Author Archives: Bob von Trebra

The Balance Sheet of Holladay Preschool

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A reflection given by Max Chang at Holladay United Church of Christ on May 21, 2017 (Sixth Sunday of Easter/Preschool Sunday)

1 John 4:7-12


Holladay United Church of Christ was founded in 1953 as Holladay Community Church – to minister to the needs of Protestant Christians living in the south Salt Lake area.  In 1954, one of the church’s members, Agi Plenk – a specialist in early childhood education – saw the need for a preschool in this area, and so she started Holladay Preschool in 1954 with the help of many other dedicated volunteers, and classes were soon held in the new church building.  That makes Holladay Preschool one of the earliest mission outreach projects of Holladay Church.

To tell us about some of the exciting things happening at Holladay Preschool these days, and why he loves the school, is Max Chang, who is a preschool parent, and just completed a four-year term as Treasurer of the Preschool.  Max says he’s not much of a church-goer, but he wanted to share his love of the school.  Please welcome Max Chang.

(Robert J. von Trebra)


Good morning, my name is Max Chang. For those who know me, I do not get up early on a Sunday morning unless it’s for golf, fishing or skiing. Yet, here I am for two reasons. My love for Holladay Preschool and my grand respect for the Holladay United Church of Christ and Pastor Bob since this is going to be his last Preschool Sunday.

With me today, is my family. My wife, Edee, daughters, Genevieve, who is a Holladay Preschool graduate and now finishing up 1st grade and Gisele who currently is in the three year old program here at Holladay. I also see many friendly faces here in the crowd and thank you for joining us.

As some of you know, I have served as Treasurer for the preschool for the past four years and rolled off last month and handed the reigns to Holladay Preschool alum and parent, Mindy Whiting. So normally, when I’m talking about the Preschool, I’m discussing its financials and a bunch of numbers. Today, I’m going to stray a little bit and while I’ll be talking about the Preschool’s balance sheet, I’ll be more figurative than financial.

But first, I would like to share with you my and my family’s journey to Holladay Preschool. To understand this journey is to understand my Utah roots. My parents immigrated to Salt Lake City in the sixties from Taiwan to attend graduate school at the University of Utah. It was part of the brain drain movement from East Asia and they were one of the first, as my father likes to call himself, Taiwanese Pioneers, to settle in Utah. In fact, I am probably one of the first, if not first, Taiwanese Americans born in Salt Lake City.

Growing up close by in East Millcreek was an interesting experience for me. I did not attend Holladay Preschool, but a combination of the University of Utah, the Montessori and Challenger. Even though, I consider English to be my native tongue, I actually spoke Taiwanese, a dialect of Mandarin, until I started attending school. It was then, I first realized, I was a little different. I spoke Taiwanese to the other kids and nobody responded. I looked around. I was the only one with black hair. I was the only one with fried rice for lunch instead of peanut butter sandwiches. I felt like an outsider, a stranger in my home community. As a double minority, there were countless times since that I am made to feel like an outsider. For example, I commonly get asked this question:

“Where are you from?”

“Salt Lake City.”

“No really, where are you from?”

“No really, I was born at Holy Cross hospital on South Temple.”


“You speak English really good.” ”

Good?” I would reply.

Nonetheless, I love Salt Lake City and Utah. People are kind and generous, the mountains and landscapes are beautiful and it’s the home of the Utah Jazz, my first love. I still keep in touch with friends as far back as Kindergarten. Going to both college and graduate school out of state, living and working out of state and country, I have always promoted and sometimes defended Utah as its self-appointed Ambassador. And no matter how many times I may have moved away, I have always come back home.

And so let’s fast forward to when Edee, who like my parents is from Taiwan, and I became parents, exactly seven years ago yesterday. Little Genevieve at 4 lbs. 4 oz. enters our lives 6.5 weeks earlier than her expected Independence Day Birthday. As I held her in the NICU, I was facing the thought that she will probably face not only the same obstacles I had growing up in Utah but perhaps more so because she’s female.

A few months afterwards, we were having dinner with our dear friends, including Jani Iwamoto, she asked where we were going to put Genevieve in preschool. Surprised by the question, I replied to her, since she was barely 3 months old and we really hadn’t thought about it. She looked at me straight in the yes and said, “Holladay Preschool. You know, you’re supposed to call the day when the baby is born.”

Both of Jani’s children, now young adults, attended Holladay Preschool. She said how much they loved it and that they would sometimes ask to go back to the playground when they were in elementary school. Her close friend and neighbor, Laura Nilson, taught at the school. She would make sure Laura talks to us about Holladay Preschool. We MUST put Genevieve in Holladay Preschool!

The very next day, I rushed down to the preschool office only to be told that there was already a waiting list. Genevieve would be #15 on the girls list and probably get in. “Wait to hear from us in 18 months and you’ll have 24 hrs. to accept.” For 18 months, we did not consider any other preschool. We were set on Holladay. However, 18 months later, I called to find out our status only to find out that the office had made a mistake. Genevieve wasn’t #15 but number #31 and with only 15 girls getting in for the 2 year old program, there was a good chance we would need to look elsewhere. Long story short, she did get in but not until after a lot of anxious moments which led to doubts whether we were making the right decision.

Edee and I looked at the school’s website saying how diverse it was. Yet the picture of the kids did not show one child of color. More doubts. I secretly pondered, “Is this really the right school for us?” But we knew Jani and trusted her word and experience. One reassuring thing did catch our eye and that was that Agi Plenk had founded Holladay Preschool.

As many of you know, Agi is a legend locally and nationally for her remarkable work with children. Holladay Preschool was the first preschool in Salt Lake County, if not all of Utah, as it was established when Agi help establish Holladay Church now the Holladay United Church of Christ. Some of the children attending the preschool struggled with severe behavior problems. At times, Agi, had to explain to parents that their child was too disruptive and could not return.

The response of one mother changed Agi’s approach to these children forever. “You are the one person in the community who can help,” the mother said, “and you’re turning us away.”

As a result became the birth of The Children’s Center, which is committed to providing comprehensive mental health care to enhance the emotional well-being of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Edee and I have been long time supporters of the Children Center. Edee has served on its board for six years before rolling off last year and we have witnessed many remarkable stories of families that have been helped, some out of impossible situations.

So if Agi had her hand in establishing this preschool, we were going to attend Holladay Preschool.

I love that the school does not have a litmus test for attending. No questions about our faith, income or our parenting style. There were no interviews or tests. Its play based centricity was a refreshing change from the concept that a child’s education is an arms race. Oftentimes, parents don’t understand the diminishing returns that oftentimes come with too strong of an academic focus at such a young age. We see this as a marathon and that play is as important if not more important at this stage of their young lives.

I probably shouldn’t say this since I saw Laurie McBride earlier here today, but when I first contemplated to sign up for Treasurer, it wasn’t really for altruistic reasons. As I mentioned at the beginning, I do not like getting up early. So I figured, by serving on the board, I could bypass the frigid process of waiting in line at 5:00am on a February morning to ensure that my children would get into the class we wanted.

Ironically, becoming Treasurer was the real wake-up call that I needed for me both professionally and personally.  I really began to really understand the Preschool beyond our classroom and the financials. I started to see a holistic view of the preschool that most parents aren’t privy to. Again, I’m here today to talk about the Preschool’s true balance sheet, a balance sheet that does not appear in QuickBooks, bank statements, excel spreadsheets, graphs and charts or any other financial document.

Let’s start with our assets. I debated for quite some time of which assets to list first for fear that one might think I was listing in order of importance. The reality is every asset is equally and interlockingly important and without these assets unified, the balance sheet falls apart.

The Children.

Since we just heard from these wonderful who sang so beautifully for us today, let’s start with the children. By the way, my girls love the songs they learn at Holladay. They sing them on the way to skiing and even when we were on vacation in Cancun over Spring Break. Genevieve and Gisele did an impromptu concert in the hotel room and even made me text videos of their singing to Linda and Laura because they love their teachers so much.

Speaking of music, I’m tempted to just quote Whitney Houston’s lyrics from “The Greatest Love of All” to describe this asset because, without a doubt, the children are our future and if we teach them well, they will lead the way. Fortunately, my better judgment and lack of a signing voice has derailed that idea. Plus, Edee hid my karaoke microphone that I bought myself for Christmas.

Edee and I are here because we want the best for Genevieve and Gisele and for them to start to learn how to navigate this ever complicated world. I am sure every parent here wants the best for their child. When I come to school and I hear the laughter and sometimes tears on the playground, see the art projects that are not identical, the smiles on their faces, friends holding hands, my heart melts. Not only have my daughters made friends here, I believe they have made lifelong friends.

One thing I love about the Preschool is that we don’t have a McDonald’s drive in-like drop off/pick up system. By bringing the kids to the classroom, we’ve fortunately come to get to know many wonderful families as well as the teachers at Holladay Preschool. Many of these parents attended Holladay Preschool when they were kids. If you were one of those, please raise your hand.

In order to avoid an Oscar like moment with the orchestra cueing me offstage, it would be impossible for me to name them all but I would be remiss if I did not mention one in particular who I feel epitomizes the spirit of a Holladay Preschool family. Gina Larson and her incredible family including her husband Scott, children Ririe, Ansel and Bell and her wonderful parents Ed and Myra Hansen. Myra, as you may know, was a past director of Holladay Preschool before Nancy Piggott and Diane Stallings. I first met Gina in Carolyn Tebbs and Jessie Newman’s 2 year old class where Ansel and Genevieve were classmates. We happened to be paired up as Co-Op parents on more than one occasion as Edee was on bed rest with Gisele. We also served on the board for two years together.

Gina was so welcoming to our and every family from the very beginning. She always greeted the children with a smile especially if one of them was having a tantrum in the hallway. She’d always give me encouragement as I risked cardiac arrest giving kids a ride in the Big Room. Myra and Ed, would also pull me aside when they saw me and ask me how Edee was doing and I was doing and how Genevieve was doing. Myra would share experiences being the Director, knowing it would help me better manage the Preschool’s finances.

Gina arranged the class to have its own soccer team, the Blueberries, and “volunteered” Scott to be the coach. Let’s just say that Genevieve was having a hard time adjusting to Edee being on bed rest and really would rather do the Frankenstein walk than playing soccer. She’d dress up in her soccer uniform with a tutu and tiara and rarely would participate except standing there with her hand in her mouth. Finally, one day, after many games of exhibiting enormous patience, Coach Scott had Genevieve start the game by kicking the ball. Believe it or not, she kicked the ball, not once but a few times! She even gave Scott a high five! The most memorable moment for me was not the soccer, per se, but the spontaneous support from the wonderful Holladay parents led by Gina who cheered for the Tutu Tiara girl. The Blueberries was not just a team but a village.

Fortunately, families like the Larson’s are not the exception but the rule which what makes Holladay Preschool great. I’ve seen countless parent volunteer hours for the Benefit Bash, Carnival, class projects, and building our new playground. This includes, planning, fundraising, engineering and even physically lifting each (very heavy) block for the retaining wall. Their contribution is priceless.


We have an unparalleled core of teachers here at Holladay Preschool. Some who have been here for more than 25 years and a couple for less than a year. At first, I was confused if it was required for a teacher to be named Lori, Laura, Loralee, or Linda. Besides an array of alliterative names, our teachers have in common kindness, love, compassion and very importantly, empathy. We are proud to call many of them, our friends.

Some may think, “Hey, it’s a play based preschool. All they do is play and make crafts. How hard can it be?” It is so much more than that. The teachers here prepare so much for our children. They spend countless hours at home creating imaginative and engaging projects and programs. It’s play with a purpose that is developmentally and emotionally appropriate. Too much of our society is focused on IQ and we forget about EQ. We need a balance and that is what our teachers excel at.

When Edee was on bed rest, I became Genevieve’s primary caretaker and understandably, it took a toll on a 2 year old. She started to behave differently. We were worried, obviously, but Carolyn and Jessie were so good in reassuring us that is the way Genevieve is telling us she is in charge and that she will be okay. They were so incredibly patient and loving with her and slowly but surely they got her back. Our other teachers we’ve had, like Linda Layton, Laura Nilson, Loralee Christensen and Linda Wilde all exhibited the same love and compassion. Gisele is looking forward to having Julie Iorg next year and has declared she is not ever leaving Holladay Preschool. Megan Woodward, Lori Gee, Diane Magnum, Cathy Thurman, Janice Peterson, Lori Bergstrom have all took turns being great influences on our children through substituting, Enrichment and Summer/Winter Fun classes. While, our girls have not had Candice Greene or Amy Moon for teachers, I know how wonderful these two are. They along with Megan are wonderful parents we were fortunate to have children in the same classes together. The teachers take so much time to write reports, assessments, meet with parents and put together memorable scrapbooks that are lifetime keepsakes.

Carolyn even taught Genevieve how to make balloon animals so well that Genevieve, at the time just five years old, went to a 5 year old class at the Children’s Center to make balloon animals for them. Their Executive Director, Doug Goldsmith, wanted to show the 5 year olds at the Children Center what a 5 year old is capable of doing.


Julie and Sharon are simply terrific. They’re the face of our preschool and keep things running smoothly and effectively.  As you could tell by Sharon’s presentation to the children today, she also substitutes from time to time and is so good with the children.

When I became Treasurer, the school was in search of a new director. I had recommended that we find someone with good QuickBooks skills but the search committee said they wanted to find someone who would be a great director first and if she came with QuickBook skills, that would be an added bonus.

So they end up hiring someone (forgive me, Kristi) with basic QuickBooks skills, at best. It was the best decision they ever made. When I first met the new director, I recognized my old high school teammate from the Debate team, Kristi Stout, now Kristi Thompson. We had not seen each other since I graduated a year before she did. Not only was it great to reconnect but an absolute honor to work with her these past four years. I cannot even begin to list the accolades she’s achieved in four years. I even call her the QuickBooks Queen now.

My task was to bring in a system that was accurate and transparent. Kristi ensured we achieved that while maintaining and celebrating the human element of the preschool.

Whenever I said we should assess late fees, she would tell me the backstory and I would immediately agree with her.  She wanted the preschool to be a greater part of the church and the community. When our dilapidated playground and retaining walls needed replacing, she spearheaded the project. I believe the children from the preschool and church all enjoy the playground. Once I was at the playground while the girls were playing and a woman came with her grandchild and started pulling weeds. I thanked her and she turned and thanked me. “We lived next to the preschool and we just wanted to thank you for bringing something so wonderful to our neighborhood by helping keeping it clean.”

In other words, Kristi made sure we never strayed from the mission of the preschool as Agi envisioned it and to be a part of this community.

Holladay United Church of Christ

The final asset I wanted to address today is the Holladay United Church of Christ. You are an invaluable, indispensable and integral foundation for Holladay Preschool and the Church equally shares the success stories I have shared today.

The Preschool has been the mission of the Church for over 60 years and the Church’s contribution is so significant in both capital and volunteer equity.  The Church provides our preschool facilities rent free. That’s right, rent free. The Preschool helps cover operational expenses and whenever, we can, provide additional funds for various projects. This allows us to keep our tuition at a moderate and affordable level and provide for our wonderful teachers.

HUCC is a very giving group. Forgive me for not listing all of the amazing things you do but they provide meals for those less fortunate. They provide a safe place to stay for those in Family Promise during several weeks in the summer. They provide a meeting space for those battling personal demons. We are not Holladay Preschool without Holladay United Church of Christ and I truly believe in my heart and my experience that the converse is true.

Church members have always stepped up to the plate in providing their expertise and labor to improve the Preschool. Let’s take the new heating system as an example. We were very fortunate to have someone like Lyn Felton who had the professional expertise and acumen for the project. When the heating went in the Preschool out for nearly two weeks in the winter two years ago, we were fortunate that the weather was relatively mild and we could continue to hold classes. I had estimated the negative economic impact if we had to close the school for that period of over $50,000. So when it came to start the replacement of the heating system, it was without hesitation the Church said they would do the Preschool wing first. The children came first and members of the church attended bundled up the last two winters.

I’ve had the pleasure of serving with several members of the church serving on our board including Laurie, Sandy, Kayla, and Kate and am sad I did not have the chance to serve with Don and Ginny who have joined the board for next year. I’ve seen Craig, Mark, John, Carl and other members doing a variety of improvement projects including installing security cameras, cleaning up garbage, landscaping and generously donating during our fundraisers and so much more. Kerry used his expertise to prepare civil engineering drawings for the sewer system. I’ve worked closely with Rori and Steve to ensure that they knew exactly what the financial shape of the Preschool is and they have given me very helpful advice and guidance. Peter has been so helpful in coordinating projects that we’ve worked on and Roger has been a great leader of the Church.

Church members like Edith, Shirl and Yvonne come in voluntarily to sign checks for the Preschool. I am particular grateful as this was an important procedure to ensure our financial transparency. For example, one of the rules we instituted was that neither the Director nor Treasurer could be check signors on the Preschool account.

Finally, let’s talk about Pastor Bob on his last Preschool Sunday here at Holladay United Church of Christ. Pastor Bob is the third pastor I worked with while at the Preschool. He is engaged, humorous and caring. He attends every board meeting and provides thoughtful, constructive and candid feedback. I’ve even seen him sporting pink hair from the hairspray booth at our annual Carnival. On behalf of the Preschool, thank you, Bob and best wishes on your next adventure.

Again, I apologize in advance for not naming everyone individually but please know that at least from my perspective, you are all exceptional and wonderful examples for our children at the Preschool.


Every balance sheet has it assets and it has its liabilities.

In this case, the liabilities I see are more of what concerns me about the future. Will detractors make us forget our roots? Will we forget our mission? Will we forget to provide for those who are less fortunate and maintain a robust balance in the Thayne Stark Memorial Fund?

That’s why I’m here. I want to share my personal story about Holladay Preschool and why I love this place. I always have a sense of urgency to avoid complacency, something that could disrupt this special place. So please:

Let’s not ever forget what Agi Plenk has envisioned.

Let’s not forget to preserve the mission to have a play based preschool so children can enjoy their childhood

Let’s not forget the children past, present and future of the Preschool, especially those who may be less fortunate.

Let’s not forget the teachers, staff, families and church members who make this a very special place for the community.

Finally, let us always remember to provide a place for someone like me and my family to feel welcomed and not feel like outsiders.

Thank you very much for allowing me to speak today. It has been a tremendous honor to be a part of this special place as both a parent and a volunteer.

Max Chang

Enduring Witness

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“Lydia” by Maria Elkins


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on May 14, 2017 (Fifth Sunday of Easter/Mother’s Day)

Psalm 84

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

–          Acts 16:6-15


(Given as a monologue in character)

My name is Silas – the Romans call me Silvanus.  I was with our brother Paul on that journey, when we first came to Macedonia, and to Philippi.  We were getting frustrated, wondering why so many people had been eager to hear the good news of the gospel the first time Paul had journeyed through Asia, but that second time no one would let us stay and talk to people.  It had seemed so easy at first, and we were so eager to share what God had done for us in Christ.  We felt God’s powerful presence, and the Holy Spirit was opening doors for us.  But this time around, it was so hard.  We wondered whether God had forsaken us.  We wondered whether we had been mistaken.  Maybe we had missed some important direction.  Maybe it had all been just a fad.

And then Paul had the vision – a man of Macedonia urging us to come to help them.  We thought certainly this was the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we sailed across the Aegean to Neapolis, and then traveled inland to Philippi.  Philippi was one of the most important cities in the region – founded by the Romans along an important trade route as a place for veterans of the Roman army to live.  We stayed there for a few days, looking for an opportunity to proclaim the gospel.

In the past when we had visited cities it was our custom to go to a local Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath, and to share the good news there.  But there was no synagogue in Philippi, and so on the Sabbath we went outside the city gates by the river, where there seemed to be a place of prayer – although most of the people there were pagan worshipers of the Roman gods.  And that was where we met Lydia. She was not what we expected.

For one thing, she was a woman – a wealthy, independent woman as it turns out – she owned her own business trading in expensive purple cloth.  Paul had seen a vision of a “man” of Macedonia who wanted our help.  We didn’t think to share the good news of Jesus with the women there – we were just there to pray ourselves and to try to find out where we might be able to meet with some men who would be open to hearing us.  But Lydia was curious about who we were and what we had to say, and she listened carefully to our message.  She had heard about the God of Israel and worshiped God, but had not heard about what God had done through Jesus, and she hadn’t yet found a community of other believers with whom she could worship.  She was so moved by what we had to say that she wanted to be baptized right away, and the others in her household with her.

And so Lydia became – in a sense – the “mother” of the church in Philippi, and all of Europe.  And I was once again amazed at the people who responded to the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and whom God welcomed into our faith community: women and men, rich and poor, Jew and gentile, slave and free.  That was very unusual in the culture of the Roman empire, where you were supposed to know your place and stay with your own kind.  It was scandalous!

Lydia responded to her new life with generous hospitality – one of the signs that God is truly at work in a person.  She welcomed us into her home.  What a joy that was, after being chased out of towns and constantly on the move.

I learned two important lessons from Lydia.  One is that sometimes you have to be open to change.  What worked once may not always work the same.  You have to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and to the unexpected.  The seven deadliest words in the faith community?  “We never did it that way before.”

I also learned from her that one of the best ways to show hospitality to others is to listen to them – truly listen.  There is nothing more affirming and healing than to be able to speak truthfully and to be heard.  That was a rare gift in those days.  And I know – I have observed the world in which you live, and it is rare today as well.  You have all of these fancy communication gadgets – cell phones and internet.  Everybody wants to express an opinion or a point of view – everyone wants to be heard.  But no one wants to listen.  I have observed the “talk shows” on radio and TV – everyone tries to talk over the others.

Lydia was “eager to listen” to what Paul had to say.

I think that is an important lesson for our spiritual lives as God’s people.  When we pray, we want God to listen to us – and God does.  But are we also hospitable to God?  Do we stop to listen to what God is saying to us – in prayer, or through others?  The book of Hebrews in the Bible says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (Heb 13:2)  I know I sometimes get so busy talking and thinking and doing – I have to make myself slow down, find some silence, and listen.  Paul listened to the vision he had – of a man of Macedonia – that brought us to Philippi, and to Lydia.  Lydia listened to us, and she started a church.  Amazing things can happen when we are hospitable – when we are eager to listen.

Grace to you, and peace, from God and from our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ.

Silas (Robert J. von Trebra)

Reconnecting with Nonviolence

Category : Uncategorized

“The Entry into Jerusalem”

Audio recording:


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on April 9, 2017 (Sixth Sunday in Lent/Palm Sunday)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

–          Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 26:47-56


When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that Sunday that began the last week of his life, he may have looked a little comical – riding on a small donkey.  But this was a powerful, symbolic act.  The biblical prophet Zechariah — who lived about five centuries before the time of Jesus, during the time that Jerusalem and its temple were being rebuilt – had a beautiful vision of a time when a new king would come to Jerusalem.  That new king would ride a young donkey, and would bring peace to God’s people.

The author of the gospel of Matthew quotes that vision in his story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  He clearly believed that vision was being fulfilled in Jesus.

But Jesus may have been making another statement as well.  Last year, I told about the biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who, in their book “The Last Week,” propose that this little parade of Jesus’ was actually a political protest against another parade that was happening elsewhere in the city at the very same time.  They claim the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was arriving from his headquarters at the head of a contingent of soldiers sent to keep order in the city during the Jewish Passover festival.  So, while Pilate possibly rode into town on a beautiful white horse, leading well-armed soldiers, and representing the power of the Roman Empire and Emperor Tiberius (who claimed to be the son of the gods on earth), Jesus came into town on a small donkey with a rag-tag group of followers.  He came proclaiming that the Realm of God was at hand – a kingdom built on humility and service and love rather than power.  His was a parody of the Roman parade  He was mocking the apparent power of Rome.  Maybe that was one of the reasons he was crucified a few days later.

From all accounts in the gospels and other early Christian texts, Jesus was a man of peace.  He never used violence to achieve his purposes.  He never even used violence to protect himself.

And church history records that the early Christians were nonviolent.  They refused to serve in the Roman army.  During periods of persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire as members of an illegal religious group, many Christians were arrested and sentenced to death.  Many of them refused to fight.  In fact, they often greeted death as an honor.

It caused a bit of a crisis in the early Church when Roman soldiers wanted to become a part of the movement.  They were eventually accepted, but a question remained as to whether they could continue serving in the military.

But then, in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine – himself a military commander – believed that the Spirit of Christ helped him to win an important battle, and soon Christianity became the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  After that, kings – now Christian – began asking how they could possibly defend their kingdoms against invaders seeking glory and riches if they couldn’t wage war.  And they began wondering how they, as Christians could invade other kingdoms seeking glory and riches if killing was prohibited.  Soon, nonviolence began to be seen as an unrealistic ideal rather than a Christian way of life.

In the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine developed the idea of a “just war” – circumstances in which Christians might wage war and remain true to their faith.  Christians have justified the use of violence and warfare ever since, although almost all the wars fought by Christian nations since then (and maybe all of them) have not really met the criteria for a “just war.”

Folks in this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives.  So during this season of Lent, we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.”  Many of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship.  The Christian faith has lost much of the original vision and passion that gave it birth.  But Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives.  And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, the journey, the light, and compassion.  Today, we consider “reconnecting with nonviolence.”

How appropriate for today, since our nation just recently launched a missile strike against an air base in Syria.  Perhaps one of the reasons the Christian faith has lost some of its appeal and influence is because it doesn’t really follow the teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church.  In a world that continues to be torn apart by violence, it doesn’t really insist on an alternative.

These days, the worldwide Christian community is divided on whether Christians should be nonviolent.  I’m sure that the vast majority believe not only that Christians should be able to defend themselves from harm, and serve in the military to defend their country from enemies and protect innocent people, but that Jesus would condone these actions.  There are some notable exceptions, including historic “peace churches” like the Amish, Quakers (Society of Friends), and the Church of the Brethren.

John Newell is influenced by two people that he considers to be great 20th century prophets of nonviolence: one of them is George MacLeod, the founder of the modern-day religious community on the island of Iona in Scotland.  Newell is the former warden of the abbey in Iona.  But the other great prophet of nonviolence is Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent movement for India’s independence from Great Britain.

Gandhi, of course, was not Christian, but Hindu.  Yet he was greatly influenced by Jesus’ life and teachings.  Gandhi once said, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians.”

What is the case for nonviolence today?  Why do it?  What are the risks?

New Testament scholar and theologian Walter Wink once wrote, “The church has a vocation for nonviolence.  That vocation is grounded in the teaching of Jesus, the nature of God, the ethos of the kingdom, and the power of the resurrection.”  Let me elaborate on these points.

As I said, Jesus taught nonviolence.  Jesus lived nonviolence.  He even taught that we should love our enemies.  Gandhi got that.  He refused to make anyone his enemy – even those who oppressed his fellow Indians, and who on several occasions beat him and imprisoned him.  He sought not to destroy his enemies, but turn them into friends.  Jesus supposedly prayed for God to forgive his executioners because they did not know what they were doing.  Jesus taught nonviolence.

We are to be nonviolent because of the nature of God.  This may be surprising, because many people believe that God is violent and punishing.  There are many times when believers have assumed that disasters or destruction have been God’s will or punishment for someone’s sins, but I think that is more assumption than fact.  The Bible tells how God once tried violent disaster to rid the world of evil.  It was the flood of Noah’s time.  But it didn’t work – sin and evil were soon present in the new creation.  And so God vowed never to do that again.  It is impossible to rid the world of evil by killing all the evil people – in spite of our political promises to do so.

Instead, the overarching story of the Bible is God’s unbelievable patience – refraining from destructive violence in order to give evildoers (like me) another chance.

The ethos of the kingdom or the Realm of God is such that there should be no enemies.  And the Realm of God should be our ultimate allegiance – surpassing even our nation or our religion.  As Christians, protecting our nation should not be justification for violence.  Neither is self-defense, or even justice.  Just war theory said the only reason Christians could wage war was to prevent innocent people from suffering.

And the power of the resurrection assures us that even if we, personally, might lose our life to violence; or those who love; or an entire nation be conquered; doing what is right will ultimately prevail.

Christian theologians and ethicists have debated for centuries whether nonviolence is practical or realistic, and the circumstances in which Christians might rightfully use force or violence.  Perhaps we can discuss those questions later – I certainly will not answer them here and now.  But let me just state my conviction that Jesus never intended to be practical (realistic), or successful.  He never sought to defend an earthly empire.  He only sought to be faithful to his vision of God’s love and God’s realm.

We live in a complex and dangerous world.  I don’t hold out any immediate hope of getting our nation or any other in our world to disavow violence and warfare.  But I do believe that lasting peace will never be achieved through violence.  We don’t have to support the common belief that killing is the way to defeat our enemies.  And we can proclaim and live out our beliefs that violence is never justified in our relationships and our families and in our communities.

Reconnecting with nonviolence is risky.  It is dangerous.  It may require a willingness for me to lay down my life, and even endanger the lives of loved ones.  That terrifies me.  But I try to remember an unarmed prophet of peace riding into the heart of violence on a donkey colt, a cross, and an empty tomb.


Robert J. von Trebra

Reconnecting with Compassion

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A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

John 11:1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus from death)


Many people in this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives.  So during this season of Lent that leads up to Easter, we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.”  Some of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship.  It notes some of the big changes that are happening in the Christian faith right now – the institution of the Christian Church has been declining in Western Europe and America, and the authority of the church has been challenged.  Actually, God isn’t dead; but Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives.  And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, the journey, and the light.  Today, we consider “reconnecting with compassion.”

Compassion is a word that means “to feel with.”  It is to feel what others feel, and to respond appropriately and supportively.

Newell writes that one of the great modern prophets of compassion is Aung San Suu Kyi — Leader of the nonviolent movement for democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma).  Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her resistance to the oppressive dictatorship in Burma – resistance that got her confined to house arrest for 15 years.

Suu Kyi is Buddhist, and her resistance is rooted in compassion for her people, but also for those who confined her and who oppress the people of her nation – compassion that she learned and developed from her Buddhist practice.  But compassion is taught by other great world religions as well.  In fact, compassion might be one of the values that all great religions teach.

The sacred writings of our Jewish ancestors teach compassion, as in this passage from the biblical book of Leviticus (we might actually learn to like Leviticus!):

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

The text commands compassion for aliens – foreigners in the land of Israel – because the people of Israel were once aliens themselves in Egypt.  The immigration laws of this country are not necessarily based on religious teachings, but all citizens of this country who claim to be Jewish or Christian should consider how they treat immigrants and aliens.  If our legal system does not treat them with love and compassion, then we should be doing something personally to show them love and compassion.

The New Testament book of Hebrews counsels:

Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1-3)

We are to remember those who suffer as if we were suffering with them.  That is compassion.

Our gospel lesson this morning – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus – is curious.  At the beginning of the story, Jesus does not seem to be very concerned for his friend Lazarus and his sisters.  But when he finally goes to see them, he is moved to tears by their grief.  He models compassion.

John Philip Newell writes that Aung San Suu Kyi follows a three-fold path of compassion related to her Buddhist practice – a path that can help us as well.  The three parts of the path all involve courage: the courage to see; the courage to feel; and the courage to act.

The courage to see.  Seeing suffering is hard.  It takes courage.  One of the most difficult things I have experienced in ministry is to be with those who are suffering – especially when I feel like there is nothing I can do to ease their suffering.  Visiting those who are dealing with serious health issues, facing the end of their life, or experiencing terrible grief – I feel like I have to work up my courage to visit people in those situations.

I know I am not alone.  Many people who get diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses find that some of their friends are unable to visit them.  It isn’t that they don’t care – it is just hard to see suffering and to feel helpless.

I don’t know how people who work in refugee camps do it.  But the courage to see is the first step towards compassion.

The second step on the compassion path is the courage to feel.  In those times when we are reluctant to see suffering because we feel powerless, perhaps the best, most helpful thing we can do is to just feel what those who suffer feel – with them.  When Jesus came to see Mary and Martha in their grief, and the many mourners with them, the story says that he wept.  He shared their grief – even though he knew he would soon raise Lazarus from death.

One of the powerful films I remember seeing many years ago is a film titled “Resurrection.” (1980)  Ellen Burstyn plays Edna Mae Macaulay — a woman who survives a terrible car crash that kills her husband.  She has a near-death experience herself, but she returns to life and eventually heals.  But she discovers that afterwards she has a gift for healing – which causes a lot of suspicion and disbelief and even hostility towards her from others.  In one scene, she attempts to heal a woman whose body has been rigid in a fetal position for a long time, with doctors unable to help.  And she tries to do this while being observed by many doctors and scientists.  In her attempt to heal the suffering woman, Edna Mae climbs into bed with the woman and just holds her – and in the process begins to take on the same muscle paralysis that afflicts the woman.  But then, she is slowly able to relax both her body and the body of the suffering woman, and healing results.

The courage to feel is the courage to share in suffering, and it is very powerful – very healing.

I might add to this part of the compassion path – although Aung San Suu Kyi does not specifically mention it – is the courage to understand.  In this time of political division, it takes courage to turn from just hurling anger and insults at those with whom we disagree, and instead try to understand the fears and anxiety and grief that drive their beliefs.  And then it takes courage to share our feeling and beliefs.  We may not change their minds, but we may build relationships based on compassion.

And then, there is the courage to act.  John Philip Newell points to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan as a story of someone who had the courage to see, and to feel, and to act – by going out of his way to take an injured man to a place where he could heal and recover, and even to pay for it.

I wonder if it took courage for Jesus to heal Lazarus.  I would never try that stunt, because I would be thinking, “What happens if I try this and fail?  How foolish would I look?”

We may feel very small – very insignificant compared to the great conflicts and tragedies that afflict our world.  It is easy to say, “Why bother?”  Aung San Suu Kyi says instead, “Don’t just stand there despairing… Do something.”  “Just continue to do what you believe is right… Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own.”

Newell concludes this chapter with these words: “We may not all be called onto the world stage of political action.  But each one of us has a critical role to play in our families, our personal relationships, our religious communities.  No one else can play that role of compassion for us.  Do we know this, that each one of us is essential?”

Do you want to deepen your spiritual life?  Do you long for the rebirth of God in our world?  Reconnect with compassion: the courage to see, the courage to feel, the courage to act.


Robert J. von Trebra

Reconnecting with the Light

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A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

John 9:1-41 (Jesus heals a man born blind)


If you haven’t been with us these past few Sunday of Lent, this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives.  So we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.”  Some of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship.  It notes some of the big changes that are happening in the Christian faith right now.  Actually, God isn’t dead; but Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives.  And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, and the journey.  Today, we consider “reconnecting with the light.”

Newell shares some beautiful stories of light in this chapter.  But I found myself trying to understand exactly what this light was that he wanted us to see and reconnect with.  Maybe it is something he has caught a glimpse of, but struggles to describe to those who can’t yet see it.  It is difficult to describe light or color to someone who has been blind from birth.  Maybe I, like the blind man that Jesus healed, need to gain my sight.

What Newell describes seems to be a life force – a force of beauty and possibility in living things.  Maybe it is similar to the spirit or breath from God that gives life.  One of the creation stories in Genesis says that God created the first human being by taking dust from the ground and blowing breath – spirit – into it, giving it life.

Celtic spirituality, in which Newell’s faith has been shaped, sees this essence of life in all living things.  It was most evident in Jesus.

But Newell also sees this light in non-living matter.  It seems to be the energy of creation – of the original Big Bang that brought the world into being.  It is the light of heaven penetrating into this material world.

There is a version of Christian theology that is based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead – an early 20th century English mathematician and philosopher.  It is known as Process Theology, and although I have never studied it in depth, some parts that I have read about have been very thought-provoking and helpful for me in trying to understand our world and where God fits into it.

Whitehead believed that everything is in process – always changing.  Even those things that seem pretty inert – like rocks (any good geologist will tell you that rocks do change!).  He proposed that at every single moment, the world that is, and everything in it, is passing away – going out of existence – but is then replaced by a new world that is being born.  Similar, but different from what preceded it.  The new world that is coming into being is affected by what came before, and perhaps even restricted by the ways that matter can change; but the future is full of possibilities.

This idea suggests our universe is something like a motion picture.  Each frame is slightly different from those that precede and follow it, but they are projected so quickly that the motion and change seem continuous to our eyes.

Our biblical creation stories say that God brought the world into being “in the beginning.”  Scientists say the universe began with a Big Bang more than 14 billion years ago.  But Process Theology suggests that creation was not just a one time, long-ago event.  Instead, creation happens every single moment, bringing a new world into being out of the dying remnants of the old.

Perhaps this ongoing creative process is what Newell senses as the light – and marvels at.  It is a recurring miracle in even the most mundane matter – the dust on your feet, the rust on your car.

One of the consequences of Whitehead’s process thought is that death and resurrection are not infrequent events that go against the laws of nature; they are built into the very nature of our existence, and happening all the time.  You have died and been raised to new life countless times since you woke up this morning and had your first cup of coffee!

What we often fail to see in boring matter is that the elements that make it up are quarks and bosons clinging together in atomic nuclei that are always vibrating and boogeying – surrounded by electrons in an unending dance of particles that don’t always act like particles.  Some of these elements were formed in the early aftermath of the Big Bang; others were forged in the cores of ancient stars that have long since died and exploded – scattering their remnants throughout the galaxy.  We are all made of stardust and the remnants of living creatures that have died and returned to dust.  But so are the mountains and the seas.  I think the light that Newell wants us to reconnect with has something to do with the miracle that is ordinary matter – so pervasive that we don’t even notice.  It is an energy that at every moment keeps the universe from collapsing into non-existence.

It is important for us to find time and places where we can reconnect to that light so we can continue to see it when we return to the places we live our lives.  For Newell, that is the island of Iona, or the woods near his house.  Where is it for you?

John Philip Newell seems to be a fan of the poetry of Mary Oliver (he quotes several of her poems in this book).  He writes, “What she (Mary Oliver) is describing is a movement from awareness into open-eyed wonder, and from awe to prayer, and from prayer to adoration.”

But Newell warns us that once we have our eyes opened and our sight restored – once we can see the light that is the divine miracle of ordinary matter, of the earth, of all living things, and of other people – we can become a threat to those who would exploit the earth, its creatures and its people for their own benefit.  That is what got Jesus crucified, and people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mahatma Gandhi assassinated.

John Philip Newell also suggests another dimension of the light he sees and tries to help us to see.  This light is an ability to bless the world with our lives – to offer something creative and constructive for the betterment of others.  I think this is similar to what Christians have called “spiritual gifts” – gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism which are given for the common good.

I think what Newell is finally trying to get to, although he uses different language, is the ancient Christian dichotomy between spirit and matter/flesh.  The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote:

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6)

Many of us have been taught that anything “spiritual” (praying, reading the Bible, worship, etc.) is good; but anything “fleshly” (involving the senses and pleasure, like dancing or having fun or sex) is a source of temptation and therefore sin.

I think that is a misunderstanding of what Paul was trying to communicate.  And I think Newell is trying to correct that idea by noticing that the light – God’s spirit – is everywhere, even penetrating matter and flesh.  It’s all good — when used responsibly – when we recognize the light in all things and all people.

Can our faith in Christ open our eyes to see that – to see the light in all people and all places?  Can we reconnect with that light and change the ways we relate to ourselves and to others?  This is a good day to begin.


Robert J. von Trebra

Reconnecting with the Journey

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A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 19, 2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)

John 4:5-42 (The story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman meeting at a well)


The title of the book we have been discussing during Lent is “The Rebirthing of God,” but author John Philip Newell is really writing about a need for the rebirthing of the Christian faith.  God is still alive; we’ve just lost touch with him/her.  And so Newell calls for “reconnecting” with God/Spirit/The Ground of our Being/Source of Love, etc.  Today, we “reconnect with the journey.”

Journey.  I think many people over the centuries have thought about the Christian life as a destination.  The point is to get baptized/saved/get your ticket to heaven, and then to just stay there.  Don’t slip away.  But it turns out that our spiritual life is a journey.

Maybe that is why so many Christians go on pilgrimages – sacred journeys.  John Philip Newell served as the Warden of Iona Abbey on the Scottish island of Iona – a place where many pilgrims visit.  He writes in the book about the founder of Iona – an Irish monk names Columba who journeyed to the strange land of Scotland in the 6th century and founded the religious community on Iona.

There are also folks who think of life as a destination.  Get a job and family and a safe place to live, and then keep everything there.  But nothing ever stays put forever.

I love journeys.  My idea of heaven is a road trip – preferably with skis or golf clubs.  My time here has been a pretty good journey.

It turns out the Bible is filled with all kinds of journey stories: Abram’s journey to a new land; the escape from bondage in Egypt; wandering in the wilderness for forty years on the way to the Promised Land; the exile to Babylon and the return to Jerusalem; Jesus’ journey to the cross; Paul’s voyage to Rome to take the gospel to the heart of the Empire.  The people of faith may rest for a little while (like at a well in Samaritan country), but they are usually on the move.

I think that is a very helpful image or metaphor for our spiritual lives.  It is not about achieving perfection, or total peace, or having all mysteries figured out; it is about moving and growing and traveling together with God and with others.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, we welcome and want you here.

I think God likes to journey as well.  In the beginning of the Bible, God walks through the Garden of Eden, talking with  Adam.  When the Hebrew people were wandering in the wilderness, camping along the way, God would travel with them and camp with them in a tent.  But eventually the people tried to tie God down, locking her up in the inner chamber of the temple in Jerusalem.  I guess we like our God to stay put.

So where are you on your spiritual journey?  Just starting out?  Heading for a land flowing with milk and honey?  Lost and wandering?  Stuck far from home?  Just following the road ahead, putting one foot in front of the other?  No matter where you are, God is with you; God is at work.  There are things to be learned; there are other travelers there as well.

John Philip Newell invites us to reconnect with the journey.  And he sees two important dimensions to our spiritual journeys.  The first is “through a journey into the forgotten and unknown depths of our own souls and traditions.”  And then he continues, “It will also include an outward journey into the neglected lands and undiscovered territories of other ways of seeing and other religious inheritances.” (p. 43)

In the forgotten and unknown depths of our own souls, Newell invites us to rediscover that we are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), or to quote the English mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived six centuries ago, we are made “of God.”  There is great beauty in us.  Although, I would temper or qualify that by saying that there are a lot of people in our world who do not live in loving, creative, godly ways – including me, sometimes.  I would be more likely to say that as we journey into our own souls, we may discover that we are like a beautiful, antique silver tea set – that needs some polishing.  Or maybe like a rough diamond that needs to be cut and polished.

Newell tells the story of the Scottish Jesuit priest Gerald W. Hughes, who introduces himself at conferences by saying, “Hello, I’m Gerry, a unique manifestation of the Divine.”

Turn to your neighbor and introduce yourself: “Hello, I’m [name], a unique manifestation of the Divine.”

Many of Newell’s spiritual heroes and heroines seem to be those Christians who journeyed to strange lands – not as missionaries, but as pilgrims.  A missionary is one who brings the gospel to a new land, trying to convince the residents there of the superiority of the Christian faith (or forcing them to accept it).  But Newell sees pilgrims as those who offer their own gifts as a blessing to others, but are also open to receiving the gifts that new land and culture have to offer.

Jesus went through Samaria as a pilgrim.  He offered his gifts: living water, the sustaining food of doing God’s will, himself.  But he did not force them on the Samaritan woman.  And he was received as a guest by the Samaritan community.

What a different history we might have if Christians had been pilgrims rather than conquerors!

But this is Newell’s challenge to a rebirthed Christianity: can we move into a new phase of our history; a new way of relationship with the world?  Can we be open to the gifts of other religions?  Jewish, Samaritan (there is still a small community of Samaritans in the middle-East), Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others?  Newell believe this is essential – a new leg of our journey.

It is a journey from where our ego – our need to be right – is at the center of our lives, to where we can serve the Center and truly encounter one another.

This congregation has been open to learning about, and even incorporating the gifts and the wisdom of other religious traditions.

But perhaps the most important group of people today that needs some Christian pilgrims to journey to them and with them are those who claim to have no religion at all – the “nones,” as they are sometimes called (almost 23% of Americans in 2014).  The folks who have not grown up with any religious tradition whatsoever, and who see no real need for one.

But meeting and learning about these people will require a very different way of being a Christian community or church in the years ahead of this.  These people will probably not come here – to our church building for a worship service.  It will be up to us to become pilgrims, finding ways to journey into an unknown territory – with a willingness to listen to and learn from the people we meet there.  That will be a good topic to discuss with your new pastor in the years to come.  This congregation is, I believe, better able to make that trip than many churches are.

John Philip Newell concludes this chapter with a ritual or spiritual practice from the Iona Abbey.  Visitors are invited to go to the bay where St. Columba landed more than 14 centuries ago – the Bay of New Beginnings it is called – and take two of the ancient stones worn by the sea.  The first stone represents something to be left behind, and it is thrown away.  The second stone represents something that is yearned for, and it is held close and taken back home.  We don’t have an ocean bay nearby, but there are plenty of rocks in the hills around us.  Maybe you might take a hike into the mountains to find a couple of rocks, and reconnect with the journey.


Robert J. von Trebra

The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France

Reconnecting with Love

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A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 12, 2017 (Second Sunday in Lent)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 

11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life

 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life

 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.    – John 3:1-17


Many members of this church have expressed a desire to deepen their spiritual lives.  During this season of Lent – the 6-1/2 weeks of preparation for Easter – my worship reflections will hopefully be able to help with that.  I am reflecting on a book I read this past summer at Contemplative Camp: ‘The Rebirthing of God,” by John Philip Newell.  Each chapter of that book invites us to “reconnect” with the living God in different ways.  Last week it was “reconnecting with spiritual practice.”  Today, it is “reconnecting with love.”

A couple clarifications: If you are reading the book, you will note that I am not following the same order as the chapters in Newell’s book.  Today’s theme – reconnecting with love – is actually the final chapter in the book.  Instead, I have tried to choose chapters that fit with the lectionary scripture texts for each week.  Today’s lesson – the story of Jesus and Nicodemus from the gospel of John – says towards the end, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”  It seemed to fit with “reconnecting with love.”

Also, a disclaimer: My talking about these different themes probably won’t deepen your spiritual life.  But hopefully you will get a new insight, or perspective, or idea that you can think about and maybe even put into practice in your life in a way that will take your relationship with the Holy in a new way.

Let me also say something about the gospel of John, from which we will be reading for the next few weeks.  John is a beautiful gospel, but it is different – in many ways.  There are four gospels in the Bible – stories that narrate the life of Jesus, but not in the way we normally think of as biography or history.  They are not interested in verifiable facts as much as they are interested in changing your life.

Of the four gospels, three are pretty similar: Matthew, Mark and Luke.  They follow the same basic chronology of the events of Jesus’ life.  Many stories are almost the same in the three – sometimes even word-for-word.  In fact, many biblical scholars believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke actually used the gospel of Mark as the starting point for their gospels, but then they edited the text in Mark to give it their own unique “spin”, and then added stories from other sources.  The three gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are sometimes called the “synoptic” gospels – a word that means “seen together.”

But John is an odd duck.  The chronology is different than the other three (e.g. the cleansing of the temple happens early in his ministry rather than at the end).  It contains many stories not found in any of the other gospels (like turning water into wine).  And, from what I have been taught, the original Greek language of the text is very simple, but the ideas it conveys are very complex.  As in our lesson for today, the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus suggests a misunderstanding because of different ways of understanding the same statement.  Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again,” or “born from above” – and he is referring to his spiritual relationship with God.  Nicodemus is thinking about the birth of a baby.  There is a clash of an “earthly” meaning and a “spiritual” meaning – if that makes any sense.  I will probably say more about this in weeks to come, but you might find it interesting to read the gospel of John in the next few weeks just to get a sense of what I’m saying.

But back to Newell’s book.  He observes (along with others) that the Christian faith as it has been taught and lived for centuries is – if not dying, then going through a chaotic period of reformation and renewal in our lifetimes.  He is hopeful about the future, but it will require of us a reconnecting with the Source of our life and hope – the Ground of our Being (as Tillich called God).  One dimension of that is reconnecting with love.

I once heard the story of a preacher who, when the time for his reflection in a worship service came, rose and stood at the pulpit and said…. “Love.”  And then he sat down, and they started to receive the offering.  It was one of the best sermons or reflections in history!

I am not nearly that elegant or concise.

What is love?  We all desire it.  We can’t live without it.  We talk about it, sing about it, watch films about it; but we would be hard pressed to define it.  John Newell, in his book, quotes Carl Jung – the great 20th century Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst – who, towards the end of his life said, “I have never been able to explain what it is.”  Maybe it’s just one of those things we know when we see it.

But how can we “reconnect with love” when it’s hard to pin down exactly what love is?

John Philip Newell reminds us that, in the words of the New Testament book 1 John, “God is love.”  And everything that God has created – including us – are “living vibrations” of that love.  We were made as an expression of God’s love, and we were made to respond to that love by loving God in return, and every living vibration of that love.  But we don’t always do that, because all created things can also resist love.

Newell offers a few thought-provoking definitions of love.  He quotes Simone Weil, who wrote that love is about “giving up our imaginary position at the center of the universe and finding that the true center is everywhere.”  She also wrote that to love is to “say no to the false use of power.”  I think that fits with the gospel story we read last Sunday about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, when he refused to use his power to rule all the kingdoms of the world.

Christians claim that Jesus was the most faithful embodiment of God’s love, and one who loved God fully in response.

Newell sees the cross as a beautiful symbol of God’s love – particularly the Celtic cross, like St. Martin’s Cross on the island of Iona in Scotland (Newell was formerly the Warden of Iona Abbey).  He sees the cross with the circle encompassing the intersection of the two are arms as a symbol of reconciliation – of holding together what has been divided: east and west, north and south, God and human, flesh and spirit.

St. Martin’s Cross on the Island of Iona, Scotland

But not everyone – and even not every Christian – sees love in the cross.  Or sees God as loving, for that matter.  Many people have grown up believing God is stern, judgmental, punishing, watching to condemn us for any moral misstep.  And the cross, on which Jesus died, is a symbol of a particulary distasteful theological idea about Jesus’ death – that somehow God demanded that Jesus die in order to pay for the sins of humanity, which we could never pay ourselves.

That metaphor for the way we are reconciled to God does have biblical roots.  There are three books in the New Testament that refer to the “atoning sacrifice” that Jesus made.  But it is a metaphor, and not the only one for the meaning of Jesus’ death.  And every metaphor is imperfect –helpful in some ways, but not in others.

The author the gospel of John also sees God’s love as cross-shaped.  He writes,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Walter Wink argues that the Greek word kosmos that is often translated “world” (as here), can mean the human social order that is estranged from God.  It is “the system” – even religious systems – that are unaware of their alienation from God, and that do damage to people.

That means that God loved this messed-up world of injustice.  The first century Roman Empire was ruled by a man who many people believed was a god – and the emperor may have believed it himself.  The top 1% had life pretty good, but the bottom 99% were poor and expendable.  And yet we believe that God still loved it and its flawed people – not as it was, but as it was created to be and could be again.  And so God entered into the mess in the person of Jesus, who rather than destroying it by military power, or taking political power, (which would have been a misuse of power) loved it and its people, even though that was dangerous.  It caused him great suffering.  It got him crucified.

For the author of John, the cross was where God’s love and glory were revealed.  It was the place of willing, transformative suffering.  He – or she – believed we are not redeemed by Christ’s death, but by witnessing the extent of his love for us.

Can we reconnect with that?  Maybe our understanding of God’s nature needs to be “born again, born from above.”

And maybe, if we can reconnect with Love itself, we can also learn to love this beautiful, messed-up world – even the political and economic and religious systems that drive us crazy sometimes.  And the people who are a part of them.  Not because they are perfect, but because even they can vibrate with the source of love.  And maybe they can be transformed – to be less anxious and self-centered and fearful as well.

I will conclude with a poem by Mary Oliver, which Newell quotes (briefly) in his book.  It is a poem about offering what one has – in love.

The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts – Mary Oliver

For a long time

I was not even

In this world, yet

Every summer

Every rose

Opened in perfect sweetness

And lived

In gracious repose,

In its own exotic fragrance,

In its huge willingness to give

Something, from its small self,

To the entirety of the world.

I think of them, thousands upon thousands,

In many lands,

Whenever summer came to them,


Out of the patience of patience,

To leaf and bud and look up

Into the blue sky

Or, with thanks,

Into the rain

That would feed

Their thirsty roots

Latched into the earth-

Sandy or hard, Vermont or Arabia,

What did it matter,

The answer was simply to rise

In joyfulness, all their days.

Have I found any better teaching?

Not ever, not yet.


Last week I saw my first Botticelli

And almost fainted,

And if I could I would paint like that

But am shelved somewhere below, with a few songs

About roses: teachers, also, of the ways

Toward thanks, and praise.


Robert J. von Trebra

Reconnecting with Spiritual Practice

Category : Uncategorized


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent/Communion Sunday)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

   and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

 so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”


8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

 ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

–          Matthew 4:1-11


The Temptation of Jesus
James Tissot

A few months ago, many of you participated in a survey conducted by our pastoral search committee to get current information about our church.  One of the interesting responses I saw in the survey results was that lots of you indicated a desire to deepen your spiritual lives.  That is an ongoing challenge for all of us.

I thought that would be a good thing to work on during this season of Lent – this 40 day season of preparation for Easter that began on Wednesday.  Last summer I attended the Contemplative Prayer Camp at LaForet – sponsored by our Rocky Mountain Conference of the UCC – and one of the books we read and discussed was “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings,” written by John Philip Newell.  Newell observes that the Christian faith, as most of us have known it for the past five centuries, seems to be crumbling.  He hopes for a rebirth of God and the Christian faith.  Fortunately, ours is a resurrection faith, which believes that even when something as significant as a religious faith dies, there is the hope of something new that will come from it.  And Newell suggests that the key to bringing forth something new is to “reconnect” with God/Ultimate Truth/Divine Love wherever it might be found.  Each Sunday for the next eight weeks we will explore a different chapter of his book – a different way that we might reconnect with the Spirit.

Today, the place for reconnection is in spiritual practice – things like prayer, meditation, fasting, yoga, journaling, labyrinth walking, chanting, etc.

As we heard in our centering reading, which comes from Newell’s book, Thomas Merton saw spiritual practices as a way to make our religious faith more personal and intimate – making a shift from knowing “about” God, to knowing God in a relationship; to having a personal experience of God’s love and transformative power.  This is a very different understanding of religious faith than many of us grew up with – very different from what the Christian Church has taught for centuries.  But I agree with Newell that this is absolutely necessary for giving birth to a more vital and relevant faith for the 21st century and beyond.  It is to fulfill the ancient commandment to “love” God.  That is one of the objectives of spiritual practice.

Additionally, Thomas Merton also taught that spiritual practices can help us remember our “diamond essence” – the image of God in us.  And then to also discern that diamond essence in others, leading us into deeper compassion for God’s people.

But I want to focus on another fruit of spiritual practice, which is suggested by our gospel lesson for this morning – the traditional lesson for the first Sunday in Lent: the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

For me, the significance of this story is that Jesus used the time in the wilderness to try to discern how he was going to minister to people.  He had been anointed as God’s beloved child in the waters of the Jordan River—now, how was he going to use that unique authority to help people?  The temptations of the Devil offered him three options, or three paths, that look promising at first glance.  How many times have we wished that God might act to feed all the hungry people in the world, or perform some spectacular act that would convince people that God does exist and can do miracles and fill the churches, or to extend God’s righteous rule through the political systems of this world?  Those options look tempting indeed!  But Jesus rejected them all.

If we think of this story as something that may have happened to Jesus long ago, it remains distant and alien to us.  I would like to suggest, though, that this story is a kind of an archetype of temptations we all face in our own lives.  This is a story about what it means to be human.  In this, I have been intrigued by the theology (or psychology?) of Father Thomas Keating, who has written and taught extensively on the spiritual practice of Christian contemplative prayer.  So this is not a part of Newell’s book.

Keating’s theory, based on recent research in developmental psychology, is that as a baby grows and matures, it inevitably becomes psychologically “wounded” by some of the events of life, because life is a struggle for all of us.  To oversimplify, if a child grows up experiencing life as dangerous, that child may learn to cope by searching for survival and security.  If a child is made to feel unloved for any reason, that child may respond by doing whatever she or he can to receive affection and affirmation from others.  A person who grows up subject to the whims and oppression of others, feeling powerless, may try to exert power and control over others to achieve a measure of freedom.  Keating believes this is a universal human experience—all of us are tempted to achieve survival/security, or affection/esteem, or power/control in order to make it through life.

Keating calls these temptations for personal survival our “false self.”  I, personally, do not believe there is some divine being that tempts people in opposition to God that we identify as the Devil, or Satan, or whatever.  Instead, we may think of the Devil as this desire for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control that is at work deep in our psyche, and makes it difficult to trust in God’s love and care.

Jesus was tempted by the Devil to assuage his hunger by turning stones into bread.  This was an appeal to Jesus to feed his need for security and survival as much as his empty stomach.  Imagine the security of never having to worry where your next meal will come from!  Jesus responded that we do not live “by bread alone.”

The Devil then tempted Jesus to impress people with a high-dive show from the top of the temple.  This was an appeal to Jesus’ human desire for affection and esteem.  Imagine how many spiritual groupies he would have had if he had pulled off that dare-devil stunt!  Jesus deflected that temptation by recalling, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The final temptation may have been the toughest to resist—the temptation to rule the world through political and military power.  Imagine how wonderful this world would be if God’s law was enforced throughout the world!  Jesus turned down the offer, declining to pay the price of worshiping the Tempter.

Jesus was able to resist these great temptations, I think because he had the clarity of vision — born of the spiritual practice of fasting — to see how empty they were.  Security is a phantom, because life can never be totally secure.  Absolute security is death.  If you start searching for affection and esteem from anyone besides God and yourself, no amount of adoring fans will fill the void.  If power makes you feel good, remember there is always someone more powerful to threaten you.

Jesus saw how empty all of these temptations were.  We are not nearly as wise and discerning.  As we seek to live healthy lives with others, our default mode of action is to do what makes us feel good, especially in times of stress.

I think we can see these same temptations at work in our nation at this time.  People are demanding security from all enemies, not realizing it is impossible to defend ourselves from every threat.  In fact, the effort to achieve absolute security may, in the end, do us more harm than any enemy.  We want everyone to love us as the most powerful and moral and enlightened people on the face of the earth, yet unwilling to learn to appreciate the gifts of other cultures.  We seek power and control through regime changes.  But as a secular political entity, we don’t have the spiritual resources to recognize and resist the temptations that have threatened and undone every world power through human history.

Welcome to the wilderness of being human—the place of temptation.  But be of good cheer.  Christ has gone this way before us.  Jesus has wrestled with the Devil and prevailed.  He invites us to follow him, to recognize our own struggles in the ones he experienced; to confess how often we give in, trusting in God’s forgiveness; and to grow in consciousness about how we make our choices.

How do we do that?  That’s what Spiritual Practice is for.  Practices such as fasting—from the things that tempt us and control our lives, not so much to overcome them as to see exactly how powerful is their influence on our lives.  And, as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton and John Philip Newell would teach us, prayer.  Not the prayer that tells God what we want (though that has its place), but prayer that asks God to reveal what God wants us to see and do.  Prayer that deepens our awareness of God’s love for us, and develops our trust in God.  If we make that a regular part of our life, God will slowly sharpen our vision, to perceive our false selves at work in our daily lives, tempting us to put ourselves first.  We are invited, in this season of Lent, to reconnect with God through spiritual practice.

Robert J. von Trebra

Dazzling Reign

Category : Uncategorized


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on February 26, 2017 (Last Sunday after Epiphany/Tranfiguration Sunday)

Exodus 24:12-18

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

–          Matthew 17:1-9


“The Transfiguration”
by Jesus Mafa

The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, known as Ash Wednesday.  I hope you will join us for a soup supper and simple worship service that evening as we begin our journeys through Lent – to the cross and the empty tomb.

But that means that today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany – the season after Christmas.  The traditional gospel text for this Sunday is the story we just read from Matthew, or the slightly different versions in Mark or Luke – the story of what is known as the “transfiguration” of Jesus.  Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, and there he is transfigured – he begins to shine with a divine light.

This is a strange story.  I personally think this is not record of an actual event, but rather a story that was told about Jesus to suggest who the storyteller believed Jesus was.  Biblical scholars and commentators and preachers have offered many different ideas about what it means.  There are all kinds of biblical symbolism here.  There are echoes of the story of Moses from Exodus – it takes place on a mountain, and Jesus shines in the gospel story like the glory of the Lord in Exodus.  Moses and Elijah show up and have a conversation with Jesus.  Moses and Elijah were two of the “superstars” of Jewish tradition who lived hundreds of years before the time of Jesus: Moses was the great lawgiver who met with God on the mountain to receive the tablets of the commandments; Elijah was a great prophet who once heard God on a mountain speak in a “still, small voice,” and who, according to tradition, never died, but was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind.  Many Jews believed that Elijah would return before the Messiah came.

After Peter offers to erect dwellings (tents, tabernacles) for the three, a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  This seems to be the same voice and words that were heard at Jesus’ baptism.  But then another statement is added: “Listen to him.”

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground with fear – a response appropriate for hearing God’s voice or being in the presence of the Holy One.  And then, there was only Jesus.

What’s it all mean?  I can only offer some suggestions.  For one, the transfiguration suggests that Jesus’ true identity and nature are revealed.  The disciples see his “true colors shining through.”  For context, this story of the transfiguration takes place right after Peter has confessed his faith that Jesus was the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the Living God.  And right after that, Jesus began to talk about going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed – something that wouldn’t be expected for God’s Chosen One.  And he told his disciples that they, too, must follow his pattern – to take up their own cross and follow him.  This is the true source of Jesus’ glory – not just that he was a great teacher and miracle worker, but that he was willing to suffer as a result of his love for God and for all people.  How many famous and powerful people are willing to do that?

I think the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah is meant to suggest that Jesus stands fully within Jewish tradition: He was a successor to, and even the fulfillment of all Moses and Elijah had lived for.

After the vision was over, Jesus said to the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”  He was there to calm their fears.

It’s still a strange story, and I have often puzzled over what this is supposed to mean for us.

A few weeks ago, six of us traveled to Denver for the Congregations Alive! event organized by our Rocky Mountain Conference.  We shared some of our learnings from that experience a few Sundays ago.  One of the keynote speakers was Rev. John Dorhauer, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.  He talked with great passion at that event about how the UCC is partnering with other religious groups – Muslims, Reformed Jews, Unitarians, and others – to work together toward “a just world for all.”  That partnership is exciting in these days when there has been – for centuries – such misunderstanding and mistreatment of other religions by Christians, which unfortunately continue today.

Progressive Christians are challenging the traditional Christian belief that only believers in Jesus will be saved from eternal punishment after death and able to find eternal life in heaven.  We are finally learning that all great religious traditions have wisdom to offer.  As Peter Mayer sang in one of his songs on Friday night, what if we got to heaven and discovered all kinds of other people were there?

But I asked John Dorhauer what, if anything, uniquely important Christianity has to offer in its story of Jesus who suffered and died on a cross (a Roman instrument of execution and torture), and was raised from death.  This is a question I have been wrestling with in my own theology.

I’m not sure if the biblical writers knew much about Buddhism or Hinduism, even though they were flourishing in other parts of the world at the time.  Islam was born about six centuries after the time of Jesus.  But I have wondered what kind of vision of transfiguration we might see if we could see Jesus appearing not only with Moses and Elijah, but  also with the Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him), and with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and maybe a few other important religious teachers (perhaps Joseph Smith?).  And what about if some of our greatest political leaders and celebrities were seen there with him: Donald Trump, or Beyonce’.  Would Jesus still shine as brightly?  Would he still remain after the others were gone?  Or would he be just one among equals?

John Dorhauer had (I believe) a great answer.  Jesus did not escape suffering; he entered into it.  That was unique.  And so no matter what kind of suffering you might experience in your life, Jesus has shared it with you.  Have you known grief and loss?  Abuse and scorn?  A sense of failure?  Facing death?  Jesus has been there.  We are not alone in this beautiful, terrifying journey through life.

And Jesus – somehow – rose from the dead.  Which means that death is never the last word – never the end.  That is not an invitation to get this life over to see what comes next.  Rather, it is the assurance that even if life for now seems miserable and unendurable, there is hope.  Are you grieving the death of loved ones, or the loss of a career, and wondering if you will ever know joy again?  Made to feel like you are useless at school or at work?  Being treated like a non-person?  Worried about the future of our nation and our world?  Depressed, and feeling no reason to go on?  Jesus offers hope for something new.  Death is not the end.

And Jesus did not just accept and maintain the status quo; he revealed injustice and provided an alternative vision for life together.

That is what John Dorhauer preached a few weeks ago.  That is where I am, theologically and Christologically, these days.  As Martin Luther is reported to have said almost five centuries ago, when he was warned to recant all of his teachings and writings against the Roman Church of his time or face excommunication, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”

The Transfiguration is an important story for this church, and other progressive Christian churches in our time.  As we critically reexamine old church doctrines about the superiority of Christianity over other religions that have caused great harm over the centuries; as we seek to grow in understanding and partnership with other great religious traditions; as we work to be welcoming and inclusive of people from many different religious backgrounds, and invite serious questioning and dialogue – is there still something uniquely beautiful and powerful about Jesus that we can claim and hold on to and proclaim to the world and teach to future generations?  I think it is vital for us to do that – to be the United Church of Christ.

There is an old hymn (17th century German) appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday: “Fairest Lord Jesus.”  The final verse says,

Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,

And all the twinkling, starry host:

Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,

Than all the angels heaven can boast. Amen.

Robert J. von Trebra

Expanding Boundaries

Category : Reflections


A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on February 19, 2017 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

–          Matthew 5:38-48


We continue reading from the teachings of Jesus from Matthew that are known as the “Sermon on the Mount.”  Much of what he has to say runs so counter to conventional wisdom that it still astonishes us.  But the teachings we read from this morning (Love your enemy, Turn the other cheek) are perhaps his most challenging.  They cause folks to wonder whether he was really serious.  They seem unrealistic, naïve, even dangerous.

But there they are.  I’m not sure I can make them any easier to understand.  I don’t think anyone can make them easy to live out.  But perhaps what I can do today is to help fill in some of the background context and details that the first Jewish-Christian hearers of this gospel would have understood that have been lost to us in 21st century America.

Jesus begins by quoting from a portion of the Torah commandments that would have been familiar to Jewish people: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Many modern readers believe (wrongly) that this provided a barbaric justification for punishing a wrongdoer with physical injury in equal measure.  But Jewish rabbis and commentators say that this rule was meant to moderate extreme revenge and retaliation – which often happened in ancient society, and can still happen between rival gangs, crime families, and baseball teams.  And it really referred to monetary compensation for physical injury inflicted on another – an attempt being made to calculate the value of a lost eye or tooth – not unlike today’s civil lawsuits.  Particularly remarkable about this law code is that the social and economic status of those involved was irrelevant – whether they were rich or poor, male or female.  The principle expressed in the Torah was a model of fairness and equality.

Unfortunately, the law was not always interpreted that way, and it was sometimes practiced in very cruel ways.

But Jesus counsels a new approach with three often misunderstood examples of “kingdom behavior” – of not retaliating for evil with more evil, but of doing the unexpected in order to change the situation.  To understand these, I am drawing upon some of the ideas that theologian Walter Wink has written about – particularly in his book “Engaging the Powers,” which was one of the most influential books I read while in seminary.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)  It is interesting that the author includes the designation of “right” cheek.  In those days, just about everyone was right handed.  If one person struck another – while facing him – on the right cheek, it had to be a backhanded slap.  Such was not an act of fighting, but of shaming another.  It was usually the act of a powerful person against a servant or underling – someone of lower status.  To respond by turning the “other cheek” (the left one), required that the oppressor hit with the palm of the hand or fist – an act of conflict with an equal that could bring shame on the oppressor.

So this response was to assert one’s equality – one’s God-given humanity and dignity – against someone who regarded you as less than human.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40).  This is almost hilarious (if one is being sued wrongly).  The coat referred to here was a basic undergarment.  The cloak was an outer covering.  If this took place in a public courtroom, and one gave both coat and cloak, one would be naked in court!  As embarrassing as that may seem, to do it willingly would be bring shame on the plaintiff and the court!

Again, in a strange way Jesus was showing people how to claim their God-given dignity in an unjust world.

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:41)  In the first century, Roman soldiers could compel a person to carry their gear for them – but only for one mile.  If they forced someone to carry any farther, they could get in trouble.  So to go beyond one mile and on to a second mile could put a soldier in a very delicate situation, and shift the positions of power.

Again, Jesus may have been giving an example of how to creatively declare one’s personhood and dignity and power in a normally powerless position.  It was a way of suffering creatively – in a way that said, “I am a person just like you.”  Hard work? Yes.  Dangerous?  Perhaps.  But amazingly effective.  Especially if it is done as a follower of Christ, in the name of Christ.

Understood this way, these examples are not commands to let someone keep beating you or forcing you into slave labor – they are examples of creative ways to respond to being treated as a non-person.  They bring the possibility of relationship where previously there was only oppression.

This is a guidebook for nonviolent resistance against dehumanizing oppression.

“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  What’s the point in having enemies if you can’t hate them?

But everyone seems to have enemies.  No matter where you go, people hate someone.  It varies from place to place and time to time.  Nothing seems to create unity among diverse peoples than sharing a common enemy.  We almost need them to stimulate devotion and sacrificial giving.  When one enemy is defeated, we seem to be lost until we find another.  Even Christians seem to invent enemies: atheists, Muslims, other Christians, homosexuals, …you name it.

But as Jesus observed, everyone has enemies – even the sinners and heathens.  And where has that gotten us?

To make someone an enemy, we become like the “evildoers” that Jesus just taught how to resist creatively.  When we make someone our enemy, we no longer have to regard them as people with whom we might have a relationship; they become non-persons, so we don’t have to treat them with dignity or respect.  We don’t have to try to understand them.  Any time a people goes to war, they create propaganda that portrays the enemy as sub-human.

And when we have enemies, we can conveniently blame all of our problems on them – rather than being forced to look at our own evil, our own sin.

One word of caution – to “love” our enemies does not mean that we allow those who would cause us harm to just have their way.  Sometimes love means confronting another with their evil and finding ways to stop it.  When a woman is getting beaten in her own home by her partner – who will make no effort to stop – the loving thing may be to leave, or to have the abuser arrested and jailed.

And perhaps the most problematic of Jesus’ teachings here in Matthew is his commandment to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  What does that mean?  What about the old saying that “no one is perfect?”

The word in the original Greek text does not mean what we would think of as moral perfection – of never doing anything wrong or making mistakes, or of being able to keep all of the commandments of God.  Instead, it is to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in our devotion to God.  It is to be among the “pure in heart,” whom Jesus said in the Beatitudes would be blessed in being able to see God.  We might say it is to be persons of integrity.  To practice what we believe, and what we preach.

There are all kinds of ways that the powers-that-be in the world try to dehumanize us.  They turn us into a number, a consumer, a statistic.  We are stereotyped and lumped in with others with whom we are supposed to share particular traits.  And we do the same to others – thinking of them as enemies, as “others.”  “Those people.”  But in the Realm of God into which Jesus invites us, there are no others.  There are no borders or walls that separate “us” from “them.”  There are only people, created in the divine image, loved by God, and saved by Christ.  Jesus challenges us to expand our boundaries.  It is hard to live that way in a world for which that seems like total nonsense.  It almost requires that we be – like – perfect!  God help us.


Robert J. von Trebra

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