A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 9, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 6:35, 41-51
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Think of one of your friends from childhood who you lost track of soon after high school if not earlier. Or, if you’ve raised kids into adulthood, think of one of their friends who disappeared from your radar around junior high. Do you have someone specific in mind?

Now imagine that you heard a rumor that this kid just won the Nobel Prize in Economics or was just elected Senator. Would you believe it?

Scott Moskowitz was in school with me. His father was my orthodontist. I have no clue what happened to him after high school. In fact, I really have no idea what happened to him after junior high. He wasn’t a particularly remarkable kid – one way or another. He wasn’t a leader; he wasn’t an academic stand-out; he wasn’t in trouble. Now, if I heard a rumor that someone named Scott Moskowitz was being elected a Senator or was winning the Nobel Prize in any field, I would google the news because I would want the confirmation that there is no way it could be the Scott Moskowitz from my elementary school.

This is the scene John sets for us in our Gospel lesson. You’ll remember what has happened so far. At the beginning of chapter 6, John tells us his version of the feeding of the multitudes. After feeding everyone, Jesus and the disciples go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum. The crowd follows them, follows him. They ask him why he took off. He says that they’re only following him because they ate their fill and are hungry again. He says that God gives a bread that will fill them, fill us, in a totally different way, in a way that doesn’t leave us hungry later on. They ask for this bread, and Jesus says the line that we heard at the start of today’s reading: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Now, it’s unclear to me where we are when we get to verse 41. Verse 25 sounds like we’re somewhere in Capernaum, maybe on the beach or somewhere in town. But John starts off verse 41 with “Then the Jews began to complain …” The crowd who were fed by Jesus and who followed him to Capernaum were Jews, and they weren’t complaining. We need to remember that when John uses “the Jews,” that’s code for the religious elites, the people in the synagogue who have power. And, sure enough, when we get to verse 59, John tells us that Jesus has been saying these things in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Because of how John starts verse 41, I think we’re in the synagogue now, but like I said, it’s not clear. The religious elites are complaining about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” I am amused by their complaint. They “know him as one of their own. That is, they knew his parents and his brothers and sisters, they watched him play and learn his trade, grow up and eventually leave home. In other words, they know him, just like they know all the kids from their old neighborhood. And for this reason, you see – because he is just like them, because he is common – he can’t be all that special, and he certainly can’t be the one God sent …”[1]

I can hear their doubts: He’s not … I don’t know … big enough. The guy that God sends has to be someone I can rely on, who’s always there. And this guy, he’s just … Scott Moskowitz. “Little wonder, then, that [they] are put off, offended, angered even, by Jesus’ suggestion that he, a [hu]man just as they are, is the answer to their deepest longings and greatest needs.”[2]

David Lose invites us to think “of the audacious claim that Jesus is making. Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they [are] supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words, for such words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty.

“No wonder they’re upset. They know, first-hand, of their own flaws and shortcomings, of their own faithlessness and failures. They know of their doubts and fears, too, of their betrayals and broken promises, their petty grudges and foolish prejudices. They know all the shame and disappointment and regret which each person carries around on his or her back like a snail carries its shell. And so if Jesus is really like they are, then they are doomed. For how can someone who is like them save. How, even, can one like them be saved?  And so they grumble because they are angry, yes, but even more because they are afraid, afraid that, in the end, they’re really not worth saving.”[3]

Is that, perhaps, part of our resistance to what we hear in this passage? Might we, too, be afraid that, in the end, we aren’t worth saving? And even if we are worth saving, do we think ourselves too far gone to be able to be saved by one who is like us, someone who is just another human being? Or perhaps it is our modern minds, which are too prone to take things literally. Perhaps that is what makes it so hard to hear the audacious claims Jesus makes.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life,” this Jesus says. “I am the bread of life.” “Believes what?” our modern minds reply. Oh how easily, especially with the gospel of John, we hear what Jesus is not saying and don’t hear what he is saying. If only we could reclaim a pre-modern understanding of “believe.” “Believe did not originally mean believing in a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean ‘to give one’s heart to.’ The ‘heart’ is the self at the deepest level.”[4]

Marcus Borg wrote, “Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion, from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of an ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ. For ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, but a figure of the present. Meeting that Jesus – the living Jesus who comes to us even now – will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time.”[5]

“Moving from secondhand religion to firsthand religion.” I think that’s what John is getting at. Don’t believe about Jesus. Give your heart to Jesus. Step into deep relationship with this human and have eternal life.

11694113_10154293570778840_6855023071899393869_nLate last night while I was banging my head against the desk trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say today, a saw a Facebook post by a friend. He posted a picture with this quote, “Blessed are those who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”[6] My friend wrote this comment: “[This quote] basically sums up my whole understanding of, and the purpose for, religion in the 21st century. Salvation is about living most attentively in this world, not waiting around selfishly for the next.”[7]

“Yes!” I thought. Eternal life is here, right now. But only if we see it, if only we give our hearts to it.

“I am the bread of life.” John the mystic is inviting us to see the holy in the ordinary.

When we get our baptistry (yeah, there are still a few things left to do as we live into this wonderful worship space) and have our first baptism in it, I imagine us, gathered out on the patio around the bell. Our little tank will have been filled with water, probably from a garden hose. How mundane can you get? The Alameda County Water District water mains that carrying water for me to brush my teeth, will carry the water that will come through a garden hose into a tank. And we will call it “holy.” Because it will be holy. Because it is holy.

In the same way the ordinary bread and juice we serve at communion are ordinary. The wheat isn’t ground in some special way; the grapes aren’t pressed in some special way. Someone went to the grocery store and bought a bottle of Welch’s. And we call it “holy” because it is holy.

“Believe,” Jesus says, “and have eternal life.” Give your heart and you will see the holy in the ordinary. Give your heart and you will see how this moment and eternity are not so different. “[T]his is the promise that rests behind the sacraments. For as God does not despise water, bread, or wine, such ordinary, common things, so we also know that God does not despise or abandon us, who are similarly such ordinary and common people. And so in the sacraments we find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.”[8]

Like water running through the water district pipes and bread from the grocery store shelf, we are holy. That Jesus guy – Mary and Joseph’s son – is the bread of life. And you and I and Scott Moskowitz are all as radiant as a thousand suns.

There is another promise that God makes to us that we can find in the sacraments. It is the promise not only to help us see eternity in each other and in ourselves, “but also to use us – to make use of our skills and talents, inadequate or insufficient though they may seem, to continue God’s work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining all that is.”[9]

David Lose muses: “Over the years, I’ve wondered if, after praying with someone in the hospital, they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend to them. I wonder, at times, if they would rather have me pray simply for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.

“And yet I do find it so very dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through technology and instruments, through bottom-line corporations and imperfect labor unions, through ordinary, human, doctors and nurses with short tempers or poor bed-side manners. Just as I find it amazing and miraculous that God works through flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out secretaries, over-worked government officials, exhausted parents, and the like – that God would choose these and so many other unlikely candidates through whom to work, even when they don’t suspect it.”[10]

The holy is all around us, my friends. Infinity is within us. Give you heart to God and have eternal life so that you may see the miraculous in the ordinary, the miraculous in you and me.


[1] David Lose, “Pentecost 11 B: Ordinary Things,” …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-11-b/ (posted and accessed on 3 August 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 137.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quote attributed to Camille Pissarro.

[7] J. Bennett Guess, https://www.facebook.com/jbennettguess, Facebook post 8 August 2015.

[8] David Lose, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 2, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 6:24-35
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in Cleveland several weeks ago attending General Synod, I took an afternoon off and went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They had a special exhibit on Paul Simon that I found interesting. To me, Paul Simon is much more half of the Simon and Garfunkel duo than he is the guy who helped bring World Music into American pop culture – which is probably more a comment about my age than anything else. If I had known I would be wanting this sermon illustration now, I would have taken notes then, so I’m relying on my memory. I remember a significant display about Simon writing music for the 1967 movie, The Graduate, and I remember something about his resistance to the project. I find that amusing since “Mrs. Robinson” was a major Simon and Garfunkel commercial success.

There is a line in the song, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” I’ve read that in a 60 Minutes interview, “Paul Simon mentioned that some time after the song was released, he received a letter from Joe DiMaggio in which DiMaggio expressed his befuddlement at what in the world that song could mean.  DiMaggio wrote, ‘What do you mean “Where have I gone?” I haven’t gone anywhere! I’m still around – I’m selling Mr. Coffee.’ Then Simon smiled wryly at Mike Wallace and remarked, ‘Obviously, Mr. DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor!’

“But then, who is? Most, if not all, of us see ourselves as real people with literal, descriptive identities.”[1] For instance, I am a pastor, a brother, an uncle, a community organizer, a volunteer, a son – but all of these descriptors are straight forward, literal expressions of who I am in relation to other people. Like most people, I have a hard time conceiving of myself as a symbol for something, as a kind of metaphor that represents something beyond myself.

I think it’s easier to create a metaphor for someone else. I can imagine someone saying, “My spouse is a shelter from the storms.” But coming up with a metaphor for yourself?

“I am the oil that lubricates the church.” “I am the antibody that fights off the infection of commercialism.” I had to work hard to come up with those. And if I were to introduce myself like that, people would think I’m nuts or pretty darn egotistical. Yet that’s were John’s Jesus goes in today’s reading.   And Jesus’ metaphor for himself is much more obtuse than the ones I just offered for me.

In last week’s reading, we heard about Jesus going off into the wilderness with his disciples, a crowd following him, and how he fed the crowd with meager supplies of bread and fish. The crowd was so impressed by this that they wanted to force him to become king, so Jesus split into the hills. Later that night, the disciples left in their boats for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus followed, walking on the water.

Now, before we go any further, I remind you that Spong says that we mustn’t read the fourth gospel literally. It is written by a Jewish mystic, so the whole gospel and all of its parts are to be read with a Jewish and a mystical sensibility. As I said last week, this gospel was “written just after the followers of Jesus were kicked out of the synagogue, but the authors still identified themselves as being Jews. They also came from a mystical tradition, one that understands the oneness of humanity and God (perhaps all of creation and God) and that seeks to more deeply connect to that divine permeating presence that can open one to a new dimension of consciousness.”[2]

As a result of Spong’s book,[3] I have found myself no longer asking, “What did Jesus mean by that?” Instead, I’m asking, “What did John mean by having Jesus say that?” So we get to today’s reading with the crowds realizing that Jesus is gone, they go looking. When they find him in Capernaum, they have a conversation with Jesus. And we hear Jesus saying things like, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” and “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” and (now we get to that self-referential metaphor) “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Spong summarizes these sayings: “John’s Jesus [makes] the claim that he is himself ‘the bread of life,’ which satisfies the deepest hunger in the human soul; in addition, by locating this feeding episode at the time of the Passover, John consciously identifies Jesus with the paschal lamb. He will make this identification overt later by refusing to view the Last Supper as a Passover meal, in contradistinction to the earlier gospels. He chose, rather, to have the crucifixion of Jesus occur on the day of preparation for the Passover so that Jesus will be crucified at the exact moment that the paschal lamb is slaughtered. Recall that John the baptizer has already referred to Jesus earlier in John’s gospel as the ‘lamb of God.’ …

“After the multitude is fed Jesus begins to teach them about the meaning of the food they have just consumed. The food that Jesus brings is not to be confused with food that satisfies temporary hunger. It is, he says, the food which ‘endures to eternal life.’ To make sure John’s readers get the point of this feeding story, John has Jesus relate it directly to Moses and the wilderness, but then he raises it to another level, a higher level. When one eats, he says, to satisfy physical hunger, the satisfaction is never permanent. One is always hungry again. Only the bread of God that gives life to the world will ultimately satisfy the deepest human hunger.”[4]

I’ve come to worship having skipped breakfast and by the time we get to communion, I’ve wanted more than a little cube of bread. I want a piece that is big enough to fill my tummy. But the bread of communion isn’t meant to fill our stomachs. The bread of communion is meant to satisfy a different hunger, and the cup of communion is meant to satisfy a different thirst. The thing is, we sometimes confuse the two hungers. I think this is probably typified in my circle of friends by the ones who will do “a little shopping therapy” if they’ve had a string of rough days. I know I’ve been guilty of this – purchasing a piece of electronics I want (but don’t need) because subconsciously I think it will make me feel better, that it will fill some void I’m feeling.

The problem with this behavior pattern is that is never truly satisfies. And it doesn’t matter what department of the story you go shopping in. “Whatever piece of the pie that you’re hungering for – whether it’s a bigger slice of acceptance or riches or gratification of your urges – you’re going to find yourself hungry for more and more and more.”[5] And it can get out of control. “In our consumer-driven world, in which many people literally work themselves to death accumulating a never-fully-satisfying abundance of things, Jesus’ words challenge our society’s misguided substitutes for ‘life.’”[6]

This is a danger that affects the church and pastors. “Well-run churches and sermons that are easy to listen to may appeal to us at first, but they do not satisfy our deep spiritual hunger.”[7] It’s the same problem Jesus faced in the crowds in our reading. “Feed us, entertain us, and we will adore you,” they say. Well, that’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty accurate: “What sign are you going to give us the, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?”

The Jesus we meet in John’s gospel knows that people – that we – want a quick fix, an easy answer, instead of entering into the mystery with heart and soul open to receiving the new life that discipleship brings. We resist the deeper invitation and we each junk food hoping it will satisfy our deepest hungers. And still, Jesus invites us: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

I know it’s unfair to do this to John’s gospel, it’s unfair to do this to any book in the Bible – to reference a passage from another book as if the author of the first book was purposefully connecting his or her writing to the second – but I’ll do it anyway. When I hear these words from John’s gospel, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” I can’t help but think of a verse from Matthew’s gospel. From the beatitudes, sayings that start off the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

I know I often hear the word “righteousness” and think of “piousness.” But that misses about half of the meaning of the Greek. The Greek, dikaiosynē, is about relationship – our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. “Righteous action is action which conforms to the requirements of the relationship and in a more general sense promotes the well-being and peace of the community.”[8] So, the word is very much related to the biblical (as opposed to the legal) notion of justice. Hungering and thirsting for God includes hungering and thirsting for justice.

I love the Blaise Pascal quote that’s printed in your bulletins: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” I just think it’s not completely accurate.

I believe that there develops a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of people. We are born filled with God, but somewhere along the way, we lose track of that. Perhaps it is a natural part of the maturation process, where we seek to become autonomous and so we buy into the lie that we are separate from the rest of creation. Perhaps it is the exposure to injustice, and we realize that the unity and balance of the universe is off kilter. It seems as if there is an emptiness. And so we hunger and thirst. It’s just that we usually don’t know what we’re really hungering for.

Jesus reminds us of what our real hunger is. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”


[1] Scott Hoezee, “Comments and Observations,” quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 28 July 2015.

[2] Jeffrey Spencer, “Give Me Your Lunch Money,” a sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California, on 26 July 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer.

[3] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).

[4] Ibid, 130-131.

[5] Steve Wilkins, “Are You Hungry,” quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 28 July 2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, The Great Themes of Scripture: New Testament, quoted by Michaela Brusses, “Food that Endures,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/food-endures (accessed 28 July 2015).

[8] Milne, B. A. (1996). Righteousness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1020). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 26, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 6:1-21
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Bishop John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong is rescuing the Gospel of John for me. And just in the nick of time. For the next few weeks, the lectionary takes a break from Mark’s Gospel and forays back into John. I say “back” because we already spent a hunk of time in John’s gospel, jumping around from one reading to another, during Lent and Easter.  Now, rather than jumping back and forth, we’ll immerse ourselves for five weeks in just one chapter.

This is an important chapter, but (like all of John) a challenge to interpret. And it contains some hard saying, including the time Jesus says, “Eat me,” to his disciples. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, Spong argues that the gospel of John must be interpreted with a Jewish mystical sensibility. “John is not about literalism,” Spong writes. “His understanding of Jesus is not about what Jesus literally said or what Jesus literally did. John is a Jewish writer, writing a Jewish book that transcends literalism at ever point, and he draws his major images from Jewish mysticism, as he seeks to tell the story of Jesus’ life as one who transcends limits, breaks barriers and invites us all into a new place he represents. This gospel is not about God becoming human, about God putting on flesh and masquerading as a human being; it is about the divine appearing in the human and calling the human to a new understanding of what divinity means. It is about bringing God out of the sky and redefining God as the ultimate dimension of the human. It is about the spirit transcending the limits of the flesh, not in some pious or religious sense, but in opening the flesh to all that it means to be human. It is about seeing Jesus as the doorway into a new consciousness, which is also a doorway into God, who might be perceived as a universal consciousness.”[1]

Now, if that is making your head hurt, please relax. I’ll attempt to interpret – at least enough for today’s sermon. Spong is saying that the people who wrote John’s gospel (he says that John is a compilation of several sources, perhaps with a final editor) were (1) Jewish and (2) mystics. The book was written just after the followers of Jesus were kicked out of the synagogue, but the authors still identified themselves as being Jews. They also came from a mystical tradition, one that understands the oneness of humanity and God (perhaps all of creation and God) and that seeks to more deeply connect to that divine permeating presence that can open one to a new dimension of consciousness.[2]

Because this gospel is mystical in nature, none of it should be taken literally. Rather everything is first and foremost (and perhaps only) symbolic. The sayings of Jesus are not intended to be understood as direct quotes, but as storytelling to shape an idea in the listeners’ ears. The characters are not intended to be understood as actual people, but as symbols and as literary devices to help us understand the mystical, to understand that which can never be directly expressed.

I find it interesting that Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians love this gospel so dearly. These wings of Christianity are almost always literalist and therefore, according to Spong, interpreting the gospel exactly wrong. I don’t know if their interpreting is wrong, but I do know it doesn’t work for me. My theology is much closer to mysticism than literalism, which is one of the reason’s Spong’s book is rescuing the fourth gospel for me.

With this underpinning, let’s begin our journey into the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.

We are well into what Spong (and others) call the book of signs. Rather than “miracles,” John calls the miraculous things Jesus does, “signs.” That is, they point to something else, something deeper, more profound. The first of these signs is when Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Other signs include his visit with Nicodemus, his conversation with the woman at the well, and the healing of a lame man on the Sabbath.

Now, Jesus is “on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, a wilderness area. A great crowd, attracted by the … signs, has followed him. Jesus and his disciples climb into the hills. There they sit down and look at the multitude coming toward him. Turning to Philip, Jesus asks, ‘How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?’ It is a strange request. Jesus apparently assumes that he is responsible for feeding the people. That is hardly a literal expectation, but it does serve to set the stage for John to tell his story. Philip, recognizing the absurdity of his request, responds in a manner similar to the responses we have seen before in this gospel from literal-minded people. If one hears the question literally, one must respond with a literal answer. The question, John states editorially, is a test, designed to measure the level of Philip’s understanding, for Jesus (we are told), believing himself to be the ‘bread of life,’ clearly knows what he is going to do. Philip, however, failing to comprehend, responds literally: ‘Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread’ for everyone to have even a taste.

“Andrew then moves onto center stage with information that seems equally irrelevant. ‘There is a lad here,’ he says, ‘who has five barley loaves and two fish’ (John 6:9). It is a tiny thing, a mere drop in the proverbial bucket of the need facing them. Jesus, however, takes this apparently insignificant gift and invites the people, said to number in the thousands, to sit down on the grass. He gives thanks, and then begins to distribute the bread and the fish. The people eat ‘as much as they wanted’ (John 6:11). Jesus then orders his disciples to ‘gather up the fragments that nothing be lost’ (John 6:12). They do so, filling twelve baskets with fragments. When this feeding act is complete the people say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’ (John 6:14), a familiar Johannine reference to a promise of Moses.”[3]

This isn’t the only place where Moses is lurking in the background. To start off with, we’re told it’s nearly the Passover, so that brings Moses to mind. And then we hear echoes of the four key events in the Moses saga. We have echoes of Moses on the mountaintop communing with God, echoes of the manna in the wilderness, echoes of the parting of the Red Sea, even echoes of the burning bush. In the Hebrew scripture, the order is the other way around: burning bush, then Red Sea, then manna, then mountaintop, but all the elements are here. Jesus is on the mountainside with his disciples, communing with them. Jesus provides enough bread for everyone (with leftovers, no less, that keep). And, later in the reading, Jesus walks to his disciples on the water – no need to part the seas for Jesus – and offers up that burning bush reference.

And John does more than reference Moses. “Jesus, the prophet anticipated by Moses, is now revealed to possess the power that the God of Moses possessed. He can feed a hungry multitude in the wilderness with bread. He can transcend the barrier that water brings when it must be navigated.”[4] John is revealing something about Jesus in this chapter, something we will get into more deeply in the weeks ahead. For now, it is enough to say that Jesus possesses the power that the God of Moses possessed.

I jumped ahead a bit when I talked about Jesus walking on the water, so let’s go back to the text. After all the people have had their fill of bread and fish, the text says that Jesus, perceiving that “they [are] about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15), withdraws to the hills by himself. Why don’t the people who want to force him to be king chase after him? Because John isn’t being literal.

I am struck by this attempted act of coercion, the second of three in the story, even if it didn’t literally happen. I’m also surprised I haven’t seen any commentary on this aspect of the story.[5] The first act may not have been coercion, but it might have. The text doesn’t say if Andrew hijacked the kid’s lunch when he brought it to Jesus or if the kid offered it. I don’t want to think of Andrew as a bully – hey, kid, give me your lunch money – but it could have happened that way.

The third is much more subtle and we need to keep reading the text to get to it. Jesus has gone off into the hills by himself. Evening has fallen and the disciples got in their boats and start across the Sea of Capernaum, which is also called the Sea of Galilee. We know it’s evening, still John makes a point of reminding us that it’s dark. “Darkness to this gospel writer is always a metaphor for being apart from Christ. The disciples are alone on the sea. The waves of water were rising. A strong wind was blowing. Rowing was hard. This is when Jesus was said to have come to them ‘walking on the sea.’ They were filled with fear as he approached, but he said to them. ‘I am.’ That is not the way the text is [typically] translated, because even the translators did not understand the meaning of these words. The translators had Jesus say: ‘It is I,’ as if all the disciples needed was some sense of identification, but the Greek words in the original text are ego eimi – ‘I am.’ Jesus was claiming the name of God [, the name revealed at the burning bush].”[6]

John tells us, “Then they [the disciples] wanted to take him into the boat.” But Jesus doesn’t go into the boat. Suddenly, they are on the shore.

This is the third attempted act of coercion – the disciples trying to get Jesus to get in the boat. But Jesus keeps saying, “No” to our limited and literal understandings of life. No, we don’t need to worry about money to feed this crowd; I am the bread that feeds them. No, I won’t let you make me your king; that’s not what I’m about. No, I won’t get into your boat; come out of the boat here with me; the water’s fine – scary, perhaps, but fine.

Jesus was saying: “I am the life of God,… calling you into something new, something frightening and dangerous. I am the love of God calling you to move beyond your defensive barriers, your security walls and into a new understanding of what it means to be human.”[7]

That’s our invitation today: to move beyond our defensive barriers, beyond our security walls, and into a new understanding of what it means to be human.


[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 68.

[2] Ibid, 53.

[3] Ibid, 127-128.

[4] Ibid, 130.

[5] Not that there isn’t some commentary on it. I just haven’t seen it. I assume I’m not the first to have this thought.

[6] Spong, op. cit., 132.

[7] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 6:14-29 and 2 Samuel 6:12b-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Dance like nobody’s watching. I’ve heard the advice. Multiple times. And when I take the advice I feel like this:

Or I don’t take the advice because I feel like this:

The advice is meant to be reassuring. Dance like nobody’s watching – go ahead! But implied in the advice is the warning: they are watching. Unless they’re busy looking at the phones.

But this sermon isn’t about my two left feet. It’s not even about dancing, really, even though dances play a key role in both of our readings.

The words “David danced before the Lord” evoke the young king’s enthusiastic response to the holy charge to bring the ark of Yahweh home to Jerusalem. Every step along the way, King David dances his heart out. And every six steps, he offers a sacrifice. His enthusiasm must have been contagious – except, apparently for Michal, former-King Saul’s daughter and one of David’s wives. When she looked out of the window and saw the king leaping and dancing before God, the text says, “she despised him in her heart.” The text doesn’t tell us why Michal despised David, but it’s clear: our dancer, David, is the hero of this story and Michel – not so much. [1]

The gospel brings us to an encounter with another dancer, another king, and a fiery prophet who made life very uncomfortable for those who didn’t follow the law, even if they were kings. And that is the focus of today’s sermon.

In addition to baptizing people down at the River Jordan, John had made public declarations about the political powers. He had denounced King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. Apparently John’s denunciations angered Herodias more than they angered Herod. Herod had John imprisoned, but imprisoning him did not satisfy Herodias. So, when her daughter danced for the king on his birthday and he promised her whatever she wanted as a reward, Herodias coached her to ask for John’s head. That would get rid of this troublesome prophet.

Herod, it seems, did not want to have John put to death. But then he backed himself into a corner. So enthralled by his daughter’s dance, he promised her anything. And he made the promise in front of the political and social elite. Saving face became more important for Herod than anything else, so he had John put to death.

Apparently, Herod was troubled by this decision. “Even though John [had] said of Jesus, ‘He must increase and I must decrease,’ the effect of this powerful desert figure remained with the people. Many thought the young rabbi Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist. Even Herod, in guilty terror, thought so. He must have felt [this] dance had cost him too much.”[2]

There’s an object lesson here. When our egos are more important than our morals, we make bad decisions. When we busy ourselves with saving face, people can lose their heads – maybe not literally, but figuratively. I know how easy it is to get caught up by ego. I’ve got some ego stuff going on. After all, I picked a profession where I get to stand in front of people every week and they listen to me. If I get too concerned with protecting my ego, I’m going to start making choices that aren’t for the good of the church.  I suspect that each of us can think of how concern with how we appear, concerns about ego and saving face, can lead us astray.

This is, I think, a major cause of the police violence that is suddenly being exposed thanks to cellphone cameras is face. Or as Carman on Southpark would put it, people don’t “Respect my authoritah!”  And some officers are having a hard time with that. They feel like they’re losing face, and so they lash out violently.

Now, that’s where I thought I’d be going with today’s sermon back in June when I was doing my initial worship planning for July. I thought I’d be preaching to this idea that when we focus on saving face we typically end up making bad choices. But then I started reading commentaries and additional ideas that I think are important to share surfaced.

The first comes from an essay by Michaela Bruzzese. She brings us an aspect of this story that I had glossed over. She points to the role that women play in this narrative and how their actions are similar to that of other biblical scapegoats. Bruzzese points out that “though the women in this story play the most critical roles in the narrative, they are not important enough to be named. Herodias’ name is simply a derivative of her husband’s, and her daughter is not named at all. Second, in one of the most erotic episodes in the entire New Testament, female sexuality is present as a dangerous undercurrent. Though John had reprimanded Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, it is Herodias who was enraged ‘and wanted to kill him’ (Mark 6:19). Her daughter’s sexuality also has dangerous consequences: Herod is … driven out of his mind by her erotic dance and makes outlandish promises to her. The women, portrayed as taking advantage of Herod’s weak state, ‘force’ him to kill the Baptist. In this way, Herodias and her daughter play roles similar to that of Eve; they are the ‘temptresses’ who lead men astray. Like Pilate [at Jesus’ execution], Herod emerges as a reluctant executioner and the women become the scapegoats for John’s murder.”[1]

I had totally missed the misogyny in the telling of this story prior to reading Bruzzese’s essay. I had missed the powerful archetypes present in the story “that, intentionally or not, have had critical implications for the Christian community’s perception and treatment of women throughout history.”[2]

It’s important that we read scripture with a critical eye. When we fail to do so and simply accept our past interpretations as the final word a scripture might have to say to us, we may be allowing harmful stereotypes to be perpetuated. Sometimes it’s the covert messages, the implied messages that are the most dangerous. Unearthing them and naming them can help take away their power. That’s important work to do, even if it mean admitting that past interpretations were wrong or incomplete. It’s worth losing a little face for the sake of justice.

Another author I read who shook things up a bit for me is David Lose. He invited me to read Mark’s story a little more closely, and in doing so, several things stand out: This is one of the longest sustained narrative scenes in Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus does not appear in it at all, it seems to interrupt the flow of the rest of the story, and it’s told in flashback, the only time that Mark employs such a device. Because of these features, the scene is not only as suspenseful and ultimately grisly as anything on television, but it is unlike anything else in Mark’s account and seems almost out of place, …”[3]

In fact, over the years, scholars and students have questioned why Mark reports this story at all. “Later evangelists must have asked the same question, as Matthew shortens it markedly and Luke omits it altogether. The majority opinion is that it serves two key purposes in Mark: it foreshadows Jesus’ own grisly death and it serves as an interlude between Jesus’ sending of the disciples and their return some unknown number of days or weeks later.”[4]

Maybe. But for me, the story does something else. It draws a contrast between the two kinds of kingdoms available to Jesus disciples, both then and now. “Consider: Mark, tells this story as a flashback, out of its narrative sequence, which means he could have put this scene anywhere. But he puts it here, not simply between the sending and receiving of the disciples but, more specifically, just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God and when he then joins them in making that kingdom three-dimensional, tangible, and in these ways seriously imaginable.

“Herod’s Kingdom – the kingdom of the world … – is dominated by the will to power, the will to gain influence over others. This is the world where competition, fear, and envy are the coins of the realm, the world of not just late night dramas and reality television but also the evening news, where we have paraded before us the triumphs and tragedies of the day as if they are simply givens, as if there is no other way of being in the world and relating to each other.

“Which is why Mark places the story here.  Just previous to this scene Jesus sends his disciples out in utter vulnerability, dependent on the hospitality and grace of others, to bring healing and mercy with no expectation of reward or return.  And just after this scene comes a different kind of feast altogether.  Notice, in fact, that the return of the disciples only occasions about half a verse or so just after this scene. (Mark, after all, had already told us what they were up to in the scene just before this one.) Rather, what follows is instead a banquet of mercy, so markedly in contrast to the birthday bash Herod throws himself that its almost stunning. Rather than the rich and shameless, it’s the poor and outcast that flock to Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Rather than political intrigue and power plays dominating the day, it’s blessing and surprising abundance that characterize this meal.

“And that’s the choice that Mark puts before us: which kingdom do we want to live in?”[5] Or, if you insist that we have to live in the kingdoms of this world, Mark puts this choice before us: to which kingdom will we give ultimate allegiance?

“Sounds easy when I put it that way. Jesus’ kingdom, we’ve been trained to answer.  Ah, but not so fast. This is the world where vulnerability and sharing and mercy and justice and grace lead to abundant life, to be sure, but also where those very same qualities can get you killed, or least make you feel like you are vulnerable to being taken [advantage] of. And truth be told you might be. But the other truth to be told is that you can give yourself wholly and completely to the world of power and still never, ever quite feel secure. Why? Because once you’ve accepted that power – whether defined as wealth or possessions or influence or whatever – is the most important thing in life, than you are always vulnerable to those with more power. You are, mostly simply, at the center of a never-ending contest where there are no ultimate winners, only those who prevail for a time and until they are unseated by someone else.”[6]

Competition can be fun. My nephew loves soccer and part of what he loves about it is the competition. And from all accounts I’ve heard, there was some pretty entertaining competition in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. (By the way, why is it that the Women’s World Cup is called “the Women’s World Cup” and the Men’s World Cup is simply called “The World Cup”?) Competition can be fun to watch, even to engage in, “but it’s not the way I want to live my life and certainly not the way I want to conduct my relationships. Which is where Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, comes in. Because in [God’s] kingdom there are no winners or losers, just the children of God, all beloved, all welcome, all deserving of love and respect based not on their merit or accomplishments but simply because God values each and every one of us.

“Look, the kingdom Jesus proclaims can seem odd, I know, or idealistic, particularly in light of recent current events. But it’s those same stories of violence and prejudice that make me crave the kingdom of God all the more.”[7]

How about you?

[1] Michaela Bruzzese, “Between the Lines,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/between-lines (accessed 6 July 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Lose, “Pentecost 7 B: A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/07/pentecost-7-b-a-tale-of-two-kingdoms/ (posted 6 July 2015; accessed 7 July 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[1] Verna J. Dozier, “Two Kings and Two Dancers,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/two-kings-and-two-dancers (accessed 6 July 2015).

[2] Ibid.

I believe there is a value in society deeming some crimes as being more “bad” than others. Generally, this is done by making the sentences longer for some crimes than others. And so it is with hate crime legislation. Society (through its legislative bodies) deems certain crimes as worse than others. Murder is considered a worse crime than assault and battery so murderers get longer sentences than batterers.

But in the case of hate crimes, what makes a crime worse than other is not the act itself. What makes the crime worse is the motivation for the act. “I beat up that guy because he’s gay and I hate gay people” is considered a worse battery than “I beat up that guy because he owes me money and I hate people who don’t pay their debts.”

At one level, this is good. Society recognizes that groups of people, categories of people are disproportionately the victims of crimes and that the motivation for these crimes is an animus because of a trait these people have (or are perceived to have). Calling crimes motivated by this animus “worse” than similar crimes motivated by another reason is a way of society saying that the animus itself is not okay.

And I think that we, as a society, should say that it’s not okay to hate someone because of their (actual or perceived) race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, and so forth.
We should say that it’s not okay, but I have a problem with criminalizing such animus. And classifying crimes motivated by such hatred as being worse than the same crime motivated by something else (even a different sort of hatred, like hating people who don’t pay their debts) criminalizes thoughts and feelings. This liberal has a hard time with that.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 5, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 6:1-13
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Portrait,” by Stanley Kunitz[1]

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

I suspect that most of us (perhaps all of us) still feel the burn of slaps – physical or emotional – from our pasts.  I can think back on some memories and still feel the flush of embarrassments long past, and I still want to hide under the covers and not come out.  I can think back on fights and break ups long over and still feel guilt or shame for how I handled them, how I treated others.  I can think back on some past hurts and I know the wound still hasn’t healed fully for I still feel the pain.  We think the past is the past, but it is still with us.

In some ways, memory is a gift.  Without memory, we only have this moment.  Without memory, we have no story.  Have you ever woken up from a deep sleep and not known where you are, or even who you are?  Memory is that which tells us not just where we are, but who we are.  Proust once said, “Memory comes like a rope let down from heaven to draw one out of the abyss of unbeing.”[2]

And in other ways, memory is a burning slap on the cheek, a thorn in the flesh.  And often, as I just expressed, that burning remains because we hold on to it.

Sometimes the burn can come from other people’s memories.  I think that’s what happened to Jesus in our Gospel lesson today.  He’s back in his hometown, in the synagogue, teaching.  It’s powerful stuff.  The people who heard him were astounded, the story says.  But they still took offense.  Where did he get all this?  “This is Mary’s kid, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon.”  (An aside here:  I wonder if Simon felt left out.  Jesus, James, Joses, Judas – his parents couldn’t think of another “J” name?)

“This is Mary’s kid, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon.  We won’t bother naming his sisters, because, you know, we’re sexist, but they’re here, too.”  And notice that they don’t name Jesus’ father.  Perhaps they were impugning his parentage?  Maybe that was the thing they remembered about him that made his wisdom offensive.  Maybe it was something else from his past that they wouldn’t let go of.  A community memory that stung like a slap on Jesus’ face.  Mary’s son couldn’t be a prophet.  He’s not what they think a prophet should be.  And so rather than letting go of their memories and revising their expectations, they dismiss him.

I got a similar reaction from my parents when I told them that I was going to seminary to become a pastor.  They knew what sort of a teenager I was and I don’t think they could imagine me in the role.  Rather than revise their expectations of me …

When my childhood church had an opening (more than two decades ago, now), I thought about applying, but there were plenty of people in that church who wouldn’t be able to see me as anyone other than “Bill and Sue’s boy.”  So I didn’t bother submitting my Profile.  Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad.  After all, if Jesus wouldn’t be taken seriously in his hometown, why would I be taken seriously in my hometown?

What I’m talking about, I suppose, is a form of prejudice – informed prejudice, but prejudice all the same.  We get a reputation in our childhoods or our adolescences and we can’t shake it.  A judgment about who we are has been made and we’re stuck with it.  Like a finger super-glued to the broken vase we were trying to put back together, that reputation isn’t going anywhere.  You’re a klutz or brainiac or cutup or the creative type or a slow learner or a troublemaker or whatever label you’re given.

A colleague writes about calling on a family that was new to the neighborhood.  “The father of the family introduced his children:  ‘This is Pete. He’s the clumsy one of the lot.’  ‘That’s Kathy coming in with mud on her shoes.  She’s the sloppy one.’  ‘As always, Mike is last.  He’ll be late for his own funeral, I promise you.’”[3]

No wonder people move away from home.

If we’re lucky, we realize we’re more than the label we’ve been given – whether by family or by neighbors and peers – and we can create and live up to our own expectations for ourselves.  If we’re lucky, we find the solvent so we aren’t super-glued to our faults.

Paul writes about having a “thorn in the flesh.”  He calls it a messenger of Satan that torments him.  He never tells us what that thorn is.  Some biblical scholars have suggested what is illustrated in this picture.  I think, more likely, it is something of his own making, a slap on the cheek he gave himself, or he keeps giving himself.

It’s been suggested that Paul might have been gay and, for whatever reason, thought that to be something he had to deny and resist.  I can understand how someone with that point of view might see being gay as a thorn in the flesh.  If he thought that being gay was sinful, then he would have seen those attractions as coming from Satan and tormenting him.  If that was the case, how sad for Paul – that he didn’t realize that being gay was just as much of a gift as being heterosexual.

But this thorn in the flesh could just as easily be something else, anything else, really, that he was ashamed of, some guilt that he was carrying around.  Or it could be some disability that made him feel less than whole – which, again, would be sad, for living with a disability doesn’t make one un-whole.

My friend Jim’s father died when Jim was a little boy.  His father was an institutional chaplain and then started working for the national settings of his denomination, touring around the country to connect with chaplains and to assist ministry students discern if they were called to chaplaincy.  On one of his trips to the western United States he found a camper van for sale.  He wrote home to his wife back east, telling her about the camper van and suggesting that it would be a good purchase for the family.  His wife, Jim mother’s, wrote back saying, “I’m quite sure you have already purchased the van.  We’ll talk about it when you get home.”

Jim’s father started back east but never made it home.  Twenty or so miles from their home, he drove the van off an embankment, crashed, and died.

Jim’s mother is now in her nineties.  She lives in a retirement community and, aside from doctor’s appointments, doesn’t really leave ever.  When Jim was visiting recently, she asked him to go to the bank to get some rings out of the safe deposit box.  Why keep them locked away, she figured.  Why not wear them and enjoy them.  As Jim looked through the safe deposit box, he found the bill of sale from the van.  Five decades later, she still had the bill of sale for the van.  Locked away with important documents and valuables.

Locked away.

Jim asked his mother about it.  She said that she always regretted that her last words to her husband offered in that last letter to him where short, even angry.  A thorn in her flesh for five decades.

Why carry that burden for five decades?

There’s a fable about a man who was riding his donkey into town.  As he rode, he carried a 100-pound sack of wheat across his shoulders.  Someone asked him why he didn’t take the weight off his shoulders and strap it to the donkey.  “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” the man said.  “I couldn’t ask the donkey to carry that weight.”

Far too many of us carry burdens that we really don’t have to carry.  Shame typically keeps our burdens on our shoulders, when we could lay them down.  Shame typically keeps the thorn in our flesh.  Shame for the terse words we uttered to a loved one.  Shame for some distorted sense of our unwholeness.  Shame for something we did or for something we failed to do in the past.  Even shame for something that was done to us.

Jim’s mother locked away the bill of sale and she locked away the shame and the guilt in her heart.  But once the box is unlocked, once the wound is revealed, once the guilt is shared, healing can happen.  She will never be able to undo the final letter she sent her husband.  She will never be able to change the anger in her final words to the man she loved.  But in sharing her burden, by telling her story – and discovering that she is still loved – healing has begun.

If this sermon has brought to mind some thorn in your flesh, some shame you are carrying, please accept this invitation:  share it.  Find someone to share your burden with.  You don’t have to carry it alone.  Let the fresh air of honesty bring healing to your wounds.  And, who knows, God may work a second miracle, too.

You see, sometime of the wounds we carry can actually be vehicles for healing of others.  Sometimes it is in our weakness that God’s glory is revealed.  Three times, Paul writes, he asked God to relieve him of the torment he suffered.  God’s response:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  God loves to use our imperfections, our woundedness, our powerlessness for the healing of the world.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to bring healing.  He “gave them authority over the unclean spirits,” Mark says.  In other words, Jesus gave them the authority to heal the sickness of the world.  He sent them out without provision – no bread, no bag, no money.  They were powerless – and in their powerlessness, they found the power over unclean spirits.

These past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about the sin of racism.  I suspect many of you have, too.  I believe that it is only by journeying into weakness that white folk like me can have power over this unclean spirit.  Only by recognizing and releasing white privilege, by embracing powerlessness, can white people bring healing.

The same tactic is true for our burning cheeks, the burdens we carry, the thorns in our flesh.  When we let them invite us into powerlessness, God power is revealed and healing comes.  Dare we journey into weakness?  Dare we step into powerlessness?

[1] Stanley Kunitz, “The Portrait,” poets.org, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/portrait (accessed 2 July 2015). My thanks to Pastor Brenda for pointing me to this poem.

[2] Quoted on “Memory and Forgetting,” on Radio Lab (about 46 minutes into the show).  https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/515238

[3] Attributed to James S. Hewett in an email from sermons.com dated 30 June 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope this is helpful.

Blessings and peace,

What is required to do wedding in Ohio

Ohio Minister License

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

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


Ohio Marriage Law

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

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

3101.08 Who may solemnize marriages.

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

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

3101.09 Prohibition.

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

Effective Date: 10-01-1953

3101.10 License to solemnize marriages.

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

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

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.11 Recording license to solemnize marriages.

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

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.12 Evidence of recording.

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

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.13 Marriage record.

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

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

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

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

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

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

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

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

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


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