A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Jesus was a dangerous man to have around. He was not a terrorist. He was not a violent person. He did not carry a weapon. But he certainly was a revolutionary.

He challenged societal values. He exposed hypocrisy. He degraded the rich and elevated the poor. He stripped religious leaders of their pomposity. In short, he demonstrated to the world what God was really like and the world didn’t like that very much.

As might be expected, Jesus was adored by some, and hated by most. The majority, or at least the people in power, wanted him dead. He was too great a threat to have around. What if his radical views should become a way of life?! That would so upset the status quo that life would never be the same.

So get rid of him!

And they did. The political and religious leaders got together and arranged for a Roman execution, the torturous death of crucifixion. Followers and Roman soldiers watched him die. Once he was dead, his followers buried him in a tomb carved out of solid rock. And a big stone was rolled in front of the entrance of the tomb.

Jesus was dead. End of story.


Or so the political and religious leaders hoped.

But God had a different idea. God rolled the stone away and resurrected Jesus the Christ.

Now, it’s important to remember that this is not an account of resuscitation. When someone is resuscitated, they are still flesh and blood. And they will still die. No, resurrection is something different. Jesus was there. But the seeming final defeat of death held no hold over him anymore. New life. No more death. God rolled away the stone and brought forth new life.

Millard Fuller (l) and Clarence Jordan (r).

Some of you may have heard of Clarence Jordan. He was a Christian civil-rights crusader and is perhaps best known as the author of “The Cotton-Patch Gospel.” In the 1960s Jordan, a white pastor, founded an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms. He challenged societal values. He exposed hypocrisy. He degraded the rich and elevated the poor. (In other words, he acted in a Christ-like manner.) As a result, he was shunned by the culture around him. Threats were made to his life, but he persevered.

In 1969, Clarence Jordan died of a heart attack. Not one of the local funeral directors was willing to help with his funeral – either out of prejudice or fear of violence – so he ended up being buried in a plain cedar box on a hillside near his farm. Jordan’s friend, Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at the funeral. When everything had been said, and nearly everything done, it was time to lower the casket into the ground. Just as this was happening, Fuller’s two-year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing. She sang the only song she knew: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Clarence, happy birthday to you.”

As Fuller later told the tale, it seemed to everyone there that God was somehow behind that innocent child’s song, for what they had all been celebrating that day, on that Georgia hillside, was not a death after all, but a wonderful, glorious rebirth.[1] That’s what the resurrection is all about: new life coming out of death.

And it’s more than this. You see, God’s resurrection plan doesn’t stop at overcoming mortal death.

The story is told about the old flower lady.[2] She could be found most days in her usual spot – an archway near the entrance to the Cathedral. At her feet one would find an assortment of corsages and boutonnieres neatly laid out on some newspaper. She was dressed – well – shabbily and she seemed to be very old. Yet she always seemed to have a smile on her wrinkled old face. She was alive with some inner joy.

One Sunday morning a woman named Cindy left the Cathedral, noticed the flower lady and, on an impulse, decided to pick out a flower. As she put it in her lapel, she said, “You look happy.”

“Why not?” the flower lady answered. “Everything is good.”

Given her dress and age, this response surprised Cindy. “You’ve been sitting here for many years now, haven’t you?” said Cindy. “And you’re always smiling. You wear your troubles well.”

“You can’t reach my age and not have troubles,” the flower lady replied. “Only it’s like Jesus and Good Friday …”

She paused for a moment. Confused, Cindy urge the flower lady on. “Yes?”

“Well, when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, that was the worst day for the whole world. When I get troubles I remember that, and then I think of what happened only three days later – Easter – our Lord rose from the dead. So when things go wrong, I’ve learned to wait three days and somehow everything gets much better.”

That’s God’s resurrection plans for before our deaths. When we have troubles,

when our lives are stuck for whatever the reason, God wants to work with us to bring forth new life. I can’t guarantee that God will always take care of your troubles in three days, but that it God’s plan: to bring forth new life.

A deeply spiritual movie that I love is “Chocolat” – in came out about 15 years ago. It’s set in a little French village in 1959. This village is governed by a philophy of “tranquilité.” In this town, you know what is expected of you and where your place is. If you happen to forget, someone would remind you. They trust in the wisdom of ages past, including tradition, family, and morality.

The Mayor is the self-appointed guardian of the town. He writes the preacher’s sermons, guides the townspeople in their moral decisions, and overall, tries to maintain the status quo, to maintain this tranquilité at all costs.

Into this town sweeps a vibrant, young woman named Vianne who is anything but traditional. She does nothing by the any book (except her cookbook). She does not go to church, she has a daughter without a father present, and she has the gall to open a chocolate shop in the middle of Lent.

Her shop and her grace unexpectedly transform the town and its people. A wounded woman finds the courage to escape her abusive husband. A grandmother renews a broken relationship with family members. Even the mayor, after an intense Easter Saturday conversion experience, is described as “strangely released.”

If a young woman selling chocolate can make that much of a difference (albeit in a fictional town) – mending family relationships, breaking the chains of abusive situations, opening hearts for love – imagine what God can do. God wants to roll away the stones and bring forth new life.

The passage we heard from the gospel of John this morning has both types of resurrection stories in it. Mary comes to the tomb and finds it empty. Jesus’ body isn’t there and she jumps to the (logical) conclusion that the body has been stolen. When Peter and the unnamed disciple get there, they discover evidence that the body wasn’t hastily removed; the burial clothes have been neatly folded. But they still don’t understand that Jesus is no longer dead. Meanwhile, we know that’s where the big story is going.

The boys go home and leave Mary alone and we get a glimpse of at both the big resurrection story and the little one. We learn that the grave could not hold the crucified Christ – the life after this life resurrection story. And we learn how little resurrections happen in our lives, now, too.

Standing there, Mary runs into someone she doesn’t recognize. But why would she recognize who he is? She knows Jesus was killed and that’s the last word on the matter. She still assumes that Jesus’ body has been removed, so she asks the stranger (she assumes he’s the gardener) if he’s the one who took the body.

When the stranger calls her by name, she recognizes that she is in the presence of the resurrected Christ. The story implies that she reaches out to him. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Mary’s reaction is completely understandable. Her friend, her rabbi, the one she called “Lord” was dead, killed by the government. She was in deep grief. And when she caught a glimpse of a way out of her grief, she reached for it. I can hear her subconscious saying, “I can hold on to the way things were if I can just hold on to him.”

But the resurrected Christ says, “Don’t hold on to me.” Giotto’s fresco reproduced on the cover of your bulletin shows this scene. Jesus is pulling away. He’s pulling away so hard he’s almost pulling himself out of the frame of the picture.

Holding on to the past feels like it makes sense, especially when we are grieving. There is comfort in knowing what was. And anxiety is a normal response to change. But letting go is necessary if we’re going to experience God’s resurrection in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t stop at what Mary should not do. He tells her not to hold on to him and he tells her to go start spreading the news of the resurrection. “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” God is doing something new in your life, Mary, if you just let go of the past.

It is so easy to live in the past. The slight and the fight with the mate or the family member or the friend was last week, but we still hold on to it, living in that moment, not this one. The ending – of a job, a relationship, whatever – came two years ago, but we still hold on to it, living in that moment, not this one. Whether the loss is coming or it’s already been experienced, we hold on to the past to soothe the pain.

Perhaps more than anything else, fear keeps us from letting go. We fear change and hold on to the way things are. We fear that someone will find out who we really are and we hold on to the façade we’ve built to hide behind. We fear no one will ever know who we really are and we hold on to a loneliness we learned years ago. We fear death and we even fear new life.

Resurrection requires letting go. When we insist on complete control over our own lives, when we try to control our circumstances, our relationships, our futures, Jesus calls us to let go. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection teach us that it is when we have no control over our lives that resurrection becomes possible.

You see, resurrection requires death. It needs sinking down into God and crying out, “Why have you abandoned me?” It needs tear-shedding and truth-telling about that which is already dead in our lives. Resurrection blossoms in us when we are unable to help or fix or change things and instead let go, opening our hands and hearts praying “Thy will be done.”

And God wants this so much for us.[3]

[1] I don’t remember where I gleaned this story from. It’s one of those items that I found in a file of ideas for Easter sermons I’ve collected over the years.

[2] Another story from that file of Easter sermon ideas.

[3] The concluding paragraphs are based on writings by the Rev. Deborah Howland, a UCC Pastor who was serving in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area when I added this to my file of not well-cited sermon ideas for Easter.

A sermon preached at Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
at the sunrise service
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a holy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. On Wednesday, the teachers, students, and parents gathered in the elementary school lunchroom for the annual Victorian Tea. I think they should hold it on a Thursday so it can be billed as a Throwback Thursday event. But it’s always held on the Wednesday before spring break. I think that’s because spring break almost always is the week after Easter, that would put the Victorian Tea on Maundy Thursday, and there are enough families and teachers who attend Maundy Thursday services … So, the Victoria Tea has always been held on a Wednesday.

I don’t think it will be as much fun next year as it’s been since it started, next year after Ginny Spinola retires. Each year I’ve been amused by how seriously Ginny takes the Tea. Since the very first year it was held, she has made sure everyone in her fifth grade class dresses up for the event. Boys in shoes that pinch their toes and neckties, even though they can’t keep their shirts tucked in. Girls in spring dresses and ribbons in their hair, some even wearing white gloves. It didn’t take long for the parents and the lower grades to follow suit, and now it reminds me of what church looked like in my childhood on Easter.

There is something that happens to us when we get dressed up. The tradition of getting new clothes for Easter actually has roots in the early church. Baptisms were celebrated during the Great Easter Vigil. Those who had spend Lent preparing for baptism would step into the waters of baptism as naked as the day they were born.[1] When they emerged from the waters, they were given a new robe, new clothing to symbolize their rebirth as a new creation.

Baptism is a reenactment of the Easter miracle. We die to our old selves, are buried in the waters with Jesus, and we rise to new life with Jesus, transformed, a new creation.

Dylan Manetti witnessed a transformation this week.[2] The prison guards at the State Prison know Dylan not just as a lawyer, but also as a spiritual person, so they asked him to try to get through to a depressed convict. Dylan simply sat with the prisoner and told him that he believed with all his heart that God already dwelled in this prisoner’s heart. That was all – no sermon, no extensive prayers. The prisoner began to weep.

Dylan understood what this prisoner did not understand: that his life was already in Christ. Perhaps his life was so deeply hidden beneath all kinds of mistakes, crimes, and sins that few could see this truth either, including the prisoner himself. But Dylan saw it and he revealed the great mystery of God’s love and the prisoner was overcome by a glimpse of it.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is a contemporary setting of an ancient hymn of the church, O magnum mysterium.[3] The translation begins, “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!”[4] The mystery of Jesus is not just that farm animals were the first to see him. The mystery of Jesus is the depth of love his life and death and resurrection reveal, a love that embraces even the people our society throws away – and that embraces even us.

The youth group at Mount William Congregational Church had a discussion about the expansiveness of God’s love last Sunday. Somehow the conversation drifted and one of the kids started talking about efforts to criminalize homelessness, something about anti-sitting laws and rules that say you can’t hand out food on the street. Some of the kids got pretty heated and the next thing the youth group leaders knew, a group of the youth were planning on going in to Concord sometime during spring break to hand out food. They decided they didn’t care if it’s illegal. If people are hungry, we should feed them.

Poor Sally and Jim. This was not the youth group meeting they had planned, but they knew they were witnessing something special. There was a passion in these kids’ hearts, something different, something transformative. But what should they do about it? They decided to talk with Howard Friend, the minister at Mount William Congregational Church, about it, but it was a particularly busy week for him. Not just because it was Holy Week and he was preparing for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services, but he was also spending a lot of time at the hospital with Sheila Peck.

Sheila[5] was a Congregational minister and, when the Congregationalists merged into the United Church of Christ, she became a UCC minister. She retired 21 years ago, moved to Mount William to be near her grandchildren, and joined the Congregational Church. Three years ago, she started to disappear into the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

This past week, she was not wearing the black Geneva robe she wore for decades during Holy Week. This past week, she wore a blue hospital gown. Rev. Friend was there every day this week. She had been a friend, a sort of mentor who didn’t muddle, when Howard arrived in Mount William and started his ministry, so he went every day to the hospital. And on Thursday, after the Maundy Thursday service, he headed back. He kept vigil with the family that night. The end was very near.

Howard has been with people when they’ve died before. This time it was different. This time he was there for the duration, and with that much time, he didn’t know what to do, so he and the family started reading Psalms.

He wasn’t sure which Psalms to read. Psalm 118 might have been a terrific choice. It celebrates God’s victory over death, calling us to celebrate the steadfast love of God and to rejoice in the day that the Lord has made. But maybe she needed a psalm of lament, such as Psalm 22. “My tongue clings to my jaws” – how often had the family moistened her parched lips with a sponge? Or a Psalm of confession, since she knew she depended in life and in death on God’s mercy.

They decided to read through the Psalm. They trusted that God’s Spirit would be at work as needed and that the fullness of Sheila’s life with God – joy, lament, confession, and all – had not been defeated by tangles and plaques in her brain.

They were long past Psalm 23 when Sheila stepped into the valley of the shadow of death. Rev. Friend and the Peck family watched as she made her transition from this life to the one to come. Just before she died, Sheila opened her eyes and seemed to be staring off into space. But Howard was certain that she was seeing something that the rest of them could not see.

When Howard got home to get some rest he found himself wanting Sheila to be there to tell him what she saw. But she can’t be there, so she won’t tell anyone anything.

One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is its abrupt ending. The angel tells the women who’ve come to the tomb that Jesus has been resurrected and that they should go tell the other disciples. But they “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I can’t help wondering if Howard will end up telling others what he saw in Sheila’s eyes in the early hours of Friday morning. I wonder if Sally and Jim will tell Howard or the parents about what they witnessed in the youth group meeting – not so much about the plans the youth made but about transformation they witnessed in the lives of the youth. And I wonder if Dylan Manetti will ever tell anyone about the transformation he witnessed at the State Prison.

“Bright is the day that dawns with new life, casting death’s grim shadow from the garden. Bright is the future for even the most humble soul, rising up in the arms of angels. Bright is the promise to all the Earth, sharing peace among the children of light. Let every voice sing this shining song, for we have been set free, we have been ransomed from our own history, given a chance to live again, to hope again, and to see the healing of God spread like sunlight into the rooms of time.”[6]

The resurrection, it seems to me, is happening all around us. Will we notice it? And if we notice it, will we tell the good news about it?

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, were all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] See, for instance, http://nudebaptisminearlychristianity.blogspot.com.

[2] This character and exchange with the prisoner is based on a story told by David Keck, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century 16 April 2014, 20.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7ch7uottHU&feature=kp.

[4] Translation from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Magnum_Mysterium.

[5] This story of Sheila’s dying is adapted from a story told by David Keck, op. cit.

[6] Bishop Steven Charleston, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5/posts/10204044984111911 (19 April 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 6, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Genesis 28:10-18a & Luke 10:38-42
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today, we conclude our sermon series on spiritual practices. We’ve looked at a spiritual practice that is natural for each of the four basic spiritual types. If you are someone for whom creating justice is important, service (especially if combined with reflection on that service) can further your spiritual pilgrimage. If you are someone for whom the felt sense of words is important, singing your prayers can further your spiritual pilgrimage. If you are someone for whom the meaning of words is important, creating some sort of practice of daily prayer can further your spiritual pilgrimage. If you are someone for whom feeling the Divine in stillness is important, creating a practice of meditation can further your spiritual pilgrimage.

Today, we turn to a family of spiritual practices that can be beneficial for all four spiritual types because this family of practices help transform all of life into the spiritual pilgrimage. I take the name for today’s sermon from a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, and I quote liberally from the book. If you want to see where, you can check out the manuscript once it’s online.

Girl In the Kitchen preparing food – Velazquez 1618. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660).

Our gospel lesson is one of the more familiar stories from Luke’s gospel. Jesus was visiting two sisters, Mary and Martha, and Mary was hanging out with Jesus, listening very intently to what he had to say. Martha, to quote the NRSV translation, “was distracted by her many tasks.” There’s stuff to get done, Jesus, and Mary has left it all for me to do. Tell my sister to help me out here.

If you think about these two women, you might label Mary as “the spiritual one.” In this instance, I’d say you’re right. But not because Mary was listening to what Jesus had to say. Martha’s work could have been just as spiritual a practice as Mary’s, but it failed to be because Martha was “distracted” by it.

Barbara Brown Taylor invites us to make all of life a spiritual practice.

People will travel great distances to find connection with the Divine. “The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have? How could something as common as a toothache be a door to greater life?”[1] Perhaps there is a spiritual treasure right under our feet.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a woman about religion and philosophy. I shared how the distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul are false distinctions. In fact, I would argue (with Taylor) that there is no better way to God apart from becoming more fully human, apart from real life in the real world.[2] Because there is no better way to God apart from becoming more fully human, apart from real life in the real world, Taylor suggest that we build “… altars in the world – [in the] ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”[3] And then she explores twelve practices that help us do exactly that.

She has a chapter on groundedness – the practice of walking on the earth. She writes about wilderness – the practice of getting lost; about community – the practice of encountering others; about on vocation – the practice of living with purpose; about physical labor – the practice of carrying water; about breakthrough – the practice of feeling pain; about prayer – the practice of being present to God.

I’ve planned three exercises for you to pick from if you decide to participate in the “tasting” following worship, so I’ll talk a little bit more about these three.

Reverence is the practice of paying attention. “Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said that he could not define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Reverence is like that. It is difficult to define, but you know it when you feel it.”[4]

If you have a cup of coffee at coffee hour, take a moment to look at the cup and the coffee. Think about what it took to make the cup – the resources and the people involved. Think about what it took to get the cup from the factory to your hand – the people and machinery. Think about the coffee itself – the farmers that grew the beans, the people who roasted and ground and packaged and shipped the coffee. Think about the water that was used to brew the coffee – where it came from and how it got here. Paying this type of attention is practicing reverence.

Incarnation is the practice of wearing skin. Taylor suggests that one way to practice wearing skin is to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror. We won’t be trying this at the tasting after worship. But if we believe that God really loves flesh and blood, no matter what shape it’s in …

“To hold a sleeping child in your arms can teach you more about the meaning of life than any ten books on the subject.”[5] And you can’t get much more incarnational than what Jesus did at the last supper: he washed feet and ate. And then he said, “Do this” – not ‘believe this,’ ‘do this’ – “in memory of me.”

“Do we dismiss the body’s wisdom because it does not use words? The practice of wearing skin is so obvious that almost no one engages it as spiritual practice, yet here is a place to begin: With tears, aches, moans, gooseflesh, heat. The body knows – not just the individual body, but the cathedral we make when we bend our bodies together over one as good as dead. Doing that, we act out the one thing we know for sure: it is God’s will that these bones live.”[6]

Sabbath is the practice of saying “no.” According to Meister Eckhart, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.”

If you read Genesis, you will find that the Sabbath day was set aside as a time for sacred rest before the Ten Commandments were handed down. Later, the tradition added all sorts of regulations to how to keep the Sabbath as a day of sacred rest. Yes, striking a match is making a fire and is therefore work, so don’t strike a match on the Sabbath. As extreme as I might find these rules, their real purpose is to assist me and all the faithful in saying “no.” No, I’m not going to do that on this day, because this is a day of sacred rest. If we extend the practice of saying “no” into daily life, we are living the Sabbath idea. You are making space for God.

The first spiritual practice Taylor explores in her book is vision – the practice of waking up to God. While she insists that there really is no order to these practices for creating altars in the world, I think vision was a good place to start.

The Jacob’s Dream – Marc Chagall

The scripture reading from Genesis tells the story of Jacob’s dream of angels descending and ascending a ladder between heaven and earth. “There he was, still a young man, running away from home because his whole screwy family had finally imploded. His father was dying. He and his twin brother, Esau had both wanted their father’s blessing. Jacob’s mother had colluded with him to get it, and though his scheme worked, it enraged his brother to the point that Jacob fled for his life. He and his brother were not identical twins. Esau could have squashed him like a bug. So Jacob left with little more than the clothes on his back, and when he had walked as far as he could, he looked around for a stone he could use for a pillow.”[7]

That’s where he had the dream. And in the midst of this vision of angels, “all of a sudden, God was there beside Jacob, without a single trumpet for warning, promising him safety, children, land. ‘Remember, I am with you,” God said to him. ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’

“Jacob woke while God’s breath was still stirring the air, although he saw nothing out of the ordinary around him: same wilderness, same rocks, same sand. If someone had held a mirror in front of his face, Jacob would not have seen anything different there either, except for the circles of surprise in his eyes. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place,’ he sad out loud, ‘– and I did not know it!’ Shaken by what he had seen, he could not seem to stop talking. ‘How awesome is this place!’ he went on. ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[8]

Then Jacob took his pillow stone and erected it quite literally as an altar in the world. He had, in that place at least, awoken to God.

Since the spiritual practice of vision is waking up to the presence of God and God is everywhere, the spiritual practice of vision is waking up to the reality of God everywhere. Francis of Assisi was an expert, or a natural, or both, at seeing the Holy all round him. He had vision. He had awoken to God. And he saw God in everything. And he saw everything praising God. And so we call him a saint.

How do we develop vision? “If there is a switch to flip, I have not found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did nothing to make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away, namely: 1) I can figure that I have had too much caffeine again; 2) I can remind myself that visions are not true in the same way that taxes and the evening news are true; or 3) I can return my attention to everything I need to get done today. These are only a few of the things I can do to talk myself out of living in the House of God.

“Or I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is. I can flag one more gate to heaven – one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it – where the divine traffic is heavy when I notice it and even when I do not.

I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to whatever I am due next.

“… Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. Jacob’s nowhere, about which he knew nothing, turned out to be the House of God. Even though his family had imploded, even though he had made his brother angry enough to kill him, even though he was a scoundrel from the word go – God decided to visit Jacob right where he was, though Jacob had not been right about anything so far and never would be. God gave Jacob a vision, so Jacob could see the angels going up and down from earth to heaven, going about their business in the one and only world there is.

“The vision showed Jacob something he did not know. He slept in the House of God. He woke at the gate of heaven. None of this was his doing. The only thing he did right was to see where he was and say so. Then he turned his pillow into an altar before he set off, praising the God who had come to him where he was.”[9]

May we all develop a deeper sense of vision, waking up to the presence of God. May we all create altars in the world. Amen.


[What follows is the benediction I offered at the service.]

The last practice Barbara Brown Taylor writes about in her book is benediction – the practice of pronouncing blessings. I’ve witnessed people practicing this on BART and in the coffee shop. When someone sneezes, a half dozen people will say, “Bless you.” There are so many other ways you can practice benediction.

In this moment, I invite you to receive a benediction: Blessed are you for being you. Blessed are you for sharing love in the world. And blessed are you, Lord God, for using these people to bless the earth.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), xvi.

[2] Ibid, xvii.

[3] Ibid, xix.

[4] Ibid, 20.

[5] Ibid, 43.

[6] Ibid, 51.

[7] Ibid, 2-3.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Ibid, 14-16.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:1, 5-15
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A minister died and, resplendent in his clerical collar, Geneva robe and colorful stole, waited in line at the Pearly Gates.  Just ahead of him was a guy dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans.  Saint Peter addressed the guy in the leather jacket, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?”

The guy replied, “I’m Josh Cohen, a cabbie from Boston.”

Saint Peter consulted his list, smiled and said to the taxi-driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff, and enter into the Kingdom.”  So the taxi-driver entered Heaven with his robe and staff.

The minister, next in line, without being asked, announced, “I am Michael Kenney, head pastor of Saint Paul’s for the last twenty-three years.”

Saint Peter consulted his list and says, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Just a minute,” said the preacher, “that man was a taxi-driver, and you issued him a silken robe and golden staff.  But I get wood and cotton.  How can this be?”

“Up here, we go by results,” says Saint Peter. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”[1]

We heard the section from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus teaches about prayer.  He includes an example of how to pray, a prayer that we know as “the Lord’s Prayer.”  Luke also includes a version of this prayer in his gospel.  There are differences in the content, but more interestingly, at least for today’s sermon, is the difference in the context.

In Matthew’s version, Jesus is teaching and turns his attention to almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  In Luke’s version, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  We assume these were all good Jewish men who would have been praying since they could talk.  And yet they ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  You may have been praying your whole life and you are still learning.  Any music teacher will tell you:  practice does not make perfect.  Practice makes better.

The advice Jesus’ gives about prayer in Matthew’s gospel is against being showy in your spiritual practices.  Whether it’s almsgiving, fasting, or praying, he encourages us to practice for the sake of the practice.  Don’t use it to impress others, he says.  Is it hyperbole when he says to pray in secret?  I think to an extent it is.  Yes, he’s encouraging personal prayer time.  And he’s encouraging us not to pray to impress or brag.  But I think he’s okay with us praying together in worship.

It is a relief that he says not to worry about the words we use.  Keep it simple, Jesus seems to be saying.  Just talk to God.  Whether it’s here in worship or at home or in the car or any other place you’re on your own, just say it.
God, thank you for …
God, I’m concerned about …
God I’m afraid because …
God, I praise you for …
God, I’m sorry about …
God, I’m hurting because …
Just say it.

And I think that’s a great place to begin.  But it’s only the beginning of learning to pray.  And we’re all still learning.

The story is told of St. Sarapion the Sindonite, a Desert Father of fourth-century Egypt.  “He ‘traveled once on pilgrimage to Rome.  Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out.  Sceptical (sic) about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked: “Why are you sitting here?”  To this she replied: “I am not sitting.  I am on a journey.”’”[2]

We are all on a journey.  We are all on a spiritual pilgrimage, whether we realize it or not.  For me, one of the purposes of prayer, or really of any spiritual practice, is to help me realize that I am on a spiritual pilgrimage, and to help move that pilgrimage, and to deepen that pilgrimage.

We are also all different; that’s something we have in common.  The truth is that different personality types, different spiritual types will find different spiritual practices more challenging than others, just as we will find different spiritual practices more fruitful in deepening our journeys into the heart of God.  That is why we are looking at different spiritual practices in this sermon series.  Some will resonate with you; others won’t.

One way of looking[3] at the differences is to consider two axes.  Perhaps it’s the former math teacher in me, but imagine a graph, and x-y plane.  One line, say the horizontal line, can represent a scale of how important words or silence are for your spirituality.  The other line, say the vertical line, can represent a scale of how important thinking or feelings are for your spirituality.

So, you might be someone for whom thinking about the realities of the world are important, but you don’t need to talk about it.  You want to act.  So service is an important spiritual practice for you.  That’s what we talked about two weeks ago.

Or you might be someone for whom feeling a poem or a song is important, and so you might really be nourished by a Taizé-style worship service.  That’s what we experienced last week.

Or you might be someone for whom words and thinking are very important, and so spoken prayers and devotional reading may be important spiritual practices for you.  That’s what I’m talking about today.

Or you could be someone for whom stillness and feeling are very important, and so meditation may be an important practice for you.  That’s what Pastor Brenda will be talking about next week.

In all of these spiritual practices, for every spiritual type or approach, needs gifts from the other spiritual approaches.  We all need:
silence, if our words are to mean anything
reflection, if our actions are to have any significance;
contemplation, if we are to see the world as it really is;
prayer, if we are going to be conscious of God, if we are to “know God and enjoy God forever.”[4]

One of the beauties of being in Taizé for a week was how easy it became to pray.  The community was called together three times a day for prayer.    In addition, there were early morning eucharist services one could chose to participate in.  The structure for the rest of the day was quite simple:  Bible study in the morning, some brief work project in the afternoon, and the rest of the afternoon and evening for reflection, reading, taking a walk, etc.  There was no distraction from the internet, so I couldn’t do any work (even answering emails) long distance.  There were no household chores that needed attention; my house was 5,000 miles away.  There were no English language newspapers to haunt me with the latest world crisis (at least none that I found).  So I found myself engaging in one from of prayer or another – reading and journaling and being – even when the community was not gathered in the church building.

When I returned from sabbatical I so wanted to keep the slower pace I had learned to love, a pace where there was plenty of room for God.  But life rushed in to fill what it perceived was a vacuum.  Carving out space for God became, again, an effort.

But carving out that space is important to our spiritual pilgrimages.  Making space in our schedules and in our hearts for God is the only way to grow in that relationship.  And that’s what the spiritual practice I’m talking about today really comes down to.

Creating a space for a daily devotional is a particular gift of Protestant spirituality to the rest of Christianity.  There is even a comic strip that has come out of the practice.  The strip, “Coffee with Jesus,”[5] got its name from how some people see their daily devotional time – as sitting down with Jesus for a morning cup of coffee, and having a chat.  Other people use daily emails to prompt their daily prayer time.  Some use books.  Some use booklets that are published monthly or quarterly.  I’ll have examples of these at the “tasting” following worship today.

The thing that all these tend to have in common is a piece of scripture (often a single verse), a written reflection of some sort, and a prayer or a prayer prompt.  Some people add journaling to this daily practice.

Sometimes, the daily devotional guides will include a time for intercessory prayer.  Intercessory prayer is prayer offered on behalf of others.  It happens any time we pray, any time we intercede on behalf of someone else or some situation outside ourselves.  It is a type of prayer that can be challenging, for scripture tells us both to tell God what we want and not to treat God like a cosmic bellhop.

So I’ve come to see that intercessory prayer is not about changing God’s heart and mind for another person; it’s about joining with God’s desires for another person.  When we ask God for a specific outcome for someone or some situation, we are sort of saying that we are smarter than God when it comes to what outcomes would be best.  So, instead, I generally do intercessory prayer by simply holding someone in God’s embrace.  Sometimes I visualize this.  Or I’ll use words like, “God, I place ____ in the care of your unending love.”

Another form of daily prayer that I think is worth mentioning dates back to the early 16th century.  St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested a daily prayer called the examen.  A friend and colleague, John Mabry,[6] has adapted and modernized it into these five steps:

  1. Review the day – noticing what leaps out at you, what and when feels emotionally charged, and especially what and when God felt either close or far away.
  2. Give thanks – praise God for those events of the day that brought you pleasure, joy, or satisfaction.  Give thanks, especially for moments of spiritual insight or intimacy.
  3. Express remorse – Hold before God those things you are not proud of, the things you said or did that you shouldn’t have, and the things you didn’t say or didn’t do that you should have.
  4. Ask for forgiveness – Ask God to forgive you for those things you feel remorseful about.  Also ask for forgiveness for not noticing or appreciating the gifts in your life.
  5. Ask for grace – Ask God to help you do better tomorrow, to be more mindful of God’s presence in everyone and everything, to notice when the Spirit is speaking and leading.

If a daily devotional is a good way to being the day, the daily examen is a good way to end each day.

Creating some sort of daily prayer practice is good for many reasons.  It will deepen your relationship with God.  It will nurture your spiritual pilgrimage.  It will help you reflect on other spiritual practices you engage it.  It will help you turn over you day, even your life, to the will of God.

I’ve been told that C.S. Lewis once said, “Every morning I turn my life over to God, and by the time I finish shaving I’ve taken it back.”  If he didn’t say it, well someone else did.  And I totally get the sentiment.

Finding some form of daily devotional can help us lengthen the time we let God be God in our lives.  And what a gift that is.



[1] There are lots of versions of this joke floating around.  This one is tweaked a bit from a version I found at http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/taxi_driver_made_them_pray_joke (22 March 2014).

[2] Don Postema, Space for God (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1983) 9; quoting Fr Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p 7.

[3] This is based on Corinne Ware, Discovery Your Spiritual Type.  I was unable to find my copy of the book to get the full credit information.  This also means my representation of her work is from my memory.

[4] Don Postema, op. cit., 16.

[5] See the photos on the Radio Free Babylon Facebook page, www.facebook.com/RadioFreeBabylon.

I once encountered the demonstrators from the Westboro “Baptist Church.” They were demonstrating outside the joint General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I guess they didn’t like the expression of extravagant welcome that my denominations were (and are) expressing.
I was lucky enough to be taught how they funded their demonstrations. We all know their signs spout all sorts of vile things. So does their yelling. They do this to get under the skin of people they’re demonstrating against. They try to get people so upset that they engage in the shout match, hoping they will eventually touch the WBC demonstrators. Then they sue for battery. The suit is small enough that insurance companies settle for a few thousand dollars.
I learned that the beat way to deal with this extended family of hate is to ignore them.
News is breaking that WBC founder Fred Phelps has died. I think the same response is appropriate. Let’s just ignore it.

An introduction to the worship service held at
Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Because, as you will see, the service today didn’t have a “sermon,” there is no sermon to post.  Instead, we post this manuscript of the introduction and explanation of the service the community was about to experience.

In 2010, I took a 3-month sabbatical.  The focus on the sabbatical was “sacred space.”  I went to some places that have been sacred space for me.  I went to some places and was surprised to discover a sense of sacred space there.  And I went to some places I had long hoped to go to, thinking they might be sacred space for me.

Two of the places I had long to go to were in France:  Chartres and the Taizé community.  Chartres has an amazing cathedral that dates back to the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Taizé is an ecumenical community of monks – Catholics and Protestants – that focuses on being a place of prayer for teens and 20-somethings.  Being over 30, I had to apply for permission to visit.

I know some of you have experienced worship that utilizes Taizé music.  The worship might have been called “a Taizé service.”  It wasn’t – unless it was held three times a day while living in community.  There is no way to truly duplicate the experience of worshiping in Taizé with the brothers.  Instead, a service can use the form and the music from Taizé, and that’s what we’re going to do today.

The center of life at Taizé is prayer offered in worship.  Three times a day, the brothers and the visitors (in the summers, there can be thousands of visitors) gather in the church to pray.  Bells call the community together.  People enter the church in silence.

When the ringing of the bells fades away, a number lights up on a display like you’d see in a deli – “Now serving number 137.”  The monks, seated in the center of the sanctuary, and the visitors seated on the floor, turn to the song the number denotes in songbooks.  The monks start singing and the visitors join in.

Because the community is ecumenical and international, many of the songs are in Latin – that way no one’s language or tradition is favored.  The songs are usually just a couple lines long and are repeated and repeated.  The idea is that the singing goes on long enough for everyone to feel comfortable with the tune and lyrics, and then to be able to sing it without needing to think about it, and then to sing it a few more times.  This way, the song becomes a prayer that is not only thought, but is also felt and embodied.  The song ends and a new number shows up and a new song begins.

In addition to the singing, the community worships in other ways.  A prayer might be chanted by one of the monks over humming and a sung response.  The Eucharist is shared daily.  Scripture is read, typically in two or three languages.  It is followed by a song and a long period of silence.  That silence is – or at least it was for me – the sermon.  I used the silence as an opportunity to meditate on the scripture reading, to listen for a word from the stillspeaking God.

When I started my week at Taizé, I found myself thinking, “What? We’re worshiping again already?”  And I found the silence long and even a little uncomfortable.  Just to give you a warning, our silence today will last about 10 minutes.

By the end of the week, I was really enjoying this way of praying and the silence didn’t always seem long enough.  On the afternoon of my second-to-last day at Taizé, I actually looked at my watch and though, “I have to wait how much longer until we pray together?”  My experience of this way of worshiping changed.

Today, we’re going to have one experience, modeled after the worship at Taizé.  It is part of our sermon series on spiritual practices.  This is an opportunity to experience praying and worshiping in the Taizé style.  After the worship service, I invite you to get a cup of coffee and come into the Guild Room to talk about your experience.

And now, let us more into this time of worship as they do in Taizé: with church bells ringing, calling us to prayer.

*     *     *     *     *     *

After the service, I invited those who chose to stick around to discuss these questions:

Thinking both of what happened in the service and what happened inside you:

  •     What caught you by surprise?
  •     What made you to “Oooo” or “Hmmm” or “Ahhh”?
  •     What helped you “be present” with God?
  •     What hindered your being present with God?

This is a very different form of worship from what we do most Sundays.  What did experiencing this form of worship teach you about worship as a spiritual practice?

The Taizé songs/chants are a unique form of prayer.  What did experiencing them teach you about your prayer practice?

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 9, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  James 2:14-26
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

At some level I grew up equating addressing hunger with being a Christian.  Wasting food (not cleaning your plate) was verboten.  Some of that was my mother’s Swiss thriftiness (thus it was verboten, not just forbidden).  Some of it was the realization that there were people around the globe who were literally starving and dying and to treat food cavalierly seemed wrong.

I particularly remember an Ethiopian famine in the 70s.  And then, about a decade later, another famine struck Ethiopia.  That was the famine that led to the “Live Aid” concert and the recording of “We Are the World.”[i]  These are the famines that sit in the back of my mind when I think of a future with commonplace climate change-caused droughts leading to famines.

Being a Christian meant doing something about hunger.  Being a Christian meant making a difference, caring for others.  Being a Christian meant service.

Eventually, my ideas about how to address hunger shifted.  In time I realized that there are three ways to address it.  We can give the proverbial “hungry man” a fish.  We can teach him to fish.  And we can challenge the system that allowed him, even forced him to go hungry in the first place.  All three of these are part of my understanding of service, the first spiritual practice we are exploring this Lent.

It was almost 500 years ago that a monk named Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Pope and sparked the Reformation.  You may remember that one of the Vatican’s behaviors that he objected to was the selling in indulgences.  Indulgences were essentially “get out of hell free” cards.  For a price, a person could buy a beloved’s way into heaven.  One might call this, “justification by money.”

In response to this, Luther became very focused on a theology of justification by grace through faith.  Luther found support for this theology in the epistles of Paul.  The epistle of James, he called an epistle of straw.  I’m not exactly sure what the insult means, but it is certainly dismissive of the epistle.

We heard at least some of what Luther objected to in today’s reading.  “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” we read.[ii]  “No, no, no,” Luther would have objected.  “We are justified by grace alone, accessed by our faith.  I would say we are justified by grace.  Full stop.

But I also think James is right in some of what he says.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[iii]  This is totally on target.  If your faith doesn’t impact your actions, your choices, your behavior, what difference does it make?  Faith without service is dead.

Jesus talks to his disciples about and (perhaps more importantly) demonstrates service throughout the gospels.  A quintessential example is what happened, according to the Gospel of John, at the Last Supper.  “[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”[iv]

Washing feet was the responsibility of the host and a task for servants.  And here, the rabbi, the teacher, washes the disciples’ feet, the students’ feet.  Jesus said to them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”[v]

“In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet.  Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure.  If we forsake all, we even have the chance to glorious martyrdom.  But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves.  Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”[vi]

Yet again and again, Jesus is quoted as saying things like:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me; the first shall be last and the last shall be first; whoever would be great among you must be a servant.

It is very easy for service to feel like a “should” instead of a “can.”  I really should help out that person.  I should be serving on that church committee.  I should …  Service cannot be a spiritual practice when it’s full of “should.”  But when service moves to “can” – I can offer this help, I can serve in this way – a door is opened to service as a spiritual practice.

Likewise, when service is filled with self-righteousness, it won’t be a spiritual practice.  The problem with self-righteous service is that it creates an I-it relationship.  Self-righteous service treats the one being served as “other,” as an object.  Service can become a spiritual practice only when it comes out of a place of humility.

Self-righteous service is concerned about external recognition and rewards.  But service can become a spiritual practice when it finds reward in the service itself.  Self-righteous service is highly concerned with results.  But service can become a spiritual practice when we let got of the service having any particular outcome.  Self-righteous service discriminates about who is being served, often with the hope of ensuring some advantage or reciprocation.  But service can become a spiritual practice when it is done indiscriminately.

In this new book, The Way is Made by Walking, Brian McLaren writes:  “When it comes to giving to the poor, Jesus says, don’t publicize your generosity like the hypocrites do … It’s kind of ironic:  a lot of people do ugly things in secret – they steal, lie, cheat, and so on.  Jesus reverses things, urging us to plot goodness in secret, to do good and beautiful things without getting caught.”[vii]

I may have gotten things a little bit backward when I said that service can become a spiritual practice only when it comes out of a place of humility.  The reality is that humility “is one of those virtues that is never gained by seeking it.  The more we pursue it the more distant it becomes.  To think we have it is sure evidence that we don’t.  Therefore, most of us assume there is nothing we can do to gain this prized Christian virtue, and so we do nothing.  “But there is something we can do …  Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility.  When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.”[viii]

There is a sort of feedback loop that can occur from practicing this spiritual discipline.  Practicing service – even from a faked humility – can actually help foster the gift of real humility, which in turn allows the practice of service to come from a place of humility, which in turn more deeply fosters the gift of humility, which in turn …  You get the picture.

I have read from people who are far more disciplined in the spiritual practice of service than I am, that the practice changes the world.  Through the practice of service, humility grows, and it does so secretly.  “Though we do not sense its presence, we are aware of a fresh zest and exhilaration with living.  We wonder at the new sense of confidence that marks our activities.  Although the demands of life are as great as ever, we live in a new sense of unhurried peace.  People we once only envied we now view with compassion, for we see not only their position but their pain.  People whom we would have passed over before we now ‘see’ and find to be delightful individuals.  Somehow – we cannot exactly explain how – we feel a new spirit of identification with the outcasts … of the earth.”[ix]

Really, the spiritual practice isn’t just service, it’s servanthood.  And if you’re like me, there’s a part of you that’s resistant to that.  I’m afraid I might be taken advantage of.  So, I’m willing to serve, because that way I’m still in charge.  But if I let go into servanthood, I give up the right to be in charge.  And, the spiritual masters promise, there is great joy in that voluntary servitude.[x]

“Service is not a list of things that we do, though in it we discover things to do.  It is not a code of ethics, but a way of living.  To do specific acts of service is not the same things as living in the Discipline of service.  Just as there is more to the game of basketball than the rulebook, there is more to service than specific acts of serving.  It is one thing to act like a servant; it is quite another to be a servant.”[xi]

That said, I’m going to share a brief list of nine types of service you can do if you want to practice service as a spiritual discipline.[xii]

  • The service of hiddenness – Brian McLaren pointed out how Jesus calls us to this form of service.
  • The service of small things – Simple assistance of another in mundane, external matters is a wonderful form of service.
  • The service of guarding the reputation of others – Promoting love, this is the anti-gossip form of service.
  • The service of allowing others to serve us – It is an act of submission and service to let others serve us.  In the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, Peter resisted and finally relented, allowing Jesus to wash his feet.  He served Jesus by allowing Jesus to serve him.
  • The service of common courtesy toward one another – This form of service affirms the personhood of others.
  • The service of hospitality – This may be a particular charism of our congregation.
  • The service of listening – Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”[xiii]  The most important requirements for the service of listening are compassion and patience.  “We do not have to have the correct answers to listen well.  In fact, often the correct answers are a hindrance to listening, for we become more anxious to give the answer than to hear.”[xiv]
  • The service of bearing each other’s burden – True service builds community.  It draws, binds, builds, and heals.
  • The service of sharing the word of Life to another – Speaking truth in love to those around you.

Jesus calls us to the spiritual practice of service, “the ministry of the towel.  Such a ministry, flowing out of the inner recesses of the heart, is life and joy and peace.”[xv]

[ii] James 2:24.

[iii] James 2:15-17.

[iv] John 13:4-5

[v] John 13:14-15

[vi] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978, 1988), 126-127.

[vii] Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page on 5 March 2014.

[viii] Foster, op. cit., 130.

[ix] Ibid, 131.

[x] Foster points out that there is a vast difference between involuntary servitude and this voluntary servitude.  See pages 132-134.

[xi] Ibid, 134.

[xii] This list is a summary of Foster, pages 134-140.

[xiii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), 52; quoted by Foster, op. cit.. 138.

[xiv] Foster, 138.

[xv] Ibid, 140.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael

There are three groups in Raphael’s “The Transfiguration.”[1]  At the top of the painting is the mountaintop group.  We see Jesus in super-clean white, floating above it all, above the fray in the lower half of the painting.  Floating with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  I’m not sure which is which, but I think Moses is on the left because he seems to be carrying heavy, large stone tablets.  And we see the three disciples, Peter, James, and John, on the ground in fear.

On the lower left, we see a group of men.  Two are pointing up at Jesus, pointing up at what’s happening on the mountaintop.  Given the book in the lower left corner and the fact that the group is all men and there are nine of them (9 in this group plus the 3 on the mountaintop equals 12) and where they are pointing, I assume they are the disciples.  But pay attention to where they are also looking.  They’re looking at the third group, on the lower right.

This third group is people, ordinary people.  And the people are pointing toward the boy.  In fact, the disciples aren’t just looking at this third group.  They’re looking at the boy in the group.  And there’s something that’s not quite right about the boy.  It’s as if the man in green has brought the boy to the disciples.  “Him, here – he needs your attention.”  And the disciples are pointing to the action on the mountaintop, as if to say that up there is where the people’s attention needs to be.

Drama up on the mountain.  Drama down below in the valley.  In the background, is the sun rising or setting?  Is this the beginning or the end?

In the scriptures, mountains are often the places where people most vividly experience the presence of God.  It was on Mt. Sinai that Moses spoke with God.  It was there he received the 10 Commandments, given to help the people of Israel live in freedom.

The prophet Elijah also journeyed to Mt. Sinai when he was discouraged and afraid for his life.  There, God spoke to him, giving him encouragement and direction for the tasks that lay ahead.

For Moses and Elijah, the mountain-top experience of intense communion with God was an event with a purpose:  to equip them to be leaders of God’s people in the valley, in the ordinary places of life, down here where the presence of God is usually less vivid.  For them, the mountain was the place where God gave instruction and encouragement, and then sent them back into the world.

The geographic imagery of the mountain as the place of communion with God is understandable.  On top of a mountain, heaven seems closer and the cares and concerns of the world seem farther away.  The mountain offers a place of quiet and peace, of sanctuary, of escape.  There, one cannot help but realize the vastness of the universe, and stand in awe of its Creator.  There, it seems as if the world stops spinning, and time stands still.

While the gospels don’t explain his motivation, I have long thought that what drove Jesus to the mountain was the realization that his earthly ministry was nearing and end.  The time had come to set his face toward Jerusalem – there to suffer and die.

Six days earlier, he had told his disciples about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem.  And he told them, challenged them, warned them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The Gospel of Matthew does not tell us what happened during those six days between Jesus’ announcement about his suffering and the trip up the mountain.  But I can imagine the disciples, confused and frightened, bombarding Jesus with questions and proposing alternatives to the way of suffering and death.  And, when every alternative was rejected by Jesus, I imagine a dark silence falling upon the group as each disciple and Jesus himself wrestled with their private doubts and fears.

And perhaps that is why Jesus went up the mountain.  Perhaps it was those private doubts and fears.  Perhaps it was a need to pray in a place that felt closer to God than down in the valley, down here.  He took Peter, James, and John with him.  And on this mountain, something extraordinary occurred.  Right there before the disciples’ eyes, Jesus was transfigured!  He face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

You see, when people experience real communion with God, a transformation takes place – a transformation that is visible in their faces and evident in their lives.  How and why this happens remains a mystery, but what happens is clear.  Close communion with God empties one of oneself, in a sense, and fills one with the glory of God.

As Jesus’ transformation took place, two other figures appeared in glory – Moses and Elijah.  Men who represent the law and the prophets, who had known close communion with God in their mountain-top experiences appeared.  And they spoke with Jesus.  Whatever they said, it is clear that, for Jesus, this mountain was like theirs – a momentary respite, rather than a permanent escape from the world.

Peter wanted to make it something more permanent:  “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.”  One can almost hear the thoughts behind Peter’s suggestion:  At last, an alternative to the way of suffering and death!  Here we can capture the moment, commemorate the glory!  People will come, away from the cares of the world, and see and know the true majesty of Jesus.  Surely this, and not the cross, is the full revelation of Jesus as the Son of God.

But God rejected Peter’s plan.  A voice in a cloud said simply, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well please; listen to him.”  When the disciple’s heard this voice, they fell to the ground in fear, realizing they were in the presence of God.  But Jesus came and touched them, healing their fear and raising them again, as if from death itself.  And when they looked around, they saw no one on the mountain except Jesus.  The moment of glory had past.  The mountain top experience was over.  And they made their way down into the valley once again.  After all, there’s a boy waiting down there and he needs Jesus’ healing.

And apparently it was enough.  Apparently it was what Jesus needed.  And I guess it was enough for the Peter, James, and John, too.  For Jesus did go to Jerusalem and his disciples went with him.

It is as if that holy moment on the mountain, that deep communion with God, was a foretaste of what was to come.  It is as if, in that moment, Jesus knew in his whole body that death was not the final word.  He knew that if he went to Jerusalem and confronted the principalities and powers with the truth, they would kill him.  But there, on that mountain, he also knew – not just in his head, but in his heart and bones – what the resurrection meant.  “Tell no one about the vision,” he told his disciples, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

On that mountain, Jesus got a sense of the future.  Then he came down to the valley, down here, and picked up his cross so he could get to that future.  Raphael’s painting demonstrates the tension between the call of the mountaintop and the call of the valley.  We are called both to the deep reassuring experiences of the presence of God and to the needs of the world.

But do we really want the mountaintop experiences?  I mean really want them?  I suspect the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  Yes, because we desire communion with God.  No, because we know, “Holy ground is not safe.  It is full of mystery and magic and power.  We aren’t in control … on the mountain.”[2]

Annie Dillard describes how dangerous it can be to experience the full mountaintop communion:  “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[3]

If there is one constant in life, it’s change.  How much more exciting if the change is God drawing us to where we can never return.  And how much more scary and dangerous.  After all, we’ll be asked to take up our crosses and follow.

For some in our community, some elements of the changes we are experiencing are painful, even cross-like.  Yet, I am convinced that the changes are the result of hanging with God.  Yes, the hanging with God may have looked more like the way Jacob did it at Jabbok than the way Jesus did it on the mount of the transfiguration.  It may have resembled more of a wrestling match than a moment of awe and glory.  But I am convinced it is the result of hanging with God.

It is important for us to remember that, as we move through and into these changes, we need to keep returning to God.  Hanging with God will empower and ground us, help us to hold steady and remain faithful.

Sociologist Daniel Chambliss did a three-year empirical study of excellent swimmers.  He found beyond natural differences in ability, the one thing that made the winning difference was commitment to “those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life.”[4]  He calls this “the mundanity of excellence.”

Commitment to the little things is crucial to the religious life as well.  We don’t often think in those terms.  We are more likely to focus on the importance of the mountaintop experiences – dramatic conversions, overwhelming encounters with God, powerful moments of prayer.  We search for peak experiences and fear that some people have talent for religious life, a talent that we are somehow missing.  But the truth is, in our life of faith, our task is to come down from the mountain and transform the holy moment into a holy mission of daily commitment.

Faithfulness down here consists of tending to the mundane activities of faith until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life:  praying and doing laundry; offering signs of mercy and signs of justice; listening to one another and studying the scriptures; journaling at home and sharing the Lord’s supper in worship.  The major difference between many of the saintly figures of the church and us is not their “natural talent” or disposition.  Rather, it is the way their habits, disciplines, and practices prepared them, in gracious openness to God’s work, to live extraordinarily faithful lives.

This is a good time, as we enter Lent, to start our practice sessions of tending to the average, daily hanging with God.  May we each put extra care into the ordinary activities of faith, so that we may become extra-ordinarily faithful.


[2] Anthony B. Robinson, “Have You Been to the Mountain?” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional email dated 10 February 2013.

[3] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

[4] Daniel Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), 85, available at http://www.lillyfellows.org/Portals/0/Chambliss-Mundanity%20of%20Excellence.pdf.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:38-48
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was such an important legal shift it has a name.  Well, two names, really.  I have known it as the lex talionis, but I have also seen it referenced as the jus talionis.  This law is believed to have been introduced to curb violence.  “Ten of yours for every one of mine,” was the typical method of retaliation.  But it became “one for one” when this legal concept was introduced.  “By Jesus’ time, many rabbis had recommended that such injuries should be compensated financially rather than physically.”[1]

Jesus says, You know this rule:  an eye for an eye.  But I say, don’t react violently against one who is doing evil.  And don’t be a doormat either.  There’s a third way.  Jesus offers three examples of this third way.

For his first example he says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”[2]  “You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist.  But such a blow would fall on the left cheek.  To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand.  But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks …  [H]ow would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? …  [T]he only feasible blow is a backhand.

“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade.  It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior.  Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.  The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.

“Notice Jesus’ audience: ‘If anyone strikes you.’  These are people used to being thus degraded.  He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore.  If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.’ …  By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again:  his nose is in the way. …  The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.  This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship.  He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him.

“By turning the cheek, then, the ‘inferior’ is saying:  ‘I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.’ …

“In that world of honor and shaming, the ‘superior’ has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate.  He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.  As Gandhi taught, ‘The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.’”[3]

To understand Jesus second example, it might be helpful to think about Monsanto and India.[4]  Monsanto has been accused, I think justly, of ruining the lives of many Indian farmers.  They have been selling genetically modified seeds to farmers, promising higher yields and lower damage from pests and drought.  The seeds are expensive.  The seeds are also often sterile after one generation (farmers can’t plant next year from seeds harvested this year because they won’t germinate).  And if they are still fertile, farmers had to sign contracts that they wouldn’t save seeds from one season to the next.  Seeds were bought on credit with their farms as collateral; the yields weren’t as promised; farmers went into debt and lost their farms, sometimes leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law.  A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan.  Only the poorest of the poor were subjected to such treatment.  Deuteronomy 24:10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so the poor man would have something in which to sleep.

“Jesus is not advising people to add to their disadvantage by renouncing justice altogether, as so many commentators have suggested.  He is telling impoverished debtors, who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself.

“Indebtedness was a plague in first-century Palestine.  Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. …  His hearers are the poor (‘if any one would sue you’).  They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.

“Why, then, does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well?  This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked!  Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27).  By stripping, the debtor has brought shame on the creditor. …

“Shortly before the fall of political apartheid in South Africa, police descended on a squatters’ camp they had long wanted to demolish.  They gave the few women there five minutes to gather their possessions, and then the bulldozers would level their shacks.  The women, apparently sensing the residual puritanical streak in rural Afrikaners, stripped naked before the bulldozers.  The police turned and fled. So far as I know, that camp still stands.”[5]

“Going the second mile, Jesus’ third example, is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or impressed labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples.  Such compulsory service was a constant feature in Palestine from Persian to late Roman times.  Whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service, as was Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). …

“What we have overlooked in this passage is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code. …

“It is in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks.  He does not counsel revolt.  One does not ‘befriend’ the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs.  Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman imperial might; he certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome would soon explode into violence.

“But why carry the soldier’s pack a second mile?  Does this not go to the opposite extreme by aiding and abetting the enemy?  Not at all.  The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed.  The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.

“Imagine, then, the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, ‘Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.’  Why would he want to do that?  What is he up to?  Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop!  Is this a provocation?  Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength?  Being kind?  Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment?  Will this civilian file a complaint?  Create trouble? …  Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack!  The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.”[6]

“Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also.  Both sides must win.  We are summoned to pray for our enemies’ transformation, and to respond to ill treatment with a love that is not only godly but also from God.”[7]

Jesus logically moves on to another bit of conventional wisdom:  “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  Only Jesus offers this radical alternative:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus says that this is necessary to be children of God.

He has just encouraged the crowd around him to claim their status of children of God by standing up to their oppressors.  Now he says that standing up for yourself is not enough.  Love and pray for your enemies.

But this is hard to do!  Right now, I’m finding it very hard to love the Arizona legislators who passed an “it’s okay to discriminate if you do it in the name of religion” bill.  I’m finding it hard to love Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad or Nicholas Muduro.  Yet this is Jesus call to us.

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a blessing.  He starts with the beatitudes and then tells the people around him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  And, so, they are called to something more.  The letter of the law isn’t enough.  There is another way, a way that allows them to claim their inheritance as children of God without dehumanizing others.  You don’t have to put other down to lift yourself up.  Then Jesus offers this conclusion:  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“Be perfect.  Not be pretty good, be prepared, be all that you can be.  Be perfect.  Not practically perfect, almost perfect, or really something.  Be perfect.”[8]  I know that there are some who say the Greek doesn’t mean “perfect” the way contemporary American English uses the word today.  Some say a better translation is “complete” or “finished.”  I think “perfect” is the right word here.

At the end of his series of commands “extending the ethical demands of the law, Jesus does not wind up with, ‘Be mature/complete/headed in the right direction, as your Father in heaven is mature/complete/headed in the right direction.’  Rather, he says, ‘Be perfect, … as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”[9]

But this entire chapter is crazy, so why not include this crazy call to be perfect?  I mean I’ve had days that have started off pretty well.  I’ve avoided being angry at people.  I haven’t objectified anyone.  I’ve kept all my commitments.  I haven’t told even a white lie.  I’ve claimed my identity as a child of God without resorting to violence.  I haven’t had a hateful thought about my enemies.  But then I got out of bed.

Maybe we can understand this call to be perfect as one of the elements in that list of before-rising achievements.  Perhaps Jesus is taking not just seriously, but literally, the imago Dei, the image of God in which we are created.  “What he seems really to be after is not an improvement in our morality, but a recasting of our theology.  The challenge, one that Jesus will take up time and time again in the Gospel of Matthew, is to help us see what it means to understand God as ‘our Father in heaven.’  [The challenge here is] not the problems, although very real, of patriarchy, abuse, neglect, exploitation, and oppression that can tragically attend to the word ‘father,’ but the problem of accepting that this theology means we are God’s children.  We are, Jesus implicitly argues, God’s heirs, and also God’s flesh and blood, God’s family, God’s descendants and legacy.  We have more to live up to that we ever imagined.”[10]

But before you get all overwhelmed with the burdens of this task of living up to being God’s heirs, consider this.  Maybe it isn’t a task.  Maybe it’s a metaphor.  “Perfection is not an accumulation of good deeds, restrained actions, and pure desires.  Perfection is a state of being, and if Jesus is to be believed, it is our birthright.  The ‘command’ to be perfect is not a call to devout and holy action; it is an invitation to self-recognition, to a level of theological awareness that requires an embrace of the gift given at creation.  To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect means neither more not less than to be who we already are, in God’s image.”[11]

I’ve been doing some reminiscing these past couple weeks.  I’ve thought back about what we called “the discernment process,” back when we were two congregations trying to determine if God was calling us to merge into one.  I’ve thought back about decisions that were made along the way, including the decision about which building would ultimately be our home.  I’ve thought back to the plans we made to guide our process – and then revised and then revised again.

I will say this about the whole thing:  it wasn’t perfect.  But then I don’t think “perfect” is possible – at least not in the way we typically use the word.  It was, however, one where we sought to live out our identity as children of God.  The guiding question all along the way was, “Would we be able to do more ministry if we make this decision or that one?”  And by “more ministry,” we meant “our part of God’s mission in the world as God’s descendants and legacy.”  And in that sense, it was as perfect as possible.

Today is the last Sunday we will worship in this building as the owners of it.  One Friday, the sale is scheduled to close, and next Sunday, we will worship here as renters.  This is a time of transition, one that we should mark in some way, so I invite you to turn to the Litany of Release, printed on the insert in your bulletins.

A Litany of Release

One:  For a dozen decades, we and our spiritual ancestors have been stewards of this land and the buildings that have stood here.

Many:  For a dozen decades, we and our spiritual foreparents sought to minister in this place, living by faith and love.

One:  People who live this way seek a spiritual community, build a spiritual community, bring in and embrace a spiritual community.

Many:  They desire a better world, one where God’s will is done, as it is in heaven.

One:  These are our spiritual foreparents.  These are the old alumni.

Many:  These are the ones who established, with their sweat and tears, facilities to serve God’s mission.  These are the ones who taught us good stewardship, and so this facility has served us well as we have sought to serve God.

One:  Yet the old hymn teaches us, “New occasions teach new duties.”

Many:  And so we take another step into the future, embracing change even though it can be difficult.

One:  Today, we acknowledge a change in our stewardship.  At the end of this week, we will no longer be the primary stewards of this property.  We will be released from this responsibility.

Many:  Today, we acknowledge a change in our stewardship.  At the end of this week, we will take on the new stewardship responsibility of being good neighbors to the new stewards of this property.

One:  And we remember, all that we “have” isn’t really ours anyway.  All that we “have” is really God’s.

Many:  God places different resources into our hands at different times so that we can fulfill our part of God’s mission in the world.

One:  And so we pray:

All:  We thank you, O God, that you have entrusted to us and to our spiritual foreparents the care for and use of this land and buildings.  We pray that you look upon this history with kindness and can say to us, “Well done.”  Nurture us through these transitions.  Empower us in our new duties.  And bless the new owners as they become stewards of this place.  Amen.

[1] Karen C. Sapio, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 111.

[2] At this point in the manuscript, I quote Walter Wink at length from his book The Powers That Be.  When I was actually preaching, I simply talked, sometimes referring to my manuscript, sometimes just paraphrasing Wink.

[3] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 101-102.

[4] See, for instance, Vandana Shiva, “The Seeds of Suicide: How Monsanto Destroys Farming,” Global Research, http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-seeds-of-suicide-how-monsanto-destroys-farming/5329947 (posted 27 January 2014; accessed 22 February 2014).

[5] Wink, op. cit., 103-106.

[6] Ibid, 106-108.

[7] Ibid, 110.

[8] William F. Brosend II, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 110.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 112.

[11] Ibid, 114.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:21-37
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

So I dug through my file for this Sunday and discovered that, as far as I can tell, I have never preached on today’s gospel lesson.  On the years when the season after Epiphany was long enough to include a 6th Sunday and it was year A of the three-year lectionary cycle, I have chosen one of the other lessons assigned to the day to preach on.  I’m not surprised by this.  Jesus’ teaching, as recorded by Matthew, is not the easiest collection of sayings to hear.  Who wants to be reminded about the anger that we hold?  Who wants to preach about adultery?  Who wants to confront the lies and obfuscations we tell?

These are the topics Jesus addresses in this passage.  And I am going to try to address them, so fasten your seatbelts and put your tray tables and seatbacks in their upright and locked positions.  But before we take off, there is something else happening this weekend that I want you to know about.

Interfaith Power and Light, a national organization concerned about the moral implications of climate change, has called on congregations of all faith traditions to spend some time this weekend teaching about and taking action on climate change.  So my plan is to talk about the three topics Jesus addresses and to talk about how they relate to our abilities to respond (our respons-ibilities) to climate change.

Each section in today’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard that is was said, …”  Then Jesus goes on, “But I say to you …”  Jesus completes the first sentence by quoting one of the Ten Commandments.  “You have heard that is was said to those of ancient time, ‘You shall not murder.’”  Not murdering, not committing adultery, and not bearing false witness are three of the Ten Commandments.

Both versions of the Ten Commandments – in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – start with God reminding the Hebrews of who God is.  “I am the Lord you God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” is how it’s phrased in Exodus 20:5.  That focus – freeing the people from slavery – is the identifier in Deuteronomy, too.  The Ten Commandments are given to a people God has just freed from slavery.  The Ten Commandments are part of God’s freedom plan.  “The law was offered to encourage people to live together in peace and harmony with God and with each other.”[1]

Jesus was not replacing the Ten Commandments.  Jesus was not saying the originals weren’t good enough.  He was calling people to move past a simple fulfillment of the law and to get to the heart of the matter.  “Jesus felt like people had strayed away from the real purpose of the law and the prophets.  To Jesus, the law was not a rule book to enslave people.  The intent was to promote the common welfare of the people through just relationships.”[2]

So, in the first of these three topic in today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus warns against anger, he’s not saying, “Never get angry.”  He’s saying that holding on to anger is destructive to us, to the person we’re angry at, to our community, and to our relationship with God.  We need to reconcile with our neighbor before we make a sacrifice at the Temple Altar because “right relationship with God is predicated upon having a right relationship with your neighbor(s).”[3]

That’s why the second great commandment comes right along with the first.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength – that’s the greatest commandment, Jesus says.  And the second, Jesus adds without being asked, is right up there:  love your neighbor as yourself.  Your relationship with God is important, and so is your relationship with your neighbors.  In fact, the two can’t be separated.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I was taught that saying as a child.  I was taught it almost as a mantra to use when I was teased on the playground (or by a big sister).  It was supposed to help me let the teasing roll off me like water off a duck’s back.  Of course, it isn’t true.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my spirit.

In this section of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is reminding us that words can kill.  This is very important for me to remember.  As someone who ‘gets’ how dangerous climate change is, I can get angry toward climate change denialists.  I need to remember that I am in community with these people and that my relationship with God is predicated on my relationship with them.

The Buddha supposedly said something like, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”[4]  If the Buddha didn’t say it, he should have.  It’s true.  Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Jesus is asking us to look more deeply at relationships.  “The Old Testament Law condemned murder (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:18), but at the heart of this law lies a respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God.” [5]

The men hearing this idea, that their relationship with God is predicated on their relationship with the neighbors, was probably challenging for many of them.  But they probably heard it in connection to their relationships with their male neighbors only.  The thing is, Jesus doesn’t stop there.  In a world where women had no agency, Jesus expands this radical thinking to include them, too.  He moves on to another commandment – the one about not committing adultery.

Adultery was a property concern in Jesus’ day.  Women were the property and responsibility of their fathers and then their husbands.  If they were widows, they were the responsibility of their sons.  So when Jesus teaches men against committing adultery and even against objectifying women, he is calling them to recognize and respect the boundaries of their marriages and to recognize and respect the personhood of women.

The same is true for the teaching on divorce.  Women aren’t simply a piece of property to be discarded when you’re done with them.  Husbands have a commitment to their wives.

Of course, marriage is far from the only commitment we have in our lives.  If you have children, you have a commitment to them.  If you are a child – and all of you are – you have (or had) a commitment to your parents.  We have a commitment to this faith community.  And on the list goes.

The answer to Cain’s question is, “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.”  We have a commitment to our brothers and sisters, whether they are siblings by blood or siblings by being part of humanity.  We are in relationship with everyone around the globe and we have a responsibility to care about what happens to them.

When climate change causes them to no longer have access to water or caused their homes to be flooded or their farms to cease to be able to produce food, that is a concern for all of us because of our commitment to them.  And we have a responsibility to help keep that from happening.  Just as Jesus tells husbands that they can’t just dismiss their wives, we can’t just dismiss the farmers in the Central Valley as their farms dry up, or the people of the Maldives as their nation submerges under rising sea levels, or the people of Bangladesh (or England) as their homes are flooded from drastic changes in rain patterns.

About eight years ago, humorist and TV personality Stephen Colbert introduced us to a new word:  truthiness.  Created as part of Colbert’s comedy “news” show, “truthiness” became part of American English.  It is defined as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.”[6]

Almost two thousand years earlier, Jesus was speaking out against truthiness, in favor of truth.  Don’t take an oath to prove that you are speaking truthfully.  Speak the truth – all the time.  Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” Full stop.

Jay Michaelson writes about how a problem with truthiness is that it can go so far as to be evil.  “Climate change specifically is perhaps the most challenging case of all, because of the billions of dollars that have been spent to lie to Americans over the last twenty years.  … [T]here really is a vast right-wing conspiracy to lie about climate change, and it has worked.  Half of Americans don’t ‘believe’ that climate change is real, despite a 99.5% (!) scientific consensus – with the .5% being, unsurprisingly, scientists in the employment of industry.

“This is what evil is:  lying, in a way that causes harm, in order to enrich oneself.  Progressives may not like the language of good and evil (so much judgment!) but it is a public religious language that communicates exactly what the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ … do.  They lie, they harm, and they do it to make money.  Pure evil.”[7]

Michaelson goes on to explain that we can’t solve the climate change dilemma by simply changing our light bulbs.  He writes, “It really doesn’t matter if you use paper or plastic, or if you bring your canvas bag from home.  Personal actions are a tiny drop in a huge bucket.  We need systemic change and political change, and we’re not going to get that by turning inward on ourselves, finding additional ways to be personally and pointlessly pious.

“Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance …  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.”[8]

How do we fight for it?  One way is to paint the fossil fuel industry’s business plan as what it is:  immoral.  And we can do that by divesting from stock and bond holdings in this industry sector – the way we divested from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa to paint what they were doing as immoral.  There is a petition in Ford Hall that you can sign calling on the City of Fremont to divest, and I will be presenting it to the City Council on Tuesday night.

Another way is to lobby for policy changes.  A small step for doing this is available during coffee hour, too.  There are postcards that you can address to Senator Feinstein calling on her to support the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standards for New and Existing Power Plants.  You can sign one and turn it in to me.  Then, this afternoon, you can contact the Secretary of State and the President by email or snail mail and urge them to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.

When Jesus talked about these commandments, he wasn’t trying to shame anyone.  He wasn’t trying to make anyone feel extra-guilty.  He was trying to get people to look at our covenant with God and to move past the letter of the law and to embrace the heart of the matter.

It’s not just about avoiding murdering people; it’s about how we deal with our anger and how we resist or embrace forgiveness and reconciliation.  It’s not just about keeping your pants zipped; it’s about seeing the personhood in everyone and keeping accountable to your commitments.  It’s not just about making sure your testimony is truthful; it’s about living an honest life.

May our lives embrace these Jesus-values.  Amen.


[1] Nancy Hasting Schested, “God’s Family Values,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gods-family-values, accessed on 11 February 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Reginald Broadnax, “Matthew 5:21-26 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 94.

[4] One of those unverifiable quotes floating around Facebook.

[5] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted by Karen Georgia Thompson in her “Sermon Seeds” column for 16 February 2014, United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/february-16-2014.html, accessed on 11 February 2014.

[6] “Truthiness,” dictionary.com, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/truthiness accessed 15 February 2014.

[7] Jay Michaelson, “Climate Change is Sin – Here’s How to Repent For It,” Religion Dispatches, http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/culture/7505/climate_change_is_a_sin_here_s_how_to_repent_for_it/, accessed on 12 February 2014.

[8] Ibid.


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