A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 26, 2023, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 11:1-45
Copyright © 2023 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I got to have a wonderful theological geek-out 10 days ago. That day, I got to attend a webinar starring (is that the right word to use for a webinar?) Elizabeth Schrader.[1] If you been attending worship regularly for the past year, you heard both Pastor Brenda and me talk about Libbie Schrader’s amazing work on the Gospel of John. Her doctoral dissertation, which I think has been submitted now, examines some inconsistencies in the manuscripts of the Gospel that go all the way back to about 200. In particular, she noticed that sometimes words have been crossed out and changed or otherwise edited especially in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel – which is today’s gospel lesson.

At the bottom: “Maria.” In the middle: “Martha.” At the top: Maria “corrected” to Martha, with a theta written over if iota and the accent smudged away. Click photo to enlarge.

Here’s a concrete example. Papyrus 66 – generally thought to be the oldest near-complete manuscript of the Gospel of John and dates from around the year 200 – the word ‘Maria’ (translated ‘Mary’) has sometimes been altered, with the Greek iota symbol – the ‘i’ – scratched out and replaced with a theta – the ‘th’ sound – changing the name from Mary to Martha. In a later verse, a woman’s name was replaced with ‘the sisters.’

Seeing this a few years ago, Schrader started doing a lot more digging. At this point, she’s scoured hundreds of manuscripts of the Gospel of John and the writings of early church leaders, and she is convinced that Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus we heard about in today’s lesson, is an addition to the Gospel.

As an example, Schrader shared how she reconstructs John 11:1-5 by using three ancient manuscripts: Codex Alexandrinus (5th century Greek, held in the British Library) as it read before it was “corrected” for John 11:1-2; Papyrus 66 (early 3rd century Greek, held in Geneva) as it read before it was “corrected” for John 11:3-4; and Codex Colbertinus (6th century Latin manuscript, held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France) for John 11:5, which is uncorrected. Here’s the New Revised Standard Version on the left and the Schrader reconstruction on the right.

Take out Martha from the way the story is currently translated, and the story in John 11 more starkly parallels John 20 where John writes about the resurrection of Jesus. In both stories, a stone is rolled away and the one who was buried in the tomb comes back into life. Take out Martha and Mary is the one weeping outside Lazarus’ tomb in John 11, just like Mary Magdalene is outside a tomb, crying, in John 20.

Tertullian (considered to be one of the early church fathers who lived about the same time as Papyrus 66 was written) says it’s Mary who gave the Christological confession (not Martha) in John 11:  “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” In other words, Tertullian contradicts the two-sister version we have now, which suggests the manuscript(s) of John he read had only one woman there: Mary. (This, Schrader says, is true of the writing of other church fathers, too.)

Sarcophagus with Biblical scenes (detail); Roman Early Christina, c. 300-400; Vatican, Pio-Cristiano Museum

And if you look at early church artwork, you get the impression that Lazarus had only one sister. For instance, when the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus is depicted on 4th cent sarcophagi, we see Jesus, Lazarus, and one woman (not two). When there is a fourth person there, it’s a dude.

All this supports Schrader’s contention that in John 11, at least originally, there were only two people in the Bethany household: Lazarus and Mary. Yes, there’s a story in Luke’s gospel about two sisters Martha and Mary. You might recall that in Luke’s story, Martha complains about how her sister Mary won’t help her with getting dinner ready. They are a different household, living in a different community (not near Jerusalem).

If you are a theological geek like I am, at this point you may be asking, why did this happen? The reason may have been as simple as wanting to harmonize the two gospels, so some scribe split Mary into two women, Mary and Martha to make John’s gospel sound like Luke’s. It could also be to reduce the importance of Mary. This might have been an agenda, especially if Mary the brother of Lazarus was understood to be Mary Magdalene, which could very well be John’s intent (though I won’t take you down that theological rabbit hole – at least not today).

If you’re not a theological geek like I am, you may be asking, so what?

Information like this can cause some to start questioning their relationship with the Bible. If the translations we have now are based on manuscripts that are riddled with “corrections” (please note the sarcastic air quotes), how are we to trust them? Meanwhile, people who long ago made peace with the Bible containing inconsistencies and who long ago accepted that we don’t have originals of any of the books and letters that are considered scripture may be wondering what difference any of this makes to our understanding of today’s lesson for us today.

For both of these groups, let me offer this insight, inspired by Libbie Schrader.[2] In John 11:4, Jesus says, “The illness is not unto death, but it is for the glory of God in order to glorify the Son through it.” Though Jesus is talking about Lazarus, perhaps we can hear these words as speaking about the text itself.  This illness (of the text) is not unto death. At the beginning of his gospel, John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it.” Maybe Mary needed to be diminished in order for the text to be included in the canon. Maybe followers of Jesus weren’t ready to accept the way John wrote about Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene (and especially if they are the same person), and so this wounding of the scripture made it easier to accept.

I’ve done that sort of thing. In fact, I did it today. If you were reading along in a New Revised Standard Version as Riki read the scripture lesson, you noticed that I made some changes. John makes references to “the Jews” several times in this chapter, and I simply changed them. I didn’t want to be distracted into defending John from antisemitic interpretations today, so I simply replaced the troublesome language. That may have been unfair to do, but I did it so we could focus on what it important to me today.

If scripture is living (and I believe it is), maybe we can see the wounding of John’s gospel and its portrayal of Mary (as well as my redactions) as the gospel lowering itself to where we humans were and are. Maybe, in a way, the scripture is laying its life down for its friends – for you and for me and for our Christian ancestors. It would be a very Johannine thing to do. In John 15:13, Jesus says there’s no greater way to love than that. Perhaps the Spirit of Truth could not be received through a strong Mary in the fourth and fifth centuries. And perhaps the Spirit of Truth has problems being heard today because of antisemitism.

We still needed and need the gospel of John. We still needed and need the witness that Jesus is the Word made flesh. If the scripture needed to be wounded for our sake, how Christian is that?

And if now we can see what happened, then the scripture can be liberated and resurrected.  This illness is not unto death; it is an opportunity to show the glory of God.

I love how Nadia Bolz-Weber explained Christianity in one of her books: “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and [to] pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”[3]

One of the ways God reached into a grave I had dug for myself came years ago, and it came through today’s scripture.I had heard Jesus’ call to Lazarus to “come out” of the tomb as a call to me to come out of the closet years before.It’s hard for a gay man hear a call to “come out” any other way – even if the words are on the lips of Glinda the Good Witch and she’s speaking them to munchkins. It wasn’t until I heard the second part of the call that the full liberation happened.

If you read it carefully, you’ll notice that Jesus’ command has two parts. First, he calls Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Then he calls the people to unbind him. Lazarus had work to do, certainly. The community had work to do, too – the liberative work of unbinding.

That’s one of the reasons being an Open and Affirming church is so important. Embracing that identity as a congregation says to LGBTQ+ people that we have done and continue to do the liberative work of unbinding. For us, here in Fremont, the social costs of doing this liberative work has not been that high – at least not so far and at least not given how much of that liberative work we’ve done. This is not always the case.

Over the past month, our sibling United Church of Christ congregation in Loomis, California, has been facing increasing social costs. One of the ministries of this congregation is called “The Landing Spot.” The Landing Spot is a non-religious support group for LGBTQ+ youth and their parents. They are currently being targeted by far-right groups, some (and perhaps all) of which have ties to the White Christian Nationalist movement. The severity of the threats and harassment are increasing and the church sees them as part of “a coordinated attack on the LGBTQ community, [that of late is] specifically targeting transgender folks.”[4]

Their Church Council said in a public statement, “There is a wave of anti-LGBTQ violence and legislative attacks across the country and we are not immune.”[5] The Council also said, “As an immediate response to an influx of hateful and threatening messages, we will temporarily suspend in-person Loomis Basin UCC events on church property until church leadership can establish a plan to maintain the safety and security of our congregants. We believe this is the best way to protect our pastor and our congregants during this time of elevated attention for our local church.”[6]

I hope you will join me in praying for the Loomis Basin United Church of Christ, today and daily. With the help of a colleague, I have also drafted a simple letter of support to the Loomis Basin UCC that I invite you to sign during coffee hour.

I do not believe that, in the end, hateful, hate-filled people will have the final word. God is about reaching into the graves we dig for ourselves and that other dig for us, so that God can pull us out. And it happens all the time. Just look for the liberator and you’ll see God’s resurrection power at work. And if you want to be a co-conspirator in God’s resurrection, keep doing the liberative work of unbinding.


[1] Elizabeth Schrader interview with Diana Butler Bass on 16 March 2023. Recorded and archived at https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/libbie-schrader-preaching-john-11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] I’m quite sure this is in her book Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), though I’m not able to find it in there today.

[4] Statement from the Church Council on the website of Loomis Basin Congregational United Church of Christ, https://www.loomisucc.org/ (accessed 25 March 2023).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


I hadn’t paid much attention to the news these past couple weeks (I’d been trying to get necessary work completed as I’ve nursed a COVID-19 infection), so I missed news reports about Cyclone Freddy, the storm with the most accumulated cyclone energy ever in the Southern hemisphere.

Now I’m finally reading about it and much of what I read is not surprising. Huge death toll. Massive destruction across three countries. Strong storms made even stronger by heating oceans, courtesy of climate change.

It’s Freddy’s path that seems decidedly weird to me. The storm tracked steadily west across the Indian Ocean, marched across Madagascar, crossed the Mozambique Channel, went ashore in Mozambique, and went far enough west to cross into Zimbabwe.

But then it turned around and headed east again, went back over the Mozambique Channel (gathering strength again). Then it seemed to ricochet off Madagascar, changing direction again, and traveled northwest across the Mozambique Channel for a third time. It came ashore bringing more destruction to a new section of Mozambique and causing devastation in Malawi.

You can see the Cyclone’s route at https://zoom.earth/maps/daily/#view=-25.2,39.6,5z/date=2023-02-19,am.

I hope someone who knows more about the typical behavior of Indian Ocean cyclones can tell me if this is unusual cyclone behavior and a sign of Global Weirding (as Dr. Katharine Hayhoe calls it) or if this is just a high-energy example of what can happen in that part of the world. I don’t remember ever seeing this kind of cyclone behavior.

Here are a few statistics, courtesy of Assaad Razzouk on Twitter:

Never seen stuff: Tropical #CycloneFreddy – barreling through Mozambique and Malawi, killing scores – broke multiple records

  • Longest-lasting, most relentless tropical cyclone ever
  • Its accumulated cyclone energy is equivalent to an average North Atlantic hurricane SEASON
  • Trekked across the Indian Ocean for an incredible 35 days

Its impact has been severe in Mozambique and Malawi

  • More rain hit Mozambique in 4 weeks than over an entire “normal” year
  • Over 200,000 people affected
  • 750,000 people at risk
  • Over 35,000 homes destroyed
  • Destroyed crops during what’s already a difficult year with 4m people in need of food assistance
  • Over 200 dead so far

I would add, the devastation caused by Cyclone Freddy also reminds us about who suffers the most from climate disasters—and it’s not the rich or the people who are responsible for the climate crisis.. Malawi, which was already suffering from the deadliest cholera outbreak in history (a result of 2022 tropical storms), is responsible for 0.04% of global GHG emissions. Freddy is almost certain to make the cholera outbreak worse. The people of Malawi are not responsible for that.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe on Twitter) posted a wonderful thread about what she thinks the biggest takeaways from the IPCC Synthesis Report are. It’s too good a thread to allow it to languish on Twitter, so I’m posting it there. This way everyone, whether they have a Twitter account or not, can access it. Here goes:

First, climate change has already caused widespread and substantial losses to almost every aspect of human life on this planet, and the impacts on future generations depend on the choices we make NOW.

IPCC SYR AR6 figure 1

Second, every bit of warming matters. The warmer the planet gets, the more widespread and pronounced the changes in both average climate and climate and weather extremes become.

IPCC SYR AR6 Figure 2

Third, the impacts are very serious: they directly affect our health, our food sources, our water and more.

Part of IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 Figure 3

Fourth, the percentage of animal species exposed to potentially dangerous conditions increases significantly the faster the world warms. In general, ocean species like coral and tropical species are most at risk.

Part of IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 Figure 3

The “burning embers” diagram originally conceptualized by Steve Schneider and others so long ago has been updated to show even higher risks at lower temperature thresholds. To be honest, not unexpected. The “experiment” we’re conducting with our planet is unprecedented.

IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 Figure 4

So given this dire news, surely we are well on our way to cutting our carbon emissions, no?


The synthesis report is crystal clear: we are not doing nearly enough to avoid dangerous impacts, let alone achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement.

IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 Figure 5

Our choices matter and the faster we act, the better off we will all be – all of us who call this planet home.

IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 Figure 6

Finally, so many of the solutions are (a) already available today, and (b) benefit us in so many ways — addressing health, equity, justice, and even economic concerns while increasing resilience and accelerating the transition to a clean energy future.

IPCC Synthesis Report AR6 Figure 7

Climate change stands between us and a better future. Many of the solutions are already at hand. At this point, the only question is: what are we waiting for?

the co-benefits of climate solutions

[Dr. Hayhoe notes,] * For individuals, the answer [to the question, “What are we waiting for?”] is often “because I don’t know what to do.” So that’s why I gave this TED talk, helped design this tool, and wrote this book. Check them out!

And, if you want to read the report for yourself, click here.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 19, 2023, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 9:1-30 and Psalm 23
Copyright © 2023 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There is something almost comical to me about the story we heard from the 9th chapter of John’s gospel. We start off with a theological question: who sinned that this man was born blind? The theology behind the question (as bad as it is) is pretty obvious. Good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. Since being born blind is a bad thing, someone must have done something bad. Was it the man or was it his parents? (Like I said, bad theology.)

“Nope. Wrong question,” Jesus says. “This isn’t about good or bad. This is about the power of God.” And Jesus takes away the blindness this man has had since birth. In a wonderful twist of irony, the next paragraph reveals more blindness. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’”

Many of the neighbors of the man who had been blind can’t recognize him. Why not? Had they never really looked at him? Had they never truly seen him? It leaves me wondering, who sinned that they should have such blindness?

And yet, I admit to having similar blindness. I know that there are people who, like the blind beggar, are dependent on charity for economic survival—people I’ve spoken about and never to. People blamed someone—the man or his parents—for his disability, making him into a member of “the undeserving poor” (as opposed to “the deserving poor”), a false dichotomy we too easily create in our own minds.[1]

The reaction of his neighbors to his healing is—well, if it’s not funny, it’s bizarre. The man explains how a guy called Jesus made mud, spread it on his eyes, told him to wash, and he received his sight. “I don’t know where he went after that, but this is what happened.”

If I had a neighbor who suddenly had one of their senses restored to a more typical working order, I’d be throwing a party for them. That’s not what happens in the story. No, this man’s neighbors are so upset by the change in the social order that they bring the man to the authorities—which, in their culture, meant bringing him to some Pharisees.

The Pharisees also have their blindness. All they can see is a violation of the rules. They look right past the fact that a man who had been blind could now see so they can concentrate on the violation of the rules. Jesus sinned, so he couldn’t possibly have performed this miracle. People can get so upset when you don’t conform to their ways of seeing you. You are a blind beggar; stop being a sighted person. You are a sinner who works on the Sabbath; stop performing miracles.

It doesn’t matter what the facts are. It doesn’t matter that you, who knows the power of Jesus, thinks he is a prophet. Your conclusion contradicts ours, therefore, you must be lying. Call in his parents and we’ll get this straightened out.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re one of this man’s parents. Your child was born blind. You raised him as best you could. You knew he’d almost certainly end up being a beggar, and still you gave him as many life skills as you could. And suddenly, he can see. If you got hauled before a council of some sort and questioned about what happened, wouldn’t you back up your child?

That’s not what happens here. Here, the parents acknowledge that he is their son. They acknowledge that he’s been blind all his life. And then they distanced themselves from him. “We’re not taking sides in your theological debate. He can speak for himself.”

“The formerly blind man makes it very simple: I was born blind, and now I see! Having experienced this miracle of healing, he cannot fathom why the leaders of the people quibble over [the] inessential—why he was born blind, that he was healed on the Sabbath. God’s action breaking into history is no respecter of human laws, and the crucial point is simply this: I SEE!”[2]

We can only guess at what the resistance is that keeps the people from accepting this man’s testimony to God’s love. Perhaps they would rather hold onto the security that their frames of thinking give them. And I think it’s easy to confuse security for love. It might even make sense to confuse security for love. After all, one of the things the first people to love us (our parents) provide is security. And, at least some of the time, security is a byproduct of love. But it isn’t always a byproduct of love and love doesn’t always provide security. In experiencing a love that transforms his life, the man who’d been previously blind becomes the center of a storm of controversy, is accused of lying, is denied by his own parents, is berated and interrogated by authorities, and is finally ostracized by his community. And through all that, his faith and his confidence grow.

Jesus, who’s going to call himself the Good Shepherd in the next chapter of John’s gospel, shows us that the path of love may call us to troublemaking and norm-breaking. We’ve experienced that as a church. When we lobbied for the Housing Navigation Center, we were breaking social norms.

The Pharisee’s skepticism of Jesus’ healing, and the way they dismiss the recipient of that healing, sound so reminiscent of the things people said against the Housing Navigation Center and the people who would live there. How often did we hear “people’s disbelief that those experiencing homelessness are capable of being trusted. Much like the angry crowds that emerge whenever a proposal seeks approval to locate a homeless shelter or services in a given place, the Pharisees objectify Jesus AND the one healed of their blindness before dismissing them both outright. First Jesus: ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.’ And then the blind person: ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?!’

“[This happens because] We have a very powerful, internal, and culturally entrenched urge as human beings to categorize people so that we can more easily identify who can be trusted vs. who is dangerous. We create long conditioned and unconscious images of trustworthy people despite the fact that reality is a lot more complicated.”[3]

A colleague tells of a church with a preschool that “got in a lot of hot water a few years ago for seeking to set up a 6-month managed campsite on their property to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The site had access to sanitation, was hygienic, fenced, and those living in it were invited and vetted. And yet, the response from the surrounding (predominantly progressive) neighborhood was astonishingly strident. There were tons of public comments and angry emails. The church and the pastor were sued. People cried out about the safety of the children and started demanding really absurd mitigation strategies to protect the kids [who weren’t in any increased danger by the encampment].

“[People said things like,] ‘How can we guarantee that drugs won’t be used near our children with this campsite in the parking lot?’ And yet no one had ever uttered these concerns about drug use that could be [and probably was] happening in the homes adjacent to the church already. Why do we limit the possibilities of good from people who do not fit a certain profile in our minds? And why do we disbelieve that people who look a certain way, or live in a certain kind of house, are less likely to be dangerous?”[4]

It might be helpful for us to remember that, in this story, it wasn’t a priest, or a person of perceived religious authority who brought sight the man; it was a homeless rabbi, someone who lived more like a shepherd than like a priest.

We miss some of what makes the image of God we find in Psalm 23 so jarring and surprising. To those who lived thousands of years ago, shepherds were far from being considered respectable or trustworthy in their communities. They were given a job no one else would have wanted. I don’t know if it was an unwanted job because, at certain times of year, you were separated from the villages and families while you were up in the hills looking after the sheep and goats, or if it was an unwanted job because of who you had to work with (meaning the sheep and goats), or if it was an unwanted job because of the reputation you ended up with, or if it was an unwanted job because of the responsibility a shepherd had. Whatever the reasons, in Psalm 23 it is the Lord who is our shepherd.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this Psalm—probably in the hundreds. I was surprised to notice something new this week, thanks to the Monday Morning Bible Study. Look at all the different locations there are in Psalm 23. The shepherd leads us to green pastures and still waters that restore the soul. The shepherd leads us on the right paths. The shepherd leads us through the darkest valleys, comforting us along the way. The shepherd leads us to a table of abundance where we are anointed and our cup overflows. And then the Psalm concludes, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Well, if I’m always in God’s house, then I’m in God’s house when I’m journeying to the green pastures and still waters, and I’m in God’s house when I’m journeying along the right paths, and I’m in God’s house when I’m traveling through the darkest valleys, and I’m in God house when I’m at a banquet table with my enemies and God anoints our heads.

In other words, there is nowhere I can go and not be in the domain of Shepherd. And that’s good news because, even when I’m in the darkest valley and even when the right path is one that’s going to get me into good trouble, I can look for the shepherd and find the abiding, unconditional love of God. Amen.

Questions for reflection:

  • When have you falsely separated people into “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor”? What in you caused that?
  • Are you willing to follow the shepherd down “right paths” even if doing so will get you into good trouble?
  • Where in your life is it difficult to recognize that you’re in God’s house? What could help you see the Shepherd when you’re there?

[1] Laurel A. Dykstra,Panhandling,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/panhandling (accessed 18 March 2023).

[2] Shelley Douglass, “‘Surely We Are Not Blind, Are We?’” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/surely-we-are-not-blind-are-we (accessed 18 March 2023).

[3] Dr. Marcia McFee’s “sermon fodder” that is part of the Worship Design Studio’s worship series packet on which this worship series is based.

[4] Ibid.

“In Arkansas, children as young as 14 will soon be able to work up to 48 hours a week—without the permission of their parents. Iowa legislators are considering a bill that would allow teens to work in mining and meatpacking. And in Ohio, a bill currently sailing through the legislature would let 14- or 15-year-olds work until 9 PM year-round.” So say Jack Schneider and Jennifer C. Berkshire in an article in The Nation.

Arkansas, Iowa, and Ohio have state legislatures controlled by Republicans. Which leaves me wondering, Why is the Republican Party suddenly weakening child labor restrictions?

The article identifies some probably reasons. Historically speaking, “Because they could be paid less than adults, children were often a threat to organized labor”—which Republicans wrongly see as a good thing.

But I think the issue has more to do with the Republican attack on public education—which I think is part of their White Christian Nationalist agenda. After all, Public education “did more than keep children out of the workplace—[it] also decreased inequality.”

“[T]he push to end child labor by mandating education was highly effective.” Allowing child labor helps to undermine public educations.

Here’s how the article puts it:  “As Republican legislatures across the United States work to undermine public education—through private school voucher schemes, efforts to roll back minimum requirements for teachers, and the imposition of limits on what teachers can teach and children can learn—they are also opening the door to an alternative: employment. Getting students out of school and into the workforce will save taxpayers money, and may even help some families meet their bottom lines. But it will come at a significant cost, at least if we are concerned with inequality.”

The article warns: “Peeling back child labor laws and undermining public education is, at its core, about restoring a vision of society that is profoundly unequal, one in which schooling is the privilege of those families who can afford it, and work for those can’t. It’s about washing our hands of one another. And while the economically well-off may gain in the short term, we will all pay the cost in the long run for a society that no longer views itself as such—a nation in which we throw other people’s children to the wolves.”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 5, 2023, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 3:1-17 and Psalm 121
Copyright © 2023 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think most of you know that one of my heroes is Mister Rogers. During his lifetime, he said some deeply profound things in surprisingly simple ways. He helped preschoolers learn about their feelings and encouraged them along the process of discovering their own agency. And he helped parents learn to be good parents by giving timely and helpful advice. Of all the advice he gave to adults, the piece of advice for which I think he is currently most famous is advice that he learned from his mother. I’ll let him explain it in his own words.[1]

I think Nicodemus was looking for some help, help that he thought he might get from Jesus. So he went to Jesus, perhaps, as John Shelby Spong put it, “against his better judgment.”[2] He came to Jesus at night. Does the gospel’s author include that detail to tell us the Nicodemus is in the dark? Or perhaps this detail is included simply to suggest that Nicodemus doesn’t want to get caught associating with Jesus? (A little something to think about; next week, we consider a story from John 4 that happens in the middle of the day.)

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, “he acknowledges that Jesus must somehow be related to God, for only if God were working through [Jesus] could [Jesus] do the ‘signs’ that he did.”[3] Now, remember we’re only at chapter three of John’s gospel, and the only “sign” that Jesus has performed that the gospel writer has mentioned is the one at the wedding feast in Cana when he transformed water into wine. That story is in chapter two.

Nonetheless, this one sign we know about (and perhaps others we don’t know about) are enough to convince Nicodemus that he can find whatever it is he’s looking from Jesus. But did you notice that Nicodemus never says what he’s looking for, that he never asks Jesus a question? He acknowledges that Jesus is a rabbi (as is Nicodemus, so this is a conversation among equals), and Jesus immediately says, “No one can see the realm of God without being born from above.” It seems to me like a non-sequitur. I guess it wasn’t to Nicodemus – though he doesn’t understand what Jesus said.

The wordplay gets lost in translation. The Greek here is anothen. “No one can see the realm of God without being born anothen.” Anothen can mean both again and from above, and Nicodemus hears Jesus saying “again,” rather than “from above.” That’s why Nicodemus thinks what Jesus is saying is preposterous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus asks.

Jesus gets that Nicodemus doesn’t get what Jesus is saying. Jesus tries again. “No one can enter the realm of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit and spirit.” It’s easy to hear this as some sort of reference, perhaps obscure, to baptism, and thus to “a decision to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior,” as Evangelical Christians would typically put it. Spong says that this is a misreading of the text. I agree with him.

“To be born of water is simply to be born into the life of this world, a process achieved in the breaking of the maternal waters. To be born of the spirit is to step into a new dimension of what it means to be human. John makes that abundantly clear in the next sentence when he has Jesus say: ‘that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.’ Then Jesus identifies the spirit with the mystery of the wind ‘that blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or where it goes’ (John 3:8).”[4]

I understand scientifically that the wind is caused by the sun’s uneven hearting of the earth and by the earth’s rotation. I understand that. Yet, when I stand in the wind, when I experience the wind, I don’t think about that at all. When I’m not being busy and allow myself the truly notice the wind, I feel it. I experience it. It seems almost alive to me, not the simple result of scientifically explainable forces. It blows where it will, coming from wherever it comes from, going to wherever it’s headed.

My help doesn’t come from Baal. My help does not come from my self-sufficiency. My help comes from Yahweh. That’s what the Psalmist is saying. Yahweh, typically translated as “Lord” and printed with small capital letters, is our keeper.

That happens to me when I immerse myself in just about any aspect of nature. When I give myself the space to not be busy and truly notice creation, when I allow myself to truly dwell in God’s creation, I can be awed. Sometimes it’s as simple as pausing where I am looking up at the hills. And sometimes when I do that, Psalm 121 comes to mind. “I will lift my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come?” And the hills remind me that my help comes from God.

We need help – all of us – from time to time. We may be resistant to admitting it. That doesn’t change the fact that we need help. And both the Psalm and the passage from John remind us that our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The way John says it is in the often misunderstood verse John 3:16, and the often ignored verse that follows, John 3:17:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We can blame King James and his Bible translators for the first problem. The word “so” in “God so loved …” meant (back in the 17th century) “in this way” – as in “like so.” In contemporary English is means “deeply” – as in “I’m so sad” or “She’s so smart.”[5] So let’s retranslate the passage: “This is how God loved the world: that he …”

Now, let’s talk about the word “world.” The Greek is kosmos, and it is often used as a shorthand for all that is estranged from God, that with exists in sin.[6] You’d think the sentence about the kosmos would go something like, “This is how God hates all that is in sin (but loves that little remnant that is righteous): …” And, instead, Jesus says, “This is how God loves everything, even that which is estranged from God’s own self: …”

The sentence gets completed with another surprise. God loves the kosmos by sacrificing. God helps the kosmos by being lifted up like a bronze serpent (you can read about that story in Numbers 21). Like Abraham holding nothing back from God, not even his son Isaac, God holds nothing back from us – not even the Son – out of love.

Now, I’m not certain what it means to “believe” in that kind of Son or sacrifice. I have to interpret that through the following verse. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Maybe believing in Jesus happens when we turn to God as our helper, and we are born from above yet again. Maybe a mom or dad can explain it better than I can. In her book, Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass writes:

“John Philip Newell often shares the story of being overwhelmed by seeing his newborn grandson for the first time and how profoundly spiritual the experience was. Ancient Celtic Christians believed that infants came from God and that in gazing at a newborn’s face, we see the very image of God; and conversely, through the infant’s eyes, in some mysterious way, God beholds us. The birthing place is a sort of inner sanctum where we encounter the freshly born presence of God.

“No wonder Christian tradition makes much of the birth of Jesus, the one whose birthplace opens to angels, animals, shepherds, and shamans. It is more than the silent midnight holiness between Mary and her son; the whole cosmos witnesses the birth. More than an image fresh from heaven, the Infant is the very embodiment of the divine. Every birth is echoed in this birth – no wonder the stars fill the heavens, the light shines forth. The presence of God made manifest, the glory of the One from the womb of grace. Darkness of birth, light of the world.

“‘Very truly, I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ (John 3:3).… I did not really understand Jesus’s words until my daughter was born, when the womb opened and water broke forth, and then, in the silence, the breath. Water and spirit. Cradling the image of God so close, the image staring back.”[7]

One final thought: if we have been made in the image of God, then when we are helpers, we are living into that God-image. When we make sacrifices out of love for others, we are living into that God-image. And that’s why Fred Rogers’ mother was right. When, in the midst of turmoil and crisis, we should look for the helpers. In doing so, we’re looking for the Helper. We are looking for God.


[1] https://youtu.be/-LGHtc_D328

[2] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013), 86.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 90.

[5] “Gospel: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 2,” https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/3/2/gospel-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-2 (posted 27 February 2023; accessed 1 March 2023).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2021), 225-226.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 26, 2023, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 4:1-11
Copyright © 2023 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There are two moments in the narrative arcs of the gospels when I’m quite certain that Jesus is wrestling with who he is. The second happens when he asks the disciples who the crowds think he is and who they think he is. When Peter says tells Jesus he is God’s anointed one, the Christ, Jesus responds by explaining that this means he will be persecuted, prosecuted, and executed. It is as if in that moment, in the moment of Peter calling Jesus the Christ, that Jesus reaffirms the identity he has known since his baptism and at the same moment realizes where this identity will lead him. “You’re right, Peter. I am the son of the living God. And that means the principalities and powers will kill me.”

Peter will have none of that and he tries to convince Jesus otherwise. Jesus rebukes Peter and he does so by calling Peter, “Satan.” “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”[1]

We heard the first time that I see Jesus deeply wrestling with who he is in today’s gospel reading. What we didn’t hear in today’s reading is what comes immediately before. Jesus was actually already in the wilderness, despite what the gospels say about the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. He’d come out to the wilderness, to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. There were crowds there, so Jesus wasn’t alone when John dunked him under the water. But it wasn’t the crowds that Jesus heard when he was baptized. What Jesus heard was a voice from heaven calling him “Beloved Son.”

And that, I think, is why the Spirit led him deeper into the wilderness, into the wilderness by himself: To wrestle with what it means to be the beloved child of God.

The 40 days of Lent have long been (and perhaps always been) associated with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and praying. In the ancient scriptural imagination, “40” plus a unit of time was a shorthand way of saying, “for a long time.” Jesus was out in the wilderness fasting for 40 days. In other words, he was out there for a long time. “40” also shows up often enough in the scriptures that its appearance here calls to mind other 40s. In the time of Noah, it rained for 40 days (Genesis 7:12). During the Exodus, Moses spent 40 days without food on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). Elijah went on a 40-day journey to Mount Horeb without food – sort of a forced fasting (1 Kings 19:8). The newly freed Hebrew people spent 40 years of wilderness wandering (Deuteronomy 8:2). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness reminds us of other times God connected with people through the number 40.

I think a key to understanding Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is to focus on both the temptations he resists and the way he resists them. Jesus’ three responses to the temptations are all quotations from Deuteronomy. That’s actually the prime reason I picked The Message for the telling of this story – it makes it clear that Jesus is quoting the fifth book of the Torah.

Deuteronomy is a retelling of the story of the flight from Egyptian slavery and the receiving of the divine law that made this ragtag group of former slaves into a community of God’s people. Jesus relies on scripture, this scripture to resist temptation.

One way of looking at the first temptation is to see it as being about comfort. Look, the devil purrs, you’re really hungry. Have a nosh. The thing is, this temptation is also about power. Hey, you won’t owe me anything. You have the power to turn these stones into bread all on your own. And this temptation is also about trust. You don’t need God to sustain you. Use your power to meet your own needs.

I think Jesus sees all the layers of this temptation. In quoting from Deuteronomy 8 in response, Jesus signals that he understands the stakes. He sees the connection between his situation and the 40 years the Hebrews spent in the wilderness. God met their needs in the wilderness, feeding them with manna, and God will meet Jesus’ needs. God is the true source of all we need, physically and otherwise.

We see similar layers in the second temptation. At one level, the temptation is about security (prove that you’re God’s beloved). And it’s about power (you can make God act). And it’s about ego (you’re so important God will break the laws of nature to rescue you). Jesus’ response to all three of these layers is to proclaim that he has no need to put God to a test.

And there are similar layers in the third temptation. A one level, the temptation is about glory (worship me, and all this can be yours). And it’s about power (all the kingdoms of the world will be yours). And it’s about fidelity (bow down and worship me). I suppose Jesus’ one-line response, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only God,” is a lot quicker than reminding the devil about how pointless it is to worship idols, even if they are pretty, golden calves. The point that Jesus makes is clear: “God is the graceful fountain not only of nourishment, but also of loving-kindness and graceful, genuine power – not the anxious, cheap power peddled by the tempter.”[2]

What does it mean to hear God say, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased”? Having heard that, what does it say about who Jesus is and how he’s supposed to live out that identity? I think the devil’s temptations are as much about Jesus’ wrestling with that identity as they are about anything else. That’s one of the reasons I like that little animation[3] we saw during the Time with the Children. Did you notice that Satan looked just like Jesus, just a little slicker? We can see these temptations about his identity as coming from within. Jung might say they are coming from his shadow self.

Jesus is trying to figure out, is being God’s beloved child about comfort, security, glory, power, trust, security, and ego? Or is being God’s beloved child about other things? Is being God’s beloved child about a humble, open-handed reliance on God, about a deep, abiding trust in God, about dwelling in and acting from the unconditional love of God? In resisting the temptations of embracing the things his shadow side might have claimed being the beloved child of God is all about, Jesus looks for and finds love in the right place.

One of the many things I like about these temptation stories is that they remind us of how human Jesus was. Jesus was still subject to the same weaknesses, desires, and temptations that affect all of humanity. He got hungry, just like everybody else. We see his struggles and fears were just as gut wrenching as anyone else’s. Jesus figuring out how to justly use his power was just as challenging for him as it is for the rest of us. And I like that we see Satan at work trying to do to Jesus what Satan succeeds in doing to so many: convincing Jesus to fill up a space meant solely for love with material things that fall short.

Marcia McFee reminds us, “Food, security, and power are all things we can tend to hoard to excess. And I think that is the case because we tend to use these ‘earthly’ things to meet a spiritual or sometimes emotional deficit within us. Excessive eating can become a coping mechanism for some who are traumatized or plagued with self-loathing or excessive stress. We are surrounded by temptations to feel more secure … And the temptation for power, status, or prominence can often distract us from the real work God is calling us to do.”[4]

When I think looking for love in the right places, I think we can look for the resisters, for the people who have resisted evil successfully (you know, like Jesus). And we can look for other resisters, too, people like you and me who are struggling as best we can. I bet you know some successful (or at least semi-successful) resisters personally, people who resist evil that pulls at them from within themselves, and people resist evil that is at work outside themselves.

We can find love in both kinds of resistance. The evil that comes from within can cause us to fall into traps of excess and/or addiction, and it can cause us to fall into the lie that says we are unloveable. The evil that comes from outside us can lead us into judgmentalism, fury, and violence.

So many people go through life believing that “Our fundamental identity is that we are sinners in need of a Savior.”[5] I find that so sad because I believe our fundamental identity is beloved children of God. We are created in love. We are created for love. We are created good, holy, blessed. It is when we forget that identity, when Satan tempts us with a false identity or a false way of living out our identity, that we are in need of a Savior, a Savior who will show us the path of resistance and lead us back to love.


[1] Matthew 16:23, NRSV.

[2] SALT commentary, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/trust-saltlectionary-commentary-lent-1-year-a (posted 20 February 2023, accessed 23 February 2023).

[3] See “40 – A Video of Jesus in the Wilderness,” https://youtu.be/P-6a25Yo2wE.

[4] Marcia McFee, sermon fodder from the “Lookin’ for Love in all the Wrong Places” worship series, available at www.worshipdesignstudio.com.

[5] See, for instance, Kevin DeYoung, Twitter, https://twitter.com/RevKevDeYoung/status/1625556457679687693 (posted 14 February 2023).

I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and when I was in Junior High, I started giving tours of the “historic Lexington Battle Green” along with Bill McKibben and a bunch of other kids. I know the story of April 18-19, 1775, deep in my bones.

I’m a little surprised that it took until Bill drew this parallel for me to see it: the battles in Ukraine, especially those that started one year ago, are a lot like the battles of Lexington and Concord. As Bill put it, “a ragtag army (with increasing help from the outside) is battling imperialism of the most naked sort.”

Bill goes on to remind us that advanced weapons are not the only tools we in the USA (and Canada and Europe) have to support the efforts of the Ukrainians. “[M]achines like the humble heat pump are key to winning, in the short term and the long.”

“Remember: Putin’s Russia is an oil and gas company, Exxon with tanks. Like Exxon, it’s made a lot of money this year as the price of oil shot through the roof. But like Exxon it’s prospects can be undermined if we move quickly to get off its product.”

And, instead of me quoting more of what he wrote, click the link and read it for yourself.

A friend posted on their FB account last night, once they were safely on a train, about being threatened in a BART station just moments before. My friend was targeted, along with “a visibly queer couple,” because of the homophobia and transphobia of the assailants.

Learn what to do when you’re a bystander and a verbal assault like this takes place. Bystander Intervention Training is available from many organizations. Some trainings are available online, some are in-person. (I’ve found the in-person trainings to be more effective.)

I can vouch for CAIR’s Bystander Intervention Training for those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can google bystander intervention training and your city/area to find an organization that offers training. Make sure the training they offer is modeled on the 5-Ds: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct

Please note, when the violence is police-sponsored, special care needs to be taken and I encourage you to find a specialize training if you are concerned about being ready for this type of situation.

This is an amazingly rich resource.

Gifts in Open Hands

Michael Mulberry, Pastor and friend is sharing a wonderful resource for free — an Ash Wednesday to Earth Day Source book. It combines his love for spiritual practice, public liturgy, and social justice. You can find that resource in his google docs (because it is so darn big) here: https://tinyurl.com/5y7cmjk4 and you are free to download it.

Included in 2023 Ash Wednesday to Earth Day Source Book.pdf are …

TIDAL and Spotify Playlists for Earth Day/Creation

Creation examen

Creation lectio divina that then provides verses out of the Revised Common Lectionary for every Sunday through Holy Week and then through the Sundays to Earth Day.

Public domain coloring pages from Native artist, Christi Belcourt.

An alternative, collaborative creation story from Native author, Robin Wall Kimmerer

Action items for every day of the Lenten season to Earth Day.

Children’s books asking for climate action that have the actual author reading the…

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