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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude is the foundation of my relationship with God.

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

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


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

[2] Ocean Robbins, “The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier,” Daily Good, http://www.dailygood.org/story/578/the-neuroscience-of-why-gratitude-makes-us-healthier-ocean-robbins/ (posted 30 October 2013; accessed 18 November 2015). Several corrections made for grammar and clarity.

[3] See, for instance, “Prayerfully Reviewing Your Day: The Daily Examen,” http://www.loyolapress.com/prayerfully-reviewing-your-day-daily-examen.htm.

[4] See, for instance, “How Can I Pray,” http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray and “The Daily Examen,” http://jesuits.org/spirituality?PAGE=DTN-20130520125910, and “The Examen: A Daily Prayer,” http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/jesuit-a-z/daily-examen.cfm.

[5] Paul Krugman, “Fearing Fear Itself,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/opinion/fearing-fear-itself.html (posted and accessed 16 November 2015).

[6] Ibid.

How do we measure up, Holy One?

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

How do we measure up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 8, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 12:38-44 and Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve been ordained a little over 27 years. That means that today is the tenth time that gospel lesson has come up in the lectionary. Always in the fall, always right around pledge time, every three years, we hear the story of the widow putting her two pennies in the Temple treasury and receiving Jesus’ praise.

I wasn’t preaching every week when I started as a pastor, so I suspect this is probably only the seventh time or so that I’ve preached on this passage. I’ll tell you the focus on my sermons in the past. The widow give more than the others because she gave more proportionally. With apologies to those of you who don’t like math, there are at least two ways to look at how much money you give to the church (or to any organization). You can look at the total you give, or you can look at the percentage (the proportion) of your income (or your net worth) that you give.

The widow’s mite.

Without a doubt, the rich people in the story put in much more than the widow – in terms of total given. They put in “large sums,” Matthew tells us. The widow put in two copper coins worth about a penny. But they are rich and the widow is poor. As a percentage of their net worth, they are way below what the widow put in. “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” She gave 100%; there’s no way the others reached that level of proportional giving.

And the conclusions of those sermons? Brava for the widow; let’s be like her.

I’m reminded of the joke about businesswoman who came to church to pray. She had a big decision to make. She sat in a pew next to a guy who was mumbling his own prayer. “God, I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the end of the week. Right now, it’s a choice between paying the power bill and buying food, so I need $100 to make it.” The businesswoman reached into her wallet, pulled out a $100 bill and pressed it into the man’s hand. The man was elated, praised God, and lets the sanctuary filled with joy. The businesswoman prayed, “Well, God, now that I have your undivided attention.”

I’m not sure what the moral of that joke is, but I was reminded of it.

I still believe that looking at the proportion of your income is a much better gage of your financial support of God’s mission than looking at the total dollar amount. But based on my study of this scripture over the past week, I think I’ve been interpreting this scripture wrong for the past 27 years.

How do you hear Jesus’ description of the poor widow’s offering – is it praise or lament? To put it another way: Is Jesus holding up the widow and her offering as an example of great faith and profound stewardship, or is he expressing his remorse that she has given – perhaps feels compelled – to give away the little she has left?”[1]

David Lose put together a pretty good list of reasons that Jesus’ tone of voice is more likely to be lament:

  • “This passage is part of a larger set of passages that focus on Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees and center on his critique of the Temple. Indeed, ever since Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly (in ch. 11), he has done little else except teach in the Temple and debate with the religious leadership there.
  • “The first verses of this week’s passage condemn the scribes precisely for ‘devouring widow’s houses’ – shorthand for pretty much everything they own.
  • “In the passage immediately after this one, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple itself, seemingly the culmination of his attack on the religious establishment of Jerusalem, an attack that has prompted his opponents to seek first his arrest (12:12) and, eventually, death (14:1).
  • “Notably, there is actually no word of praise in Jesus’ statement about the widow or any indication that Jesus is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing. Which makes how we imagine his tone of voice – praise or lament – so critical.

“All of this leads me to conclude that Jesus isn’t actually lifting her up as an example but rather decrying the circumstances that demand her to make such an offering, a sacrifice that will likely lead to destitution if not death. He is, in short, leveling a devastating critique against Temple practice and those who allow, let alone encourage, this woman to give ‘all she had to live on’ (or, in a more literal translation of the Greek, her whole life!).”[2]

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is also about widows. The way the story goes in the Bible, Naomi was a Hebrew who was married to a Hebrew. They had two sons. When famine struck their land, they fled to Moab where there was food. There, her two sons got married. They married outside their faith and nationality; they married Moabites. Then tragedy struck. Naomi’s husband and her two sons died, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. Given their culture and the role of women in that culture, they were in a bad way. Naomi had no way to provide for her daughters-in-law, so she decided to return to Judah and she told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab where they might be able to find new husbands.

One of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, took her advice, but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, would have none of it. And at this point, we hear some of the most lyric lines in scripture: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.”

When Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem, they were still widows without a man to provide for them. Their options were very limited. They turned to gleaning, going to the fields after the harvest and gathering what the farmers left behind. Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs, “You shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.… You shall leave them for the poor and for the foreigner.”

“Such sloppy harvesting would be an affront to our modern notions of efficiency. Harvesting machinery is designed to gather every kernel possible, milking machines vacuum every drop a cow can give. Never mind that the surplus will as likely mold or be destroyed as be given to the poor and refugee.

“In contrast, implied in gleaning is an ethic of gratefulness for the source of the harvest – an acknowledgment that the growth of the grain is a gift given above and beyond the farmer’s work, a gift of God’s provision that must be shared.”[3]

As the younger woman, Ruth did the actual gleaning. She found fields whose owners obeyed this Hebrew law in order to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi. One of the fields she went to was owned by Boaz, a distant relative to the family she married into. Boaz noticed Ruth’s kindness and hard work for Naomi (far beyond the call of duty) and responded by taking the gleaning code further. He instructed his workers to leave extra grain for Ruth to gather (2:15-16).

And then we get to today’s reading. Naomi figures out that Boaz might make a suitable husband for Ruth, so she instructs Ruth on how to entice him. The two get married. They have a baby, a son, and the Naomi’s lineage is safe.

Our scripture stories are filled with choices the characters make. The rich men in the Temple choose to benefit from a system that abuses the vulnerable. The widow in the Temple chooses to give everything she has to the Temple treasury. Ruth chooses to follow Naomi back to Judah. She chooses to go out into the fields to glean. Naomi chooses to coach Ruth on how to entice Boaz. Ruth chooses to follow Naomi’s advice. Boaz chooses to marry Ruth.

Every one of these choices is a stewardship choice. In fact, every choice we make is a stewardship choice – and we are constantly making choices.

Maybe it would be good to define what I mean by stewardship. Stewardship is the management of something. Good stewardship implies an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management. Christian stewardship implies that that ethic is grounded in Christian ethics.

Just using our scripture stories for examples, here’s what I mean by every choice we make is a stewardship choice.
The widow chose to come Temple in the first place: a choice about the stewardship of her time and energy.
She chose to give the money to the Temple: a choice about the stewardship of her finances.
Naomi and her husband chose to move to Moab: a choice that impacts how they manage, how they care for every aspect of they life.
After the death of the men in the family, Naomi chose to return to Judah: a choice that impacts how she manages her life.
Ruth chose to go with her: a choice about the stewardship of her identity, the stewardship of her compassion, and the stewardship of birth family and her family of choice.
And Ruth chose to get all dolled up and to “uncover Boaz’s feet” where he slept: a choice about the stewardship of her body and her sexuality.

Now, there are lots of influences on our choices. In the story of Ruth, we know that famine is an influence on several of the choices that get made. Hunger influences her choice to go gleaning. Consider the risks that Ruth takes just in choosing to go gleaning so she and Naomi can eat, scraping up sustenance from the leftovers of those with plenty. She wanders as a stranger in foreign fields. She is there, a woman alone, when a woman alone was vulnerable to harassment or worse. We see in Ruth the plight of the refugee, the widow, the migrant worker.[4] For the widow at the Temple in our Gospel lesson, there are the pressures that cause her to give all she has to the Temple, pressures Jesus objects to.

Influences or not, every choice we make is a stewardship choice. Stewardship is everything we do, because everything we do is an expression of how we care for our time, our financial resources, our relationships, our skills, our community, our neighbors, our bodies, our – well – everything.

growlogobrownI’m supposed to be taking about the third word in our three-word summary of our mission and purpose as a church. Two weeks ago, Pastor Brenda spoke about our stewardship of welcome. Last week, I spoke about our stewardship of growth. And this week, I’m supposed to be speaking about our stewardship of service. So let me connect that up to the themes in our scripture lessons.

Service can really take two forms. One is the direct service that meets someone’s needs. The special offering we receive today for Abode Service’s Home Warming program is an example of this. Some family is going to become homeless this year and Abode Services will call on us to quickly come up with the money to help get them back into housing – the security deposit, etc. – and to help them with furnishings if they need them. Our offering today will be held until Abode calls on us, and our hope is that what we receive today will be enough to cover those costs. So, someone will be in need and we will respond. That’s what Boaz did when he instructed his farm hands to be a extra sloppy in their harvesting.

However, this is not what is happening at the Temple. Here, the system is “devouring widows’ homes.” Here, the system is making a woman with nothing feel like she has to put what little she has into the temple treasury. And this is where the second form of service comes in. If the system is poor societal stewardship, how are we working to change it? Every governmental law and policy is an attempt to influence stewardship and if they move us, individually or communally, into poor stewardship, then we need to change those laws and policies. Laws and policies and practices that devour widows’ homes need to be changed, and our choices to help make that happen is the other way we are stewards of service.

If you’re newly worshiping with us, this last bit of today’s sermon really isn’t for you, so please just stand by. This last part of the sermon is for the members and friends of the church.

If you didn’t receive it yesterday, you should receive it Monday: a pledge form for your financial support of the church in 2016. This is an invitation to make a commitment, a stewardship commitment for next year. While the form asks for a dollar amount, I encourage you, as I said earlier, to look at that commitment as a percentage of your income rather than as a total dollar amount. Please don’t be like the widow and give all you have. Don’t let your commitment push you into further debt. Do let your commitment be an expression of your stewardship of your finances. Do let your commitment express how much you value our mission to welcome, grow, and serve.

And remember that this is hardly the only stewardship choice you’re going to make this week. Everything you do (or don’t do), every choice you make is a stewardship choice. Because stewardship is everything you do. And Christian stewardship is everything you do after you say, “I believe.”


[1] David Lose, “Pentecost 24 B: Surprisingly Good News,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/pentecost-24-b-surprisingly-good-news/ (posted and accessed on 3 November 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julie Polter, “Gleaning Grace,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gleaning-grace (accessed 3 November 2015).

[4] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 11:32-44 and Isaiah 25:6-9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Four days.  Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days by the time Jesus shows up.  If only he had come earlier, before Lazarus died, when he was sick.  He could have saved him.  But, no; he was delayed.  No wonder Mary comes to Jesus weeping.  It is not just that Lazarus is dead.  It is that she feels let down by the one who she knew was a healer.

Jesus, too, begins to weep.  People assume it is because of Lazarus’ death.  Jesus must have loved him deeply, and now he weeps.  I always thought it was Mary’s grief that moved Jesus to tears.  He sees Mary weep and he cries with her.  That’s how I experience God.  God doesn’t protect us from the losses and pains of life.  Instead, God cries with us.  God feels our pain with us.

The people think Jesus is weeping because of his own loss.  “Where have you laid him?” he asks.  “Come, we’ll show you,” and they take him to a cave with a stone rolled in front of it.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus direct them.  Martha, Lazarus’ sister, tries to stop him:  “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Or as the King James Version translates it, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”

Jesus convinces them to roll away the stone, and he prays, and then he calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And the dead man hobbles out because he is still bound in the burial cloths.  And Jesus commands the crowd to unbind him and let him go.

This may seem like a strange reading for All Saints’ Day.  I don’t recall anyone every suggesting I pray to St. Lazarus.  In fact, I didn’t even know he was considered a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church until I looked it up.[1]  And as far as I can tell, in the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints, he’s not the patron saint of anybody or anything (though my research is hardly exhaustive).  So why this reading?

Well, to start with, because today is a day that lifts before us the stark reality of our mortality.  Today, we celebrate all those who have died – not expired, or passed away, or who we have lost (like a favorite glove) – but rather those who have died … in faith.[2]  Later, at the communion table, we will name those from our congregation who have died in the past year.  We will pause to remember them and others who have died as we celebrate the body of Christ.

We will celebrate those who have died, but the liturgical color is not the black of Good Friday and mourning.  Today the liturgical colors are white and gold, the colors of Easter.  “After all, we gather to worship the One who was given power over death; the One, as [we heard in our Gospel lesson], who raised Lazarus to life; the One who’s own death and resurrection, in fact, gives witness to the trustworthiness of the promise made in the first … reading that God will one day bring to an end the reign of death, cause mourning and suffering to cease, and wipe every tear from our eyes.”[3]

Today, we don’t just remember those who have died.  We remember that they and we are united with Christ.  We acknowledge that reality every time we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.  In baptism, we are buried with Jesus into death so that, just as Jesus was raised to life, we might walk in newness of life – to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:3-4).  “And this means at least two things for us …  First, death no longer terrifies us.  Promised a share of Christ’s resurrection, we can look even death in the eye and not blink.  For this reason, while we mourn the death of our loved ones, … we also celebrate their triumph, their victory, as they now rest from their labors and live with Christ in glory.

“Second, and perhaps more importantly, life no longer terrifies us either.  … Our whole life is now sanctified – that is, made holy and given a purpose – through God’s promise to be with us and for us and to use us and all of our gifts to God’s own glory.

“Here, in fact, we perceive the true significance of the name of this day – All Saints’ Day – far more clearly.  Saints are not only those persons in the Bible or Church history who did great things.  Nor are Saints only those who died for the faith.  Saints are not even only those who are of such great moral courage, kindness or discipline that they set examples for the rest of us.  Rather, saints are also – and especially – all those who have been baptized into Christ.”[4]

“And if you have any doubt of this, take the time to read … Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth.  … In these letters, Paul at many points scolds the Corinthians for their lack of faith, for their poor stewardship, for their shoddy treatment of one another, for their divisive one-ups-manship, and for their offensive moral behavior.  Nevertheless, when addressing this poor excuse for a Christian congregation, he refers to them regularly as ‘Saints.’  Well, now, c’mon:  If this is true for the Corinthians, then so also is it true for us.”[5]

Now I don’t say this to put pressure on you.  I’m not calling you a saint to make you feel like you have to be perfect.  In fact, I want to be clear that you don’t have to be perfect.  I’m just saying that if you call yourself a Christian, I get to call you a saint.  You are a holy one, set aside by God for the fullness of life.

And, at the same time, I want to acknowledge that there is the additional cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints who have formed us.  And this is where All Saints’ Day and our pledge campaign’s theme intersect.  Last week, Pastor Brenda focused on the first word in this year’s pledge campaign:  welcome.  Today, we focus on the second word:  grow.  And the growth that I think most connects to All Saints’ Day is our growth as disciples of Jesus.  These are the saints I want to turn to now.

Marcus Borg

This past year, several of my saints, several people who helped me grow in faith, died.  Now it happens that two of these saints have reputations far beyond my own life and I am hardly the only one whose growth as a person of faith was touched by them.  Marcus Borg was a professor and author who changed my whole approach to confirmation class with a single lecture.  His book, The Heart of Christianity, has become a touchstone of organized thought about being a Christian for me and will be seen as a classic to help thinking, rational people understand how they can be Christians without checking the brains at the door.

Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle – aside from having one of the coolest names in theology – opened up to me the goodness in change, even radical change, in the church through her lectures and through her book, The Great Emergence.

Two other much less famous saints – at least they’re saints for me – who also died this year.  Dena Hokom modeled for me the importance of the ongoing wrestling match of faith.  She kept thinking and pondering and questioning her faith right up to the end, and while at times that made her feel less faithful (questions and doubts have a way of doing that), I believe it was an act of faithfulness to participate in that wrestling.

Betty H

Betty Harris

Betty Harris was my aunt.  She was a singer who encouraged my singing.  She loved classical music, which was almost always sacred music.  And she encouraged me (probably to her own surprise) to let the music teach me and form me.

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

And I have to mention my mom.  This summer, I passed the date where she’s been dead for more than half of my life.  Yet her impact on my spiritual journey lives on in so many ways.  She modeled giving; she taught the importance of community; she modeled listening and pastoral care (not that she would have ever called what she did ‘pastoral care’).  She was a woman of compassion.  And despite my troublesome adolescence, I never questioned her love for me.

Brad Ellis

And the saints for me are not just those who have died.  For instance, Brad Ellis.  You may recognize him as the character “Brad” from the TV series Glee.  For me, he’s a friend from high school and church youth group.  When I told him a few years ago about the role he played in my spiritual development during our high school years, he told me, “I may simply have been the rock you tripped over.”  Well, whatever.  He’s on my list of saints.

And then, quite recently, this year in fact, another more famous person helped me grow and I now include him in my roll call of saints:  Bishop John Shelby Spong.  Spong has helped me re-embrace the Gospel of John in his book The Fourth Gospel.  His thesis is that none of the Gospel of John is history.  It is a story told to teach theology, or better yet to teach discipleship.  Many of the characters are completely symbolic, and he puts Lazarus on this list.  “[Lazarus] is a mythological character, a symbol of those who see, of those who respond and of those who are transformed.  He is the archetype of the Jesus movement.  He represents the ones who are born of the spirit, the ones who are able to taste and experience, to share in the new life that Jesus came to bring.  He is the ‘Lazarus’ who has passed from death into life.  The one who knows that to be in Christ is to have the life of God flow through him as the life of the vine flows through the branches.”[6]

And with this understanding of Lazarus, that he is the archetype of a disciple of Jesus, I can think of no better reading for All Saints’ Day.

There is one other saint I want to mention:  Mister Rogers.  In 1999, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.  In his acceptance speech, which was given to an audience who were largely people involved in the television industry, he invited his listeners to think about what they do.  I’ll let him finish up the sermon.

(The portion of this video screened was from the 7:47 mark, to the 10:43.O)

[1] See “Lazarus,” American Catholic, http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1232.

[2] David Lose, “All Saints’ Sunday B: Look Twice,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/all-saints-sunday-b-look-twice/ (posted and accessed 26 October 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 251.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 18, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

May family's cottage in New Hampshire

My family’s cottage in New Hampshire

I return to this cottage from time to time because here I can detach, here I can slow down, here I can listen to my soul more easily because here there are not distractions of YouTube or email or TV or Facebook. Here my smart phone is a dumb as it can be, for I get no signal. There is a landline, but few know the number and every outgoing call costs money and my Yankee thrift keeps me from calling others.

I return to this cottage from time to time to renew my spirit. Here, the rocks and trees and water remind me that I am of the earth. Here, the rocks and trees and water remind me that I, too, am part of God’s creation. I can hear them here because I am not distracted. I can listen here.

So, I hear it before I see any evidence of it: off in the west, the drawn out rumbling of thunder. The sun is still out enough to cast shadows and the birds are still singing, but there’s no mistaking that sound. I step outside with my smart phone.

It’s coming this way. I can feel it in the air, sense it in the stillness. I don’t understand how a storm can move when things are so still, but it’s coming. I can smell it. A resident loon is floating on the water. I know enough to stay out of the water in a thunderstorm. Does the loon?

Now I can watch it coming. The sky darkens under the weight of the clouds. And then the thunderstorm lets loose. Every now and again, the sky brightens with a flash of lightning. The thunder is right there, almost simultaneous with the lightning. It’s right on top of me. The lights flicker and go out. I sit, staring out the sliding door at the power. The energy being discharged is immense. Standing in the pond up to my neck or standing in the rain, I would be equally wet, but with that lightning I stay inside.

I listen and watch.

The wind is blowing hard now and the understory of the woods are showing the underside of their leaves in the wind. Both rain and wind cause enough noise that only the thunder is louder – rain on leaves, rock, porch, and roof.

And then it starts to dissipate. Oh, I should film this, too, I think, and I open the porch door to film.

And before long, it’s over. The rain moves on. The thunder becomes distant, only now it’s in the east. I no longer see flashes of lightning and the thunder has that drawn-out rumble again. Eventually, the rain sounds gentle and the lake quiets down.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, it surprises me. And then I notice that the noises I hear are from the traffic on the state highway on the other side of the lake, beyond that stand of trees. Was the traffic at a standstill during the storm? I certainly couldn’t hear it.

The birds start calling again. Do they sing praises to God for the sunshine? praises to God for getting them through the storm? Or do they merely proclaim, “Storm or no storm, this is my territory!”?

A squirrel jumps from one branch to another and water still held by the leaves cascades down in to the underbrush. And it is not long before the cicadas remind me that it is still summer. The lake is glassy still.

I return to this cottage from time to time because here I can detach, here I can slow down, here I can listen to my soul more easily. Here, natures sings and storms and tells me of the glory of God. Here, I am reminded that in the vast universe, I am really quite insignificant – and God loves me anyway.

May family's cottage in New Hampshire

I’m lucky that I have this place. I’m lucky that my father hasn’t decided he’s too old to keep it – though that day is getting closer. I’m lucky that I have the resources to be able to travel to New Hampshire and visit.

Job had no such retreat. He had lost everything. Everything. Not just the material things, but he had lost family and health, too. And so, in his misery, in his emotional and physical pain, he cried out to God. For some 35 chapters Job cried to God and heard no answer. His friends offered their counsel. Surely he must have done something wrong, surely he had sinned in some way, for him to be suffering so. But Job knew he hadn’t. Surely God is reasonable and this was so unreasonable. And so he yelled at God, demanded an audience with God. He wanted to take God to court.

Finally, here in chapter 38, the whirlwind approaches. We know how the story is supposed to go. Job will be crushed in this tempest. Elihu told Job that that’s what would happen. God will speak like thunder and shout down his complaints. “We know what to expect from these ancient storm deities. God the cosmic bully will finally put Job in his place.

“Job has lamented his losses, pleaded his innocence, declared the injustice of creation, raised suspicion about the fairness of God, and cursed his own existence. Eliphaz points out that these attitudes are hardly conducive to religious faith and practice (15:4). Elihu wonders who could say to God, ‘You have done wrong’ (36:23). Job hasn’t quite said this, but he has come close enough for his friends to recoil in outrage. Now God takes over the conversation with a whirlwind to blast away Job’s complains. It is time for the Lord to answer all the questions and clean up the confusion.

“Which is precisely what does not happen when ‘the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.’ God ‘answers’ Job only by asking questions – more question, more intriguing question, and more dazzling questions than have been asked in all the conversations leading up to this most crucial one. God’s questions, only briefly interrupted, go on for four chapters. This week’s … verses are just the beginning.”[1]

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? … Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?”

This is not a satisfactory answer! I want to know why bad things happen to good people, and all God seems to be saying is, “I’m God and you’re not.”

“God’s response to Job highlights the notion that God is not an automaton, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Understanding divine/human relationship in this way was fairly [common] in the ancient Israelite context,… In the Book of Job, both Job and his friends hold this view, although they disagree about how it is functioning for Job. For Job, this system has worked for him – he’s been good and received reward – up until now. Now he wants to know why the system seems to have broken down and why God isn’t doing God’s job. On the other hand, Job’s friends argue that God hasn’t failed but that Job has erred.”[2]

And that is why the answer is unsatisfactory. We want the good guys and gals to win in the end. Righteousness should lead to blessing, and a little material blessing would be just fine. And all God says about how this is working out is, “I’m God and you’re not”?

I want to know why bad things happen to good people! All this book says is that bad things happen to good people.

There is an invitation in these questions that God asks Job that goes beyond Job’s (and my) attempts to understand why bad things happen to good people. Hebrew Scriptures scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this story invites us to look beyond the goodness of people to the goodness of God. “Yes, hang on to your integrity, Job, for it is never questioned,” Brueggemann writes. “But learn a second language. Learn to speak praise and yielding which let you cherish your virtue less tightly.”[3]

Job thought that his virtue should be his salvation (and a lot of us think the same thing). But we are not saved by our virtue. We are even spiritually blocked by it at times. “No one,” Brueggemann writes, “can stand in the face of the whirlwind on a soap-box of virtue … Being right is no substitute for being amazed.”[4]

That is the blessing of the New England thunderstorm. It brings me to a place of awe. And awe brings me to a place of praise.

I suppose it is easy for me to say. I had shelter and the electricity would probably be restored before I went to bed. What about for the person who is crying out from the ash heap? Or how about when we witness the suffering of innocents? We want there to be reason for the suffering.

And so often there isn’t any. Sometimes suffering happens without reason, but perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor is right, that “the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason, but to suffer without God – without any hope of consolation or rebirth.” We can get angry and even impolite, she says, because “God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends.… Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads (and makes the angels shout for joy).”[5]

I think perhaps our problem is not with God, but with our understanding of God. We expect God to be in charge. We want God to be reasonable. And we want things to be fair.

But what if God’s not like that?

What if God is not some great watchmaker up above us all who sets the world in motion and makes sure that virtue is rewarded and evil is punished? What if God does not direct the universe, but underlies it? And what if, to quote Annie Dillard, “The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand and multiply it on earth, the more God is ‘on the field’”[6]?

And I think I should stop there, even though that means I’m concluding my sermon with that series of questions. But concluding this sermon with questions seems appropriate given the scripture lesson, even though doing so may feel unsatisfactory.


[1] Patrick J. Willson, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 14 October 2015, 22; emphasis added.

[2] Karla Suomala, “Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41], Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2671 (accessed 13 October 2015).

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “A Bilingual Life, The Threat of Life, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds October 18, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_october_18_2015#Job (accessed 13 October 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Out of the Whirlwind,” Home by Another Way, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds October 18, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_october_18_2015#Job (accessed 13 October 2015).

[6] Annie Dillard, “Holy Sparks: A Prayer for the Silent God,” from the collection Best Spiritual Writing 2000, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds October 18, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_october_18_2015#Job (accessed 13 October 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 11, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:17-31 and Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It didn’t take Sheila long to notice the large rock on the hand of the woman sitting next to her on the flight.  It was big enough that Sheila wondered how much bigger this woman’s left bicep was than her right.  It was big.  It also looked very pure.  Being a gemologist, Sheila really wanted to take a closer look, so she asked her neighbor if she could.

“Why certainly,” the woman crowed.

“That’s quite a diamond.  Would you tell me about it?”

“Oh this is the famous Klimpson diamond,” she said.

“The Klimpson diamond?  I don’t think I’ve every heard of it,” Sheila said.

“Yes.  Yes.  It’s one of the larger diamonds in this cut, but it comes with a curse, you know.”

“Really?  What’s the curse?”

“Mr. Klimpson.”
Today’s gospel lesson is about money and wealth and material possessions – and their curses.  And I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable.  Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.  It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kin-dom of God.  My annual income may be below the median household income in Fremont, but compared to the rest of the world I’m rich.  So, I would really, really like an escape clause.

There is some good news.  The percentage of people in the world living in extreme poverty has “fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).”[1]  But that’s still one billion people living on less than $1.25 per day.  In three days, I earn more than one billion people on earth earn in a year.  I would really like an escape clause.  So I’ve been looking this past week.

We have this Gospel lesson and we have a reading from Job.  You remember the story of Job, I hope.  Job was a righteous and wealthy man.  And then he lost it all – house, wealth, children, health.  All gone.  His so-called ‘friends’ come and try to comfort him.  They tell him that he must have done something wrong.  He must have sinned in some way and offended God.  He should repent and be healed.

But Job has lived a virtuous life.  And we get to today’s reading and Job is yelling about wanting to come before God and have it out.  Job wants to make his case before God because he’s convinced that God would judge him fairly and end his suffering.  Job thinks that God is reasonable.

In our Gospel lesson, we have a righteous and wealthy man who wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  We know he’s righteous because Jesus rattles off half of the ten commandments – and he adds one, don’t defraud – and the man says that he has obeyed these commandments since he understood them.  And we know he’s wealthy because Mark tell us “he had many possessions.”

The biggest difference between Job and this rich man is that Job had his wealth taken away and the rich man in the gospel lesson is invited to divest of his wealth as a choice.  Like Job, the rich man thinks this is unreasonable.  Michaela Bruzzese compares the two:  “The rich young man, like Job, has … followed the law, and therefore expects to be commended for his piety and to reap his reward.  Jesus, moved by the man’s earnestness, invites him to go beyond such ‘utilitarian religion’ to a life devoted to others.  Freed from his possessions, he can know the freedom of dependence only on God.  But the man cannot fathom Jesus’ assertion that, in [Latin American Liberation Theology’s founder, Gustavo] Gutiérrez’s words, ‘the kingdom of God isn’t a right to be won …; it is always a freely given gift,’ and he ‘went away grieving.’”[2]

And there may be the beginning of an escape clause in here.  Bruzzese continues:  “Both Job’s friends [and, I would add Job] and the rich young man assumed that faith was quantifiable and livable in the tidy parcels afforded by following rules and gaining rewards.  But today, Job and Jesus expose the danger of such self-serving religion, in which ‘there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol,’ Gutiérrez writes.  Jesus’ invitation still stands:  The God who gave us the gift of life also invites us to true encounter.”[3]

The reason a rich person can’t get into the “kingdom of God” is that you can’t buy your way in.  The only way to become part of the kin-dom is to receive that citizenship as a gift.  The thing is, when you receive this gift and center your life on God, you can’t center it on money any more.  In many ways, this comes down to idol worship.

I have, this past week, tried to think of the times Jesus is quoted as naming a specific idol we love that gets in our way of loving God.  I have only been able to think of one.  It’s in Matthew 6:24.  In the King James Version, the verse reads, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  More contemporary translations, like the NRSV, translate the verse, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Mammon, wealth is an idol we worship that diverts us from the worship of God, and it may be the only idol Jesus specifically names.  Why do we worship mammon?  David Janzen writes, “Mammon has the power of deluding slaves into thinking they are free.  We are kings of the supermarket; we can choose among ten brands all leading the same affluent life style.  We are king-puppets manipulated by advertising and built-in obsolescence to consume and produce more and more for corporations’ rising profits.  We ravage and pollute the earth, believing that Mammon’s arch-angel ‘technology’ will save us.”[4]

He goes on, “Jesus declared war on Mammon, on everything the present age holds dear.  He came in God’s power, the power that gives everything away, and to follow him we must overthrow all our perceptions.  Jesus gathered his disciples, calling them to leave possessions, families, and careers in order to form a new society living out the good news of God’s kingdom in their fellowship and service.”[5]

Janzen goes on to write about how the early church banished the idol Mammon by living in community where everything was shared in common.  “Some say,” he writes, “the church eventually abandoned this sharing because ‘it didn’t work.’  That is like saying, ‘It doesn’t always pay to tell the truth.’  We live Christ’s way because it reveals the nature of the Father, because it is the only way peace will come on earth.  To say ‘it doesn’t work’ ignores the fact that in every age there have been communities and individuals who have followed Christ’s teachings of voluntary poverty and radical sharing.”[6]

At this point, I was looking for an escape clause, again.  I was asking myself if I could live a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing and my first thought was, “Don’t take away my MacBook.”  Then I thought, “I need an internet connection.”  And early this morning Unvirtuous Abbey posted on Facebook, “He asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go, sell your iPhone, then come, follow me.’”[7]  And I winced.

Unvirtuous Abbey's Facebook profile picture.

Unvirtuous Abbey’s Facebook profile picture.

There is something different about this story from the other’s we’ve been reading from Mark’s gospel.  I think the biggest difference is that this guy isn’t trying to trap Jesus.  He’s not asking Jesus a question because he thinks he can back Jesus into a political or theological corner.  He runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “What do I need to do?”  He senses that something is missing in his life, that he is incomplete.  He has plenty of material things.  He knows his role and he knows the rules, but there’s something missing.  “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And maybe that’s why I see myself in this character in Mark’s gospel and why I find Jesus’ response so personal.  “Jesus, I have kept these commandments since my youth.”  And Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Jesus looked at him and loved him.

And he said, “Go, sell what you own, and give it to the poor; then come, follow me.”  And the man walks away, grieving.  Grieving not just because he had many possessions, but because deep down, he knew that Jesus was right.

Maybe Jesus is “looking at us with love and, perceiving the deep heart sickness in each of us, actually asking something of us, giving us something to do, something to give up or away, somewhere to go.”[8]  Not because we need to do this to “earn” grace – that’s a gift – but because he loves us and because he cares about the life we enjoy here and now, with each other in God’s creation.

“Of course that’s hard.  Deep down we’re too scared (and often as a result too selfish) to do that for long, too scared and selfish and insecure and competitive and controlling and judgmental … and so many other things to boot.  Because when push comes to shove, I have to admit that despite all the theology I’ve learned over the years I haven’t changed much since I was a kid.  I mean, I still don’t feel like giving up all I have.…  “Which is why Jesus comes and makes these demands, naming [this] idol we’ve created and asking us to give it up, throw it away, for the sake of our neighbor and ourselves.”[9]

David Lose points out that this scene can be interpreted as a healing story.  “Did you ever notice … that all the people in Mark’s gospel who kneel to Jesus and ask for a blessing either have some dread disease or are demon possessed.   And almost every time Jesus orders someone to go, like he does this guy, it’s in relation to a healing.”[10]

This guy doesn’t need to wash himself in some pool to be healed.  He doesn’t need to show himself for examination by a priest at the Temple to be healed.  He needs to go and sell and give and follow.  He is possessed by a demon of sorts.  He worships an idol called Mammon.  And he can’t serve two masters.

May we be healed of whatever it is that possesses us – even if that requires of us going and selling and giving and following.


[1] Nicholas Kristof, “The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/opinion/nicholas-kristof-the-most-important-thing-and-its-almost-a-secret.html (posted 1 October 2015, accessed 2 October 2015).

[2] Michaela Bruzzese, “True Encounter,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/true-encounter (accessed 6 October 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] David H. Janzen, “The Empire of Mammon and the Joyous Fellowship,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/empire-mammon-and-joyous-fellowship (accessed 6 October 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Unvirtuous Abbey is a tongue-in-cheek Facebook page that describes itself as “Digital monks praying for people with first world problems. From our keyboard to God’s ears.”  They are at https://www.facebook.com/Unvirtuous-Abbey-184277211606988/timeline/

[8] David Lose, “Pentecost 20 B: Curing Our Heartsickness,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/pentecost-20-b-curing-our-heartsickness/ (posted 5 October 2015; accessed 6 October 2015).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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.


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