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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

[ii] Ibid.

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

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let you hearts and your eyes be opened.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

Change.

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

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

Emperor Constantine

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

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

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

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

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

The current members of the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Joseph of Arimathea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grace of Jesus be with you always.

__________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.K. Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, march 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 13:1-17 and Matthew 18:21-22
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There were times in my childhood when I was enough taller than the other kids in my neighborhood that it made a difference. This was especially true when we played hide and seek or kick the can. I was tall enough to be able to jump up and grab a branch in the pine by the Stuarts’ barn and pull my up into the tree and climb until I was above the roofs of the 19th century colonials at that end of the street.

This was a great hiding place and a horrible hiding place. It was a great hiding place because no one could find me. It was a horrible hiding place because no one could find me. If you’ve ever played hide and seek with a four-year-old, you know that the only thing they like more than hiding is being found.

I think that’s true of all of us. We spend lots of time and energy hiding. We’ve done it since adolescence or earlier. We create façades to hide behind, masks to present an acceptable self to the world. All the while, our deepest desire is to be found, for someone to look behind the façade, to lift up the mask and find us. We long to be fully known.

It is also one of our deepest fears. It is a fear because there is a part of us that thinks if people really knew us, they would reject us. We don’t just long to be found and known. We long to be found and known and accepted.

I suspect the main reason we form communities is biological. Our species needed clans and tribes to survive. So, natural selection formed us into a species that seeks community. Still, there is another reason, I think, that we seek community: our desire to be found, to be fully known, and still to belong.

I know there are friends, and then there are friends. You know what I mean? There are the people you connect with and then here are the people you really connect with. There are the people you know you can call if it’s before 9:00 in the evening and then there are the people you know you can call in the middle of the night and who know they can call you in the middle of the night – no matter what.

I think it’s like that with community. The deeper the sense of community, the more deeply we reveal who we really are. The deeper the sense of community, the more we bring out the best and the worst to our relationships with each other. The deeper the sense of community, the deeper our sense of belonging, and, therefore, the more vulnerable we are to deep wounding.

Communities that gather around Jesus have a hope that other communities don’t. We have a model in Jesus. We have a promise from Jesus that his revolutionary way of love can transform our relationships at every level. As Mark Scandrette points out, “The vision of belonging that Jesus embodied and taught calls us to a love that is far more ruthless and tender than seems humanly possible. It is a kind of love that can empower you to treat your worst enemy as your dearest friend and to keep hanging on, forgiving, believing and hoping against hope for love to win. An apprentice of Jesus learns to love as God loves.”[1]

We see how Jesus embodied and taught this in our reading from John’s gospel. Jesus is with his disciples, sharing a meal. John tells us that Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. He knows that the other disciple will soon deny him and abandon him. And Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and puts a towel around his waist. Their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord is now dressed as a servant, a slave. And he kneels and washes their feet.

Peter (Rocky) resists. You’re doing it wrong Jesus. You shouldn’t wash my feet. Okay, okay, but if you wash my feet, then wash all of me; make me clean. I’m so grateful Peter was a disciple because, listening to the man himself kneeling at his feet, Peter still doesn’t get it. If Jesus can call him a disciple, than maybe Jesus will call me a disciple, too.

What do you think it was like for the disciples to have their rabbi wash their feet? What do you think it was like for Judas to have Jesus wash his feet? What do you think it was like for Jesus to kneel at his disciples’ feet and wash them? Especially Judas’ feet – what was it like for Jesus to take the towel from his waist and dry Judas’ toes?

The gospel writer says that this was an act of love. Jesus had loved his disciples, and here, right up to the end, he was loving them still. And so he washed their feet. One of the things that amazes me about Jesus is his ability to love everyone. Loving the people who loved him – that was easy. But loving the people who hated him? Loving the Romans who were going to kill him? Loving a trusted friend, part of his truly intimate community, who was planning to betray him – perhaps that’s the most amazing of all.

Betrayal cuts deeply, hurts deeply. I’ve experienced hurts in my life. People have done things that hurt me physically, emotionally, even spiritually, but I’ve healed from those hurts. However, when I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m still carrying one wounding I haven’t fully forgiven. A close and trusted friend betrayed me.

That’s probably not fair. My friend made a series of choices that she thought were for the best and I experienced them as betrayal. And I still hurt from that. And I’m still angry at her. Because I’m withholding forgiveness. And there’s no way she and I can return to a sense of community with her until I forgive. It amazes me that Jesus could wash Judas’ feet. He must have forgiven him even before he was betrayed.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a “brother” who sins against him. The word, “brother” is translated “member of the church” in the NRSV, and not just to use gender-neutral language. The Greek word can mean both a male sibling and a member of a believing community. In context, Peter isn’t just asking about forgiving anyone who sins against him and he’s not asking about forgiving his brother Andrew in particular. Peter is asking about forgiving a member of the community. Peter thinks that forgiving as many as seven times shows patience and love.

But Jesus’ response is to forgive seventy-seven times. In other words, don’t bother counting: forgive. If you want to keep the community together, you’ve got to forgive.

I think it’s important to remember what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not denying our hurt. It’s not resigned martyrdom. It’s not putting another person “on probation.” It’s not excusing an unjust behavior. It’s not forgetting. Forgiveness is – well, consider this definition: Forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and our desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned.

Consider the consequences of this understanding of forgiveness.[2] Forgiveness means giving up the right to retaliate. It means being willing to allow something that happened to have happened the way it actually happened. It means that it is possible to forgive anything, that forgiveness is a matter of the will, and that we always have that option. It also means that forgiveness is never dependent on what the other person does or does not do. It is always under our control.

“Anger has been called a judicial emotion – a reaction to injustice.… [W]hen we experience any form of injustice, most of us react with a clenched fist, a closed heart, and a sense of resentment. These reactions are a natural effort to defend ourselves emotionally against further injury. And it works, in the short run. Like a scab, it protects the tender wound from infection, but if the scab stays too long, the wound never heals.”[3] Forgiveness is how we do the healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in our heart.”[4] Pastor Brenda shared another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that speaks to how we find that compassion and do the forgiving. “Someone who is angry [and in that anger hurts you] is someone who doesn’t know how to handle their suffering. They are the first victim of their suffering, and you are actually the second victim. Once we can see this, compassion is born in our heart and [your responsive] anger evaporates. We don’t want to punish them any more, but instead we want to say something or do something to help them suffer less.”

The themes for our Lenten sermon series have come out of various lines from the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s line also speaks to forgiveness. In this church, we typically pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A better translation is actually, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[5] “Have forgiven” – an assumption that we have already forgiven before we approach God seeking forgiveness. Suddenly, in order to be forgiven by God, we need to forgive others first.

On the surface, I’ve got to tell you, it sure make God seem kind of snotty to me. But consider this: “If we remain unwilling to forgive those who wound us, how can God set us free from the knot of a twisted relationship? God wants more than anything to free us … to give us a way out of our impenetrable morass of sin. But if we refuse to pass the gift of grace along to those in our debt, we prevent the grace of God’s forgiveness from entering our own lives fully.… [I]t is not that God, in ornery fashion, is bent on punishing our hard hearts. It is simply that an unforgiving heart of itself blocks the mystery of divine grace. It cannot freely receive what God freely gives.”[6] So don’t forgive just seven times, but seventy-seven times, for when done authentically and in its own time, forgiveness makes the future possible.

Remember, I said that forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. On the surface, that seems to be about the other person, but it’s also equally about us. When I forgive, I’m choosing to let go of my righteous anger and my need for revenge and judgment. That’s why I can forgive someone without talking to them. That’s why I can forgive someone who is dead. Because forgiveness is a conscious choice of letting go.

There’s an old story[7] about a father and son who had a major fight. The son ran away, and after a time, when the father cooled down, he set off to find his son. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a newspaper (I said it’s an old story). The ad read: “Dear John, meet me in front of the fountain in the park at the center of town at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.”

On Saturday 300 men named John stood around the fountain, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

Pastor Brenda and I have been giving you homework during this sermon series. Here’s this week’s assignment. Identify a place in your life where community is suffering because of a hurt or an anger you are holding on to and take at least one concrete step toward the conscious choice of forgiveness, the conscious choice of letting go, so a future is possible.

Amen.

[1] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 151.

[2] These consequences were shared with me years ago by a colleague who told me they were from For Everything There Is a Season © 1988 by Upper Room Books; I don’t have more information than that.

[3] Dan Gottlieb, “Forgiveness is hard but it lets you heal,” Inside Out, quoted by Mark T. English years ago in note #5126 in the ecunet.org meeting “Bottom Drawer.”

[4] “Compassion, the antidote,” Sojourners, Vol. 36, No. 2 (February 2007): 30.

[5] This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the passage in Matthew’s gospel.

[6] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, VII, 2 (March/April 1992), 23.

[7] I’ve heard or read a version of this story many times over the years. I have no idea what the original source of the story is.

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on Georgia’s death row, was postponed again Monday night. In 1998, Gissendaner was convicted of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband. Her lover committed the actual murder and, agreeing to testify against Gissendaner, received a life sentence. Gissendaner received a death sentence for her part in the conspiracy.

During her years in prison, Gissendaner’s life has been transformed. She has attended and graduated from an in-prison seminary program. Other inmates say that she has become a spiritual counselor for them.

As Gissendaner’s appeals ran out, her case garnered the attention of many people in the Christian community. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, signed petitions calling for her sentence to be commuted. Clemency was denied a week or two ago and Gissendaner’s execution approached. Twice, she has come within hours of being executed, most recently on March 2 because the single drug that Georgia planned to use to execute her was “cloudy.”

This case raises questions about whether or not reform is possible for murderers, and therefore if executing them denies society the benefit of a reformed person.  It raises questions about executing someone who has changed and if we would still be executing the person who committed the crime.  It raises questions about the cruelty of our execution process, bringing someone so close to execution and then delaying it.  And finally, as it pointed out in this blog post, it raises questions about white privilege and Christian privilege.

You can read more about her case and the decision to postpone her execution at http://www.11alive.com/story/news/local/2015/03/02/kelly-gissendaner-execution/24255189/ and http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/lethal-injection/kelly-gissendaner-recorded-last-message-execution-was-postponed-n318751.

You can read more about the Christian Community’s efforts to get her sentence commuted at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/march-web-only/let-kelly-gissendaner-live.html and http://www.gwinnettdailypost.com/news/2015/mar/01/faith-leaders-friends-family-gather-for-vigil-in/,

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

OurFather_white_part2Welcome to part 2 of our five-part sermon series focusing on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we focused on identity. Today, we focus on purpose. This theme comes out of the line, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Though this line is directed to God and could be heard and said as a request for God to act, I hear it as a call to action. It is a statement of desire – for the establishment of the realm of justice and peace and enough and love here on earth. If I thought it was all up to God to make happen, I’d pray for it differently: “Establish your kin-dom here and now” (and maybe I’d add “please”). But as a statement of hope and desire, I hear it calling me to action, to be about the work of establishing that kin-dom.

There are plenty of scriptures one could look to to help understand one’s purpose. We heard two today and I can think of plenty more. There’s Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission we heard last week. There’s the passage from Isaiah that Luke tells us Jesus read when he first preached. There’s the hymn Luke tells us Mary sang during her pregnancy. There’s a passage from Matthew called “the Great Commission.” There’s a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the Great Commandments. And that’s a list I came up with in a matter of minutes, so I’m sure there are more. But let’s take a few minutes to look at a few that I just mentioned. We’ll start with the scriptures we heard today.

Our Micah reading is the beginning of the summation of the book. In the previous five chapters, Micah has been prophesying the destruction of Judah and Samaria as a punishment for the really lousy job the leaders have been doing. They have been unjust. They have followed false prophets. It’s a real mess. Micah also offers a word of hope, that a righteous remnant will survive and, one day, Jerusalem will be restored.

Micah 6 starts off with a summons – a legal summons to court. God, the prosecutor and judge, is going to make a case against the people. But when God starts talking, God doesn’t accuse; God pleads with the people: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?” Then God goes on to list all the ways God has saved the people, from the Exodus on up to today. God is not likely to get a conviction. But that isn’t what God is after.

The people respond: “With what shall I come before Yahweh and bow myself before God on high?” And they list all these offerings – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, their firstborn children – they could bring.

And Micah reminds them of what God really wants. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There’s the beginnings of a mission statement. There’s a foundation for a purpose in life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about the challenges and hopes of living as disciples of Jesus. He writes about having confidence in his walk with Jesus, knowing that he will (as we all will) eventually “appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” That is his motivation to persuade people to follow Jesus. And we get to today’s reading, where Paul says that being “in Christ” makes one a “new creation.” I hear this as transformation, that following Jesus changes who we are.

Paul would say that the change (at least that part of the change) is that we are reconciled with God. In fact, Paul says reconciliation was the big thing God was doing in Christ. And he goes on to say that this ministry of reconciliation is now ours. And that is another way for Christians to understand their purpose.

Micah says that our purpose is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Paul says our purpose is about bringing people into right relationship with God (with some part of that being a concern about the life that’s after this one). So, is our purpose more concerned about this world or the next one? Maybe we should look at what Jesus had to say. Let’s look at two passages from the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew 22, Jesus is questioned by a lawyer. What’s the greatest commandment? Matthew presents this questioning as a orthodoxy test. For some reason, the questioners think Jesus won’t tow the party line. Jesus answers by reciting the beginning of the Shema, the prayer Jews say at the beginning and end of each day. Love God, he tells them, with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Then Jesus says there’s a second commandment that is also important: to love your neighbor as yourself.

There are plenty of Christians who hear in this Great Commandment their purpose: to help people grow in their love of God, neighbor, and self.

Just six chapters later, but after some very important events, Matthew quotes Jesus saying something else that some Christians look to to find their purpose. The important things that happen between Matthew 22 and 28 are an arrest, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. So, chapter 28 is the end of Matthew’s gospel, and, in fact, this is how Matthew ends that final chapter. The resurrected Christ is speaking to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This is called the Great Commission, and plenty of Christians hear a mandate to recruit, to make disciples, to get people to change whatever it is that they believe and start believing in Jesus.

Great Commandment Christians and Great Commission Christians see their purpose very differently. Just as Micah seems more interested in the here and now than Paul, Great Commandment Christians are more interested in the here and now than Great Commission Christians. This can cause real rifts.

The church where I did my internship went through a split in the months before I got there. The split was over power, as church conflicts almost always are. The groups that were in competition for power aligned themselves into groups that I would now recognize as the Commission Camp and the Commandment Camp. And when one group grabbed leadership and power, the other group left. What I find ironic in all this is that neither groups took seriously the mission of the church that Paul identifies, the ministry of reconciliation.

I realize that all of this has been very theoretical – biblical, yes, but theoretical – and you might be wondering, “So what?” Consider this.

When I was a kid, an advertising campaign focused (if you’ll pardon the pun) on capturing your life’s “Kodak moments.” Some of you will remember it. After all, “Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It commanded an 89 percent market share of photographic film sales in the United States.”[1] In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. What happened?

On the surface, one could say that Kodak was a “casualty in the wake of digital photography – a technology that Kodak invented. That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975. He later said, ‘But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, “That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it.”’ And the company entered into decades of agonizing decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing digital revolution.”[2] In other words, they didn’t keep pace with changing culture, particularly the digital revolution.

Kodak also feared losing what they had. They had this huge market share in the film market and they were afraid that if digital worked, they’d lose their lucrative film sales. Oops. Others pursued digital photography and Kodak lost their film business anyway.

I think the real issue was that Kodak lost track of their mission. They lost track of their purpose. Kodak thought they were in the film business. They weren’t. Maybe they were in the imaging business. But I think more accurately, they were in the memory keeping business. That’s what their “Kodak moment” campaign was all about. They told people not to miss capturing their important memories.

The exact same thing can happen to a congregation and to an individual Christian. Ben Guess, an Executive Minister in the United Church of Christ, shared a story this week about a church he once served. A member wanted to enlist the whole congregation in selling pre-paid phone cards in order to raise money for the church. Ben describes how it would work this way:

“A certain percentage of each card sold would come back to the church. ‘Ten percent,’ implying a tithe, so the whole transaction would be very ‘biblical.’ Another percentage, of course, would go to her, and to me and others, too, if we would get in on the ground floor. She was just sure this pyramiding scheme would provide the church with all the cash it would ever need and, on top of that, we would all be getting very rich.

“To her great dismay, I told her I was not interested. Because, apart from the fuzzy math and the serious ethical considerations – not to mention the obvious IRS investigation she would be inviting upon us – it was also a complete distraction from the core mission of the church,… Anything that takes our attention wholesale away from that focus is a hindrance, not a help, to the church and its people.”[3]

Now, I skipped over part of a sentence in Ben’s email. Ben says what he thinks the core mission of the church is. I skipped it because, as Ben goes on to say, “Sometimes collectively as the church, not just in our personal lives, we need to stop and clarify the purpose behind what we’re doing.”[4] I just think this work should be done free from preconceived notions of what the answer is.

The work is important because it keeps us focused. Ben offers an interesting comparison: “Just as distracted driving can lead us into a ditch, or much worse, distracted discipleship can lead us into dangerous territory, too. We can become so busy and preoccupied with saving the institution of the church that what it’s supposed to be about becomes almost impossible for us, much less outsiders, to distinguish. It’s why the prayer of the church has always been ‘Give us ears to hear, and eyes to see,’ because without that clarity in mission – why, and for what purpose we exist – sure enough, we will find ourselves listening for and looking after the wrong things.”[5]

We, as a community, are about to make a shift. In two weeks (provided there aren’t any unforeseen roadblocks), we will begin our life together in a new facility. I know there is a shorthand that gets used to refer to these sorts of buildings. They get called “the church” even though they’re only a building. The church, as we know, is the people, the gathered community. The building cannot carry out the mission of the church; only the people can do that. So I’ve been toying around with other words for the building. My old New England Congregationalist roots want to call it “the Meeting House.”[6] Lately, however, I’ve been enjoying calling it our “worship and mission center.”

While the building can’t carry out the church’s mission, it is the facility out of which we will do the church’s mission. So it’s important for us to consider what that mission is. In the most general terms, are we a Great Commission or a Great Commandment church? I don’t think it will take us long to determine that. And once we know that, how specifically are we going to carry out that mission?

That’s our homework as a community.

I mentioned last week that you get individual homework assignments with this sermon series, too. Here’s your assignment – in three parts:

  1. Identify a scripture you look to to help you understand your purpose.
  2. Make a list of ways you are carrying out your purpose.
  3. Engage in some practice this week to help you reflect on and more deeply understand your purpose.

Undertaking this assignment will, I think, help you feel like you are living more authentically as a disciple of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] Thom Schultz, “The Church’s Frightful Kodak Moment,” Holy Soup, http://holysoup.com/2014/01/15/the-churchs-frightful-kodak-moment/ (posted 15 January 2014; accessed most recently on 28 February 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Bennett Guess, “Give It Up, Church,” Stillspeaking Weekly email from the United Church of Christ (dated 25 February 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In colonial Massachusetts, each town had a Meeting House in the center of town. On Sundays, it was where the church met. And it was where civic assemblies were held – Town Meeting for governance or other gatherings. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_meeting_house for more information.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:9-15 and Romans 8:14-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

More years ago than I care to add up, a professor asked the members of our class to introduce ourselves. The class was an introduction to pastoral counseling in which we would be sharing quite personally, so it was important that we start right off getting to know each other. The exercise took most of that first class. We were asked to say something real about who we were, to start the process of taking the risk of intimacy and vulnerability.

What would you say that is real and vulnerable about who you are?

One of the things that happened in the introductions – we came back to this when we were discussing gender differences – was that the men in the class tended to speak about who they are in terms of what they did while the women tended to speak about who they are in terms of their relationships.

So Frank would say, I’m in my second year of the MDiv program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. This is my second career. I used to work at Pacific Bell as a technician. My favorite summer activity is white water rafting.

And Ellen would say, I’m also in my second year, but I’m at Pacific School of Religion. I’m recently divorced and have three kids, all teenagers, who live with their father while I’m in seminary. It’s clear to me that pastoral care and counseling will be an important part of my ministry because I’ve always been the person my friends come to to commiserate.

This was an interesting difference to notice, but I wonder if any of us really introduced ourselves. Who are we really? Are we what we do? Are we who we’re related to? Or are we something else?

Who are you? And how is your answer to that question similar to and different from who God sees you to be?

The traditional gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. You may have noticed that Mark’s version of this event is much shorter than Matthew’s and Luke’s. Matthew and Luke list the temptations – or at least three of the temptations – Jesus faced. Mark only says that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan. It doesn’t even say that he fasted. In fact, it says that angels waited on him, which might mean that he ate.

Mark’s version of the temptation is so short it could be told in one-and-a-half tweets. Mark’s version of the temptation is so short the creators of the lectionary tacked on Jesus’ baptism and the summary of his message and ministry. I think this is a helpful thing because the three things – the baptism, the temptation, and the summary – are, I think, connected.

At his baptism, Jesus heard “a voice from heaven” tell him who he was. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And before he had done any public ministry, the voice said, “with you I am well pleased.”

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Did you ever notice that? “Immediately after his Baptism, Jesus is driven – not just led, mind you, but driven – into the wilderness by the same Spirit that just earlier had descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessing?”[1] There is a connection between Jesus’ time in the wilderness, this time of temptation, with receiving this announcement of identity.

As I said, Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus was tempted. With Mark’s gospel, we’re free to imagine. And I imagine Jesus wrestling with what this identity means. Is being God’s beloved child a good thing or a bad thing – or both?

In the scope of the whole story, I’d say both. What could be better than knowing you are God’s child, God’s beloved child? And I don’t just mean knowing intellectually or even knowing in your heart, but knowing at a cellular level. An encounter with a voice from heaven is likely to put its message deep into your being. Yet being God’s child means also knowing the wonderful, scary, world-changing, good news that the kin-dom of God has come near. And that news means a change of life. It means living in a way that is resistant to the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus moves from baptism to temptation to proclamation. Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And that proclamation eventually got him killed.

If you were to ask Jesus who he is, how would he answer? “I’m Mary’s son, a rabbi who leads disciples, an itinerant preacher and healer”? Or would he say, “I’m God’s beloved child”?

And if I asked you who you are, what would you say?

Fr. Richard Rohr

Theologian and author Father Richard Rohr says that we are two selves, a false self and a true self. He says, “The false self is the fabricated, concocted self that we have to do. It’s not wrong. The false self is not bad. But it’s your persona, it’s your education, it’s your race, it’s your sexual orientation, it’s your country – all of which are necessary to create an ego structure. But it’s not you.…

“It’s the raw material you fall through to find your true self.… You don’t create [your true self]; it’s already there … your inherent self, your authentic self.”[2]

Rohr says, “God isn’t ‘a being’ as much as Being itself,” and that “[our true identity] is who we are in God. [That is, our true identity is who we are in Being itself.] … And that no one can give to you and no one can take away from you.”[3]

“[But the true self isn’t the same as the soul,] because the true self includes embodiment. Therefore, there is a physical, material, emotional, sexual … element to the true self.”[4]

What Rohr is talking about is the radical, integrative mystery of the incarnation. We see it in Jesus: the true self, that I would even say is a part of God, is not only a part of God. It is the God-ness that takes on flesh. But in taking on flesh, we also build up an ego structure that says we are what we do and who we’re related to.

Yeah, my brain is starting to hurt, too.

Years ago, a member of the church I was serving had a baby. It was a wonderful, joyous moment, until Jenny (that’s what I’ll call her) developed some post-delivery complications. She got an infection, which triggered an immune system response that went into overdrive and she developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Guillain-Barré Syndrome is scary. It’s an ascending paralysis. It starts in the feet and ascends the body and if it keeps going it can be fatal because you ability to breathe becomes paralyzed.

Jenny didn’t die. In fact, she almost fully recovered. During her recovery, another member of the church (I’ll call her Kathy) occasionally brought Jenny presents to cheer her up. One time, after all this happened, Kathy and I were talking about vocations and identity. Kathy said she noticed something about the presents she brought Jenny who had been so sick – something she had not done intentionally.

The first present she brought was presented in a gift bag with tissue paper covering it. The second give was wrapped in paper, but the paper wasn’t taped. The third present was wrapped and taped. The fourth present was wrapped, taped, and had a ribbon around it.

Without realizing what she was doing, Kathy was making it harder and harder for Jenny to get to the present. Kathy was making each gift an exercise. Kathy had not done this intentionally. It happened naturally.

Now some of you might be able to guess what Kathy’s vocation is. She is an occupational therapist. And if you asked Kathy who she is, part of her answer – a central part of her answer – would be that she’s an occupational therapist. That is an integral part of her identity and sense of self. And Rohr would say that the identity of being an occupational therapist is part of her false self. Remember, Rohr says that the false self isn’t bad, it isn’t wrong; it’s just concocted.

But I wonder. Because the real self, according the Rohr, is the soul embodied, isn’t part of Kathy’s embodiment occupational-therapist-ness?

This sermon is the beginning of a series based on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. My hope is that you will take these themes that we preach on and find some way explore them in your life a little more deeply this Lent.

Today’s theme, Identity, comes out of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” This line points who God is, and who we are in relationship to God. If God is “our Father,” we are God’s children. That’s what Paul was writing about in our lesson from his letter to the Romans.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

The implication is that our true identity is that we are children of God. Rohr would tell us that this is true, and that everything else that we cling onto as part of our identity is construct. Rohr also says, “It is the struggle with the false self that reveals to you your true self.”[5]

Which reminds me of a story. A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, please?”
“Right choices.”
The seeker was fascinated.
“How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word.”
“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.
“Growth.”
The seeker was thrilled. “And how does one grow?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, pray tell?”
“Wrong choices.”

“It is the struggle with the false self that reveals to you your true self.”

The invitation to you during this first week of Lent is to find some activity that will invite you into a reflection on your identity, some practice that will allow you to listen for what God has to say about who you are. Yeah, you’re getting homework during the sermon series. Still, I hope you will take on this task, to find some activity that will invite you into a reflection on your identity, some practice that will allow you to listen for what God has to say about who you are. Perhaps it will be some desert time. Perhaps it will be something else.

I believe you will benefit from what you learn, as will the people around you.

Amen.

[1] David Lose, “Wilderness Faith,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/lent-1-b-wilderness-faith/ (posted and accessed 16 February 2015).

[2] Father Richard Rohr in an interview with Oprah Winfrey for one of her “Super Soul Sunday” episodes, accessed at http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Oprah-and-Author-Richard-Rohr-Video on 21 February 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

A Facebook friend shared this “conversation” written by one of his friends.  It has made me pause to think and pray as I consider the atrocities being perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

Bloke: Jesus, what the hell is up with those ISIS terrorists?
Jesus: I hear ya. It’s a terrible thing. So much suffering. And fear. Fear seems the biggest part.
Bloke: What should we do with them?
Jesus: Love them.
Bloke: Whoa. Hold on, Jesus – love them? They’ll cut your head off. Kill your whole family. They want to destroy everything we hold dear.
Jesus: Well, in that case, you really must love them.
Bloke: How can you say that! You can’t be serious. Do you want us killed?
Jesus: No – I want you loved. And them too. As you love me- love them. And everyone else while you’re at it.
Bloke: That’s impossible. I can’t love them. I won’t love them.
Jesus: No. You can love them. And if you love me, you’ll love them too. Do you love me, Bloke?
Bloke: Of course I do, Jesus. But it seems like you don’t love me if you ask me to love them. They hate and despise me, us, all we are and all we stand for.
Jesus: All “we” stand for, Bloke? I stand for love. What say you?
Bloke: I stand for my country and my family and my God – which means, you. I stand for you, Jesus.
Jesus: Good, then love them Bloke. It’s easy to love them that love you- I need you to love them that hate you.
Bloke: Do you want me to get killed, allow my family to be killed – the collapse of western civilization and Christian life?
Jesus: I want you to love, Bloke.

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