A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:9-15 and Romans 8:14-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

More years ago than I care to add up, a professor asked the members of our class to introduce ourselves. The class was an introduction to pastoral counseling in which we would be sharing quite personally, so it was important that we start right off getting to know each other. The exercise took most of that first class. We were asked to say something real about who we were, to start the process of taking the risk of intimacy and vulnerability.

What would you say that is real and vulnerable about who you are?

One of the things that happened in the introductions – we came back to this when we were discussing gender differences – was that the men in the class tended to speak about who they are in terms of what they did while the women tended to speak about who they are in terms of their relationships.

So Frank would say, I’m in my second year of the MDiv program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. This is my second career. I used to work at Pacific Bell as a technician. My favorite summer activity is white water rafting.

And Ellen would say, I’m also in my second year, but I’m at Pacific School of Religion. I’m recently divorced and have three kids, all teenagers, who live with their father while I’m in seminary. It’s clear to me that pastoral care and counseling will be an important part of my ministry because I’ve always been the person my friends come to to commiserate.

This was an interesting difference to notice, but I wonder if any of us really introduced ourselves. Who are we really? Are we what we do? Are we who we’re related to? Or are we something else?

Who are you? And how is your answer to that question similar to and different from who God sees you to be?

The traditional gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. You may have noticed that Mark’s version of this event is much shorter than Matthew’s and Luke’s. Matthew and Luke list the temptations – or at least three of the temptations – Jesus faced. Mark only says that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan. It doesn’t even say that he fasted. In fact, it says that angels waited on him, which might mean that he ate.

Mark’s version of the temptation is so short it could be told in one-and-a-half tweets. Mark’s version of the temptation is so short the creators of the lectionary tacked on Jesus’ baptism and the summary of his message and ministry. I think this is a helpful thing because the three things – the baptism, the temptation, and the summary – are, I think, connected.

At his baptism, Jesus heard “a voice from heaven” tell him who he was. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And before he had done any public ministry, the voice said, “with you I am well pleased.”

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Did you ever notice that? “Immediately after his Baptism, Jesus is driven – not just led, mind you, but driven – into the wilderness by the same Spirit that just earlier had descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessing?”[1] There is a connection between Jesus’ time in the wilderness, this time of temptation, with receiving this announcement of identity.

As I said, Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus was tempted. With Mark’s gospel, we’re free to imagine. And I imagine Jesus wrestling with what this identity means. Is being God’s beloved child a good thing or a bad thing – or both?

In the scope of the whole story, I’d say both. What could be better than knowing you are God’s child, God’s beloved child? And I don’t just mean knowing intellectually or even knowing in your heart, but knowing at a cellular level. An encounter with a voice from heaven is likely to put its message deep into your being. Yet being God’s child means also knowing the wonderful, scary, world-changing, good news that the kin-dom of God has come near. And that news means a change of life. It means living in a way that is resistant to the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus moves from baptism to temptation to proclamation. Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And that proclamation eventually got him killed.

If you were to ask Jesus who he is, how would he answer? “I’m Mary’s son, a rabbi who leads disciples, an itinerant preacher and healer”? Or would he say, “I’m God’s beloved child”?

And if I asked you who you are, what would you say?

Fr. Richard Rohr

Theologian and author Father Richard Rohr says that we are two selves, a false self and a true self. He says, “The false self is the fabricated, concocted self that we have to do. It’s not wrong. The false self is not bad. But it’s your persona, it’s your education, it’s your race, it’s your sexual orientation, it’s your country – all of which are necessary to create an ego structure. But it’s not you.…

“It’s the raw material you fall through to find your true self.… You don’t create [your true self]; it’s already there … your inherent self, your authentic self.”[2]

Rohr says, “God isn’t ‘a being’ as much as Being itself,” and that “[our true identity] is who we are in God. [That is, our true identity is who we are in Being itself.] … And that no one can give to you and no one can take away from you.”[3]

“[But the true self isn’t the same as the soul,] because the true self includes embodiment. Therefore, there is a physical, material, emotional, sexual … element to the true self.”[4]

What Rohr is talking about is the radical, integrative mystery of the incarnation. We see it in Jesus: the true self, that I would even say is a part of God, is not only a part of God. It is the God-ness that takes on flesh. But in taking on flesh, we also build up an ego structure that says we are what we do and who we’re related to.

Yeah, my brain is starting to hurt, too.

Years ago, a member of the church I was serving had a baby. It was a wonderful, joyous moment, until Jenny (that’s what I’ll call her) developed some post-delivery complications. She got an infection, which triggered an immune system response that went into overdrive and she developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Guillain-Barré Syndrome is scary. It’s an ascending paralysis. It starts in the feet and ascends the body and if it keeps going it can be fatal because you ability to breathe becomes paralyzed.

Jenny didn’t die. In fact, she almost fully recovered. During her recovery, another member of the church (I’ll call her Kathy) occasionally brought Jenny presents to cheer her up. One time, after all this happened, Kathy and I were talking about vocations and identity. Kathy said she noticed something about the presents she brought Jenny who had been so sick – something she had not done intentionally.

The first present she brought was presented in a gift bag with tissue paper covering it. The second give was wrapped in paper, but the paper wasn’t taped. The third present was wrapped and taped. The fourth present was wrapped, taped, and had a ribbon around it.

Without realizing what she was doing, Kathy was making it harder and harder for Jenny to get to the present. Kathy was making each gift an exercise. Kathy had not done this intentionally. It happened naturally.

Now some of you might be able to guess what Kathy’s vocation is. She is an occupational therapist. And if you asked Kathy who she is, part of her answer – a central part of her answer – would be that she’s an occupational therapist. That is an integral part of her identity and sense of self. And Rohr would say that the identity of being an occupational therapist is part of her false self. Remember, Rohr says that the false self isn’t bad, it isn’t wrong; it’s just concocted.

But I wonder. Because the real self, according the Rohr, is the soul embodied, isn’t part of Kathy’s embodiment occupational-therapist-ness?

This sermon is the beginning of a series based on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. My hope is that you will take these themes that we preach on and find some way explore them in your life a little more deeply this Lent.

Today’s theme, Identity, comes out of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” This line points who God is, and who we are in relationship to God. If God is “our Father,” we are God’s children. That’s what Paul was writing about in our lesson from his letter to the Romans.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

The implication is that our true identity is that we are children of God. Rohr would tell us that this is true, and that everything else that we cling onto as part of our identity is construct. Rohr also says, “It is the struggle with the false self that reveals to you your true self.”[5]

Which reminds me of a story. A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, please?”
“Right choices.”
The seeker was fascinated.
“How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word.”
“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.
“Growth.”
The seeker was thrilled. “And how does one grow?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, pray tell?”
“Wrong choices.”

“It is the struggle with the false self that reveals to you your true self.”

The invitation to you during this first week of Lent is to find some activity that will invite you into a reflection on your identity, some practice that will allow you to listen for what God has to say about who you are. Yeah, you’re getting homework during the sermon series. Still, I hope you will take on this task, to find some activity that will invite you into a reflection on your identity, some practice that will allow you to listen for what God has to say about who you are. Perhaps it will be some desert time. Perhaps it will be something else.

I believe you will benefit from what you learn, as will the people around you.

Amen.

[1] David Lose, “Wilderness Faith,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/lent-1-b-wilderness-faith/ (posted and accessed 16 February 2015).

[2] Father Richard Rohr in an interview with Oprah Winfrey for one of her “Super Soul Sunday” episodes, accessed at http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Oprah-and-Author-Richard-Rohr-Video on 21 February 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

A Facebook friend shared this “conversation” written by one of his friends.  It has made me pause to think and pray as I consider the atrocities being perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

Bloke: Jesus, what the hell is up with those ISIS terrorists?
Jesus: I hear ya. It’s a terrible thing. So much suffering. And fear. Fear seems the biggest part.
Bloke: What should we do with them?
Jesus: Love them.
Bloke: Whoa. Hold on, Jesus – love them? They’ll cut your head off. Kill your whole family. They want to destroy everything we hold dear.
Jesus: Well, in that case, you really must love them.
Bloke: How can you say that! You can’t be serious. Do you want us killed?
Jesus: No – I want you loved. And them too. As you love me- love them. And everyone else while you’re at it.
Bloke: That’s impossible. I can’t love them. I won’t love them.
Jesus: No. You can love them. And if you love me, you’ll love them too. Do you love me, Bloke?
Bloke: Of course I do, Jesus. But it seems like you don’t love me if you ask me to love them. They hate and despise me, us, all we are and all we stand for.
Jesus: All “we” stand for, Bloke? I stand for love. What say you?
Bloke: I stand for my country and my family and my God – which means, you. I stand for you, Jesus.
Jesus: Good, then love them Bloke. It’s easy to love them that love you- I need you to love them that hate you.
Bloke: Do you want me to get killed, allow my family to be killed – the collapse of western civilization and Christian life?
Jesus: I want you to love, Bloke.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’m glad you’re all sitting down, because I’m going to do two things in today sermon that some of you will find shocking. First, I’m going to talk about football. I know, I know. What does Jeff know about football? The answer is, “Not much.” But something happened at the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago that is really important, and yes I did grow up in Massachusetts, and no it’s not the fact that the Patriots won the game.

In the final seconds of the game, New England Patriot Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on the one-yard line, keeping the Seahawks from scoring a touchdown. This play sealed the deal. It was a case where the Butler did it. Malcolm Butler’s interception guaranteed the Patriots their win. Even on YouTube for this non-football-fan, it’s an exciting play.[1] I imagine that if you were watching the game live and were emotionally invested in the outcome, there would have been screaming in your house – elation or devastation.

Of course, there was rejoicing on the field. From a television sports reporter’s point of view, Malcolm Butler was the interview to get. An NBC reporter got next to him and ran beside him until the control room went to her for a few-second interview with Butler. They stopped and she asked him, “What happened on that play?”

“I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play. And it came true and I’m just blessed,” he said. “I can’t describe it right now. I’m just …”[2] His voice trailed of.

“I had a vision … I’m just blessed … I can’t describe it right now.”

If you watch the video of this very brief interview with the sound down, you’ll see interesting body language. Butler barely glances at the reporter; he is not smiling (he just made the game-winning play and he’s not smiling); his head is shaking back and forth as if he’s saying “no”; his eyes are almost shut or are shut, as if he’s seeing something inside, there in the dark, that the light outside will hide. With the sound up, his voice is winded, breathless, but still steady. There is a calmness, a deliberateness, as he tries to put words to his experience.

Rod Dreher wrote about this for The American Conservative. Yes, that’s the second shocking thing I’m doing in this sermon. I’m quoting from a website called The American Conservative. “[Butler] just pretty much won the Super Bowl for his team, yet he was not filled with customary exuberance, but with a sense of awe. I wanted to know more about what he meant. Was he talking about an episode of precognition? Of what did this vision consist? Where did it come from?”[3]

When a colleague shared this story a few days after the Super Bowl on Facebook, tongue in cheek, I suggested that maybe we should have spiritual directors on the sidelines of sporting events instead of reporters. Today’s scripture readings make me wonder if I might not have hit on a good idea.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of transition. Like almost all of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, Elijah focused on fighting idolatry and injustice. I think Elijah is most famous for a confrontation he had with the prophets of Baal during a drought. The story ends with the prophets of Baal slaughtered, Queen Jezebel ordering soldiers to pursue Elijah, and Elijah running off into the mountains for safety.

Today’s story is the fourth of the four major Elijah stories told in 1 and 2 Kings. As I said, this is a story of transition. The Elijah era is ending – prophets from around the country are aware of this – but the Elisha era hasn’t begun. In the story, we are entering an in-between time, and in-between times can be filled with uncertainty. God was clearly present in the prophetic ministry of Elijah, but when his ministry ends, will God still be present? If so, how?

Ancient icon of the Elijah and Elisha story.

Elisha, Elijah’s servant and student, wants to be as faithful as Elijah. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. I’ve always heard that as asking for a faith as strong as Elijah’s. Elijah’s response to this request is an enigmatic, “maybe, if you see this thing through to the end.” And then the end comes. As they’re walking along, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them, and Elijah’s ascends into heaven. Elisha watches Elijah disappear, and tears his clothes in an act of grief as his mentor disappears.

Some scholars claim that this story has no historical basis, that the story is a literary device only. They say that “[t]his story [is only] … aimed at binding together two great prophets of the past.”[4] I think the story has additional meaning and purpose.

Whether is happened or not, it raises some interesting points about profoundly spiritual experiences. Sometimes they can happen in the midst of deeply troubling events. Here, it was the disappearance of Elijah. The fact that he ascends into the heavens rather than dying becomes important much later. For now, the separation by the chariots and horses of fire can represent any sort of separation from a loved one any of us experiences. The implication of the story is that God can be at work in the midst of those separations, that God can be at work through our grief.

How we grow to be aware of how God is working, well that’s the second point I think this story raises. Listen to what happens next in the story:

“Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
“When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.”[5]

“Where is God?” Elisha cries out.[6] It is the company of prophets who are able to answer the question. It is the company of prophets who can help Elisha process the spiritual experience he has had. “God has gifted you with Elijah’s spirit.” Elijah benefited from a community to help him process what had happened spiritually. I hope Malcolm Butler has a community to help him process what happened to him at the Super Bowl.

Peter, James, and John could have benefited from a community to help them process the profound spiritual experience we heard about today, too. There’s a lot going on here, of course, and I think the context is important. Immediately before the passage we heard in Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say he is. Some people say that he is John the Baptist come back to life. Others say that he is Elijah, returned from the heavens. Others say he is a prophet.

Jesus asks them who they say he is. Peter says it clearly: You are the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ). Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone this. Then Jesus starts teaching about his death. It’s almost as if, upon hearing someone outside himself say that he is the Messiah, Jesus realizes what that means – that he’ll go to Jerusalem, challenge the principalities and powers, and be executed by the state.

Peter won’t have any of that. There is no way Jesus is going to be killed. So he raises an objection, which is met with a stern rejection: “Get behind me Satan.”

“The Transfiguration” by Rafael

The story continues. It’s six days later, and Jesus has Peter, James, and John join him on a retreat. There, while Jesus is in prayer, the disciples have a spiritual experience. Mark says they see Jesus transfigured and the two great prophets of Judaism standing with him. What do we do with this terrifying weirdness? Peter decides he has to say something, so he suggests that he build some tents, some booths, some sort of dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Then a cloud overshadows them, they enter into the darkness, and they hear the voice of God say words Jesus heard at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And God gives them some advice: “Listen to him.”

And as they’re coming down the mountain, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about what they experienced until after he has risen from the dead. Don’t talk about it, you guys.

I find it interesting that the story – not in this version nor in the versions in Matthew or Luke – does not say anything about what Jesus experienced. It just talks about what Peter, James, and John experienced. Perhaps Jesus never talked about it. After all, he’d asked the others not to talk about it, so why would he?

And maybe they followed his directions and didn’t talk about it until after the first Easter. Then, finally, they could start to process the experience with their friends. “We were up on a mountain, and Jesus started praying, and I swear he changed. Something happened. It was like all the law and the prophets were there along side him and he …

“And then we heard the voice of God. That’s what it had to be. It called Jesus ‘beloved son,’ and it said that we should listen to him.”

I don’t know what they would have said, but I suspect it would have been something like that. They would have talked about it and tried to make some sense of it.

We have a need to process our spiritual experiences. Maybe not always. Sometimes what’s happening and what God’s doing and what God’s saying can be crystal clear. But most of the time, we need to tell the story and in the telling we can understand what’s happening. And sometimes we need to be intentional about creating opportunities for God to act. It’s not like God isn’t always at work, but sometimes it’s helpful to intentionally create an opportunity in which we will have our eyes and ears and hearts open to God. Really, this is part of any spiritual discipline.

This Lent, a group of us are going to create these opportunities by performing what we’re calling “spiritual experiments.” We will meet this afternoon at 2:00 at the Masonic Home to get started and to hand out the books we’ll use. Throughout Lent, Pastor Brenda and I will preach a sermon series on themes coming out of the Lord’s Prayer. And the members of the group will undertake spiritual experiments during the weeks on those themes and gather again to process our experiences. The hope is that we’ll get a sense of what God’s doing in our lives.

Whether you participate in the small group or not, I hope you have or will create a group of people with whom you can process your spiritual experiences so that you can get a better sense of what God’s up to in your life. When you do this, I think you will discover ways to walk for faithfully in the way of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7rPIg7ZNQ8 (accessed 10 February 2015).

[2] Quoted from this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpzFYrNGK9s (accessed 4 February 2015).

[3] Rod Dreher, “Malcolm Butler’s Miraculous Vision,” The American Conservative, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/malcolm-butlers-miraculous-vision/ (posted 2 February 2015; accessed 4 February 2015).

[4] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed., p. 257). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[5] 2 Kings 2:13-15, NRSV.

[6] Elisha’s question, “Where is God?” is one that I frequently ask in spiritual direction: “Where (or how) did you experience God in that situation?”

The Rev. Dr. David Vasquez-Levy

The theme of this year’s Earl Lectures was Be|Art|Now.  The lectures also serve as a reunion of alumni and, this year, as the inauguration of the school’s twelfth president, the Rev. Dr. David Vasquez-Levy.  Participating in the inauguration meant missing two workshops; the preaching (the inauguration worship service had the equivalent of three sermons) made up for this loss.

The initial lecture was an introduction to religious iconography.  While we may think of icons as those hanging in Easter Orthodox churches and therefore made of certain materials in a certain style, it is the subject matter of the icon that is important, rather than the media used.  An interesting insight for me was learning that icons of Mary and the infant Jesus are about the incarnation, that Mary’s presence in these icons is a reminder that Jesus was a real human being, born of a real mother, not just an experience of the divine.  And AV system at 36600 will allow us to utilize this ancient art form for its classical purposes – formation, veneration, and prayer – via new media.

I was simply too exhausted to participate in the second lecture on “Encountering the Sacred with Movement and Reflection.”

Friday morning’s “lecture” was experiential, no doubt echoing themes from the previous night’s lecture.  We did simple movements in the pews, tried different way so of walking, and prayed in the ancient posture of having our hands raised.  The “lecture” began with a poem that was beautifully interpreted – vocally and with movement – by our lecturer.  This lecture left me wondering how we can integrate movement into worship.  After all, as Mary in the icons reminds us, our faith tradition is founded on the notion that God chose to take on flesh.  We seem to have lost the importance, the radical uniqueness of the incarnation, moving out of the majority of our bodies and having our faith reside in our heads.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have our faith fully integrated into our bodies?

The first workshop I attended on Friday introduced us to sacred songs of protest from many cultures.  The presenter comes from a church in a very diverse section of Seattle.  His Presbyterian congregation includes people of many ethnic backgrounds who speak many languages.  They made an effort to introduce into worship hymns in those languages and from their cultures/nations.  This had two effects:  It made the English as a second language speakers feel more welcome and integrated into the church; and, because so many of these hymns came from justice movements or were used by justice movements (think of the roll Spirituals played in the Civil Rights movement in the United States), it has influenced the congregation to be more involved in justice work.  Justice works is becoming part of their DNA.  This left me wondering how music can form and move our mission and how we could use music to become more multiracial and multicultural.

Bishop Yvette Flunder

Yvette Flunder, the presenter of the second workshop I attended on Friday, has been exploring how sensuality and sexuality have functioned (or dysfunctioned) in the African-American Pentecostal tradition (the tradition in which she was raised).  Pentecostal worship is over marked by emotionality and ecstatic experiences of the Holy Spirit.  These are embodied experiences; they are manifested physically; they are seen, felt, and heard.  In other words, they are sensual.  Yet the tradition sees sexuality as “of the flesh” and things “of the flesh” as non-spiritual.  And this tradition is typically condemnatory of homosexuality.  Yvette wonders how the sensuality and even sexuality of this ecstatic worship could be embraced, and if doing so could reduce sexual boundary violations, especially by clergy.

Translating her inquiry to my cultural context brought up a series of questions.  Where does the anti-emotionalism that I think is present in the Congregational tradition come from?  Do we not trust our emotions?  Do we not trust sensuality and sexuality?  Is there a racism present in our cerebral tradition (“we aren’t animalistic like those African-American Pentecostals are”)?  Is our anti-emotionalism also anti-incarnational?  Could we find a way to embrace our whole beings and worship with our whole beings, to love God with would whole heart, our whole mind, our whole soul, and our whole strength (body)?  How can we be sensuality-positive and sexuality-positive without being sensually and sexually inappropriate?

Michael Franti

Friday evening’s lecture was a concert and conversation with Michael Franti.  Michael was born to an Irish-German-French mother and an African American and American Indian father in Oakland, then adopted by a Finnish American couple who raised him along with their three biological children and another African American son. While studying at the University of San Francisco, Franti formed the punk band The Beatnigs, and later the far more hip hop-inflected The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. In the mid-Nineties, Franti first formed Spearhead, and increasingly in recent years, he’s found his own voice musically and his own organic brand of popular success.  You can check out some of his music here.  I think you will find fun and fun-loving music that fosters cooperation and partnership between people and nations.

We are about to have a wonderful venue for concerts.  Could hosting concerts by musicians who promote similar values to ours be a way to reach out across generations and to spread God’s promise of love and justice more fully in our community?

Saturday morning’s “lecture” was the one-man play Cops and Robbers, by Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira, a sharp look at the dysfunctional relationship between law enforcement, the media, and the Black community.  Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira is a rapper, actor, and screenwriter from Oakland, California.  He is one-third of Flipsyde, an alternative hip-hop band that has toured internationally.  After attending the first demonstrations after the killing of Oscar Grant, Ferreira had a revelation:  if the bad cops are removed from police forces, who will replace them?  In the spring of 2010, Piper paid his way through a Bay Area law enforcement academy, eventually graduating in the top percentile and delivering the commencement speech.  The paradox of being a member of the Black community and a hip-hop artist, while simultaneously working in Law Enforcement, served as the inspiration to write Cops and Robbers.  The play was followed by a panel discussion.  The play invites the viewer to reflect on violence, assumptions, police violence, and racism.  Our new sanctuary would be a great venue for this show and, if followed by discussion, would be great community outreach.  It is another example of how we might utilize the arts to further our mission.

Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 25, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: “Stanzas of the Soul” by John of the Cross and Psalm 42
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

You may think the annual Niles Flea Market is big, but every 500 years the church universal holds a rummage sale, and when that happens, watch out! You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[1] This is how Tickle explains it:

Phyllis Tickle

“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents. About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created. About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches. And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.

When these mighty upheavals have happened, Tickle says, “history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events. First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge”[2] – the monastic movement, the Roman Catholic church, the Protestant churches.

“Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.”[3] In other words, while a new movement is born, the old movement is (typically reluctantly) renewed.

Tickle also notes, “The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.  Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”[4]

While Tickle is particularly excited by this third result, it is the second result, the renewal of the existing movement, that most interests me for today’s sermon.

St. John of the Cross

The man we now know as John of the Cross was born in the midst of the 1500s, in the midst of the last rummage sale. He was born in 1542 in Spain to a father who had been disowned by his merchant-class father (John’s grandfather) because John’s father married for love rather than social status. Thus, John grew up in poverty, a poverty made worse when his father died. He joined the Carmelite order friars in 1563, taking on the name John of St. Matthias.

In 1567, he met Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun who was trying to reform her order of women religious. She encouraged John to do the same among the friars, a task he undertook. It was at this time, undertaking his mission, that John changed his religious name to John of the Cross. His mission to reform his order encountered both support and resistance. He was kidnapped twice and imprisoned, including spending nine months in the monastery prison in Toledo.[5]

In this quick sketch of John’s life we see what Tickle talks about. As the calcified institution that was the Roman Catholic church was dealing with the Protestant Reformation, a movement within Catholicism was trying to reform as well. Eventually, John’s efforts took root, for in the 1700s John was named a Saint and in the 1900s he was named a “Doctor of the Church.”[6] But initially, as Tickle points out is typical, his attempts at reformation were met with resistance.

His imprisonment in Toledo is key to our sermon today. This is how Barbara Brown Taylor describes it:

Barbara Brown Taylor

“When John refused to renounce his work with Teresa, he was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison, where he survived on little more than bread and water. He was not allowed to bathe or change his clothes. He was not permitted to leave his cell, except for the ‘circular discipline’ of being flogged by other monks.

“After two months, John was placed in solitary confinement, where the only light he saw came through a slit in his prison wall. It was there that he began to compose his greatest works – first by memorizing the words in the dark and later, thanks to a kind jailer, by writing them down. When he escaped after nine months, he fled to the south of Spain, where the reformed Carmelites were freer from persecution. There he continued to write down what he learned in the dark.”[7]

His most famous work is called, The Dark Night of the Soul. Most people who hear the title “assume that it is a memoir of a survivor describing the worst period of his life. Because we have been programed to equate “dark” with evil and sinister, we expect this work to tell us about “how awful it was but how John got through it by hanging on to his faith in God no matter what happened to him.”[8] But the work starts with the poem we heard read, and that poem sure sounds to me like a love poem.[9] And it is. For out of John’s time of hardship came a gift: a deep, passionate love of God. Not an understanding about God, but a deep, passionate love of God.

John starts with that love poem, and then goes on to expound on the poem – for 100 pages. And it’s not easy reading. So I have relied much more on what others have written about what John wrote.

Taylor explains the challenges: “In the first place, John does not have much to say about religion. His language is passionate and speaks directly to the senses. For him, the dark night is a love story, full of the painful joy of seeking the most elusive lover of all. In the second place, he is no help at all to anyone seeking a better grip on God. One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. In John’s native Spanish, his word for God is nada. God is no-thing. God is not a thing. And since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”[10]

The idea that God is nada is, at first, disturbing to me. God as no-thingness is awfully close to nothingness. And I tend to abhor a vacuum. Yet, somehow, the idea that God is nada seems also very accurate. When I started out my journey, I was carrying an image of God that was somehow a cross between an image Santa and an image of the Abraham Lincoln seated on the large chair, the throne of the Lincoln Memorial. And somewhere along the way, I let go of that baggage.

Other images have come and gone, and the one that I have left is perhaps more easy to describe by telling you want it isn’t than by telling you what it is. It isn’t a person; it isn’t a thing; it isn’t a being – or at least not a being separate from, or not a being only separate from, or … The one thing I know for sure is that my image isn’t complete.

“‘If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,’ Saint Augustine said in the fourth century. Sixteen hundred years later, the Northern Irish theologian Peter Rollins says the same thing with equal force. God is an event, he says, ‘not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.’”[11]

The dark night of the soul tends to come in the midst of crisis. Descriptions of the coming of the dark night have in common a sense of “the soul being tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control.”[12] When this crisis comes, it seems as if God is absent. If God is light, then God is gone. “There is no soft glowing space of safety in this dark night. There is no comforting sound coming out of it, reassuring the soul that all will be well.”[13]

For some people, when this dark night descends, it is really important to see a doctor. The dark night and a depression can seem very similar and can be easily confused. John “makes a distinction between tinieblas, the kind of darkness you would be wise to turn away from, and oscura, which simple means obscure, or difficult to see.… Like tinieblas, depression can take people apart without putting them back together again, while la noche oscura is for healing.… [W]hen depression passes, all is restored; when the dark night passes, all is transformed.”[14]

“God puts out our lights to keep us safe, John says, because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.”[15]

Perhaps you can see why I picked this particular quote for the thought for quiet reflection printed in your bulletin. A fuller version goes like this:

Minnie Louise Haskins

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
“And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
“So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”[16]

We started this series because both Pastor Brenda and I found Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, to be inspiring and because we thought that during this time when we are between buildings, we, as a church, are wandering. And for some, perhaps for many, this time may feel like we’re aren’t just wandering, but that we’re wandering in the dark. So, learning to walk in the dark seemed an apt task for this season.

This series has one more sermon that Pastor Brenda will offer in two weeks (we’ll both be on Study Leave next Sunday), so what I’m about to say isn’t the conclusion of the series. It’s only the conclusion of this sermon. That said, all of my sermons so far have been about finding some aspect of gift in the dark, about seeing not being able to see as a gift. That is certainly the case for the dark night of the soul – it is a gift. It is a gift that comes at great cost. One must wander through the valley of the shadow of the death of faith.

But that valley can be a teacher. It can teach us that everything we thought we knew, especially about God, isn’t … well, it’s not so much that everything we thought we knew about God is wrong, as it is completely incomplete. It is limited, and limiting. Therefore our faith is always incomplete, always limited, always limiting. And therefore, faith is really about the journey toward completeness, and not about completeness itself. The journey is the thing … or, perhaps, the no-thing.

“The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.”[17]

Amen.

[1] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2008/08/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 24 January 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Don Mullan, The Little Book of St. John of the Cross (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2003), 7-9.

[6] Ibid, 10.

[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 136-137.

[8] Ibid, 137.

[9] See page 16 of The Dark Night of the Soul at http://www.basilica.org/pages/ebooks/St.%20John%20of%20the%20Cross-Dark%20night%20of%20the%20soul.pdf.

[10] Taylor, 137-138.

[11] Ibid, 144.

[12] Ibid, 133-134.

[13] Ibid, 134.

[14] Ibid, 136.

[15] Ibid, 146-147.

[16] From Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows,” quoted from “The Gate of the Year,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gate_of_the_Year (accessed 24 January 2015).

[17] Taylor, 147.

by John of the Cross

On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest. 

In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.

In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

[copied from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night.vi.html]

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 18, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

John does tell a good story. I suppose one could reduce this story to three lines: Once upon a time there was a man who was born blind. Jesus saw him and said, “Here’s mud in your eye.” The man said, “Wow! So that’s what pizza looks like.” The end.

Well, four lines, with the “the end.” I prefer to think of this story as having three acts.

Act One: The Healing. Jesus and his disciples encounter this man born blind. The disciples see the man as an object. Let’s talk about him, not to him. “Who sinned,” they ask, “the man or his parents?” They think there has to be an explanation about this suffering.

Jesus says, wrong question. This is not about judgment; this is about compassion. This is an opportunity to express love. He sees the man and literally touches him. In his act, the man gains the ability to see.

Fr. Samuel Candler wrote: “What an amazing way to interpret human need or suffering! When Jesus sees someone in need, he does not use that person’s plight to develop a political or moral agenda. Jesus sees opportunity, a chance to recognize God’s work. God’s work is revealed, not in moral statement, but in an act of mercy, in an act which pays close attention to the need itself.”[1] And I would add, an act which pays close attention to the person herself or himself.

Act Two: Trouble at the Synagogue. Jesus isn’t part of this act; he and the disciples have walked off stage. In this act, the man who had just been blind gets into trouble. “Is this him, the man we knew who was born blind who we used to see begging?” They can’t believe their eyes – our first clue that this story is about blindness, but not of the man born blind.

The people want to know how it happened. He tells them. They want to know about this Jesus guy – who is he? The man replies that he doesn’t know. They call in the Pharisees. The Pharisees get all upset that this happened on the Sabbath. There’s renewed doubt about the healing being authentic. The parents are brought in (and they don’t want to get involved). Under continued questioning from the Pharisees, the man moves from saying, “a guy named Jesus did this,” to saying that Jesus is definitely “from God.” And for that testimony, he gets thrown out of the synagogue.

Act Three: The Return of Jesus. Jesus hears that the man has been thrown out of the synagogue and, like the shepherd seeking out the one lost sheep, he returns. He talks with the man and the man becomes a follower of Jesus.

Then we get to the tough part of the story. “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’
Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’”

It’s so easy for me to identify with the man born blind. I know I’m growing in my understanding. I know I’m growing in my relationship with God. I know I’m growing in my relationship with Jesus. The thing is, I want to be the blind man after he can see, but these final words of Jesus remind me that if I think I can see it all now, that means I’m being blind to something.

If I didn’t have other things to do, I could spend all day Saturday listening to KQED-FM. Without a doubt, my favorite show from Saturday’s line-up is “This American Life.” Yesterday’s episode was titled “Batman” and if you listen to podcasts, I recommend getting this one.[2] The show was about expectations and how our expectations of others shape how they perform. As a case in point, they investigated the impacts of sighted people’s expectations of blind people on those blind people. It turns out that the impact is real.

Daniel Kish

The program begins by introducing us to Daniel Kish, a man who had to have his eyes removed because of cancer at a very, very young age. As a toddler, he started quite naturally making clicking noises with his tongue and started listening to his clicking to “see.” He uses echolocation to navigate. It has allowed him to do things like ride a bike.

The part of the show that I think really relates to today’s sermon is how Daniel’s brain processes the echoes he creates. Lore Thaler, a German neuroscientist at Durham University in the United Kingdom studies vision in the brain, literally how the images we see are constructed. She knows a ton about the visual cortex.

She wondered what was happening in the visual cortex of someone who is blind and uses echolocation. So she brought Daniel and a few other people who can echolocate into her lab and she put microphones in their ears and made stereo recordings of them echolocating various objects. She had them echolocate things like a car, a lamppost, a salad bowl, and a salad bowl in motion (hanging from a fishing rod). Then she put her test subjects in fMRI machines and played back the recordings through stereo earphones and watched what happened in their brains. And she compared those readings to what happens in sighted people’s brains when they visually locate the same objects.

For decades neuroscientists have assumed that the visual cortex goes dark when you’re blind. Daniel’s was lighting up like a disco ball.

It turns out that there are all these different parts of the brain involved in vision. So there’s an area that’s specifically dedicated to processing motion, and that’s way over behind the ears. And then there are completely different areas for shape, for texture, for how bright something is. And in Daniel’s brain, many of these areas were lighting up. The color and brightness had no action. But motion, when he was echolocating the salad bowl in motion, the motion area behind the ears started pumping with blood flow. He was, in essence, “seeing” the movement of the salad bowl.

I thought about that old saying, “There are no so blinds as those who will not see.” It turns out that the saying is not from the Bible. It resembles Jeremiah 5:21, but it actually only goes back to 1713 and the “Works of Thomas Chalkley.”[3] Regardless of its origins, it just seems so apropos.

Daniel Kish is not just blind; he has no eyes. And yet, he sees.

Jacques Lusseyran

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor tells about Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman who was not born blind, but who became blind after a grade school fight. While most of the people around him thought his blindness was a total disaster, his parents did not. They kept him in the public school and his mother learned Braille with him. They never described him as “unfortunate.”

Soon after his accident, his father said, “Always tell us when you discover something.” “In this way, Lusseyran learned that he was not a poor blind boy but the discoverer of a new world, in which the light outside of him moved inside to show him things he might never have found any other way.… ‘The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,’ he wrote. ‘I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again it’s movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.

“‘This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.’”[4]

Lusseyran learned to “attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body.”[5]

One of the greatest discoveries he made “was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid, the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. When he was joyful and attentive, it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.

“In January 1944, the Nazis captured Lusseyran and shipped him to Buchenwald along with two thousand of his countrymen. Yet even there he learned how hate worked against him, not only darkening his world but making it smaller as well. When he let himself become consumed with anger, he started running into things, slamming into walls, and tripping over furniture. When he called himself back to attention, the space both inside and outside of him opened up so that he found his way and moved with ease again. The most valuable thing he learned was that no one could turn out the light inside him without his consent. Even when he lost track of it for a while, he knew where he could find it again.”[6]

It is so easy to interpret today’s scripture lesson as a teaching about spiritual blindness. Our story ends with Jesus saying, “I have come into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” How do we hear these words? As a threat? As a promise? As a hope?

At the very least, these words make me wonder if my seeing has made me blind – “by giving me confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learning how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot. I am not asking to become blind, but I have become a believer. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”[7]

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind by now I see.” That is one of the ways grace works – it finds us and give us sight. And I’ll sing those words with you in just a moment. But if I’m right, that there is a celestial brightness that has nothing to do with sight, we may need to add a verse. We may need to sing something like, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me. You lead me gently to the dark, and there your glory see.”

Amen.

[1] Samuel G. Candler, “There Was a Man Born Blind,” http://www.day1.net/?view=transcripts&tid=692 (accessed 1 March 2008).

[2] Or you can listen to it online at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/544/batman

[3] See http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/richard/abditorium/nonesoblind.htm (accessed 16 December 2014).

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 103-104.

[5] Ibid, 104.

[6] Ibid, 106-107.

[7] Ibid, 108.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 11, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Exodus 33:18-23 and Genesis 1:1-5
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s passage from Exodus is about the nature of God. When God called Moses at the burning bush, you may remember that Moses asked God what God’s name is. God’s answer was the cryptic, “I am who (or what) I am.” Well, what does that mean?

By the time we get to the point in the story that we heard today, Moses has been communicating quite frequently with God. Moses has spent plenty of time up in the dark cloud on the mountain that I spoke about last week. He has had conferences with God in the “Tent of Meeting.” Moses and God are pretty tight, or so it would seem.

Today’s passage takes place in the midst of one of those conferences. After working out some details about how they are going to move forward, Moses asks God, almost pleads with God, that he be allowed to behold God’s “presence.” This seems almost comical to me. Moses and God have been having these confabs on a regular basis, yet Moses doesn’t feel like he has really experienced the presence of God. So Moses pleads for this experience. It’s as if Moses has been asking these past 30 chapter one over-arching question: “Who are you, God?”

“I am who I am.” “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” These are not satisfying answers. Similarly, when Moses asks to see God’s face, the answer he receives is, “You may only see my back.” We’re told God does this to protect Moses. To see God face-to-face would be so overwhelming it would be fatal. So God protects Moses in the cleft of the rock and Moses only sees God’s back.

There is a metaphor in here that I think is powerful. Moses only sees God after the fact, after God has passed by. More often than not, we, too, become aware of God when we become aware of God’s graciousness. And like Moses, this usually happens after God passes by. “Were not our hearts burning within us,” the two on the Emmaus Road ask themselves after their experience of walking and breaking bread with the resurrected Christ.

Could it be that recognizing the presence of God in the moment would be so overwhelming that there is nothing left but awe? I don’t want people driving cars to suddenly behold the presence of God and forget that they are driving two tons of aluminum and steel down the highway. Just as someone failing to lower their beams on a dark country road can cause confusion, discomfort, even danger, we can be overwhelmed by too much light.

And there it is, my sermon in a sentence: we can be overwhelmed by too much light. I know when some of you read the printed sermon title, “Overwhelmed by Brilliance,” you figured I’d be talking about the how being intelligent can slow you down. But that’s not the brilliance I had in mind. This is about light and the importance of darkness.

When I lived in rural western Washington, wind storms or the occasional wet snow storm would often knock out the power. The longest I went without power was a week, but I lived in a subdivision, so I didn’t suffer the way my more rural neighbors did. I was on a public water system and I had hot water because that was gas. I just didn’t have heat because that was electric. I learned to put in contact lenses by candlelight and to shower in the dark that week.

One on the shorter power outages occurred early in the evening as I was watching TV. “Well,” I thought, “I can’t watch TV or go on the computer, and reading by candlelight is too difficult, so what should I do? I know! My vacuum cleaner has a headlight, so I can vacuum in the dark. Oh, that’s right. The electricity is out.” Like I said, this sermon is not about being overwhelmed by intelligence.

I live in a world where I assume that if I turn on the tap, clean water will come out, and if I flick the switch, the lights will come on. So when the power goes out, I’m often at a loss for what to do. Often, the only thing to do is go to bed. It turns out that this is a really good idea.

“Darkness turns out to be as essential to our physical well-being as light. We not only need plenty of darkness to sleep well; we also need it to be well. The circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping matches the natural cycle of day and night, which affects everything from our body chemistry to our relationships. When we tinker with it, we tinker with the well-being of ever creature whose pupils shrink when we turn on the lights.”[1]

According to Barbara Brown Taylor, “Every time we turn on the lights after dark, receptors in our eyes and skin send messages to our adrenal, pituitary, and pineal glands to stop what they are doing and get ready for the new day. Fluorescent lights and computer screens both flicker on and off at about 60-120 cycles a second, which is enough to fool your brain into thinking that the sun I coming up, but even the light from a cell phone charger or a glow-in-the-dark clock can cue your body that morning is underway. When that happens, your adrenal gland starts pumping more adrenaline into your bloodstream to handle the stress of an ordinary day. This tells your pituitary gland to back off on the human growth hormone your body uses to repair your muscles and bones at night. It also signals your pineal gland to stop making melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep, which it can only do in the dark. … Turning on your bedside lamp may help you get safely to the bathroom and back, but it will also upset your chemistry.”[2]

We know all this. And still, we light up the night. We work so hard to shrink the dark. And we do it not only to the detriment of our well-being, but also to the well-being of other species.

In the November 2008 issue of National Geographic Magazine, there is an article about light pollution. One of the pictures[3] accompanying the article is of a sheet surrounded by school children. The sheet is covered with the carcasses of birds collected over just three months in Toronto. During those three months, over 1,000 birds from 89 species died because of nighttime collisions with skyscrapers that had their lights on. Turning the lights off would not only save money on the electric bill, it would save birds’ lives.

Another picture in the article is of an endangered leatherback sea turtle shuffling toward the waves after laying and burying her eggs. Before electricity, the natural glow of the night sky off the water guided the turtles back to the sea. Now, beachfront development often leads them and their hatchlings off course, where they can be hit by cars or gobbled up by predators.

In her book that inspired this sermon series, Taylor tells of taking a daytime hike with her husband through the dunes of one of the barrier islands along the south Georgia coast.[4] They were surprised to come upon a huge loggerhead turtle. She had come ashore in the night to lay her eggs and instead of turning back to the ocean, she turned toward lights on the mainland.

“Judging from her tracks,” Taylor writes, “she had dragged herself through the sand until her flippers were buried and she could go no farther. We found her where she had given up, half cooked by the sun but still able to turn one eye up to look at us where we bent over her.”

They fetched a ranger who returned with a jeep and a chain. They flipped the turtle over, chained her up, and dragged her on her shell, back to the ocean. Flipping her right-side up, they waited for the waves to revive her. As she swam away, they hoped she would survive the ordeal and return next year to lay more eggs – and hopefully not be confused by the artificial lights at night.

So why do we do it? Why do we overwhelm ourselves with all this light? I think the answer is a four-letter “F” word: Fear. We think that the night would be a far more dangerous place without artificial light, if not in the country, certainly in the city. Except that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In her book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, Jane Brox points out that lights do not deter crime as much as their proponents hoped they would. “In the 1990s, Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation decided to increase the lighting in the city’s alleyways from 90 to 250 watts. When researchers measured the results a few months later, they found violent crime had increased by 14 percent, property crimes by 20 percent, and substance abuse violations by 51 percent. Of course there was more than one way to read those statistics. Were crimes really increasing, or did the lighting simply make it possible for more people to see and report them? Or were more people going out at night, lulled into a false sense of security by the new lights and therefore exercising less caution?”[5] Or did the criminals feel safer with the additional light, so they behaved more brazenly? Brox leaves us wondering if we are “hampered more by brilliance than our ancestors were by the dark.”[6]

Light is great, but if it chases away all the darkness, it is bad for us. And I don’t just mean physical light and physical darkness. Take a look at your bulletin cover. When our world glows in the dark like the first picture, we are unable to see the wonder of creation that is shown in the second picture. The problem is so bad that there is an international movement to open “Dark Sky Parks,” places where people can get away from the light pollution and see the beauty and wonder of the second picture.[7]

Psalm 8 is my favorite Psalm and it is a Psalm where the blessing of physical darkness and the blessing of spiritual darkness intersect. The Psalm writer was someone who clearly knew how to walk in the dark. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that your care for them?” Think for a moment about this songwriter. This person knew nothing about the big bang or the vastness of the universe. This person knew nothing about the existence of galaxies or that our earth is one, small, blue marble circling an average star out toward the edge of one of those galaxies. Yet this songwriter captures the awe I feel when I contemplate how small and insignificant I am in the vastness of this universe and the amazing reality that God cares about me nonetheless.

Like Moses, I’m in the dark when I try to explain who God is. And that’s a good thing, that’s a blessing. For if I know that I can’t know all who God is, if I know that I can’t behold the full presence of God, I am simply called to awe. I stand before God (or maybe it’s behind God) and wonder.

And when I think about grief – which I’ve been doing lately for a number of reasons – I see a blessing in the darkness. I’ve come to realize that there is no way around grief; we can only go through it. And it is by embracing that darkness that we find healing. Grief is hard in part because it requires walking in the dark. The unknown is hard because it requires walking in the dark. Yet it is only in the darkness that we can find our way. The brilliance of the light would overwhelm us.

Stumbling around the internet as I prepared for this sermon series, I came upon this poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Perhaps more appropriate for last Sunday when we remembered the Magi finding the infant Jesus, its imagery seems appropriate for today’s sermon, too. “To find the child”[8]

To find the child
one must see the star.
To see the star one must go into the darkness,
the pain, the fear, the emptiness,
the hidden weeping,
the heart’s dark wounds.
Only in the darkness
can the stars be seen.

To find the child
one must hear the angels.
To hear the angels
one must listen in silence and solitude,
in perfect speechlessness,
in attentive adoration to the Mystery.
Only in such stillness
are the angels heard.

To find the child
one must enter the stable.
To enter the stable
one must stoop,
decline all palaces, all safety,
all familiarity or fortification,
and settle into poverty.
Only in such humility
is the stable entered.

To find the child
one must see the birth.
To see the birth
one must be awakened
to the heart of all things
beating in one’s soul,
the light of God shining in one’s hands.
One must be willing to speak
alone with one’s eyes.
Only in awakening
will the birth be seen.

To find the child,
seek in the darkness,
lay your heart open,
and discover therein
light unconquered.

Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 61.

[2] Ibid, 69.

[3] See the picture gallery that accompanies “Light Pollution,” National Geographic, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/light-pollution/richardson-photography (posted November 2008; accessed 10 January 2015).

[4] Taylor, op. cit., 66-68.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] Ibid, 71.

[7] See, for instance, Jeff Kart, “New International Dark Sky Park opens in Michigan,” Treehugger, http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/new-international-dark-sky-park-opens-in-michigan-only-nine-others-in-the-world.html (posted 16 May 2011; accessed 10 January 2015).

[8] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “To find the child,” Unfolding light, http://unfoldinglight.net/?p=2713 (15 December 2014, accessed 29 December 2014).  I am unable in the blog to give the poem its proper layout.  Please see Steve’s blog to see it’s proper layout.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 4, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 22:1-13
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was looking for a new call over a decade ago, I interviewed with several churches on the east coast. I’m glad I ended up coming here for many reasons. One of the less impressive reasons in all honesty, is that I don’t feel compelled to wear a tie during the week. Heck, wearing jeans is okay. I think it’s a west coast phenomenon. Yes, there are “casual dress” churches back east, but that’s not the norm there. Here, in the Bay Area, casual dress seems to be the norm.

Perhaps some of our negative reaction to today’s second lesson, to the story of the underdressed wedding guest is rooted in this “casual norm.” “What did the king expect?! If you are going to go out into the streets and recruit guests at the last minute, how can you expect them to be wearing the right clothes? With all due respect, your highness, either give them time to go home and change or lower your standards. No one walks around in wedding robes, just in case they happen to be invited to a royal banquet.”[1]

This story is more allegory than parable. There’s a king who hosts a wedding banquet for his son. “Gee, who do you think that Son could be? Our second clue is the outrageousness of the plot. How many people do you know who murder the postal worker for delivering a wedding invitation? And how likely is it that a wedding banquet would stay warm while a king mobilized his troops, declared war, and burned a whole city to the ground? By the time all that had happened, the veal roast would be seriously overdone.”[2]

But, if we know the Jesus story, we can figure out what’s going on here. The prophets had invited the Jews to the wedding banquet that is the realm of God, and some of the prophets were met with violence. With the Jews not coming, the Gentiles were invited (in large part, thanks to the Apostle Paul). But these latecomers have no history with the God of Israel, so they don’t know how to act. And, in the end, if they don’t change into the appropriate attire, they get thrown “into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

That makes for a pretty scary king. And, since this is an allegory, it makes for a pretty scary God. If God is that mean, can you imagine how bad the monsters under the bed are?

I don’t remember being afraid of the dark, but I do remember insisting that my bedroom door be left open a crack so light from the hallway would come in. It’s not that I thought the darkness was filled with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And my bedroom didn’t have a closet for the monsters of my imagination to hide in. And under my bed was a piece of plywood on casters with roads laid out in black cloth tape for me to build a city on with Lego and Matchbox Cars – so there was no room for imagined monsters there, either. But somehow, for some reason, I was afraid of my room being completely dark.

I don’t understand it, because when I think back to the earliest experience of awe that I can remember, darkness is vital to it. I was lying on my back on the float out toward the middle of the lake at my family’s summer cabin, looking up at the sky, and really seeing for the first time the milky-ness of the Milky Way galaxy. Had the moon been out or the porch lights been on, the effect would have been lost. Only in the darkness could I see this amazing sight.

I’ve heard people say that their childhood cue to go home from playing with their friends was the streetlights coming on. My mother rang a dinner bell, but on summer nights when we didn’t have to get up for school the next day, I remember going outside to play with my friends after dinner – in the dark, or at least the relative dark of the suburbs. And yet, there certainly was a time when I was afraid of the dark. And I know I’m not the only one.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes of a Brit named James Bremner who was afraid of the dark as a child. “There was no reason for him to be afraid, he says now. He lived in a village in western Scotland where there were no wild animals or known criminals. But there were also no streetlights or porch lights in his village, which meant that once night fell, the darkness was absolute. Every evening after supper, it was his job to take the family’s empty milk bottles down to the bottom of the driveway so the milkman could swap them out next morning – a chore that put a major dent in his personal history of darkness. The drive was only about a hundred yards long, but from the house it disappeared into complete blackness almost at once. When James finally balled up the courage to walk into it – running was not an option with glass bottle in his arms – he lived for the moment when he could set them down and race back to the house. The darkness never stopped terrifying him. Ever single night it took all the courage he had.

“But while his fear of the dark may have been baseless, the bravery it drew out of him stayed with him for the rest of his life. ‘Courage,’ he writes now, ‘which is not more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous.’ Darkness, he says, fits that bill.”[3] For James, learning to walk in the dark taught him courage.

Taylor says that there are only about a hundred references to darkness in the Bible. My quick survey found about twice that number of direct references, but let’s not quibble. More important than the number is the verdict of those references, and it’s darn near unanimous: “darkness is bad news. In the first testament, light stand for life and darkness for death. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. Locusts darken the land. People grope in the dark without light, for the day of the Lord is darkness and not light. In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. ‘If thine eye be evil, they whole body shall be full of darkness,’ Matthew says in the King James Version.

“When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. Though he comes to those in darkness and the shadow of death, they love darkness more than light. On the day he dies, darkness descends on the land from noon until three. He has come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in him shall not remain in the darkness, but some people just cannot be helped.…”[4]

But if you look at the indirect references to darkness, you start to hear a different story. He’s not on a float on a lake in New Hampshire, but Abraham looks up at the stars when God tells him he will have descendants as numerous. God comes in the night to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in a dream of angels climbing up and down a ladder and he hears God promise to be with him as God’s promises are fulfilled. That’s not something that could have happened in the middle of the day. Later, Jacob wrestles with an angel in the darkness of the night. And his son Joseph has dreams in the darkness that give him confidence, get him into trouble with his brothers, and lead him to an important position in Pharaoh’s court.

“The exodus from Egypt happens at night; God parts the Red Sea at night; manna falls from the sky in the wilderness at night – and that’s just the beginning.”[5] At Mount Sinai, Moses ascends into a cloud of think darkness. Ascending into the darkness, Moses ascends into the presence of God.

I usually think of the presence of God as being brilliance, but here, God is present in the darkness, a darkness that has nothing to do with the time of day. “It has nothing to do with the position of the planets in the sky or the rods and cones in people’s eyes. It is an entirely unnatural darkness – both dangerous and divine – that contains the presence of God before whom there are no others. It is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say ‘dark’ that it has its own word in the Bible: araphel, reserved for God’s exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God’s glory does. Both are signs of God’s mercy, since ordinary human beings are not equipped to survive direct contact with the divine, in the dark or in the light.”[6]

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we read in Proverbs 9:10 (and Proverbs 1:7 and Psalm 11:10 and Job 28:28). The admonition to fear God is scattered throughout both testaments of the Bible and faithful role models are extolled for fearing God. Some scholars say that the Greek and Hebrew words that get translated “fear” are typically closer to “be in awe of” or “wonder” or “amazement” than they are “be anxious about.”[7] That may be accurate, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe a little anxiety about entering the overwhelming divine presence isn’t a good thing.

Of all the names for God, “Great Mystery” is one of my favorites. God is love, yes, and God is grace-giver. And God is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a terrible and fascinating mystery.

In the 300s, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Moses’s vision began with light. Afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.”[8] Gregory goes on to say that if we wish to draw near to God, we should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.[9]

God in the darkness. This is a new idea for me, and a surprisingly comforting one. I’m not sure why yet, but I find it comforting. Perhaps it has something to do with the possibility that when things seem their darkest in my life, I may actually be closest to God?

So is God really as mean as the king in our lesson from Matthew 22? “Some scholars say that wedding hosts provided garments for their guests in those days, the same way some fancy restaurants keep a spare jacket and tie on hand for dinner guests who show up in shirt sleeves. If that was the case, then the spotlight shifts from the king to the guest. Why did he refuse the robe that was offered him? What made him think he could come as he was to such an auspicious feast without being noticed?”[10]

We celebrate a little foretaste of the wedding banquet God has in store for us when we come to the communion table. And we say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. In other words, we say come as you are. But the implication of this story is that we shouldn’t stay as we are. If we’re going to come to the wedding banquet, we need to be willing to change. Changing into the wedding robe is just a symbol of this.

Come to the feast in denim or silk – that doesn’t matter. But come to the feast with some fear – both in the sense of awe at the great mystery of God and in the sense of some anxiety about mystery of God. For God wants to change you. God wants to draw you in even more deeply, to clothe you with love and justice and forgiveness and loving kindness and peace. And won’t we all look fabulous if we put that on?

Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Wedding Dress,” Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 192-193.

[2] Ibid, 193.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 36-37.

[4] Ibid, 43-44.

[5] Ibid, 45.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Marcus Borg, Convictions (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 211.

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, quoted by Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark, op. cit., 48.

[9] Taylor, Learning to Walk …, 48.

[10] Taylor, Home By Another Way, 193.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

The thing that amazes me the most is when people from small countries and countries where English isn’t the first language and countries where Christians aren’t a majority read my blog. I appreciate all my readers – from Fremont, California, and from everywhere around the globe.  Thanks for reading Jeff’s Jottings.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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