What Is It?
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 16:2-5, 9-35 and Mark 2:23-28
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Warning:  I’m about to do some math.

According to ApartmentList.com,[1] the median monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the United States is $1160.  A rent of $1160/mo x 12mo/yr = a rent of $13,920/yr.  There are 52 weeks in a year, so that’s $267.69/wk.  Rent, I was taught, shouldn’t be more than a third of your income.  So, if one’s rent is one-third of one’s income, that means someone renting a median-priced 2-bedroom apartment should be making at least $803 per week.  For a 40-hour work-week, that requires an hourly wage of $20/hour.

The national minimum wage is $7.25.[2]

Another way of looking at this:  someone would have to work 110 hours a week (two and three-quarter full-time minimum-wage jobs) to afford a median-priced 2-bedroom apartment.  110 hours per week.  Add seven hours of sleep a night, and you have 9 hours left each week (one and a quarter hours each day) for eating, taking a shower, paying the bills, running errands, etc.

According to Rent Café,[3] the average[4] monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Fremont, California, one year ago was $2547.  Doing the same math ($2547/mo times 12mo/yr divided by 52 wk/yr) shows a weekly rent of $587.77.  Which means one should have a weekly income of $1763.31.

The minimum wage in California in 2017 was $10.50 per hour.[5]  That’s 168 hours of work a week at minimum wage to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment in Fremont.  A week is 168 hours long.

This is a contemporary version of the Imperial economic system that stands in opposition to God’s Sabbath economic system, the system we are introduced to in today’s reading from Exodus.

The story of the Exodus is the foundational story of the Jews, and in that story, we find the foundational story of understanding Sabbath Economics.  We run into the concept of the Sabbath in the first story in that collection of stories we call the Bible.  God creates all there is in six days, and upon reflecting on this wondrous work, God rest.  The pattern is set from the beginning:  good work is followed by rest.  Notice, that the purpose of this divine rest on the seventh day of creation is not in order to do more work on the eighth day.  There is no “back to work after the weekend” for God.  The purpose of the Sabbath is so God can enjoy the work already completed.

The next time we run into the Sabbath day is in today’s reading from the Exodus narrative, here in this archetypal story of hunger and bread in the wilderness.  The Hebrews have been sprung from slavery, but now they must face the harsh realities of life outside the imperial system.  Their first test of character is how they will sustain themselves, an economic test.  If you listen to the story, you’ll hear that they could not imagine an economic system apart for the Egyptian political-military-technological complex that enslaved them.

You hear it in their complaint to Moses:  “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  It’s not just whining.  It’s an inability to imagine another possibility for sustenance, the inability to imagine another economy.

So God gives the Hebrews instructions on how to gather the gift of bread from God.  This, their first test on following instruction, is an economic lesson.  Ched Myers (I’m basing the sermons in this series on his work[6]) notes that for tens of thousands of years, human beings’ survival was based on a cooperative, egalitarian lifestyle.  Prior to the rise of concentrated agriculture, cities, and eventually imperial economies based on slavery, hunting and gathering (and even local horticulture) required the cooperation of the community.[7]  The instructions God gives the Hebrews is a call to an alternative economy, an alternative to the Imperial economy, that is (in many ways) like this initial economy.

Three characteristics of God’s alternative economy are seen in the instructions God gives the Hebrews.  First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs.  Second, this bread should not be “stored up,” even overnight.  Third, there are special instructions for keeping the Sabbath.  Let’s take a deeper look at the implications of these three instructions and what they tell us about God’s Sabbath economy.

The first instruction:  every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs.  In contrast to the conditions of great deprivation under Egypt’s Imperial economy (read the beginning of the book of Exodus to get a picture of what those were), here, in God’s economy, everyone has enough.  “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”  In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and there is such a thing as “too little.”  Contrast that with the ever-widening wealth gap in the United States.

The second instruction:  the gathered bread should not be “stored up.”  Wealth and power in Egypt were defined by surplus accumulation.  Look at the story of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob.  By the time we get to the book of Exodus, we find out that the descendants of Joseph and his brothers are slaves forced to build not just buildings, but “supply cities” (1:11) in which the Empire’s plunder and the tribute of subjected people were gathered.  It reminds me of a Karl Marx quote about the dictum of capitalism:  “Accumulate, accumulate – this is Moses and the Prophets!”[8]  It also reminds me of the advertising motto of the now defunct Eagle Hardware chain:  “More of everything.”

This instruction, not to store up the collected manna, runs counter to the values of the Imperial economy.  In the Imperial economy, wealth and resources are drawn together into greater and greater concentrations of idolatrous power.  In God’s economy, wealth is supposed to keep circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating through strategies of accumulation.

The third instruction is the special instruction for the Sabbath.  We haven’t gotten to the part of the Exodus story where Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from the top of Mount Sinai, so this instruction to keep the Sabbath as a day separate and different from the other six is something new.  Torah’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit.  This ethic of Sabbath rest is not just for the people.  Land is given Sabbath rest by allowing it to lie fallow every seven years.  “You shall let the land rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.”  The people are reminded that the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift that the people should justly distribute, not hoard.

“Sabbath observance requires a leap of faith, a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that God is willing and able to provide enough for the good life,” writes Richard Lowery.  “Sabbath promises seven days of prosperity for six days of work.  It operates on the assumption that human life and prosperity exceed human productivity.”[9]

The lessons of this story are so fundamental that the people were instructed to keep a jarful of the manna in front of the Covenant.  (Did you catch that at the end of today’s reading?)  Sabbath observation means remembering every week the three basic principles of God’s economy:  That there is enough for everyone.  That no one should have too much (the prohibition on accumulation).  That the economy is not dependent solely on human labor.

The manna story illustrates human dependence on God’s economy, the economy of grace.  Dependence not on human labor, not on human technology, not on human social organizations, but on God’s grace.  This vision, of course, runs counter to economics as we know it.

Our resistance to, our skepticism of this vision of an economy of grace seems to be humorously anticipated in the story itself.  “Manna” is a play on words.  It can be translated, “What is it?” – the words the people said when they were first sent out to collect this gift from God.  The two basic assumptions of the Imperial economy are so ingrained in us – that the natural condition is scarcity and that human appetites are limitless – we look at God’s gifts and say, “What is it?”

And because we believe that the natural condition is scarcity and that human appetites are limitless, we think we have to get ours before somebody else does.  So we accumulate.  We hoard.  This story from the Exodus invites us to pick a different economy, a non-Imperial economy, a Sabbath economy.  We are invited to pick an economy based on the principles of abundance and self-restraint, an economy based on the assumption that God provides enough for survival and prosperity for human life, and that human needs and wants are (or at least can be) limited.  In this economy, no one need starve or suffer the elements through lack of housing or clothing.

On its surface, the Gospel lesson seems to contradict the lessons from the Exodus story.  The disciples are out walking through a field on the Sabbath, gleaning grain.  The Pharisees who see this call Jesus on it.  Jesus justifies their actions by reminding his accusers of a story about the great King David who broken the rules because he and his companions were hungry.

This story happens right after Jesus has identified himself as “the Son of Man,” one who has authority to forgive sins.  It’s important to recognize that in the Aramaic, the language of Jesus, there is one word that means both “sin” and “debt.”[10]  That’s why, when we say, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer, we’re talking about both forgiveness of sins and proclaiming the Jubilee Year – the once every 50 years when debts are forgiven and land is returned to its original owners.

It might seem like Jesus is ignoring Sabbath obligations because – well, because he is.  At least I think he is.  He is reinterpreting the Sabbath, moving it away from a set of rules and bringing it back to its original meaning as a gift of rest and a sign of the sufficiency of God’s created order.  He is confirming that the purpose of the Sabbath is to humanize us in a world where so much of our socio-economic reasoning and practice is dehumanizing.  It is any wonder that Jesus’ central struggle with the religious authorities of his day was not over theology, but over the meaning of Sabbath?

We’ll get into Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath economics much more deeply next week.  For now, suffice it to say that the manna story, the foundation for Sabbath economics, has a central place in Jesus’ consciousness, and when Jesus call us into God’s kin-dom, he is calling us into this alternative, anti-Imperial economy.

May we be brave enough to heed that call.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/rental-data/ for information about how they came up with this figure.

[2] Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/minimumwage (accessed 17 February 2018).

[3] See https://www.rentcafe.com/average-rent-market-trends/us/ca/fremont/ for information about how they came up with this number.

[4] They don’t say whether that’s median or mean, but it’s a large enough sample the numbers are probably very close.

[5] This was actually the minimum wage if the company had more than 25 employees. It is now $11/hr. See California Department of Industry Relations, https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm (accessed 17 February 2018).

[6] This sermon is based largely on Chapter 1 of Ched Myers’ The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 10-17.

[7] Ibid, 11.

[8] I don’t know if Marx actually said this, but it’s attributed to him.  From more on this quote, see James G. Devine, Marx’s Law of Capitalist Accumulation Revisited, http://myweb.lmu.edu/jdevine/AGLoCA.pdf (accessed 19 March 2011), 20.

[9] Richard Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, quoted by Myers, op cit, 13.

[10] Myers, op. cit., 24.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 1:26-31 and Galatians 3:19-29
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We planned this sermon series because there was so much news about sexual violence.  It is an issue that we simply needed to address here in the church, from the pulpit.  As we planned the series, as I dug into the issue and learned more, I realized that the vast majority of sexual violence is connected to patriarchy.  Yes, men are sometimes the victims of sexual violence.  Yes, women are sometimes to the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And the vast majority of those targeted with sexual violence are women, and the vast majority of those who perpetrate sexual violence are men.  Sexual violence is, in our society at large, foremost an issue of men wielding their power in sexualized ways toward some sexual end for themselves.

Since this is the last sermon in this series, perhaps it’s time I explained what I mean by ‘patriarchy.’[1] Patriarchy is a social order that favors men (particularly cisgender, heterosexual men) at the expense of everyone else.  To do this, patriarchy relies on dualistic thinking.  A person is either male or female, and this is determined at birth,  so there is no room for gender fluidity or transgender identity.  To do this, patriarchy names certain qualities as masculine and superior, and other qualities as feminine and inferior.  Power, control, rationality, and competitiveness are examples of masculine-labeled qualities and they are considered superior to feminine-labeled qualities like emotional expressiveness, compassion, and nurture.  This leads to men and women having specific roles, with men leading and women supporting, and with male-labeled job getting paid more than female-labeled jobs.

Patriarchy supports (demands) male domination, and when women move into positions of power (become corporate executives, politicians, etc.), they are expected to behave “like men.”  The weird thing is that most men I know are not interested in dominating women.  Rather, it is the system people of all genders have been born into and participate in unconsciously.  So, while male-identified people reap most of the benefits of patriarchy, people of all genders support it – unless we consciously resist it.

Much of the Bible seems to support patriarchy.  The formative stories of the Hebrew scriptures are steeped in patriarchy.  I think this is more an example of the authors participating in patriarchy unconsciously than it is an endorsement of it.  Similarly, patriarchy has (probably unconsciously) influenced the way we translate the Bible into English (and other languages).  See the first sermon in this series for more on that.

Yet, despite the omnipresence of patriarchy, there are glimpses in scripture of another way.  The first creation story says that people are created in the image of God, regardless of their gender.  And in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in the community of Jesus-followers, cultural distinctions, class distinctions, and gender distinctions are unimportant, for we are all one, we are all equal in Christ.  In other words, patriarchy is not part of God’s desire for humanity and the beloved community Jesus is leading us to is not patriarchal.

So, how do we get to that non-patriarchal, beloved community?  Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a person went for her daily walk along the banks of the river that ran through town.  As she walked along, she heard what sounded an awful lot like a baby crying.  When she looked around, she realized that the sound was coming from a basket in the middle of the river that was floating downstream with the current.  Our heroine jumped into the river, swam out to the basket, and brought the baby ashore.  She dropped the baby off at her parent’s home and they agreed to care for the baby.

The next day, our heroine went for her daily walk along the river and, sure enough, another basket was floating along.  Worrying that it, too, might hold a baby, our heroine jumped into the river and rescued the baby.  She took this baby to her neighbor’s home to be cared for.

You can probably tell where this story is going.  The third day, our heroine had an appointment and couldn’t go for her daily walk along the river, so she had another friend take the walk for her.  Sure enough, the friend went into the river to pull out another baby.

It wasn’t long before our heroine organized a river patrol.  And then some friends built an orphanage, and before you knew it, the whole town was organized to take care of the babies that kept getting pulled out of the river.

Then one day, at one of the organizing meetings, somebody made a bold suggestion.  “I was thinking,” this person said, “maybe some of us might go upstream to find out why these babies keep getting loaded into baskets and plopped into the river.  Maybe there’s something we can do to stop it.”

We can look at the work of the church, particularly the mission work, as having two components: downstream mission work and upstream mission work.  Both are vital.  The downstream mission work looks at the needs that are right before us and addresses them.  It pulls the babies out of the water and cares for them.  Upstream mission work looks at the needs that are right before us and asks why they’re happening.  It goes upstream and asks, “Why?” and “How do we change it?”

There are people who don’t have enough money each month to keep a roof over their head and to buy groceries, and they have transportation limitations.  So we are helping our local food bank bring the food to them with the mobile food van project.  This is virally important downstream work and makes a huge difference in the lives of the people served.  There is also an upstream aspect to this need.  Why are people so poor that they can’t afford both rent and food?  This is a question about the system.

It is my hope that the #MeToo movement will lead our society to holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.  This is a type of downstream work.  It is a vital type of downstream work.  Holding an individual perpetrator of sexual violence accountable will make an important difference, especially for the target of that violence.

I mentioned some other downstream work in my sermon last week.  I mentioned how important it is to believe the stories we hear from people (especially from women) who have experienced sexual violence.  And it’s important that we tell them that we believe them.  Maybe something we (as a church) could do is to create a space where people can tell their stories – and be believed.  And when those stories are about experience of sexual harassment and abuse that took place in the church (for this can happen in the church just as easily as it takes place anywhere else in society), we could figure out what act of repentance by the church is needed.

I also suggested last week that one of the things we can do when we witness some form of harassment or abuse taking place is to interrupt it.  Have you heard about the New York superhero known as Snackman?  He defused a fight on the subway by standing between the combatants while eating potato chips.  Let’s go to the film.

We don’t have to use potato chips to interrupt.  We can get the target out of the situation or we can distract the assailant.  All it took was a woman walking by and slowing down to create the moment for me to escape from a sexual assault when I was a teen.

There are ways to confront a harasser (I wouldn’t do this with an assaulter).  Later, “when the harasser is less likely to escalate the situation, [we can ask] questions like:  ‘Were you aware of how you came off in that conversation?’  Researchers also suggest talking openly about inappropriate behavior, like asking colleagues:  ‘Did you notice that?  Am I the only one who sees it this way?’  It might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in with a victim and offer to help.”[2]  In the work setting, that help might take the form of offering to go with them to Human Resources, if they want.  At church, it might take the form of offering to go with them to talk to a pastor.

Sharyn Potter, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who runs a research group for sexual violence prevention, says, “A bystander saying ‘This isn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong,’ is really, really important.”[3]

These are just a few examples of downstream work that we can do.  Upstream work is always harder than the downstream work because it’s the work that changes whole systems.[4]  Yet, because so much about sexual violence is powered by patriarchy, only by overcoming patriarchy will we be able to curtail the sexual violence.

You’ve probably heard about girls being sent home from school because their outfits were deemed to be “distracting.”  But think about the message that sends.  When we interrupt a girl’s school day to force her to change her clothes, or when we send her home because her shorts are too short or her bra strap is visible, we are telling her that making sure boys have a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her own education.  Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, maybe we could teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.  But that would take a systemic change.

Patriarchy effects all of us and we all participate in it, but because men benefit from it, men bear the primary responsibility for disestablishing it.  As Lindy West pointed out, “Only 2.6 percent of construction workers are female.  We didn’t install this glass ceiling, and it is not our responsibility to demolish it.”[5]  In this sense, overcoming patriarchy is more a men’s issue than a women’s issue.

One of the ways we could address a part of patriarchy is for us to stop teaching sex education in our public school and start teaching sexuality education.  The difference between sex education and sexuality education is that the former focuses on plumbing and mechanics and the latter focuses on the whole human being.  Imagine if we taught that we need to listen to each other in our intimate relationships, that sexual expression should happen in the context of an affirmative ‘yes,’ rather than teaching merely that ‘no means no.’

And if our schools won’t do it, maybe our churches (at least progressive churches like ours) should offer holistic sexuality education to the general public.

We’re also going to have to hold media accountable.  Whether this is for male-dominated journalism, for the glass ceilings and unequal pay that persist in Hollywood, or for the victim-blaming that gets echoed in media, they all need to be held accountable.

And we need to address legislation.  When bills are introduced that take away a woman’s agency and when bills are introduced that support male domination, we must condemn them and fight against them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to change how we raise our children, especially how we raise our sons.  There is a lot I could say about this, but for now I’ll limit myself to just a couple ideas.  First, I want to say that changing the way we raise our sons is difficult.  It means going against all the messages they will receive from our patriarchal society.  All the more reason to be intentional about it.  There was a great article in The New York Times back in June about raising feminist sons.[6]  It offers a dozen specific attitudes and actions for parents to adopt in how they raise their children, especially their sons.  It covers things like helping our sons increase their emotional intelligence, and providing them with positive role models, and considering how work is divided up in the home, and the importance of our sons having different kinds of friendships.  I think these suggests apply to teachers and grandparents and church friends, too.  I encourage you to read it.

We need to teach our sons – and all men, really – that power and position are not an end in themselves.  Nor are they a license to prey upon those who are less strong or in subordinate positions.  Rather, when men have them, for whatever reason, they allow a man more ways to be of service to those around him.  That’s what Jesus taught.  By itself it means little that you are bigger or stronger or more exalted.  The measure of a man – the measure of a person – is found in what you do with those things.[7]

Amen.

_______________

[1] This definition and explanation is based largely on Drew Serres, “Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It),” Organizing Change, https://organizingchange.org/patriarchy-persists-can-change/ (posted at least two years ago; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “The #MeToo Moment: How to Be a (Good) Bystander,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/us/the-metoo-moment-how-to-be-a-good-bystander.html (posted 12 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] Many of the following ideas come from Drew Serres, op cit.

[5] Lindy West, “Why Is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/opinion/why-is-fixing-sexism-womens-work.html (posted 3 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Agnes Lee, “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/upshot/how-to-raise-a-feminist-son.html (posted 2 June 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[7] Based on Leonard Pitts, Jr., “What does it really mean to be a man?” The Bellingham Herald, http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/BellinghamHerald/shared/ShowArticle.aspx (posted 25 November 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

This is the second sermon of the four-part sermon series on patriarch and sexualized violence being preached at Niles Discovery Church this winter. The third in the series was actually posted just before this one.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on January 28, 2018, by the Rev. Brenda Loreman.
Scripture:  John 4:7-30, 39 and Judges 19:16-30
Copyright © 2018 by Brenda Loreman

My guess is that, unless you’ve read the Bible cover to cover or been to seminary, you are unfamiliar with our text from Judges. I think there are many reasons for this. For one thing, the passage is not part of any church service in the liturgical year and is not part of the revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Bible readings that many churches use for worship and preaching—and so it is not read out loud in church unless a preacher deliberately chooses to have it read. The passage is so gruesome and brutal that most readers and listeners rightly find it offensive. The passage defies any hopeful interpretation or message of the good news of God’s redeeming work in the world.

Through the millennia, the church’s primary response to this text has been a vast silence. And so we rarely read it and rarely confront what it has to say to us, and about us. But I think it’s imperative that we end that silence. Because our silence in the face of this text—and others like it in the Bible—and our inability to confront it, is connected to our silence and inability to confront how our society normalizes sexual assault and sexual violence.

It’s impossible for me to fully explicate or interpret this complicated text in a twenty-minute sermon; I know I won’t do it justice. But I want to point out some important ideas about it and connect those ideas to the legacy of silence and misogyny they have left in our Christian tradition.

In the chronology of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges happens after the Israelites have followed Moses from Egypt to Canaan, and before the twelve tribes of Israel were gathered into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon. The ancient editors of Judges repeatedly remind the reader of the book that this was a time when there was no king in the land, implying that a lack of strong leadership is the reason for such a gruesome act happening; when there is no king, lawlessness will prevail.

The primary historical interpretation of this text is not that it is a commentary on society’s brutality against women. Instead, the crime of Gibeah is a crime perpetrated on the Levite, whose property had been destroyed, and who was not shown proper hospitality by the Benjaminites. Additionally, there is often an assumption among historical interpreters that the concubine must have done something to disturb the peace in her household and anger the Levite.

Notice that the Levite shows no concern for the welfare of his concubine throughout the night. Notice that he shows no sorrow over her assault and death. Notice that he doesn’t even check to make sure she’s actually dead before he dismembers her. He never even acknowledges her humanity. Her only purpose for him is a way to seek revenge against a community who had wronged him.

Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible offers an alternative interpretation of the concubine’s story. For Trible, it is important that we interpret this story “of outrage on behalf of [its] female [victim] in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again.”[1] When we speak for the nameless woman of the story, we “interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition,” and we “recognize the contemporaneity of the story,” because “misogyny belongs to every age.”[2]

It seems a stretch to apply an ancient dismembered concubine to our culture today, but I don’t think it is. The culture that was willing to see the concubine as nothing more than a collection of body parts still exists today, and feminists and sociologists call it “rape culture.”

According to feminist authors Emilie Buchwald Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.[3]

Like racism and white privilege, rape culture is so deeply embedded in our culture and part of societal norms that most of us don’t realize it’s there. Here’s an example.

I’m almost certain that everyone in the room has seen this photo, of a sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate to end of World War II. Even if you aren’t old enough to remember it appearing on the cover of Life magazine the week after August 14, 1945, you’ve probably seen it since then. It has become an iconic expression of the wild exuberance and joyful release that the country experienced on that day.

Photographer Albert Eisenstaedt didn’t pause long enough to get the names of the sailor and nurse after he took the photo, and for many years their identities remained a mystery. The image of a passionate kiss seems romantic—a couple sharing their joy at the brutal war being over. But later research in the years following the release of the photo have determined that the pair are most likely George Mendonça, a sailor on leave in New York City, and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant working in the city. They had never met before, but found themselves in the crowds gathering in the streets as people began to celebrate after hearing the announcement from President Truman that Japan had surrendered.

I have always liked this photo, thinking it captured so well the euphoria at the end of the war. But in the light of my study of rape culture and living in the present moment of the #MeToo moment, I’ve been reevaluating the image and its message.

Look carefully at the body language of Friedman. Her body is turned awkwardly away from Mendonça, at a stiff angle. Mendonça is holding her tightly, essentially putting her in a head lock, and she is not returning his embrace.

Like any good photographer, Eisenstaedt snapped several photos of the pair in an effort to capture the best exposure and composition. Here’s another image of the same scene. In this version, notice that Friedman’s hand is wedged between the two of them.

And in a third version, Friedman’s hand is clenched in a fist next to Mendonça’s face.

Nothing about her posture in any of the photos says that she is a willing participant in the kiss.

I might be tempted to dismiss my suspicions about the nature of Mendonça’s and Friedman’s encounter if it weren’t for what Friedman herself has said about it in interviews:

“That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vise-grip.”

“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”[4]

Unwanted and nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault; rather than an image of a romantic encounter, this is an image of an assault. The fact that we tend to explain it away by saying it’s from a different time—or that Friedman herself didn’t consider it assault, or that the sailor couldn’t be blamed for having some fun on such a joyful day, or that it’s just a kiss—is part of the deep, underlying problem with rape culture. We live in a society where we are willing to explain away and excuse sexual assault. It’s time to stop. It’s time to tell the ancient hidden stories of the nameless concubines, and it’s time to allow, encourage, and provide a safe space for women everywhere to tell their own stories, to acknowledge our complicity in allowing rape culture to flourish, and to find a way to make a change so that we no longer confuse sexual assault with romance.

Statistics tell us that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.[5] These statistics are appalling, but I think we need to remember that they only refer to the sexual assaults that actually get reported to authorities. In all likelihood, the number is greater. And I tend to believe that every woman has a story to tell about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

Late last year, the Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City told a story about a gathering of parishioners she had at her home. As a small but diverse group gathered around her table for dinner, “one of the men in the group brought up the subject of sexual harassment allegations we’re seeing all over the media. He asked what he could do. As a woman sitting at that table,” Butler said, “I appreciated his questions. But it quickly became apparent that those questions were not the most pressing issues on our minds.” Every woman at Butler’s table began to share her own “Me, Too” story:

“I remember the first time I saw a male teacher looking down my shirt. When I complained, I was told to button more buttons.”

“The first time a man exposed himself to me, I was at a neighborhood pool. I was 7.”

“In my all-girl’s elementary school, I had to stay after school some days when my mom was working late. I hated it because the janitor would push me up against the counter and touch my body. When I reported it, I was told just to stay away from him.”[6]

Around Butler’s intergenerational and interracial table, table, it became clear that for many women, “sexual harassment and abuse of women is part of everyday life.”[7] In my own conversations with women—and some men as well—I have discovered the same thing.

And the church has been complicit in upholding rape culture and misogyny, “implicated by thousands of years of institutional and personal abuse of women, almost an entire existence of keeping women subverted and victimized. I don’t think we even know how deep and inbred this sin of the church actually is. But like most things, the church will be dragged kicking and screaming into the conversation. Because women, like all the women around [Rev. Butler’s] dinner table […], will start telling their stories. And we will not stop.”[8]

For the sake of argument, I assume that “most Christians agree that Jesus wouldn’t appreciate the sexual exploitation or abuse of women.” So it’s time that the church, “an institution claiming to represent the values of Jesus, take necessary steps to enter a conversation we should have been leading long ago.”[9]

It’s time for us start talking about misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism in general. It’s time to acknowledge the “constant, wearing, culturally inbred experience of sexual harassment.”[10]  It’s time for us to listen to women, to provide a platform for us to tell our stories and to honor those stories as holy.

It’s time for us to lift up the story of the nameless concubine, to take to heart her story and confess its present reality.  It’s time for us to hear the stories of women the way Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well: to listen without judgement, to engage in respectful conversation, and to offer the gift of living water, the spirit that binds human life together, that brings about wholeness and healing. Amen.

_______________

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 3.

[2] Trible, 86-87. Emphasis mine.

[3] Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth, eds. Transforming a Rape Culture (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2005), xi.

[4] “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” blog post at Crates and Ribbons, https://cratesandribbons.com/2012/09/30/the-kissing-sailor-or-the-selective-blindness-of-rape-culture-vj-day-times-square/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[5] Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. https://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/national-statistics-on-sexual-violence/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[6] Amy Butler, “What Churches Must Do Right Now to Stop Being Part of The Sexual Harassment Problem,” Washington Post, December 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/01/what-churches-must-do-right-now-to-stop-being-part-of-the-sexual-harassment-problem/?utm_term=.c4328f0b0843. Accessed January 25, 2017.

[7] Butler, ibid.

[8] Butler, ibid.

[9] Butler, ibid.

[10] Butler, ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 8:2-11 and Luke 24:1-11
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have long considered the passage we heard from John 8 to be a pretty good argument against the death penalty.  The law says that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Jesus stops the crowd from carrying out that penalty.  It seems pretty clear that Jesus is anti-death penalty.

At least in the case of adultery.

When only one of the party is brought to justice.

And that last statement is an important one for this sermon series.  The crowd is only seeking to punish the woman, as if the adultery is her fault.  She was caught in the act, they say.  That means the other party was there.  Why aren’t they hauling the man away to be killed, too?  It’s as if the guy gets a pass.

For generations, we’ve been letting men get away with sexual harassment and sexual assault.  We’ve been slut-shaming the women and giving the men a pass.  In my studying for this sermon series, I’ve learned some of the reasons why people sexually harass.

According to John Pryor, a psychologist at Illinois State University, there are three personality factors that increase the likelihood that a man will be a sexual harasser:  a lack of empathy, a belief in traditional gender roles, and a tendency toward authoritarianism.  In his research, Pryor found that when men with these personality traits are in an environment or system that suggests they can get away with it, they will do it.[1]

Add to this information the results of more recent studies showing that power makes people impulsive, less worried about social conventions, and less concerned about the effect of ones actions on others.  Other studies show that powerful people become more focused on themselves, are more likely to objectify others, and are more likely to overestimate how much others like them.  Sometimes powerful people will think that there are sexual signals coming from subordinates that simply aren’t there.[2]

Why men are much more likely to sexually harass than women is not completely clear.  “It’s not like women are somehow immune from dark personality traits,” psychologist Louise Fitzgerald said, “but we know from gender research that men are more aggressive, more socialized to seek sex and believe they have a right to it.”[3]

I do not think this greater aggression is simply biological.  It is not, as Andrew Sullivan proposed in a column for New York magazine,[4] simply a matter of testosterone.  There is something about the ways we raise boys that makes the men they grow into more aggressive than women, particularly more sexually aggressive.  One of the dangerous ways we do this is by doing what happened in the story from John’s gospel.  We give the men a pass.

Consider these three things we tell boys and girls that gives boys a pass.

  • Boys will be boys.
  • He does that because he likes you.
  • It’s just locker room talk.

Perhaps a little more strongly than the other two phrases (though I think all three do this), saying, “Boys will be boys,” teaches that there is only one way to be a boy, and that way is to be violent, rough, and tumble.  It implies that boys are biologically wired to be violent and that they should be excused from the consequences of that behavior.  It turns out, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot, that there is very little difference between the brains of girls and boys.[5]  When our culture buys into the idea that maleness is to be equated with violence, we excuse behaviors that hurt others physically or emotionally.

The junior high boy snaps the bra strap of the junior high girl in the hallway.  When the girl informs a teacher, the teacher says the boy did it because “he likes you and doesn’t know another way to tell you.”  It gets said again and again.  I am guilty of saying it – not at the junior high level, but with elementary kids.  When we say it, we are reinforcing that idea that boys are incapable of expressing themselves through any means other than violence.

“When we dismiss boys’ aggression as evidence of affection,… we sell all children short.  To girls, the message is, ‘That violent act to which you did not consent means that he feels love for you.’  And the message to boys is, ‘When you feel an emotion, you should express it through violence.’”[6]

Consider what those messages do.  They imply “that it’s strange for boys to have feelings of love that are disconnected from feelings of violence [or power over another].…  When we tell our boys it’s normal to show that they like someone by hurting them, we don’t just excuse toxic masculinity – we encourage it.  We are effectively not teaching our children what safe and consensual relationships look like at the moments when they are just starting to come of age sexually.”[7]

Likewise, we give boys and men a pass when we excuse their stories of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”  We’re essentially saying “boys will be boys,” but in an advanced way.  We are saying not only that it is okay, but that it is appropriate, that it is expected for boys and men to perform their masculinity and their sexuality in aggressive ways.  And that is toxic for all of us.

Aziz Ansari

About three weeks ago, a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari was published online.[8]  They met, exchanged phone numbers, exchanged text messages, and then went out on a date.  The date ended in Ansari’s apartment and became very sexual very quickly – from kissing to undressing to Ansari saying he was going to go grab a condom, all in a matter minutes.  “Grace [the woman’s pseudonym] voiced her hesitation explicitly.  ‘I said something like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”’  She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him.  She did, but not for long.”[9]  The date ended, and she left – very upset.  For her, this was a #MeToo moment.

There was a lot of push back about this article – a lot.  The woman was not an employee of Ansari, so there were no workplace dynamics in the situation.  “Her repeated objections and pleas that they ‘slow down’ were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex.  Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.  “Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.”[10]

This question is, I think, the other side of the enculturation issue I just scratched the surface of about male sexual aggression.  And I’ll tell you, I don’t know all the possible reasons.  But I found a very informative article online that opened my eyes, titled “The female price of male pleasure.”  I hope you will read it; click here.

It’s thesis is this:  “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time.  And to ignore their discomfort.”[11]  Loofbourow, the author of the article, starts with this little factoid:  According to a study published on the National Institutes of Health website, 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.[12]  She goes on to explore how and why women and men have entirely different understandings of what makes sexual intercourse “bad sex.”

She notes that there are five times as many clinical trials studying men’s sexual pleasure as there are studies into the severe physical pain some women experience during sex.  Why?  “Because,” she concludes, “we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.”

She writes about women who continue having sexual intercourse even though it is painful.  She writes about women being taught to expect the first time they have sexual intercourse to be painful – and if the first time, why not the second time?  And then there’s the discomfort the fashion industry pushes on women, largely for the sexual gratification of men.

One of the reasons women don’t just leave when a social encounter turns uncomfortable sexually is that they are taught that uncomfortable is the norm.  This is probably also a reason that some women don’t realize that the uncomfortable situation they just had – in the workplace or at school or at church or at the sports club – was sexual harassment.  And even if they do recognize it as such, it may be a reason they don’t bother reporting it.

There are two other reasons I can think of that people (of all genders) don’t report sexual harassment and sexual assaults.  The first is that they don’t think they’re going to be believed.  It’s what happened to the women in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, and they weren’t even reporting an assault.  The women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid after the crucifixion to give it a proper preparation.  But when they get there, the body is gone and they have an angelic visitation.  When they report what happened to the men who were followers of Jesus, they are not believed.  The men don’t believe them.

The other reason I can think of that people don’t report sexual harassment and sexual violence is that they worry that their reporting will be met with more violence.  You may remember the recent special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.  One of the candidates, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct in the weeks leading up to the election.  This is what happened to home of Tina Moore, one of the accusers.[13]

The fire is being investigated as an arson.  The fear that reporting will be met with more violence is reasonable.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to touch on in this sermon:  What do we do about all this?  I’ll go into this in much more detail next week.  This week, I want to say there are at least three basic things we can do when we see harassment, or even assault, taking place:

  • We can disrupt the situation. This needs to be done in a way that is as safe as possible.  You may want some support from another when you do this.  I’ll offer some examples of how this can be done next week.
  • We can confront the harasser. This doesn’t have to be done in the moment and it isn’t appropriate in all situations.  But when it’s appropriate there are ways to do this.  More next week.
  • And we can ask the target of the harassment how we can help. This might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in the with target of harassment and offer to help – like offering to go with them to Human Resources if the harassment takes place at work.

The other thing that’s important to do when someone discloses harassment or abuse.  Believe them.  Telling someone, “I believe you,” can give them the support they need to get the help they need to get the healing they deserve.  We can do a better job than the male disciples did on Easter morning.

Amen.

_______________

[1] William Wan, “What makes some men sexual harassers? …” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/12/20/what-makes-some-men-sexual-harassers-science-tries-to-explain-the-harvey-weinsteins-of-the-world/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/01/sullivan-metoo-must-choose-between-reality-and-ideology.html

[5] Colleen Clemens, “Say No to ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’” Teaching Tolerance, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/say-no-to-boys-will-be-boys (posted 17 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Katie Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” babe.net, https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355 (posted 14 January 2018 [as best I can tell]; accessed 3 February 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lili Loofbourow, “The female price of male pleasure,” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/749978/female-price-male-pleasure (posted 25 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25648245

[13] M.L. Nestel, “Over $150,000 raised after Roy Moore accuser’s home burns down in suspicious fire,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/100000-raised-roy-moore-accusers-home-burns-suspicious/story?id=52192189 (posted 7 January 2018; accessed 3 January 2018).

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

“There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. Even to say nothing is to say something.”  – Fr. Richard Rohr

“For all people of faith, the question is not whether to be ‘political’ but how to do so with faithfulness to the vision and love that has claimed and called us.”  – Rev. Wesley Granberg Michaelson

50 years ago last December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., issued a public call for a “Poor People’s Campaign.” King recognized the triple threats to democracy in the United States from racism, militarism, and poverty. He argued that the three overlapped and needed to be addressed together. He argued that they needed to be addressed as moral issues, and the way to do this was with a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, this moral approach would include political action and solutions; it could not do otherwise. But because these triplets posed a moral threat, then needed to be address morally.

I have argued that the three threats King identified still threaten democracy and morality in the United States, and that they are joined by sexism and environmental degradation. In fact, I have argued that human-caused climate change is the most important moral issue of our day. It is time for a new Poor People’s Campaign. And two prominent faith leaders – the Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II – have issued such a call. They are calling for a new “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival.”

The ground work for the campaign has already begun. Training are being held across the country. This spring, thousands of disenfranchised people, members of the clergy, and moral leaders will engage in protests and direct actions at statehouses and the U.S. Capitol. The leaders hope the six weeks of protest will be one of the largest waves of civil disobedience in the U.S. The actions will take place across at least 25 states (including California), as well as the District of Columbia. Its leaders hope that the weeks of action will lead to mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol on June 21.

This all this makes me think that the time is right for me to update and preach a sermon series I offered several years ago on Sabbath Economics. This series will provide some theological underpinning of the Poor People’s Campaign. So that’s what I’m going to do this Lent (which starts on February 14; see article about Ash Wednesday on page 1).

I will also be joining the Poor People’s Campaign more directly, for I feel I must join in calling our nation to a moral revival. I will attend a training this month at Zaytuna College in Berkeley. And I will be joining rallies and marches in Sacramento this spring. I will probably join in some of the acts of civil disobedience and face arrest.

I hope you will join the Poor People’s Campaign, too. If you are not already convinced that the nation needs a moral revival, I hope my Lenten sermon series will convince you. And then I hope you will find ways to be involved, ways that are faithful to your circumstance and calling.

If you do email, I recommend going to the campaign’s webpage at poorpeoplescampaign.org and signing up for emails. If you do Facebook, I encourage you to “like” the Poor People’s Campaign and California Poor People’s Campaign pages and to check them regularly for inspiration and information.

And I ask that you pray. Pray for me as I prepare my sermons. Pray for our church as we seek to faithfully fulfill our mission. Pray for the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign and for all those involved in the Campaign. And pray for a moral revival in our nation.

Peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 21, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 21:8-21 and Mark 14:3-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This headline ran in the online version of the Daily News last week.  “Mich. man’s wife says he was deported to Mexico after legal error.”  The person who is doing the talking, the person being quoted is the woman.  And yet she is identified as “Mich. man’s wife.”  She is identified in terms of whose she is.

Why didn’t the headline say, “Mich. woman says her husband was deported to Mexico after legal error”?  Patriarchy.

Was the headline writing trying to be sexist?  Who knows, but I suspect not.  The problems is that male dominance is so pervasive in our culture, most of us won’t even hear it or see it when it’s happening.

Part of our sacred texts includes a story of a man who wields his power, power he has because he is a man, and the way he wields his power is to throw a slave and her child out of the household and into the wilderness to fend for themselves, presumably to die.  It’s the story we heard today.  It’s part of the story of the patriarch of the Hebrew people (who is also seen as the patriarch of Christian and Muslim people).  It’s part of a larger saga that is filled with call and response, promise and impatience, deceit and intrigue, forcing God’s hand and God tolerating it, jealousy and betrayal, abuse and salvation, and much, much more.  The story offers (among many other things) a window into the gender issues and gender power dynamics of its time.

In the small part of the story we heard today, we see that the male is the head of the household.  Sarah may be the one who is feeling insecure and jealous, but Abraham – the male head of the household – is the one who makes the decisions.  And it’s worth noting that Sarah’s insecurity and jealousy is because of a male child.  Had either Ishmael or Isaac been a girls, Sarah wouldn’t have worried.

If you’re not familiar with the story, I encourage you to read it.  Here’s a synopsis.  Abraham senses that he is called by God to leave his home and strike out on an adventure, so he packs up his household and off they go.  God, he believes, promises to make him and his wife Sarah the parents of a new nation – despite the fact that they are already old and have never had any children.  Eventually they get impatient waiting for the child that God has promised, so Sarah suggests that they have a surrogate child.  She suggests that Abraham have sexual intercourse with the slave Hagar.  Abraham does; Hagar gets pregnant; and a son is born who is named Ishmael.

Wouldn’t you know it.  Once they’ve agreed that they aren’t going to have children together and Ishmael is born, Sarah gets pregnant.  She has a son who is named Isaac.  And when Isaac is weaned … well, that’s where we pick up the story.

Suddenly, the son born to Hagar is a threat to Isaac inheriting the household and the promise.  So Sarah lobbies Abraham, the head of the household, to have Hagar and Ishmael thrown out.  And Abraham does just that.

This story isn’t just about Abraham wielding his power as a man.  It is also about sex trafficking – for that is what Hagar suffers at Sarah’s hands.  It is also about rape – because Hagar didn’t have an opportunity to give her consent to having sex with Abraham.  There are aspects of this story – like all the stories about families in the Hebrew scriptures – that are very disturbing if they go unchallenged.  These stories reflect the patriarchal culture in which they were written.

In this story, the sexism inherent in the culture even creeps into the way God is portrayed.  Did you notice that the angel comes to a sobbing Hagar to reassure her that God has heard the boy’s cries?  Hagar is the one sobbing, but God hears the boy and it’s the boy’s cries that seem to move God to action.  Oy vey!

I suppose it’s good news that the Christian church isn’t responsible for creating the theological context in which sexism took hold, the way it is for creating the theological context in which racism took hold.[1]  No, the Christian church is only responsible for perpetuating and codifying patriarchy.  Consider, for instance, how things get translated.

If you’re looking for a patriarchal text, check out 1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

Paul is writing about the practice of worship in the Corinthian church in chapter 14, and we get to this passage.[2]

            What then, brethren?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.  But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God.  Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.  If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  What!  Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.  If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.  So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Whenever I read scripture aloud, I try to do some interpretation of it in the way I do the reading.  What I emphasize orally comes across as more important than what I de-emphasize.  I don’t know what to do with verse 36.  I don’t understand what the word “What!” is doing there.  Still, this is how the passage has been translated.

I’m not a Greek scholar, so I can’t argue with the translation.  So, about two decades ago, I asked a Greek scholar if this was a good translation of the Greek.  He said it was – in terms of the words.  But the oldest text from which the translations are derived do not have punctuation.  So figuring out where sentences begin and end or where paragraphs begin and end is potentially problematic.

We do know that the letters we have that were written by Paul were parts of exchanges.  Letters were sent between churches and Paul – in both directions.  That means that Paul is likely responding to a letter that, given the content of Paul’s letter, was probably about (among other things) arguments about worship in the Corinthian church.  I can imagine Paul standing there, with a letter from the Corinthians in his hands, dictating his response to a scribe.  And I can imagine him, from time to time, quoting the Corinthian’s letter back to them, particularly if they wrote something that really got under his skin.  So, imagine if we got the punctuation wrong.  What if what Paul wrote was this:

… For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
[Quoting from a letter from Corinth:]  “The women should keep silence in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
What?!  Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual,…

Suddenly Paul is offended by the sexist assumptions in the Corinthian church, not supporting them.  And now, finally, that “What!” makes sense.  It’s an expression of his outrage.

And yet, for hundreds of years, the Christian church has punctuated the text so that it supports patriarchy, so that it codifies patriarchy.  My Greek scholar friend insisted that this way of punctuating the passage totally works in the Greek.

We’ve done the same sort of thing with our Gospel lesson.  Jesus is in the house of Simon the leper – which, let’s acknowledge, is a pretty radical thing on its own.  A woman comes in, breaks open a bottle of nard, and anoints Jesus, pouring it on his head.  It’s shocking, I tell you!  Shocking!  The people who were there were shocked.  And they said so.  Jesus, on the other hand, sees it as an act of love, of caring.  Mark tells us that Jesus saw this as an act of preparing his body for burial (this happens just a day or two before his crucifixion).

It is not uncommon for people to assume that the woman who did this must have been a prostitute, it being such a sensual act.  Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the woman’s character.  They may also be merging this story with a different story in Luke 7 where a woman whom we’re told is “a sinner,” anoints and cries on Jesus feet, only to dry them with her hair.  She, too, is demonized as a prostitute even though there is nothing in the text to point us in that direction.

And did you catch that Jesus says to the people at Simon’s house, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”?  This act will be told in remembrance of her – and we have no idea what her name is.

The Christian church may not be responsible for creating patriarchy, but we are responsible for perpetuating it, for codifying it.  We do that with the stories we tell that we don’t challenge.  We do it with the way we translate texts.  We do it with the assumptions and interpretations we make.

And we codified patriarchy in the 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned women from even participating in the celebration of the Eucharist.[3]  The ban on the ordination of women probably begun before that.  It wasn’t until after the Reformation that women started being ordained (again).  Here in the United States, it began with the ordination by the Congregational Church of Antoinette Brown in 1853.  The Christian church suffered without the ordained leadership of women for at least 1300 years, and probably longer.  Why?  Because we codified patriarchy into our way of being church.

And this is stunningly confounding to me.  For me, “Christmas is not the birth of an alpha male who plays by the old set of patriarchal rules, but rather, it is the celebration of the omega male:  the model of a new humanity for both women and men.  The way of Christ, as [I] understand it, is not a way of eye-for-eye revenge, but a way of nonviolent resistance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  It is not a way of domination, but service.  It is not a way of leading through displays of physical, sexual, or financial prowess, but through displays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control.”[4]

“Although he frequently refers to God as Father, I believe Jesus is a deconstructor of patriarchy, not a defender.  Consider:  His fatherly metaphor decenters the dominant kingly metaphor of his day, toning down kingly patriarchy to familial patriarchy.  The familial patriarchy of his parables and aphorisms (If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more …?) emphasizes kindness, compassion, and love, not power, domination, punishment, and revenge.  He exposes the inherent dishonesty of patriarchy with powerful political insight when he says, ‘Call no one Lord … Call no one Father.’ (Matthew 23)  He turns patriarchy upside down and inside out when he washes his disciples’ feet.  Peter’s negative reaction can be seen as Peter’s (and the church’s?) resistance to Jesus’ radical rejection of patriarchy.  … Jesus’ self-giving on the cross is the most powerful rejection of patriarchy imaginable.  Instead of seizing and holding power by killing others, Jesus lays down his life and offers his broken, torn body as a life-giving gift … Jesus is, we might say, the anti-Caesar, the antithesis of patriarchy.”[5]

May we help the church universal find ways to de-codify patriarchy and to more closely follow the way of Jesus.

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • How aware are you of impact and affect of patriarchy in everyday life?
  • When have you been a co-conspirator with patriarchy’s destructive powers?
  • How does your image of God support or oppose patriarchy?

____________

[1] See my sermon, “The Church’s Role in Normalizing Racism,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/the-churchs-role-in-normalizing-racism/ (preached 5 March 2017).

[2] This is from the Revised Standard Version.  I use this version because when I re-punctuate it below, I don’t have to change any of the words.  Because of the way translating works, I would have to change some of the words if I used a different translation.

[3] “Ordination of women,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordination_of_women (accessed 20 January 2018).

[4] Post by Brian McLaren on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/mclaren.brian/posts/10155976325702990, 27 November 2017.

[5] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 1:1-11 and Acts 19:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in seminary, I had a text book that was probably two inches thick.  It was on one subject:  baptism.  This sermon won’t be that long.  I promise.

Actually, I’m a little amused that the book on baptism was that long because there’s actually quite a bit of common understanding of baptism in the ecumenical community.  When the World Council of Churches decided to issue a collection of statements on the ecumenical convergence of theologies around baptism, communion, and ordination, the section on baptism was the shortest because it needed the least explanations.  Ecumenically, the understandings of what baptism is and means are pretty solid and widely shared.  The understandings about communion and ordination vary widely, but on baptism, there is a strong convergence.

I’m not sure how the convergence came about.  If you look at the book of the Acts of the Apostles (the book we heard a reading from today), you will see that the ways baptism was practiced by the early church varied.  Expand your search to the whole of the New Testament, you’ll find even more variation.  You will find stories of baptisms performed in the name of Jesus and in the name of God and you’ll hear a call that baptisms be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).  You will find stories where it seems that a person needs to profess a faith in Jesus to be baptized and stories where, if the head of a household is baptized, the whole household is baptized regardless of what the other members of the household believe.  Sometimes it’s clear that the one baptized is immersed, is dunked under the waters of baptism, and sometimes it’s not so clear how much water is used.

There is an obvious connection between the baptisms John performed in the River Jordan and the baptisms practiced in the early church.  John’s baptism was a mark of repentance, of turning, of taking a new direction in life.  It was an act that forgave sins.  While the mark of repentance and entering a new way of life were (and are) definitely part of what baptism was (and is) in the Jesus movement, Christians see baptism as something more.

There is something about the Holy Spirit in baptism.  We heard about it in our reading from Acts.  Paul meets up with a group of people in Ephesus who think they’re following Jesus, but they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit.  They’d been baptized, but only in the tradition of John.  They get baptized in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s the whole question about Jesus being baptized by John.  If John was preaching a baptism for the repentance of sin, why was Jesus baptized?  David Lose points out that in John’s gospel, there’s no report of Jesus’ being baptized.  Instead, the Baptist reports seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus.

The other three Gospels share an account of Jesus’ baptism.  They do not, unfortunately, resolve the question of why Jesus was baptized.  “In fact,” Lose says, “when you listen to the essentials of Mark’s terse account, perhaps what is most striking is that Jesus doesn’t really do or say much of anything that sheds light on what’s going on.  As Mark writes, ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’

“Do you see what I mean?  Jesus is rather passive in all that happens.  But, on second thought, perhaps that’s just the way it should be.  After all, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  This is the start of his long and difficult journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  And so at his baptism, Jesus doesn’t have to do anything, but rather simply receives the gift of the Holy Spirit and of God’s favor.  Indeed, it is a powerful word of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment”[1] that Jesus receives – “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased” – and this points to another thing that baptism is all about.

In baptism, we are claimed by God.  Just as we are, God claims us.  And in that process, we receive a blessed identity:  beloved children of God.  And in that process, God makes a commitment to us and we make a commitment to God.

Let me share with you some of the key points about baptism – points about which Christianity in its many denominations agree.  These are from the World Council of Church’s document[2] on baptism.  Baptism is rooted in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It has been practiced from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  “Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ.  It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people.…  Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection; a washing away of sin; a new birth; an enlightenment by Christ; a re-clothing in Christ; a renewal by the Spirit; the experience of salvation from the flood; an exodus from bondage; and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended.”[3]

I’ll refer you to the World Council of Churches document if you want to unpack what those statements mean, but I want to dig a little deeper into one of them:  Incorporation into the Body of Christ.  This is an important understanding of the meaning of baptism.  Baptism brings us together into the community of believers.  It makes us part of the Body of Christ.  The document says, “baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship.  Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.”[4]

The first question a candidate for baptism is asked in liturgy for baptism that’s in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship is this:  Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?  In Chalice Worship, the Disciples of Christ worship book, there seems to be an assumption that the answer to this question is “yes,” since the person is standing there.  But that is the most basic thing we understand about baptism.  When one is baptized, they become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.

So, if baptism is becoming part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, what is “membership” in a church all about?  Well, in some denominations, I think a fair answer is “not much more than a label.”  If you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re more a member of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, than a member of a particular parish.  But as the polity, the way a denomination works politically, becomes more congregational (with a little “c,” meaning having local autonomy), membership takes on more meaning, and more responsibility.

When you join a congregation that is part of the Disciples of Christ tradition or the United Church of Christ tradition, you become a voting member of that church.  Members vote on church budgets each year, they vote on which members should serve in key leadership positions, they vote on calling their pastors, and they vote on the bylaws that govern how they function.

But being a member is more than voting.  We typically receive new members as part of the worship service because becoming a member is a prayerful and worshipful act.  Lillian Daniel describes it this way:  “You will experience real power in that moment [of joining a church], when you tell the people around you and God that this is now your spiritual home.

“When you join, you make a connection, you join a community.  The Bible’s word for that is ‘covenant.’  When you join, you make a covenant.  A covenant is an exchange of holy promises.  In making a covenant we promise to serve God together.  So it’s not just new members who join the church.  Rather, everyone – new members and existing members – joins one another.  As we make our promises to one another we remember God’s promises to us and promise to serve God as best we are able.”[5]

That’s why joining a church is different from joining a gym.  “When you join a church, you’re not just on the receiving end [of services, the way you are when you join a gym], but on the giving end as well.  You are promising to do more than show up and use the facilities.  Will you hold other people in prayer and in love?  Will you make a contribution to the community by volunteering as you are able and financially?  And let’s be clear, you [join a church] because somewhere in your journey, you sensed that there was more to this life than what you see in front of you.  You sense that God is still speaking.”[6]

That is why, traditionally in both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, joining a church, becoming a member of a church, is seen as a reaffirmation of baptism.  The liturgy we currently use when we receive new members is based on the baptism liturgy.  The questions we ask people who are uniting with the church are questions we ask when someone is baptized.  That is why the bylaws of Niles Discovery Church say, “Any baptized person may seek membership in this church.  Uniting with the congregation is an act of reaffirmation of baptism.”

 

But perhaps it is time to change our bylaws.  More and more people raised without a church background.  So it is becoming more common for people to find a spiritual home in a local church and feel like they don’t know enough about the Bible or Christian history or theology to be ready to make the faith commitment that baptism calls us to.  I’m also finding more and more people who were baptized, typically as infants, are finding themselves to be questioning the most basic thing about faith – that there is a divine something that we call “God” whose love is made visible in the sacrament of baptism.

People from both of these groups may find a home, a spiritual home, at Niles Discovery Church and want to formally commit to being part of this community of faith, even though they have lots of questions about the “faith” part of “community of faith.”  Should we continue to see baptism as a requirement of membership in our church?

An Episcopal priest offered me this analogy:  When someone comes to our church, we immediately issue them a Green Card.  We say they are welcome to stay and be part of the community.  But if they want to be able to vote, they have to take a citizenship test, and that’s the sacrament of baptism.  Then they can register to vote, which is joining the church as a member.

The analogy is insufficient because it sees membership as merely a matter of voting, and as I just said, it’s much more than that.  Membership is a matter of covenant.  Still, is this (what the bylaws currently say about baptism and membership) how we want to function?

I’ll stop there and invite you into some reflection.  And then we’ll carry on the discussion during our Town Hall Meeting.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • Reflect on a memory you have of a baptism (yours or someone else’s)
  • Whether you consider yourself part or not, what does it mean to you to be part of “the faith and family of Jesus Christ”?
  • Whether you’re a member or not, what does it mean to you to be a member of Niles Discovery Church?

____________

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 1 B: Powerful Words for a New Year,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/ (posted and accessed on 4 January 2018).

[2] This is actually from the first part of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” [BEM] adopted in Lima, Peru, in 1982.  You can find the document at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text.

[3] Paragraph 2 of BEM.

[4] Paragraph 5 of BEM.

[5] Lillian Daniel, So You’re Thinking About Joining the Church, a brochure published by the United Church of Christ that is undated.

[6] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 31, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a dream a few weeks back.  I was teaching a high school math class and as a sample problem to told this story.  My father decided to open a pet store.  The grand opening was intensely popular.  You would not believe the lion he had coming out the front door.

I don’t think it was an angel giving me a message.  Or maybe it was – and the message is, “Don’t quite your day job.”

Matthew begins his gospel not so much humorously as ironically.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  It’s a sign that he’s the fulfillment of the messianic promise.  And yet the first to recognize him and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazers, immigrants from the east.

We’ve mushed together the birth narratives, those overtures to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We’ve tried to harmonize these two different tunes.  This is the crèche my family used when I was growing up.  It was my mother’s childhood crèche, and it may have been her mother’s childhood crèche, though I don’t know that for sure.  You’ll notice both a shepherd and kings are at this stable.  I think there used to be more shepherds.  And an angel I would put on the stable roof.  I’m sure scenes like this contribute to the harmonization of the two stories in our minds.

I love the carol “The First Noel,” though it, too, contributes to the amalgamation of the two stories.  And it’s a bit of a pity, because if we take Matthew’s story by itself, we’ll see some interesting things going on, things we miss when we read the stories together.  And even when we do manage to separate Luke’s story from Matthew’s, we need to free ourselves from the images of kings.  We have to resist the influence of Hebrew scriptures like Psalm 72’s lines about kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king and falling down before him.  We have to let go of the notion that they were kings, and the number 3, and the names and faces the magi were given in the seventh century.[1]

When we do this, when we get to a purer reading of Matthew’s story, we’ll see things like that fact that the magi’s visit comes “after Jesus was born.”  Those are the words Matthew uses in the first verse of Chapter 2.  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem …”  He might be walking by the time the magi visit.

And when the magi get to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, “they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (verses 10 and 11).  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem.

At least Botticelli comes close.  The house is broken down, but there are no shepherds or barn animals.  And it seems that the whole town has turned our when these strangers from the east show up.

And, did you notice that the magi ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  Herod asks his advisors “where the Messiah was to be born” (verses 2 and 4).  “The Messiah, for Matthew, is King of the Jews.”

But think about this:  Matthew doesn’t use the title “king” again “until Pilate judges and executes Jesus at the end of his gospel.”[2]  Matthew is doing something here, tying together Herod and Pilate.  I think he’s reminding the readers that Roman power was behind any power Herod the Great had.  And, as we’ll look at more closely next week, the desire to kill Jesus starts at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  “Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill, and Roman-appointed Pilate succeeds in killing Jesus, the messianic King of the Jews.”[3]

But I was going to say something about how this overture to Matthew’s gospel is ironic.  First, the magi, these Gentile immigrants from the east, are the first to recognize and worship Jesus.  Then there’s Herod, who knows enough to know that this news is a political threat, but who doesn’t know his Hebrew scriptures enough to know where the Messiah is to be born.  Herod must be wondering, as Will Willimon noted, “What does the future hold?  Can a baby threaten the government?  Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?”[4]

And then there are the gifts the magi bring.  We know who Jesus is, so maybe this presentation of gifts makes a little sense to us.  At least, it made a little sense in my childhood sense of the story.  These are wise men, after all, so they would know who Jesus really is.

But imagine how ridiculous, preposterous this must have sounded to the people for whom Matthew was first writing.  Star gazers from another culture and country coming to a peasant family in backwater Bethlehem and presenting expensive gifts.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh – this does not make sense!  No reaction from Jesus’ mom and dad – this does not make sense!  People with power giving gifts to people who had no power – this does not make sense!

“In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status,” Diana Butler Bass notes.  “When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations.  Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy.  In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude – in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe.  Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.”[5]

By having foreign people of stature present gifts to Jesus, an infant peasant, Matthew is turning gift-giving on its head.  “Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts – they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod, or some rival ruler.  And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached.  Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.

“This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement.”[6]  What happened in Bethlehem was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression.  Rather, what Matthew is doing is proclaiming the same sort of thing that that is on Mary’s lips in Luke’s gospel when she sings, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

In Matthew’s gospel, these rich stargazers leave their gifts with a poor family and “go away empty-handed.  No strings attached.  No more quid pro quo.  No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.”[7]

Next to Holy Week, Christmas just might be the most political time of the church year.  Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is trembling in his boots.  There’s a new king in town, only he doesn’t rule from Herod Tower.  No, this new king is living in the backwoods town of Bethlehem.  And he’s not welcomed by the political elite or the 1 percent or even by biblical scholars at the Temple, but by immigrant nonbelievers from the east.

These are the themes that play out in Matthew’s overture to his gospel.  A baby causes fear in the halls of the powerful.  An infant gathers around himself outsiders, those whom the principalities and powers would oppress.  This is the baby who will with his people start dismantling the empire stone by stone without raising an army of firing a shot.[8]

There is one more thing about this story – the angel angle.  Actually, Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that an angel is involved – only a dream.  But in other dreams in Matthew’s gospel, it is often an angel speaking through the dream.

When the magi come to Herod to inquire about the newborn king, Herod orders them to return to him once the find the child.  They don’t.  It’s almost a throwaway line:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Warned in a dream.  How I wish Matthew had fleshed out this part of the story.  I’d love to know how he would have described the dream.  Would there have been an angel with a simple message:  “Don’t go back to Herod; go home by another route”?  Would it have been more symbolic, maybe some star the magi had to interpret?  Might they have been told the reason to avoid Herod?

But Matthew doesn’t elaborate.  All we get is one line.  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

It occurs to me – and I don’t think I’ve ever read someone else interpret the story this way – that the magi were performing civil disobedience.  The king of Israel had ordered them to come back to his court to tell them what they had found.  They didn’t follow the order.  They broke the law.  They went home by another road.

And this is one of the places where I think Matthew’s story intersects with our time.  This is not a time for pacification.  This is a time for resistance.  This is a time for shaking things up.  “We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.”[9]

The entire world is facing the dangers of climate change, and the current President of the United States insists that it isn’t real, calling it “a scam” and pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.  And just this Thursday, he mocked climate science because it’s cold in the eastern United States.

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

  • The top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled since 1968 while, despite the so-called “war on poverty,” the percentage of U.S. families living in poverty has remained essentially unchanged.
  • Though ours is the richest country in the world, 30.6 million children (43 percent) live at or below twice the poverty line, which is considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and laws designed to make it harder to vote.
  • The prison population in the U.S. has grown by 5 times from 1978 to 2015, with non-white prisoner growing from 49% to 66% of those imprisoned.[10]

“Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth-century Christian martyr killed by the powers that ruled El Salvador [in 1980], once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world, in a world still ruled by Herod and Caesar.  So also [I think] we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.  But Good Friday and the descent of darkness do not have the final word – unless we let them.

“Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow him.  Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around him, he is, for Christians, Emmanuel: ‘God with us.’”[11]

This is a great time to be wise people, people willing to obey God and not human authority.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (accessed 26 December 2017).

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 137.

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

[4] William Willimon, “Christmas: Herod in Trouble,” A Peculiar Prophet, https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/christmas-herod-in-trouble/ (posted 19 December 2016; accessed 27 December 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “Why Jesus’ first Christmas gifts were truly shocking,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/25/why-jesus-first-christmas-gifts-were-truly-shocking/?utm_term=.a0e26c852f23 (posted and accessed 25 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sarah Anderson, “10 Reasons to Revive the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/10-reasons-to-revive-the-1968-poor-peoples-campaign/ (posted 4 December 2017; accessed 30 December 2017).

[11] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 243.

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