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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.

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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.

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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/.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:26-31
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

On October 31st, in the great country of ours, small bands of armed children race from house to house demanding protection candy.  Or at least that’s how it seems.  Alright, pops, what’s it gonna be?  Your candy of the front window?[1]

Martin Luther

When I was a kid, October 31st was all about the candy.  But going to seminary changes a guy, and what made October 31st important to me was one of those things that changed.  October 31 became about the beginning of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism.  And all because of this guy:  Martin Luther.

Though apparently many scholars now say the story is apocryphal,[2] the legend says that on October 31, 1517, this monk did what was that time’s version of a Facebook post.  He hammered a list of criticisms of his beloved Roman Catholic Church, his 95 theses, to the chapel door of the castle in Wittenberg.

I had a church member who as disappointed to find out that these 95 theses were 95 statements.[3]  She had envisioned 95 Master’s degree length thesis manuscripts somehow hung on the chapel door.  But they are a series of statements that together make an argument for reforming some of the practices of the church – particularly the practice of selling indulgences (which makes me think of chocolate, because chocolate is an indulgence, which brings us back to Halloween – but I’ll get to the church’s practice of selling indulgences in a moment).

Luther’s 95 theses were not a list of demands nor were they a list of theological non-negotiables.  They were an argument that Luther probably wanted debated.  I’m not sure why they were numbered, but it reminds me of the practice of numbering the lines in a resolution that a deliberative body is debating so someone can make reference to a particular line.  I don’t think Luther had any inkling of separating from the Roman Catholic church when he posted them.  He wanted his church to change, not split.  He thought there were abuses being perpetrated by the church that needed to stop.  He thought that these abuses were being justified with bad theology and he wanted that theology addressed and corrected.  That’s not what happened.

There’s a wonderful article in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine about Luther that explains the specifics of Luther’s objections.  “One of the most bitterly resented abuses [and not just by Luther, but by a lot of people] of the Church at that time was the so-called indulgences, a kind of late-medieval get-out-of-jail-free card used by the Church to make money.  When a Christian purchased an indulgence from the Church, he obtained – for himself or whomever else he was trying to benefit – a reduction in the amount of time the person’s soul had to spend in Purgatory, atoning for his [or her] sins, before ascending to Heaven.  You might pay to have a special Mass said for the sinner or, less expensively, you could buy candles or new altar cloths for the church.  But, in the most common transaction, the purchaser simply paid an agreed-upon amount of money and, in return, was given a document saying that the beneficiary – the name was written in on a printed form – was forgiven x amount of time in Purgatory.…

“In Luther’s mind, the indulgence trade … brought him up against the absurdity of bargaining with God, jockeying for his [Luther certainly saw God as a “he”] favor – indeed, paying for his favor.  Why had God given his only begotten son?  And why had the son died on the cross?  Because that’s how much God loved the world.  And that alone, Luther now reasoned, was sufficient for a person to be found ‘justified,’ or worthy.  From this thought, the Ninety-five Theses were born.  Most of them were challenges to the sale of indulgences.  And out of them came what would be the two guiding principles of Luther’s theology:  sola fide and sola scriptura.”[4]

Sola fide means “only faith” or “faith alone.”  I think it’s worth noticing that the Latin fide is more like the English word “fidelity” than it is like “belief.”  This motto came from Luther’s belief that salvation comes through faith alone, not works, and definitely not through the purchasing of indulgences.  “This was not a new idea.  St. Augustine, the founder of Luther’s monastic order, laid it out in the fourth century.”[5]

There are some interesting insights into Luther’s psychology and spiritual journey in the The New Yorker article, but we won’t have time for those in today’s sermon.  Especially since I’m more interested in the second of those guiding principles, the second of those mottos of the Reformation:  sola scriptura.  Sola scriptura, “only scripture” or “scripture alone,” is “the belief that only the Bible [can] tell us the truth.  Like sola fide, this was a rejection of what, to Luther, were the lies of the Church – symbolized most of all by the indulgence market.  Indulgences brought you an abbreviation of your stay in Purgatory, but what was Purgatory?  No such thing is mentioned in the Bible.  Some people think that Dante made it up; others say Gregory the Great.  In any case, Luther decided that somebody made it up.”[6]

And if something is not in the Bible, it’s suspect.  If it’s not in the Bible, it’s potentially wrong.  The Bible is the only rule of faith.  Interpretations of the Bible, doctrines of the church, traditions – all of these are from people (from men, in Luther’s day), and therefore potentially wrong.

Guided by these convictions – sola fide and sola scriptura – “and fired by his new certainty of God’s love for him, Luther became radicalized.  He preached, he disputed.  Above all, he wrote pamphlets.  He denounced not only the indulgence trade but all the other ways in which the Church made money off Christians …  He [even] questioned the sacraments. …

“Luther at the Diet of Worms,” by Anton von Werner, painted in 1877, over 350 years after the actual event.

“Things came to a head in 1520.  By then, Luther had taken to calling the Church a brothel, and Pope Leo X the Antichrist.  Leo gave Luther sixty days to appear in Rome and answer charges of heresy.  Luther let the sixty days elapse; the Pope excommunicated him; Luther responded by publicly burning the papal order in the pit where one of Wittenberg’s hospitals burned its used rags.  [Luther helped put the “protest” in Protestant.]  Reformers had been executed for less, but Luther was by now a very popular man throughout Europe.  The authorities knew they would have serious trouble if they killed him, and the Church gave him one more chance to recant, at the upcoming diet – or congregation of officers, sacred and secular – in the cathedral city of Worms in 1521.  He went, and declared that he could not retract any of the charges he had made against the Church, because the Church could not show him, in Scripture, that any of them were false.”[7]

Like many people of faith, Luther felt he had to stand by his conscience.  It is in honor of this fidelity, this integrity that we are singing our post-sermon hymn.  The words come from an anti-slavery poem written by James Lowell in 1845.[8]

“Here I stand, I can do no other,” Luther is supposed to have said at the Diet of Worms.  He could do no other because of the principle of sola scriptura.  Scripture alone was the rule of his faith – a view very much in keeping with what we heard in today’s Gospel reading John says he wrote his gospel so that we might have faith, so that we might be able to join with Thomas in proclaiming to Jesus, you are my Lord and my God.

But there is also a danger in this principle.  Sola scriptura says that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it, because of verbal inspiration, is the word of God.  Never mind that the Bible, in John’s gospel, says that Jesus is the Word of God.  And yes, this motto, this principle served as a good corrective to the notion that the Pope is infallible and that the traditions of the church have the same authority (or more authority) that the Bible.

But if we rely too heavily on this principle, the Bible moves from being a source, a touchstone to guide us into something that is worshiped.  Sola scriptura is not far from biblical inerrancy (that the Bible contains no errors) or biblical literalism (that everything in the Bible is literally true).  And once we embrace inerrancy and literalism, we are not far from treating the Bible as an idol, or as I like to call it, bibolatry.

Maybe sola scriptura has served its purpose and it’s time for a new reformation and a new motto.

If you’ve heard me preach for any length of time, you know that I’m quite taken by the notion that we are in the midst of one of the church’s quincentennial rummage sales.  The late Phyllis Tickle introduced me to this idea in her writings and a lecture I got to hear.  The notion is that every roughly 500 years, the church goes through a major reorganizing and births something new.  Two thousand years ago, it was the birth of Christianity itself.  1500 years ago, it was the birth of the monastic communities as the centers of Christian life and thought.  1,000 years ago, it was the Great Schism and the birth of the Roman Catholic Church (separating from the Orthodox Church).  500 years ago, it was the birth of Protestantism.  And here we are, on the 500th anniversary of Luther writing his 95 theses and sending them off to an archbishop (even if he didn’t nail them to the Wittenberg Chapel door).  It’s time again for something new.

What might be the new motto, a motto to replace sola scriptura?  If you don’t mind, I’m going to pause for a moment to let you think about that.

What understandings are central to your faith and your sense of what needs correction in the church of today?

As I’ve thought about this question in preparation for today’s sermon, I want a motto that expresses my understanding that God is everywhere, not just “up” in heaven.  I want a motto that reminds me that all that is dwells in God and that God infuses everything.  I want a motto that reminds me that nothing can separate us from God’s love – nothing in this life and nothing in the life to come.  I want a motto that reminds me that God’s love is radically inclusive and pro-justice.  And I had nothing … until a few days ago when Diana Butler Bass posted on Facebook (her Wittenberg Chapel door):  “New Reformation:  Sola universum.”[9]

It literally means “only the universe” or “the universe alone,” but she added in a comment to expand on her meaning:  “What if the ONLY thing we thought mattered was EVERYTHING?”

Sola universum – that works for me.  Maybe you have a motto that works for you.  Whatever our mottos, I hope they drive us, the way sola fide and sola scriptura did Luther.  Because Luther believed that only faith was necessary to receive salvation (and not things like indulgences), and because Luther believed that scripture alone was a sufficient rule of faith, he wrote his argument against the practices of the church of his day, hoping that doing so might help lead to reform.

And if I’m right, that we are in the midst of the next church rummage sale, that we are in the midst of a new reformation, what arguments do you have against the practices of the church of your day?  What do you want to see changed?

This is where you get to finish up today’s sermon.  On your announcement folder is a post-it.  I invite you to write down a thesis of your own – or more than one if you want to – about what needs to change.  And then I invite you to post them during coffee hour on our own “Wittenberg Door” in the fellowship hall.

_______________

[1] Adapted from the introduction by Noel Paul Stookey to the song “A’ Soalin’” on the album “Peter, Paul and Mary In Concert.”

[2] Joan Acocella, “How Martin Luther Changed the World,” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/how-martin-luther-changed-the-world (posted for the 30 October 2017 edition; accessed on 27 October 2017).

[3] You can read an English translation of these “theses” at http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.

[4] Acocella, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The hymn is “Once to Every Man and Nation.”  The lyrics are from “The Present Crisis,” by James Lowell, 1845.  You can read the poem at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/present-crisis.

[9] Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155402820948500 (posted and accessed on 26 October 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 22:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Truth be told, when I read this parable a couple weeks ago, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  How on earth am I going to use this in a pledge campaign?”

The simple fact of the matter is that I haven’t liked this parable very much.  I don’t like its violence – the violence perpetrated by the wedding invitees, nor the violence perpetrated by the king.  And when the parable is looked at as an allegory it easily becomes anti-Semitic.  Making light of the kind’s invitation on one hand and killing his slaves on the other can be interpreted as blaming the Jews for ignoring the prophets and for killing Jesus (even though we know that the Roman government was responsible for killing Jesus).

As I sat with my discomfort, my dislike of this parable this week, I realized that I am treating the parable too literally.  I am looking at it too closely.  I need to step back to see the bigger picture.  I had this experience on Friday, sitting too close to some prints hanging on a hospital waiting room wall.  Only later that morning when I was sitting in some chairs across the waiting room could I see the beauty of the artwork.

You may have had a similar experience with pointillism.  If you’re too close, you have no idea what you’re looking at, but if you back up, you can see the whole picture.  If I step back from the parable and think about the whole picture, I don’t get lost in the details.

Early Christians thought that Jesus was going to return to fully establish the Realm of God, the Realm that he has started to establish during his lifetime through his preaching, teaching and healing.  By the time Matthew was writing his gospel, some of the community “had begun to lose confidence in the second coming of Jesus and in the final manifestation of the Realm.”[1]  The person we call Matthew wrote his gospel to impress upon the community the importance of remaining faithful, even in the face of conflict within the community and conflict with authorities outside the community (be that with Jewish authorities or Roman authorities).

When you remember this, you can see this parable as fitting into that purpose.  “It urges people to accept the invitation to the Realm, to accept others who have accepted the invitation to the Realm, and to dress accordingly, that is, to live according to the perspectives and behaviors of the Realm of God.…  When listeners accept the invitation to become part of the community that is part of the movement to the Realm, they make a commitment to live according to the values and purposes of the Realm.  They agree to put their time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources at the service of the Realm.”[2]

The use of a wedding banquet to refer to God’s rule is not unique to the Gospel writers.  Isaiah is one who uses this image.  And it’s an appropriate image.  “Weddings in antiquity were significant social occasions.  In villages, the event could last several days and would involve generous amounts of food, considerable dancing, and other festive qualities.  The [whole] social world of the village was transformed during the time of a wedding.”[3]

And here’s why this parable works for our pledge campaign.  “The invitation to join the Realm is an invitation to turn away from using time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources to serve the values and practices of the old age, and to turn towards God and to use [those resources] … according to the values and practices of the Realm of God.”[4]  Yes, our pledge campaign is leading toward October 22, when we will ask you to make a financial commitment to support the work of the Realm of God we are carrying out through the ministries of our church.  But more than that, this pledge campaign is about “getting caught up in the movement towards the Realm, and in response committing oneself to practice the Realm.  The money for the budget is intended to help the church be a genuine community of the Realm and to make an adequate witness.”[5]

That’s the invitation of this pledge campaign.  I know that, just like in the parable, some people won’t want to come.  Some people make light of the invitation and return to whatever the modern equivalent of their farms and businesses is.  Presumably, their lives will continue in the broken way of the world.

But some will respond to the invitation, including people who think they are not good enough to be invited and are surprised to have a servant come and seek them out.  And we all know that some will respond to the invitation, but won’t invest themselves in the work of the Realm.  I’m glad to say that we don’t through them out, but I do always feel some sense of loss and sometimes even failure, when people who’ve said “yes” to the invitation don’t follow through with a Realm-transformed life.

The reality is that the pledge you choose to make during this campaign is just one piece of a Realm-transformed life.  I’ve been calling this a pledge campaign (and not a stewardship campaign) because stewardship is about much more than giving money.  Stewardship is about being part of the new social and cosmic order that is the Realm of God.  “When we commit to the church, we commit to the Realm, which is committing to the movement for a renewed world.”[6]  Stewardship is really everything you do after you say, “I believe.”

That said, stewardship definitely includes how you use your money.  And not just about how you use your money to support the church.  If you live a life-style that exceeds your income, putting you into debt, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship, and maybe you need some help with that.  I’m not exactly sure where to get that help, but I’m happy to work with you to find it.  If you try to feed a spiritual hunger by buying things, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.  If you’re so good about saving your money that you are stingy with your neighbors, yourself, and God, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.

So, part of the invitation of this pledge campaign is to ask you to look at your income (and maybe even your savings) and decide what you need to do to be even healthier about your stewardship of your money.

There are two more things in today’s gospel lesson that I want to talk about.  The first is about the violence of the king.  There are two ways this violence is cast.  The king sends his troops to destroy the murderers of his slaves.  And the king, once the party has begun, has one of the guests thrown into the outer darkness for not wearing the right attire.

Perhaps I am guilty of looking too closely at the parable right now, but because this so disturbs me, I have to comment.  I can only interpret these lines as hyperbole.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, would not burn down whole cities.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, “would not actively consign people to the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”[7]  Still, I do think that when people choose to refuse the invitation to be part of building the realm of God, they end up building walls between themselves and God.

And I do think that metaphoric dress has consequences.  When we clothe ourselves unethically, disregarding the attitudes and actions that are part of the Realm of God, we create communities of distrust, exploitation, and violence, and that eventually causes many people to weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

The final thing I want to comment on are the lines where the king sends his slaves to get other people to come to the banquet.  Let me remind you of those lines.  “Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

I’m taken by the notion that slaves rounded up everybody to come to the wedding banquet.  I think this is saying that the gospel is for everybody.  I think this is saying that we should be out inviting everybody, not just the people who are in whatever way “like us.”  We should be out inviting people who we think might, in some way, be bad – and then get over our judgmentalism.

Back in May, we adopted a strategic plan for the next two years.  The plan has two goals.  One is to start at least two new hands-on, multi-cultural, intergenerational service project each year for the next two years.  The other is to encourage the faith journeys of all members and visitors by increasing participation in church programs by 10% annually.  I think both of these goals fit in with this image of gathering up people to join in the wedding banquet that is the Realm of God.

And so I want to remind you that when you make your financial pledge to the church later this month, you are supporting this work of invitation.  “For Matthew’s [Jewish community], ministry with Gentiles and with those who do good things and bad things was a significant magnification of their ministry, but one that was essential to their identity and purpose.  To stretch is to be faithful.  To fail to stretch is to be unfaithful.”[8]

My friends, the invitation has gone out.  We have been invited to the wedding banquet and everything is prepared.  Will we come and celebrate?  Will we come ready to be part of the new social order that transforms the world?  And if we will, how will we live that out in all aspects of our lives, in all the ways we are stewards of our resources?

In other words, how will we respond to the invitation?

_______________

[1] Bruce Barkhauer, et. al., Journey to Generosity: The Way of Jesus, published by the Center for Faith and Giving in 2016 and downloaded in 2017, page 85.

[2] Ibid, 85-86.  I have replaced “talent” with “skills, gifts,” and will to that in this sermon because the word “talent” is a unit of money in scripture and it is being used here to refer to skills and gifts.

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid, 87.

[6] Ibid, 89.

[7] Ibid, 94.

[8] Ibid, 92.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 17, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 4:16-20 and Micah 6:1-8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I spent some time last week trying to remember what was going on in the world in 1980 and 1981.  I remember that there was fighting in El Salvador and Nicaragua between rival political groups.  The Soviet Union had invaded and was fighting a war in Afghanistan.  The Iran Hostage Crisis was unfolding through all of 1980, ending as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States in January of ’81.  That was the first presidential election I voted in.

I did a little hunting online to see what else was going on.  Though Israel entered into a peace agreement with Egypt in 1978, in 1980 and ’81, Israel was skirmishing with its neighbors (particularly with Lebanon, and a notable air raid in Iraq).  I forgot that the Iran/Iraq War started in 1980, lasting through that decade.  This was also when the Solidarity movement in Poland started – and was met with Martial Law being declared.  And in 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated, showing how high the cost of peacemaking can actually be.

I’ve been thinking about this because in 1981, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution establishing September 21 as a day devoted to “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.”[1]  The theme for this year’s peace day is “Together for Peace.”

United Church of Christ recognizes the Sunday preceding September 21 as “Just Peace Sunday.”  So today is Just Peace Sunday.  The term, “Just Peace,” goes back in the United Church of Christ to 1985.  That is the year when the 15th General Synod of the UCC adopted the “Just Peace pronouncement.”  This pronouncement “articulated for the first time a UCC position on war and peace that is distinct from other historic Christian approaches, namely the theories and practices of Crusade, Pacifism, and Just War.”[2]

While it is unlikely that the early church was officially pacifist, a rejection of violence runs deep in Christian theology of the first four centuries.  Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this pacifist stream seems to go largely underground.  By the eleventh century, Christianity had become a Eurocentric and warrior religion, launching crusades to conquer the “Holy Lands.”

Thomas Aquinas

Around the same time the Crusades ended, Thomas Aquinas laid out the beginnings of what became the Just War doctrine or Just War theory.  It has two parts, two sets of criteria.  The first establishes the right to go to war; the second establishes right conduct within a war.  This doctrine has held sway in the West for almost a thousand years, influencing everything from the Geneva Conventions to recent Presidents’ justifications of going to war.

Menno Simons

But the Just War doctrine is not the only Christian response to war.  By the sixteenth century, with the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist stream again surfaced.  It’s most famous advocate from that time is probably Menno Simons.  He held that one could either follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, or one could follow the Prince of Strife.  Several denominations birthed out of the Reformation followed this path, and they are often known as “peace churches.”  They include the Church of the Brethren, the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish.

In 1981, the same year that the United Nations established the International Day of Peace, a youth delegate to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod 13 brought a resolution calling on the UCC to become a “peace church.”  This resolution would have led the UCC to identify with the pacifist tradition in Christianity, rather than the Just War tradition.  Over the next four years, as the denomination wrestled with this call, a new theory was born.  Rather than focusing on what makes a war just, it focused on what makes a peace just.  And in 1985, the UCC affirmed a pronouncement “Affirming the United Church of Christ to be a Just Peace Church,” the first Christian denomination to do so.

“Just Peace was defined in the pronouncement as the ‘interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence’ and was grounded … in the biblical concerts of covenant and shalom.  Just Peace offer[s] a holistic view of working at the intersection of peace and justice, acknowledging the connections between violence and systemic issues like environmental degradation, racism, economic disparity, homophobia, and the loss of civil and human rights.…  [T]he pronouncement offer[s] with prophetic conviction the vision that ‘war can and must be eliminated’ and the shared hope that ‘peace is possible.’”[3]

Just as in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches can officially become “Open and Affirming Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to welcome LGBTQ+ people, and just as in the Disciples of Christ, churches can officially become “Green Chalice Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to decrease the church’s environmental impact, the UCC recognizes individual churches as “Just Peace congregations” when they participate in certain study and by take certain actions.  We could do this.  We could become a Just Peace congregation.

But you may ask, “Why?  Why would we want to become a Just Peace congregation?”  To be honest, we might not.  If we actually engage the discussion, if we actually do the study and let it call us to action, we might not like where it takes us.  Corey Fields writes, “[P]eople get trolled, families split apart, and pastors get fired when you start asking how we can take Jesus seriously.  Jesus is fine as a name, but if you create an encounter between Jesus and the personal lives or politics of Christians, you might have trouble.

“You can read Jesus’ words declaring blessed the ‘peacemakers,’ ‘the meek,’ and ‘the merciful’ (Matt. 5:3-10), and you might get nods of approval, but if you start talking about actually being merciful towards the desperate or peaceful towards the violent, you might be called foolish. …

“You can quote Jesus’ approach to our material possessions as ‘treasures on earth where moths and vermin destroy’ (Matt. 6:19-20), or tell the story of the rich man being told to sell all he has (Mark 10:17-22).  You can get a wink and a smile as you read Jesus saying that it’s ‘easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle’ (Luke 18:25).  But start talking about actual economic equity, and you might be called a communist.

“Surrounded by glimmering Christmas lights and angelic choruses, we read the story of a young Jesus’ family having to flee a violent ruler (Matt. 2:13-18).  But bring up that this made Jesus’ family refugees and ask how this should inform our approach to the millions in similar situations today, and you might be told to get your politics out of church.

“You can read the passage where Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (Luke 4:18-19) [that’s today’s gospel lesson], saying that fulfilled in Him is God’s mission to ‘proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  You’re fine as long as you understand these words in a spiritualized, abstract way ([even though] Isaiah didn’t).  But beware if you start talking about how to seek actual freedom and redemption for the imprisoned, or if you start trying to define who is actually ‘oppressed’ and how to actually set them free.  (And have you ever looked into what ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ refers to?)”[4]

Too often we want, as white author Wilbur Rees suggests, only $3 worth of God:[5]

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

But if we engage with a Just Peace study as part of determining if we want to become a Just Peace congregation, but may end up with a lot more than $3 worth of God.  We may end up with enough to transform our lives.

Too often people just jump to verse 8 when they read Micah 6:1-8.  When you do that, you miss the set up.  It’s a lawsuit.  Israel has been served with papers by none other than Yahweh.  It’s time for Israel to plead their case.  The case against Israel is that they have failed to keep covenant with God.  God, on the other hand, has kept covenant with Israel.  So how are they going to respond?

Israel’s response is to get in deep with the sacrificial Temple system.  Perhaps burnt offerings of calves a year old would be an appropriate act of contrition.  Or maybe God deserves more: thousands of rams.  Or tens of thousands of rivers of oil.  Or maybe even our firstborn.  Maybe we need to offer up our children on the altar of sacrifice as we seem to do so easily on the altar of war.

Only, that’s not what God wants.  God has shown us mortals what is good and what God requires:  That we do justice, that we love kindness, and that we walk humbly with God.

If Niles Discovery Church were to be served with papers, if God were to bring a case before the mountains and the foundations of the earth against us, what would the charge be?  That we have only bought $3 worth of God when God wants to give us everything?  That, while we are doing a good job at downstream social justice work, we have failed to do enough upstream social justice work?  That we are great at pulling the children out of the river and caring for them, but we have failed to go upstream and find out why the children keep ending up in the river in the first place?

“Micah 6:8 teaches us ‘to do justice.  To love mercy.  And to walk humbly with your God’ – these are active, not passive, pursuits.  We are enjoined to seek and create the change that our world so desperately needs.

“For Americans [who are Christians], this means the protection and promotion of voting rights; it means an honest reckoning with the school-to-prison pipeline and a reversal of the choices that have led to unprecedented mass incarceration; it means deconstructing the structural inequities that create educational disadvantages, early mortality, and generational poverty.”[6]  It means addressing the climate crisis with action that is as radical as ending slavery was in the 19th century.

As our anthem sang out, God has work for us to do.

Amen.

[1] “About,” U.N. International Day of Peace, http://internationaldayofpeace.org/about/ (accessed 16 September 2017).

[2] United Church of Christ, Just Peace Church Handbook (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2015), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corey Fields, “Be careful how close you let Jesus get to real life,” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/careful-close-let-jesus-get-real-life/#.Wb3UK63MyH0 (posted 30 August 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

[5] Quoted several places online, including Ibid.

[6] Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Reverend and rabbi: Removing symbols of racism isn’t enough, we need policy action,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/09/05/reverend-and-rabbi-removing-symbols-of-racism-isnt-enough-we-need-policy-action/?utm_term=.26ae01efdc21 (posted 5 September 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 20, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
On this Sunday, we celebrated Pastor Jeff’s 30th anniversary of ordained ministry.
Scriptures:  Psalm 46 and Luke 15:11-32
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a hymn written by Martin Luther about 500 years ago.  He wrote the lyrics in German, of course, so we sang a translation.  The original music was probably a pop song in his day, a tune he might have picked up in a tavern being sung by the crowds, a tune he repurposed for his hymn.  The original tune swung a bit more and wasn’t so squared off to sound so pomp and circumstance-y.  Still, it’s a good hymn, one that I’ve liked since I was a teenager, one that was in the running for my ordination service thirty years ago.

Martin Luther

It’s based on, rather freely, on Psalm 46.  I don’t know my Luther well enough to know why he liked this Psalm and decided to write a hymn based on it.  I do know why I like this Psalm.

Just this week, I read two different ways of analyzing the Psalm based on its form.  I won’t take you down the road of the first of these, though this is the kind of stuff theology nerds like me geek out on.  This analysis points to two points (and yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence).  The first point is the song’s refrain, that God is our refuge – the song starts with and concludes with this, and it is an anchor point in middle of the song.  The second point, the central points of the song’s two sections (as this particular analysis divides the song):  God is in the midst of the city; it will not be moved; and  be still and know that I am God.  I would summarize these two points as, “God is God and you’re not.”

The second form analysis of the Psalm sees three stanzas, each three verses long.  The first stanza “juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar.”[1]  Rolf Jacobson says, “The image of ‘earth’ shaking and ‘sea’ roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order.  This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience.  The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature.  Thus, the ‘law’ that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator.”[2]

I disagree with his assessment that creation is in a “fallen condition.”  Yes, earthquakes and floods and tsunamis happen.  Yes, disease and disability strike not just humans, but other species as well.  Yes, we are all going to die.  But I don’t see these as signs of any “fallen condition” of creation.  Rather, I see them as part of the ongoing creative energy of the universe.  This stanza’s point is that because God is a present help in trouble, even natural disaster, we do not need to be engulfed with existential angst.

Stanza two moves from nature being in an uproar to the nations being in an uproar.  I’m not reading the political into the Psalm.  The Psalm itself gets political.  I don’t know what the political threat to Israel was when this Psalm was written – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – and it doesn’t really matter now.  What’s important now is the witness of the Psalm – that when the nations are in an uproar, when kingdoms totter, God is still God.  And the sun will come up tomorrow.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Stanza three points to the power and purpose of God – and our response.  God is working out the kin-dom in our midst.  God is making wars to cease, breaking the bow and shattering the spear.  And our response – to be still.  Be still and know that God is God (and that you and I and principalities and powers of our age are not God).  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Phyllis Tickle

I’ve preached before about how I think we are in the midst of a great church rummage sale (and, no, I’m not talking about the flea market happening next weekend).  Though she points to the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer for the genesis of the idea, Phyllis Tickle articulated the theory most clearly for me – “that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”[3]  There really wasn’t a church for the first rummage sale, 2,000 years ago.  Tickle called it “The Great Transformation” and it took place when a man was recognized by his disciples as “Emmanuel, God With Us.”  Five hundred years later, the Roman Empire collapsed and the church entered an era of preservation with the advent of the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories.  Five hundred years later, the church split in “The Great Schism,” creating the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Five hundred years after that, “The Great Reformation” shook up the church once again.  And five hundred years after that … is today.

Tickle said that in each of these times, the church was wrestling with one key question:  What is authoritative?  And in each of these great rummage sales, a new authority emerges.  Obviously, for The Great Transformation, Jesus was the new authority.  I couldn’t find my copy of her book The Great Emergence this week, and I don’t remember what the new authority was that emerged from the second rummage sale, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with monasticism.  At the Great Schism, the new authority was the bishop of Rome, or the Pope, as he’s typically known.  At the Great Reformation, the new authority was scripture.

Tickle thought that the Spirit is likely going to be the new authority in whatever this new church that’s emerging will turn out to be.  I wonder if it might be Nature.  Or some combination of Spirit and Nature.

In any event, I had no idea that I would be pastoring in the midst of a rummage sale when I answered the call to become an ordained minister.  When God’s call got through (I realize in retrospect that God had been calling my whole life, but there was too much static on the line) in 1982, we were just beginning to experience the end of Christendom.  I had no idea it was happening.  I grew up in a time when the default assumption in American society was “Christian.”  In fact, the default assumption was “Mainline Protestant.”  Yes, there were Catholics and Jews around, but the default assumption was Mainline Protestant.  All the members of the Supreme Court were either Mainline Protestants or Jews.  All the Presidents except for Kennedy were Protestants, and almost all of them Mainline Protestants.  School vacation schedules considered the church calendar as they were being designed.

And all that has disappeared during my time in ordained ministry.  This shift, along with the explosive growth of computer technology and post-modernity taking root, have contributed energy to the great church rummage sale we’re experiencing now.  And one of the reasons I’m really glad to be fulfilling my call to ordained ministry here at Niles Discovery Church is that you are a church that is willing to try new things.

If you look at each of the great rummage sales the church has had in the past 2,000 years, while something new always emerged from it, whatever used to be also remained – though smaller, often healthier because new things made the old thing into some self-examination.  I don’t know if Niles Discovery Church will emerge as part of whatever the new things is or if we will be part of the stronger, smaller, faithful continuation of Progressive Christianity.  But I do know that we will be faithful as we seek to fulfill our call as part of the body of Christ.

“30 Years and Counting,” I titled this sermon.  Perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but it you’d permit a bit of self-indulgence.  This is the fifth ministry setting I’ve had in those thirty years.  The first three were completed in under ten years.  Short ministries or long, I always learned things in each setting.

Working as a chaplain at the juvenile hall, I learned about the urgency of now and the difference I could make in a moment.  I also learned that I have to be willing to let go of long-term results.  I could plant seeds, but I would never know if they would produce fruit.  I typically didn’t even know if they would take root.  So I learned to be faithful to my calling and to leave the results to God.

At the church in Spokane where I served as Associate Pastor and then Interim Pastor, I learned how important congregational buy-in is on projects.  The bigger the project, the more important getting this buy-in is.  And that typically means slowing down so people can catch up to the leaders.

I learned about the importance of integrity when I served the church in Richland, Washington, as an Interim Pastor.

And at the church in Carnation, Washington, where I served as pastor for a decade, I learned that my leadership doesn’t matter if I’m leading in a direction the church doesn’t want to go.  I also learned how important it is for the members of a church to nurture their friendships and to create a safe space for each other.

And here in Fremont, where I’ve served for a dozen years (at Niles Congregational Church and at Niles Discovery Church, as the first merged into the second), I’ve learned how important it is for a church and a pastor to be willing to risk in order to stay faithful.  That’s where I think we’re going in the years ahead.  I think we’re going to keep stepping into risky ministries in order to stay faithful.

I picked the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be read at my ordination because it answers a profound question.  What must we do to live in the kin-dom of God?  Love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.  It really is that simple.  And it really is that risky.

Loving that radically will mean crossing boundaries – like the Samaritan crossed when he saved a Jew.  Loving that radically will mean inviting people we don’t know (like an innkeeper, say) to help us heal the brokenness in the world.  Loving that radically will mean handing over what we have to others so that all might experience wholeness and justice.

bell hooks once said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.  The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”[4]

I think that is why Jesus calls us to love, to take the risks of love.  For loving builds the kin-dom of God.  And here’s a bit of good news.  We can take those risks – though the mountains should shake in the heart of the sea, though the nations are in an uproar – we can take the risks to love.  For the Lord of hosts is with us.  God is in the midst of the city.

Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1110 (accesses 19 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2008/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 19 August 2017).

[4] bell hooks, quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155129096928500 (posted and accessed 26 July 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 14:13-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I would like to change the world.  I would like to broker peace in Israel/Palestine and the Korean Peninsula.  I would like to reverse climate change.  I would like to end racism and rape culture.  I would like to end crime and to heal the brokenness that leads to crime.  I would like to feed the hungry multitudes and end hunger.  I would like to make healthcare available to everyone without fear of debt.  I would like the change the world.

I’m not going to, at least not in a big way, like one of the ways I just listed.

I look at what Jesus accomplished in just, what, 33 years, and I realize how little I’ve done.  Maybe it’s not fair to compare myself to Jesus.  You know:  the whole God thing.

William Barber, II

But look at what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished in 39 years.  Or what William Barber, II is accomplishing – and, yes, he’s younger than me.  (If you don’t know who William Barber is, don’t worry.  You will.  Just keep coming to worship, and by the end of September …)  Heck, even Barack Obama is younger than me.

The chances are that I will not ever do some great, society-changing, justice-making, peace-creating act or series of acts.  So maybe I should just give up.

Jesus fed 5,000 people – well, 5,000 men, plus the women and children who most people thought weren’t worth counting.  Not so for Jesus.  While most folk didn’t think women and children counted, Jesus did.  He made sure everyone got enough to eat.  “All ate and were satisfied,” Matthew says.

And Jesus didn’t just feed this multitude.  He did it with five loaves of bread and two fish.  How impressive is that?  Impressive enough that the story is told six times in the four gospels.  That’s right.  Two of the gospels repeat the story.  And Jesus didn’t just walk up to the wall and say,

No replicators out there in this deserted place.

It’s all pretty crazy.  I mean, we all know “that the laws of Newtonian physics aren’t suddenly flexible if you just have enough faith.  Atoms and molecules don’t just shape shift wily nilly.  It’s more reasonable to believe that things are only what they seem.  Water stays water, 5 loaves stay 5 loaves and the dead stay dead.”[1]

I suppose it’s possible that “everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they all opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors[, and] so that … is why there was enough food to go around.”[2]  Thousands of people sharing with their neighbors is pretty miraculous.  And if the only lesson you take home today is, “Be nice and share your juice box,” well, that’s a pretty good lesson.  In fact, sharing is a necessary part of God’s economy, so it’s a really good lesson.  But maybe there’s something else going on here.

Nadia Bolz Weber asks us to consider “that we [just might] have a God who can actually feed so many on so little.   A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones [of] nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing.  NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with.  Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as ‘nothing,’ ‘insignificant,’ ‘worthless’ and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.”[3]

Jesus was working on self-care when the crowd interrupted.  News of King Herod’s execution of John the baptizer reached Jesus and he decided to take a break.  He decided to go to a deserted place by himself.  I imagine he needed it.  Preaching and teaching and embodying God’s truth is dangerous business – it was then and it is now.  John died for it.  And Jesus knew he could be next.  So he went to a deserted place by himself.

But taking this personal space doesn’t last.  The crowd hears that he’s gone away and they go after him.  “Jesus responds with grace and compassion to the crowds that come, healing their sick.  As the day draws to a close, the disciples make a pragmatic suggestion:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Send them away to fend for themselves.  Jesus’ response is to make the disciples waiters of the Spirit. …

“The ‘lonely place apart’ in the end does become a place of rest, healing, and nourishment [– but] for the larger group,”[4] and not so much for Jesus and the disciples.  It isn’t until later that Jesus gets his alone time.

Like I said, the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send the crowd away was pragmatic:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Only it turned out they were wrong.  “Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot [that God likes to work with nothing], but also that they forgot that they too were hungry.  They defaulted to ‘what do I have’ rather than ‘what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?’  The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand.  It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd.  How often do we forget this ourselves?”[5]

I know I forget it.  I get so caught up in the hunger I see around me that I think I have to solve it.  So I look at what I have at my disposal to feed them, and I keep coming up short.  I’m short on compassion, or will, or time, or skill.  “And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is.  A few loaves?  A couple fish?  It’s never enough.”[6]

Chances are I’m not the only one who’s worry about coming up short, who’s afraid of being found out.  “That sense of ourselves comes from the same economy of scarcity that makes us fret over how to stretch bread and fish, our selves, and our love.  In the face of such want, and of our own failings and limitations, it seems utterly foolhardy to trust in God’s abundant gifts, laid out before us and coursing through our veins.  Yet this is the presumption God commends us to embody.  While we run around readying ourselves – accruing the right skills, the right personality, the right spirituality – God is busy calling us as we are now …”[7]

God doesn’t ask if we can do big things.  God asks if we’ll live faithfully.  Here’s the thing – and I know this; I just don’t always get this.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves me totally apart from any work I do.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves you totally apart from any work you do.  That’s not to say that the work you do isn’t important to God.  It is important.  It’s just not necessary for God to love you.

What is necessary – at least I think it’s necessary – is remembering this, especially if the work you’re involved in is important, transformative, kin-dom building work.  That’s right.  I think that the deeper your work is in building the kin-dom of God, the more you need to know that you are loved by God whether you do that work or not.  When Jesus looks out through you and asks, “Where are these hungry people going to get food?” he’s “including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread.”[8]

“When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus – my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm.  That’s our guy.  The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, … the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.”[9]

And that’s why, when it comes to size matters, the size of what you’re doing really isn’t important.  What’s important is the size of the love we put into what we’re doing.  And when there are days when all you can do today is sit on the ground and let someone pass you the bread and fish, do that.  Do that with great love.

Yes, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”  So they do what they can with who they are and what they have – and Jesus makes the magic happen.  Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon the Feeding of the 5,000,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/ (posted 25 July 2015; accessed 1 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, though I did some grammatical corrections. (Some of her emphases have been changed – bolds, italics, etc.)

[4] Julie Polter, “Servants of Boundy,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/servants-bounty (accessed 1 August 2017).

[5] Weber, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Take and Eat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/take-and-eat (accessed 1 August 2017).

[8] Weber, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

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