While the United States may formally be an institutional democracy, in practice it is an exclusionary democracy: equal rights are enshrined on paper, but a variety of groups are routinely excluded and politically marginalized. Failures in American democracy are rooted in political and economic inequality which “undermines the very democratic political processes that ordinary citizens rely on to ameliorate economic inequality. In short, economic inequality and democracy are in serious conflict.”

“The best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no influence at all on the making of federal government policy.… The general public has been virtually powerless.”

For example, most Americans think that climate change is a problem and action should be taken to limit CO2emissions. Most Americans also think that infrastructure investment is needed, that some sort of gun control should be enacted, that education spending should be increased, that more should be done to make sure working Americans have decent wages, that access to child care for working parents should be expanded, and that taxes on the rich should be higher. Rich Americans (as a subgroup of Americans in general) aren’t nearly as supportive of such policies as everyone else. Given that the views of the majority on these and other issues are thwarted in Washington, it’s pretty clear that democracy is not working for most people, and that this malfunction hurts the most vulnerable.

The root of this democracy-breakdown is unequal representation, driven by unequal political power, which in turn is a function of financial power. Reforms are needed.

These reforms need to include campaign finance reform – increased public funding, a constitutional amendment allowing limits on corporate campaign spending, programs that multiply the small donations of individuals through matching contributions, “democracy vouchers” by which every citizen receives from the government a sum of money to spend on a candidate of their choice, enhanced disclosure requirements from lobbying and campaign spending, further restriction on gifts from lobbyists to politicians, and reduced barriers to voting and voter registration.

These reforms need to target gridlock – limiting the filibuster in the Senate to mark majority rule more common, restricting practices that give individual senators the ability to block the policy-making process, creating a more open legislative process in the House to prevent a small subset of a majority party (like the Tea Party Republicans) from controlling legislative outcomes, increasing competitiveness in congressional elections, reducing partisan gerrymandering, and shifting toward proportional representation to ensure the even the losers of elections have representation.

These reforms need to end disenfranchisement. Not since the Jim Crow era have elected officials and policymakers so openly sought to disenfranchise, disempower, and exclude certain citizens from participating in democracy. Republicans have blatantly (and at time by their own admission) sought to make it harder for nonwhites to vote, undermined the right of workers to bargain on a level playing field with their employers, and meddled with the levers of justice to benefit their friends and penalize their foes.

– – – – – – –

Nathan J. KellyThe above is excerpted (and slightly edited) from a book review by Nathan J. Kelly, published in the 21 November 2018 edition of Christian Century magazine, page 37-39, of Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It, by Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens. Quotes are from the book being reviewed.

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Today is the Feast of St. Francis, an important day in my spiritual journey celebrating an important figure in my spiritual journey.

There is a photo that I desperately wish I could attach to this post, but in the course of computer upgrades, etc., it seems to have disappeared (along with many others).

Here’s the story as I remember it. (Corrections based on research follow.)

About a dozen years ago, I went to Italy. I spent a few days in Assisi, which were some deeply holy days for me. Before I got to Assisi, I spent some time in Florence. My memory says that it was in a second Cathedral in Florence (not the Duomo), St. Marco by name, in a side chapel that I saw a fresco of the death of Francis. Francis is lying on his bed, about to expire. There are friars standing around him, and one of them looked for all the world like he was waving at Francis and saying, “Buh-bye,” like a flight attendant. I started to giggle and went to take a picture — and my battery was dead. Luckily I had a back-up battery, so I stepped out of the chapel, changed batteries, and went back in to take the now lost picture.

On closer examination, it turns out that the Friar has two hands held up and he is offering Francis a blessing, a benediction. I still love my first impression. It seems so Franciscan. “Buh-bye. Have a nice trip. See you later.”

And what a beautiful way to view death.

Corrections:
I went online to see if I could find a picture of the fresco. It turns out the church is Santa Croce and the fresco is by Giotto. It doesn’t look exactly the way my brain stored the image, but it is so close, it has to be the fresco I remember. (The attached image is from http://www.museumsinflorence.com/…/museum_of_opera_s_croce.….)

giotto-big

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the fourth Sunday of the Season of Creation,
September 22, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 16:13-21 and Luke 12:13-21
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The Exodus story is pretty good literature.  It was drama and emotion.  It even has some character development – more than your average biblical story.  And, if you read the footnotes (or are fluent in Hebrew), it has some puns.  Today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures has one of those puns.

As Amalira explained, today’s lesson comes from the middle of the Exodus story.  The Hebrews are wandering in the desert and start moaning about how hungry they are.  God responds to their need by providing quail and manna – the flaky substance they harvest in the morning.  The Hebrew that gets translated, “What is it?” (the question they ask when they see the manna) is, “manna.”  I’ve eaten my own cooking and sometimes thought it should be called “manna” – not because my cooking is a sustaining gift from God, but because I look at it and wonder, “What is it?”

The point of the story is, of course, about God’s sustaining gift.  One of the little subtleties of the story that I don’t remember noticing before has to do with the gathering of the manna.  I noticed this during the Monday Morning Bible Study.  The Hebrews are instructed to gather up a specific amount of manna each morning, and no matter how much any of them gathers, everybody ends up with the same amount.

You could interpret this to mean that God works some magic.  Or you could interpret this to mean that people weren’t collecting the manna for themselves only or for their families only.  It could be that in the measuring, those who collected more than an omer gave their extra to those who didn’t collect enough to be their daily bread.

I prefer the second explanation, the explanation that says everyone can have enough if no one has too much and if we share.  But this isn’t the part of our Exodus reading that connects most directly to our gospel reading.  The part that connects to the gospel reading is the part about the issue of storing manna for tomorrow.  Though God provided the manna each day, some people worried that God might not provide it tomorrow, so they skimped on what they ate today so they’d have something to eat tomorrow.  Only manna doesn’t keep and what they had the following day was fetid and foul.

In the parable Jesus tells, the rich landowner has so big a surplus in the harvest that he decides to tear down his barns and build bigger storehouses.  Unfortunately, he gets hit by a bus on the way back from the architect’s office and dies.  Jesus calls him a fool for thinking he can live off the bumper crop for the rest of his life.  Heck, Jesus calls him a fool for thinking he will have a “rest of his life.”

I hear this parable and I squirm.

Yes, when there’s a landowner in one of Jesus’ parables, you can bet there’s some commentary about the oppressive economic system happening.  Landowners in Jesus’ day almost always got that rich by predatory lending and other injustices.  So I can try to push the parable away from me because I’m not rich like that.

But we’re reading this story next to the manna story, a story about God providing for our needs no matter our economic status, a story about how wasteful it is to store up for tomorrow.  This is a tough thing to hear and believe, especially when FEMA tells us to get ready for the next disaster (a big earthquake in our area, or possibly a wildfire).  Have your earthquake kit ready.  Have a “go bag” ready so you can grab it if you have to evacuate.  Have a family communication and reunification plan figured out and shared.

My financial advisor tells me to save more for my retirement.  The seemingly infinite spiral of rising healthcare costs makes me worry about my future.

And Jesus and Moses tell me not to store up excess for tomorrow.

I’m happy to point to the uber-rich (something I’ll never be, so it’s safe for my ego when I do that).  I’m happy to point to today’s equivalent of the landowners of Jesus’ day, to point to the people who are rich because of unethical or plain old mean behavior.  I’m happy to point at them and say, “That is too much.”

And it probably is too much.  There’s some truth to this meme:

As true as those statements in the meme are, these stories are about me, too.  They have some truth for me, too.  I know I have much more stuff than I need.  I realize this every time I dust – so, about twice a year.  Actually, I realize I have much more stuff than I need more often than that.  And I can attest to less being more.  I can attest that simpler is nicer, simpler is calmer, simpler is less stressful.

One of the wonderful things about being at my father’s cabin in New Hampshire while I was on vacation in August was that it has no cable, no internet, no TV.  My cell phone doesn’t even get reception.  So going to the cabin is getting unplugged.  Growing up, we didn’t even have a landline.  My dad and step-mom added one when they got into their 60s, and I’m glad they have it now, though I was a little resistant to it when it was installed because it meant technology was encroaching into the sanctuary of the wilderness.

Being plugged in is stressful.  And wonderful.  At least I find it to be both – at the same time.  I love being in touch with family and friends who are scattered around the world.   I appreciate being informed about what’s happening in my neighborhood and in other parts of the globe – not that I always know what to do with the information that the Chinese government is increasing their oppression of Muslims.[1]  That’s where it gets stressful.

I do wonder if turning off Facebook and Twitter would make my life simpler, less stressful.  Yes, I’d need to find other ways to be in touch with family and friends, and then be intentional about using them.  And I’d have to get over my FMS (the Fear of Missing Something; a disorder similar to FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out).  And I’d have to become okay with missing cleaver memes, like the one about hoarder billionaires.

The problem is, that I’d also miss out on articles like the one[2] that introduced me to a new word (new to me; the word is a few years old) that I think totally relates to today’s scripture lessons.  The new word is “reducetarian.”  The term “was coined by Brian Kateman, an energetic young New Yorker who spent years advocating for recycling, composting, and other environmentally-friendly practices before realizing that reducing meat consumption was the single most effective action he could take to help the climate.  Making that shift to veganism, however, was easier said than done.  He tried his best, but occasionally slipped up, eating a piece of turkey or bacon, at which point friends and family would criticize: ‘Aren’t you supposed to be vegetarian?’

“While Kateman knew he was making progress in his meat-reduction journey, he resented the focus on perfection that made the slightest transgression feel like a failure.  That’s when he came up with ‘reducetarian,’ a description that is affirmative, inclusive, and celebratory for all people making good progress toward the reduction of [the consumption of] animal products.”[3]  I think the term can be expanded and used to refer to anyone making their lives more sustainable.

There are four basic tenets of reducetarianism, according to treehugger.com:

  • It’s not all or nothing. Which for me is a good thing.  I don’t think I’m ready to become a vegetarian, let alone a vegan.  But I could be a reducetarian.
  • Incremental change is worthy. I found it impossible to go single-use-plastic free last Lent, so I’m working on making an incremental change on my single-use plastic consumption.  In the same way, if I were to start celebrating meatless Mondays, that would be a worthy change.
  • All motivations matter. I really doesn’t matter whether it’s an environmental, an ethical, a health, or even a money saving concern that motivates you to live more sustainably, if you’re acting on that motivation, it’s good.
  • We’re all on the same team. We can’t let small differences of opinion or motivation or interpretation get in the way of the larger goals.

Which brings me to my final point.  God calls us to a radical faith, that is, a radical trust.  While I’m still going to update my earthquake kit and I’m still going to save for retirement, I’m not going to put my trust in my earthquake kit or my retirement savings.  My trust belongs to God.  And I find God is made manifest in community, so I’m going to trust community.

We’re all on the same team.  When the big earthquake comes, no matter how good our earthquake kits are, we’re going to need each other.  When a health crisis comes, I’m going to need community.  Likewise, my efforts to live more sustainable and simply will be easier if we work on them together, if we support each other like teammates.

Which points us back to the overarching theme of this Season of Creation sermon series:  “Walking Together.”  If we’re going to protect the land and water, if we’re going to protect biodiversity, if we’re going to address the climate crisis, if we’re going to live more simply and sustainable, we need to walk together.  We need each other.

Here’s your homework assignment:

  • Update your earthquake kit (or make one if you don’t have one).[4]
  • Check in with yourself about where you’re putting your trust.
  • And celebrate the “we” we have when we walk together.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See, for instance, Gary Shih, “‘Boiling us like frogs’: China’s clampdown on Muslims creeps into the heartland, find new targets,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/boiling-us-like-frogs-chinas-clampdown-on-muslims-creeps-into-the-heartland-finds-new-targets/2019/09/20/25c8bb08-ba94-11e9-aeb2-a101a1fb27a7_story.html (posted and accessed 20 September 2019).

[2] Katherine Martinko, “How to be a reducetarian,” Treehugger, https://www.treehugger.com/green-food/how-be-reducetarian.html(posted 22 May 2017; accessed 10 September 2019).

[3] Ibid.

[4] You can learn about building an emergency kit at https://www.ready.gov/kit.  Poke around the ready.gov website for lots of other information; just don’t let it scare you.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the third Sunday of the Season of Creation,
September 15, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:18-27and Psalm 24:1-6
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I wonder if a doctoral student has studied what links people select to read on social media.  Friends and celebrities post links to articles about issues they care about.  Sometimes those of us on social media scroll past them.  Sometimes we click on them and don’t bother reading them.  Sometimes we click on them and read them.  Sometimes we bookmark them to read later – and sometimes we actually get around to reading them.

I’m pretty sure that if I was the subject of such a study, the researcher would find that if the article is about climate change, I am much more likely to actually read it than if it is about any other subject.

Sometimes I find the articles depressing.  At the beginning of this past week, a friend posted an article from The New Yorker.[1]  She tagged me in her post, wanting me to comment.  I didn’t get around to reading it until Friday.  It was depressing.

The gist of the essay is that when it comes to climate change, we’re screwed.  “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable,” Jonathan Franzen writes, claiming that such a “war” is no longer winnable.[2]

“If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth – massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought.  If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”[3]  It’s enough to make me want to pull the blankets up over my head and refuse to come out – even if it is over 90°F inside the house and the blanket is made of wool.

Franzen is right, that we have emitted as much carbon into the atmosphere in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization.  And that’s very bad news.  It’s simply not the only news.

At the most recent Monday Morning Bible Study, I asked the participants, “What gives you hope?”  We were looking at the passage from Romans you heard Michele read just a little while ago.  “We were saved in hope.  If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope.  Who hopes for what they already see?  But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.”[4]

The three participants in the Bible Study with me each had a different response to my question.  One person pointed to her faith, believing that God has a plan.  Another person said that watching our congregation come together and lobby on behalf of the Housing Navigation Center gives her hope. And a third said that seeing people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez speak out for new gun control policies gives her hope.

These different responses reminded me of the different arenas of action that are needed to mitigate climate change:

  • There is a personal arena. Each of us must decide what we can do now to decrease our individual carbon footprints. Then we need to enroll our families and friends in doing the same personal work.
  • There is a communal arena. Our institutions must be organized to act – institutions like our churches and our quilting groups and the companies we work for.
  • And there is the policy arena – really the policy arenas, because governments (and really big corporations) have multiple levels and all the levels have controls over policies.

When it comes to the communal arena we call Niles Discovery Church, I have made a personal commitment to do what I can to revitalize our Green Team.  We’ve had a Green Team for several years, but it has been basically dormant for the past couple.  I want to see it come back to life and there are two particular tasks I want to give it:

  • First, I want the Green Team to come up with a plan to move our congregation to being carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon positive (drawing more carbon out of the atmosphere than we’re contributing to it) by 2035.
  • Second, I want the Green Team to lead the congregation through that plan.

I suspect there are other things that Green Team will do along the way and other passions members of the Green Team will want to pursue – all of which I welcome.  If you’d like to be part of this revitalized Green Team, please speak with me or with Bill Palleschi.

When it comes to the governmental policy arena, there are a couple things I want to make sure you know.  First, we have had an impact already.  Our church was instrumental in getting the City of Fremont to divest from fossil fuels and to agree not to allow any more fossil fuel infrastructure to be built in the city.  So, if you’ve wondered if we can actually have an impact when it comes to government policy, the answer has been proven to be “yes.”

Second, getting other policies to change, especially when you are trying to get the behemoths of the federal government and international treaties to change policies, it much harder work.  Turning around a canoe is much easier than turning around an ocean liner.  The status quo is resistant to change.  That is why the status quo needs to be disrupted from time to time.

Some may claim that it is not the church’s role to address the climate crisis, especially not at the policy level.  I disagree.  Franzen’s dystopian picture of climate change without intervention is accurate.  That accuracy points to why climate change is a moral issue.  People starving is a moral issue.  “Apocalyptic fires” and “epic floods” destroying homes and habitats is a moral issue.  Poverty is a moral issue.  Refugees seeking resettlement in a safe, new home is such a basic moral issue that you can’t understand the Hebrew scriptures without it.

Because the climate crisis touches all of these moral issues, climate change is the moral issue of our time.  And if there is any group of people who have authority to speak on moral issues, it is people of faith.

Gus Speth

Listen to what former dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Gus Speth said in 2013:  “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change.  I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong.  The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”[5]

It’s okay that scientists don’t know how to do that. The church does.  In fact, transformation is what the church is all about.

In his book published last spring, Climate Church, Climate World, Jim Antal talks about some of the tools the church needs to use to do that work of transformation.  He says that the church “must reignite the fires of civil disobedience and speak truth to power, taking part in divestment campaigns and stripping egregious offenders of their license to consume without restraint.  It must extend its ethical consideration to other lives and to future generations.  As Christians, we must ‘unleash our imaginations, unmuzzle our mouths, unbind our hands, unshackle our feet, and open our wallets.’”[6]

Greta Thunberg

When I asked the Monday Morning Bible Study what gives them hope, I asked myself the same question.  My answer is Greta Thunberg.  Of course, it’s not just Greta; it’s what she represents – young people standing up, confronting the people in power with the truth.

On August 20 last year, ninth grader Greta decided not to attend school until the 2018 Sweden general election on September 9. You might remember that the Swedish summer of 2018 was marked with bizarre heatwaves and wildfires.  Greta’s protest consisted of sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with her sign.  I won’t mangle the Swedish; it translates “school strike for the climate.”

Her demands were simple:  Sweden had to live up to the Paris Agreement.  On September 7, just before the general elections, she announced that she would continue to strike every Friday until Sweden lives up to its Paris Agreement commitments.  She coined the slogan FridaysForFuture.

Greta says that she was inspired by the Parkland students and their “March for Our Lives.”  In turn, Greta’s actions inspired students across the world to take part in student strikes.[7]  One of the people Greta inspired was a seventh grader named Alexandria Villaseñor.

In December of 2018, Alexandria started her own one-person climate strike at the United Nations on Manhattan on Fridays.[8]  She continues to be a major climate activist and organizer.[9]  She’s 14 now.

This school strike movement has grown.  There were actions across Europe at various times in the winter and spring.  The biggest school strike (so far) was on March 15 when an estimated 1.4 million students from around the world participated in local actions.[10]  I say, “so far,” because another global strike has been called for this Friday.  Only this time, while it’s still student led, the youth of the world are inviting all of us to join them in demonstrations and teach-ins and rallies and marches.

And these actions won’t be only on that one day. The actions will take place from September 20 through September 27.  The really big actions will take place in San Francisco and San Ramon (the headquarters of Chevron).

There is an action taking place this Friday here in Fremont.  It will start at 3:30 p.m. at 4375 Blue Ridge Street, Fremont.  That address is tucked in behind Thornton Junior High School.  There is a handout with detailed information about actions taking place during the climate strike week, along with posters to carry, for you to pick up in the fellowship hall during coffee hour after our special congregational meeting today.  And I will email a link to the handout sometime tomorrow.

It is actions like these that give me hope, even when I read dystopian articles about climate change.  I hear Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans in my context.  I hear his words about creation groaning as if it were in labor.  Are creation’s cries the wailing of suffering, of a dystopian future unfolding?  Or might they be the panting and pushing of our younger generation calling us, calling all of us, to care for creation and to act swiftly and purposefully to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

Listen.

What do you hear?

_______________

[1]Jonathan Fransen, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-if-we-stopped-pretending(posted 8 September 2019; accessed 13 September 2019).

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Romans 8:24-25, Common English Bible.

[5]Quoted by Dave Barnhart, “Church Leadership in the Age of Climate Change,” Ministry Matters, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9725/church-leadership-in-the-age-of-climate-change(posted 17 July 2019; accessed 9 September 2019).

[6]Wesley Snedeker, in a review of Climate Church, Climate World, published in the 27 March 2019 edition of The Christian Century, page 38.

[7]This information about Greta Thunberg was gleaned from “School strike for climate,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_strike_for_climate(accessed 15 September 2019).

[8]Sarah Kaplan, “How a 7th-grader’s strike against climate change exploded into a movement,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/how-a-7th-graders-strike-against-climate-change-exploded-into-a-movement/2019/02/15/e20868e2-2fb4-11e9-86ab-5d02109aeb01_story.html(posted 16 February 2019; accessed 15 September 2019).

[9]You’ll agree with this assessment if you just look at her Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/AlexandriaV2005.

[10]“School strike for climate,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_strike_for_climate(accessed 15 September 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 8, 2019, the Second Sunday of the Season of Creation,
by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 6:25-33 and Job 28:1-11
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the most striking things I noticed while walking in the woods of southern New Hampshire and southern coastal Maine last month was how different they are from the woods here in the Bay Area.  This is hardly the first time I’ve notices such differences.  Driving US-2 over the Cascades in Washington, the forest changes quite abruptly as you cross Stevens Pass.  On the western side of the pass, they are filled with firs – Douglas firs, hemlocks, and cedars – dotted with vine maples, alders, and the occasional birch, with a healthy, thick understory.  On the eastern side, the forests are almost only pines with some birches, and the understory is much thinner.  The difference is caused by different climates.  The western slope of the Cascades gets plenty of rain and snow, and is pretty effective at limiting how much precipitation gets to the eastern slope.

What I noticed about the New Hampshire and Maine woods compared to ours was a greater diversity of trees:  pines (especially white pines), beeches, sugar maples, oaks, paper birch, firs.  Thanks to that diversity and autumn frosts, those New England forests become a splendid cacophony of color each fall.  And, of course the differences between the forests and climates of New England and here mean different animals are living in those habitats.  The big animal surprise for me was seeing a wild mink skitter across the rocks along the lake, much too quickly for me to raise my camera and get a photo.

If you have an iron trap memory, you might remember that last spring the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a report[1] that said that one million of the earth’s species are in danger of becoming extinct in the next half century, some within the next two decades.  That means that before Ceci[2] retires, one out of every eight animal and plant species could cease to exist.

Yes, extinctions are normal.  What’s abnormal is that this is an extinction rate thousands of times faster than normal.

When I read about this report last spring, I assumed the culprit was climate change.  As climates change, habitats change.  (For instance, climate change is threatening the maple syrup supply.[3])  And as habitats change, species die off.

While climate change does contribute to the anticipated mass extinction, the greater cause is the direct destruction of habitats by humans.  “As wetlands are drained, forests are cleared, water is polluted, and oceans are overfished, animal and plant habitats shrink.”[4]  And as plant and animal habitats shrink, species die off, become extinct.

And this can cause a feedback loop.  For example, when white Americans killed off vast portions of the wolf population, it impacted habitats.  And when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, not only did other animals change their behavior, rivers changed their behavior, the habitat changed its behavior.  I don’t remember if I’ve shown this video before in worship, but even if I have, it is so profound, it is worth watching again.

As stewards of God’s creation, we should care about the loss of biodiversity.  Our scripture lessons call us to it.  There are a lot of things happening in our scripture lessons.  One of those things is a celebration of the wonders, beauty, and diversity of creation – and how it matters to God.  And if the wonders, beauty, and diversity of creation matters to God, maybe they should matter to us.  Our scripture lessons echo Genesis 1, which proclaims that God calls creation “very good.”  According to Psalm 104, the proper response to the diversity of creation is praise:  “O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you have made them all” (Psalm 104:24).  And Psalm 148 “imagines the creatures themselves praising God, each in their own way, through their mode of existence:  ‘Sea monsters … wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! … Let them praise the Lord.’”[5]

There are other reasons to care about biodiversity.  For starters, there is self-interest.  “The loss of entire species of insects, amphibians, fish, birds, and wildlife and the habitats they depend on will inevitably make human life more precarious.  For example, a less biodiverse world with fewer species of crops will mean crops are less resilient.  It will be harder to feed the human population.”[6]

And then there’s what biodiversity can teach us.

I didn’t just tromp through the New England woods on my vacation.  I also spent time with my dad and stepmom and saw some old friends.  That meant I did a fair amount of driving – more than I typically do.  While I was driving, I listened to the book Drawdown, a book about how we could move from adding carbon to the atmosphere to actually drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere.

Toward the end of Drawdown, there’s an essay about forests.  Written by Janine Benyus, the essay describes how forestry has changed.  When Benyus was getting her forestry degree, she was “taught that thinning would help the oaks and walnuts, freeing them to get more water, light, and nutrients.”[7]  Benyus writes:  “The precept that trees needed to be released from the struggle of competition was the fruit of a debate between Frederic Clements and his contemporary Henry Gleason.  What they both endeavored to describe, in very different ways, was what constitutes a community of vegetation, what determines how plants grow together and why.

“When Clements studied bayous, chaparrals, hardwood forests, and prairies, he saw distinct communities of plants reacting not just to soils and climate but also to each other.  He proposed that plants were cooperators as well as competitors, facilitating each other in beneficial ways.…

“Gleason had a different take.  What Clements called communities was simply happenstance, random individuals dispersed by chance and arranged according to how they adapted to water, light, and soil.  There was no mutual aid; plants were merely competing for a spot in the struggle.  The notion that there might be a connected, interdependent community to be studied as a whole was an illusion; examining the parts would do.”[8]

Benyus goes on to describe the academic arguments between the two points of view, tying the acceptance of Gleason’s focus on individual plants and competition to the Truman doctrine, the cold war, and an anti-communist ethos in the country and academia.  Though Gleason’s theories and approaches held sway for some 50 years, the scientific method ultimately triumphed.  To use Benyus’ words, “Though culture holds its finger on the scale, it cannot stop the restless search for measurable truth.  Un-American or not, the math has to work.  When fifty years of wall-to-wall research into competition proved inconclusive, researchers went back to the field to find out what else was at play.”[9]

What the new research found was what Clements had argued decades earlier.  Ecosystems are communities with one species helping another.  “For example, how and why do Amazonian rainforests create clouds even in the dry season?  It turns out that ten percent of the Amazon’s annual rainfall is absorbed by the shallow roots of certain scattered shrubs, then pushed downward through taproots deep into the soil bank.  When the rainless months come, the taproots lift up the water and pump it out into the shallow roots, distributing it to the whole of the forest.”[10]

Banyus includes several more examples of how bio-diverse forest communities provide for each other and make the whole stronger.  I think that maybe we could learn something about ourselves by listening to the lessons of forest biodiversity.  We’ve been taught by our economic theories to think that in the face of scarcity, in a state of competition, we should not grow closer together, or if we do grow closer together, we should do so tribally – let “us” band together and keep “them” out there.  Meanwhile, the science of forest biodiversity is telling us that “mutualisms – complex exchanges of goodness – are playing out above and below ground in extraordinary ways.”[11]

Imagine how human society could benefit from emulating biodiversity with some cultural diversity.  And imagine what would happen if, in the shadow of the ecological challenges we’re facing, we drew closer together in our diversity and allowed mutualisms – complex exchanges of goodness – to play out in our communities.  Imagine what would happen if we grew to see ourselves as both beneficiaries and contributors to the betterment of all lives.  And I’m not just talking about human lives.  Imagine what would happen if we grew to see ourselves as beneficiaries of our habitat and participants in making our habitat work for all of creation.

Just imagine.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See, for instance, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01448-4

[2] Our liturgist today, Ceci, is a Middle Schooler.

[3] See https://www.nhpr.org/post/climate-change-could-mean-less-maple-syrup-your-pancakes#stream/0

[4] The Editors, “Biodiverse praise,” The Christian Century, 5 June 2019, p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Janine Benyus, “Reciprocity,” from Paul Hawken,. Drawdown (p. 212). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] Ibid, 212-213.

[9] Ibid, 213.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 214.

Why and When We Gather

Every two years, delegates from the Conferences of the United Church of Christ and the congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) gather for their general meetings — General Synod (for the UCC) and General Assembly (for the DOC). I attended General Synod as a “visitor” (and had no official duties or responsibilities) and attended General Assembly as a delegate from our church. Delegates to General Synod are elected by the Conferences (the geographic area we’re in); delegates to General Assembly could include every ordained minister in the DOC and two delegates from every congregation. You can learn more about General Synod at https://youtu.be/a0w36vyB-N0 and about General Assembly at https://ga.disciples.org/schedule/orientation-webinars/.

While the official reason for these meetings is to do the work of the corporations (electing officers and board members, modifying bylaws, etc.), there are several additional reasons people from across the USA and Canada gather for these meetings.

  • Workshops are offered. I attended several half-hour workshops at General Synod and 9 hours of workshops at General Assembly
  • Meals and Banquets are held. I have learned there are a few General Assembly meals that are not to be missed. The Pension Fund dinner included the amazing story of how the Pension Fund and Week of Compassion cooperated to respond to the aftermath Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. “Your love was faster and more efficient than the power of governments,” Rev. Miguel Morales, GMP of the Christian Church in Puerto Rico, said. You can see a video about this at https://pensionfund.wistia.com/medias/d3sdeexcaa. The Reconciliation Ministries breakfast as had some of the most exceptional speakers of all the things I attended at either meeting
  • Exhibit halls at each meeting provide information about the general settings of the denominations and offer resources for use in the local church (my suitcase is always several pounds heavier coming home). At General Assembly’s Exhibit Hall, I particularly liked the “Mission Fest” exhibit where local churches shared exciting things they are doing to bring care and justice to their communities – and the butter chalice (we were in Iowa, after all).
  • And then there’s worship. There is something special about gathering with thousands to sing and pray together as we worship God. And the sermons are almost always stunning. Don’t get me wrong. I love worshiping in a smaller community where we know most of the other people in the room (or at least feel like knowing them is a possibility) and where we know the people we are praying for. Still, every so often, I love being among a multitude as we worship God.

Like I said, the official reason for the meetings is the business. There are the motions that are required (as noted above) and there are the resolutions. Generally, the required business is perfunctory. People are willing to serve on the Board? Super! Elect them! There was a surprise this year at the UCC’s General Synod. The General Minister and President was up for reelection (to a second 4-year term). Some of the delegates said that they thought it was past time for the UCC to be led by a woman, so even though the Rev. JohnDorhauer was the only one nominated, his election was not unanimous.

When it comes to the resolutions, it seems to me that the UCC takes them more seriously than the DOC does. At the General Synod, resolutions are assigned to committees to work on “perfecting,” and then they come to the full meeting where they are debated, possibly amended, and voted on to be officially adopted or not. At General Assembly, the DOC Board works over the resolutions before they come to the meeting delegates for discussion and affirmation (or not). In both denominations, the resolutions speak to, not for, the local churches.

This year, the United Church of Christ adopted resolutions on:

Interestingly, the one resolution that caused the most debate was one that looked internally (rather than making a public pronouncement). It targeted the presence of one UCC-related organization in the Exhibit Hall. Calling themselves “Faithful and Welcoming Congregations,” FWC started as a movement to counter the Open and Affirming movement of welcome to LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church. Like many other LGBTQ+ people, I find FWC to be unwelcoming and unfaithful to the gospel of Jesus. The question this resolution raised was, Should the church allow a group that many find emotionally and spiritually hurtful to have space in the Exhibit Hall?

Another way to ask the question: How wide is the welcome we mean when we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here”? This is a tough question, and one I struggled with as I watched from the bleachers.

I decided that, if I had been a delegate I would have voted against the resolution barring this organization from the Exhibit Hall. To be clear, I will have nothing to do with them when I am walking around the Exhibit Hall. I don’t care what swag they’re handing out, I still won’t stop; I have no interest in engaging them and subjecting myself to their abuse. At the same time, they see themselves as part of the United Church of Christ representing a small group of churches that see (when it comes to sexuality) anything except cisgenderness and heterosexuality as sinful. While definitely a minority in the UCC, they are still in the UCC and I’m uncomfortable with excluding them the Exhibit Hall simply because I think their theology is bogus. I thought about this tension between wanting to have nothing to do with them and thinking they should not be barred, I kept thinking about the James Baldwin quote: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The resolution ended up getting tabled — with a request that the United Church Board consider how to deal with the tension between the safety of people traditionally marginalized and having a wide welcome. It will be interesting to see what they come up with in the next two years.

The General Assembly affirmed resolutions on:

Reflections

As I reflect on these two meetings, some questions about decision making come up for me (again). Robert’s Rules of Order (and their derivatives) create winners and losers. If we had a way to make decisions by consensus, we would avoid that. On the other hand, making decisions by consensus takes time. Robert’s Rules lead to a decision much more quickly than consensus models. But at what cost? It seems to me that Robert’s Rules value time over relationships and I’m not sure that’s a good idea for the church.

I’d also note that Roberts Rules are Eurocentric – Anglo-Saxon, in fact. They are as racist as 19th century Anglo-Saxon society was. I wonder if our church (though overwhelmingly white) might not learn of some other decision-making processes from some non-European cultures that more highly value relationships.

As much as I value relationships and as much as I believe that relationships are best nurtured when we are face-to-face, I wonder about the wisdom in a hot new world if all the flying that’s involved for people to attend the meetings every two years is good stewardship. I don’t know what the alternative is. I think we need to search for one. And I think we need to keep having opportunities for excellent worship and workshops.

An Invitation

Finally, I extend an invitation. If you have a passion about any of these topics covered by any of the resolutions, please talk to me. Perhaps your passion can turn into leadership of some new activity or ministry in our church, or some new educational initiative, and I would welcome the opportunity to help you track down resources through our denominations.

Peace,
Pastor Jeff

The following are the notes I had for comments I made at a “Lights for Liberty” rally in Fremont, California, on July 12, 2019. Of course, what I actually said wasn’t exactly this.

Good evening. I’m the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer, Senior Pastor of Niles Discovery Church, and I currently have the privilege of serving as the President of the Tri-City Interfaith Council.

I agree with my colleague, Danny Bradfield, pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach who writes, “It doesn’t seem to me that it should be a controversial thing to insist that we treat children humanely, defend the rights of all people, or offer aid and assistance to those fleeing unimaginable horrors in their homelands. To do so is simply human decency. It is what any good Christian and any good American should do. I can’t imagine justifying the mistreatment of children, the stripping away of rights based on race or gender identity, or the hunting down of immigrants and refugees. Such actions are against Christian and American values.”

I would add that it is against the values of every major religion and spiritual tradition.

How many of you know the magazine “Highlight for Children”? I think of it as the magazine for children that was in my doctor’s and dentist’s waiting room when I was growing up. I haven’t looked for it lately, but I suspect I could find it in many office waiting rooms.

And a couple of weeks ago, the CEO of Highlights for Children magazine issued a statement that affirms the dignity of all children. The statement goes on to say, “With this core belief in our minds and hearts, we denounce the practice of separating immigrant children from their families and urge our government to cease this activity, which is unconscionable and causes irreparable damage to young lives.”

It goes on to say, “This is not a political statement about immigration policy. This is a statement about human decency, plain and simple. This is a plea for recognition that these are not simply the children of strangers for whom others are accountable. This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and to have the opportunity to become their best selves.”

I don’t know the specifics of what motivates you to be here tonight. For me, I stand here as a pastor of a Christian church, motivated by the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Bible, in particular his teaching that the summation of all the law and the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures (in what he knew as scripture) can be summed up in the commandment that we do onto others as we would have them do onto us. How would I want to be treated it I had to flee my home and seek refuge in another country? That’s the way we should be treating the refugees coming to our country. This truly is an issue of human decency, plain and simple.

Thank you for being here tonight.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 14, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 10:25-37
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The general public in the United States, regardless of religious upbringing, may know something of the stories about the birth of Jesus.  An impressive number of people may know fragments of the crucifixion and resurrection stories from the Gospels.  But I suspect that the one story from the Gospels that the greatest number of people from general public could accurately retell in its entirety is the story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is, after all, the only biblical story I can think of that has laws named for it.

People may not remember the exact setting for the story.  And gullible tourists may pay tour guides to see the actual spot on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where the man was mugged – forgetting that this is a story Jesus told, not an event that actually happened.  Still, I think there are many people who know the story, people who’ve never read the Gospel of Luke or who have never gone to church.

As I’ve sat with this familiar parable this week, I’ve noticed that I sometimes cast the mugging victim as the Samaritan.  He’s not.  The mugging victim is a Jew, just like the lawyer who was looking for a neighbor-identity loophole in the Great Commandments.  I’m not sure why I sometimes do this character inversion, but I do.

Noticing this made me wonder why Jesus didn’t tell the story that way in the first place.  It’s a more straight forward telling:  Once there was a Samaritan who got mugged, beaten badly, left for dead on Jerusalem-Jericho Parkway.  Important people walked by – people with cultural authority – but they didn’t stop to help.  No, it was a lawyer who saw the man, stopped, tended to his wounds, and took him to an inn where he could recover.

That telling would prick up the ears of the lawyer who was asking the questions.  He would identify with the lawyer in the story and he would clearly get the message.  You see that person at the side of the road – that person you despise (like we all do, because, you know, Samaritans)?  That’s the person you’re supposed to love.  That’s what it means to love your neighbor.

For some reason, that’s not the story Jesus tells.  That suggests to me that Jesus may be trying to make a deeper point.

I think Jesus is saying something more than, “Those we consider our enemies are really our neighbors.”  (As if that wasn’t deep enough.)  Yes, Jesus is telling us that “everyone is a neighbor to be loved as we love ourselves, no matter how inconvenient the timing.”[1]  And, I think he’s teaching us something more.

By making the Samaritan the helper and a fellow Jew the victim, Jesus is saying something about embodying love with our actions.  And Jesus is saying something about accepting help, about accepting embodied love from someone else’s actions – even somebody you don’t like, even somebody you consider an enemy.  By casting the robbery victim as a man like the person who asked the question, Jesus was tapping into empathy.  The lawyer likely accepted that a fellow Jew who was the victim of an attack should be thought of as a neighbor.  He could see himself in such a situation.  “That could be me,” he would think.  And I’m supposed to accept help from a Samaritan?

If Jesus was telling me the story, the victim would be a UCC or a DOC pastor, and the person who actually helped would be Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwall, Jr.  And I confess, it would be very hard for me to have either one of them as a hero in my life story.

Compassion literally means “suffer with.”  Com means “with” and passion means “suffer.”  The way Jesus tells the story, he invites the lawyer into compassion.  The lawyer can see himself suffering there at the side of the road, so he suffers with the man who was attacked and robbed.  And we end up calling the Samaritan “good” because he acted compassionately.  He might have been running a Ponzi scheme the rest of the week – he did have money to give the innkeeper.  He might have been a drunk – he was carrying wine.  None of that matters because he had compassion for the one at the side of the road.

According to researchers, “compassion has four components:  You recognize another person’s suffering, are emotionally moved by it, wish the other person did not suffer and feel motivated to help relieve the suffering.”[2]

So I’ve been trying to think compassionately about the people who have voiced resistance to the Housing Navigation Center over the past few months.  Of late, this resistance has been not just to building a Navigation Center here in Niles, but about having one anywhere in Fremont.  One of the claims made by some who oppose the navigation center is that a Navigation Center is dangerous.  That claim doesn’t make any logical sense to me.  Our neighborhoods already have homeless people in them.  If their homelessness means they are a greater danger to the population at large than housed people are (and I don’t believe it does), helping them become part of the housed population would increase safety in our neighborhoods.  Assuming that a random homeless person poses some sort of danger, moving that person into a program that is supervised 24/7 makes that person less of a danger.

And yet there is resistance and there is fear.  I thought, perhaps, the resistance and fear may be rooted in a resistance to powerlessness.

On the 4th of July, I stopped at a convenience store in Union City to pick up some ibuprofen for a headache that was threatening to ruin the rest of the day’s activities.  As I stepped out of my car, a woman at the corner of the building screamed angrily.  She used the word, “you,” so I thought she was talking to me.  It didn’t take me long to realize she was yelling at someone who was there only in her own mind.

Two questions quickly raced through my mind: (1) Am I safe? and (2) Is there something I can do to help this angry, distressed woman?  Though the woman’s anger was scary, I decided I was safe enough.  Part of that is because I’m a man who’s over six feet tall and over two-hundred-more-than-i-want-to-admit pounds.  I realize not everyone would immediately reach the same safety assessment.  It was, nonetheless, my assessment.

The answer to my second question was, “no,” and I didn’t like that.  I quickly realized was that her distress was causing me distress.  I wanted to take away her distress – for her sake, and for my sake as well.  But there was nothing I could do.  Her problems were both too deep and too wide.

And I didn’t like that feeling of powerlessness.  Not one little bit.

Could it be that for some people, the resistance to a Navigation Center in their neighborhood is rooted in a fear of the powerlessness of not being able to help that comes when confronted with someone in distress like this?  Perhaps for some people it is.  And if it is, that means there is some compassion there, or at least the first part of compassion, the recognition of another person’s suffering.

Living with this scripture this week has led me to wonder if there might be something else, at least for some people that leads to their resistance and fear.  Perhaps the resistance to the Navigation Center is rooted in a resistance to the empathy compassion demands.  Perhaps some people don’t want to feel the vulnerability empathy requires.  Perhaps they don’t want to admit that they are but a couple paychecks away from homelessness themselves.

If this is right, then for these people, their fear is starting to make sense to me.  They are afraid not of people who are homeless but of their own vulnerability empathy would require them to feel.

Theologian Ched Myers notices in this passage that the scribe gives Jesus the ‘right’ theory twice.  In verse 27, he correctly summarizes the law and the prophets by pointing to the great commandments.  And in verse 37, he correctly identifies who was neighborly to the man who was mugged.  And each time, Jesus moves him from theory to practice.  You’ve correctly identified the great commandments; do this and live.  You’ve correctly identified who acted neighborly; go and do likewise.[3]

Jesus does a similar reframing of the lawyer’s original question.  He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And when he responds to Jesus’ question by quoting Scripture – love God and neighbor – Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

Live.  “As in now, this moment.  Jesus doesn’t say, ‘you will inherit eternal life,’ or ‘live forever’ or ‘eternally,’ or ‘join me in heaven’ or ‘experience eternal bliss,’ or any of a hundred things he could have said that would parallel the lawyer’s question.  Rather, he says simply, ‘Do this and you will live.’  Which makes me think that life – kin-dom life, life in and through the reign of God – isn’t something to possess or strive for or covet or earn but is something to be, well, lived, acted out, embraced right now.  To live in the kin-dom of God is to see others with compassion,  to see others as fellow members of God’s kin-dom and family, to see others in terms of how we are all joined by our need, our possibility, and our shared dependence on God’s grace and each other.”[4]

The problem is, being told to “go and do likewise” isn’t going to make us go and do likewise.  And being told that eternal life is about this moment, here, in how we embody love, isn’t going to make us embody love.  It is the practice of seeing the world with compassionate eyes that will make us go and do likewise.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had the profound insight that the difference between the first two who walked by the beaten man at the side of the road and the third who stopped to help was not their station in life.  Yes, the first two where people with religious authority, and fellow Jews, but to see this story as a put down of them can lead to a dangerously anti-Semitic reading of this story.  Jesus, who was Jewish and whose audience was Jewish, was not telling an anti-Semitic story.

No, the difference was not in their religion or economic status.  The difference was in the questions they asked themselves as they traveled down this dangerous road.  The first two who walked down that road after the robbery asked themselves, “If I do stop, what will happen to me?”  The Samaritan asked himself, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to him?”[5]

The Samaritan’s question is the harder question to ask because it is rooted in empathy.  It calls us to compassion.  How we answer that question will dictate how we embody the love that is eternal life here and now.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

  • How are you metaphorically “beaten and left at the side of the road”?
  • From whom would it be hard to accept help?
  • Where in your life do you need to ask, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to them?”

_______________

[1] Laurel Rae Mathewson, “Going With Your Gut,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/going-your-gut?parent=47586 (accessed 9 July 2019).

[2] Elizabeth Bernstein, “Find Compassion for Difficult People,” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/find-compassion-for-difficult-people-1501519713 (posted 31 July 2017; accessed about that same time).

[3] Ched Myers, “Stories to Live By,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/stories-live?parent=47586 (accessed 9 July 2019).

[4] David Lose, “Pentecost 5 C: What the Good Samaritan Teaches us About God,” In the Meantime …, https://www.davidlose.net/2019/07/pentecost-5-c-what-the-good-samaritan-teaches-us-about-god/ (posted and accessed 12 July 2019). “Kingdom” changed to “kin-dom” and in one spot the typo “it” was changed to “is.”

[5] Quoted more exactly from King’s urging of pastors and laypeople to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, by Bill Wylie-Kellermann in “The Power of Alliance,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/power-alliance?parent=47586 (accessed 9 July 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 7, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Kings 5:1-14 and Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be impressed by Naaman’s military accomplishments or is we’re supposed to pity him because of his “grievous skin disease” (as his condition is rendered in The Message).  The New Revised Standard Version calls it “leprosy,” but that is a catch-all term used for many skin diseases.  The scripture is not necessarily implying that Naaman had Hansen’s disease.

Cal professor Robert Alter translates the condition as “skin blanch.”  It makes me think of vitiligo, a condition where skin loses its pigmentation.  It could be that this general’s problem was that he was too white.  There’s probably a sermon about racism there.  Whatever the condition, it was troublesome – presumably for Naaman, perhaps for his family, and possibly even for his king.

Naaman was a great military leader, but he had his skin problem.  The implication is that he did not feel whole (and that maybe people around him didn’t see him as completely whole).  I imagine him glad to put on his armor – because he was glad to be leading his army, and because it covered up this condition that made him feel broken.

That’s what we do with our brokenness.  We curate our Facebook wall so everything in our lives seems shiny.  We dress ourselves in emotional armor as we go out to face the world.  We hide our brokenness and protect our vulnerability.  And so, it is never healed.

Apparently Naaman’s skin condition was so pronounced his wife’s slave knew about it.  In some ways, the hero of the story is this enslaved, unnamed, young girl who had been taken captive in one of the raids into Israel led by Naaman.  Despite her position, she acts compassionately.  This anonymous prisoner of war who has not lost faith speaks up about a prophet in her home country who, she thinks, can cure the skin disease.

In what seems to me to be an act of desperation, Naaman gets permission – and a letter of introduction – from his king and heads off to Israel.  When Naaman shows the letter to the king of Israel, the king of Israel totally misreads the situation and assumes the king of Aram is trying to create the pretext for war.  Who can possibly cure leprosy?  It’s the Gulf of Tonkin.  It’s the bombing of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.[1]

Luckily, Elisha is keeping tabs on things political and tells his king to send Naaman to him.  I love how Nadia Bolz Weber retells the story:  “Naaman pulls up to Elisha the Prophet’s house in his Bentley, expecting the prophet to come out and do some kind of big, fancy magic show and heal him … maybe wave his arms over his head, call on the name of the Lord, you know … something impressive suiting such a ‘great man’ as Naaman.  Instead, Elisha sends some raggedy old servant out to tell Naaman exactly how he will be healed:  Naaman needs to do nothing more than wash in the Jordon 7 times.

“The Jordon.  As though washing in some off-brand river will do anything.  Naaman was like, ‘Hmmm … that doesn’t sound right.  [… He hasn’t even looked at these lesions yet.]’  That was not the cure he was hoping for.  Until his servant (note that the only reasonable people in this entire story are those without any status whatsoever) … his servant called him out saying, ‘Hold on.  If the Prophet told you to do something difficult wouldn’t you do it?  How much more if he only says wash and be clean?’

“Well Naaman follows Elisha’s directions to wash in the Jordon, and is healed of his leprosy.  He was physically healed, but I started to wonder this week if perhaps he was healed in another way, too.”[2]

The Jordan isn’t much of a river these days, and Naaman was probably right, that in comparison to the rivers of Damascus, the Jordan wasn’t much of a river back in the day of Elisha.  So I don’t know if Naaman had to flail around a bit to get his whole body under the water those seven times.  What we do know is that there was a miracle in that water.  And I’m not just talking about the leprosy being washed downstream.  More importantly, when he stepped up onto the river bank, drenched and dripping, Naaman was no longer a man.  “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child,” the scripture says.  He was a boy again – with all the vulnerability and hope and sense of fairness that children possess.[3]

Bolz Weber wonders, “Maybe his healing was also somehow connected to God disabusing him of his grand ideas.  Perhaps he was healed of thinking he knew what would heal him.

“I wonder how often we are attached to an idea of what we think will make everything ok for us.  What conditions need to be met in order for us to feel safe, cared for, rested, whole.

“When I make $10,000 a year more I will be ok

“When I find a partner I will be ok.

“When I lose 20 pounds I will be ok.

“When I get one more graduate degree I will be ok.

“When my parents or my children treat me the way they should I will be ok.

“When everyone in my life acts the way I think they should I will be ok.

“[For] Naaman the Leper, despite his ideas about what he needed or deserved, his healing was somehow connected to just showing up and encountering God, not in the extraordinary or exceptional, but in the ordinary waters of an off-brand river.  He had to let go of what he was waiting for in his life in order to receive what was already there.

“We see a similar struggle in today’s Gospel text when Jesus sends the 70 out on their mission.”[4]  70, incidentally, is just about what our average summer attendance is.  Here’s Bolz Weber’s description:  “It’s kind of amazing Jesus even got that many people after giving what amounts to the worst recruitment speech in history.  Basically, Jesus sells this mission by saying, ‘OK. The first thing you need to know is that we are under staffed.  Second, there’s a high wolf danger so watch out for that.  Third, you can’t take any money or change of clothes or bag or even sandals.  Fourth, stay with whoever will share the peace with you and don’t try and trade up and if there are sick people around take care of them.  And fifth, the food might stink but eat it anyway.’

“I imagine that the 70 he appointed – yes, they were appointed … because, honestly, being a follower of Jesus has always been a lot more like conscription than volunteerism.  Well, my guess is that they swallowed hard, and said ‘Ok.  We can deal with those working conditions.  Now, what’s the mission?’

“And Jesus just looks at them like Jesus does and says, ‘Yeah … that IS the mission!’

“And they were like, ‘Hmmm, that doesn’t sound right.  You should re-check your work assignments Jesus.  That was not the work assignment we were hoping for.’  Maybe they already had ideas about what it would look like to be agents in God’s kin-dom.  Waving their hands about and calling on the Lord.  Yet Jesus said all that is needed is to walk the road with one other person, allow yourself to give and receive hospitality, break bread, and bless stuff.

“I understand if they were a little freaked out.  I mean … who am I without my credentials and credit cards?  And who wouldn’t want to negotiate for better accommodations?  We all want to trade up in some way:  get the better apartment, the cooler church […], the newest iphone, the next level of veganism.  But there’s almost a counter-cultural trading down that happens in discipleship.  The kin-dom of God comes near in the mundane, in the not-special, in the very much not-cool.[…]

“Christianity is about story and water and bread and wine – things that are offensively common:  showing up in life, sharing stories, being the stranger, welcoming the stranger, breaking bread, swimming in rivers.[…]

“We as followers of Christ don’t have some kind of special super power.  We are not the spiritually elite.  We just have the authority to show up.  To show up and proclaim the nearness of God that scatters the darkness.  And we can show up for life and for each other and for the world because what we need for healing and sustenance is always the same as the simple, ordinary things right in front of us – that’s just the way God[’s healing] works.  Thanks be to God.”[5]

_______________

[1] For information about how the Trump administration is looking for a pretext for war with Iran, I recommend this article: Peter Beinart, “Bolton Keeps Trying to Goad Iran Into War,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/bolton-keeps-trying-goad-iran-war/592108/ (posted 20 June 2019; accessed 6 July 2019).

[2] Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon on Naaman the Leper and How the Common Can Heal Us,” Sarcastic Lutheran, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2016/07/sermon-on-naaman-the-leper-and-how-the-common-can-heal-us/ (posted 7 July 2016; accessed 1 July 2019).  I have done some grammatical editing of the transcript.

[3] James C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: July 7, 2019,” Ministry Matters, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9706/weekly-preaching-july-7-2019 (posted and accessed 3 July 2019).

[4] Bolz Weber, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

It happened to me again yesterday. I was away from home and one of those headaches that really has no business bothering me decided to mess with my plans. Rather than let it ruin my evening, I dropped into a neighborhood store to buy some ibuprofen. As I stepped out of my car, a woman at the corner of the building yelled angrily. She used the word, “you,” so I thought she was talking to me. It didn’t take me long to realize she was yelling at someone who was only there in her mind.

Two questions quickly raced through my mind:  (1) Am I safe? and (2) Is there something I can do to help this angry, distressed woman?

As soon as I realized she wasn’t angry with me, I realized I was safe. Part of that is because I’m a man who’s over six feet tall and over two-hundred-more-than-i-want-to-admit pounds; I realize not everyone would immediately reach the same safety assessment. It was, nonetheless, my assessment.

The answer to my second question was, “no,” and that didn’t satisfy me.

What I also realized was that her distress was causing me distress. I was uncomfortable because she was having a bad day. I wanted to make her day better, I wanted to take away her distress — for her sake, and for my sake as well. But there was nothing I could do. Her problems were both deep and wide.

Based on the shopping cart and its contents she and her silent, still (even calm, which surprised me) male companion had, I think here’s a pretty good chance that they don’t have a solid roof over their heads at night. Being unhoused, though, was not the only issue they were facing. This woman (and her companion) needed (no doubt, still need tonight) many things simultaneously.

Assuming that I’m right that they are homeless, they probably spend much of their day trying to figure out where to get food, and looking after their possessions, and trying to figure out where the safest place for them to spend the night is. This woman also needed some treatment for what I assume is a mental illness, but I would be surprised if they have any internal resources to address this need after worrying about the basics of food, security, and sleeping location. And, who knows, one or both of them may need treatment for alcohol/drug dependency (it wouldn’t surprised me if the woman was self-medicating to deal with her mental illness). I couldn’t help but wonder, if they had a few months of dependable, secure housing with people who could help them figure out what need to address next, that their lives would radically improve and maybe they could even move on to stable housing.

And I know that this woman is not representative of the homeless in my neighborhood. There are plenty of people I see each day who are unhoused and who are not dealing with hallucination-inducing mental illnesses. The bad luck of a flu or pneumonia led to a job loss that led to an eviction has left plenty of my neighbors unhoused. And now they spend all their time and energy worrying about food and security and tonight’s lodging, so they don’t have the energy to address getting a new job. They, too, could benefit from a few months of housing in a setting with supportive people to give their lives a reset.

I’ll admit it. There’s part of me that would prefer not to run into people like this woman and be confronted with the reality of the needs of my unhoused neighbors. I wouldn’t sit up at night a day later wondering what can be done. But there are people from all kinds of backgrounds, stories, and challenges who are unhoused right here in my neighborhood. And if it takes one woman whose situation is extreme to remind me of that, maybe she was doing me a service. Maybe she was doing us all a service, reminding us of our obligation to take care of our neighbors.

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