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.


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.


[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…

View original 490 more words

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 24, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Mister Rogers

My hero, Mister Rogers, told me he liked me just the way I am.  Paul, it seems, wants me to change.  Be transformed, he says.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

When I think back to what it was like to be a teenager, I grimace.  There was this part of me that longed to define myself, to show that I am an individual, separate – especially separate from my parents.  There was also part of me that desperately wanted to fit in.  These dual desires are pretty typical for teens.  In preparation for launching into adulthood, teens individuate and seek out peer groups to help with that individuation.  Amusingly, those peer groups typically demand significant conformity.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

I don’t remember who it was who pointed it out to me, but the gay rights movement of the past couple decades has been very conformist.  In an effort to gain full equality and cultural acceptance, the gay rights movement has focused on two conservative institutions:  the military and marriage.  How much more conformist can you be than to ask to be able to serve in the military and to get married?  I find it interesting that in being allowed that conformity, the equal rights movement is transforming society.  I would even go so far as to say that in that transformation, society is discerning the will of God in terms of equality and inclusion.

Paul, I think, would have been surprised by the effectiveness of this strategy of transformation through conformity.  It is unusual.  Typically, transformation happens when we open ourselves to values and ethics and norms that are different from those that are in the ether of our upbringing.  Typically, transformation happens by the rejection of conforming to the values, ethics, and norms of the culture that are not in keeping with the gospel.

As I thought about the non-gospel values, ethics, and norms that this world of the United States pushes us to conform to, I rather quickly identified three:  The myth of redemptive violence, the myth of redemptive accumulation, and the lie of white-skin privilege.

I spoke about the myth of redemptive violence last week.  It’s the myth that says violence can save us.  It’s a myth, and not an outright lie, because violence can, in a moment, save us.  Violence can in some circumstances, keep us alive and protect us from violence coming from another source.  But it won’t ultimately save us because violence begets violence and plunges us deeper into a cycle that ends in death.

This myth is so prevalent, so powerful across time that it has led to a misinterpretation of the salvific nature of the cross.  The bulk of Christianity has come to preach that it is through the blood sacrifice of Jesus that we are saved, that the violence of the crucifixion has satisfied some blood-lust on the part of God.  How ironic, when one of the very things Jesus sought to expose was the fallacy of the myth of redemptive violence.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”  Another translation for the Greek is, “You are the Christ.”  Jesus compliments Peter on his wisdom.  We hear all that in today’s reading from Matthew.  If we kept reading, we’d hear Jesus tell his disciples that being the Messiah means:  going to Jerusalem, confronting the principalities and power, and being killed.

Peter’s response to this, we’d hear, is essentially, “No way!  Ain’t gonna let that happen!”  The Messiah can’t be killed.  The Messiah, conventional wisdom held, would raise up an army and save the Jews by violently overthrowing their Roman oppressors.

Yep, the myth of redemptive violence at work.  Jesus says “no” to this myth.  “Get behind me Satan,” he says to Peter.  Don’t tempt me with this myth.

The cross isn’t salvific because of the violent death of Jesus.  It is salvific because it shows us the path to love and the power of love to conquer the cult of violence.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul writes to the Romans.  A living sacrifice.  The whole system of offering animal sacrifices – be it an ancient Jewish system, an ancient Aztec system, or any other cultural system – is built on the myth of redemptive violence.  We will violently kill to appease God or the gods.  Violence will save us.

Paul tells the Roman Christians to reject that sacrificial system, the system that requires violence, and to adopt one that requires life.  I’ll unpack what that means a little more later.  For now, it is enough to say that a living sacrifice rejects the myth of redemptive violence.

Another value or norm that this world of the United States pushes on people is the myth of redemptive accumulation.  This is a culturally operative myth that I identified in January.  Like the myth of redemptive violence, it has a kernel of truth to it, keeping it from being an outright lie.  We need to accumulate enough food and water to survive, enough clothing to stay warm, enough shelter to stay dry.  If we don’t accumulate anything, we will die, so accumulating some things will save us.

But the myth of redemptive accumulation says that we need to keep accumulating in order to be saved.  The myth of redemptive accumulation says enough is never enough.  And so we accumulate stuff, and we accumulate wealth.

A quote attributed to someone named “B. Lester” (no idea who this might be) sticks in my mind:  “If a man has an apartment stacked to the ceiling with newspapers, we call him crazy.  If a woman has a trailer house full of cats, we call her nuts.  But when people pathologically hoard so much cash that they impoverish the entire nation, we put them on the cover of Fortune magazine and pretend that they are role models.”[1]

Robert Reich seems to have bought into this myth.  You may remember him as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.  He’s currently a professor at UC Berkeley.  And just about a year ago, he released a movie, “Inequality for All.”  His movie points out the threats income and wealth inequality pose to our democracy, points I agree with.

His solution to that inequality buys right into the myth of redemptive accumulation.  Reich says we need to restore an economic cycle he calls it a “cycle of virtue” or (something close to that).  He says in the movie, essentially, if we could get back onto this cycle, it would help restore equality (and reduce the threat inequality poses to our democracy).  The elements of the cycle are (as best I can remember):
> workers are paid a decent wage
> workers spend money consuming and accumulating more stuff
> this creates income for businesses
> businesses pay more taxes
> government invests in education, etc.
> this produces more skilled workers
> skilled workers are paid an even more decent wage
> they go out and spend money consuming and accumulating more stuff
> etc.

You see how his plan buys right into the myth of redemptive accumulation?  It relies on consumption and accumulation, and consumption and accumulation will not save us.  In fact, consumption and accumulation are destroying the environment and contributing to climate change – which itself is a huge threat to the economy.  (I suspect climate change is also a threat to economic equality and even to democracy, but we won’t go there this morning.)

On the other hand, we have Jesus’ ethics, which are opposed to the myth of redemptive accumulation.  Think of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about not worrying about what you will eat or wear.  Think about the parables he told about the foolish farmer who stored up his harvest in huge barns only to die before he could use it.  Think of his invitation to the rich young man to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.  Think about his admonition for us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth, where thieves cannot steal and rust cannot destroy.

Jesus’ ethics come right out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I’ve preached a whole sermon series on Sabbath economics.  One of the main points is that the Sabbath day of rest is a reminder that God provides enough.  We don’t have to work seven days a week, like we did when we were slaves in Egypt.  We can take a day off and there will still be enough.

The myth of redemptive accumulation tries to get us to conform to it.  It’s something Paul asks us to refuse to adopt and instead be transformed so that we may discern the will of God.

The third ethic or norm that this world of the United States pushes us to conform to is white-skin privilege.  It’s not value of this country, but it is a norm.  It is an operative ethic, denied officially, but still lived by.

Rapper Nelly joins demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown

We have all heard over the past two weeks about the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting not just Michael Brown’s death, but the reality of racism, too.  That’s because the Michael Brown’s death did not happen in a vacuum.  He was shot in a society that sees black lives as less valuable than white lives.  He was shot in a community that has a long history of racial segregation.[2]  He was shot in a society where there is a new Jim Crow and it lives in the criminal justice system.[3]  He was shot in a society where poverty and race are intertwined, and as Robert Reich points out, poverty denies democracy.

Our conformity to the norm of racism can be subtle.  For instance, when we defend Michael Brown as “a good kid,” and therefore someone who shouldn’t have been shot, we’re missing the point.  Yes, “Michael Brown was a good kid, by accounts of those who knew him during his short life.  But that’s not why his death is tragic.  His death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week.  His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered.  The Good Kid narrative might provoke some sympathy but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior.  The Good Kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was the exception to the rule.  This is wrong.  This kid didn’t deserve to die because he was a human being and black lives matter.”[4]

“Brothers and sister, by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”  If we are to be a living sacrifice, then this isn’t just about the ethics and values and norms we say we adopt.  It’s about how we live our lives.  It’s about our physical beings and discerning and living into the will of God.  It’s about the choices we make.

Paul goes on to talk about how we all have different gifts to use as living sacrifices.  We all have different gifts to use for the good of the whole, to use to fulfill the will of God.  Now, some gifts put us in the spotlight.  Paul warns us, we shouldn’t think of ourselves more highly that we ought.  We shouldn’t think that we’re “more than.”  It’s okay to think that we’re “all that,” just not more “all that” than anyone else.  The implication is that all of us shouldn’t think of ourselves too lowly, either.  “Oh, I’m not important” is a lie.

The reality is, we need each other.  Especially if we’re going to live, not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, we need each other.  Like teenagers, we need a place where we belong, where living according to these counter-cultural values, ethics, and norms isn’t so much work, like it is out there.

Back a couple months ago when I felt called to this scripture, I thought I’d have some great insight about how God works transformation in our lives.  I hoped I’d come up with a sermon that would tell you all about allowing God to transform your minds so you didn’t conform to the world.


I’ve come to the conclusion that being transformed is largely our work.  It’s our work to figure out, to discern the values, ethics, and norms of our cultures that go against the way of Jesus, and to reject them, so we can be transformed by the values, ethics, and norms of the Jesus Way.

I talked about three that we need to reject so that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  There are lots more.  And I’ll tell you:  the one I’m most concerned about is the one that I’m not aware of.  Just like I didn’t get what racism is until I understood it as institutionalized white-skin privilege, I suspect there’s some part of the world that I’m conforming to that’s getting in the way of discerning the will of God.

I want to live the Jesus Way because, like Peter, I say that Jesus is the Christ.  But that profession is not enough.  Saying “Jesus is Christ,” or “Jesus is Messiah,” or “Jesus is Lord,” is not enough.  It needs to lead to us being transformed, and in that transformation, to live according to the will of God.


[1] From The Christian Left’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/TheChristianLeft/posts/264963140192497 (posted 11 September 2011).

[2] One place where you can learn more about the racialized history of Ferguson is David Von Drehle, “The Long, Tangled Roots of the Michael Brown Shooting,” Time, http://time.com/3104128/michael-brown-ferguson-cop-shooting-protests/ (posted 12 August 2014).

[3] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2010).  More information at http://newjimcrow.com.

[4] Janee Woods, “12 things white people can do now because Ferguson,” Quartz, http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/ (posted 17 August 2014; accessed 22 August 2014).  See also, Jasmine Banks, “Black Kids Don’t Have to Be College-Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic,” The Root, http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/08/michael_brown_and_our_obsession_with_respectable_black_victims.html (posted 12 August 2014).

For almost a year now, I have had an (almost) daily practice of ending my day with a prayer of thanksgiving. There’s nothing new here. Christians (and people of other religions) have a long history of offering prayers of thanks, often as part of a review of the day just ending. What is different about my practice is that I post my prayers on Facebook wall with a privacy setting that allows anyone to see them.

It started out as an exercise as I prepared a workshop on Facebook and Spiritual Practice that I led last October for Christian Educators (largely UCC, Episcopal, and Presbyterian). I wondered how my prayer life would change as a result of this practice. I wondered how my relationship with God would shift as a result of this practice. I realized that I would be putting these prayers out there in public and I didn’t know how that would impact this prayer practice.

My early prayers are quite specific. They are laundry lists of thanksgivings. “Thank you God for this particular thing, for that particular experience, for this particular relationship.”  I assumed that no one would be interested in these prayers because they were about my day, my experiences, my relationships. I was wrong.

There are two primary ways to interact with posts on Facebook:  clicking the “like” button and leaving a comment. I was surprised as my prayers collected “likes” and comments. When I missed a night (which happens), I would wake to messages asking me why I didn’t post a prayer. People commented that they were using the prayers as part of their morning spiritual practices. I was stunned. And I am thankful.

I have noticed that the writing of my prayers has shifted. While I still reflect on specific experiences and gifts and relationships, I find I am writing in more general terms (at least most of the time). I find that I am now writing for myself and God (it’s a prayer, after all, so it’s about me offering my thanks to God), and that I’m hoping that my reasons for giving thanks are connecting with reasons others have for giving thanks.

I have also noticed that knowing that there are people (and maybe it’s just a handful, but there are people) out there looking forward to reading my prayers, I feel a little more accountable for offering the prayer. I continue to hold steady with the practice in part because I know it isn’t just for me.

An impact of this prayer practice has been, I think, a little more compassion in my heart and a little more satisfaction in my day. I also feel a little more aware (most days) of the presence of God.

I bring this up for two reason. One reason is simply to share a prayer practice that I am finding helpful in my journey. The other is because of a theme I find myself turning to repeatedly. Not just when I sit to write my evening prayer of thanksgiving, but all through the day, I find myself giving thanks for the amazing commitment and leadership of so many people at Niles Discovery Church.

Especially impressive to me has been the work of our Construction Team, so let me sing their praise for a moment. Over the past couple months, they have and to deal with a General Contractor quitting and a break-in on two of the three containers at the construction site. Most construction projects facing a General Contractor quitting would simply shut down. Our project has continued. Our Construction Team has managed to keep work going, getting the new roofs completed, windows installed (see page 2), a fire hydrant installed, and the list goes on. They have dealt with insurance companies and container companies and the police. They have actually done some of the work for the project itself (ask Marilyn Singer about her intimate knowledge of black paint).

Thank you God for all the leaders and committed members of Niles Discovery Church!  Thank you especially for the Construction Team!  Amen!

We’ve heard about ISIL (or ISIS or “the Islamic State”).  Understanding the situation isn’t always easy.

I’m posting here (and will keep adding as I find) links to websites that I think help explain the background of the situation.  If you have any links to add, please include them in a “comment.”

15 Shocking Numbers That Will Make You Pay Attention To What ISIS Is Doing In Iraq (11 August 2014)

Five Facts You Need To Know about Iraq, its Religious Minorities, & ISIS (11 August 2014)

Scholarly articles from International Studies Quarterly


In my sermon today, I said that I if Jesus really meant that stuff about loving our enemies and praying for the people who persecute us, war is not the appropriate Christian response to ISIL.  What, then, shall we do?

Here are a few concrete suggestions for those of us who are Christians in the USA, and then some thoughts about what our government can do.

We can pray for peace.  If we really believe in the power of prayer, if we believe that prayer changes things, we can pray for it.  We can pray for it in our own lives.  We can pray for it in our communities.  We can pray for it in the world.

Get together to pray for peace.  Sometimes it is nice to get together to pray for peace.  Arrange a prayer vigil.  Invite your friends.  Figure out how to make the vigil an interfaith event.

We can love our enemies.  This isn’t easy for me (and probably not for you, either).  One way to do this is to pause at the end of the day and review the day.  You can ask yourself not only what reasons you have to give thanks, but also when were you angry.  Looking at when you were angry, do that anger turn someone into an “enemy”?  If so, what can you do to help change your heart from antagonism and anger to love and peace?  The more practice we have turning to love and peace, the easer it will become.  Eventually, it should become second nature.

We can support the refugees.  You can go to the Niles Discovery Church’s donation page and pick the OGHS/Week of Compassion special offering and make a donation.  OGHS (One Great Hour of Sharing) and Week of Compassion are the companion special offerings of our denominations, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), respectively.  Here is a story about the needs; the staff of both offerings stand ready to respond.

We can call upon our government to take these actions.

Things the United States can do

  • Call upon the United Nations Security Council to take immediate protective actions for the vulnerable people in Iraq.
  • Accept Iraqi refugees into our country.
  • Build international pressure on ISIL to end their atrocities.
  • Provide support for schools, hospitals and clinics, nourishment, and clean water.  This is the Romans 12:20-21 defense: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
  • If we were to get really daring, we could create a peace force of vast numbers of people trained in nonviolence to move in and stand between aggressors and victims.  Many of these Peace Force members would likely be killed, at least at first, but none of them would be asked to kill.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 17, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew Matthew 5:38-47 and 26:47-53
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Classic anti-war poster.

One of my earliest memories is from when I was seven. It was Mother’s Day, 1968.[1]   The war in Vietnam was raging. The anti-war movement was growing stronger. And my family decided to join an anti-war march to the Hanscom Field Air Force Base outside of Boston.

7-year-olds don’t understand geopolitics. 7-year-olds see the world very concretely. For 7-year-olds, something is either fun or boring, right or wrong. Peace was good, so war was bad, in my 7-year-old’s mind, so the war in Vietnam was wrong. I didn’t understand the intricacies of the legacy of colonialism. I didn’t understand the anxieties about communism or the politics of redbaiting. My parents opposed the war if Vietnam for nuanced reasons. I opposed the war because war was wrong.

I don’t come from a family of pacifists. My father served in the Air Force during the Korean War. My father’s father worked on various weapons projects, including early attempts at bomb guidance systems during World War II. My mother’s father ran a company that made important military airplane engine parts during World War II. I’m not a descendant of Conscientious Objectors. Yet that 7-year-old’s conclusion that war is wrong is a conclusion I carried into adulthood.

In December, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.[2] In response, President Jimmy Carter decided the U.S. Olympic Team would boycott the 1980 games. And he decided to re-institute draft registration. His message was clear: The United States would make sure it had a way to raise a massive army (through a draft) if Soviet aggression expanded.

During the week of July 21, 1980, men born in 1960 were ordered to go to their local Post Office and register for the draft. The following week, men born in 1961 were ordered to the Post Office to register. In January 1981, men born in 1962 were ordered to register. And starting that same January, men born in 1963 and later were ordered to register for the draft within 30 days of their 18th birthdays.

As a 1961 baby, during the summer of 1980, I had to decide what I would do. For some people, the decision was easy; they simply registered for the draft. But I had carried from my early childhood a belief that war is wrong and it seemed to me that draft registration was aiding and abetting the war machine. Would I register for the draft? Would I make some kind of protest when I registered? Would I refuse to register and face the possibility of arrest and up to 5 years in a federal prison?

Because of the return of draft registration, I had to re-examine my childhood beliefs. I was 19 and a 7-year-old’s “peace is good so war is bad” belief system was too simplistic. I had to wrestle with questions of the morality of war in different situations.

War with the Soviet Union, the most immanent threat, could too easily devolve into thermonuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it, so I concluded that war with the Soviet Union was immoral.

Hostages were being held in Iran, so we could go to war there. As I considered that possibility, I concluded that this was a hostage crisis and we respond to hostage crises with the police, not the army. In a hostage crisis, we negotiate, not shoot and bomb. Such a war, I concluded, would be immoral.

There was always the possibility of a military adventure in Latin America. I figured it would most likely be in Nicaragua or El Salvador, wars to stop communism. What was the morality of invading a country to overthrow the government? Immoral, I concluded. [By the way, within a decade, we had two military invasions in Latin America: Granada and Panama, neither of which do I consider moral.]

I tried to imagine a war that we could be involved in that would be moral and I couldn’t imagine one.

And more basic to me than the geopolitical mind experiments I was having was the question of me in uniform. Could I carry a gun and shoot another person who my country had labeled “enemy”? The answer was, “no.”

I explored the possibility of a non-combatant role in the military, a possibility under Selective Service regulations should a draft start. My answer here, too, was, “no.” To wear the uniform, I concluded, even as a non-combatant would be to support the mission of the military, which, in a time of war, was to execute that war, and that was immoral.

You see, I kept coming back to Jesus, to his life, his words, his actions, his death and resurrection. And two scriptures in particular challenged me, the two scriptures we heard today. If Jesus really meant it when he said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, then I couldn’t kill them or support the killing of them. I took Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile and giving up your clothing as a call to pacifism. Later I learned that they are actually a call to non-violent activism for the sake of justice – still a call to non-violence.

“The Capture of Christ with the Malchus Episode” by Dirck van Baburen

I thought about Jesus’ arrest, an unjust act carried out so he could be killed. In Matthew’s telling of the story, one of the disciples draws a sword and acts to defend Jesus. “Put away your sword,” Jesus tells his disciples. Disarm. What Jesus denied his disciples to do even to defend him, our government sends our military to do in war. I could only read these words as a condemnation of war. So I came to understand that I am a conscientious objector.

It’s been 34 years since the summer of 1980, and if you asked me three weeks ago, I would have told you that I still believe war is immoral. Period.

And then news of the activities of ISIL (also know as ISIS and “the Islamic State”) came to my awareness, and I have found myself struggling with questions about the morality of war, questions I thought I had answered decades ago.

The Arabic letter Nun

The actions of ISIL came to my attention thanks to social media. For me, it started with the hashtag #WeAreN.[3] People were tweeting and posting things about the atrocities in Iraq tagged #WeAreN.[4] Then I started seeing people posting the Arabic letter that is on your bulletin covers, the letter Nun. Nun is the first letter of Nazarene, or Christian. #WeAreN. It is the letter ISIL has been painting on Christian homes and businesses and then that property is targeted. As I learned more about this, I thought of pictures from Nazi German when the Star of David and the word “Jude” was painted on shop windows to aid in the persecution of the Jews.

Christians aren’t the only group being persecuted by ISIL, just the first I heard about. ISIL is persecuting any group that does not conform to their religious ideals.[5] That means that Yazidis, Shi’a Muslims, Christians, and maybe even Sunni Muslims who aren’t sufficiently fundamentalist are being persecuted.

And by “persecuted,” I mean ethnically cleansed. Christians and Yazidis who stayed in Mosel when ISIL took control of the city have been killed. For the first time since the beginning of Christianity, there are no Christians in Mosel. None. Zero.[6] I don’t have to process it. I don’t have to do a mind experiment. It is clear to me that ethnic cleansing is immoral. Whether it’s Tutsis and Hutus killing each other, or the Khmer Rouge killing Cambodians, or Croats and Serbs killing each other, or ISIL killing Yazidis and Christians, ethnic cleansing is immoral.

So I found myself wondering: How do we stop this latest, violent round of ethnic cleansing? As I learned more about the horror of ISIL’s ethnic cleansing, I wanted to stomp them, to crush them. I was angry and I wanted revenge, destruction. I’m not proud of that emotional response, but I had it.

Then I pushed my fantasy a little further from me. I fantasized about a united Arab army coming into Iraq and Syria and stomping ISIL. And I wanted an Arab response because I wanted it to be a Muslim response – a Muslim response rejecting the theology that ISIL uses to justify their ethnic cleansing.

My fantasies are rooted in the myth of redemptive violence. I’ve talked about this myth before, about its power in our culture, in our collective unconscious. The myth says, “Violence can save us.”

We’ve seen the myth of redemptive violence at work this week in Ferguson, Missouri. A legacy of violence against African-Americans contributed to the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. Outraged by his killing, people demonstrated. Some demonstrators got violent, buying into the myth that violence could save them from the threat they perceived. Threatened by the violence of this segment of the demonstrators, the police responded with more violence, believing that their violence could save them and the city from the violence of the demonstrators.

Capt. Ron Johnson walking with residents of Ferguson, MO.

The thing that has had any impact on calming things down have been Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, now in charge of the police in Ferguson, walking in the street in a regular uniform, talking to people and hugging them,[7] and the work of religious leaders in opening dialog and working as mediators.[8] In other words, refusing to buy in to the myth of redemptive violence.

Things are still very tense in Ferguson. Demonstrations, some of which turn violent, continue. The Governor has responded by declaring a state of emergency and instituting a curfew. More force. More violence. All because we believe the myth that violence can save us.

And it is a myth (rather than a bald-faced lie) because there is a kernel of truth in it. Violence can, in some situations, save us – for the moment. Shooting a mass murderer will stop that mass murderer. That violence will save us for the moment from that mass murderer’s violence. But violence does not have the power to save in the ultimate sense of salvation. That is why Jesus tells his disciple to put away the sword. Violence will not save; it will only perpetuate the violence. Those who live the sword shall die by the sword.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was preaching the gospel when he said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[9]

Last Sunday, Pope Francis told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, “The news coming from Iraq leaves us incredulous and appalled,” as he cataloged the brutal “violence of every kind” that has driven tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and left hundreds and probably thousands dead and dying. “All this seriously offends God and seriously offends humanity,” he said. “You cannot bring hatred in the name of God. You cannot make war in the name of God!”[10]

“Yet even as Francis called on the international community to find ‘an efficient political solution that can stop these crimes,’ the Vatican also tried to make peace with the idea that U.S. military strikes that began last week were necessary and working.

“‘This is something that had to be done, otherwise (the Islamic State) could not be stopped,’ … the Vatican’s ambassador … to Iraq, told Vatican Radio.”[11]

I am left wondering what the moral difference is between a declared war and the bombing that my country is doing. If there is a moral difference, it is a very fine line.

Yesterday, the LA Times reported[12] on expanded U.S. bombing missions and yet another massacre of Yazidis at the hands of ISIL. The U.S. air missions are providing cover for Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish pro-government peshmerga fighters who are trying to regain control of Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam. President Obama’s administration is trying to color the action as “supportive of both the humanitarian mission and of the need to protect U.S. personnel …”[13]

Meanwhile, on Friday, ISIL forces killed scores of Yazidi men and took hundreds of women and children captive in the village of Kocho. And, according to the LA Times report, the Iraqi and Kurdish governments see themselves as being engaged in a war with ISIL. If we are not at war with ISIL, it’s awfully close to war.

And this is sad to me because I am quite certain that war will not solve the ISIL crisis. In fact, I’m quite certain that war is, at least in part, responsible for creating the ISIL crisis. I think Jim Wallis’ analysis is right: “Regrettably, this ongoing crisis [in Iraq] is the result of failed military strategies from the previous decade. American and international churches warned the United States and its allies that the likely outcome of war in Iraq would be increased terrorism and violence. Ultimately, there is no U.S. military solution that can solve Iraq’s long-term conflicts or address challenges roiling that nation. The path to stability and lasting peace involves the hard work of building a strong civil society, re-affirming robust and inclusive democratic institutions, protecting the human rights of everyone, and promoting fair and peaceful processes for resolving disputes.”[14]

So, if war is not the answer, if more killing is not the answer, what is the answer to the questions, “How should we morally respond to the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by ISIL?” Some who agree with me that war will not solve the problem will still say that our current military response is a necessary evil to stop the immediate crisis.

Perhaps. But I’m not certain.

I cannot help but wonder, if Jesus was serious about putting away the sword, if Jesus was serious about loving our enemies and praying for the people who persecute us, then there must be another non-violent way to transform these “enemies” into friends.


[1] I have attempted to research this, to find out if this march that I remember, was in fact in 1968. That is my memory and my father thinks it was then, too.

[2] “Soviet war in Afghanistan,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_invasion_of_afghanistan (accessed 14 August 2014).

[3] A hashtag is a device used on Twitter and Facebook by participants to categorize their posts.

[4] See Jonathan Merritt, “#WeAreN: What the media misses about Iraqi Christian persecution,” Religious News Service, http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/07/25/wearen-media-misses-iraqi-christian-persecution/ (posted 25 July; accessed 16 August 2014) for more information about the start of this campaign and what it is failing to do.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cathy Otten, “Last remaining Christians flee Iraq’s Mosul,” Aljazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/last-remaining-christians-flee-iraq-mosul-201472118235739663.html (posted 22 July 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[7] “New Ferguson Police Commander Ron Johnson Walks With Protestors,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/ron-johnson-ferguson_n_5680351.html (posted 14 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[8] Yasmine Hafiz, “Ferguson Police Reportedly Shot Pastor Renita Lamkin With Rubber Bullet During Protest,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/ferguson-pastor-shot-police-rubber-bullet_n_5678973.html (posted 14 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[9] Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted on Wikipedia (and other sources), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_begets_violence (accessed 16 August 2014).

[10] Pope Francis, quoted in Josephine McKenna & David Gibson, “Pope Francis’ Iraq Peace Message Meets The Reality Of War As U.S. Begins Airstrikes,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/11/pope-francis-iraq-peace_n_5669666.html (posted 11 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[11] Josephine McKenna & David Gibson, “Pope Francis’ Iraq Peace Message Meets The Reality Of War As U.S. Begins Airstrikes,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/11/pope-francis-iraq-peace_n_5669666.html (posted 11 August 2014; accessed 16 August 2014).

[12] Shashank Bengali, David S. Cloud, Patrick J. McDonnell, “Iraq massacre reported as U.S. strikes target militants at Mosul dam,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-iraq-airstrikes-20140816-story.html#page=1 (posted and accessed 16 August 2014

[13] An unnamed U.S. “official,” quoted in the LA Times article.

[14] Jim Wallis, “Statement from Jim Wallis in Response to Violence in Iraq,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/press/statement-jim-wallis-response-violence-iraq (posted on 13 August, 2014; accessed on 14 August 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 10, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 14:22-33 and Psalm 69:1-3, 13b-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

From our friends at Unvirtuous Abbey.

From our friends at Unvirtuous Abbey.

There’s a story about Mark Twain that, if it didn’t actually happen, it should have. He was visiting the Holy Land and the visit included a stay in Capernaum. On a moonlit night, so he decided to take his wife on a romantic boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Twain asked a man in a rowboat how much he would charge to take them out on the water.  The man saw Twain’s white suit, white shoes, and white hat and supposed he was a rich Texan.  So the boatman said the cost would be twenty-five dollars (which, in Twain’s day, was a substantial amount of money).  Twain walked away saying, “Now I know why Jesus walked.”[1]

There are two stormy seas stories in the gospels. One is repeated in Matthew, Mark and Luke.[2] In this story, Jesus and the disciples are out in a boat, Jesus falls asleep, a storm kicks up, Jesus awakens and still the storm.

The other is repeated in Matthew, Mark, and John.[3] In this story, the disciples are in the boat without Jesus when the storm kicks up. Then Jesus comes walking out to them on the water. In John’s and Mark’s versions, the story ends there. Matthew includes Jesus’ invitation to Peter to step on out of the boat, Peter sinking, Jesus saving him, and the stilling of the storm.

Sudden storms like this are not uncommon on the Sea of Galilee. Think about how on hot summer days here in the Bay Area, the wind will often pick up as the air begins to cool. I like to call them “sunset breezes.” Galilee Lake is almost 700 feet below sea level. The surrounding hills reach 2000 feet.[4] The temperature differences between the elevations in the day and at night can draw the air down across the water, and sudden windstorms can kick up.

A boating industry for pilgrims thrives on the Sea of Galilee. I assume it did in Mark Twain’s day, too. Boat owners take pilgrims on a tour. Some pilgrims are lucky enough to experience one of these sudden storms. At least they think they’re lucky. The boat owners might not feel the same way.

Author and Jesuit priest James Martin writes about the stormy sea stories from the gospels. “[T]he disciples would not have felt any pleasure [in a storm on the lake]. In Jesus’ day storms were terrifying, and water held rich symbolism: it symbolized life and a means of purification, but it also held out the potential for death and was an occasion of danger. The psalmists speak of God’s power over the seas and use water as a symbol of peril: ‘Save me, O God,’ says the psalmist, ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ (Ps 69). Raging seas and bowling storms would have represented to Jesus’ contemporaries chaos and danger. Jewish belief was that the sea could also be the abode of demonic forces.

“On a less theological level, sea voyages were simply dangerous, as St. Paul would attest. A storm at sea could be frightening even for experienced fishermen. Far worse is the storm at sea at night.”[5]

Consider contemporary responses from people on land to threats of water. I remember descriptions of water rushing up streets in New York and New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge – and the terror the inundation wrought. Over the past 72 hours, I’ve watched nervous Facebook posts from friends in Hawaii turn to relief as Iselle dissipated and Julio started tracking north. The videos of the tsunami in Japan three years ago tossing cars around like toys haunt my memory. And I can still see a white clapboard farmhouse being pushed off it foundation whole and then crushed into flotsam by a river that overflowed its banks in the Midwest years ago.

Water is powerful. A cubic meter of water weights over a ton.[6] Imagine a big wave crashing over the side of your 25 foot long fishing boat. No wonder there are a number of Psalms that talk about God’s power and the power of the raging sea, Psalms that connect the waters and the power of God.

A common struggle in the spiritual life is recognizing the presence of God in the midst of life’s storms. When life is devastated – by natural disaster, betrayal, loss, violence, medical news – it can and often does feel as if God has abandoned you. I wonder if his disciples, ordered by Jesus to get into the boat and to row to another village, felt abandoned by Jesus as the storm arose. I know the feeling of wanting to grab the sleeping Jesus by the collar and yell at him, “Don’t you care that I’m at the bottom of this pit.” I know the feeling of wanting to scream out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!”

But, interestingly, it’s not the storm that makes the disciples afraid in today’s story. In the first set of storm at sea stories, it’s the storm that scares them. In this story, it’s the appearance of Jesus in the midst of the storm, walking out to them on the water, that scares them. “Troubled” is the word the King James Version uses here. You may remember that word from the KJV translation of the story of the Magi. Upon hearing the news of the baby’s birth, King Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”[7] These are the only two times Matthew uses this Greek word in his gospel.

Laurel Dykstra points out, “For those of us who would follow [Jesus] and for those who oppose him, Jesus comes to us powerfully in dangerous times, and we are troubled.”[8]

Jesus response to the disciples on the boat and to us is reassuring: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”[9] “Jesus warns against fear in the spiritual life,” Martin reminds us. “When it comes to God’s activity, fear is dangerous because it turns us away from God. Rather than focusing on what God can do, we’re tempted to focus on what it seems God cannot do – that is, protect us.…

“A healthy fear may remind fishermen to guard against contingencies like a storm, but in the spiritual life fear can lead to the inertia of hopelessness. It can paralyze us, destroy our trust, crush our hope, and turn us inward in unhealthy ways. Unchecked, it can lead us into despair – if we conclude that only woe can come out of the present situation, which is an implicit denial of God’s ability to do the impossible.”[10]

I mentioned earlier that only in this version, Matthew’s version of the story, does Jesus invite Peter to step on out of the boat. Douglas Howe says that this story “graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt.”[11] Peter steps out of the boat in faith. And in his doubt, he starts to sink. He calls out to Jesus, proclaiming who Jesus is: “Lord, save me!”[12] He makes what may be the most basic proclamation of faith.

“Even though Jesus chastises Peter for this, it seems that this moment of sinking doubt is what strips away Peter’s illusions and allows him truly to see Jesus,” Julie Polter points out.

And then she asks this cutting question: “Without this doubt would Peter and the rest, now worshiping at Jesus’ feet, believe so deeply?”[13]

The boat is an ancient symbol representing the church. There are plenty of storms that rock the boat that is the church. Some come from outside; some from within. This story is about external storms that toss the church about.

Today, I think about the continued violence in Israel/Palestine. I think about violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think about the ebola crisis. I think especially about the horror taking place in Iraq as one group in the name of religion kills another group because of their religious identity.[14] The storms rage. And Jesus invites us to step on out of the boat.

Is he nuts? It may not be completely safe in here, but it’s a lot more dangerous out there!

And still, he invites us to step on out of the boat.

In the story, the disciples are in the boat because Jesus told them to be there. He called them to that location. We are here because we have been called into a community. And rowing this boat that is the church takes a lot of energy as we seek to move it across the sea. Still, it is not enough to only row the boat. Jesus calls us to step on out, to step into the storm, at least for a while. Jesus calls us to have faith and to step on out.

Honda CB 750 Four

I recently read about Wes Seliger, an Episcopal priest who loves motorcycles.[15] One day, he was in a motorcycle shop, drooling over a Honda 750, which is a midsized, classic road bike. I guess he was wishing that he could buy it. A salesman came over and began to talk about the bike. He talked about speed, acceleration, excitement, the attention-getting growl of the pipes, racing, risk. He talked about how the good-looking girls would be attracted to anyone riding the bike.

When he discovered that Wes was a minister – well, I can tell you: it always happens. Immediately the salesman changed his language and even the tone of his voice. He spoke quietly and talked about good mileage and visibility. It was indeed a “practical” vehicle.

Wes observed: “Lawnmower salespersons are not surprised to find clergypersons looking at their merchandise; motorcycle salespersons are. Why? Does this tell us something about clergypersons and about the church? Lawnmowers are slow, safe, sane, practical, and middle-class. Motorcycles are fast, dangerous, wild, thrilling.

Then Wes asks a question: “Is being a Christian more like mowing a lawn or like riding a motorcycle?” I think there are really two questions there: (1) Do we treat being a Christian more like mowing a lawn or like riding a motorcycle? and (2) And which way does Jesus want us to treat it?

Is the Christian life supposed to be safe and sound or dangerous and exciting?

Yes, taking the church out on the open road, giving it the gas, and seeing what the old baby will do is risky. But Jesus is asking us to step on out. And Jesus is there to grab our hand when we need it. Jesus is there to save us. At least that’s what the story would have us believe.

Douglas Howe reminds us, “To believe in the saving power of Jesus is to take a risk – Faith is not a possession but an activity – like a song that disappears when we stop singing.”[16]

Keep singing.

Step on out.


[1] Attributed to David Leininger, “Stay in the Boat!” quoted in an email from Sermons.com dated 5 August 2014.

[2] See Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luck 8:22-25.

[3] See Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52, and John 6:15-21.

[4] James Martin, “From fear to calm,” Christian Century 16 April 2014, 31.

[5] Ibid.

[6] A cubic meter of water weighs 1,000 kg, which is roughly 2,200 lbs.

[7] Matthew 2:3, KJV.

[8] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble (accessed 5 August 2014).

[9] Matthew 14:27, NRSV.

[10] Martin, op. cit., 33.

[11] Douglas Howe, Matthew, Interpretation, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-10-2014.html (accessed 6 August 2014).

[12] Matthew 14:30, NRSV.

[13] Julie Polter, “Sinking Doubt,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/sinking-doubt (accessed 5 August 2014).

[14] The violence being perpetrated by ISIS (aka ISIL) is rocking my boat enough to make me questions some sincerely and long-held beliefs.

[15] This story is attributed to King Duncan, from a sermon, “Don’t Look Down,” quoted in an email from Sermons.com dated 5 August 2014.

[16] Howe, op. cit., quoted by Huey, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 3, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Two weeks ago, we heard part of the Jacob saga recorded in Genesis. We heard the story of Jacob, running from his brother Esau after stealing the elder son’s blessing from their father, when he stopped to sleep. We heard how he had a dream of a ladder connecting where he was with heaven, a ladder that angels climbed and descended.

The saga continues, and today we hear about a wrestling match. Jacob is facing a time when he will likely be confronting his brother again. What will he do? Jacob’s family had grown. He has two wives, two concubines, 11 sons, and presumably some daughters. He has wealth and power. And if you’re familiar with the story, you’ll remember that he grew his family and his wealth by manipulating his father-in-law, maybe even cheating his father-in-law.

But Esau’s family has grown, too. He, too, has wealth and power.

Knowing that the day was coming when he would have to confront Esau again, Jacob sent presents to Esau to try to appease him. And now Esau is coming and who knows what Esau’s agenda is. It could very well be revenge. He could still be holding a grudge. So, what is Jacob to do?

He sends his family to the other side of the stream. That provides a little bit of protection, and it provides Jacob with a little privacy. And all night, Jacob wrestles.

The text says that “a man” wrestles with Jacob. By the end of the story, Jacob declares that he has seen God face to face. Whoever it is that Jacob wrestles with, he understands it to be God.

“Jacob Wrestling the Angel” by Léon Bonnat

Like many great stories, this chapter in the Jacob saga has inspired many artists. On the cover of your bulletins, you have “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” by Léon Bonnat, a 19th century French artist. I find it interesting because it captures the physical struggle, with muscles and sinews straining. We don’t see Jacob’s face, so he can be an “every man” – well, an “every European man;” both he and the angel seem pretty white to me. And, in this moment at least, Jacob seems to be winning. He has the angel – and it’s very clearly an angel with the wings – off the ground. The angel’s only defense is a foot hooked around one of Jacob’s legs.

As I looked for art for our bulletin cover, I was impressed to find contemporary artists still creating, inspired by this story. I’m a bit amused by some Marc Chagall’s paintings on the subject where the angel is twice the size of Jacob.

Another piece in particular intrigued me, but because it’s copyrighted, I wasn’t comfortable printing it.[1] Painted by local artist Suzanne Giuriati-Cerny, the painting has three figures in it – three men in a story that only has two men in it. I think two of the men, and possibly the third are the same person. This particular painting makes me think about the possibility of Jacob wrestling with himself, of understanding the God with whom Jacob wrestles as not being “out there,” but as being inside, within.

Think about that idea. When we have an internal struggle going on, could we be, are we likely to be wrestling with God? I think so. And I think that this internal struggle is a universal part of human experience. Sister Joan Chittister reflects on the value, the importance of this struggle:

“The process of struggle is the process of the internal redefinition of the self. People do it in the midst of a marriage that is failing on one set of expectations and in need of being renegotiated around others. People do it when the work they do ceases to be for them what they expected it to be. People do it when they find themselves locked out socially of the very places they want to be in life: in the midst of the dominant culture, in a position of power and authority, in a place of comfort and security. When our expectations run aground of our reality, we begin to rethink the meaning and shape of our lives. We begin to rethink not just our past decisions but our very selves. It is a slow but determining deconstruction of the self so that a real person can be reborn in us, beyond the expectations of others, even beyond our own previously unassailable assumptions. And struggle is its catalyst.

“The Hebrew Testament story of Jacob wrestling with God is a model of the process. It is given to us to apply like a template to our own lives. Each element of the small vignette is a warning call to us to attend to what God is allowing to happen to us here and now so that we might go on even healthier in times to come. It provides a series of checkpoints for the spiritual life. It is in itself a veritable spirituality of struggle, which exposes to us those elements of suffering that call us to growth and give us new life.”[2]

Dan Buchanan and Amy Carr connect the struggle Jacob faced at the ford of the Jabbok with wrestling with the demonic. Now, they’re not talking about the demonic powers that make people think it’s okay to shoot airliners out of the sky, or the demonic powers that encourage us to embrace militarism as a way to peace, or the demonic powers that justify the chasing of an entire race or religion or ethnicity out of their homes.

No, they are talking about the power of restlessness, which they call demonic the way third and fourth century Christian monks of the Egyptian desert did. “When they [the desert fathers] were at work, they felt drawn to prayer; when they prayed, they felt drawn to work; when they settled in one monastery, they became convinced that true spirituality could be found only in the monastery down the road. Because such feelings struck hardest in the middle of the day, monks associated them with the ‘noonday demon’ in Psalm 91. The monk’s task was not to flee from this demon, but to stay put and wrestle with it.”[3] They suggest that wrestling with this restlessness is a path to a blessing. “Restlessness,” they say, “signals God’s draw on our lives, and no single commitment curbs that restlessness unless it is oriented to the larger horizon of God’s magnetic love.”[4]

So, don’t run away from the restlessness; wrestle with it. Listen to it. Create a space of silence – whether through centering prayer or long walks or quietly washing the dishes – that will allow you to listen.

“La lutte de Jacob et de l’Ange” by Marc Chagall

A big “aha” for me about this scripture came from an article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. (Very definitely, one of the perks of my job is that I get to – in fact, that I’m expected to read articles and commentaries on scripture.) Waskow reads the Jacob saga in the wider context of the book of Genesis. He hears in Genesis one theme with many variations: “war and peace between brothers (and one pair of sisters).”[5]

The war between the brothers begins with the very first brothers, Cain and Abel. “Abel, the second-born child whose name means ‘Puff of Breath,’ and Cain, the first-born whose name means ‘Possessive,’ bring offerings to God – the fruit of their labor in field and pasture. Abel’s offering is accepted, Cain’s is rejected.

“Cain is angry—what else would you expect? But he says nothing.”[6] God reaches out to him repeatedly, but Cain is silent. Instead Cain goes to his brother. The Bibles says, “Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’” Except that some of the authoritative manuscripts don’t have “Let us go out to the field.” It’s as if Cain wanted to say something but he couldn’t get the words out. And instead of speaking to his brother, Cain kills him.

The older brother kills the younger brother out of a sense of anger or jealousy because it seems as if God likes the younger brother better. God reached out to the angry, jealous Cain, but Cain wouldn’t engage. Cain wouldn’t challenge God, answer God, wrestle with God. Cain wouldn’t grow up, and he killed his brother. “It is only when Jacob learns to wrestle God that it becomes possible for him to make friends with his brother.”[7]

Waskow points out how this motif of older and younger brother in opposition keeps coming up. Ishmael verses Isaac. Esau verses Jacob. Even two sisters, Leah and Rachel, turn against each other. Even though they both end up married to Jacob and together bearing him twelve sons and several daughters, they are unable to find a reconciliation. And then there is the rivalry among those 12 sons, the rivalry between Joseph and his older brothers. It is a story of hatred, fury, plotting, and almost murder.

This string of rivalries finally ends, Waskow notes, with Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh: “Jacob, their grandfather, insists on blessing them. Jacob, who had fooled his father into giving him the first-born’s blessing, leaps across a generation to end the collision over firstbornness. Jacob, who has learned how to stop wrestling with his brother and wrestle with God instead, shows Manasseh and Ephraim how not to wrestle with each other.

“Jacob recognizes and affirms his own victory over his first-born brother by reversing the hands with which the blessings should be given. The right hand – the first-born’s hand – he reaches out to Ephraim, the second-born. The left hand – the second-born’s hand – he reaches out to bless Manasseh, the first-born.

“But in the same moment he dissolves the tension, for he blesses them simultaneously, with a single blessing. Lest they miss the point, he literally crosses his arms to bless them ‘backwards’ and explicitly rejects Joseph’s objection that he has it wrong. And he blesses them both in the same breath, saying ‘By you’ – a singular you, each of them singularly at the same instant – ‘shall Israel bless, saying, God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”[8] Wrestling with God, as Waskow reads the story, is a path to reconciliation.

Back a couple months ago when I was selecting scriptures and sermon themes for the Sundays in August, I knew I wanted to preach on this lection. I knew I wanted to I talk about the merits of wrestling with God as a spiritual practice. That’s the invitation I hear in this story. When our realities don’t live up to our expectations and we need to rediscover who we are, when our restlessness draws us away from the stillness we need to discern our vocation, when our anger and jealousy and fear keep us estranged, we need to engage in the spiritual practice of wrestling with God.

Richard Pervo asks an important question about wrestling with God: “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even?”[9] That’s what happens in the story. Jacob and this stranger who Jacob comes to understand is God wrestles all night, and Jacob prevails because he is able to limp away.

When you think about the wrestling we need to do with God, when you think about our need to rediscover ourselves, when you think about our need to hear what our restlessness is trying to tell us, when you think about the estrangements in our lives that need reconciliation, then maybe you’ll agree. The kind of god who will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even is exactly the kind of God we need.



[1] See http://fineartamerica.com/featured/jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-suzanne-cerny.html

[2] Joan C. Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope: The Nine Gifts of Struggle, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), reprinted by Sojourners on http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gift-struggle (accessed 28 July 2014).

[3] Dan Buchanan and Amy Carr, “Called to the Everyday,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/called-everyday (accessed 28 July 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arthur Waskow, “Brothers Reconciled,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/brothers-reconcilied (accessed on 28 July 2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Pervo in New Proclamation Year A 2011, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-3-2014.html (accessed 28 July 2014).


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