A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 21, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Samuel 17:1-50
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Typically in June, we pick a Sunday to celebrate (and goodheartedly roast) our high school graduates.  On these Sundays, the sermon is kept very short.  Today was such a Sunday.  This sermon was deeply influenced by the TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell on David and Goliath available here.

One of the strange things about Michelangelo’s sculpture of David to me is how big it is.  One of the things the storyteller does is set up contrasts.  Goliath is a mighty Philistine warrior, whereas David is a shepherd.  Goliath is a mature adult, whereas David is an adolescent.  Goliath comes to the battle in full armor with sword and pike, whereas David comes dressed as a shepherd, sling in hand.  And Goliath is a giant, whereas David is just a little kid.  Our mind’s eye is supposed to see the contrasts.  And I just had trouble seeing them in the presence of this magnificent, but really big, statue.

One of the reasons for the contrasts is that they cast our hero as the underdog.  And it’s almost comical at times.  Maybe not this comical, but comical.  When David volunteers to battle Goliath, King Saul insists that he put on armor.  But the armor is too heavy for David.  He can’t move in it.  It’s not him.  He’s a shepherd, not a warrior.

So David goes to battle with the dress and weapons of a shepherd: the shepherd’s staff and sling and stones.  There’s some good advice in this aspect of the story.  If David had gone into battle dressed like a soldier, like an infantryman, he would have been pummeled.  In hand-to-hand combat against the giant, he didn’t stand a chance.  By being able to engage Goliath at a distance, David had an advantage.  In bringing a sling to the battle, David essentially brought a gun to a knife-fight.

If he had stepped into this first adult responsibility trying to be someone he wasn’t, he would have lost; he would have died.  But by being himself and bringing his gifts, his abilities, the skills he had (rather than those others thought he needed), he prevailed.

Another interesting aspect of this story is Goliath’s condition.  The propaganda machine said he was the biggest and the best.  No one could defeat him.  But notice:  He was led into the battlefield by an attendant.  And when David descends into the battlefield, Goliath is surprised and insulted that David has a shepherd’s staff.  Only Goliath doesn’t see a shepherd’s staff.  He sees more than one.  “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?”  There’s a darn good chance that Goliath had a vision problem.

And here’s another reminder for us.  The giants in our lives often have some kind of myopia or tunnel vision.  They don’t always see reality as it is, and this is particularly true of the principalities and powers.  What’s a kayak against an oil drilling platform?  Well, when kayakers see beyond the profit margin of a big corporation, they are enough to mess up some plans.  The giants often aren’t as powerful as they are purported to be.

Be yourself.  Show up as yourself with the skills you have and remember that the giants aren’t as powerful as they seem.  Remember how the story ends:  The little guy wins.


From Michael D. Schuenemeyer, Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, national setting of the United Church of Christ

Dear Conference Ministers and Clergy attending the 30 General Synod of the United Church of Christ:

Given the strong possibility of a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that could make marriage equality the law of the land throughout the country, we are working on a contingency for performing same sex weddings at General Synod.  However, at this point, we are still working  to get all the required pieces in place to perform weddings should same sex couples be able to get marriage licenses while we are at General Synod.  At the same time, we recognize the some UCC clergy visiting Ohio for Synod may wish to be able to perform legal marriages and the information in this email contains links and information that help clergy prepare for this possibility.

Please note, it is important for interested clergy to apply for an Ohio “Minister License” immediately in order to have the proper legal authorization/credentials to perform a legal wedding in Ohio.

While we do not know when or how the court will rule, we know that it is possible that same sex marriage could be legal before synod begins, sometime during synod, sometime after synod, or God forbid, not at all.  We know that the Supreme Court’s decision could come at any time between now and June 29.  Many feel it will be June 29, the last day the court is scheduled to have a conference of this term.  That is the Monday of General Synod.  We also know that the Probate Justices in Cuyahoga County have printed gender neutral marriage licenses and desire to make them available to same sex couples as soon as possible should the court rule favorably.

I am working with local officials and Equality Ohio to get a permit for Mall C, the green lawn directly across from the Cleveland Convention Center, over-looking Lake Erie, where weddings could be performed at any time it may become possible to do so during our General Synod meeting.

There is also a chance we may not get the permit and may not logistically be able to make it happen.  As I mentioned earlier, we are still working on putting these pieces together.  I will provide updated information as I can, but I want to share this information now so you and the any clergy you know who are coming to Synod may know about this possibility and if you/ they wish to participate, you/they may be prepared to do so by acquiring the Ohio Minister License and bring it with them to Synod.

I hope this is helpful.

Blessings and peace,

What is required to do wedding in Ohio

Ohio Minister License

You must have a “Minister License” to perform weddings in Ohio.  The process for obtaining a “Minister License” and the link to the application is at:http://www.sos.state.oh.us/sos/recordsIndexes/MinisterLicense/licensing.aspx

You will need to provide a copy of your ordination certificate and/or a copy of the page in the most recent UCC Yearbook where you name is listed as an Ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ (or other communion, as applicable).  Plus there is a $10 fee.  The time is short it is important to submit your application as soon as possible.


Ohio Marriage Law

Marriage Law in Ohio is fairly straightforward and is available at http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/3101.

The following are relevant sections addressing who may solemnize a marriage in Ohio and other related policies.

3101.08 Who may solemnize marriages.

An ordained or licensed minister of any religious society or congregation within this state who is licensed to solemnize marriages, a judge of a county court in accordance with section 1907.18 of the Revised Code, a judge of a municipal court in accordance with section 1901.14 of the Revised Code, a probate judge in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code, the mayor of a municipal corporation in any county in which such municipal corporation wholly or partly lies, the superintendent of the state school for the deaf, or any religious society in conformity with the rules of its church, may join together as husband and wife any persons who are not prohibited by law from being joined in marriage.

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

3101.09 Prohibition.

No person, except those legally authorized, shall attempt to solemnize a marriage, and no marriage shall be solemnized without the issuance of a license.

Effective Date: 10-01-1953

3101.10 License to solemnize marriages.

A minister upon producing to the secretary of state, credentials of the minister’s being a regularly ordained or licensed minister of any religious society or congregation, shall be entitled to receive from the secretary of state a license authorizing the minister to solemnize marriages in this state so long as the minister continues as a regular minister in that society or congregation. A minister shall produce for inspection the minister’s license to solemnize marriages upon demand of any party to a marriage at which the minister officiates or proposes to officiate or upon demand of any probate judge.

Amended by 129th General Assembly File No.52, SB 124, §1, eff. 1/13/2012.

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.11 Recording license to solemnize marriages.

The secretary of state shall enter the name of a minister licensed to solemnize marriages upon a record kept in the office of the secretary of state.

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.12 Evidence of recording.

When the name of a minister licensed to solemnize marriages is entered upon the record by the secretary of state, such record and the license issued under section 3101.10 of the Revised Code shall be evidence that such minister is authorized to solemnize marriages in this state.

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.13 Marriage record.

Except as otherwise provided in this section, a certificate of every marriage solemnized shall be transmitted by the authorized person solemnizing the marriage, within thirty days after the solemnization, to the probate judge of the county in which the marriage license was issued. If, in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code, a probate judge solemnizes a marriage and if the probate judge issued the marriage license to the husband and wife, the probate judge shall file a certificate of that solemnized marriage in the probate judge’s office within thirty days after the solemnization. All of the transmitted and filed certificates shall be consecutively numbered and recorded in the order in which they are received.

Amended by 129th General Assembly File No.52, SB 124, §1, eff. 1/13/2012.

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

3101.14 Notice on license of penalty for failure to return certificate of solemnized marriage.

Every marriage license shall have printed upon it in prominent type the notice that, unless the person solemnizing the marriage returns a certificate of the solemnized marriage to the probate court that issued the marriage license within thirty days after performing the ceremony, or, if the person solemnizing the marriage is a probate judge who is acting in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code and who issued the marriage license to the husband and wife, unless that probate judge files a certificate of the solemnized marriage in the probate judge’s office within thirty days after the solemnization, the person or probate judge is guilty of a minor misdemeanor and, upon conviction, may be punished by a fine of fifty dollars. An envelope suitable for returning the certificate of marriage, and addressed to the proper probate court, shall be given with each license, except that this requirement does not apply if a marriage is to be solemnized by a probate judge who is acting in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code and who issued the marriage license to the husband and wife.

Amended by 129th General Assembly File No.52, SB 124, §1, eff. 1/13/2012.

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 7, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This sermon title was nabbed from this children's book I remember from my childhood.

This sermon title was nabbed from this children’s book I remember from my childhood.

One of the more amazing moments in American history, in my opinion anyway, was the Founders’ decision not to have a king. These European men who had lived as subjects of King George decided that all men are created equal, that so no one of them should be set up as sovereign over the others. Of course, by “all,” they meant all white male property owners, not all people. But still, the decision to found a nation without a monarch was an impressive choice, one that went against the conventional wisdom of the day. Well, not all the conventional wisdom of the day. There were Native American nations that were much more democratic then monarchic, but choosing democracy over monarchy certainly went against the conventional European wisdom of the day.

This is a stark contrast to our reading from 1 Samuel.

It’s important to remember the political history that gets us to this point, at least the way the Hebrew Scriptures tell it. They started off as a horde of people whose primary political identity was “freed slaves.” Once they conquered and occupied the territory they thought was promised to them by God, they lived as a confederation of tribes ruled by “judges.” One of the judges was Samuel. Samuel was a judge who had influence throughout the confederation of tribes. He, it turns out, was the last of the great judges. He ends up playing an important transitional role because he becomes the first prophet of the time of the prophets.

At this point in the story, he thought his sons would inherit his role as the leading Judge in the confederation. But they were no good, so this confederation really couldn’t rely on them. And, given the geo-politics, this confederation felt it needed to become a nation to defend itself. They looked at the other powerful nations around them and they had kings. So the leaders went to Samuel and told him that they need him to appoint a king.

The only problem was that, as far as God was concerned, they already had a king: God. That’s one of the important themes in this story. God was their sovereign. God had been their sovereign since leading them out of slavery. By insisting that Samuel appoint a king for them, the Hebrews were rejecting God as their sovereign.

“We want to be just like every other nation, so give us a king.” God and Samuel saw the dangers. Kings will draft your children and send them off to war. Kings will accumulate wealth for themselves at your expense. Kings will tax you excessively to pay off their cronies and make their wars possible. You’re not going to like it.

And did you hear that line? The king “will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.” One-tenth. A tithe. Kings will take what belongs to God.

But the people insisted and a king was selected. As fate would have it, the selection fell on a man named Saul. And, sure enough, Saul went to war almost immediately. And he worked to consolidate his power threatening executions. In other words, Samuel’s warning was right on target.

I think it’s important to look at the Hebrews’ motivation that spurred them to demand an earthly king. They were anxious about their security. They had mega-countries on either side – Egypt to the south; Assyria to the northeast. They looked at these mega-countries and trembled. And they asked themselves, what have these mega-countries got that we don’t. The answer was a king. It made sense. Kings offer security – or they seem to. Kings are tangible. God, on the other hand, it intangible and wants to be a blessing to all nations, not just ours. So, the logical solution to our security anxieties: give us a king.

It seems to me that this reaction is not restricted to years gone by. Look at our reaction to the acts of terror committed on September 11, 2001. Our nation, that was purposely founded without a king, adopted laws that gave the President some kingly powers. Not only was the size of surveillance state increased, but the President was essentially giving the power to declare war. Not only did our Presidents (plural) move us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but into war in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia as well via the use of drones. Why hasn’t the Congress taken back these kingly powers? The same reason the Hebrews asked for a king of their own: fear.

But the issue for today’s sermon isn’t American politics per se. The issue here is faith. “Give us a king,” the Hebrews demanded of Samuel. Give us someone who is corruptible. Give us someone who will offer us a false sense of security. Give us someone who will make us forget that our hope and our security lies with God and God alone.

A cry went up from Mainline American Protestantism a few weeks ago when the Pew Research report on the state of religion in the United States was released.[1] Woe to us, for we have lost a 3.4% share of the American population. Woe to us, for we are now only 14.7% of the American population. Woe to us! And some are responding by looking at the mega-churches that surround us. Why can’t we be like them? What have they got that we don’t?

I heard a story this past week[2] from a pastor who once served a church as a youth pastor. The mega-church down the street had a huge youth group. Why can’t we have a huge youth group? Why can’t we be just like everyone else? Well, it turns out that the mega-church down the street had a contest: The youth group member who brought the most friends was awarded an iPod. (This was a while ago, when iPods were the latest thing.) Yeah, we could do that. And it would create a big youth group. But would it have been faithful? Wow! We’ve got the biggest bribery youth group in town.

That’s the dilemma the Hebrews faced. A king might be effective (for a time, anyway), but was it faithful? Remember, faith is not primarily about what you believe. Faith is about fidelity and trust and the way you view the world. Asking for a king, demanding a king – what did that say about their faith in God?

The question for the Hebrews wasn’t (or at least it shouldn’t have been) “Who will lead us?” but “How will we follow God and walk with God?” We have the same question before us. As a congregation, how will we follow God and walk with God? As individuals, how will each one of us follow God and walk with God? Our task is always one of listening for God’s vision for us.

There is no one answer that fits all. There is no one vision that is for each one of us or for each congregation. And as times change and circumstances change, God’s vision for us may change, too.

One key component of this is understanding who you are, and who we are. I know I sometimes want to be just like everyone else. I want to fit in. And I suspect the same is true for congregations. We want to be just like everyone else, we want to fit in, not to stand out. Other times we may want to be just like “them,” the “successful” ones – with success typically meaning “large attendance.” But is that God’s vision for us?

There are plenty of gimmicks we can try to grow our church, but if it’s a gimmick, I suspect it won’t be very faithful. What will grow a church is the church giving itself away.

I got an email a while back trying to sell me a pledge campaign. I didn’t bite, but I did like the central metaphor for the campaign – if it were applied to evangelism. The metaphor is a call to move from soupspoons to ladles. My soupspoon is for feeding me. If my evangelism is about filling my soupspoon, it’s about what I’m going to get out of it. My ladle is for filling bowls. If my evangelism is about filling my ladle, it’s about what I’m going to give away to fill someone else’s bowl. And I think that we are generally called to fill other’s bowls, not our own.

Pastor Brenda is going to take a group to a workshop on evangelism in September. The workshop will teach some approaches to ladle evangelism through interpersonal outreach. Emphasis will be on learning, working, practicing, and increasing confidence. Time will be spent on concerns about Interpersonal Outreach, learning how to talk about our church and faith in an authentic but respectful way, and role-playing until you can invite with ease. If you think you might want to go, talk to her.

Whether you go to the workshop or not, it is important to pay attention to what’s motivating you to invite people to church in the first place. If it’s anxiety about the Assyrians to the north and the Egyptians to the south, take a breath. Decisions based in fear are seldom if ever faithful decisions. Decisions grounding in faith – in trust and fidelity – are going to work much better.

Bob Dylan tells us, we’re gonna serve somebody.[3] Remember that all the options other than God – whether money, prestige, or (as popular an idol in the Bible as it is now) national military might – offer false promises of happiness or security. As God pointed out in the Exodus, Pharaoh’s army is all wet.  Samuel warned the Hebrews that the security offered by a king would be short-lived. But God – that’s where our real help come from. And when we glorify God, we remind ourselves and each other, over a crowded field of idolatrous contenders, of that fact.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] See http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.

[2] This was a story told by one of the people on the Pulpit Fiction podcast available at http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/118-proper-5b-june-7-2015.

[3] This conclusion is based on Elizabeth Palmberg’s article, “God’s Glory – It’s Epic,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gods-glory-its-epic (accessed 2 June 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 31, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A couple days ago, Episcopal Church Memes[1] on Facebook suggested that the best way not to commit heresy on Trinity Sunday is not preaching, but showing pictures of kittens instead.  I expected the next meme to say something like, “The best way not to put your congregation to sleep on Trinity Sunday: say nothing and show pictures of kittens.”

Well, I’m going to risk it today.  I’m going to preach.  I hope you not only stay awake, but stay engaged.

I’m not too worried about the heresy charge.  Since both of our denominations are non-doctrinal, non-creedal churches, there is no doctrine or creed for me to violate today.  Other denominations are not so lucky.  And just to prove my point – a little satire about St. Patrick.

The concept of the Trinity has some value to me.  I appreciate how the doctrine of the Trinity invites me to consider how God was (or is) present in Jesus.  It encourages me to wrestle with that Christian claim that God is incarnate in Jesus.  Of course, my brain starts to hurt if I think about Jesus being God but also the Son of God.  That sort of makes him his own father, which the doctrine of the Trinity tries to avoid by claiming that while the persons of the Trinity are each God, they are not each other and there is only one God.  It makes for a nice diagram, but I don’t know how helpful it is to my spiritual journey.

A pretty diagram, but not really helpful.

I like the concept of the Trinity because my adult experiences of God are so different from my early images of God.  The concept of the Trinity allowed me to hold on to both old images and new images by calling them different persons of the Trinity.  Now I’ve let go of those early images of God, replacing them with images that often aren’t even visual, but still, multiple images, multiple experiences.

This brings me to one of the points I want to make in today’s sermon:  We all have images of God.  In the first commandment (at least as I was taught to number them), God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  The second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol …  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”  This has been interpreted to mean that we shouldn’t make art, at least not depicting anything in creation.  That’s a little extreme, it seems to me.  I see the admonition to be against worshipping our images, whether they are physical or something we create in our minds.  And even though we’re not supposed to worship our images, we all create images of God.

We are a visual species, and so it is natural to create an image or images of what can’t be seen even though we are in relationship with it.  Images help us explore what we believe.  For instance, the banners along the sides of the sanctuary have invited me to reflect on how modernity has attempted to define God, to put God in a box; but the Spirit of God breaks down barriers, busts open boxes, and asks us to consider how what we think we know about God might be too restrictive, too incomplete, too limited.  I find reflection helpful because the images I hold, especially the primary image of God that I hold at any given time influences, even dictates, how I relate to God.

One of the earliest images I had of God was a combination of the Lincoln Memorial and Santa Claus.  God sat on a throne, a huge throne.  The God who sat there had a very human form.  This God was a huge, male, human – only not human because he was God and so much bigger than humans.  And this God had age, wisdom, and the beard of Santa.  This God knew when I’d been bad or good, so I’d better be good for goodness sake.  I don’t know how much this image emerged from my own mind and how much it was influenced by art.  Michelangelo’s God creating Adam, painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is similar to this early image of God.  Perhaps he and other artists influenced me.

I find this image strikingly similar to the image of God in our passage from Isaiah.  Isaiah describes a vision of God.  God is a “he” who speaks and wears a robe, sitting on a high throne, in a great temple – actually the great Temple.  Seraphs attend him, singing his praises.  Confronted by this majesty, Isaiah is overcome.  He recognizes his sinfulness and experiences guilt.

I know that many people are uncomfortable with the word, “sin.”  Some hear the word and hear judgment not from God but from other people.  Others hear the word and feel condemnation.  I want to reclaim the word “sin.”  Sin is very real.  It also need not carry all the shaming energy it seems to.

“Sin is having our loves out of order.”  The columnist David Brooks said that during a radio interview about a week ago.[2]  I wish I had said it, but credit where credit is due.

Sin is having our loves out of order.

Do you remember what the first commandment says?  “Don’t have any gods before me.”  There is a tacit acknowledgement that there are other claims on our attentions and affections in our lives.  God’s just saying, “Keep those loves in the right order.”

So, confronted by his vision of God, Isaiah said, “Woe is me, for my loves are out of order.  Yet even still, I’m having this vision of God.”  And God responds to Isaiah by “blotting out” his sin.  In acknowledging that his loves are out of order, Isaiah opens himself to forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  And, reconciled, he opens himself up to hearing God’s call.

This moment of forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful enough moment to have inspired art – a word image inspiring visual images.  Some are as concrete and literalistic as this one.

Others capture a greater sense of mystery, like Marc Chagall’s “The Prophet Isaiah.”  Isaiah and the seraph are there.  There’s another character in white at the top of the painting that might depict God – but I think it’s an angel or another heavenly being.  And in the background, there’s lots going on.  For instance, in the upper right, there are animals and people that make me think of the image of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah will later proclaim.  In the lower right, there is a mother and child; the blue paint makes me think this might be Mary and Jesus.  In the lower left there is a scene that is hard to decipher, but the palm branch makes me wonder if it is of Palm Sunday.  And in the upper left, we see the crucifixion.  What is Chagall saying about Isaiah, sin, redemption, and Jesus?  That question is fodder for another sermon.  If I’m right, that Chagall didn’t include God in this painting, that decision suggests something about his personal image of God.

I think that part of the reason Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding Jesus was that Nicodemus’ personal image of God didn’t align with Jesus’.  Nicodemus was a literalist.  He “was under the influence of a religious tradition that taught a faith that was to be managed, protected, and guarded.  Yet his late-night visit with Jesus revealed some heart longings that had not completely left him.  Perhaps he expected a dialogue in dogmatics, but what he got from Jesus was poetry.”[3]

Of course, the Greek anothen having multiple meanings wasn’t helpful either.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “no one can see the kin-dom of God without being born anothen.”  “What do you mean we need to be born anothen?  No one’s gonna crawl back inside their mother’s womb to be born anothen.”  Jesus was using the word “anothen” to mean “from above,” and Nicodemus was using it to mean “again.”  I think that if Nicodemus could have embraced an image of a God that keeps reaching out to us, that keeps calling us to new life, he might have understood what Jesus was saying.  But I suspect Nicodemus’ God was stuck in the Temple.

As I said earlier, I find the doctrine of the Trinity helpful in only a few ways.  Mostly, I find it to be a headache, and that is especially true when I think about it literally.  On the other hand, when I think about it metaphorically, poetically …  The image of the Trinity is what I have found fruitful.

In attempting to explain the Trinity, that is, in attempting to explain the unexplainable, ancient and more contemporary theologians have actually created words.  One of those ancient words is perichoresis.[4]  The use of perichoresis gets really technical, but at its root, the word is about the relationship of the persons of the Trinity.  The perichoresis of God is that nature of the persons of the Trinity that has them going around and making room for each other.  Play with that image – the persons of the Trinity going around and making room for each other.

God is a dance.  And this dance is done in relationship, the persons of the Trinity weaving between and around each other.  God is a God of relationship.  God is not a static, transcendent, separate, omnipresent being.  God is not the great judge on the great throne with the great beard of my childhood image.  God is in relationship with Godself and desires nothing more than to be in relationship with you and me.

“God is a verb much more than a noun,” writes Richard Rohr.  “God as Trinity invites us into a participatory experience.  Some of our Christian mystics went so far as to say that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a ‘Fourth Person’ of the Eternal Flow of God.”[5]

Paul writes that we’ve been adopted by God.  And not just adopted, but been made heir – co-heirs with Christ.  God has drawn us into relationship at the same level as Christ.  “We talk about the Trinity as God being three-in-one … in order always to add one more – and that’s us, all of us, an infinite ‘plus one’ through which God’s love is made complete in relationship with all of God’s children.”[6]

Or, put another way, we are invited into the dance.  Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/EpiscopalChurchMemes

[2] I don’t remember which radio program on KQED-FM I heard him say this, but I almost immediately tweeted it, and that was at 8:41 p.m., 22 May 2015.

[3] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “Born to be Wild,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/born-be-wild (accessed 26 May 2015).

[4] “Perichoresis,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perichoresis (accessed 26 May 2015).

[5] Richard Rohr, “Meditations on the Mystery of the Trinity,” quoted by Mike Morrell, mikemorrell.org, http://mikemorrell.org/2012/06/wheel-within-a-wheel-fellowshipping-with-the-trinity-in-the-dance-of-life/ (accessed 26 May 2015).

[6] David Lose, “Three-in-One Plus One!” …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/trinity-b-three-in-one-plus-one/ (posted and accesses on 25 May 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve been thinking about it, and hardhats may not be sufficient.  Hardhats offer some protection, but they aren’t strapped on.  Crash helmets would be better.  They offer more protection because they’re strapped on, buckled in.  The rubber gloves are still a good idea.  They might not be necessary, but they’re a good idea.  And not just to protect ourselves.
Did you ever notice that, with one exception, the resurrection stories in the gospels happen either at the empty tomb or in a locked room?  Sometimes, in the empty tomb stories, the resurrected Christ isn’t even there.  There’s just an empty tomb, maybe some angels.  When Jesus does show up, it is to appear to one or only a handful of people.  When the resurrected Christ appears to any sort of a group, it’s in a locked room.

The emphasis on the locked room isn’t about the “teleportive properties”[1] of the resurrected “body.”  Rather, it is symbolic of the “locked-door mentality of the disciples.  If I read properly the story immediately preceding Pentecost, there are 120 disciples packed into one dark room.  They have been re-gathered in the Easter event, but they’re still laying low, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, and [only] whispering the glad news.

“They have good reason to be afraid.”[2]  Their leader was arrested and executed.  And even though God conquered that execution, no one was eager to follow.  That’s the result the authorities were looking for, resurrection or not.  They wanted Jesus’ disciples to be afraid, to lock themselves away.  It started with Peter denying Jesus and then slinking away.  That’s the script the powerful had written.  “Caiaphas says that it would be better for one man to die than for this thing to get out of hand and bring the Roman heel down upon them all.  There is a fragile framework, a tenuous political arrangement that can’t afford to be upset.  They do away with Jesus in order to crush a budding movement.  Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will run for cover.

“The question is this:  Will the movement be ruled by fear?  Will the followers be contained and confined?  Rendered timid and silent?  Pentecost comes with a bold answer:  No.

“The story in Acts 2 begins presumably in the upper room and ends in the streets of Jerusalem.  For the life of me I can’t figure out how they got [from one place to the other.]  Carried by the big wind?  It’s as if the walls dissolve.  Or in a reversal of the resurrected Christ’s passage into their midst, they pass through the walls and out [into the world].  The disciples take the resurrection to the streets; they go public.

“To the authorities it must appear as political madness, an acute and, they hope, isolated case of sanctified anarchism.  Some people say they have had too much to drink.  Granted this refers in part to the inspired and ecstatic utterances, but even more so to their reckless courage.  After what’s been done to Jesus, you’d have to be either crazy or drunk to be shouting his name in the streets and pointing accusing fingers at the guilty executioners.”[3]

Up until this point in the story, the disciples have experienced the resurrected Christ personally.  It’s been much more of a spiritual experience, and awe-filled experience.  “Now they experience the concrete and practical freedom of the resurrection.  No political authority … can shut that down.”[4]

I don’t pretend to understand precisely what happened in the speeches that day.  But there are some characteristics that stand out for me.  For instance, they spoke without confusion.  They spoke clearly and boldly and they were understood.  “These were just plain Galileans.  There wasn’t a seminary degree among them, no studied rhetoriticians.  They couldn’t call a hermeneutic by name to save their souls.  They spoke rough, down-to-earth, fisherman’s-wharf Aramaic.  But on Pentecost they speak the truth with eloquent simplicity.”[5]

I wonder what would happen if disciples of Christ, or even a small group of disciples – say, our church – were to speak clearly and boldly without confusion on the issues of our day.  I wonder what would happen if we were to speak clearly on racial justice, or climate change, or local and global poverty and hunger.  On Pentecost, the Spirit compelled the disciples to speak not only about Jesus, not only about his death and resurrection, but about system that put Jesus to death.  If we were to allow the Spirit to compel us the way the Spirit compelled the disciples on Pentecost, how might the world change?

On that day of Pentecost, “the disciples spoke with a voice so loud and clear that never a doubt could arise in the heart of the simplest person.  They were understood.”[6]  And they did it under the tremendous pressure of the authorities listening in.

If we were to speak so clearly and boldly, would we become a threat to the powers that be?

Speaking with such clarity and boldness certainly made the disciples a threat to the powers in their day.  At first, the powers kept their cool.  “They exercised, at first, a prudent and calculated restraint.  … Perhaps the big wind of a movement will blow itself out (Acts 5:38).  The boldness of the disciples is relentless, however.  They are back day after day in the temple proclaiming the resurrection.  In the end, as the book of Acts attests, the consequence of Pentecost is arrest and imprisonment”[7]  In chapter 4 Peter and John are called before the Sanhedrin.  In chapter 9, they plot to kill Paul in Damascus and again in Jerusalem.  In chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas speak boldly in Antioch, where some “stirred up persecution against [them] and drove them out of their district.”  In chapter 14, the same thing happens in Iconium and Ephesus.  In chapter 28, while under house arrest in Rome, Paul is still going on about the gospel, talking away unhindered.  Nothing, it seems, can shut him up.

And don’t think that only the Pauls and Peters and Johns are worthy of such a power-infusion and boldness-infusion from the spirit.  The author of Acts “is careful to note that the flame rests upon each member, without exception, and that each person receives no more and no less than others – confirming that we are all equally blessed with the gifts and responsibilities of the Spirit.”[8]

The gospel lesson for today (we didn’t read it) is from John.  It’s a passage where Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit, only in chapter 15, John doesn’t use the word “pneuma,” the Greek for spirit, wind, and breath.  John uses the word “paraclete,” a word traditionally translated “Advocate” and “Comforter.”  David Dose says that these translations are insufficient.  He writes, “The Holy Spirit as Comforter eases our distress, encourages us, and comes to us in times of trouble to remind us of Jesus’ presence and promises.  And it’s just that kind of comfort, I imagine, that is at the heart of Jesus’ discourse to his disciples in the Fourth Gospel.  They were distressed, feeling orphaned and abandoned, and so needed that kind of comfort and advocacy.

“Why, then, do I think the Holy Spirit is misnamed?  Because everywhere I look in these familiar Pentecost texts, the Holy Spirit isn’t comforting anyone or anything but instead is shaking things up.

“[And] in Acts … there’s nothing particularly comforting about the rush of a ‘violent wind,’ let alone descending tongues of flame.  And once the disciples take their new multi-lingual ability into the streets of Jerusalem, pretty much everyone who witnesses their activity is described as ‘bewildered,’ ‘amazed,’ and ‘astonished.’  Again, the Spirit didn’t comfort anyone but instead prompted the disciples to make a very public scene with the troubling good news that the person the crowds had put to death was alive through the power of God. …

“The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, as much provocateur as comforter.”[9]

Dare we pray that God send the agitator and provocateur upon us?

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves,…” writes Paul in his letter to the Romans.  God is doing some massive transformational work here.  Something new is being birthed in all of creation, and not just creation out there, but creation in here, in our community and in each one of us.  Maybe the role of disciple and the role of midwife aren’t so far apart.  Maybe we should put on some rubber gloves so we would be ready for the delivery room.  The rubber gloves may not be necessary, but birth can be messy and if we believe that God really is doing something new, that creation is groaning in labor pains, it’s worth being ready.

When I came back to these familiar texts in my worship planning a month ago, an Annie Dillard quote popped into my head:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[10]

I didn’t remember the quote quite right.  I thought she called for hard hats, but crash helmets are better.  They offer a little more protection because they get strapped on.  If we’re daring, we’ll ask God to send the Paraclete, we will ask God to send the one who walks along side us to defend and comfort and counsel, and to agitate and provoke.  If we’re daring, we’ll ask to be pushed beyond what we imagine is possible, knowing that we’ll end up stirring things up.  If we’re daring, we’ll let the Spirit create a new problem for us:  that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’ve done so!

If we’re daring, we’ll suit up with our hard hats (or crash helmets) and rubber gloves and let God draw us out to where we can never return.


[1] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “In the Boldness of the Spirit,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/boldness-spirit (accessed 19 May 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michaela Bruzzese, “Full Circle,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/full-circle (accessed 19 May 2015).

[9] David Dose, “Come Alongside, Holy Spirit,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/pentecost-b-come-alongside-holy-spirit/ (accessed 18 May 2015).

[10] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Row, 1982; quoted on “Annie Dillard,” Wikiquote, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Annie_Dillard (accessed 23 May 2015).

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

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

Graph from the Pew Research report.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Katahdin

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

The knife edge between the peaks of Mount Katahdin.

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

Hiking the knife edge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, we walk on the knife edge.


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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

Irene Vollbrecht

Irene Vollbrecht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dena Hokom

Dena Hokom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apart from Jesus, we can’t survive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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