A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 8:34-36 and Matthew 6:24-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I told her that I wished there was some way for me to make her pain go away, that I wished there was a magical way I could make her problems disappear. “Oh, we all have our crosses to bear,” she said. “No,” I thought. “We all have problems and pains in our lives, but they are not our crosses. At least not the way Jesus meant it when he says, ‘Take up your cross.’” I didn’t say it aloud; it wasn’t the moment for a theological discussion. But this is.

It may sound like a command – take up your cross – but it’s really an invitation. We don’t have to do it. We have the choice.

It reminds me of a conversation I read about once. A man was part of a Christian group that was adopting a life of simplicity in order to live in solidarity with the poor. A poor woman said to him that there was nothing holy about being poor if you didn’t have a choice.

There was nothing holy about the Romans torturing people in Jesus’ day and there’s nothing holy about a government – ours or any other – or any group of thugs torturing people today. Choosing to take up a cross is very different from having a cross thrust upon you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There’s a letting go of something here in order to pick something else up. And this denying of oneself is the letting go – and I think it means the letting go of ego.

Here again, one has to have enough of an ego that there’s one there to let go of. A person living in an abusive situation needs to have enough of an ego to stop it – to move out, to refuse to tolerate it – and live with that strength long enough to have it established before he or she can lay it down.

Denying oneself and taking up the cross is about choosing obedience to God’s way and God’s will. We’ll get back to this idea in a minute. Let’s turn now to the Matthew reading.

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. I’ve never been a slave and I live in a culture were slavery is technically illegal. I acknowledge that slavery exists still, even right here in the United States. We call it human trafficking now, but it’s the same thing, just packaged differently. One way it’s packaged differently is that contemporary slavery is kept under wraps, kept hidden away. Because I’m not exposed to slavery, I have to use my imagination to really understand what Jesus is saying.

Household authority was very established in Jesus day. There was a definite pecking order and the final authority was the man of the house. If you were a slave, you might be ordered about by the woman of the house, but those orders couldn’t contradict an order given by the man of the house. You had one master. If you had two masters of equal authority, whose orders are you supposed to follow? Jesus’ point here is that if you’re going to let God be the master of your life, you can’t let something else be.

It’s interesting that of all the potential masters Jesus could have picked, he picks wealth. “You can’t serve God and wealth,” he says. I tried to think of other masters we might choose to serve. I came up pretty dry. The only two additional masters I could come up with are fame and power.

We do love our celebrities and I suspect there are people who will do whatever is necessary to be seen as a celebrity, to serve fame. The master I understand better is power. We call the work of politicians “public service,” and I’m sure there are people who go into politics for the sake of public service. There are plenty of others who go into it for the power. And it’s not the only place where people serve power.

Consider the Koch brothers. David and Charles Koch have a combined net worth of about $86 billion (with a “b”) according the Forbes’ real-time net worth website this morning.[1] That makes them tied for position 6 of the richest people in the world. The two big differences between the Koch brothers and Bill Gates (#1 in the world with a net worth that is nearly the combined wealth of the Kochs) – at least as far as I can see – is that Gates is using his wealth to make the lives of people around the world better. For instance, Gates’ foundation is trying to eradicate polio and malaria around the globe and has agriculture projects running in developing countries.

Meanwhile, in addition to their charitable donations that probably add up to the hundreds of millions each year, the Koch brothers have announced they plan to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections.[2] Why do they plan to spend that much money? Either they’re serving the master named “Power” or they are trying to influence the political process in the service of the master named “Wealth.”

We don’t need to have Gates’ net worth, or even the Kochs’, to serve wealth. All we need to do is to choose to let it be our master. And Jesus points to why we may choose to let wealth be our master: worry. No one wants to be kept up all night worrying about – well, whatever it is that you worry about. So we start serving a master that we think will conquer our fears.

At Women’s Fellowship this past Monday, I asked what we worry about. I wrote a few notes, but I didn’t capture all their answers. I remember them talking about their children and grandchildren – worrying about how their lives are going and how they will unfold. Other worries include: being good enough, security, not being able to keep my mouth shut, being needy, being embarrassed, growing old alone. Someone wondered if the day laborers who hang out at the Home Depot worry about getting their daily bread. Several people mentioned how worry disrupts sleep patterns.

We have all these worries. How do we respond? One participant noted that she might accumulate stuff in an effort to stave off her worry. Perhaps it is a symptom of serving wealth. Or perhaps Stuff can become another master we choose to serve. Another wondered if the stuff she saves is treasure or trash.

“Worry is the interest we pay on borrowed trouble,” Bessie Troyer once said. Not that any of you know who Bessie Troyer was. She was a little old lady (and I use that label with affection) at the first church I served. Coming of age during the depression, she had no interest in paying interest on anything. She was a cash and carry kind of lady. And she figured that the things she worried about were almost always borrowed – typically borrowed from the future. Whether it was the grandkids possibly getting in a car accident or her possibly needing to give up driving, those things were off in the future (if they were going to happen at all). So why borrow those troubles from the future only to pay interest on them now?

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” Jesus says. Right after telling us we can’t serve God and wealth, he says not to worry about material things.

I’ve got a question about this glass. I could ask you if it’s half full or half empty. And maybe that would give you some insight into how much you worry. What I want to ask you is, how much do you think it weighs?

I put it on a letter scale this morning and it came in right around 12 ounces. But when it comes to holding it, the weight really becomes cumulative. The longer I hold it the heavier it seems to become. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for a minute, I’m fine. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for an hour, my arm’s going to be screaming. And if I held it out here all day, I’d probably end up causing paralysis and doing some damage to my body. The mass of the glass doesn’t change, but it sure becomes heavier.

Our worries are like that. The longer we hold on to them, the heavier they become and the more damage they do. They can even paralyze us. Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says. Put the glass down.

One of the really cool insights from that Bible study, for me at least, was the difference between stewing and striving. I worry about climate change. I don’t think that’s news to anybody. Now, I can stew about climate change. I can wring my hands about how access to water and food will be disrupted with climates changing. I can be anxious about the coming famines. I can stress about the coming mass migrations of peoples, and even wars because climate change.

Or I can do something. I can strive. I can act to combat climate change in my personal habits. I can send letters to the politicians. I can attend demonstrations. I can work on getting institutions I’m connected to to divest from fossil fuels. I can even put my body on the line and face arrest in acts of civil disobedience. There are things I can do.

I can stew about climate change, or I can strive to address the problem.

Don’t worry, Jesus says, but strive first for the kin-dom of God and God’s righteousness.

M.K. Gandhi

At some point in his life, Gandhi identified what he called “the seven deadly social sins.” You know about the classical seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Those are sins we individually commit. And they get in the way of striving for the kin-dom of God. There are corporate sins that get in the way, too. Here’s Gandhi’s list:[3]

  • Politics without principle
  • Wealth without work
  • Commerce without morality
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Education without character
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice

I am struck by how many of these connect to what I’m talking about. Politics without principle is another way of talking about serving power. Wealth without work and commerce without morality are other ways of talk about serving wealth. Pleasure – maybe that’s another master we can choose to serve, and if we seek pleasure without conscience, surely we are serving it and not God. Worship without sacrifice …

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I started today’s sermon by talking about externally imposed suffering not being the same as taking up the cross. That doesn’t mean that when we take up the cross we won’t suffer. We will. When we lay aside our egos and take up the cross, we are taking up sacrifice. Striving for the kin-dom of God requires sacrifice, and we may suffer for the sacrifice. What that sacrifice will look like will vary from person to person, but we will need to sacrifice.

And this is where today’s sermon theme comes in. Denying ourselves and picking up our cross gives us freedom and peace. On the surface that makes no sense. Taking up the cross, choosing to serve God sounds like it would require giving up freedom and letting go of the goal of peace in our lives. But denying ourselves and picking up our cross does paradoxically give us freedom and peace – freedom from the worries of the world, freedom from the pursuit of wealth, freedom from the lure of temptation, freedom for the pursuit of the kin-dom of God.

This is the last sermon in this Lenten series and we’ve been giving you assignments each week. Here’s this week’s assignment.

  • Identify one (at least one) worry and put it down.
  • Identify one way (maybe in relation to that worry) that you can strive for the kin-dom of God, and start striving.

Yes, this striving will likely entail sacrifice. I am convinced that in that sacrifice we will find freedom and peace.


[1] See http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/ for Forbes’ list of world billioinaires.

[2] Nicholas Confessore, “Koch Brothers’ Budget for $889 Million for 2016 is on Par With Both Political Parties’ Spending,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/politics/kochs-plan-to-spend-900-million-on-2016-campaign.html?_r=0 (posted 26 January 2015; accessed 22 March 2015).

[3] I have seen this list in several places. This version is from an advertisement for a poster in Sojourners magazine. You can find the list on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Social_Sins. It is interesting to note that here, they are in a different order and rather than “education without character,” they list “knowledge without character.”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, march 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 13:1-17 and Matthew 18:21-22
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There were times in my childhood when I was enough taller than the other kids in my neighborhood that it made a difference. This was especially true when we played hide and seek or kick the can. I was tall enough to be able to jump up and grab a branch in the pine by the Stuarts’ barn and pull my up into the tree and climb until I was above the roofs of the 19th century colonials at that end of the street.

This was a great hiding place and a horrible hiding place. It was a great hiding place because no one could find me. It was a horrible hiding place because no one could find me. If you’ve ever played hide and seek with a four-year-old, you know that the only thing they like more than hiding is being found.

I think that’s true of all of us. We spend lots of time and energy hiding. We’ve done it since adolescence or earlier. We create façades to hide behind, masks to present an acceptable self to the world. All the while, our deepest desire is to be found, for someone to look behind the façade, to lift up the mask and find us. We long to be fully known.

It is also one of our deepest fears. It is a fear because there is a part of us that thinks if people really knew us, they would reject us. We don’t just long to be found and known. We long to be found and known and accepted.

I suspect the main reason we form communities is biological. Our species needed clans and tribes to survive. So, natural selection formed us into a species that seeks community. Still, there is another reason, I think, that we seek community: our desire to be found, to be fully known, and still to belong.

I know there are friends, and then there are friends. You know what I mean? There are the people you connect with and then here are the people you really connect with. There are the people you know you can call if it’s before 9:00 in the evening and then there are the people you know you can call in the middle of the night and who know they can call you in the middle of the night – no matter what.

I think it’s like that with community. The deeper the sense of community, the more deeply we reveal who we really are. The deeper the sense of community, the more we bring out the best and the worst to our relationships with each other. The deeper the sense of community, the deeper our sense of belonging, and, therefore, the more vulnerable we are to deep wounding.

Communities that gather around Jesus have a hope that other communities don’t. We have a model in Jesus. We have a promise from Jesus that his revolutionary way of love can transform our relationships at every level. As Mark Scandrette points out, “The vision of belonging that Jesus embodied and taught calls us to a love that is far more ruthless and tender than seems humanly possible. It is a kind of love that can empower you to treat your worst enemy as your dearest friend and to keep hanging on, forgiving, believing and hoping against hope for love to win. An apprentice of Jesus learns to love as God loves.”[1]

We see how Jesus embodied and taught this in our reading from John’s gospel. Jesus is with his disciples, sharing a meal. John tells us that Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. He knows that the other disciple will soon deny him and abandon him. And Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and puts a towel around his waist. Their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord is now dressed as a servant, a slave. And he kneels and washes their feet.

Peter (Rocky) resists. You’re doing it wrong Jesus. You shouldn’t wash my feet. Okay, okay, but if you wash my feet, then wash all of me; make me clean. I’m so grateful Peter was a disciple because, listening to the man himself kneeling at his feet, Peter still doesn’t get it. If Jesus can call him a disciple, than maybe Jesus will call me a disciple, too.

What do you think it was like for the disciples to have their rabbi wash their feet? What do you think it was like for Judas to have Jesus wash his feet? What do you think it was like for Jesus to kneel at his disciples’ feet and wash them? Especially Judas’ feet – what was it like for Jesus to take the towel from his waist and dry Judas’ toes?

The gospel writer says that this was an act of love. Jesus had loved his disciples, and here, right up to the end, he was loving them still. And so he washed their feet. One of the things that amazes me about Jesus is his ability to love everyone. Loving the people who loved him – that was easy. But loving the people who hated him? Loving the Romans who were going to kill him? Loving a trusted friend, part of his truly intimate community, who was planning to betray him – perhaps that’s the most amazing of all.

Betrayal cuts deeply, hurts deeply. I’ve experienced hurts in my life. People have done things that hurt me physically, emotionally, even spiritually, but I’ve healed from those hurts. However, when I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m still carrying one wounding I haven’t fully forgiven. A close and trusted friend betrayed me.

That’s probably not fair. My friend made a series of choices that she thought were for the best and I experienced them as betrayal. And I still hurt from that. And I’m still angry at her. Because I’m withholding forgiveness. And there’s no way she and I can return to a sense of community with her until I forgive. It amazes me that Jesus could wash Judas’ feet. He must have forgiven him even before he was betrayed.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a “brother” who sins against him. The word, “brother” is translated “member of the church” in the NRSV, and not just to use gender-neutral language. The Greek word can mean both a male sibling and a member of a believing community. In context, Peter isn’t just asking about forgiving anyone who sins against him and he’s not asking about forgiving his brother Andrew in particular. Peter is asking about forgiving a member of the community. Peter thinks that forgiving as many as seven times shows patience and love.

But Jesus’ response is to forgive seventy-seven times. In other words, don’t bother counting: forgive. If you want to keep the community together, you’ve got to forgive.

I think it’s important to remember what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not denying our hurt. It’s not resigned martyrdom. It’s not putting another person “on probation.” It’s not excusing an unjust behavior. It’s not forgetting. Forgiveness is – well, consider this definition: Forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and our desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned.

Consider the consequences of this understanding of forgiveness.[2] Forgiveness means giving up the right to retaliate. It means being willing to allow something that happened to have happened the way it actually happened. It means that it is possible to forgive anything, that forgiveness is a matter of the will, and that we always have that option. It also means that forgiveness is never dependent on what the other person does or does not do. It is always under our control.

“Anger has been called a judicial emotion – a reaction to injustice.… [W]hen we experience any form of injustice, most of us react with a clenched fist, a closed heart, and a sense of resentment. These reactions are a natural effort to defend ourselves emotionally against further injury. And it works, in the short run. Like a scab, it protects the tender wound from infection, but if the scab stays too long, the wound never heals.”[3] Forgiveness is how we do the healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in our heart.”[4] Pastor Brenda shared another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that speaks to how we find that compassion and do the forgiving. “Someone who is angry [and in that anger hurts you] is someone who doesn’t know how to handle their suffering. They are the first victim of their suffering, and you are actually the second victim. Once we can see this, compassion is born in our heart and [your responsive] anger evaporates. We don’t want to punish them any more, but instead we want to say something or do something to help them suffer less.”

The themes for our Lenten sermon series have come out of various lines from the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s line also speaks to forgiveness. In this church, we typically pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A better translation is actually, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[5] “Have forgiven” – an assumption that we have already forgiven before we approach God seeking forgiveness. Suddenly, in order to be forgiven by God, we need to forgive others first.

On the surface, I’ve got to tell you, it sure make God seem kind of snotty to me. But consider this: “If we remain unwilling to forgive those who wound us, how can God set us free from the knot of a twisted relationship? God wants more than anything to free us … to give us a way out of our impenetrable morass of sin. But if we refuse to pass the gift of grace along to those in our debt, we prevent the grace of God’s forgiveness from entering our own lives fully.… [I]t is not that God, in ornery fashion, is bent on punishing our hard hearts. It is simply that an unforgiving heart of itself blocks the mystery of divine grace. It cannot freely receive what God freely gives.”[6] So don’t forgive just seven times, but seventy-seven times, for when done authentically and in its own time, forgiveness makes the future possible.

Remember, I said that forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. On the surface, that seems to be about the other person, but it’s also equally about us. When I forgive, I’m choosing to let go of my righteous anger and my need for revenge and judgment. That’s why I can forgive someone without talking to them. That’s why I can forgive someone who is dead. Because forgiveness is a conscious choice of letting go.

There’s an old story[7] about a father and son who had a major fight. The son ran away, and after a time, when the father cooled down, he set off to find his son. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a newspaper (I said it’s an old story). The ad read: “Dear John, meet me in front of the fountain in the park at the center of town at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.”

On Saturday 300 men named John stood around the fountain, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

Pastor Brenda and I have been giving you homework during this sermon series. Here’s this week’s assignment. Identify a place in your life where community is suffering because of a hurt or an anger you are holding on to and take at least one concrete step toward the conscious choice of forgiveness, the conscious choice of letting go, so a future is possible.


[1] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 151.

[2] These consequences were shared with me years ago by a colleague who told me they were from For Everything There Is a Season © 1988 by Upper Room Books; I don’t have more information than that.

[3] Dan Gottlieb, “Forgiveness is hard but it lets you heal,” Inside Out, quoted by Mark T. English years ago in note #5126 in the ecunet.org meeting “Bottom Drawer.”

[4] “Compassion, the antidote,” Sojourners, Vol. 36, No. 2 (February 2007): 30.

[5] This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the passage in Matthew’s gospel.

[6] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, VII, 2 (March/April 1992), 23.

[7] I’ve heard or read a version of this story many times over the years. I have no idea what the original source of the story is.

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on Georgia’s death row, was postponed again Monday night. In 1998, Gissendaner was convicted of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband. Her lover committed the actual murder and, agreeing to testify against Gissendaner, received a life sentence. Gissendaner received a death sentence for her part in the conspiracy.

During her years in prison, Gissendaner’s life has been transformed. She has attended and graduated from an in-prison seminary program. Other inmates say that she has become a spiritual counselor for them.

As Gissendaner’s appeals ran out, her case garnered the attention of many people in the Christian community. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, signed petitions calling for her sentence to be commuted. Clemency was denied a week or two ago and Gissendaner’s execution approached. Twice, she has come within hours of being executed, most recently on March 2 because the single drug that Georgia planned to use to execute her was “cloudy.”

This case raises questions about whether or not reform is possible for murderers, and therefore if executing them denies society the benefit of a reformed person.  It raises questions about executing someone who has changed and if we would still be executing the person who committed the crime.  It raises questions about the cruelty of our execution process, bringing someone so close to execution and then delaying it.  And finally, as it pointed out in this blog post, it raises questions about white privilege and Christian privilege.

You can read more about her case and the decision to postpone her execution at http://www.11alive.com/story/news/local/2015/03/02/kelly-gissendaner-execution/24255189/ and http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/lethal-injection/kelly-gissendaner-recorded-last-message-execution-was-postponed-n318751.

You can read more about the Christian Community’s efforts to get her sentence commuted at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/march-web-only/let-kelly-gissendaner-live.html and http://www.gwinnettdailypost.com/news/2015/mar/01/faith-leaders-friends-family-gather-for-vigil-in/,

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

OurFather_white_part2Welcome to part 2 of our five-part sermon series focusing on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we focused on identity. Today, we focus on purpose. This theme comes out of the line, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Though this line is directed to God and could be heard and said as a request for God to act, I hear it as a call to action. It is a statement of desire – for the establishment of the realm of justice and peace and enough and love here on earth. If I thought it was all up to God to make happen, I’d pray for it differently: “Establish your kin-dom here and now” (and maybe I’d add “please”). But as a statement of hope and desire, I hear it calling me to action, to be about the work of establishing that kin-dom.

There are plenty of scriptures one could look to to help understand one’s purpose. We heard two today and I can think of plenty more. There’s Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission we heard last week. There’s the passage from Isaiah that Luke tells us Jesus read when he first preached. There’s the hymn Luke tells us Mary sang during her pregnancy. There’s a passage from Matthew called “the Great Commission.” There’s a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the Great Commandments. And that’s a list I came up with in a matter of minutes, so I’m sure there are more. But let’s take a few minutes to look at a few that I just mentioned. We’ll start with the scriptures we heard today.

Our Micah reading is the beginning of the summation of the book. In the previous five chapters, Micah has been prophesying the destruction of Judah and Samaria as a punishment for the really lousy job the leaders have been doing. They have been unjust. They have followed false prophets. It’s a real mess. Micah also offers a word of hope, that a righteous remnant will survive and, one day, Jerusalem will be restored.

Micah 6 starts off with a summons – a legal summons to court. God, the prosecutor and judge, is going to make a case against the people. But when God starts talking, God doesn’t accuse; God pleads with the people: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?” Then God goes on to list all the ways God has saved the people, from the Exodus on up to today. God is not likely to get a conviction. But that isn’t what God is after.

The people respond: “With what shall I come before Yahweh and bow myself before God on high?” And they list all these offerings – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, their firstborn children – they could bring.

And Micah reminds them of what God really wants. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There’s the beginnings of a mission statement. There’s a foundation for a purpose in life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about the challenges and hopes of living as disciples of Jesus. He writes about having confidence in his walk with Jesus, knowing that he will (as we all will) eventually “appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” That is his motivation to persuade people to follow Jesus. And we get to today’s reading, where Paul says that being “in Christ” makes one a “new creation.” I hear this as transformation, that following Jesus changes who we are.

Paul would say that the change (at least that part of the change) is that we are reconciled with God. In fact, Paul says reconciliation was the big thing God was doing in Christ. And he goes on to say that this ministry of reconciliation is now ours. And that is another way for Christians to understand their purpose.

Micah says that our purpose is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Paul says our purpose is about bringing people into right relationship with God (with some part of that being a concern about the life that’s after this one). So, is our purpose more concerned about this world or the next one? Maybe we should look at what Jesus had to say. Let’s look at two passages from the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew 22, Jesus is questioned by a lawyer. What’s the greatest commandment? Matthew presents this questioning as a orthodoxy test. For some reason, the questioners think Jesus won’t tow the party line. Jesus answers by reciting the beginning of the Shema, the prayer Jews say at the beginning and end of each day. Love God, he tells them, with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Then Jesus says there’s a second commandment that is also important: to love your neighbor as yourself.

There are plenty of Christians who hear in this Great Commandment their purpose: to help people grow in their love of God, neighbor, and self.

Just six chapters later, but after some very important events, Matthew quotes Jesus saying something else that some Christians look to to find their purpose. The important things that happen between Matthew 22 and 28 are an arrest, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. So, chapter 28 is the end of Matthew’s gospel, and, in fact, this is how Matthew ends that final chapter. The resurrected Christ is speaking to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This is called the Great Commission, and plenty of Christians hear a mandate to recruit, to make disciples, to get people to change whatever it is that they believe and start believing in Jesus.

Great Commandment Christians and Great Commission Christians see their purpose very differently. Just as Micah seems more interested in the here and now than Paul, Great Commandment Christians are more interested in the here and now than Great Commission Christians. This can cause real rifts.

The church where I did my internship went through a split in the months before I got there. The split was over power, as church conflicts almost always are. The groups that were in competition for power aligned themselves into groups that I would now recognize as the Commission Camp and the Commandment Camp. And when one group grabbed leadership and power, the other group left. What I find ironic in all this is that neither groups took seriously the mission of the church that Paul identifies, the ministry of reconciliation.

I realize that all of this has been very theoretical – biblical, yes, but theoretical – and you might be wondering, “So what?” Consider this.

When I was a kid, an advertising campaign focused (if you’ll pardon the pun) on capturing your life’s “Kodak moments.” Some of you will remember it. After all, “Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It commanded an 89 percent market share of photographic film sales in the United States.”[1] In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. What happened?

On the surface, one could say that Kodak was a “casualty in the wake of digital photography – a technology that Kodak invented. That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975. He later said, ‘But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, “That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it.”’ And the company entered into decades of agonizing decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing digital revolution.”[2] In other words, they didn’t keep pace with changing culture, particularly the digital revolution.

Kodak also feared losing what they had. They had this huge market share in the film market and they were afraid that if digital worked, they’d lose their lucrative film sales. Oops. Others pursued digital photography and Kodak lost their film business anyway.

I think the real issue was that Kodak lost track of their mission. They lost track of their purpose. Kodak thought they were in the film business. They weren’t. Maybe they were in the imaging business. But I think more accurately, they were in the memory keeping business. That’s what their “Kodak moment” campaign was all about. They told people not to miss capturing their important memories.

The exact same thing can happen to a congregation and to an individual Christian. Ben Guess, an Executive Minister in the United Church of Christ, shared a story this week about a church he once served. A member wanted to enlist the whole congregation in selling pre-paid phone cards in order to raise money for the church. Ben describes how it would work this way:

“A certain percentage of each card sold would come back to the church. ‘Ten percent,’ implying a tithe, so the whole transaction would be very ‘biblical.’ Another percentage, of course, would go to her, and to me and others, too, if we would get in on the ground floor. She was just sure this pyramiding scheme would provide the church with all the cash it would ever need and, on top of that, we would all be getting very rich.

“To her great dismay, I told her I was not interested. Because, apart from the fuzzy math and the serious ethical considerations – not to mention the obvious IRS investigation she would be inviting upon us – it was also a complete distraction from the core mission of the church,… Anything that takes our attention wholesale away from that focus is a hindrance, not a help, to the church and its people.”[3]

Now, I skipped over part of a sentence in Ben’s email. Ben says what he thinks the core mission of the church is. I skipped it because, as Ben goes on to say, “Sometimes collectively as the church, not just in our personal lives, we need to stop and clarify the purpose behind what we’re doing.”[4] I just think this work should be done free from preconceived notions of what the answer is.

The work is important because it keeps us focused. Ben offers an interesting comparison: “Just as distracted driving can lead us into a ditch, or much worse, distracted discipleship can lead us into dangerous territory, too. We can become so busy and preoccupied with saving the institution of the church that what it’s supposed to be about becomes almost impossible for us, much less outsiders, to distinguish. It’s why the prayer of the church has always been ‘Give us ears to hear, and eyes to see,’ because without that clarity in mission – why, and for what purpose we exist – sure enough, we will find ourselves listening for and looking after the wrong things.”[5]

We, as a community, are about to make a shift. In two weeks (provided there aren’t any unforeseen roadblocks), we will begin our life together in a new facility. I know there is a shorthand that gets used to refer to these sorts of buildings. They get called “the church” even though they’re only a building. The church, as we know, is the people, the gathered community. The building cannot carry out the mission of the church; only the people can do that. So I’ve been toying around with other words for the building. My old New England Congregationalist roots want to call it “the Meeting House.”[6] Lately, however, I’ve been enjoying calling it our “worship and mission center.”

While the building can’t carry out the church’s mission, it is the facility out of which we will do the church’s mission. So it’s important for us to consider what that mission is. In the most general terms, are we a Great Commission or a Great Commandment church? I don’t think it will take us long to determine that. And once we know that, how specifically are we going to carry out that mission?

That’s our homework as a community.

I mentioned last week that you get individual homework assignments with this sermon series, too. Here’s your assignment – in three parts:

  1. Identify a scripture you look to to help you understand your purpose.
  2. Make a list of ways you are carrying out your purpose.
  3. Engage in some practice this week to help you reflect on and more deeply understand your purpose.

Undertaking this assignment will, I think, help you feel like you are living more authentically as a disciple of Jesus.


[1] Thom Schultz, “The Church’s Frightful Kodak Moment,” Holy Soup, http://holysoup.com/2014/01/15/the-churchs-frightful-kodak-moment/ (posted 15 January 2014; accessed most recently on 28 February 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Bennett Guess, “Give It Up, Church,” Stillspeaking Weekly email from the United Church of Christ (dated 25 February 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In colonial Massachusetts, each town had a Meeting House in the center of town. On Sundays, it was where the church met. And it was where civic assemblies were held – Town Meeting for governance or other gatherings. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_meeting_house for more information.

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.
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.


[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.


[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]


[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]


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