A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 1, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In the weeks since Easter Sunday, we’ve been talking about the uprising that began with the resurrection.  While I can’t tell you exactly what the resurrection was, I know this:  The resurrection resulted in the uprising of a movement.  The disciples of Jesus changed from followers to leaders and they gathered new followers, people who wanted to be part of this uprising that offered a path that was different from the roads the Empire of Rome was so famous for.  This uprising forged a new path, a new road they made by walking it.

We are inheritors of this uprising and, like those first members of the uprising, we make our road by walking it.  This path was and is different from the ways of the Empire.  This road we make by walking is marked by it being a fellowship of scared and scarred people who find courage and healing in community.  This road we make by walking is marked by a discipleship where we are both leaders and followers, teachers and students.  This road we make by walking is marked by worship that brought everyone from every background into a state of equality.  This road we make by walking is marked by partnerships that can even make enemies into friends.  This road we make by walking is marked by the strange relationship we end up having with money – the subject of today’s sermon.

I invite you to think about how your relationship with money began and how it was formed.  Think about your experiences, what you were taught, how you felt and feel about money.

My introduction to money was with an allowance.  Each week, my parents gave me some money that I was free to do with as I chose.  It wasn’t a lot and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to spend it, but it was mine.  I was encouraged to think about what would happen if I spent it now rather than letting it accumulate.  I think, perhaps, my parents were trying to teach me that sometimes I have to wait to buy something.

I was encouraged to save and I opened a savings account at an early age – I don’t remember how young I was, but I know I was in grade school.  I remember arguing with my parents when I was in junior high that the inflation rate was so much higher than the interest rate I was earning, the real value of my savings was actually decreasing so they should be okay with me withdrawing it to buy a walkie-talkie to match Danny Kennealy’s.  Yes, I was a little mathematician when I was in seventh grade.

The other important lesson my father gave me, and this one was very direct, was about credit cards.  He co-signed for my first credit card, a MasterCharge (back before VISA).  He told me to pay off the full balance the first month, pay off most of the balance the second month so they can charge me a little interest on the unpaid balance and will think I’m going to make them money, then pay off the full balance the third month and each month thereafter.  “And,” he said as he signed the application for the card, “I never want to hear from them.  Ever.”  He didn’t.  And except for a few times when I had some major expenses like a car repair, I’ve never charged more than I could pay off that month.

Other lessons came later.  My parents never did the three jars lesson that is on the cover to the bulletin.  The idea is to teach not just savings, but sharing as well.  Had they participated in this activity, I would have been encouraged to divide my allowance (and birthday money) among the three jars, one for spending now, one for saving, and one for giving away.  My parents never talked about how they decided how much money to give to the church or how they decided what other organizations they would support.  I never really started thinking about giving until I was ordained and I needed to raise the money to pay my own salary when I was working for a Council of Churches as a chaplain.

And I didn’t really start thinking about the power of compound interest until I was several years into my professional life and an older colleague was encouraging me to start saving for retirement while I was in my 20s.  A side effect of this lesson in particular, and the other lessons as well, is that I was taught that my safety lies in my savings.  My safety is in my savings.  It may say “in God we trust” on the money, but that’s not the lesson the economy really teaches.

These overt foundational stories formed my relationship with money.  But there are other lessons learned as well, covert lessons, lessons the culture taught without teaching.  One of them is the money is power.  Sometime called the “Gold Rule” (and not to be confused with the Golden Rule), the Gold Rule say, “The one with the gold rules.”  Another rule is, “the bottom line is the bottom line.”  Profits are more important than how other people or the environment are treated.  “What’s mine is mine and I’m going to keep it” is another rule, or at least a mantra of the Empire’s economy.  Some people go so far as to chant, “What’s yours is mine and I’m going to take it.”  These are the rules that allow, even encourage corporations to pay slave wages in foreign countries, to dump their toxic waste in countries that don’t have good environmental protections (or to break the environmental laws in this country).

The uprising had a very different relationship with money.  “When the uprising first began in Jerusalem, people started bringing all their possessions to the apostles.  Since they knew it wasn’t God’s will for some … to have luxuries while other lacked necessities, those with surplus began to share freely with those in need.  … All things [were held] in common.  As you might expect, that created some problems.  Some old prejudices sprang up between Jews and Greeks, and some people began playing games, pretending to be more generous than they really were.  In spite of the problems, holding all things in common was a beautiful thing.”[1]

As the expected return of Jesus didn’t happen, the “all things in common rule” was followed by fewer and fewer communities of the uprising.  The one thing that didn’t change was the realization that the systems of this world run on one economy and the Commonwealth of God runs on another.  The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that money brings power, privilege, and superiority; it teaches that money brings responsibility for neighbors.  The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that what’s mine is mine, but that what’s mine is God’s.  And if what’s mine is God’s than it’s not mine really at all.  It’s God’s and I’m only the steward of it.  Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “I choose to follow Jesus.”  How we use our time, our potential, our possessions, our privilege, our power, and our money is all a matter of stewardship – because all of it is God’s, not ours.

And the uprising had (and still has) a radical idea:  Stop working for money and start working for Christ.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be paid for your work, but that the payment isn’t the primary purpose of your work.  The primary purpose of your work is to follow Jesus.  So that means that your profession needs to be one that decreases harm to the environment and our fellow human beings.  The notion that we work for Jesus and not for money is why the original members of the uprising weren’t allowed to be soldiers.[2]

Brian McLaren says that the early Christians used the jam-jar method of budgeting.  What is needed to meet the basic needs of the family?  That goes in the spending jar.  What’s left is divided between the saving jar (like an ant storing food for winter) and the giving jar.  The money in the giving jar is the money that would be presented in the offering that I described in my sermon two weeks ago.[3]  This money was used for the work of compassion, justice, restoration, and peace.  It supported the leaders of the uprising and it supported the vulnerable in the uprising – the sick, the widows, the orphans, the elderly, those who had lost their homes and land and work.  “That’s what stewardship is, really, love in action.”[4]

“Paul always reminds us,” McLaren writes, “that nothing has any value without love.  That explains why money is so deceptive.  It deceives people about what has true value.  You cannot serve two masters, Jesus taught.  If you love God, you will hate money, because it always gets in the way of loving God.  If you love money, you will hate God, because God always gets in the way of loving money.”[5]

This attitude about stewardship is, I think, one of the most radical things about the uprising that started with the resurrection.  If it’s not one of the most radical, it is one of the most challenging for me personally.

Some of the lessons I was taught are in keeping with the uprising’s idea of stewardship.  The importance of delaying purchases, the importance of meeting needs before wants, the importance of living within my means, the importance of giving a portion of my income away – these don’t conflict with the uprising of stewardship.  But those other lessons – my safety is in my savings; the one with the gold rules; the bottom line is the bottom line; what mine is mine and I’m going to keep it – those go against the uprising of stewardship.  And they are the lessons I still need to excise from my brain and heart.

Preparing this sermon reminded me of a sermon series I did several years ago on God’s Economy.  I think it may be one of the most important sermon series I have ever preached.  Or maybe it’s the one I most need to hear.  Maybe I’ll dig it out and preach it again next Lent or Easter.

For now, I invite you to reflect in silence on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or reflect on one of these:

Reflect on a time when you got mixed up about what really has value.

How do you respond to the idea of dividing your income into three parts—to spend, to save, and to give away?

Reflect on the tension between loving God and loving money.  See if any insights come to you.  Ask God to help you be a wise steward or manager of the resources that are entrusted to you.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 38. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] See, for instance, Scot McKnight, “The Early Church and Military Service,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/07/08/the-early-church-and-military-service/ (posted 8 July 2013; accessed 30 April 2016).

[3] Jeffrey Spencer, “The Uprising of Worship,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/the-uprising-of-worship/ (posted 17 April 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Acts 2:41-17 and 1 Corinthians 14:26-31
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Michael Kinnamon

I got to hear Michael Kinnamon preach a little over a week ago, at the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church of Northern California Nevada. Michael is probably best known in Disciples of Christ circles as the nominee who didn’t get elected and as a leader in the ecumenical movement. It’s a little surprising for me to realize that it was 25 years ago, but it was 25 years ago when Michael was nominated to serve as General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ.

The biennial General Assembly was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that year, an area of the country where the density of DOC congregations is much higher than it is here in Northern California. Because each congregation can send delegates to General Assemblies, it was possible for the opposition to Michael’s nomination to bus in delegates from area churches to vote against him, and his election fell short by 87 votes.[1] The opposition to him serving as General Minister and President was a reaction to his belief that the Bible doesn’t forbid the ordination of gay and lesbian people.

Michael went on to teach at several seminaries across the United States. He served as the General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, the leading ecumenical organization of mainline Protestants looking at potential reunification of Protestantism in the USA in the 80s and 90s. He had leadership positions in the World Council of Churches. And he was elected the General Secretary (the leader) of the National Council of Churches in the USA in 2007.[2]

Michael’s sermon from a week ago focused on the Annual Gathering’s theme: discerning what is next in the life of the Region. One of Michael’s points was that our memories define us, that is, that our sense of who we are is grounded in our memories.

Desmond Tutu

He pointed out that our memories are not always factually accurate, but it is the memory as we remember it that defines us, not what actually happened. He offered a wonderful example of this. His daughter, who is an African-American, understands herself to be a worker for justice and that this identity comes from the early childhood experience of meeting Desmond Tutu at a General Assembly. Michael knows that she was in the children’s program at the General Assembly when Tutu spoke, and they she couldn’t have met him. Nonetheless, her memory of meeting him is an important part of defining who she is. There is no point, Michael said, in correcting her memory to make it factually accurate (and hopefully she won’t read this sermon online). Her memory as she remembers it defines who she is.

The same is true for the church. Our memories define us. It might be memories of the recent past. For instance, I remember the many people who pitched in a few years ago to help a family in our congregation and that memory helps define this congregation as “compassionate” for me. It might be memories of a half-century ago of an adult who made a special effort to welcome children, giving us an identity as a safe and welcoming place for kids. Or it could be an ancient memory, passed down to us in stories – even in the stories we call scripture. And I want to turn to those memories now.

During this time of Easter, we’ve been looking at the uprising that began with the resurrection. I’ve talked about some of the hallmarks of that uprising. A couple weeks ago, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a fellowship of scared, scarred, doubting people. Last week, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a collection of learning teachers who make mistakes and keep on striving to faithfully follow Jesus. Today, we turn to how this uprising is marked by worship.

One of the things that is peculiar about this uprising that started with the resurrection is how we gather. Our reading from Acts is the end of the Pentecost story. I won’t go into much background on that because we will return to that story in a month. For now, you need to know that this is Luke’s telling of how the church started – the Holy Spirit blowing through a gathering of disciples, empowering them to share the story. Peter takes the lead in speaking to a crowd that gathers and people respond. 3,000 people, Luke claims, responded by being baptized. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s factually accurate; it’s the memory that defines us. Once they became part of the community, one change in their lives was that they became devoted to learning, the breaking of bread, and prayer. In other words, they became devoted to worship, for these are three of the four elements of worship in the early church, four elements of worship that continue today.

Historians have pieced together some of what worship in the early life of the church was like. Much of this description I’ll give you today is based on a summary written by Brian McLaren.[3]

The community of Jesus-followers gathered frequently. They called their little communities ecclesia, borrowing the term from the Roman Empire. For the Romans, an ecclesia was an exclusive gathering of local citizens where they discussed the affairs of the Empire of Rome. For the early Jesus-followers, an ecclesia was for common people, and they discussed the affairs of the Empire of God. The ecclesia of Jesus-followers were held in all kinds of places – in homes, in public buildings, in outdoor settings, even in catacombs. They were held whenever possible, but at first mostly at night because nearly everyone who come then, even slaves. It appears that the initial gatherings happened any day of the week, though remembering that the resurrection happened on a Sunday drew some groups to gather on that day.

There were four main functions or parts to the worship service. Worship began with teaching, usually teaching from the original disciples. This might be the disciples themselves or a letter from one of them. Through these teachings, people could learn about what Jesus taught, what he said, stories about his life and death and resurrection, the parables he told, the character he embodied. In this way, people who never met Jesus could think of themselves as followers of Jesus, walking the road he walked.

It seems that it was in this first element of worship that the ecclesia in Corinth was having problems. We don’t have the letter from the Corinthians to Paul, but we can interpret what it might have said based on his response. There seems to have been some quarreling about how worship should go. Some people must have thought that too many people were speaking in tongues. Maybe there weren’t any interpreters of the tongues, so speaking in tongues added nothing to the worship experience of the rest of the community. “Let all things be done for building up,” Paul writes to them.

If there are people who have a prophecy to share, some word that they believe is coming from God, they should share it – and it is the responsibility of the rest of the community to weigh what they share. I think he’s saying that we need to give prophecy a sniff test to see if it smells funky. And take your turns, Paul says. It sounds like it may have been a bit of a contest of holiness at times.

The next element of worship was prayer. [4] In at least some communities, prayers were offered while the community was standing. The content of the prayers is largely lost, but I can’t help but wonder if those early Christians found what I have found: that “it is far better to share our worries with God than to be filled with anxiety about things that are out of our control.”[5] I wonder if they prayed for boldness and wisdom to share God’s love beyond their community. I suspect they brought needs and sorrows of others before God, joining their compassion with God’s greater compassion. And I suspect they offered their thanksgivings and praise.

If they prayed the prayer we call “the Lord’s Prayer,” then we know they were praying for justice and peace. We also know that they would be praying prayers of confession, opening themselves to reconciliation with God and each other. Perhaps they were bold and faithful enough to pray for their enemies, as Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus taught.

2DC81B7ACFA24E14A5BEA31617BC8F49.ashxThe third element of worship was the meal around the table. In the early church, it appears to have been a full meal. According to Paul Bradshaw, the pattern of this meal mirrored “the common custom followed at all Jewish formal meals.”[6] This seven-fold shape began with the head of household taking bread in his (and it would have been a “he” at that time) hands, offering a blessing, breaking the bread, sharing it with all present; and at the end of the meal, taking a cup of wine in his hands, offering a blessing, and sharing it with all around the table. Bradshaw points out that this is the description of the Last Supper in several New Testament texts, which means that Jesus wasn’t instituting a new ritual, but reinterpreting an old one, giving it new meaning.[7]

The meals around which the Last Supper was remembered were also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are fed and none are hungry. The thing that was different about this feast was that all divisions fell away. All were welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, city-born and country-born. Everyone was treated as an equal, a shockingly anti-social act. Imagine someone from the merchant class treating a slave as an equal.

By the middle of the second century, it appears that the main meal disappeared from at least some of the Christian worshiping communities and the meal was simplified to the bread and cup.[8]

Though the agape feast (as it was called by some) ended, the radical nature of the Eucharist remained. All were still welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek. And this radical equality and inclusion was just as shocking to the social order as it had always been.

The fourth element of worship in the early church was an offering. This is how Justin Martyr describes this portion of the service: “And the wealthy who so desire give what they wish, as each chooses; and what is collected is deposited with the president [of that ecclesia]. He helps orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in need, and those in prison, and strangers sojourning among us; in a word, he takes care of all whose who are in need.”[9]

The wealth gap in the United States today is troubling, but it is nothing compared to the wealth gap that existed in the Roman Empire. Then, most people (who weren’t slaves) had subsistence lives, growing barely or not quite enough to feed their families, or working for only enough to feed themselves and their families on those days when they were lucky enough to find work. Anyone with any expendable money would have been considered wealthy, and they supported, through the church, those who were in need.

Our memories define us.

I started this sermon by saying that our memories define us. The disciples’ memories of their experiences of Jesus – before the crucifixion and after the resurrection – defined who they were. The memories of coming together to worship defined who the early church was. We are inheritors of those memories. We still gather for teaching, prayer, communion, and offering. This peculiar action is part of who we are and it is a mark of the uprising that began with Jesus. We are a people of the table where all are welcome – and all means ALL.

During the communion hymn today, we will be moving to the fellowship hall and we will gather around the tables there. It won’t quite be like the earliest celebrations of communion, which bookended the meal. We will celebrate communion and then move into our potluck lunch. When we get to that part of the worship service, we may discover that there are not enough chairs for everyone, so if you can stand around a table, I encourage you to stand and allow those who need to sit to sit. I know that not everyone will be able to stay for the lunch and the Day of Discovery program that follows, but I hope most of you will. And now, I’ll stop getting to far ahead of myself. I’ll return to the sermon.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about anything in today’s sermon that struck you, or to simply reflect on a time in your life when your heart was full of worship.
Consider how do you respond to (and how are you fed by) the four ancient functions of gathered worship – teaching, prayer, the meal, and offering.
Choose one word that points to an attribute of God (glory, wisdom, justice, kindness, power, grace, etc.).  Hold that word in your heart and mind, and in silence worship God.  Then choose another word and hold it together with the first word in silent worship.  Then add a third, and so on.

[1] Times Wire Services, “Disciples of Christ Name Interim Leader …” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/1991-11-02/entertainment/ca-742_1_christian-church (posted 2 November 1991; accessed 16 April 2016).
[2] “NCC Biography: Michael Kinnamon,” National Council of Churches, http://www.ncccusa.org/news/BIOMichaelK.htm (accessed 16 April 2016).
[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 36. Retrieved from amazon.com
[4] I am basing this on a quote by Justin Martyr [a second century Christian apologist] describing worship in his day (mid-second century) found in Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 41. Brian McLaren says that prayer came after communion, and it may have been some for some communities or for the earliest Christian communities – or he may have based his order on the order of things in the reading from Acts. Nonetheless, I will go with the more scholarly work for determining the order of things in early Christian worship.
You can learn some basics about Justin Martyr at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/justin-martyr.html
[5] McLaren, op. cit.
[6] Paul Bradshaw, 40.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 41-42.
[9] Justin Martyr, quoted by Bradshaw, 41.

The Uprising of Discipleship
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 21:1-19
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Religion is not a lottery, though some may believe otherwise. If our faith was only a question of picking the winning number to earn us an exclusive afterlife of luxury, then we would miss the whole point. Spiritual life is defined by service, not by salvation. We are called to practice justice, exercise compassion, give generously to help others. That is the hard work of living by faith. We do all of this without demand of a reward for love is its own reward. Heaven is not a winning ticket separating winners and losers but a promise we all inherit when we put service before self.”[1]

            This quote from Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston has lingered with me since he posted it at the beginning of the month on Facebook. And it informs today’s sermon.

Today is the third Sunday of Easter. We are in the season of resurrection. Just as Christmas lasts for 12 days, Easter lasts for 50 days. Today’s scripture lesson is an epilogue to John’s gospel. Most people think that John’s gospel ended with what we call chapter 20 and that chapter 21 was added sometime later. But that tidbit of text criticism is neither here nor there as far as today’s sermon is concerned. Today, we look at the bulk of chapter 21 as one more story from the texts we call “scripture,” one more story that talks about the uprising that began on Easter.

The disciples have had a series of experiences of the palpable presence of Jesus even though he was killed. First Mary of Magdala had an experience in the cemetery where Jesus’ body had been buried. Then Jesus showed up in a locked room with the disciples. And again a week later, he showed up in a room with the disciples, even though the door was shut.

It is now sometime later and the disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee. Peter announces that he’s going fishing. John doesn’t share what Peter’s motivation was. I’ve always read into the story that Peter, impulsive fellow that he was, felt like he had to do something. Jesus was dead, but he wasn’t. But he wasn’t around all the time like he used to be. And here we are back in Galilee and we’re hanging out together because, well, what else are we going to do. And suddenly Peter announces his going fishing. So what are the rest of us going to do? We go with him.

Peter in a fishing boat makes me think of when Jesus called Peter. Peter and his brother Andrew were on the Sea of Galilee (or as John calls it here, the Sea of Tiberius), and Jesus came by and called them, “Come follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” Only that’s not in John; that’s in the synoptic gospels. John doesn’t tell us how Peter put food on the table, just that his brother Andrew called Peter to come check out Jesus because Andrew thought Jesus just might be the Messiah. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if John’s community knew the synoptic story of Peter’s call.

This is a story in John’s gospel, and we’re not at the beginning of the story of Jesus ministry. We’re at the other end of the story, sometime after the resurrection. Peter declares to the other disciples that he’s going fishing, and a bunch of the other disciples went with him. And they were out all night and caught nothing. At daybreak, a stranger shows up on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They cast their nets and there are so many fish the net should break.

One of the disciples declares, “It’s the Lord.” On hearing this, Peter puts on some clothes and jump in the water to swim to shore. Which seems backwards to me – putting on clothing and jumping in the water. Walter Wink points out that this story has the feeling of a farce in its deliberate playfulness: “no fish, too many fish; non-recognition, recognition; Peter swimming fully clothed; the entire fish-count, in unison; Jesus as short-order cook.”[2]

And I have to agree – especially about the fish thing. Why 153 fish? Why that exact number? Theologians and biblical commentators have debated through the ages. “St. Jerome imagined it was the total number of fish species in the world, signifying the church’s worldwide mission. But first century people already knew more than that many fish.”[3] St. Augustine does some impressively convoluted math (that I don’t get) to force the number into making some symbolic sense.[4]

I like the chutzpah of one commentary who suggested the number may have been picked because that is the number of fish that were in the net. The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes this is a factual story rather than a theological story, and like the rest of John, the truth of the stories are in their theology, not their facts.

For an explanation, I like Wink’s idea that it’s all part of the farce. You see, things shift as soon as everybody’s ashore and gather around Jesus. Jesus serves them breakfast, bread and fish. Just like with the multitude on the hillside months earlier, Jesus serves his followers bread and fish. It’s an Easter communion scene.

And then Jesus pulls Peter aside. Jesus takes aside the man who was so upset that the only thing he could think to do was to go fishing. Jesus takes aside the man who promised he would never desert Jesus and within hours had denied even knowing him – three times. Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him this question three times. And three times, Peter declares his love for Jesus. Perhaps the symmetry is purposeful. Perhaps with each question, Peter is working out his guilt and finding forgiveness and reconciliation.

But John was written in Greek and the Greeks have several words that we translate as “love” in English, and two of them are used here. “Peter, do you agapas (the highest, self-giving love, agape) me?
Peter: ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I philo (to have friendship, affection for) you.’
Jesus: ‘Feed my lambs.’
A second time Jesus asks: Do you agapas me?
‘Yes Lord; you know that I philo you.’
‘Tend my sheep.’
A third time Jesus asks, Do you phileis me?
Peter, grieved that this third time Jesus had adopted his word, replies, ‘You know everything; you know that I philo you.’
‘Feed my sheep.’”[5]

Even without the response of “Feed my sheep,” it’s clear that there’s something going on with the use of these two words we translate “love.” Is there something about the call to love and follow Jesus without reservation, to love him unconditionally? Is there some acknowledgement of our inability to love without condition and Jesus’ accepting us all the same? Is there something being said about our inability to truly, fully reciprocate God’s love for us? I think, perhaps, yes.

With the response of “Feed my sheep,” I also hear the reassurance that we, like Peter, are called to act in response to Jesus’ love for us, even if imperfectly. The text continues with Jesus speaking to Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

Jesus has been telling Peter to care for the community: Feed my sheep. And, “in case he doesn’t understand what this entails, Jesus assures him that the kingdom requires total servanthood.… Though the first half of his life was spent planning, controlling, and going wherever he wished, discipleship means that ‘someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’

“Though the text claims that this was meant to foreshadow the way in which Peter would die, it actually says much more about the way Peter would live his life in Jesus: in full obedience to the gospel.”[6] Is it any wonder that the last thing Jesus says to Peter in John’s gospel are the same words that, according to Mark’s gospel, were the first said by Jesus to Peter?

Follow me.

These words are a literal call to discipleship. A disciple is “a follower, a student, an apprentice, one who learns by imitating a master.”[7]

On Easter Sunday, I said that the resurrection was much more about what happens to us than about what happened to Jesus. Maybe the resurrection is about getting a first-class ticket to eternity, but if it is, that’s not what’s important. Easter is the inauguration of an uprising. One mark of this uprising is fellowship, a fellowship of scarred and scared and doubting people – I talked about that last week. Another mark of this uprising is discipleship. The people that are part of this uprising are disciples of Jesus, the one who, on the day before his execution, knelt at his disciples’ feet and washed them. And then he told them that he had a commandment for them: Love one another.

This is the one Peter was called to follow. And how does he follow? How is he a disciple? By feeding Jesus’ flock.

That’s why I quoted Bishop Charleston at the beginning of the sermon. “Spiritual life is defined by service, not by salvation. We are called to practice justice, exercise compassion, give generously to help others. That is the hard work of living by faith.” That is the hard work of discipleship.

Like Peter, if we want to be part of this uprising, we are called to follow Jesus. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect – just look at Peter with his philia-love of Jesus. “But it does mean we are growing and learning, always humble and willing to get up again after we fall, always moving forward on the road we are walking.”[8]

It’s a strange position to be in, being part of the flock that Peter is called to feed and being called like Peter to feed the flock. But that’s what we’re called to be as part of this uprising. We are disciples who are learning even as we are teaching new disciples. Yes, we will make mistakes. Yes, some of our efforts will prove fruitless. And when that happens, Jesus will come by and encourage us to give it one more try, maybe a little differently this time, casting our nets on the other side of the boat.

As we move into our time of reflection, I invite you to meditate on anything in the sermon to strikes you, or to consider one or more of these questions:

  • Hold the image of tired fishers at daybreak, being told to cast their nets one more time. What does this image say to your life right now?
  • How have you been drawn toward discipleship by another person?
  • How do you relate to the story of Peter with its dramatic ups and downs?
[1] Steven Charleston, in a Facebook post dated 1 April 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1004829352935270.
[2] Walter Wink, “Resurrection Flashes,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/resurrection-flashes (accessed 6 April 2016).
[3] Jason Byasse, “Death, Upended,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/death-upended (accessed 6 April 2016).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Wink, op. cit.
[6] Michaela Bruzzese, “Surrender to Life,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/surrender-life (accessed 6 April 2016).
[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 179.
[8] Ibid.

 

 

“Only if we have some sense of death can we make any sense of the resurrection.”  ~ Jeffrey S. Spencer

I know it’s a little egotistical to quote yourself, but I really thought this was sufficiently profound to repost (from Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr) here.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 3, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:19-29 and Psalm 133
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There’s an urban legend[1] that seems appropriate for today.

There was a Yugoslavian judge, or so the story goes, who was electrocuted when he reached up to turn on the light while standing in the bathtub.  This guy’s poor wife found his body sprawled on the bathroom floor.  He was pretty clear he was dead, so they took his body to the preparation room by the crypt in the town cemetery to be held for burial.

In the middle of the night, the judge came to.  The judge looked around and realized where he was.  So he got up and alerted the attendant.  The poor attendant was freaked out and ran off.

The judge’s next thought was to phone his wife and reassure her that he really wasn’t dead.  Unfortunately, he got no farther than, “Honey, it’s me,” when she screamed and fainted.

So, he decided that the best course of action was to enlist some friends.  He went to the houses of several friends; but because they all had heard the news from his distraught wife, they all doubted that he was really alive.  They were all convinced he was a ghost.

Finally, in a last desperate effort, he phoned a friend in another city who hadn’t heard about his death.  That friend was able to convince his family and nearby friends that the judge really was alive.
The one thing that Thomas is most remembered for is that he told the other disciples that he wouldn’t believe that they had really seen the resurrected Christ unless I could see and touch him for himself.  It makes sense that he wouldn’t believe them.  The two most logical explanations are that either Jesus didn’t really die (show me the wounds) or it’s a collective hallucination.  No wonder he said, I gotta see if for myself.  We could remember him as Level-headed Thomas, but we remember him as Doubting Thomas.

Back in Chapter 11, Jesus decides to go to Judea to Lazarus, who has died.  His disciples warn him against it because some people want to stone him, but Jesus insists on going.  It’s Thomas who boldly declares to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”[2]  We could remember him as Daring Thomas, but we remember him as Doubting Thomas.

When Jesus does show himself to Thomas, Thomas makes the most profound statement of faith in the gospels.  He says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”  We could remember him as Profound Thomas, but we remember him as Doubting Thomas.

One way to look at the story is to focus on the question of the validity of the claims that Jesus was resurrected.  Like the rest of us and like the second century Christians John was writing for, Thomas wasn’t there to witness the resurrection that first day.  So he has his doubts – perfectly logical and reasonable doubts.  And then he gets his own personal show and he comes to believe.  John closes the scene with a line of encouragement for his community and for us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[3]

That’s one way to look at the story, but not the way I want to look at it today.

John tells us that the disciples have locked themselves away, entombed themselves in a room, because of their fear.  Suddenly, Jesus walks amid them, walks amid their fear, giving them the first gift of the resurrection:  Peace.  “Peace be with you,” he says.  “Then, with the breath of the Spirit, Jesus also gives the disciples the power to create community:  ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23).”[4]

Michaela Bruzzese notes that “his actions [breathing on them] recall both God’s first, life-giving breath to Adam and Eve and God’s restoration of the dry bones in Ezekiel.”[5]  But it is her insight that this power to forgive sins is the power to create community that intrigues me.

A master storyteller, John brings in Thomas in the next scene.  He wasn’t there to begin with.  Will they forgive his incredulity?  Will they let him be part of the community?  Or will they say his unbelief is beyond the pale and he can’t be part of them?  Jesus has given them the power to create (or withhold) community.

John doesn’t tell us how the disciples reacted to “Thomas’ initial skepticism.  Maybe they were scandalized.  Or maybe they sympathized.”[6]  Regardless of their reaction, Jesus returns the next week and gives them an example of how it works.  He stands before Thomas and does not chastise him for doubting, nor for wanting proof.  Jesus makes room for Thomas’ doubts.  “Go ahead.  Touch,” Jesus says.  “Go ahead.  Touch.”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601-02

As Nancy Sehested points out, “Jesus knew exactly what Thomas needed.  Jesus never offered one prescription or formula for bringing people to faith.  He did not hand out a tract on the four spiritual laws to every person he met.  Jesus did not chide Thomas for his doubts or questions.  Thomas’ doubts were his avenue to a deepened discipleship.  He did not run away from community with his doubts.”[7]  And whether they accepted him with his doubts or not, Jesus certainly did, and I think they got the picture.

In the same way, this church, this community, this fellowship is open to, is welcoming of doubts and questions and ponderings.  In fact, “I think that if we don’t have any doubts we’re probably not taking the story seriously enough.  I mean, really – think about what we confess when we come together on Sundays:  that the Creator of the vast cosmos not only knows we exist but cares deeply and passionately about our ups and downs, our hopes and dreams, and all the rest.  This confession is, quite literally, in-credible (that is, not believable).  And yet we come together and in hearing the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and by being joined to those around us through prayer and song, we come to believe.”[8]

And it’s not just our doubts that are welcome.  Remember the condition of the disciples when Jesus first comes to them in this story.  They are scared.  They are scared of the principalities and powers.  Jesus offers them peace in the midst of their fears, and maybe that peace gives them enough courage to overcome their fears.  Maybe.  But a week later, they are in the house together again.  John tells us that the doors were again shut.  He doesn’t use the word “locked” this time, but one has to wonder if their fear was gone.  The scared are welcome right alongside the doubters.

Remember, too, the test Thomas thought would prove that it really was Jesus.  He needed to see the wounds.  The wounds reveal Jesus.  Interesting.  “You can’t see the Risen One unless you can see the Crucified.”[9]  That says something about being the body of Christ today.  If we don’t include the wounded, the scarred, how can we include the Risen One?

Three of the four times Thomas is mentioned in John’s gospel (he’s only mentioned in lists of disciples in the other gospels), he is referred to as “the twin.”  The twin of whom, I keep wondering.  Perhaps he is the twin of you and me.

We have a term for what the disciples began to experience that night:  fellowship.  “Fellowship is a kind of belong that isn’t based on status, achievement, or gender, [or orientation, or race, or ethnicity, any of the other ways people divide themselves,] but instead is based on a deeper belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome, and everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions.  It’s not the kind of belonging you find at the top of the ladder among those who think they are the best, but at the bottom among all the rest, with all the other failures and losers who have either climbed the ladder and fallen, or [who] never [got] up enough gumption [or never had the resources] to climb in the first place.”[10]

Whatever else the uprising that began on that first Easter would become, from that night on it has been an uprising of fellowship, a community where anyone who wants to be part of the community of Jesus followers will be welcome.  Jesus showed his scars, and we are realizing we don’t have to hide ours.

“So [this] fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe.  When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again.  Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world.  In the space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air.”[11]

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to consider one of these questions.

  • What one thought or idea from today’s scripture or sermon especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped, or surprised you?
  • When in your life have you experienced true fellowship?
  • How do you respond to the idea that Christian fellowship is for scarred and scared people—without regard to gender, status, or achievement?
  • Imagine you are Thomas at the moment Jesus shows his scarred hands, feet, and side.  How does Thomas’ experience from that night resonate with your life today?

[1] This telling of the legend is slightly modified from the telling shared in an email from sermons.com dated 29 March 2016.

[2] John 11:16 (NRSV).

[3] John 20:29 (NRSV).

[4] Michaela Bruzzes, “Do Not Doubt,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/do-not-doubt (accessed 28 March 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Lose, “Easter 2 C: Blessed Doubt,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2-c-blessed-doubt/ (posted 29 March 2016; accessed 30 March 2016).

[7] Nancy Hasting Sehested, “A Shelter for Doubt,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/shelter-doubt (accessed 28 March 2016).

[8] Lose, op. cit.

[9] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Touching the Word,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/touching-word (accessed 28 March 2016).

[10] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 175.

[11] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:1-35
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It was a Saturday, the Sabbath day. But it wasn’t any Saturday. It was the day after the Roman government brutally executed Jesus. His followers saw his arrest, followed his trial, though from a distance. Some even witnessed his execution and, we are told, took his body and laid it in a tomb.

A friend of mine points out, “There are no stories in the sacred text of my tradition about his family’s grief, about the pain of his intimates Mary Magdalene or John (the disciple whom Jesus loved), no stories about his friends’ despair or his followers’ shock. The text is silent. But any of us who have lost a beloved, particularly to violent and tragic death, need no stories. We know what they felt.”[1]

I try as best I can each year to enter into the story of Holy Week. I try, as best I can, not just to read the story, but to imagine myself there. And so this week I have tried to imagine what the disciples were feeling. Deep grief, no doubt. The one they had hoped would redeem Israel had been crushed by the elites. The religious authorities and the government authorities colluded to have him killed. I imagine they were angry, too. I get angry when I hear about injustice, let alone witness it. And I’ve always assumed they were scared of the Romans, scared that they might be next.

But on re-reading today’s gospel lesson, I realize that it doesn’t say that the disciples were afraid of the government. So I went back and re-read all the Easter accounts in the four gospels and I was surprised to find no mention of the disciples being afraid of the Romans. There’s plenty of fear in the stories, but with one exception, that fear comes from seeing angels or seeing the appearances of the resurrected Christ himself.

Only in John are the disciples in a locked room because they are afraid – and then only on Sunday evening, not Friday night, not on Saturday, not on Sunday morning or afternoon. John says they locked the door out of fear, not of the Romans, but of “the Jews.” And if you read the Passion story in John, you’ll see how readily he blames “the Jews” for Jesus’ crucifixion. It can end up sounding quite anti-Semitic, which, given the likelihood that John’s gospel was written around the same time that the followers of Jesus were being kicked out of the synagogues, isn’t too surprising. John probably had an ax to grind.

The fact is that crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, so Jesus was killed under Roman authority, and any collusion on the part of any Jews would have been collusion on the part of the Jewish elites, especially members of the Temple priest class. If the disciples were afraid of the Roman government, that reality didn’t make it into the stories.

I am not the only one who has this assumption that the disciples were huddled in a locked room on that first Easter morning, fearing for their lives. One commentary I read on our Gospel story in preparation for this sermon says, “The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a ‘He told you so, didn’t he?’ way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. ‘Ohhhh, that’s right, we remember now …’ [the women say] – and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they’ve seen and experienced in the past few days).”[2]

Only the text doesn’t say any of that. The text says the women are terrified by the angel, and the text doesn’t say anything about the men being afraid at all.

Maybe it’s projection. Maybe we read into the story something that isn’t there. Maybe our own fears get projected into the gospel narratives. It sure seems like we have reasons to fear. The attack in Brussels on Tuesday initially evoked that response in me. But then, that’s the terrorists’ goal, isn’t it: to instill a sense to terror in the populace?

Terror Attacks 26 March 2016So, I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the disciples to the death of Jesus in the context of terrorist attacks. And if you’ll permit a short aside here, I’d like to make a confession. Just this month, there have been at least eight terrorist attacks around the world. On March 7, the small town of Shabqadar, Pakistan, was rocked by a suicide bomb, killing around 10 and injuring around 30. On March 13, gunmen belonging to the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda opened fire Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast; 22 were killed. On the same day, Kurdish militants set off a car bomb in the heart of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing at least 37. On March 16, a blast killed at least 15 and injured around 30 people in Pashawar, Pakistan. Also on March 16, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a mosque in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing 26. On March 20, a suicide bomber killed five people and injured more than 30 in Istanbul, Turkey. On March 21, unidentified gunmen opened fire at a hotel in Bamako, Mali; only one person was killed, one of the attackers.[3] And on March 22, there were the attacks in Brussels, killing 31 and wounding some 300.[4] Eight terrorist-attacks this month.

My confession is this: I want to acknowledge the narrowness of my own awareness, that it took an attack in a European country (that is, a white country) for me to pay attention. The same seems to be true of the news media in my country, at least the news media I consume. I, right along with the rest of the mainstream of this nation, still have work to do to address the racism that is baked into our identity and being.

Aside finished; now back to the main thrust of my sermon.

So, what if the disciples weren’t afraid of the Roman government the way I’ve always assumed? What if, despite all they knew of the cruelty of the government, its willingness to torture and maim and kill for its own political goals, the disciples weren’t afraid? I think, perhaps, that might have been one of the things that made them open to the transformative power of the resurrection.

I don’t pretend to know what happened on the Sunday after Jesus was killed. I know that for some Christians it is really important that the tomb was empty, that the resurrection of Jesus involved his physical body. It may have. But if it did, I don’t think it involved a resuscitation of his flesh. One of the reasons John may have written about the locked room was so that Jesus’ appearance there would include an element of the metaphysical. Certainly the story we heard in the second part of our gospel lesson suggests something other than the reanimation of Jesus’ molecules. These disciples don’t recognize him and when they finally do recognize him, he vanishes. Poof. But maybe I’m wrong.

My point is, I don’t think it matters whether Jesus’ resurrection included the reanimation of his body. What’s important about the resurrection is not the impact it had on Jesus. What’s important about the resurrection is the impact it had on Jesus’ disciples.

The faithful women who went to the grave to tend to Jesus’ body, to tend to death, changed as a result of their experience at the grave. And it started with them remembering what Jesus had said. The men in the dazzling clothing (angels, we assume) remind them. In the same way, for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it started with the remembering of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that Jesus said and did.

The God who spoke through the Prophet Isaiah about “new heavens and a new earth” began with the resurrection a new creation and grounded it in hope. The resurrection “isn’t only about ‘my own personal life after I die,’ then, but about God’s whole new creation, God’s new age, an age and a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, to compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God’s new age, God’s new earth. There is a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.”[5]

With the resurrection, the uprising begins.

As N.T. Wright, in the book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (the book that the adult Sunday School will start studying next week), says, “Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever.”[6] And they are what this uprising is all about.

I’m with John Dominic Crossan. “What could not have been predicted and might not have been expected was that the end was not the end. Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place.… Jesus’ own followers … talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and [therefore] probably female [or perhaps unnamed so this person can be any of us]. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake[, with the multitude, and in the upper room]. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits.”[7]

It doesn’t matter if this actually happened, because it happens all the time. Every time we come to the table, we are invited to participate in the resurrection. The bread is broken and we are invited to open our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst. We are invited to participate in the drama of Jesus’ body and blood being alive again in us, reunited in us, transforming us into a community of resurrection.

Easter is the beginning of a new age. But like Jesus at the table who disappeared when he was recognized, that new age had both begun in an uprising and has not come to its fullness. People still suffer. Terrorists still bomb and kill and countries still war. Our hearts are still torn and our health still worries us. Our loved ones still die and our doubts still trouble us.

And yet, Christ is alive.

And so we know, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, “life defeats death, peace is more powerful than war, love is greater than hatred, and good will outlasts evil. Foolish people think that killing the Messenger will kill the message! They don’t understand the power of Resurrection! Graves are temporary. May Divine Life spring forth out of the ashes of all of our struggles and renew us for the challenges to come.”[8]

Now, to add one more dimension to the sermon, as we enter into a time of quiet contemplation, I invite you to imagine the scene when the risen Christ broke the bread and suddenly disappeared. Hold that moment of disappearance in silence, and open your heart to the possibility of absence becoming fullness.

[1] Lizann Bassham, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 26 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/lizann.bassham/posts/10154066387264288.

[2] Kathryn M. Matthews, “Additional Reflection on Luke 24:1-12,” Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_27_2016 (accessed 21 March 2016), emphasis added.

[3] Tanvi Misra, “Beyond Brussels: 8 Other Cities Attacked by Terrorists in March,” The Atlantic Citylab, http://www.citylab.com/crime/2016/03/apart-from-brussels-here-are-8-other-cities-attacked-by-extremists-this-month/474855/ (posted 22 March 2016; accessed 23 March 2016).

[4] Jess McHugh, “Europe Terrorist Attacks 2016: Timeline Of Bombings And Terror Threats Before Brussels,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/europe-terrorist-attacks-2016-timeline-bombings-terror-threats-brussels-2341851 (posted 24 March 2016; accessed 26 March 2016).

[5] Kathryn M. Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), xiii.

[8] Yvette Flunder, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 24 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/yflunder/posts/10153388229660894.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 6, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 6:19–7:12
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I was on the train by myself. That was fine. I’m used to riding on trains by myself. It was when I realized that I was on the wrong train that my anxiety started to rise. The fact that I was in France and I don’t speak French was certainly a contributing factor. “Please, God, may the conductor speak English.” And God answered my prayer: No.

Luckily, the conductor was compassionate. He wrote something on a piece of paper, and said something with some hand gestures that I guessed meant I was supposed to get off the train when we got to a town with the name on the paper. For the next twelve hours (it was probably only 30 or 40 minutes – maybe only 20) I watched the electronic ticker ahead of me on the ceiling of the train car, looking for the word the conductor had written on the paper.

Finally, I saw it. I got off the train, found a timetable, figured out when a train to Geneva would come, and finally started to relax. As I sat on the platform, waiting for the train that would actually take me to Switzerland, I started kicking myself right in the ego for being so stupid that I got on the wrong train.

By the time I got to Geneva, all I had lost was a long layover that I had hoped to spend with a cousin, but who had cancelled the day before. I even made the train I had planned to get to Zurich, and then a connection to Wettingen, where a different cousin didn’t meet me because he thought I was going to meet him in Baden – but that’s another story.

In today’s section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts by asking us to consider where our hearts are, to think about what we value. In a society that values wealth and power, Jesus suggests our values should be focused elsewhere. Treasures on earth or treasures in heaven? You can’t serve God and wealth. It’s one or the other. That’s why, Jesus says, I tell you not to worry about material things. Material things are not what is important. Worry won’t add to your life. Strive first for the kin-dom of God. Tomorrow with bring it’s own troubles. Be present here, now, in this moment, not worrying about some possible future.

There are lots of reasons to be anxious. One typical reason we get anxious is that we worry about things that are beyond our control. There I was, on the wrong train and there was nothing I could do about it. I hear this from parents – worried about their children and feeling powerless to do anything about their futures and the choices they make. Except, of course, they helped their children become the people they are. And they ignore the fact that they are still their parents and can provide some level of safety net. Instead, they may try to manipulate, control, or disempower their kids, thus undermining the parenting they have done for years.

I bet you know of someone, perhaps yourself, who feared so much that they would lose the person they loved that they started clinging and grasping and smothering – and actually ended up driving the person away.

I’m not talking about anxiety disorders. Those are real medical issues that have to do with brain wiring and chemistry. I’m talking about situational anxieties.

When you have this kind of anxiety, you are experiencing a trust deficit. Whether it is a lack of trust in yourself (like I had on the train in France) or a lack of trust in another (like a parent with a child) or a lack of trust in God, when you are anxious about your life, you don’t experience your life – you only experience your anxiety.

Do you remember what happened while I was waiting for the correct train to Geneva? I started taking it out on myself. This is pretty typical. All too often, “anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy.”[1]

We see this wholesale every four years during the presidential campaign. Whether it’s the immigrants or the Wall Street banks, the candidates tell us to deal with our anxieties – whatever they are actually about – by identifying an enemy to blame. Aaron Sorken summed this up really well in the 1995 film, The American President. The widowed President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) is facing reelection, and his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, is coming after him by attacking his girlfriend, Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Rumson paints Wade as a threat to America. In the movie’s climax, the President interrupts a press conference to defend himself and his girlfriend from Rumson’s attacks. There’s one little clip I want to play from the speech he gives to the press (the important part starts at 2:14 and runs to 2:37).[2]

Of course, what the movie doesn’t show is that the President’s reelection campaign will end up doing the essentially same thing – sometime after the credit roll. This isn’t surprising – both that they don’t show this in the movie and that it will inevitable happen. This is what almost all advertising does. To get us to buy stuff – be it political candidates or stuff we don’t need – advertising uses fantasies and lies, and most of all, fear.

“Here’s a gizmo you need to get for your toddler so they won’t be stupid.” My sister once told me how effective this advertising tool, fear, is on her – especially as a mom, especially when her kids were little.

As I said earlier, fear typically leads us to judgment. As President Shepherd said, it’s all about “Making you afraid of it and telling you who to blame for it.”[3] This is done by creating and judging a “them” of evil, untrustworthy semi-people and an “us” of good, trustworthy fully-people.

There’s that word, “trust,” again. When we create and judge an untrustworthy “them,” we get a feedback loop. The untrustworthiness leads to more anxiety, which leads to more judgment, which leads to more anxiety … Trust is an antidote to this, especially trusting God in the midst of what our anxiety tells us is a dangerous world.

Jesus offers an additional antidote to judgmentalism. Just as focusing on the kin-dom of God helps release our fears, self-examination can release our judgmentalism. “Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus[ing] on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.”[4]

We posted a few memes about this on our Facebook page this past week:

Quoting the Dali Lama, one says (complete with spelling error), “What is love? Love is the absence of judgement.”[5]

Another says, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently from you.”[6]

12805960_1054510974570122_7904256972084190311_nAnd the one that was posted yesterday, which seems to resonate with lots of people, says, “When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”[7]

“Put simply, if we want to experience nonjudgmental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions, we will do unto all others – with no exceptions, as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realization that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgment-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.

“Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realize how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his [or her] mom or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or a snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call our for help?”[8]

So, here’s my point – my three points, really:

Our anxieties are more dangerous to us than whatever it is that we’re anxious about.

Our habit of condemning is more dangerous to us than what we condemn in others.

And our misery is unnecessary because each of us is truly, truly love.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. And I invite you to savor the feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 141.
[2] See the clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSQmHWOrNQk. The part that’s important starts at about 2:14 and runs to 2:39.
[3] Ibid.
[4] McLaren, op. cit., 142.
[5] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510424570177/?type=3&size=960%2C594&fbid=1054510424570177
[6] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054511171236769/?type=3&size=400%2C560&fbid=1054511171236769
[7] Quoting Ram Dass, https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510974570122/?type=3&size=600%2C900&fbid=1054510974570122
[8] McLaren, op. cit., 142-143.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 28, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:1-21
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a kid, my two favorite TV shows were “The Wild, Wild West” and “Mission: Impossible.”  While the shows are set in very different periods, I’ve noticed some similarities.  Both shows involved secret missions.  In both shows, the team had to work together to fulfill their mission.  Both shows had gadgets and disguises that were used by the team.  In both shows, it was really clear who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys” were.  And in both shows, if they weren’t trying to make the world better, they were at least trying to make sure the world didn’t get any worse.

Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a call to a mission.  Maybe not so secret, but spectacular nonetheless.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to turn the world around.  You won’t be able to conform to the norms of our society to do it.  The old laws don’t go far enough.  Monitoring your behavior isn’t enough.  You need to check your attitudes and feelings.  You’re going to have to love even your enemies.

Easier said than done, Jesus.  Yeah, I want to change the world for the better, but how do I do it?

Start, Jesus says, on the inside.  “If you want to change the world on the outside, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world.  Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur ‘openly.’”[1]

Jesus offers three spiritual practices than can change the world by changing us first.  The traditional term is, ‘spiritual disciplines,’ and for them to be effective, we do need to be disciplined in doing them.  I prefer, however, the term, ‘spiritual practices.’

A music teacher I knew years ago had a pad of paper he used to write assignments on.  It said at the top, “Practice makes perfect,” but “perfect” was crossed out and “better” was written over it.  Practice makes better.  Another one I like is, “Practice makes habit.”  That’s why Jesus emphasizes the importance of how we practice almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  And the thing that he says in common with these three practices is to make them part of your secret life.

Jesus spend less time on the almsgiving and the fasting then on the praying, so I’m going to start with them.  “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  It’s an aphorism that gets quoted often enough, though I wonder how many people who use it know that it refers to giving money away.

Give money away without any show, Jesus says.  Don’t even let your other hand know you’re going it.  I confess that I don’t follow this advice.  Not only does my left hand know, so does the IRS.  And I keep records in case I ever get audited.  I suppose my giving would be purer if I gave and let it go.  It might even help make a deeper change in me if I gave and let it go.  But Jesus didn’t have to deal with the U.S. tax code, so I’m going to cut myself a little slack.

dittybagsWhen I think about giving and letting go, I need to say something about what happened earlier this month.  Without a whole lot of promotion, our congregation gathered up $911 for our Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments offering.  This is money that we gathered up and sent off to SAVE – and then we let go of it.  We let SAVE use it for whatever it is that they feel they need it for.  And with even less promotion than that cash offering, people made, distributed, filled, and collected ditty bags for women leaving violence and finding shelter with SAVE.  We had around 50 of them – a car-full.

Have I just violated Jesus’ instructions on this practice, since you now know what we did?  Maybe.  Yet what would change you more:  knowing what the total collection of cash and ditty bags was; or letting you contribute and then never knowing what we did collectively?

One thing I am convinced of is that giving changes us.  I’ve experienced it in my own life.  I’ve found it opens me to deeper and deeper trust.  I’ve found it opens me to deeper and deeper gratitude.  And I’ve found that it opens me to deeper and deeper generosity.

On the other hand, I have very little experience with fasting.  I understand the concept:  Abstaining from food can help build trust and help shift our hungers.  Fasting done not just as self-denial, but has spiritual practice can move our hunger to God.  “More than my body desires food, I desire you, Lord!  More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be full of you!  More than my tongues desire sweetness or salt, my soul desires your goodness.”[2]

Jesus’ point, as it was with almsgiving, is that when we do it in secret, fasting really, truly focuses us on God.  “If we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness.  It’s only in secret, in the presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to aliveness.”[3]

The biggest portion of this lesson focuses on prayer.  Again, Jesus says we should offer our prayers in secret.  In a few minutes, we will join together in prayer.  Does this violate Jesus’ instruction to practice prayer in private?  Or have we practiced long enough that we’re ready to go public?  Or, when the community does it, is it a different kind of prayer?

I find it interesting that Jesus tells us to pray in private and then uses plural pronouns in his sample prayer:  Our father, give us, forgive us as we forgive, lead us.

Many of you know that one of my spiritual practices is to write an evening prayer of thanksgiving.  It is part of my review of my day and a way of reflecting on the gifts in my life and the presence of God in my life.  This practice has caused me to shift what I see as gifts in my life, and through that, it has caused me to shift what I value.  My practice has been to post these prayers on Facebook.  That is about as not alone by myself in my room as I can get.  Does this violate Jesus’ instruction to practice prayer in private?  I know that practice of offering the prayers of thanksgiving – whether I write them in a paper journal or write them on Facebook – has immense value for me.  And I’ve heard from a few Facebook friends that the practice of posting the prayers has value for them, too.

The thing that makes this portion of the lesson longer than the others is that Jesus does include this specific example of how to pray.  There are lots of ways to unpack this sample prayer.  Brian McLaren sees it as having four movements.

First we orient ourselves toward God.

“Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire.  We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign.

“Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our social and spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.

“Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world into which we will soon reenter.  We ask to be guided away from the trials and temptations that could ruin us, and we ask to be liberated from evil.”[4]

This fourth movement takes us back to where I began, to our mission:  to change the world.  The sample prayer Jesus teaches prepares us to come out of our private rooms where we practice these spiritual practices, to engage in and with the world.  And that, perhaps, is where an answer to my questions about not following Jesus’ instructions about almsgiving and prayer might be found.  If the goal of these practices is to focus on and change our insides to prepare us to change what’s outside, then the secrecy matters only as much as not being secret gets in the way of our own transformation.

It’s hard to tell if Matthew meant the next section to be a conclusion to this section on spiritual practices or the beginning of the next section (which we’ll turn to next week).  Maybe it belongs in both places, but I’m definitely hearing it as a conclusion to the section on spiritual practices.

After Jesus tells us that the way to get ready to change the world is to change ourselves through spiritual practices, he turns to wealth.  “Just as we can practice giving, prayer, and fasting for social enhancement or [for] spiritual benefit, we can build our lives around public, external, financial wealth or [around] a higher kind of ‘secret’ wealth.  Jesus calls this higher wealth ‘treasure in heaven.’  Not only is this hidden wealth more secure, it also recenters our lives on God’s presence, and that brings a shift to our whole value system so that we see everything differently.  When we see and measure everything in life in terms of money, all of life falls into a kind of dismal shadow.  When we seek to be rich in generosity and kindness instead, life is full of light.

“Some people shame the poor, as if the only reason poor people are poor is that they’re lazy or stupid.  Some shame the rich, as if the only reason they’re rich is that they’re selfish and greedy.  Jesus doesn’t shame anyone, but calls everyone to a higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition.  And that ambition begins, not with how we want to appear in public, but with who we want to be in secret.”[5]

So, here’s the invitation to being your engagement with this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hold the phrase “treasures in heaven” in silence in God’s presence, and notice how your heart responds.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 136.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 138-139.

God of the journey, here, at this moment, in this place, we pause to rest, to be renewed, to discern your direction.  We do not come alone.  Not only are we surrounded by fellow journeyers, our sisters and brothers in this room, we are also surrounded by people we care about, people we hold with deep concerns.

You have heard us name people who are in need of healing, and we add to that list Grace, Eric, Barry, and others whose names we life in silence.  We pray for Judy and for others who grieving.  We pray for the people of Fiji after one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the southern hemisphere tore through the Pacific island nation, flattening villages and killing at least five people.  We pray for people who live in the midst of violence – at home, in their neighborhoods, because of war.

God of the journey, we are not here alone.  We do not journey alone.  We journey with the others in this community of faith, with the others we carry in our heart, with the others in our denominations.  And we journey with you.

Give us courage for the journey.  Give us the courage to look forward into the unknown future.  Give us the courage to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about scripture, even about you.  Give us the courage to journey within so that our hearts may be continually transformed.  Give us the courage to dare to step beyond the road that is carefully and completely constructed.  Give us the courage to continually journey toward justice.  Give us the courage to even love our enemies.  Give us courage to step into the construction zone, and beyond, venturing into new territory, so that we can make the road by walking ahead together.  For we do not journey alone.  Amen.

Exxon knew.

“Here’s the story so far. We have the chief legal representatives of the eighth and 16th largest economies on Earth (California and New York) probing the biggest fossil fuel company on Earth (ExxonMobil), while both Democratic presidential candidates are demanding that the federal Department of Justice join the investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history. And that’s just the beginning. As bad as Exxon has been in the past, what it’s doing now — entirely legally — is helping push the planet over the edge and into the biggest crisis in the entire span of the human story.”

That’s how Bill McKibben starts a lengthy, comprehensive, and very important essay on the fact that Exxon knew all about climate change and the role burning fossil fuels plays in causing it back in 1977, that they spent money lying to the public about climate change, and they are now being investigates for fraud. I encourage you to read it.

Then I hope you will take action. If you live outside the United States, please ask the appropriate governmental agency to investigate Exxon. If you live in the United States, please sign this petition to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an investigation of Exxon, then contact your State’s attorney general to call for an investigation in your state.  And if you live in New York or California, contact your state’s Treasurer to point out the fact that maybe your state should divest from a company that it is criminally investigating.

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