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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 2 Corinthians 9:1-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I created this graphic for a sermon some 13 months ago.  It is an attempt to describe the population distribution of the Roman Empire socio-economically.  You can see in the picture that those with power and wealth were quite small in number and that there really isn’t much of what we would think of today as a middle class.  There was the very small upper class and the very large lower class.

I suspect you don’t spend as much time pondering these sort of things, but I’ve wondered how it is that the very small upper class could possibly stay in power when there were so many people who had neither wealth nor power.  Why didn’t they just rise up and overthrow the elites?  The answer appears to be the Patronage System.

According to John Dominic Crossan, what kept the society from completely breaking apart were “multiple ligatures of patronage and clientage.  Those without power could be clients to the patrons above them, and those patrons might even be themselves clients to others far more powerful still.”[1]

The patronage system didn’t just grease the wheels of politics and the economy.  In a patronage system, “influence was a moral duty: the emperor’s needed it, the moralists praised it, and countless inscriptions publicly proclaimed it.”[2]  Clients had a moral duty to give their patrons their obeisance and patrons had a moral duty to provide that which was necessary to live for their clients.  Of course, patrons wouldn’t give their clients much more than the bear minimum, or they might start to climb that narrow pipe and positions could be reversed.  And given the importance of shame and honor in the society, a patron just couldn’t be shamed by that.

You can see how the patronage system really isn’t separable from the rest of the Imperial economy.  While the rich because rich through systems of injustice (especially the accumulation of land) that I’ve talked about in previous sermons in this series, the have-nots tolerated, or at least didn’t see how to overturn, the injustice because patronage system demanded their participation.

The patronage system as oil for the Imperial economy is, I think, the biggest difference between the Imperial economy and contemporary capitalism.  While the size of the middle class has expanded and contracted over time, it exists as part of contemporary capitalism.  Yes, the adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” carries plenty of truth to it in contemporary capitalism, and the old boys’ network is alive and well with plenty of mutual back-scratching today, classical patronage does not hold the power it once did.  Even the ultra-wealthy – the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gateses, David and Charles Kochs, Oprah Winfreys, and George Soroses of American capitalism – may have disproportionate influence in our society, they don’t control things at the level the ultra-wealthy did in the Roman Empire.

In her upcoming book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass writes about the patronage system:  “The emperor or king gave his subjects the ‘gifts’ of protection and provision.  In return, subjects offered loyalty, homage, service, tithes, and taxes.  If you failed to return the ruler’s favor – such as not paying a tribute or refusing to send your son to serve in the army – you were branded an ‘ingrate.’  Ingratitude was disloyalty and sometimes treason, crimes punishable by denial of favor, reduction in rank, seizure of property, enslavement, prison, exile, or death.  Most pre-capitalist societies practiced this quid pro quo sort of gratitude, with its complex of gifts given, debts incurred, and favors owed.  In it limited benefits flowed down from privileged benefactors to regular people; and most of the wealth flowed up from subject beneficiaries in the form of ‘gratitude’ to those at the top.  Gratitude was not a feeling.  It was the law.”[3]

When I was on Study Leave in November, I heard a wonderful lecture by Bass where she talked about how the patronage system has played itself out in Christian theology.  The pre-modern view of the cosmos mirrored the oil can diagram of the social structure.  The cosmic map was of “a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, here we feared we might go after death.  The church,” Bass explained, “mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below.”[4]

This is the image of that God up in heaven, at least as painted by a European.  The great patron looks down on us clients down below.  The priests (patronage brokers of a sort) send our prayers up in the holy elevator to God and God sends down commandments for us to obey.  It is our duty to obey and to offer our thanksgivings to God.  And just like in the economic and political spheres of life, in the spiritual sphere we are obliged to offer our obeisance to our spiritual patrons – to the priests, to the bishops, and ultimately to God.

If God brings us to freedom from slavery, if God brings us to freedom from the Imperial economy of scarcity, greed, and never-ending work, to a Sabbath economy of abundance, self-restraint, and Sabbath rest, how did we get this Imperial theology?  If Jesus was a Jubilee practitioner who came to proclaim God’s Sabbath economy and to restore its freedom, how did the church lose sight of it?  Though I like to blame Paul for all kinds of problems, I don’t think we can blame Paul for this.

As Ched Myers puts it, “Footprints of the Jubilee tradition can be found throughout Paul’s pastoral correspondence.  The Corinthian epistles provide a wonderful example of how Paul’s practice reflected a fundamental concern for social justice, resistance to Roman norms … and desire to demonstrate faith commitment by wealth-sharing.

“Corinth in Paul’s time was characterized by a culture of ‘new wealth.’  It had been sacked by the Romans, then rebuilt a century later and repopulated with immigrants, entrepreneurs, military veterans and freed slaves.  Located along key trading routes, it was prosperous, ambitious, and competitive – and marked by huge disparities between its ‘nouveau’ elite and its laboring and slave classes.”[5]

We can interpret from what he says in his letters to the church in Corinth that he was criticised by some Corinthians for “his disinterest in matters of social status, rhetorical style, and public performance. …

“Against … prestige-oriented Christianity Paul pits his own commitment to costly discipleship (2 Cor 4:8-11).  He contrasts himself with ‘hucksters of the Word of God’ (2 Cor 2:17) and those who ‘pride themselves on position’ (2 Cor 5:12), defending his apostolic credentials in terms of marginalization rather than status, of suffering rather than self-advancement, and … of grace rather than merit.”[6]

Myers points out, “Under the patronage ethos it was expected that Paul would support his pastoral ministry in Corinth either by professional religious begging or by positioning himself as an ‘in-house philosopher’ sponsored by a wealthy patron.  Paul, however, steadfastly (and in the eyes of many Corinthians, unreasonably) refused to become a client of the rich.  Instead, he insisted on supporting himself through a trade (1 Cor 9; see 1 Thes 2:9).  This stance offended members of the aristocracy and lowered Paul’s prestige in their eyes because he worked for his funds.”[7]

It’s pretty clear that Paul was pushing against the social stratification of Corinth.  He expected their relationships to reflect the new, revolutionary social structure of equality.  He is regularly outraged by their reproduction of the divisions of the wider culture.  We see this reflected quite clearly in the community’s celebration of communion and Paul’s reactions to it.

Paul’s discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols was not just about diet and conscience.  Only the affluent could afford meat, so those scandalized were probably the poor in the church.  “Meanwhile, some aristocratic Christians were interpreting Paul’s ‘gospel of freedom’ as license to continue participating in the Roman Temple feasts.  These public gatherings were crucial to legitimizing patronage … and [the] consolidation of economic-political solidarity among upper classes.”[8]

The dining habits at these public gatherings was very stratified, with those of higher social, political, and economic status (those are almost synonymous) eating with the host in the dining room, while the rabble ate elsewhere.  That practice was brought into the church when they celebrated communion, with the rich eating their fill before the poor members of the community even showed up.  We heard in our reading from 1 Corinthians how that infuriated Paul.  “He calls [this practice] a ‘profanation’ of the body of Christ, and even speculates whether such abominations might lead to illness and death.”[9]  “If you must eat this way, go home,” he tells them.

In the wider society, what one eats and with whom identifies one’s social status, and Paul will have none of that at the communion table.  “For Paul, the church was to model an alternative society where there was no patronage, no hierarchy, no rich and poor.”[10]  In other words, Paul embraced Sabbath economics and insisted that it be lived out around the Table.

He also lobbied for a Sabbath economics to be lived out around the offering plate.  In many of his letters, he writes about his efforts to collect money for the economically disadvantaged Christians in Jerusalem.  Our writing from 2 Corinthians is part of his plea to the Corinthians about his project.  And here, he appeals directly to the scriptural tradition of Sabbath economics.

Paul does not demand that the Corinthian church participate in the collection.  To do so would undermine the freedom of the Sabbath economy.  “So he employs instead a variety of rhetorical strategies to persuade, some of which are almost amusing.  First Paul points to the generosity of other communities, hoping either to shame the Corinthians or to inspire them to friendly competition (8:1-7).  Then he points to Christ’s example of ‘class defection’ (8:9). …

“Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will interpret his appeal to share wealth according to the expectations and conventions of patronage.  But the obligatory and dependent nature of the patronage relationship was precisely what Paul wished to avoid.  He was asking for Christian justice and solidarity, not charity or patronage (see 2 Cor 9:5-7).  For this reason, he refers to the project ten times in 2 Corinthians 8-9 as the work of ‘grace’ (Gk charis).  Paul, the great apostle of ‘grace alone,’ here makes it clear that this is not just a theological concept.  [Grace] must include practices of economic sharing.”[11]

“By understanding Christ’s life and death as a ‘Jubilee-event’ Paul invites us onto a path of grace which seeks constantly to redistribute power, prestige and resources ‘as a matter of equality.’  Not only does Paul set a personal example by refusing Corinthian patronage and insisting that the church there do the same, he also invites these Gentile Christians to practice international economic solidarity with a minority that was widely despised in the Hellenistic world:  Palestinian Jews.”[12]

Myers concludes his reflections on Paul and Sabbath economics with these thoughts:  “Today, the crushing burden of indebtedness and profound inequality imprisons more and more people in First and Third Worlds alike.  If our North American churches are to advocate for redistributive justice for the poor, we, like the first century Corinthians, will have to cease mirroring the dominant culture of the global capitalism, with its empty promises of upward mobility and trickle-down justice.  We must turn toward the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, which is central not only to the Hebrew Bible and the Jesus-tradition, but to Paul’s pastoral strategy as well.  The apostle insisted that only disciplines of redistribution can overturn our calcified traditions and structures of charity, class entitlement, and meritocracy.”[13]

To that I would add this more personal and spiritual note.  If we do what Myers suggests, if we 21st century Christians adopt a Sabbath economic practice, we will have a spiritual awakening about God.  We will realize how limiting this image of God-in-the-sky is.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was not talking about what happens after we’ve ridden the cosmic elevator into the heavens after we die.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was talking about God’s political and social vision for humanity, a vision that includes a Sabbath economy and that continues to stand in stark contrast to political and social visions that dominate and oppress.  “Jesus’ own prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come. They will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10), seeks to align earthly ethics with the divine order of God’s dwelling.”[14]  And because for Jesus the kingdom of God is here, at hand, come near, God must be here, at hand, come near.  Heaven and God are “here-and-now, not there-and-then.”[15]  Amen.

_______________

[1] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 96.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The quote is from Diana Butler Bass’ forthcoming book, Grateful, posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10156156300209496 (8 March 2018).

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 4.

[5] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 53.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 58-59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

[14] Bass, Grounded, op. cit., 119.

[15] Ibid, 120.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 25, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:17-27 and Leviticus 25:8-13
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think that Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath economics is rooted in the tradition of the Jubilee Year.

Last week, we heard the story of the manna in the wilderness from Exodus 16.  We established that the core values of the Sabbath economy are:

  • Everyone has enough;
  • No one has too much; and
  • The economy is not dependent solely on human labor – that is, that one can take a day off each week and there will still be enough for everyone.

By the time we get to Exodus 23, we hear about the Sabbath year.  Every seven years, the land gets to rest.  It is left fallow, and whatever is produced is gleaned by the poor and wildlife.  This Sabbath year restores equilibrium to the community, and it does this by restraining the activity of ‘productive’ members of the economy and by freeing the constraints that have limited the activities of those the economy has marginalized (namely, the poor and the natural environment).

By the time the book of Deuteronomy is written, the interpretation of the Sabbath year has expanded.  Now it includes debt relief.  Check out Deuteronomy 15 for the details.  “This debt relief was intended as a hedge against the inevitable tendency of human societies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few, creating hierarchical classes with the poor at the bottom.  In agrarian societies such as biblical Israel (or parts of the Third World today), the cycle of poverty began when a family fell into debt, deepened when [the family] had to sell off its land in order to service the debt, and reached its conclusion when landless peasants could only sell their labor becoming bond-slaves.”[1]

Something very similar happened in the United States after the Civil War, when freed slaves ended up being share croppers and were sucked into a debt cycle that left the essentially slaves again.  Debt forgiveness as outlined in Deuteronomy 15 includes freeing debt-slaves, sending them away with sufficient resources to make it on their own.

The fullest expression of this Sabbath economic logic is outlined in the Levitical Jubilee.  We heard part of the passage from Leviticus that establishes the Jubilee.  Every fiftieth year is established as a Jubilee.  The land is given rest.  Debts are forgiven.  Slaves are freed.  The land is restored to the members of the tribes to whom it was originally given after the conquest.  “The rationale for this unilateral restructuring of the community’s assets was to remind Israel that the land [ultimately] belongs to God (25:23) and that they are an exodus people who must never return to a system of slavery (25:42)”[2] and the Imperial economy.

When Luke tells the story of Jesus beginning his public ministry, he sets the story in Nazareth.  Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]

It is widely recognized that proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” meant proclaiming a year of jubilee.  That’s why Jesus is bringing good news to the poor and release to the captives.  That is why Jesus is letting the oppressed go free.  “Jubilee consciousness defined Jesus’ call to discipleship, lay at the heart of this his teaching, and stood at the center of his conflict with the Judean public order.”[4]

There’s at least a whole sermon just on how the Jubilee ethic runs through the gospels in Jesus’ teaching and actions.  But I want to get to today’s gospel lesson.  So, let’s just acknowledge that the Sabbath economy, where everyone has enough and no one has too much (guaranteed by its periodic forgiveness of debts and redistribution of wealth), is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.

Think for a moment about how this story made you feel as you heard it read.  Was it familiar enough that you know where it was going, so you erected a bulwark against it touching your feelings?  Did it make you feel uncomfortable? judged?  (I don’t want to think of myself as rich even though I probably am.)  Did you want to explain away what this passage seems to be saying?

Here’s what this passage does not say:  It does not say that it’s important that those who have significant resources to take care not to let their affluence get in the way of their love for God and the church.  That lesson waters down – no, it ignores what Jesus is really saying.

Let’s try to figure out what the story does say.

The story has a movement.  It starts off with the rich man being concerned about eternal life (and I think he means eternal life after this life).  Jesus moves the discussion from the rich man’s concern about “eternal life” to Jesus’ concern about “the kingdom of God.”  And when Jesus talks about “the kingdom of God,” he’s presenting the alternative to the kingdom of Rome.  The kingdom of God is presented as the alternative to an empire that was politically oppressive, economically exploitative, and religiously legitimated.[5]

If we remember that the kingdom of God is Jesus’ alternative to the kingdom of Rome, we can understand why Jesus would tell his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!…  Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is right!  How hard it is for the rich to leave the Empire of Rome and join the Commonwealth of God.  That’s because God’s Commonwealth is based on a Sabbath economy, not an Imperial economy.  In the Imperial economy, in the economy of the Empire of Rome, there is no such thing as a concept of too much and there’s no such thing as a concept of too little.  It doesn’t matter how much you have; it can’t become “too much.”  The poor don’t have enough to live on?  That’s just the way it is and there’s no such things as “too little.”

On the other hand, in the Sabbath economy, in the economy of the Commonwealth of God, there are concepts of too much and too little.  Those concepts exist to help you know if you have a Sabbath economy or not.  If people have too much or people have too little, you don’t have a Sabbath economy.  It is oxymoronic to have a rich person, a person who has too much, in the kingdom of God.  By definition, the rich cannot enter the kingdom of God – at least not with their wealth intact.

But fear not.  This is not simply a condemnation of wealth.  It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a condemnation of the system that allows disparities of wealth to occur.

Let’s dig a little deeper.[6]

The rich man gives himself away in the first question he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The word, “inherit,” is a verb used in connection with real property.  We are told this man is rich, and in first century Palestine, land (not commodities) was the basis of wealth.  In fact, verse 22, which tells us he had many possessions, can be translated, “he possessed many properties.”  The tiny landed class of first century Jews took great care to “keep it in the family,” doing all they could to pass their possessions from one generation to the next.  For this man, eternal life, like property, is something to be inherited.

Estates grew rich in one of three ways.  Family assets could be consolidated through marriage or political alliances.  Sometimes expropriated land was distributed through political patronage.  But most often, land was acquired through a debt-default system that I described earlier, a system that reminds me of the payday loan business plan.  Small agricultural landholders, suffering under the burdens of tithes, taxes, tariffs, and operating expenses, would fall behind in the payments and they were forced to take out loans secured by their land.  When unable to service the loans, the land was lost to the lenders.

Since there weren’t banks, the lenders were the large landowners who had surplus capital.  Thus, land holdings got bigger and bigger, the rich got richer and richer, and the poor got poorer and poorer.

Remembering this, you may find Jesus’ list of commandments interesting.  “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”  Jesus skipped the first four of the big ten (worship God; don’t make and worship idols; don’t use God’s name in vain; keep the Sabbath holy).  These are givens.  But did you notice that he replaced “do not covet your neighbors stuff” with something else?

“You shall not defraud,” Jesus says.  Think about the payday loan industry.  It’s designed for borrowers who need quick cash.  Someone is making it, paycheck to paycheck, but the car breaks down, so they take out a payday loan, a short-term loan that they’re supposed to repay when they get their next paycheck.  The thing is, borrowers are often over-extended already and are unable to pay off the loan on time.  The loan may have an initial “flat 15% fee or an interest rate that doesn’t seem particularly high.  But costs can quickly add up if the loan isn’t paid off, and the effective annual interest rate is actually 300% or more.”[7]  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra calls this “a rigged debt cycle.”[8]  People take out a loan, and then take out another loan to pay off the previous loan, etc., etc., until they are in a hole so deep they can’t get out.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was in the process of establishing rules to help protect poor people from these leaches, but under the Trump administration, the Bureau has moved to protect the lenders, not the borrowers.[9]

“You shall not defraud,” Jesus said.  You shall not defraud.  I suppose, technically, the payday loan business isn’t fraud.  The rigged debt cycle is all spelled out in the loan papers, I suppose – except for the part about it being a rigged system.  Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of legal fraud, it sure violates the spirit of Jesus’ commandment.

It impresses me that Jesus was able to look at this man who prospered because of a corrupt, fraudulent system and still love him.  Maybe that’s because for Jesus, love does not equivocate.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him.  Here, the word “lack” implies that the man is in debt.  How’s that for a turn of events?  But in the logic of the kingdom of God, in the logic of Sabbath economics, this rich man is poor.  “Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”  Jesus is asking this man to let go of the wealth he has accumulated through his participation in the Empire’s economy.  And by redistributing this wealth to the poor, Jesus is inviting the rich man to embrace God’s economy.

“Jesus is not inviting this man to change his attitude toward his wealth, nor to treat his servants better, nor to reform his personal life.  He is asserting the precondition for discipleship:  economic justice.  Stung, the man whirls and slinks away.”[10]

I realize that what I am preaching is heresy to capitalists.  “Private controlled wealth is the backbone of capitalism and it is predicated upon the exploitation of natural resources and human labor.  Profit maximization renders socio-economic stratification, objectification and alienation inevitable.  According to the gospel, however, those who are privileged within this system cannot enter the Kingdom [of God].…  So the unequivocal gospel invitation to repentance is addressed to us.  To deconstruct our ‘inheritance’ and redistribute the wealth as reparation to the poor – that is what it means for us to follow Jesus.”[11]

Does Jesus really expect his followers (that is, us) to participate in a Sabbath distribution of wealth as a condition of discipleship?

Yes, he does.  As impossible as it seems, he does.  “I know it seem impossible to you,” Jesus tells us, “but for God all things are possible.”

_______________

[1] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 14.

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] See Luke 4:16-21. This quote is verses 18 and 19.

[4] Myers, op. cit., 23.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 130.

[6] This deeper digging is based on Myers, op. cit., chapter 4, pages 30-37.

[7] Jim Puzzanghera, “Consumer protection bureau cracks down on payday lenders with tough nationwide regulations,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-payday-loan-regulations-20171005-story.html (posted 5 October, 2017; accessed 24 February 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] See David Lazarus, “In bizarre reversal under Trump, consumer agency reveals moves to protect payday lenders,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/business/lazarus/la-fi-lazarus-cfpb-payday-lenders-20180119-story.html (posted 19 January 2018; accessed 24 February 2018).

[10] Myers, op. cit., 34.

[11] Ibid, 36-37.

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What Is It?
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 16:2-5, 9-35 and Mark 2:23-28
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Warning:  I’m about to do some math.

According to ApartmentList.com,[1] the median monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the United States is $1160.  A rent of $1160/mo x 12mo/yr = a rent of $13,920/yr.  There are 52 weeks in a year, so that’s $267.69/wk.  Rent, I was taught, shouldn’t be more than a third of your income.  So, if one’s rent is one-third of one’s income, that means someone renting a median-priced 2-bedroom apartment should be making at least $803 per week.  For a 40-hour work-week, that requires an hourly wage of $20/hour.

The national minimum wage is $7.25.[2]

Another way of looking at this:  someone would have to work 110 hours a week (two and three-quarter full-time minimum-wage jobs) to afford a median-priced 2-bedroom apartment.  110 hours per week.  Add seven hours of sleep a night, and you have 9 hours left each week (one and a quarter hours each day) for eating, taking a shower, paying the bills, running errands, etc.

According to Rent Café,[3] the average[4] monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Fremont, California, one year ago was $2547.  Doing the same math ($2547/mo times 12mo/yr divided by 52 wk/yr) shows a weekly rent of $587.77.  Which means one should have a weekly income of $1763.31.

The minimum wage in California in 2017 was $10.50 per hour.[5]  That’s 168 hours of work a week at minimum wage to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment in Fremont.  A week is 168 hours long.

This is a contemporary version of the Imperial economic system that stands in opposition to God’s Sabbath economic system, the system we are introduced to in today’s reading from Exodus.

The story of the Exodus is the foundational story of the Jews, and in that story, we find the foundational story of understanding Sabbath Economics.  We run into the concept of the Sabbath in the first story in that collection of stories we call the Bible.  God creates all there is in six days, and upon reflecting on this wondrous work, God rest.  The pattern is set from the beginning:  good work is followed by rest.  Notice, that the purpose of this divine rest on the seventh day of creation is not in order to do more work on the eighth day.  There is no “back to work after the weekend” for God.  The purpose of the Sabbath is so God can enjoy the work already completed.

The next time we run into the Sabbath day is in today’s reading from the Exodus narrative, here in this archetypal story of hunger and bread in the wilderness.  The Hebrews have been sprung from slavery, but now they must face the harsh realities of life outside the imperial system.  Their first test of character is how they will sustain themselves, an economic test.  If you listen to the story, you’ll hear that they could not imagine an economic system apart for the Egyptian political-military-technological complex that enslaved them.

You hear it in their complaint to Moses:  “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  It’s not just whining.  It’s an inability to imagine another possibility for sustenance, the inability to imagine another economy.

So God gives the Hebrews instructions on how to gather the gift of bread from God.  This, their first test on following instruction, is an economic lesson.  Ched Myers (I’m basing the sermons in this series on his work[6]) notes that for tens of thousands of years, human beings’ survival was based on a cooperative, egalitarian lifestyle.  Prior to the rise of concentrated agriculture, cities, and eventually imperial economies based on slavery, hunting and gathering (and even local horticulture) required the cooperation of the community.[7]  The instructions God gives the Hebrews is a call to an alternative economy, an alternative to the Imperial economy, that is (in many ways) like this initial economy.

Three characteristics of God’s alternative economy are seen in the instructions God gives the Hebrews.  First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs.  Second, this bread should not be “stored up,” even overnight.  Third, there are special instructions for keeping the Sabbath.  Let’s take a deeper look at the implications of these three instructions and what they tell us about God’s Sabbath economy.

The first instruction:  every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs.  In contrast to the conditions of great deprivation under Egypt’s Imperial economy (read the beginning of the book of Exodus to get a picture of what those were), here, in God’s economy, everyone has enough.  “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”  In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and there is such a thing as “too little.”  Contrast that with the ever-widening wealth gap in the United States.

The second instruction:  the gathered bread should not be “stored up.”  Wealth and power in Egypt were defined by surplus accumulation.  Look at the story of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob.  By the time we get to the book of Exodus, we find out that the descendants of Joseph and his brothers are slaves forced to build not just buildings, but “supply cities” (1:11) in which the Empire’s plunder and the tribute of subjected people were gathered.  It reminds me of a Karl Marx quote about the dictum of capitalism:  “Accumulate, accumulate – this is Moses and the Prophets!”[8]  It also reminds me of the advertising motto of the now defunct Eagle Hardware chain:  “More of everything.”

This instruction, not to store up the collected manna, runs counter to the values of the Imperial economy.  In the Imperial economy, wealth and resources are drawn together into greater and greater concentrations of idolatrous power.  In God’s economy, wealth is supposed to keep circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating through strategies of accumulation.

The third instruction is the special instruction for the Sabbath.  We haven’t gotten to the part of the Exodus story where Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from the top of Mount Sinai, so this instruction to keep the Sabbath as a day separate and different from the other six is something new.  Torah’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit.  This ethic of Sabbath rest is not just for the people.  Land is given Sabbath rest by allowing it to lie fallow every seven years.  “You shall let the land rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.”  The people are reminded that the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift that the people should justly distribute, not hoard.

“Sabbath observance requires a leap of faith, a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that God is willing and able to provide enough for the good life,” writes Richard Lowery.  “Sabbath promises seven days of prosperity for six days of work.  It operates on the assumption that human life and prosperity exceed human productivity.”[9]

The lessons of this story are so fundamental that the people were instructed to keep a jarful of the manna in front of the Covenant.  (Did you catch that at the end of today’s reading?)  Sabbath observation means remembering every week the three basic principles of God’s economy:  That there is enough for everyone.  That no one should have too much (the prohibition on accumulation).  That the economy is not dependent solely on human labor.

The manna story illustrates human dependence on God’s economy, the economy of grace.  Dependence not on human labor, not on human technology, not on human social organizations, but on God’s grace.  This vision, of course, runs counter to economics as we know it.

Our resistance to, our skepticism of this vision of an economy of grace seems to be humorously anticipated in the story itself.  “Manna” is a play on words.  It can be translated, “What is it?” – the words the people said when they were first sent out to collect this gift from God.  The two basic assumptions of the Imperial economy are so ingrained in us – that the natural condition is scarcity and that human appetites are limitless – we look at God’s gifts and say, “What is it?”

And because we believe that the natural condition is scarcity and that human appetites are limitless, we think we have to get ours before somebody else does.  So we accumulate.  We hoard.  This story from the Exodus invites us to pick a different economy, a non-Imperial economy, a Sabbath economy.  We are invited to pick an economy based on the principles of abundance and self-restraint, an economy based on the assumption that God provides enough for survival and prosperity for human life, and that human needs and wants are (or at least can be) limited.  In this economy, no one need starve or suffer the elements through lack of housing or clothing.

On its surface, the Gospel lesson seems to contradict the lessons from the Exodus story.  The disciples are out walking through a field on the Sabbath, gleaning grain.  The Pharisees who see this call Jesus on it.  Jesus justifies their actions by reminding his accusers of a story about the great King David who broken the rules because he and his companions were hungry.

This story happens right after Jesus has identified himself as “the Son of Man,” one who has authority to forgive sins.  It’s important to recognize that in the Aramaic, the language of Jesus, there is one word that means both “sin” and “debt.”[10]  That’s why, when we say, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer, we’re talking about both forgiveness of sins and proclaiming the Jubilee Year – the once every 50 years when debts are forgiven and land is returned to its original owners.

It might seem like Jesus is ignoring Sabbath obligations because – well, because he is.  At least I think he is.  He is reinterpreting the Sabbath, moving it away from a set of rules and bringing it back to its original meaning as a gift of rest and a sign of the sufficiency of God’s created order.  He is confirming that the purpose of the Sabbath is to humanize us in a world where so much of our socio-economic reasoning and practice is dehumanizing.  It is any wonder that Jesus’ central struggle with the religious authorities of his day was not over theology, but over the meaning of Sabbath?

We’ll get into Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath economics much more deeply next week.  For now, suffice it to say that the manna story, the foundation for Sabbath economics, has a central place in Jesus’ consciousness, and when Jesus call us into God’s kin-dom, he is calling us into this alternative, anti-Imperial economy.

May we be brave enough to heed that call.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/rental-data/ for information about how they came up with this figure.

[2] Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/minimumwage (accessed 17 February 2018).

[3] See https://www.rentcafe.com/average-rent-market-trends/us/ca/fremont/ for information about how they came up with this number.

[4] They don’t say whether that’s median or mean, but it’s a large enough sample the numbers are probably very close.

[5] This was actually the minimum wage if the company had more than 25 employees. It is now $11/hr. See California Department of Industry Relations, https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm (accessed 17 February 2018).

[6] This sermon is based largely on Chapter 1 of Ched Myers’ The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 10-17.

[7] Ibid, 11.

[8] I don’t know if Marx actually said this, but it’s attributed to him.  From more on this quote, see James G. Devine, Marx’s Law of Capitalist Accumulation Revisited, http://myweb.lmu.edu/jdevine/AGLoCA.pdf (accessed 19 March 2011), 20.

[9] Richard Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, quoted by Myers, op cit, 13.

[10] Myers, op. cit., 24.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 1:26-31 and Galatians 3:19-29
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We planned this sermon series because there was so much news about sexual violence.  It is an issue that we simply needed to address here in the church, from the pulpit.  As we planned the series, as I dug into the issue and learned more, I realized that the vast majority of sexual violence is connected to patriarchy.  Yes, men are sometimes the victims of sexual violence.  Yes, women are sometimes to the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And the vast majority of those targeted with sexual violence are women, and the vast majority of those who perpetrate sexual violence are men.  Sexual violence is, in our society at large, foremost an issue of men wielding their power in sexualized ways toward some sexual end for themselves.

Since this is the last sermon in this series, perhaps it’s time I explained what I mean by ‘patriarchy.’[1] Patriarchy is a social order that favors men (particularly cisgender, heterosexual men) at the expense of everyone else.  To do this, patriarchy relies on dualistic thinking.  A person is either male or female, and this is determined at birth,  so there is no room for gender fluidity or transgender identity.  To do this, patriarchy names certain qualities as masculine and superior, and other qualities as feminine and inferior.  Power, control, rationality, and competitiveness are examples of masculine-labeled qualities and they are considered superior to feminine-labeled qualities like emotional expressiveness, compassion, and nurture.  This leads to men and women having specific roles, with men leading and women supporting, and with male-labeled job getting paid more than female-labeled jobs.

Patriarchy supports (demands) male domination, and when women move into positions of power (become corporate executives, politicians, etc.), they are expected to behave “like men.”  The weird thing is that most men I know are not interested in dominating women.  Rather, it is the system people of all genders have been born into and participate in unconsciously.  So, while male-identified people reap most of the benefits of patriarchy, people of all genders support it – unless we consciously resist it.

Much of the Bible seems to support patriarchy.  The formative stories of the Hebrew scriptures are steeped in patriarchy.  I think this is more an example of the authors participating in patriarchy unconsciously than it is an endorsement of it.  Similarly, patriarchy has (probably unconsciously) influenced the way we translate the Bible into English (and other languages).  See the first sermon in this series for more on that.

Yet, despite the omnipresence of patriarchy, there are glimpses in scripture of another way.  The first creation story says that people are created in the image of God, regardless of their gender.  And in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in the community of Jesus-followers, cultural distinctions, class distinctions, and gender distinctions are unimportant, for we are all one, we are all equal in Christ.  In other words, patriarchy is not part of God’s desire for humanity and the beloved community Jesus is leading us to is not patriarchal.

So, how do we get to that non-patriarchal, beloved community?  Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a person went for her daily walk along the banks of the river that ran through town.  As she walked along, she heard what sounded an awful lot like a baby crying.  When she looked around, she realized that the sound was coming from a basket in the middle of the river that was floating downstream with the current.  Our heroine jumped into the river, swam out to the basket, and brought the baby ashore.  She dropped the baby off at her parent’s home and they agreed to care for the baby.

The next day, our heroine went for her daily walk along the river and, sure enough, another basket was floating along.  Worrying that it, too, might hold a baby, our heroine jumped into the river and rescued the baby.  She took this baby to her neighbor’s home to be cared for.

You can probably tell where this story is going.  The third day, our heroine had an appointment and couldn’t go for her daily walk along the river, so she had another friend take the walk for her.  Sure enough, the friend went into the river to pull out another baby.

It wasn’t long before our heroine organized a river patrol.  And then some friends built an orphanage, and before you knew it, the whole town was organized to take care of the babies that kept getting pulled out of the river.

Then one day, at one of the organizing meetings, somebody made a bold suggestion.  “I was thinking,” this person said, “maybe some of us might go upstream to find out why these babies keep getting loaded into baskets and plopped into the river.  Maybe there’s something we can do to stop it.”

We can look at the work of the church, particularly the mission work, as having two components: downstream mission work and upstream mission work.  Both are vital.  The downstream mission work looks at the needs that are right before us and addresses them.  It pulls the babies out of the water and cares for them.  Upstream mission work looks at the needs that are right before us and asks why they’re happening.  It goes upstream and asks, “Why?” and “How do we change it?”

There are people who don’t have enough money each month to keep a roof over their head and to buy groceries, and they have transportation limitations.  So we are helping our local food bank bring the food to them with the mobile food van project.  This is virally important downstream work and makes a huge difference in the lives of the people served.  There is also an upstream aspect to this need.  Why are people so poor that they can’t afford both rent and food?  This is a question about the system.

It is my hope that the #MeToo movement will lead our society to holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.  This is a type of downstream work.  It is a vital type of downstream work.  Holding an individual perpetrator of sexual violence accountable will make an important difference, especially for the target of that violence.

I mentioned some other downstream work in my sermon last week.  I mentioned how important it is to believe the stories we hear from people (especially from women) who have experienced sexual violence.  And it’s important that we tell them that we believe them.  Maybe something we (as a church) could do is to create a space where people can tell their stories – and be believed.  And when those stories are about experience of sexual harassment and abuse that took place in the church (for this can happen in the church just as easily as it takes place anywhere else in society), we could figure out what act of repentance by the church is needed.

I also suggested last week that one of the things we can do when we witness some form of harassment or abuse taking place is to interrupt it.  Have you heard about the New York superhero known as Snackman?  He defused a fight on the subway by standing between the combatants while eating potato chips.  Let’s go to the film.

We don’t have to use potato chips to interrupt.  We can get the target out of the situation or we can distract the assailant.  All it took was a woman walking by and slowing down to create the moment for me to escape from a sexual assault when I was a teen.

There are ways to confront a harasser (I wouldn’t do this with an assaulter).  Later, “when the harasser is less likely to escalate the situation, [we can ask] questions like:  ‘Were you aware of how you came off in that conversation?’  Researchers also suggest talking openly about inappropriate behavior, like asking colleagues:  ‘Did you notice that?  Am I the only one who sees it this way?’  It might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in with a victim and offer to help.”[2]  In the work setting, that help might take the form of offering to go with them to Human Resources, if they want.  At church, it might take the form of offering to go with them to talk to a pastor.

Sharyn Potter, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who runs a research group for sexual violence prevention, says, “A bystander saying ‘This isn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong,’ is really, really important.”[3]

These are just a few examples of downstream work that we can do.  Upstream work is always harder than the downstream work because it’s the work that changes whole systems.[4]  Yet, because so much about sexual violence is powered by patriarchy, only by overcoming patriarchy will we be able to curtail the sexual violence.

You’ve probably heard about girls being sent home from school because their outfits were deemed to be “distracting.”  But think about the message that sends.  When we interrupt a girl’s school day to force her to change her clothes, or when we send her home because her shorts are too short or her bra strap is visible, we are telling her that making sure boys have a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her own education.  Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, maybe we could teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.  But that would take a systemic change.

Patriarchy effects all of us and we all participate in it, but because men benefit from it, men bear the primary responsibility for disestablishing it.  As Lindy West pointed out, “Only 2.6 percent of construction workers are female.  We didn’t install this glass ceiling, and it is not our responsibility to demolish it.”[5]  In this sense, overcoming patriarchy is more a men’s issue than a women’s issue.

One of the ways we could address a part of patriarchy is for us to stop teaching sex education in our public school and start teaching sexuality education.  The difference between sex education and sexuality education is that the former focuses on plumbing and mechanics and the latter focuses on the whole human being.  Imagine if we taught that we need to listen to each other in our intimate relationships, that sexual expression should happen in the context of an affirmative ‘yes,’ rather than teaching merely that ‘no means no.’

And if our schools won’t do it, maybe our churches (at least progressive churches like ours) should offer holistic sexuality education to the general public.

We’re also going to have to hold media accountable.  Whether this is for male-dominated journalism, for the glass ceilings and unequal pay that persist in Hollywood, or for the victim-blaming that gets echoed in media, they all need to be held accountable.

And we need to address legislation.  When bills are introduced that take away a woman’s agency and when bills are introduced that support male domination, we must condemn them and fight against them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to change how we raise our children, especially how we raise our sons.  There is a lot I could say about this, but for now I’ll limit myself to just a couple ideas.  First, I want to say that changing the way we raise our sons is difficult.  It means going against all the messages they will receive from our patriarchal society.  All the more reason to be intentional about it.  There was a great article in The New York Times back in June about raising feminist sons.[6]  It offers a dozen specific attitudes and actions for parents to adopt in how they raise their children, especially their sons.  It covers things like helping our sons increase their emotional intelligence, and providing them with positive role models, and considering how work is divided up in the home, and the importance of our sons having different kinds of friendships.  I think these suggests apply to teachers and grandparents and church friends, too.  I encourage you to read it.

We need to teach our sons – and all men, really – that power and position are not an end in themselves.  Nor are they a license to prey upon those who are less strong or in subordinate positions.  Rather, when men have them, for whatever reason, they allow a man more ways to be of service to those around him.  That’s what Jesus taught.  By itself it means little that you are bigger or stronger or more exalted.  The measure of a man – the measure of a person – is found in what you do with those things.[7]

Amen.

_______________

[1] This definition and explanation is based largely on Drew Serres, “Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It),” Organizing Change, https://organizingchange.org/patriarchy-persists-can-change/ (posted at least two years ago; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “The #MeToo Moment: How to Be a (Good) Bystander,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/us/the-metoo-moment-how-to-be-a-good-bystander.html (posted 12 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] Many of the following ideas come from Drew Serres, op cit.

[5] Lindy West, “Why Is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/opinion/why-is-fixing-sexism-womens-work.html (posted 3 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Agnes Lee, “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/upshot/how-to-raise-a-feminist-son.html (posted 2 June 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[7] Based on Leonard Pitts, Jr., “What does it really mean to be a man?” The Bellingham Herald, http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/BellinghamHerald/shared/ShowArticle.aspx (posted 25 November 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

This is the second sermon of the four-part sermon series on patriarch and sexualized violence being preached at Niles Discovery Church this winter. The third in the series was actually posted just before this one.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on January 28, 2018, by the Rev. Brenda Loreman.
Scripture:  John 4:7-30, 39 and Judges 19:16-30
Copyright © 2018 by Brenda Loreman

My guess is that, unless you’ve read the Bible cover to cover or been to seminary, you are unfamiliar with our text from Judges. I think there are many reasons for this. For one thing, the passage is not part of any church service in the liturgical year and is not part of the revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Bible readings that many churches use for worship and preaching—and so it is not read out loud in church unless a preacher deliberately chooses to have it read. The passage is so gruesome and brutal that most readers and listeners rightly find it offensive. The passage defies any hopeful interpretation or message of the good news of God’s redeeming work in the world.

Through the millennia, the church’s primary response to this text has been a vast silence. And so we rarely read it and rarely confront what it has to say to us, and about us. But I think it’s imperative that we end that silence. Because our silence in the face of this text—and others like it in the Bible—and our inability to confront it, is connected to our silence and inability to confront how our society normalizes sexual assault and sexual violence.

It’s impossible for me to fully explicate or interpret this complicated text in a twenty-minute sermon; I know I won’t do it justice. But I want to point out some important ideas about it and connect those ideas to the legacy of silence and misogyny they have left in our Christian tradition.

In the chronology of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges happens after the Israelites have followed Moses from Egypt to Canaan, and before the twelve tribes of Israel were gathered into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon. The ancient editors of Judges repeatedly remind the reader of the book that this was a time when there was no king in the land, implying that a lack of strong leadership is the reason for such a gruesome act happening; when there is no king, lawlessness will prevail.

The primary historical interpretation of this text is not that it is a commentary on society’s brutality against women. Instead, the crime of Gibeah is a crime perpetrated on the Levite, whose property had been destroyed, and who was not shown proper hospitality by the Benjaminites. Additionally, there is often an assumption among historical interpreters that the concubine must have done something to disturb the peace in her household and anger the Levite.

Notice that the Levite shows no concern for the welfare of his concubine throughout the night. Notice that he shows no sorrow over her assault and death. Notice that he doesn’t even check to make sure she’s actually dead before he dismembers her. He never even acknowledges her humanity. Her only purpose for him is a way to seek revenge against a community who had wronged him.

Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible offers an alternative interpretation of the concubine’s story. For Trible, it is important that we interpret this story “of outrage on behalf of [its] female [victim] in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again.”[1] When we speak for the nameless woman of the story, we “interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition,” and we “recognize the contemporaneity of the story,” because “misogyny belongs to every age.”[2]

It seems a stretch to apply an ancient dismembered concubine to our culture today, but I don’t think it is. The culture that was willing to see the concubine as nothing more than a collection of body parts still exists today, and feminists and sociologists call it “rape culture.”

According to feminist authors Emilie Buchwald Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.[3]

Like racism and white privilege, rape culture is so deeply embedded in our culture and part of societal norms that most of us don’t realize it’s there. Here’s an example.

I’m almost certain that everyone in the room has seen this photo, of a sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate to end of World War II. Even if you aren’t old enough to remember it appearing on the cover of Life magazine the week after August 14, 1945, you’ve probably seen it since then. It has become an iconic expression of the wild exuberance and joyful release that the country experienced on that day.

Photographer Albert Eisenstaedt didn’t pause long enough to get the names of the sailor and nurse after he took the photo, and for many years their identities remained a mystery. The image of a passionate kiss seems romantic—a couple sharing their joy at the brutal war being over. But later research in the years following the release of the photo have determined that the pair are most likely George Mendonça, a sailor on leave in New York City, and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant working in the city. They had never met before, but found themselves in the crowds gathering in the streets as people began to celebrate after hearing the announcement from President Truman that Japan had surrendered.

I have always liked this photo, thinking it captured so well the euphoria at the end of the war. But in the light of my study of rape culture and living in the present moment of the #MeToo moment, I’ve been reevaluating the image and its message.

Look carefully at the body language of Friedman. Her body is turned awkwardly away from Mendonça, at a stiff angle. Mendonça is holding her tightly, essentially putting her in a head lock, and she is not returning his embrace.

Like any good photographer, Eisenstaedt snapped several photos of the pair in an effort to capture the best exposure and composition. Here’s another image of the same scene. In this version, notice that Friedman’s hand is wedged between the two of them.

And in a third version, Friedman’s hand is clenched in a fist next to Mendonça’s face.

Nothing about her posture in any of the photos says that she is a willing participant in the kiss.

I might be tempted to dismiss my suspicions about the nature of Mendonça’s and Friedman’s encounter if it weren’t for what Friedman herself has said about it in interviews:

“That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vise-grip.”

“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”[4]

Unwanted and nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault; rather than an image of a romantic encounter, this is an image of an assault. The fact that we tend to explain it away by saying it’s from a different time—or that Friedman herself didn’t consider it assault, or that the sailor couldn’t be blamed for having some fun on such a joyful day, or that it’s just a kiss—is part of the deep, underlying problem with rape culture. We live in a society where we are willing to explain away and excuse sexual assault. It’s time to stop. It’s time to tell the ancient hidden stories of the nameless concubines, and it’s time to allow, encourage, and provide a safe space for women everywhere to tell their own stories, to acknowledge our complicity in allowing rape culture to flourish, and to find a way to make a change so that we no longer confuse sexual assault with romance.

Statistics tell us that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.[5] These statistics are appalling, but I think we need to remember that they only refer to the sexual assaults that actually get reported to authorities. In all likelihood, the number is greater. And I tend to believe that every woman has a story to tell about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

Late last year, the Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City told a story about a gathering of parishioners she had at her home. As a small but diverse group gathered around her table for dinner, “one of the men in the group brought up the subject of sexual harassment allegations we’re seeing all over the media. He asked what he could do. As a woman sitting at that table,” Butler said, “I appreciated his questions. But it quickly became apparent that those questions were not the most pressing issues on our minds.” Every woman at Butler’s table began to share her own “Me, Too” story:

“I remember the first time I saw a male teacher looking down my shirt. When I complained, I was told to button more buttons.”

“The first time a man exposed himself to me, I was at a neighborhood pool. I was 7.”

“In my all-girl’s elementary school, I had to stay after school some days when my mom was working late. I hated it because the janitor would push me up against the counter and touch my body. When I reported it, I was told just to stay away from him.”[6]

Around Butler’s intergenerational and interracial table, table, it became clear that for many women, “sexual harassment and abuse of women is part of everyday life.”[7] In my own conversations with women—and some men as well—I have discovered the same thing.

And the church has been complicit in upholding rape culture and misogyny, “implicated by thousands of years of institutional and personal abuse of women, almost an entire existence of keeping women subverted and victimized. I don’t think we even know how deep and inbred this sin of the church actually is. But like most things, the church will be dragged kicking and screaming into the conversation. Because women, like all the women around [Rev. Butler’s] dinner table […], will start telling their stories. And we will not stop.”[8]

For the sake of argument, I assume that “most Christians agree that Jesus wouldn’t appreciate the sexual exploitation or abuse of women.” So it’s time that the church, “an institution claiming to represent the values of Jesus, take necessary steps to enter a conversation we should have been leading long ago.”[9]

It’s time for us start talking about misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism in general. It’s time to acknowledge the “constant, wearing, culturally inbred experience of sexual harassment.”[10]  It’s time for us to listen to women, to provide a platform for us to tell our stories and to honor those stories as holy.

It’s time for us to lift up the story of the nameless concubine, to take to heart her story and confess its present reality.  It’s time for us to hear the stories of women the way Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well: to listen without judgement, to engage in respectful conversation, and to offer the gift of living water, the spirit that binds human life together, that brings about wholeness and healing. Amen.

_______________

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 3.

[2] Trible, 86-87. Emphasis mine.

[3] Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth, eds. Transforming a Rape Culture (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2005), xi.

[4] “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” blog post at Crates and Ribbons, https://cratesandribbons.com/2012/09/30/the-kissing-sailor-or-the-selective-blindness-of-rape-culture-vj-day-times-square/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[5] Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. https://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/national-statistics-on-sexual-violence/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[6] Amy Butler, “What Churches Must Do Right Now to Stop Being Part of The Sexual Harassment Problem,” Washington Post, December 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/01/what-churches-must-do-right-now-to-stop-being-part-of-the-sexual-harassment-problem/?utm_term=.c4328f0b0843. Accessed January 25, 2017.

[7] Butler, ibid.

[8] Butler, ibid.

[9] Butler, ibid.

[10] Butler, ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 8:2-11 and Luke 24:1-11
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have long considered the passage we heard from John 8 to be a pretty good argument against the death penalty.  The law says that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Jesus stops the crowd from carrying out that penalty.  It seems pretty clear that Jesus is anti-death penalty.

At least in the case of adultery.

When only one of the party is brought to justice.

And that last statement is an important one for this sermon series.  The crowd is only seeking to punish the woman, as if the adultery is her fault.  She was caught in the act, they say.  That means the other party was there.  Why aren’t they hauling the man away to be killed, too?  It’s as if the guy gets a pass.

For generations, we’ve been letting men get away with sexual harassment and sexual assault.  We’ve been slut-shaming the women and giving the men a pass.  In my studying for this sermon series, I’ve learned some of the reasons why people sexually harass.

According to John Pryor, a psychologist at Illinois State University, there are three personality factors that increase the likelihood that a man will be a sexual harasser:  a lack of empathy, a belief in traditional gender roles, and a tendency toward authoritarianism.  In his research, Pryor found that when men with these personality traits are in an environment or system that suggests they can get away with it, they will do it.[1]

Add to this information the results of more recent studies showing that power makes people impulsive, less worried about social conventions, and less concerned about the effect of ones actions on others.  Other studies show that powerful people become more focused on themselves, are more likely to objectify others, and are more likely to overestimate how much others like them.  Sometimes powerful people will think that there are sexual signals coming from subordinates that simply aren’t there.[2]

Why men are much more likely to sexually harass than women is not completely clear.  “It’s not like women are somehow immune from dark personality traits,” psychologist Louise Fitzgerald said, “but we know from gender research that men are more aggressive, more socialized to seek sex and believe they have a right to it.”[3]

I do not think this greater aggression is simply biological.  It is not, as Andrew Sullivan proposed in a column for New York magazine,[4] simply a matter of testosterone.  There is something about the ways we raise boys that makes the men they grow into more aggressive than women, particularly more sexually aggressive.  One of the dangerous ways we do this is by doing what happened in the story from John’s gospel.  We give the men a pass.

Consider these three things we tell boys and girls that gives boys a pass.

  • Boys will be boys.
  • He does that because he likes you.
  • It’s just locker room talk.

Perhaps a little more strongly than the other two phrases (though I think all three do this), saying, “Boys will be boys,” teaches that there is only one way to be a boy, and that way is to be violent, rough, and tumble.  It implies that boys are biologically wired to be violent and that they should be excused from the consequences of that behavior.  It turns out, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot, that there is very little difference between the brains of girls and boys.[5]  When our culture buys into the idea that maleness is to be equated with violence, we excuse behaviors that hurt others physically or emotionally.

The junior high boy snaps the bra strap of the junior high girl in the hallway.  When the girl informs a teacher, the teacher says the boy did it because “he likes you and doesn’t know another way to tell you.”  It gets said again and again.  I am guilty of saying it – not at the junior high level, but with elementary kids.  When we say it, we are reinforcing that idea that boys are incapable of expressing themselves through any means other than violence.

“When we dismiss boys’ aggression as evidence of affection,… we sell all children short.  To girls, the message is, ‘That violent act to which you did not consent means that he feels love for you.’  And the message to boys is, ‘When you feel an emotion, you should express it through violence.’”[6]

Consider what those messages do.  They imply “that it’s strange for boys to have feelings of love that are disconnected from feelings of violence [or power over another].…  When we tell our boys it’s normal to show that they like someone by hurting them, we don’t just excuse toxic masculinity – we encourage it.  We are effectively not teaching our children what safe and consensual relationships look like at the moments when they are just starting to come of age sexually.”[7]

Likewise, we give boys and men a pass when we excuse their stories of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”  We’re essentially saying “boys will be boys,” but in an advanced way.  We are saying not only that it is okay, but that it is appropriate, that it is expected for boys and men to perform their masculinity and their sexuality in aggressive ways.  And that is toxic for all of us.

Aziz Ansari

About three weeks ago, a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari was published online.[8]  They met, exchanged phone numbers, exchanged text messages, and then went out on a date.  The date ended in Ansari’s apartment and became very sexual very quickly – from kissing to undressing to Ansari saying he was going to go grab a condom, all in a matter minutes.  “Grace [the woman’s pseudonym] voiced her hesitation explicitly.  ‘I said something like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”’  She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him.  She did, but not for long.”[9]  The date ended, and she left – very upset.  For her, this was a #MeToo moment.

There was a lot of push back about this article – a lot.  The woman was not an employee of Ansari, so there were no workplace dynamics in the situation.  “Her repeated objections and pleas that they ‘slow down’ were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex.  Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.  “Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.”[10]

This question is, I think, the other side of the enculturation issue I just scratched the surface of about male sexual aggression.  And I’ll tell you, I don’t know all the possible reasons.  But I found a very informative article online that opened my eyes, titled “The female price of male pleasure.”  I hope you will read it; click here.

It’s thesis is this:  “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time.  And to ignore their discomfort.”[11]  Loofbourow, the author of the article, starts with this little factoid:  According to a study published on the National Institutes of Health website, 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.[12]  She goes on to explore how and why women and men have entirely different understandings of what makes sexual intercourse “bad sex.”

She notes that there are five times as many clinical trials studying men’s sexual pleasure as there are studies into the severe physical pain some women experience during sex.  Why?  “Because,” she concludes, “we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.”

She writes about women who continue having sexual intercourse even though it is painful.  She writes about women being taught to expect the first time they have sexual intercourse to be painful – and if the first time, why not the second time?  And then there’s the discomfort the fashion industry pushes on women, largely for the sexual gratification of men.

One of the reasons women don’t just leave when a social encounter turns uncomfortable sexually is that they are taught that uncomfortable is the norm.  This is probably also a reason that some women don’t realize that the uncomfortable situation they just had – in the workplace or at school or at church or at the sports club – was sexual harassment.  And even if they do recognize it as such, it may be a reason they don’t bother reporting it.

There are two other reasons I can think of that people (of all genders) don’t report sexual harassment and sexual assaults.  The first is that they don’t think they’re going to be believed.  It’s what happened to the women in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, and they weren’t even reporting an assault.  The women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid after the crucifixion to give it a proper preparation.  But when they get there, the body is gone and they have an angelic visitation.  When they report what happened to the men who were followers of Jesus, they are not believed.  The men don’t believe them.

The other reason I can think of that people don’t report sexual harassment and sexual violence is that they worry that their reporting will be met with more violence.  You may remember the recent special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.  One of the candidates, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct in the weeks leading up to the election.  This is what happened to home of Tina Moore, one of the accusers.[13]

The fire is being investigated as an arson.  The fear that reporting will be met with more violence is reasonable.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to touch on in this sermon:  What do we do about all this?  I’ll go into this in much more detail next week.  This week, I want to say there are at least three basic things we can do when we see harassment, or even assault, taking place:

  • We can disrupt the situation. This needs to be done in a way that is as safe as possible.  You may want some support from another when you do this.  I’ll offer some examples of how this can be done next week.
  • We can confront the harasser. This doesn’t have to be done in the moment and it isn’t appropriate in all situations.  But when it’s appropriate there are ways to do this.  More next week.
  • And we can ask the target of the harassment how we can help. This might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in the with target of harassment and offer to help – like offering to go with them to Human Resources if the harassment takes place at work.

The other thing that’s important to do when someone discloses harassment or abuse.  Believe them.  Telling someone, “I believe you,” can give them the support they need to get the help they need to get the healing they deserve.  We can do a better job than the male disciples did on Easter morning.

Amen.

_______________

[1] William Wan, “What makes some men sexual harassers? …” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/12/20/what-makes-some-men-sexual-harassers-science-tries-to-explain-the-harvey-weinsteins-of-the-world/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/01/sullivan-metoo-must-choose-between-reality-and-ideology.html

[5] Colleen Clemens, “Say No to ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’” Teaching Tolerance, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/say-no-to-boys-will-be-boys (posted 17 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Katie Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” babe.net, https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355 (posted 14 January 2018 [as best I can tell]; accessed 3 February 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lili Loofbourow, “The female price of male pleasure,” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/749978/female-price-male-pleasure (posted 25 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25648245

[13] M.L. Nestel, “Over $150,000 raised after Roy Moore accuser’s home burns down in suspicious fire,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/100000-raised-roy-moore-accusers-home-burns-suspicious/story?id=52192189 (posted 7 January 2018; accessed 3 January 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 1:1-11 and Acts 19:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in seminary, I had a text book that was probably two inches thick.  It was on one subject:  baptism.  This sermon won’t be that long.  I promise.

Actually, I’m a little amused that the book on baptism was that long because there’s actually quite a bit of common understanding of baptism in the ecumenical community.  When the World Council of Churches decided to issue a collection of statements on the ecumenical convergence of theologies around baptism, communion, and ordination, the section on baptism was the shortest because it needed the least explanations.  Ecumenically, the understandings of what baptism is and means are pretty solid and widely shared.  The understandings about communion and ordination vary widely, but on baptism, there is a strong convergence.

I’m not sure how the convergence came about.  If you look at the book of the Acts of the Apostles (the book we heard a reading from today), you will see that the ways baptism was practiced by the early church varied.  Expand your search to the whole of the New Testament, you’ll find even more variation.  You will find stories of baptisms performed in the name of Jesus and in the name of God and you’ll hear a call that baptisms be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).  You will find stories where it seems that a person needs to profess a faith in Jesus to be baptized and stories where, if the head of a household is baptized, the whole household is baptized regardless of what the other members of the household believe.  Sometimes it’s clear that the one baptized is immersed, is dunked under the waters of baptism, and sometimes it’s not so clear how much water is used.

There is an obvious connection between the baptisms John performed in the River Jordan and the baptisms practiced in the early church.  John’s baptism was a mark of repentance, of turning, of taking a new direction in life.  It was an act that forgave sins.  While the mark of repentance and entering a new way of life were (and are) definitely part of what baptism was (and is) in the Jesus movement, Christians see baptism as something more.

There is something about the Holy Spirit in baptism.  We heard about it in our reading from Acts.  Paul meets up with a group of people in Ephesus who think they’re following Jesus, but they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit.  They’d been baptized, but only in the tradition of John.  They get baptized in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s the whole question about Jesus being baptized by John.  If John was preaching a baptism for the repentance of sin, why was Jesus baptized?  David Lose points out that in John’s gospel, there’s no report of Jesus’ being baptized.  Instead, the Baptist reports seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus.

The other three Gospels share an account of Jesus’ baptism.  They do not, unfortunately, resolve the question of why Jesus was baptized.  “In fact,” Lose says, “when you listen to the essentials of Mark’s terse account, perhaps what is most striking is that Jesus doesn’t really do or say much of anything that sheds light on what’s going on.  As Mark writes, ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’

“Do you see what I mean?  Jesus is rather passive in all that happens.  But, on second thought, perhaps that’s just the way it should be.  After all, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  This is the start of his long and difficult journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  And so at his baptism, Jesus doesn’t have to do anything, but rather simply receives the gift of the Holy Spirit and of God’s favor.  Indeed, it is a powerful word of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment”[1] that Jesus receives – “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased” – and this points to another thing that baptism is all about.

In baptism, we are claimed by God.  Just as we are, God claims us.  And in that process, we receive a blessed identity:  beloved children of God.  And in that process, God makes a commitment to us and we make a commitment to God.

Let me share with you some of the key points about baptism – points about which Christianity in its many denominations agree.  These are from the World Council of Church’s document[2] on baptism.  Baptism is rooted in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It has been practiced from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  “Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ.  It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people.…  Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection; a washing away of sin; a new birth; an enlightenment by Christ; a re-clothing in Christ; a renewal by the Spirit; the experience of salvation from the flood; an exodus from bondage; and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended.”[3]

I’ll refer you to the World Council of Churches document if you want to unpack what those statements mean, but I want to dig a little deeper into one of them:  Incorporation into the Body of Christ.  This is an important understanding of the meaning of baptism.  Baptism brings us together into the community of believers.  It makes us part of the Body of Christ.  The document says, “baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship.  Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.”[4]

The first question a candidate for baptism is asked in liturgy for baptism that’s in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship is this:  Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?  In Chalice Worship, the Disciples of Christ worship book, there seems to be an assumption that the answer to this question is “yes,” since the person is standing there.  But that is the most basic thing we understand about baptism.  When one is baptized, they become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.

So, if baptism is becoming part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, what is “membership” in a church all about?  Well, in some denominations, I think a fair answer is “not much more than a label.”  If you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re more a member of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, than a member of a particular parish.  But as the polity, the way a denomination works politically, becomes more congregational (with a little “c,” meaning having local autonomy), membership takes on more meaning, and more responsibility.

When you join a congregation that is part of the Disciples of Christ tradition or the United Church of Christ tradition, you become a voting member of that church.  Members vote on church budgets each year, they vote on which members should serve in key leadership positions, they vote on calling their pastors, and they vote on the bylaws that govern how they function.

But being a member is more than voting.  We typically receive new members as part of the worship service because becoming a member is a prayerful and worshipful act.  Lillian Daniel describes it this way:  “You will experience real power in that moment [of joining a church], when you tell the people around you and God that this is now your spiritual home.

“When you join, you make a connection, you join a community.  The Bible’s word for that is ‘covenant.’  When you join, you make a covenant.  A covenant is an exchange of holy promises.  In making a covenant we promise to serve God together.  So it’s not just new members who join the church.  Rather, everyone – new members and existing members – joins one another.  As we make our promises to one another we remember God’s promises to us and promise to serve God as best we are able.”[5]

That’s why joining a church is different from joining a gym.  “When you join a church, you’re not just on the receiving end [of services, the way you are when you join a gym], but on the giving end as well.  You are promising to do more than show up and use the facilities.  Will you hold other people in prayer and in love?  Will you make a contribution to the community by volunteering as you are able and financially?  And let’s be clear, you [join a church] because somewhere in your journey, you sensed that there was more to this life than what you see in front of you.  You sense that God is still speaking.”[6]

That is why, traditionally in both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, joining a church, becoming a member of a church, is seen as a reaffirmation of baptism.  The liturgy we currently use when we receive new members is based on the baptism liturgy.  The questions we ask people who are uniting with the church are questions we ask when someone is baptized.  That is why the bylaws of Niles Discovery Church say, “Any baptized person may seek membership in this church.  Uniting with the congregation is an act of reaffirmation of baptism.”

 

But perhaps it is time to change our bylaws.  More and more people raised without a church background.  So it is becoming more common for people to find a spiritual home in a local church and feel like they don’t know enough about the Bible or Christian history or theology to be ready to make the faith commitment that baptism calls us to.  I’m also finding more and more people who were baptized, typically as infants, are finding themselves to be questioning the most basic thing about faith – that there is a divine something that we call “God” whose love is made visible in the sacrament of baptism.

People from both of these groups may find a home, a spiritual home, at Niles Discovery Church and want to formally commit to being part of this community of faith, even though they have lots of questions about the “faith” part of “community of faith.”  Should we continue to see baptism as a requirement of membership in our church?

An Episcopal priest offered me this analogy:  When someone comes to our church, we immediately issue them a Green Card.  We say they are welcome to stay and be part of the community.  But if they want to be able to vote, they have to take a citizenship test, and that’s the sacrament of baptism.  Then they can register to vote, which is joining the church as a member.

The analogy is insufficient because it sees membership as merely a matter of voting, and as I just said, it’s much more than that.  Membership is a matter of covenant.  Still, is this (what the bylaws currently say about baptism and membership) how we want to function?

I’ll stop there and invite you into some reflection.  And then we’ll carry on the discussion during our Town Hall Meeting.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • Reflect on a memory you have of a baptism (yours or someone else’s)
  • Whether you consider yourself part or not, what does it mean to you to be part of “the faith and family of Jesus Christ”?
  • Whether you’re a member or not, what does it mean to you to be a member of Niles Discovery Church?

____________

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 1 B: Powerful Words for a New Year,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/ (posted and accessed on 4 January 2018).

[2] This is actually from the first part of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” [BEM] adopted in Lima, Peru, in 1982.  You can find the document at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text.

[3] Paragraph 2 of BEM.

[4] Paragraph 5 of BEM.

[5] Lillian Daniel, So You’re Thinking About Joining the Church, a brochure published by the United Church of Christ that is undated.

[6] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_5at1ahrqj80sckskwcoc4ssc0_640

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

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