Tuesday, June 20, 2017

                                                         The Man with the Water Jar
June 18, 2017
Mark S. Bollwinkel
[This sermon is delivered while throwing a clay pot on a potter’s wheel in front of the congregation.]

            The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 – 1956 in 11 caves on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, about 13 miles from Jerusalem.  The Scrolls are the libraries of a Jewish sect that hide them around the time of the Jewish-Roman war of the first century (66-70CE). 
This sect, located near the caves in what is now called the Qumran community, has been most identified with the Essenes.  They were a radical group, who yearning for purity, took to the desert to await the end of the world and coming of the new messiah.  Although an important and influential movement contemporary to Jesus’ times, the New Testament doesn’t mention them by name.  Many scholars suggest that John the Baptist could have been a member of the group because of his desert mystic ways such as wearing animal skins and eating wild honey and locust (Mark 1:1-8).  He certainly preached about the end of the world, as did the Essenes.  So, did Jesus in some very significant ways.  The way he prepared himself for ministry in the desert suggests he may have known the group as well.
            The Dead Sea Scrolls contain at least fragments of all the books of the Old Testament, except Ester.  There is a complete manuscript of the prophet Isaiah.  Their discovery was enormously important for Biblical scholarship because these texts were 1,000 years older than any other previous copies of the Bible.  The library also contained volumes of other works describing biblical commentary, apocalyptic expectation and a “Manuel of Discipleship” detailing the life of the Qumran community.  Scholars are still learning from them and debating amongst themselves their meaning.
            The Scrolls survived 1,900 years in the caves wrapped in fine linen and stored in clay pots.
Pottery is an ancient art and craft practiced throughout the world.  Archeologists have discovered intact clay vessels and ceramic objects dating back to 9,000 BCE.  Clay is found almost everywhere.   The development of ceramic utensils for cooking, food storage and decoration is universal.   In Palestine and Israel, it goes back thousands of years. 
            Pottery can be made using hands only, by pressing clay into molds, rolling coils of clay and shaping them with tools, or as is very common spun on the base of a potter’s wheel.  Once dried it is fired at high temperatures to vitrify the silica in the clay, thus making it waterproof and bonding the strength of the vessel.
            The Dead Sea Scrolls jars ranged in size, some as tall as 19”.   This style of pot was quite common as a storage jar.  It was often used as the equivalent of our modern day “safe deposit box”.  They didn’t have banks, as we know them, back in the first century so folks would buy these pots, store their valuables in them, and then place them somewhere in their homes, or buried out in the “back yard”, so to speak.  A potter would throw a separate lid for the cylinder and then the owner would often seal the lid with wax or animal fats.
            A potter worth his or her salt could make six of these in an hour.   This common, simple ceramic vessel was used to save a library of scripture and history wrapped in fine linen for almost 2,000 years.  The contribution to us from those ancient, pious, desert mystics and the potters they used to store the scrolls is priceless.
            The Bible has many references to pottery and to clay.  Here in Church of the Wayfarer we have a wonderful stained-glass window depicting Jeremiah’s visit to the “potter’s house” in the 18th chapter of his book:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So, I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

God’s judgement will come upon Israel and after its exile return, they will rebuild their nation and faith, waiting for a new Messiah.  As the song says of God, “I am the potter, you are the clay.”
Excuse the dramatics.  A potter’s commitment is to the process not to the individual piece.  Failure, breakage, kiln accidents and glaze mistakes are the constant life of a potter.  As invested as we are in the present moment of our craft, we come to know that there are a host of things out of our control that determine the outcome of any one pot.  So, we don’t get overwhelmed with any one failure or mistake with anyone pot.  We just keep working to perfect our craft.
            Couldn’t this be true of life as well?
            Consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians (4:7), “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  The treasure he is referring is to be the light and love of God, contained in the fragile, mortal and all too tenuous containers of human life.  Failure and brokenness are inevitable for any of us, however strong, brave and intelligent.   To remain committed to life and love, even when we know we will stumble and fall, is the basis of faith. 
To avoid pain is denial, to expect perfection out of our mortality is neurosis.  Health and wholeness comes to us when we learn to love each other and ourselves despite our failures, just as God loves us. 
As horrendous any one moment can be in our lives, we are committed to the entire process of the life that God has given us.  As painful and difficult any one moment can be in our lives, it will not have the final say about who we are.   After all, it is God who breathed the spirit of life into a bit of clay to create us (Genesis 2:7).    It is God who calls us “sons and daughters” (Roman 8:14).  The prophet Isaiah, whose scroll was saved in its entirety at Qumran, says four times that “God is the potter and we are the clay” (29:16, 41:25, 45:9, 64:8), God’s love and grace forms our living, and it has the final word about who we are, despite our flaws.

The man with the water jar must have known this to be true.

“The man with the water jar” is one of the enigmas of the New Testament.  Mentioned only in Mark and Luke we really don’t know who he was.  We do know that men did not carry water jars or pitchers in first century Palestine.  That was “women’s work”.  Why would a man be out in public view carrying a clay water jar?
Some scholars suggest that the man is a part of a conspiracy to secret Jesus into Jerusalem for the Passover.  By this time, government officials were openly plotting Jesus’ arrest and murder (Mark 14:1-3).   The Jesus’ movement hoped that he was the new Messiah.  It was imperative that he celebrated the Passover Festival in Jerusalem when religious and national fervor would be great, and some of the largest crowds would gather.  They had to get Jesus into Jerusalem under the noses of the Sanhedrin and Roman guards.  Like the secret password between warriors, a man with the water pitcher could have been a glaring yet silent signal to the disciples of who to trust and follow to the room where they could prepare for Jesus’ arrival.
Some scholars suggest that the man could have been a member of the Essenes.  The group was known to practice extreme celibacy and would have required men to perform female roles within the Qumran community, such as carrying water.  They certainly had a radical investment in the apocalyptic confrontation that would result from Jesus being proclaimed messiah during the Passover festival.  The man with the water jar could have been a member of the community that would bury the Dead Sea Scrolls just a few years later.
The term “water jar/pitcher” is specific to a vessel used domestically in the kitchen or at table.  (The potter/preacher is forming a replica of the traditional water jar/pitcher now on the wheel).  It would have been around 12” tall and would probably not have been glazed.  The terracotta clay used in the region was strong but fired at relatively low temperatures, minutely porous, allowing the pot to “sweat” (allowing sheen of moisture to gather on the surface) and then evaporate, cooling the contents of the jar, an important feature in a desert.
So, although we do not know his name and he is only mentioned in two of the four gospels, we can know that a member of the Jesus’ community had such courage and conviction that he was willing to take the risk of his own arrest to make it safe for Jesus’ participation in the Passover that year.  It was that evening we call the Last Supper, a ritual meal we now know as sacrament of Holy Communion, when in the sharing of bread and wine we recall God’s unlimited love for humanity in the life, death and resurrection of his Jesus, our Jesus.
This man with the water jar, a nobody in history, acts in faith to facilitate his people’s hope…our hope…for a better future, for the reign of God’s love.   Because of his small role in the drama of that evening, we gather here today, 2,000 years later to continue the Jesus community’s investment in God’s future.
Amazing what a simple, everyday kind of person can do when they are inspired to use their gifts in faith.
Lets thank God for the man with the water jar, and the members of the Qumran community, whose passion for God’s future left us the legacy of Holy Communion and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Maybe the man with the water jar was the Essenes potter whose vessels would leave us our clearest touch with history?

Amazing what simple, everyday kind of people can do when they are inspired to use their gifts in faith.                        Amen.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

“It's a Brand-New Day”
John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017

Mark S. Bollwinkel

My hunch is that everyone in this room this morning has some kind of list of things they would like to change about their lives; lose weight, make new friends, do better at school, find a new job, pay off the credit cards...the list is long, I would imagine for every one of us.   Yet for all of the energy we put to thinking about needed changes, how many of us can actually follow through?

A pastor friend of mine once shared this illustration at a clergy meeting:

"Roughly 600,000 people have heart bypasses a year in America.  These people are told after their bypasses that they must change their lifestyle.  The heart bypass is a temporary fix.  They must change their diet.  They must quit smoking and drinking.  They must exercise and reduce stress.  In essence, the doctors say, "Change or die."  You would think that a near-death experience would forever grab the attention of the patients. You would think they would vote for change.  You would think the argument for change is so compelling that the patients would make the appropriate lifestyle alterations.  Sadly that is not the case.  Ninety percent of the heart patients do not change.  They remain the same, living the status quo. Study after study indicates that two years after heart surgery, the patients have not altered their behavior.  Instead of making changes for life, they choose death. "1

Change is difficult.

Pastors often hear the concern from parishioners that they are afraid of changes at church.  This is especially true in worship.   Add a new wrinkle to the order of the liturgy, pastors wearing 'civilian' dress rather than clergy robes or singing new hymns rather than the old, familiar ones and we'll get all sorts of expressions of anxiety.   The mere talk of changing something in the sanctuary can keep people up at night!

I'll never forget the tour Bonnie and I received of the parsonage at a new assignment years ago by members of their Board of Trustees.   The master bathroom was so small Bonnie and I could not get in it at the same time.  When I went in to look at it, one of the Trustees blocked the door, looked me in the eye and warned me "Whatever you do don't change the time of the 10:30am worship service!"   Believe me I got the message...I wasn't going to leave that bathroom until I calmed the anxiety of my new church member!  What an unforgettable first impression!

A scholar has suggested that at the heart of our fear of change is really our fear of loss, the anticipated grief that what we have counted on and trusted won't be there for us in the future.2 Even if our use of tobacco or alcohol or compulsive overeating is bad for us, along with a physical addiction, it meets a deep seeded need that would have to be met in some other non-apparent way.   Its absence would be a loss as well as a huge adjustment.

No wonder change is so hard.

Easter season is a time when we ponder the possibilities of change.  It’s a time when we embrace the potential of creative transformation in our lives and in the world.  The Creator God of the Universe so loves us that God will share our life and death with us.  Knowing that love cannot die, even in the face of brutal reality, we are freed from all that holds us bound to the past brokenness that so often defines who we are and what we might become.  On Easter it’s a brand new day!

That a man rises from the dead to proclaim that love cannot die may be the biggest "change" in history!   There is a "metamorphosis" (Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:2) in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.   We think of the chrysalis to butterfly, the seed to the flower, the birth of new life whether chicks, lambs or babies as profound Easter metaphors for they illustrate the possibilities of creative transformation. 

That is not what Mary was looking for when she came to the empty tomb on Easter morning.  But that is what she found.  Seeing the tomb empty was the last thing she expected to find.  She had come to finish preparing the body for burial not to find the beginning to eternal life. She must have been in shock as were the male disciples.
They had lived with Jesus for 3 years.  They had seen the miracles, heard his sermons.  He had clearly said that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem to be raised from the dead.  But fear and doubt had taken over when the soldiers came to arrest their Lord the night of their last supper.  All but John and the women abandoned the Master on the cross, running away to hide.
In our gospel’s version of Easter morning, it is John, the beloved disciple, who is the first to run to the tomb after hearing the women’s report.  He sticks his head in the tomb but doesn’t enter.  For him seeing is believing.  The slimmest evidence convinced him that the Master’s teaching of new life was real.  That was all John needed to come to Easter faith.
For Peter, the empty tomb wasn’t enough.  For Peter, who entered the tomb and examined the burial clothes, faith wouldn’t come until later.  Not until the risen Jesus confronted Peter as he fished on the Sea of Galilee.  It wasn’t until Jesus challenged Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:40-19) that the fisherman believed. Peter, like so many others, didn’t know the risen Lord until he went out to serve, until he went out to share his experience of this Jesus with others.  For many of us, we will only find Easter faith when we make the commitment to “feed the sheep”.

Seeing isn’t always believing.  Mary doesn’t believe because of the empty tomb, or conversations with angels or even a face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord.  Mary couldn’t see through her tears.  It is not until she hears her name called that she finally believes.  It was Jesus’ word that moved Mary beyond her despair into Easter faith.

There isn’t only “one” way to faith.  Some of us will believe on the basis of Jesus’ teaching.  Some will find the risen Lord through service and compassion for others.  And for many it will not be until times of despair and confusion overwhelm us, that we will hear our name called.
Mary and the disciples came to the empty tomb to find out what to believe…to make sense out of the turmoil in their community and within themselves.  Are we really that different from them this morning?   Although we each come to faith in a different manner, don’t we each confront the same conclusion?

The tomb is empty.  Death cannot contain this Son of God.  We keep running into him, in a garden, in a boat, in a locked and darkened room.  This Jesus is alive and the world…our world…will never be the same again.  On Easter it’s a brand new day.   It’s a faith that can transform a life forever.

Not too long ago, Perla Martinez Goody was recognized as the “Child Advocate of the Year” for the state of Oklahoma.3   She was selected to show appreciation for what she does to “free women and children from abusive situations, to support and strengthen the family and meet their fundamental needs” according to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.   Ann Salazar of the Institute said Ms. Goody “goes where other people don’t want to go and does with passion what other people don’t want to do.”

Ms. Goody grew up during the 1950’s in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in a poor and violent neighborhood.   Her parents emigrated from Mexico.  She was the 17th of 18 children, eight of whom died before the age of five; “My father let alcohol get the best of him.  When he was drunk, he would beat me and my mom and my siblings until the blood came.  There were many times when I thought I couldn’t get up off the floor….”

She was one of those kids who looked forward to going to Sunday school and church each week but her father didn’t want her to go.

“A van from the Mennonite church used to come, and if my father was still out drinking and playing poker, my mom would let them take us to church…but when my dad was around, all of us hid and didn’t go to the door.   One Sunday morning when I was about six, the pastor knocked on the door while my father was whipping up on us.  The pastor asked him, ‘Don’t you know your children are a gift from God?’  That set my father off and he beat the pastor up.  The next Sunday the pastor knocked on our door again…bruises were all over his face.  My father went to the door.  The pastor looked him in the eye and said firmly but calmly, ‘Mr. Martinez, I’m here to teach your children about Jesus Christ.’   He must have gotten through to my father because soon after that he stopped drinking and was sober for the next ten years.”3

As she grew up, left home and married, she and her husband became members of the First United Methodist church in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma.  There she became a certified United Methodist Local Pastor and worked with the church developing an outreach ministry to Hispanics in their community.           Along with preaching, Ms. Goody has developed an English-as-a-Second language program at her church along with the Good News Medical Center which provides free health care for people in need.  She conducts Twelve Step Programs for people addicted to alcohol and drugs and sponsors a support group for spousal and child abuse victims.  “Perla’s roots in God’s compassion and grace are deeper than the hardships [she has faced in life]…she has love, faith and hope” says her pastor.

A survivor of childhood abuse and violence grows up to dedicate her life to serving those just like her.   Somewhere along her journey Perla Martinez Goody embraced change.  Somewhere along her journey she heard Jesus call her name.  

Here in Carmel we have a lovely children’s clothing store called “Heaven”.  In fact it’s just a few doors down from us on Lincoln Street.  That’s right, our church is just a few doors down from Heaven.  Last year when the City was repaving Lincoln Street but the sidewalks remained open, the store owners placed a makeshift sign on the tree outside that read “Heaven is Still Open!”  Which made me feel great…there might still be room for me!

The phone number at the store is 831-624-6550.  The phone number at Church of the Wayfarer is 831-624-3550.   It turns out that when I wrote the salutation to my office email, along with name, title, mailing address, I mistakenly recorded our phone number as 831-624-6550…the number of the store.  A few weeks ago I learned that a number of people who had been receiving my emails and had tried calling using that number.  The calls went like this; “Hello, this is Heaven.”  “Is Pastor Mark there?”  “No, he’s at that other place…”

On Easter we think of the theme of Eternal Life and the promise of life after death.  And well we should, it’s an essential part of the story.  But Easter isn’t only about “getting into Heaven”   In fact, the gospels tells us in significant ways that we are called to live in the spirit of that future promise right here and right now in this life.   The love, peace and justice of the future is available to us today and can shape and direct our living.  That’s what it means to be “an Easter People”.  It’s not just about a pie-in-the-sky salvation but about way of life that can redeem.

It's not just another day.  And it’s not just another Easter.   Now it is you and me who stand before the empty tomb. 

Some will believe upon seeing.  Some will find it through compassionate service.  Yet more of us will believe only after the tears are all gone. 

Resurrection begins by embracing gratitude for each and every day.  It begins when we are embraced by the one who longs to call our name.   And that truly is a brand new day.


1 Simple Church, Thom S. Rainer & Eric Geiger, 2006, page 229, footnote, Alan Deutschman, "Change or Die," Fast Company 94 (May 2005), pp. 54-62.

2 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership on the Line, pp. 26–30

3“Hispanic Minister Practices Wesleyan Principles”, Boyce Bowdon, Response, Feb. 2008, pp.33-35

The Jesus Parade
Mark 11:1-11
April 9, 2017

Mark S. Bollwinkel

Why do we call Jesus "King"?   We sing it in our hymns.  We find it in our scriptures.

When the Magi come to the manger scene in Bethlehem they are searching for "the new born king of Israel" (Matthew 2:2).  When he dies on the cross they hang a sign above his head saying in three languages so all could understand "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (John 19:19).   At Caesarea Philippi Peter calls him "messiah" which means "king" (Mark 8:29).  When translated into Greek, the language of the written scriptures, it comes out as "Christ".   “Jesus Christ” literally means Jesus the King.

There are few kings left today.  We look at royalty as remnants of a quaint past, objects of our personality cults.  The notion of divine authority handed down by inheritance was swept away during the American and French revolutions hundreds of years ago.  Democracy continues to spread throughout the world based on the principal that governing authority resides in the people not in despots with lots of guns.

Today on Palm Sunday we remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of 'hosannas' to the king.   The donkey, the cloaks on the ground, even the palm branches were all Hebrew symbols fit for a king.

What does that mean for us?   We elect presidents.  We don't have kings.

The triumphal entry of Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem mark the beginning of his last week of earthly life.

Historians suggest that in first century Palestine it was the tradition of the Roman Governor during Passover week to leave his palace on the coast and come into Jerusalem with a legion of troops to keep the peace.  Passover was the most important celebration in the Hebrew calendar and Israel longed for freedom from the oppression of the Roman occupation.  Nationalistic passions went hand-in-hand with the religious observance.  Grassroots insurrections broke out with some regularity all over the Empire and especially in Palestine.   Later in the story of this last week we will find Jesus' life held up against the life of Barabbas a Zealot who had killed a Roman soldier in just such an uprising.

Pontus Pilate would have come up the coast road and entered the city by the north gate.  He would have been at the head of a huge parade of armed soldiers with banners, flags, battle horses and signs of the power and terror of the state.  Trumpets and drums would have blared.   It was a clear reminder of who was in charge, who was in control.

It is not unthinkable to imagine that on the same day or maybe even at the same time, Jesus came in on the Bethany/Jericho road gate, on a borrowed colt as was prophesied by Zechariah (9:9).  When the people threw down their cloaks and palm branches, calling Jesus “Lord” and “son of David”, they were suggesting that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah of Israel or its new king.  In Luke’s version of the story, Pharisees warn the crowd about saying such things out loud and Jesus replies, “if these people were silent the stones would shout out.” (19:40). It was a clear reminder of who was in charge, who was in control.

In his book, Sacred and Profane (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1987) Mircea Eliade, a philosopher of comparative religion, describes the sacred significance of doorways and gates.   Whether in a home, a temple or a city, doorways and gates have been decorated with religious sign and symbol since the beginning of history, in all cultures.  These portals divide space between the sacred safety of "home" and the dangers of the outside world.   This was and is especially true of Jerusalem where every gate into the city has its own name, its own traditions and importance.

For the people of the gospel story we will know whose side they are on in just a few days.   Jesus dies on a Roman cross.   How about for us readers today?   Where in lies our hope?  To which kingdom do we owe allegiance?

As Jesus and Pilate enter their respective gates at the beginning of Passover the contrast between two different views of power, two different views of the future, couldn't be clearer.   And the people will have to choose that day into whose power and future they will invest their hope.

As he begins his ministry Jesus proclaims, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news."  (Mark 1:15)   In the gospel of Luke Jesus says, "...the kingdom of God is within you..." (Luke 17:21) In his interrogation by Pontius Pilate in the gospel of John shortly before his death Jesus is asked if he is indeed "the king of the Jews" to which he answers, "My kingdom is not of this world."  (John 18:33-37)

Scholars suggest that the promised future of God as outlined in Hebrew Scriptures is a "realized eschatology" (Raymond Brown, et al) in the life of the believer.  In other words, we don't have to wait until the end of the world to start living hope filled lives in this one.   The spirit of God's intention for love, peace and justice to reign in the world lives in the heart and lives of those who follow Jesus as disciples.  We live in the present as if God's future were now.  That is one reason why Christian disciples are so committed to acts of love, peace and justice in this life.  Not to earn our way into heaven, but to live even if imperfectly in its spirit right now.

Bob Dylan sings in his song "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979):

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it might be the devil or it might be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Well, Ila served the Lord.

I buried "Ila" a few years ago at a memorial service near Fresno.   As a young woman, she was abandoned by an angry drunk of a husband.    She insisted that if possible her married name never be used.   Without formal education, she began working as a cook at a local elementary school.  By the age of 65 she retired as the head of food services for the public education system of Arizona.

When I left her church as its pastor in 1995 she made me promise to come back to do her funeral.  We had become dear friends as we worked together in ministry.  Ila died at the age of 98, surrounded by her loving family.

She took meals to those sick in the congregation.  She headed up our prayer teams.  She baked and sold pies each Sunday to raise funds to build a Christian education building for our growing church.   She organized fund raising dinners for hundreds of people.   When we expanded our worship services to include guitar singing and hand clapping she was the first one to support the change.  When we opened our facilities for Korean and Mong congregations to join us, she championed the possibilities, and in Clovis that had definite political and social consequences.

Ila was a force of nature and a deeply committed Christian.  Her memorial service was a celebration of a life well lived.   And a celebration of one who served the Lord.  For Ila Jesus was "King".  She was a member of the Jesus parade.

When we join a United Methodist church we make a vow to support it with “Our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness”.  That means:

-we show up for Sunday worship when in town
-we pray for the congregation's care, our community and the world
-we make a commitment to learn more about our faith
-to participate in small group experiences
-to participate in hands-on mission projects to serve the community or the world
-to dedicate and give a proportion of our annual income to the work of God through the church.

Six simple expectations that can be lived out at your own definition and time.  No one checks on you, no one is keeping track.  We just know that for those who make such a commitment to join the Jesus parade will grow closer to God and to each other.

Does that make us spirituality superior to someone else?  No way!  It’s just puts us on the road to discover what it means to "serve the Lord"; to make days like Palm Sunday more than an annual ritual.

To call Jesus "King" is to suggest that God's promises of love, peace and justice rule our hearts and frame our living.

As on the first Palm Sunday as two parades entered Jerusalem describing the choice between two very different kingdoms, each and every moment we are offered a variety of paths to follow.  Joining the Jesus' parade can make all the difference in the world.

It certainly has for me.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Come and See

John 1:43-51

 January 15, 2017

Mark S. Bollwinkel

Have you seen the movie “Hidden Figures” (20th Century Fox, 2016)?  It’s the story of a long forgotten aspect of our nation’s space program.  It focuses on the lives of three brilliant African American women in the early 1960’s; Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.  They were among the mathematicians and engineers who got the first astronauts into space.   Yet along with a number of other African American women at NASA their contribution has gone ignored for years.  

            The movie depicts the challenges and obstacles they had to overcome as women and as Blacks at a time when science was considered an exclusive male domain and African Americans were legally segregated from equal access to education, employment and even bathrooms.   

As reported in the media across the country one of the amazing things about this movie is how at the end of the film people applaud.  We are inspired by the personal perseverance, faith and courage of these three women.  We also applaud because their story illustrates one of those historical moments when the American dream takes a step forward; the dream that there is equality, justice and opportunity for all.  It’s one of those moments when we take a step closer to all that America can be. 

Thank you all for the greetings on my 65th birthday.  Birthdays are a time for reflection as is the MLK weekend. 

You’ll remember that on July 22, 1961 the San Francisco Giants beat the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati by the score of 8-3.  Giants scored five runs in first inning knocking Reds pitcher Ken Hunt out of the game with only one out; Willy Mays and Orlando Cepeda each had one RBI, 3rd baseman Jim Davenport had a 2 run home run in the sixth inning; only bright spot for the Reds was Frank Robinson's 2 run, home run in the bottom of the ninth against Giant's pitcher Jack Sanford who went the distance.   

I don’t remember much about the game.  There were 14,343 in attendance including 6 Bollwinkels.  But I'll never forget the tension at breakfast that morning. 

            My father’s favorite Aunt and Uncle lived in Cincinnati while we were living in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  When the Giants would come to Cincinnati we would often drive down to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Elmer Senn’s home and take in a game.   

            During 1961 the City of Cincinnati ended the racial segregation of the public swimming pool at the Coney Island Public Park.  Up until then only White people could use the pool.   This was the focus of many demonstrations, protests and law suits over the years.  That day the newspaper reported that demonstrations by local African American leaders were going to be held at the swimming pool.  My parents and their relatives spoke in hushed tension, wondering if “there were going to be troubles”.  As a nine year old I didn’t really understand all that was going on but I clearly understood their fear that morning. 

            Years later I would learn that one of the protesters at Coney Island that morning would be the young African American wife of a local Methodist pastor.  She brought along with her, two kids in a stroller.  The church they served had a long history of opposition to racial segregation and was part of the “underground railroad” during and following the Civil War.    

That young mother would eventually be ordained a United Methodist pastor and commissioned the first African American women Bishop in our denomination, Leontine Kelly.   Her son John Current, in the stroller that day, is now my colleague and Pastor of the South San Francisco UMC.  His spouse, Rev. Staci Current is my boss as the Superintendent of the El Camino District.   

This is not a "look how far we've come” moment.  Although the legal segregation faced by those in the 1960’s has changed dramatically, I'm not sure how far we've come.  We still have a long way to go to deal with racism in our country.   

But the amazing and powerful lure of God’s intention to justice and equality is certainly an affirmation of how God works in the lives of ordinary people of faith; like a young pastor’s wife demanding equality for her children or a nine year old white boy becoming aware of the fearful suspicions of his own family.  

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus calls the twelve disciples.  The Fourth Gospel’s version of this call is significantly different than the other three.  Philip is named on each list but only John describes any words or behavior of this disciple.  Nathanael is only mentioned in John and is not listed as one of the twelve although he is very much part of the drama of discipleship.   

The call to follow is all that Philip needs to come to faith in Jesus as Messiah.  Upon meeting Nathanael, Philip announces that they have found “him about whom Moses…and the prophets wrote”.  Nathanael responds incredulously when Philip identifies Jesus’ hometown, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Commentators suggest this phrase may reflect ethnic and class prejudice. Philip doesn’t respond to the slur but simply responds by repeating Jesus’ words (: 39) “come and see”. 

The disciples become apostles and saints after the resurrection but at this first meeting with Jesus we find some pretty mediocre people.   Phillip, who is a hometown buddy of Andrew, will have a pathetic career as a disciple.  He is the one who tries to send the people away to find their own food in a nearby town at the miracle of the feeding of 5,000 (John 6:1-8).  When Jesus preaches, “I am the way the truth and the life…if you know me you know the Father”, it is Phillip who blurts out to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father that is all we need” (John 14:8[NRSV]).  Phillip continually misses the point about Jesus.   

Nathanael is academic and pious.   Which is why he is sitting under the fig tree, where Rabbis’ traditionally held their classes on the Torah.  Jesus sees this and Nathanael gets all excited that Jesus’ knowledge of him is miraculous.  Jesus discounts his confession because faith born solely on the miraculous is superficial and unacceptable.  He says to Nathanael, in effect, “If you think that is a big deal, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”            Nathanael is like us ordinary Christians who love to read about religion and love to come to church but are holding out on real faith until God gives us a miracle. 

Nathanael doesn’t make it into the final 12 but will be there at the end of the story (John 21:2).  We can only guess what happens to Nathanael between his call and the appearance of the risen Lord on the Sea of Galilee.  He is part of the disciple crew hauling in an unexpected catch of fish following Jesus’ instructions to cast their nets into deeper water.  He will eat a communion of breakfast with Jesus on the shore.  In that fellowship he, too, will know that his redeemer lives.  He, too, will know what good can come out of Nazareth

The disciples were a motley crew, not much superstar material there; just ordinary, normal, average people, with the same fears and doubts and inhibitions as you and me.  How can it be then, that this group will literally change the course of Western Civilization?  How is it that such mediocre people as the disciples will be the first to offer the world a new relationship to God that thousands of their peers will accept and in so doing will change the face of history?   

Dr. King’s leadership took him from Montgomery to Selma to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, filled with a vision of how things could be, empowered with God’s spirit demanding a restoration of justice and peace in human society.   How could a young, Black preacher in the South, at times frightened, unsure, an all-too mortal man find the vision and the courage to confront centuries of racist hatred and institutions in America?   

At the heart of the human condition God can be found.  Even in our limitations, failings and fear, God is with us.  Is it so ironic then, that God uses human beings to change the world? 

People like Phillip and Nathaniel, Rosa Parks, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson….or Melvin G. Talbert, one of the college students locked up in the Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963 along with Dr. King who would become the presiding Bishop of our United Methodist Conference for 12 years…or an all too human, young and brilliant Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. 

What they have in common is not that they ended up famous and successful disciples of Jesus, which is incidental.   What they have in common is the journey of faith.   Each is given gifts and graces.   Each is given challenges to overcome, weaknesses to confront.   Each is given a certain time and place in which to be faithful. 

Including you and me. 

The best way to follow Jesus is to “come and see”, to go and live with him.  It is in sharing our lives with this Jesus and bringing along our average, ordinary doubts, anger and dreams that we are transformed from people paralyzed by our humanity to those who move ahead because of it.


Monday, January 2, 2017

In the Beginning… 

John 1:1-5, 14 

January 1, 2017 

Mark S. Bollwinkel 

Bret Harte’s, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (Harvard Classics Shelf Fiction 1917), tells of Roaring Camp, the meanest and toughest mining camp in California during the Gold Rush.   Murder and theft were common.  It was a place inhabited exclusively by men, with one exception.  Her name was Cherokee Sal and she died while giving birth to a baby girl.

Without a mother to care for the child, these rough men were suddenly thrust into the awkward role of providing for the needs of the little girl.  They began by placing her in a box with some old rags.  But that didn’t seem right, so they sent one of the men 80 miles over the mountains to buy a rosewood cradle.   Another man traveled all the way to Sacramento to purchase some silk and lace blankets which they used to make the baby comfortable and warm.

Seeing the beautiful cradle with the new blankets made the men realize just how dirty the floor of the cabin was, so they scrubbed the floor on their hands and knees until it was clean.   Then they noticed the dirty walls and windows of the cabin.  So they washed the walls, windows and ceiling and put up curtains.  The change in the baby’s surroundings was amazing.   But not just in the cabin.  The men, who had been used to loud, angry talk and occasional fighting, had to give up their bad habits because the little girl could not get her sleep in the ruckus.

When the good weather came, they would take the little girl in her cradle and set her by the entrance to the mine so that they would see her when they came up the shaft.   Somebody noticed how dirty things were so they planted flowers and made a nice garden there.  It was all quite lovely.  The miners would bring the little girl shiny stones they happened to find in the mine.

But, that was not all.  When some of the men would pick the baby up to hold her, they realized just how dirty they were.  It wasn’t long that the general store was sold out of soap and shaving gear.  

That baby, suggested Bret Harte, changed everything. 

Of course at Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem that changed everything, too.   Jesus’ life, teachings and his death have inspired miraculous changes of love in the world ever since.   Maybe you know such change in your life…I sure do.

How to understand who this Jesus was, and is, has been a central challenge for our faith.

A student came to me and asked me to explain to her the difference between Christianity and Judaism.  She is in love with a student who is Jewish.  They are both law students, thinking about marriage. How will they deal with the difficult differences?   I told her that I had known people who marry lawyers and go on to have happy marriages, despite the difficulties!  Just kidding.  The differences that trouble her are between two related but disparate faiths. Well, we discussed rituals, festivals, beliefs. Then she asked a fundamental question. “When it comes down to it, what is the one thing that makes Christians, Christian?”  The answer is not potluck dinners, WWJD bracelets or pushy preachers. The thing that makes us who we are is who Jesus is.   Jesus Christ is Christianity. (William Willimon, “Who do you say that I am?” August 22, 1999, Duke Chapel Web Site, chapel.duke.edu.)

            The four New Testament gospels were written to four very different communities answering this essential question, “Who is Jesus?”   Although they agree on the message of his teachings, and the importance of his life, death and resurrection, each gospel describes the answer to the question in significantly unique ways.

            In Mark, Jesus appears in his late 20’s to be baptized in the river Jordon by John the Baptist, at which time God “adopts” him as his beloved son.

            In Luke and Matthew, we hear the Christmas stories of angels, shepherds, mangers and wise men proclaiming that Emmanuel has been born of a virgin to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies of the new Messiah.

            In John, our scripture lesson this morning, we hear something entirely different.   “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”

            The Bible begins in the book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  All was darkness and void….and God said let there be light…” (:1,3)   God speaks creation into order.  That “word”, to the theologian and author of John’s gospel, is Jesus Christ.   Jesus is the incarnation of the divine life force of all creation, in existence before the universe began, the spirit of light and life “made flesh to dwell among us” that we might finally come to know the true nature of God.

            In the original language the word “dwell among us” can be translated “tabernacled among us”.   Remember your Sunday school lessons about the tabernacle of the Hebrew people as Moses led them through the 40 years of wilderness wandering between their escape from slavery in Egypt and their entrance to the Promised Land (Exodus 12:31-f)?   The tabernacle was the elaborate tent and altar in which the presence of God traveled with the children of Israel.  When they struck camp and settled in a new place or went into battle against an enemy, God was right there with them.  If they had problems they wanted to bring to God, if they had sins they needed forgiven, if they had joys they wished to celebrate, the faithful could go into the mystery and majesty of the tabernacle and be with God.

            Well, for the writer of John’s gospel, in Jesus God’s intimacy and presence with us is restored, in fact it can now dwell directly in our hearts (John 3:16, 11:25-26).  So profound is John’s theology about the pre-existent Christ that scholars now suggest that the church has viewed Matthew, Mark and Luke through the “lenses” of the fourth gospel (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, Random House, 2003).              

            So, who is Jesus for you?  Historical sage and martyr?  Fulfillment of prophecy?   Esoteric spirit, the light and life of creation itself?  Combination of all three?

            As we begin a new year, your own answer to that question would make a fine resolution.   For two millennia, millions of folks just like us have found meaning and purpose in life seeking the same.

Speaking of his own Christian faith, rock star Bono once said: 

“I find solace in places I never could have imagined ... the quiet sprinkling of my child’s head in baptism, a gospel choir drunk on the Holy Spirit in Memphis or the back of a cathedral in Rome watching the first cinematographers play with light and color in stained-glass stories of the Passion.  I am still amazed at how big, how enormous a love and mystery God is — and how small are the minds that attempt to corral this life force into rules and taboos, cults and sects” (Good News, July-August 2002, p. 40). 

            As for Jesus himself he suggests that if we want to know who he is all we need do is follow him (Mark 1:18).  All we need do is receive in faith the symbols of his body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion (I Corinthians 11:23-26).

            If we really want to know this Jesus, all we need do is prepare a place for God’s love in our lives…as if we were dirty, rough miners in Roaring Camp, lives transformed by the birth of a baby.



Thursday, December 29, 2016

Nicholas of Myra

Luke 1:39-45 

December 25, 2016 

Mark S. Bollwinkel 

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Carmel,
All the creatures were stirring, running around pell-mell.
The stockings were hung by the monitor with care, in hopes that
The Super Nintendo Classic soon would be there.  The children
Were sleeping, all sound and cozy, with dreams of flying drones,
Barbie dolls and Obi Ben Kenobi.  And Momma in her flannel
Nightgown, and I in my shorts, had just settled down for a night
Of snores and snorts. 

When out near the hot tub, arose such a noise, I sloshed out of the
Waterbed, fearing the naughty neighborhood boys.  Away to the
Window, I flew back the blinds, tore open the curtains…what I saw
Blew my mind. 

The moon reflecting off the smog of our meadow, gave the shine of
High noon to everything be-low. 
When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but gigantic Ford Expedition, filled with 8 tiny reindeer.

That little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment, it must be
St. Nick…

            Such a rendition of the famous Christmas Story by Clement Moore might be appropriate for our suburban culture these days.  It does illustrate how easy it is to change traditional stories around.

            History has always been secondary to the importance of bringing the Christmas Story to new generations.  This is especially true of the gospels of the New Testament.   There is no consensus among Matthew, Mark, Luke and John regarding the birth of Jesus, other than it happened.  Matthew doesn’t have any Shepards, manger or angels.  Luke doesn’t report anything about a star in the East or wise men.  Mark and John don’t say anything at all about Christmas.

            Only Luke records the encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in our gospel lesson this morning.  Yet regardless of the enigma in New Testament diversity, we are amazed at the wonder and promise in Luke’s scene as the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy simply being in proximity to the Mother of Jesus.  Elizabeth’s child would grow up to be none other than John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah.  Even before birth, God’s plan to save humanity brings praise and surprise and hope.

            Jesus’ birth was an event unequalled in human history.  God becomes fully human to leave the world forever changed.

No wonder it is not easy to get the Christmas Story straight.

            Clement Moore’s original story entitled, “A visit from St. Nicholas”, itself was a major adaptation of various traditions and myths.  His immortal poem has etched in our minds the description of St. Nicholas as the one whom we call Santa Claus.  Yet, St. Nicholas was anything but Santa from the North Pole.

            The real St. Nicholas was born about 300 years after the birth of Jesus.  He was orphaned very early in life, his parents dying of the plague.  As a small child his relatives neglected him.  He received no affection and was left alone most often to play by himself.  During festival days we would watch from a corner while the other children of the household received surprises and toys.  He was the child no one remembered.  The child who never had a present.

            At the age of 7, his uncle John, who had seen searching for him for years, rescued Nicholas.  Nick returned to his uncles’ home in Patara, in the land now called Turkey.  His uncle and aunt, Anya, were older and had no children.  The nurtured Nicholas with unlimited love.

            Nicholas’ uncle John was the pastor of the Christian community in Patara.  He was a scribe and scholar as well.  Nick grew up hearing the scriptures read daily.  Nick especially loved the story of the wise men.  He was deeply touched by their gifts to the baby Jesus.  He was inspired by how the Magi did not identify themselves nor did they wait around the stable for any measure of gratitude after giving their homage to the new born king.

            When Nicholas became of age he traveled to Myra to study in the Christian school there.  As well as learning how to read and write, Nick had many opportunities to learn the art of giving.

            If a small child in the school was upset or lonely, Nick would carve a small toy animal for the child out of wood and place it secretly in the child’s shoe during the night.  At an early age Nicholas was assigned to assist the Bishop of Myra’s work with the poor, distributing food and clothing to the countless families who struggled for survival.             As Nick grew into maturity, he became a priest, dedicating his life to the work of the church in Myra.  Nick became well known for his care and sensitivity for the children of the families he was assigned to serve.  After visiting a family during the day, he would return silently at night, leaving toys and clothing for the children in a conspicuous place.

            At the death of the old Bishop, the elders of the Myra church elected Nicholas as their new leader.  In his humility, he insisted on being called “Father Nicholas” instead of “Bishop”.  He was commonly known as “Good Father Nicholas” or just “Good Nicholas”.

            Being elected Bishop allowed Nick the privilege of fulfilling a childhood dream.  He was given a horse to travel his district, visiting families and churches.  He named his white horse, “North Star”, for the North Star, which guided travelers home.

            In spite his many church duties, the good Bishop of Myra, continued his habit of giving secret gifts to the children of poor families late at night.  He commissioned local weavers, bakers and carvers to supply him sacks full of toys, clothing and cakes, which he would distribute to the poor he had visited during the day.  He dressed in a heavy coat and fur hat, and let his beard grow long, to protect himself from the cold night air.  He would approach the doorsteps or windowsills on which he would leave his unexpected gifts in total, almost magical, silence.

            Everything was done in secret.  Never-the-less, it came to pass that any gift given in the region by an unknown benefactor was attributed to the Bishop of Myra.  Legends grew about the amazing generosity of this good man.

            Such fame and love could not protect him from the persecutions of the Roman Empire.  Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned far away from Myra for his failure to renounce his faith or disclose the location of the church’s hidden copies of scripture.  At the death of the emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was released and freed to return home.

            Following his many years of imprisonment, Nicholas was old and weak.  Unable to give presents to poor children as he had in his youth, he organized and financed a secret workshop of young people, where they could make toys and clothing for distribution to the poor.  Those who worked in this shop became known as “Nicholas’ Helpers”.

            Nicholas of Myra died on the 6th of December (345/352 CE).  That day is still the Feast of St. Nicholas.  Gift giving to small children on that day has been practiced by Christians in Asia and Europe for centuries.

            Hearing about the history of the real St. Nicholas we can understand how Clement Moore wove such traditions into the poem, which begins, “Twas the night before Christmas…”

            But there are some significant differences between Santa Claus and St. Nick.

            St. Nick did not come just one day a year; he worked with the poor daily.

            St. Nick did not give charity just at the holidays but for him giving was a lifestyle.

            Nicholas didn’t just sit in the market place, he also lived with and served his people, who knew him by name and could come to him for help at any time.

            It’s not easy to get the Christmas story straight.

            The point of Moore’s poem, the story of St. Nicholas, the stories of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament, are inspired by a common truth.

            A baby born in an obscure village in Palestine 2,000 years ago left the world forever changed.  Because of Jesus’ teachings, example, death and resurrection, nothing has ever been the same since.

            Now is the time to call out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night…”, not in celebration of a sentimental holiday of family nostalgia but in celebration of the advent of salvation into the human condition.

            Into our condition, yours and mine.

            We can read the Christmas story and hear it repeated in the church year after year.  And we can live the Christmas story, like good Nicholas of Myra.

            Giving without thought of recognition.

            Giving to children and those who suffer poverty.

            Giving all of ourselves, as God gave all of God’s Self in the life, death and resurrection of that Jesus, born to us so many years ago, in the manger of a stable.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas Morning
Luke 2:1-20 December 24, 2016
Christmas Eve Candlelight Services
Mark S. Bollwinkel
Remember what it is like as a kid to be so excited about Christmas morning that you couldnt sleep; youd wake up at 4:00 a.m., counting the minutes until you could wake up your parents?
Remember how there was always one present under the tree that would take your breath away?
For many of us such memories are dim now.   We might dig up a moment of nostalgia watching an old movie rerun on TV or going over old photos.   Maybe we have the privilege of watching a child or grandchild intoxicated with the season.  Sure, we appreciate the story and the traditions.   But for many of us the disappointments of life have dimmed the possibilities.  
The ideals of the Christmas promise and the realities of our world are in open conflict.   Our hopes and fears seem more apart than ever.   The headlines dont help.
I must confess, and it may seem odd coming from a preacher, but I struggle to get into the Christmas spirit. 
And then comes the music.  For me its the music that inspires the Christmas spirit; Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, these songs move me.
I am sure a composer could tell us a lot about the key and tempo in which this music is sung, how singers blend their voices, the technicalities of the harmonies, but that wont explain the impact music has on us.
I am sure a poet could explain the philosophy of the lyric and its history in the Christian tradition.  But the words on the page wont begin to explain what happens when we listen to these songs.
The impact of music has a lot to do with the heart that receives it.  There is something more than at work in the power of music to evoke the deepest meaning.
Something more than.
One of the profound places where I re-connect with that "under-the-Christmas-tree-joy" is in my life as a potter.  Surprisingly it helps me connect with unexpected joy in the other places of my life as well.
I have been an active potter longer than I have been an ordained clergy.  I took "Pottery 101" in my fall semester of my freshman year at the University of the Pacific 46 years ago.  Along with all the football players, I was looking for 4 easy units.  Much to my surprise I found one of the loves of my life.  During my four years at UOP I ended up as one of the teaching assistants in the department.  
Dick Mackey was also one of the assistants.  Our on-going friendship has evolved into an artistic collaboration at the studio he has built on his family's cattle ranch in Northern California, where I go when my "day-job" allows me.  Along with a fully equipped ceramic studio we have a variety of kilns which we fire.
Cracking the door of a ceramic kiln is a moment of high expectation, anxiety and joy. 
A potter works for days, if not months, to form and glaze the works that will fill a kiln.  Learning how to do such a process can take a life time or the rookie frenzy of a "Pottery 101" class.  Novice or master, for the potter opening a kiln...gas, electric or wood, big or small...is a moment of transcendent surprise. 

Now one would expect such romantic projections from a 46 year pastor-potter.  I tend to find the "spiritual" in just about anything and unapologetically confess that I am looking for it.  With that kind of presupposition any conclusion of mine is biased.  Yet upon opening "The Flying Z" wood burning Tamba kiln at the Canyon Creek Pottery in Northern California I always sense "something more than..." 

A chemical engineer could deconstruct the chemical interaction of the clay and glaze properties as they interacted with heat and time that results in 'such-and-such' effect on a piece...or not.  But none of that information... knowledge..."truth".... really begins to express what one sees as they open the door of a kiln. 

There is "something more than" at work.  There is a transformation in the fire that goes beyond mere logic, although its science has directly contributed to the process from the start.  All of the varying inputs made to that moment, or to one single piece of pottery, can't explain the transcendent creativity of the fire.  Numbers and formulas don't describe beauty. 

The modern mind has reduced truth to what we can measure and weigh.   What we can reproduce in controlled conditions.  As important as the scientific method there is "something more than" at work in life.   That's true of an art process, a relationship, one's sense of self, music and even pottery.   Reducing life to the evolution of the chemical/biological interactions of self-conscious beings may be completely accurate but it doesn't begin to define the moments of our living.  There is "something more than" at work. 

One can dismiss such a conclusion as the self-justification of a theologian.  But the next time you stand in awe of a sunset, the helping hand of a friend or the Bethlehem manger scene take a breath and suspend that logic that seeks to limit such moments to what you and I can understand. 

And. Be. With. The moment.  

Our firing crew uses the affectionate term for the moment of cracking a kiln door as "Christmas Morning"; as like the joy and excitement as a child rushing to open Christmas presents under the tree in the warmth and affection of a family. 

Whether you understand the Christmas story of the Bible as history or metaphor or a combination of both, the Bethlehem manger describes the possibility of finding redemption in the most surprising of places.  It talks about a divine spirit that pursues us no matter what.  It talks about light born in the darkness.  Cultivating an appreciation for that makes life richer indeed. 

Whatever ideal you may hold for the surprise of transformation, for the unexpected discovery of "something more than" at work in your life, may your moments of "under-the-Christmas-tree-joy" be many and full.   For like the Magi and the Shepherds in our Christmas story, there is love and light to be found there.