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

Prop 1:  Water bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you know?’ she asked him.

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

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

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

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

“No. No, I’m seasick.”

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

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

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

Wall Street Bull (via news.com.au)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Craddock

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, p. 161.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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

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

[9] Saunders, op. cit.

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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 28, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Exodus 17:1-7
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I began the sermon by reading the poem “Fracking Exodus,” by Maren Tirabassi.  This poem has been posted, with her permission, on my blog at http://wp.me/pBRG6-cp

I think most of you know that I was in New York City last Sunday and participated in the People’s Climate March.  About 400,000 of us were there:  Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, faith communities, celebrities and commoners, people still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, scientists, activists, artists, youth groups and elementary school classes – it was truly a cross-section of the United States, plus a few people from around the globe.

400,000 people.  If we got the entire population of Fremont to take to the streets twice, we’d have only slightly more people.

Before the march began, we gathered along Central Park West, 30 blocks of people.  I was at 81st Street.  The March started on time at 11:30.  There were so many people there that it was around 2:00 when we up at 81st started moving and at least another half-hour before we crossed the starting line at 59th.  There were so many people there that we stretched out over 4 miles along Manhattan’s streets and avenues.  There were so many people there, and because I had a ticket to the interfaith service, I was unable to complete the March.  I had to leave at 5:00 to get uptown to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

400,000 people taking to the streets to make a statement about the importance of political leaders acting on climate change.  The good news is that some leaders heard us.  President Obama said on Tuesday, addressing the United Nations, “The alarm bells keep ringing.  Our citizens keep marching.  We cannot pretend we do not hear them.”[1]

The only question left is, “Will these leaders take real action to insure that 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves remain underground?”  This is necessary if global temperatures are not going to increase more than two degrees Celsius (and we’ve already increased almost one degree Celsius).  That two degree red line is important because more than that will cause significant climate change.  The warmer the shift the greater the climate change and at some point the changes will be so drastic we won’t be able to grow the grain necessary to sustain civilization as we’ve known it.

I went to New York because I like to eat and I want my niece and nephew to be able to eat, and they won’t be able to eat in their old age if we don’t act now.  I went to New York because 50 % of the world’s species are threatened with extinction this century if we don’t act now.[2]  I went to New York because there are still two million people homeless after the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan,[3] and they are but a foretaste of the homelessness that climate change will cause if we don’t act now.  I went to New York because of California’s drought and wildfires, and they are but a foretaste of the droughts and fires that climate change will cause if we don’t act now.  I went to New York as an act of loving my neighbor as myself.

I came back from New York and looked at my brown lawn and thought about the desert and today’s scripture readings.  The story of the Exodus is one of liberation and transformation – and of hardship.  The Hebrews had lived as slaves for generations in Egypt.  Then God called a leader, a man with a stutter named Moses, to speak truth to power, to confront the political leadership of his day.  Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.  And after arguing and what today we might call civil disobedience, thought classically it’s called plagues, Pharaoh relented.  And God led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea into the desert and freedom.

Freedom!  Except there isn’t much food to eat and water to drink in the desert.  In chapter 16, just before today’s reading, we read about how God gifted the hungry Hebrews with manna and quail.  In today’s reading, the issue is water.  That’s what made me think about the drought.

We aren’t the only area suffering from drought.  This week I read on the NBC News website, “After a season of record-breaking drought across China, groundwater levels have hit historic lows this year in northeast and central parts of China where hundreds of millions of people live.  Reservoirs grew so dry in agricultural Henan province that the city of Pingdingshan closed car washes and extracted water from puddles.  But this is no one-time emergency.  Farmers and water-hungry industries have been wrestling with a long-term water crisis that has dried up more than half the country’s 50,000 significant rivers and left hundreds of cities facing what the government classifies as a ‘serious scarcity’ of water.”[4]

And I read on a British newspaper’s website, “South America’s largest city is nine months into an unprecedented drought, with no end in sight.  The water shortage is already squeezing businesses in Sao Paulo and threatens to further undermine the stalled economy in Brazil, until recently one of the world’s fastest-growing.  The drought is also pushing up pollution levels and raising serious concerns about how Brazil will function in changing climate conditions.  Residents … have been on rationed water for months – although, with an election just weeks away, city officials refuse to use that term.”[5]

The Hebrews are not the only ones crying out to their leaders, “Give us water to drink.”

Our scripture reading is from beginning of the larger Exodus wanderings story.  The Hebrews are going to spend 40 years in the wilderness, two or three generations.  A colleague notes, “The slaves thought their liberation from Egypt would immediately plop them down in the Promised Land.  But God’s first freedom act was deliverance into the severe and harsh wilderness.  Perhaps only in the land of hopelessness could God hope to see a people let Pharaoh go and embrace the God of life.  Wilderness provides the necessary time to rid oneself of having someone other than God name and define you.”[6]

God is working transformation in the wilderness.  Watching God divide the Red Sea wasn’t enough to change these people.  Harvesting God’s gift of manna wasn’t enough to change these people.  When faced with a lack of water, they saw their own annihilation.  Was this a sign that they had been abandoned by God?

Yet there is something faithful in the people’s complaints.  Yes, they question if God is with them, but they never question the existence of God.  “In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they’re hoping to ‘mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self.  These questions arise not in an act of unfaith, but out of deep confidence that the God of the core testimony, when active in power and fidelity, can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.’  In a sense, then, even complaining to God in frustration and fear expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what one trusts to be true about God.”[7]

And in another commentary, Brueggemann constructs a powerful analogy between these stories in the Bible and the way our television commercials typically work.  “In the biblical narrative of faith, there’s a problem presented, a need voiced, and then God provides a happy resolution.  ‘The derivative TV use of this structure falsely substitutes for God “the product.”  The problem may be loneliness, stress, or bad odor.  When the “product” is used, life is powerfully transformed to one of companionship, calmness, popularity, peace, joy, and well-being.’  The trouble is that it just isn’t true …  Whatever the products deliver, they can’t provide what a faithful God provides, our lives ‘moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from blindness to sight, from leprosy to cleanness, from poverty to well-being, and in the end, from death to life.’  We can turn only to God, Brueggemann says:  ‘There are no other miracle workers.’”[8]

There are plenty of things happening around the globe and right here in our homes that raise our anxiety levels.  Here at home, you or a loved one may be facing a crisis of one sort or another.  I can look around the sanctuary and name mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, who are facing health crises.  I can look around this sanctuary and name families who are facing financial crises.  Heck, just raising kids and launching them into the world can be anxiety producing.  Perhaps there are times when you wonder, “Is God among us or not?”

And if you’re not facing a personal crisis, all you need to do it turn on the news.  The Ebola epidemic continues to threaten people in Western Africa, perhaps as many as a million in some of the worst-case scenarios.[9]  ISIL has managed to draw the world into war and politicians are certainly raising anxieties about it in an effort to garner votes.  And, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and yours truly, more threatening than either of them is the climate crisis.[10]  Perhaps when you think about any of these threats you wonder, “Is God among us or not?”

The Hebrews, facing the threat of not having access to water, cried out and demanded that their leaders do something.  Moses, led by God, took some of the elders and found a solution to the threat.  It took his acting faithfully, trusting that God was, in fact, with him and a solution was found.

The climate crisis may make us feel like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Yet, I believe we can solve the climate crisis.  I won’t be easy, but it’s not too late.  If we act faithfully on real solutions, God will be with us and we will discover that we’ve been between a rock and a wet place all along.

Amen.

[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the U.N. Climate Change Summit,” The Whitehouse, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/remarks-president-un-climate-change-summit (posted 23 September 2014; accessed 24 September 2014).

[2] Vice President Al Gore said this at the Interfaith Service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 21 September 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Drought Worsens China’s Long-Term Water Crisis,” NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/drought-worsens-chinas-long-term-water-crisis-n210736 (posted 24 September 2014, accessed 25 September 2014).

[5] Stephanie Nolen, “Unprecedented drought puts Sao Paulo water supply at risk,” The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/unprecedented-drought-puts-sao-paulo-water-supply-at-risk/article20798270/ (posted and accessed 26 September 2014).

[6] Nancy Hasting Sehested, “True Freedom,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/true-freedom (accessed 25 September 2014).  Nancy was pastor of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, when her article was first published in Sojourners.

[7] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-28-2014.html (accessed 25 September 2014).

[8] Ibid, quoting Brueggemann’s commentary of Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible.

[9] I heard this number spoken on a program that aired on KQED-FM on Friday or Saturday; I don’t remember which program or which date.

[10] “Mr. Kerry said he intended to keep a focus on climate change throughout the week, despite the pressure of other crises, including the insurgent terrorists in Iraq and The Ebola outbreak in Africa. ‘The grave threat that climate change poses warrants a prominent position on that list,’ he told reporters. ‘Those are immediate. But this has even greater, longer-term consequences that can cost hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars, and lives, and the security of the world.’”  Lisa W. Foderaro, “Taking a Call for Climate Change to the Streets,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/nyregion/new-york-city-climate-change-march.html (posted 21 September 2014; accessed 22 September 2014).

by Maren Tirabassi
copyright © 2014 by Maren Tirabassi; reprinted by permission

The people wandered in the wilderness
and there was no water,
so they cried out for they were thirsty.
And they quarreled
and they were afraid
for their children and the animals
for they were very thirsty.

Then God sent Moses out
to strike the rock
and there was water from the rock
and there was life.

And now we wander in the wilderness
forcing water into the rocks
fracturing them,
with the staff of our greed
and we call them – wells.

And there is lead and uranium,
mercury, ethylene, radium and glycol,
methanol and formaldehyde
and hydrochloric acid.
There is natural gas and death.

And we are afraid again
for our children and animals,
for our earth and our groundwater.
We are thirsty
and call these places Meribahs
for here we quarrel,
here we have listened to God
like always, inside out.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 14, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35 (with Genesis 50:15-21)
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard about a detailed three-stop process for dealing with a community member “who has sinned against you.” The process ends with the expulsion of the offending community member if the three steps fail. It’s a sort of three strikes and you’re out.

This week, picking up where we left off last week, Peter poses the question about how often we’re supposed to forgive. Jesus tells him, “seventy-seven times.” Some translations say, “forgive 70 times seven.” Regardless of the translation, many have interpreted it to mean we are to offer limitless forgiveness.

So which is it – “three strikes and you’re out,” or 77 times, or 490 times, or forgiveness without limit?

And then there’s that troubling parable in today’s lesson. If we do not forgive “from our hearts,” will God really hand us over to be tortured as it says in Matthew 18:35?

Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to try to impose an interpretation on Jesus’ parables. They are stories, and sometimes a better way at understanding them is to let the parable inspire another story. And I happen to have one, written by a Brit, as best I can tell, though I’m unable to figure out who it is.[1] Anyway, I’ve adapted it a bit.

They say lightening never strikes twice. John Rogers knew better. Everyone said how amazingly he had coped with being canned. A “reduction in force,” his boss called it.

It is no easy task to begin again, aged 55, after a lifetime working for the same company. But John had a plan. With a lightness of heart he sank his entire severance package into his new enterprise.

He rented a small space in a strip mall that was a little too far out of town, so it was zoned for manufacturing and retail. It was one of those places with a large, empty parking lot, a mom and pop diner, and a play area that was supposed to make it “family friendly.”

Equipping it with tools, buying and storing the lumber, and creating a display and sales area took all his cash, but it didn’t matter. What was important was that he could now make things. His specialty was wooden toys. Sometimes very traditional things – rocking horses, the grain of the wood dictated the racing shape of the animal.  Sometimes new things that seemed strange as wooden toys – alien space creatures that came apart, and docking satellite stations with flashing lights.

The business-advice woman at the bank said his margins weren’t large enough. He was covering his costs and making enough to live on – just – but he’d never be able to expand, and if supplies and sales got too out of kilter he’d have cash flow problems. He nodded and made some encouraging noises, but in his heart he didn’t care. He was making things. He was happy, perhaps the happiest he’d been in his whole life.

The arson attack was so mindless. A teenager fooling around, oblivious to just how paint and wood and varnish would blaze. He was a new to the area, in a foster home that was supposed to give him safety and structure. John knew nothing of him. He was pleased that the magistrate thought the matter serious; pleased that the sullen youth would serve some time in detention. But that didn’t make up for what he’d lost; somehow all his motivation had gone up in flames, too.

The insurance company paid out. The site manager was efficient in the rebuilding of the unit. Customers urged him on. But as the smell of the burning lingered about the place, so did the dead weight of John’s wounding. It was as if the fire had burnt from him all the enjoyment he’d once had. He was a victim, and he couldn’t shake it off.

And sure enough the business began to fail. His toys didn’t have the same originality about them anymore. The first Christmas after the fire, John just got by. The second Christmas was a disaster. “It won’t survive,” they said. “It was obvious from the start that it wasn’t a sensible thing to do with his severance package.”

The last thing people expected was that he would take on staff: a young man called Andy, a scraggly beard and a pony tail, a ring in his nose and in one of his ears. No one knew where John found him. It was all so unlikely; another indication that John had really lost it.

How surprised the scoffers were when the business started to turn around. Andy had a talent for working wood, and John was soon able to build on it. Teaching Andy rekindled his enthusiasm. For the first time for two years he had ideas for new toys.

And Andy brought something new to the business as well. Computers were his thing. Before joining John, Andy had been on an intensive course and he put his learning to good use. When their work featured in the “Living” section of the local paper, orders started to come thick and fast. They started selling from their own website. The woman at the bank was impressed.  “The business has turned a corner,” she said. When people asked John, “Are you thinking of retiring?” “Never,” was the reply.

But lightening can strike twice. The kid who broke into the workshop/store was after the computer. Why then did he smash the rest of the place up? Why wrecking the stock, smash the lathe, throw files everywhere, pour varnish over everything?

The police seemed to know who he was, but there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him. “We’ll start again,” John told Andy. “There’s nothing here that a few weeks’ effort won’t put right.” But John’s optimism found no echo in Andy. The younger man burned with anger.

John had no idea how Andy knew who the suspect was. He had no idea either of the revenge he intended. It wasn’t until the police came to tell him that Andy was charged and in jail that he knew something had happened. Andy had followed the suspect to a local fast food place, cornered him in the restrooms, and beaten him until an arm and a nose were broken.

Minutes after the police left, John put the notice on the door. It simply said, “Closed Down.” With a heavy heart he turned off the lights, and locked his workshop for the last time.

A few days later the site manager came to see him. “Don’t you realize how much money you’re going to lose giving up the lease without notice? The business was going so well. Why end it now? You recovered after the fire, you can recover from this.” And sensing the real cause of John’s hurt, he added, “Surely the court will take into account why Andy did it? They’ll be lenient on him. After all it was his first offense.”

“No, not his first,” said John, “he’s already served time for arson.”
Forgiveness is not innate. The three typical responses to threat or hurt are flight, flight, or freeze. Forgiveness may start with “f” but it’s not a standard response. What evolutionary purpose could forgiveness serve? Fighting back, running away, freezing in an attempt to become invisible – these have potential evolutionary benefits. But forgiving? Forgiveness is not natural.

No wonder it’s such a challenge. The thing is, forgiveness does serve a purpose, perhaps not an evolutionary purpose, but a purpose nonetheless. The power of forgiveness is that it gives life.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu knows has done more study and teaching on forgiveness than anyone else I can think of. In some of his writing on the subject he tells about his own story.[2] Desmond Tutu’s father was an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his mother. Young Desmond was a repeated witness to the abuse. He writes, “I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways.”

Years later, decades later, Tutu writes that if he lets himself dwell in those memories, he feels the anger and the desire to hurt his father.

He recognizes how normal this is, but, he notes, “hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience permanent healing and peace is to forgive.”

But forgiving is a challenge. It is not an easy thing to do. “Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain,” Tutu writes. “Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”

The thing is, forgiveness also has a power – the power to heal. When we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain of the hurt. And we compound it not just for us. We are all connected and when we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain for family, for community, and ultimately for the world.

Consider the impact on families. Siblings quarrel. They refuse to speak to each other. Years pass and their children only know that they don’t visit that aunt and that they don’t really know those cousins. “Forgiveness among the members of the older generations will open the door to healthy and supportive relationships among younger generations.”

Consider what would have happened to the descendants of Jacob if Joseph, who had good reason to hate his brothers, hadn’t chosen to forgive them. The invitation to forgive is not, however, an invitation to forget. “Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really was. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not.  It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.

“But it is okay to forgive.”

How, then, do we forgive? We start by recognizing the reality of the hurt, the violation that lies between us and the perpetrator. We invite the perpetrator to recognize the reality of that hurt as well. And then we seek out the humanity within the perpetrator.

Tutu writes about forgiving his father: “My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me. Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him.

“Since I cannot speak to him, I have had to forgive him in my heart. If my father were here today, whether he asked for forgiveness or not, and even if he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong or could not explain why he had done what he did, I would still forgive him. Why would I do such a thing? I would walk the path of forgiveness with him because I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiving my father frees me.”

Perhaps more difficult than forgiving others, is the act of forgiving ourselves. I know that for me, accepting forgiveness, especially from myself, is one of the hardest things. I now I’m not alone. We can become so mesmerized by the gravity of our own mistakes in life, that we have trouble believing there can be true forgiveness.

Reflecting on his childhood, Tutu realized that he was not just angry with his father. He was angry with himself. He had failed to stand up to his father and protect his mother. You or I would look at the situation and say, “Of course you didn’t, Desmond. You couldn’t. You were just a kid and he was an adult.” But Tutu held himself to a higher standard and it took him some time to realize how forgiving himself was just as important as forgiving his father. Perhaps more so.

“When I no longer hold his offenses against him,” Tutu writes, “and can also forgive myself, those memories of him no longer exert any control over my moods or my disposition. His violence and my inability to protect my mother no longer define me. I am not the small boy cowering in fear of his drunken rage. I have a new and different story. Forgiveness has liberated both of us. We are free.”

We, each one of us, has been forgiven. Each one of us is the beneficiary of God’s grace. And as recipients of that grace, we are called to extend it to others, to accept the challenge and to harness the power of forgiveness, and in so doing, to heal the world.

Amen.

Sources used and footnotes:

Laurel Dykstra, “Pay Attention to Power,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pay-attention-power (accessed 7 September 2014).

Will Willimon, “Forgiveness Is Not Innate,” from an email from sermons.com dated 9 September 2014.

Stephen Charleston, status update posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5, on 2 September 2014.

[1] “If you do not forgive (a story),” PreacherRhetorica, http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/proper-19a.html (accessed 11 September 2014).

[2] Desmond Tutu, “An Invitation to Forgive,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/an-invitation-to-forgive_b_5050747.html (posted 28 March 2014; accessed 10 September 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 7, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 18:15-17 and Romans 13:8-10
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our gospel lesson for today may include the most direct and practical advice Jesus gives his disciples.  Except he probably didn’t say it.  There’s a word in verse 17, ekklesia, that causes a problem.  It’s a word borrowed from Greek democracy, which means the assembly of those “called out.”[1]  It’s a word used to describe the early community of followers, a word we translate, “church.”  Of course, there was not church when Jesus walked the earth.  He was a Jew calling Jews to follow him.  So, if this is from Jesus, it certainly isn’t a direct quote.

It is hints like this that make scholar think that Matthew’s community must have been in conflict.[2]  And here, Matthew places words on Jesus lips or modifies a saying of Jesus to address that conflict in his community.

As I said, the advice is direct and practical.  If you’ve got a problem with someone, go address it. If that doesn’t work, bring someone with you. And if that still doesn’t work, bring it to the community. And if the whole community can’t figure something out together, they you have to let that person go.

Implicit in this direction is the advice:  don’t let the stuff that bugs you fester.

The word ekklesia is only used twice in Matthew’s gospel.[3]  The first time is a couple chapters before today’s reading, when Jesus says that he will build the ekklesia, the church, on the somewhat rocky foundation that is his disciple Simon Peter.  The second time is here, in the context of conflict.  “Biblical scholar Sarah Dylan points out, here in its final gospel mention, the church is the site of conflict.”[4]

What do we make of this?  Well, one conclusion I’ve reached is that conflict in the church isn’t abnormal or something to feel guilty about or even a problem.  The problem comes when the conflict isn’t addressed or when the way it’s addressed isn’t grounded in love.  Grounding our relationships in love, even our relationships that are in conflict, is the point Paul is making in the passage we heard from his letter to the church in Rome.

In his book, The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs writes about his attempt to spend a year following all the rules in the Torah.  Not just the Ten Commandments; all of them.  Dietary laws, laws about punishments (he ends up throwing pebbles at someone as an act of “stoning” them), even the obscure laws like, “Nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” (Lev. 19:19)  What he comes up with is a fairly humorous account of an impossible task.

Jacobs writes about his attempts to harness an aspect of cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is “the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”[5]  One of the things that cognitive dissonance can do is make the person experiencing it shift their beliefs for values to make the dissonance go away.

A technique that comes out of this is to behave your way into new ways of thinking.  If you want to share more freely, one way to reach that feeling is to act like you already feel that way.  Act generously and you will become more generous.  If you want to become more faithful and God loving, which Jacobs sought to do, act more faithful and God loving.  “If I pray every day,” he wrote, “then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying.”[6]

Jacobs muses about what comes first, one’s actions or one’s beliefs.  Paul says, neither.  Action doesn’t come first, nor does belief.  What comes first is the love of God.

One of the things I love about infant baptisms is how they proclaim the truth that God’s love comes first.  Even before the baby can say a “mama,” let along “Jesus,” we recognize through this sacrament that God loves this baby and claims this baby.  God claims us, not because of our faith, not because of our values, not because of our actions, but because God loves us.

Our life of faith is ultimately found in the radical and inclusive love of God.  As Christians, we find that love in Jesus – in his life, death, and resurrection.  We see in him a model for us of a love that breaks down barriers and fulfills the whole of the law.  “The commandments,” Paul says, “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

For people like Jacobs who want to follow all the rules, Paul has just made it much easier.  We not need to worry about the minutia of the law.  We are not bound to a strict, legalistic, or literal following of the law.  We fulfill the law by being grounded in love.

There is something very liberating in this.  Living by a rule of love rather than a rule of law is freeing.  It is not, however, necessarily easier.  In fact, living by a rule of love requires much more of us.  It requires thought and engagement and discernment.  “There is not script to follow indiscriminately.  Easy answers are harder to come by.  Former dichotomies of right and wrong are brought into question as we consider instead, What is loving?  Each encounter with another human being, each new situation that arises, asks to be considered through this lens of love.  That can be a challenge, for it requires us to trust God in the midst of a fluid and contextualized faith.  And it requires us to listen for the Spirit of God as she speaks today.”[7]

Love asks so much of us.  Love asks us to be open and vulnerable, to extend a radically inclusive hospitality, to risk forgiveness, to choose trust.  One of the harder things love asks of us is to live with people who are not just like us.  It asks us to share our lives with people we do not agree with all the time.  It requires of us forgiveness.

All of these things are aspects of community.  When we are grounded in love, we will be asked to live in community.  Which brings us back to the reading from Matthew.

The Anabaptist tradition teaches that we cannot be Christians by ourselves.[8]  We need our brothers and sisters to help us along the way.  That is why I am part of a community of faith.  Community is not an added attraction; it is not something optional.  Community is essential for my journey, just as it is for yours.

Niles-Discovery-Church-Logo-with-tagline-RGBThis reality is one of the reasons I embraced our slogan from the moment the writing committee shared it:  “United in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.”  This slogan expresses the demands of love.  It calls us to be grounded in love.  It proclaims our desire to live that love, as challenging a call as that is.

I’m not sure building community is humanly possible.  That is, I don’t think it is possible to build community on our own.  And the harder we try to build it on our own, the more impossible it becomes.  Author Art Gish once wrote about the paradox of community:  when we focus on building community, we will fail.  But when we open ourselves to something deeper, community can be a by-product.  “Community is never the goal,” he wrote, “but the result of a deeper decision to live in Christ’s kingdom.  Community exists only as God’s gift to us.  We cannot create it.  The question is whether we are willing to let go of all our pride, egoism, and loyalty to the false gods [including the idol of individualism] and receive what God wants to give to us.”[9]

That’s why what we’re about to do is so important.  In a moment, we will receive new members into this gift of community we call Niles Discovery Church.  They will be making a commitment, a covenant, to be part of us.  And we, just as importantly (perhaps more importantly), are making a commitment to them.  If they are to be successful, these commitments need to be grounded in love.

Elie Wiesel tells a story that he says is an old Midrashic story.  “A man is on a boat.  He is not alone but acts as if he were.  One night, he begins to cut a hole under his seat.  His neighbors shriek:  ‘Have you gone mad?  Do you want to sink us all?’  Calmly he answers them:  ‘I don’t understand what you want.  What I’m doing is none of your business.  I paid my way.  I’m only cutting under my own seat.’
“What the fanatic will not accept, what you and I cannot forget, is that all of us are in the same boat.”[10]

Love is hard, and it asks us to do hard things.  Love asks us to confront our hurts and find resolution.  It asks us to live in community with people who are not just like us.  It asks us to share our lives with those with whom we do not always agree.  It requires us to forgive one another’s wrongs.  Love asks us to do hard things.

But only the life grounded in love will be a life that fulfills our calling as followers of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] Laurel Dykstra, “Love in Action,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/love-action (accessed 25 August 2014).

[2] C.f., Shelley Douglass, “Bound and Free,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/bound-and-free (accessed 25 August 2014).

[3] Dykstra, op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Cognitive dissonance,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance (accessed 6 September 2014).

[6] Quoted by Joann Haejong Lee, “Living By The Word,” Christian Century, 3 September 2014, p. 18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Art Gish, “Community,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/community-1 (accessed 25 August 2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Elie Wiesel, “When Passion Is Dangerous,” The HyperTexts, (translated from French by Katherine Levin), http://www.thehypertexts.com/Essays%20Articles%20Reviews%20Prose/Elie_Wiesel_Essay_When_Passion_Is_Dangerous.htm (accessed 6 September 2014).

Jeffrey Spencer:

“There’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend.” ~ Bill McKibben

Originally posted on The Dish:

by Bill McKibben

Climate Change And Global Pollution To Be Discussed At Copenhagen Summit

Every day there’s something more immediately important happening in the world: ISIS is seizing an airbase this morning, and California is recovering from an earthquake, and Michael Brown is being buried.

But there’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend. Though on a geological time scale it’s proceeding at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be mainly invisible. It’s only when a new study emerges, or a shocking new data set, that we pay momentary attention, until the Next New Thing distracts us.

Here’s one installment in this ongoing saga, released this morning by Environmental Health News and National Geographic. It’s about birds, and the fact that across the planet they’re in serious trouble:

In North America’s breadbasket, populations of grassland birds such as sweet-trilling…

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