A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 28, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 17:15-19 and Psalm 37:1-15
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things I enjoy watching as kids grow is the evolution of their senses of humor.  A big milestone is the ability to craft a knock-knock joke that makes sense.  Another is the ability to craft a riddle.  Later comes the ability to craft a joke at someone’s expense – which is sad.  One I remember from my childhood (I was the one targeted) was when a classmate asked me, “Hey, Jeff, what are you eating under there?”  I wasn’t eating anything, so I said, “What?”  “Under there – what are you eating?”  I shot back, “Under where?”  “Haha!  Jeff’s eating underwear!”

Eventually, some kids develop the taste for the pun.  This, I deeply admire.  Some come to understand how to work the rule of three for comic effect.  The rule of three says that events or characters introduced in threes are more humorous, satisfying, or effective in storytelling.  Think of the Three Bears in the Goldielocks story, or the Three Little Pigs, or the Three Billy Goats Gruff, or the Three Musketeers.  It shows up in slogans, too.  Think of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or “stop, look, and listen,” or the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”

The comic triple is effective because it sets up the pattern with the first two elements, and then throws in a third element that somehow surprises – like the classic from The Dick Van Dyke Show, “Can I get you anything?  A cup of coffee?  A doughnut?  A toupee?”

As much as I enjoy a good joke (especially if it’s not done at someone’s expense), the evening I laughed my hardest had nothing to do with jokes at all.  We were telling stories after dinner and some of them were funny, so we started laughing.  One funny situation reminded us of another, which made us laugh harder.  And then we started laughing about how hard we were laughing.  It was as if we had reverted to infancy and someone tearing a piece of junk mail would have cracked us up.  I was laughing so hard, I fell out of my chair, which made me laugh at myself.  I was laughing so hard, I had trouble inhaling.  And then I stared laughing about laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, which made breathing harder.  If laughter is the best medicine, I got an overdose that night.

According to the Bible, God also laughs, “but it is not quite the carefree, throw-back-your-head-in-delight laughter I am hoping to share with God.  Generally, when God laughs in the Bible, the laughter is derisive.  God is laughing at, not with.  “The first laughter that sounds in the Bible is laughter God provokes”[1]

We heard it in our first lesson, and to get the joke, it’s important to know that Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90.  God announces to Abraham that he and Sarah are going to have a baby.  The New Revised Standard Version does a pretty good job of translating not just the words, but the feeling of the Hebrew.  Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.”  This is almost vaudevillian slapstick.  Imagine Mel Brooks directing the scene for one of his movies.  He would bring, as one commentator put it, the “mind-boggling, body-toppling laughter in the Hebrew text” to life.[2]

“Upon hearing Abraham’s laughter, God tells Abraham to name the child Isaac, or Let-Him-Laugh.  Translator Mary Phil Korsak argues that this response is, in essence, God getting in on the joke:  Genesis does not say directly that God actually laughed in response to Abraham’s laughter, but in telling Abraham to name his son Let-Him-Laugh, God is joining in.”[3]

Notice that so far, only Abraham has the news of this unlikely pregnancy.  Sarah gets the news indirectly in the next scene in the story.  It’s mid-day and three strangers show up.  Abraham does the culturally appropriate thing by welcoming them for rest and refreshment.  Of course, this means Sarah has to do some cooking.  While she’s in the tent making some cakes, one of the strangers tells Abraham that the next time the stranger comes to visit, Sarah will have a son.  Sarah was listening at the tent entrance, so she overhears.

Her response was much like Abraham’s was.  She laughs.  But the Hebrew says that she laughs “inwardly.”  “Rashi, the great eleventh-century biblical interpreter, said that Sarah’s laughter was ‘inward’ in two ways – she was laughing to herself, but she was also laughing at herself, at her dried-up inner parts.  Sarah had just performed dazzling hospitality, whipping up cakes for three visitors she hadn’t been expecting, but her womb, she thought, was inhospitable, and she laughed at it, scornfully.

“God, who had seemed delighted with Abraham’s laugher, responds differently to Sarah’s laughing.  Rather than joining in with Sarah, God once more talks to her husband.  ‘The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’…

“What is wrong, to God’s ears, with Sarah’s laughter?  And what is right about Abraham’s laughter?  Rashi says the problem lies in a distinction between two kinds of laughter – his is joyful, and hers is scornful.…  “Sarah will laugh again later, once Isaac is born.  This second laughter is joyful and expands to include multitudes:  [From later in Genesis:]  ‘Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”’”[4]

Lauren Winner offers an interesting analysis of this story.  “Typically, the three episodes of laughter in the story of Isaac’s conception and birth are assessed as good and faithful (Abraham’s laughter, in which God joins, and Sarah’s final laughter,…) or bad, untrusting, and shamefully doubtful (Sarah’s initial laughter, upon overhearing her guest’s prediction).  But when we think about God’s own laughter in the scriptures, our assessment might change.  God will never again laugh the way Abraham laughs – joyful and mirth-filled hilarity.  Instead, God will laugh derisively and scornfully at God’s enemies.  If derision directed at God’s enemy is the paradigm for divine laughter, it seems that it is Sarah, not Abraham, who is laughing like God.  Put starkly, she is laughing scornfully at something that (she thinks) will interfere with God’s program – her own womb.  Without quite understanding what she is doing (and therefore unable to give a correct account of it when asked), she is laughing at the limitations she perceives in herself; at what she thinks she knows about her own body; at the self she thinks is not fit for God’s designs.  Yet through the laughing, she is transformed – it is Sarah’s scornful laughter (and her denial thereof) that brings about God’s direct communication with her and that opens her up to participation in God’s admittedly [ridiculous] plan.”[5]

We need simply turn to the Psalms to get a taste of God’s scornful and derisive laughter.  In Psalms 2, 37, and 59, God laughs because of evildoers and plotters of injustice.  In fact, God laughs at evildoers and plotters of injustice.  If you weren’t listening for it, you might have missed the reference to God’s laughter in our reading from Psalm 37.
“The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them;
But the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that their day is coming.”

“In Psalm 59, the enemies of the psalmist are crowding around yelling violent things, and God meets them with a mouth full of scathing laughter.”[6]  And in Psalm 2, God laughs at the political rulers for their plotting against righteousness.  Winner says, “God is laughing [in these Psalms] because God knows the right ordering of the cosmos, the final ordering:  God knows that ultimately the unjust will not triumph.”[7]

“The psalmist’s notion that God laughs at those who want to thwart God’s aims is consistent with that most striking biblical proclamation about laughter:  those who weep now will laugh later, Jesus says in his sermon on the plain [in Luke’s gospel], and those who laugh now will weep later.”[8]

I agree with Winner, that “the laughter of God is inseparable from God’s justice.  In the here and now, the kinds of laughter that friends of God pursue is laughter that is proleptic – laughter that hints at, or partakes of, the world to come.  The best laughter now is laughter that bespeaks a heaven in which those who have been made to weep by earthly rulers will, in the fullness of time, heartily laugh.  In other words, laughter is political.  Laugher arranges power, and God provokes us to laugh as testimony – testimony to our belief in a God who is ruling over a calamitous or oppressive situation, despite all signs to the contrary.”[9]

In late April, there were to big marches in Washington, D.C.  One was a march for science and the other a march about climate change.  There were sibling marches and rallies around the globe, including here in the Bay Area, which I attended.  My favorite part of both events were the creative, humorous signs.  I got pictures of a few of them.

And thanks to the internet, I’ve been amused by some others.

 

This guy has his priorities.

Chant it with me.

And then there were the signs with puns:

And, I think my favorite:

 

 

Winner tells us, “Scholars who study the role of laughter in protest say laughing serves several ends.  Laughter binds together oppressed people and expresses criticism of dominant institutions.  Laughter alleviates the stress and tension of political organizing and protest, and can ‘defuse threatening situations.’  Costumes and funny songs also command observers’ attention (and garner media coverage), perhaps more than a humorless rally with only serious signs and ponderous speakers.…

“When read through a biblical scrim, laughing during a political protest seems to do something even greater than what the sociologists and humorologists enumerate.  Laughter indeed relieves stress and forges bonds.  But it is also a sign of defiance, a sign that the ruler who rules unjustly is not ultimately in control.  Because it is hard to laugh when you are terrified or furious, laughter fosters (and proclaims) confidence.  If those who laugh now will weep later, and those who weep now will laugh later, then saying that God laughs and provokes laughter is synonymous with saying that God overturns the hierarchies of the world.  That overturning will make you laugh or cry, depending on where you sit.”[10]

A little over 100 years ago, the French painter Georges Rouault went through a period where he painted clowns.  His “contemporaries noticed resonances between his paintings of clowns and his paintings of Jesus, between pieces like Head of a Tragic Clown (1904-1905) and Head of Jesus (1905); Rouault’s depictions of costumed harlequins and of the savior of the world had begun to resemble one another.  Rouault’s ‘clowns have the faces of Christ ravaged and sublime,’ wrote novelist Francois Mauriac.

“Head of a Tragic Clown” 1904-05

“Head of Christ” 1905

“Rouault was taking up a long-standing, if quiet, tradition in the church:  the idea of Jesus as a clown.  Arguable, that tradition goes all the way back to Paul, who reminded the Corinthians that the world deemed ‘foolish’ the things of Christ and that disciples were to indeed be ‘fools’ for Christ.  In those verses, Christians have discerned a suggestion that Jesus Himself is a holy fool or a trickster.  Rouault’s clowning Christs expressed at least two true things about Jesus:  Jesus is the marginal wayfarer, and Jesus specializes, as clowns do, in interruptions, in behavior that violates etiquette and social norms, in impropriety, surprises, and mockery of convention.

“Jesus interrupts the normal order of things before He is even born – what is the Virgin Birth if not a transgression of the normal order?  Throughout His life, in His teaching and preaching and friendships, Jesus shows up where He is least expected and does unexpected things once He gets there; He is rude at dinner parties; He speaks in riddles.  And at the end of His life, He is the protagonist in a drama that is both parodic and ironic:  The Crucifixion.…  Jesus’s crucifixion was layered with many … layers of irony – calling Him king, clothing Him in mock-royal garb.  But if Jesus’s elevation was mocked by the Roman punishment, that very mocking was in turn undone by the resurrection.  It was not the Romans who had the last laugh.”[11]

In fact, the resurrection may be the best practical joke ever played on anyone.  And it may be God’s greatest laugh.

Amen.

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 181.

[2] I’m not sure who said this, but Winner quotes it, 181.

[3] Ibid, 181-182.

[4] Ibid, 183-184.

[5] Ibid, 185-186.

[6] Ibid, 187.

[7] Ibid, 186.

[8] Ibid, 189.

[9] Ibid, 190.

[10] Ibid, 192.

[11] Ibid, 196-198.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 21, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 6:35-40 and John 15:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Of the many images for God used in the Bible, the image of bread and vine is one – perhaps the one – I can most relate to.  God as shepherd – I know someone up in Washington who has a herd of sheep, but she didn’t get them until after I moved to Fremont and we’ve never talked about them.  God as king – Queen Elizabeth is the most prominent monarch in my mind, and she’s more of a figurehead then a ruler, so that image seems a little hollow.  But God as bread and vine – that I can relate to.  Especially the bread part.

When I was a kid, there was one particular brand of bread that we bought:  Arnold’s Brick Oven white bread.  The only time my mother would buy Wonder bread was if she decided to let us eat fluffernutters – which is a type of sandwich that proves I grew up in New England.  Because my mom didn’t drive and we were a family of six, my mother went to the grocery store almost every day – or she sent one of us kids.  I suppose it was because I was sometimes responsible for bringing home the right brand of bread that I remember what it was.

I also remember when whole wheat bread just started getting some buzz.  My mother thought that maybe we should switch breads, but my father (I think jokingly) insisted that the reason whole wheat bread was brown is that they used the flour they had swept up from the floor.

“White bread has an interesting history.  For centuries, people have been striving to produce ever whiter flour and ever whiter loaves.  This is a story of cultural preference and symbolism, and it is also a story of technology.  According to food activist and writer Michael Pollan, ‘The prestige of white flour is ancient and has several sources, some practical, others sentimental.  Whiteness has always symbolized cleanness, and … the whiteness of flour symbolized its purity.’  For centuries, white flour was hard to obtain; only the rich could afford white bread.  But in the middle of the nineteenth century, roller milling – in which millstones were replaced with metal or porcelain drums that were arranged to grind the flour more finely – made white flour inexpensive, readily available, ‘and whiter than it had ever been.’  So even people of modest means began to buy porcelain-white flour and bake pretty white loaves in their ovens.

“Within a few decades, further technological innovation – developments in ‘microbiology, cereal chemistry, climate control, and industrial design’ – had again reshaped people’s daily bread:  in 1890, 90 percent of bread eaten in the United States was made by women at home; by 1930, 90 percent of America’s bread ‘was baked outside the home by men in increasingly distant factories.’  In a study called White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain suggests that the appeal of ‘modern bread’ – industrial white bread – went beyond convenience.  People loved the ‘streamline’ look of company-baked bread.  When the first automatically sliced bread was sold in the United States (in the summer of 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri), a reporter wrote, ‘The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows.  So near and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.’  The guaranteed perfection of a store-bought loaf appealed to an America in love with science and captive to fantasies of scientific perfection.  The Ladies’ Home Journal wrote in 1923 that in contrast to the housewife who baked by guesswork and was likely to produce the occasionally underdone or misshapen loaf, ‘modern inventions have made an exact science of baking, and there is no reason whatever for failure.’

“Americans loved the bread’s predictable uniformity, and they loved its whiteness.  Echoing Pollan, Bobrow-Strain argues that white bread ‘had long stood as a symbol of wealth and status – and in America, racial purity,’ but in the early twentieth century, Americans’ preference for white flour took on still new meanings.  In an era obsessed with hygiene and sanitation the color white came to represent ‘scientific control’ – all those white lab coats, all those sparkling white kitchen appliances.  Physicians took to the pages of national magazines to urge families, especially immigrant families and poor families, to whitewash their walls; dark walls would camouflage dirt, but on white walls dirt would, in the words of one pundit-physician, be ‘so conspicuous that shame’ would ‘compel … the Polacks and Hungarians’ to clean.…

“So, in short, the history of the lovely white loaf may be found in American’s optimistic quest for scientific perfectibility and in American’s history of [racism,] shaming immigrants and shaming women.”

Lauren Winner concludes, “It seems an odd genealogy for the bread that, week in and week out, Christians name as Jesus.  Jesus, who consorted with shamed women.  Jesus, who is neither orderly nor predictable.  Jesus, who, with his parents, became a migrant to Egypt when his own country turned inhospitable to him.  Jesus, who makes possible our immigration to the Kingdom of God.  Jesus, whose skin is darker than the flour we prize.”[1]

Perhaps Jesus is more pumpernickel than sourdough.  Rather than the modern white loaf, perhaps Jesus is a misshapen, burnt around the edges, under-baked-in-the-middle, hand-made loaf of bread.

“In calling Himself ‘the bread of life’ – and not, say crème caramel or caviar – Jesus is identifying with basic food, with sustenance, with the food that, for centuries afterward, would figure in the protest efforts of poor and marginalized people.  No one holds caviar riots; people riot for bread.  So to speak of God as bread is to speak of God’s most elemental provision for us.

“Especially for people who have lived with hunger, this is a powerful, palpable image.  But I admit that it is a biblical metaphor at which I sometimes find myself staring blankly.  I have never been hungry for more than thirty-five minutes, and, though I always need to be nourished, I rarely notice this need, and I rarely credit God with my nourishment (more often I either take my nourishment for granted or credit myself – my labors, which provide the money to buy the food …).  So for me (and maybe for you), the image of bread as provision can be a bit of a corrective, showing me how insensible to my dependence on God I really am.  But instructing me in my hunger is not all this image can do.  Bread is basic food, but bread nonetheless contains meanings beyond sustenance.”[2]

And there is something sweet (pun intended) about imaging God not just as bread, but as toast with strawberry jam.  God as the potato bread of the grilled cheese sandwich I dip into the tomato soup on a cold, rainy, winter day.  God as the chocolate tea bread my goddaughter’s mother served at my goddaughter’s tea party when she was three.  God is not just provision; God is delight.  God is not just necessity; God is enjoyment.  God is not just sustenance; God is pleasure.[3]

Winner writes, “In the Middle Ages, several female mystics compare the soul in union with God to bread that soaks up – and grows engorged with – honey or mead.…  Jesus means for us to see bread as a metonym for Him, for His body, for His nearness.”[4]  These sentences sent me scurrying off to a dictionary – well, to Google – to find out what a “metonym” is.  A metonym is “a word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated.  For example, Washington is a metonym for the federal government of the US.”[5]  So Jesus means for us to hear “bread” as a word that substitutes for him, for his body, for his nearness.

Winner goes on:  “The mystics’ prayers would suggest that our own bodies, too, are metonymed as bread, bread that expands with Jesus when we draw close to Him.”[6]  We are the bread, dipped, not into any old honey, but dipped into the honey of life.  Our lives are expanded and sweetened by our relationship with Jesus, by our union with Jesus.

“This is a reverse Communion image.  Usually, at Communion, we draw near to God by opening our hands to receive a crumb of bread.”[7]  In this image, we draw near to God and find God’s hand opened to us.  And we place into God’s hand the crumbs of our pain, our fear, our grief, knowing they soak in God’s sweetness.

“‘Who will enable me to find rest in you?  Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?’  So prayed Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions.  His plea that God intoxicate his heart is a good reminder that our defining meal as Christians doesn’t just include bread,” but also the juice of the vine.[8]  Jesus identifies himself as the vine, God as the vinedresser, and his own blood as that which is pressed from the fruit of the vine.

Jesus wasn’t the first to use this vineyard imagery.  Centuries earlier, the prophets used vine and vineyard imagery to describe life with God.  “God has brought the vines out of Egypt, cleared the ground, planted the vines, and watched over them.”[9]  But the fruit these rescued vines produce is not always good.  Injustice and idolatry lead to a clearing of the vineyard, Isaiah says.  God’s desire for the vineyard has always been righteousness and justice.

I think it’s safe to assume that the original people for whom John wrote his gospel would have been familiar with this prophetic imagery.  “They would have known that they were the vines, and God was the vinedresser who cleared the field and tended it.…”[10]

“Usually we hear in Jesus’s identification of Himself as vine a statement of our dependence on Him, and an instruction about what we need to thrive – if we abide in Jesus, we will have life; if we try to separate ourselves from Jesus, we will not.  But perhaps Jesus the true vine tells us about something beyond our reliance on God.  Perhaps the image also tells us about the perils of incarnation.  It is as if Jesus studied the Hebrew scriptures and found the most precarious depiction of humanity He could, and said, ‘That is who I am:  I am allying with humanity when it is most endangered.’  When I am producing bad fruit and farthest from God’s pleasure, Jesus is already in that place.  It is not alien to Him, and I am not alone.”[11]

I don’t want to ignore or in any way diminish the seriousness of the excessive use or abuse of alcohol or the addiction to alcohol, but I do want to return to Augustine’s prayer.  “Perhaps,” Winner writes, “if I receive Jesus as wine, I would know divine intoxication again.  (Would it be bearable?  Just as being drunk [on love] seems to interfere with what I think I am supposed to do in a given day, or a given life, surely being intoxicated with Jesus would, too.)  I get hints of divine intoxication now and again – quick flashes in prayer once or twice a year.  Perhaps at the heavenly banquet, we will find good, true inebriation, excess that is somehow not unsafe.  Or excess in a place where safety is no longer a concern; excess in a place where, since everything has been reordered for and by God, there is no other order, no other program, for divine intoxication to disrupt.

“In the Bible, men and women observing others caught up in intense devotion to God tended to mistake those people … as drunk:  Hannah was ‘pouring out [her] soul to the Lord,’ beseeching the Lord for a child, and a priest who happened upon her thought she was blotto; those observing the apostles, newly filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, made the same charge.”[12]

Of course, one of the side effects of getting drunk is the hangover.  And because I do not live in constant ecstatic connection with God, I sometimes fear the after-effects.  Perhaps this might be one case where partaking of the hair of the dog might actually be good for you.

“I am the bread of life.”  The bread of life is provision and delight, necessity and enjoyment, sustenance and pleasure.  And we, too, are bread, invited to dip ourselves into the sweetness of God that we may absorb all that goodness.

“I am the true vine.”  We are dependent on God to help us produce good fruit in our lives.  And we are invited to drink of the fruit of the vine that we might be intoxicated with the love of God.

This is an invitation to feast.

Amen.

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 103-107.

[2] Ibid, 93-94.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] Ibid, 115.

[5] https://www.google.com/#q=metonym (20 May 2017).

[6] Winner, op. cit., 115-116.

[7] Ibid, 116.

[8] Ibid, 117.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 119.

[11] Ibid, 120.

[12] Ibid, 127.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 7, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 2:12-17 and Isaiah 11:1-7
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of the time when I’m in San Francisco, my sense of smell is about warnings.  “Watch where you’re stepping,” my nose tells me.  I smelled that message a couple time this week walking between Davies Symphony Hall and the Civic Center BART station.

But on the preceding weekend, the message was very different.  I was at Lake Merritt, participating in the walk around the lake that served as the closing to the Climate Change rally that was held there.  I was in the group that was walking around the lake clockwise, and somehow ended up at the head of the group – long legs, maybe.  Halfway around the lake, we met up with the counterclockwise group that was led by a group that is reclaiming an Aztec spirituality, a spirituality that honors the earth.  When our groups met, the group of neo-Aztecs offered a prayer ritual that invoked the six directions – east, west, south, north, up, and down – with dancing, chanting, drumming, and burning incense.

Though allergies have hit me hard this spring, the incense did not aggravate them (the way sometimes perfumes do).  If fact, the incense cut through the stuffedness of my nose.  And the message my sense of smell sent me was not a warning.  It was an invitation, an invitation to prayer.  I joined with this group in recognizing the sacredness of the earth, our environment that is simultaneously the dwelling place of God and that dwells in God.  And I thanked God for all those around the globe who are working to mitigate the impacts of climate change – for the sake of humanity and for the sake of all living creatures.

If you were to rank the five sense, I suspect most of you would put sight and hearing on the top of the list, probably in that order.  In other words, smell would not be, I would guess, at the top of your list.  I’m not sure if such a ranking is universal or a product of our culture.  I notice that we have developed equipment to help correct deficiencies for sight and hearing:  glasses and surgeries for vision limitations; hearing aids and Cochlear implants for hearing limitations.  We’ve build devised to augment sight and hearing:  microscopes and telescopes to see the minute and the far away; infrared goggles that “translate” light waves we can’t see into wavelengths we can see; stethoscopes to listen to hearts and lungs and bowels; hydrophones to listen to listen underwater.

I can’t think of any devise we’ve created to augment smell – or taste or touch.  One of you might know of something, and you can tell me about it at our Annual Meeting.  My point is that we seem to value sight and hearing more than smell, touch, and taste.

In the Bible, sight and sound are especially important in relation to God.  God appears as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night for the Hebrews who are escaping slavery in Egypt to see and follow.  God speaks to Jesus at his baptism and to some of the disciples at the transfiguration – and they hear God.  Likewise, God hears the cries of the enslaved and see the suffering of people.

The God of the Bible also smells – “in both senses of the term:  God emits a fragrance, but more centrally in biblical texts, God inhales aromas and perceives scent.  Specifically, God perceives the smell of sacrifices – this is mentioned some forty times in the Hebrew Bible.”[1]

It starts with Noah, who after the flood, burns an offering, “‘And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor,’ [we read in Genesis,] God pledged to never again destroy the earth.  In addition to smelling Noah’s ‘burnt offering,’ God also smells incense offerings: over and over in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we read of incense.…

“Human beings, in an effort to get God’s attention or communicate with God, burned fragrant incense, and God found the incense to be a ‘soothing smell’ and accepted the sacrifice.

“This language has grabbed my attention and will not let go.  Most of the time, the sacrificial system of the Bible feels alien to me; praying with words has, for my entire life, been the main thing I do to interact with God, and it is hard for me to wrap my head around the logic of sacrifices.  But the language of God’s accepting a soothing smell makes a certain sense to me – after all, I have experience with being soothed by scent.”[2]  There is nothing like the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven to make me feel like I’m ‘home’ no matter where I am.  And the smell of garlic assures me that scrumptious food is on the way.

Our reading from Isaiah doesn’t seem to have anything to do with smell, but if we take a closer look at the Hebrew we see that it does.  This is what Isaiah 11:3 looks like in Hebrew.

The verse is translated, “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear,” in the New Revised Standard Version.  Most other English translations say something about delighting or enjoying the fear (as in awe) of the Lord.  But the literal meaning of the first word in the Hebrew (and early English translations kept this literal meaning) has to do with smell.  So, a more literal translation might be, “And by his smelling in awe of the Lord, and not by [what] his eyes see, will [the Messiah] judge, and not by [what] his ears hear, will he decide.”[3]  A more vernacular way of putting it might be, “When the Messiah comes, this descendant of King David will sniff out the truth and not be deceived, so that the people who typically don’t get justice will finally get it.”

Abraham ibn Ezra, one of the most distinguished Jewish commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages, said of this verse, “The ear is sometimes deceived in hearing sounds, which are only imaginary; the eye, too, sees things in motion, which in reality are at rest; the sense of smell alone is not deceived.”[4]  And the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin said, “We ought to attend, first of all, to the metaphor in the verb smell, which means that Christ will be so shrewd that he will not need to learn from what he hears, or from what he sees; for by smelling alone he will perceive what would otherwise be unknown.”[5]

Perhaps smell is the most honest of our senses.

Paul, interestingly, uses smell as a metaphor for Jesus and for Christian discipleship.  I hadn’t noticed it until I read about it in the book that has inspired this sermon series.  Lauren Winner notes, “In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’  After the cross, after the resurrection and ascension, Jesus still emits a smell, and we, it seems, are it.  But while Jesus emits a distinct scent, that scent doesn’t smell the same to all people – or, alternately, the same scent doesn’t smell the same to the same person all the time.  Those who are turned toward God will find the smell of Jesus-in-us delightful; those who are turned away will find it noxious.

“On one level, Paul seems to be saying, simply, that the baptized are agents of Jesus – we carry information about God with us everywhere we go.  Paul could have, perhaps, written, ‘We are the light of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,’ or ‘Our voices are the voice of Christ among those who are saved and those who are perishing.’  But smell is an apt metaphor for Paul to use, precisely because smell can convey the presence of something that is far away.  I smell bread baking the minute I walk through the front door, even though the source – the load in the oven – is in the kitchen;  the smell tells me the loaf is there somewhere.  So, too, the Source of whatever goodness the baptized do and are is [at least, not obviously present] – but the goodness insists that the Source is there somewhere.”[6]

This portrait of God as one who smells and emits smells “may appear to be just a bit of quirky anthropomorphism, but it is in fact a ritual shorthand for God’s intimate and close connection with us.

“To describe God as one who smells – as one who enjoyed the smell of all that incense – is to imply something about God’s emotional life.  It turns out that, of all our sensory perceptions, smell is the most directly connected to the seat of our emotions.  As cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains, ‘The neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate.  The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions of the brain could possibly be.’  Both smell and emotion are located within the limbic system.  The amygdala – ‘the brain’s locus of emotion,’ without which we can neither remember nor express emotion – becomes activated when we perceive a scent.  ‘No other sensory system has this kind of privilege and direct access to the part of the brain that controls our emotions.’”[7]

Winner writes, “Scents can help calm people when they are separated.  Psychologists call this ‘olfactory comfort.’  This is why women sometimes sleep in their beloved’s clothing when the beloved is away.  Smelling someone’s scent can infuse you, the smeller, with a sense of security.  (Having observed that a child feeling intense separation anxiety was reassured by a garment with his mother’s smell, a nurse in Minnesota invented a soft shirt that could be easily converted into a blanket.  The idea is that mom would wear the shirt next to her skin for a few hours before heading off to work or out on a date, and baby, now wrapped in her scent, will be less hysterical when she steps out the door.)  Mothers whose children have left for college report going into their old bedrooms, closing the door, and inhaling the smell as a way of feeling close to their absent kids.”[8]

As I read Winner’s words, the closing scene from the movie Brokeback Mountain came to mind.  Actually, two scenes that I had mixed together in my memory into one, came to mind.  They’re the final two scenes of the movie.  The movie came out long enough ago that I should set up the video of the second to last scene, the one that’s important to this sermon.  The movie is about two young men, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.  They meet when they get jobs as back-country sheep herders on Brokeback Mountain.  The strangers become friends and eventually become lovers.  Unable to deal with their feelings for each other, they part ways at the end of the summer.  Years go by, and they each settle down, Ennis in Wyoming with his wife and two girls, and Jack in Texas with his wife and son.  Still longing for each other, they meet back up, for periodic “fishing trips.”

Tragedy strikes when Jack dies – in an accident or a gay bashing, it’s not clear which.  Ennis finds out about the death from Jack’s wife and is directed to go to Jack’s parents to get Jack’s ashes to scatter them on Brokeback Mountain.  Jack’s mother invites Ennis to go up to Jack’s childhood bedroom.

“Absence, it seems, haunts smell.  The profound work smell does on and for us presumes absence.  People separated by time and space – the baby longing for his mother, the mother pining for the children who have left her empty nest – are reconnected through smell.  Smell keeps us close to one another in our absence.”[9]

I can’t help but wonder, when we wander away from God, “is this what our absence feels like to God?  Is our absence, our being far off and ignoring God, our remaining at a distance, our remaining so far away – is this absence not philosophical and abstract, but grievously real and present to God?  Is God undone by grief?  Is that the context in which God receives the scent of our prayers?”[10]

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 67.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] Ibid, 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 77-79.

[7] Ibid, 69-71.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 82.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 30, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Galatians 3:23-29 and James 2:14-17
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I really don’t enjoy shopping, and clothes shopping one of my least favorite kinds of shopping.  I have to do some this week.  The Golden Gate Men’s Chorus has been called in to sing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus later this week, and the dress code is black:  Black pants, black shirt, black tie.  I don’t own any of those.  Well, I do own a black shirt, but it has a little white square under the chin and you can’t wear a tie with it.  I thought about wearing that black shirt with the little white square today, as we explore the metaphor of God as clothing, but after wearing it yesterday at the Climate Rally, it is deservedly in the laundry.

The first mention of clothing in the Bible is as a gift.  When God gets ready to banish them from the Garden, “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”  (Genesis 3:21)  Maybe it was exposure to National History Museum dioramas of early hominids in animal skis, but I always imaged the skins God gave them to be animal pelts.  Lauren Winner, in the book that has inspired this sermon series,[1] says she thought it was human skin that God used to make the garments.  Prior to being clothed in their own skin, I guess, Adam and Eve were walking around with the guts hanging out and their hearts as their sleeves.[2]  Funny how two people can read the same passage of scripture and understand it in two markedly different ways.  Sort of like how people could look at the same picture of a dress, and one sees it as white and gold, while another sees it as blue and black.

Whether my childhood interpretation or Winner’s childhood interpretation is closer to what the author of Genesis meant, an implication is the same.  Whether the gift of clothing was their own skin, representing the gift of full humanity (something Adam and Eve only achieved by leaving the garden), or the gift of clothing was animal pelts, representing God’s compassion for humanity out in the world, God’s gift of clothing is the first scriptural disclosure of God working with and for humanity – even though God must work within our limitations and sin.

“Sometimes God’s clothing of Adam and Eve is taken as evidence that nakedness is bad, that we should be ashamed of our naked bodies,” Winner says.  “But perhaps God’s dressing Adam and Eve does not speak to anything other than God’s care.”[3]

Winner goes on:  “Ever since God clothed Adam and Eve in their full humanity, clothes have not only protected us from the elements and kept us warm; they have also profoundly shaped our identity and our sense of self.  It is not surprising, then, that clothing is an image that runs all the way through scripture from the first mention in Genesis to Revelation, where the gathered community of worshippers is clothed in robes made white by being laundered in the blood of the Lamb.  To my eye, the image sitting at the center of all the Bible has to say about clothing is Paul’s startling statement in Galatians 3:  ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’  God doesn’t just clothe us with skin (or rabbit fur); God clothes us with God’s own self.

“This seems a pretty radical thing for Paul to say.  Intriguingly, scholars believe that this metaphor is original to the Pauline writings.  In the ancient world, it was not unusual to speak, as do 1 Peter 5 and Colossians 3, of ‘putting on’ virtues – this was a common rhetorical device, used to encourage people to adopt or practice various worthy qualities.  But nowhere in ancient literature does there appear to be a ‘clear parallel,’ writes New Testament scholar Roy R. Jeal, to the Pauline ‘rhetoric of being clothed with a person.’  And not just any person:  God.”[4]

The girl I dated in high school was a knitter.  During her first year of college (my last year of high school), she knit a sweater of heavy wool for me.  It was an intricate pattern with cables and braids and fisherman’s knots, and so it was thick.  It weighted about three-hundred pounds and was warm enough that I could go without a jacket in the middle of a Minnesota winter.  Though I didn’t wear it often, whenever I put it on, I was embraced by Abby even though she was fifteen hundred miles away.  It was as if I ‘put her on.’

My mom was also a knitter (though not as much of a knitter as her sister, my aunt).  One of my early childhood memories is of my mom knitting a pair of socks for my father.  He was working on some NORAD defense contract that took him out into the field in the middle of winter in Rome, New York, among other cold locations.  It would have been much easier, and quite possibly cheaper, for her to buy a pair of wool socks at Filenes, but she knit away in a brick-red wool.  I remember her puzzling how to make the heel and the turn of the socks work.  I don’t know if she told me so or if I just intuitively knew that she was stitching love into the socks and that when my father put them on, she would somehow be present.  I am convinced that when my father donned those socks, he was putting on his wife’s love.

“‘Fashion,’” Winner points out, “is a noun, calling to mind Paris runways,…  But ‘fashion’ is also a verb.  It means ‘to mold or to shape.’  We fashion dough into the shape of a bread loaf; we fashion clay into a pot or a bowl.  Indeed, the word ‘fashion’ had that meaning – the action of making or shaping something – before it became a noun designating clothing, and ‘fashion’ came to designate apparel precisely because clothing shapes us.”[5]

That’s the reason I wear my black shirt with the small white square under the chin when I go to rallies and protests.  I do it for myself as much as for others.  I do it to remind myself of why I’m there.

“If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in the world; if to clothe yourself in a particular kind of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape – then what is it to put on Christ?

“Alexander MacLaren was a nineteenth-century Baptist minister in Manchester, England.  In his commentary on Romans, [he said]:  ‘It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus, it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus.  And the question comes to each of us, have we “put off the old man with his deeds”?  Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?’”[6]

Clothing can mark or minimize divisions.  One of the reasons some schools have moved to uniforms is to reduce friction between children via peer fashion competitions, and to reduce friction between parents and children about what the kids will wear to school.  Another reason is to help unify the students into a community.  Still, school uniforms tend to be binary – a girl’s uniform or a boy’s uniform.  But clothing can break down gender division as much as establish it.

I don’t know how uniform this was across social classes, but in Paul’s time at least women of a certain social class wore a particular dress when they were married as a mark of their virtue and modesty.  It was a garment that marked these women, in life and in art, as distinctly not male.  How interesting, then, that Paul write to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are one in Christ Jesus.”

As Winner puts it, “To understand Christ as clothing is to understand a certain holy gender-bending.  I don’t think it is coincidence that Paul’s declaration that we, the baptized, have been clothed in Christ comes right before Paul’s equally famous insistence that ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus’:  Christ is the clothing that has the power to say no male and female.  In fact, all three of the distinctions that Paul explicitly names as undone by Jesus – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – are distinctions that, at various points in history [not just in Paul’s day], have been created in part through clothing.”[7]

“On Paul’s terms,” Winner says, “Jesus is not the kind of clothing that creates social divisions but the kind of clothing that undoes them.  Jesus is not a Vineyard Vines dress or a Barbour jacket; He is the school uniform that erases boundaries between people.  Or at least that is the kind of clothing Jesus wants to be.  When those of us clothed in Him trespass boundaries in His name, we allow Him to be that school uniform; when we put up walls in the name of Jesus, we are turning the Lord into an expensive designer dress.”[8]

“God clothes.  God is our clothing.  And, finally, God draws us into the act of clothing, by instruction us to clothe others.  Consider the Epistle of James.  The famous ‘faith without works’ passage speaks specifically of our obligation to clothe people.”[9]  Did you catch that when we heard the reading?  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,…”  Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 25, when he says that whenever we clothe the naked, we are clothing him.

Can I admit that those mentions of nakedness have always made me a little uncomfortable?  It’s not a discomfort with nakedness itself.  It’s a discomfort with the notion of running into someone who is naked and not at Woodstock.  Why on earth, how on earth, could I run into someone on the streets of America (North or South) who is literally naked?  Feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned makes sense to me, but clothing the naked?  And yet, I know that good foot hygiene can be a real challenge for people who live on the street, and one type of clothing that is often in short supply at thrift stores is socks.

I think back to the gift of clothing that God gave humanity in the beginning.  The gift wasn’t just our own skin and our own animal pelts.  The gift was and is also God.  God is a clothing that we are freely given to put on, to let it shape us.  And if we’re wearing God, won’t we act like God and give the gift of clothing – metaphorically and literally?  Won’t we find ways to invite people to put on Christ?  And won’t we find ways to give clothing to those who are in need?

“Clothing is our most intimate environment,” said Susan M. Watkins.[10]  Imagine God as clothing and so becoming your most intimate environment.  Imagine God nestling up close to you, as close as clothing.  What does that say about your body that God is willing to nestle up so closely?  What does that say about you that God is willing to nestle up so closely?  I hope it helps dissolve any shame you may be holding.  I hope it helps you realize how deeply and intimately you are loved.

Amen.

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015).

[2] See pages 32-33.

[3] Ibid, 35.

[4] Ibid, 36-37.

[5] Ibid, 38.

[6] Ibid, 40-41.

[7] Ibid, 49.

[8] Ibid, 50.

[9] Ibid, 54

[10] Ibid, 60.

A sermon preached at the Easter Sunrise Service in Niles Town Plaza,
hosted by Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 16, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 21:1-17 and Psalm 103:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town.  Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, was busy, as most pastors are during Holy Week.  At the beginning of the week, he visited Eloise Meaney in the hospital in Concord.  Howard always smirks a bit when he says her full name because it is so inaccurate.  Eloise has been one of the friendliest, supportive people in his church, and she seems to be the same way in the rest of her life.  Hardly a meanie.

Howard wondered if he was remembering accurately as he stood at her hospital room door.  Could it actually be that Eloise was in the same room her husband had been in all those years ago?  Howard had been at the Congregational Church only a few weeks when Joe was rushed to the hospital by members of the volunteer fire department.  Joe’s cardiac issues were critical and Joe sensed that he won’t be on the earth all that much longer.

Howard[1] was still a wet behind the ears minister and he wanted to talk about the weather, town gossip, politics, even the pending baseball season – just not what Joe wanted to talk about.  Joe wanted to talk about his memorial service.

Finally, Howard asked Joe, “Joe, doesn’t it bother you?  Aren’t you frightened?”

Joe smiled and said, “Preacher, I know I’m not going to be around much longer, but I’m not afraid.  I’ve taken a peek at the back of the book.”

“What do you mean?” Howard asked.

Joe said, “About 10 years before you came to Mount Willian, I had my first heart attack.  They called it cardiac arrest.  I can remember the medical team thinking I was dead.  I can also remember the tremendous feeling of being surrounded by God’s love.  I was revived by the doctors, but ever since that day I have been unafraid to die.  I’ve been there and it doesn’t frighten me.  I know that sooner rather than later I am going to die, but that won’t be the end.  I will, once again, be surrounded by God’s love.”

Howard has held on to that description, that hope, ever since.  And every time he is with someone who is dying, he imagines them being surrounded by God’s love.  And every time he works on an Easter sermon, he thinks about that conversation with Joe Meaney.

And I guess I agree with him – that Joe’s experience of what comes next is a way of making sense of the resurrection of Jesus – but I can’t help but wonder if Heidi Neumark[2] has a better understanding, or at least an understanding that impacts our living, not just our dying.

It’s been seven years since the washcloth incident, but Heidi’s regret is still fresh.  Her mother, Phyllis, moved in with them – Heidi, her husband Bill, and their son Jim – when Phyllis’s Parkinson’s disease had made it impossible for her to live alone.  They wanted Phyllis to stay with them as long as possible, so they managed to juggle their schedules with the needs of an aging parent, and when Phyllis’s health went downhill, they were able to pay for help, thanks to the sale of Phyllis’s house.  Phyllis knew who Heidi, Bill, and Jim were right up until her final night, and there was some comfort in that.  But for Heidi, on the other hand, there are still things that keep comfort illusive.  A big one is that she can’t forget that washcloth.

It was several months before Phyllis’s death, and the day had not begun well.  Heidi made the mistake of checking her e-mail before praying and thus began the morning with an angry message from someone whose nose was out of joint because they had been excluded from some e-mail discussion.  And instead of drinking coffee, she was cleaning up spilled urine that would not have spilled if she had just emptied the commode the previous night instead of letting it wait until the morning when the liquid sloshed over the top.  So, she dealt with all that and then, finally, Heidi went to take a shower up on the third floor where her bedroom is.

At last she was refreshed and ready to start the day over.  She was clean; the floor was clean; and the e-mail was sort of cleaned.  But her mother was not.  Phyllis asked Heidi for a washcloth, which was back up on the third floor.  Some people have to struggle to get an elderly parent to wash, and here was Phyllis asking for what she needed to be clean.  It was completely reasonable to ask for a washcloth.  But she might as well have been telling Heidi to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  She couldn’t do it.  She was already late, and the fact that this additional task was expected of her made her suddenly furious.  Even in that moment, Heidi knew her fury was misplaced, but she was helpless before it and her mother took the brunt of the fury.

If Heidi was listening to a friend tell the story, she would offer the friend absolution.  She would, in fact, insist that her friend was forgiven.  But it’s been seven years, and Heidi still cannot access that word of peace within herself.  The tears still sting and slosh over her pail of remorse.

At some level, Heidi knows that if Phyllis could, she would grab that pail of remorse and toss it out the window.  Phyllis would forgive her.  In fact, Heidi is quite certain that her mother has forgiven her.  But in a way, that makes it harder.  Knowing of Phyllis’s unfailing love and grace makes Heidi feel worse about her own failure.  Of course, this happens most strongly when Heidi envisions her mother at her very best, now in heaven knowing as she is known and seeing her daughter with the eyes of God, and when Heidi is at one of my lowest moments.  What about God’s forgiveness?  God is always in a best moment and ever aware of our worst.  Does that divine forgiveness erase our regret or increase it?

Jesus’ first word to the disciples on the other side of the locked doors is peace.  This morning, Heidi imagined herself in that room, staring at his wounds and accepting the resurrection miracle.  She imagined embracing the improbable, exciting mission commended to her in the words that follow.  But peace?  Peace is another story.

After Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, did Peter ever think back on that day around the charcoal fire when he denied the one he dearly loved?  Did Peter remember when Jesus yelled at him and called him a terrible name?  When Peter stood to preach on Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized in one day, did he go home and lie awake wishing he could take back his actions on another day?  According to the psalm, our transgressions are removed “as far as the east is from the west.”  If we accept that as true, then it seems that regret should not linger.  But in my experience, forgiveness does not erased regret.  At least not immediately, anyway.  At least not yet for Heidi.

This Easter morning, I am thinking that if our mind and heart are not yet in sync with what should be – with sin removed to a distance beyond my reach – perhaps mere inches matter.  We might envision regret like the giant stone that sits at the mouth of the tomb.  The stone is rolled aside, not away.  It’s still there, inches from the entrance, but it’s not blocking anyone’s resurrection.  The stone that’s rolled aside allows for feeding sheep, baptisms, and hopeful love of every kind.  The Easter angel does not make the stone magically disappear.  In Matthew, the angel of the Lord rolls back the stone and sits on it.  Does the angel prevent the stone from impeding us?  It’s still there, heavy as a regretful heart can be, but it’s not blocking anyone’s way forward.

I find some comfort in noticing that Easter seems to have come in inches for the disciples as well.  A week after that first word of peace they are back behind the same closed doors.  It seems that they have scarcely moved at all.  But there is nothing solid to hinder them, and soon they will head out.

After her own week of years, Heidi’s not in the same place.  She still hasn’t left the washcloth behind with the old grave clothes, but she hopes to.  And she is inching her way forward in the light of Easter.  And this year, perhaps, when she pauses to consider that familiar stone (or the wash cloth), her eyes will be drawn instead to the bright robes of the angel who keeps the stone in its place.  And the resurrection will continue to inch forward – in her life and in ours.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] Adapted from a story shared in an email from sermons.com (dated 11 April 2017), citing Robert L.   Allen, His Finest Days: Ten Sermons for Holy Week and the Easter Season, CSS Publishing Company.

[2] The rest of this sermon is adapted from Heidi Neumark, “Resurrection by inches: Living with regret,” Christian Century, (14 May 2014): 13.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Good Friday, April 14, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Scriptures quoted from the New Revised Standard Version

            Simply put, I reject penal substitutionary atonement.  Well, maybe that’s not so simply put.  So, let me unpack that phrase, “penal substitutionary atonement.”  An atonement is an act that makes reparation for a wrong or injury.  It is an act that allows two parties to become at one again, thus the division of the word as “at-one-ment.”

Substitutionary atonement is an act made, not by the one who harmed the aggrieved person, but by someone on their behalf.  So, when a parent acts on behalf of a child who has done something to wrong or injury a neighbor, that substitutionary atonement.

And penal substitutionary atonement is a substitutionary act of atonement that involves punishment or penalty.

In Christian theology, penal substitutionary atonement is the belief that the only way for us sinners to be at-one with God again was if someone – someone who was perfect, without sin – paid the penalty on our behalf with their life.  This theology looks at the death of Jesus on the cross as the punishment (penal) borne on our behalf (substitutionary) so that we may be in right relationship with God (atonement).  In this theology, Good Friday is “good” because we are saved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

There are lots of reasons I reject this theology.  The most basic of these reasons is the portrait it paints of God.  I reject the idea that God requires suffering of anyone to forgive and reconcile.

So, then, if Jesus didn’t die as part of some substitutionary atonement scheme, why did Jesus die?  Jesus died because he was seen to be a threat to the established power structure.  The principalities and powers of his day – the Roman government and the Jewish religious establishment – say the good news that Jesus preached to threaten their power.  Whatever mob that came together against Jesus did not do so because God caused it.  The principalities and powers wanted him gone, and that was enough.  The contagion of violence is enough.

Jesus died for us, but not for God.  The cross is not what God requires in order to forgive, but what God endures as God forgives.  Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Good Friday is the ultimate reality check, the graphic reminder that there is an end to all things.  We are called to confront our mortality.  We cannot escape into worlds of our own creation, but we must stand before the final authority of change.  Nothing stays the same.  And there, in that one truth, hidden away in the apparent darkness of this day, is the small seed of our liberation.  Nothing stays the same.  No, thank God, it doesn’t.  The deep message of Good Friday speaks a profound truth: nothing lives forever.  Nothing.  Not even death.  Even it has to change.  It has to become something new.”[1]

And this reality check is one of the two big things that make Good Friday “good” for me.  The other is the way of courage it reveals.

The gospels tell us that in what turned out to be the last months of his life, Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem – in theory the city of peace, but in reality the city of the principalities and powers of his life.  He headed to Jerusalem to face off against the principalities and powers, the systems that believe that we can be saved through violence, to proclaim his way of peace and justice and love.  And at some point along the way, he came to realize that the way he was walking and talking would be seen as a threat and lead to his arrest and execution.  Still, he kept walking.  It was his call.

Even in the hours before his arrest, when he knew it was just around the corner, he prayed about it, and somehow managed to maintain his integrity to the call.  He managed to stay on the path, even though it would cost him his life.  He got to his “okay.”  In the presence of God, he moved to the place where he could say, “Okay.  Not my will, but your will be done.”

Listen again to the story.

            Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  [Matthew 26:36-42]

Jesus seemed to know that the path he was on would lead to his death.  And, even though it was leading to his death, he sensed that the path he was on was still, somehow, the will of God.  It wasn’t God’s will that he die, but that he remain faithful to God’s call for justice and love, even in the shadow of death.  In prayer, Jesus got to his “okay.”  “Okay, God, I don’t want to be killed, but I know you call me to embody your love, and your love is leading me this way.  So, okay, your will, not mine, be done.”

Matthew goes on tell about Jesus’ arrest and his so-called trials before the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor, Pilate.  He tells about Jesus being mocked and beaten and being led away to be crucified.

            And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” …

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.…

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.  [Matthew 27:35-37, 45-50, 57-61]

[1] Steven Charleston, a post on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1327331527351716 (posted and accessed 14 April 2017).

I have a bunch of questions about the legalities of what happened on the United Express flight – questions about contract law and the legal authority of airline employees to kick someone off a plane. But this reflection isn’t about the legalities. This reflection is about two other issues:  morality and being an upstander.

Father James Martin does a great job cutting through the noise to get to some of the moral questions in this “short take.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I’ll quote a couple paragraphs. He writes, “When we watch the video of the event something in us says, ‘That’s not right.’ Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online – not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws.”

As the headline of the “short take” says, “The United Airlines debacle … is about the morality of capitalism.” And my conclusion is that capitalism, at least as it is practiced in most of the United States today, is immoral. It places profit over people – every time.

Martin goes on, “Someone in authority – pilots, stewards, ground crew – might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people:  They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules.”

I’ve been wondering about those of us who are not “someone in authority.” We, too, have been conditioned to follow the rules and laws, even when the rules and laws are unjust. So, what would I have done if I had been a passenger on that airplane? Would I have stood up against the unjust assault on my fellow passenger’s dignity, knowing full well that doing so would likely get me ejected from the aircraft and possibly arrested?

What keeps me from being an upstander (as opposed to a bystander) when systems and authorities act immorally?

I think the answers are:  fear and conditioning.  I also think that Jesus calls me beyond my fear and conditioning. May I follow that call.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 2, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 5:11-21 and Psalm 51:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a seminary professor who thought that the church’s mission was summed up in our reading from 2 Corinthians.  He said that the church’s mission is summed up in the line about how God was in Christ, reconciling the world with God, and now God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.  The church’s job, this professor said, can be summed up like this:  we are to be a vehicle of reconciling the world with God.

While I think the universal church’s job does include reconciling humanity and God, I think there is an additional task:  Reconciling humanity with itself.  Of course, since I don’t believe creation and God are all the separable, the act of some aspect of creation coming back into right relationship with itself is a form of that aspect of creation being reconciled with God.  So, maybe I’m not disagreeing with my professor all that much.  I’ll stop there, before I get lost in some theological esoterica, saying this:  the church’s mission includes, and perhaps should even be focused on, reconciliation.

The full passage we heard from this letter to the Christians in Corinth is about Jesus changing lives.  Here’s my paraphrase of the reading (remember that Paul is writing):
Knowing God revealed in Jesus has changed us.  Sure, to some people we now seem a little nuts – but that’s because God has changed us.  And if we don’t seem nuts to you, that’s because God is changing you, too.  Our priorities have changed.  How we view the world has changed.  How we view you has changed.  We used to live in the world in a way that separated us from God and from people.  No more.  Now we’re reconciled with God.  Nothing stands in the way of our relationship with God.  And now we are helping people find that change in their own lives.

When I take a metaphoric look at the stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people metaphorically, I see Jesus doing exactly what Paul says Jesus was doing.  Jesus was bringing people back into right relationship with God and with their communities.  And when I look at what Jesus said, as recorded in the gospels, he was calling communities to get into right relationship with God and all their people.

I think the act of reconciliation is salvific.  And that, John claims, is what Jesus was all about:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV).  But reconciliation isn’t easy.  If you’ve ever experienced a betrayal in a relationship with someone you love, you know how difficult reconciliation is.  Salvation isn’t easy.  Jesuit John Harriott wrote, “Salvation is not comfortable.  Salvation is not a gentle application of Vaseline to a small cut, but the breaking and resetting of ill-set bones.  We discover our need when we are faced with situations over which we have no control, and in which we have no hope.”[1]

A demand of reconciliation is change.  And change is hard.  A result of salvation is change.  And change is hard.  But Jesus was about transforming lives.  And that hard, painful work is exactly what it’s going to take if we are going to be about the work of ending racism.

The rest of the sermon is primarily for the white people in the congregation (including myself).  That is because I have come to realize that racism is a white person’s disease and it is only if we white people do our work that it can finally be banished.

Being able to claim a “white” identity in the United States comes with certain social, cultural, and economic advantages, from getting a call back for a job interview, to finding an apartment, to getting a booking an Airbnb.  I’ve explored in the previous sermons in this series how this privilege has deep historic roots in our culture.  But acknowledging it, this privilege, is not intended to induce guilt.  Rather, acknowledging it helps us build a sense of responsibility.[2]

If you have any doubts about the reality of white privilege, I encourage you to read the essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh.[3]  In it, she rattles off over two dozen simple ways white folk experience privilege without even realizing it in day-to-day life.  These privileges were born out of a culture of white supremacy – a reality I’ve explored over the past few weeks.

Two professors at Calvin College have pointed out that the denial of the reality of white privilege is actually born out of that same white supremacy.  “If you deny white privilege, if society is indeed meritocratic and the game is essentially fair, it is difficult to avoid assumptions about who tends to win and who tends to lose.  If the white population is not privileged in some way, how else does one explain the discrepancies between them and people of color?  What’s left is assuming that white people are just smarter, more moral, work harder, or have a stronger culture.”[4]

Peggy McIntosh says, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that white folk walk around with without even realizing it.  We even open the knapsack and take out those resources from time to time without even realizing it.  Waking up to the reality that we are doing it, waking up to the reality of this privilege is the first step in the transformation of white people, the first step that is needed to end racism.

You see, this is very much a gospel activity.  Racism is a sin.  And Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation is a ministry of repentance, of turning from sin and toward the beloved community.  But it’s hard work, because white supremacy is an idol, and if you ever want to see someone get mad, really mad, threaten their idol.  And just to remind you, an idol is anything we hold onto more tightly than God, anything we worship and honor and value more highly than God.  An idol is any power that holds more sway in our lives than God.  And power, Richard Rohr points out, “never surrenders without a fight.”[5]

“If your entire life has been to live unquestioned in your position of power – a power that was culturally given to you but you think you earned – there is almost no way you will give it up without major failure, suffering, humiliation, or defeat.”[6]  That’s why a growing awareness of white privilege can hurt so much.

Which brings us to the second step in the transformation Jesus wants to work on us white people.  The Calvin College professors advise, “Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry.  It is so easy to medicate with avoidance, delusion, and quick tears.  Repentance requires real sorrow and grief.  It is a sorrow that acknowledges that we have missed the mark, that we have fallen so very short.”[7]

Heather Caliri suggests we can find a model in the story of King Josiah in 2 Kings.  “In 2 Kings 22, Josiah starts restoring the temple after his father and grandfather neglected it.  In the midst of construction, Josiah’s high priest finds the book of the Law and reads it in front of the king.  Upon hearing it, Josiah tears his clothes in grief.…

“Before Josiah’s reign, two generations of Judeans neglected to teach the law.  Josiah and his subjects literally didn’t know any better.  “God still holds them responsible for the sins of their fathers.  To our Western ears, that might sound unfair, even if generational sin is a constant Biblical theme.  Like Josiah, we inherited [the] sin [of racism] not of our own making.  Yet it’s very much our problem.

“Saying things are better now is no excuse.  Josiah could have said the same – after all, he was trying to restore the temple before he discovered the Law.  God required hard repentance anyway.

“Josiah, grieved by his discovery, sent for [the Prophet] Huldah and listened as she blasted him with more bad news.  Josiah could have tuned out her negativity – especially when the sins didn’t happen on his watch, and he’d already done so much to change things.  Instead, he listened.”[8]

To be honest, that’s mostly what I’ve been doing in this sermon series.  I’ve been reading and researching our history and discovering things I’d never been taught.  I’ve sought out articles by and stories from people of color to better understand how they experience this culture.  I have tried, with some success, to open my eyes to the horror of slavery and its brutal legacy, and to the near genocide of the first peoples who lived on this land.  In that process, I have worked on recognizing my prejudices and biases.  This has not been easy work, but if we take Josiah’s story seriously, we must do as he did and patiently listen.  Then, and only then, will we be ready to take action.

“Once Josiah hears [the Prophet] Huldah’s words, he acts.  He burns Asherah poles, deposes priests and dismantles idolatry for 20 years.  Josiah demolishes a complex, idolatrous system.

“Systems span generations.  When our ancestors set up a sinful system, we carry on sinning unless someone dismantles it with tireless energy.  That’s why holding children accountable for the sins of their fathers makes sense.

“Josiah also teaches us who should dismantle systems.  Josiah confronted a system that, as king, benefited him enormously.  But his leadership was crucial – how can anything change unless those with power take action?

“In our own country, black people and other people of color largely lead the way on racial justice, even though they’ve historically had little institutional power.  Though some people and some white institutions have taken brave steps, we have not, as a people, stepped up as Josiah did.  [Since] white people created racist systems, God tasks us with the primary responsibility for challenging them.”[9]

So, here are a few concrete things white people can do to start the process of dismantling racism:

  1. Don’t ask African-American to forget what their ancestors went through as slaves in this country, or ask them to ignore how that impacts them daily.
  2. Don’t detach ourselves from what our ancestors or people that look like us have created, maintained, and have benefited from—and that we continue to benefit from.
  3. Remember that we were born into a system of white supremacy that we did not create, but must actively help to dismantle.
  4. Don’t be afraid to have the ugly conversations with people who look like us, and don’t be afraid to listen to and learn from the people who don’t look like us.
  5. Shut up while people of color tell their own stories, in their own ways, and to their own ends.
  6. Accept the truths and experiences of racial injustice shared by people of color as valid.
  7. Listen to people of color, advocate for people of color, sympathize with people of color, fight alongside people of color, and raise our voices to match the outcries being made by people of color.
  8. Be an ally by standing up against racial injustice, celebrating racial diversity, and taking on this fight as our own.[10]

“Josiah’s story is ultimately a tragedy.  When he dies, his own son goes right back to the idolatrous systems Josiah worked to eradicate.

“I once assumed that the Civil Rights movement had taken care of the sins of previous generations.  Josiah’s failure reveals my naiveté.  Between slavery and [the latest] versions of Jim Crow, we’ve experienced nearly [400] years of state-supported racism in America.  Josiah, in contrast, inherited a fairly new problem:  His father and grandfather wreaked havoc for only 57 years.  Yet 20 years of Josiah’s sustained effort wasn’t enough.  If Josiah couldn’t accomplish change in one generation, how can we assume we did [or we will]?”[11]

This will be a long struggle.  It is a multi-generational struggle.  White people have a lot to confess, and turning the whole system around in an act of societal repentance is a very big ask.  But it is the transformational ministry Jesus is doing in us individually and in us as a church.  And it is the transformational ministry, this ministry of reconciliation, Jesus has given to us.

Amen.

[1] John Harriott, SJ, quoted by Ryan Dowell Baum on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/revryandb/posts/1725011814455430 (posted and accessed 29 March 2017).

[2] Joseph Kuilema and Christina Edmondson, “Confronting White Privilege,” The Banner, http://thebanner.org/features/2017/01/confronting-white-privilege (posted 20 January 2017; accessed 27 March 2017).

[3] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” The National SEED Project, https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack (copyright 1989).

[4] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[5] Romal J. Tune, “Richard Rohr on White Privilege,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/richard-rohr-white-privilege (posted 19 January 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[8] Heather Caliri, “Repenting of Systemic Racism,” Relevant, http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/current/repenting-systemic-racism (posted 7 September 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).  I’ve done some re-setting of her paragraphs.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This is taken from one of my own Facebook posts from 24 February 2016.

[11] Caliri, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 5:1-20 and “Kids Who Die,” by Langston Hughes
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s gospel lesson is a wonderful, dramatic story.  Jesus has been teaching by the Sea of Galilee.  That night, he and his disciples get in a boat to cross the sea.  While Jesus sleeps, a storm kicks up, severely scaring the disciples.  They wake Jesus and he stills the storm.

They get to the other side of the sea, in the country of the Gerasenes, an area where Gentiles live.  They step out of the boat and are met by a madman who has made his home in the cemetery.  I’ve always pictured Jesus coming ashore and wandering directly into the cemetery, though that’s not exactly what the scripture says.  I’ve also pictured the man as naked and unbathed, with matted hair and beard.  The story doesn’t say that either, though later, when he’s been saved by Jesus, there is a line about him being clothed.

There is no question but that the man is tormented.  He has lost his own voice to what torments him; all he does is howl.  When words come out of this mouth, that the words of the demons that we hear.  He injures himself because he is in so much pain.  The demons that torment him have stripped away his humanity – completely.  Only the demons speak, and when they do, they recognize who Jesus is and the threat Jesus poses.

The story is rich with symbolism.  In the Hebrew scriptures, the sea represents chaos.  In the story right before this one, Jesus show he is master over chaos when he calms the chaotic, life-threatening storm on the sea.  The man who meets them when they come ashore is the personification of chaos.  They come ashore in the land of the unclean (the Gentiles), in an area that is unclean (a cemetery), and are confronted by someone who is unclean (the man who is possessed).

If there is any person who is less than fully human, it’s this guy.  If there is anyone who is less worthy, of less value, it’s this guy.  This man is “other” on so many levels.  And Jesus sees right through this “otherness,” seeing the man’s true humanity.

When I picked this lesson for this sermon, I thought about the “otherness” of the man possessed.  I thought about how racism “others” people of color.  Racism says that whiteness is normal and people who aren’t white are abnormal, not fully human, less than, other.  I looked at how Jesus saw through that “otherness” and heard a call to go and do likewise.

But as I reflected on this scripture this past week, I came to see society in the man possessed.  Society is possessed by the demon of racism.  And racism has a legion of faces.

This is not Kelly’s son, but this child is just about the age of her son in the story she tells.

“My son was about 2 years old,” writes Kelly Brown Douglas.  “I had taken him to the park to play in a Flintstones-like car that was in the park’s playground.  This particular park was next door to an elementary school.  After being in the park for about 15 minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park.  Two little boys, one blonde-haired the other redheaded, ran down to the car where my son was playing.  Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out.  Soon the two little boys began fighting over who was going to play in the car.  My son looked on with the fascination of a 2-year-old.  The little redheaded boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking.  He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son.  With all the venom that a 7- or 8-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.’  This little white boy was angry.  A black boy had intruded upon his space.  My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.

“I was horrified.  Before I could say anything to the offending boy the white teacher, who was in earshot, approached.  She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son.  I expected her to have a conversation with the little boy and to make him apologize.  Instead, she looked at my 2-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime, and said to the little boys, ‘Come on with me, before there is trouble.’  At that moment, I was seething with anger.  I took my son and left the park.

“As we walked away, I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain.  At 2 years old, my son was already viewed as a criminal.  At 7 or 8 years old the link between a black boy’s body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy.  If at 2 years old, a white teacher already regarded my son as a troublemaker, I feared what the future might bring.”[1]

That is one of the legion of faces of racism today; there are many others.  I asked a group of friends who live in the Tri-Cities[2] to share with me their experiences with racism.  I tried to get a cross-section of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and I was blessed with several responses, especially given how quick a response I had asked for in my request.  Here’s just a sample.

One friend is a Muslim woman.  She and her husband are immigrants from Pakistan.  They have three children.  She told me that their eldest has pale skin and, when little, was often mistaken for a Caucasian.  His experience was quite different from that of his little brother.  The younger brother tans easily and has a mole on his forehead.  From early elementary school, he was teased.  In Middle School, he was called names like “Zit Face,” “terrorist,” “Gandhi dot,” and “sand monkey” – to mention just a few of the names that his mother is aware of.

A European-American shared some incidents she witnessed or learned about in her neighborhood.  In Union City, after an off-campus shooting, the Union City police pulled together suspected gang members and their friends, all of whom were African American, for questioning.  She wonders what role racism played in that roundup.

Her neighbor reported his car tagged with a gang symbol.  Some of the responding police suggested the perpetrators were wannabe gang members and called them “grease monkeys” and “welfare cases.”

Another friend, a middle-aged woman from south Asia, immigrated in 1978 and became a citizen in 1986.  She shared how for the first twenty-plus years she lived in the United States, she volunteered in her children’s schools, in Girl Scouts, in camps, in sports programs, and on the boards of several non-profit organizations.  Then came the attacks on September 11, 2001.  “It is painful to be labeled as terrorist,” she told me, “because of the 9/11 tragedy, [especially] after being a part of the American fabric for over 20 years and serving and trying to make America a better nation for all.  Our loyalties are questioned every day since that tragedy by asking us to condemn those or any other terrorists acts since then, no matter who is responsible and where it happens.”

This is a woman with a deeply compassionate heart, and she told me about another incident that happened to a young Latina who worked in Starbucks.  One day, my friend saw that the barista was upset and asked her what had happened.  Earlier that day, a customer had asked the barista a question about school.  The barista proudly told the customer that she had just graduated from high school.  The customer responded, “So this is it for you because your kind do not go to college, you will get pregnant and have babies.”  The barista was too stunned to respond, even though she could have said that she had a full scholarship to attend a university that fall.

These stories I’ve shared are about just one form of power that Racism takes.  You know the old expression, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”  It refers to the fact that the vast majority of an iceberg is underwater.  It applies here.  These overt acts of racism are the portion of the iceberg we can easily see.  Below the surface there are other powers at work.

The first power we see is “Power Against” or “Power Over.”  This is the power I’ve talked about so far, the power that works against people of color.  When racism wields this power, it tells the shop clerk to follow that African-American kids through the store because she is suspect, that it’s okay for a cop to label a Latino kid a “grease monkey,” and that the future for a 2-year-old black boy is jail.

The second power of racism is often harder to see.  It is the “Power For” people who are white.  This is the power that allows me to assume I will be treated justly in the court system, or to assume that I will get a job interview based solely on the fact that my name “sounds” white.  This is the power that gets me a bank loan when an equally qualified person of color doesn’t get it.  It is the power that allows me to assume that I will be shown the apartment if it’s available, as assumption people of color cannot always make.

One of the people who I asked to share stories of racism told me one about a time her daughter got caught shoplifting.  The mom threatened to “let them” have her arrested, and that this would ruin her chances to get into college, and there would be all kinds of consequences for her stupid actions, and (as the mom put it) “blah, blah, blah.”  The mom talked about grounding, severe consequences at home that hadn’t yet been imagined.  She said to the child that you need to apologize, assure the store person that you will never do anything like this again.  This went on until the store person said to the mom, “Obviously, you will make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Your child’s name will be kept on our records and isn’t allowed back in here.”  No police report filed.  No jail time.  No criminal record.  The daughter got to go home, got go to college.  The mom points out that she and her daughter are white.

This is racism’s Power For white people at work.

So is the fact that the GI Bill made home loans available to white GIs after World War II, but not to black GIs.[3]

One of my friends pointed out that white people general don’t acknowledge that their families have benefited from access to college educations, home loans, inherited wealth, job preferences, networking, safe travel, white-biased testing, financial and social training, etc.  All this is racism’s Power For white people.

And then there’s the third power of racism, the Power that Distorts the truth:  that we are each and all made in the image of God.  This is the power of racism that gets deeply and perhaps I should say demonically internalized.  Any time I feel better than, more than, scared of someone of darker hue, this is the result of this third power of racism distorting the truth in me.

A white friend shared with me about dating an African-American man.  My friend said, “Watching women clutch their purses or actually cross the street when they walked by my beautiful and gentle boyfriend was shocking to me.  Overhearing a family ask to move their seats away from our vicinity in a Black Angus restaurant was an eye-opener.”  This is racism’s Power that Distorts at work.  Racism distorted these strangers’ views of my friend’s boyfriend.

It is the same Power of racism at work in a friend who is of several races.  He shared with me how through his adolescence he tried so hard to be white.  He said, “I desperately wanted to be accepted by the White community.  I wanted to be as white as possible, forsaking the color of my skin, my heritage, and my culture,” this despite the fact that his white friends often bullied him, calling him “half-breed.”  Racism distorted my friend’s sense of his own full humanity and it has taken a lot of personal work to reclaim it.

Being aware of these Powers racism has is a start, but it is not enough.  Some of the work that we need to do is very personal, and I’ll talk about that next week.  The other work is communal work.  Obviously, standing up to overt acts of racial prejudice is one way we can address racism’s Power Against.  Working on policy change so that racism’s Power Against and Power For are rooted out is another activity we can engage in.  For instance, we could work for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.  And we as a congregation could develop partnerships with faith communities whose members are predominantly people of color.

The past sermons in this series have shown just how deeply racism runs in our culture and country.  We are not going to get rid of it easily.  But the more we are aware of racism’s powers, the more likely we will find ways to cast out this demonic legion that possesses us.

Amen.

[1] Kelly Brown Douglas, “The Stories That Matter from a Black Mother to Her Son,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/faith-action/stories-matter-black-mother-her-son (posted and accessed 20 March 2017).

[2] Fremont, Newark, and Union City are called the “Tri-Cities” here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

[3] See, for instance, http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/After-the-War-Blacks-and-the-GI-Bill.pdf and http://www.demos.org/blog/11/11/13/how-gi-bill-left-out-african-americans.

There was so much ground to cover in today’s sermon that I just couldn’t cover everything. One thing I didn’t talk about was the racist tweet from Congressman Steve King of Iowa, posted on March 12.

As you can see, King’s tweet is in support of his fellow anti-immigrant demagogue Geert Wilders (who is seeking to become the next Dutch prime minister), praising him as one who “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

The “our” of “our destiny” is White people. Since he’s tweeting about someone in Europe, one could assume that this isn’t just about White America, but it is about something bigger. And, sure enough, it is.

Asked by New Day host Chris Cuomo to defend the comments on March 13, King doubled down on his view that “western civilization” must be defended. Pressed on whether he believes “a Muslim American, an Italian American, Jewish American, [are] all equal, all the same thing,” King hesitated.

“They contribute differently to our culture and civilization,” the Iowa Republican responded. “Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will.” Watch the video.

When King talks about “the American civilization” and “the American culture,” he’s talking about White, Anglo-Saxon-based culture. And when he talks about “assimilation,” he’s talking about stripping non-Whites of their culture so the White-supremacist culture of controlling the United States doesn’t have to change. I have no doubt that Congressman King believes that the racist, Anglo-Saxon-based culture that has held power in the United States is supreme to all other cultures. It is a racist belief.

The Southern Poverty Law Center points out that this racist belief is based on lies.

It’s a lie, for example, that immigrants don’t want to learn English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56% of first-generation immigrants speak English “well” or “very well,” and the demand for English instruction actually far outstrips supply.

It’s a lie that immigrants are violent or criminal. According to a new report by The Sentencing Project, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. Higher levels of immigration may even have contributed to the historic drop in crime rates, researchers say.

In the run-up to both of President Trump’s Muslim bans, perhaps the most widely circulated lie has been that refugees are not screened before entering the country, that banning them will keep the U.S. safe from terror.  This is patently false.  Refugees undergo more rigorous screenings than any other individuals the government allows in the U.S., and we know that no deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to people from the countries covered by either executive order in the last 30 years.

All of these lies, however far-fetched, are based on the same dangerous falsehood:  that immigrants and refugees are somehow not like us:  that they’re not students in search of an education; that they’re not families trying to make ends meet; that as “somebody else’s babies,” they don’t belong here.

The truth is that immigrants are our neighbors and our friends.  They are Americans.

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