Category Archives: Tiburon

What Are You Waiting For

What Are You Waiting For

Isaiah 2:1-5 Matthew 24:36-44

November 27, 2016 Alan Claassen

First Sunday of Advent

          Do you remember that old Curtis Mayfield song

          People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

          Don’t need no ticket you just thank the Lord. You just get on board.

          I remembered that old song while I was thinking about this first Sunday of Advent

          and what it means to be waiting with a sense of expectation, waiting in one place and expecting to be carried to some other place, …what it means to be doing nothing really,

other than standing in a place of expectation and readiness.

Like waiting on a train platform for your train to come. You hear the train approaching and you the destination up in lights…

          No, not that. I am not going to Tucson.

          No, not that one, I am not going to despair.

          No, not that one. I am not going to tolerate fascism.

          Yes, that one. That’s my train.

                   The one that’s bound for glory for all human kind.

          What does it mean to actively waiting, waiting with anticipation to move or be moved?

          That reminded of a line from Will Rogers, that rope-twirling trickster from Oklahoma who said:  “Even if you are on the right track, if you are not moving, you are going to get run over.” It isn’t enough to be waiting in the right place but sitting still.

          And that reminded me of a story from former Supreme Court Justice,

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

          As Justice Holmes saw the train conductor approaching asking for passengers’ tickets,

          he began to search his pockets for his own train ticket.

          By the time the conductor got to his seat,

          Justice Holmes he was quite flustered saying,

          “I am sorry, Mr. Conductor, but I can’t seem to find my ticket.”

          “Oh, Justice Holmes, that’s quite alright. I can trust you.”

          To which Justice Holmes replied,” I appreciate your trust, Mr. Conductor,              but you see the problem is, without that train ticket, I don’t know where I am going.

My destination is printed on the ticket.”

          It isn’t enough to be moving, you need to know where you are going?

          People get ready, there’s a train a’coming.

          What are you waiting for? What train are you waiting for?

          Where do you want to go? Are you ready to be moved to some place new, beyond your expectation but within your imagination and your need to hope?

On this first Sunday in the beautiful season of Advent,

          the dream for a better way that we find in the Book of Isaiah

          the end of the world scenario, like the one heard read from the Gospel of Mark

          set the context for a world in need of a radical new beginning.

The Latin root of Advent is a word that means, “coming.” Advent means “toward the coming.” Advent is preparation for the coming of Jesus to the world—

          then in the past; now in the present; and … later, in the future.”

                    (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan The Last Christmas 231)

          Advent is remembering the past, so we can reframe the present, so that we can re-imagine the future.

          Advent is a reliving in the present of ancient Israel’s hope and yearning that is expressed in that favorite advent hymn.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”

          We look at so many lives today and see humanity in a time of exile, captive, mourning, lonely, longing. And in our Scriptures, we remember that the great new insights into the nature of the divine-human connection were born out of that suffering and we wonder what is being born now in this time of so much suffering that gives us hope?

          What are we looking for?

          And so the first reading for the season of advent is an open-eyed and honest looking at how things are in our world, in the world today. Violence in our cities, escalation of war,

a loss of faith in government’s ability to govern, and a justifiable fear that many corporations are running this world, and they are running it into the ground.

          In the Scripture readings that always begin the season of advent name those things that are broken in our world. They were broken for the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon. They were broken at the time that Jesus came into his world as a subject of the Roman Empire.

          The Scriptures call for a radical shift that comes about from a desire for God to intervene in a world that has fallen apart. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book, The First Christmas, refer to this desire for intervention as the Great Divine Clean-up.

          It is not that the world is coming to an end. It is time for the corrupt, greedy, and violent practices of merchants and governments to come to an end.

          It is as if humanity has hit rock bottom and so has begun the first step of a twelve-step program in Alcoholics Anonymous. We are called to admit that we are powerless over the mess that we are in. And in that honesty the potential for a new force of energy and healing

is released, anticipated, prayed for, received.

          In that honesty, is our source of hope. That hope becomes our source of gratitude, finding the support of companions, a re-dedication to our calling, and alignment with our deepest values.

          As we read the Bible we see that this yearning for God to come into our lives and help us begin again, has always been a part of the human consciousness. It goes back a thousand years before the birth of Jesus and continues in the hearts of many today.

          What are we waiting for? In that very question lies the conundrum of Advent; namely that we have the patience to let the new song of hope and peace arise from within us, and that we stop waiting and start singing and working to build the beloved community.

          Maybe what we are waiting for is that most authentic heart within ourselves, the one that is willing to risk incarnating hope, peace, love, and joy.

          And for us Advent, this time of hopeful waiting, begins today, immediately following Thanksgiving. The Great Gratitude.

          As we enter into this time of waiting with expectation I would like to ask you to think about these words written by a friend of a friend of mine, Esther Armstrong.

          “This year I am struggling.

                   This year I am troubled.

          For I believe that this season of Advent is calling me into

                   that which feels absurd, impossible, and even dangerous.

          This year…

          I am not waiting for the baby Jesus,

                   though that would be a lot more comfortable and safer.

          But baby Jesus has already been born.

                   He grew up, died, and is risen among us

I am not waiting for the Kin-dom of God to come,

                   though it would be easier if waiting was all that is asked of me.

But it isn’t.

This year…

          The Kin-dom of God is waiting for me,

                             and I suspect for you,

                                      to take on more fully the character of Jesus.

          This means I will:

                   Voluntarily relinquish my need to control

                             and my sense of entitlement.

          Let go and be delivered of

                             my insatiable appetite for more

                                      and my need for security.

I will seek to

                   Shine a light in the darkness

          Put my life on the line

                   for peace, for the heart of democracy

          This year…

          The kin-dom of God is waiting for me,

                   and all God’s people,

                             to be non-violent, forgiving, honest,

                                                humble, compassionate, and loving.

          God is waiting for us.

And so this Advent I will pray for courage to “live” Jesus,

                   while I hold onto the promises that God has come,

                             God will come again,

God will bring deliverance and justice,                                              

          and the world will be born anew through God’s people.”

          And so we say to Will Rogers, we are on the right track and we are moving.

          And we say to Oliver Wendell Holmes, we found our ticket and we know the destination and we sing along with Curtis Mayfield, we are ready to get on board.

          Let us take the risk of incarnation. Let us take the risk of being born again this year

in a new understanding of who we are and where we are going. Let us wait with expectation and with patience. And then get on board. A train platform is not a place to stop; it is a place to get going, toward the coming of the promised One.

          Let us live adventually.

          What do we do while we are waiting?

          Love one another.

          And oh yes, sing.   Sing, a lot!


The World I Want to Live In

The World I Want to Live In

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Alan Claassen August 28, 2016

Community Congregational Church

Tiburon, California

            I want to share a story with you written by poet, Naomi Shihab Nye.

            Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother.

            During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her BA in English and world religions from Trinity University.

            Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit.

            About her work, the poet William Stafford has said, “her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”

            This morning, in light of this morning’s gospel reading, and an excerpt from her poem, “Kindness,” I want to share with you a story that she tells about her own experience of offering kindness to a stranger while waiting for a plane at the Albuquerque Airport Terminal.

            As you hear this story hold gently in your heart a person or a place needing kindness, needing an invitation to sit in a place of honor at the table of humanity.

After learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:

“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

Well–one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

            An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,”

            “Talk to her,” said the flight service person.

“What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

            I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.

“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti?

            Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?”

            The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying.

            She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely.

            She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day.

            I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later,

            who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

            We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her.

            She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.

            Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it

            why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

            She was laughing a lot by then.

            Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions.

            She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—

            little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—

                        out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

            To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament.

            The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the

                        lovely woman from Laredo—

            we were all covered with the same powdered sugar.

                        And smiling. There is no better cookie.

            And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers

and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice

            and they were covered with powdered sugar, too.

            And I noticed my new best friend–by now we were holding hands—

                        had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves.   

            Such an old country tradition.

                        Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

            And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought,

            This is the world I want to live in.

            The shared world.

            Not a single person in that gate

                        –once the crying of confusion stopped—

            seemed apprehensive about any other person.

                        They took the cookies.

            I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

            This can still happen anywhere.

                                    Not everything is lost.

Kindness. Hospitality is spirituality. Spirituality is hospitality.

Especially with someone not kin.

Share the story of Heart Song Church welcoming the Muslim Islamic Center.

            `Pastor Steve Stone Heartsong Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Prayed and made a decision. A church member asked, Pastor Steve, what are you thinking. Pastor Steve invited the man to read the Gospels. The man read the Gospels and then realized, “I am the problem. My prejudice is the source of the fear and violence.”

            Pastor Stone created a banner that was displayed on the church’s sign.

“Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.”

            Stone’s counterpart, Dr. Bashar Shala, was overwhelmed by the reception. The sign was only the start of a heartwarming relationship that formed between the two communities. Heartsong eventually decided to let the Islamic Center use their hall while building a new facility.

            Jesus was a table turner. Not just the tables of the moneychangers in the temple or on Wall Street, but the tables that we sit at every day.

             The Beloved, Jesus, The Beloved Soul of Creation, The Beloved Holy Spirit

            invites us to welcome table,

                        where our status means nothing,

                                    but our compassion and kindness means everything.

When we lay down our lives for one another,

            when we offer our place to another human being

                        as perfectly imperfect as we are,

            we catch a glimpse of the beloved community and our souls are restored.

            When we love in truth and action, with one another,

                        as perfectly imperfect as we are,

            we catch a glimpse of the beloved community our souls are restored.

When we ask for the help that we need,

                        when we pray even not knowing what to pray for,

                                    when we let go of our plans and expectations,

                                                and open our hearts to receive guidance from

                                                            living presence of Jesus who is still, somehow,

            our teacher and healer and companion our souls are restored.

            When we see a brother or sister in need,

                        and we sit beside them, know that we hear their cry,

                                    and receive from them a sugary powdery cookie,

            we will dwell, for a moment, in the heart of the Beloved

            our bellies are filled and our souls are restored.

It doesn’t take millions of dollars to change someone’s life.

All it takes is sitting with them

            and letting them know you hear what they are saying

                        and offering whatever you can,

                                    and receiving the gift they have to offer to you.

            And it doesn’t take been in an airport, or the impoverished neighborhoods of our own community,

            this open-hearted kindness take place in our conversations here at CCC,

            when someone offers an idea that isn’t up to our status of opinion,

            when someone has been told a hard truth that they have not wanted to accept,

            when someone you love tells you that it is time for them to move on to a new adventure,

            it is time to give up your seat,

            or take your hands off the steering wheel.

            It’s a funny thing, that’s what makes us strong.

            When we live in a beloved community, where they person next to us, is ready to give us room to live in, to cry in, to grow in.

In her story from gate 4-A in the Albuquerque Airport Naomi Shihab Nye closes with these words,

                        And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought,

            This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.

            Not a single person in that gate—

            once the crying of confusion stopped—

            seemed apprehensive about any other person.

            They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

            This can still happen anywhere.

            All is not lost.

What world do you want to live in?

Well then, let’s live in it! It’s here. Now. Always.

Let’s build the beloved community with one invitation to kindness at a time.

Reconnecting with Compassion

Reconnecting with Compassion

Matthew 15:32-39

January 15, 2017         Alan Claassen

            The original lyrics for the spiritual, Gospel Plow, written sometime in the 1800s, went something like this.

            Well, I got my hands on the Gospel plow

            And I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now

            Keep your hands on that plow of God

            Well, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

            All those prophets are dead and gone

            Keep your hands on that plow of God

            Sister Mary was bound in chains

            And every link was Jesus’ name

            Keep your hands on that plow of God

            The song affirms the need to keep our hands on that plow of the love of God so that our rows are straight and long. Our hands on the plow are the connection between all that power of the animal that is pulling and that earth that is being turned over. It is our connection between earth and heaven.

            It’s a form of prayer

            In 1965 a civil rights activist named,   Alice Wine, took this old spiritual and made some changes, so the song became

Paul and Silas bound in jail had no money to go their bail

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

Paul and Silas thought they was lost. Dungeon shook and the chains come off

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

Freedom’s name is mighty sweet. Black and white are gonna meet

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

Hold on, Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

            So the image of the plow in the soil becomes a little richer, digs a little deeper into earth, into struggling love. There is the need to hold onto the plow because, because it is more difficult to move against hardened hearts than hardened earth.

            And to keep going, you will have to keep your eyes on the prize of freedom, like it was a scripture verse, like it was a promise for the Creator herself.

            If there’s anything that God has as an agenda for, it’s setting suffering people free. Yahweh brings the people out of “Egypt,” which is understood in the Bible as “a narrow place,” into a “broad and spacious place” flowing with milk and honey. God brings us out of suffering and oppression live in a land of sustainable peace. If a relationship is abusive or oppressive, God’s way is clear: God wants us out of there. God wants us to be free.

            The story of the Exodus is about God’s desire to free us from all sorts of “narrow places” in our lives: political and economic injustice, racism, abusive relationships, addictions, and coercive religion, anything that diminishes life. God judges the forces of oppression, and is not polite about it. The trick is, God doesn’t just say a word and suddenly we’re free. We have to get up and go into the wilderness into the unknown, into segregation, into Selma, into homophobia in Stonewall and Orlando, and into religious persecution in the United States

            In his book, The Rebirthing of God, Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, John Philip Newell shares the wisdom of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prize winner for her leadership of the non-violent movement for democracy in Burma. Her time in the wilderness was living for 25 years under house arrest.

            Suu Kyi describes the movement for change that she is leading as a ‘revolution of the Spirit.’ True power, she says, comes from within. What guides her is her meditation practice; one hour of silence each morning. What guides her is the way of compassion, being with the suffering.

            She has compassion for her people in their suffering, and she extends her compassion to the leaders of Burma’s military dictatorship, saying, “If I had really started hating my captors I would have defeated myself. Hatred and fear blinds us to the wisdom in our soul. She is able to have compassion for these soldiers because her father was a soldier. In fact, her father was a leader in Burmese Liberation struggles against the British Empire and Japan.

            Aung San Suu Kyi chose to be a warrior like her father, but she chose what Mahatma Gandhi called, Satyagraha, soul force, the long road of nonviolence and compassion.

            John Philip Newell, a teacher of Celtic Spirituality, describes Suu Kyi’s threefold path of compassion as: the courage to see, the courage to feel, and the courage to act. To live compassionately is to courageously see the connection between us and those who suffer,

to allow ourselves to feel it, and then to take action for those who suffer.

            This could be an overwhelming task considering the amount of suffering there is the world. But, if we remember that Suu Kyi calls this courageous compassion  “a revolution of the spirit,”

            and if we remember how Jesus surrendered himself into the arms of John, and the waters of the Jordan River, and the love of God,

            and if we remember how Jesus went even deeper into trusting God, while seeing and feeling suffering in the 40 days in the wilderness, we may be able to experience the courage of compassion, as a benediction rather than a burden, as a blessing rather than an obligation.

            When we want to care for others, rather than having to care for others, we are freed from the narrow place of self-interest and enter into the spaciousness of the Spirit, which Aung San Suu Kyi calls “profound simplicity.”

            Jesus embodied this profound simplicity, when he was able to respond to the hunger of the people and by blessing what they already had among them and inviting them to share it.

            This is the Holy Loving Spirit that was with those courageous people who walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge 51 years ago because they had their eyes on the prize of the right to vote.

            This is the Spirit that will be everyone participating in the Women’s March this coming weekend. Something else is being inaugurated this weekend and it flies under the banner of Peace Is Flowing. Peace is flowing like a river, flowing out of you and me, flowing out into the desert, setting all the captives free.

            The new words to Gospel Plow that Alice Wine wrote in 1965 grew as people added their own lines to the song, based upon their own experience

Only chain that a man can stand, that’s the chain of  hand in hand

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

I gonna board that big Greyhound, carry the love from town to town

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

            Even in situations that we can’t escape, God draws us toward freedom. Even in prison, Nelson Mandela was a free man. He was free of his captor’s fear and their narrow mindset, narrow view of the future. The promise of Exodus is not that we will succeed, soon or forever; but that freedom is as basic to God’s creation as is hydrogen and helium. All will be well, eventually. Ask and you shall receive, eventually. We shall overcome, eventually, if we keep our eyes on the prize and our feet on the ground and take the responsibility of citizenship in the nation and citizenship in the beloved community, seriously, graciously, as a covenant, a vow based on a dream. Hold on.

            This keeping his eyes on the prize of compassion gave Jesus, a Galilean tradesman, the courage and the righteous anger to stand at the temple steps and say to the moneychangers,

            This is wrong and must be stopped.

            No more exploitation of the poor.

            No more turning the holy place into a market of commercialism

            Everywhere is holy in the sight of the Creator

            Everyone is a temple of the Creator’s love.

            God’s love is given freely to everyone.

            I can’t help thinking about how this passage of the money-changers extorting the poor on the steps of the Temple applies not just to a particular temple, or Holy Land, but also to earth herself.

            How have the moneychangers turned the beauty of the earth and all of its abundant resources, into what should be a birthright, an earthright, for all people and all creation, into a commodity that serves 1%? The temple that is being destroyed today is our own mother earth. How can some people be so corrupted by greed that they would have the blatant audacity to deny science, deny climate change, and deny their own grandchildren their birthright?

            It’s as if their banner is, “Bring back the Dark Ages”

            I am grateful the compassion of so many faith communities and organizations who provide us with ways to see, feel and want to take action for the well-being of this blue boat home that is most wonderful gift of the Creator.

Two of my favorite verses in Keep Your Eyes on the Prize are these:

The only thing we did wrong, stayed’ in the wilderness a little too long

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

The only thing we did was right, was to organize and fight

            Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on

            Fight. Stand up. Stop wandering. You see what you need to do. Remember your higher purpose. If you say Yes, we can! Then say Yes we are! Yes we are doing something however small because we trust that it’s profound simplicity that changes the world

            That old gospel song, Gospel Plow, went through some changes during the Civil Rights movement. It was the same spirit moving and guiding, but the people find new words for new times.

            As I was thinking about the words to these songs, how they changed, and how the kept their eyes on the prize of the original vision of the song, I thought about this congregation at this time in your history.

            You have a great old song within you, how might the words change for these times we are living in now? You have a beautiful sanctuary on the top of Rock Hill Drive. how might the structure be changed for these times we are living in now? You have a beautiful view, and I wonder what your vision is. I wonder what people see when they look up the hill. Where do they see you in this community, knowing that you are a part of Community Congregational Church? What would make them want to come up the hill?

            Can you set your eyes on the prize and keep your hands on the gospel plow and sing a song of extravagant welcome? Can you sing, even in the midst of this time of transition, we are not afraid? We are willing to trust that we will be nurtured and guided, learning what we need to learn so we can enter into a broad and spacious place that will welcome so much more than a new minister, but also a new beginning for this united and uniting church that has such a unique voice to raise in this beautiful bay area.

            The words to the song, Gospel Plow changed as the people sang it, but the spirit remained the same. How is Community Congregational Church in Tiburon-Belvedere, United Church of Christ going to let the song of this church change even as the spirit remains the same?


            Hold on.

            Hold onto the courage to see

            Hold onto the courage to feel.

            Hold onto the courage to act, with profound simplicity.

            And don’t stop from singing, old songs in new ways, and new songs with the same Spirit.