Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (a professor whose writings on racism in the USA I deeply respect) wrote an important article, “Is This the Beginning of the End of American Racism?” for The Atlantic magazine. I highly recommend it. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/the-end-of-denial/614194/

Ibram X. Kendi

I’ve pulled a few quotes from it, but, wow, please read the whole thing:

“Americans … should in one respect be thankful to [Trump]. He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back … an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality.”

“To make America great again, [Trump] would make it seem as if a Black man had never been president, erasing him from history by repealing and replacing his signature accomplishments, from the Affordable Care Act to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He would also build a wall to keep out immigrants, and he would ban Muslims from entering the country.”

“Within days of being sworn in, Trump … reversed holds on two oil-pipeline projects, including one through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which was opposed by more than 200 Indigenous nations. He issued executive orders calling for the construction of a wall along the southern border and the deportation of individuals who ‘pose a risk to public safety or national security.’ He enacted his first of three Muslim bans.

“By the end of the spring, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest prison sentences whenever possible. Sessions had also laid the groundwork for the suspension of all the consent decrees that provided federal oversight of law-enforcement agencies that had demonstrated a pattern of racism.”

“It has become harder, in the Trump years, to blame Black people for racial inequity and injustice. It has also become harder to tell Black people that the fault lies with them, and to urge them to improve their station by behaving in an upstanding or respectable manner. In the Trump years, the problem is obvious, and it isn’t Black people’s behavior.”

“Trump’s racism—and that of his allies and enablers—has been too blatant for Americans to ignore or deny. And just as the 1850s paved the way for the revolution against slavery, Trump’s presidency has paved the way for a revolution against racism.”

In their denial, people are thinking that “Routine surgery—the defeat of Donald Trump at the polls—will heal the American body. No need to look deeper, at police departments, at schools, at housing. Are Americans now acknowledging racism, but telling themselves the problem is contained? Are they telling themselves that it is a big problem, but it can’t have spread to almost every part of the body politic? Will this become the new form of American denial?”

The truth is, we have “two choices: denial and death, or recognition and life.”

“Trump clearly hopes that racist ideas—paired with policies designed to suppress the vote—will lead to his reelection. But now that Trump has pushed a critical mass of Americans to a point where they can no longer explain away the nation’s sins, the question is what those Americans will do about it.

“One path forward leads to a mere restoration. Barack Obama’s vice president unseats Trump, removing the bad apple from the barrel. With Trump dispatched, the nation believes it is again headed in the right direction. On this path, Americans consider racism to be a significant problem. But they deny the true gravity of the problem and the need for drastic action. On this path, monuments to racism are dismantled, but Americans shrink from the awesome task of reshaping the country with anti-racist policies. With Trump gone, Americans decide they don’t need to be actively anti-racist anymore.

“Or Americans can realize that they are at a point of no return. No returning to the bad old habit of denial. No returning to cynicism. No returning to normal—the normal in which racist policies, defended by racist ideas, lead to racial inequities.

“On this path, Trump’s denialism has permanently changed the way Americans view themselves. The Trump effect is real, and lasting. The reckoning we have witnessed this spring and summer at public demonstrations transforms into a reckoning in legislatures, C-suites, university-admissions offices.

“On this path, the American people demand equitable results, not speeches that make them feel good about themselves and their country. The American people give policy makers an ultimatum: Use your power to radically reduce inequity and injustice, or be voted out.

“The abolition of slavery seemed as impossible in the 1850s as equality seems today. But just as the abolitionists of the 1850s demanded the immediate eradication of slavery, immediate equality must be the demand today. Abolish police violence. Abolish mass incarceration. Abolish the racial wealth gap and the gap in school funding. Abolish barriers to citizenship. Abolish voter suppression. Abolish health disparities. Not in 20 years. Not in 10 years. Now.”

I remember, a dozen years ago or so, talking about #ClimateChange with an old college friend who was visiting San Francisco. I told him that I worried about climate change because I worried about war and hunger. As the climate changes, I told him, the availability of water will change, so the availability of food will change, so people will go hungry and wars will likely result. Mixed in there, though not articulated, was a sense that climate change was going to increate human migration. I didn’t have data to back up this idea; I was basing it solely on common sense. Now there is statistical modeling that shows I was right.

“The Great Climate Migration,“ by Abraham Lustgarten, published in the New York Times Magazine, goes in-depth to report on the impacts of the #ClimateCrisis on human migration. The article is long, and it is worth the time to read it (or listen to it; an audio version is available if you scroll down a ways). And I recommend looking at it on a desktop/lap top computer because of the graphics; the bigger screen will make them easier to read and understand. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html

I’ve pulled a few quotes from the article.

Because of climate changes, once fertile land will cease to provide food. “As their land fails them, hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Sudan to the Mekong Delta will be forced to choose between flight or death. The result will almost certainly be the greatest wave of global migration the world has seen.”

“If governments take modest action to reduce climate emissions, about 680,000 climate migrants might move from Central America and Mexico to the United States between now and 2050. If emissions continue unabated, leading to more extreme warming, that number jumps to more than a million people. (None of these figures include undocumented immigrants, whose numbers could be twice as high.)”

ALTA VERAPAZ, GUATEMALA. Carlos Tiul, an Indigenous farmer whose maize crop has failed, with his children.

“In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has offered a test run on whether humanity has the capacity to avert a predictable — and predicted — catastrophe. Some countries have fared better. But the United States has failed. The climate crisis will test the developed world again, on a larger scale, with higher stakes. The only way to mitigate the most destabilizing aspects of mass migration is to prepare for it, and preparation demands a sharper imagining of where people are likely to go, and when.”

“As they have looked more closely, migration researchers have found climate’s subtle fingerprints almost everywhere. Drought helped push many Syrians into cities before the war, worsening tensions and leading to rising discontent; crop losses led to unemployment that stoked Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya; Brexit, even, was arguably a ripple effect of the influx of migrants brought to Europe by the wars that followed. And all those effects were bound up with the movement of just two million people. As the mechanisms of climate migration have come into sharper focus — food scarcity, water scarcity and heat — the latent potential for large-scale movement comes to seem astronomically larger.”

“Today researchers at the United Nations estimate that some 65 percent of farmable lands have already been degraded.”

“The World Bank projects that [south Asia] will soon have the highest prevalence of food insecurity in the world. While some 8.5 million people have fled already — resettling mostly in the Persian Gulf — 17 million to 36 million more people may soon be uprooted, the World Bank found. If past patterns are a measure, many will settle in India’s Ganges Valley; by the end of the century, heat waves and humidity will become so extreme there that people without air-conditioning will simply die.”

“If it is not drought and crop failures that force large numbers of people to flee, it will be the rising seas. We are now learning that climate scientists have been underestimating the future displacement from rising tides by a factor of three, with the likely toll being some 150 million globally. New projections show high tides subsuming much of Vietnam by 2050 — including most of the Mekong Delta, now home to 18 million people — as well as parts of China and Thailand, most of southern Iraq and nearly all of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket. Many coastal regions of the United States are also at risk.”

GUATEMALA CITY. Crop failures are causing more rural residents to migrate to urban areas.

“Around the world, as people run short of food and abandon farms, they gravitate toward cities, which quickly grow overcrowded. It’s in these cities, where waves of new people stretch infrastructure, resources and services to their limits, that migration researchers warn that the most severe strains on society will unfold. Food has to be imported — stretching reliance on already-struggling farms and increasing its cost. People will congregate in slums, with little water or electricity, where they are more vulnerable to flooding or other disasters. The slums fuel extremism and chaos.”

By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of city-dwellers will live in slums. “In just a decade, four out of every 10 urban residents — two billion people around the world — will live in slums.”

“Studies estimate that with climate change, water availability per capita [in Mexico] could decrease by as much as 88 percent in places, and crop yields in coastal regions may drop by a third.” Imagine the impact that will have on internal and transnational migration.

Meanwhile, “Around the world, nations are choosing walls. Even before the pandemic, Hungary fenced off its boundary with Serbia, part of more than 1,000 kilometers of border walls erected around the European Union states since 1990. India has built a fence along most of its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, whose people are among the most vulnerable in the world to sea-level rise.

“The United States, of course, has its own wall-building agenda — literal ones, and the figurative ones that can have a greater effect.”

EL PASO. A mother and daughter from Central America, hoping for asylum, turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents.

Yet, “There is no more natural and fundamental adaptation to a changing climate than to migrate. It is the obvious progression the earliest Homo sapiens pursued out of Africa, and the same one the Mayans tried 1,200 years ago. As Lorenzo Guadagno at the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration told me recently, ‘Mobility is resilience.’ Every policy choice that allows people the flexibility to decide for themselves where they live helps make them safer.”

“[T]he global trend toward building walls could have a profound and lethal effect. Researchers suggest that the annual death toll, globally, from heat alone will eventually rise by 1.5 million. But in this scenario, untold more will also die from starvation, or in the conflicts that arise over tensions that food and water insecurity will bring.”

The article’s conclusion:  “If societies respond aggressively to climate change and migration and increase their resilience to it, food production will be shored up, poverty reduced and international migration slowed — factors that could help the world remain more stable and more peaceful. If leaders take fewer actions against climate change, or more punitive ones against migrants, food insecurity will deepen, as will poverty. Populations will surge, and cross-border movement will be restricted, leading to greater suffering. Whatever actions governments take next — and when they do it — makes a difference.

“The window for action is closing. The world can now expect that with every degree of temperature increase, roughly a billion people will be pushed outside the zone in which humans have lived for thousands of years.”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 2, 2020, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 14:13-21
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Many of you are familiar with the children’s author and illustrator, Shel Silverstein.  One of his more famous books is The Giving Tree.  It is the tale of a tree and the boy she loved.  The boy would come and play in her leaves and climb her trunk and swing on her branches and eat her apples.  I use the she/her pronouns for the tree because Silverstein uses them in the book.

The story says that the boy loved the tree and the tree loved the boy.  And then the boy grew and his priorities changed.  As a teen, he wanted money to be able to buy things, so the tree gave him her apples that he could sell to get money.

The boy became a man, and when he returned to the tree, he asked the tree to give him a home.  So the tree gave up her branches so that he could build a home.

When the boy became middle-aged, he wanted to get away from it all.  To do that, he needed a boat.  So the tree suggested that he cut down her trunk and make a boat.  The middle-aged man did this and he sailed away.

When the boy returned, he was an old man, and the tree said that she had nothing to give him for all she is now is a stump.  But a stump, she tells the old man, is a good place to sit down and rest.  And the old man does.  And the tree – the stump, really – is happy.

My two problems with the book are interrelated.  I have a problem with that the tree finds her fulfillment in taking care of the needs of the boy and ignoring her own needs.  And I have a problem that the tree is gendered female.  There is a sexism in this story, a message that people who are gendered female will find their purpose in ignoring their own needs and in responding to the needs of others.

This past week, I was introduced to a version of the book that has an alternate ending.[1]  The author, Topher Payne, renamed the book, The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries.  In his version, when the boy returns as a man seeking the wood to build a house for his young family, the tree sets a boundary.  “Look, I was fine with giving you the apples to help you get on your feet.  They’ll grow back next season anyway.  But no, I’m not giving you a house.

“You know, I’ve seen boys like you pull this nonsense with other trees in the forest.  First it’s the apples, then the branches, then the trunk, and before you know it that mighty beautiful tree is just a sad little stump.

“Well, look here, Boy, I love you like family, but I am not going down like that.”[2]

Payne’s version goes on, with the boy learning empathy, and looking out for the best interests of the tree, and learning how to bake wonderful apple pies.  Together, they grow.  And eventually the boy brings his children and their children to come and play with the tree.

“And as each generation played in her strong old branches,” Payne’s version goes, “the tree often thought back to that fateful day when the boy had asked her for a house.  In truth, she would have gladly given him her branches to build one.  She would have given him her trunk to build a boat.  She loved him that much.

“But then she would have had nothing left.  Not for herself, nor for anyone else.”[3]

In Payne’s version of the story, the tree takes care of herself.

Two months ago, when I was picking themes for my sermons this summer, the thing that caught my attention about today’s gospel lesson was the first verse.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the stories of the feedings of the multitude.  They are so important to our faith, that there are six versions of the story spread out in all four gospels.

And yet, it was the first sentence of this story, the set up for the story that caught my attention this time around.  “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to deserted place by himself.”[4]  The “this,” as Val mentioned in their introduction to the reading, is the execution of John the Baptist.  When Jesus heard about the execution of John, he decided he needed a little alone time.  So he got into a boat to go off to be by himself for a while.  Jesus needed a little alone time; he recognized he needed a little alone time; and he sought out a little alone time.

This verse got me thinking about and reading about the whole topic of “self-care.”  So I’ve done research and reading, and here is the most important thing I learned:  self-care is not selfish.  As one writer put it, “Self-care is stewardship of the only gift we bring into this world.”[5]

Think about that for a moment.  We may have accumulated stuff and we may have accumulated wealth over the course of our lifetimes, but the only true gift that we have, the only gift that is purely ours, is the gift of ourselves.  How we care for ourselves is an act of stewardship.  We can be good stewards of this gift or we can be poor stewards of this gift.  “Self-care is stewardship of the only gift we bring into this world.”

There are many things I could say on the topic of self-care.  There are many articles and ideas that are lying on the sermon cutting room floor this week.  Today, I want to focus on the complexity of self-care.  Though she’s not a psychologist, I found what Deanna Zandt wrote about the complexity of self-care to be enlightening.[6]  She differentiates four different aspects of self-care.

First, she identifies self-soothing.  These are “activities that provide distraction and/or comfort in difficult times.”  A few of the examples of self-soothing she offers are TV bingeing, bubble bathing, getting out into nature, and taking time off from home responsibilities and childcare.  I’ve noticed that there have been several times since we’ve started sheltering in place that I’m had a craving for ice cream, and that has confused me because I don’t digest ice cream were well at all.  Zandt has helped me recognize that this craving for ice cream has actually been a craving for soothing.

She (somewhat confusingly) labels the second aspect of self-care, “self-care.”  These are “activities that help you find meaning, and that support your growth and groundedness.”[7]  A few of the examples of self-care she offers are going to therapy, meditating, exercising (which, for some people, is also self-soothing), taking ownership of your finances, saying “yes” and “no” when you really mean it, and setting – and keeping – boundaries.  For me, journaling is another activity that falls under this aspect of self-care.

Zandt then notices that “it takes a LOT to be able to even do self-care, since the systems and cultural norms in which we currently live can feel impossible to navigate on our own.”[8]  That’s why we also need “Community Care,” the third aspect of self-care Zandt identifies.  Community care are strategies communities develop to help one another when the larger system won’t let us take care of ourselves.  She lists examples like childcare and educational collectives, freecycle and buy nothing groups, special friendships, worker-owned coops, and co-housing.

But community care is only one part of the solution.  Often, “we also need to fundamentally overhaul … the systems in which we live.”[9]  This is something the Movement for Black Lives is working on, and it is really what the call to “defund the police” is about – the overhauling of the systems in which we live.

Which brings us to the fourth aspect of self-care that Zandt identifies:  Structural care.  Structural care is creating and sustaining the “systems that support community care, self-care, and self-soothing.”[10]  Zandt lists examples like comprehensive universal healthcare, environmental defense and renewal, child- and eldercare, living wage, efficient public transportation, gender and sexuality liberation, racial equity and justice, and paid family leave.

It occurs to me that the story of the feeding of the thousands is an example of community care and maybe even pushes toward structural care.  Matthew tells us that when the crowds who had been following Jesus heard that he had withdrawn to a deserted place, they walked around the lake and met him when he came ashore.  When Jesus saw them, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”[11]

According to James Howell, the Greek that gets translated “compassion” has a literal meaning of “inward turmoil, a twisting of the guts.…  [H]is entrails get all contorted, like a woman’s womb in labor.”[12]  Jesus, suffering from his own grief, sees the needs of these people and his guts get so twisted up that he has to start meeting those needs.  Meeting their needs is both an act of self-care and self-soothing for Jesus and an act of community care.

Then, when it gets late and the needs shifts to one of dinner, Jesus tells his disciples to give the people something to eat.  The disciples don’t think they have the resources to meet these needs, so they hesitate.  And Jesus takes what they have and meets the needs of the people who were there.  We can see Jesus organizing his disciples and the people to create community care.

The story ends with a note that there were twelve baskets full of leftovers.  I can’t help but wonder if, at some level, Jesus is leaning into some structural care as well.  Something had to happen with the leftovers.  If it was a typical church potluck, they probably got sent home with people who needed it.  And why would they have needed food beyond dinner out there in that deserted place?  Because the social structures of the day made getting their daily bread difficult.

Let me cycle back to the first things that I said:  Self-care is not selfish.  Self-care is necessary stewardship of the only gift you really have to give:  you.  Just remember that self-care is complex, so be open to new nudgings of how you can better care for yourself and one another, especially during these days when there are so many reasons to feel stressed out.

Amen.


  • What are your self-soothing strategies?
  • What are your self-care strategies?
  • How can you participate in community care?
  • How can you participate in structural care?

[1] Topher Payne, “The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries,” Topher Fixed It, https://www.topherpayne.com/ (accessed 29 July 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew 14:13 (NRSV).

[5] Frank Powell, “Self-Care is NOT Selfish,” Frank Powell:Restoring Culture Through Christ, https://frankpowell.me/self-care-not-selfish (accessed 28 July 2020).

[6] Deanna Zandt, “The Unspoken Complexity of ‘Self-Care’,” Noteworthy – The Journal Blog, https://blog.usejournal.com/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467 (posted 17 October 2019; accessed 29 July 2020).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Matthew 14:14 (NRSV).

[12] James C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: August 2, 2020,” Ministry Matters, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10426/weekly-preaching-august-2-2020 (posted and accessed 29 July 2020).

Enhancing Zoom Security

Starting on Friday, we’re going to start making things on Zoom a tiny bit more complicated – and safer.

Up until now, we’ve made most of our Zoom gatherings pretty simple to join. You click a link in the “This Week at Niles Discovery Church” email and you’re there. The two big exceptions have been our worship services and “Zoom with the Kids,” both of which have required pre-registration. We will be moving to require registration for almost every meeting that is hosted on the church’s account. (There are a few meetings that are hosted on other accounts – the Adult Sunday School and the Green Team, for example. The hosts of those meetings will decide for themselves if they are going to require registration).

We are making this move because it makes the Zoom experience safer for everyone. Zoom announced some security changes that were going to start this month and have since been pushed back. Nonetheless, we are going forward with taking this step to make your Zoom experience safer. The big advantage for you is that you will get an email from Zoom when you register with your unique link for each meeting. You can figure out a way that works for you to file or flag those emails so you can find them easily to click to join the meetings when they happen. Also, the church will also be able to send out reminder emails through Zoom quite easily this way.

To roll out this change, the “This Week at Niles Discovery Church” email will be delayed a day. Look for it on Friday. It will have links to the registration sites. You can register immediately or at your convenience.

99 Days to the Election

There are only 99 days until the November general election, so now is the time to make sure you can vote.

The California Secretary of State sent out an email today to registered voters who shared their email addresses when they registered. He wrote, “All California voters will be sent a vote-by-mail ballot with prepaid postage for the General Election. To make sure you get your ballot, we are asking all California voters to double-check their voter registration at voterstatus.sos.ca.gov.” Making sure our mailing address is 100% accurate is especially vital this year.

I went to check my registration information this morning, including my mailing address, and everything was correct. That’s comforting. I encourage you to do it to.

Remember, voting is a civic sacrament and decisions are made by those who show up.

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 26#, 2020, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Jesus taught in parables. That’s one of the things we learn about him early in our faith development. It occurs to me, however, that we lump together many different types of teachings under that one term, “parable.”

“Once there was a man traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was set upon by robbers who beat him and robbed him and left him for dead at the side of the road.” That’s how Jesus, according to Luke, begins a story that we call “the parable of the Good Samaritan.” The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or prodigal) son are stories. The parable of the sower who threw seed all over the place so that it landed in four different types of soil is a story.

Story parables are very different in style from the parables in today’s scripture lesson. The parables in today’s scripture lesson are much more like koans than stories, though koans can be little stories, too. You’ve probably heard the term “koan” even if you’re not completely sure what a koan is. Koans are used in the Zen branch of Buddhism (and its related branches in southeast Asia) for teaching.

To over-simplify, a koan is a statement, typically a brief statement or very brief story, that invites the hearer into deep reflection. It can do this by confounding the logical mind. The classic Zen koan, “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping,” does this by inviting us to start by figuring out how one hand can clap. Which is pretty confounding to the logical mind.

Koans can do this inviting by being filled with wisdom. Another classical koan goes like this:

Nan-in, a Zen master, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

As one website put it, Zen koans “are ambiguous and paradoxical, waiting for our minds to open up enough to allow the space for deep intuition to emerge – beyond knowing and into no-minding, through the use of imaginative mindfulness.”[1]

The parables in today’s scripture reading do this, too. “The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field.” Uhhhhh. Sure thing, Jesus. “The kin-dom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Riiiiiiiiight.

A brief aside here. Matthew actually uses “the kingdom of heaven,” rather than “the kingdom of God.” That is probably because he was writing for a community of Jesus-followers who saw themselves as Jews, and good Jews don’t call God by name, so Matthew uses “heaven.” That difference really is of no importance to today’s sermon.

One of the side effects of these parables being koan-like is that I can hear something different each time I read them. The thing that’s been coming up for me as I’ve let these parables roll around in my conscious and unconscious mind for the past five or six weeks is that there’s something subversive about them.

I suppose there’s something subversive happening every time Jesus talks about the kin-dom of God. The word we translate “kingdom” is the word that was used to describe what we now call the Roman Empire. Whenever Jesus talks about the “kin-dom of God,” he’s talking about the realm that stands in opposition to the kingdom of Rome. And in these parables, that sense of subversiveness seems much stronger to me.

  • The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed, a tiny seed, that someone plants in a field – presumably a field where something other than mustard plants was the crop – and it grows into substantial shrub.
  • The kin-dom of God is like yeast (something that’s unclean during Passover) that a woman (not just a person; a woman) mixes into flour until all the flour is leavened (that is, transformed).
  • The kin-dom of God is like a treasure that hidden in a field, and when someone finds it, they go sell all they have so they can purchase that field and own that treasure.
  • The kin-dom of God is like a merchant in search of pearls (it’s like the merchant, not the pearls), and when they find an amazing pearl, they will let go of everything else so they can possess that pearl.

A seed planted; yeast mixed in; an amazing treasure hidden; a single-minded merchant searching.

These koan-like parables are telling me that the kin-dom of God is messing with conventional wisdom, the kin-dom of God is messing with the powers that be. The kin-dom of God doesn’t stop when we’ve been granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. The kin-dom of God calls us to change the things we can no longer accept (to paraphrase Angela Davis).

James Owensby said, “Naming what is unacceptable – and taking steps to change it – is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It’s at the core of compassion. And compassion takes courage.”[2]

The word “compassion” literally means to suffer with – com- (with) -passion (suffer). Owensby goes on to say, “Christlike compassion is not pity, a mere recognition of someone else’s bad fortune. It is a heart-to-heart connection. A recognition that my neighbor’s hunger, deprivation or oppression are my own as well. That my freedom and happiness cannot be separated from theirs.”[3]

That’s why I’ve been thinking lately that being an ally may not be enough. Maybe I’m splitting semantic hairs, but the word “ally” seems to keep us separate. If we’re really going to end racism, sexism, poverty, and militarism and the war economy, we have to see that each of these issues is interconnected, and that we cannot move toward freedom, justice, equality, and dignity for all people – that is, toward the kin-dom of God – unless we are co-conspirators with each other. And if you don’t see how we’re all connected by those issues, look at the climate crisis. It will impact all of us.

Sandhya Jha (who’ll be preaching here in August, by the way) recently wrote about this need to be more than allies. She noted that we (regardless of our color) too often “see people of color primarily as victims when [people of color] actually might be role models”[4] even as people of color have work to do on how white supremacy leads them to cause harm as well. Similarly, we can’t see white people solely as oppressors or solely as the profiters of white supremacy. The reality is that white supremacy also does damage to white people with its insidiousness. “What’s that quote,” she asked, “about how if you always have your boot on the neck of people of color, you also have no freedom of motion or elevation beyond that pose?”[5]

Sandhya points to this quote from Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian visual artist, activist and academic:[6]  “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

“Conspire” literally means to breathe with – con- (with) -spire (breathe). And in many cultures and languages the words for breath and spirit are deeply connected. It’s true in Hebrew. It’s true in ancient Greek. It’s true in Hawaiian (the “ha” of “aloha” refers breath/spirit).[7]

Right now, it is medically dangerous for us to be physically breathing together in the same room. But that doesn’t mean we need to stop breathing together metaphorically and virtually. The kin-dom of God needs mustard seed conspirators. Let us, though our prayers and our actions breathe more freedom, justice, equality, and dignity for all people into the world.

Amen.


Question for Reflection

  • How is your liberation bound up with the liberation of others?
  • Who do you need to be breathing with?
  • How might you engage with the kin-dom conspiracy?

[1] Gary Z. McGee, “5 Zen Koans that Will Open Your Mind,” Fractal Enlightenment, https://fractalenlightenment.com/37292/spirituality/5-zen-koans-that-will-open-your-mind (accessed 19 July 2020). The koans used are also from this page (though with some minor alterations to fit my speaking style).

[2] Jake Owensby, “Finding the Courage to Change,” Ministry Matters, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10417/finding-the-courage-to-change (posted and accessed 21 July 2020).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sandhya Jha, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/pastorsandhya/posts/10158854673851617 (posted and accessed 17 July 2020).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Lilla Watson,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilla_Watson (accessed 25 July 2020).

[7] See, for instance, https://www.waikoloacc.org/aloha-hawaiian-word-devotional/.

Today, people across the United States went on strike – some all day, some for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – to communicate to the powers that be that Black Lives Matter. Our society isn’t acting like Black Lives Matter or Indigenous Lives Matter. Our society still treats the lives of people of color as disposable, and so we need to say clearly and urgently that Black Lives Matter.

I chose not to strike today. There were things on the schedule that I was not willing to miss (like gathering with Nicky Moss’ family as we placed her ashes in a niche) and things that were in the spirit of the Movement for Black Lives (like our Monday Morning Bible Study). And about the time this email is sent out, I’ll be gathering with our Cabinet to continue to lead our congregation as a Just Peace Church, which includes being engaged in antiracism work.

There’s something going on in the life of our church that truly impresses me. Over 50 people have said that they will, this summer, read the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. They have been divided into groups of 10 and these groups will meet for an initial discussion about the book. Some may choose to continue conversations about racism and how to be antiracist.

A big “thank you” from me to Mark Twist, Jasmine Zartman, Cindy Sojourner, Helen Boyer, Jim Thomas, and Carol Easter for agreeing to lead (or co-lead) these groups.

Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, has a theory that goes something like this: People who, like me, are white (at least in the USA) get to be racially comfortable. We don’t have to deal with racial stress very much. As a result, we aren’t very good at it. So we develop “white fragility.” This leads us to do whatever it takes to avoid racial stress. We get angry. We get scared. We feel guilty.

Reading this book is a great first step for the white members of our church community to help our congregation become actively antiracist. I’m not sure how much those of you who are people of color would get out of reading White Fragility. Maybe it will help you call me out (and call out other white folk) when we act out of our white fragility rather than truly engaging in antiracist work.

I look forward to seeing what the fruits of so many people reading this book will be in our congregation. Let’s keep working together.

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 19, 2020, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Romans 8:12-25
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

John Lewis has been on my mind and heart since I heard about his death on Friday night. As I’ve reflected on his life over the last 36 hours, I realize that I’ve looked to him with a certain level of awe – awe at his commitment to equality that led him to put his life in danger, and awe that his leadership started at such a young age.

He was youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, offering a speech that the elder advisors pressured him to tone down. One change he was pressured into making I find particularly prescient. “In the original version, Lewis opened by boldly declaring SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he help found] wouldn’t support Kennedy’s civil rights bill, because it didn’t go far enough to protect people from police brutality.”[1] In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, we see that the issue hasn’t gone away.  Before he gave his speech, Lewis’ words were “tempered to: ‘It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill. We support it with great reservation, however.’”[2]

John Lewis, of course, knew police brutality all too well. This image is, for me, iconic: John Lewis being beaten by police for walking across a bridge. The day, March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday.” It was hardly his first experience of violence as the white response to the demand for civil rights.

Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, the group of Black and white activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. This is a picture of Mr. Lewis and a fellow Freedom Rider, James Zwerg, after they were attacked. Lewis was “left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, Ala., after he and others were attacked by hundreds of white people. attacked by segregationists in Montgomery, Ala., in May 1961.”[3]

“Mr. Lewis was arrested 40 times from 1960 to 1966. He was repeatedly beaten senseless by Southern policemen and freelance hoodlums.… He spent countless days and nights in county jails and 31 days in Mississippi’s notoriously brutal Parchman Penitentiary.”[4]

What I didn’t know about him until I read some articles about him this weekend was that there was a high personal cost for him.

“Mr. Lewis’s first arrest came in February 1960, when he and other students demanded service at whites-only lunch counters in Nashville.… David Halberstam, then a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean, later described the scene: ‘The protests had been conducted with exceptional dignity, and gradually one image had come to prevail – that of elegant, courteous young Black people, holding to their Gandhian principles, seeking the most elemental of rights, while being assaulted by young white hoodlums who beat them up and on occasion extinguished cigarettes on their bodies.’”[5]

It took three months, but the sit-ins were a success, “and Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin desegregating public facilities.

“But Mr. Lewis lost his family’s good will. When his parents learned that he had been arrested in Nashville, he wrote, they were ashamed. They had taught him as a child to accept the world as he found it. When he asked them about signs saying ‘Colored Only,’ they told him, ‘That’s the way it is, don’t get in trouble.’

“But as an adult, he said, after he met Dr. King and Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man was a flash point for the civil rights movement, he was inspired to ‘get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.’”[6]

Mr. Lewis never stopped getting into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. At age 76, he participated in another sit-in. This one was on the floor of the House of Representatives. He and other members of Congress demanded that the then-Republican-led House vote on gun control legislation. This was in a direct response to the massacre at a gay nightclub nightclub in Orlando, Florida, called the Pulse. Though that action did not succeed in getting gun control legislation to the floor, it was, in my assessment, more good trouble.

I hear in today’s scripture a call to get into good trouble. “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s children.… We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free.”[7]

I hear in Paul’s words the desire for something more, the desire for something still being born, the desire for what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” It is the same desire I hear in John Lewis’ call to get into good trouble. It is the same desire I hear in the from young leaders like Greta Thunberg who has now held her 100th #FridaysForFuture strike for climate[8] calling for meaningful, efficacious action on the climate crisis. It is the same desire I hear in the calls for justice from the Movement for Black Lives and from LGBTQ+ activists. It is the same desire I hear from advocates for people who are unhoused.

Now, when we look at these struggles, when we look at the plagues of racism, the climate crisis, sexual oppression, and economic injustice, it is easy to be discouraged. When we look at how the pandemic has forced us to shelter in place when we want to get onto the streets, it may be helpful to listen to this piece of advice tweeted Congressman John Lewis in 2018:  “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”[9]

Like many leaders of faith communities, I’ve been thinking both about how to be church now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and about how we will be church when the pandemic is contained and it is safe to gather in person again. As I’ve done this musing this past week, the sage advice we heard from the Rev. John Dorhauer last week during the Question & Response time echoes in my ears, that we can’t truly plan for life after the trauma when we are in the midst of the trauma. So I’m trying not to get specific as I look to the future. Nonetheless, I have reached some conclusions, the most important of which is this:

I hope we don’t go back to being church the way we used to do church. I hope we go forward.

And when it comes to addressing the pressing and urgent issues of our day, the issues of racism, the climate crisis, sexual oppression, and economic injustice, I hope we go forward.

Just as we are being forced to find new ways of being the church over the past four months when we haven’t been able to gather physically, we will have the opportunity to find new ways to loving our neighbors, new ways of embracing the inescapable reality of our shared reliance on and responsibility to one another. And as followers of Jesus, we know that there is a better way to do so.

Four years ago, John Lewis was interviewed by Jon Batiste,[10] the band leader for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I’ll let a brief clip – from 8:10 to 9:37 – from the interview serve as the conclusion to this sermon.

Watch from 8:10 to 9:37.

Questions for Contemplation:

  • What “good trouble” is God calling you to?
  • How can you more deeply embrace the “better way” that is love?

[1] Gilliam Brockell, “At the 1963 March on Washington, civil rights leaders asked John Lewis to tone this speech down,” The Washington Post, (posted 17 July 2020; accessed 18 July 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Katharine Q. Seelye, “John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html (posted and accessed 17 July 2020).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Common English Bible. (2011). (Ro 8:18–23). Nashville, TN: Common English Bible.

[8] Greta Thunberg, https://www.facebook.com/gretathunbergsweden/posts/1178558659178619 (posted and accessed 17 July 2020).

[9] John Lewis, https://twitter.com/repjohnlewis/status/1011991303599607808 (posted 27 June 2018; accessed 18 July 2020).

[10] Barbershop stories with Jon Batiste and Congressman John Lewis, https://youtu.be/FCHBi030TMM, posted 28 November 2016.

I don’t think I’m going to go on strike next Monday, though I been thinking about it.

Disciples of Christ pastor and national civil right leader, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, wrote, “Our nation is battling not one, but three pandemics: the COVID-19 virus, poverty, and systemic racism, including brutalization and trauma by police and policy.”

His analysis is correct. There is also a fourth pandemic – or rather there is a fourth crisis that is endemic: the climate crisis. And all four of these crises are interrelated. To truly and effectively address one of them, we must address all of them. One way that people of good will are choosing to call attention to one of these interrelated crises is with a nation-wide Strike for Black Lives on Monday, July 20.

The four demands of the strike are straight forward: Justice for Black communities, substantive action from politicians, substantive action by corporations, and a right for all workers to unionize. I encourage you to read the demands in detail.

Rev. Barber points out, “[W]hen you deny health care, that’s violent. It’s lethal violence because people die. When you deny living wages and 700 people die a day from poverty, that’s violence.”

That is just one of the reasons the Poor People’s Campaign is supporting the Strike for Black Lives. It is incumbent on all of us to participate in “dismantling racism and white supremacy, to bring about fundamental changes in our workplaces, economy, and society.”

I have decided that I can do more for the movement by working that day than my absence would achieve. I invite you to decide how you can best support the movement. Rev. Barber reminds us, “The strikes, protests, walk-offs, socially distanced sit-ins, and voter registration outreach are happening because thousands and thousands of poor, low-wage workers of every race, creed, and color understand that racial, economic, health care, immigration, climate, and other justice fights are all connected. Sign up now and join us July 20.”

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

[Quotes from https://www.breachrepairers.org/blogs/strike-for-black-lives-july-20]

Can emails have tone? Maybe we read that into them. Still, the email I received a month ago (or so) seemed to me to have a tone of surprise and maybe even envy. “How did you get Jim Antal and John Dorhauer to agree to preach at your church?” she asked me.

My response was quite simple: “I asked them.”

If you worshiped with us on June 21, you heard a wonderful sermon by the Rev. Jim Antal, one of my personal heroes, who provides vital leadership as clergyperson in the urgent efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. If you missed his sermon, you can listen to it online here.

The Rev. John Dorhauer

This coming Sunday, July 12, we will be blessed with the preaching of the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer. John is the United Church of Christ’s General Minister and President. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2004, focusing on white privilege and its effects on the church. His book, Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World, is a call to the body of Christ to accept what the Spirit of the Risen Christ is doing to birth something new, vital, and relevant – all towards nurturing Beloved Community.

John will be preaching on “God’s Next New Thing”; his text is Isaiah 43:15-19.

You’ve heard me say before that I am convinced that God is up to something, bringing forth something new, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Today at Bible Study (join us on Monday mornings at 11:30), we talked about how something new is being created. The confluence of the shelter in place orders forcing churches to move to digital platforms, the videotapes of police violence being shared on social media, and the continuing climate crisis coming into the consciousness of more people has tilled the cultural soil to allow something new to take root and grow.

I look forward to hearing what John thinks God’s next new thing might be.

This might be one of those worship services you want to invite friends to. Ask them to register for worship at bit.ly/reg4worship.

Working for a positive peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 5, 2020, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Romans 7:15-25a
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Sometimes the Internet offers up a great cartoon to start a sermon. For those of you listening on the phone, I’m showing a frame from a Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown is sitting in his bed, his chin in his hands, saying, “Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask myself, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’”

I suspect that all of us can identify with Paul when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” The rest of the passage becomes somewhat convoluted, a writing style for which Paul is well known. That’s why I decided to share today’s lesson from The Message. While The Message is a paraphrase, it does make Paul’s writing easier to understand. It translates those first two sentences of our reading as, “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act in another, doing things I absolutely despise.”

We’ve all been there. We’ve made New Year’s resolutions, promising ourselves that we will follow some path, resist some temptation, practice some good. These are the very things we want to do, and in a matter of weeks we find ourselves breaking these resolutions, doing the very things we promised ourselves we would not do.

I’ve always heard in this passage Paul writing about himself. And I’ve heard Paul writing in such a way that the “I” in “I do not understand my own actions,” could easily be any one of us, that we can all see ourselves in his “I.” Some scholars argue that Paul is writing about the Jewish experience outside of following Jesus. Others suggest he’s writing about his sense of life once we are in Christ. I just hear him writing about the human experience (and then I hope I haven’t missed some deeper theological nuance).

These are important words for Christians in America on this weekend when we celebrate freedom. Paul is saying that none of us is truly free, that all of us are bound. “We are like the prisoner in his cell,” rights United Methodist Pastor James Howell, “free to go to this side of the cell or that, to stand or sit; but the prisoner is still a prisoner. Culture shackles us. Self-destructiveness strangles everybody.”[1]

I actually hear Paul’s writing a little less dramatically than pastor Howell does. I’ve come to see the writing is remarkably free of guilt. I would not have said that a week ago. A week ago, I heard plenty of shame and guilt in this passage. Now, however, I think I was reading that shame and guilt into the passage. I think I was projecting my own shame and guilt onto Paul’s writing. 

Yes, there is a sense of confession in this passage – confession without guilt. Paul explains the situation. I want to do what is good and yet I keep doing what I don’t want to do. So, I need God’s direction. The thing is, God’s direction isn’t always enough. Even with God’s direction, even with the commandments, I still do things I end up wishing I hadn’t done. I need something more, and that something more is Jesus. “The sin [Paul] acknowledges is not something he’s strained to recognize – rather, he experiences himself to be incapable of doing that which he truly wants to do”[2] on his own.

Kari Jo Verhulst says, “Guilt, that complex emotion we all love to claim as our own religious inheritance, inhibits getting to the freedom Paul demonstrates here. Guilt does not encourage this kind of honesty, but rather preoccupies us with its eradication. So we live waiting for the other shoe to drop – to be discovered as the judgmental, lazy, resentful, jealous, you-name-it person we’re deeply convinced we are.

“What’s more, guilt cripples our capacity to be in relationship, interpreting those around us as beings who might any day discover the truth about us. Guilt inhibits our capacity to genuinely say we are sorry, because it does not permit us the courage to sit in the pain of our own sinfulness and yet apprehend that we are still God’s beloved. Thus God, too, becomes someone to avoid, rather than one to approach with a love that longs to know what God desires from us.”[3]

This God, the God who Paul says has rescued him ‘from this body of death’ (Romans 7:24), isn’t interested in increasing our guilt or shame. God is interested in being in a relationship with us that is based in the love that moves us to true freedom. Entering into this kind of relationship “requires an honest recognition that those ‘actions’ we wrestle with – including self-hatred – [that] increase sin’s chokehold on the world.”[4] Only by honestly assessing our actions and our inactions, our motivations and our desires, can we open our hearts to the source of love revealed in Jesus. We need to be honest with ourselves in order to be honest with God. And sometimes finding that honesty with ourselves requires us to be honest with someone else. Sometimes we need what theologian L. Gregory Jones calls a “holy friend.”

I hope you have at least one friend who fits Jones’ description of a holy friend.[5] A holy friend is someone who knows you so well that they offer you invaluable perspectives on your life, that they help you see problems and opportunities in fresh ways, that they help you imagine new possibilities, and that helps you love more profoundly, think more clearly, feel more deeply. In other words, I hope you have a friend who helps you become a better person.

That description probably makes you think of someone in your life, of some profound friendship you once had. If you lucky, it makes you think of someone who is currently in your life. If you have a friend like this, there’s only one more thing to check on before you declare this person your holy friend. “Holy friends,” Jones writes, “challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”[6]

Let me read that sentence again. “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”

And in that statement, Jones sees something that I think Paul was getting at, though he didn’t quite get there. There are sins that we love, sins we often dress up as virtues. Someone might say, “I am simply following God’s call,” and a holy friend might discern that as cover for the fact that the honest statement is, “I am a workaholic.” And then the holy friend will name it, inviting that someone to confront the truth.

In a similar manner, “holy friends remind us that our shadow selves are quick to dig up the failures of our past and dwell on our inadequacies. Holy friends confront our default response that says, ‘I’m fine; everything is fine’ and speak truth to our stoicism. Holy friends remind us, ‘Everything is not fine. You are not fine.’ … It is OK not to be fine.”[7]

For most of us, the distance from “I screwed up” to “I am a screw up” it not very far. It is important that we remember that the first statement is going to be true from time to time. The second statement is always a lie. And when we forget that, we need a holy friend to remind us of the truth.

Amen.


[1] John C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: July 5, 2020,” Ministry Mattershttps://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10399/weekly-preaching-july-5-2020 (posted and accessed 1 July 2020).

[2] Kari Jo Verhulst, (accessed 30 June 2020). “Guilt-Free Loving,” Sojournershttps://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/guilt-free-loving?parent=51056 (accessed 30 June 2020).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] L. Gregory Jones, “Discovering hope through holy friendships,” Faith & Leadershiphttps://faithandleadership.com/l-gregory-jones-discovering-hope-through-holy-friendships (posted 18 June 2018; accessed 4 July 2020).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Victoria Atkinson White, “When we need holy friendships most,” Faith & Leadershiphttps://faithandleadership.com/victoria-atkinson-white-when-we-need-holy-friendships-most (posted 12 May 2020; accessed 30 June 2020).

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