upside-down cross as a prop?  Many folks have seen it: about people who seem like respectable Manhattan apartment dwellers – but really they’re Satanists.  They force the main character, played by Mia Farrow,  to bear Satan’s child.  When he’s born, three Satanist wise-men visit, like an inversion of the Epiphany story, and one of the gifts they bring is an upside down cross (intended as a sort of anti-Christian work of art, I guess to hang on the black wallpaper in your nursery.)

Believe me: since then it’s been in lots of horror movies – an evil spirit enters the house and Grandma’s nice gilt cross swings upside down on the wall.  The forces of badness spoil the nice, good, clean values of Christian living.  It’s taken up by Heavy Metal bands as a symbol: one such band is actually called “Deicide.”  Hmmm.  The upside down cross is an earring worn with black eye-shadow and studded leather, all Goth, to raise your parents’ blood pressure.  It’s Rock’n’roll, rebellion and I’ll do as I please; shadows and sin, dark alleys: an obscene gesture against the suburbs.

But here’s the thing: the upside-down cross is kind of a good symbol for – well, the cross!

As we heard in a recent children’s sermon, when you look at the cross we use in processions, a Greek cross,  in all four directions it’s of equal length, like a plus sign.  Turn such a cross upside down you get –  – the same cross.  And no matter its particular design, the cross of Christ is already, always upside down!!   A symbol of rebellion, criminals, deals made with the devil in dark alleys, pierced flesh, defilement, and badness.  For St. John, the poisonous snake you look at to live.  St Paul’s words are: “scandal.  Foolishness. Curse.”

And yet used by God, made to show God’s glory.

The cross shows God’s glory.  When in John 12 Jesus faces up to his coming trial and crucifixion – we hear that it’s about “glorifying” – you could say “hallowing” – the Name of God, and glorifying the Son of God.  Glory: in Greek, “Doxa” – can mean visible splendor, honor, reputation. We want to know not just that there IS a God – but why this God would be worth our attention.  Why get involved with God?   What is it about this Christ, that we should trust him?  What glory does God have, that we would give him our hearts and minds and time?

When we think about Christ’s “moments of glory” we may think of the times he healed people – or his wise teachings – his resurrection.  Wasn’t the cross just this dark valley he had to go through to bring about the brighter moments?  Well, in John’s Gospel – being lifted up on the cross IS Jesus’ moment of glory. When he dies he says “it is finished” – as if he’s put the last bit of paint on his masterpiece, to show us the visible splendor of majesty.

But how could this be?  Crucifixion was the ultimate anti-glory sort of torture and execution.  It was a public display meant to show not people’s splendor but their ugliness.  It was about degrading people, shaming, dishonoring them. A crown of thorns – a body exposed to the elements, nude – a sarcastic inscription: “King of the Jews.” A punishment fit for slaves and insurrectionists, to show you’re a nothing and nobody.  It was a kind of satanic symbol: this is what the Devil, the powers, the Ruler of this World, likes: to humiliate and destroy people.

And yet, God’s glory: because God – in love – wouldn’t let even this stand between us.  Jesus had come for everyone on the scene: for those on the margins of society, the criminals on crosses hung on either side.  Christ also came for the cruel soldiers who whipped him, for the mob hoarse with shouting, Christ came for the privileged, for Pilate at his safe distance, for the high priest, Peter and Judas and the most cowardly disciples.  He came for all those who are completely lost, in Satan’s grip, without any hope whatsoever.  Satan can try his worst, turn the sacred symbol upside down, but there’s nothing he could do to break God’s love for us.

You could say the cross was always upside down.  We think of it as a religious symbol – but it’s really a symbol of religion defiled.  I don’t know how accurate John’s portrayal of the priests is here – it seems pretty bitter – but as the story is told: they want Jesus executed, but can’t do it themselves, it will defile them before celebration of the Passover. And in Israelite law – Deuteronomy – it says no corpse was to be left on a tree overnight, or it would defile the whole land.  So the priests want it removed quickly.   Jesus’ body was this pierced horror to be rid of, if we were to bring back peace and sanctity.  And yet, as Jesus was always saying, “the Father and I are One.”  In his very flesh and blood the Holy One was present for our healing and hope.

I imagine most of us have felt we’re really outside of religion in some way.  We may not be the type of people who listen to the band Deicide and sport satanic tattoos – I mean, here we are at the Good Friday service (curious that during this very service on zoom, we were zoom bombed with offensive language and images, thus the need to post my sermon as a blog entry!).  But some of us do feel we “defile” religion in some way: even just in our doubts – we don’t know what we believe – “I’m not really as Christian as people think I am.”  Well – the glory of God for you is the cross.  God doesn’t wait for you to step forward and meet him halfway – but goes to where you are, to give and forgive everything – not to put on the pressure or guilt, but just to set you free.

Maybe our struggles aren’t so much against faith as against religion itself.  Too often it seems at odds with Jesus’ teaching.  All status quo.  Too often concern for those at the margins is all talk and intention, not action.  Too often, church is not really a place for criminals, soldiers, governors, priests, betrayers and deniers – but only those who seem to measure up or fit right someway.  Again, the glory of God for you is the cross.  Christ disrupts our status quo, and leads us by way of the cross into the dark and oppressive and at times beautiful world God so loved that he gave his only Son, that anyone who trusts him may not be destroyed but find life eternal.

One more thing about the upside down cross: as you may know, way before Rosemary’s Baby it originated as a Christian symbol.  Very early on there arose this tradition that when St. Peter was crucified by the Emperor Nero, he asked to be hung upside down by choice.  It was supposed to be about humility: he didn’t want to presume to suffer the same death as Jesus.  It’s not in the New Testament.  I’m not sure how I feel about it.  Yes – Peter, Jesus’ disciple, failed Jesus – denied knowing him, three times.  But God’s love for him on the cross is given without regard for our deserving.  What kind of humility is called for here?  Is it only saying “I’m not worthy?”  Or also, “by Grace, I am?  What you give, God, is fully for me, too.”

I am drawn to the image.  We can’t turn the cross upside down: whichever way you turn it, it’s already a scandalous – subversive symbol.  But what God did that day is about turning us upside down.  As Mary the mother of Jesus prayed: “you have cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” He came in love for you, such as you are – in your doubts and struggles, your hopes and failures, to redeem and to heal you and make your life new.  Thanks be to God.

An Easter giving appeal

March 28, 2021

Dear friends of FLC,

A greeting to you on this Palm Sunday, borrowed from letters of Paul: “Grace to you and peace in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace to us beyond our deserving, true peace and life to our hurting world: that’s what Holy Week and Easter are all about.

Join us for an extravagant week of worship! Many of us will participate in leading the journey of the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, all at 7pm on zoom – learn more here.

As an exciting sign of hope for the end of this pandemic (our county has reached the ‘orange’ tier), after the 9:30am Easter Sunday zoom service, we’re hosting an actual on-site event: an 11am outdoor (masked, socially distant) gathering with an Easter egg hunt for the kids, the option to receive communion, and a few treats.

This Easter, we’re making an appeal: would you consider an extra gift towards the ministries of FLC, even beyond pledged giving? It may be that not all of us can do this – it’s been a tough year. But thinking personally, even though we Hilleslands are facing college tuition (x2!) for the first time, we’re also grateful to have received government stimulus checks. And in general, there’s been so much “grace and peace” for us. Our family has been kept safe and well. Our congregation has been blessed with a new creativity and beautifully remodeled spaces. We’ll make a gift, hopeful for the ways FLC ministries might bring grace and peace to our neighbors in 2021 and beyond.

Financially, the pandemic has been challenging for FLC. As most you know, we’ve lost rental income and haven’t received the usual “loose plate” offering at festivals such as Christmas and Easter. We had to use around $35,000 from our endowment to balance the budget. If those of us who are able give something extra, can we make up some or even all of this amount, to be stronger going forward? In hope and gratitude for the grace and peace we’ve experienced in our lives?

If you can make an extra gift Easter Sunday or any time in the next month, we invite you to let Joyce know it’s an “Easter Gift.”  If you like, you can give through paypal here.

Thanks be to God,

Pastors Kate & Bernt, on behalf of Church Council