A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Isaac Blessing Jacob,” 1639, by Govert Teunisz Flinck

Jacob is on the run.  Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional, Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing, a blessing meant for the elder son, Esau.  Esau is really angry and plans to kill Jacob, just as soon as their father, Isaac, dies.  Getting wind of this plan, Rebekah manipulates her husband into sending her beloved Jacob on a journey to find a wife.  Her hope is that this journey will send Jacob far away and that distance will be safety.  So, Jacob is on the run.

My colleague, Ruth Garwood, points out that in fleeing Esau, Jacob has run off in the “open country,” the very place where Esau likes to hang out.[1]  Jacob runs to safety from his brother by running to the environment where his brother is most at ease.  I like that insight.  It’s one of the subtleties of the story that make it so compelling.  No wonder Kathryn Matthews Huey calls Jacob “the rogue who repeatedly gets into trouble but still evokes love and devotion from at least one parent and many descendants, as well as lovers of good stories to this day.”[2]

In fact, Jacob isn’t just in the open country.  He’s at the edge of the promised land and will leave it the next day.  Whether he realizes it or not, he stops to sleep at the very spot where his grandfather Abraham built an altar to God as he entered the promised land.[3]  Barbara Brown Taylor, in one of her sermons on this text, observes that Jacob “is on no vision quest:  he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry.  He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”[4]

“All alone in this limbo, full of anxiety, and exhausted from his journey, Jacob settles into the vulnerability of sleep, and the dream of heaven and earth before him in that ‘unplace.’  That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in ‘unexpected places’ […] to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him.”[5]  To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, “Jacob is nowhere, which is where the dream touches down – not where it should be but where he is.”[6]

“Jacob’s Dream,” by Marc Chagall.

This place where Jacob spends the night in what the Celts would call a “thin place.”  “Liminal space” is another term used to describe these threshold places where heaven and earth seems to touch.  These are places of transition, of transformation.  Franciscan friar, author, and renowned mystic, Richard Rohr says that liminal space is a place “where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them.  It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are finally out of the way.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run.”[7]

Jacob is on the run, in this liminal space, and God reaches out to him.  He wakes from his dream and declares, “Surely Yahweh is in this place – and I didn’t know it.”[8]

On Wednesday, I put out an invitation on Facebook, inviting people to “share a story about being surprised by the presence of God.”[9]  I enjoyed the responses, and I’ll share a few with you.

A high school friend wrote, “I was tense and grouching to myself about having to go to a strange church while visiting friends.  Wanted to be in my own familiar church.  Suddenly heard the words:  ‘I’m here too, silly.’  I calmed right down and got a lot out of the service after all.  And I was being silly.”

A friend from college wrote about an experience in a hospital, of waking up from surgery and not feeling alone – in the recovery room nor in the hospital room – long before her husband was allowed to visit.

Another person wrote about a time when her pastor has violated the congregation’s trust.  Many people were angry and hurt, and maybe even afraid.  Then, during a guided meditation at a workshop she attended, she suddenly saw this pastor “cradled in the hands of God.”  “It really transformed my anger and hurt and started the healing process,” she wrote.

If I may read two more – they’re good.

This is what Carly wrote:  “Driving down I-71 from Columbus to Cincinnati after an Ohio Conference, United Church of Christ, Board Meeting, my car broke down.  It was winter and after dark.  I walked 2 miles to an outlet mall (this was in the pre-cell phone era), only to find all the stores closed and no pay phone.  I walked back and there was a truck pulled up behind my car.  The burly looking guy in the truck offered to look under the hood.  I sat in the car afraid of said guy.  He fiddled and puttered, walked to the driver’s window and told me to try to turn it over.  I turned the key.  The starter made a grinding noise, then turned over the engine.  He came back to the window and said I had a bad spark plug wire, he had taped it, but as soon as I got to where ever I was going, I needed a new set of plug wires.  I thanked him.  He walked back to his truck, started it, and followed me to the next exit.  Then he passed me and waved.  As he pulled into the beam of my headlights, I saw a familiar bumper sticker:  ‘To believe is to care. To care is to do. The United Church of Christ.’”[10]

This is what Joane wrote:  “When I was in Germany I bought two identical prayer cards with the image of Mary.  I sent one to my grandmother and kept one.  Fast forward about seven years.  I’m flying standby to Chicago (from SFO), so my husband is in a different part of the plane and I’m in the middle seat.  Earlier that day I had been packing when I looked for a good luck charm for the flight.  I walked by my bureau drawer and the prayer card fell down.  I took it as a sign that I should bring it along, and I put it in the outer pocket of my carry on.  So, I’m sitting in the middle seat next to a woman in the window seat who, while clutching the cross around her neck, tells me as soon as I sit down, ‘I had a bad flying experience a couple months ago, so I’m going to be really nervous during this flight.’  It was a stormy night and the turbulence was constant.  I ended up holding her hand the entire flight and guiding her through visualizations that we were in a long bus on a road full of potholes.  At one point, I pulled out the prayer card and put it on her tray. […] Finally, we landed.  She thanked me for all my help, and tried to hand me the card back.  I knew she had another leg of her trip to go.  So I said, ‘I think you need this more than I do.’  Two weeks later, my Dad brings me a large envelope.  My grandmother had died years earlier when I was living in Germany, and my Dad had collected all my letters to her in this envelope and promptly misplaced it.  He found it, as I said, years later, and gave it to me.  The first letter I opened, the first thing I pull out, was the prayer card.”[11]

Our stories echo Jacob’s story.  “Surely Yahweh is in this place – and I didn’t know it.”

And being surprised by the presence of God is not the only way our stories echo Jacob’s.

During his dream, Jacob hears God make a promise.  God reiterates the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah:  a land, many descendants, and the vocation of being a blessing to all the families of the earth.  And then we hear something more, something new.  God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise.

Kathryn Matthews Huey points out that “in those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land, but this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time.  It must have given Jacob great comfort to hear God promise to be with him always and to bring him back home to the land he had been promised.  Jacob hears these same promises on his way out of the land of promise, just as his grandfather heard them on his way in.  In either case, and in our case as well, James Newsome reminds us that the ‘initiative lies with God, our faithfulness … being a response occasioned by God’s compassionate intrusion into our sinful ways.’  Like us, Jacob only needs ‘to say yes to the living God’”[12]

There is an interesting “both/and” in this story.  Jacob erects a monument because there, in that “thin place,” he experienced the presence of God.  It is holy ground for him.  It is “Beth-el,” the house of God, the gate of heaven.  God is a God of holy places.  And, God is a God of relationships and promise, not tied to place.

This is important news as we prepare to leave this holy ground, this sanctuary, this thin place.  We trust that our new sanctuary will also be holy ground, that God is going there before us, consecrating that place, preparing it for us, making it a thin place for us.  We trust the not yet, that it will become.  And, at the same time, we trust that place really doesn’t matter ultimately.  What ultimately matters is our relationship with God and the promises – the promises God has made with us, the promises we have made with God, and the promise that we are for God’s creation.

God uses this rogue Jacob for a purpose.  That’s good news for us.  “Our colorful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us.”[13]

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God is with us, and God won’t leave us until God has fulfilled all that God has promised us – which, given our wonderful ability to mess things up, means God will never leave us.

 

[1] Ruth Garwood, in a comment posted on the Sermon Seeds (United Church of Christ) Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds, posted and accessed on 19 July 2014).

[2] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-20-2014.html (accessed on 19 July 2014).

[3] Sidney Greidanus in The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts, cited and quoted by Huey, op. cit.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Dreaming the Truth,” Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 102.

[5] Huey, op. cit.

[6] Taylor, op. cit.

[7] Richard Rohr, quoted on http://inaliminalspace.com/about/what (accessed 19 July 2014).

[8] Genesis 28:16.

[9] My Facebook page is www.facebook.com/RevJSS.

[10] Carly Stucklen Sather, slightly edited for typos and clarity.

[11] Joane Luesse

[12] Huey, op. cit.; quoting James Newsome from Texts for Preaching Year A.

[13] Huey, op. cit.

Posted by (Episcopal) Bishop Steven Charleston on Facebook on 1 July 2014; and I’m sharing it because I think it’s brilliant:

I have decided to do some time traveling. I am a little too accustomed to this time frame. It is time for a change. So I will travel in time by giving some of my time away. I will find someone who could use a little extra, an elder who would like to talk, a child who would like to play, a friend who would like to get a call, a group that could use an extra hand: I will find the destination for my experiment and give them as much of my time as I can. And by doing this, I will actually move from one place to another. I will move from this reality to a happier reality, to a place of smiles, to a sense of satisfaction at having made someone else’s time more meaningful.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 29, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

On Wednesday, I looked in my file of sermons for this week in the three-year lectionary cycle. I was stunned to discover that I preached on the Genesis passage three years ago, and three years before that, and, luckily, not three years before that.

Caravaggio’s “Sacrifice of Isaac,” which now hangs in the Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

There is something about this story that I find compelling, that draws me to it, that demands attention. There is something about the drama – the sense of betrayal, the offer of salvation, the juxtaposition of naïveté and the plotting – that hooks me. And now I have Caravaggio to blame for rekindling the drama in my psyche with his painting, which has stayed with me since I saw the original in Italy seven years ago. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this story called to me again this year, taunting me to reflect on it, wrestle with it, draw something from it.

My first reaction to the story is anger. I’m angry at a God who would call on a parent to sacrifice a child. I’m angry at a father who would go along with such a request. I’m angry at an absent mother who does nothing to stop it. And while I don’t think it’s the responsibility of children to stop their own abuse, I admit that I’m angry at a son who doesn’t cry out, “Stop it!” when his father binds him and places him on the altar.

A Facebook clergy friend posted a question on Friday: Does God test us?[1] Me being, well, me, I responded, “Quizzes … and a final exam.” Others engaged the question a little less flippantly. A lot of people think that God tests us. This scripture starts out with the assertion that God is testing Abraham.

You’re probably familiar with the old adage, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Based on that philosophy, God must think I’m freakin’ awesome. I don’t think God tests us, at least not in the way testing is portrayed in this story.

One of the gems Facebook discussion that followed the question said this: “I think my issue with ‘god is testing me’ is that it simply reinforces the mindset that everything is part of a plan – like [God’s] a dude with a cosmic checklist. ‘Let’s see, Tuesday 8am. Time to make some ducks cross the road in front of Timmy’s car so he’s late for his final, and I guess I can infect a few thousand people with Ebola in Africa too. Everything is going according to plan!’
“That mindset is what gives atheists like me some heartburn … because it removes personal responsibility. ‘Give all of your problems to god and he’ll carry them’ or ‘Well, it’s part of god’s plan’ can pretty easily transition to ‘I was just doing what god told me to do’, which is pretty reminiscent of ‘I was just following orders’.”[2] It occurred to me, as I read that comment, that “I was just following orders” is pretty much Abraham’s excuse.

So, regardless of what the Bible says, I reject the notion that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It turns out there may be some scriptural basis for this rejection. The practice of human sacrifice was central to the religions of Israel’s neighbors, and so human sacrifice stands as a backdrop to the story’s first hearers. I would like to think (and I’ll explain more later as to why I think this is true) that if child sacrifice was culturally abhorrent, surely Abraham would have bargained with God to save his own son. But because human sacrifice was culturally normative, God’s demand could easily have struck Abraham as harsh and bitter without seeming ungodly.

A Jewish Commentary says, “It is therefore important to notice that in the beginning of the test the command is issued by Elohim – the generic for God or gods – and the command is one that other elohim could and did make. But when the sacrifice is about to be performed it is Abraham’s God, Adonai, who stays his hand. Elohim might ask him to proceed, but Adonai says ‘No.’ He, too, will ask extreme devotion, but it will never again take this form.”[3]

That’s one of my takeaways from this story: God stays Abraham’s hand. And if we take nothing else from this story, let us take that fact: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Caravaggion's "Sacrifice of Isaac," detail

Caravaggion’s “Sacrifice of Isaac,” detail

Regardless of who called Abraham to sacrifice his son – whether it was elohim from the surrounding religions or the God who called Abraham and Sarah to leave Haran – regardless of who called Abraham to sacrifice his son, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Whenever we think of sending our sons and daughters into situations where we ask them to kill and die, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Whenever we ask our sons and daughters to be the knife that will slice the throat of another father’s son, another mother’s daughter, the Isaacs and Isabels of other nations, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

If we ever think we should just send back home the undocumented children who have fled violence by coming to our country, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

If we ever think we don’t have a responsibility to protect children who suffer abuse, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

If we remember nothing else from this story, let us remember: God stays Abraham’s hand.

Of course, I think there is more to learn, more for us to remember from this story. There are two additional themes in this story that universalize it: trust and sacrifice.

Taken out of context, the Abraham of this story seems like a real – I’ll let you fill in the epithet – who doesn’t give a damn about human life. He takes his son on a three-day journey so he can kill him. Joy Moore[4] points out that this image of Abraham stands in sharp contrast to the one we read about just four chapters earlier.

In Genesis 18, Abraham dickers with God in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah. He argues that if there are 50 righteous people in Sodom, the city really ought to be spared. God agrees and then Abraham argues God all the way down to just 10. If there are 10 righteous people in Sodom, God agrees not to destroy the city. Here, Abraham displays deep compassion for humanity. (And it is because of this window into Abraham’s character that I assume he would have bargained for Isaac’s life if child sacrifice was culturally abhorrent.)

Moore sees this story in light of what Micah says God requires of all people: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.[5] She calls this “submission.” I call it “commitment.” Abraham is totally committed to God and totally compassionate toward humanity. And this cruciform commitment – a vertical commitment to God and a horizontal commitment to humanity – sometimes puts us in a place of tension. Sometimes these two commitments seem to call us in contradictory directions.

“God … will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,”[6] Abraham tells Isaac when he wonders about what will be offered in sacrifice. I’ve always read this as a loaded answer. I’ve always read this as Abraham not lying to Isaac, but also not telling the truth.

But maybe Abraham is able to be so obedient, so committed to God because Abraham has such a huge trust in God. They’ve been through a lot together: desert travel, foreign countries, palace intrigue, spousal mishaps, family fights, battles, circumcision, a son and slave sent off into exile. Maybe Abraham’s answer comes out of this place of trust. Maybe Abraham believed that God told him to take his son off to be sacrificed, trusting all along that God would provide a substitute sacrifice.

This story is an invitation to a trust in God that is beyond mindless obedience.

The story is also about sacrifice. Maybe Abraham believed that God was God and he wasn’t. Maybe Abraham believed that God really was calling him to kill his son, trusting in the deep Abraham way that God would be faithful and make it all work out in the end.

Abraham could have said, “No,” to God. Abraham could have heard God’s call to take his son to the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice, and Abraham could have said, “No.” I’m sure it’s happened before, that people have said “no” to God.

But in my experience, the divine magic happens when we tell God, “Yes.” The thing is, saying “yes” to God almost always requires a “no” to something else. Saying “yes” to God almost always requires a willingness to let go of something.

I finally got around to watching the Disney musical animated movie, Frozen, last week. I should probably give a spoiler alert here. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to tell you about some of the movie, though I don’t think I’ll tell so you much that I ruin it for you.

The story centers around two sisters, princesses whose parents die early in the film. The elder sister, Elsa, has a – I’m looking for a neutral term here – a skill that might be a blessing or it might be a curse. She was raised to think of it as a curse. The blessing is that, using willpower, she is able to create cold. The curse is that sometimes this skill manifests itself as an emotional response, so she is doesn’t trust it.

“Conceal it. Don’t feel it,” her parents tell her. And she tells herself the same thing. She separates herself from others, including her beloved sister, lest she unintentionally injures them. She locks herself away and locks her skill away, until finally she’s had enough.

The song from the show that is most famous is, “Let it Go.”[7] Elsa sings it about mid-way through the movie. She is singing about letting go of all the energy she’s used to keep her skill a secret and locked up inside herself. This is, in many ways, her coming out song: this is who I am, this skill is my gift. Except that she sings it to no one, because she’s run off into the mountains.

Her true release doesn’t come until she allows herself to be embraced by others – in all of who she is – by letting go of her fear. Only when she accepts that love does she find fullness of life.

Genesis 22 is about sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of our sons and daughters, but the sacrifice that takes place when we willingly let go of anything we’re holding on to that gets in the way of God’s desire for abundant life for us. What are you holding onto that gets in the way of abundant life? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Thich Nhat Hanh

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh a Vietnamese Buddhist monk exiled in France, struggled to find a way to peace in his home country and around the world. “He was once asked straight on by someone if he would be willing to sacrifice Buddhism for the sake of peace. And he knocked the guy over by saying, ‘Of course. If I weren’t willing to sacrifice Buddhism for the sake of peace, I would have already sacrificed Buddhism.’”[8]

What are you willing to sacrifice? Or perhaps the more fruitful question is, what are you unwilling to sacrifice? The answer to these questions will tell us what stands in the way of abundant life.

Amen.

[1] Darrin Harvey, https://www.facebook.com/darrin.harvey1 (posted 27 June 2014).

[2] Scott Grant, comment posted on 28 June 2014; a couple spelling corrections were made.

[3] W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 149.

[4] Joy J. Moore, “Words We Wish Weren’t Here,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/words-we-wish-weren’t-here (accessed 24 June 2014).

[5] Micah 6:8, NRSV: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good;and what does the Lord require of you
 but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

[6] Genesis 22:18a, NRSV.

[7] You can see/hear the song here: : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0MK7qz13bU

[8] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, TheCurse and Blessing of the Wilderness,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/curse-and-blessing-wilderness (24 June 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 22, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I was chatting online with a friend in Seattle this past week as today’s gospel lesson bubbled in the back of my mind.  Joe has had two careers, one professional, the other volunteer.  His volunteer career has included helping with various youth programs that serve lgbt[1] kids and young adults.  I asked him to share a story with me.

I’ll call the boy Juan.  He was living in Yakima, Washington, when in mid-November, his father caught him chatting online with another boy in a gay chat room.  “His incensed father threw him out of his home, with only the clothes he could gather within 30 minutes and stuff in his school backpack.  His father threatened him bodily harm if he remained in Yakima with other family members or friends, forbidding him future contact with his mom, siblings, or other relatives of his extended family.”[2]

Apparently, Juan wandered the streets of Yakima that night and managed to get a bus ticket to Seattle.  Wandering, lost, not knowing what to do, Juan spent at least one more night on the Seattle streets with nothing to eat.

The next day Juan approached Jim Aiken, one of Joe’s friends, who had had an accident that left him disabled.  Jim lives in an Assisted Living Residence and gets around on a scooter, typically traveling with “his trusty mongrel dog Sunny perched on his lap.”  It was a blustery, dreary, wet, chilly day – in other words, a normal Seattle November day – when Juan approached him.   Disabled, “Jim is on a limited income, but is regularly accosted by street people asking for a handout.  As this teen approached, he brusquely said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to give you.’  Juan was taken aback, commenting that all he wanted to do was pet Jim’s dog.

“The fastest way to Jim’s heart is to like his dog, so he melted, and permitted the boy to pet Sunny.  The dog responded with tail wagging and happy sounds – which clued Jim in that the boy was ‘all right.’”  It didn’t take Jim long to sense “something was out of place.  The kid looked tired and haggard, not the normal kid on Seattle’s streets, so as they chatted Jim began fishing for this Juan’s backstory.”

When he learned the details, Jim sprang into action.  He called his caseworker who connected them up with Child Protective Services, and Juan got placed in a foster home with a lesbian couple.  What a difference in environment.  Knowing he was on his way, his foster moms made sure there was a hot meal waiting for him.  “He had a chance to take a hot shower, and was bundled up in robes and blankets. They stayed up for several hours getting acquainted.  Then he had a warm bed, in what was now his bedroom, in which to sleep.”

Juan’s foster moms have created a sea of love for him and he is thriving.  He is enrolled in school and should be graduating in a year.  Things are looking up for Juan, but Child Protective Services has advised Juan that he not reveal his location or his school to his birth family.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”[3]

This is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, one of those sayings one wishes he hadn’t said, or at least that it didn’t get written down.  And I have a tendency to suspect that the harder the saying, the more likely it is to be authentically Jesus (as opposed to the community’s remembering or creation of a saying of Jesus).  It is a saying that I suspect Juan and his father hear quite differently.  How sad that Juan’s father thought his hating the fact that Juan is gay was a faithful act that led him to reject his son.

The sword that Jesus brings is not a literal sword.  When Jesus is arrested and a literal sword is drawn, he tells his disciples to put away the sword.[4]  This sword is figurative.  It represents the conflict that discipleship can create – be it discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message or somehow corrupts it.

Leaving Juan’s father aside, I want to focus on discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message of love, on ministry that turns social norms on their heads and embraces the outcasts and the marginalized.  As one commentator put it, “Readiness for this kind of ministry requires a fair amount of fire in the bones.  Decisions about parlor carpet only require us to be practical.  The ministry … encompassed by Jesus depends on resolve that can sustain a person even from the bottom of a well.”[5]

If you’ve ever been at the bottom of a well, you know what you want.  More than anything else, you want the people who are supposed to love you.  You want the community and the family that you have called home.  Jesus is saying that if you really follow him, if you really allow your first allegiance is to him, you may not have that home any more.

Kari Jo Verhulst points out, “To follow the one who loved unto death is to embody the one whose radical redefinition of who belongs and what matters denounces all previous sets of priorities.  To hold up this ‘dangerous memory [of freedom]’ is risky business.  By doing so, we are reminded that perfect love takes sides, and that it demands nothing less than our lives.”[6]

Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written to Jewish followers of Jesus, probably about the time these Jesus-followers were getting kicked out of the synagogue.  Following Jesus had real consequences.  Much like Juan experienced for embracing his identity, Jesus-followers could get kicked out of their families for embracing their identity.  We’ve heard about the martyrs of old, people who were killed because of their faith, but we forget about the “lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures.”[7]

Paul writes, “we have been buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[8]  “To be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Paul’s thinking, is to die to one’s previous identity in order to be reborn into the ‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).  The Greek baptizestai literally means ‘to drown.’  It was used in Hellenistic Greek to describe death-by-shipwreck.  For Paul, baptism is a far more radical thing than even the ‘remission of sins’ …  Though we ritualize this incorporation into the body of Christ at a given moment of dedication, experientially we are forever being drawn more fully into the life of God, which, in turn, draws us more deeply into the world.”[9]

Barbara Brown Taylor offers this reflection:  “I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me.  I am Barbara.  I am Christian.  I am a child of God.  That is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it … [Y]ou are God’s child first.  That is no role.  That is who you most truly are …”[10]

Paul’s point, and Taylor’s and Jesus’, is that “claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well.  As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes …, Taylor says that ‘Jesus’ demand remains the same.  We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise:  that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.’”[11]

Jesus invites us into the waters of baptism not just to clean up our act, not just to wash away the residue of sin from our lives.  We’re invited to step into the waters and drown, to drown in a sea of love that will not leave us as we once were.

I can’t imagine the death that Juan has experienced (and probably still is experiencing) by needing to let go of his attachments to his birth family.  Yet I know that the sea of love that his foster family has created for him has led to his transformation.  He once was lost, but now he’s found.  He once was a street kid, rejected, pushed aside, chased out of his hometown.  Now he’s a leader in his school and is thinking about colleges.  That’s what the sea of love can do, if we’ll let ourselves drown in it and allow that love to raise us to new life.

Joe finished telling me this story by reminding me that there are an estimated 1,000 teens and young adults living on the streets in Seattle, doing whatever is necessary to survive, and that about two-thirds of these homeless, mostly boys, are gay, kicked out of their usually fundamentalist Christian homes upon discovery of their sexual orientation.  “This is happening now, it is real,” Joe said.  “Juan was one of the fortunate ones.”

I checked online last night for Bay Area statistics.  “In addition to the 6,436 homeless adults counted during one night last year [just in the city of San Francisco], a separate daytime count specifically of homeless youth found 914 children and young adults living in San Francisco without parents or guardians and without a roof over their heads.”[12]  San Francisco has just 350 beds available for homeless youth on any given night.[13]  I wasn’t able to find statistics about homelessness in the Tri-Cities last night.  I’d like to think that the number of youth living on the streets of Fremont without a parent or guardian and without a roof is miniscule, but I suspect I’m wrong.  And I bet there are kids who are couch surfing because living at home isn’t safe.
Are these readings meant to be reassuring?  I think so, though at first blush they aren’t.  Who wants to lay down their life?  Baptismal death is comfortable if it’s just symbolic.  But to really let a part of ourselves die – whether it’s letting our sense of self that comes from our family ties die or something as basic to the spiritual journey as letting our egos die – that’s scary.  No wonder Jesus keeps saying, “Fear not.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson translates these verses in The Message, reinterpreting “fear not”:

“Don’t be intimidated.  Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.
“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.  There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in [God’s] hands.
“What’s the price of a pet canary?  Some loose change, right?  And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.  [God] pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail – even numbering the hairs on your head!  So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.  You’re worth more than a million canaries.”[14]

“To really lay down our lives,” writes Shelley Douglass, “we risk what is most precious to us.  It is a real risk.  Marriages end, parents and children are estranged, livelihoods are lost or damaged – not to mention jail sentences served, beatings endured, lives lost.  Jesus doesn’t promise to keep our lives comfortable.  He promises just the opposite:  We will walk into the wall.

“The comfort is not that we won’t die, but that if we die for his sake we will live again.  Like Jesus we will live a transformed life.  We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be.  We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves.  And we believe – sometimes barely – that when the dust has settled we will be acknowledged by Jesus, and will regain our lives.”[15]

So step on in to the sea of love with me.  The water’s fine.  Amen.

 

[1] LGBT is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

[2] The quotes I use here are direct quotes from Joe Hopkins’ retelling of the story of this boy.

[3] Matthew 10:34-38, NRSV.

[4] See Matthew 26:47-54, NRSV.

[5] Jennifer Copeland, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 11 June 2014, 20.

[6] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Love Takes Sides,” Sojourner, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/love-takes-sides (accessed 17 June 2014).

[7]Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-22-2014.html (accessed 19 June 2014).

[8] Romans 6:4, NRSV.

[9] Kari Jo Verhulst, op. cit.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering; quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Heather Knight, “S. F. homeless youth count nears 1,000 despite spending,” SFGate, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-homeless-youth-count-nears-1-000-despite-5307431.php (posted 12 March 2014; accessed 21 June 2014).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Matthew 10:26-31, The Message.

[15] Shelley Douglass, “Walking into the Wall,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/walking-wall (accessed 17 June 2014).

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others – even our enemies – is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

That is the text of the “Charter for Compassion.”

On February 28, 2008 acclaimed scholar and bestselling author Karen Armstrong received the TED Prize (you can see her TED speech here: http://bit.ly/1yfWMJZ) and made a wish – to help create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion. After much work and the contribution of thousands of people, the Charter was unveiled to the world on November 12, 2009.

“The Charter for Compassion is a document that transcends religious, ideological, and national differences,” the website for the Charter says. “Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter activates the Golden Rule around the world.

“The Charter for Compassion is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems.”

The Tri-City Interfaith Council, a local organization that I am active in, is inviting individuals from all faith communities in the Tri-Cities to sign the Charter.  You can do this at http://charterforcompassion.org/the-charter).  They are inviting Faith Communities to sign the Charter, becoming Partner Organizations.  I will be asking the Cabinet to designate Niles Discovery Church as a Partner.  And then the Tri-City Interfaith Council will be working on getting Fremont, Union City, and Newark to become Compassionate Cities.

I hope you will give serious consideration to joining this movement.

 

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Two weeks ago, we heard from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, one of Luke’s versions of what we now call “the ascension.” In his final appearance, the resurrected Christ charges his disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]

Today, we heard the final verses of the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This is Matthew’s version of the ascension, except that Jesus doesn’t float away into the heavens. In his final appearance, the resurrected Christ charges his disciples to “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”[2]

This scripture reading is very rich with sermon possibilities. It has a line I love: “When they [the disciples] saw him [the resurrected Christ], they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Doubt is not an impediment to participation in the community nor in the mission. The passage raises issues of authority and power. It has an invitation to talk about baptism. It has the assurance of Christ’s presence with us always – even though Jesus isn’t with us the way he is depicted as being with the disciples in the resurrection stories in the gospel.

None of these is the topic of today’s sermon. Today is Trinity Sunday and I suspect that today’s gospel lesson was picked because of these words: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is how the resurrected Christ tells the disciples to baptize new disciples.

Baptism practices were not uniform in the early church. You can find examples in Acts of people being baptized in the name of Jesus (not mentioning anyone else), but this Trinitarian formula has become the ecumenical standard for baptism. A little over 30 years ago, the World Council of Churches published a convergence of agreement,[3] that any baptism done “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” would be recognized by all Christian churches.

We know that, since the Gospel of Matthew was written in the 1st century, the concept of the Trinity existed in Christianity from at least that time. But what is the relationship between these three persons and how are they the same and how are they different? That was an issue of much debate in the early church. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity didn’t get nailed down and become officially official until the 4th century.

In fact, it was a group that denied the divinity of Jesus that caused the church to hold a council in Nicaea in 325 that produced the first version of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. 

 And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; 

By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; 

Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; 

He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; 

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 

 And in the Holy Ghost.”[4]

The bulk of the creed focuses on Jesus, on who Jesus was and is. This first draft came under attack and another Council was held in Constantinople in 381. The creed was rewritten and a lengthier paragraph about the Holy Spirit was added.[5]

Christianity has continued to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity. Other councils have been held through history. Now things are pretty settled. “The doctrine of the Trinity … defines God as three consubstantial persons, expressions, or hypostases: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit; ‘one God in three persons’. The three persons are distinct, yet are one ‘substance, essence or nature’.”[6]

And if that made your brain hurt, you’re not alone.

486px-Andrej_Rublëv_001The church has, over the centuries tried to explain how 1 + 1 + 1 can equal 1. The bulletin cover has a picture[7] of a 15th century Russian icon of the three angels who visited Abraham (Genesis 18:1-6), seen as a Hebrew Scriptures representation of the Trinity. Here, the persons of the Trinity are very distinct, a visual depiction of how trinitarianism can drift into tri-theism. The attempts at explanation have included the creation of the so-called “Shield of the Trinity,” a version[8] of which is printed on the inside back cover of the bulletin.

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svgA story is told[9] about St. Augustine. One day he took a break from writing about the Trinity to take a walk along the seashore. As he walked, he came across a child with a little pail, intently scooping up a pail-full of water out of the ocean, walking up the beach, and dumping it out into the sand. Then she went back to the water, scooped out another pail of water, and poured it on the sand. She kept doing this until Augustine interrupted her. “What are you doing child?”

“Why, I’m emptying the sea out into the sand.”

When Augustine pointed out the absurd impossibility of this task, the child replied, “Ah, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”

One of the more famous explainers of the Trinity was St. Patrick. I’m not sure how many of these analogies[10] are his, some I’m sure.

  • The Trinity is like water, which you can find in three forms: liquid, solid (ice), and vapor (steam). Which, alas, is the heresy of modalism: that heresy that God isn’t three distinct persons, but that God reveals God’s self in three different forms.
  • The Trinity is like the sun. You have the star, the light, and the heat. Alas, this is the heresy Arianism: a heresy that the Son and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father and not of one nature with the Father. The heat and light are not the star itself, but merely creations of the star.
  • The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, one clover made up of three leaves. Alas, this is the heresy of partialism: the assertion that the different persons of the Godhead are not distinct persons but are different parts of the God, each composing one-third of the divine.
  • The Trinity is like how the same man can be a father, a son, and an employer – except that’s modalism again.
  • The Trinity is like three parts of an apple, skin, flesh, and core – except that’s partialism again.

Maybe you can see where I got the title for today’s sermon. The reality is that any attempt to explain the Trinity quickly falls into heresy.

If the early church had simply said, “We believe in one God who is made known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we might still have argued how Jesus could have been fully human and fully divine, but we wouldn’t have gotten lost in worries about the hypostatic union of the Godhead. The Trinity would simply be an expression of how God is experienced – except that’s the heresy of modalism.

So, call me a heretic. If we left it simple, it would be easier to get away from gender-specific language. We believe in one God who is known to us as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Or we believe in one God, for us, with us, and within us.[11] People have tried to find new language to move away from the traditional male-dominant naming the persons of the Trinity – language that perpetuates male supremacy and privilege – but often what ends up happening is “Father” is simply replaced with “God,” and then we end up with God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which makes the Son and the Holy Spirit not God, and that ends up being tri-theistic.

One of the gifts I have received by being a pastor here in Fremont is the exposure I have had to Islam, and one of the tenants of Islam is the there is one God. The radical monotheism of Islam has challenged me to beware of a trinitarianism that drifts toward tri-theism.

Martin Luther supposedly said, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”[12] I agree with the second part of his statement; trying to comprehend the Trinity can drive you crazy. I’m not so sure about the first part (I told you this would be a heretical sermon). At this point on my spiritual journey, the doctrine of the Trinity really isn’t all that important to me, other than as a naming system for how I encounter God. That’s why I like Diana Butler Bass’ “God for us, God with us, God within us.”

And maybe that’s the real value of the doctrine of the Trinity to me now: it’s something that invites me to think about this God I worship, this God I pray to, this God I encounter in the world.

I know that on my spiritual journey, I have seasons where I connect more with one person of the Trinity than the others.[13] There are times when I have connected more with God as the Creator. There are times when I have connected more with God revealed in Jesus. There are times when I have connected more with God experienced as the Holy Spirit. And it doesn’t matter what season I’m in, the other persons of the Trinity call to me, inviting me to explore and expand my understanding and experience of God, pulling me out of whatever my spiritual comfort zone is in that season.

There is one other aspect of the Trinity that is calling me to reflection – and this is new for me – on the Trinity as an invitation to kin-dom community. The notion here is that if God is Trinity, God is community. “God is not just personal but interpersonal, not just unit but union.”[14] And if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we are not just personal but interpersonal, not just unit but union. And the very way we are created is to be in union, based on the love of God, the co-equality of persons of the Trinity, the unity of purpose within God. Imagine the impact it would have on human community if we were to model it on the community of the Trinity – to base the community on the love of God, to treat each member of the community as equal, to have unity of purpose within the community.

Yes, I did spend some time this week contemplating the hypostatic unity of the Trinity (whoo-hoo!). But I agree with Anne Lamott.[15] Trying to understand the mystery of this idea really isn’t important – even if that makes you a heretic. What’s much more important is that this idea can invite us deeper into the love of God and the love of neighbor, and that’s something that is important.

[1] Acts 1:6, NRSV.

[2] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.

[3] See http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-commissions/faith-and-order-commission/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text to download the document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.

[4] Early Church History – CH101, http://www.churchhistory101.com/century4-p8.php (14 June 2014).

[5] See http://carm.org/nicene-creed for the Constantinople version.

[6] “Trinity,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity (12 June 2014).

[7] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Andrej_Rublëv_001.jpg.

[8] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svg.

[9] Adapted from a story shared in an email from sermons.com, dated 9 June 2014. The story is attributed to King Duncan, from his Collected Sermons. The original has the child as a boy. I changed this to a girl for pronoun clarity in the telling.

[10] These examples are gleaned from a humorous YouTube video posted by Lutheran Satire. You can see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw.

[11] Diana Butler Bass, tweet on 5 April 2014: “Based on a reflection by Henri Nouwen, thinking about the Trinity as God for us/God with us/God within us.”

[12] From the same email from sermons.com; no further source cited.

[13] I am indebted to the “Stillspeaking Daily Devotional” Tony Robinson wrote for 25 May 2013 for helping me concretize this reflection.

[14] Robert Campbell, “The Relational Trinity and the Human Community,” Pastor Bob’s Musings, http://tullyrobert.blogspot.com/2007/09/relational-trinity-and-human-community.html, posted 13 September 2007; quoting Kallistos Ware, “The Trinity: Heart of Our Life,” Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics, & Orthodox in Dialogue, Jams S. Cutsinger, ed., (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press: 1997), p. 136; accessed 14 June 2014.

[15]“I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, quoted on http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/trinity, accessed 10 June 2014. This quote was printed in the worship bulletin as a “Thought for Quiet Reflection.”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 8, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Every year, we come to this story.  Every year, 50 days after Easter, we read from Acts 2 and we hear the story of the birth of the church.

The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapter of Acts tells us about the disciples having palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he was dead.  They had experiences that were so concrete it was like he was physically present, even though they were locked away in rooms.  They had experiences that were so profound they were sure they were getting directions from him even though they knew the Roman government had killed him.

But then those experiences we call “resurrection experiences” stopped.  The sense of the presence of Jesus was no longer like he was physically present to them.  It was as if he had disappeared into the presence of God and since, given the cosmology of that time, God was in the heavens and the heavens are “up,” they talked about Jesus ascending into the heavens.

Last week, Pastor Brenda preached about what happened after this “ascension.”  She told us about how the disciples discerned a mission, a purpose.  They discerned that Jesus was calling them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]  The line from Pastor Brenda’s sermon that stuck with me all week is that, after discerning this calling, the disciples (and I’m not just talking about the 12; this was a sizable group of men and women) formed a community, not a committee.  They devoted themselves to praying together and they selected an additional leader, someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, and the community formed.

It was on one of those days, on Pentecost, the Jewish festival of new harvest, when this new community was gathered together in their upper room, praying together, that God acted.  The Holy Spirit blew through the community and they started sharing the good news.  Apparently they were speaking loudly enough that people outside, people from all around the Mediterranean world, could hear them – and not only hear them, but understand them.

“On a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise,… these Jewish ‘ignorant, backwater folks’ (a stereotype conveyed by the term ‘Galileans,’ but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.”[2]

“According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind.”[3]  You’ll remember that the story of the Tower of Babel tells about the people taking advantage of all speaking one language and trying to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to the heavens, to the thrown of God.  God dealt with this hubris by confusing the languages of the people, thus making communication impossible and scattering the people throughout the earth.  Pentecost reverses this, making people from across the earth understand each other.

Bringing back together the broken and divided community of the Tri-Cities is a big part of our vision for our church.  We proclaim that we are united – united – in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  We are and are becoming a place of healing and wholeness for all God’s people, reaching in and reaching out with the gifts that we have to make manifest the radically inclusive love and extravagant welcome of God.  We do this in many ways – to name a few, we do it by creating a place of spiritual nurture in our worship service; by nurturing the faith journey of our children and adults; by creating a center for worship and mission (where it can take place and out of which it can take place); and by bringing the church to our members who can no longer come to church themselves.

That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Focusing on just a handful of the ministries of our church and letting them represent all the ministries of the church, we are showing how, together we build the house of God.  When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought about how the Spirit is alive in our church.  Our ministries do show how the Spirit is blowing through our congregation, empowering our ability to live out the good news.  And as I thought more about the scripture reading, I realized the church is also alive in the Spirit.  It really is a both/and thing.  The Spirit empowers our ability to minister and our ministry is alive in the Spirit.  The importance of the story isn’t only, “Wow! Look at what the Spirit is doing in that church!”  It is also, “Wow! Look at what that church is doing in the Spirit!”

When the disciples gathered in the safety of the upper room, the Spirit came and the story moved forward.  Once again, God reignited the work of God’s people, gathering in God’s people in love and blessing.  In the mystery of fire and wind, language and understanding, the fearful disciples were converted to the work that God has always been doing:  loving, gathering and uniting, forgiving and raising up.  “The community gathered in that room could articulate every kind of reason not to go – lacking the right words or training or free time or money.  Yet they [were] suddenly and miraculously inspired, despite themselves, to act just like Jesus.  The Spirit embodied in Jesus now fill[ed] their bodies – the body of Christ.

“Today, our shifting cultural landscape creates fear about our future.  We might not be gathered in an upper room, but there is a lot of fear in [sanctuaries and social halls of the churches].  We wonder if our towers and our treasured belief[s] will survive the winds of this century.”[4]  We can let our fear keep us sheltered away or we can let the Spirit continue to blow through our lives and continue to find new ways to gather in God’s people in love and blessing.

We say that Pentecost is the church’s birthday, but it’s not the founding of an institution.  It’s the inauguration of a movement of people “who speak blessing and take back curses.”[5]

I read about “a Pentecost children’s sermon in which the pastor asked the children how many candles should be on the church’s birthday cake.  Eventually, one kid guessed the year – but she added that ‘you can’t blow out that many candles.’”[6]  Think about that.  “You can’t blow out that many candles.”  Whenever I fear about the future of the church, I remind myself that it is God’s church, that the Spirit is empowering the church and human beings can’t blow it out.

“Again and again, God promises to set us on fire with a promise that cannot be extinguished.  From the pinnacle of Pentecost, we hear that God is already at work filling the whole creation with blessing.…  If we’re [lucky and if we allow ourselves to be not too] careful, it’s going to carry us away, too – to the ends of the earth, or at least out the door and into the wideness of creation.”[7]

Amen.

__________________

[1] Acts 1:8

[2]  Matthew L. Skinner in New Proclamation Year B 2006, cited by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-8-2014.html (5 June 2014).

[3] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, cited by Huey, ibid.

[4] Bradley E. Schmeling, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 28 May 2014, p 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 25, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Acts 17:16-31
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Later this afternoon, the community that is Pacific School of Religion will gather for the 2014 Commencement ceremonies. Students who have spent years studying theology, scriptural interpretation, faith formation, pastoral care, and worship leadership will walk across a platform and be handed a piece of paper proclaiming that they have completed their studies. Most of them will move on from the academic world into a local church to serve as a pastor – if not immediately, eventually. One of those people is named Pepper.

Pepper is a friend of Pastor Brenda. They met as adults at Eden United Church of Christ. It took Pepper quite a while to come to church. She was invited repeatedly by another friend until she finally showed up. And then it took a while to decide to apply to seminary. And today, she will receive a Masters of Divinity degree and a declaration that she is trained and ready to serve the church as a pastor.

I share this story in part to celebrate this year’s graduates of my seminary. And more importantly, I share it because it is a story of evangelism. That persistent friend whose name I don’t know was instrumental in bringing Pepper to this day. Had this persistent friend whose name I do not know given up in extending the invitation, Pepper would not be moving on to provide excellent leadership to the church. This persistent friend whose name I do not know acted in the best Pauline tradition.

Paul is probably more famous in our congregation for writing things that have been interpreted to be very patriarchal and even anti-women, as he is for being an evangelist. His sexist writings are fodder for some other sermons. Today, I want to focus on his actions in Athens, the story we heard in today’s reading from Acts.

Paul is in the midst of one of his evangelical journeys, traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting new churches and encouraging the converts to this new way, this new religion of Jesus-followers. Silas and Timothy have stayed behind at their last stop and Paul has gone on ahead to Athens. Paul had some time waiting for the others to catch up, and, in his wanderings around Athens, he got upset. He noticed that the city was full of idols, and as a good Jew, this was upsetting. Upsetting enough that Paul couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

So every day, he would go somewhere where there were people – the synagogue, the marketplace – and he would talk about God and Jesus and the resurrection. He got into arguments with Epicureans, who believed that the gods did not intervene in daily life.[1] He got into arguments with Stoics, who suppressed passions and focused on behavior over beliefs.[2] Based on who he argued with, it appears that Paul thought that what you believed mattered, that you should believe in one God (Yahweh) who is active in daily life, and that there are reasons to be passionate.

The Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill

So they took Paul out to the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill by the Romans, for further discussion. In classical times, the Areopagus was the seat of the Athenian court of appeals, a place of justice and judgment.[3] By this time, the author of Acts seems to say that it has become a place of much more common conversation: “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” is now the New Revised Standard Version translates the description.[4] The more vernacular paraphrase, The Message, translates the description, “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.”[5] Paul used this as another opportunity to share his good news.

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[6] In his travels around Athens, Paul not only found the upsetting altars and idols, he also found an altar to an unknown god. I guess the Athenians were covering all the bases.

Paul found his opening.

Paul decided he could use this “unknown god” as an opening to tell the people gathered there about Yahweh and Jesus (though, interestingly, Paul doesn’t specifically name Jesus). Paul tells them that the uncontainable God is the creator of the universe and gives us life. “From one ancestor,” Paul says, “[Yahweh] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for … and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”[7]

Paul has an interesting assumption there – one that I agree with: Human beings long for a connection with the transcendent, with divinity, with the ultimate, with God. And since God made us, we can’t make God. This God we long for can’t be limited to altars and shrines and idols. Paul’s “doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent. Only late in the paragraph of Paul’s speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to ‘a man whom [God] has appointed’ (Acts 17: 31). The speech culminates with reference to Jesus about whom Paul makes this affirmation: First, Jesus is raised from the dead. Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.”[8] The One who made us calls us to repent from our ignorance and from our unrighteousness.

Two months ago when I was reading the lections assigned for the Sundays in May and thinking about sermon topics and worship themes, the thing that struck me about this scripture reading, this particular lection, was how Paul found his opening. He had a message he wanted to share and he found his opening. There on the streets of Athens was an altar to an unknown God. “I can use that,” Paul must have thought. “I was looking for an opening and there it is. That’s my door to sharing this message I have.”

I noticed this and I decided that my sermon today would be about evangelism. As I studied this scripture more carefully this past week I noticed that it wasn’t only an opening that Paul had. Looking carefully at the story, I see he had five things.

First, he had something to share. Paul was an upholder of the purity of Judaism when he had an experience, an encounter with the resurrected Christ. His life was transformed. He had a whole new purpose – letting people know about what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what he knew in his life and it’s what he had to share.

Second, he had a reason for sharing it. He probably had reasons (plural) for sharing it. Here in Athens, we read that his reason was how upset he was by seeing all the altars to false gods and idols. The people of the city didn’t even know who the real God was, let alone anything about Jesus.

Third, he had people to share it with. People gathered in the synagogue and in the market place. They liked to talk, to gossip. They liked to argue philosophy.

Fourth, he had is opening – the altar to an unknown god.

And fifth, he had the persistence to keep sharing it until someone started to listen. He went to the synagogue. He went to the market place. He went to that Areopagus. And eventually, some people listened and were convinced and joined this movement of Jesus-followers.

On the last page of your bulletins (or the cover of the announcements if you have a large print bulletin), you’ll find five questions with blank space to write down some notes. These five questions are based on the five things I identified that Paul had in Athens.
What do you have to share?
What is your reason for sharing it?
With what people could you share it?
What opening might there be to share it?
Do you have the persistence to keep sharing it?
The invitation of this sermon is for you to think about these five questions and join Paul in his evangelism work.

I think it’s really important to think about questions 1 and 2 before you start looking for your audience and opening. I, of course, have had a few days to think about these questions, so I’m going to share a few of my reflections about them.

My life has meaning and grounding and direction because of my relationship with God – the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I have come to realize that if I didn’t have that relationship I might have meaning and grounding and direction, but I suspect that it would be in one of the idols of our culture, an idol like accumulation, greed, even violence. Instead, I’ve found meaning, grounding, and direction in Yahweh.

I’ve also come to realize that without a community that is also basing its life on a relationship with the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my faith journey would founder. I need and have found a community that welcomes me on my faith journey exactly where I am and encourages me to continue the journey. That’s what I have to share.

I believe that people want to know God, want to be connected to the transcendent, to the ultimate. Someone once said that each of us is born with a God-shaped hole. That metaphor works for me. I’ve seen people try to find ways to fill it. We try to fill it with addictions like drugs, food, and sex. We try to fill it with diversions and lies. We try to fill it with accolades and power. We try to fill it with accumulation and possession. But nothing really fits, nothing really fills it the way God does.

For the past millennium or more, the primary reason to share the good news of Jesus was to “save people,” to insure that they had an eternal place in paradise. Our hymns about evangelism still speak of this reason (or at least hint at this reason). I’m not worried about our place in eternity. I trust God to envelop in love all that is willing to be enveloped. So my reason for sharing this good news about being in relationship with God is for this life. I believe that people want to know the love of God that gives meaning, grounding, and purpose – but many don’t know, or they’ve forgotten that they want to know this love. That’s my reason for sharing it.

But who to share it with? I need to pay attention to this. In his “Apostolic Exhortation,” The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis identifies three populations that need to hear the good news: Those who are part of Christianity, but aren’t participating in Christian community; those who once were part of Christianity and have rejected it (or have been rejected by it, I would add); and those who have never been a part of Christianity.[9]

I think those are helpful populations to consider. I also know I’m not interested in sheep stealing. If someone is in relationship with God through some other religious tradition or through some other congregation, bless them. So, I want to find people who aren’t part of a faith community and to share this community with them because I believe that in this faith community, they can grow in their relationship with God.

I think the way to get more specific about who I could share this with is to pray. Unless you know immediately who you can share your faith with, I suggest praying. Earnestly ask God to place in your heart someone to share with.

Once you know who you might share with, you can start looking for your opening. You know what you want to share. You know why you want to share it. Now, suppose you have this new neighbor you could share it with. What’s your opening? Maybe you share an interest. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, neighbor, this Sunday our pastor’s going to preach on __________________. Would you be hearing what he (or she, if Brenda’s preaching) has to say? I’d be happy to give you a ride.”

And when that first invitation doesn’t work, look for another opening, and another, and another.

I don’t know if Pepper’s persistent friend whose name I don’t know had any inkling that God might be using her to get Pepper to be a Pastor, but it sure turned out that way. Thankfully, that friend was persistent, and Pepper eventually came to church.

So, take some time to answer these questions. Reflect on questions 1 and 2. Write your answers down. Come back to them. Read them again. Read them again before you ask God to show you who to share with. Then ask and really listen for an answer. Then look for an opening, and then another.

Niles Discovery Church is an amazing congregation. We are unique because of our embodiment of God’s radically inclusive welcome and our desire to encourage the journey with all its twists and turns of uncertainty, questioning, and doubts – to, in fact, welcome that uncertainty, questioning, and doubt because we know they further the journey. It’s worth sharing.

Amen.

 

[1] “Epicureanism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism (24 May 2014).

[2] “Stoicism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism (24 May 2014).

[3] “Areopagus,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus (24 May 2014).

[4] Acts 17:21, NRSV.

[5] Acts 17:21, The Message.

[6] Acts 17:22b-23, NRSV.

[7] Acts 17:26-27, NRSV.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, “A Daring Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/daring-love (24 May 2014).

[9] Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2013), 10-11.

As part of my pastoral prayer today, I focused on Memorial Day.  This is that portion of the prayer:

Holy One, as I stand here in prayer before you on this weekend when we acknowledge those who have died in war wearing our nation’s military uniforms, I confess that my mind swirls with concerns and feelings about the futility of war, about how the economy is a defacto military draft, and about our political system that seems too eager for war.

I also remember our history.  I remember that Memorial Day has its roots in the actions of a group of former slaves who, on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, in gratitude for fighting for their freedom, honored 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp by giving them a proper burial.

And when I quiet those thoughts and think about friends and family who have worn or are wearing our nation’s military uniforms, I know that every one of them celebrates the freedoms we enjoy.  And every one of them, regardless of how they felt or feel about our nation’s military strategies and the morality of any given war, believes that those freedoms are worth protecting.  And so I pause and acknowledge those who have died in uniform and I stand in awe of their sacrifice.  And I pause and grieve with the families of those who have died in uniform.  And I pause and pray for the safety of all people who wear military uniforms and for the day when none need wear a military uniform.  And I trust that, as you do in all things, you are drawing life out of each one of those losses and that you are drawing the world closer to your just peace.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 11, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Growing up, my family didn’t do much on Mother’s Day. I don’t know how much of that was my father’s disinterest in corralling the kids into doing something or my mother’s resistance to the commercialization of – well, anything. For whatever reason, we didn’t do much on Mother’s Day. A side effect was that I never learned the history of Mother’s Day – its radical, feminist history. Since then, I’ve learned.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

In the years leading up to the Civil War, West Virginian Ann Reeves Jarvis began organizing ‘Mothers’ Day Work Clubs’ to help improve health and sanitation through women’s education.[1] “An advocate for peace, Jarvis spent the Civil War years treating wounded soldiers and after the war threw herself into her faith by teaching Sunday School in the final decades of her life.”[2] Still, she never lost the dream of having a national Mothers’ Day.

Julia Ward Howe

In 1870, after the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Julia Ward Howe penned “A Mother’s Day Proclamation”:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

“Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

“In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”[3]

Howe’s version of Mother’s Day, an occasion for advocating peace, “was held successfully in Boston and elsewhere for several years, but eventually lost popularity and disappeared from public notice in the years preceding World War I.”[4] It was Jarvis’ daughter, Anna, who picked up her mother’s vision and began petitioning politicians to establish a national holiday. “Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations – like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association – picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law.  Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.”[5] And thus, today is the centennial celebration of Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

Tony Campolo is a well-known speaker, one of those speakers who I’ll quote from time to time in a sermon. As a result, he has spent much of his career on the road. This meant that his wife Peggy was the one at home bringing up their two children. Sometimes she would travel with Tony and end up engaged in conversations with accomplished, impressive, influential people.

After one such trip, Peggy confided to Tony that sometimes she found herself feeling intimidated by these encounters. Tony suggested she find some way to express how she values what she does. Well, not long after that, Tony and Peggy Campolo were at a party. A woman ask Peggy in a rather condescending tone, “Well, my dear, what do you do?”

Tony Campolo overheard his wife say: “I am nurturing two Homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in order that they might become instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia God envisioned from the beginning of time.”

“Oh,” the other woman said: “I’m just a lawyer.”[6]

In Jesus day, if anyone had a right to say, “Well, I’m just a …” it was shepherds. Their job was important, but they didn’t have social status. That’s why the angels’ announcing the birth of Jesus first of all to shepherds was scandalous.

Mosaic of Jesus the Good Shepherd, found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy.  Fifth century.

Mosaic of Jesus the Good Shepherd, found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy. Fifth century.

Yet “the shepherd” is a central theme in scripture. David, the runt of his family of brothers, is off tending the sheep when Samuel selects him to be king of Israel. Psalm 23 uses a shepherd as the central image for God. And one of the most important images of Jesus for the early church was Jesus as the Good Shepherd. (This mosaic from a Christian mausoleum is from the 400s).

Our gospel lesson today is leading up to the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” The metaphor Jesus uses in today’s passage is a strange one. You may recall that in John’s gospel, Jesus makes several “I am” statements. There are echoes of Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush when he was first called to challenge Pharaoh. There, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God says, essentially, “I am … who I am.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus says things like, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the vine,” and “I am the resurrection and the life.” And here in this passage, Jesus says, “I am the gate.”

He was talking about sheep and about how they follow their shepherd. At night, in order to follow the shepherd into the sheepfold, the sheep need to go through the gate. And in the morning, in order to follow the shepherd into the pastures, the sheep need to go through the gate. The ones you can trust, Jesus says, are the ones who use the gate. The ones who come in some other way are thieves and robbers who seek to destroy and kill.

“I am the gate,” Jesus says. “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

I’ve got to admit, I’m not sure I totally get what Jesus is saying. But let’s play with this image for a bit.

I’ve read[7] that George Adam Smith, the 19th century biblical scholar, once told about an experience he had while traveling in the Holy Land. He came across a shepherd and his sheep and started talking to him. The man showed Smith the fold into which the sheep were led each night. It consisted of four walls, with a way in. Smith asked him, “This is where they go at night?”

“Yes,” said the shepherd, “and when they are in there, they are perfectly safe.”

“But there is no door,” said Smith.

“I am the door,” said the shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and he wasn’t speaking in the language of the New Testament. He was simply explaining how he did his job.

Smith looked and him. “What do you mean you are the door?”

“When the light has gone,” said the shepherd, “and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.”

I read this and was reminded of times I’ve been a leader at a youth group overnight, worried more about the sheep wandering out than the wolves wandering in, and I thought about the times I picked the bed closest to the door.

If we take that image of the shepherd as the door, if we take that image of the shepherd as the gate to the sheepfold, we may get a sense of what Jesus was trying to say. The gate literally divides the sheep from danger, even death. It is also a passage to safety.

John says that the thieves and bandits are the Pharisees, but they could just as easily be false prophets, bad clergy, drug dealers, or advertisers who promote unhealthy body images. Jesus’ point is getting clearer: beware of those outside the gate who would call you away from life. Get inside the gate before you die to something that is not God.

So what’s starting to develop for me is an image of the Jesus followers walling themselves off from the outside world, separating themselves from the evils. But I don’t think Jesus is calling his followers to a physical separatism. I don’t think he’s urging us to totally separate from the world. The image of the gate has sheep not only coming in to the safety of the sheepfold, but also going out to the dangers of the fields so they can eat. The sheep go out into the world.

The separation that Jesus is making is the difference between living life and living death. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The question this scripture asks me is, Whose voice are you going to respond to? Who are you going to follow? Am I going to follow Jesus, responding to his voice that calls me by name? Or will I allow other voices to influence me? Will I allow pretenders to lead me astray?

Or do I listen only to my own voice? Do I go it alone? Will I try living without a shepherd (or a flock, for that matter)?

Following Jesus’ voice exclusively is a tremendous challenge when we live in a society of options. Every day more options are created that threaten to kill the spirit and harm the flesh. We clamor for the latest whatever because it promises new pleasure, or status, or to relieve our fears. If we get it we find that the pleasure is short-lived or there is already something newer to replace it or that it doesn’t live up to its promise, or that we are just as anxious as before. So we clamor for the next whatever. We become something less than sheep when we listen to another voice, when we follow a thief.

Likewise, when we try to go it alone, we disconnect ourselves from the source. I know the temptation to try to live without a shepherd. Apparently one of my earliest complete sentences was “I want to do it myself.” We like to think we’re independent, that we don’t need to rely on anyone or anything else. Of course, that’s just another lie that destroys and kills.

Jesus invites us to cross the threshold to enter the place of safety and peace of a life protected from those who would steal, destroy, and kill. Those who use this gate find pasture and peace, possibilities and purpose. Those who use this gate will live abundantly, valuing those things that are truly valuable, holding important those things that are truly important.

This is what it means to say, “The Lord is my shepherd”:
To recognize the need for a shepherd.
To live secure under the watchful eye of the Good Shepherd.
To listen for his voice and follow his lead while steering clear of all that lies and kills and destroys.
To take the Good Shepherd’s love into your heart and then to share that love in the world.

Amen.

____________

ENDNOTES

[1] Antonia Blumberg, “Mother’s Day Is Steeped In Radical, Religious Feminism,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/07/mothers-day-history_n_5280493.html (updated 8 May 2014; accessed 9 May 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julia Ward Howe, “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother’s_Day_Proclamation (accessed 10 May 2014).

[4] “History of Mother’s Day,” The National Women’s History Project, http://www.nwhp.org/news/history_of_mothersday.php (accessed 10 May 2014).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “The Radical History of Mothers Day,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/radical-history-of-mothers-day_b_3259326.html (posted 11 May 2013; accessed 10 May 2014).

[6] Adapted from an adaptation by James Moore, “Collected Sermons,” from a story told by Tony Campolo, quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 6 May 2014.

[7] In an email from eSermons.com that I received years ago (at least 6).

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