A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 15:21-39 and Psalm 139:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Why, Pastor Jeff?  Why?”  She didn’t usually call me “Pastor Jeff.”  Typically, I was simply “Jeff.”  But her child, not yet in kindergarten, was in the local Children’s Hospital having just been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  “Why did God do this to my son?” she asked me.

I don’t remember ever feeling so inadequate to the calling.

At a theological level, I didn’t (and don’t) believe God gave her child diabetes.  At a medical level, I knew there was something strange going on with her family’s autoimmune system.  Both of her boys – this youngster and her eldest child – had Crohn’s disease.  And her adult brother had recently gone through a Guillain-Barré crisis.

But her question wasn’t a medical one, nor was it a theological one.  Her question was a lament from the cross:  “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”  And I didn’t know what to say.

These words from today’s gospel lesson have echoed in my mind and heart as news of the earthquake along the Iran/Iraq border broke.  I imagine similar cries were made this week in Greece and Sri Lanka, just as they were made in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and across the Caribbean.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

According to Matthew and Mark, this question is the final thing Jesus said before he died.  A question is the final thing Jesus said before he died.  “And yet, the question Jesus asks on the cross is different from all his other questions.  It isn’t a rhetorical question or a teaching tool.  It is not offered for the benefit of Jesus’ hearers.  Rather, it is an agonizing question that is difficult to hear.  This question stands alone, which is appropriate because it is itself an expression of isolation:  ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’  This question is raw and threatening, like an open wound.  It sounds like an expression of despair, of hopelessness, of doubt even, which, of course, is just what it is.  And it hangs in the air unanswered.

“We are never very good at letting those whom we admire be fully human, shed human tears, or express human agony.  And when the one we hear expressing despair is Jesus, it is not just our view of him that can be shaken but also our view of God and our view of ourselves.  If Jesus doubts, even for a moment, it can seem like enough to scatter our light and fragile faith.”[1]

Even without this moment recorded in the Gospels, feelings of injustice, deep hurt, the seeming absence of God in our own lives is a threat to our faith.  And there on the cross, when Jesus is experiencing true injustice, excruciating pain, and deep loneliness, he does not reassure us with a statement of faith.  He does not reassure himself or us by quoting Psalm 139, “If I ascend to heaven, you [God] are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, [the world of the dead,] you are there.”[2]  No, he quotes Psalm 22.  He quotes the first verse of Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is called a Psalm of lament.  There is a whole genre of biblical literature called “lament.”  There’s a whole book of the Hebrew Bible that is call “Lamentations.”  About a third of the Psalms fall into this genre.  Martin Copenhaver claims that there are more prayers of lament in the Bible than there are prayers of praise.[3]

Psalms of lament typically follow a standard pattern.  They start with an expression of grief and consternation – typically a complaint that God isn’t doing God’s job (or at least not going what the lamenter thinks is God’s job).  There is usually some sort of “Get with it, God,” message in there, too.  Then the lament turns to a plea for God’s help.  And finally, it ends with an expression of affirmation and trust, often including a reminder – probably there to remind the one lamenting more than to remind anyone else – of how God has been faithful in the past.

“One might summarize the movements of a lament in this way:  First, ‘God, you are not doing your job.’  Second, ‘God, you need to do your job.’  Third, ‘I am confident you will do your job because you have in the past.’”[4]

Commentators have suggested that Jesus must have known this pattern of lament, as would have those reading the gospels.  They might say that while Jesus only quotes the beginning of the Psalm, he knows how it ends; “God did not despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered – God did not hide God’s face from me.  No, God listened when I cried out for help.”[5]

These commentators suggest that Jesus didn’t need to quote the rest of the Psalm.  He knew where it was headed, as do we.  So the line that is quoted isn’t quite such a cry of abandonment, it isn’t quite such an expression of desolation as it first seems.

Others say that, even though this is a cry of desolation, it is still a cry of faith:  “My God, my God.”  “Jewish author Elie Wiesel, who as a boy was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, [told] a story that reflects some of this same dynamic:

‘Inside the kingdom of night I witnessed a strange trial.  Three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, decided one winter evening to indict God for having allowed his children to be massacred.  An awesome conclave, particularly in view of the fact that it was held in a concentration camp.  But what happened next is to me even more awesome still.  After the trial at which God had been found guilty as charged, one of the rabbis looked at the watch which he had somehow managed to preserve in the kingdom of night and said, “Ah, it is time for prayers.”  And with that the three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, all bowed their heads and prayed.’

“Perhaps the words of the persecuted Jesus may be viewed in the same way.  The God who has been found guilty of absence remains a God to be approached through prayer.  The God who is absent is still ‘My God, my God.’  In moments of agony that is sometimes the closest we can come to a statement of faith.”[6]

These interpretations may be helpful, but they are, I think, also potentially dangerous.  If they take away the sting of Jesus’ words, if they soften the depth of his anguish, his pain, his sense of abandonment and desolation, they do us a disservice.  “[A]s difficult as it may be to let these words stand as stark and threatening as they sound, it is only when we do so that we can receive their true blessing.”[7]

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is “the question of those who wonder how it is that circumstances seem to conspire against them and who begin to conclude that God is in on the conspiracy.”[8]  It is the question of the father in the waiting room at Children’s Hospital.  It is the question of the mother clutching her child crushed by a building that falls in an earthquake.  It is the question of each one of us when we feel abandoned.

Martin Coperhaven points out, “No one feels so alone as the one who feels deserted by God.  And note the cruel irony that the absence of God is only a problem for the believer.  Furthermore, the greater one’s faith, the greater the potential for disillusionment when that faith is directed toward a God who seems to have left without a trace.  It is the one who rejoices most in God’s presence who is the most bereft when God is gone.  By this measure, could anyone have felt so deserted, so alone, all, all alone, as Jesus on the cross?

“‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  It is difficult to let that question stand, raw and not explained away, yet there are gracious benefits in doing just that.”[9]  This question, more than any other he asked, shows us how truly human Jesus was.  It is a question that reminds me that Jesus has walked in the same darkness as me.  It is a question that reminds me that Jesus experienced as deep a hopelessness as I might feel, and that gives me hope.

Amen.

[1] Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 109-110.

[2] Psalm 139:8

[3] Copenhaver, op. cit., 111.

[4] Ibid, 112.

[5] Psalm 22:24, inclusive language mine.

[6] Copenhaver, op. cit., 113, quoting Robert McAfee Brown quoting Elie Wiesel in Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 154.

[7] Ibid, 114.

[8] Ibid, 115.

[9] Ibid.

Advertisements

Here’s today’s climate news, gleaned from today’s tweets from @BillMcKibben.

The Keystone Pipeline (the little brother of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline) leaked nearly a quarter of a million gallons of oil in northeastern South Dakota. Lessons:
1. Pipelines will leak.
2. See #1
3. #KeepItInTheGround
4. #NoKXL
http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Keystone-pipeline-leaks-210K-gallons-of-oil-in-12363576.php

Energy Transfer Partners (the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline) hired a private security firm, TigerSwan, to gather information for what would become a sprawling conspiracy lawsuit accusing environmentalist groups of inciting the anti-pipeline protests in an effort to increase donations. Lessons:
1. When oil companies face resistance they fight dirty.
2. Remember lesson from previous story.
3. #NoDAPL
https://theintercept.com/2017/11/15/dakota-access-pipeline-dapl-tigerswan-energy-transfer-partners-rico-lawsuit/

World’s largest sovereign wealth fund, belonging to Norway, proposes divesting from oil and gas to make it “less vulnerable to a permanent drop in oil and gas prices.” Lessons:
1. Just as divestment makes sense for ecological reasons, it makes sense for economic reasons.
2. This means that the world’s oldest oil fortune (Rockefeller) and its biggest (Norway’s wealth fund) are divesting from fossil fuel.
3. #DivestFossilFuel
https://www.ft.com/content/d18efd20-09a9-3400-a09c-dacfd747d3ab

The Energy industry has been “jolted” by this news. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/16/oil-and-gas-shares-dip-as-norways-central-bank-advises-oslo-to-divest

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:26-31
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

On October 31st, in the great country of ours, small bands of armed children race from house to house demanding protection candy.  Or at least that’s how it seems.  Alright, pops, what’s it gonna be?  Your candy of the front window?[1]

Martin Luther

When I was a kid, October 31st was all about the candy.  But going to seminary changes a guy, and what made October 31st important to me was one of those things that changed.  October 31 became about the beginning of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism.  And all because of this guy:  Martin Luther.

Though apparently many scholars now say the story is apocryphal,[2] the legend says that on October 31, 1517, this monk did what was that time’s version of a Facebook post.  He hammered a list of criticisms of his beloved Roman Catholic Church, his 95 theses, to the chapel door of the castle in Wittenberg.

I had a church member who as disappointed to find out that these 95 theses were 95 statements.[3]  She had envisioned 95 Master’s degree length thesis manuscripts somehow hung on the chapel door.  But they are a series of statements that together make an argument for reforming some of the practices of the church – particularly the practice of selling indulgences (which makes me think of chocolate, because chocolate is an indulgence, which brings us back to Halloween – but I’ll get to the church’s practice of selling indulgences in a moment).

Luther’s 95 theses were not a list of demands nor were they a list of theological non-negotiables.  They were an argument that Luther probably wanted debated.  I’m not sure why they were numbered, but it reminds me of the practice of numbering the lines in a resolution that a deliberative body is debating so someone can make reference to a particular line.  I don’t think Luther had any inkling of separating from the Roman Catholic church when he posted them.  He wanted his church to change, not split.  He thought there were abuses being perpetrated by the church that needed to stop.  He thought that these abuses were being justified with bad theology and he wanted that theology addressed and corrected.  That’s not what happened.

There’s a wonderful article in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine about Luther that explains the specifics of Luther’s objections.  “One of the most bitterly resented abuses [and not just by Luther, but by a lot of people] of the Church at that time was the so-called indulgences, a kind of late-medieval get-out-of-jail-free card used by the Church to make money.  When a Christian purchased an indulgence from the Church, he obtained – for himself or whomever else he was trying to benefit – a reduction in the amount of time the person’s soul had to spend in Purgatory, atoning for his [or her] sins, before ascending to Heaven.  You might pay to have a special Mass said for the sinner or, less expensively, you could buy candles or new altar cloths for the church.  But, in the most common transaction, the purchaser simply paid an agreed-upon amount of money and, in return, was given a document saying that the beneficiary – the name was written in on a printed form – was forgiven x amount of time in Purgatory.…

“In Luther’s mind, the indulgence trade … brought him up against the absurdity of bargaining with God, jockeying for his [Luther certainly saw God as a “he”] favor – indeed, paying for his favor.  Why had God given his only begotten son?  And why had the son died on the cross?  Because that’s how much God loved the world.  And that alone, Luther now reasoned, was sufficient for a person to be found ‘justified,’ or worthy.  From this thought, the Ninety-five Theses were born.  Most of them were challenges to the sale of indulgences.  And out of them came what would be the two guiding principles of Luther’s theology:  sola fide and sola scriptura.”[4]

Sola fide means “only faith” or “faith alone.”  I think it’s worth noticing that the Latin fide is more like the English word “fidelity” than it is like “belief.”  This motto came from Luther’s belief that salvation comes through faith alone, not works, and definitely not through the purchasing of indulgences.  “This was not a new idea.  St. Augustine, the founder of Luther’s monastic order, laid it out in the fourth century.”[5]

There are some interesting insights into Luther’s psychology and spiritual journey in the The New Yorker article, but we won’t have time for those in today’s sermon.  Especially since I’m more interested in the second of those guiding principles, the second of those mottos of the Reformation:  sola scriptura.  Sola scriptura, “only scripture” or “scripture alone,” is “the belief that only the Bible [can] tell us the truth.  Like sola fide, this was a rejection of what, to Luther, were the lies of the Church – symbolized most of all by the indulgence market.  Indulgences brought you an abbreviation of your stay in Purgatory, but what was Purgatory?  No such thing is mentioned in the Bible.  Some people think that Dante made it up; others say Gregory the Great.  In any case, Luther decided that somebody made it up.”[6]

And if something is not in the Bible, it’s suspect.  If it’s not in the Bible, it’s potentially wrong.  The Bible is the only rule of faith.  Interpretations of the Bible, doctrines of the church, traditions – all of these are from people (from men, in Luther’s day), and therefore potentially wrong.

Guided by these convictions – sola fide and sola scriptura – “and fired by his new certainty of God’s love for him, Luther became radicalized.  He preached, he disputed.  Above all, he wrote pamphlets.  He denounced not only the indulgence trade but all the other ways in which the Church made money off Christians …  He [even] questioned the sacraments. …

“Luther at the Diet of Worms,” by Anton von Werner, painted in 1877, over 350 years after the actual event.

“Things came to a head in 1520.  By then, Luther had taken to calling the Church a brothel, and Pope Leo X the Antichrist.  Leo gave Luther sixty days to appear in Rome and answer charges of heresy.  Luther let the sixty days elapse; the Pope excommunicated him; Luther responded by publicly burning the papal order in the pit where one of Wittenberg’s hospitals burned its used rags.  [Luther helped put the “protest” in Protestant.]  Reformers had been executed for less, but Luther was by now a very popular man throughout Europe.  The authorities knew they would have serious trouble if they killed him, and the Church gave him one more chance to recant, at the upcoming diet – or congregation of officers, sacred and secular – in the cathedral city of Worms in 1521.  He went, and declared that he could not retract any of the charges he had made against the Church, because the Church could not show him, in Scripture, that any of them were false.”[7]

Like many people of faith, Luther felt he had to stand by his conscience.  It is in honor of this fidelity, this integrity that we are singing our post-sermon hymn.  The words come from an anti-slavery poem written by James Lowell in 1845.[8]

“Here I stand, I can do no other,” Luther is supposed to have said at the Diet of Worms.  He could do no other because of the principle of sola scriptura.  Scripture alone was the rule of his faith – a view very much in keeping with what we heard in today’s Gospel reading John says he wrote his gospel so that we might have faith, so that we might be able to join with Thomas in proclaiming to Jesus, you are my Lord and my God.

But there is also a danger in this principle.  Sola scriptura says that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it, because of verbal inspiration, is the word of God.  Never mind that the Bible, in John’s gospel, says that Jesus is the Word of God.  And yes, this motto, this principle served as a good corrective to the notion that the Pope is infallible and that the traditions of the church have the same authority (or more authority) that the Bible.

But if we rely too heavily on this principle, the Bible moves from being a source, a touchstone to guide us into something that is worshiped.  Sola scriptura is not far from biblical inerrancy (that the Bible contains no errors) or biblical literalism (that everything in the Bible is literally true).  And once we embrace inerrancy and literalism, we are not far from treating the Bible as an idol, or as I like to call it, bibolatry.

Maybe sola scriptura has served its purpose and it’s time for a new reformation and a new motto.

If you’ve heard me preach for any length of time, you know that I’m quite taken by the notion that we are in the midst of one of the church’s quincentennial rummage sales.  The late Phyllis Tickle introduced me to this idea in her writings and a lecture I got to hear.  The notion is that every roughly 500 years, the church goes through a major reorganizing and births something new.  Two thousand years ago, it was the birth of Christianity itself.  1500 years ago, it was the birth of the monastic communities as the centers of Christian life and thought.  1,000 years ago, it was the Great Schism and the birth of the Roman Catholic Church (separating from the Orthodox Church).  500 years ago, it was the birth of Protestantism.  And here we are, on the 500th anniversary of Luther writing his 95 theses and sending them off to an archbishop (even if he didn’t nail them to the Wittenberg Chapel door).  It’s time again for something new.

What might be the new motto, a motto to replace sola scriptura?  If you don’t mind, I’m going to pause for a moment to let you think about that.

What understandings are central to your faith and your sense of what needs correction in the church of today?

As I’ve thought about this question in preparation for today’s sermon, I want a motto that expresses my understanding that God is everywhere, not just “up” in heaven.  I want a motto that reminds me that all that is dwells in God and that God infuses everything.  I want a motto that reminds me that nothing can separate us from God’s love – nothing in this life and nothing in the life to come.  I want a motto that reminds me that God’s love is radically inclusive and pro-justice.  And I had nothing … until a few days ago when Diana Butler Bass posted on Facebook (her Wittenberg Chapel door):  “New Reformation:  Sola universum.”[9]

It literally means “only the universe” or “the universe alone,” but she added in a comment to expand on her meaning:  “What if the ONLY thing we thought mattered was EVERYTHING?”

Sola universum – that works for me.  Maybe you have a motto that works for you.  Whatever our mottos, I hope they drive us, the way sola fide and sola scriptura did Luther.  Because Luther believed that only faith was necessary to receive salvation (and not things like indulgences), and because Luther believed that scripture alone was a sufficient rule of faith, he wrote his argument against the practices of the church of his day, hoping that doing so might help lead to reform.

And if I’m right, that we are in the midst of the next church rummage sale, that we are in the midst of a new reformation, what arguments do you have against the practices of the church of your day?  What do you want to see changed?

This is where you get to finish up today’s sermon.  On your announcement folder is a post-it.  I invite you to write down a thesis of your own – or more than one if you want to – about what needs to change.  And then I invite you to post them during coffee hour on our own “Wittenberg Door” in the fellowship hall.

_______________

[1] Adapted from the introduction by Noel Paul Stookey to the song “A’ Soalin’” on the album “Peter, Paul and Mary In Concert.”

[2] Joan Acocella, “How Martin Luther Changed the World,” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/how-martin-luther-changed-the-world (posted for the 30 October 2017 edition; accessed on 27 October 2017).

[3] You can read an English translation of these “theses” at http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.

[4] Acocella, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The hymn is “Once to Every Man and Nation.”  The lyrics are from “The Present Crisis,” by James Lowell, 1845.  You can read the poem at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/present-crisis.

[9] Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155402820948500 (posted and accessed on 26 October 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 6:19-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I imagine there won’t be much more than a handful of people here today who don’t know someone who lost something in the Sonoma and Napa County fires earlier this month.  A fellow bass in the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus has an apartment in San Francisco and some property in Wikiup, an area just a little north of Santa Rosa.  This is what is left of his vacation home on that property.

He’s a collector of cars, not really antiques, but vintage cars.  There is nothing salvageable left of the cars he had on this property.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories to tell.  If not from these fires, from the hurricanes that have devastated the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas over the past several weeks.  Or perhaps you have a personal story of the sudden, uncontrollable loss of property or household.  These losses seem so capricious, as if Mother Earth is suddenly angry and starts flailing her arms, destroying everything they hit.

“At least you’re okay.”  “At least you’re safe.”  I suppose I could go back and count up how many times people responded to my chorus friend’s Facebook posts about not knowing what was happening in the evacuation zone, then about seeing a satellite photo of the area that suggested his home was destroyed, and then of being allowed to see for himself and of these pictures of ash.  And, yes, I am very grateful my friend is safe, but that doesn’t make the loss any less real.

My friend is, I think, still mostly in a state of shock.  He’s seen the nothingness of the ash, the haunting witness of the chimney, the crumpled exoskeleton of his cars.  But the depth of the loss hasn’t set in.  For the loss isn’t just of the stuff.  It’s the loss of the tangible memories that will need to be grieved.

When my home was broken into several years ago, the thieves took the jewelry box on my dresser.  They didn’t open it, or they would have left it.  It has nothing of resale value in it.  But it had my mother’s sorority pin in it, and a pen knife with the name of the company her father started when he immigrated to the United States engraved on the handle.  And even more important to me, it had a lapel pin I bought my mother when I was 9 or 10 years old, of a dove.  Smaller than the end of my finger, that pin is the one thing I miss most of all.

The thieves stole stuff, sure enough.  But they also stole those tangible memories of my mother.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  Jesus might as well have said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where wildfires and hurricanes consume and where thieves break in and steal.”

In context, Jesus has talking about spiritual things.  When you give alms, be so quiet about it that even your left hand doesn’t even know what your right hand is doing.  When you pray, don’t make a show of it; keep it simple; keep it between you and God.  When you fast, don’t make a show of it; keep it between you and God.  And then he says, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth …”

Because of the context, some people think that the “treasures” Jesus is talking about must also be intangible, spiritual things.  However, I think when he talks about the “treasures” we store up on earth, he is literally taking about things, things that can be destroyed, that moth and rust and fire and hurricane literally consume.

Tom Sine asks and interesting question:  “How many of us unwittingly have allowed aspirations and values of the imperial global shopping mall define for us what is important and what is of value – what is the ‘good life’?”[1]  I know I succumb to the cultural definition of “the good life,” and I’m a professional Jesus-follower.  Despite my best intentions, I get caught up in what Sine calls “the up-scaling impulses of our middle-class lifestyles.”[2]  “If we are serious about finding a way to embody more authentically the aspirations and values of our faith instead of those of the culture, we need … to rediscover the kingdom of God as not only a theology we affirm on Sunday but a reason to get out of bed on Monday.”[3]

This will take new images, a new mind-set, a new way of thinking.  The pathway to those new images, to that new mind-set, to that new way of thinking is right there in today’s gospel lesson.  We need to store up our treasures in heaven.

Maybe there’s a problem with the word “in.”  “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  The word “in” implies that heaven is a place, the place we go to when we die.  And while heaven may be what God has instore for us after this life ends, it is certainly a reality here and now.  Heaven, the kin-dom of God, is at hand; it is within you; it is now.

So, how do we dream ourselves into, live ourselves into, serve ourselves into, celebrate ourselves into that reality that is already here?  How can we act ourselves into a new way of thinking and seeing and being that frees us from the valuing of things so that we can value each other and the rest of creation, so that we can value relationships?  Jesus says it has to do with our relationship with the material, particularly with money.

David Weiss somewhat amusingly write about Jesus’ relationship with money, with things.  “Although I suspect that Jesus’ views on wealth sit rather uncomfortably beside our own, he didn’t have a problem with material goods.  After all, he knew how to throw a party; he entertained thousands (albeit on rather simple fare: loaves and fishes) and still had leftovers (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10).  He turned water into wine, and not just into Mogen David (or worse, Boone’s Farm!); we’re talking a vintage wine that impressed the connoisseurs (John 2:1-10).  And he didn’t seem to mind at all when a woman of some means (regardless of her reputation) bathed his feet with costly perfume in a scene so suggestive that it unnerved even the Calvin Kleins of the first century Jewish community (Luke 7:36-50).

“Yet Jesus saw a clear priority between goods and people.  Goods are here in order to serve the needs and celebrate the joys of people.  People are not here in order to accumulate goods; nor simply to labor so that others might accumulate goods; and least of all to become pawns in a system in which wealth takes on a life of its own and bends human lives at all levels to its own inhuman and inexorable yearning to see more and more of itself.”[4]

When Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he is inviting us to look at how we use things.  Take a look at your bank and credit card statements and see how you spend your money.  Take a look at where and how your wealth is invested.  That’s where your treasure is.  That’s what’s important to you.  That’s what your value.  That’s where your heart is.

Today, as you know, is Pledge Sunday.  We’ve been traveling along the Generous Way of Jesus, and today we take a stand.  Today we say, “I’m going to store up this portion of my money in heaven by investing in the church.”  (Then it’s the responsibility of us as a community to make sure those investments get used to further the kin-dom of God.)

So, here’s what’s going to happen.  In a moment, you will be invited forward.  We ask that you bring your pledge, today’s offering, your green attendance sheet – whatever gift you are ready to make today.  Come forward to either side of the communion table, place your gift in one of the baskets and receive a blessing from Pastor Brenda or me.  I know that there are people who pledged online; if you’re one of them, come forward and receive a blessing.  If you’re visiting for the first time or if you’re still fairly new to the church, we don’t expect you to make a pledge.  Still, please come forward with your attendance sheet and let that be your offering, and receive a blessing.  There’s no particular order in which we’re asking people to come forward – just come when you feel moved to do so.

So, my friends, my fellow sojourners along the Generous Way of Jesus, come in celebration, come is hope, come in love.

Amen.

[1] Tom Sine, “Making It Real,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/making-it-real (written in 2008; accessed 16 October 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David R. Weiss, “Putting the Rich on Notice,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/putting-rich-notice (posted written in 1998; accessed 16 October 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 22:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Truth be told, when I read this parable a couple weeks ago, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  How on earth am I going to use this in a pledge campaign?”

The simple fact of the matter is that I haven’t liked this parable very much.  I don’t like its violence – the violence perpetrated by the wedding invitees, nor the violence perpetrated by the king.  And when the parable is looked at as an allegory it easily becomes anti-Semitic.  Making light of the kind’s invitation on one hand and killing his slaves on the other can be interpreted as blaming the Jews for ignoring the prophets and for killing Jesus (even though we know that the Roman government was responsible for killing Jesus).

As I sat with my discomfort, my dislike of this parable this week, I realized that I am treating the parable too literally.  I am looking at it too closely.  I need to step back to see the bigger picture.  I had this experience on Friday, sitting too close to some prints hanging on a hospital waiting room wall.  Only later that morning when I was sitting in some chairs across the waiting room could I see the beauty of the artwork.

You may have had a similar experience with pointillism.  If you’re too close, you have no idea what you’re looking at, but if you back up, you can see the whole picture.  If I step back from the parable and think about the whole picture, I don’t get lost in the details.

Early Christians thought that Jesus was going to return to fully establish the Realm of God, the Realm that he has started to establish during his lifetime through his preaching, teaching and healing.  By the time Matthew was writing his gospel, some of the community “had begun to lose confidence in the second coming of Jesus and in the final manifestation of the Realm.”[1]  The person we call Matthew wrote his gospel to impress upon the community the importance of remaining faithful, even in the face of conflict within the community and conflict with authorities outside the community (be that with Jewish authorities or Roman authorities).

When you remember this, you can see this parable as fitting into that purpose.  “It urges people to accept the invitation to the Realm, to accept others who have accepted the invitation to the Realm, and to dress accordingly, that is, to live according to the perspectives and behaviors of the Realm of God.…  When listeners accept the invitation to become part of the community that is part of the movement to the Realm, they make a commitment to live according to the values and purposes of the Realm.  They agree to put their time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources at the service of the Realm.”[2]

The use of a wedding banquet to refer to God’s rule is not unique to the Gospel writers.  Isaiah is one who uses this image.  And it’s an appropriate image.  “Weddings in antiquity were significant social occasions.  In villages, the event could last several days and would involve generous amounts of food, considerable dancing, and other festive qualities.  The [whole] social world of the village was transformed during the time of a wedding.”[3]

And here’s why this parable works for our pledge campaign.  “The invitation to join the Realm is an invitation to turn away from using time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources to serve the values and practices of the old age, and to turn towards God and to use [those resources] … according to the values and practices of the Realm of God.”[4]  Yes, our pledge campaign is leading toward October 22, when we will ask you to make a financial commitment to support the work of the Realm of God we are carrying out through the ministries of our church.  But more than that, this pledge campaign is about “getting caught up in the movement towards the Realm, and in response committing oneself to practice the Realm.  The money for the budget is intended to help the church be a genuine community of the Realm and to make an adequate witness.”[5]

That’s the invitation of this pledge campaign.  I know that, just like in the parable, some people won’t want to come.  Some people make light of the invitation and return to whatever the modern equivalent of their farms and businesses is.  Presumably, their lives will continue in the broken way of the world.

But some will respond to the invitation, including people who think they are not good enough to be invited and are surprised to have a servant come and seek them out.  And we all know that some will respond to the invitation, but won’t invest themselves in the work of the Realm.  I’m glad to say that we don’t through them out, but I do always feel some sense of loss and sometimes even failure, when people who’ve said “yes” to the invitation don’t follow through with a Realm-transformed life.

The reality is that the pledge you choose to make during this campaign is just one piece of a Realm-transformed life.  I’ve been calling this a pledge campaign (and not a stewardship campaign) because stewardship is about much more than giving money.  Stewardship is about being part of the new social and cosmic order that is the Realm of God.  “When we commit to the church, we commit to the Realm, which is committing to the movement for a renewed world.”[6]  Stewardship is really everything you do after you say, “I believe.”

That said, stewardship definitely includes how you use your money.  And not just about how you use your money to support the church.  If you live a life-style that exceeds your income, putting you into debt, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship, and maybe you need some help with that.  I’m not exactly sure where to get that help, but I’m happy to work with you to find it.  If you try to feed a spiritual hunger by buying things, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.  If you’re so good about saving your money that you are stingy with your neighbors, yourself, and God, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.

So, part of the invitation of this pledge campaign is to ask you to look at your income (and maybe even your savings) and decide what you need to do to be even healthier about your stewardship of your money.

There are two more things in today’s gospel lesson that I want to talk about.  The first is about the violence of the king.  There are two ways this violence is cast.  The king sends his troops to destroy the murderers of his slaves.  And the king, once the party has begun, has one of the guests thrown into the outer darkness for not wearing the right attire.

Perhaps I am guilty of looking too closely at the parable right now, but because this so disturbs me, I have to comment.  I can only interpret these lines as hyperbole.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, would not burn down whole cities.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, “would not actively consign people to the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”[7]  Still, I do think that when people choose to refuse the invitation to be part of building the realm of God, they end up building walls between themselves and God.

And I do think that metaphoric dress has consequences.  When we clothe ourselves unethically, disregarding the attitudes and actions that are part of the Realm of God, we create communities of distrust, exploitation, and violence, and that eventually causes many people to weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

The final thing I want to comment on are the lines where the king sends his slaves to get other people to come to the banquet.  Let me remind you of those lines.  “Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

I’m taken by the notion that slaves rounded up everybody to come to the wedding banquet.  I think this is saying that the gospel is for everybody.  I think this is saying that we should be out inviting everybody, not just the people who are in whatever way “like us.”  We should be out inviting people who we think might, in some way, be bad – and then get over our judgmentalism.

Back in May, we adopted a strategic plan for the next two years.  The plan has two goals.  One is to start at least two new hands-on, multi-cultural, intergenerational service project each year for the next two years.  The other is to encourage the faith journeys of all members and visitors by increasing participation in church programs by 10% annually.  I think both of these goals fit in with this image of gathering up people to join in the wedding banquet that is the Realm of God.

And so I want to remind you that when you make your financial pledge to the church later this month, you are supporting this work of invitation.  “For Matthew’s [Jewish community], ministry with Gentiles and with those who do good things and bad things was a significant magnification of their ministry, but one that was essential to their identity and purpose.  To stretch is to be faithful.  To fail to stretch is to be unfaithful.”[8]

My friends, the invitation has gone out.  We have been invited to the wedding banquet and everything is prepared.  Will we come and celebrate?  Will we come ready to be part of the new social order that transforms the world?  And if we will, how will we live that out in all aspects of our lives, in all the ways we are stewards of our resources?

In other words, how will we respond to the invitation?

_______________

[1] Bruce Barkhauer, et. al., Journey to Generosity: The Way of Jesus, published by the Center for Faith and Giving in 2016 and downloaded in 2017, page 85.

[2] Ibid, 85-86.  I have replaced “talent” with “skills, gifts,” and will to that in this sermon because the word “talent” is a unit of money in scripture and it is being used here to refer to skills and gifts.

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid, 87.

[6] Ibid, 89.

[7] Ibid, 94.

[8] Ibid, 92.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 17, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 4:16-20 and Micah 6:1-8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I spent some time last week trying to remember what was going on in the world in 1980 and 1981.  I remember that there was fighting in El Salvador and Nicaragua between rival political groups.  The Soviet Union had invaded and was fighting a war in Afghanistan.  The Iran Hostage Crisis was unfolding through all of 1980, ending as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States in January of ’81.  That was the first presidential election I voted in.

I did a little hunting online to see what else was going on.  Though Israel entered into a peace agreement with Egypt in 1978, in 1980 and ’81, Israel was skirmishing with its neighbors (particularly with Lebanon, and a notable air raid in Iraq).  I forgot that the Iran/Iraq War started in 1980, lasting through that decade.  This was also when the Solidarity movement in Poland started – and was met with Martial Law being declared.  And in 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated, showing how high the cost of peacemaking can actually be.

I’ve been thinking about this because in 1981, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution establishing September 21 as a day devoted to “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.”[1]  The theme for this year’s peace day is “Together for Peace.”

United Church of Christ recognizes the Sunday preceding September 21 as “Just Peace Sunday.”  So today is Just Peace Sunday.  The term, “Just Peace,” goes back in the United Church of Christ to 1985.  That is the year when the 15th General Synod of the UCC adopted the “Just Peace pronouncement.”  This pronouncement “articulated for the first time a UCC position on war and peace that is distinct from other historic Christian approaches, namely the theories and practices of Crusade, Pacifism, and Just War.”[2]

While it is unlikely that the early church was officially pacifist, a rejection of violence runs deep in Christian theology of the first four centuries.  Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this pacifist stream seems to go largely underground.  By the eleventh century, Christianity had become a Eurocentric and warrior religion, launching crusades to conquer the “Holy Lands.”

Thomas Aquinas

Around the same time the Crusades ended, Thomas Aquinas laid out the beginnings of what became the Just War doctrine or Just War theory.  It has two parts, two sets of criteria.  The first establishes the right to go to war; the second establishes right conduct within a war.  This doctrine has held sway in the West for almost a thousand years, influencing everything from the Geneva Conventions to recent Presidents’ justifications of going to war.

Menno Simons

But the Just War doctrine is not the only Christian response to war.  By the sixteenth century, with the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist stream again surfaced.  It’s most famous advocate from that time is probably Menno Simons.  He held that one could either follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, or one could follow the Prince of Strife.  Several denominations birthed out of the Reformation followed this path, and they are often known as “peace churches.”  They include the Church of the Brethren, the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish.

In 1981, the same year that the United Nations established the International Day of Peace, a youth delegate to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod 13 brought a resolution calling on the UCC to become a “peace church.”  This resolution would have led the UCC to identify with the pacifist tradition in Christianity, rather than the Just War tradition.  Over the next four years, as the denomination wrestled with this call, a new theory was born.  Rather than focusing on what makes a war just, it focused on what makes a peace just.  And in 1985, the UCC affirmed a pronouncement “Affirming the United Church of Christ to be a Just Peace Church,” the first Christian denomination to do so.

“Just Peace was defined in the pronouncement as the ‘interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence’ and was grounded … in the biblical concerts of covenant and shalom.  Just Peace offer[s] a holistic view of working at the intersection of peace and justice, acknowledging the connections between violence and systemic issues like environmental degradation, racism, economic disparity, homophobia, and the loss of civil and human rights.…  [T]he pronouncement offer[s] with prophetic conviction the vision that ‘war can and must be eliminated’ and the shared hope that ‘peace is possible.’”[3]

Just as in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches can officially become “Open and Affirming Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to welcome LGBTQ+ people, and just as in the Disciples of Christ, churches can officially become “Green Chalice Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to decrease the church’s environmental impact, the UCC recognizes individual churches as “Just Peace congregations” when they participate in certain study and by take certain actions.  We could do this.  We could become a Just Peace congregation.

But you may ask, “Why?  Why would we want to become a Just Peace congregation?”  To be honest, we might not.  If we actually engage the discussion, if we actually do the study and let it call us to action, we might not like where it takes us.  Corey Fields writes, “[P]eople get trolled, families split apart, and pastors get fired when you start asking how we can take Jesus seriously.  Jesus is fine as a name, but if you create an encounter between Jesus and the personal lives or politics of Christians, you might have trouble.

“You can read Jesus’ words declaring blessed the ‘peacemakers,’ ‘the meek,’ and ‘the merciful’ (Matt. 5:3-10), and you might get nods of approval, but if you start talking about actually being merciful towards the desperate or peaceful towards the violent, you might be called foolish. …

“You can quote Jesus’ approach to our material possessions as ‘treasures on earth where moths and vermin destroy’ (Matt. 6:19-20), or tell the story of the rich man being told to sell all he has (Mark 10:17-22).  You can get a wink and a smile as you read Jesus saying that it’s ‘easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle’ (Luke 18:25).  But start talking about actual economic equity, and you might be called a communist.

“Surrounded by glimmering Christmas lights and angelic choruses, we read the story of a young Jesus’ family having to flee a violent ruler (Matt. 2:13-18).  But bring up that this made Jesus’ family refugees and ask how this should inform our approach to the millions in similar situations today, and you might be told to get your politics out of church.

“You can read the passage where Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (Luke 4:18-19) [that’s today’s gospel lesson], saying that fulfilled in Him is God’s mission to ‘proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  You’re fine as long as you understand these words in a spiritualized, abstract way ([even though] Isaiah didn’t).  But beware if you start talking about how to seek actual freedom and redemption for the imprisoned, or if you start trying to define who is actually ‘oppressed’ and how to actually set them free.  (And have you ever looked into what ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ refers to?)”[4]

Too often we want, as white author Wilbur Rees suggests, only $3 worth of God:[5]

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

But if we engage with a Just Peace study as part of determining if we want to become a Just Peace congregation, but may end up with a lot more than $3 worth of God.  We may end up with enough to transform our lives.

Too often people just jump to verse 8 when they read Micah 6:1-8.  When you do that, you miss the set up.  It’s a lawsuit.  Israel has been served with papers by none other than Yahweh.  It’s time for Israel to plead their case.  The case against Israel is that they have failed to keep covenant with God.  God, on the other hand, has kept covenant with Israel.  So how are they going to respond?

Israel’s response is to get in deep with the sacrificial Temple system.  Perhaps burnt offerings of calves a year old would be an appropriate act of contrition.  Or maybe God deserves more: thousands of rams.  Or tens of thousands of rivers of oil.  Or maybe even our firstborn.  Maybe we need to offer up our children on the altar of sacrifice as we seem to do so easily on the altar of war.

Only, that’s not what God wants.  God has shown us mortals what is good and what God requires:  That we do justice, that we love kindness, and that we walk humbly with God.

If Niles Discovery Church were to be served with papers, if God were to bring a case before the mountains and the foundations of the earth against us, what would the charge be?  That we have only bought $3 worth of God when God wants to give us everything?  That, while we are doing a good job at downstream social justice work, we have failed to do enough upstream social justice work?  That we are great at pulling the children out of the river and caring for them, but we have failed to go upstream and find out why the children keep ending up in the river in the first place?

“Micah 6:8 teaches us ‘to do justice.  To love mercy.  And to walk humbly with your God’ – these are active, not passive, pursuits.  We are enjoined to seek and create the change that our world so desperately needs.

“For Americans [who are Christians], this means the protection and promotion of voting rights; it means an honest reckoning with the school-to-prison pipeline and a reversal of the choices that have led to unprecedented mass incarceration; it means deconstructing the structural inequities that create educational disadvantages, early mortality, and generational poverty.”[6]  It means addressing the climate crisis with action that is as radical as ending slavery was in the 19th century.

As our anthem sang out, God has work for us to do.

Amen.

[1] “About,” U.N. International Day of Peace, http://internationaldayofpeace.org/about/ (accessed 16 September 2017).

[2] United Church of Christ, Just Peace Church Handbook (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2015), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corey Fields, “Be careful how close you let Jesus get to real life,” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/careful-close-let-jesus-get-real-life/#.Wb3UK63MyH0 (posted 30 August 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

[5] Quoted several places online, including Ibid.

[6] Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Reverend and rabbi: Removing symbols of racism isn’t enough, we need policy action,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/09/05/reverend-and-rabbi-removing-symbols-of-racism-isnt-enough-we-need-policy-action/?utm_term=.26ae01efdc21 (posted 5 September 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

[Updated: 3 Sept. 2o17]

In the final days of August, the self-titled “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” released their “Nashville Statement,” reiterating their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, condemning lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and denying the reality of gender variance beyond the male/female binary. This “manifesto” is composed of 14 beliefs, rejects the idea that otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree on gay, lesbian and transgender issues. The leaders refer to this mentality as “moral indifference.”

Author, historian, and theologian Diana Butler Bass tweeted a thread on some history behind the Nashville Statement. I encourage you to read the whole thing. She points out that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was stated in 1987 by men in response to the formation of two women’s organizations within Evangelical Christianity that embraced to one degree or another equality. She tweets, “For the last 30 years, feminism and LBGT issues have roiled in evangelical circles w/o [without] a clear consensus on theology. But opposition to one has generally resulted in opposition to the other.  For the biblical hermeneutic [the lens through which one views scripture when doing theology] behind both is the same.” This biblical hermeneutic that sees women and LGBTQ+ people as second class has become the predominant one within Evangelical Christianity.

I have read some very strongly worded renunciations of the “Nashville Statement. I particularly like John Pavlovitz’s somewhat snarky “translation” of the Nashville Statement in which he removes “the sanctified verbiage.”

One comment really struck me was posted on Facebook by Travis Ables and quoted by my Facebook friend Mike Morrell. It says in part, “Fascinating that in the time we’re living in, evangelical theologians chose to double down on bigotry in a statement no one was asking for. They could have addressed Trumpism, racism, and fascism. They could have shelved their agenda and released a call to action for victims of natural disasters. They could have issued a soul-searching plea to reexamine the idolatry of nationalism in the white church. They could have issued anathemas against the apostate religious leaders who still stand in support of the president after Charlottesville. In fact, addressing these issues would have been the only way to say something with any integrity or meaning, a chance to show that the church might still give a damn about the agonies our country is going through.”

The simple fact of the matter is that the Nashville Statement is bad theology. As Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie M. Townes put it, “The Nashville Statement skips past the depth of God’s expansive love and cloaks itself in an arrogant and fearful Christianity that insists that this is the will of God. Not true. Not prophetic. Not biblical.” If you’re interested in a deconstruction of the Nashville Statement pointing out it’s bad theology, I refer you to this post by Chuck McKnight.

In response, several groups have issued statements with better theology and that lift up God’s radically inclusive love. Christians United has issued a statement using the same format at the “Nashville Statement” of affirmations and denials that I have signed. While I’m not fully comfortable with the traditional notion of the “fallenness of humanity,” that seems a minor quibble when statements such as this need vast numbers of Christians signing them. The Disciples LGBTQ+ Alliance also supports the Christians United statement.

Another statement I’ve signed is the “Connecticut Statement.” It uses the same format and I am much more comfortable with its theology.

So, what can you do? Well, if you’re a Christian, here are just a couple options:

  • Sign the United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming Coalition’s petition, “The ‘Nashville Statement’ Is an Affront to Our Values as Christians.”
  • Sign onto the Christians United statement.
  • Sign onto the Connecticut Statement.
  • And most importantly, post something in your social media networks that shows your support as a Christian of LGBTQ+ people. Do this regularly.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 20, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
On this Sunday, we celebrated Pastor Jeff’s 30th anniversary of ordained ministry.
Scriptures:  Psalm 46 and Luke 15:11-32
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a hymn written by Martin Luther about 500 years ago.  He wrote the lyrics in German, of course, so we sang a translation.  The original music was probably a pop song in his day, a tune he might have picked up in a tavern being sung by the crowds, a tune he repurposed for his hymn.  The original tune swung a bit more and wasn’t so squared off to sound so pomp and circumstance-y.  Still, it’s a good hymn, one that I’ve liked since I was a teenager, one that was in the running for my ordination service thirty years ago.

Martin Luther

It’s based on, rather freely, on Psalm 46.  I don’t know my Luther well enough to know why he liked this Psalm and decided to write a hymn based on it.  I do know why I like this Psalm.

Just this week, I read two different ways of analyzing the Psalm based on its form.  I won’t take you down the road of the first of these, though this is the kind of stuff theology nerds like me geek out on.  This analysis points to two points (and yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence).  The first point is the song’s refrain, that God is our refuge – the song starts with and concludes with this, and it is an anchor point in middle of the song.  The second point, the central points of the song’s two sections (as this particular analysis divides the song):  God is in the midst of the city; it will not be moved; and  be still and know that I am God.  I would summarize these two points as, “God is God and you’re not.”

The second form analysis of the Psalm sees three stanzas, each three verses long.  The first stanza “juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar.”[1]  Rolf Jacobson says, “The image of ‘earth’ shaking and ‘sea’ roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order.  This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience.  The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature.  Thus, the ‘law’ that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator.”[2]

I disagree with his assessment that creation is in a “fallen condition.”  Yes, earthquakes and floods and tsunamis happen.  Yes, disease and disability strike not just humans, but other species as well.  Yes, we are all going to die.  But I don’t see these as signs of any “fallen condition” of creation.  Rather, I see them as part of the ongoing creative energy of the universe.  This stanza’s point is that because God is a present help in trouble, even natural disaster, we do not need to be engulfed with existential angst.

Stanza two moves from nature being in an uproar to the nations being in an uproar.  I’m not reading the political into the Psalm.  The Psalm itself gets political.  I don’t know what the political threat to Israel was when this Psalm was written – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – and it doesn’t really matter now.  What’s important now is the witness of the Psalm – that when the nations are in an uproar, when kingdoms totter, God is still God.  And the sun will come up tomorrow.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Stanza three points to the power and purpose of God – and our response.  God is working out the kin-dom in our midst.  God is making wars to cease, breaking the bow and shattering the spear.  And our response – to be still.  Be still and know that God is God (and that you and I and principalities and powers of our age are not God).  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Phyllis Tickle

I’ve preached before about how I think we are in the midst of a great church rummage sale (and, no, I’m not talking about the flea market happening next weekend).  Though she points to the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer for the genesis of the idea, Phyllis Tickle articulated the theory most clearly for me – “that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”[3]  There really wasn’t a church for the first rummage sale, 2,000 years ago.  Tickle called it “The Great Transformation” and it took place when a man was recognized by his disciples as “Emmanuel, God With Us.”  Five hundred years later, the Roman Empire collapsed and the church entered an era of preservation with the advent of the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories.  Five hundred years later, the church split in “The Great Schism,” creating the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Five hundred years after that, “The Great Reformation” shook up the church once again.  And five hundred years after that … is today.

Tickle said that in each of these times, the church was wrestling with one key question:  What is authoritative?  And in each of these great rummage sales, a new authority emerges.  Obviously, for The Great Transformation, Jesus was the new authority.  I couldn’t find my copy of her book The Great Emergence this week, and I don’t remember what the new authority was that emerged from the second rummage sale, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with monasticism.  At the Great Schism, the new authority was the bishop of Rome, or the Pope, as he’s typically known.  At the Great Reformation, the new authority was scripture.

Tickle thought that the Spirit is likely going to be the new authority in whatever this new church that’s emerging will turn out to be.  I wonder if it might be Nature.  Or some combination of Spirit and Nature.

In any event, I had no idea that I would be pastoring in the midst of a rummage sale when I answered the call to become an ordained minister.  When God’s call got through (I realize in retrospect that God had been calling my whole life, but there was too much static on the line) in 1982, we were just beginning to experience the end of Christendom.  I had no idea it was happening.  I grew up in a time when the default assumption in American society was “Christian.”  In fact, the default assumption was “Mainline Protestant.”  Yes, there were Catholics and Jews around, but the default assumption was Mainline Protestant.  All the members of the Supreme Court were either Mainline Protestants or Jews.  All the Presidents except for Kennedy were Protestants, and almost all of them Mainline Protestants.  School vacation schedules considered the church calendar as they were being designed.

And all that has disappeared during my time in ordained ministry.  This shift, along with the explosive growth of computer technology and post-modernity taking root, have contributed energy to the great church rummage sale we’re experiencing now.  And one of the reasons I’m really glad to be fulfilling my call to ordained ministry here at Niles Discovery Church is that you are a church that is willing to try new things.

If you look at each of the great rummage sales the church has had in the past 2,000 years, while something new always emerged from it, whatever used to be also remained – though smaller, often healthier because new things made the old thing into some self-examination.  I don’t know if Niles Discovery Church will emerge as part of whatever the new things is or if we will be part of the stronger, smaller, faithful continuation of Progressive Christianity.  But I do know that we will be faithful as we seek to fulfill our call as part of the body of Christ.

“30 Years and Counting,” I titled this sermon.  Perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but it you’d permit a bit of self-indulgence.  This is the fifth ministry setting I’ve had in those thirty years.  The first three were completed in under ten years.  Short ministries or long, I always learned things in each setting.

Working as a chaplain at the juvenile hall, I learned about the urgency of now and the difference I could make in a moment.  I also learned that I have to be willing to let go of long-term results.  I could plant seeds, but I would never know if they would produce fruit.  I typically didn’t even know if they would take root.  So I learned to be faithful to my calling and to leave the results to God.

At the church in Spokane where I served as Associate Pastor and then Interim Pastor, I learned how important congregational buy-in is on projects.  The bigger the project, the more important getting this buy-in is.  And that typically means slowing down so people can catch up to the leaders.

I learned about the importance of integrity when I served the church in Richland, Washington, as an Interim Pastor.

And at the church in Carnation, Washington, where I served as pastor for a decade, I learned that my leadership doesn’t matter if I’m leading in a direction the church doesn’t want to go.  I also learned how important it is for the members of a church to nurture their friendships and to create a safe space for each other.

And here in Fremont, where I’ve served for a dozen years (at Niles Congregational Church and at Niles Discovery Church, as the first merged into the second), I’ve learned how important it is for a church and a pastor to be willing to risk in order to stay faithful.  That’s where I think we’re going in the years ahead.  I think we’re going to keep stepping into risky ministries in order to stay faithful.

I picked the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be read at my ordination because it answers a profound question.  What must we do to live in the kin-dom of God?  Love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.  It really is that simple.  And it really is that risky.

Loving that radically will mean crossing boundaries – like the Samaritan crossed when he saved a Jew.  Loving that radically will mean inviting people we don’t know (like an innkeeper, say) to help us heal the brokenness in the world.  Loving that radically will mean handing over what we have to others so that all might experience wholeness and justice.

bell hooks once said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.  The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”[4]

I think that is why Jesus calls us to love, to take the risks of love.  For loving builds the kin-dom of God.  And here’s a bit of good news.  We can take those risks – though the mountains should shake in the heart of the sea, though the nations are in an uproar – we can take the risks to love.  For the Lord of hosts is with us.  God is in the midst of the city.

Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1110 (accesses 19 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2008/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 19 August 2017).

[4] bell hooks, quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155129096928500 (posted and accessed 26 July 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/news_charlottesville_state_of_emergency_ends_unite_the_right_rally_08122017 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-charlottesville-white-nationalists-rally-20170812-story.html (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/car-hits-crowd-protesters-white-nationalist-rally-virginia/story (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10154669492056496 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/recognizing-gods-presence-0 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8345/how-god-answers-the-worst-prayer-in-the-bible (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble?parent=51401 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-10-a-something-more/ (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

SaveSave

Categories

Jeff’s Twitter Feed

Archives

Blog Stats

  • 23,822 hits