The following is the manuscript for the introduction to Lent that I will be sharing tonight at our Ash Wednesday service.

“We are animated dirt.  Soil and life joined.  From living ground we were made; to living ground we will return.”  That’s how author and scholar Diana Butler Bass puts it in her book, Grounded.

Our scriptures have a similar sentiment.  In Genesis, we read, “For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”

ash-wednesdayIn a recent Facebook post, Bass went on to explore this idea:  “What does it really mean that we are made from dust?  I find it shockingly beautiful – the idea that my life is drawn from the earth.  Of course, that dust is made from exploding stars and from all the life that ever existed.  It carries the memories of billions of years, of immense wisdom, of lives lived long ago.  We are connected so deeply with all that has gone before.  One day, I shall return to that dust – and my being will join with the dust.  Once, considered that a sad thought.  Now, I am amazed by it.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when we begin the holy season of Lent, a 40-day sojourn into the wildness of spirituality.  During the service this evening, we will hear four scripture readings.  They have been selected to connect with different ways of viewing spirituality.  You will connect with some more than other.  You will be invited to consider what those words say to you about how you can wander into the wildness of spirituality during the next 40 days plus Sundays.

And the end of the service, you will have the opportunity to come forward and participate in an ancient ritual of having ashes gently smeared onto your forehead.  As a good friend and colleague[1] has pointed out, this ritual does not have one, single meaning.  For some, it is a reminder of mortality.  For others, a sign of mourning.  For others, an honoring of the stardust of which we are all made.  For others, an acknowledgment of personal failing.  For others, an indictment of systemic and institutional injustice and our part in that.  For others, a sign of being in a community willing to face all manner of pain and suffering, and strive to address it.  And for others, there is some other meaning.

However you interpret the meaning of this ritual, and even if you don’t choose to participate, I hope it and this service will invite you into a season of connection, reflection, growth, and service.

[1] This list of meanings comes from a Facebook post by Lizann Bassham posted today (10 February 2016).

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 9:28-43a
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  None of the presidential candidates came town this week and that helped.  The primaries are on Tuesday, so that’s a bit of a surprise.  Usually at least one of them will swing by the Chowder House to do some glad-handing.

There was an incident at the Chowder House on Wednesday.  Patty was quietly minding her own business, eating her soup alone in her booth, when a voice startled her from the booth behind.  “Not so loud!” the guy said.

“What?” Patty questioned, as she took another spoonful of soup.

“I said, ‘Not so loud!’” was his muffled reply.

Embarrassed at being told she was slurping her soup, she pushed away her bowl and started her grilled cheese sandwich.

“How was your day?” questioned the man from behind once again.

“Pretty good” responded Patty, confused that this stranger would care.

“Did you pass the exam?” came the next question from behind.

“I don’t know, I didn’t get my grade yet,” replied a thoroughly bewildered Patty.

“I’ll have to call you back when I’m out of here”, came the voice from behind once again.  “Some nut job is answering every question I ask you!”[2]

I’d say the weather is much nuttier than Patty.  A few weeks ago, everywhere between Delaware and Kentucky was buried in snow and that same storm system dropped not one snowflake in Mount William.  It’s been in the 40s and 50s this past week, though the temperature has dropped down to the teen this weekend.  Freezing – warm – freezing – warm.  No one has been able to do any ice fishing at all, and winter only has a few weeks left.  It snowed in Rhode Island and on up to Boston on Friday, but only a dusting fell in Mount William.

My goddaughter is grousing because, for the past five years, she and a group of here crazy friends have gone snow camping over Presidents Day weekend and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to this year.  They would have to go to the White Mountains, and then they’d have to climb up to four or five thousand feet to get into deep enough snow – and at those elevations, the igloo they’d build would be for survival, not for camping.  Not quite the same things as driving their snowmobiles up Mount William along the old logging road turned snowmobile trail, then off the trail to a spot where one of them would say, “Here.  Let’s camp here.”

I called her and asked why this tradition is so important to her.  Her Presidents Day weekend sojourns (or snojourns, as I like to call them) are a strange combination of adventure and independence mixed with dependence and risk.  There’s the exhilaration of driving the snowmobiles up into the woods, the roar of the engines, the sense of power.  There’s the planning that’s needed to get away from the parents and the cooperation that’s needed to build the shelters.  There’s the challenge of getting a fire going.  And then, at night, in the cold, there is a stillness, a quiet that is deeper than most quiets because sounds are absorbed by the snow.  This quiet, she said, makes her feel both so small and so connected to the universe at the same time.

She didn’t use the word “awe,” but I think that’s what she’s getting at.  She didn’t use the word “holy,” but I think that’s what she experiences, what she’s afraid she will miss this year.  On a clear, quiet night, when the moon is out, the snow is a different kind of white, a holy kind of white, and the sky is a different kind of black, a holy kind of black, and they conspire to transfigure the bare tree branches and the evergreens and puffs of moisture that ascend with each exhalation.

As she told me about the teenage adventure she would miss this month, memories of feeling like my toes had frozen and broken off when I went cross-country skiing with my church youth group a hundred years ago flooded back.  Truly, the best part of winter is watching it from California.  But as her voice quieted, and she spoke of the quiet that descends at night, I thought about how it is in silence that I can most often hear God.

Maybe it was talk of being up on Mount William that brought back another memory.  Maybe it was thinking about God.  Maybe both combined, but when I got off the phone, I remembered an experience when God transfigured my sense of time as I walked in the mountains of the other side of the continent.

I know I’ve told this story before, so excuse me if you remember it.  The fact is that this experience from fifteen years ago remains one of those mountaintop experiences, one of those transcendent experiences that mark my spiritual journey.

I was up in the north Cascades at a Lutheran retreat center.[3]  One of the afternoon workshops offered that day was on meditative walking and it, logically, ended with a meditative walk.  The walk was along one of the more level trails that ran along the side of the mountains on one side of a canyon.  Praying ourselves into readiness and quiet, one at a time, we started walking down the trail.  After walking for several minutes, I came to a large boulder, maybe the size of a VW bus that had been taken off its wheels.  The boulder sat there on a shelf, the mountain raising steeply on my left and falling steeply on my right, beyond this shelf and the boulder.  It was obvious that this boulder had been there a long time.  Trees had grown around it and mosses were growing on decayed leaves and pine needles that had accumulated on the boulder over the years.

The boulder had been witness to much and so I approached it reverently.  I placed a hand on it, to honor it, and as I touched it, it was as if the boulder spoke.  “I’m moving,” it said.  This massive piece of granite (at least I think it was granite; I’m not a geologist) that had rested on this shelf for decades, perhaps centuries or longer, told me that it was moving.  And in that moment, my sense of time shifted.  Suddenly, instead of minutes or months or decades, I sense time at a geologic pace – and what the boulder said to me made sense.  From a geologic sense of time, this firm, steady boulder was falling down the mountain.  This experience of time transfigured lasted only a moment, but the memory of this mystical experience has never gone away.

Those mystical, transcendent moments, if we’re lucky enough to have them, never go away – even if we wish the would.  I remember another mystical moment when all around me was transfigured and I realized with painful clarity that I was being a selfish buffoon.  I think this was also the moment I began to grow up.

Began to grow up, mind you.  It took me at least another decade to finish, and probably more, if I’ve made it there at all.

It must have been a Sunday afternoon because my parents and younger sister were at the family room table drinking tea and my father was working on the crossword puzzle in the Sunday New York Times magazine.  I had joined them, taking a break from the homework I needed to get finished so I could go off to youth group that evening.  My mother mentioned casually that something was planned for the next Sunday – I couldn’t tell you what it was.

I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained.  I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that were probably only half hatched and that I had, of course, told no one else about.

My father said something calm and reasonable.  I said something rude.  My mother gave me the sharp, cutting look that only a mother can do.  I said something breathtakingly selfish.  My sister said something conciliatory.  I said something sneering and angry.  And my mother put down her tea.  I can tell you exactly what happened, for time slowed down and everything was transfigured.  Steam rolled off the tea in the gray-blue tea mug with a handle of two circles, each one big enough for a finger.  As it lowered toward the round, white table, I became aware of the forsythia outside; I could see it through the windows in the door.  Its bright yellow blossoms radiated, pulsing.  I knew that when the tea reached the table, she would say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control.  And in that moment of the cup descending, I saw myself and realized I was being a fool.

It wasn’t a trumpet blast, there wasn’t a voice speaking from the clouds, but it was a clarity that was as shocking as my behavior – maybe more so.  It wasn’t that I was embarrassed (though I was embarrassed later).  It was that I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was.  I understood, in that moment – and I believe for the first time in my life – that I was being a fool.

I kept right on being a fool, of course.  You cannot escape yourself that quickly, not as a teenager, or later either, it turns out.  Often you keep playing the bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and throw down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tiptoe into the next moment.  Often you stay inside the prison of your confidence and mock dignity even as you peer through the bars, mortified.

As I remember, I stormed off and the world spun on relentlessly through the stars and whatever was planned happened and we all grew older.  And eventually, the house was sold and God knows where that table is now (someone stole it out of my sister’s garage years ago).  Who knows?  It might be sitting in some family room and there might be a seething teenager sitting at it right now, facing a forsythia or some other bush, seeing a hint of who they might grow up to be, if they can stop being the fool.  With all my heart, I wish them well.

That’s the news from Mount William, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] The last third of this sermon is based on “A Fool’s Awakening,” by Brian Doyle, printed in the 19 February 2014 edition of Christian Century, p. 12.
[2] This joke was adapted from a joke on Family Friend Jokes, (accessed 6 February 2016).
[3] The retreat center is Holden Village, a former mining town that is off the grid.  This past summer, Holden Village was surrounded by the Wolverine Creek Fire and, while the village was spared, much of the forest, the roads, and the trails were damaged.  I wonder what it will look like next time I go there.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 1:11-18, 23b-28; 2: 18-20, 26
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. Still waiting for winter to really take hold, people are hoping the forecast snows actually come later this week.

Eugene Paulson was in town, visiting his parents. These days, he lives in Mumford, Minnesota, a town a little south of Lake Wobegone, where he’s the pastor of the Lutheran church. That was not the profession anyone would have guessed Eugene would end up in back when he was growing up. He wasn’t a bad kid; not at all. In fact, I’d say he was an earnest kid. It’s just that his father was a butcher who ran his own meat market just a little off Main Street, and everyone assumed Eugene would eventually take over the business.

By the time he was five years old, Eugene was permitted to walk by himself the five or six blocks from home to the market and “work” for his father. Work at that time of his life consisted of accompanying Mr. Paulson across the street to the Chowder House. Mr. Paulson would have a cup of coffee with Winona and take down the order for the next day’s supply of hamburger, steaks, pork chops, sausage, and liver. The waitress always brought Eugene a donut and a glass of milk.

Mr. Paulson wore a white butcher’s apron, even when he went across the street to the Chowder House. Eugene wore one too. His mother made it out of flour sacks, identical to his father’s except for its size. She made him a new apron every year to match his growth. When he put on his apron in the butcher shop, he entered the adult world. And sitting on the counter stool in the Chowder House, being served alongside his father, was confirmation.

By that time he knew the story of the boy Samuel who had been “lent to the Lord” by his parents to live and work in the temple at Shiloh with Eli the priest. Samuel’s parents, Elkanah and Hannah, visited him at Shiloh every year. His mother made him a priest’s robe to wear, an ephod, as he assisted Eli. Every year as he added inches to his height, she would make him a new robe to fit his newly acquired stature. Eugene knew exactly what that robe, that ephod, looked like – didn’t he wear it every time he worked with his father? Didn’t he get a new one every time he had grown another inch or two? Eugene might have been the only person in Mount William who knew what an ephod actually looked like.

Shiloh couldn’t have been that much different from the Paulson meat market. The three-year-old bull that was slaughtered at Samuel’s dedication at Shiloh would become the hamburgers and sirloin steaks at the Paulson store and provided continuity between the shrine and the meat market.

I think it was then that Eugene started identifying himself as a priest.

As years went on, he graduated from the “work” of putting away the donut and milk that accompanied a business transaction to the beginner’s work of grinding hamburger and slicing liver. One of Mr. Paulson’s meatcutters would pick Eugene up and stand him on an upended orange crate before the big, red Hobart meat grinder, and Eugene in his linen ephod would push chunks of beef into its maw. The day he was trusted with a knife and taught to respect it and keep it sharp, he knew adulthood was just around the corner. He was started out on liver (it’s hard to mess up when slicing liver), but in a few years he was participating in the entire range of meat-cutting operations.

“That knife has a will of its own,” old Eddie Nordcrist, one of the meatcutters, used to tell him. “Get to know your knife.” If Eugene cut himself, Eddie would blame Eugene not for carelessness but for ignorance – Eugene didn’t “know” his knife.

Not so much by words as by example, Eugene internalized a respect for the material at hand. The material could be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, or a soul, but when the work is done well, there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of what he would later learn to call humility. It is a noticeable feature in all skilled workers – woodworkers, potters, poets, pray-ers, and pastors. He learned it in the butcher shop.

That butcher shop was Eugene’s introduction to the world of the congregation, which in a few years would be his workplace as a pastor. The people who came into the market were not just customers. Something else defined them. It always seemed more like a congregation than a store. Mr. Paulson in his priestly robe greeted each person by name and knew many of their stories. And many of them knew Eugene, in his priest’s robe, by name. Eugene always knew there was more going on than a commercial transaction. His father had an easy smile and was always gracious, especially with the occasional disagreeable ones: Alicia Conrad, who was always fussy about the leanness of the bacon; Gus Anderson, who made Mr. Paulson trim off any excess fat from a steak before weighing it. Everyone felt welcome. Mr. Paulson gave people dignity by the tone and manner of his greetings.

As I said, the way Eugene came to understand congregational life had its beginnings in the “congregational” atmosphere of the butcher shop. A congregation is composed of people who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged. It must never be a place where a person is labeled. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’ name. It is a place where dignity is conferred.

Eugene first learned that under his father priesthood in the butcher shop. He also learned something about work – something that could have destroyed him, something that he had to unlearn, with considerable difficulty as it turned out. It had to do with work, out-of-control work, work as a kind of painkiller.

The focal point of the unlearning was Saturday, the climax of their workweek. And no Saturday was busier than the day before Easter, Holy Saturday.

Large hickory-smoked hams held center position in the displays in Paulson butcher shop. Colorful cardboard cutouts provided by salesmen from the meat-packing companies of Armour and Hormel all showed variations on a theme: a father at an Easter Sunday dinner table carving a ham, surrounded by an approving wife and expectant children. Personally, I preferred steak to ham, but most of the beef was local and there was no company to create colorful advertisements, so the hickory-smoked hams held the focus.

Off to the side of these displays were stacks of the smaller and cheaper “picnic” hams (a picnic ham is not, properly speaking, a ham at all, but the shoulder of the pig). None of the packing companies bothered supplying pictures of picnic hams. They usually didn’t even put their brand names on them.

For the Paulsons, every Saturday was busy, and rather than calling the day before Easter “Holy Saturday,” they might have called it “Busiest Saturday.” It began early in the morning with arranging the great, fragrant hams from Armour and Hormel symmetrically in pyramids. Things only got more hectic from there.

On Holy Saturday customers crowded into the store, responding to the sale signs painted on the plate-glass windows fronting the street. Their purchasing patterns sorted them into upper and lower socioeconomic strata: the affluent bought honey-cured, hickory­smoked hams; the less-than-affluent bought unadjectived “picnics;” the truly poor bought ham hocks.

Penny Doyle is the only person Eugene remembers by name who bought ham hocks – gristly on the inside and leathery on the outside, but smoked and therefore emanating the aroma of a feast. Perhaps Penny thought the aroma necessary for Easter. Every Saturday she came into the store to make a small purchase: pickled pig’s feet, chitlins, blood sausage, headcheese, pork liver. On Holy Saturday, it was ham hocks.

The Paulsons were devout Christian that believed in the saving work of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But between these two polar events of the faith – Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection – they worked a long and lucrative day. Holiness was put on hold until Sunday. Saturday was for working hard and making money. It was a day when the evidence of hard work and its consequence – money – became publicly apparent. The evidence was especially clear on that particular Saturday, when they sold hundreds of hams to deserving Christians – and four ham hocks to Penny Doyle.

While Penny was making her purchases from the Paulsons and did whatever other shopping she did on that Holy Saturdays while she was in town, her husband and two of his brothers – who all lived out in the woods in some sort of communal encampment off of a dirt road off of a dirt road – sat on apple boxes in the alley behind the Pastime Bar and passed around a jug of Thunderbird wine. Several jugs, actually. As Eugene made his backdoor deliveries of steaks and hamburger to the Chowder House, he passed by these men who were almost passed out themselves. Late in the evening, Bennie Wells, son of the bar owner and not much older than Eugene himself, pulled these men into his dad’s pickup truck and drove them back to their encampment and dumped them out.

Years later, Eugene wondered how Penny got back home. Walked, probably. Carrying her small purchases, including four ham hocks. Back then, he would have been very surprised, and somewhat unbelieving, to have known that in the very town in which he worked furiously all those unholy Saturdays, there were people who were not working at all, not spending money, but remembering the despair of a world disappointed in its grandest hopes, entering into the emptiness of death by deliberately emptying the self of illusion and indulgence and self-importance. Keeping vigil for Easter. Waiting for the dawn.

You see, Eugene interpreted the meaning of the world and the people around him far more in terms of the hard working on Saturday than anything said or sung on Friday and Sunday. Saturday was the day for hard work, or for displaying its results – namely, money. If someone appeared neither working nor spending on Saturday, there was something wrong, catastrophically wrong. The Doyles attempting a hungover Easter feast on ham hocks were the most prominent example of something wrong.

It was a view of life shaped by “the Gospel according to America.” The rewards were obvious, and he enjoyed them. Hard work pays off. He learned much in those years in his father’s butcher shop, yet there was one large omission that set all other truth dangerously at risk: the omission of holy rest. The refusal to be silent. The obsessive avoidance of emptiness.

It was far more than ignorance on Holy Saturday; it was weekly arrogance. God was background to their business. Every gospel truth was maintained intact and all the human energy was wholly admirable, but the rhythms were off. Desolation – and with it companionship with the desolate, ranging from first-century Semites to 20th-century Doyles – was all but wiped from consciousness.

It took years for the memory of Penny Doyle and her ham hocks to do its work on Eugene. Eventually he saw in his memories not just the drunkenness and poverty. Eventually he saw in his memories their despair. The Doyles, godforsaken they supposed, drugged their despair with Thunderbird and buried their dead visions and dreams in the alley behind the Pastime Bar, ignorant of the God at work beneath their emptiness, an emptiness Eugene, too, felt but covered up with work. And when he saw this, Eugene was able to see God at work beneath his own emptiness. This is how he was able to clear the ground for God to work – not he. This is how he was able to allow God to be the center of his life. Inappropriate, anxiety-driven, fear-driven work would only interfere with and distract from what God was already doing. Eugene’s “work” assignment was to pay more attention to what God does than what he does. Eugene’s “work” assignment was to spend more time sitting at the counter being real with real people, eating a donut and drinking a glass of milk.

That’s the news from Mount William, were all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] Most of this sermon is quoted directly or modified from “My father’s butcher shop,” by Eugene H. Peterson, publish in the 22 February 2011 edition of Christian Century, pages 28-33. The article itself is excerpted from the book The Pastor: A Memoir, reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. © Eugene H. Peterson.

This is a follow-up to the sermon manuscript I posted tonight, “Journey into Exile.”

This video does a pretty good job of explaining the causes (at least some of them) of the Syrian refugee crisis — in a little over six minutes.

One of the things I failed to do in my sermon was include the voice of any of the people who are refugees from Syria (or anywhere else). You can read the story of one refugee here.

An issue I didn’t even bring up is the issue of statelessness.  Because each country sets its own rules about what it takes to be a citizen, some children born to refugees aren’t granted citizenship anywhere.  They grow up stateless.  You can read more about why this happens and why it matters here.

Finally, Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and the public information service at UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) offers 8 practical ways to help refugees here.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and “Home” by Warsan Shire
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What was it that first drew your attention to the Syrian refugee crisis? For some of you, I suspect it was news reports about ISIS and the need for people to flee. For others, perhaps it was the numbers. Syria had a population of about 22 million.[1] Suddenly, over 4 million of them left as refugees. 18% of the population. That would be like everybody in the choir except the basses suddenly leaving our worship service. In addition, 7.6 million are, what the United Nations High Commission on Refugees calls, “internally displaced persons.” That’s over half the Syrian population fleeing within the country or leaving the country all together. Over half.[2]

For others, it was probably the September publication of this photograph[3] or one like it.

syrian-boy-drowns-650-afp_650x400_51441283742            These news reports and images moved us to feel compassion.

Then the November mass murders in Paris occurred. Syrian refugees were quickly blamed, then ISIS infiltrators posing as Syrian refugees. Even though it turns out that the Paris attackers were almost certainly European Union nationals,[4] much of our nation responded with fear. Then Christmas happened, and American news media got lost in the presidential elections.

I heard there was more news about the refugees to be paying attention to, so I did some searching this week. I actually had to go to a British news site to learn about yet more drownings of refugees trying to reach Greece.

“More than 30 migrants including three children have drowned after their boat capsized in rough water off the Turkish coast.

“They had been trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, Turkish authorities said.

“The first of the bodies began to wash up on the beach at around 5am along the coast of Ayvalik, a Turkish town directly opposite Lesbos.

“Twelve other people were rescued at the site as the Turkish coastguard searched for survivors who had tried to make the crossing.”[5]

From a distance, we get to be obsessive about presidential politics. From a distance, we get to lose track of what is happening halfway around the globe as we celebrate Christmas. That doesn’t mean that what’s happening halfway around the globe stops happening.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love celebrating Christmas. Given my profession, it’s plenty stressful, but I love it. I love the anticipation, the drama of Advent pulling us into a time between times, the hope proclaimed yet unfulfilled. I love the songs of yearning, traditional and contemporary like “What Child Is This?” and “Mary, Did You Know?” I love the story – I suppose that should be plural, since Matthew’s and Luke’s stories are so different – I love the stories. And, I love the Christian claim mysterious as it is, that says, somehow in this birth, somehow in this child, God is with us.

Author Jim Wallis writes, “It’s not just that God came, but how God came.” He points to Luke’s story: “It wasn’t accidental that the savior of the world was born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were literally homeless at the time of his birth.” And he points to Matthew’s story: “And soon Jesus and his family were made refugees and had to flee their country because the most powerful political ruler around the Christ child felt very threatened by his coming.

“At least King Herod got the fact that his political power would indeed be undermined by the coming of Jesus and the new kingdom [Jesus] would bring.…

“Herod was the king assigned by Rome to rule over the Jews. And when he heard about the birth of Jesus he was ‘frightened’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘worried’ or ‘troubled’ or ‘terrified’ as different gospel translations report.

“Why? Because the closest political ruler to Jesus at the time of his birth believed Jesus could become a threat to his power. Herod asked all the people who might know, ‘Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?’ The king then called the now famous wise men, who were traveling from the East to see the child, in for a meeting with him at the palace where he tried to manipulate them to come back and tell him where they had found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage.’

“Most of the stories about the three wise men focus on the gifts they presented to the Christ child when they ultimately found him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our re-telling the story often doesn’t focus so much on the political threat Jesus posed to political power when he was born. And we talk even less about what happened when the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod after they found Jesus. In another dream, [the one we heard today,] Joseph was told to quickly leave the country with his new family, into Egypt where they would stay until King Herod died. ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ So Jesus became a refugee fleeing political power.…


“Flight to Egypt-3” by Tamara Harutyunyan

“To protect himself, Herod killed all the baby boys, hoping to kill Jesus, in what our tradition calls the ‘Massacre of the Innocents,’ which is too often how political power reacts when it is threatened. Innocents are often threatened by political power as are many today in the most recent rhetoric of our own political candidates in their attacks on immigrants, refugees, people of other religions, all the ‘others’ who are not like ‘us’ and even the children who are said to threaten us.”[6]

Yesterday, we screened the documentary abUSed. The film documents a 2008 raid on Agriprocessors, at the time, the nation’s largest kosher meat packing plant, by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It shows how ICE and the office of the Attorney General treated undocumented workers like animals, violated their rights, ripped apart families, and devastated a rural community.

Postville, Iowa, was a town of about 2000. When ICE raided the plant, they arrested 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 2 Israelis, and 4 Ukrainians. Eighteen were juveniles.[7] That’s 389 arrests, 20% of the population. And they were arrested not just for being in the country and working without proper documentation, but for felonies like document fraud charges.


Mass deportations from the Postville raid.

300 were convicted in four days, mostly by coercing plea bargains. “Neither the owner, Aaron Rubashkin, nor his sons Sholom and Heshy Rubashkin, who were in charge of the management of Agriprocessors, were convicted of immigration and labor law violations.”[8]

If we really want to stop undocumented people from coming to the United States, the simplest thing to do is prosecute the people who hire them. If American businesses won’t hire undocumented workers, they won’t come here looking for work. And that really is the reason these people came to Postville. They wanted to work. They wanted to earn money so they could feed their families. That’s why they came to the United States.

I find it interesting that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, brought down all sorts of barriers to free trade – except if the only thing you have to trade is your labor. That you cannot move across the borders freely.

Of course, that was then, 2008. This is now. And this past week, the Obama administration has begun “a nationwide operation to deport a new wave of illegal immigrants.”[9]

imrs.phpThe Washington Post reports, “The raids were the first in a broad operation by the Obama administration that is targeting hundreds of families for deportation who have crossed the southern U.S. border illegally since the start of last year. The operation … is the first large-scale effort to deport families fleeing violence in Central America, authorities said.”[10]

That’s right: the families we are arresting and deporting are here not just to earn a living. They are here to escape violence. And we are sending them back to that violence.

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run from the border
when you see the whole city running as well.”[11]

Throughout Advent and Christmas and even into this first Sunday after Epiphany, our theme has been “Journey.” Members and friends of the church were invited to reflect on their families’ journeys in art, the art you see hanging around the sanctuary. Through Advent, we focused on the journeys of important characters in the first chapters of Luke’s gospel.

Last week and this, we’ve turned to Matthew’s gospel and the journey of the Magi by starlight and the journey of the Holy Family into exile. And that is where we leave them, in exile fleeing violence, just like so many others around the world today, as this series concludes.

For those of us who are lucky enough not to be living in exile, we are reminded that the Holy Family may well be living among us or seeking refuge among us because the principalities and powers are still seeking to snuff out the life of the one whose birth reminds us that God is with us in profound ways.

[1] “Population, total,” The World Bank, (accessed 9 January 2016).

[2] “Syrian Arab Republic,” UNHCR, (accessed 9 January 2016).

[3] See, for instance,

[4] Ishaan Tharoor, “Were Syrian refugees involved in the Paris attacks? What we know and don’t know,” The Washington Post, (posted 17 November 2015; accessed 9 January 2016).

[5] Eirini Lemos, “Dozens of migrants including three children drown trying to reach Greek island of Lesbos,” The Telegraph, (posted 5 January 2016; accessed 9 January 2016).

[6] Jim Wallis, “Why Jesus Was, and Is, a Political Threat,” Sojourners, (posted 23 December 2015; accessed 1 January 2016).

[7] “Postville Raid,” Wikipedia, (accessed 9 January 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lisa Rein, “U.S. authorities begin raids, taking 121 illegal immigrants into custody over the weekend,” The Washington Post, (posted 4 January 2016, accessed 9 January 2015).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Warsan Shire, from her poem “Home,” published, probably among other places, here (accessed 5 January 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 3, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas cards and nativity scenes and many of our Christmas carols are a mash-up of the two very different birth stories in the gospels.  It’s worth remembering that only two of the four gospels have birth narratives, and they are very different.  Yet, despite their differences, there is one particularly strong theme they have in common:  Jesus is born into a world of authority and subjugation, of power and oppression.

“In Luke’s narrative Caesar Augustus stands political watch.  By his own decree, he claims a station at the outset of the story.  By his version of events, he is the story.

“Caesar’s word goes forth, and history is made.  All the world … should be enrolled.  The whole of humanity is to be set in motion.  Step to and be numbered.  [And in this numbering,] he … is ‘Number One.’

“This is the business of empire.  [We can easily imaging the purposes of such a registration.] … They come down to the very basis of Roman power:  taxation, military induction, and general population control.  As to the latter, Rome wants to know the whereabouts and number of able-bodied folks in subject provinces likely to revolt.…

“Peace on earth will be sung and celebrated, but it is not the oppressive Roman Pax.  Glory will be revealed, but it is not the glory that was Rome.  The Word is alive and present, but not to be confused with the pompous decrees of the emperor.  Among those of lowly estate, Word and glory and peace may be recognized.  But for now they will slip the gaze and the grip of the powers.”[1]

That’s how Luke tells the story.  But now, “Set aside, if you can, [Luke’s narrative] … and step into Matthew’s world.  Forget the manger, the Magnificat, shepherds, and an overstuffed inn ….  [That’s all Luke.

And while you’re at it,] try to get ‘We Three Kings’ and your neighbor’s illuminated front yard out of your head.  Keep going back, past the medieval saints calendar telling how the Magi died as martyrs for the gospel.  [Go back] beyond their names and faces, fixed in the seventh century.”[2]

12348132_1011041608917059_947325156367041029_nLook at Matthew’s story.  The political authority in Matthew’s story is Herod the Great.  Instead of shepherds who come to see the newborn, Magi, wise men from a far-away country, come to see the toddler.  They are guided by a star, a star that does not appear (despite what we sing in “The First Noel”) in Luke’s gospel.

Who they were, or even if they were really doesn’t matter.  What matters is who they represent in Matthew’s gospel.  Foreigners are the ones who are wise enough to read the signs in the sky and journey by starlight.  Gentiles are the ones who are wise enough to be drawn to the truth of Christ.  If Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish followers of Jesus (and it probably was), this is a cutting narrative turn.  But it is also an anticipation, and prefiguring of “the racially reconciled community that gathers about Christ at table.”[3]

Bill Wylie-Kellermann makes an interesting observation about these characters.  “If these mysterious Magi were of a priestly class who, originating among the sixth-century Medes, survived the transition of power to the Persian empire, or if they were of the sort mentioned so often in the book of Daniel as attending the king’s court in order to function as seers, magicians, interpreters of dreams, and the like, then such as these were accustomed to the courtly scene.  They would be fully at home in the company of kings.  A leisure class having time to study the sky, perhaps at the behest and benefaction of a king.

“Little wonder they make for Herod’s palace.  And when Herod consults his coterie of priests and scribes, they meet up with their opposite numbers.…

“By the deepest longings of their hearts, and without the benefit, until now, of the Hebrew scriptures, the Magi have come.  Their humility is wondrous, nearly naive.  They are foil to Herod, who by the most blatant deception and calculated manipulation expresses the desire to come and worship.  [Herod’s] guile is stunning, nearly blasphemous.”[4]

“When Herod gets wind of the child’s advent, he is immediately troubled and ‘all Jerusalem with him.’

“His reaction is entirely in keeping with what the historians tell us of Herod.  He had consolidated his power by military ruthlessness and [his] political acumen, [by] employing a series of assassinations against opposition figures and potential claimants to the throne.  He had informers and secret police everywhere.  In his suspicions of disloyalty, he killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and any number of close advisers.

“His response to the prospect of the Messiah’s birth is more of the same tired method:  to hatch yet another scheme, conceive another assassination plot.  His dear hope that he too could come and worship rings a notorious false note.…

“A question on which Matthew’s birth narrative turns is this:  Will the Wise Men, even unwittingly, be drawn into Herod’s scheme?

“Will they be his agents on the scene?  Will they return with names and addresses and physical descriptions?  Will they understand the murderous complicity into which they are being drawn?

“The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they worship the true king.  Their exceeding joy and true worship has as its flip side the discernment of the false.  Deep in their psyches from whence dreams come, they discern Herod’s lie.  They dream, perhaps, of a dragon, crouched to devour.

“Therein lies a choice for them.  To return another way is a route of no small consequence.  They are foreigners and guests.  They travel with permission, their visas stamped with Herod’s mark.  To go against a king who is not above murder is to risk his fury.  Nonetheless, they non-cooperate.  By their act of disobedience the child is protected.”[5]  At least for the time being.

f7ffc1b62660fbb696081be98bdfa698_w600The cover art on your announcement folder is “Nativity,” by Fritz Eichenberg.[6]  It’s a work he created in 1950, a few months into the Korean War.  In the center foreground lies the babe in hay and more on than in his swaddling clothes.  Nestled round are an adoring donkey and a cow.  Here we have Luke’s birth narrative depicted.  Through the crossbeams above, we see a star points down from the heavens.  This is Matthew’s birth narrative.  At first glance, the scene is very Hallmark.

“But wait.  A closer look through the archway reveals a village nearly off the edge of the frame.  However, this is not the cozy skyline set on a Judean hillside as one might expect, but a bombed-out city in flames.  One has the feeling that it’s all coming this way, closing in on the child asleep, holy and innocent.  Look again.  Tucked beneath the hay is a soldier’s helmet.  He is born in a year of war, and violence is near.”[7]

Given the political realities into which Jesus was born, this art is a more accurate depiction of the mish-mash of the birth narratives than anything Hallmark actually sells.  On one hand, we have the wondrous story of the birth of the infant Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  Of course wise people will seek him.  And on the other hand, we have Herod who wants to kill the baby.

What is it about the presence of The Divine in our world that brings out both reactions in us humans?  What is it that frightens us so much we want to kill it or moves us with so much joy that we will travel far to bring gifts and pay homage?[8]

My friend, Lizann Bassham, who posed these questions a year ago, offers this possible answer:  “The possibility of The Divine incarnation brings change, change in hearts, in culture, in the very fabric of Universal energy.  Maybe our reaction to change and our investment in things as they are, is what determines whether we greet it with joy or fear.”[9]

“Thomas Long says that ‘the world is full of “stars in the East” – events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God …’ but the Bible helps us to ‘recognize these holy moments for what they are … to see God’s face clearly in them.’  Without scripture, we would be like the wise men, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of what they had experienced, and then what to do about it.  [However,] just being a biblical scholar isn’t enough, either:  the chief priests and the scribes missed the meaning of the text, and Herod turns to scripture to use it for his own panicked purposes.  Long observes, ‘One can, like Herod, be in favor of studying the scripture and still be on the wrong side of God’s will.’”[10]

This is the dichotomy Matthew sets up in his birth narrative.  Will we see the stars in the east and let them lead us on a journey to joy, or will we let them move us to fear?

Non Sequitur - nq151220comb_sv.tif

Non Sequitur

Last week’s Non Sequitur[11] cartoon played with this.  The first frame is of the magi, traveling across the desert.  The second frame, they are surrounded by light.  In the third frame, we see that the light is coming from a searchlight atop a wall.  The poster on the wall says “Foreigners” in a red circle with a slash mark through it.  The fourth frame shows the magi traveling away from the star.

Will we let the starlight lead us on a journey of joy or a journey of fear?

Last week, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced that a Grand Jury decided not to indict Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014.  While I have no desire to retry the case today, I am painfully aware that this case all too clearly shows our propensity to journey toward fear.  Officer Loehmann said that he arrived on scene and was immediately afraid for his life and the life of this partner.  What leads a trained police officer to move to fear so quickly?  What leads Americans in general, Americans of all races, to be more fearful of teenaged boys the darker their skin is?  What leads so many people of color to move immediately to fear when they see a police officer?

I suppose there are really three options for us:  We can ignore the stars in the east, we can follow them with joy, or we can react to them with fear.  Epiphany invites us to be on watch for the stars the announce God’s activity and to journey by the starlight in joy, even if that joy calls us to disobedience of the powers that be.


[1] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “O Holy Nightmare,” Sojourners, (accessed 29 December 2015).

[2] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, (accessed 29 December 2015).

[3] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Epiphany,” Sojourners, (accessed 29 December 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wylie-Kellermann, “O Holy Nightmare,” op. cit.

[6] See and scroll through the pictures to find the one described.

[7] Wylie-Kellermann, “O Holy Nightmare,” op. cit.

[8] Lizann Bassham posed these questions in a status update on Facebook on 7 January 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kathryn Matthews (Huey), “Sermon Seeds: Epiphany,” United Church of Christ, (accessed 31 December 2015); quoting Long from Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion.

[11] See

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer,
based on the story, “No Room in the Inn,” by Katherine Paterson.[1]
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2007, 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Warm, but quiet.  “Wearing sandals.  It’s a Christmas miracle,” my friend Steve Sarles posted on Facebook this morning.[2]  Of course, he lives in the south – you know, in the Boston suburbs.  But it’s plenty warm in Mount William.

I’m okay with the lakes not being frozen over and there being no snow on the ground at Christmas.  It seems like Christmases were either brown or a foot-deep in white when I was growing up.  Still, there should be little pockets of ice between the rocks along the shore in the lake coves that don’t get the winter sunlight during the day.  That’s just not happening this year with temperatures touching 60.  I’ve heard weather forecasters saying that the El Niño in the Pacific is causing – or at least contribution to – the warm weather on the Atlantic coast and even the tornados that struck the southeast yesterday.  How weird is that?

Speaking of weird, the Christmas card from Frank Dearborn says that he’s a grandfather.  I used to babysit that kid, and he’s grandfather now.  If he’s old enough for that, then I’m – there’s just no way that I’m that old.

When he heard the news that his daughter was pregnant, he called the Bed and Breakfast his parents used to run and made reservations.  Frank was determined to have a four-generation Christmas back in Mount William – and he’s made it happen.  Frank and Jill, their two kids, their kids’ spouses, and their granddaughter are at the Grove Hill Inn (the owners who bought out Francine and Ernest eight years ago changed the name).  Tomorrow morning, Francine and Ernest Dearborn will drive up from Nashua and the family will celebrate at what was once their home.

It was opening the door to the downstairs powder room yesterday that brought the memory back this time.  Frank has had plenty of meaningful Christmases – the first with his wife, the one when their daughter was 10 and she suggested they pool the money they would have spent on presents and give it to the food bank, the one when Jill’s father was so sick and still insisted on taking the family to the midnight Christmas Eve service.  But the Christmas of 1988 when Frank was 18 – this was one of the most transformative experiences of his life.

Begin born into a family that ran a B&B meant that Frank had a job from the day he would make hospital corners.  By the time he was a teenager, he was cleaning rooms and helping out in the kitchen, and he spent most of the summer cutting and splitting fire wood for the winter guests.  But that Christmas, the winter after he turned 18, his parents decided to give themselves a treat, to close down the Inn for the holiday and to take a trip to somewhere warm.  That meant that Frank had the old B&B to himself – no guests, no parents, a stack of movies that his parents wouldn’t let him to watch when there were guests at the Inn.

It was snowing hard the day he drove his parents all the way into Boston to catch their flight to Florida.  He tried to look a little sad as he hugged his parents goodbye – his Christmas present to his mother.  The drive back to Mount William was slow with all the accumulated snow.  He was tired and hungry by the time he got to the village center, so he decided to stop of at Bessie and Winona’s Chowder House for something to eat.  He wasn’t much of a chowder fan, but Winona made a great meat loaf and the cup of coffee was bottomless.

The woodstove was crackling warm and the smell of meatloaf and homemade bread filled the place.  Ewell Biggs and Ames Whitehead were sitting at the counter drinking coffee when he got there.  They gave Frank the typical male New Hampshire nod and grunt of greeting.  Frank nodded back and sat down, waiting for Bessie’s usual “Hello stranger!”  But Bessie just stared at him sadly.  “It’s meatloaf tonight,” she said, as though that would be the last thing anyone would want.

“That’s fine,” Frank said, and then, “is something the matter, Bessie?”

“Bessie’s all worried about them Russians,” Ewell explained between sips of coffee.

“They’re Armenians,” Bessie said to him, and then to Frank, “I was just watching the news.  It’s over 20,000 dead now and about half a million people with no place to sleep.  And it’s cold there!”[3]

“It ain’t like a New Hampshire winter,” Ames said.  “It was 8 below in my barn this morning.”

“It’s cold enough,” Bessie insisted.  “I saw this old woman on TV last night.  They showed her hands.  She was kinda holding them tight like this” – Bessie clutched her hands together – “and she didn’t have any gloves.  She was just holding onto herself and shivering.  It killed me.  I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that poor old woman.”

Frank thought Bessie was going to burst into tears, but she pulled herself together enough to get a huge steaming plate of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and beans, with three hot rolls on the side.  She knew how Frank loved her rolls.

Just then, he felt a blast of cold air on his back.  Everyone turned to look at the door.  A man was standing there – a stranger.  There was several days’ growth of stubble on his face.  He had on worn jeans and a flimsy baseball jacket and no hat or gloves.  He was not from Mount William, or Bessie would have recognized him.

“Take a seat,” Bessie said.  She only called people she knew ‘stranger.’  “Be right with you.”  Before Frank could ask for ketchup, she was back to the Armenians.  “And those children.  Did you see those poor kids in the hospital with their legs all crushed?  One little boy couldn’t even remember who he was.  The doctor didn’t know if his parents were dead or alive.”

Frank opened his mouth during a pause to ask for the ketchup, but by then she had turned to the stranger.  “Now, what can I do for you?” she asked.

He was still standing in front of the door as though he couldn’t remember what he’d come in for.  “Coffee,” he muttered at last.  “To go.”

“People who got though the earthquake are just freezing to death from the cold,” Bessie went on as she filled a large Styrofoam cup from the coffee pot.

The man looked puzzled.  “Armenians,” Frank said.  “She’s all upset about the Armenians.  There was a big earthquake over there.  A lot of people died.”

“And the rest are likely to,” Bessie said with a huge sigh.  “Right at Christmas.  I can’t get over those poor children.  Cream and sugar?”

“Yeah,” the man said.  “Both.  Double.”

Bessie pushed on the lid.  “That’ll be 63 cents,” she said as the man handed her a dollar bill.  “This mason jar here is for the Armenians,” she said, pointing to it.  “I’m taking donation – if you’d like to put in your change …”

The man took the change she held out and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans.  “How far to Concord from here?” he asked.

“Usually about a half-hour,” Frank said, “but the road are really bad, so maybe an hour and a half or two.”

“Ah, they’ll plow soon,” Ewell said.

“I need gas,” the man said.

“Well, that might be a problem.  The Triangle Store is closed for the night and the next gas is in Concord,” said Ames.

The man shrugged, turned, and another blast of cold air was felt by all.

“Friendly fellow,” Ames said.

“Not too worried about your Russians, either,” Ewell teased.

“Armenians.”  Bessie looked sadder than every.

When he was ready to go, Frank stuffed his change into the jar even though he’d given her one of the twenties his parents had left him.  When he got back home, the first thing he did was hang out the “No Vacancy” sign.  He wasn’t likely to get any visitors on a night like this, but he wasn’t taking any chances.  He had the evening all planned.  First a roaring fire, then a large bottle of Pepsi and big bag of potato chips, and then start in on the pile of videos.

He had no sooner popped the first tape into the machine and settled back to watch when the doorbell rang … and rang … and rang.  There was nothing to do but go answer.  He put on the chain and opened the door a crack.  “Sorry, no vacancy,” he said, and then he saw the stranger from the Chowder House.

“How about if I stay in the garage?” he asked.  “Like you said, the roads are terrible and it’s freezing out here in the car.”

“Sorry, no vacancy.  You’ll have to try somewhere else.”

“Look I’m just asking to stay in your garage, so I don’t freeze to death.  You’d let a stray dog into the garage, wouldn’t you, on a night like this?”

Frank hesitated.  The man smiled – one of those shifty-eyed smiles that immediately makes you distrust someone.  “Just think of me as one of them Armenians,” he said.

He was right.  Fake smile or not, he would freeze to death in his car on a night like that.  “Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll have to move the truck out to make room for your car.”  He closed the front door and carefully locked it before going out into the garage through the kitchen.  He backed out the truck and a ten-year-old Chevy with rusted sides drove into the garage.  Frank got an old blankets out of the cargo area, locked the truck, and hurried into the garage.

“Here’s a blanket in case,” he yelled as he set it on the garage floor, pushed the button to close the garage door, and went back into the kitchen.  He tried to stop thinking about the man in the car in the garage as he settled back down by the fire and the TV.  “I’m sure not gonna let him inside,” Frank thought to himself.  “People get robbed and beaten up for that kind of stupidity – murdered, even.”  Frank turned up the volume of the movie to try to drown out the thoughts.

He didn’t know how long the knocking had been going on when he finally heard it.  “Yeah?” he yelled through the door to the garage.

“Daddy said, could I use the bathroom?”

A child’s voice.  It startled Frank and he opened the door.  Sure enough, there stood a dirty, skinny, red-faced kid.  “Daddy said you’d let me use the bathroom.”

Frank opened the door wider and let him in.  What was he supposed to do?  Tell the kids to go out in the snow.  Sheesh.  He shut the door behind the boy and led him to the downstairs powder room.  “Don’t use the towels,” he warned.

He waited outside the bathroom for what seemed like ten minutes.  What in the world was the kid up to?  Finally, he came out, walking tall and straight-backed like a little prince.  He didn’t say a word, not even thank you.

“You’re welcome,” Frank said loudly as he let the boy back into the garage.

Frank sat down on a kitchen chair.  The guy hadn’t said anything about any kid.  He was thinking about calling the police or child welfare or somebody when there was another, softer knock at the door.

This time, he just opened it.  “You’ve been to the bathroom already,” he stated to say when he saw it was a different kid – a stringy haired girl with a runny nose rubbed raw.  “Where did you come from?” he asked.

She whispered something.


Again he heard the word “bathroom,” so he shut the door and pointed her to the powder room.  He didn’t even bother to warn her about the fancy guest towels. Somehow, he knew it was going to be a long night.

Before the girl had left the bathroom, there was another knock at the door.  This time there was a woman standing there, holding a baby in a filthy rag of a blanket.  Frank couldn’t believe it.  This was like one of those circus acts where people just keep coming out of a car.  “Would you warm it?” she asked.  Frank looked down; she was handing him a baby bottle half filled with frozen milk.

“You’d better do it,” he said.  He got out a saucepan, filled it with water, and turned on the burner.  “The kid – the little girl’s in the bathroom,” he said, nodding in the direction.  He waited, as patiently as he could, for the woman to test the milk on her wrist and shove the bottle into the baby’s mouth, and for the little girl to finish wiping her grubby little hands on all four of the embroidered Irish linen guest towels.

“Now,” he said, “I’m very sorry, but you’re going to have to go.”

“It’s cold out there,” the little girl whined as he gently urged her out the door.

“I know,” he said grimly, going out with her to the rusty Chevy.  The man was sitting behind the wheel with all the windows rolled up.  Frank went to the driver’s side and tapped, but the man didn’t roll the window down.  He looked straight ahead.  Frank banged louder.  “You’re going to have to go.  This isn’t going to work.  You didn’t tell me you had kids with you.”

The man turned slowly and opened the window a crack.  He gave Frank a look – it was the most sarcastic expression Frank had ever seen.  “Just pretend we’re some of them Armenians,” he said and rolled with window up again.

Frank stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do next.  It was so quiet he could hear the soft sounds of the baby drinking its milk.  The little girl was watching from the other side of the Chevy with big scared eyes.  The woman hadn’t moved.  She was till standing in the doorway, the baby cradled in her arms, a dark silhouette against the light streaming from the bright kitchen.  “All is bright ’round yon Virgin Mother and Child.”

A shiver went through Frank.

An unheated barn was no place for a baby.  And then he heard himself:  “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.”  No room in the inn, not for two thousand lousy years.

“Look, why don’t you come into the house.  It’s freezing out here.”

The man smiled grimly.  “Thinking about the Armenians, huh?”

“No,” said Frank, “I was actually thinking about someone else.”

Frank led them into the living room to the fire.  He turned off the TV and went to call Bessie.  He knew he needed help and he was sure she would come.  He’d just tell her he had a houseful of Armenians.

That’s the news from Mount William, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.
[1] Katherine Paterson, “No Room in the Inn,” A Midnight Clear, (New York: Minna Murra, Inc, 1995), 68-82.

[2] Steve Sarles, Facebook status update, (posted and accessed 24 December 2015).

[3] On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak.  Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless. (22 December 2007).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 6, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I don’t think I’ve every preached on Zechariah before. If I have, it must not have been a memorable sermon, because I don’t remember it. He is almost a throwaway character, appearing only in the Luke’s gospel and only here in the first chapter. And the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are pretty much just about setting the stage for the real story.

Prelude and foreshadowing, is seems to me, is what Luke is doing in these two chapters. We love the stories he tells in these chapters. We love the story of the birth of the baptizer and, of course, Jesus. We love the story of the adolescent Jesus (the only canonical gospel to include one). But these stories just set the stage. It’s in chapter 3 that we get to the meaty stuff, to the important stuff. In chapter 3, we get to the ministry of Jesus.

Prelude and foreshadowing. “Let me tell you how it started,” Luke seems to say. John and Jesus – those two were special (and Jesus was more special). Heck, even their births were special. You remember Abraham and Sarah, the parents of Judaism, right? They were old and childless and still God said they would parent a great nation. And despite their advanced years, God gave them Isaac. You remember Samuel, the great prophet who anointed our first king? His mother was barren until, through a miracle from God, she gave birth to her son.

It’s like that with John and Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful, but they had no children. Then, despite their advance years, God gave them a child whom they named John. And Jesus, his mother was a virgin – you can’t get more special than that!

Even though it’s just prelude and foreshadowing, Luke gives the story of these births dimension and complexity. Zechariah was a priest in the Temple. This means, when it was his turn, he got to literally get close to God. From time to time, he would go further into the Temple than ordinary folk were allowed to go. “Further in” meant “closer to God,” quite literally, because the inner sanctum of the Temple was where God resided. And if that’s not enough to convince you how special Zechariah was, Luke flat out tells us: Zechariah and Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”


Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One day it was Zechariah’s turn to offer incense within “the sanctuary of the Lord.” When he got there, he was met by an angel. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. Your prayers have been heard. You’re going to have a son. Name him John.”

Zechariah said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The angel, Gabriel, said, “You call that dumb. I’ll show you dumb.” And Zechariah was suddenly dumb, unable to speak. Yeah my paraphrase pun only works in English, but that’s what Luke tells us happened. Zechariah couldn’t speak, and Elizabeth became pregnant.

Zechariah’s journey to silence happens because of his doubts. Gabriel tells Zechariah that God is acting in his life. God has heard your prayers and is giving you a son. God is giving you a special son. Your son will help people turn – metanoia, repent. People will turn to God. Zechariah doubts that is possible, and he is struck mute.

Nine months. For nine months, Zechariah could not speak. That’s long enough for Gabriel to visit a girl named Mary. That’s long enough for a pregnant Mary to visit a pregnant Elizabeth. That’s long enough for Elizabeth to move from pregnancy to birth, for their son to be born.

The child is born. It’s time for the circumcision and for their son to be named. But Zechariah can’t speak. He can’t tell people what his son’s name will be. So Elizabeth speaks up. “He will be called John,” she says.

It is only when Zechariah confirms this choice (in writing), it is only when he carries out his instructions from Gabriel, that he journeys from silence and can speak again. And when his mouth opens again, Zechariah sings. The Benedictus, his song has been called. It is a song of praise. It thanks God for God’s faithfulness. And it tells of the baby’s calling. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

His song ends with these lines: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like our feet are walking the way of peace lately. Just in the past month, I have felt inundated by the news of mass shootings. First in Paris, then at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and then just days ago, the shootings in San Bernardino and Redlands. And I know that all the while there are wars raging in Syria and Iraq, and there is no peace in Israel/Palestine.

Today, we lit the Advent Candle of Peace, proclaiming our hope for peace, but it sure feels like we are walking in the opposite direction.


A first responder attends to a victim of the San Bernardino shootings.

Was it cold-hearted of me that, when the news of the San Bernardino shootings broke, I metaphorically plugged by ears and started saying, “la-la-la-la-la-la”? Maybe. Probably. I didn’t want to hear about it. I didn’t want to know about more carnage. I didn’t want to have to engage the heartache and my own anger over the shooting and what seems to me to be our unwillingness to do something to stop it. To be honest, I didn’t even want to pray about it.

In my denial and avoidance, I journeyed to a useless silence. If I were to pray, what would I say?

God, I can’t imagine the fear and pain and anguish these people are experiencing tonight. I can’t imagine. And I don’t want to imagine, because if I imagine, I’m afraid that my heart will break.
Comfort them God, because I can’t. Let them know that they are not alone.
And comfort me, God. Comfort me because I am angry. Comfort me because I am sick and tired of the carnage we perpetrate on each other. I’m sick and tired of the warring madness.

But when I pray prayers like that, I know how God responds. “I’m glad you’re sick and tired of the warring madness, Jeff. Maybe when you’re sick and tired of it enough you’ll do something about it.” And I don’t want to hear God tell me that. So I journey into silence.

The news cycled quickly. Did you notice how the layers of stories kept getting added? First there was the story about what was happening. Then there was the story about how people were responding. And then there was the story about how people were responding to the responses.

Maura Judkis of The Washington Post covered this third layer on Thursday like this:

“It used to be that ‘thoughts and prayers’ was the least controversial thing a politician could tweet – the bereavement equivalent of a baby-kissing photo-op. But on Wednesday, two shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., attacked a social services center, killing 14. And then a mob of frustrated Twitter users attacked that phrase.

“You would think that ‘thoughts and prayers’ would be impossible to misconstrue. Its sentiment covers a broad base, reaching the religious and agnostics alike. It’s perfectly beige.


“‘Your “thoughts” should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your “prayers” should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again,’ tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represents another town on America’s map of tragedies: Newtown, Conn. ‘God isn’t fixing this,’ blared the front-page headline of the New York Daily News. ThinkProgress’s Igor Volsky tweeted out the amount that thoughts-and-prayers-bearing politicians have received in donations from the National Rifle Association. Some pointed out the difference between tweets by Democratic presidential candidates, which were oriented toward gun control, vs. those of Republican candidates, which expressed prayerful sympathy for the victims. Conservatives accused liberals of mocking their faith. The Atlantic called it ‘prayer-shaming.’”[1]

As much as I object to the shaming of anyone who prays, I have some sympathy for the people angered by the “thoughts and prayers” tweets coming from politicians. I have sympathy for them because I don’t understand how anyone who honestly come to God in prayer about something like this and not be moved to act. But, as columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “We’re not even trying.”

Kristof lists a numbers of approaches and policies that we should consider to reduce the number of gun deaths in our nation (estimated to be about 30,000 this year[2]). And then he acknowledges, “It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.”[3]

I find myself wondering what happened to Zechariah during those nine months of silence. I know that Luke is telling a story, that these things didn’t happen. I also know that the story is true. I know that when we journey to silence, we can hear in a way that we can’t when we’re talking. I also know that there is a time for silence and a time to speak.

So I wonder what Zechariah heard in his nine months of silence. What did he hear? What did he learn? All Luke tells us is that when Zechariah journeyed from his silence, he broke out into a prophetic song of hope and peace.

Theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”[4]


This is a time to speak. This is a time to act. It is time for us to sing songs of hope and peace. It is time for us to move the mountain that is our government and to demand change. There are policies that need to be implemented. There are laws that need to be changed. And, unfortunately, there is a Constitution that needs to be amended.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does give an individual right to own firearms. So it needs to be amended, and retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens has the five words that would do the trick: “when serving in the Militia.” Add these words so the Second Amendment reads (as originally intended), “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”[5]

There’s always a danger in getting specific like that in a sermon. There are, no doubt, people here who think that we shouldn’t amend the Constitution, so if you find yourself starting to form an argument against that specific strategy, consider this option, for tonight. Come join me on the Niles Town Plaza at 5:30 with a candle. Maybe we can find the common ground. Surely we can agree that it is time to stand up.

No community of any political or religious persuasion can endure if that madness is allowed to continue. The time to be counted has come. Now, let us journey to silence so that we might hear more clearly what we should say when we journey from silence.


[1] Maura Judkis, “They send thought and prayers. Why was that considered a bad thing?” The Washington Post, (posted 3 December 2015; accessed 4 December 2015).

[2] Jim Wallis, “Pray. Yes. But Then Act.” In an email from Sojourners (, dated 3 December 2015.

[3] Nicolas Kristof, “On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying,” The New York Times, (posted 2 December 2015; accessed 5 December 2015).

[4] See and many other places.

[5] John Paul Stevens, “The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment,” The Washington Post, (posted 11 April 2014; accessed 3 December 2015).
It is important to note two things about this suggestion:
(1) Ending every individual’s right to bear arms would not make it illegal to own a gun; it would make gun ownership a privilege rather than a right (like driving a car), and therefore subject to regulation (like driving a car).
(2) The term “Militia” has a specific historic meaning. The Militia was a state army, typically drawn from the citizenry. Just because a group of people pull call themselves a “militia” does not make them “the Militia.” For more information, see

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Thanksgiving Sunday, November 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Psalm 126 and Matthew 6:25-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The two biggest sellers in any bookstore, according to Andy Rooney, are the cookbooks and the diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food and the diet books tell you how not to eat any of it.

“Orson Welles once said [or so I’m told], ‘My doctor has advised me to give up those intimate little dinners for four, unless, of course, there are three other people eating with me.’

“… [A] scientist has computed that the average human being eats 16 times his or her own weight in an average year, while a horse eats only eight times its weight. This all seems to prove that if you want to lose weight, you should eat like a horse.”[1]

I bring this up because I know I’m going to over-eat this Thursday.

One of the things I really like about Thanksgiving is that it is the least commercialized of American holidays. I know we’ve lost ground recently, and the day after Thanksgiving is one of the most commercial days of the year, but on Thanksgiving itself, there is no pressure to give material gifts, and Thanksgiving decorations are simple, often earthly and natural. While I suppose some competition can happen in the kitchen, and there is certainly plenty of competition on the football field on Thanksgiving, I don’t sense interpersonal competition on Thanksgiving they way I do at other holidays – everything from how one is dressed on Easter to who give the ‘best’ present at Christmas.

The focus on Thanksgiving is the family, gathering around the dining room table and eating together. And Thanksgiving, as its name implies, is about giving thanks. The Thanksgiving holiday is about gratitude.

This is a good thing. “Gratitude, it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. If … you can find any authentic reason to give thanks, anything that is going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you’re going to be better off.

dreamstimefree_520068“In one study on gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another recorded five hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.

“In a later study by Emmons, people were asked to write every day about things for which they were grateful. Not surprisingly, this daily practice led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly journaling in the first study. But the results showed another benefit: Participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others, or more technically, their ‘pro-social’ motivation.

“Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude group reported more hours of sleep each night, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control group.

“Perhaps most tellingly, the positive changes were markedly noticeable to others. According to the researchers, ‘Spouses of the participants in the gratitude (group) reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control (group).’”[2]

saint-ignatius-loyolaWhile Christians have not approached the practice of gratitude so scientifically, we’ve known for hundreds of years (and probably thousands, and the Jews for thousands of years before that) the value of giving thanks. Ignatius of Loyola, a Catholic who lived in early years of the Reformation, is perhaps the one of the best-known Christian spiritual teachers to codify a method of giving thanks as part of a spiritual discipline. Known as “the Daily Examen,”[3] he created a five-step prayer form that is still used (often in a modified way) today.


The second step involves reviewing the day and giving thanks for your experiences of the day – everything from the smell of coffee brewing (if that’s your thing), to support offered by a friend, to the resources you benefit from, to your abilities to help in some way. Another of the five steps in the Daily Examen as Ignatius created it is confession. I find it interesting that all of the modifications I’m familiar with have dropped or softened this step, but the focus on giving thanks remains strong.[4]

Today’s Psalm comes from a place of gratitude. Psalm 126 is thought most likely to be a song sung by pilgrims as they climbed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Probably written after the Babylonia exile, the Psalm rejoices in the restoration of Israel. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Surprisingly, the response to this restoration by other nations – that is of people who worshipped other gods – is a recognition of the work of Yahweh: “The Lord [that is Yahweh] has done great things for them.” And the song responds that Yahweh has done great things for us, and we rejoice. It is a verse of thanksgiving.

The second verse of the Psalm turns to petition. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” There is a hope of transformation in this petition. Just as Israel’s mourning turned into dancing with the transformation from exile to return, there is a hope that God will transform the lives of those who mourn into joy as well.

In the midst of the news from the past 10 days, I find comfort in this prayer. From the suicide bombing in Beirut to the terror attacks in Paris to the hotel siege in Mali, it seems as if the past ten days have been filled with violence. And now there are people mourning, grieving the deaths of loved ones at the hands of brutal extremists. Just as Israel’s mourning turned to dancing, I pray that God will heal the hearts of those now heavy with sorrow.

However, my prayer for transformation does not end with those who are mourning. My prayer includes the rest of the world. My prayer is that we don’t get sucked into obsessing about the horror and the terror. My prayer is that we don’t succumb to fear.

In a column in The New York Times, Paul Krugman accurately identified was going on here.  The attack in Paris and the other attacks are “an organized attempt to sow panic, which isn’t at all the same thing [as ‘an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization,’ as Jeb Bush put it]. And remarks like that, which blur that distinction and make terrorists seem more powerful than they are, just help the jihadists’ cause.

“Think, for a moment, about what France is and what it represents. It has its problems — what nation doesn’t? — but it’s a robust democracy with a deep well of popular legitimacy. Its defense budget is small compared with ours, but it nonetheless retains a powerful military, and has the resources to make that military much stronger if it chooses. (France’s economy is around 20 times the size of Syria’s.) France is not going to be conquered by ISIS, now or ever. Destroy Western civilization? Not a chance.

“So what was Friday’s attack about? Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators’ fundamental weakness. It isn’t going to establish a caliphate in Paris. What it can do, however, is inspire fear — which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn’t dignify it with the name of war.”[5]

Krugman goes on to analyze the politics of possible responses to this latest round of terrorism, which aren’t important for this sermon. He concludes with these words, “Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.”[6]

stop-terror-turn-off-tvSo, how do we do that? How do we refuse to give in to fear? I believe that one of the ways to do that is with gratitude.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about worrying – and basically he says, “Don’t.” God values you more than the birds, and God provides for them, so don’t worry. God clothes the flowers with splendor and God values you more than flowers, so don’t worry. Don’t worry about the trappings of success that your culture values, but value the things that God values. Today has enough troubles of its own, who why borrow problems from tomorrow?

A wise woman who referred to herself as “a little old lady” from a church I served early in my career used to tell me, “Worry is the interest you pay on borrowed trouble.” Bessie came of age during the depression, so she had an anti-debt philosophy. Don’t buy on credit. You save money and then you buy it, that way you’re not wasting your money on interest. Worry, she was saying, is wasted emotion, interest paid on troubles borrowed from tomorrow. When you worry, all you’re doing is borrowing trouble from the future and paying extra for it now.

Bessie’s point is very practical (though not the easiest thing to do). It is practical, but doesn’t reach the spiritual depth that I think Jesus was making here in this passage. Jesus was saying more than, “Don’t worry.” He was saying, “Trust God.”

The first step to move from anxiety to trust, from fear to faith, is to acknowledge how much God loves you. And for me, the best way to do it, to move that acknowledgement from a thought to a belief is through the practice of thanksgiving. When I truly offer God my thanks for some reason – like the fact that God loves me – I integrate that reason into my being, I claim it as a reality. It becomes a part of my worldview.

Gratitude is the foundation of my relationship with God.

Anne Lamott says that the three essential prayers are “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” If she’s right (and I think she probably is), I think she has them in the wrong order. One of the things I’ve noticed about the spiritual lives of kids is that the first of their authentic personal prayers is, “Thanks.” At camps with grade schoolers, when we have prayer time, that is what they have to say: “Thank you, God.” It is only later that they start praying, “Help, God.” “Help my friend with their problem.” “Help me with my problem.” “Wow” happens early, too, but it’s typically not understood to be a prayer until later.

Gratitude is foundational to a life of prayer. Gratitude is foundational to our relationship with God. And gratitude is foundational to a life of trust, a life of faith, a life that can resist the powers of anxiety and fear. So keep building your foundation.


[1] King Duncan, “Collected Sermons,” quoted in an email from dated 18 November 2015.

[2] Ocean Robbins, “The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier,” Daily Good, (posted 30 October 2013; accessed 18 November 2015). Several corrections made for grammar and clarity.

[3] See, for instance, “Prayerfully Reviewing Your Day: The Daily Examen,”

[4] See, for instance, “How Can I Pray,” and “The Daily Examen,”, and “The Examen: A Daily Prayer,”

[5] Paul Krugman, “Fearing Fear Itself,” The New York Times, (posted and accessed 16 November 2015).

[6] Ibid.

How do we measure up, Holy One?

We know that you do not hold some great scale of good and bad and weigh out our sins and blessings to judge us. Yet we also know that you call us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned and heal the wounded.  You call us to truly see people.

How do we measure up?

We ask, not because we fear your judgment, but because we long to do your will, to follow your way, to be your hands and feet in the world.  We long to serve.  We want to love more deeply.  More deeply.

We were reminded again this week of the world’s need for your love and peace.  We pray for comfort for those who have experienced loss in their families or who have an anniversary of a death this week.  We think especially of those in our community who grieve.  We pray also for comfort for those who have experienced loss because of the acts of terror in France.  God, we pray for peace.  We pray for wholeness in this fragmented world.  We are bold to pray because we are confident that your love is stronger than hate and fear.

And so we pray for Paris.  And not only Paris.  We pray for the world.

We pray for Beirut, reeling form bombings two days before the attacks in Paris, a bombing not covered much if at all in the U.S. press.

We pray for Baghdad where a bomb goes off at a funeral and not one status update in my newsfeed says #Baghdad.

We pray for a world that blames a refugee crisis for a terrorist attack yet does not pause to differentiate between the attacker and a person who claims the same faith and is running from the same attack, filled with the same fear.

We pray for a world where people walking across countries for months, their only belongs on their backs, are told they have no place to go.

We pray for Paris, yes, but not only Pairs. We pray for the world that does not have a prayer for those who no longer have a home to defend, for a world that is falling apart in all corners, and not simply in the towers and cafes we find so familiar.

May the blessing of all blessings, which is peace, bring the light of goodness to every corner of the earth, and the dark of holy stillness into every heart.


This prayer was inspired by and paraphrased from several prayers posted as graphics and in status updates on Facebook in the past 36 hours.


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