A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 17:6-19 and Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I realize that mine is not your average Facebook feed, so I suspect this didn’t happen so much for those of you on Facebook as it did for me, but, oh my, the last few days of the week my feed was peppered with posts about the latest Pew Research study about “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”[1] The big news from the study is this: the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian is down sharply – almost 8 percentage points – while the percentage of the population that identifies as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” was way up.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

The population of the United States still identifies significantly Christian – about 7 in 10 people. But as a percentage of the population, Christians went down almost 8 percentage points between 2007 and 2014. Mainline Christians (that’s us) dropped from 18.1% of the population to 14.7% of the population. The “nones” grew from 16.1% to 22.8%, a growth of a whopping 6.7 percentage points. So people on my strangely rarified Facebook feed were posting links to blogs contemplating how to interpret these numbers.

One theme I heard repeatedly was about loss of market share. Really. Market share. The emotional content behind these comments fell either into grief or panic – or maybe a little of both. Our numbers are falling. What do we do?!

The issue of falling numbers is also in the scripture readings assigned for today, the seventh Sunday of Easter in year B of the lectionary. I am amused.

The reading from John takes place on Maundy Thursday. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and given them a new commandment: to love one another. He has launched into a three-chapter long discourse and now he turns to God and we overhear his prayer. This is all happening because he is about to be arrested, pushed through a mockery of a trial and executed by the government for sedition. The community of disciples is about to experience the loss of their leader, the one who called them together.

John wrote his gospel for a community in the midst of loss. Most biblical scholars believe that John’s community had been kicked out of the synagogue. While being a Jew was hardly having a place of prestige in the Roman Empire, at least it meant having a place, a home. But John’s community had been kicked out, cast off, excommunicated – no longer part of the bigger whole. They had experiences a drastic loss of numbers.

The reading from Acts takes place after the Ascension and before Pentecost. The disciples watched the resurrected Christ ascend into the heavens. As moderns and post-moderns, that pre-modern cosmology (of Jesus ascending into heaven) can be a little hard to digest, and rather than chase down that rabbit hole, let’s just acknowledge that they are experiencing loss. Their palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he had been killed had abated. And their numbers were down. There were two empty places at the table. Jesus no longer sat in his seat – a seat that no other could fill. And Judas no longer sat in his seat. Peter decided they had to do something about the loss and they selected Matthias to fill Judas’ empty chair. Ah, Matthias. You know what else Matthias is famous for, right? Nothing. He is mentioned here in Acts 1, and then never again in the Bible.

The writer of Acts doesn’t explain Peter’s motivation. It just says that Peter concluded that Judas’ empty chair needed to be filled. Maybe he just felt he had to do something about their declining numbers. I don’t know.

I know that many of the posts about the Pew Research report concluded that the church has to do something about it’s declining numbers. But one noteworthy response had a different conclusion. Stephen Mattson points out that in 1948, 91% of Americans identified as Christian (69% Protestant and 22% Catholic). And, he points out, that in 1948, “Segregation was still widely practiced and racism was everywhere. It would still be another five years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and six years before Brown v. Board of Education.”[2]

He goes on: “The Cold War had begun and the Red Scare was sweeping the nation, inspiring fear, anger, and trepidation. People, organizations, and institutions who voiced dissent, criticism, and non-conformist views were portrayed as traitors – wrongfully persecuted due to widespread panic and political fanaticism.

“Women were the victims of inequitable social, professional, and religious practices and expectations. Largely excluded from leadership positions, receiving unfair wages, and forced into specific gender roles, a largely ‘Christian’ culture refused to empower women and maintained an unhealthy ‘status quo.’”[3]

In 1948, we may have been over 90% Christian, but we sure didn’t act it.

And we didn’t act it in 1965 when the percentage of Christians in the United States was up to 93%.[4] We may have made some progress on equal rights, but the Watts riots showed us we had a long way to go. We were becoming more deeply involved in a war in Vietnam. The drug revolution and the “free love” movement were about to take off.

Mattson’s conclusion is that maybe we’re finally getting a more accurate accounting of Christians in the United States. I’d like to think that the 70.6% of the population that claims to be Christian might actually start following Jesus.

But following Jesus isn’t easy. That’s the conclusion that I get reading this portion of the “High Priestly Prayer” (as it’s called) in John’s gospel.

Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

I don’t know if I find that prayer comforting or a warning – or maybe both. I let these words of Jesus wash over me. I know they are rooted in love and that is comforting. But they also say that the world will hate me as it hated Jesus.

Scholars agree that the Greek kosmos, translated as “world,” isn’t the universe or the planet. It is the “world” of human social existence alienated, estranged from God. “Walter Wink has suggested ‘system’ as a translation for this special meaning, as in, ‘My kingdom is not of this system,’ or, as in the present case, ‘The world system has hated them because they are not of the system, even as I am not.’”[5]

Mount Katahdin

Being in the world but not of the system – that is the knife edge we Christians are called to walk. The picture[6] on the cover of your bulletins is of Mount Katahdin. It is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking trail that goes from Georgia to Maine. Katahdin actually has two peaks – and you can’t see either in the picture. The trail ends in a loop that goes up one side to the first peak and then across the ridge you see in the picture to the other peak.

The knife edge between the peaks of Mount Katahdin.

I say ridge, but it’s really a knife edge.[7] This is what it looks like to hike it.[8] I know there are other trails along knife edges, but I know this one. I hiked it was I was 11 or 12.

Hiking the knife edge.

The thing about knife edges is that you need to be careful. It’s a treacherous fall in either direction.

And so it is with our discipleship. We need to walk in the world but not be of the system. The problem is that many of us are beneficiaries of the system.

I know that I have benefited in one way or another by the system. It provides me with security, often by supporting injustice and oppression beyond my sight (and I don’t go looking). I allow myself to be ignorant. And so perhaps I should remind myself of the African proverb: When an elephant puts its foot on the tail of a mouse, the mouse will not appreciate my neutrality![9] I need to climb back up on the knife edge and join Jesus in his ministry of truth and love.

Jim Wallis points out that despite all the expectation of conflict in this prayer, “it is not a prayer of despair, bitterness, or pessimism. Rather it is a prayer of deepest love, filled with hope and joy. Jesus yearns for his disciples to know and be sustained by the same love that binds him together with his Father. The very love and glory which he has received from God he now wants to share with his disciples and his desire is ‘that they may have my joy within them in full measure’”[10] – or as the NRSV translates the line from the prayer, “so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

True hope and joy are found in the community of the knife-edge-walkers. Jesus offers this prayer so “that they may all be one,” the scripture motto adopted by the United Church of Christ when it was founded in 1957. Walking the knife edge means walking in a way that is not of the system yet is still in the world – just as Jesus was in the world – “to confront the system with the love and truth it does not want to know.

“The offense of the gospel lies in its discontinuity with the world. That is also the hope of the gospel. It has always been so. The hope is in our continuity with Christ and, therefore, our discontinuity with the world.

“The power of the Christian life is joy and hope in the face of discontinuity. The churches have never accepted this easily.  Endless theologies have been constructed to ease the discontinuity, to reduce the conflict, to find some accommodation between Christ and the world, to affirm the world on its own terms, to find our hope in the world after all and to secure a more comfortable place in it.

“The placing of false hope in the world and its power to save itself has always been and continues to be the great threat to the church.

“What the church must always seek is the gracefulness of a life lived in discontinuity. It is the gracefulness of living an ordinary and normal life in Christ, which is so extraordinary and abnormal in the world. Partaking of the richness of that life, one which the world regards as a scandal, is the source of our joy.”[11]

And so, we walk on the knife edge.


[1] Pew Research, “American’s Changing Religions Landscape,” Pew Research, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (posted 12 May 2015; accessed 16 May 2015).

[2] Stephen Mattson, “The Rise and Fall of American Christianity,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/blogs/2015/05/15/rise-and-fall-american-christianity (posted and accessed 15 May 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “A Prayer Upon Us All,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/prayer-upon-us-all (accessed 12 May 2015).

[6] You can see the picture we used at http://actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/38/files/2012/02/Mount-Katahdin.jpg?ref=inline.

[7] I showed this picture on our projection system at this point: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/da/41/50/da4150aeb097fcb74a648140ed42e57f.jpg.

[8] And then I showed this picture: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/pmaVqyKos_o/maxresdefault.jpg.

[9] Peter B. Price, “Walk on the Knife Edge,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/walk-knife-edge (accessed 12 May 2015).

[10] Jim Wallis, “True Hope and False Hope,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/true-hope-and-false-hope (accessed 12 May 2015).

[11] Ibid.

You have heard our prayers – those we’ve spoken aloud and those we’ve held in the quiet recesses of our hearts.  You have held us tenderly and we have shared our grief, given you praise, voiced our hopes, even when we have offered up prayers that we can’t even put into words.  Thank you.

As we look back over the years of our lives, we can see and name the wise women who were there for us, even when I did not realize it at the time, wise women who have opened our vision to a higher level, loving women who have deepened our sense of compassion, radical women who have showed us how to stand for what is right even against the odds.  These were and are women of dignity, conviction, and courage.  They are our guides, our teachers, our mentors.  We give you thanks, Holy One, for the many ways they gave us life.

We remember, too, children who have been left to their own devices.  We remember those left physically unable to be biological mothers when they wanted nothing more.  We remember mothers so overwhelmed by the tasks they become unable to function.  We remember those mothers-of-the-year who seemed to make it look so easy.

We hold each of us and all the emotions associated with this day – from celebration to mourning, gratitude to anger, deep joy to indifference, the warmth of inclusion to the isolation of exclusion – in your holy light.  Love us all into your kin-dom.  In your many sacred names we prayer, Amen.

Based on/inspired by Facebook posts by Bishop Steve Charleston and the Rev. Lizann Bassham.

Irene Vollbrecht

Irene Vollbrecht

The story about a diminutive tax collector and Jesus may seem a strange story to read at a memorial service.  After all, what did Irene have in common with Zacchaeus?  Well, tree climbing for starters.

Anne, or Sarah, or both of them were here in Fremont during the final weeks of Irene’s life – while she was hospitalized or in the nursing home – and they were both here on that Tuesday when her life with us came to an end and she stepped into that unimaginable well of love that we call “heaven.”  During those days, we got to share some stories.  One image from those stories sticks in my mind – Irene as a girl up in a New England apple tree (I’m betting it was a McIntosh tree, though I wasn’t told that detail), reading a book.

Pastors come to churches and get to know people – but we only get to know who they are for the years that we’re at the church.  So Irene was already in her late 70s when I met her.  I didn’t know her as a mother raising her children, as a public school nurse, or as a girl climbing trees and reading books. I knew her as a book reader.  Reading books has always been a part of her life and Irene was a member of the church’s book group for as long as I’ve been here, even hosting the group the past few years.  But I didn’t know her as a tree climber who found in those trees a special place to read.  I imagine it, I can easily imagine it, but I never saw that side of her.

I suspect that part of the reason Irene went tree climbing was to get out of the house, to get out from underfoot (maybe even to get away from chores).  But she didn’t go tree climbing just to go away.  She was also going to – going to the fresh air, and going to the places and ideas in the stories she was reading.

Zacchaeus went tree climbing because he was curious.  Even though he was a tax collector (in other words, he was part of the system of oppression that was the Roman Empire), he was curious about this Jesus guy and what he was teaching and doing.  He went and climbed a tree to discover something new.  And that’s how I see Irene up in the tree – discovering something new.

Irene was also like Zacchaeus back down on the ground.  He was happy to welcome Jesus and Jesus was happy to welcome him.  I never heard Irene say an exclusive word about anyone.  She was as welcoming of people and our differences as anyone I know – not just of her generation, but of all generations.

The reading from the Epistle of James reminds us that faith that isn’t enfleshed is empty.  I knew Irene to be a woman of faith, not so much because of what she said but because of what she did.  That engaged mind engaged in Bible study and I always appreciated what she had to say in the Women’s Fellowship Bible Studies I led over the years.  But it was how she lived that faith that spoke loudest.

To be a school nurse or a volunteer nurse at the homeless shelter, Irene had to deal with reality.  She never told stories (at least not to me), but I know she had to deal with teenagers who were pregnant and child abuse and chronic illnesses and chemical dependency.  When you’re a health care provider to people who are living on the edge, you have to deal with some pretty tough stuff.  Some people who do that end up being very clinical and cold and distant.  Others get caught up in the drama and lose track of where they end and someone else begins.  Irene wasn’t either.  She somehow managed to approach people compassionately and to deal with reality.  She had a compassionate heart without losing herself.

I’m having trouble explaining exactly what I mean, but what I’m pointing to is how she lived her faith.  Her faith had works – works that made a real difference in real people’s lives.

Not that Irene thought words were unimportant.  Finding the right words to tell a story or to craft a poem was important to her.  I’m not sure how her family picked just one of her poems for the bulletin, but what a great selection.

Love does not require
perfection in its object.
It can make perfection
with its own reality.

By its own intensity
and its creativity,
Love emits an energy
that sets a soul on fire.

I’ve had a chance to sit with that poem for a few days, to reflect on it, to consider the wisdom it contains.  It’s really quite profound.

The reading from Proverbs – Proverbs is an interesting book.  It’s almost like a scrapbook, with its collection of pithy sayings and long poems and admonitions.  The reading we heard today comes from the first section, which is a collection of poems about wisdom.  It seemed an appropriate reading for today because wisdom is personified here as a woman and wisdom is explained to be of greater value that material riches.

That, too, reminds me of Irene.  She saw wisdom, compassion, and love as being of greater value than riches.  She also saw how they were connected.  Compassion and love open us up to others and the wisdom they can share – whether that other is an author and we’re sitting in a tree reading or that other is someone we meet from a different walk in life.  Their stories, our stories all contain some wisdom, some knowledge, some insight, some strength that can lead us along the ways of righteousness and the paths of justice.

I was asked to post the sermon I preached today at Dena Hokom’s memorial service.  Here it is.

Dena Hokom

Dena Hokom

There is part of me that thinks I should be telling you a story, that I should have found some story that represents Dena’s values rather than attempting to weave my own thoughts together into some sort of sermon, for Dena was a masterful story teller.  But I will attempt to let her life be one of my texts today.  Her life is the story we should remember today, and I will attempt to use it to inform my words.

I wish I had one of those memories where you remember the first time you meet people.  I would love to remember what my first impression of Dena was.  I would love to compare that first impression to the lasting impression she has made on me.  Maybe that curiosity says something about Dena:  she was a woman of impact.  I think it is because she made such a lasting impression on me that I am curious about how it compares to those first impressions.

I suspect that one of the earliest things I learned about Dena was about her medical challenges.  It wasn’t long before I moved to Fremont that she was hospitalized and near death.  She spoke about being near death, about thinking she was going to die at least once during that extended hospitalization, and how that enabled her to stop fearing death.  Post hospitalization had its own challenges; there was a medicine cabinet she had to carry around.  I’m sure that was a bother at least, maybe a down right pain, but I sure got a giggle about sitting next to someone at a restaurant who pulled out a bottle of opium to took some quick before she ate.  I understand medically why she took it, but there was something surreal about it and the matter-of-fact-ness of how she did it added to the effect.

That matter-of-fact-ness is one of the things I treasure about Dena.  Honesty and integrity are two words that describe her.  I never had to wonder where she stood about something.  If she had an opinion about something that was happening or was proposed at church (and she often did), I knew she would share it.  I also like the fact that she didn’t always have an opinion.  There were times when whatever might be on the table was of such little consequence in Dena’s mind that she didn’t bother to put energy into it.

But more important than her participation in the decision-making and experimenting at church was her participation in relationships.  If I said something or did something that she found off-putting or offensive, she would tell me.  I never felt scolded (which can happen).  She was being honest and direct because she valued our relationship enough to tell me what was happening for her.  I am grateful that she valued our relationship so much that she felt she could be honest and direct when she needed to be.

I don’t remember how many years ago we started our “Care Team,” a group of members of the church trained to offer spiritual and emotional support to others in the church who have special needs.  Must typically, the Care Team reaches out to people dealing with a medical crisis or a chronic medical condition, but they also offer support to people who need some comfort or support or reassurance along the way because their lives are hard.  That happens.

So, we were putting together the Care Team and I was wondering who might be people to join and, clearly, Dena was someone to ask.  I did, and she said yes.  I think it was in the context of the Care Team training that I found out that Dena was a volunteer chaplain at Kaiser Hospital.  She’d been doing this work unbeknownst to me.  She wasn’t keeping her chaplaincy work a secret; it just hadn’t come up and she wasn’t going to toot her own horn about it.  One of the gifts she brought to the Care Team was teaching us how to pray with someone and (perhaps more importantly) how to make praying with someone an opportunity, a choice, not an imposition.

Dena was a natural teacher.  It wasn’t just her professional career.  “Teacher” was authentically part of who she was, a calling, a vocation, that lived on into retirement.  I think one of the reasons she was a teacher is that she was also a student.  Reading, discussing, wrestling with ideas and integrating experiences were part of Dena’s ongoing spiritual life.  Yes, some of her reading and discussing and her trips to the theatre were for the joy and appreciation of art (I admit to being a little envious when reading Pete’s comments on Facebook about the latest play they went to).  Literature, in one form or another, for the sake of the art, yes.  And literature (and scholarly works) for the sake of how they can inform and impact the spiritual journey.

Over the course of my tenure here in Fremont, I would say that Dena became less and less certain about who God is and of what comes next.  It may come as a bit of a surprise, but I take this to be a sign of a maturing of her faith journey.

Karl Barth, the famous German theologian of the first half of the 20th century, was once asked (or so the story goes), after all his decades of study and writing if he could sum up his theology in a simple sentence.  His response:  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Only he would have sung it in German.

I think the arc of the spiritual journey moves through the complexities of theologies to come down to the something central and simple.  For Dena, this kernel was love.  When I asked her what scripture she would like read today, she very quickly said, the love chapter from 1 Corinthians.  And then she said something that I wish I had written down so I could quote her directly.  It was something like, “Love.  That’s what it’s about.”

And it is, ultimately.  “If I speak like I know everything, like the world revolves around me, but I don’t love, I am nothing but a fool at a microphone.  If I can talk about The Scriptures, and preach better than all the other preachers, and get everybody and their sister coming back to church, but I don’t embrace love, then I’m just a silly dude in a robe.  If I give away all my best stuff, and have all the ‘Rev. Dr. This and That’s’ in front of my name, but I can’t recognize love, then I haven’t learned a thing.

“Because love, she is amazing.  Love is relentless.  Love is extra-generous.  Love looks out for the interests of other people, not just one’s own self.[…]  Love doesn’t hurt people.  And love never leaves people out.

“No … Love goes all the way.  Love removes every obstacle.[…]  Love gets up really early in the morning, after having stayed up really late the night before.  That’s how love is.  Love always does the right thing, even when it’s hard.  Love is fair and just, extravagant and wasteful.  Love can never be depleted.[…]

“We have a lot of things to sustain us in this life.  There’s that quirky optimism that, with God, all things work together for good.  And there’s always hope, and hope never disappoints.  And that’s all nice.  But most importantly, we’ve got this big, expansive, inclusive love.  Love!  And isn’t that the greatest thing?  Isn’t it?”[1]

Or, as the writer of the first epistle of John says, “let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  [… F]or God is love.”

In the few days since Dena died, I have had two people contact me to tell me how loving Dena was, how she reached out to them in times of deep hurt, knowing that she couldn’t do anything to stop the hurting, but knowing what a difference being with them in their hurt can make.  Love in action; love is God with flesh on.

Dena believed, and I have to agree with her, that being a Christian was much more about how we live now than it is about what happens after this life is over.  Do we “do onto others as we would have them do onto us” here and now, or do we worry about making sure we have the right afterlife insurance policy?  She would say that the first is more important (as would l).

In fact, in all honesty, Dena began to wonder if there was a “what comes next” and decided that if there isn’t it doesn’t really matter.  I believe there is, and I also believe that we cannot explain what it will be like.  There is a prayer in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship that includes this line:  “Through the veil of our tears and the silence of our emptiness, assure us again that ear has not heard, nor eye seen, nor human imagination envisioned, what you have prepared for those who love you.”

Marcus Borg once wrote about the afterlife.  He said, “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like?  I don’t have a clue.  But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death.  We die into God.  What more that means, I do not know.  But that is all I need to know.”[2]

We give thanks for the life of Dena Hokom, and I trust that she now rests in the enternal love that is God, the God who walked before her and us in all the trials and tribulations of life.  Amen.

[1] J. Bennett Guess, “Love Goes All the Way,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/stillspeaking_weekly_love_goes_all_the_way (posted on 29 April 2015; accessed 9 May 2015).  Ben describes this as, “The following “Love Offering for Marriage Equality” is a prayer I shared two years ago on March 26, the day when oral arguments were held for U.S. v. Windsor, a pivotal landmark case in the movement toward equal marriage rights. This paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 was offered early that morning at the Interfaith Service of Love and Justice at the Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C.

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, quoted on “Marcus J. Borg Quotes,” PorgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/marcus-j-borg-quotes/ (accessed 9 May 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 3, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In my sermon last week, I reminded you that, in the encounter at the burning bush, when Moses pressed for some name to use to identify God, God said, “I am … who I am.”  “I am … who I am.”  God is … who God is.

It’s not the only time God says, “I am,” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that God is Presence and Healer and Savior and Keeper.  God is rock and refuge and protection that people seek.

In John’s gospel, Jesus used a similar device to explain who he is.  Seven times in that gospel, Jesus says, “I am …” and he follows the phrase with distinct images:  I am … bread; light; door; shepherd; resurrection and life; way, truth and life; and vine.  These are images that his audience would know and understand.  By stating, “I am,” in this way, Jesus uses tangible symbols and images to help the people understand his authority and power.  And when he utters, “I am,” he connects himself to the Great I Am, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Last week, I reflected on the fourth of these “I am” statements by Jesus in John’s gospel:  I am the good shepherd.  Today, I will look at the seventh:  “I am the true vine and my father is the vinegrower. … I am the vine, you are the branches.”

When Jesus spoke about vineyards, the people of Judea knew what he was talking about.  Everyone would have seen vineyards.  Grape farming was a crucial industry that had been carefully cultivated throughout the region for centuries.  It was crucial because grapes were a cash crop.  Grains may be been necessary for daily life – give us this day our daily bread, Jesus taught us to pray – but grain was raised purely for consumption.  Grapes were raised for sale.  For comparison, in British colonial America, the essential crop was corn, but the cash crop was tobacco.  Vineyards were, therefore, vital to the economy of the Israel of Jesus’ day.

So the people who heard Jesus would have been very familiar with vineyards.  They would have understood what it took to grow the vines – the way a person from Iowa knows about corn or someone from Wisconsin about cheese – or the way I learned about dairy farming when I lived in Carnation, Washington, the home of the contented cow.  It’s even safe to assume that some of them would have had experience working in the vineyards.

On the other hand, I have what I think can best be described as a brown thumb.  Someone once suggested it was green – just gangrene.  I plant things and they die.  I bring home a houseplant and it dies.  This is in marked contrast to my goddaughter’s mother.  She can plant tomatoes in the rainy, cloudy foothills of the Cascade Mountains and get a bountiful harvest.  She can plant a pumpkin seed a month too late and still harvest a pumpkin for jack-o-lantern carving at Halloween.

And it’s not just that she’s good in the garden.  She is spiritual in the garden.  She finds the work of gardening meditative and filled with spiritual metaphors.  I just don’t get it.  When my goddaughter’s parents were looking for a home to buy, they picked a log house – a log cabin, really – not because they liked the house (though they thought it was “cute”), but because they liked the yard!  It had been used by a previous owner as an extensive garden, complete with greenhouse.  But by the time they bought it, the garden was overgrown with wild blackberries and foxglove, the greenhouse was a collection of broken glass, and the sheds would have fallen down if you sneezed loudly.  If I had looked at that property, I would have thought, “What a mess.  Can you imagine how much work it is going to be just to get rid of the broken glass?”  They looked at this piece of property and thought, “Wow!  Just imagine the garden we could have here.”

I realize that people are different.  We have different gifts, Paul tells us.  What I’m saying is that horticulture is not one of mine.  And I tell you this just as a way of saying that there are certainly people out there who are more organically qualified to preach on this passage than I am, who understand at a cellular level this vineyard metaphor – probably some in this room today.  So bear with me, please as I try to unearth something fruitful for us today.  (Did you like that?  Unearth something fruitful?)

The image of the vine to represent the community of God’s people wasn’t new to Jesus.  We hear it in the Psalm:  “You brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it” (Ps 80:8).  The Prophets use the image:  Isaiah uses it:  “For the vineyard of the God of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting …” (Isa 5:7).  Jeremiah uses it:  “Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.…” (Jer 2:21).  And Hosea uses it:  “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.  The more Israel’s fruit increased the more altars Israel built; as the country improved, Israel improved the pillars” (Hos 10:1).

Jesus shifts the image a bit.  Here, he calls himself the vine, while the fruit-bearing branches here are the disciples.  Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”  Even I know that you don’t sit on a tree branch that you’re trying to cut off of a tree.  Even for someone who is as horticulturally challenged as I am, this is pretty much a no-brainer that the branch can’t bear fruit without remaining attached to the vine.

I remember an ice storm that came through eastern Massachusetts one May in the 1970s.  Spring had sprung, so the ice not only accumulated on the limbs, but also on the leaves.  The weight was just too much for the elms and maples and oaks.  Tree branches were savagely torn from the trunks, leaving gaping wounds.  It took days for power to be restored and weeks for the tree limbs to get cut up and hauled away.  As the days past, there was one very noticeable thing about the branches that lie on the ground.  They died.  You may be thinking, “Duh, Jeff.  Of course they did!”  And even I know it’s obvious, but seeing them lying there dying, fresh light-green leaves drying up and shriveling, drilled home the reality, “apart from the tree the branch cannot survive.”

Apart from Jesus, we can’t survive.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Now, we’ve established that I don’t know much about horticulture in general, let alone viticulture in particular, so what follows is based on what I’ve read, which I assume is accurate.  Growing grapevines is tough, labor intensive work that requires patience.  Typically, a young vine is not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years, but is cut back so all its energy can go into getting itself established.  Similarly, branches that do not bear fruit are cut out to further conserve the energy of the plant, and this must be done by hand.  If this constant cutting back is not done, the result would be a crop that was not up to its full potential.

God is depicted as the one who cultivates the vineyard.  God waters and tends the soil, so that the vine is properly nourished.  God takes pride in the crop.  This also means that God prunes the vines and removes the dead wood.  I think what Jesus is saying is pretty clear.  Jesus is the true vine and if we break away from him, we will be like unproductive branches and die and bear no fruit – and so we will have to be pruned out.

The vinegrower removes the non-fruit-bearing branches, Jesus says.  The Greek verb translated “remove” is used to denote both pruning and cleansing.  The cleansing here refers to the issues of ritual uncleanness and cleanness that are delineated in Leviticus and Numbers.  In other words, the pruning that God does brings us into right relationship with God.  It’s probably worth noting that Jesus says the disciples are already cleansed by the word Jesus spoke to them.  It could well be that the primary pruning shears God uses is the word of Jesus.

So this is probably a good time to think about how God prunes you and what God cuts away.  To be honest, there are times I’d like God to be a bit more aggressive in pruning me.  There’s plenty in my life that doesn’t produce grapes that are worth pressing.  The ways I remain caught up in the empire of consumerism keeps me from bearing fruits of the empire of God.  I sometimes feel more like morning glory – all I produce is a flower that quickly fades and if you try to uproot me, I’ll just send out more shoots.

There are other times when it feels like things are being cut away left and right and I wish God would go sit in the shade and rest for a while.  People I know and love die right around here and people I’ve never met suffer a devastating earthquake on the other side of the globe and even if this isn’t part of God’s pruning, I’d like it to stop, thank you.

Of course, the metaphor isn’t just for the individual.  Our congregation is a branch of the vine and God prunes us, too.  People come and go, and some of that is simply the cycle of life.  Still, some of the coming and going may be God’s pruning.

A colleague once observed that the people who make friends at church and bring in friends to church seem to be the one who have the greatest longevity in his church.  Others seem to fall by the wayside.  And interesting observation when you start to think about what bearing fruit might look like.

More than anything else, bearing fruit means sharing love.  That is what the epistle lesson was getting at.  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

There’s a lot of abiding going on in today’s passages.  Did you notice that in the gospel lesson, too?  “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.”  One important point that this abiding makes is that bearing fruit is a consequence of abiding.

We can bear what looks like the fruits of discipleship by willing ourselves to do something.  “I really should reach out to those people, so I’d better go do it.”  Real fruit comes as a consequence of abiding in Jesus and letting Jesus abide in us.  It is the most natural thing in the world, a natural consequence of being connected to Jesus.  It happens not as a “should” but as a “can.”  “I can reach out to those people.”

In other words, to quote Sarah Henrich, “Bearing fruit does not create disciples; bearing fruit reveals disciples.  Both of these activities are dependent on abiding in Jesus, the real vine.”[1]

We are a branch attached to and nourished by the vine Jesus even as we undergo God’s pruning.  The result is fruit-bearing discipleship.  And that’s a pretty good thing.

[1] Sarah Henrich, “Exegetical Perspective” on John 15:1-8, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 477.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 26, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 18; 1 John 3:16-24; Psalm 23
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Imagine you’re in a gathering of people and the leader asks you to introduce yourself.  You start off, “I am …”  But what do you say next?  Do you say your name?

I am Jeffrey Sawyer Spencer.  That really doesn’t tell you much about me.  Maybe my choosing to introduce myself that way tells you a little something about who I am if you consider that I could have told you, “I am Jeff” or “I am Pastor Jeff.”  But that consideration is only possible if you know that I typically go by “Jeff” and that I’m ordained.

I could tell you something about what I do.  I am a pastor at Niles Discovery Church.  I am a bass in the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus.  But none of these introductions really tells you who I am.

In reality, you can only begin to understand who I am by spending some quality time with me.  It is the same with God.  We can know some things about God, but only real experience with God will enable us to glimpse what God is really like.

Barbara Essex[i] points out that scripture is filled with stories of individuals’ relationships with God and that through those stories we can see how others have experienced who God is.  “For Abram (who later became Abraham), God was a voice pushing him and his family from the comforts of retirement to new frontiers in a strange land.  For Hagar, God was a presence of strength and survival in an abusive and exploitive household.  For Joseph, God was a rescuer who delivered him from a pit and prison and elevated him to ‘somebodiness’ in Pharaoh’s palace.  For Esther, God was an expert strategist who made a way out of no way and enabled her to save her people from massacre.  For Jeremiah, God was a fire shut up in his bones.  For Ezekiel, God was a surgeon and triage team who brought new life to dried bones.”  Their experiences with God taught them who God is.

And so it is with each one of us.  Each of us has unique experiences of God.  And through those experiences, our understanding of who God is changes through our lifetime.  God doesn’t change; our understandings change.  This is because our experiences of God do not define God – they merely give us glimpses of who God is.

The Bible tells us that Moses had a very powerful experience of God.  He was off shepherding sheep when a burning bush caught his eye.  When he went over to the bush, he heard the voice of God calling him.  First, the voice told him to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground.  Then the voice told him to return to Egypt and Pharaoh’s court and demand the release of the Israelite slaves.

Moses suggested that it would be challenging to go back to the Israelites to do the community organizing that would be necessary to prepare them for the trek from slavery to freedom.  Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

God said to Moses, “I am … who I am.”  The Hebrew is actually difficult to translate, but that’s about as good a translation as any.  Who is God?  God is … who God is.

Other “I am” statements are scattered through scripture.  Sometimes these “I am” statements reveal something more about who God is, though none completely reveals the majesty and mystery of who God is.  God is Presence and Healer and Savior and Keeper.  God is rock and refuge and protection that people seek.

One of the things that pops out when one reads the gospel of John is that Jesus also uses “I am” statements.  The words, “I am,” are used 29 times in the gospel and 26 of those times they are on Jesus’ lips.  Seven times he uses the phrase followed by distinct metaphors or images:  I am … bread; light; door; shepherd; resurrection and life; way, truth and life; and vine.  These are images that his audience would know and understand.  By stating “I am” in this way, Jesus uses tangible symbols and images to help the people understand his authority and power.  And when he utters, “I am,” he connects himself to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Today, we hear him say, “I am the good shepherd.”  And in saying this, Jesus reveals something about who he is and about who we are.  The image of a shepherd was a common one – people walking around the Palestine would have seen shepherds on a daily basis.  On one hand, the status of shepherds in the social fabric was quite low.  Hanging out with sheep in the fields wasn’t exactly clean living.

On the other hand, Hebrew Scriptures paint shepherds in a positive light.  The first sin in scripture may be the eating of the forbidden fruit, but the first crime in scripture is a murder:  Cain killed his brother Abel.  Cain, the bad guy, is a hunter; Abel, the good guy, is a shepherd.  Moses hears God’s call while shepherding.

And the 23rd Psalm paints a positive picture of God as a shepherd.  In this Psalm, the duties of the shepherd are evident.  A good shepherd leads, guides, feeds, protects, and even carries the sheep, when necessary.  God the shepherd cares for the sheep and has their best interests at heart.  There are bad shepherds, hirelings who run away at the first sign of danger.  But God is a good shepherd, the shepherd who guided Israel out of slavery into the present.

Mosaic of Jesus at the Arden Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Sacramento, CA. Photo by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Mosaic of Jesus at the Arden Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Sacramento, CA. Photo by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Think about the images of shepherds in the gospels.  The shepherds are the ones the angels announce the birth of Christ to.  They seek the lost sheep.  They risk their lives for the flock.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd because of his relationship to the sheep and to God.  There is nothing this Good Shepherd will not do for the well-being of the sheep; no sacrifice is too great.  Jesus loves God so much that his only desire is to do God’s work – even if it means giving up his life.

Further, Jesus gathers the flock.  Jesus implies that the community he is forming will be inclusive:  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  Jesus invites everyone into the flock.  Sinners, lepers, women, Samaritans, tax collectors, and more are all included.  Jesus’ flock is an open and affirming flock.

As flattering as this image of the Good Shepherd is, the image of the sheep is equally unflattering.  Sheep are stupid creatures.  “They are not able to take care for themselves and need constant watching.  They wander off; they will drink polluted water; they will try to scratch out food from the same barren spot even when fresh grass is right in front of their faces; they will eat too much; and they will fall down and be unable to get up on their own!  The sheep are totally dependent creatures.  They need a shepherd to guide, care for, and rescue them.  Sheep will not survive without a shepherd.”[ii]

Maybe you see where I’m going with this.  If Jesus is the Good shepherd, that makes us the sheep.  That makes us the unflattering description I just made.

Diana Butler Bass reflects on this at a personal level.  “Having been born and raised in cities, I don’t know much about sheep, and my closest acquaintance with them was not a happy experience.  My junior high school locker mate lived on a farm.  Her family raised sheep.  Every morning, she helped feed the critters and arrived at school with clothes smelling like manure.  The aroma got into my clothes as well, prompting some seventh grade boys to dub us ‘the sheep girls.’  It wasn’t a compliment.

“Most people probably have more romantic notions of sheep, however, than do I.  Cute, furry creatures depicted in pastoral scenes of old-fashioned farms.  Baby lambs born in the spring.  The shepherd conjures images of Jesus the Good Shepherd holding us, carrying us through life’s difficult patches and protecting us from predatory beasts – rather like a bucolic version of the poem, ‘Footprints in the Sand.’”[iii]

Bass goes on to remind us, “The symbol of the Good Shepherd first appeared in Christian art in the first century, making it one of the most ancient signs of the faith.  It was not, however, invested with quixotic ideals of rural life.  Rather, the Good Shepherd was the most common form of catacomb art – it was how early Christians decorated their tombs.  The sheep was a symbol for the deceased soul, and the shepherd was the symbol of Jesus bearing the dead to heaven.”[iv]

I hear echoes of the first Epistle of John.  “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16; NIV).  The author of this letter is telling us that it’s our turn, that as the body of Christ today, it is our turn to be good shepherds to the world.

The letter writer cuts me to the quick when he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17; NRSV)  Sharing materially is one way to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  And there must be a thousand other ways to “not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18; NIV).  We must decide for ourselves – individually and as a congregation – how we will love with actions and in truth.  We still have work to do to close the gap between the love we profess and the love we share.  And we also know from Jesus that to really love with actions and truth will require us to lay down our life.

It seems oxymoronic, but the only way the church will not die is by dying.  It is only by giving ourselves away that we will live.  Fred Craddock once said, “It is not whether the church is dying, but whether the church is giving its life away to the world.”[v]

Nicole Lamarche is starting a new United Church of Christ in San Jose.  In a recent blog post about this challenging process, she shared this insight that reaffirms and expands on what Fred Craddock said:  “The congregations that are woven into the life of the communities in which they are located will survive this time of radical transformation and those that continue to see their mission solely as caring for those who show up to a building will eventually shrivel.  Switch the default from looking in (it’s all about meeting our needs), to looking out (what difference can we make in this place?) and everything changes.  If your goal is to be the friendly church for everyone and you aren’t clear about what niche you serve and how your congregation matters, slow decline is likely.”[vi]

It may not be all that flattering to be the sheep, but we’re not only the sheep.  We’re also the body of the Good Shepherd today.  Our job is to lay down our life for the sheep.  Now we need to figure out who we’ll go about laying it down.


[i] Barbara J. Essex, Bread of Life, (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1998).  For this sermon, I used (and sometimes quote) from pages 13-17 and 53-60.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Diana Butler Bass, “Shepherding to Heaven,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/shepherding-heaven (accessed 21 April 2015).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Quote cited during worship at the Christian Church of Northern California-Nevada Annual Gathering on 24 April 2015 in Sacramento.

[vi] Nicole Lamarche, “Five Things I have learned from Religious R&D,” Silicon Valley Progressive Faith Community http://siliconvalleyprogressivefaith.org/5-things-i-have-learned/ (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 25 April 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 19, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:13-48
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            It’s the middle of the night in a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip. Calvin’s mom is startled awake from the yelling coming from another room: “MOMM! MOM!”
His mom comes to his bedroom and turns on the light. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Do people grow from spores?”
“SPORES?!? You wake me up at 2 AM to ask if people grow from spores? Are you out of your mind?? Why are you even awake?! Go to sleep!!”
“She didn’t answer. She must not know.” Calvin says in the dark.
“I’m telling you, it’s true,” Hobbes taunts.[1]

“Go back to bed. Don’t ask. Don’t bother me when I’m trying to sleep.” Sometimes that’s my problem. My search for truth often begins in the middle of the night. I can’t fall asleep because I’m thinking about a problem. Or I suddenly find myself awake in the darkness of the middle of the night. Maybe it was my own snoring that woke me. I don’t know. The rest of the world is quiet. It’s the middle of the night, for crying out loud, and I’m supposed to be asleep.

But maybe God knows that the middle of the night is the time when I am most apt to listen. This can be a time of prayer and for asking the questions that seem to have no answers. During the daytime there is so much noise and static in my life that I can’t hear myself think – let alone listen for the voice of God. But in this silence of the middle of the night … Words and ideas roll around, reflect, move deeper into my being. And my filters are turned off. I end up expressing exactly what is weighing most heavily on my heart and mind: Friends who are experiencing brokenness. The violence in the Middle East. My government’s willingness to use military might in ways that seem immoral to me. The continued threats of climate change and the seeming international commitment to do nothing about it.

And not just these things. What really comes up are the feelings – the feelings that I’m unable to do anything about these things. What really comes up are my anxiety, my fear, and my anger because of these unsolvable sufferings. And sometimes what comes up is my disbelief. Still, sometimes I am given the grace to listen. I try to be open to God’s word of teaching and challenge and hope in the middle of what is happening in my heart, in my mind, in my life, in the world. Maybe in the middle of the night there is an opening to the presence of God.

Thanks be to God that it is okay to cry out in the night like a frightened child. It’s okay to bang on God’s door in the middle of the night. God’s love for us does not sleep or stop. God doesn’t say, “For crying out loud, Jeff, it’s 2:00 a.m. Why are you even awake?! Go to sleep!”

In the daytime, things are different. In the daylight, I don’t typically raise the questions that I don’t already know how to answer. Or if I don’t know the answer, I can at least rationalize my lack of answers. In the daylight, I deal with practicalities.

That’s what was happening in the daylight in our first scripture lesson. Idle tales were told at the break of day of the one whom they thought would redeem Israel, the one who was tortured and executed, was somehow alive. It’s later in the day now and two disciples are on the road out of Jerusalem. It’s a practical decision, whether they’re heading back home or just heading out of town. Jerusalem is a place of sorrow and of danger now. The practical thing to do is leave.

A stranger comes to them and opens the scriptures to them and they invite him to stay and share a meal. And the idle tales told earlier in the day somehow take on flesh. There’s a mad dash back to the city, back to the disciples, huddled in the room.

If only one story about Jesus survived, I’d pick that story. The story has it all – well, almost all of it. It is a resurrection story that talks about the horror of the crucifixion, these the defining events of Christianity. It has the outline of a worship service in it – Jesus discusses scripture and then celebrates the Eucharist (communion). It speaks to the spiritual dimensions of faith and the mysteries of faith. The only things it’s missing are an ethic for living and an overt call to follow Jesus.

I love this story, and it doesn’t matter to me that most of the Biblical scholars I most respect say that it’s ahistorical. In fact, that’s something I like about the story. It is a beautiful example of how what we read in scripture isn’t meant to be taken literally, even though it’s true.

John Dominic Crossan, one of those Biblical scholars I respect, writes about the importance of non-literal interpretations of scripture using the Emmaus Road story as an example. It’s a rather lengthy paragraph, but he writes quite well.

“Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place. A prudently neutral Jewish historian reported that, at the end of the first century, ‘When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.’ And an arrogant Roman historian reported that, at the start of the second century, ‘Christus, the founder of the name [of Christian], had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.’ Jesus’ own followers, who had initially fled from the danger and horror of the crucifixion, talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and probably female. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits. The symbolism is obvious as is the metaphoric condensation of the first years of Christian thought and practice into one parabolic afternoon. Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”[2]

“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”

Don’t take this story literally, as if it is an historical account. Take it as a “parabolic afternoon,” a “metaphoric condensation” of how those first century followers of Jesus understood what had happened and was happening when they gathered for worship and broke bread together. There, at the table, their eyes were opened and they recognized Christ, there in the midst of their community.

The story goes on. We’re now into the evening of Easter day. It’s dark out, the time when questions from deep inside come to the surface. The disciples are huddled in the upper room when the two disciples came running back from Emmaus to say that Jesus was with them on the road, and was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And as they were discussing these strange things, Jesus suddenly was there in their midst. The disciples were startled and terrified. They thought it was a ghost!

But Jesus said, “I’m no ghost. I’m real. Look at my hands and feet. Give me something to eat.” And the disciples were overcome with the simultaneous feelings of joy, disbelief, and wonder.

I’m grateful for their reaction. So often, I feel like I should have no doubts, that I should only know joy. Christ is in my heart. Isn’t joy supposed to fill my life? Nope. Discipleship isn’t an easy path. And the world is a complicated place. And sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night …

Jesus invites our questions, our doubts, and our fears to surface and then helps us discover the answers which give new life and hope in the midst of our fears and doubts. No need to run away from reality. We can recognize the Christ at work in the middle of it.

Jesus stepped into the disciples’ reality. And he brought a new reality: the good news of peace; and the triumph of life over death. He also brought a mission: “You are witnesses of these things.” Despite their fear and doubt, Jesus called them to bear witness to the truth they knew.

Despite our fear and doubt, Christ calls us to bear witness to the resurrection. So, I’ve been asking myself this week, how have I been a witness to the resurrection? Where do I recognize the living Christ? And I came back to two things: bread and scars. These are the two places where I most recognize Christ.

There’s a United Church of Christ in Washington that had as a motto, “Christ takes form in a band of people.” I’ve seen this phrase attributed to Dietrich Bonheoffer and that might be where they got it.[3] Regardless of where the saying comes from, I’ve known it to be true in my life. There is something about a group of people uniting in the Spirit that transforms it into the living presence of Christ.

Back in the days when the Winter Relief program was still using churches for emergency shelter, I saw Christ take from as people from our church rallied together to create a space of welcome. When I’ve protested with others against injustice, I’ve felt the presence of Christ in our efforts. When I’ve sat in silence with others, focusing on God, I’ve seen Christ take form. When I’ve gathered with others at the table of grace, I’ve encountered the risen Christ. I can bear witness to the resurrection.

It has long fascinated me that in the resurrection, Christ’s scars remain. You’d expect there to be scars if he was simply resuscitated. But Jesus was resurrected, not resuscitated, brought to a new and eternal life, not back to the old life. Yet the resurrection didn’t erase his scars. The Christ of Easter bears the scars of Good Friday. It makes it easier to me to understand why my life isn’t a total joy, why fear and doubt remain even in the midst of my faith. The scars remain. In fact, the scars are signs of the resurrection.

When I reflect on my scars, I have stories of the resurrection. My first scar is a story of new life – I wouldn’t be here without my bellybutton. Hidden in my right eyebrow there’s a scar that keeps the memory of my mother alive. As a toddler, I tripped and cut myself on a Tonka truck. As my mother told the story, my great-aunt was freaked out by how much blood came out of my little head, but she (my mother) was cool as a cucumber. The scar on my left knee brings back memories of the joy of summer camp when I was seven.

But it’s the deeper scars, the ones you can’t see because they are scars from wounded emotions and a wounded spirit, that really hold resurrection stories: stories of coming out on the other side of betrayal; stories of finding wholeness within myself when the world said I wasn’t whole. Scars are marks of healing, of life being brought forth by the power of God from pain and suffering. They are little Easters lived out in our bodies, lived out in our lives. My scars remind me that I can bear witness to the resurrection in my life.

My scars also remind me to look beyond myself to recognize Christ. My scars remind me that Christ is present in the hurting ones, the outcasts, the powerless. The 4th century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, found the same thing to be true. “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”

We come to the table to recognize Christ. We look to our own stories of healing and new life to recognize the power of the resurrection. And we look to the one from whom we might recoil to recognize Christ in our midst.

Let you hearts and your eyes be opened.


[1] Calvin and Hobbes comic strip I found online at http://i.imgur.com/ZcntQSB.gif (accessed 18 April 2015).

[2] John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” from The Historical Jesus, reprinted on http://www.johndominiccrossan.com/The%20Historical%20Jesus.htm (accessed 18 April 2015).

[3] See, for instance, http://www.academia.edu/1680555/In_Memory_of_Theo_Kotze_a_South_African_of_Courage

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer


If there’s one word that sums up this past year for me, for us, I think it’s “change.” And it’s not just the change that’s obvious – our change of worship location. Society is changing. The church universal is changing. And in response, our life as a congregation must continue changing.

I’ve talked before about two big changes in society that have big impacts on us – the end of Christendom and the shift to a post-modern worldview. Let me offer you this review.

Emperor Constantine

Christendom began to take shape when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. This was a big policy shift on for the Empire, which until then had alternated between persecuting Christians and the church, and simply hoping they would go away. It was, arguably, an even bigger change for the church itself. Imagine going from being on the “outs” socially to suddenly being at the center of the in-group! Imagine being a political non-entity for years and waking up one day to find you are a U.S. Senator!

As Christendom developed, church and state were increasingly allied, and Christianity and culture interwoven. During the reign of Charlemagne (around 800), the now “Holy Roman Empire” (Western Europe) was divided into parishes, geographical areas within earshot of the church bells. Each parish had a parish church and a parish priest. People were members of the church because they were born and lived there. The “mission field” lay far away, beyond the borders of the empire.

In the “new world” of North America, Christendom was both different and similar to its European version. It was different because the new nation was founded on, among other things, the separation of church and state. But while Christianity in North America was not a legally established religion, it was culturally established. And not just Christianity, but Protestant Christianity. The Protestant Church enjoyed cultural support and sanction.

For example, when I was a child, the stores were not open on Sunday and no children’s sporting event would ever be scheduled on a Sunday morning. This was a subtle but powerful form of support for the Christian churches and their day of worship. But by the time I was a teenager, things had started to change in North American culture. Our society became increasingly pluralistic (many religions) and diverse (many cultures and languages), and as a result, became increasingly secular (nonreligious). Protestant Christianity’s cultural privilege started to wane.

Ours is no longer so clearly a culturally Christian society. There are vestiges. Union City, Newark, and Fremont schools are all still connecting the spring break schedule to the Protestant celebration of Easter. But the idea that mainline Protestant churches are the religious center society is disappearing.

The current members of the Supreme Court

Consider, for instance, the fact that for its first 180 years, justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were always male, always white, and almost always Protestant. Only five Catholics severed prior to 1950s.[i] The first Jew wasn’t appointed until 1916 and only three Jews served prior to 1950s.[ii] Today, the number of Protestants on the Supreme Court of the U.S. is exactly zero.

What we are seeing is the end of American Christendom. This is not the same as the end of Christianity. Indeed, it may be a new beginning! Because the culture is no longer nominally Christian, and the church is no longer allied with dominant powers and the cultural status quo, there is not only change, but also opportunity.

In many ways, the church in North America today may have more in common with the early church of the first four centuries, the church before Constantine set the Christendom ball rolling. Once again, the church has the opportunity to be what Jesus called it to be, “salt for the earth” and “leaven (yeast) for the loaf.”

This is a major shift. In Christendom, the church’s purpose is chiefly offering programs for its members, doing some local charity work, and leaving mission to “missionaries” serving far away. In this changing society, each congregation is a “mission outpost.” We can no longer think of the church as “for ourselves” and mission as “for others.” The “for ourselves” and “for others” way of thinking is a false and unhelpful dichotomy. The church belongs to God and is God’s people being and doing God’s mission in every aspect of its life, whether worship or teaching, forming small groups or ministries of service in the community and in the world!

The other societal change I’ve talked about before is the shift from modernity to post-modernity. It is equally, perhaps even more powerful and important than the end of Christendom. It is also much harder to explain. I will try.

We can think of three historic worldviews eras. The pre-modern world was the world before the Renaissance. It is the pre-scientific world. The modern world begins probably sometime in the 1500s with the Renaissance (and, interestingly, the Reformation) – or at least the seeds of modernity are sown at that time. In the next century, Isaac Newton is thinking about gravity and other scientific concepts. Certainly by then we’ve entered the modern age. The modern worldview has been ending for the past century or so, and with its ending, the post-modern worldview is emerging.

In the pre-modern world, there was no distinction between the physical world and the metaphysical world. The modern world started to recognize a difference between the physical and the metaphysical. Mainline Protestantism did a pretty good job of making Christianity fit into a modern understanding of the world. Thus, scientific explanations are forced upon the miracles of Jesus, or we insist that the stories about the miracles are purely metaphorical. (Parenthetically, I’d point out that fundamentalism, theological conservatism, and much of Catholicism, pretty much circled the wagons against modernity.)

The desire to see things from multiple points of view is an element of much cubist art. It is called “modern art,” but I think it is really post-modern art. For instance, in “Tete D’une Femme Lisant,” Pablo Picasso the front of his subject and his subject in profile simultaneously.

An aspect of the post-modern worldview is the invitation to look at things from multiple points of view. Experience becomes important. Each individual’s experience and interpretation of that experience is important. Rather than explaining away a miracle, perhaps a scripture reveals how the people of Jesus’ day experienced and interpreted that event. One person’s experience and interpretation of it, the community’s experience and interpretation of it, even Jesus’ experience and interpretation of it are all equally valid.

“Modernity [has] held that reason and rational thought are the primary human faculties and the keys to gaining control over life and ridding the world of pernicious superstitions (which is the way many moderns saw religion). By contrast, post-moderns tend to think we’ve drunk too heavily at the wells of reason. They are open to intuition, emotional intelligence, embodied knowledge and mystery. Where moderns wanted their preachers to explain [or explain away] mystery, post-moderns want to experience mystery.”[iii]

“Moderns … were very big on objectivity and the idea that we observers could step outside our own time, social conditioning, and biases to see things ‘objectively.’ On this count too, post-moderns are doubters. ‘Everybody is coming from somewhere,’ say post-moderns. ‘What you call “objective truth,” we call the interests of the powerful and privileged.’”[iv]

Why does this matter? On one level the answer is easy: there’s a huge change in cultural sensibility from modern to post-modern. Many of our churches worked well for moderns, but do not work as well for post-moderns. What’s missing is spiritual connection and experience, the experience of the sacred, transcendent Other. Understanding this makes it much easier to understand the growing interest in “spirituality” over the past thirty or forty years and why people who identify themselves as “Spiritual but not religious” is one of the fastest growing segments of our population. Moderns wanted their preachers to explain mystery; post-moderns want to experience mystery. Isn’t it sad that people feel that church is not the best place to pursue their “spiritual” interests?

In the midst of these societal changes, the church is also in the midst of its semi-millennial rummage sale. You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[v] This is how Tickle explains it:

“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of that chaos, something new emerged: Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents.

About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created.

About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches.

And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.

The first of these church rummage sales that Phyllis Tickle talks about happens around the year 500, at the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, there was another big shake up in the world of religion 500 years earlier, around the year 30, when the disciples of Jesus experienced the resurrection. They didn’t know what to make of their experiences at first.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, c. 1601–1602

The wonderful story of Thomas doubting the accounts of his friends is an example of a pre-modern explanation that can be quite difficult for the modern mind to accept. Caravaggio’s painting based on the story that’s on your bulletin covers, painted at the dawn of the modernity, treats the story quite literally, almost scientifically. My post-modern view wants neither to take this story literally nor to assume it’s simply metaphor. I want to hear it as this gospel writer’s truth. Yet, when I apply it to my life, my experience, I find myself connecting to it symbolically.

Notice how John tells us these disciples recognized Christ in their midst: By his wounds.[vi] Might that be a clue for me about where I should look for the resurrected Christ in my midst? In the wounded? Perhaps when I reach out and touch the wounded, I will realize that I am in the presence of the resurrected one. Perhaps when I work to repair inequalities, to build community, to end oppression, to heal the wounds of exclusion, I will be doing the work of the resurrected church.

This seems to be what those first disciples figured out. In the reading from Acts, we hear a report about the new community that grew out of these resurrection experiences. Talk about change. No one claimed ownership of any property, for everything they owned was held in common. The author of Acts says that those who owned property sold it and pooled the proceeds in the common treasury. I’ve got to say that in an agrarian culture, selling your property seems like a silly idea to me. Having land means having food. But that’s what we’re told happened.

I’m struck by two things in this story. First, when they gave money, they didn’t give their pocket change; they gave their everything. Second, I think there’s a mistranslation. Verses 33 and 34 are typically translated, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. [period, new sentence] There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” The Greek, however, has the word “for” right between what is translated as two sentences. The “for” has been left out. When I look at my interlinear Greek text, it looks to me like a better translation would say, “ … and great grace was upon them all for there was not a needy person among them …”[vii] What does that say about reaching out to the wounded to find the resurrected Christ?

Drawn together in one heart and soul by the power of the Spirit, these first disciples created this counter cultural community of compassion. Imagine what would happen if we let the love of God overflow in our hearts, if we truly yielded to God and lived in the full, unhindered presence of the Spirit.[viii] I know I resist. I know my fear gets in my way.[ix] But, oh, if I could just trust a little more deeply. Imagine how that would change my world.

Change. That’s the word I said sums up this year for me. And not just pocket change.

During this year, we have experienced the major change of location – twice. Now we’re settling into this new place and we have the challenge of how to be good stewards of it. And we have the challenge of how to be the church in this changing society, right in the midst of the church’s semi-millennial rummage sale.

The changes for our church are not over. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus was all about change. Jesus was all about transformation.

Let’s discovery what God has in store for us next.


[i] Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States, (22 May 2010).

[ii] List of Jewish United States Supreme Court justices, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_United_States_Supreme_Court_justices, (22 May 2010).

[iii] Anthony Robinson, It’s a Whole New World!, http://www.ucc.org/vitality/ready-set-grow/know-community-culture/its-a-whole-new-world.html, (22 May 2010).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2008/08/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 24 January 2015).

[vi] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Touching the Word,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/touching-word (accessed 6 April 2015).

[vii] Jason Byassee, “Can God Breathe?” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/can-god-breathe (accessed 6 April 2015).

[viii] Michaela Bruzzese, “‘Reach Out’,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/reach-out (accessed 6 April 2015).

[ix] Clark H. Pinnock, “The Acts Connection,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/acts-connection (accessed 6 April 2015).

A sermon preached at the Niles Discovery Church sponsored
sunrise service held in the Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:1-18 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

You might think that a religion that’s about 2000 years old would have done all the changing that it’s going to do.  Not so.  Christianity is a living religion and new understandings of old texts bring changes, looking at old ethical questions in new social situations bring changes, and sometimes even archeological discoveries (like the discovery of ancient manuscripts) bring changes.

Well, I have the manuscript that hasn’t been discovered yet, that I would like to share with you.  Like many ancient Christian texts, it is a letter, and like ancient letters, it begins by saying who wrote it.
Mary of Magdala, a disciple of Jesus.

To Joseph of Arimathea.

Grace and peace to you, my brother in the Messiah.

It is that time of year again, that time when I venture to the cemetery on the first day of the week, before sunrise, by the light of the just-past full moon, to remember that morning that seems to be both in the distant past and as if it happened just days ago.  How can it feel both ways when in reality a decade has past?

Of course, I think of you whenever I go to the graveyard, when I go to the place where one day we will lay your body.  But you came to mind several weeks ago when I was telling the story to someone new to The Way.  I told her about how the Roman’s had executed Jesus and how you had asked the governor to let us bury his body in your own grave.  I’m so glad you’re open now about being a follower of Jesus and that, when I tell these stories, I can share your part in them.  I don’t know what it was about my story that so intrigued this sister of The Way, but she asked me why you had done it, why you had given up your grave for our Rabbi.  Before I knew what I was saying, I heard the words come out of my mouth, “Well, I guess Joseph knew Jesus only needed the grave for the weekend.”

I hope Jesus isn’t offended by my making light of his death.  I can’t think he is.  After all, his resurrection is the greatest joke every played on death.

That day, it felt like he was playing a joke on me.  My shame had never been so great, nor my grief.  Grief just isn’t the same anymore.  And shame – I see what a wasted emotion it is now.  Yes, I know I had reason to be ashamed – we all did.  They came to arrest him and we ran off.  Well, Peter tried to stop them.  He drew a knife, even drew blood, but Jesus stopped him.  Violence has never been his way.

My goodness, we were so slow to understand.  His whole mission was confronting the domination system, the system that makes victims of one group so others can feel superior, the system that oppresses and marginalized, the system that believes violence can somehow save us.

Jesus knew that violence couldn’t save him any more that it could save us.  So he stopped Peter and they arrested him and led him away.

And we fled.

We went into hiding.  Would they come for us next?  Once he was arrested, we knew where things were going.  We knew it was only a matter of time before the Romans killed him, tortured him to death like an insurrectionist.  I suppose he was a threat – he is a threat.  His message of love threatens the domination system, and the domination system keeps them in power.  He stood up to the system and we ran away and hid.

They killed him and we – and you, Joseph – you got them to release his body so we could bury it.  And you let us bury it in your own tomb.

I may have been in hiding with the others, but I couldn’t stay away.  It was just past the full moon, so there was enough light in those hours before the sun came up for me to go down to the grave.  So I went and what a cacophony of emotions!  Grief that he had been killed.  Horror that they had stolen his body.  Breathlessness at running to the other disciples.  Anger at how quickly they ran back to the grave; I just couldn’t keep up.  Bewilderment when they returned home after a quick look in the tomb.

Abandoned again, I wept.  My heart cracked open, crumbled into a million pieces.  Something happens to our spirit when everything falls apart.  I think that is why I could see the angels, because I was so broken apart.  I know people don’t believe me, that I saw angels, but I know I did.  They, too, seemed bewildered, wondering why I was weeping.  In that moment, they seemed the stupidest of angels.  How could they not know about how Jesus had been killed, buried, and his body stolen?  But they knew I had the story wrong, so of course they were bewildered.

That’s when I bumped into the gardener – at least I thought he was the gardener.  Maybe he knew what had happened, I thought.  Can you believe it?  I thought maybe he knew what had happened.

Yeah, he knew.  And when he called me by my name, I wanted to smack him!  You know I never liked practical jokes.  When he called my name – well, another cacophony of emotions came flooding in:  anger, joy, relief.  He wasn’t dead after all.

Except he was.  That’s the thing that is so hard to explain to people new to The Way.  Jesus was dead.  Death is very real.  Jesus is dead.  And Jesus is very much alive.  I don’t know how else to explain it.

But I heard last year that a husband and wife traveled to Jerusalem from some town in Greece – I don’t remember which one – to celebrate the Passover.  They came with her mother.  It was the first time for any of them to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.  It started out as such a happy occasion, but then the wife’s mother died.  Sad enough, but the husband insisted on bringing his mother-in-law’s body back to Greece with them.  When he was asked why he was so insistent, why he didn’t want is mother-in-law buried here in Jerusalem, he said that he had heard that a man died and was buried here in Jerusalem and came back to life – and with his mother-in-law, he wasn’t taking any chances.

Yes, I know:  I’m not as funny as I like to think that I am.  But I get this way when I return to the scene of the joke.  You see, I don’t think the resurrection is just about the big joke Jesus played on death.  It’s not just about heaven.  It’s about Jesus’ continuing work to transform the world.  Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world.  Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what he was doing, to what he is doing.  It’s about Jesus continuing to transform the world through you and me.  Nothing can stop him, not even death.  He’s still here.  He’s still recruiting.[1]

I know you know all this, Joseph.  I guess I’m writing because I know you will understand in a way that few others do.  You understand why I go to your tomb, to the scene of the joke:  I come to laugh and rejoice and to dance, for nothing can separate us from the love of God that we know in Jesus, the Messiah.

The grace of Jesus be with you always.


[1] “It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus. Crucifixion and the tomb didn’t stop him. Easter is about saying ‘Yes’ to the passion of Jesus. He’s still here, still recruiting.”  ~ Marcus Borg

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 8:34-36 and Matthew 6:24-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I told her that I wished there was some way for me to make her pain go away, that I wished there was a magical way I could make her problems disappear. “Oh, we all have our crosses to bear,” she said. “No,” I thought. “We all have problems and pains in our lives, but they are not our crosses. At least not the way Jesus meant it when he says, ‘Take up your cross.’” I didn’t say it aloud; it wasn’t the moment for a theological discussion. But this is.

It may sound like a command – take up your cross – but it’s really an invitation. We don’t have to do it. We have the choice.

It reminds me of a conversation I read about once. A man was part of a Christian group that was adopting a life of simplicity in order to live in solidarity with the poor. A poor woman said to him that there was nothing holy about being poor if you didn’t have a choice.

There was nothing holy about the Romans torturing people in Jesus’ day and there’s nothing holy about a government – ours or any other – or any group of thugs torturing people today. Choosing to take up a cross is very different from having a cross thrust upon you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There’s a letting go of something here in order to pick something else up. And this denying of oneself is the letting go – and I think it means the letting go of ego.

Here again, one has to have enough of an ego that there’s one there to let go of. A person living in an abusive situation needs to have enough of an ego to stop it – to move out, to refuse to tolerate it – and live with that strength long enough to have it established before he or she can lay it down.

Denying oneself and taking up the cross is about choosing obedience to God’s way and God’s will. We’ll get back to this idea in a minute. Let’s turn now to the Matthew reading.

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. I’ve never been a slave and I live in a culture were slavery is technically illegal. I acknowledge that slavery exists still, even right here in the United States. We call it human trafficking now, but it’s the same thing, just packaged differently. One way it’s packaged differently is that contemporary slavery is kept under wraps, kept hidden away. Because I’m not exposed to slavery, I have to use my imagination to really understand what Jesus is saying.

Household authority was very established in Jesus day. There was a definite pecking order and the final authority was the man of the house. If you were a slave, you might be ordered about by the woman of the house, but those orders couldn’t contradict an order given by the man of the house. You had one master. If you had two masters of equal authority, whose orders are you supposed to follow? Jesus’ point here is that if you’re going to let God be the master of your life, you can’t let something else be.

It’s interesting that of all the potential masters Jesus could have picked, he picks wealth. “You can’t serve God and wealth,” he says. I tried to think of other masters we might choose to serve. I came up pretty dry. The only two additional masters I could come up with are fame and power.

We do love our celebrities and I suspect there are people who will do whatever is necessary to be seen as a celebrity, to serve fame. The master I understand better is power. We call the work of politicians “public service,” and I’m sure there are people who go into politics for the sake of public service. There are plenty of others who go into it for the power. And it’s not the only place where people serve power.

Consider the Koch brothers. David and Charles Koch have a combined net worth of about $86 billion (with a “b”) according the Forbes’ real-time net worth website this morning.[1] That makes them tied for position 6 of the richest people in the world. The two big differences between the Koch brothers and Bill Gates (#1 in the world with a net worth that is nearly the combined wealth of the Kochs) – at least as far as I can see – is that Gates is using his wealth to make the lives of people around the world better. For instance, Gates’ foundation is trying to eradicate polio and malaria around the globe and has agriculture projects running in developing countries.

Meanwhile, in addition to their charitable donations that probably add up to the hundreds of millions each year, the Koch brothers have announced they plan to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections.[2] Why do they plan to spend that much money? Either they’re serving the master named “Power” or they are trying to influence the political process in the service of the master named “Wealth.”

We don’t need to have Gates’ net worth, or even the Kochs’, to serve wealth. All we need to do is to choose to let it be our master. And Jesus points to why we may choose to let wealth be our master: worry. No one wants to be kept up all night worrying about – well, whatever it is that you worry about. So we start serving a master that we think will conquer our fears.

At Women’s Fellowship this past Monday, I asked what we worry about. I wrote a few notes, but I didn’t capture all their answers. I remember them talking about their children and grandchildren – worrying about how their lives are going and how they will unfold. Other worries include: being good enough, security, not being able to keep my mouth shut, being needy, being embarrassed, growing old alone. Someone wondered if the day laborers who hang out at the Home Depot worry about getting their daily bread. Several people mentioned how worry disrupts sleep patterns.

We have all these worries. How do we respond? One participant noted that she might accumulate stuff in an effort to stave off her worry. Perhaps it is a symptom of serving wealth. Or perhaps Stuff can become another master we choose to serve. Another wondered if the stuff she saves is treasure or trash.

“Worry is the interest we pay on borrowed trouble,” Bessie Troyer once said. Not that any of you know who Bessie Troyer was. She was a little old lady (and I use that label with affection) at the first church I served. Coming of age during the depression, she had no interest in paying interest on anything. She was a cash and carry kind of lady. And she figured that the things she worried about were almost always borrowed – typically borrowed from the future. Whether it was the grandkids possibly getting in a car accident or her possibly needing to give up driving, those things were off in the future (if they were going to happen at all). So why borrow those troubles from the future only to pay interest on them now?

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” Jesus says. Right after telling us we can’t serve God and wealth, he says not to worry about material things.

I’ve got a question about this glass. I could ask you if it’s half full or half empty. And maybe that would give you some insight into how much you worry. What I want to ask you is, how much do you think it weighs?

I put it on a letter scale this morning and it came in right around 12 ounces. But when it comes to holding it, the weight really becomes cumulative. The longer I hold it the heavier it seems to become. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for a minute, I’m fine. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for an hour, my arm’s going to be screaming. And if I held it out here all day, I’d probably end up causing paralysis and doing some damage to my body. The mass of the glass doesn’t change, but it sure becomes heavier.

Our worries are like that. The longer we hold on to them, the heavier they become and the more damage they do. They can even paralyze us. Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says. Put the glass down.

One of the really cool insights from that Bible study, for me at least, was the difference between stewing and striving. I worry about climate change. I don’t think that’s news to anybody. Now, I can stew about climate change. I can wring my hands about how access to water and food will be disrupted with climates changing. I can be anxious about the coming famines. I can stress about the coming mass migrations of peoples, and even wars because climate change.

Or I can do something. I can strive. I can act to combat climate change in my personal habits. I can send letters to the politicians. I can attend demonstrations. I can work on getting institutions I’m connected to to divest from fossil fuels. I can even put my body on the line and face arrest in acts of civil disobedience. There are things I can do.

I can stew about climate change, or I can strive to address the problem.

Don’t worry, Jesus says, but strive first for the kin-dom of God and God’s righteousness.

M.K. Gandhi

At some point in his life, Gandhi identified what he called “the seven deadly social sins.” You know about the classical seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Those are sins we individually commit. And they get in the way of striving for the kin-dom of God. There are corporate sins that get in the way, too. Here’s Gandhi’s list:[3]

  • Politics without principle
  • Wealth without work
  • Commerce without morality
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Education without character
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice

I am struck by how many of these connect to what I’m talking about. Politics without principle is another way of talking about serving power. Wealth without work and commerce without morality are other ways of talk about serving wealth. Pleasure – maybe that’s another master we can choose to serve, and if we seek pleasure without conscience, surely we are serving it and not God. Worship without sacrifice …

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I started today’s sermon by talking about externally imposed suffering not being the same as taking up the cross. That doesn’t mean that when we take up the cross we won’t suffer. We will. When we lay aside our egos and take up the cross, we are taking up sacrifice. Striving for the kin-dom of God requires sacrifice, and we may suffer for the sacrifice. What that sacrifice will look like will vary from person to person, but we will need to sacrifice.

And this is where today’s sermon theme comes in. Denying ourselves and picking up our cross gives us freedom and peace. On the surface that makes no sense. Taking up the cross, choosing to serve God sounds like it would require giving up freedom and letting go of the goal of peace in our lives. But denying ourselves and picking up our cross does paradoxically give us freedom and peace – freedom from the worries of the world, freedom from the pursuit of wealth, freedom from the lure of temptation, freedom for the pursuit of the kin-dom of God.

This is the last sermon in this Lenten series and we’ve been giving you assignments each week. Here’s this week’s assignment.

  • Identify one (at least one) worry and put it down.
  • Identify one way (maybe in relation to that worry) that you can strive for the kin-dom of God, and start striving.

Yes, this striving will likely entail sacrifice. I am convinced that in that sacrifice we will find freedom and peace.


[1] See http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/ for Forbes’ list of world billioinaires.

[2] Nicholas Confessore, “Koch Brothers’ Budget for $889 Million for 2016 is on Par With Both Political Parties’ Spending,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/politics/kochs-plan-to-spend-900-million-on-2016-campaign.html?_r=0 (posted 26 January 2015; accessed 22 March 2015).

[3] I have seen this list in several places. This version is from an advertisement for a poster in Sojourners magazine. You can find the list on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Social_Sins. It is interesting to note that here, they are in a different order and rather than “education without character,” they list “knowledge without character.”


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