A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 17, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 10:34-48
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This is one of my two favorite pictures of me from the past 15 years.  Without a doubt, it is the company I’m in that makes me look good.  The company and the occasion.  The occasion was Clara’s baptism, April 2011.

I love performing baptisms of infants and toddlers.  They are holy moments, pure moments.  This child, who has done nothing but exist, who has done nothing to try to hide from God’s love, nor done anything to earn God’s love, is, nonetheless, celebrated, and we declare they are part of God’s beloved family.

I also think we should, except in rare, emergency situations, stop doing infant and child baptisms.  We can do infant dedications where thanks are given to God for the child and the parents (and godparents, if there are any) commit to raise the child in the faith.  But we should stop doing infant baptisms.

We’ve learned in the course of this sermon series that the most consistent understanding of baptism over the past 2,000 years is that baptism is the sacrament through which one becomes a member of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, and because I believe that becoming a member of the faith and family of Jesus should be a choice, rather than something that is imposed, I’ve concluded we should offer baptism to people who have decided for themselves to follow Jesus.

This sermon is an examination of what a liturgy of baptism should look like that has both a progressive theological integrity and ecumenical recognition.  There are certain things the global Christian community expects are included in a baptism liturgy, and I have no desire to separate us from the world-wide communion of Christians.  So, as we go forward with this sermon, I will assume the baptismal liturgy we’re searching for is one for what’s called “believer’s baptisms;” that is, for baptisms where the one to be baptized wants to be baptized.

Before we dig into this search, there is one aspect or assumption about baptism that I don’t think Pastor Brenda or I mentioned in any of the sermons in this series.  That assumption is that baptism is a one-time sacrament.  Whether baptized as a baby or as an octogenarian, a person is only baptized once.  And once baptized, always baptized.  The justification for this position is a little arguing over “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” to me, and I don’t want to digress into that discussion.  Let me suggest that we accept it as the ecumenical understanding and the understanding of our denominations – that baptism happens at most once in a person’s life.

That said, I also support people choosing to reaffirm their baptismal covenant when moved to do so, and there are several ways to do that, some of which involve water, perhaps even a whole bunch of water.

I also think it is important to know that neither of our denominations has a “this is it” liturgy book, the way the Episcopal Church does, for instance.  In the Episcopal Church, there is The Book of Common Prayer, and if you want to know how to do a baptism as an Episcopalian, you can look it up.  In the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, we have bunches of liturgical resources and plenty of ideas and approaches to consider.

There are, however, two primary resources for worship.  The United Church of Christ has Book of Worship (notice that “the” is missing from the title), and the Disciples of Christ have Chalice Worship.  While everything in them has a degree of “suggestion” to it, they do represent the most common liturgical theology and understanding of the denominations.  That’s why I’m using the baptism liturgies from them as a starting place for this search for a Progressive Christian baptism liturgy.

I have a handout for you that the ushers will pass out now.  You’ll see it has three columns.  The first is an outline with some script of the liturgy for baptism from the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship.  The second is an outline with some script of the liturgy for baptism from the Disciples of Christ’s Chalice Worship.  The third column is my suggestion of a starting point for a Progressive Christian baptism liturgy, but I want to talk about the first two columns before we get to the third.

You’ll notice that the content of the UCC and DOC liturgies are very similar to each other, though the order of things differs.  The one thing that the UCC liturgy has that the DOC liturgy doesn’t is at the top of the second page:  the “Congregational Assent.”  In introductions to baptism in both Book of Worship and Chalice Worship, there is mention that the sacrament of baptism should be celebrated in the context of worship.  As it’s explained in Book of Worship, “Baptism is not only a personal celebration in the lives of the individual candidates and their families, but also a central celebration in the life of the local church which embodies the universal church in a particular place.  For this reason, baptism should take place in the presence of the community of faith gathered for public worship.”  Because baptism is a commitment to be on a Christian faith journey, and because we travel together, I think it is appropriate for the congregation to voice their support and encouragement for the one being baptized.  So, you’ll see I’ve included it in the third column.

You’ll also notice that I’ve left out most of the options of what the pastor can say from most of the elements in the liturgies.  However, I’ve included the script (if you will) for the sections that might be understood as the baptismal vows.  And I’ve included the script of what is said in the act of baptism itself.  I’ve done this because I think these are the areas around which we might find the most resistance and disagreement as a congregation.  So let’s take a closer look at those questions that get asked of the candidates first, and then move on to the words that are said at the baptism itself.

In the UCC liturgy, the first question a candidate for baptism gets asked is, “Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?”  Since the basic, consistent understanding of Christian baptism over the past 2,000 years has been that it is the sacrament through which one becomes a member of the faith and family of Jesus, this seems to me to be an appropriate question to ask.

The next question, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” may sound like a strange question to our ears.  We don’t talk much about “the powers of evil” or the “freedom of new life in Christ.”  But if baptism is understood as a turning point in one’s life, a turning from whatever path one has been on and to the Jesus-path, then a question about that seems appropriate.  Ecumenically, there is an expectation that a baptism liturgy includes “a renunciation of evil.”[1]

The third question is the one about which I suspect there is the greatest resistance in our congregation.  “Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”  Of the five questions in the UCC liturgy, this one comes closest to asking about a belief, rather than asking about faith.  This is the headiest of the questions.  I think that’s because “Christ,” “Lord,” and “Savior” are very loaded words.  I know that my understanding of them has shifted over the years.  For me right now, they are mostly a political statement.  “Lord and Savior” was a title Caesar claimed.  For the first three centuries of Christianity, for a follow of Jesus to say that he is “Lord and Savior” was to say that Caesar is not, which was a radical, dangerous thing to say.  There are many other nuances to that I find in the profession, enough for a book, probably.  For now let me say that wrestling with that question is important spiritual the theological work for anyone who claims the title “Christian” to do.

The fourth question is a mouthful:  “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”  I think what it’s asking is, “Do you promise to follow Jesus?” and trying to express some of what that means.

The fifth question, another mouthful, asks us to recognize that being a Christian is not a static thing, that following Jesus is an active thing.  Following Jesus, this question suggests, means growing in faith, being part of community, and working to fulfill Jesus’ mission in the world.

The language of the questions in the Disciple’s liturgy is simpler and more direct.  And there are only three questions.  “Do you renounce evil, repent of your sins, and turn to Christ?”

Like the second question in the UCC liturgy, this question points to the idea of baptism as a turning point, a commitment to a new way of life.  It even includes the word “turn.”  The second question is another wording of what the third UCC question asks, and it will be met with similar resistance, I suspect.

The third question in the DOC liturgy has a similar function, I think, as the “Affirmation of Faith” in the UCC liturgy.  This is a question of belief in the triune God.  In the DOC liturgy, only the candidates for baptism are asked this question.  In the UCC liturgy, the whole congregation is asked to profess such a belief.

Can I be honest and heretical with you?  My belief in God as trinity is now much, much less important to me than it was when I was ordained.  The concept of the trinity helped we struggle with my questions about who/what God is.  No longer.  Now, for me, the trinity is much more of a metaphor than a doctrine.  Plus, a few years ago, when I preached on the trinity, I concluded that one cannot explain the trinity without saying something heretical.  And I showed this picture.

That said, I still want to use the historic, trinitarian formula for referring to God at the time of baptism itself.  If we go back to our handout, to the section “Act of Baptism,” you’ll see that in both liturgies, this traditional trinitarian formula is used.  It goes back to Matthew 28, the scripture we heard today.  And it goes to the ecumenical convergence around baptism.  The World Council of Churches document on this convergence says, “Baptism is administered with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”[2]  This statement is so supported ecumenically, there is no commentary about it.  In fact, this statement is pretty much the ecumenical bottom line for a baptism to be recognized:  There needs to be some water used, and it needs to be done in the name the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

While “Father” as a referent to God is not as impactful for me as it once was, and while “Father” genders God in a way that I think is inaccurate (I think God is beyond gender), I want to use this traditional language for the sake of the unity of the church.  Chalice Worship says, “Although Disciples make a point that no creedal statement should stand between the believer and Christ as a test of fellowship, the church has always baptized person in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, it is appropriate to ask the candidates to affirm these words of baptism in a noncreedal way.”

If you look now to the third column, you’ll see what I’m suggesting as a starting place for developing a Progressive Christian liturgy for baptism.  I’m suggesting we start with an invitation.  It just seems the polite thing to do.  Then there is some explanation about baptism.  Exactly what is said would still need to be figured out.  It would serve the same purpose as the “Welcome” and the “Address” in the UCC liturgy and the “Scripture Sentences” and “Statement of Purpose” in the DOC liturgy.

The section that is “Questions of the Candidates” in the UCC liturgy and “Renunciation of Evil and Confession of Faith” in the DOC liturgy is replaced with something that has three parts.  First, there is a question about desire to become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.  I explained earlier why I think this is an appropriate question to ask.  Then, second, rather than questions about renouncing evil, Jesus as Lord and Savior, and a profession of faith in the triune God, I’m suggesting we ask the candidates to give their testimony.  This would be an opportunity for the candidates for baptism to talk about their relationship with the Divine, to talk about what following Jesus means to them, to talk about evil and goodness and the struggle to live faithfully, and to talk about why this is the right time for them to make a commitment to follow Jesus.  If baptism is a sacrament of faith, then it is a sacrament of relationship rather than mental assent.  If baptism is a step on a journey of discipleship, then why not give this disciple a chance to talk about their journey?

Finally, I’ve swiped the questions of commitment, the questions of promising to follow Jesus from the UCC liturgy.  They might be reworded, but I think it is appropriate to have some sort of question(s) of commitment.  I’m thinking about the times in history when baptism was understood primarily to be about making a commitment, and I don’t want to lose that.

I’m suggesting we keep an opportunity for the community to offer their support.  A prayer over the waters of baptism is appropriate just as a prayer over the bread and cup is appropriate each time we celebrate communion.  I’ve kept the historic trinitarian formula for the act of baptism, but added a little twist, and maybe there’s a way to twist it a little more.  And, finally, there is a prayer for the baptized and a benediction to close out that part of the liturgy so we can return to the wider context of worship in which baptism is celebrated.

As I said in the announcements, we’re going to finish the sermon during the Town Hall Meeting.  Actually, you’re going to finish the sermon during the Town Hall Meeting.  Here are the questions we are going to discuss:

  • What do you think about my claim that we should only practice believer’s baptism?
  • What would you ask of a candidate for baptism? How would you like them to express their faith?
  • How would you word questions of commitment? Or what would you replace those questions with if we didn’t ask questions?

Let’s take a little time right now to think about these questions in preparation for our discussion.

_______________

[1] See paragraph 20 of the “Baptism” section of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 111 from the World Council of Churches, published in 1982. It is available online at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text

[2] Ibid, paragraph 17.

Advertisements

Bill McKibben

I just finished reading Bill McKibben’s The New Yorker article, “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet.” It was published in November and I may have read it then (some portions sounded very familiar), but Bill writes a lot and quite well, so I may have read similar things he wrote in other articles. It’s lengthy, and it is totally worth the time to read it. And if you’re like me, it will leave you depressed.

As Bill described the impacts of a warming planet – retreating glaciers, the coming desertification, portions of the globe becoming humanly uninhabitable because of the heat, the collapse of farming that has happened regionally and will happen with greater and greater frequency – images of a film I saw decades ago came to mind. The film depicts the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war in a small town, far enough away from where the bombs dropped to avoid the initial devastation, but close enough that the fallout impacts everyone. I did a little googling and I think the movie was Testament.

Among the scenes from the movie that came to mind as I read Bill’s article is of a minister presiding over a mass funeral/cremation as people die from radiation sickness (at least that’s how I remember the scene). I was in my first year of seminary when I saw the movie, wondering what my vocation would be like. I keep wondering if we will have mass casualties from weather events as the climate chaos becomes more profound over the next decades. I wonder if that scene, that I had come to assume wouldn’t be part of my ministry after the Reagan administration left office, might become part of what it means to be a pastor in the midst of the Athropocene.

We know that we are at the beginning of a mass extinction. Insect biomass is dropping by 2.5% per year. Huge numbers of species will be lost before they are even identified. Mammals, birds, and reptiles are dying at slower rates, but they are disappearing. As agriculture falters and ecosystems collapse, will human deaths from heatwaves and hunger, from scarcity of water and war become so intense that scene from the 1980s movie will be played out in real life?

I hope not. But I wonder. And that’s why Bill’s article has left me depressed.

Luckily, Bill doesn’t stop with doom and gloom news. There are signs of hope. Bill mentions the one-person school strike in Sweden led by Greta Thunberg that galvanized attention last year. Today, thousands of students in the United Kingdom went on strike for climate justice. And a global climate strike is planned for March 15.

The sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that Bill mentions calling for a Green New Deal back in November has led (in no small part, thanks to the organizing of the Sunrise Movement) to the filing of a congressional resolution calling for Green New Deal. There may be real congressional debate about real mitigation to the pending climate chaos.

Much more political action is needed. Repentance (as in a change of heart and a change of direction) are needed. Bad theology, especially bad Christian theology, has led to destructive assumptions about the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. “The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts,” John Muir wrote in 1867 (Bill quotes him in the article). Would that more of us realized this.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 3, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 9:14-27 and John 20:24-29
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into this week’s sermon, I’d like you to take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts to the questions on the insert in your announcement folders.  You don’t need full answers for the questions on page 1.  Just give yourself a few words to help you remember what your initial reaction to the question is.  One page 2, try to write a complete sentence (or two) for each question – but limit yourself to 15 words or fewer.  Later in the sermon, I’m hoping that a few of you will share your answers to the questions on page 2.  That’s why I’m asking you to really focus your answers.  If you’re sharing an announcement folder, Cathy and Bob have extra copies of the insert.

[[These are the questions on the insert; you might want to take a moment to answer them before continuing to read this sermon:

  • Why did you start going to church as an adult?
  • Why did you start coming to Niles Discovery Church (or one of the predecessor churches)?
  • If you are officially a member of Niles Discovery Church, why did you join? If you’re not officially a member of Nile Discovery Church, why not?
  • Limiting yourself to 15 words or fewer, what does it mean to you to be a member of a church?
  • Limiting yourself to 15 words or fewer, why is it important to you to be part of this church?]]

In last week’s sermon, I contended that a church – and I was (and am) talking about a Christian church – is a community of people who are connected to God and God’s purposes; who are following (or are seeking to follow) Jesus; who are in covenant with each other and with God as we seek to live a life grounded in love; and who desire to be in a deepening relationship with God as revealed in Jesus.  This sermon is a look at what it means to join such a community.

Let me start by saying that joining a church is very different from joining a gym.  When you join a gym, you are not establishing a covenant with the other gym members.  As Lillian Daniels has pointed out, “At the gym you’re signing up to receive certain services, to use the equipment and to receive advice from experts, all as part of a financial transaction.”[1]

It’s different at a church.  You’re not on the receiving end of a contract when you join a church.  You’re in a giving/receiving covenant.  You promise to do more than show up and use the facilities.

What that something more looks like may change through the seasons of your life, but there’s always that something more.  Perhaps in one season, you’ll concentrate on holding other people in prayer and love.  Perhaps you will make a contribution to the community by volunteering in one ministry now, and in a few years find that a different ministry matches better with your gifts and time as they have evolved.  In one season of your life you may be able to contribute financially only a tiny amount, if any at all.  In another season, you may be one of the bigger givers in the church.

Joining a church is not only about you getting spiritually fit.  It’s about being part of that community that is connected to God and God’s purposes by following Jesus.  It’s about being in covenant with the others in the community and with God as we seek to live lives more deeply grounded in love and as our relationship with God, made known to us in Jesus, deepens.

There are also some practical, institutional reasons to join the church.  Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ have “congregational polity.”  That means that in both of our denominations there is no hierarchy.  Each congregation governs their own affairs.  After worship today, we will have our Annual Budget Meeting.  The annual budget is something we created and we can modify as a community and that we are responsible for once we adopt it.  So, becoming a member of the church means, under our polity, when your join the church, we get to vote on these types of matters.  And, I think, that’s honestly one of the reasons DOC and UCC congregations have membership.

When you are baptized a Roman Catholic, you are a member of the church – but it’s a member of the whole church, not a particular parish.  Unless a local priest gives the people in that parish the say, they really don’t have much say in how things are run.  In congregational polity, the members get the say, so we need to define who a member is.  One can look at church membership purely from this practical point of view.

I’d rather look at it from a covenantal point of view.  We aren’t members merely for the sake of the church’s business.  When we become members, we covenant with each other and become mutually accountable to each other.  That’s why someone doesn’t just fill out a membership form and drop it off at the front desk to become a member.  Joining the congregation is a mutual thing.  We join with each other.  Every time someone joins the church, all the existing members join with that person, and the covenant is renewed.  And every time someone joins the church (or leaves the church, for that matter), the church changes.

Because God is a part of every covenant, joining a church, being a member of a church is, in my opinion, a God thing.  That’s why I picked these scriptures for today.  They are stories about commitment, about relationship, about love.

Immediately preceding our first lesson, Jesus, Peter, James, and John are up on a mountain and have a deeply spiritual experience.  They encounter the Divine so intimately that they hear the voice of God.  They come down from this mountaintop experience and find the other disciples trying and failing to treat a child with epilepsy.  In an exasperated tone, Jesus tells the father to bring the child to him.  Jesus gets a medical history as the child goes into a seizure.  After the father gives the history and explains how horrible this has been for the child and for the family, the father says (as rendered in The Message), “If you can do anything, do it.”

“If?” Jesus responds.  “There is no ‘ifs’ among believers.”

“Then I believe,” the father says.  “Help me with my doubts.”  This rendering shows some of the limits of The Message.  The New Revised Standard Version more accurately translates the father’s response:  “I believe; help my unbelief.”

If you’ve heard me preach for any length of time, you know that Marcus Borg is one of my favorite theologians and biblical scholars.  Pastor Brenda and I referred to his work explain the difference between a contemporary understanding of “belief” and a relational understanding of “faith.”  He has also written about the roots of the word “believe.”

The idea that having the right beliefs is what defines whether or not someone is a Christian may be widespread, but it’s relatively recent.  A recent “distortion,” Borg says.  He explains:

Marcus Borg

“It began with the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1600s and continues today.  Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed.  Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by what they believed.

“So also the Enlightenment heightened the emphasis on believing.  Characterized by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing, the Enlightenment called into question many conventional Christian ideas:  the earth as the center of the universe, creation as having happened in six days and not all that long ago, a world-wide flood that killed every land creature even more recently, and more generally that miraculous supernatural interventions sometimes occur.

“With those notions challenged, the response in much of Western Christianity was to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary.  This was the birth of modern biblical literalism with its emphasis on the literal-factuality of biblical narratives:  from creation through the exodus from Egypt to the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus.  Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian became believing the right things now for the sake of heaven later.

“Of course, the language of ‘believing’ has been part of Christianity from the first century onward.  But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs.  It meant something like the English word ‘beloving.’  To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus.  Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness.  Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.”[2]

With this understanding of “believe,” to think of this word to mean, “I give my heart to,” think again about the father’s declaration to Jesus.  “I believe; help my unbelief” becomes “I give you my heart; help me let go of whatever way I’m holding it back.”  “I give you my heart; help me fully let go.”  This understanding of “believe” is a relational understanding.  It is much closer to the understanding of faith we’ve talked about in the past three sermons.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio, 1601-1602)

Likewise, the story of Thomas’ declaration when he experiences the resurrected Jesus could be seen as a statement of belief or of belove.  Some interpret it to be a statement of belief, of mental ascent.  Citing Thomas’ declaration to Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” Catholic apologist Trent Horn says, “This is one of the most powerful and direct evidences for the doctrine of the deity of Christ, or the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man.”[3]  Horn understands the declaration to be about Jesus.

I hear the drama of the story.  I hear it as a statement of beloving.  I hear is at a statement to Jesus.  Having missed the appearance of the resurrected Jesus the week before, Thomas experiences it and is overwhelmed.  His declaration is one of the heart, more than the head.

And this understanding encourages us to hear the final verse of the reading differently.  “Have you given me your heart because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet give me their hearts.”

I think that becoming a member of the church is, in part, and act of beloving.  When we enter into that covenantal relationship with each other and with God, it’s not an act of having the right beliefs.  It’s an act of committing to journey together, in community, following the way of Jesus.  That’s what I think.

At the beginning of the sermon, I asked you to contemplate some questions.  Perhaps some of you would share your responses.  Maybe four of you would share what it means to you to be a member of a church.

[Sharing]

And maybe four more of you would share why it’s important to you to be a member of this church.

[Sharing]

Rather than take a few more minutes of quiet contemplation, I invite you to add two more questions to your question sheet and to think about them in the days ahead:

  • Looking at your answers to the other questions, did you say (or imply) anything about God, Jesus, the Spirit?
  • What does the presence or absence of “God talk” in your answers say to you?

_______________

[1] Lillian Daniels, “So You’re Thinking About Joining a Church,” a brochure published by the United Church of Christ.

[2] Marcus Borg, “What Is a Christian?” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/2013/11/what-is-a-christian/ (posted 5 November 2013; accessed 2 February 2019).

[3] Trent Horn, “Did Thomas Think Jesus Was God?” Catholic Answers, https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/did-thomas-think-jesus-was-god (posted 2 May 2014; accessed 2 February 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 27, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 12:1-21 and Acts 2:43-47
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Welcome to sermon 3 in our series on church membership. The goal of this series is to help us as a congregation answer the question, “What should be the requirements for membership in Niles Discovery Church?”  I think there’s an ancillary question that comes up in response to the primary question.  That is, what are appropriate expectations of members?  To be honest, I don’t think we’re going to get to this ancillary question. Nonetheless, I think it is worth asking and I hope you will hold it in the back of your mind as we continue this seven-part sermon series.

Our congregation’s bylaws say, “Any baptized person may seek membership in this church.  Uniting with the congregation is an act of reaffirmation of baptism.”  That means that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lady Gaga, Vice President Mike Pence, and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would all be equally welcome to seek membership in this church. They are all baptized persons.  And baptism is our only requirement for membership.

It is because baptism is our only requirement for membership that we started this sermon series with two sermons on baptism – hardly enough to cover the topic, but it was a start.  In those sermons, we learned that in the two-thousand-year history of Christianity, the primary understanding of baptism has shifted, while a secondary understanding has remained steady.  The shifting primary understandings have included:  seeing baptism as a matriculation into a Christian faith journey; seeing baptism as the sign and vehicle for a deepening commitment to live as a Christian; and seeing baptism as a form of afterlife insurance.

For many of us, this third view is not only no longer primary, it is no longer important at all.  While baptism is a sign and a rite through which one can say, “From here, a new life begins,” and so baptism is about the washing away of sins of the past, baptism is a sign of grace for this life, not for the next.  This new life, however, isn’t simply a life turned away from something (namely, one’s old life).  This new life is a turning toward something.  It is a turning toward Jesus.

The secondary understanding that has remained through these shifting primary understandings, an understanding that has been part of baptism from the beginning of the Jesus movement, is that baptism is the sacrament of the church universal through which one becomes part of the church universal.  Through baptism, we become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.

This third sermon in this series moves us to looking at what it means to be a church.* This is important to consider because our big question is about the requirements for people to become members of this church.  It seems logical to me that we need to talk about what it is they are becoming members of.  What does it mean for Niles Discovery Church to be a “church”?

I preached on this topic back in September. The manuscript for this sermon (which will be posted on the church website and on my blog) will include a link to that September sermon so you can read it if you’re interested in doing so.  I encourage you to.  It’s a good sermon, if I do say so myself.

It has three main points:

  • Being a church means being connected to God and God’s purposes.
  • Being a church means following the way of Jesus to build that connection to God and God’s purposes.
  • Being a church means being in covenant with each other and with God as we seek and fail and seek again to live a life based in love.

These ideas were echoed in the Bible study we had on Monday as part of the Daytime Fellowship gathering.  We were studying Romans 12, one of today’s scripture readings, and talking about what it means to be a church.  I think there was a convergence of ideas, things like:

  • A church is a group of people with a common identity: faith in God – or at least a seeking after God.
  • Even though the building can be important, even though is can be hallowed ground, a church isn’t the building; it’s the people.
  • A church is a group of people seeking to follow Jesus.
  • A church is a group of people bound together by principles for how we treat each other and the community (in particular, those Paul spells out in the reading).

That first idea, “A church is a group of people with a common identity:  faith in God – or at least a seeking after God,” wasn’t actually said that way.  Rather than the word “faith,” the word that was used was “belief.”  The common identity as shared was “belief in God.”  But as we’ve explored in the last two sermons, for progressive Christians (and as it really should be for all non-creedal churches), having the “right beliefs” is not important.  Having, growing, or seeking a relationship with the Divine, especially as revealed by Jesus, is what’s important.  So “faith” is probably a better word to use here, because “faith” is a relational word. Faith is about trust in God and faithfulness to God and desire to relate to creation as good and trustworthy.

With this in mind, perhaps it is fair to summarize the definition of “a church” that came out of the Daytime Fellowship as, “A church is a group of people who are in (or want to be in) relationship with God by following (or at least trying to follow) Jesus.”

The simplicity of this language stands in contrast to the language in the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, which says, “The basic unit of the life and organization of the United Church of Christ is the Local Church.

“A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.

“In accordance with the custom and usage of a Local Church, persons become members by (a) baptism and either confirmation or profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; (b) reaffirmation or reprofession of faith; or (c) letter of transfer or certification from other Christian churches.”[1]

Despite its God and faith language, I find there to be a stiffness to this description.  And my understanding of God as trinity is has changed over the past 20 years.  As has my understanding of Jesus as Lord and Savior (or even as Christ, for that matter).  So, if that’s what it means to be a church, is my understanding of trinity and Lordship sufficient to allow me in?

The “Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)”[2]is less rigid than the United Church of Christ’s Constitution.  In its section on Local Churches, the Design talks about the local church’s rights and responsibilities, but it doesn’t really define what a local church is.

One has to go back to the Preamble to find some definition of the church, though I hear these words as being more about the church universal than they are about a local congregation.  “Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name.”  I’d rather say, “wherever faithers in Jesus Christ are gathered in his name.”

It goes on, “Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members.”  This implies that the local church is one of those “ordered communities,” and so defines it as ordered and bound together for worship, fellowship, and service, for mission, witness, and mutual accountability, and for the nurture and renewal of its members.

I like that it goes on to say, “The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world.”  And then it reminds us of who’s in charge (echoed in the UCC’s Constitution, by the way): “All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.”

So, what happens when a congregation ceases to be this?  What happens when a congregation ceases to fulfill the definition a particular denomination has given for what it means to be a church?  Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco might be an object lesson for us.

Glide Memorial Church

Glide has been a congregation in the United Methodist Church, but it is not clear that it will continue to be.  The issues are complex and include issues of Methodist polity and governance, and of money and property.  They also include issues germane to our topic, issues of faith.  According to the United Methodist Bishop overseeing Glide, “While there is a remnant of those who claim to be United Methodist [at Glide Memorial Church] and [are] thus Christian, the great majority of the participants at Glide’s Sunday Celebrations claim other faiths such as Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Wiccan.  Atheists and Agnostics, comprise another segment of the Glide community.  Leaders from these constituencies are quick to publicly state that they do not want the Celebrations, or the church, to be United Methodist or Christian in any form.  Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but lack the fundamentals of Christian worship. Baptisms are conducted periodically but in the name of the people rather than from a Christian understanding of Baptism. Holy Communion was done away with some time ago and only introduced back into the life of the congregation this past Spring, but outside of the Celebration gatherings and with much resistance.”[3]

Without passing any judgment on the actual accuracy of these claims by the Bishop, if do call into question if Glide still a church? And more importantly for us, they raise a question:  if we cease to hold some connection to Jesus and God as part of our identity and if we cease to require some relationship with Jesus and God for membership, would we cease to be a church?

Core to our identity as a church, core to our identity as Niles Discovery Church is our claim on and proclamation of God’s radically inclusive love.  We embrace a notion of God’s love as including many who have historically been excluded by the church, welcoming them – welcoming us – inside the doors and into the chairs, and into leadership as well.  And we embrace a notion of God’s love as including people who are not Christian, people of other faiths and people of no faith.  We live that out by refusing to bar anyone from the communion table, welcoming Christians and non-Christians, people of any faith and people of no faith.  And at the same time, we are a Christian church, and the communion meal is filled with Christian significance.

This question of what the requirements of membership should be at Niles Discovery Church must be grounded in our identity as a church.  And I think that means it must be grounded in our sense of being connected to God and God’s purposes; that it must be grounded in our identity of being followers of the way of Jesus; that it must be grounded in our sense of being in covenant with each other and with God as we seek and fail and seek again to live a life based in love; and it must be grounded in our desire to be in relationship with God as revealed by Jesus.

That’s what I think.  What do you think?

_______________

*Following the worship service, a member pointed out that I probably should have used the term “Christian church” rather than simply “church,” noting that Unitarian Universalist congregations and Unity congregations call themselves, “churches,” too. Please, as you read this manuscript remember that I am speaking within a Christian context and what I’m really talking about is what makes a community of people a Christian church, as distinct from some other community of people with or without a particular religious identity.

[1]See https://www.uccfiles.com/pdf/UCC_Constitution.pdf.

[2]See https://disciples.org/our-identity/the-design/.

[3]See https://www.cnumc.org/blogposts/open-letter-to-cal-nev-concerning-glide-memorial-umc-11525170.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 20, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Faith, as Pastor Brenda pointed out in her sermon[1] last week, is central to Christianity, and it’s important to remember that “faith” and “belief” are different concepts.  Belief is intellectual.  Faith is relational.  While belief can be a component of faith, but it is not all that faith is.  Faith is not only or merely that to which we give our mental assent.

Faith orients us.  It defines how we approach the world, how we relate to creation.  To have faith in the one Jesus called “Abba” is to see creation as loving and hope-filled.

Related to this is the aspect of faith that can be labeled “trust” or even “radical trust.”  As Marcus Borg put it, “[R]adical trust [in God] is what can free us from that self-preoccupation and anxiety that mars our lives and confines our lives. It frees us for that self-forgetfulness of faith, for that willingness to live our lives in a way that is spent in the name of a larger vision, that willingness to spend and be spent.”[2]  Faith as trust allows us to die so we might live; it allows us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Faith is also about fidelity.  Are we faithful in our relationship with God?  Do we trust God to be faithful in relationship with us?

Pastor Brenda reminded us of the ecumenical convergence of understanding baptism that includes these overlapping and complementary understandings:

  • Baptism is the cleansing, washing, or forgiveness of sin. This is what John the Baptist preached at the River Jordan and what Peter preached at Pentecost.  This can be interpreted as getting afterlife insurance, or as a time of choosing a new direction in life, repentance, a metanoia, a changing of direction.  I choose the second of these, which is connected to the next understanding.
  • Baptism is a new birth or regeneration. This understanding in echoed in John 3, when Jesus talks about being “born from above” and “born again” in some word play with Nicodemus, and in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 5, when he says that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  This talk of being “in Christ” is related to the next understanding.
  • Baptism is a union with Christ in his death and resurrection. This is especially symbolized in immersion baptism, when a person is buried in the water (and if left there, will die), and then rises to this new life we just talked about.
  • Baptism is a reception of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit came upon and claimed Jesus at his baptism, the church says that the Holy Spirit comes upon and claims each one of us at our baptism.  One of the gifts that comes from the Holy Spirit is the gift to rise to new life with Christ.  The Holy Spirit also unites us into one body, the next understanding of baptism.
  • Baptism is incorporation into the church. In baptism, we are not only united with Christ, we are united with each other.  We become part of the one body (to use Paul’s image), the universal church.

Phyllis Tickle

Finally, Pastor Brenda talked about Phyllis Tickle’s rummage sale theory.  Every 500ish years, a new movement in the church emerges that decides to get rid of old things that are getting in the way.  Tickle said that one of the things that spurs this is a question of authority.[3]  I don’t know if she every pointed to this as part of her theory, but around the year 0, within Judaism, there was a new group that emerged that claimed that Jesus had authority.  About 500 years later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and the power vacuum that created, there was another question of where authority lay as Europe drifted into its Dark Ages.  Around 1000ish, in the Great Schism, the question was about the authority of the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope).  Around 1500ish, in the Great Reformation, reformers on the continent claimed that scripture was the correct authority.  And around 2000ish – we’re right in the middle of it.

Pastor Brenda noted that two of the major shifts in the primary understandings of baptism happened right around two of these rummage sales, and that (assuming we are in the midst of a rummage sale) another shift in our primary understanding of baptism could be coming.  The first of these was the shift to seeing baptism as afterlife insurance, and thus the need to baptize babies – which became normative around 500ish.  The second was the reemergence of believer’s baptism as part of the Great Reformation in the 1500s.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, the two denominations that we are officially a part of, come from the same part of the Christian tree – the Protestant part – though they come from different branches.  In the 1500s, there were two breakings-away from the Roman Catholic Church, one centered in Germany and Switzerland, and one centered in England.  They are both categorized as part of the Great Reformation.  However, I think the real reformation in England was delayed.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, Oliver Cromwell (l-r)

You’re probably at least a little familiar with some of the main characters involved in the Reformation in mainland Europe.  Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, sought to get his church back on track and ended up getting kicked out and starting the Lutheran churches.  Once Luther questioned the authority of the Pope, lots of other people did, too.  Huldrych Zwingli brought his twist to the Reformation in Zurich.  A little later, John Calvin, put his twist on the Reformation movement in Geneva.  Calvin influenced John Knox, who brought Calvinism to Scotland (and started Presbyterianism there).

Meanwhile, in England, Henry VIII, broke with the Roman Catholic Church, establishing the Anglican Church.  He didn’t do a major makeover of Catholicism (as was happening in Germany and Switzerland and spreading across Europe), as much as he changed the name.  Essentially, he replaced the Pope with himself, creating the English Catholic Church (as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church).  Of course, that wasn’t the official name and it’s an overstatement, but it’s good enough for today.

I don’t think the true reformation of Christianity in England happened until the Puritans and Pilgrims came along.  They were the ones who called for radical shifting.  The Pilgrims wanted to leave England to found their theocratic utopia in the Americas.  The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England.  Congregationalism came out of those two traditions.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) comes out of Presbyterianism – which came from John Knox, who was influenced so heavily by John Calvin.  The Christian Church movement was also influenced by the Baptists.

The United Church of Christ is the merging together of four major (and several minor) streams in the first half of the 20th century.  Those major streams have their headwaters on different Protestant mountains.  The German Evangelicals in American stream is primarily fed by Luther’s Reformation.  The German Reformed Church in American is primarily fed by Zwingli’s Reformation.  As I mentioned, the Congregationalist Church in American came from the Puritan/Pilgrim Reformation.  And (believe it or not) it’s the Baptist Reformation that Pastor Brenda mentioned last week that fed the fourth stream called “the Christian Church” (a similar movement that happened simultaneously to the development of the Christian Church movement out of which the Disciples of Christ comes, though in different geographic locations).

Given this diversity, you might think that there has to be a huge diversity of understandings of baptism within the United Church of Christ, let alone between the UCC and the Disciples of Christ.  Surprisingly, there isn’t.  The biggest differences have to do with how much:  how much faith and how much water.  I’ll unpack that in a moment

First, let’s go back to the ecumenical understandings of baptism.  There’s one more understanding I want to add to this list.  It wasn’t on Pastor Brenda’s list last week because there isn’t an ecumenical convergence on this understanding.  Though perhaps many or even most denominations would have this understanding, there hasn’t been ecumenical discussion about it.

This sixth understanding sees baptism as the great equalizer.  We heard about this in our Epistle lesson today.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The church in Galatia was debating if Jesus-followers needed to keep all the Hebraic laws.

Paul says that in baptism, we lose the identities we had that divide us into groups.  When we “put on Christ,” when we are “clothed with Christ,” the divisions of Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female disappear and we become one in Christ.  In baptism we are incorporated into the church.  And, because baptism is the great equalizer, the distinctions that separate us in the rest of the world disappear in church.

This is echoed our reading from Acts.  An outsider’s outsider – he’s black, he’s a convert to Judaism (or maybe only a spiritual seeker), he works for a foreign government, and he’s a eunuch (and therefore within Judaism officially seen as not whole) – and none of these is a reason to withhold baptism.  For we are all equally one in Christ.

All six of these understandings of baptism are held by both denominations, though perhaps one understanding being of more importance than another within a different region or congregation – which isn’t surprising given the theological spectrum within both denominations.  For instance, progressive congregations might deemphasize the idea of baptism being a cleaning of sin and emphasize baptism as being a great equalizer.

As I said, the big difference has to do with how much:  how much faith and how much water.  Because three of the four streams that largely made up the United Church of Christ came out of Protestant traditions that continued to practice infant baptism as normative, most congregations in the UCC have continued to practice infant baptism.  In these churches, baptism does not require any faith on the part of the baptized.  And from a practical point of view – we’re talking about infants here – immersion isn’t practiced.  So, how much?  No faith and not much water.

Disciples congregations and congregations in the UCC that came out of the UCC’s Christian Church stream practice believer’s baptism, and typically by full immersion.    In other words, they require some faith and generally want to use lots of water.

We’ll look more deeply at this point of divergence on February 17 when we talk about the baptismal liturgy, because while these are theological issues, they play themselves out liturgically.  For now let me say this.  Because I do not believe there is any need for baptismal afterlife insurance, there is no need to baptize infants.  And so, when it comes to understanding baptism, we should assume that believer’s baptism is normative.

In other words, we should expect some faith if we’re going to baptize someone.  (And remember the beginning of this sermon.  Expecting faith is not the same as expecting belief.  Expecting faith is about expecting the person to be in relationship with God, and in particular God as revealed by Jesus.)  We should also use some water, but, as I said, we’ll talk more about that on February 17.

That’s what the church should expect of someone seeking baptism.  But what can a person expect of the church?   We are, I suspect, in the midst of another rummage sale.  We are in the midst of what Tickle labeled “The Great Emergence.”  Is a new understanding of baptism coming with it?  Maybe.

In the early church, baptism was seen as a sort of matriculation.  When someone was baptized, they started their journey as a follower of Jesus.  This is what happened with the Ethiopian eunuch.  Eventually, it became a marking point along the journey.  People might study and practice the way of Jesus for years before taking the plunge (literally and figuratively) of the commitment of baptism.  Then baptism became the antidote to original sin.  And then, for at least some of the church, it became again a matriculation into a journey of discipleship that invites people into a new life free from past sin, that invites them into union with Jesus and to receive the Holy Spirit, that incorporates them into the faith and family of Jesus, and that makes them equal with all Jesus’ disciples.

If something new is coming, I don’t know what it is.  I can’t help but wonder if, as Christianity loses sway in American culture (which I think it a good thing), baptism might regain that radical nature and commitment it once implied.  I can’t help but wonder if choosing to be a Christian, if choosing to follow Jesus will become such an atypical choice that choosing baptism will become a sign of a deeper commitment than it seems to be now.

This leads me to a few questions for your contemplation:

  • What does it mean to you to be a follower of Jesus?
  • If baptism isn’t the sacrament of the church that incorporates you into the faith and family of Jesus, what is?
  • Can one be a follower of Jesus and not be baptized?
  • If you are baptized, what does your baptism mean to you?

_______________

[1] Brenda Loreman, “A Historical and Ecumenical Look at Baptism,” Niles Discovery Church, https://www.nilesdiscoverychurch.org/apps/Sermon.php?SermonID=495 (preached at Niles Discovery Church on 13 January 2019; accessed 19 January 2019).

[2] Marcus Borg, “What is Faith?” a sermon preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis Tennessee on 16 March 2001, http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html (accessed 19 Jan 2019).

[3] She mentioned this in a talk I heard her give years ago.  Though I don’t remember where I was (or she, she Skyped in) and when this was, that particular idea stuck with me.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Epiphany, January 6, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love that, having heard the Christmas story for over half a century and having preached on it for over 30 years, I’m still discovering new things in it.  Two months ago, I was planning on recycling an old idea I had about the story of the magi for today’s sermon.  It’s a solid understanding of the story.  It has three points, as you might have guessed from the title.  But I’ve got to admit, the third point was a little scripturally weak.

Until this week.

The way Matthew tells the story, by the time he has the magi show up, Jesus might have been walking.  The actual birth of Jesus takes place back in chapter 1.  Mary and Joseph are engaged.  Mary gets pregnant.  Thanks to a dream, Joseph doesn’t cut of the engagement, but marries the pregnant Mary. She gives birth.  And Joseph names the child Jesus.  It’s all wrapped up by the twenty-fifth verse of chapter 1.

The magi show up sometime later.  How much later we don’t know, but based on the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, it may be as many as two years later.  The reason for the delay is the magi’s journey.  But their journey brings me to my second point.

My first point follows an implied action by the magi.  In order to have “observed his star at its rising,” the magi had to be observing.  And that’s my first point:  be on the lookout.  Be observant for signs of God at work in the world.  If we’re not watching, we’ll miss the signs.  Seek the star.  I don’t mean to literally take up star gazing (though that may be a worthwhile spiritual practice, so I’m also not saying don’t take up astronomy).  I’m saying be on the lookout for signs.

The second thing the magi do is they respond to the sign they saw.  They saw a star that made them think that a new king of the Jews was born or was about to be born.  Nifty. They could have celebrated the birth in their home country.  They could have advised political leaders there “in the East” that they might want to know that a political shift in Israel was coming.  But they didn’t do these things.  They set off on a journey.  They followed the star.  Even though Israel was an occupied country and King Herod the Great was more a puppet of Rome than anything else, they saw a sign that led them to believe that a new king was born.  And they decided to follow up on that sign.

How they went about following up – let’s just say that they did not seem to have any sense of realpolitik.  There was no way Herod the Great was vacating the throne unless he died, or Rome demanded it. The magi might have thought that a new king was born, but realpolitik would say this king wasn’t going to sit on any throne unless Rome made it happen.  Realpolitik would advise:  don’t bother going to pay this supposed “new king” homage.

My second point is this:  once you see the signs of what God is up to, respond.  Don’t let a concern for conventional wisdom or realpolitik slow you down.  When God is at work, a faithful response is called for.  Do it.

Seeking the star is step one.  Following the star is step two.

I like to image that, once the magi had returned home, the story continues.  Call if fan fiction, if you like.  I imagine the magi returning to their homes and telling others about the wonders at work in the world.  I imagine them being stars in their own communities – not in the sense of being famous, but in the sense of being a sign in the heavens, or on the street, or around the dining room table, for others to see that God is at work in the world.

And that is my third point:  Be a star.  Let God use you to let others know what God is up to.

The thing is, I don’t think I need my fan fiction to make this third point.  As I studied and prayed with today’s gospel lesson this week, I had an insight.  Two insights, really.

The first is not all that profound.  I had an insight as to why, for years, I preferred Luke’s birth narrative over Matthew’s.  I’d rather be a shepherd than a magus.  It’s pretty cool that the shepherds get an angelic announcement and go celebrate.  On the other hand, the magi get the star and they’re wise enough to interpret its meaning.  So that’s not the reason I’ve preferred Luke.  It’s something else.

It’s been something about the shepherds.  Consider their social status.  They have no power, no prestige, not education.  And I tend to cheer for the underdog.  The magi, on the other hand, have power, prestige, and education.  Yet, for all their power, prestige, and education, the magi come off just as naïve as the shepherds.  They see the star.  They interpret it to mean that a new “king of the Jews” is born.  They go to Jerusalem – which I suppose makes sense.  A new king would be born in the capital, right?

Except they don’t go there to find the child.  They go there for directions.  They go there to ask where they should go to find the child. What do they think Herod is going to do with this information?  How naïve can they be?

I excuse the shepherds’ naiveté.  Heck, I embrace the shepherds’ naiveté.  An angel comes and tells them – tells me – “Behold!  I bring you glad tidings of greet joy. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign to you:  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.” “Dudes!  Let’s check this out!” seems to be a wholly appropriate reaction.

The magi – they just haven’t seemed all that wise to me.

That is, until I had the second insight – the important insight.  Maybe they weren’t as naïve as they first appear to be.  Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing.  Maybe these eastern intellectuals are purposefully poking the bear.

Biblical scholar John J. Pilch suggests that “these strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism.”[1]  The way Matthew knits the story, these strangers, these wise men have come a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  Not to pay homage to the current king.  They go to the current king for directions, and that makes the current king afraid.  They are poking not just Herod in the eye, but all of Rome and all Roman puppets.  “The vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times.”[2]

I suppose Matthew’s original audience would have seen these wise men, these strangers, these Magi as “‘very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers’”[3]of some nation in area of what today we know as Iran or Iraq.  Back then, would Matthew’s original audience have thought of that land and thought immediately of Babylon, the land of the exile?  Perhaps. Richard Swanson muses that if they had been historical figures, perhaps they would have been influenced by Jews that remained in Babylon after the Exile, tutored in sensing the goodness of God, “trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world.”[4]  Perhaps that’s how some of Matthew’s original audience thought of them.

The story is very good at evoking images in our minds.  I assume it did for Matthew’s original audience, too.  Potentates coming to the seat and symbol of power in Jerusalem and, with a simple question, terrifying the tyrant of their day.  When they finally come to Jesus, they find “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms” – as Shelley D.B. Copeland describes it.[5]  And they lay before the toddler and his mother their gifts, gifts fit for a king, gifts that purposefully evoke our reading from Isaiah 60.

And the story ends with them leaving for home, but “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Illegal activity, right there at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  Herod had ordered them to come back to Jerusalem once they found the child.  But they don’t.  They take a different way home.

Civil disobedience, poking the powers that be right in the eye, is at the core of this story.  Here’s my third point, reworked a little bit:  When we follow the star, when we daringly follow the star, even if that means facing down the principalities and powers of the day, we become a star for others.

I cannot hear this story without thinking of all the political leaders of our day who are paranoid about losing power and who are willing to do almost anything to hang on to it.  I cannot hear this story without thinking of the well-intentioned people who are being manipulated by individuals, and corporations, and governments via social media and countless other ways to view the world distortedly.  And now I cannot hear this story without also seeing those who have become wise to the machinations of others and who stand firm in their resistance.[6]  These, too, are stars declaring the wondrous works of God.  These, too, are stars you or I might be called to follow.  And in following, perhaps we, too, might become stars for others.

We think of the story of the magi as being a story of three kings.  It’s not. It’s the story of two kings.  One is called “the Great” and one is called “Emmanuel.”  One rules with violence and paranoia and one rules with love and grace.

Who will be our king?

Amen.

_______________

[1]Cited by Kathryn Matthew, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019 (accessed 31 December 2018).

[2]Ibid.

[3]Matthews, quoting Pilch from The Cultural World of Jesus Year A.

[4]Matthews, quoting Swanson from Provoking the Gospel of Matthew.

[5]Matthews, quoting Copeland, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1.

[6]David Lose, “Ephiphany C 2018 – The Other Christmas Story,” http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/epiphany-c-2018-the-other-christmas-story/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 30, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:41-52 and 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As I wandered into Panera for a late lunch and the task of weaving together the threads I’d been collecting all week into a sermon, a man I took to be the grandfather pushed a stroller toward a table.  In the stroller was a child, perhaps seven months old, staring intensely at her grandfather with big, beautiful, brown eyes.  I wondered how this child’s parents ever got anything done when they have such beautiful eyes to look at, such a precious child to smile and babble and sing to.

Maybe the looking and the smiling and the babbling and the singing gets old.  Or simply too tiring.  Or maybe the need to have a moment to eat or pee overcomes the amazing delight present in an infant and handing the baby off to a partner or a grandparent is exactly what a parent needs.

I’m reminded of a 15th century illustration I saw a photo of this week.  Joseph sits on the floor, tending to the infant Jesus.  Mary is sitting up, studying a book, scripture, we assume.  I assume the painting was influenced by a tradition that Mary was sufficiently learned that she could teach Jesus what he needed to know to grow up and fulfill his ministry.

I’m not sure why this tradition decided it was Mary and not Joseph who was Jesus’ teacher.  It’s certainly counter-cultural – both in the context of ancient Palestine and in the context of 15th century Europe – for a woman to be the learned one in a household.  I don’t know what generated this tradition, but it won’t surprise me if today’s gospel lesson had something to do with it.  Jesus had to have a teacher if he was going to hold his own in a theological discussion with his elders.  Maybe it was his mother.  And if it was his mother, she would have had to have learned at some point.  And so there are paintings of Mary studying.

They are, of course, anachronistic:  Mary dressed as a wealthy European, when historically she was a peasant Jew from Israel.  And historically, she was almost certainly illiterate.  If Joseph was able to read, it would most likely have only been enough to read a passage or two of scripture.  Being able to read a passage of scripture is the level of literacy Jesus is depicted as having in Luke’s gospel.  He was able to find a passage and read it from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Still, it’s fun to imagine what Jesus’ childhood was like.  There’s actually a very short, non-canonical book about Jesus’ childhood called, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.”[1]  It includes a story of a 5-year-old Jesus playing in the mud, forming sparrows.  When an adult saw it, he complained to Joseph that Jesus had made clay – which would have been okay, except it was the Sabbath, and making clay is a form of work and Jews aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath.  When Joseph scolded Jesus, Jesus clapped his hands and told the sparrows to fly away, which they did.  Impressive stuff for a 5-year-old.

As I imagine Jesus’ childhood, I imagine Mary and Joseph practicing what today would be called “free range parenting.”  I suspect you’ve heard of “free range parenting.”  It’s a counter movement to “helicopter parenting.”

In helicopter parenting, a parent (or a trusted adult) is always keeping an eye on things.  The helicopter parent makes sure the child has activities to participate in, so there is soccer practice to go to, and swim lessons to attend, and piano lessons on Tuesdays, and dance class on Thursdays.

Helicopter parenting started in earnest in the 1980s.  The primary motivation was protecting children from harm.  If you keep the children busy, they can’t get into trouble.  And if you know where the children are, they can’t come to harm by some stranger.

More recently, however, the primary motivation has shifted.  According to a recent article in The New York Times, “While this kind of intensive parenting – constantly teaching and monitoring children – has been the norm for upper-middle-class parents since the 1990s, new research shows that people across class divides now consider it the best way to raise children, even if they don’t have the resources to enact it.”[2]

According to the article, the primary motivation for this style of parenting is no longer safety.  It’s economic anxiety.  “For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents,” the article says.  “For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.”[3]

I understand the perceptions that led to helicopter parenting.  In the 1980s and 90s, there were a number of high-profile child assaults and abductions, and it was scary.  The reality is that they were and are exceedingly rare[4] and helicopter parenting out of a sense of fear was not and is not warranted.  This new anxiety, this economic anxiety, does have some basis in reality.  How much, is not exactly clear to me.  Nor is it clear to me how much of a hedge against it helicopter parenting is.

What is clear to me is that something is lost in this kind of intense parenting.  The elementary school my niece and nephew attended is three blocks from their house.  When they were in kindergarten and second grade, my sister would have gladly had they walk to school, if the other kids in the neighborhood walked to school and there could be a little herd of them.  She tried to make this happen, but all the other parents walked their kids to school, so that forced my sister to walk her kids to school.  So my niece and nephew never got to negotiate those unsupervised childhood relationships that happened for me when I walked to school.

Free range parenting has a very different philosophy from helicopter parenting.  In free range parenting, parents willingly step back and allow their children to explore the world without constantly hovering.  No doubt, some of my support of free range parenting is nostalgic.  I quite enjoyed my childhood, when my friends and I were allowed to ride our bikes in the neighborhood for hours on end, provided I was home by six.  Or in the winter, I could go drag my sled up Edgewood Road and zip down the sidewalk and over the jump we made of the piled-up snow at the end of Joan Fox’s driveway, until my fingers were just too cold for one more run.

I also support free range parenting because it instills a sense of freedom, self-reliance, and resilience in kids.  I’m with the proponents who say free range parenting increases self-confidence and self-sufficiency, increases levels of active play (which helps combat the negative health impacts of childhood and adolescent obesity), and improves social skills.

Yes, the absence of the village, the absence of that sense of community support parents once had, make free range parenting harder than it was a generation or two ago.  And yes, there is always the possibility of a concerned neighbor, rather than being part building that missing village, will call the police or CPS.  Still, I say “yes” to free range parenting.  I’m not alone in this.  There are playgrounds in Great Britain where they are bringing back risk to playgrounds to build childhood resilience.[5]

I bring all this up because I don’t want anyone reporting Mary and Joseph to Child Protective Services.  It could be that Mary and Joseph practiced free range parenting.  He was 12, after all.  He knew (I think we can safely assume) what the plans were, when the group they were traveling with planned to leave.  Of course he’d be where he was supposed to be.  When they discovered that Jesus wasn’t where he was supposed to be, they went looking for him.

When they found him, when they tracked him down at the Temple, Luke describes a very human interchange.  I can hear the exasperation in Mary’s voice.  “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  Hardly “Mary, meek and mild.”  And Jesus response – I know my parents would have considered it “talking back.”

But then, I think one of the things Luke is doing is marking the beginning of the shift in relationship between Jesus and his parents.  At the beginning of the story, Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem with Jesus to celebrate the Passover.  At the end of the story, Jesus returns to Nazareth with his parents.  By the end of the story, Jesus is the subject of the sentence about journeying.

Another shift that happens in the narrative is that Jesus is starting to reach out beyond his family.  When his parents finally track him down, they find him in the Temple in the middle of a gather of adult men.  He is not giving them all the answers to their questions.  Rather, he is engaging with them in an adult conversation about the questions they’re discussing.

William Herzog writes that Luke “does not assume that Jesus is engaged in a contest and besting his opponents as though this were some first-century version of Jeopardy.  Rather, Jesus is engaged in a lively and respectful conversation and demonstrating a wisdom well beyond his years.”[6]

Still, I think it is the answer to his mother’s question that is most important here.  “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  There are echoes of the end of the story right here at the beginning.  “After three days” of looking for Jesus, they find him.  “After three days” – this is an allusion to the three days from Good Friday to Easter.  Whenever you hear “three days” in the gospel, you need to think about the resurrection.  They find him at the Temple.  In the days leading to his crucifixion, Jesus will return to the Temple and drive out the money-changers.

“My Father’s house,” he calls the Temple.  Borg and Crossan say that this is the most important part of this story because it identifies who Jesus is.  In chapter 1, Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be called “the Son of the Most High” and “the Son of God.”  In chapter 3, at his baptism, God announces from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  In between these two heavenly pronouncements, here in the Temple, in chapter 2, Luke places the statement in Jesus’ own mouth.  Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status.  He’s talking to his parents when he says it, but he’s saying it publicly:  he is the Son of God.[7]

Luke doesn’t craft an additional story to help us understand how Jesus came to that self-understanding.  I can’t help but wonder if being free to explore who he was in his childhood might not have been key to that.  If Mary and Joseph were free range parents, might not Jesus’ own exploration of the world help him reflect on his place in it?

I think the freedom to make choices, including bad ones, and still experience God’s love is an important part of my spiritual journey.  I think having and taking the opportunity to explore – to explore nature and culture and my own psyche – has helped me understand who I am in relationship with God.  And while “Father” isn’t my personal favorite term for God, I’m thankful that I’ve never experienced God the Father as a helicopter parent.

Anyway, that’s the sermon cloth I’ve woven this week.  That’s what I’ve been pondering.  Maybe you’d like to think about it for a little while, too.

A question for reflection:  How have you benefited from God allowing us to be free-range children?  Consider especially how this has impacted your spiritual growth and your ability to love.

_______________

[1] See http://www.tonyburke.ca/infancy-gospel-of-thomas/the-childhood-of-the-saviour-infancy-gospel-of-thomas-a-new-translation/ for a recent English translation.

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/25/upshot/the-relentlessness-of-modern-parenting.html (posted 25 December 2018; accessed 26 December 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, and Andrea J. Sedlak, “Child Victims of Stereotypical Kidnappings Known to Law Enforcement in 2011,” U.S. Department of Justice, http://unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/Child%20Kidnapping%20LE%20Report.pdf (posted in 2016; accessed 29 December 2018).

[5] Ellen Barry, “In Britain’s Playgrouns, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/world/europe/britain-playgrounds-risk.html (posted 10 March 2018; accessed 29 December 2018).

[6] William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_december_30_2018 (accessed 26 December 2018).

[7] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 254-255.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 24, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas Eve 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the debut of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night.” The following Reflections were shared during our 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve worship service.

Reflection One:  Salzburg, 1818

Imagine with me, for a moment, the scene of Jesus’ birth – at least the scene the way Luke tells it.  Mary is in the ninth month of her pregnancy when she and her fiancé Joseph have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman government has ordered it.  That’s a trip of 80 to 90 miles.  Though paintings may show Mary on a donkey, Luke doesn’t say anything about an animal-assisted transportation, so they probably had to make it on foot.  Imagine walking from here to Sacramento.

When they finally get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor. Her mother, we assume because of Luke’s silence on the matter, isn’t there.  No friends around to provide comfort or assistance.  She’d probably never met any Bethlehem midwives.  Giving birth at home is sufficiently anxiety-producing.  Going into labor far from home – I can’t imagine.

“The Nativity” by Gari Melchers

And then there are her accommodations.  “Luke doesn’t actually tell us that Mary was in a barn with sheep and goats, [and] with the cattle ‘lowing.’  He does tell us there was a manger, which was a feeding trough for animals.  Where would this feeding trough have been?  Early church tradition has it located in a stable or cave behind or under a house.  (The word for that location, often referred to as “inn” in the Bible, is better translated as “guest room.”)  In those days, people often brought their sheep in at the end of the day and kept their donkeys overnight to be tended.  In other words, [Luke invites us to] think of the place where Mary gave birth as a first-century parking garage.”[1]

To be honest, the way Luke describes things, I can’t imagine that is was a “silent night.”’  I imagine it being filled with all kinds of noise – animals, the guesthouse, and of course the clamor and cries surrounding childbirth.  Mary, who has carried the Messiah for nine months, is in a place she doesn’t want to be, in the elements, giving birth among the animals.

Of course, God never promised her or any of us that life will be easy, that all will be calm, that all will be bright.  On the contrary:  if you want to find God, look amid the animal dung and the cries of disappointment and fear.  Look to the brokenness of the world.

Brokenness is exactly what almost everyone in Europe had been experiencing in 1816.  The Napoleonic Wars had only ended in the autumn of 1815.  Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in April of 1815, pumping enough ash into the air to cause global temperatures to drop around a degree Fahrenheit, which in turn caused crop failures in 1816, the “year without a summer.”[2]

By the fall of 1816, the town of Mariapfarr, Austria, where a priest named Joseph Mohr served, was reeling.  The “Twelve years of war had decimated the country’s political and social infrastructure.”

Oberndorf’s Silent Night Chapel

Father “Mohr’s congregation was poverty-stricken, hungry, and traumatized.  So he crafted a set of six poetic verses to convey [the] hope that there was still a God who cared.”[3]  A literal translation of the original German includes the line “today all the power of fatherly love is poured out, and Jesus as brother embraces the peoples of the world.”[4]

“In 1817, Mohr transferred to the parish of St. Nicholas in the town of Oberndorf, just south of Salzburg.  There, he asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher and organist, to write the music for the six verses.”[5] And 200 years ago tonight, Joseph and Franz sang “Silent Night” together for the first time in front of Joseph’s congregation, with Joseph playing his guitar. (Legend has it that the church organ had been damaged by mice or water and wasn’t working.)[6]

Given all that the people of Salzburg (and really all of Europe) had gone through, it is not surprising how well the song was received. Yes, it romanticized that first Christmas:  “Everything is asleep.  Only the faithful holy couple are awake, alone.  Lovely boy with curly hair.”[7] That’s a direct translation of part of the first verse.  As holy and as figuratively bright as that night was, it couldn’t have been silent or calm.  But we’re two thousand years from that night, so maybe it’s okay to imagine the story in a way that offers a little more of what we need.

After over a decade of war, after a year without a summer and the famine that caused, people needed the reassurance that with God, all can be calm and bright.  And maybe we need that reassurance, too.

Reflection Two:  Seattle, 1993

I moved to Carnation, Washington to serve the United Church of Christ congregation there in 1993.  Carnation is officially a city, but its population is fewer than 1800, and when I lived there, it didn’t have any traffic signals (and maybe it still doesn’t).  The town is located in the lower Snoqualmie River valley, the last valley before you get into the Cascade Mountains, and is famous as the home of the Carnation Dairy (from whence came Carnation Evaporated Milk).  It was a rural town.  It still is rather rural, though I don’t think there are any active dairy farms there anymore.

As rural as the community was, it was only a 45-minute drive into Seattle – well, 45 minutes plus traffic.  I moved to Carnation in the fall and decided to join the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus that January.  In the meantime, I did some volunteering with the Chorus.  It was through that volunteering that I found out about the Christmas Eve concert SLGC participated in.

In 1993, there were plenty of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* people who were not welcome in their homes.  Many had been so hurt by their churches that they had given up on religion.  And so the LGBTQ+ community made their own families and made their own Christmas rituals. One of those rituals for the Seattle community was a midnight concert at the Egyptian Theatre, performed by the three or four LGBTQ+ identified Seattle choruses.  The Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus was one of them.

My church’s Christmas Eve service was in the early evening that year, so I was able to go into Seattle and help out backstage at this midnight concert.  I think there were four choruses that sang that year.  Though it was 25 years ago, I still remember two of the pieces that were sung – both sung by maybe 80 or so members of the Seattle Men’s Chorus.

One was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah – only they changed the words, from “hallelujah” to “Honolulu.”  Seattle has a reputation for being a place where in the winter “it shall rain for ever and ever,” so, of course, everybody wanted to go to Honolulu.

Kevin Gallagher

The Seattle Men’s Chorus has, I believe from its beginning, had its concerts interpreted in American Sign Language.  So the guys are singing their repetitious lyrics – “Honolulu. Honolulu. Honolulu. Honolulu. Honolulu.… And it shall rain for ever and ever.”  And Kevin Gallagher is signing away.  Only “Honolulu” started out as “H-O-N-O-L-U-L-U” (spelled out with his fingers) and by the end of the piece he was signing “Honolulu” as something about wearing a Speedo, rubbing suntan lotion on his body, and lying on the beach. It was a hoot.

They probably sang another song, and then they sang “Silent Night.”

Clio has been learning ASL and I asked her to sign the first verse of “Silent Night” for us.  She’s going to sign it as I say the lyrics.

The Chorus sang the first verse and Kevin signed it.

Then the Chorus sang the first verse again, with everybody – all 80 men – signing it.

And then they sang the first verse a third time, only instead of singing it in English, they all signed it silently in unison using ASL. And all you heard was the movement of their tuxes.

Listen one more time as Clio signs “Silent Night.”

Reflection Three:  The Trenches, 1914[8]

In December, 1914, young men from France, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, and other European countries were five months into a war that would eventually be called “The Great War,” “The War to End All Wars,” and finally, “World War I.”

In sections along the western front, young men from Great Britain and young men from Germany were living opposite each other in trenches, having already experienced attacks and counter attacks that gave each side nothing more than injury and death.

In other sections along the western front, it was young men from France or Belgium living in the trenches opposite young men from Germany who were living in their trenches.  Likewise, they had already experienced attacks and counter attacks that gave each side nothing more than injury and death.

The war had already claimed hundreds of thousands of killed, wounded, and missing.  Both sides expected a long and bloody war.  The penalty for fraternizing with the enemy was death.

For many in the trenches, there was no hope and no possibility of peace.  Love had been replaced with hardship and suffering.  Joy, it seemed, was an impossibility.

But as Christmas approached, in sections dotting the western front, friendly banter echoed across the lines.  Many German soldiers had worked in Britain as waiters, cooks, and cabbies and so they spoke English quite well.

And in several places along the lines, music was the vehicle that brought back the hope, that established some peace, and created a space in the hearts of these combatants for love and joy.

A week before Christmas near Armentiêres, Germans troops slipped a chocolate cake into the British lines. “We propose having a concert tonight,” the note read, “as it is our Captain’s birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend.”  At the appointed hour eight German heads appeared above the trench and sang lustily.

When the British applauded, a German called out, “Please come mit us into the chorus.”

A Brit shouted back, “We’d rather die than sing German.”

Without missing a beat, the German replied, “It would kill us if you did.”

In several places along the line, it was one song in particular that brought about impromptu truces, declared by the enlisted grunts (defying the official positions of the Generals on both sides of the war).  A French soldier played that song on his harmonica, which was met by a violin solo from the German lines.  Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment was transfixed by the moonlight, the frost, and candlelight on the Tannenbaums the German’s had used to line their trenches, but it was hearing this particular song echo across No Man’s Land that made that night into what he called “one of the highlights of my life.”

At another section along the line, Private Frank Sumpter, a British soldier, was one of the first in this troop to recognize what the Germans were singing on the other side of No Man’s Land.

And the British sang along.

_______________

[1]Adam Hamilton, “Not Silent in Bethlehem,” Adam Hamilton, https://www.adamhamilton.com/blog/not-silent-in-bethlehem/ (posted 7 December 2018; accessed 12 December 2018).

[2]“Year Without a Summer,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer (accessed 24 December 2018).

[3]Sarah Eyerly, “The humble origins of ‘Silent Night,’” TCPalm, https://amp.tcpalm.com/amp/2386069002 (posted and accessed 24 December 2018).

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Michael E. Ruane, “Silent Night: How a beloved Christmas carol was born of war and disaster 200 years ago,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/12/23/silent-night-how-beloved-christmas-carol-was-born-war-disaster-years-ago/ (posted and accessed 23 December 2018).

[7]Ibid.

[8]Resources used from this reflection include a sermon by the Rev. Fred Small (which in turn, was based on information in Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce(New York: The Free Press, 2001)), and “Christmas Truce of 1914,” History, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914 (accessed 22 December 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 11:1-9 and Revelation 21:1-4
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s because of a piece of music that, when we get to the Peace candle (and this year, the peace cup),[1] I think of this picture[2] and the passage from Isaiah 11.  I think I first heard the piece of music three years ago.  Someone posted a link to it on Facebook.  I listened to it and fell in love.

That happens to me sometimes.  Sometimes it happens when I sing a piece of music, as has happened several times preparing for concerts with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus.  Sometimes I need only listen to it, and it gets under my skin and into my soul.  Occasionally it is the music itself, music without lyrics or with lyrics that I don’t understand, that I fall in love with.  A combination of harmonies and rhythms sometimes reach into my soul and claim me.  The “O fortuna” movement of Carmina Burana grabbed hold of me when I was in grade school, and I can describe the exact circumstances and setting of the first time I heard Pachelbel’s Canon in D – it so mesmerized me.

More often, it is the combination of lyrics and music that entice me.  It is the combination that makes “While Shepherd’s Watched” my favorite piece that GGMC is singing in our concerts over the next 10 days.  And it’s the combination of lyrics and music that made me fall in love with Glenn L. Rudolph’s “The Dream Isaiah Saw”[3] – the song that makes me thing of Isaiah 11 and this picture when we get to Peace Sunday in Advent.

American poet and hymnist Thomas Troeger took the images from Isaiah 11 and created a powerful poem.[4]  The refrain is a prayer, but unlike most refrains, the final line changes each time it comes around:
Little child, whose bed is straw,
take new lodging in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

Then it changes to “Justice purifying law.”

Then it changes to “Knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.”

This movement – from the cessation of violence, to the institution of true justice that purifies law, to the transformation of the heart – is, I think, the movement that gets us to the Peaceable Kingdom.

Rudolph took Troeger’s poem and set it to music that moves from foreboding to triumph.  Rather than spend time describing something you haven’t heard, I’ll just say that Rudolph does a wonderful job using a simple organ and piano accompaniment, and adding drums and brass (instruments we might associate more with martial music than the music of peace) to mirror the transformative movement of the lyrics.  And I’ll include a link to a recording of the song in the sermon manuscript that I post online.

The images in the first verse of the song are not new.  The following two verses reinterpret those images as Troeger moves us through his progression toward peace.  They are the images from Isaiah 11:1-9.  They are the images Edward Hicks tried to capture in his painting.

Hicks was around 40 when he first painted “The Peaceable Kingdom.”  I say, “first,” because he painted over 60 versions of the scene.  We know it was over 60 because 62 survive.[5]

Hicks was born into an Anglican and Tory family during the American Revolution.  His mother died when he was an infant and he was raised by a Quaker family named Twining.  As a teen, he apprenticed as a carriage painter,  and at 20, when his apprenticeship was completed, he started working independently painting coaches and houses.

He considered his teen-aged years to be ones of wayward living and started attending a Quaker Meeting in his early 20s.  He met the woman who became his wife at the Meeting and less than a decade after he started attending the meeting, the congregation recognized him as a Quaker minister.  To support his young family and his unpaid, itinerant ministry, he opened a carriage-and-sign painting shop.

While Hicks did get the occasional commission for an easel painting, it appears that most of his easel paintings were given away to family and friends.  This was certainly the case for his Peaceable Kingdom series.  According to Victoria Emily Jones, Hicks pursued this particular theme “to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of the 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism within the Society of Friends [as the Quakers are formally known], the first in the denomination’s history.  (Edward’s cousin Elias led the liberal faction that split from the mainstream.)  His Kingdom paintings reference the schism through a blasted tree trunk, which doubles also as a reference to the ‘stump’ of Jesse out of which Christ sprung up.”[6]

This is one of his earlier renditions, 1822-1825.

In this, we see the animals from Isaiah 11 peacefully co-existing, with a little child (presumably Jesus) holding one of them.  I find it interesting, though, that there are no snakes in this early version.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the legend around this painting.  It’s a rhyming paraphrase of Isaiah, taken from a prayer book of the same era:

The wolf shall with the lambkin dwell in peace,
His grim carniv’rous nature then shall cease;
The leopard with the harmless kid lay down,
And not one savage beast be seen to frown;
The lion and the calf shall forward move,
A little child shall lead them on in love;
When man is moved and led by sovereign grace,
To seek that state of everlasting peace.

There’s no mistaking that Hicks is referring Isaiah 11 in this painting.  It is easy to miss, however, a little scene in the background.  Under the bridge.  This detail is from a version he did almost immediately after the one we were just looking at.

This is a depiction of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn signing a treaty of perpetual friendship with the Lenape Indians in 1681, 99 years before Hicks’ birth.  This is a scene that is included in many of his Peaceable Kingdom paintings, sometimes prominently and sometimes as a minor detail.  According to Victoria Emily Jones, “This, Edward thought, is what it looks like to put into practice the values of brotherly love and peace that Christ came to teach us.  Penn did honor this treaty, but his successors did not – a fact that Edward was painfully aware of.

“In place of this vignette, Edward sometimes depicted instead a congregation of leading Quaker figures unfurling a banner that paraphrases the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Christ:  peace on earth, goodwill to men (Luke 2”14).  And often the directive ‘Mind the light within,’ a reference to the Quaker doctrine of the inward light (Christ himself), which indwells believers, giving them a direct and personal experience of God.”[7]

In the 1834 version that’s at the beginning of this manuscript, the version that now hangs in the National Gallery of Art, the background scene is of the treaty-making.  But there’s something else I notice about this version, painted almost a decade and a half since he started exploring this motif in art.  There’s a chasm between the Peaceable Kingdom and the treaty signing.

Art critic Holland Cotter notes of the Peaceable Kingdom series that over time, “Additional children and animals crowd in.  The carnivorous beasts – lions, leopards, wolves – grow in size.  Where once they had cast their eyes docilely to the ground, they now stare out, alert, aggressive, challenging, even rabidly agitated.

“Hicks meant the beasts to typify human traits in line with his view of contemporary Quaker politics:  the lion symbolized power gained through wealth, the leopard a suave, threatening worldliness.  Occasionally animals are in conflict.  But even when they aren’t, the assemblies have a jumbled, restive feeling.  The ground beneath them is eroding; a fissure in the earth separates them from Penn’s treaty behind.

“Then, around 1840, the mood shifts again.  [This is from 1844-46.]

The artist was in his 60s.  He saw that the ideological battle [within Quakerism] he had anguished over would remain unresolved.  The … animals start to look aged and weary.”[8]

Perhaps this progression in his paintings reveals the progression of how Hicks felt about the prospects for peace.  How are you feeling about the prospects of peace?  Old a weary?  As if a chasm exists between our best efforts and Kin-dom of Peace?

Or do you have hope?

“Today we live between the two advents of Christ,” writes Jones.  “The Prince of Peace has come as a little child to tame our wild hearts, but somehow peace still seems so elusive.  Edward Hicks wrestled constantly with the tension between the already and not-yet aspects of Christ’s kingdom, and we are called to do the same.”[9]

I believe that a necessary step to bring the reign of peace is to bring true justice.  I’m not alone in that thought.  Isaiah says of the shoot that ‘shall come out of the stump of Jesse,’ of this descendant of King David, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; … Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  And according to Troeger’s poem, it’s a necessary step to get to the dream Isaiah saw.

But establishing that true justice, a justice that isn’t necessarily “fair” because it has a preferential option for the poor and the powerless, is not easy.  Interestingly enough, one of the ways I think we can get to this justice is through music.

Maybe you’ve forgotten the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, or perhaps you never heard it.  During the siege of Sarajevo, during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, Vedran Smailović played his cello, out in the open.  He is perhaps best known for playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace after a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food there.[10]  His witness, his defiance, his bravery helped nudge the needle toward justice and peace.

And there’s a story about Pete Seeger that I love.  “In the 1970s, Pete Seeger was invited to sing in Barcelona, Spain.  Francisco Franco’s fascist government, … was still in power but declining.  A pro-democracy movement was gaining strength and to prove it, they invited America’s best-known freedom singer to Spain.  More than a hundred thousand people were in the stadium, where rock bands had played all day.  But the crowd had come for Seeger.  As Pete prepared to go on, government officials handed him a list of songs he was not allowed to sing.  Pete studied it mournfully, saying it looked an awful lot like his set list.  But they insisted:  he must not sing any of these songs.

“Pete took the government’s list of banned songs and strolled on stage.  He held up the paper and said, ‘I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to sing these songs.’  He grinned at the crowd and said, ‘So I’ll just play the chords; maybe you know the words.  They didn’t say anything about you singing them.’  He strummed his banjo to one song after another, and they all sang.  A hundred thousand defiant freedom singers breaking the law with Pete Seeger, filling the stadium with words their government did not want them to hear, words they all knew and had sung together, in secret circles, for years.  What could the government do?  Arrest a hundred thousand singers?  It had been beaten by a few banjo chords …”[11]

Peace, the dream Isaiah saw, is both here and not yet.  I believe we can make choices, as the offertory will remind us, that will help make real the dream of life redeemed from fang and claw, of justice purifying the law, and of our hearts filled with knowledge, wisdom, worship, and awe.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation:

What steps can you take this week to bring peace …
… into your heart?
… into your personal relationships?
… into the world?

_______________

[1] Because of the recent wildfires in California, in addition to lighting an Advent candle each week, we are pouring out an Advent cup of water, remembering light and life.

[2] The images used in this manuscript are downloaded from https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/ or the websites this page links to.

[3] You can listen to a descent recording of this song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FqhPh72kB0.

[4] You can read the poem at http://thebarefootpastor.blogspot.com/2009/12/dream-isaiah-saw.html.

[5] Holland Cotter, “Art Review; Finding Endless Conflict Hidden in a Peaceable Kingdom,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/16/arts/art-review-finding-endless-conflict-hidden-in-a-peaceable-kingdom.html (posted 16 June 2000; accessed 8 December 2018).

[6] Victoria Emily Jones, “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks,” Art and Theology, https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/ (posted 6 December 2016; accessed 8 December 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cotter, op. cit.

[9] Jones, op. cit.

[10] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedran_Smailović for more information.

[11] newmexicobear, “One more Pete Seeger Story,” DailyKos, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2014/1/31/1273976/-One-more-Pete-Seeger-Story (posted 31 January 2014; accessed 8 December 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:18-25 and Jeremiah 33:14-16
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The headlines of the past week have been disturbing, chilling.  “One dead as torrential rain triggers flash flooding in Australia.”  “Record-breaking heat wave and ‘catastrophic’ wildfires hit Australia.”  “The photos of destruction from the Alaska earthquake are haunting.”  “Apocalyptic images show the unfathomable devastation caused by California’s deadly Camp Fire.”[1]

How do we hope in the midst of this news?

It may sound strange, but it is precisely in the midst of this kind of news that Advent calls us to hope.  You see, Advent is an apocalyptic season.  Traditionally, Advent is the season when Christians remember that we live in a time between times.  Advent isn’t just about preparing for the celebration of the first coming of Jesus – his birth.  It is also about preparing for the second coming of Jesus.  At least traditionally.  And because the visions of the second coming of Jesus have been tied up in destruction and the end of the world, Advent can have an apocalyptic edge to it.

Only, that’s not the real meaning of the word.  ‘Apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing.’  I suppose that God’s truth could be unveiled in a cataclysmic fashion, but it’s not necessary.  God’s truth can be and often is revealed in many quieter, subtler ways.  All an apocalypse takes is a pulling back of a curtain to reveal the truth.  When Toto pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the dog is performing an apocalypse.  An apocalypse may shake the foundations of lives, of cultures, of political systems, but it doesn’t need to do it with great, destructive power.

Did you notice the reference to an apocalypse in the second lesson today?  Leah Schade notes, “In his letter to the Romans, Paul recognized that Creation was ‘subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it’ (v. 20).  Scholars debate whether ‘the one’ is God or human beings.  So it’s unclear who has subjected Creation to suffering – people or God?  In any case, what is absolutely clear is that ‘creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (v. 21).”

Looking at the passage from an environmental point of view, which I think is justified since it is about ‘creation,’ she goes on:  “When will this happen?  When the Children of God are ‘revealed.’  From an environmental perspective, this passage calls for Christians to show themselves to be actively working on behalf of Creation for ‘redemption’ that comes through Christ.

“This passage is also important for instilling a sense of hope in those who are suffering the travails of this time.  While we may not yet see a world healed from the ravages of humankind, our faith inspires hope, which, in turn, compels us to work to make that hope a reality.”[2]

Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic is a man [sic] who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” and “A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”[3]  Cynicism leads to looking at the world and saying, ‘love is impossible.’  It leads to thinking that self-interest has overpowered virtue and selfishness to what really motivates people.  Sentimentality leads to looking at the world and saying, ‘love is everywhere,’ even though it’s obviously not.  It leads to ignoring the reality of evil and becomes a form of escapism.

“Cynics and sentimentalists eventually end up in pretty much the same place,” writes Tim Suttle.  “They both disengage from responsibility for the future.  The cynic says, ‘everything’s terrible why bother to work for change?’  The sentimentalist says, ‘Everything’s fine, so there’s no need to change.’  Both approaches abandon the human call to co-create and shape our common life toward the kingdom of God.”[4]

And while we may have powerless, inactive cynicism and sentimentalist in one hand, in the other hand, there’s hope.  Hope, Paul says, is something beyond seeing.  And I wonder if hope might combine the best of cynicism and sentimentality.  You see, for all their powerlessness, cynicism and sentimentalism each reveals a little bit of truth.  Hope combines the ability to tell the truth about the evil in the world (the truth of cynicism), and the belief that the world is essentially good (the truth of sentimentalism).  And in combining them, hope “transforms them into action – a new way of being in the world.  “Hope is able to say:  although things are broken, they won’t always be.”[5]

Christy NaMee Eriksen, from her Facebook page, photo by Ryan Cortes

I’ve had my eyes open for hope this week.  On Tuesday, a person named Christy NaMee Eriksen posted this story on Facebook.

“There is a little boy next to me, he must be 2 or 3.  Even when his legs are fully extended they don’t touch the seat in front of him.  Mostly he just touches me, which is okay.  His father looks to be in his 40s, salt and pepper hair, broad shoulders and unexciting blue jeans.  He’s tall.  I assume he is the kind of tall that takes care of people, like reaches for things in the overhead bin for old ladies or carries multiple children to the house at once; that gentle, spacious tall.  But who knows.

“‘Do you want to lay down?’ he keeps asking his son in English, who does not want to lay down.  ‘Baby, do you want to take a nap?’ he suggests, but the son does not want to take a nap.  I like how English sounds in his mouth; it bounces, like rain in a hard city.

“We take off.  The son and I look out the window, watching the world get smaller and smaller.

“Then the father, all 6 foot mountain of him, curls himself into a seashell and lays his upper body in his son’s lap.  Without speaking, his son puts one tiny arm on his shoulder and one tiny arm around his head and his little back is strong and his little eyes are soft, and like this he holds his father.  Now the son is making circles with his palm, very small ripples across the landscape of his father.  Now he is slowly stroking his father’s wild sideburn with one finger.  I think they must have done this before.

“The father is asleep.  If you held them up to your ear, I bet you could hear the ocean inside them.  I bet everything in their ocean has a home to belong to.  Even I belong here, simply by being here, an innocent bystander to the intimacy of strangers.”

You might think this story is sentimentality.  But NaMee goes on.

“Why are some children born into sweetness and some are born into war?  Line up their fathers and how could you tell their tenderness apart.  I cannot fathom at this beloved moment or at any other, how a grown man could ever shoot tear gas at another man’s child.  How a woman could walk their child 3000 desperate miles to our doorstep and still some mothers would not let them in.  In many ways, we have already built the wall.

“Perhaps our anxious leaders have never held space like this, where no one is alone and there is always enough room.  I want to bottle it up and share it.  I want to swim in it and be free.  I want to be immigrant and rooted, here, forty thousand feet above America.  Where there is not a person, not a place, not a planet too small to love generously.”[6]

That, for me, is hope.

There a meme that crossed by path this week that shares an aspect of Advent hope.  HOPE:  Helping Oppressed People Everywhere.

I read a story yesterday about a 9-year-old girl from Napa named Riley who got Steph Curry to change how his sneakers are sold.[7]  When she found out that his Curry 5 shoes are only listed in boys’ sizes on the Under Armor website, she wrote Curry a letter asking why.  Curry’s response thanked her for pointing out the problem, explained that the website was getting corrected, and offered her a free pair of shoes.  When Curry posted a picture of his hand-written response on Twitter, he tweeted, “Appreciate you helping us get better Riley!”

A 9-year-old standing up for equal rights, and a famous adult see that action as “helping us get better” – that kindles my hope.

Pursuing Advent hope involved entering the shadows, those places where all seems lost.  It means sitting with those whose lives are broken.  And once we have entered the shadows (both intellectually and emotionally), we can act and find our way into hope.[8]

I’m really not all that big on the second coming.  I don’t think many progressive Christians are.  If Jesus comes again to bring an end to the age, fine.  Whatever.  I trust God to make all that work.  Rather than the second coming, Advent for me focuses much more on what St. Bernard of Clairvaux referred to, back in the early 12th century, as the third coming of Jesus.

“The third [coming],” he preached, “lies between the other two.  It is invisible, while the other two are visible.  In the first coming [Jesus] was seen on earth, dwelling among men; …  In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God … The intermediate coming is a hidden one;… in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power…”[9]

While Bernard said, “Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last,”[10] still lifting up the second coming, the final revelation of the age, as the important coming, I think of this “third coming” as the important coming, because it is the road on which we travel once we decide to follow Jesus.  And so, for us at least, Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Jesus in our lives, a mystical coming, a coming that brings with it transformation and hope.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation:

  • What is the source of your hope?
  • What kindles hope in you?
  • How do you put your hope into action?

_______________

[1] Headlines taken from various news websites over the past week.

[2] Leah D. Schade, “A Dozen Bible Passages for Preaching a Creation-Care Sermon,” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/2018/04/dozen-bible-passages-preaching-creation-care-sermon/ (posted 14 April 2018; accessed 29 November 2018).

[3] Quoted by Tim Suttle, “Advent is a Time for Hope: Oscar Wilde on Cynics & Sentimentalists,” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2018/11/advent-is-a-time-for-hope-oscar-wilde-on-cynics-sentimentalists.html (posted and accessed 29 November 2018).

[4] Ibid, punctuation corrected.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Christy NaMee Eriksen, Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/christynamee/posts/10156111444254506 (posted 27 November 2018; accessed 28 November 2018).

[7] Tod Perry, “A nine-year-old girl asked Steph Cutty why his shoes aren’t available in girls’ sizes and his response was surprising,” Good, https://www.good.is/articles/steph-curry-girls-shoes (posted 30 November 2018; accessed 1 December 2018).

[8] Salt Project, “Hope is a verb,” salt*, http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/advent-week-one-lectionary-commentary (posted and accessed 27 November 2018).

[9] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “The Three Comings of the Lord,” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/advent/story.php?id=30845 (written in the 12th century; published online 2 December 2008; accessed 1 December 2018).

[10] Ibid.

Categories

Jeff’s Twitter Feed

Archives

Blog Stats

  • 32,242 hits
Advertisements