A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 4, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:2-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a young teenager, my father’s sister decided to get married.  She’d been married, had a child, and was divorced before I was born.[1]  So I only knew my aunt as a single mother.  I also started reading the Bible and trying to understand what is meant as a young teenager, and I started with the gospels, and I started with Mark (because it’s the shortest).  This means that I read today’s gospel lesson at about the same time my divorced aunt decided to marry her boyfriend.

I was concerned.  I’m not sure if I was more concerned about how Jesus would view my aunt or how the addition of an uncle and his family would impact my family’s celebration of Christmas – but I was concerned.

I was confronted by this scripture reading again about a quarter of a century ago, which seems much too long ago, so let’s just say it was 24 years ago.  I was serving a church in Spokane and was part of an ecumenical lectionary study group:  three episcopal priests, a Disciples of Christ pastor, a Presbyterian pastor or two, me, maybe someone else.

Today’s gospel lesson came up in the lectionary.  It was paired with Genesis 2:18-24, the section of the second creation story where the woman is created from the rib of the man.  It included the sentence Jesus quotes about the two becoming one flesh.  The Psalm was 128, which includes these lines:  “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.  You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.  Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.”[2]

The others in the Bible study started talking about the lessons as I considered the risk of saying out loud what was going on in my heart.  I wasn’t out to very many people in Spokane, but I decided to risk coming out to these colleagues.  I told them that as a gay man, I found these scriptures difficult to hear because they didn’t just ignore my reality, they denied my reality.

Afghan MSF medical personnel treat civilians injured following an offensive against Taliban militants by Afghan and coalition forces at the MSF hospital in Kunduz. Photo from NBC website.

And here we are, 24 years later, with this gospel lesson again.  It’s paired with different readings in the lectionary now, but the reading itself hasn’t changed.  And it feels as if it has little to do with the fact that today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, World Communion Sunday, and the first day of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  And it feels like it has little to do with the fact that during the past week there was yet another mass shooting, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, or that yesterday, a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Afghanistan was bombed by my country, killing 19 people – 12 staff working for the international aid organization and seven patients, including three children – and that a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan labeled the deaths and destruction as “collateral damage.”[3]

Not only does it feel like it has nothing to do with these events, it’s a disturbing passage.  In all honesty, passages like this make me want to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s knife and just remove it from the Bible.

And that’s actually one of the reasons I decided to preach on it.  When I find myself angered by or resistant to some scripture, I take it as a sign that I should do some wrestling with is.  So I’ve been wrestling with the scripture.  And I think, maybe, the scripture is winning.

One of the commentaries I looked at points out, “the prohibition of divorce appears in many early texts of the followers of Jesus … and may derive from Jesus himself.  Some interpreters argue that it was introduced to protect women from being abandoned without support, but there is nothing [overt] in any of these texts to suggest this [is the point Jesus is making].  Further, the Qumran sect also prohibited divorce with the same scriptural argument as here:  marriage was ordained at creation.…  Among his followers the prohibition of divorce might have addressed the situation of those who were separating for celibacy [and was an argument against that practice[4]].…  Biblical law allowed only men to initiate divorce (Deut. 24:1-4), but in this period Jewish women, in accordance with Roman law, also initiated divorces…”[5]  In other words, it’s hard to unpack the social context in which this passage was written.

And as I’ve wrestled with it, I realize that I hear it very personally.  I hear it personally because of my aunt’s marriage when I was a teen and because of how erased it made me feel as a young adult.  And I suspect most of us hear it personally.  The end of reading and hearing it so personally is that is that we end up “feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable.  Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.”[6]

But what if he didn’t.

David Lose is of help here.  “Note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene:  ‘Some Pharisees came and to test him, said “Is it lawful …”’  Did you catch that?  This isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce.  It’s a test.  Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law.  There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce.  Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances.  And with this question/test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.

“And Jesus is having none of it.  He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life.  Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.”[7]

Now, these Pharisees who are testing Jesus probably don’t care about Roman law.  They are testing him about Mosaic law.  And the fact of the matter is that under Mosaic law, only men could file for divorce and, because of the extreme patriarchal nature of the society, divorce left women pretty much without anything – no status, no reputation, no economic security.  Men, Jesus is saying, can’t just cast their wives aside – even though it’s legal.  In fact, the law is meant to protect the vulnerable and the hurting, and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.[8]

The Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, to trap him, about the specifics of a law, and Jesus pushes past pedantic arguments.  Jesus talks about the purpose of the law.  And in doing so, he talks about the kind of community we will be.  Jesus is “inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that is, founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.”[9]

Another reason I think that Jesus as Mark presents him really isn’t focusing on divorce, but on community, is because of the next bit in the lesson, the part about the children.  These days, most Bibles get printed like this.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

You have the scripture translated into English, and the editors have added section headings and they may have decided to put the words attributed to Jesus in red ink to set them off from the other words.  Good translations will also have footnotes to point out when the translation is iffy.

The original looked more like this.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Not only is it in Greek, you’ll notice that the section headings are missing.  That’s because the authors didn’t include them.  For the authors, the writing was one whole.  Even what you see here has editorial additions.  The originals didn’t even have chapter and verse numbers.  The oldest manuscripts don’t even have punctuation and capitalization is completely inconsistent.

For our ears, the narrative in Mark seems to shift.  Jesus was talking about divorce and now he’s talking about children.  No wonder editors put in a new section heading.  But Mark didn’t have the section headings.  There’s a reason the admonition about including children comes right after the test about the law.  Jesus’ reaction to the two situations is essentially the same.

“Let’s recall the context:  Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest.  Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable.  In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus.  Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away.  And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

“This whole passage, I think, is about community.  But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek.  It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent.  Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk.  It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.  This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.”[10]

broken peopleMaybe this quote should have been on the cover of our bulletin today:  “God uses broken people like you and me to rescue broken people like you and me.”[11]

“Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need … [T]o be broken is, in fact, to be human.  And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves.  Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.”[12]

When Mark quotes Jesus about divorce, these words are based in the values that embrace us despite – maybe even because of – our brokenness.  These are Jesus’ family values.  And in the light of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and in the light of World Communion Sunday, and in the shadow of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, and in the shadow of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, I need to be reminded of Jesus’ family values:  that we are a family of broken people rescuing broken people.

And there are plenty of broken people who need us.


[1] The divorce may actually have been after I was born, but I have no memory of every meeting her first husband.

[2] Psalm 128:1-4, NRSV.

[3] Scott Newman and Emma Bowman, “Kunduz Airstrike Reportedly Kills 19 At Doctors Without Borders Hospital,” National Public Radio: The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/03/445435361/after-u-s-airstrike-3-dead-at-doctors-without-borders-hospital (posted and updated 3 October 2015; accessed 3 October 2015).

[4] Though, I would point out that there is nothing overt in any of this text to suggest this is the point Jesus (or rather Mark) is making.

[5] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80-81.

[6] David Lose, “Pentecost 19 B: Communities of the Broken and Blessed,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/ (posted and accessed on 28 September 2015).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Eddie Cortes is a pastor; he blogs at http://eddiecortes.com.

[12] David Lose, op. cit., spelling error corrected.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 27, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  James 5:13-20 and Esther 7:1-6
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Jessie[1] was deeply loved.  She was respected, appreciated, and deeply loved.  This was especially true at church.  People wanted to be near her.  They listened to her opinions, expecting gems of wisdom to be hidden in them.  The children loved her, too, and their parents wanted them to grow up to be like her.

She was in her 70s when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  It started with surgery.  There was something wrong that led them to do exploratory surgery.  When they opened her up, they saw that the cancer and that it had spread so thoroughly through her abdomen that they just she sewed her back up.  The prognosis wasn’t good:  statistics said she had weeks, maybe a couple months to live.  They could try throwing some chemotherapy at the cancer, and that might give her a few more months, but they would be pretty miserable.

Jessie decided she was an anecdote, not a statistic.  She would undergo the chemotherapy and she would pray and she would ask her church to pray for her.  At her request, we even arranged a special prayer service for her in which we anointed her with oil, laid hands on her, and prayed for healing.  The tumors shrank.  Some disappeared.  And Jessie had two more years of mostly vital life before the tumors started to grow again and she died.

Carol, a member at the same church, was seen as a bit of an odd duck.  People would listen to her, but they didn’t listen for the wisdom in her opinions.  She was welcomed.  She was loved.  But she wasn’t loved deeply.

Several years after I left that church, Carol was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  It, too, had metastasized and her prognosis was not good.  She underwent treatment.  People prayed for her.  The church might have held a special healing service for her, too.  There was no remission.  There wasn’t even any significant abatement of the tumors or the symptoms.  And it wasn’t long until Carol died.

I share this story because it feels like every time I read a story about a miraculous healing in the Bible, Jessie comes to mind.  And then Carol comes to mind.  And I wonder:  Why?  Why is the grace of healing so arbitrary?

Today is one of those days.  We don’t read about a specific healing, but in our epistle lesson we hear this directive:  “Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  And, let’s face it, the Bible is rife with stories of healings.  Healings are at the core of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus may well have understood himself to be an itinerant healer as much as an itinerant preacher or rabbi.

But there’s no getting around it:  scientifically unexplained healing is a big problem for many North American Christians – you know, people like me.  I am enough of a modernist that I have a degree of discomfort with the scientifically unexplainable.  I’m one of those Christians for whom the Enlightenment legacy of science and rationalism leaves me wanting to point to medical interventions and programs that support people to explain healings.

And yet, there is my experience of Jessie and there are those stories about Jesus.  And those healing stories are important to the whole story.  “[Jesus’] healing powers drew the crowds to him, and his ability to heal also lent credibility to his radical, socially transforming teachings.

“Most of us are [at least to some extent] at home with the idea that prayer facilitates healing.  But we like to imagine the vehicle of that healing as the best available medical work aided by unexplained resiliency on the part of the patient.  It is this unexplained resiliency that we like to attribute to prayer.  Put that recovery in a fervent prayer service and we get a little antsy.  Take away the medical care, put the healing in a tent meeting, and make the condition a bit more difficult (congenital blindness from birth, say), and you can cut the skepticism with a knife.”[2]

Skepticism aside, Author Dee Dee Risher notes that most of the gospel stories about Jesus healing people take place outside synagogues, outside in the streets and in the deserts.  This isn’t surprising.  To quote her, “There were practical reasons [for the healings to take place outside that are] rooted in social divisions.  The priestly code made many of those with illnesses (leprosy, bleeding, deformed parts of the body, lameness, blindness) social outcasts.  If Jesus was a healer, his ministry would necessarily focus on the most marginal and powerless members of the social order.  His healing challenged the assumptions of a society that drew lines around who was in and who was out.  It redefined community and social class.”[3]

As I read Risher’s words, I thought about our identity as an Open and Affirming congregation and what that means.  The Open and Affirming movement is a healing movement.  The ONA movement at its best brings the church out of itself and into the streets.  It brings the church to people who have been marginalized because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and says, “You are whole; you are welcomed; you are loved.”  It is a prayer of healing spoken in actions as much as words.  That’s why I put the quote from Pope Francis on the cover of our bulletin.  “You pray for the hungry.  Then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  He’s saying, I think, that prayer is great, and it should lead to action.

The story of Esther connects up here.  The Book of Esther stands as a complete story, so it’s a bit of a challenge to read one passage without the back-story.  Casey did a great job of summarizing.  Queen Vashti snubs the Persian king, so he decides to divorce her.  He looks for a replacement queen and picks the secretly Jewish Esther.  The evil Haman gets upset at the man who raised Esther, her cousin Mordecai, and so Haman decides that all the Jews need to be killed.  Mordecai pushes Esther to go to the king to plead for the lives of the Jews, even though approaching the king without being summoned is life-threateningly dangerous.  Esther does approach the king and, as we heard in today’s reading, pleads for their lives and (trumpet fanfare) is successful!

One of the interesting things about this story is that God is never directly mentioned.  Here it is, one of the books of the Bible, and God isn’t mentioned.  But there is a line in chapter 4 that points to God.  When he’s trying to convince her to go to the king and plead for the Jews, Mordecai says, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”[4]  There is a hint in here, in this line, of the possibility of fate not being random, of there being a power that moves in our lives for a purpose.  This line points to God.

Esther’s response to Mordecai in an invitation, a direction to an ancient spiritual practice:  “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day.  I and my maids will also fast as you do.  After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”[5]  Get the whole community to engage in this spiritual practice to help me prepare to risk my life for the sake of justice.

It reminds me a little bit of the homework assignment Pope Francis has been giving us during his visit to the United States:    “Before going, I want to give you some homework.  Can I?” the New York Times quotes him.  “Please don’t forget to pray for me, so that I can share with many people the joy of Jesus.”[6]  People facing important duties need to know that others are standing behind them, holding them in holy light, empowering their work.  That’s why your pastors, your Cabinet members, and your Care Team are listed on the weekly prayer request email.

At the Daytime Women’s Fellowship meeting on the Monday just past, I asked the women what spiritual practices they found grounded them and connected them to God.  I was walking around with the microphone, so I wasn’t taking notes, and I don’t remember everything that was said.  Nonetheless, two responses have stuck with me.  I think they stuck with me because they offered me a little “aha!” moment.

One person said that she approached embracing change as a spiritual practice.  I think that’s quite profound.  Embracing change is an act of trust.  And if faith is much more about trust than it is about belief (and I think it is), then embracing change is an act of faith.

The other spiritual practice that stuck with me from Monday was the practice of embracing one another.  The person who shared this meant literally touching, holding hands, giving them a squeeze, offering and receiving a hug.  This practice must be done with sensitivity.  Some people don’t like to be touched at all.  Some people are comfortable with a handshake but not a hug.  Others are all in.  We need to respect the touch limits of ourselves and of others.  That said, I really appreciate the idea of embracing each other as a spiritual practice.  For it to be a spiritual practice, embracing one another needs to be about seeing the presence of the divine in each other and expressing divine love for each other.  I think that’s pretty glorious.

If you follow the church’s Facebook page, you might have noticed that most of this past week’s posts had to do with spiritual practices.  Yesterday, this Deepak Chopra quotes was posted:  “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.”  It was posted with a question, “Which would you rather have?”  I’m pleased that the comments said that this was a false dichotomy, that in fact the two work together.

Earlier in the week, we posted a Bruce Lee quote:  “The usefulness of the cup is in its emptiness.”  It was followed by this image.

There were others, and perhaps you noticed that only one of the Facebook posts had anything to do with intercessory prayer, and then only obliquely.  “Don’t worry about anything.  Pray about everything.”

The author of this letter we call “James” offers similar advice.  If you’re suffering, pray.  If you’re cheerful, pray.  If you’re sick, pray – and get others to pray for you, too.  “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” the author writes.

And I’m with him up to this point – and then he uses Elijah as an example.  Elijah prayed for drought and it happened.  Then he prayed for rain and the rains came.  My problem here is that that this sort of intercessory prayer treats God like a fairy godmother, a cosmic bellhop.  Here’s what I want God.  Make it happen.

For me, intercessory prayer is much more confessional.  God, this is what I’m concerned about and this is what I’d like to have happen, but you know better than me.  God, this is what I’m concerned about.  Help transform me to make a difference.  First I pray about the hungry.  Then I feed them.  That’s how prayer works.

Fr. Richard Rohr

Father Richard Rohr once said, “To pray is to build your own house.  To pray is to discover that Someone else is within your house.  To pray is to recognize that this is not your house at all.  To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House.  And that One House is everybody’s Home.…  That is the politics of prayer.  And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort.  They want our allegiance and we can no longer give it.  Our house is too big.”[7]

I titled this sermon “Spiritual Advice” because that’s what I think the author of James is doing in this passage.  I’ll take the opportunity to offer a little spiritual advice of my own.  Find a spiritual practice or two or three or eight that opens your heart to the presence of God.  Then practice it – or them – and trust God to do the rest.


[1] The names in this story have been changed.  I am retelling it as accurately as I can remember it.

[2] Dee Dee Risher, “The Stumbling Block of Healing,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/stumbling-block-healing (accessed 21 September 2015); emphasis added.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Esther 4:14

[5] Esther 4:16

[6] Quoted from The New York Times by Glen Miles and posted on Facebook, 25 September 2015.

[7] Father Richard Rohr, quoted by Randall Mullins on Facebook, 26 September 2015.

The United States imprisons more of its own people than any other country in the world.  While the U.S. comprises 5% of the total global population; it alone accounts for a staggering 25% of the world’s prison population.   Indeed, more than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, while more than 5 million additional persons are under the supervision of its justice system, either on probation or on parole. All totaled, there are over 7 million people currently subject to the U.S. criminal justice system.[1]

Moreover, the U.S. prison population is far from representative of the nation’s population as a whole. For instance, while African American males comprise only 6% of the U.S. population, they make up 40% of those in prison or jail. African American males have a 32% chance of serving time at some point in their lives, while white males have only a 6% chance.

Accompanying these one million incarcerated African American males are 283,000 Hispanics, whose own numbers represent a 219% increase in the last ten years. Hispanic males have a 17% chance of serving time at some point in their lives as compared to 6% of white males, as noted above.

Prisons and jails have become America’s “new asylums.” The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold.  Most of the individuals who are mentally ill in prisons and jails would have been treated in the state psychiatric hospitals in the years before the deinstitutionalization movement led to the closing of the hospitals, a trend that continues even today.  Nationwide, people with mental health conditions constitute 64% of the jail population.[2]

Besides these shocking statistics, low income persons and young people are especially vulnerable to becoming entrapped in our prisons and jails. The conclusion is clear that the criminal justice system in this country constitutes a calamitous racial, health, and economic injustice.

As people of faith, we are called to dismantle systems that violate human and civil rights. This resolution is intended to mobilize members of the United Church of Christ to join the burgeoning movement of faith and community organizations to halt the rapidly growing trend of mass incarceration in this country and thereby dismantle the new caste system it has created.

There’s a great video about this on The Atlantic‘s website:

[1]U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Census Bureau.

[2]U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Prisoners 2006.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 20, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:30-37
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I assume all of you heard the news about the 14-year-old who was arrested at his Irving, Texas, high school this week.[1]  I want to take you on a journey, a retracing of my experience of this news as it unfolded because I think it is germane to my sermon topic today.

Ahmed Mohamed being arrested. Photo from NBC

For me, the news broke in my Facebook feed.  A 14-year-old boy was arrested in Texas when an electronic clock he made as a project for his engineering class was mistaken for a bomb.  I thought some disparaging thoughts about Texas and scrolled on to the next post.  After all, schools have a responsibility to keep students safe, and if one student did something that threatened or even seemed to threaten the others, the school administration needed to react.

More posts showed up in my Facebook feed when I checked it throughout the day, so I clicked on one.  The first thing I noticed was the kid’s name:  Ahmed Mohamed.  I wondered if the level of suspicion would have been as high if the boy was named Paul Christianson.

And I started wondering about the school staff.  How could they possibly mistake a clock for a bomb?  Had the kid made any threats? No.  Had he ever claimed it was anything but a clock? No.  Did it look like there were explosives? No, it was built in a pencil case.  Why on earth did they call the police and why on earth did the police arrest the kid?

Photo of pencil box in which Ahmed built his clock, released by police.

I was relieved when I started seeing the reactions of people outside Irving, Texas.  My favorite response was from the President, posted on Twitter almost immediately after the story broke:  “Cool clock, Ahmed.  Want to bring it to the White House?  We should inspire more kids like you to like science.  It’s what makes America great.”[2]  Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to visit Facebook and said that he wanted to meet the kid.  The chair of theoretical physics at MIT (Ahmed’s dream school) invited him to come visit (and to visit Harvard) saying that she knows Ahmed likes the hands-on stuff, but the theory of physics can be interesting, too.  And, under the heading of “Get arrested and get cool swag,” Microsoft’s CEO sent Ahmed a care package.[3]

Care package from Microsoft CEO. Photo from Microsoft News

Still, there was part of me that thought, “This was a really stupid mistake on the part of the school and the police, but they do have a responsibility to protect the students.”  And then I read a Facebook post[4] that changed my mind.  This post pointed out that they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when you think that there’s a bomb.  They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a suspicious package.  They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do if you think he has a bomb.  They put him and the clock in an office, they waited with him for the police to arrive, they put Ahmed and the clock in a police car, and when they got to the police station, they took pictures of it.  They never thought he had a bomb.

At first, I thought the issue was fear – fear of the object, maybe even fear of the object because a Muslim kid built it.  Now I’m inclined to think that the issue is fear – fear that a brown-skinned, Muslim kid could excel, could be creative, might achieve.

Fear makes us do stupid things.

Yes, sometimes fear is helpful.  Over the eons, our fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening situations probably kept Homo sapiens from extinction.  And in some situations, the fear response is still very helpful because it keeps us safe.  But fear can be a conditioned response based on nothing threatening.  Many of the things we fear we learned to fear.  We weren’t afraid of them until experience or culture taught us to be afraid.  And those learned fears often lead to prejudices.  And those prejudices lead to injustices.  Fear can move us to do stupid things.

Or as David Lose puts it, “Fear has this way of leading you to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing your vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities.  Which is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when you are afraid.”[5]

“This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith.  Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid.  And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom.  Fear does that.  It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.”[6]

Mark contrasts faith and fear in other places in his gospel.  After he stills the storm that terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  As he revives Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36).

“Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives [us] to despair.”[7]

So, here’s a question for you:  What are you afraid of?

I would actually like you to reflect on this question.  Jot down your answers on a corner of your copy of the bulletin.  Push past the phobia answers (for me, that’s snakes; an easy but not instructive answer).  Push past, look inside and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?”

As I sat with this question this week, these are the answers I came up with:  Perhaps because I keep seeing articles about the astronomical costs for housing in San Francisco that is driving up housing costs throughout the Bay Area, I’m afraid I may not have enough savings to retire.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s a fear.  But what are you really afraid of, Jeff?”  And I looked deeper inside discovered that I’m afraid of being rejected or shamed; and I’m afraid of anger – my own anger and anger in other people.

I share these fears not because I expect any of you to fix them (or me).  That’s not your job.  They are my fears.  I share them because I think this is a safe space where I can be real.  I share them because I trust you to hear them.  I share them to encourage you to look inside yourself to discover what you really fear.  And I share them because, as Mark is pointing out, there is a relationship between fear and faith.

Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation faith.  And by faith, I don’t mean giving our intellectual assent to some proposition – as if believing the right things about God somehow inoculates us from fear.  Rather, I mean faith “as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.

“Note what follows the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ probing question that only exposes the depth of their anxiety:  Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.

“These are small things when you think about it.  Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger.  But they are available to each and all of us every single day.  And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”[8]

I began thinking that the Irving high school over-reaction to Ahmed’s clock was understandable.  We want our schools to be a safe space for our children.  The over-reaction may have exposed how unsafe the schools are – not because of the students, but because of the unnamed, unconscious fears of the adults.

Our lesson from Mark suggests ways to make those school and our churches and every place safer spaces for everyone:  When we make the small gestures of caring, of compassion, of welcome, of honesty,  and when we receive those gestures with gratitude and trust.


[1] Bill Chappell, “Texas High School Student Shows Off Homemade Clock, Gets Handcuffed,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/16/440820557/high-school-student-shows-off-homemade-clock-gets-handcuffed (posted 16 September 2015, accessed 19 September 2015).

[2] Barack Obama, Twitter, https://twitter.com/POTUS/status/644193755814342656 (posted and accessed 16 September 2015).

[3] Mehedi Hassan, “Ahmed Mohamed gets Surface Pro 3, and more goodies from Microsoft CEO,” Microsoft News, http://microsoft-news.com/ahmed-mohamed-gets-surface-pro-3-and-more-goodies-from-microsoft-ceo/ (posted and accessed 19 September 2015).

[4] I have since seen this post attributed to several people, so I don’t know who wrote it originally.

[5] David Lose, “Pentecost 17B: Faith & Fear,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-17-b-faith-fear/ (posted and accessed 14 September 2015).

[6] Ibid, emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 13, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: James 3:1-6 and Mark 8:27-38
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

President Jimmy Carter and his mother, Miss Lillian Carter

There is a story I remember from when Jimmy Carter was first running for president. This is almost 40 years ago, so I have no idea if I have the facts correct, but this is how I remember the story. Miss Lillian, Jimmy’s mother, was scheduled to be interviewed by a network reporter, I think it might have been Connie Chung (and I’ll pretend that it was). So Connie showed up a Miss Lillian’s home, and Miss Lillian opened the door and welcomed Connie saying something like, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.”

Now, someone had claimed that someone had never lied – I think it was that Jimmy claimed that his mother had never lied, or that Miss Lillian claimed that Jimmy had never lied. In any event, Connie asked Miss Lillian if that was true. Was it true that whoever it was had never lied? “It’s true,” Miss Lillian replied. “Well, maybe a little white lie every now and again.”

Thinking that a lie is a lie, Connie challenged Miss Lillian: “A little white lie? What is that?”

“Well, do you remember when you arrived and I told you, ‘I’m so glad you’re here’?”

During my vacation I had the opportunity to do some reading and to listen to some audiobooks and I drove to and from Washington. One of the books was The Four Agreements. I have friends who say it is a powerful book, one that I should read, so I put it on my list. (Have any of your read it?) Claiming to base his writing in ancient Toltec wisdom, the author has identified “four agreements” that, if adopted, will reframe our view of the world and lead us to a life of joy and personal freedom.

The first of these four agreements is, “Be Impeccable with your Word.” This is a call to speak with integrity, to say only what you mean. To adopt this agreement is to avoid using our words to speak against ourselves or to gossip about others, to use the power of our words in the direction of truth and love.

This agreement says that Miss Lillian’s “little white lies” are a problem. But I can’t imagine how the interview would have gone if she had greeted the reporter with, “Well, I don’t want to do this, but I’m told it will help my son, so you might as well come in.” And I can’t help but think of the ending of the movie Mr. Holmes (spoiler alert) where the great fictional detective, who had based his career on facts and logic and deductive reasoning, learns the value of lying to help someone’s emotional wounds heal.

I can’t help wondering, is lying ever good? I certainly don’t want political leaders lying to me. But isn’t a lie sometimes the less painful route? Or does a lie, no matter how well meaning, create a falsehood that ultimately is hurtful simply because it is a falsehood?

“In a sense, social constructivists are correct about words creating reality,” writes John A. Johnson in Psychology Today. “We act on what we tell ourselves is real. Albert Ellis [the American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy] encouraged us to screen our self-talk for negative, irrational chatter. So, what kinds of words to you use when you describe reality? Do you lie and say hurtful and poisonous things about yourself and others? Not healthy! To be impeccable with your word is to be truthful and to say things that have a positive influence on yourself and others.”[1]

This seems to me to be where the author of the letter we call “James” seems to be going. “We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely.” The author of this epistle is saying that when we have control over our words, we won’t lead ourselves astray.

The Rim Fire, 2013

The author uses another analogy: the rudder on a ship. The rudder does not need to be very large (and often is no bigger than an oar) to steer a ship. In like manner, our tongues steer our bodies. And then a third analogy, one we know all to well in California this summer: “a small flame can set a whole forest on fire.” Carelessness with campfires can start wildfires. Carelessness with our words can set lives ablaze.

The author focuses on the potential negative consequences of our words, but I hear in this reading the potential positive consequences of our words. Just as a large ship can be steered by a small rudder toward the sandbar, it can also be steered away into the deep waters. A life need not be set ablaze with the flames of hell by our words. It can be set ablaze with compassion and service and justice and love.

In our gospel lesson, Peter’s words start to steer him toward deep waters, and then they get him in trouble. “The geographic setting of this passage is very significant.”[2] Jesus and his disciples are in the villages near Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a town built by the occupying Roman Empire and became an administrative capital for the political powers.[3] Here, in the shadow of Roman power, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say he is. They reply that people say he is one of the prophets (apparently a prophet come back to life).

Then he asks them who they say he is. Peter says that he is “the anointed,” which in Greek is “the Christ.” This is the first time that any human voice has called Jesus the Christ in Mark’s gospel. Peter’s words are profound and seem to be leading him to something deep.

Jesus shares what it means to be the Christ: the religious and political elites will reject him and kill him. Peter will have not of it and, as the Common English Bible translates the Greek, “scolds” Jesus – and his words steer him toward the sandbar. Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

Jesuit theologian Carlos Bravo points out, “‘Jesus remonstrates [Peter] in the harshest words he ever uses against anyone,’ and in doing so, demonstrates that ‘Peter’s proposal is a temptation for him.’ Bravo’s observation suggests that Jesus still struggles profoundly with the consequences of his choices; by confirming his unwavering commitment to the God of mercy, whose love and loyalty to the poor is good news to the outcast but threatens those in power, Jesus also confirms his violent fate at the hands of the church and the state.”[4]

“Only through this path can he show that God’s love for us is real and triumphant over death. Over and over Jesus must explain kingdom values, as opposed to human values that prioritize power, status, and exclusivity. He must insist that the mission is not to be served, but to serve; not to be first, but to be last.”[5]

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me,” Jesus said. “Miguel D’Escoto of Nicaragua once observed, ‘I don’t think we Christians have understood what carrying the cross means: the path of baptism. We are not carrying the cross when we are poor or sick, or suffering small everyday things. They are all part of life. The cross comes when we try to change things. That is how it came for Jesus.’”[6]

I think D’Escoto is right, that the cross comes when we try to change things – and not just when we try to change big things out there, political things. The cross can come when we try to change things in here, inside our being. My friend Thom Longino says, “For me, [taking up our cross] is not about being seen in the public square, suffering the slings and arrows for our faith. Rather, it means we all have ongoing, shadow work to do. Spirituality is about looking at ourselves honestly, to be aware of where the outflowing of love and mercy is blocked in ourselves. Taking up our cross daily means a daily, personal inventory of where we need to grow in our various relationships: with self, others, and God.”[7] Perhaps another way to put that is to be completely honest with ourselves, to be impeccable with our words.

For me, it’s both/and. For me, taking up the cross is about changing things out there and in here. For me, taking up the cross is about making a difference. And James says that we can make a difference. Our words make a difference because our words lead us to actions. They can lead us to actions that set a forest ablaze or actions that set a heart ablaze. The difference between the two fires is whether our words lead us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.


[1] John A. Johnson, PhD, “Agreeing with The Four Agreements,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cui-bono/201012/agreeing-the-four-agreements (posted 29 December 2010; accessed 12 September 2015).

[2] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds September 13, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_13_2015 (accessed 12 September 2015).

[3] “Caesarea Philippi,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi (accessed 12 September 2015).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “An Upside-Down Reign,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/upside-down-reign (accessed 11 August 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter B. Price, “Getting it Straight,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/getting-it-straight (accessed 11 August 2015).

[7] Thom Longino, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/junkersophia, dated 8 September 2015, 3:20 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quote attributed to Camille Pissarro.

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

[8] David Lose, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid, 130-131.

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

[6] Ibid.

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

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

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

Bishop John Shelby Spong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid, 53.

[3] Ibid, 127-128.

[4] Ibid, 130.

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

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about you?

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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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

[2] Ibid.


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