A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 26, 2022, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 9:57-62
Copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It amazes me that people have time to do this sort of thing. Imagine going through the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – looking for question marks. Apparently someone did and (at least according to the tweet[1] by a published author):  Jesus was asked 187 questions. He answered (at least sorta) 8 of them. He asked others 307 questions of others.

I heard from a reliable source[2] that someone else (a pastor from Australia in this case) scoured the gospels looking for dominant themes and, in the process, discovered that Jesus says “Follow me” 87 times. Today’s scripture reading includes one, and maybe three (depending on how this Australian pastor did his counting; I haven’t checked his math), of the 87 times Jesus extends this invitation.

I know of a couple, one of whom charges the other one dollar every time the other shares a useless factoid. Before I get charged two dollars, let me argue for the usefulness of these factoids.

First, the statistics about questions. I think that Jesus apparent comfort, perhaps even supreme comfort with unanswered questions might encourage us to be the same way. Maybe the questions we ask are more important than the answers we find. Maybe Jesus thinks wrestling with questions is important, an important part of being faithful. And maybe the fact that Jesus answers less that 5% of the questions his is asked can remind us that, if we are staying faithful, our answers won’t be static, that if we’re staying faithful, the answers we find to our questions may evolve as our faith evolves.

Second, the statistic about Jesus regularly extending the invitation to follow him. Let’s look at this by digging in a little deeper into today’s scripture reading.

This first thing I notice in this scripture is this strange phrase “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” I think this is a peculiar way to say that his focus was now on Jerusalem and getting there, though in a poetic way. I imagine Jesus being so determined to get to Jerusalem to do what he would do there that you could see it on his face.

Jesus needs to travel through the area where the Samaritans live in order to get to Jerusalem. Jesus sends an advance team to make things ready in the next village for him on his way to Jerusalem, and the Samaritans living there won’t receive him “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

I can only guess as to why this was a big deal for the Samaritans. We know that the Samaritans were the descendants of Jews and Assyrians who occupied part of the nation of Israel years earlier. Jews and Samaritans had theological squabbles and, largely speaking, Jews didn’t see Samaritans as being true followers of God. One of the things they squabbled about was where the most important place to worship God was. Samaritans said it was Mount Gerizim. Jews said it was Jerusalem. Perhaps the Samaritans thought that Jesus was headed to the wrong center of worship.

The offense that the Samaritans took was expressed with enough vigor that Jesus’ disciples James and John (the Sons of Thunder) ask Jesus if he wants them to command fire to come down to consume this village the way Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. If we see the Samaritan’s rejection of Jesus as an act of religious intolerance, certainly James and John’s response is equally intolerant. Jesus unequivocally says, “No!” And they go on to the next village.

This hostile encounter is easy to forget when we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is recorded in the next chapter. That’s too bad, because the reversal in the parable – that the person you think of as unacceptable is the person who turns out to be neighborly – is all the stronger if we remember the hostility express here in chapter 9 between Jesus and the Samaritans.

Then we get to the “follow me” section of the reading, which is the part that’s important for today. I think in this section we hear, through a trio of warnings, a description about the true nature of discipleship.  First, we encounter a volunteer. “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus says that he has nowhere to lay his head, suggesting that following him means living a life of itinerancy

Next, Jesus invites another person to “follow me.” This person says, “Sure thing – right after I’ve buried my father.” Jesus’ words to this request seem awfully harsh to me. “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Is Jesus saying that typical social obligations no longer apply when you’re one of his followers? Maybe.

The third person he encounters volunteers saying, “I will follow you, right after I say my good-byes.” Jesus says that following him means always looking forward, not backward. Again, that seems a bit harsh.

But “taken together and considered in the wake of the drama in the Samaritan village, these three warnings portray discipleship as a striking contrast to conventional, ordinary life: not nestled at home, but on the move through the neighborhood; not bogged down in common duties, but on the move and proclaiming God’s reign; not looking backward to the entanglements of the past (including the clannish conventions of ‘religious intolerance’), but on the move, opening up, and looking ahead.”[3]

This is a great passage for a Sunday when we celebrate the Rite of Confirmation. When our youth say, “I confirm,” they are claiming an identity as Christians. They are saying, “I am a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Jesus.”

This passage reminds us of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.

First, Jesus warns against religious intolerance. What a refreshing reminder to have, especially in an age when so many people who claim the identity of Christian are so intolerant.

And then Jesus says that being one of his disciples means being active. You can’t go hide up in your nest or down in your foxhole. If you’re going to be a disciple, you need to be out there, in the neighborhood making a difference. (For what that difference looks like, I’d point you to that parable of the Good Samaritan.)

And then Jesus said that being one if his disciples might mean (at least some of the time) ignoring the social conventions and expectations. Reign of God is counter to social conventions. A guy named Matt Laney once said, “The good news is this: Jesus did not go to the trouble of bringing heaven to earth only to condemn earthlings (see John 3:17) who miss the point. Jesus came to point the way and demonstrate what love looks like on earth as it is in heaven.”[4] That’s the future we’re looking toward. That’s the journey we agree to be on when we say, “I Confirm.”

Amen.


[1] Kevin Nye, Twitter, https://twitter.com/kevinmnye1/status/1538578040917086208 (posted 16 June 2022; accessed 25 June 2022).

[2] Bryan Sirchio, “Follow Me (87 Times)”, YouTube, https://youtu.be/CATYMkrLvL4 (posted 14 November 2015; accessed (again) 25 June 2022).

[3] SALT Project, “On the Move,” https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2022/6/22/on-the-move-salts-commentary-for-third-week-after-pentecost (posted 22 June 2022; accessed 23 June 2022).

[4] According to some meme I saw somewhere sometime on social media on the Internet.

I’ve been rewatching Call the Midwife on Netflix. Last night, I watched an episode (season 8, “Episode 4”) with a plotline that centered around abortion, a procedure that was largely illegal in 1964 Great Britain (when and where this episode was set). Failed contraception leads to a pregnancy for a mother of two who does not want a third child. She seeks a back-alley abortion and develops an infection from which she dies, leaving her husband widowed and her two children motherless. I went to bed thinking how grateful I am that access to safe, legal abortion is a right in the United States.

By the time I turned on the radio this morning, the Supreme Court of the United States had issued its decisions in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, stripping away the nation’s constitutional protections for abortion that had stood for nearly a half-century. It is expected that, within a month, abortion will be banned outright in about half the states in the union.

This is but one decision recently handed down by the court that is disturbing. They also recently issued decisions weakening our ability to restrict the presence of guns in public, deteriorating the separation of church and state, and curtailing Miranda rights. Still, this is the decision that has set my mind whirling and I find it very difficult to organize my thoughts. This essay is an attempt to organize them, to clarify them, to articulate them.

As a person who doesn’t have a uterus, I think my opinions about abortion and this decision are less important than the opinions of people who have uteruses. That said, Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear in the opinions issued that he wants his colleagues to overturn other SCOTUS rulings that are also based on a constitutional protection of privacy – rulings protecting same-sex marriage, consensual sexual expression (without regard to sex or gender of the adults involved), and the use of contraception. While Dobbs doesn’t directly affect me, it does indirectly.

And in addition to my (indirect) personal stake in this case, I am a religious leader and a community leader. I believe I have a responsibility to speak out.

This isn’t about “Life”

By denying the existence of a constitutional protection of the right to access an abortion, many states in our country will become “forced birth” states. Meanwhile, we aren’t providing universal healthcare, universal childcare, or paid family leave. If this were a life-affirming stance, we would be providing the programs that support life after birth. It’s not about life; it’s about control.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice pointed out, “Make no mistake: denying someone the inherent right to exercise their divinely-given moral agency and bodily autonomy, and to make decisions about their family and future is a violation of both human rights and religious freedom.” This decision is about control.

In a Twitter thread this morning, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi points out, “When women don’t have the right to make reproductive choices about their own bodies, we lose a foundational right. When we lose foundational rights, all rights are threatened. … There is no separating the sexist and racist and classist aspects of this ruling.” This decision is about control.

Dr. Diana Butler Bass warns us, “‘Culture of life’ is code for theocracy. Don’t be fooled.”

And while the Dobbs decision is about control, not life, the question still lingers.

When does life begin?

No human being knows for sure. And the Bible doesn’t answer the question. Instead, the Bible tells stories and one of the stories that relates to this question is found in Genesis 2. In this story, God scoops up the humus, forms a human being, breathes “the breath of life” into the human form, and the human form “became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

This story suggests that there is a connection between breath and life. Perhaps it implies that a fetus isn’t “a living being” until it is outside the womb and is breathing. That is certainly how “life” as viewed through most of the history of Judaism and Christianity.

Now, it could be that we got is wrong for some of history. It could be that a fetus is “a living being” sometime before it starts breathing outside the womb. As I’ve said before, if human life begins sometime before birth (and that’s a big if), it is not the same sort of human life that we experience once we’ve been born. Prior to birth, a fetus is completely dependent on exactly one person (the person in whose womb the fetus is growing), and that one person cannot take a break from that dependency. Once we are born, however, we are no longer dependent on only one person. Once we are born, anyone can care for us. That difference is, morally and philosophically, important.

Besides, the fetus’s potential life isn’t the only life to consider.

My experience with abortion

As I sit here thinking about this decision, I think about the times I was called on to offer pastoral care and counseling to people who were pregnant. I remember the two girls (they were each under 18 when I spoke with them) who were deciding whether or not to terminate their pregnancies. And I remember an adult woman, married with several children, who discovered she was pregnant yet again.

I think, in the end, all three of these people made pro-life decisions. Two of them chose to terminate their pregnancies; one chose to carry the pregnancy to term. I know that many people assume that a decision to terminate a pregnancy can’t be a pro-life choice. I disagree. It is not only the potential life of the fetus that must be considered. There are also the lives of the pregnant people and their wider families (and, in one case, boyfriend) to consider, too.

None of them made their decisions capriciously. All of them were thoughtful and weighed the consequences for all the people involved. For one of them, the circle of impact was very small. For one of them, it seemed as if there were circles upon circles of people to consider. And, in the end, I know each of them made the best, most life-affirming decision they could.

I am sure there have been others in my (just shy of) 35-year career who have considered terminating their pregnancies. I apologize to each of them if I, in some way or other, made them think I was an unsafe person to come to for counsel as they weighed their options and worked to come to a faithful decision. You deserved better from me.

And to all of you who may become pregnant in the future, I promise to continue to work for the reestablishment of the right to choose an abortion, while also working to make sure our society provides the support services needed to reduce the numbers of unwanted pregnancies. I will continue to support comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education in our public school, access to contraception and “morning after” medications, free prenatal medical care, WIC and other social support programs for new mothers, and parental leave laws.

If you want to be part of a faith-based movement to reinstitute legal access to abortion, you might want to join People of Faith for Abortion Access.

I have not set aside the time to listen to the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack hearings these past few days. I haven’t been ignoring them either. Instead, I’ve been relying on news agencies to bring forward the highlights. One of those highlights, at least in my opinion was the testimony of Speaker of the Arizona State House Rusty Bowers yesterday.

The Salt Lake Tribune described one part of his testimony: “Bowers gave details about a phone call with Trump and the then-president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in which they asserted without providing any evidence that the election was marred by fraud. Trump and Giuliani, Bowers testified, asked him to assist in appointing electors for Trump even though Joe Biden won the election in Arizona.

“‘It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired – one of my most basic foundational beliefs. For me to do that because somebody asked me to is foreign to my very being. I will not do it,’ Bowers said, at one point fighting back tears.

“Bowers, who is a graduate of Brigham Young University, added that he could not violate his oath to the Constitution and remain faithful to his beliefs.

“‘I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to with any contrived desire toward deflection of my deep foundational desire to follow God’s will, as I believe he led my conscience to embrace,’ Bowers said, reading a passage from his personal journal.”

I am sure that Speaker Bowers and I disagree on many, many policy issues. I doubt I would vote for him if he were running to represent me in some government office. And I’m certain we have theological difference. Nonetheless, I am impressed by his act of integrity.

That is what faith should be about. When you or I are faced with an opportunity that might help achieve some end we want while also violating our moral code, I hope that you and I would choose integrity to our moral code. I hope that you and I would choose to do what is right rather than what is expedient. I hope that you and I would face the test standing firmly on our faith and choose righteousness. Every time.

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

10 years ago, I was shopping for a car. I knew I wanted something very fuel efficient that would be a good city car. It didn’t take long to decide I wanted a hybrid car, something that would come close to doubling my gas mileage. I eventually settled on a Prius-C. I’d seen one in San Francisco – walked all the way around it while crossing the street and freaked out the driver. It looked good. I checked it out and it got good reviews. If I drove it carefully, I should get around 50 mpg – doubling the mileage I was getting in the HMC Suzanne, the car I was driving at the time.

I did a test drive. And ten years ago this week, I bought a car who eventually revealed his name to me: Jack O. Lantern. (You can see the back third of the HMC Suzanne on the right of the photo.) I figured I was probably the only one in the neighborhood to own a Prius-C, and certainly the only one who owned one in habanero orange.

And then I started seeing them everywhere. Including one right here in Niles – in habanero orange. And that just happens. You don’t notice something until you’re aware of it. I didn’t notice Prius-Cs until I had bought a Prius-C. Well, something similar happened to me this past week.

Since Monday Morning Bible Study, I’ve been thinking about languages. And then I started noticing how often I heard or read things about languages. The only story from the Thursday edition of the NPR news program All Things Considered that I can remember is one about the Seneca language.

The language of the Seneca people is considered an “endangered language” because there are fewer than 50 fluent native speakers. Jamie Jacobs is one of those who is fluent. Jacobs’ parents and grandparents didn’t speak it, but his great-grandmother did and that was how he connected with her. The two generations that didn’t learn the language didn’t learn it, at least partly, because of the Indian boarding schools that Native American children were compelled to attend. There, students were abused and brutally punished for speaking their native languages.

Jamie Jacobs

Jamie Jacobs is young enough to have avoided being forced to attend an Indian boarding school and lucky enough to be able to study the language. And he was glad he did, because it was how he and his great-grandmother connected. Sometimes she would translate recordings of her father (Jamie’s great-great-grandfather) singing in Seneca. Jamie became deeply grateful for this gift. “That gave me a lot of deeper insight into the way that our ancestors understood the world,” he said.[1]

Language has a power to both inform and express how we see the world. That’s one of the reasons using inclusive language is so important. When our language assumes maleness as normative, or whiteness as normative, it pushes us to view the world that assumes it is naturally male-led or white-led. The job title shifting from fireman to firefighter opens the job to people of all genders. When our language frames nature as dangerous, it becomes something to rule over and to tame. When our language frames nature as nurturing, it becomes something to enjoy and become a part of.

I ran into this again because I finished re-reading of the George Orwell classic novel 1984 this week. It was actually, in all likelihood, a first reading. I think I was in 8th grade when I was supposed to read it the first time, though I doubt I got all the way through. That would have been 1974 and I remember thinking that 1984 seemed like such a long time in the future.

Published in 1949, the book takes place in London, which has become just another city in Oceania, one of the three mega-nations that control almost all of the earth. (The parts they don’t control are the areas where they carry out their wars.) Oceania is a dystopian, totalitarian socialist state where everyone’s lives are controlled, even down to their thoughts. One of the primary ways this thought control is carried out is through a control and restriction of the language through the introduction of a new language, Newspeak.

In his appendix to the novel, George Orwell explains both how “Newspeak” works and why it was developed. It is the why that most caught my attention. “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [the totalitarian socialist ideology of Oceania], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”[2] Language being used to control and form how one sees the world. I find it ironic that Orwell was almost certainly unaware of the racist and sexist assumptions within his novel, both being so baked into 1940s English language and culture.

All of this, of course, is related to our scripture lesson, the Pentecost story of Acts. Pentecost is actually a Jewish festival, the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot, celebrated 50 days after Passover. It is a harvest festival described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The description of the festival in Deuteronomy is surprisingly (at me, at least) inclusive, an inclusivity that we will hear echoed in our reading from Acts: “Rejoice before the Lord your God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 9:11). Over time, the festival came to also mark the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.

That’s why there are Jews from all over the Mediterranean world gathered in Jerusalem as our story from Acts unfolds. They are there for this inclusive, festive celebration. In fact, upon a closer examination of the text I realized that the Shavuot celebrations also appear to be the reason the disciples have gathered in Jerusalem.

Before, I had put the disciples all in one place because, as during the first days following Jesus’ execution, they were afraid that they’d be next. Only the text says, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place,” implying that they had come together for the Pentecost (the Shavuot) celebrations. And while they are gathered in one place, the Holy Spirit shows up and they are overwhelmed by God.

“The scene is spectacular and chaotic,” as one commentator describes it. “a violent, rushing sound like wind, and then ‘divided tongues, as of fire’ — not a fire that destroys, but rather like the fire that Moses encountered at the burning bush, which was ‘blazing, yet it was not consumed.’”[3]

This commentary goes on: “The Spirit’s immediate effect is linguistic: many are empowered ‘to speak in other languages.’”[4] The commotion gathers a crowd and, amazingly, each person hears what the disciples are saying in their native language. “Think of a meeting at the United Nations, in which each person hears (through a headset) the proceedings translated into his or her mother tongue. The upshot of all of this is a sense of togetherness and unity: diverse as they are, everyone understands and can communicate. Accordingly, they’re dazzled and taken aback, asking, ‘What does this mean?’”[5]

Peter gets up to tell them what it means. “He cites the prophet Joel, adapting those ancient words to illuminate the present: the final and decisive chapter of history has arrived, the dawn of God’s joyous Jubilee that Jesus declared early in his ministry …, and now the ‘pouring out’ of the Holy Spirit upon ‘all flesh.’ Jesus both heralded and inaugurated this new era, and the Spirit will now empower a community through whom the movement’s message of healing, liberation, and joy will go out to the ends of the earth.”[6]

The words Peter quotes are as inclusive as the instructions for the celebration of Shavuot: all ages and genders and statuses of freedom are blessed by the Spirit of God. That is what everyone understanding what these backwater Galileans are saying means.

Some see this story as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. You might remember that God humbles humanity in the Babel story by breaking down their ability to communicate, making them suddenly speak in all kinds of different languages. (It’s worth going back and re-reading the story if it’s been a while … or if, like me with 1984, you’ve never read it.) Except to really be a reversal of the Babel story, everyone would need to start talking one language. And that’s not what happens in the story.

The understanding that happens in our Pentecost story is not achieve through sameness. “It’s not that everyone suddenly spoke Greek or Aramaic, and certainly not Latin, the language of empire! They kept their own tongues, and stories!”[7] The diversity remains. In fact, the diversity of the Jesus movement expands as people from all around the Mediterranean world join it.

I think Luke (the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles) is describing in this story what the church is supposed to be. Luke is saying that the church is supposed to be “a diverse, prophetic community of bridge-builders, visionaries, and dreamers, male and female, slave and free.”[8]

And just maybe Luke is saying that the church can be, quite miraculously, a diverse, prophetic community of bridge-builders, visionaries, and dreamers, people of all genders and occupations and economic and social statuses – if we just let ourselves be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit of God.

Amen.


[1] Noelle E. C. Evans, “Seneca people are reviving their language, which boarding schools tried to erase,” All Things Considered, https://www.npr.org/2022/06/02/1102730375/seneca-people-are-reviving-their-language-which-boarding-schools-tried-to-erase (aired 2 June 2022).

[2] George Orwell, 1984, appendix, reprinted online at https://kickapooclark.weebly.com/uploads/5/0/8/5/5085586/the_principles_of_newspeak_orwell.pdf (accessed 4 June 2022).

[3] From SALT, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/6/3/beginning-again-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-pentecost (accessed 1 June 2022).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] James C. Howell, “Preaching on Pentecost,” Ministry Matters, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/11365/preaching-on-pentecost (posted 30 May 2022; accessed 2 June 2022).

[8] SALT, op. cit.

Some weeks, the number of things I could have included in a sermon are quite large. I decided that I would post here some of the things that didn’t make it into last Sunday’s sermon.

I could have reminded people that “At least 185 children, teachers and other people have lost their lives in school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.” Here are some reminders of those deaths.

I could have shared this tweet.

I could have talked about misogyny and domestic violence

One of the few things that almost all mass shooters have in common in the USA is that they are male. And all too often they are violently misogynistic. https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/uvalde-texas-gunman…/

Similarly, mass shooters are often involved in domestic violence. In fact, two-thirds of mass shootings are linked to domestic violence. https://efsgv.org/…/study-two-thirds-of-mass-shootings…/

It is important to note that misogyny and domestic violence are so common in our culture that simply being misogynistic or a perpetrator of domestic violence isn’t really a warning sign of a future mass shooter. However, if we help boys grow up to be men who aren’t misogynistic or domestically violent, we might help curb mass shootings and make the lives of women in general a whole lot better.

I could have shared these four things you can do to prevent gun violence:

1. Get educated about common sense gun laws. Resources include www.everytown.org and www.bradyunited.org

2. Call/email state and federal elected officials and let them know you expect them to do something about the leading cause of death of children. (That’s right, gun violence is the leading cause of death of children. See https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2201761)

3. Donate to organizations that are organizing people. I’d put www.everytown.org, www.bradyunited.org, and www.marchforourlives.com on the list of orgs to consider supporting.

4. Keep praying — with your words and your feet!

I could have gone into the connections between gun violence and racism in the USA. Instead, I invite you to read this article by @DrIbram X. Kendi. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/buffalo-shooting-manifesto-racism-great-replacement/629924/

I could have (and probably should have) included mention of the mass shooting at the Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods on May 15. At least five were injured and one was killed.

We could have included a prayer litany written by Episcopal Bishops remembering those who have died in the past ten years at mass shootings. You can pray it for yourself at https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/the-risk-of-prayer. (And if you can’t access that, it’s in this Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/1529257268474257409.)

I could have made reference to this letter written by a ninth grader after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. https://www.backstorypreaching.com/blog/a-ninth-grader-writes-an-open-letter-to-preachers-after-the-florida-shootings

I’m almost grateful that it wasn’t posted until today, so I couldn’t include it in last Sunday’s sermon — this list of arrests made of people threatening school shootings (16 incidents) since the Uvalde killings.

She didn’t post it until today.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 29, 2022, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Acts 16:16-39
Copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you’re observant, you will notice that there’s a difference between the sermon title and the graphic for today’s worship service. There are two different spellings of leitourgia – one with an “o” and one without. That’s because Pastor Brenda and I, when we planned this sermon series, wanted all five words we used to be transliterations of the Greek. As the church first became established, Greek was the most common language used, so the five original vocations of the church were expressed in Greek. We found two spellings of leitourgia, depending on the resource. I prefer the spelling with the “o.”

Even if you were here for every one of the four previous sermons in this series, a quick review is probably in order. In “Kerygma,” I talked about how we have good news to share and suggested that we figure out how to share it. In “Diakonia,” Pastor Brenda reminded us of the historic healing ministry of the church and how that ministry continues (without all the miracles). In “Didache,” Pastor Brenda reminded us that the historic ministry of teaching people about God’s love and hopeful vision for a new world continues. In “Koinonia,” I suggested that the world still needs the stratification-breaking power of Christian fellowship and community. Today, we turn to the fifth of the five original vocations of the church: leitourgia.

This may be the most recognizable of the five vocations because there is an English word that we use in the church (and sometimes beyond the church) that sounds almost the same: liturgy. Most people hear the word “liturgy” and think of the pomp and circumstance of formal worship services. Some churches are described as “liturgical,” meaning that they put a lot of emphasis on the smells and bells of a worship service or that their denomination provides a prescribed order of worship, down to the words that are said. In the USA, Easter Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and sometimes Lutheran churches are thought of a “liturgical.” The reality is that just about every congregation has their worship ritual habits and to that extent they, too, are liturgical. Our congregation is, to some extent, liturgical.

Interestingly, however, the literal meaning of the word leitourgia is “work of the people.” The word comes from two other words, leitos and ergos. Leitos means “public” and ergos means “work,” so, the “work of the people” of leitourgia is public service.

Somewhere along the line, the church narrowed down its understanding of the work of the people to the special work we do in our worship services. I have certainly been guilty of that. And then the events of the past two weeks happened in the context of we contemplating this story from the Book of Acts. And I found myself wondering, as Tripp Hudgins put it, “Why do we set the two practices – what we do in worship and what we do after – at odds with one another?”[1] I have become more convinced than ever that both practices need to be seen as liturgy, as the ways we fulfill the vocation of leitourgia.

In two wonderful, simple paragraphs, Walter Brueggemann summarizes what happens in today’s reading and how it juxtaposes “a greedy, self-deceiving, status-quo society”[2] and the way of Jesus. “There is a used slave-girl fortune-teller who thinks that the future is all fated and can be programmed in a way of certitude. There are money-making exploiters, the banker-pimps who use the innocent fortune-teller to generate private wealth. There are the magistrates who use their authority to maintain the status quo and prevent any social ‘disturbance.’ And there’s a prison that is a social statement about power and order that constitutes a threat to any who act ‘outside the box.’

“Into the midst of these ‘fixtures’ of a stable society come the apostles who assert an alternative ‘way of salvation’ (verse 17). The new way of well-being exposes all their old ways as failed frauds. In reaction to such news, the magistrates by decree and the mob by violence try to stop the news of ‘another way.’ But, we are told, ‘suddenly’ all the fixtures of shut-down control are shattered. The text makes no direct connection between the news and the quake. It only lets us imagine that God’s new power is on the move. It’s no wonder that the ones who know, sing and pray and praise and praise (Psalm 97). We praise because we know the prison houses of fear cannot contain this God who gives ‘life and breath and all things’ (Acts 17:25).”[3]

Would you? Would you be one of the ones who knows and so you would sing and pray and praise? It’s not as if themes of this story have changed all that much. Our criminal injustice system still runs very much by the gold-rule. Not the golden rule, but the gold-rule – as in, the ones with the gold rule. Paul and Silas might have been charged with promoting Jewish practices (which were, apparently, illegal for Roman citizens in Philippi to follow),[4] but they got in trouble because they were messing with commerce. And if the idea of Paul, a Roman citizen, being thrown in jail seems like something strange from millennia ago, just do a quick google search for news stories about U.S. citizens being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.[5]

Jason Byassee points out that there is a swinging back and forth between the powers of oppression and the powers of freedom in the story. “The story in Acts 16 starts with despair: slavery and demon possession. Liberation interrupts as a girl is healed, but then evil returns (as it is wont to do). Mob violence, trumped up charges, torture, jail. Grace interrupts again with an earthquake; barred doors fly open, O freedom! Evil returns again with a move toward suicide. Then grace triumphs: salvation for a household, baptism, a meal together, the end.”[6]

In fact, as Cindy Sojourner pointed out during last week’s Monday Morning Bible Study, the scene in the jailer’s home is a communion scene. It is a reenacting of the last supper. The jailer washes Paul and Silas’ wounds – which I imagine to be both the wounds from the beatings and the wounds from the stocks around their ankles. In other words, the jailer washes their feet. And then he eats with them. He shares a meal. They break bread together.

So, as I reflected on this story of the past week, I realized that in the story, the liturgy of the church is taken into the streets three times. First, Paul and Silas proclaimed, as the enslaved woman put it, “a way of salvation” to all who would listen. Then, imprisoned, they sing and pray together. And finally, they celebrate a communion of sorts with the jailer and his family.

And looking back at this vocation of leitourgia, I wonder how we can take liturgy to the streets as we step forward into this changed and changing world. And then, on Tuesday, word came of yet another mass shooting. This one was in a school. In this one, 19 children and two teachers were killed. And I realized that this is certainly one place where we must bring the liberating liturgy of the church into the streets.

And I realized that this is certainly one place where we must bring the liturgy of the streets into the church.

The second mass shooting and killing in fewer than a dozen days. The early one took place on Saturday, May 14, in Buffalo, New York.  We mustn’t forget Celestine Chaney, Roberta Drury, Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey, Margus Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Aaron Salter, Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield, and Pearl Young.[7] Each of them was a beloved child of God. Each of them was killed by gun violence and racist hatred. Each of them should have been able to go to the grocery store safely.

And likewise, each of the children and the two teachers killed in Uvalde, Texas, must not be forgotten. I want to say each of their names out loud, even though I know I may mispronounce some of them. Jackie Cazares and Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia, who were 9; Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo, Makenna Lee Elrod, Jose Flores, Uziyah Garcia, Amerie Jo Garza, Xavier Lopez, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, Tess Marie Mata, Alithia Haven Ramirez, Annabelle Rodriguez, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, Layla Salazar, Jailah Silguero, Eliahana Torres and Rojelio Torres, who were 10; and Maranda Gail Mathis, 11. The teachers were Irma Garcia, 48, and Eva Mireles, 44.[8]

Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten, and locked in stocks in the inner most depths of the prison. And there, in the filth and smells and darkness, they started singing and praying. They found themselves, as the church in its earliest decades found itself, the object of anger, persecution, hatred, and fear. All those emotions once directed at Jesus, all those emotions that led to Jesus’ execution, were now directed at Paul and Silas. It could have led to bitterness. It could have led to the seeking of revenge. But Paul and Silas knew how the story ends. Because they knew the power of the resurrection, they could turn from their own hatred and fear and invite the people around them into a life with God. Instead of responding to their jailer with revenge or violence, they invited him to know the God of life.[9]

Upon his return from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked, “Did you find time to pray?” He answered, “I prayed with my feet.”

“As Christians we must advocate for life in the midst of death, for justice in the midst of oppression, and [for] peace in the midst of hatred.”[10] Our liturgy, our public work, must not be limited to the confines of our sanctuary. It must go into the street. And in doing so, our very lives will become a prayer and we will offer God our praise in our living.

Amen.


[1] Tripp Hudgins, “Liturgy and Mission: Why Rachel Held Evans and Keith Anderson Are Right,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/liturgy-and-mission-why-rachel-held-evans-and-keith-anderson-are-right (accessed 22 May 2022).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Social Disturbance,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/social-disturbance (accessed 22 May 2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jim Rice, “Jail Ministry,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/jail-ministry (accessed 22 May 2022).

[5] See, for instance, https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/u-s-citizen-who-says-he-was-held-in-ice-custody-for-more-than-a-month-wants-accountability/2780842/; https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/marine-veteran-us-citizens-detained-ice-aclu/story?id=67465583; and https://www.npr.org/2019/07/25/745417268/u-s-citizen-detained-for-weeks-nearly-deported-by-immigration-officials.

[6] Jason Byassee, “Freedom Wins,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/freedom-wins (accessed 22 May 2022).

[7] Adrienne Vogt, et al, “The latest on the Buffalo supermarket mass shooting,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/us/live-news/buffalo-supermarket-shooting-05-17-22/h_dde5248154ded799d66474e30153f594 (posted 17 May 2022; accessed 28 May 2022).

[8] “What we know about the victims of the Uvalde shooting,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/article/uvalde-shooting-victims.html (posted 25 May 2022; accessed 28 May 2022).

[9] Michaela Bruzzese, “From Death to Life,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/death-life-0 (accessed 22 May 2022).

[10] Ibid.

I am finding it challenging to write today’s Pastoral Word. There are so many things swirling around in my mind: yesterday’s mass murder in Uvalde, Texas; the release days ago of a report documenting widespread sexual abuse within the Southern Baptism Convention; the reverberations of the racist mass murder in Buffalo, New York, eleven days ago; the mass shooting at a church in Laguna Woods, California, ten days ago; the fact that today is the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd.

I suspect that many of you are also experiencing a swirl of thoughts and feelings because of the news.

I am still collecting my thoughts. I am still processing my feelings. I will probably say something about some of these horrors in my sermon on Sunday, though I want to conclude our sermon series on the vocations of the church. We’ll all see how my sermon comes out.

I planned to extend an invitation in today’s Pastoral Word. Because it’s time sensitive, I will do so, though, just as I had trouble focusing on gratitude last night in prayer, I’m having trouble focusing on the gratitude I will invite you to express in a couple paragraphs.

Each year, toward the end of the school year, we designate a Sunday as “Bravo Sunday.” If we have high school graduates (as we do this year), we devote a significant portion of the service to congratulating and honoring them. We also want to acknowledge people who have completed other academic work (college and graduate programs, for example). And we take some time to thank volunteers in the life of the church.

So, here are the invitations:

Invitation 1: If you have in your family someone who has completed an academic program, please email me their name, the program they completed, the institution at which they studied, the date of completion, and (if at all possible) a photo of them – by May 30.

Invitation 2: If there is someone you want to thank/acknowledge for their volunteerism at the church, please email me their name and the volunteer work they did. If you have a photo of them at work, please send that, too. The deadline for these submissions is also May 30.

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 22, 2022, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Acts 2:42-47
Copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’d like to play a little game. I’m going to play two seconds of a song and I’m wondering who can name it. If you’re worshipping via zoom, type “got it” in the chat. If you’re in the sanctuary, please raise your hand.

[Play first two seconds of:]

A few people think they know it. Here are the first five seconds.

Well, just about everybody in the sanctuary thinks they know what it is. And it looks like quite a few in Zoom think they know what it is, too. Here are the first 10 seconds.

You’ve been listening to the opening seconds of the theme song for the 1980s sitcom Cheers. I know some of you weren’t even alive in the 1980s, so the game might have been a bit unfair. My apologies.

Even those of you who were able to identify the music may not know that the theme song originally had three verses and the chorus was sung twice.[1] The full lyrics paint, in an amusing way, a picture of how rough life can get. One of the lines refers to your child hanging your cat up by its tail. Unfortunately, one of the lines in the original three-verse version is transphobic, so we’re not going to hear the full song. Still, I do want to reflect on the lyrics as they came to be used in the opening of the show.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
You wanna go where people know, people are all the same.
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Given that the stars of the show are all white and their characters were all cisgender and heterosexual, those last two lines can be a little troubling. In fact, the claim that “people are all the same” is wrong if it is meant to be a universal statement. People are not all the same. Each of us is unique. The fact that we are each unique is one of the few things that is the same about us.

However, in the context of the rest of the song, I think the lyrics are reminding us that we all live lives filled with annoyances and hardships, and that, from time to time, we all need a break. We all need a place we can go where we are known and welcomed, a place where people are glad we came. In many ways, that’s what koinonia is all about.

The author of the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles wrote these books at least 50 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and maybe as long as 75 years after.[2] I can’t help but wonder if the author was looking back at the first years of the Jesus movement, the first years of people identifying with The Way, through nostalgic glasses. You know how nostalgia and grammar are the same? They both find the past perfect and the present tense.

There is a degree of idealism in the description we heard today about the first converts to The Way. Did they really hold all things in common? We know from the beginning of chapter 5 in Acts that this was not a universal practice. Maybe this group in Jerusalem did hold all things in common. Or maybe this was the ideal that was held by Christian’s in Luke’s day and Luke assumes (or wants us to think) it was accomplished.

We do know that only the Jesus followers who were in Jerusalem were able to regularly go to the Temple for prayer and study, and probably to offer sacrifices. As The Way spread throughout the Roman Empire and to other areas like South Asia and Africa, going to the Temple was impossible. Instead, it was with gatherings in their homes for praying, singing, and eating that the people of The Way created community.

It appears that the first converts did the same thing. While they gathered in the Temple, they also gathered in their homes. And gathering around the table was an important part of their home gatherings.

Last week, our reading from Acts was about the dream Peter had in Joppa. Because of the dream, Peter started supporting the inclusion of non-Jews in the Jesus movement. And, in fact, this radical inclusion became a hallmark of the Jesus movement. The letter to the Galatians is probably the second oldest book in the New Testament.[3] In it is a famous passage that may well be part of an early, early Christian statement of faith.

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

While the first converts to The Way could go to the Temple (since they were in Jerusalem), they couldn’t go together. There were areas at the Temple where men could go that women could not. There are areas of the temple where Jewish men could go and Gentiles could not. But in their homes, when they gathered in their homes, they could (and would) all sit around the same table. When they gathered in their homes, people who were enslaved, people who were the equivalent of serfs, and people who were property owners sat together. Gender did not separate them. Previous religious identity did not separate them. For all of them had put on Christ, and were now part of one body.

This is my understanding of how the church embodied koinonia, one of the first five vocations of the church. And, today, I think we continue to live out this vocation first and foremost at the communion table. One of the miraculous things that happens at the communion table is the building of community. As it was at the beginning of the Jesus movement, we are all equal at the table. There is nothing that separates us from each other when we gather around the table.

Of course, the communion table is not the only place where we practice koinonia. In my Pastoral Word email last week, I noted that, based on the responses to a questionnaire I sent the congregation in April, the most-named thing people missed during the pandemic about our worship services from before the pandemic was the sense of koinonia they felt when we all gathered in one room for prayer and singing and celebrating communion. No one who responded this way used the term “koinonia.” They used words like “community.” Still, I think they were talking about koinonia. And some may still feel like they’re not getting a full measure of koinonia because, though we are worshiping together, we are gathered in two rooms – the sanctuary and Zoom.

This longing for koinonia, this longing for a place “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” is why the Zoom breakout rooms following worship have been so important, and why coffee hour continues to be so important to so many. Koinonia was an early vocation of the church because koinonia is important for the soul.

Koinonia creeps into many ministries of the church. While we spend most of our time reflecting on scripture at the Monday Morning Bible Study, we do so practicing koinonia. Yes, there’s plenty of organizational work that gets done at Ministry Team and Cabinet meetings. And koinonia is practiced as well. In July, when the safe parking program returns to our parking lot, we will have the opportunity to practice the vocation of diokonia, the vocation Pastor Brenda talked about two weeks ago. One of the ways we will practice this vocation is by practicing koinonia with the guests who will be parking here. If you’re interested in embodying these two vocations, talk to John Smith for more information.

From its beginning, the church has been called to a vocation of fellowship, to the vocation of koinonia. It was initially a countercultural vocation, for it involved the tearing down of social stratifications and separations. I believe that koinonia continues to be a countercultural vocation. It remains a vocation of removing stratifications and separations. It remains a vocation of inclusion that, among other things, encourages us to move beyond either/or, binary thinking.

The vocation remains. The context in which we fulfill this vocation is changing. One of the things that have been clarified by the pandemic is this: that our understanding of what it means to be church and our understandings of how we carry out our vocations are changing.

We are trying to figure out what it means to be the church and how the church carries out its vocations when, thanks to new technology, the boundaries of a local congregation are ceasing to be defined by geography. And for us in the United States where division and stratification are getting stronger and stronger (as it is, no doubt, in other countries around the world), we need a new understanding of how we fulfill the stratification demolishing power of koinonia.

The vocation remains. Perhaps this look back will help us step forward.

Amen.


[1] See https://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/cheerslyrics.html for the full lyrics.

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 424-426.

[3] Ibid, 45.

A few weeks ago, I invited you to respond to an eight-question survey to help Pastor Brenda and me evaluate how we are doing at creating our hybrid worship services. I reminded you that when botanists develop a hybrid plant, they take some of the best attributes of one variety and mix them with some of the best attributes of another variety to create a third variety. That is what we are attempting to do in creating our hybrid worship services. We are trying to take some of the best attributes of our worship services before the pandemic and the best attributes of our Zoom-only worship services from the first two years of the pandemic, and create a hybrid that works in both environments. Here’s a summary of your responses.

We had a wonderful variety of people among the 22 responses, with at least one voice from every generation from Millennials to Silent. We had responses from people with experience worshipping (since January when our hybrid services began) primarily in Zoom, primarily in the sanctuary, and with a mix. Likewise, their plans on how to worship in the immediate future were similarly mixed, with some people sticking to their status quo and some people changing plans. In other words, the responses came from a wide variety of experiences.

The things people most missed about worship from before the pandemic (when we were exclusively in the sanctuary) were (a) the sense of connection and community people felt by being physically together, (b) the choir singing, and (c) singing hymns as a group. The things people liked most about Zoom-only worship were (a) the inclusion of a greater variety of music styles, often with the use of videos, (b) the relaxed feel of being at home (“worshipping in my pjs” while “drinking coffee”), and (c) the ability to be present when other factors (health, distance, schedule, sleeping in, mobility, etc.) would have kept people home.

There was less convergence of opinions about what people are glad has been left out of hybrid worship from before the pandemic, though several people mentioned that they appreciate that our hybrid worship services have been an hour in length, not the 1¼-hour or 1½ hour long services we had prior to the pandemic. (Pastor Brenda and I have been conscience of time because length of exposure to someone with COVID-19 is a factor in transmission.) A couple people mentioned that they are glad we’re not “passing the peace” during worship.

There was even less convergence of opinions about what people are glad has been left out of hybrid worship from our time worshipping on Zoom only. A few people mentioned that they particularly like (I interpret this to mean that they find it more worshipful) that the preaching is happening from the pulpit (rather than from a chair in front of a computer). A few other people noted that hybrid worship is significantly more complicated than either sanctuary-only or Zoom-only worship, requiring more volunteers; one person was concerned about volunteer burnout.

The final question was for people to share brainstorms, and I didn’t expect much convergence here. The most exciting (to me) idea offered here was to put a computer in the fellowship hall so people who are worshipping in the sanctuary can check in with Zoomers in the break-out rooms.

The Ministry of Spiritual Life Team will be discussing your responses and making suggestions to Pastor Brenda and me about how we can continue to strengthen this new variety of worship we are continuing to crossbreed.

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon[1] preached at First Christian Church, Concord, California,
on Sunday, May 15, 2022, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35
Copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

You may have figured out that I am not the Rev. Dr. Davena Jones. Davena had a medical emergency on Saturday, and I was asked to pinch-hit. My name is Jeff Spencer and I’m the Senior Pastor at Niles Discovery Church in Fremont, where I serve with the Rev. Brenda Loreman. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, so preaching in Concord is a little outside my heritage comfort zone. I’ve been reminding myself that this Concord is not in Massachusetts and so it’s okay that I’m here.

Growing up in New England means I grew up in the United Church of Christ. I was called to Niles Congregational Church in Fremont over 17 years ago. A good portion of my first seven years were spent discussing and evaluating whether or not Niles Congregational Church and First Christian Church of Fremont should merge. 10 years ago this coming September, the merger became official and Niles Discovery Church was formed. As a congregation duly aligned with the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, I felt it was important to get standing in our Christian Church of Northern California-Nevada Region – which I did.

Nonetheless, my heritage is in the United Church of Christ, a denomination that largely practices infant baptism. This means, of course, that most cradle-UCCers don’t remember their baptisms. That was certainly the case for Janet.[2] She didn’t remember her baptism. On the other hand, her mother did, and she loved to tell the story. On the day of Janet’s baptism, she lay quietly in her mother’s arms sleeping. The minister dabbed some water on the infant’s head and intoned the ancient words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit be upon you, Janet Elaine, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of Christ Church.” Janet opened her eyes, let out a big yawn, and resumed her nap.

Those of us who grew up in the church, those of us who are familiar with many of the Bible’s stories, often react the same way. Jesus eats with tax collectors – yawn. Peter shares a meal with Cornelius – yawn. What’s the big deal? And we resume our nap.

Well, apparently it was a big deal. Luke uses all of chapter 10 and half of Chapter 11 in the book of Acts to tell the story. And Luke tells the most interesting part – the part about the vision – twice, just to make sure we get it.

Gentiles are welcome in the household of God.

Does that strike you as a revolutionary concept? When you hear those words, does your blood pressure rise? Are you provoked to anger? Or, do you yawn, shut your eyes, and resume your nap?

Gentiles are welcome in the household of God.

It may sound benign to our 21st century American ears, but it’s a statement that has controversy written all over it. Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a foreign oppressor. Nonetheless, he took great interest in spiritual matters. He attempted to live a holy and faithful life. He gave generously to the poor. But he was no Jew. He did not live according to the purity codes grounded in the first five books of the Bible. He was not circumcised. Basically, he was an unrepentant sinner.

Remember, Christianity was at this point a sect of Judaism, not a separate religion. Jesus was Jewish. Peter, James, John, and all the other disciples, were Jews. The purity codes were part of their culture, part of their world view.

And then Peter receives a vision. He sees heaven open, and a large sheet come down. On the sheet are all sorts of animals, including unclean animals, animals that would be sinful for Peter to eat. A voice from heaven says, “Peter, get up; kill and eat.”

Peter is mortified! “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything it is profane or unclean!”

The voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Three times this happens. Three times the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

It’s difficult for us to understand the radical shift God is calling for in this vision. A couple decades ago, a colleague shared a story to help me get a sense of how challenging this was. My colleague’s first husband, Nick, was left-handed. One of my colleague’s good friends was married to a man from Pakistan, and he grew up eating with his hands as was the custom. I’m not sure if it is part of the Muslim code, though it was certainly part of the cultural practice: you eat with your right hand and use your left hand for toilet functions. In other words, no one would never ever eat with their left hand.

For some time, my colleague’s friend’s husband could not eat at the table with Nick, not even when they used forks. Simply seeing Nick use his left hand made dinner too uncomfortable. Eventually, they could share a table, but my colleague’s friend’s husband would always sit where he could not see Nick eat. For first century Jews (including Jesus followers), sitting at table with gentiles caused a gut reaction of revulsion, anger, and disgust.

And then Peter had these visions, and he told the other disciples, “I know it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

And, oh my, did that get Peter in hot water when he got back to the movement leaders in Jerusalem. “Peter, what have you done? Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them? How could you baptize these repugnant, offensive people?”

Peter tells them how the Holy Spirit told him to “go with these Gentiles, not to make a distinction between them and us.” And he tells them how the Holy Spirit fell upon these Gentiles – even before they were baptized!

My friends, even Gentiles are welcome in the household of God. This story from Acts tells us that the household of God is a place of radical inclusion. It is not enough to be a place of tolerance. It is not enough to be a place of acceptance. The household of God is a place of radical inclusion. The household of God is a place where the welcome offered is so charged with love that the welcomer is transformed in offering the welcome. The household of God is a place where the welcome and inclusion are rooted in a radical Jesus-love.

That’s the line from today’s gospel lesson I want to focus on. Jesus says he is giving his disciples and new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Reading this line as we wake up from the stupor of our nap, we might wonder what is new about this commandment. So, let’s take a look.

The setting is Jesus’ Last Supper on the night of his betrayal. The lesson begins with, “when he had gone out …” The “he” refers to Judas, Jesus’ betrayer. He had gone out to start the wheels turning that led to Jesus’ arrest and execution. Because Judas has left the table, everything is different. Jesus can no longer escape the reach of the government. Jesus is heading toward the cross. Jesus is about to reveal to us in his actions a love so profound that it takes them all the way to the cross.

That’s the love that Jesus is talking about when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Does this love extend to Judas, and to the Judases of this world? I believe it does. And I believe that this is the love we are supposed to share

Jesus calls this a new commandment. At its worst, the old commandment was: Look after yourself first. Defend against your enemies, even before they can act. Close the circle around those you love (which was usually family and close friends). And at its best the old commandment was: love others as you love yourself.

What’s new about this new commandment is that self-love is no longer an adequate model. Love others as you love yourself is a great beginning. Jesus asks us to love more deeply than that. Love others as Jesus loves you. Once again, we are called to a love so deep that in giving that love the giver is transformed. Jesus calls me to love so deeply I am changed.

When I think about these two scripture readings, I hear a prescription for the church. When I think about these two scripture readings I hear a call to be a church where “all” really does mean all. We are called to be a church where everyone, regardless of race or ethnic heritage, is welcomed and loved. The news of the past 24 hours, with stories of racially hate-motivated shootings in Dallas, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, show just how desperately this message is needed.[3]

We were called to be a church for those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether they are in recovery or not) and every member of their families are welcomed and loved.

We are called to be a church where women and children are welcomed and they’re not harassed or abused.

We are called to be a church where you can bring children to worship and, even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcomed and loved.

We are called to be a church were those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through the death of a spouse are welcomed and loved.

We are called to be a church where gossips, cheats, liars, and their families are welcomed and loved.

We are called to be a church where those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcomed and loved.

We are called to be a church where gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and all the members of their families are welcomed and loved.

We are called to be a church where young and old, rich and poor, broken and whole are welcomed and loved.

The disciples didn’t have to get it all together before Jesus loved them. They didn’t even have to show signs that they were on their way to getting it all together. Jesus loved them, even unto death because … Jesus loved them. Period.

And Jesus loved and still loves us, to use some classical words, while we are yet sinners. That’s why we are called to be a church that welcomes and loves sinners – sinners like you and me.

Of course, because we are yet sinners, we will not always be quick to welcome and to love as we should. So let us be quick to admit our failings and seek forgiveness. Let us be quick to love. And may we love so deeply that we are transformed in the offering of that love.

Amen.


[1] This sermon is based on a sermon I preached in 2001 in Carnation, Washington, when I wasn’t good at footnoting resources used. Credit is certainly due to various writers and, as you’ll see, colleagues.

[2] I have no memory of where I first heard this story.

[3] See, for instance “Dallas police believe 3 recent shootings at Asian-owned businesses may be connected and hate-motivated,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/14/us/dallas-asian-run-businesses-shootings/index.html (posted 14 May 2022) and “Mass shooting at Buffalo supermarket was a racist hate crime, police say,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/15/us/buffalo-supermarket-shooting-sunday/index.html (posted 15 May 2022).

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