A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 17:11-19
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I can see myself sitting at the white, round table in the family room of my childhood home, a piece of paper in front of me, a writing implement (probably a pencil) in my hand, knowing that I had to write my aunt a thank you letter.  And I was dreading it.  I had no idea what to say, and my mom said I had to.

“Dear Dorli, thank you for the [whatever it was]. I like it a lot.”  “Mom, what do I say after that?”

My nephew, the pasta and pesto king of our family (he grows his own basil), had a birthday a couple weeks ago.  I got a thank you card from him his week:
“Dear Jeff[,]
Thank you for the REI gift card and the cook book[.]  I am really ex[c]ited to cook with you.  I have a grate memory of when I told you to put the cheese in the pesto and you put in the whole block and it splat[t]ed every where.
Love you a ton[,] Sam”

First of all, the cheese didn’t splat everywhere.  It banged around in the blender until he stopped me and told me to grate the cheese first.  Second, yes, the uncle who burns water when he makes tea got is nephew a cook book for his birthday and promised to do come cooking with him.  And third, it is really clear that he is related to me because (1) the note has plenty of spelling mistakes and that’s a Spencer characteristic, and (2) if it’s not a spelling mistake, it’s a really worthwhile pun that his cheese memory of me is g-r-a-t-e.

Of course, I wonder if his mother had to make my nephew write the note.  I think this is a fairly universal experience for parents, and yet when I ask kids to pray (and I’ve seen this consistently at camps over the decades), their prayers are almost always prayers of thanks.  In my experience, it’s only in adolescence, and often not until late adolescence that the prayers start to move toward intercession.  Offering thanks to God in spoken prayer is easy, it’s natural for kids to do.  But ask them to write a thank you note, and parents feel like they’re pulling teeth.  I suspect it’s the writing part that’s problematic.  Giving thanks is natural, but as soon as we ask the kid to put it to paper, it becomes a homework assignment.

About a year and a quarter ago, I gave myself a nightly homework assignment.  While I haven’t fulfilled this assignment every night, I’ve come pretty close.  The assignment has two parts:  Part one is to review the day – think about what happened and how God showed up in what happened.  Part two is to write a prayer of thanks and post it on Facebook.

This is actually part of an ancient spiritual practice called the Daily Examen.  More than 400 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged Christians to twice-daily prayerfully reflect on the day and offer God thanks.[1]  The Daily Examen is a bit more nuanced than that and includes other elements, but prayerfully reflecting and giving thanks is the core of the Examen.  I’ve taken this core component and added a piece of 21st century social media to the practice.

I started this assignment as a way to explore if Facebooking could be used for spiritual practice – at least by me – for a workshop I would later lead.  The answer is a profound, “Yes!” and so I have kept up the practice, long after the workshop.

I’ve found two things from doing this assignment for over a year.  To my surprise, I’ve found that there are people who look forward to my prayers and who connect with them – I really thought I was doing this practice for me and God alone, and putting the prayer on Facebook was just a way of saying the prayer aloud.

The other things I have found is in me: a shift, a spiritual shift.  The practicing of gratitude has created a feeling of gratitude in me; the feeling has followed the behavior.  Even on days when I have found it very difficult to be grateful, I have been able to be grateful that I can be honest with God about how difficult it is to be grateful some days.  I have found that it is easier for me to let go of the “small stuff” that can easily be an irritant.  And I have found that I’m not nearly as stressed out by our pending move as I think I would be without this practice of giving thanks.

“Ten Lepers Healed,” by Brian Kershisnik

During the daytime Women’s Fellowship meeting on Monday, we looked at the gospel lesson we heard today.  Jesus and the disciples are on their journey and they are crossing the border between Galilee and Samaria.  There, in that liminal territory, in that area that crosses between two spaces, they encounter a group of ten lepers.  Now, when we say “leper,” we’re not necessarily talking about people with Hansen’s disease, we’re not necessarily talking about people who need to go live on Molokai.  We might be, but not necessarily.

The ability to distinguish between one sort of skin disorder and another wasn’t as acute then as it is now.  Because it was clear that leprosy is contagious, people with all sorts of skin problems were banished from the community, made to live on the margins, and told that they couldn’t approach people who were “clean.”  The only way for a Jew to get back into the Jewish community was to be examined by a priest and declared “clean.”

So Jesus and the disciples meet up with this group of ten people who were labeled “lepers.”  The ten cry out to Jesus and Jesus tells them to act as if they are clean.  ‘Go show yourselves to a priest, go get the examination that will restore you to community.’  So off they go, and as they are going, they are made clean.  One of the ten comes back to Jesus and thanks him.  And Jesus points out that the one who came back is “a foreigner,” that is, a Samaritan.

You know, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.  (Think about it for a moment.)

We have incomplete data in the story, but the extrapolation is that the other nine were Jews.  Prior to their experience of Jesus, this group of ten had something in common.  They were all thrown out of their communities because of their skin conditions.  Labeled and thrown out, they created community for themselves by banding together, crossing barriers that otherwise would have kept them apart.  Now they have encountered Jesus, who sends them off to their priests to be restored to their original communities.  Would they remember the Jewish/Samaritan barrier-busting they had experienced when they were outcasts?  Or would they try to put the whole banishment experience behind them and work to fit back into the social norms?

I have a tendency to wag my finger at the nine who didn’t return to give Jesus thanks.  Jesus did this really cool thing for them, and they don’t even say “thank you.”  But I don’t think that’s fair.  They did exactly what Jesus told them to do.

Walter Wink points out that “Jesus does not use healing to bring others under the spell of his own charisma.  He merely sends these lepers on their way to the priest.  Their going, their trust, their acting on his command activates their healing.  He is not content merely to heal, but to restore their own sense of power: ‘Your faith has made you well.’”[2]

There may be an element in this story that is contrasting the difference between being cleansed and being whole.  All ten lepers were made clean (katharizo), but Jesus says something different to the leper who returns.  To him, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well (sozo).”  The word sozo isn’t just “to be made well.”  It also means “to be saved.”  By coming back and giving thanks, the Samaritan is transformed into wholeness.

There is something about the act of giving thanks that is transformative.

I would like to think that the other nine found a time and a place to give thanks to God.  Sadly, it is also possible that the other nine ended up thinking that they healed themselves.  I know it’s easy for me to think I’ve done something on my own.  That’s one of the reasons I find value in my daily practice of giving thanks.  It helps me realize that I don’t really do anything on my own and that realization brings me a greater sense of wholeness and connectedness – connectedness to God and to my neighbors.

Our discussion about this passage at Women’s Fellowship took an interesting turn at one point.  As we were talking about the power of giving thanks, about its power to transform, even to bring wholeness, one of the women asked if a practice of giving thanks can treat depression.  I am so thankful for the questions, and I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, let me share my answer to her question.

I can think of three types of depression.[3]  There is situational depression.  This is the depression that comes because of a situation, for example, the death of a loved one.  Like all types of depression, one who is situationally depressed will feel sadness and a lack of energy.  Often, with situational depression, helping others and giving thanks helps to alleviate the depression.

Clinical depression is a physical illness.  People with clinical depression typically have chemical imbalances in their brains that can be relieved with appropriate medication.  The causes of clinical depression can include genetics, situational depression that isn’t alleviated,[4] and (recent studies are suggesting) brain injuries like concussions.[5]  Because clinical depression is a physical illness, it needs to be treated medically.  Spiritual practices (like service and giving thanks) can help, but medical treatment is necessary.

The third type of depression I can think of is the depression that comes with bipolar disorder.  Like clinical depression, bipolar disorder is treated with appropriate medication – though different medication from that used to treat clinical depression because the brain chemistry issues are different.  I don’t know enough about bipolar disorder to know if spiritual practices (like service and giving thanks) can help alleviate some of the depressive symptoms that come with bipolar disorder – though it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.  What I do know for sure is that medical treatment works.

One reason I am so thankful for the question that was asked at Women’s Fellowship is that it opened the door to a really powerful discussion about depression.  I think just about everyone at the meeting had dealt with or had a family member who dealt with depression at some point in their lives.  Some were still dealing with it because their clinical depression was chronic.  This may have been the first time any of us talked about it openly.  And I don’t remember if I have ever spoken so clearly about depression in particular and mental illnesses in general in a sermon before.  I’m doing it now because that question opened the door.  For that, I give thanks.

Since Monday, I’ve had three opportunities to talk about this sermon as it was coming together.  All three times, I mentioned that I planned to talk about depression.  All three times, that mention elicited sharing about ways depression had touched their lives.

This suggests to me that people want to talk about mental health and mental illness.  But we don’t.  It reminds me of how the word “cancer” was avoided in polite conversation in the 1960s and 70s, at least in my experience.  Mental illness still has a stigma in our culture.  People living with mental illness are the often pushed to the margins by our silence.  Maybe my mentioning depression today in this sermon will help chip away at that stigma and open a door to conversation.  So I give thanks today for a question about depression that came up in a Bible study.

And giving thanks really is the topic for today’s sermon.  A point I made earlier is that giving thanks is transformative.  I think this is because giving thanks requires us to interrupt our preoccupations and to turn in our tracks toward the source of life and newness.  On this thanksgiving week, let us make it a practice to interrupt our preoccupations and to turn toward God and give thanks.

Amen.

[1] A simple overview of the Daily Examen can be found at http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/

[2] Walter Wink, “Divine Source, Human Means,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/divine-source-human-means-0 (accessed 17 November 2014).

[3] During coffee hour after worship, a church member suggested that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADs) might be a fourth type of depression.

[4] See http://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/depression/situational-depression/ for more on situational depression and clinical depression.

[5] See, for instance, “Teen Concussions Increase Risk of Depression,” Center for Advancing Health, http://www.cfah.org/hbns/2014/teen-concussions-increase-risk-for-depression (posted 9 January 2014; accessed 22 November 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 25:14-30 and 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Those of you who have been around long enough and who have good memories will remember that I preached on our gospel lesson a few years ago.  Those of you who have been around long enough and have really good memories may even remember what I said.  I apologize for the portion of today’s sermon that’s a re-run, but I think it’s necessary.  The church has spent so much time and energy misinterpreting this parable that it is easy to lose track of this more accurate way of looking at this story Jesus told.

I had a professor[i] in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a Zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

If you look at the parables of Jesus, you’ll see that they can be divided into two general categories:  parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19f); and  parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …,” for instance in Matthew 18:2f).  To fulfill these two tasks, Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language that any illiterate peasant could understand.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies becoming friends, and unexpected vindication.  They are also like a puzzle, so we often miss what Jesus is saying.  In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, they are often interpreted as moral tales, moral fables, and in the process we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.

This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story with our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.  The parable[ii] told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.

In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that in Matthew made not mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  He did back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  But the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  Most likely because they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  And what havoc is wreaked with these assumptions.

Because of these assumptions, we allegorize the story so the Master in the story ends up representing God, and it’s a pretty darn ugly representation of God.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) have preached on this parable saying how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  Nonetheless, sermon after sermon misinterpret this parable.

So how should we understand this parable?  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.  They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household – the closest thing in his day to the maga-corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic business or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to prominent positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards.”

The clue that reveals that this is a great household is the sums of money used in the story.  They border on hyperbole.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[iii]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent in 19 years.  Compared to today’s subsistence wage, a talent would be at least a half-million dollars, so the eight talents in the parable are at least equivalent to about $4 million.[iv]  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slave double their master’s money.  Though lauded by contemporary interpreters, this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at a 12% interest rate.  I’ve read that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.[v]

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[vi] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew all too well the story of how the rich got so rich.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, “success” was defined as the accumulation of more and more money and power.  People who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.

The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.  But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

So, I think the third slave is, in fact, the hero of this parable.  When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  We are used to reading this allegorically, suggesting entry into heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.

The first two slaves seem to get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are only “in charge” of many things, not the owners.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then the master comes to the third slave.  Jesus audience knows what happens to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here you have what is yours.”  I wonder how many of Jesus’ original audience heard this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  Of course this third slave is afraid.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is [already] my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

What a stark contrast to what Jesus preached about the kin-dom of God.

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell, and so perhaps it is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  Instead, this third slave is banished to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ when we serve by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, we meet Christ in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

In our reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul explains what some have called the mission of the church.  “God was in Christ,” he writes, “reconciling the world,” and “[God] has given us this ministry of reconciliation.”  Reconciliation brings an end to enmity, conflict, and alienation.  It brings about a new way of being in relationship.

One of the ways the world is in conflict with God is economic.  The economic values of the Empire of Rome, which very much continue to exist today, are in conflict with the economic values of the Empire of God.  It’s one heck of an uphill push to try to reconcile the world’s economy with God’s.  But that’s the church-universal’s job, according to Paul.  God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.

growlogobrownNiles Discovery Church has come to see our part of that mission, at least now in our life together, to include elements of welcome, growth, and service.  When we welcome all, regardless of economic status, we are opening the door to this work of reconciliation.  When we help each other grow into new understandings of God’s economy, we are taking the first concrete step in this work of reconciliation.  And when we act on these understanding by serving our neighbors, near and far, we are moving forward in this work of reconciliation.

Today, we make and celebrate our financial commitments for carrying out this mission during 2015.  I pray our commitments help us step away from Rome’s economy and toward God’s economy.  May they empower us with the courage to be like the third slave, finding opportunities to refuse to participate in an economic system built on scarcity and greed, finding opportunities to speak truth to power, finding opportunities to serve Christ more deeply and fully.

Amen.
[i] The late Professor Douglas Adams of Pacific School of Religion.

[ii] The interpretation of the “parable of the talents” in this sermon is based on a sermon I preached in April 2011, which, in turn, was based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.  People in my congregation suggested that the sermons series of which the 2011 sermon was a part be published.  My response was, “They have been … by Ched Myers.”

[iii] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[iv] 365 days a year minus 52 Sabbaths off equals 313 days.  19 years x 313 days/year x 8 hours/day x $10/hour = $475,760, which is close enough to a half-million dollars.  Yes, $10/hour is not a subsistence wage in the Bay Area (which would probably be something closer to $20/hour; see http://livingwage.mit.edu/).

[v] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[vi] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.

This week, Pastor Brenda Loreman preached at Niles Discovery Church.  I offered the pastoral prayer.  The theme for the day was “Serve,” and I also recognized that it was the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and that on Tuesday the nation would celebrate Veterans’ Day.  The first part of the pray is inspired by Thomas Merton.  Here, then, is the prayer I offered.

Holy One, give us eyes to see each person as who they are and not twist them to fit our own image of who we think they should be. Give us hearts to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy, for that is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. You have simply asked us to love, to love with a love that itself renders both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.

We know we cannot find the meaning of life by ourselves alone, but only with each other. So we thank you for community and for the opportunity to serve.

Because today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we pause to consider the messy gift we call “democracy.” We know that it is not a perfect system of governance, nor is it the guarantor of your will, but we are unable to think of another system that human beings could have that more fully opens the possibilities of your will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And so we thank you for all who have worked for it, who have demonstrated for it, who have marched for it, who have sought to improve it and expand it. We thank you for those who, when it has been threatened, have defended it.

As our nation and nations around the globe approach a day when we remember those who have worn the military uniforms of their nation, we confess the sin of war and we confess that too frequently we are unable to think of ways to avoid war while preserving freedom. We honor and thank those who have sought to serve their country, especially those who have sought to serve our country, by donning a military uniform. We pray that, as a country, we will have the fortitude to stand by those who have served our nation in this capacity by serving them, in return, with appropriate health care, with support in the transitions to civilian life, with meaningful training to find civilian jobs.

Holy One, you have simply asked us to love, to love with a love that itself renders both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. Strengthen us to love in thought, in word, in prayer, and in deed as we serve our neighbors near and far.

Amen.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 2, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: I Corinthians 3:1-9
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of them are in their 40s now – if they’re still alive. When I think of them, which I do from time to time, I still see them as the teenagers they were when I knew them.

I remember a few by name. More of them, I remember by their stories. Mostly I remember them as a feeling or a face in a crowd.

During my third and fourth years of seminary, I worked as a chaplain at the Juvenile Hall in Contra Costa County. The work was intense and occasionally scary. Most of the time, though, the intensity was more about working with teenagers in crisis. What was important was listening, caring, even loving them.

Often I would only see a kid one time – between his or her arrest and being sent back home or off to a group home. A few I saw over several weeks. Some came for repeated visits. Mostly, I saw them, talked with them, listened to them for a moment in the midst of their chaotic lives.

This scripture from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth brought them back to mind this week. A big reason is the metaphor Paul uses in the reading. It was a metaphor I frequently used to understand my work. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Planting seeds – that’s how I saw my work. The kids would come and go; I would have a moment with them. I hoped that my attention, my caring, my presence might plant a seed of faith, of trust in God, that might eventually take root and grow. But I’ve never known if what I did made any difference beyond that moment I was him or her.

As I thought about this scripture as a reading for All Saints and Souls Sunday, I’ve come to realize there is another reason I still carry these kids with me. Yes, I carry them because I wonder how they’re doing, if they’re still alive, if my ministry made any difference.

And I carry them because they made a difference in my growth. Part of that difference is a matter of timing. I was in seminary trying to figure out how to be a pastor, so they helped me grow because we were thrust together in the midst of that discernment.

And part of it is that they offered me something I could not find on my own: stories of experiences that were foreign to me; an understanding that I could not fix another’s problems; a clarity of the importance of letting things go; a realization of how important those great commandments that I preached about last week really are.

This rag-tag bunch of sinners are Apollos to me. They watered seeds planted by others. They are part of my personal roll call of saints, of the people who accompanied me on my journey, helping me grow.

“The Corinthian believers were a diverse group.”[1] They were diverse in religious and cultural background being both Jews and Gentiles. They were diverse socio-economically, being slaves, freed persons, and members of the upper classes (pretty radical given the hierarchical stratification of Greco-Roman society). Variety of social classes, genders, religious and ethnic identities, places of origin, levels of education, and spiritual giftedness all contributed to their diversity. And that diversity contributed to their conflict.

“At the very beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that there are serious divisions among them. These fractures seem to run along multiple lines.”[2] We heard about one of the divisions in today’s reading. Different, even competing groups within the church, each claimed loyalty to a different leader. “Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) have all apparently influenced this church, and the different factions understand their leadership as antagonist and mutually exclusive.”[3]

We hear about another division based on social class later in the letter when Paul writes about discriminatory practices at the Lord’s supper, a behavior Paul attacks. We also hear about conflict based on differing positions about how they should relate to the larger culture. Paul addresses their conflict and factionalism by employing four primary metaphors that reveal how he envisions the church and why divisions are inappropriate within it.[4]

He uses kinship, calling the community “a family” with God as the head of the clan. He uses the human body, reminding us that just as each part of the body has different gifts, so too different people in the church have different gifts. He uses the metaphor of the church as God’s building or temple, with Jesus as the foundation and many other building on this foundation. And he uses the metaphor we heard today: agriculture. Paul planted; Apollos watered; God gave the growth.

The point that Paul is making with these metaphors is that the church is a community of interdependence. God accomplishes growth in the individual through the mess we call community.[5] That’s why it’s a problem when I say I belong person A, setting myself in opposition to person B and the people who say they belong to her. When I say I belong to person A, I end up rejecting person B and her faction. I end up rejecting person B’s gifts and the gifts of those in her camp. That means I end up rejecting the ways person B and her camp can help me with my growth.

Paul doesn’t come out and say it, but he implies that imperfect people are a gift. He says we really need each other, and since we’re all imperfect, he implies that we really need imperfect people. Imperfect people are a gift.

This is great news for me as an imperfect person – it means God can use me to help with your growth. It is tough news for me as a judgmental person – it means God can and even wants to use people I don’t like to help with my growth. To get a little specific here, it just so happens that there’s this big group of Christians that I really don’t want to have much to do with – evangelical fundamentalists. What Paul is saying to me is that God wants to use evangelical fundamentalists for my growth. I’ve been hurt enough by members of this group that I’d really rather God didn’t use them. Do you see the challenge here? I have to open myself up to the gifts of evangelical fundamentalists if God’s going to grow me fully.

It is much easier for me to open myself up to people who I can recognize as having watering seeds planted in me in the past, than to contemplate opening myself up to people who bug me. It’s much easier to look backward, and this too can be instructive.

We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, scripture tells us. That’s right, the church had the cloud long before Google, iCloud, or Dropbox. We have the people who have gone before whose stories we hear in scripture. We have the people who have gone before whose names we don’t know who kept the faith alive during times of trouble and hardship. We have the people who have gone before, our personal roll call of saints.

Historically, the church has, from time to time, recognized different people as having been particularly faithful and as having been exemplars of faithfulness. These people have been officially recognized as saints. After the Reformation, the Protestant Church (except for the Anglicans) has been reluctant to recognize certain people as saints. But we all can point to unrecognized exemplars of the faith, people who let God’s light shine through them in such a way that you get a picture of who God is.

My personal roll call of saints includes my mother and father, a collection of Sunday School teachers and a handful of pastors, a High School English teacher and a junior high science teacher, a bunch of friends, a number of professors, and (as I mentioned earlier) a collection of juvenile delinquents. Not one of these people was perfect. Yet all of these helped me grow as a Christian. Perhaps in seeing the surprising resources God has used for my growth, I can open myself up to new surprises.

“United in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.” That’s the motto of Niles Discovery Church. I think it’s a great motto for us because it gets at our core sense of mission. This year’s pledge campaign is focusing on three words that represent that mission: welcome, grow, and serve. The “God’s love” and “no exceptions” in our motto point to the “welcome” part of our mission that I spoke about last week.

IMG_1057The “journey” in our motto points to the “grow” part of our mission. We recognize that faith is a journey. As Anne Lamott put it, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”[6] God’s desire is for us to grow – to grow in our trust, to grow in our love, to grow in our faithfulness, to grow in our discipleship. God does not leave us where we are, if we’re willing to go on the journey.

It is really easy to get caught up in the third verb of our pledge campaign: serve. It’s easy to get caught up in serving because it is vital and it is good. Yet serving with being grounded spiritually leads to burnout and hopelessness. So it is vital that we pay equal attention to growing.

So I have two questions for you: How has Niles Discovery Church helped you grow? and How are you are you engaging in our mission of growing followers of Jesus?

I ask the first of these two questions because looking backward may help you look forward. Recognizing how your church has helped you grow may make it easier to identify ways your church can continue to help you grow. Some ways may be pretty obvious. I know there are people in our church who find participating in the Adult Sunday School nurtures their growth, and I doubt anyone is surprised by that. Other ways may not be so obvious. It may only be in reflecting that you’ll realize how serving as a liturgist, for instance, or singing in the choir, or attending worship regularly has helped you to grow in your faith. You get the idea.

Think about how your church has helped you to grow, but don’t stop there. Think about how you will connect with the church’s mission so you will continue to grow. And if you have an idea for some way the church could help you and other grow, let me know.

And I have one more request: As you consider in the coming couple weeks what sort of financial pledge you’re going to make for 2015, think about how that giving is supporting our mission to grow followers of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] Katrina Poetker, “Letters from the Ancient World,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/letters-ancient-world (posted 14 February 2013; accessed 27 October 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This analysis is also from Poetker, ibid.

[5] I owe much of this analysis to Jim Douglass, “Is My Anger Innocent?” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.ner/preaching-the-word/my-anger-innocent (accessed 27 October 2014).

[6] Quoted on a meme that’s floating around Facebook.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 26, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 14:15-24
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Once upon a time,[1] there was a boy named Haile.  He was a happy boy living with his mother and father in their home in Ethiopia.  But one day his mother died and Haile was so hurt, and so confused, and so angry.

A year passed and his father decided to remarry.  But, Haile remained so hurt, and so confused, and so angry.  So when Zeynab met him and hugged him he pulled away from her.  When she fixed him his favorite foods for dinner he didn’t eat.  When she made him a play suit out of fine cloth he ran through the woods and played so roughly he tore the clothes up.  Whenever she spoke to him he ignored her.

One day when her husband was gone hunting, Zeynab went to Haile’s bedroom to talk to him.  “Haile, I love you so much and I really need you to love …”  Before she could finish Haile jumped up and said, “I hate you, you aren’t my mother.”  And he ran out of the house.

That night, as the other two slept, Zayneb went out and walked deep into the forest to the home of the shaman.   The shaman was a very wise woman who knew the ways of peoples’ minds and hearts.  “I need you to make me a love potion so my step-son will love me,” said Zayneb.

“Well,” the old woman said slowly, “Before I can give you a love potion, you must bring me the whisker from a ferocious lion.”

Zeynab’s eyes grew large as she said, “How am I supposed to do that?”

“Use your imagination,” said the shaman.

Zeynab went home and slept just a few more hours.  She got up before the sun rose and put several large pieces of raw meat in a bag and headed toward the hills.  She walked until she found a cave that had large paw prints around it.  Zeynab took a piece of meat from her bag and placed it in front of the entrance to the cave.  Then she hid in the bushes about 50 feet from the entrance and waited.  After a few minutes a large, very ferocious looking lion stepped out of the cave, looked around, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.

Zayneb waited for a couple of hours then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a second piece of meat in front of it.   Then she moved back only 25 feet and didn’t hide in the bushes.  After a few minutes the lion came out.  He looked around, stared at Zayneb, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.

Zayneb waited for a couple of hours more and then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a third piece of meat in front of it.  She moved back only two steps.  After a few minutes the lion came out.  He looked around, stared at Zayneb.  She stared back at the lion.  Although she was shaking inside, she didn’t move her body.  She just stared right back at the lion’s large brown eyes.  The lion smelled the meat and began eating.

Very slowly Zayneb extended her hand, grabbed a whisker and quickly pulled it out.  The lion kept eating as slowly, very slowly, as if walking on a tight rope, Zayneb backed away toward the bushes.  When she got into the forest she ran back to the shaman’s home.  Breathing heavily, she rushed into the shaman’s house and held up the whisker.  “See, here, I brought you a lion’s whisker.  Now, give me a love potion.”

The shaman took the whisker and looked at it.  “Ah, this does look like a ferocious lion’s whisker.  But, I don’t have any love potions.”  And she threw the whisker on the fire.

“What, what do you mean?” screamed Zayneb.

“Tell me,” the shaman asked calmly, “how did you get that lion’s whisker?”

“Well, I had to be very, very careful and patient.  I was very gentle and very quiet, and persistent.”

“Yes, and you were very courageous.  See, you have all of the skills you will need to get your stepson to love you without a magic potion.”

When asked by a Pharisee what the greatest commandment is, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (6:4-5).  “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  He says, “This is the greatest and first commandment.  Then he quickly adds, quoting from Leviticus (19:18), “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Loving God with our whole being is not always easy.  Like Haile, we can be resistant to loving God.  Or we can be resistant to loving God all the way.  It’s not that we dislike God.  But we can make all sorts of assumptions about God – that God is demanding or judgmental or hard to please – and so we may hold back, being resistant to really letting ourselves go with our love.  Or we can be distracted by life and it gets in the way of our loving God with our whole being.

I read a story[2] this week about a woman who got a puppy named Zeke.  This was 15 years ago, long before the TV shows about training your dog.  Nonetheless, she immediately hired a trainer to help her get the dog housebroken and on his way to obedience.  She was surprised when trainer said she should wait a few weeks before she started training.  “A foundation needs to be established before any teaching can begin,” the trainer said.  He explained, “This dog can’t be in relationship with you as the pack leader until you first help him with one important thing: confidence.  We must build-up Zeke’s self-confidence so he can bond with you.  Only then will he follow your lead.”

Like Zeke, we can have an inferiority complex about our ability to be in relationship with God.  Are we loveable enough to bond with God?  Are we worried that we’ll be whacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper?

Loving God is framed as a commandment, but it’s really more of an invitation.  God loves us with a courageous, gentle, quiet persistence – all in the hope that we will love God back.

We can only guess at why Jesus answered more than was asked, why he added the second most important commandment in his answer.  My suspicion is that love of God without love of neighbor is like faith without works.

Loving our neighbor is often more difficult than loving God – or at least differently difficult.  Our neighbors can be really annoying or down right mean.  And it’s so easy to question the motivations someone has when they do something.  We attribute evil, hurtful intentions to people who do something that hurts us.  We attribute mean-spiritedness to people who say something that stings.  How are we do love these neighbors?

One worthwhile piece of advice came from a marriage seminar (described as “mediocre” by the author[3] who was writing about it):  “Think of the most generous explanation for your spouse’s behavior and believe it.”  Yes, easier said than done.  But what a wonderful attitude to have.  Imagine if we did that in all situations.

“Think of the most generous explanation for anyone’s behavior and believe it.”  Imagine how interactions with others would change if we cultivated that mindset.  Imagine how much easier it would be to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Our lesson from Luke’s gospel comes at the end of a dinner party.  Jesus is eating a meal at the home of a leader of the Pharisees.  We get to listen in on the conversation.  Jesus offers some practical advice, particularly in an honor/shame culture.  When you go to a dinner party, don’t take one of the important seats.  You might get told to go sit at the table by the kitchen when someone more important than you comes in.  Go sit at the kids’ table and let the host call you up to a more prestigious seat.  That will make you look good.

Then he tells his host, Nice party, but next time, don’t invite your relatives and the rich guy down the street.  They’ll just feel obligated to return the favor.  Instead, invite “the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  They won’t be able to repay you, so it will be a real gift.

I can hear the thoughts of many at the table with Jesus:  Ew! Who wants to eat with them?!

One guest has a different response.  The host doesn’t say anything, but this other guest says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”  The guest takes what Jesus has been saying about life here and now and makes a comment about the realm to come.

Jesus’ pulls this guest and all of us back to the here and now by telling a story.

A man plans a banquet and invites his guests.  When everything is ready, he sends out his slaves to tell the guests that it’s time to come.  The invited guests give excuses – lame excuses in my book.  “I can’t come because I have to check out this property I just bought.”  Who buys property without checking it out before hand?  “I can’t come because I have just bought five yoke of oxen and I need to make sure they can pull a plow.”  Who buys a tractor without making sure it can do the job?  “I can’t come because I just got married, and, well, you know …”  Okay, maybe that’s not such a lame excuse.

But look at the excuses.  This is a rich guy who invites rich people to his banquet.  They can buy land and multiple yokes of oxen.  When his guests won’t come, he sends out his slaves to go find other guests.  “Bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” he tells his slaves.

So they do, but there are still empty seats at the banquet.  So the man sends his slaves out again to check under the bridges and down by the railroad tracks.  Bring everyone in; my house will be full.

I hear Jesus saying, “Sure, it’s a blessing to eat bread in the kin-dom of God.  But why wait until then?  Let’s make the kin-dom now!  Invite everyone in!  Don’t leave anyone out!”

To love our neighbors is to welcome them, to invite them to the table of God’s abundance, to create a space for them, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.

When First Christian Church and Niles Congregational Church were in the initial discussions that led to the creation of Niles Discovery Church, we did an exercise that I remain grateful for.  We asked the participants, the members and friends of the two congregations, to identify the values, the norms of their congregations.  The one thing that people from each congregation could agree on is that their congregation valued being an Open and Affirming[4] congregation.  They valued the purposeful and explicit welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into the full life of the church.

I have called this the original charism of Niles Discovery Church.  Expressing and extending God’s extravagant welcome is a core component of Niles Discovery Church’s mission.  It’s a core component of our mission because it is a core component of fulfilling the great commandments.  Extending God’s extravagant welcome is one of the ways we show our love of God and our love of neighbor.  It’s how we make Jesus’ parable about the banquet come alive.

growlogobrownThe reason I wanted to talk about this today is that we launched our fall pledge campaign last week.  Hopefully you received a letter or an email (or both) from Barbara Swint, our Moderator.  So you know our theme.  We’re focusing on the mission of our church in this campaign, and we’re inviting you to make a financial pledge for 2015 to underwrite that mission.

When we fulfill that component of our mission that can be summed up in the word, “Welcome,” we are offering something the Tri-Cities desperately needs, something we are uniquely suited to offer.

So this week, I invite you to think about God’s love for you, God’s invitation to love God back, and God’s challenge to love our neighbors as we love ourselves – especially though the act of welcome.

Amen.

[1] This story is quoted almost exactly (I did make a few revisions and deleted some parts for length) from a telling of this tale by Skywalker Storyteller that can be found at http://www.storyteller.net/stories/text/8 (accessed 23 October 2014).  The tale can be found in Ethiopian, Korean, and Japanese folklore (with different family members and different animals).  This is a retelling of the Ethiopian version.

[2] Susanne Bossert, “Relax,” The Juniper Tree, http://www.juniperstories.com/blog/2014/10/18/3iswzkduabiezd975afhnfj7po686e (posted 18 October 2014; accessed 23 October 2014).

[3] Tina Fox, “Being ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ People,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5489/being-benefit-of-the-doubt-people (accessed 23 October 2014).

[4] Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ have movements of welcome of the lgbt community called “Open and Affirming.”  You can learn more about the DOC’s O&A movement at http://gladalliance.org/site/open-affirming-ministries/ and about the UCC’s ONA movement at http://ucccoalition.org/ona/.

I don’t know if anyone particularly cares, but I’ll share this anyway.  This is how I’m voting on the California propositions.

Prop 1:  Water bond

This is a hard one for me.  We have a really difficult water situation here in California, made all the worse by the ongoing drought.  This seems like an awful lot of money to spend on a project that may not solve the water problems.

Apparently, I’m not alone.  The League of Women Voters of California didn’t take a position.  The Sierra Club of California didn’t take a position.  The California Council of Churches says “Yes,” as does the California League of Conservation Voters.  Though I can’t find it on their website, I’m told that Food and Water Watch say “No.”  I’m voting a very soft “No.”
Prop 2:  Rainy Day Fund

This is an easy “No” for me.  While I think it’s important to save for a rainy day, on most Sunny years the savings will be accomplished by failing to restore (or further cutting) programs supporting the most vulnerable in our society.  Budgeting by proposition is just bad policy.
Prop 45:  Healthcare Insurance

I’m voting “Yes,” though I don’t like legislating by proposition (we pay our legislature to do that).  This is really a case of “follow the money” for me.  If the big insurance companies are against it that means they think it will cost them money — and that’s a reason to be for it.  All this does it treat health insurance the way auto and homeowners/renter insurance is treated, giving the Commissioner of Insurance the same authority to approve rate increases for health insurance that the Commissioner has for auto/homeowner/renter insurance.
Prop 46:  Drug and Alcohol Testing of Doctors; Medical Negligence Lawsuits

I’m voting a strong “No” on this.  I don’t like the presumption of guilt that drug testing implies, nor do I like the waste of money it typically brings with it.  The “facts” claimed by the proposition’s sponsors (e.g., the numbers of preventable medical errors causing death per year) are suspect, as is the assumed link between substance use and medical errors.

I also don’t like the creation of a state-controled database of all pharmaceuticals any individual receives, period, full stop.  The fact that this database would be open to any medical practitioner, not just the medical practitioner serving you, makes is worse!

Yes, we should review caps on pain and suffering awards, but the legislature should do that, not one proposition that is either voted up or down.
Prop 47:  Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act

This gets a very strong “Yes” from me for one simple reason:  the best way to spend a dollar to prevent crime is to spend it on education.  Let’s face it:  our criminal justice system needs a major overhaul.  It is far too focused on punishment and far too lax on reforming criminals.  People spend far too long behind bars for nonviolent crimes and come out hardened, not reformed.  The California Council of Churches put it this way:  “This is perhaps the single biggest opportunity to end the ‘cradle to prison pipeline’ and the horrific increase in our prison population.”

This proposition ensures that prison spending is focused on violent and serious offenses and will maximize alternatives for non-serious, nonviolent offenses.  The savings generated will be invested in prevention and support of programs in K-12 schools, victim services, and mental health and drug treatment (and yes, that’s budgeting by proposition, but it’s essentially redirecting criminal justice money to programs that actually prevent crime).
Prop 48:  Indian Gaming Compacts

This gets a “No” vote from me.  My/our opposition is probably meaningless since the Bureau of Indian Affairs has already approved the project this proposition covers, I hope my “No” vote will make it clear that I oppose this plan.

This proposition is about allowing certain Native America (First Nations/Indigenous/Indian) tribes to run a casino not on tribal land.  It also exempts the casino from California Environmental Quality Act regulations.  While I support the rights of First Nations people to determine their own lives, I do not support them from being exempt from regulations that protect all of us (i.e., the environmental regulations they would be exempted from here).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 12, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philippians 4:1-9 and Exodus 32:1-14
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Once upon a time, a woman on a cruise met a man who claimed that he was an expert at guessing men’s professions.[1] Apparently this skill did not cross over to guessing women’s professions, but he claimed he could do it for men. Intrigued, the woman asked her new friend to prove he had this skill, and since the boat was filled with people neither of them knew, it seemed to be a good test population. The woman pointed to a man seated on a deckchair. “What’s his profession?”

“He’s a doctor,” the man said. They walked over to check and, sure enough, he was right.

“How did you know?’ she asked him.

“Notice the lines of caring on his forehead. I knew he was a man of great compassion.”

“How about that man over there?” she challenged, pointing to a man playing shuffle board.

“Oh, he’s a lawyer,” the man said confidently. They checked and, sure enough, he was right. “He seemed to have a scholarly and formal look despite the game he is playing, so I figured he’s a lawyer,” the man explained before he could be asked. “And that man over there by the railing,” he said confidently, “he’s a minister.”

They went over to check. “Are you a minister?” the woman asked him.

“No. No, I’m seasick.”

Christians in general and clergy in particular have a reputation in wider society of being far too serious, even dower – and hypocritical of course. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul suggests that we should live in such a way as to challenge that first reputation.

This letter is part of his prison correspondence, letters he wrote to Christian communities during his various incarcerations. This time he was imprisoned in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This was part of the Roman Empire, so he was imprisoned under Roman imperial authority. Earlier in the letter, he wrote about how he was imprisoned “for Christ” and “for defense of the gospel.” I take that to mean that he was imprisoned for proclaiming the good news of Jesus, the crucified and risen One, and I take the imprisonment to mean that the good new of Jesus was seen as a challenge to imperial rule, a challenge to the domination system. And, given that his imprisonment in Rome for the same reasons ended in his death, I assume that this imprisonment was not without risk.

In our reading from the letter today, Paul admonishes Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Many interpret this to mean that these two leaders of the church in Philippi were in conflict with each other, and that might be accurate. It is also possible that they were in conflict with Paul about something, or that the whole church was in conflict and these to women represented the opposing points of view. Whatever the particulars of the conflict and whoever it was that was in conflict, what is clear is that Paul has expounded on the power of the gospel being rooted in love, not violence (in contrast to Rome’s power). So, to have the mind of Christ is to choose God’s power of love over Rome’s power of domination.

Wall Street Bull (via news.com.au)

Consider for a moment what powers seek to claim you. Rome’s power of domination and violence certainly still tries to claim us. Ego, I know, tries to claim me, and I suspect I’m not alone. It’s been said, “When the center of the universe is discovered, there will be a lot of people who are disappointed to find out it’s not them.” Using lies, fantasy, and fear, commercials (whether for products or for politics) seek to claim us. The accumulation of wealth tries to claim us. There are golden calves of all sorts around us that want our worship, false gods that claim their power is the best power to have.

Paul says that as followers of Jesus, we should choose God’s power of love.

Paul’s call for unity in the phrase “be of the same mind” is not a call to conformity or submission. “The Greek phroneo means to exercise the mind … It is striking that in this story of powerful women, exercising the mind – together in Christ and with the support of companions – is the way of problem-solving.”[2] Community is central to this passage.

Paul is suffering in prison and the community in Philippi is suffering in conflict. And Paul says, “Get together. Be of the same mind. Support one another. And rejoice.” And not just “rejoice,” but “Rejoice always.” And just in case he wasn’t clear the first time, he repeats himself: “Again I will say, Rejoice.” Don’t live like you’re at the rail, seasick. Rejoice.

Now, Paul is not talking about some Pollyanna cheerfulness. Paul is calling upon the church in Philippi to a bold and courageous testimony to the power of Christ’s way, a way that pours itself out in love and in so doing transforms the world. (He talked about that in chapter 2.) To get there, he encourages the community at Philippi to focus on all that is just, pure, pleasing, excellent, and worthy of praise.

In fact, the word “rejoice” is in the plural in Greek.[3] “All y’all rejoice,” might be how Paul would have said it had he been from Texas. And even that might not capture it, because all y’all can still be separate, each of us doing it on our own. His call is for the church to rejoice together. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared in community. And I think Paul is right — and I suddenly understand one of my personal Facebook rules: If I literally laugh out loud at something someone else has posted, I share it, I repost it. I think, maybe, I do this because my joy isn’t complete unless I share that joy. Like I said, community is central to Paul’s message.

Now, if you’ll allow me a slight diversion, a quick poll: How many of you here today are in a marriage or had a marriage that lasted more than 30 years? I ask because you’ll be able to confirm or refute this theory of mine. I’m convinced that love is wonderful, but what really makes a marriage last is commitment. No matter how wonderful you mate is, he or she has done some things or has some habits or said some things or fails to do something that really grates. And I mean really grates – to the point of making that person pretty unlovable. And the reason you don’t toss in the towel is that you have a commitment to that person. And so you’ve found ways to put up with the grating habits, and to overlook the failures, and to forgive the hurts. Does that ring true to your experience? I see nodding heads.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul wrote. Except, of course, he wrote in Greek, and what we read is a translation, so that’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. A few scholars I read this week like the older Revised Standard Version’s translation better. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance.”

Rejoice in the Lord always. That’s not so easy when your spouse or your fellow community member is grating on your nerves. Forbearance makes it possible. It’s not easy when you’re in conflict. Forbearance makes it possible. Rejoicing always isn’t so easy when you’re facing some power of opposition. Forbearance makes it possible.

And rejoicing in the face of challenge, in the face of adversity is a subversive activity. “It overturns threatening situations and frustrates those with selfish plans. Tyrants in every age have feared it, because they do not understand its origin.… In situations of opposition, Paul perceives another actor God, whose gracious action is not self-evident. [Rejoicing] is not an escape from the pain of life; it is a reconsideration and reinvestment in life from a different liberating perspective.”[4]

I find this thought reassuring. A quick scroll through Google’s news page and it’s enough to leave one quite depressed. The protests in Ferguson continue, two months after the homicide of Michael Brown by a uniformed police officer. The Ebola crisis continues in western Africa, though the news stories might make you think the crisis was happening in America and western Europe. The war with ISIL continues. A major typhoon slammed into Japan on Saturday and another one hit the coast of India last night.

How does one rejoice in the midst of such pain and devastation? The answer, I think, is prayer. And I don’t just mean the technique of prayer. I’m talking about the act of being in relationship with God. When we practice an awareness of the presence of God, even in difficult situations, we let go of being our own savior, we let go of thinking that violence can save us, we let go of the need to accumulate, we let go of the golden calves that would have us worship them. When we practice an awareness of the presence of God, we are able to rejoice in the Lord always.

And perhaps it becomes like a feedback loop. I think is was Teilhard de Chardin who said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” When we are aware of the presence of God, we are able to rejoice. And when we rejoice, we are witness to the infallible sign of the presence of God.

There is always a danger in trivializing prayer. I’ve been told that Reinhold Niebuhr often quoted an agnostic friend who objected to the church, “not because of its dogmas but because of its trivialities,” by which he meant its “preoccupation with trivial concerns with the world hanging on the rim of disaster.”

Fred Craddock

There’s a story told about one of my preaching heroes, Fred Craddock, that illustrates what I mean.[5] It’s one of those stories that’s true even if it never happened. He was invited to attend a prayer meeting at a home in a wealthy suburb of Atlanta. The group shared their “weighty” prayer concerns — things like a date coming up on Friday night and the purchase of a new car. One man announced they had had 75 answered prayers since the group started meeting. Then one of them turned to Craddock and asked, “What do you think, Dr. Craddock?”

Craddock is a small man who speaks and preached in a gentle voice. I imagine him being more than reticent to criticize anyone’s praying But that night, he was offended by the reduction of God to what Paul Tillich called, “the Cosmic Bellhop.” He couldn’t help himself.  He said, “Do you mean to tell me when people are starving in Africa and the poor are suffering in India and parents in Latin America can’t sleep through the night wondering if the death squads will visit them, you folks are praying about dates and new cars?”

There is always a danger of trivializing prayer. But when prayer is about being in relationship with God, about the practice of being aware of the presence of God, it can transform us. And we will be able to rejoice always.

Amen.

[1] Based on a joke attributed to Bill Bouknight, that was included in an email from sermons.com dated 7 October 2014.

[2] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Euodia and Syntuche,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/euodia-and-syntyche (accessed 5 October 2014).

[3] Nathan Eddy, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 159.

[4] Ibid, p. 161.

[5] This story is attributed to Larry Bethune in a sermon titled “Friends in High Places” in that email from sermons.com cited earlier.

If you came by my house trick-or-treating last year, you know I gave away full-sized candy bars.  I admit it:  it’s fun to watch the eyes of 12-year-old boys (the boys tend to be more demonstrative, I’ve noticed) bug-out and a sighed “wow” as I had them a full-sized chocolate bar.

I’m not doing that this year.  Here’s why.

Chocolate is made from cacao, and 70% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, with 30% coming from Ivory Coast alone.  Big corporations purchase most of this cacao from intermediaries to make the chocolate bars and candy that you see in stores worldwide.

The story behind that supply chain is a grim one:  illegal child labor in West Africa is a problem that has plagued the chocolate industry for decades, with little improvement despite international pressure.

Without access to the market, many family-owned cacao farms rely on intermediaries to buy their crop, but these middlemen pay so little that many farmers struggle to get by.  Out of desperation, some turn to illegal child labor and enlist kids from their extended families or communities to work excessively long, hazardous days in the field – to an abusive extreme far beyond normal chores or help.

Equal-Exchange-logoThousands of other children are trafficked from Mali and Burkina Faso and sold to cacao farmers in the Ivory Coast.  These adolescents, desperate for work to help support their families, are deceived by traffickers who promise them good jobs.  Once over the border, far from home and their own languages, these children are also forced to work long days of dangerous labor with no access to education, proper nutrition or health care.  Most are unable to escape or seek help.

Despite this being a well-documented, ongoing crisis, we have seen little actual progress where it is needed most.  And it is this cacao, harvested by exploited children, that often ends up in mainstream chocolate.

I’ve decided to give out chocolate (mini-bars) from Equal Exchange because the Equal Exchange supply chain is different:  they work with small farmer co-operatives in Peru, Panama, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.  They have a close working relationship with our farmer partners and visit their co-ops often.  They’re invested in the well-being and success of the individuals, communities, and small businesses behind their chocolate.

Their chocolate costs a little more, but knowing that no child was exploited to bring this chocolate to my mouth and yours makes it taste just a little better.

And I think I’ll hand out an explanation about why the chocolate bars are smaller this year.

Several weeks ago, I preached on my struggles as a conscientious objector with how to respond to ISIL (also known as ISIS and Islamic State).  I also published a list of ways we can respond without going to war.

Ten days after my sermon, 65 religious leaders sent a letter to President Obama offering “some ‘just peace’ ways the United States and others can not only help save lives in Iraq and the region, but also begin to transform the conflict and break the cycle of violent intervention.”  I encourage you to read the letter and their list.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 5, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 21:33-46
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When the American Civil War ended, former slaves suddenly found themselves freed.  They also found that they had no capital and little if any education.  This left them unable to purchase land to start their own farms and unable to stabilize themselves sufficiently to start educating their children.

Many former slaves expected the federal government to give them some land as compensation for all the work they had done during the slavery era.[1]  “40 acres and a mule,” became the expectation.  In early 1865, Union General William T. Sherman granted some freed men 40 acres each of the abandoned land left in the wake of his army.  They also gave some freed men mules no longer needed by the Army.  No doubt this action encouraged the expectation of government intervention.

The compensation was far from universal.  “In 1870, only around 30,000 African Americans in the South owned land (usually small plots), compared with 4 million others who did not.”[2]  Some of those without land worked as laborers.  Others became sharecroppers.

Under sharecropping, a poor family would rent a small plot from a landowner, with the promise of paying the rent by means of a share of the crops when they came in.  “In many cases, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters, and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season.  At that time, the tenant and landlord or merchant would settle up, figuring out who owed whom and how much.

“High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over until the next year or the next.  Laws favoring landowners made it difficult or even illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to others besides their landlord, or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord.

Freed African-Americans were not the only poor to suffer under sharecropping.  “Approximately two-thirds of all sharecroppers were white, and one third were black.”[3]

Sharecropping in the United States falls under the category of “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  We encounter essentially the same system at work in the parable from today’s Gospel lesson.  In the story Jesus tells, a landowner plants a vineyard, builds a fence around it, adds a winepress and a watchtower, and leases it out to some sharecroppers.  And like a good absentee landlord, he disappears.

At harvest time, he sends his slaves to collect his share of the crop.  But the sharecroppers don’t want to pay.  So they beat one slave, kill another, and stone a third.  The landlord, tries again, and the next group of his slaves are treated the same way.  “They’ll respect my son,” the landlord says, and he sends his son to collect the rent.  The sharecroppers hatch a plot:  “Let’s kill off the son, the landlord’s heir, and then we’ll get his inheritance when the landlord dies.”  And so, they do.

Now I come from good Pilgrim and Puritan stock on my father’s side and good Swiss Reformed stock on my mother’s side.  I hear this story and I get a bit apoplectic.  “They what?!  They kill the slaves and then they kill the son?!”  And I’m right there with the chief priests and elders (to whom Matthew says Jesus is telling the story).  That landlord should throw those wretches out of the vineyard, have them thrown into jail, and find some respectful tenants.

And I can’t help but wonder how a newly freed African American who was now living as a sharecropper, living as a slave by another name, would have heard the story.  Might she have thought, “Damn right, kill the son.  This should be my 40 acres, and it should have come with a mule, too”?

Now, this parable is usually interpreted as an allegory.  The vineyard is a symbol of Israel, the landlord is God, the slaves are the prophets, and the son is Jesus.  And so the story culminates with God’s judgment on Israel for killing God’s son and the subsequent replacement of Israel by more suitable tenants, that is the gentile church.[4]

But we should beware of allegorizing this or any parable.  First of all, in this case, such a reading is very self-serving.  Not only that, it leads to anti-Semitism.  And allegorical readings of any parable tend to obscure the dynamics of the story itself.

It’s helpful to know your Hebrew Scriptures with this parable.  In chapter 5 of Isaiah we run into a vineyard, and it is a symbol for Israel.  There’s a problem in the vineyard, but it’s with the plants, not the farmers.  Domestic grapes were planted, but wild grapes are growing.  The problem, if you keep reading, is that exploitation has led to the bloodshed, symbolized by the wild grapes, instead of justice, symbolized by the domestic grapes.  All the world of preparing the vineyard are for naught, which leads the beloved (the one who established the vineyard) to remove the vineyard’s protections and allow it to be trampled, wasted, and abandoned.  The whole vineyard (Israel) suffers destruction for its failure to produce the fruit of justice.[5]

Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, recalling Isaiah’s vineyard, a vineyard that called people to justice.  The big difference is that in Jesus’ parable, the problem isn’t that the vineyard fails to produce fruit; it’s that the fruit that is produced isn’t given to the legal owner.  It is in that difference that Jesus describes the violent economic realities of his day.

You can’t even use a pyramid to diagram economic power in Jesus’ day – it has much too wide a middle.  Maybe something like a bud vase, something with a wide bottom and a long narrow neck.  Caesar was at the top of the neck, and under him where other elites, each one client to the one above and patron to the one below.  It’s a very narrow neck until you get to the base, and there you have the craftspeople, peasants, and slaves.  Sharecropping is just an example of how oppression was an important part of making the economic system work.

Jesus invites the chief priests and the elders to render a verdict of what the landlord should do after the tenants have killed his son.  The judgment they offer clarifies which characters they align themselves with.  The same could be said about the judgment I offer or you offer or my hypothetical freed slave offers.

I’m not surprised by the judgment offered by the religious elites.  “The chief priests and elders were themselves the wealthy landowners in first-century Judah, the beneficiaries of imperial economics and politics who used their power in the temple system to deprive subsistence farmers of their land.  So they identify with the landowner, not the tenants.  … Jesus asks them what they would do if they found themselves in the circumstances the parable describes, and they answer without hesitation: ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

“The parable is thus not just a lens on the economic realities of the day but also a mirror for the chief priests.”[6]

“What will the landlord do when he comes?” Jesus asks the chief priests.  We know how they answer Jesus.  But the question invites us to consider, too, “What will the landlord do?”

David Lose says that everybody in this story is pretty crazy.  First of all, there are the tenants.  Do they really think that killing the slaves will help them?  And what sort of harebrained scheme is killing the son?  “Why on earth do these guys think that they’re going to inherit the vineyard?  Oh, I know, it’s a legal possibility.  But it’s not like that landlord has disappeared.  He’s sent servants, and more servants, and then his son.  Who’s to say he doesn’t have another son, or more servants, or an army, or at least a gang of thugs at his disposal to take care of these tenants.  They’re crazy.”[7]

But then, so is the landlord.  “First he sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed.  Then he sends more – not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants – and the same thing happens again.  So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans?  It’s absolutely crazy.  Who would do such a thing?  No one … except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them.  This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman.  It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.”[8]

“When the parable is read as an allegory of God’s judgment against Israel, an implicit assumption is made that God would think and act like the Jewish elites.  This interpretation presumes that, in the end, God is more like the Jewish elites than like the agent of healing, redemption, and mercy that Jesus has been describing during his ministry.  Are the Jewish elites right about who God is?”[9]  I don’t think so.  This sure isn’t the God whom Jesus has shown me in his life and ministry.  So, what will the landlord do?

Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”  Then he says that this rejected stone will break open those who fall on it.  That’s what God’s love does sometimes.  When we fall onto it, or into it, it breaks us open.  And that can be threatening.  Because when we’re broken open by the love of God, we end up seeing the poor the way God sees them, and we end up seeing our enemies the way God sees them, and we end up with a passion for justice and mercy and forgiveness that’s like God’s.[10]

He’s what I think the landlord will do … or more accurately, what he did:  He sent a guy named Jesus, the one we call “God’s son,” to remind us of all the blessings God has given and how we should not hoard them for ourselves.  And we killed him.  So God raised him from the dead and sent him back to us, still bearing the message of God’s desperate, crazy love.

And what happens next?  That’s kind of up to the tenants.  That’s kind of up to you and me.

Amen.

[1] “Sharecropping,” History, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sharecropping (accessed 2 October 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “SLAVERY by Another Name,” Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/sharecropping/ (accessed 2 October 2014).

[4] Stan Saunders, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 1 October 2014, p. 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 17A – Crazy Love,” … In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-17a-crazy-love/ (posted 28 September 2014; accessed 29 September 2014).

[8] Ibid. [I did correct a typo:  “Who would do such a think?” became “Who would do such a thing?”]

[9] Saunders, op. cit.

[10] Shelley Douglass, “Seeing Ourselves,” Sojourners, http/sojo.net/preaching-the-word/seeing-ourselves (accessed 30 September 2014).

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