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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 12, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 16:19-31 and Jonah 4:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Coastal Redwoods

Coastal Redwoods

Imagine that you lived along the coast of what is now Humboldt County, say a thousand years ago. In the direction of the rising sun, there are trees that tower so tall they seem to touch the sky. You know they don’t, since you’ve been further east and climbed mountains taller than the trees and you haven’t touched the sky, but the trees are still impressive. When you stand at the water’s edge, you look out across a vast ocean. At the end of the day, you can watch the sun dip down across the edge of the ocean. You’ve traced its path, rising from behind the great trees arching across the sky, and descending down to the water’s edge, down to where the dome of the sky comes down to the earth.

Sunset over the Pacific

Sunset over the Pacific

Through your own observations (and maybe through the stories you’ve been told since your childhood), a model of the cosmos begins to emerge. The ground and the mountains and the lakes and the oceans are like a table, lumpy in some places and wet in others. Above is a dome on which hang the stars, the moon, and the sun. Water sometimes comes out of the sky, so there must be waters beyond the dome. And there must be something under the earth that holds it up, some sort of foundation. And, if you believe that there is a god or gods who seem to be controlling the capriciousness of life, they must live beyond the dome or under the earth (or people would have seen them by now).

I don’t know what sort of diagram of the cosmos a person who lived north of us between the ocean and the trees a thousand years ago would have drawn, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was something like what I’ve described. What I’ve described is what a Jew or Christian or Muslim of a thousand years ago would have drawn, would have understood. It would have been the cosmology they would have held. Well, it would have been the basics of it. Muslim cosmology of that time would have been more complex, with seven heavenly domes, one arching over the next, all over the earth. And there would have been seven earths.[1] But the basic model was considered sound across these faith traditions.

The cover art[2] on your announcement folder is a drawing of this model. You’ll notice scriptural references from the Christian Bible – both the Old and New Testament references – to support this cosmology. This view of the cosmos is typically called a three-tiered cosmology. The underworld is below; the earth is in the middle; and the heavens (or heaven) are above.

In her book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass wrote about this cosmology: “Not so long ago, believers confidently asserted that … [w]e occupied a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, where we feared we might go after death. The church mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below. Stories and sermons taught us that God occupied the high places, looking over the world and caring for it from afar, occasionally interrupting the course of human affairs with some miraculous reminder of divine power. Those same tales emphasized the gap between worldly places and the holy mountains, between the creation and an Almighty Creator. Religious authorities mediated the gap, explaining right doctrine and holy living. If you wanted to live with God forever in heaven, then you listened to them, believed and obeyed.”[3]

Jesus was born into a world that believed this three-tiered cosmos was reality. God was in heaven, and hell … well hell is more complicated. Brian McLaren writes, “The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews … had little to say about the afterlife … Their focus was on this life and on how to be good and faithful human beings within it. Other Jews … had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions.

“To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

“To the west, the Greeks had a more elaborate schema. Although there were many permutations, in general, souls were sorted into four groups at death: the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil, and the incurably evil. The curably evil went to Tartarus where they would experience eternal conscious torment. The holy and heroic were admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of joy and peace. Those in between might be sent back to Earth for multiple reincarnations until they could be properly sorted for shipment to Tartarus or the Elysian Fields.

“Then there were the Persian Zoroastrians to the east. In Zoroastrianism, the recently departed souls would be judged by two angels, Rashnu and Mithra. The worthy would be welcomed into the Zoroastrian version of heaven. The unworthy would be banished to the realm of the Satanic figure Ahriman – their version of hell.

“A large number of Jews had been exiles in the Persian empire in the sixth century BC, and the Persians ruled over the Jews for about 150 years after they returned to rebuild Jerusalem. After that, the Greeks ruled and tried to impose their culture and religion. So it’s not surprising that many Jews adopted a mix of Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife. For many of them, the heaven-bound could be easily identified. They were religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and healthy in body … all signs of an upright life today that would be rewarded after death. The hell-bound were just as easily identified: uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor, and physically sick or disabled … signs of a sinful, undisciplined life now that would be further punished later.”[4]

The gospels certainly lead us to believe that Jesus thought there was an afterlife. The story of the rich man and Lazarus includes an afterlife – for both the rich man and the poor man. But we may have missed how scandalous the story is. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and …”

Well, conventional theology would have said that he, the poor man, should have ended up in eternal torment and that the rich man would end up at Abraham’s bosom. But that’s not how Jesus tells the story. No, the roles are reversed.

In Jesus’ theology, “Heaven’s gates are opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick, and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors. Imagine how this overturning of the conventional understanding of hell must have shocked everyone – multitudes and religious elites alike.

“Again and again, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and reversed it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell and he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he wasn’t simply arguing for a different understanding of the afterlife. He was doing something far more important and radical: proclaiming a transformative vision of God. God is not the one who punishes some with poverty and sickness, nor is God the one who favors the rich and righteous. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those fire-and-brimstone passages that countless preachers have used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: Jesus used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God!”[5]

All that said, Jesus was still using the conventional cosmology. But for me, the old, three-tiered cosmology has crumbled. Copernicus helped start that crumbling by describing a model that had the sun at the center with the earth revolving around it, rather than the sun going around the earth. Then we got airplanes and we didn’t see God in the clouds. And we sent spaceships beyond the earth, and we didn’t find heaven. And, it turns out, the earth doesn’t just revolve around the sun. The sun is moving through space, so the earth is moving in a spiral, a vortex. Take a look at the first minute of this video.[6]

So, since the old cosmology doesn’t work anymore, where is God? God isn’t up there in heaven (because heaven isn’t “up there). No, God isn’t up there. God is with and within. God is with and within each one of us and with and within all of creation. And each one of us and all of creation is with and within God.

But what about heaven and hell?

As far as heaven goes, the old three-tiered model tells us that heaven is up and God is in heaven. Maybe rather than saying that God is where heaven is, we should be saying that heaven is where God is. That is, heaven is with and within each one of us and with and within all of creation. And each one of us and all of creation is within heaven. So heaven is where (or maybe better, heaven is when) the hungry are fed and the thirsty have clean water to drink and the stranger is welcomed and the prisoner is seen and the ill are healed.

Bass points out that “the book of Revelation is not a heavenly escape story. Instead, it tells the opposite tale. We do not go to heaven. Heaven comes to us. The end of history is not destruction; rather, its end is sacred restoration. When sin and evil pass away, a holy city descends to us …”[7]

As for hell – well, it’s moved in right next door, too. If World War II taught us anything, between the Holocaust and the Bomb, we learned “that we are fully capable of creating the terrors of hell right here and no longer need a lake of fire to prove the existence of evil.”[8]

The purpose of the fire and brimstone language of Jesus “was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.

“Sadly, many religious people still use the imagery of hell more in the conventional way Jesus sought to reverse. Like Jonah, they seem disappointed that God’s grace might get the final word. If more of us would reexamine this fascinating dimension of Jesus’ teaching and come to a deeper understanding of it, we would see what a courageous, subversive, and fascinating leader he was, point us to a radically different way of seeing God, life, and being alive.”[9]

Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well; or
… the parable of the rich man and Lazarus ; or
… the image of the rich man walking by Lazarus in the gutter and ask God if you are stepping over anyone in life.

[1] “Cosmology of the Qur’an,” Wikiislam, http://wikiislam.net/wiki/Cosmology_of_the_Quran (accessed 11 February 2017).

[2] http://biologos.org/files/resources/3_tier_universe.jpg

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

[4] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 24, page 111-112. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[5] Ibid, 113.

[6] Watch a minute or two of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jHsq36_NTU&spfreload=10.

[7] Bass, op. cit., 269.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 114.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 18:15-30 and Luke 18:35–19:9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things that biblical scholarship has embraced quite fully is the idea that one needs to understand the cultural context in which a scripture was written if one is going to fully understand what a scripture might mean for that time which, in turn, gives us some sense of what it might mean for today. So, one needs to understand the cultural context of Roman occupied Judea about 2,000 years ago if one is going to understand what the gospel writers meant and what Jesus was all about. And I think knowing what the gospel writers mean and what Jesus was all about is pretty important to this community, Niles Discovery Church, since we are a community of Jesus-followers. So, let’s spend a little while reflecting on Jesus’ cultural context.

The world into which Jesus was born and grew up was what Marcus Borg and other scholars call “an imperial form of a preindustrial agricultural domination system. This was the most common type of society from the development of agriculture … until the industrial revolution of a few centuries ago. The piling up of adjectives – imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system – may be inelegant and even discouraging, but each illuminates a central feature of Jesus’s world.”[1]

Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. By “agricultural,” we mean it was an agrarian culture. Food wasn’t simply hunted and gathered; it was cultivated. Being “preindustrial,” the fuel source for work – agricultural and otherwise – was human or animal muscle.

Now we get to the interesting words: imperial domination system. Domination systems are characterized by four primary features. “First, these societies were politically oppressive. They were ruled by a few, typically by a monarchy and aristocracy and their associates. With their extended families, the ruling elites (as they are commonly called) were usually about 1 to 2 percent of the population.… Ordinary people had no voice or power in the shaping of society.

“Second, these societies were economically oppressive. The wealthy and powerful acquired a high percentage of the society’s annual production of wealth, typically from half to two-thirds [of the wealth].…

“Third, these societies were religiously oppressive. According to religion as developed by the elites, rulers ruled by divine right, and the social order and its laws reflected the will of God. Rulers maintained that they did not set it up this way – God did. Of course, religion sometimes became the source of protest against such claims. But in all premodern societies known to us the wealthy and powerful used religion to legitimate their place in the social order.

“Fourth, these societies were marked by armed conflict, by organized violence. Elites could increase their wealth and power only by increasing agricultural production from their own people or by acquiring land and its agricultural production from another society. The ruling elites thus needed armies, whether to increase their own holdings or to defend their holdings against others. Wars were common. They were not fought for nationalistic reasons … but were initiated by ruling elites for the sake of acquiring wealth from the agricultural lands of neighboring societies.”[2]

The result of these commonalities of domination systems was that they ended up having two classes. Yes, there were distinctions within the two classes, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but there were just two classes. In that world, “there was no ‘middle class’ in our sense of a bulge in the middle. Rather, there was a very small class at the very top, no significant middle, and the vast majority of the population (around 90 percent) at the bottom.”[3]

The divisions between these two classes were political – there were the rulers and the ruled – and economic – there were the wealthy, their retainers (government and religious officials, military officers and bureaucrats, managers and stewards, scribes and servants, and urban merchants who sold to them – about 5 percent of the population), and the peasant class.

The typical way to depict this social structure is with a pyramid. Here’s one I found on the web. The problem with this depiction is that it suggests that there was a middle class of sorts. I think an old oilcan is a much better graphic. The elites and their retainers make up the long neck of the oilcan, and the base holds the peasant class This group was “mostly agricultural workers; some owned small parcels of land and others were tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or day laborers. It also included other manual workers such as fishermen, construction workers, artisans, miners, and low ranking servants. At the very bottom were the radically marginalized: the homeless, beggars, the lame and blind, the unclean and untouchable,”[4] and slaves.

Tiberius was Caesar, he was at the top. His local rulers – Pilate, governor of Judea; Herod Antipas, “king” of Galilee; Philip, ruling the area north and east of Galilee – were all beholden to the top of the oilcan. They had power only as long as their patron allowed them to have power. Thus, though the brothers Herod and Philip were Jews, they were first and foremost collaborators with the Roman Empire.

slide36Jesus and his family were part of the peasant class. If Joseph was a carpenter, he would have been a laborer who, if he got work today, would have money to buy food today. If he didn’t get work, his family went hungry. That’s the world Jesus grew up in. That’s the world in which Jesus heard the Hebrew Prophets read. That’s the world in which the story of the Exodus was told. That’s the world that shaped him.

90 percent of the population were like Jesus, at least in this regard. 90 percent. I think it’s fair to call them the multitudes.

In his parables and actions, Jesus “constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management – the stewards, tax collectors, and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.”[5]

Jesus addressed the social realities of his day by constantly turning the oilcan over. Through his actions and words, he lifted up a vision of what could be. He called this vision “the kingdom of God.” While this may have come from his experience in an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system, it also seems to have come from his compassion. Matthew describes Jesus looking at the multitudes and then write this: “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

We see this attitude in our readings today. First, there’s an exchange about children. No adult male would waste his time with children, at least not children who were not his own. His disciples thought that their important teacher has important things to do, so they sent the children away. But Jesus rebuked them, saying that the kingdom of God belongs to them. To them. To children. In the hierarchy of the peasant class, children were pretty darn low. But Jesus turns the oil can upside down.

Luke juxtaposes this interchange about the children with an encounter with “a certain ruler.” This is someone from somewhere along the long, narrow neck of the oilcan. He wants eternal life, the life that is full, the life of the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. Become like them. Become part of the multitude and turn the oilcan upside down.

How hard it is to let go of power, be it economic or political or religious. The ruler really didn’t like Jesus’ suggestion of what to do. “It is easier,” Jesus says, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Society would tell you that Jesus didn’t have time for a blind beggar. After all, someone who is disabled and a beggar is way down there with the children – maybe even lower. But Jesus says, “Bring him to me,” and gives him vision. And the oilcan is turned over.

And Luke again juxtaposes this story with an encounter of someone who is rich. Zacchaeus was a Roman collaborator (for he collected taxes), so that put him right around the connection of the narrow neck of the oilcan to the main body of the can. He was curious about who this Jesus was that people were all excited about. Jesus goes to his home (how upsetting that must have been to the multitudes) to share a meal. Zacchaeus says he is giving away half his possessions to the poor. Half his possessions. And, he says, if I’ve been a cheat (something tax collectors were notorious for being), that he would pay back four times what he cheated.

This is a story of someone there at the bottom of the neck stepping away from power and joining the multitudes. Jesus characterizes this as “salvation coming to this house.”

Those four examples come from just one chapter in one gospel. The gospels are full of such stories, of Jesus siding with the multitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) The Catholics have a term for this phenomenon. They call it God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Latin American liberation theologians (mostly Catholic, but some Protestants, too) noticed “a trend throughout biblical texts, where there is a demonstrable preference given to powerless individuals who live on the margins of society.”[6] God, they concluded, must side with the poor whenever there’s a question. That’s certainly what I see Jesus doing.

So what does that mean for us? To quote Catholic canon law, “The Christian faithful are … obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.”[7] If God takes the side of the poor, then we who call ourselves Christians have an obligation, first and foremost, to care for the poor and vulnerable.

Which brings us to today. We are two weeks into the Trump presidency. Speaking only for myself here, I have seen actions he has taken – formal, like Executive Orders, and informal, like insulting comments at the National Prayer Breakfast – that have upset me and in some cases caused me to fear for our constitutional democracy. Some of the analysis I’ve read has added to this anxiety. And so has my reading of the Bible.

I planned today’s readings and topic a year ago. As I’ve prepared for this sermon, I’ve read some scholarly work comparing the Roman imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system with the United States, including sections of Richard Horsley’s 2003 book, Jesus and Empire. He finds many parallels between the first century Roman Empire and the United States of America. If I may quote him.

“Both in the period of settlement and in the Revolutionary War, the colonists and rebels understood themselves as a biblical people, the new Israel achieving liberation from political and religious tyranny and establishing a new democratic covenant. In the excitement of independence, however, political leaders reached for a more grandiose sense of what they were about. The new nation was a new Rome, practicing republican virtue. They soon pretended, however, that building an empire would not corrupt that virtue. … Despite the hesitation of some, the American Republic like the Roman Republic proceeded to build an empire, practicing the same brutality against the people it conquered.”[8]

In drawing parallels between the Roman Empire and the American Empire, Horsley points to our engagement in armed conflict, from the conquest of the land through the near genocide of the Native people, to the conquest of half of Mexico in war, to the seizing of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, to our undeclared war in Vietnam, to the killings by U.S. trained death squads in Latin America.

He points to our political oppression – not so much at home (at least not yet), but like the Roman Empire, in other territories, squashing political freedom in other countries like Guatemala and Iran under President Eisenhower and Chile under President Nixon. His book was published before our overthrow of the government in Iraq.

And he points to our economic oppression wielded internationally through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He notices that we consume 75 percent of the world resources while we have only 4.4 percent of the world’s population.

The only thing missing from Borg’s list of hallmarks of an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system is religious oppression, and with President Trump’s attempted ban on some Muslim immigrants and refugees and the fact that one of his chief advisors has a record as an anti-Semite, we may have that fourth hallmark now.

I don’t know what we should do politically about this situation – I’m not a political scientist. I am, however, a theologian. And I can tell you where Jesus would be. Jesus would be with the multitudes. And I can tell you what God’s preference is. God has a preferential option for the poor. And maybe those realities can inform what we, a Christian community, should be doing.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt like one of the multitude, or like one of the elites; or
… the idea of Jesus having a “preferential option for the poor”; or
… the image of some group of people you normally turn away from and repeat these words silently:  “They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

[1] Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 79.

[2] Ibid, 81-82.

[3] Ibid, 83.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 23, page 106. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Kira Dault, “”What is the preferential option for the poor?” U.S. Catholic: Faith in Real Life, http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201501/what-preferential-option-poor-29649 (posted January 2015; accessed 1 February 2017).

[7] Quoted in Ibid.

[8] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) [Kindle version], loc 1888-1893. Retrieved from amazon.com.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 4:1-20 and Mark 4:21-34
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Who is Jesus to you?

If I call myself a Christian, I am saying that I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ, namely Jesus.  So my answer to the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” will impact how I live my life as a Christian.  If you don’t mind me answering, at least to start, in the negative, I would say that I am becoming less and less convinced that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah.  After his death and resurrection, the early church clearly came to see him as the Messiah, but prior to that, I’m leaning toward Jesus not thinking of himself as the Messiah.  And if he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah, I suspect he wasn’t as eschatologically focused as the gospels make him out to be.  In other words, I don’t think Jesus was as concerned about death and the afterlife and the end of time and the final judgment as he is often portrayed as being.  Jesus was much more concerned about this world and this life.

Jesus showed that concern in several ways.  He was a spirit person, someone who was experientially aware of the reality and presence of God.  He showed his concern for this world in his mediation of the sacred to others.  He was a healer.  I talked about this last week, and all I’ll add today is that he showed his concern for this world by transforming the lives of people around him.  He was a social prophet, “similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel.  As such, he criticized the elites (economic, political, and religious) of his time, was an advocate for an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.”[1]  We will touch on this today and next week.  He “was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church.”[2]  This also will be explored, at least a bit, this week and next.  And he was a teacher – the primary subject of today’s sermon.

Icon of “Christ the Teacher”

I suppose that all of these descriptions of Jesus overlap or intersect.  One of the ways he showed he was a spirit person was by healing people.  I don’t think you can separate his social prophecy from his becoming a movement founder.  He taught through his healings.  “By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatized God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life.  By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped.…  And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social, or personal.”[3]

In synagogue gatherings and on hillsides, he gave talks about things theological.  At a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up and in public places when his critiques tried to catch him with tricky questions, he found teachable moments.  His guerrilla-theater demonstrations (like on Palm Sunday) and his acts of civil disobedience (like chasing money changers from the Temple), provided learning opportunities for people who were paying attention.  “Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.”[4]

And then there were his parables.

Perhaps it is time for a quiz.  What is greater than God and more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it you’ll die?  (Answer:  Nothing.)  How about this one:  You threw away the outside and cooked the inside.  Then you ate the outside and threw away the inside.  What did you eat?  (Answer:  An ear of corn.)[5]

John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the primary ways to understand or interpret some of the parables attributed to Jesus in the gospels is to see them as riddles.  He says that when a parable is a riddle narrative, “not only the general story itself, but even its multiple parts each and all point elsewhere.  Such riddle parables are also called allegories.”[6]

That is certainly how Mark treats the parable of the sower.  We heard this in our first lesson from Mark.  Jesus tells the story about a farmer who goes to sow some seed and the seed falls in six different kinds of soil.  We usually only notice that there are four kinds of soil – the path, the rocky, the thorny, and the good – but the good really comes in three kinds – soil that produces a thirty-fold crop, soil that produces a sixty-fold crop, and soil that produces a one-hundred-fold crop.  Still, we see a silly farmer, casting seed where even the horticulturally-challenged know it won’t produce anything.

But, of course, the parable isn’t about horticulture and it isn’t about a sower.  The parable, as Mark understands it, is a riddle, an allegory.

Another way to understand and interpret some of the parables of Jesus is to see them as example parables.  Example parables are stories that invite us to go and do (or, in some cases, don’t do) likewise.  Aesop’s fables fall into this category.

You might remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel.  King David spies this sexy woman taking a bath and decides he wants her for himself.  To do this, he has to get rid of her husband, Uriah, one of his generals.  So David sends Uriah on a suicide mission and he is killed.  God is none too pleased with this and sends the prophet Nathan to David to set him straight.  Would you like that job?  Go and tell the king, who had one of his generals killed, that God is not pleased?  Nathan does this by telling an example parable.

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.  He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Crossan says, “Although a ruler should always be apprehensive at the approach of a prophet, David walks right into Nathan’s parabolic trap:”[7]

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man.  He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”  (2 Samuel 12:5-7a)

Yes, it’s sad that Nathan completely misses how the system promotes the objectification and possession of women, but his story is still a great example of an example parable.

Crossan has also identified a third way to understand and interpret Jesus’ parables.  He says that Jesus’ parables were challenge parables, at least originally, though they were changed into example parables and riddle parables by the gospel authors.  Challenge parables challenge “us to think, to discuss, to argue, and to decide about meaning.”[8]  They challenge us, the hearers, “to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways.  They invite [us] their hearers to ponder ‘whatever is taken totally for granted in our world’.”[9]

While I haven’t delved very deeply into Crossan’s work on parables (yet), I think he is on to something.  I imagine that maybe half of Jesus’ parables include the phrase “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” – and this kingdom totally challenges what is taken for granted in our world.  We heard this today in our second reading.  “The Kingdom, something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like ‘a grain of mustard seed.’  Moreover, mustard was a weed, thus, the Kingdom is like a weed.  [In another parable,] The Kingdom is compared to something impure:  it is like a woman (associated with impurity) putting leaven (which was impure) into flour.”[10]  And on they go, overturning conventional wisdom.

“[F]or Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now.  It was at hand, or within reach, today.  To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realized that kingdoms were the dominant social, political, and economic reality of Jesus’ day.  Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, and civilization all resonate in that one word:  kingdom.”[11]

Brian McLaren writes, “The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom.  They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments.  The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution.  And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion.  It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.

“Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations, and parables.  But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.

“By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best and only option.  He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies.  He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest.  It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation.  It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering.  In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s nonviolent noncompliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be.  He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.”[12]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the “Beloved Community,” I think he was talking about the kingdom of God.  The King Center explains it this way:  “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.  Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.  In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power.  Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”[13]

As lofty and utopian as this may sound, when King talked about the Beloved Community, he wasn’t talking about something found only in the great beyond.  He was talking about something attainable, something that is at hand.  “The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”[14]

More than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump’s order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Jan. 28, 2017

We have seen in the past few weeks how our nation has moved away from the Beloved Community.  Most recently, the ban on refugees and immigrants and visitors from a handful of nations that are Muslim-majority is an example.  People with valid visas and green-cards are being detained at the border.  This is empire action that is completely contrary to the values of the Beloved Community, contrary to the values of the kingdom of God.  And that is why people have taken to the sidewalks and airport terminals – to help our country move in the direction of the Beloved Community, not away.

We still need Jesus the teacher.  We need to pay attention to his actions and his words.  We need to follow him toward the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the way of living and being in community that challenges the most basic values of the powers that be.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect …
… on anything from the scripture readings or sermon that caught your attention; or
… on the memory of one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant; or
… how you might translate or reinterpret the term “kingdom of God;” or
… how the “kingdom of God” is coming in your life, your family, your community.

[1] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins, 1994). 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 22, page 101. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] These two riddles are from Mike Page, “Classic Riddles 1-100,” Savage Legend, https://savagelegend.com/misc-resources/classic-riddles-1-100/ (accessed 28 January 2017).

[6] John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, (New York:  HarperCollins, 2012), 18.

[7] Ibid, 35.

[8] Ibid, 47.

[9] Greg Carey, “Crossan on Parables and Gospels,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/dont-fear-this-book-cross_b_1417435.html (posted 16 April 2012; accessed 28 January 2017).

[10] Borg, op. cit., 80.

[11] McLaren, op. cit., page 103.

[12] Ibid, 103-104.

[13] “The King Philosophy,” The King Center, http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4 (accessed 28 January 2017).

[14] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:21-28 and John 2:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

"Head of a Woman," by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

“Head of a Woman,” by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

This painting is “Head of a Woman,” an oil painting from 1960 by Pablo Picasso. It is an example of his early cubist work.[1]

When I was a kid, I didn’t like cubism. My mom studied art, so there were a sufficient number of art books around the house for me to be exposed to several different styles of art at a young age. I didn’t like any form of abstract art as a kid because it didn’t look like what one would actually see. If you’re painting the head of a woman, the painting should look like the woman’s head. I didn’t understand what cubism was doing.

Today, I like this picture. I like it to some extent because of its form and color – how it looks. But what I really like about this painting is what Picasso was doing. At first glance, it looks like he’s painted a goofy looking face from straight on. But if you divide the picture in half, you see two profiles of the woman, one right and one life. What Picasso was doing and what cubism in general does is depict the same scene from multiple points of view at once. In this case, we’re looking at this woman’s head from her left, her right, and from directly in front of her.

head-rightCubism is considered one of several types of Modern Art. And I suppose it is. But I like to think of it (no offense to any art historians in the congregation) as Postmodern Art.

Postmodernism is largely a rejection of the Enlightenment quest for certainty. The Enlightenment “was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”[2] This philosophy helped thirteen of the American colonies to break away from monarchy of King George III and declare their independence. “The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method”[3] and, while there was great doubt about how much the human mind could know, there was a quest for certainty.[4]

This reliance on science and knowledge continued into Modernism with the onset of industrialization, with Modernism affirming “the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation.”[5]

Postmodernism evolves with new questions. Instead of questioning the authority of a monarch, it questions the authority of any certainty. So it ends up being quite open to various claims of truth. Another hallmark of Postmodernism is a refusal to focus on a single metanarrative, a single overarching story. This puts Postmodernism at odd with Christianity because Christianity does focus on a single metanarrative – the Bible. Still there are plenty of Christians who consider themselves to be Postmodernists and plenty of Postmodernists who consider themselves to be Christians. Many find a spiritual home in progressive Christianity because, while progressive Christians focus on a single metanarrative, we don’t reject as invalid other metanarratives simply because they aren’t ours. But that’s not important to the point I’m making today.

It is the openness to various claims of truth, of seeing things from multiple points of view, that connects to what is happening in cubism and why I think cubism is in many ways Postmodern art. Postmodernism says that something can be both completely true from my point of view and false from yours. Both points of view are valid. Cubism’s desire to hold, to express multiple points of view at the same time seems very Postmodern to me.

The difference that I’m trying to highlight between Postmodern thought and Modern thought can be summed up in this cartoon. Which one is right? Is it a 9 or a 6? Modern Philosophy would say that there is one correct answer, that it is either a 9 or a 6. Postmodern thought would say it is both, depending on your point of view.

At this point, my sermon could go one of two directions. I could preach about how Postmodern thought has influenced the advent of “truthiness,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” I could talk about the challenge we face both in holding openness to differing personal experiences and holding firmly onto the empirical nature of science and math. I’m not going to preach that sermon today. I may at some other time, but not today.

Today I want to explore how Modern and Postmodern thought impacts our reading and understanding of the miracles stories of Jesus, stories like we heard today. This room is filled with Modern and Postmodern minds. I’m wondering what we make of the miracles of Jesus, like the ones we heard about in today’s scripture lessons.

If you are purely a child of the Enlightenment, you might do what Thomas Jefferson did. He went through the gospels and literally excised the miracles of Jesus with a knife. Anything that went against rational thought and science couldn’t have happened, so we’ll simply remove it from the text. He then took what was left over from all four gospels and rearranged them into his own narrative, creating a gospel according to Jefferson. Today’s readings ended up in his trashcan. That’s one approach to the miracles of Jesus.

John Shelby Spong says that the miracle at the Cana wedding should be understood metaphorically. It is the introduction to the section of John’s gospel that Spong refers to as “the Book of Signs. Each sign in this section of the fourth gospel “is depicted as a mighty act, done quite publicly, that points to something even bigger and more important. At the same time,… the signs accounts are filled with strange references, enigmatic words, unusual actions and dramatically drawn characters, all of which appear to mitigate against these signs ever having been understood as literal events that occurred inside the normal flow of history.”[6]

The first clue for us that this story isn’t really about a wedding in Cana is in the opening words. “On the third day” makes us (or at least it’s supposed to make us) think of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus tells his mother, “My hour has not yet come,” he is again referring to his crucifixion. Spong says that this story is about “calling Israel into a new status,” a new relationship with God, one where the “wine of the spirit has replaced the waters of purification.”[7] Searching out the metaphor in the miracles is another approach.

Marcus Borg wrote that, in addition to several summary passages in the gospels about Jesus healing many people, “The synoptic gospels also contain many individual stories of exorcisms and healings. In addition to possession by evil spirits, the conditions treated include fever, paralysis, withered hand, bent back, hemorrhage, deafness and dumbness, blindness, dropsy, coma, and skin disease.”[8] Borg writes, “Behind this picture of Jesus as a healer and exorcist, I affirm a historical core.… I see the claim that Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms as history remembered. Indeed, more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.”[9]

While Borg wouldn’t say whether or not the specific healing/exorcism we heard about in our lesson from Mark happened, he would say it is an example of how Jesus was remembered by his followers, that he healed people like this. Understanding the miracles as the early followers of Jesus understanding and experience of him – that’s another approach.

Brian McLaren suggests that we use these stories to stimulate questions about our own lives. He looks at the story of the wedding at Cana and wonders: “In what ways are our lives – and our religions, and our cultures – like a wedding banquet that is running out of wine? What are we running out of? What are the stone containers in our day – huge but empty vessels used for religious purposes? What would it mean for whose empty containers to be filled – with wine? And why so much wine? Can you imagine what 180 gallons of wine would mean to a small Galilean village? What might that superabundance signify? What might it mean for Jesus to repurpose containers used to separate the clean from the unclean? And what might it mean for God to save the best for last?”[10]

He looks at the story of healing we heard from Mark and asks: “What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs, and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behavior? What unclean or unhealthy thought patterns, value systems, and ideologies inhabit, oppress, and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus? In what way might this individual symbolize our whole society? In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its ‘clean spirit,’ to something unclean or unhealthy? “And what would it mean for faith in the power of God to liberate us from these unhealthy, imbalanced, self-destructive disorders? Dare we believe that we could be set free? Dare we trust that we could be restored to health? Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us – today?”[11] Perhaps we can call this a literary approach, where the story stimulates reflection about our own lives and our community life.

Which approach works best for you? Ignoring the miracles? Looking for a metaphor in the miracles? Embracing the experience of the first followers of Jesus as a healer? Inviting miracles stories to stimulate questions about our own lives?

John Newton

In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” I picked this hymn because of the story behind it, a story I know many of you are familiar with. For those of you who don’t know the back-story, the hymn was penned by John Newton in 1773, during the Enlightenment. It is thought that it was at some level a reflection on his own life. After serving a conscription in the British Navy, Newton entered the Atlantic slave trade, eventually captaining a ship. He had a conversion experience during a storm off the coast of Ireland and eventually left the seafaring life to study theology. He became an important abolitionist in Britain. It was while he was serving as a curate in a church in Olney that he wrote “Amazing Grace.”[12]

In the hymn, Newton writes about experiencing a miracle. The miracle he experienced wasn’t one of an abundance of wine nor was it the healing of a physical malady. But it was the miracle of a healing. God’s grace embraced him and he went from being lost to found, from being blind to seeing. This miracle is much easier for our Modern minds to accept because it is a healing of the attitude rather than a healing of something physical. But does that somehow make it more believable than someone’s literal heart healing without medical intervention?

Did Jesus’ first disciples experience him as a healer because they lived in a pre-Modern time so they didn’t have scientific skepticism? Or has scientific skepticism gotten in the way of our awareness of the metaphysical?

The miracles of Jesus – are they sixes or nines? Or are the both? Or might they be something else altogether that we just don’t recognize? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know this: They are significant and they are wonder-filled.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt you experienced a miracle, or when you prayed for a miracle that never came; or
… one of the ideas of how to approach miracles talked about in the sermon and how that approach may apply to other stories in scripture; or
… the image and sounds and smells and tastes of an empty ceremonial stone container being filled with water that is transformed into wine, then sit with the words empty, full, and transformed.

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/ (accessed 20 January 2017).

[2] “Age of Enlightenment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment (accessed 20 January 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] krm, “Doubt and Certainty in the Age of Enlightenment,” Johns Hopkins University Press, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/doubt-and-certainty-age-enlightenment (posted 11 October 2011; accessed 20 January 2017).

[5] Blogstuff, https://dturneresq.wordpress.com/2007/10/20/the-history-of-thought-since-the-reformation-from-wikipedia/ (posted 20 October 2007; accessed 20 January 2017).

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 13.

[7] Ibid, 84.

[8] Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 66. (This book was also written by N. T. Wright, with the two of them taking turns writing and responding to each other. This quote is from a section written by Borg.)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 21, page 98. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[11] Ibid, page 99.

[12] “Amazing Grace,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace (accessed 21 January 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 15, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 4:1-30 and Luke 5:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Maybe I should begin with a confession – that this sermon title is perhaps a bit of false advertising. When someone invites me on an adventure, I expect it to have some excitement and to end with a sense of “that was fun.” I’m not sure that’s where I’m going.

The second thing I should do to start with is to show you a little video clip. I know I showed this two weeks ago, but the difference between knowing your why and picking your appropriate what is going to be important in this sermon.

When you know your why, your what has more impact because you’re walking in or toward your purpose.

Our scripture readings cover a lot of territory. Last week we heard Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus. Today, we pick up right after that. Though not as immediate as in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, Jesus’ response to being baptized is to go off by himself into the wilderness to pray. Jesus fasts, a prayer form that some find very helpful. After his fasting has gone on for quite some time, instead of having a deep communion with God, Jesus has an encounter with the personification of temptation and rationalization.

I think what’s happening here is this: At his baptism Jesus experienced some clarity of his call. His why became clear. Let the people know that the liberating love you know and that they should love in that same way. What wasn’t clear yet was his what. This is certainly one way of looking at these temptations.

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by magic. Wow the people by turning stones into bread. Fill their bellies and they’ll follow you. And you can have whatever you want in the process. “Public influence and private indulgence – if you just use your miraculous powers to acquire whatever you desire!”[1]

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by gaining political power. Bow down and worship evil and you’ll get all the kingdoms of the world. On this path, “self-seeking power, not self-giving love, reigns supreme.”[2]

And then there’s this one: Following your why won’t kill you. Go ahead and jump of the top of the Temple. The fall won’t kill you. God won’t let that happen to his beloved child. That notion that fulfilling your why may cost your life? Forget it.

Jesus comes out of the desert not just with clarity of his why but also of his what, at least some of the whats he’ll not use. “He will not use his power for personal comfort and pleasure. He will refuse unscrupulous means to achieve just and peaceful ends. He will not reach for spectacle over substance.… [He won’t be] driven by a human lust for pleasure, power, or prestige.”[3]

He will be empowered by the Spirit, and he will be willing to pay the ultimate price. And if we want to join the adventure … are we willing to let the Spirit empower us, and are we willing to pay the ultimate price?

Following his desert experience, Jesus goes to his hometown, and on the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue. “There is a time in the synagogue gathering where men can read a passage of Scripture and offer a comment upon it. So on this day, Jesus stands and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll until he comes to the passage that speaks of the Spirit anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.”[4]

That’s exactly what he experienced in his baptism. That’s a wonderful summation of his why. That’s his mission statement. And he says so. Jesus sits down – “a teacher’s customary posture in those days. He offers his amazing commentary – notable for its brevity and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in you hearing.’”[5]

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-6-17-42-amHow’s that for an inaugural address? I checked something out this morning. Jesus’ inaugural address could have been tweeted – with room to spare.

“Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone, or Sri Lanka. In an interview on BBC or Al Jazeera he [or she] says, ‘Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! It’s time for CEOs to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous raises to all their lower-paid employees! It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories, and armies to turn in their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swing sets, and garden tools. It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say “someday” or “tomorrow.” The time is today!’”[6]

Who would listen to that? I think such a prophet would be ignored by the vast majority of people, especially by people in power. The only people I can think of who would listen would be people who know the pain of oppression and violence. Only people who would hear hope in these words would listen. Anyone who would hear these words threatening their power and prestige would ignore this prophet or try to make the prophet seem like a crackpot.

Jesus hometown crowd is impressed that their hometown boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. “But Jesus won’t let them simply be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from Scriptures, one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. God bypassed many needy people of our religion and nation, Jesus says, to help those foreigners, those Gentiles, those outsiders. You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.”[7] Jesus is telling them that this good news that has been fulfilled in their hearing isn’t just for them. It’s for all humanity.

The only sense I can make of what happens next is that Jesus’ hometown synagogue feels betrayed. How could the promise God made through the prophet Isaiah to the Jews be for everyone? The crowd quickly flips from proud to furious. They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they try to push Jesus over the edge of a cliff. They might as well be trying to push him off the roof of the Temple.

If Jesus didn’t have the clarity of his why, everything would have fallen apart just as it began. If Jesus hadn’t wrestled with some of the whats, seeing which ones would go against the very character of his why, he might have taken his calling in an unfruitful direction. He needed his time in the wilderness “to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as he did, [if we dare to join the adventure,] we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.”[8]

“Jesus managed to avoid execution that day. But he knew it wouldn’t be his last brush with hostile opposition.”[9] He continued his preaching and healing. And soon he began inviting select individuals to become his followers.

In our second lesson, we heard about his calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John to be his first followers. If you’re a fan of the gospel of John, you’ll hear echoes of John resurrection story that takes place at the lake and involves a significant fishing success. But it’s the final words of the passage that most interest me: “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left everything and followed him.

“As with aspiring musicians who are invited to become the students of a master-musician, this was a momentous decision for them. To become disciples of a rabbi meant entering a rigorous program of transformation, learning a new way of life, a new set of values, a new set of skills. It meant leaving behind the comforts of home and facing a new set of dangers on the road. Once they were thoroughly apprenticed as disciples, they would be sent out as apostles to spread the rabbi’s controversial and challenging message everywhere. One [does] not say yes to discipleship lightly.”[10]

bonhoefferI am currently reading one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books, The Cost of Discipleship, considered by many to be his most important book. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, a theologian, an anti-Nazi dissident, and a key founding member of the Confessing Church – a movement to keep the church separate from the Nazi party and faithful to Jesus. The Cost of Discipleship was published in 1937, during the rise of the Nazi party, and in some ways may have served as Bonhoeffer’s time in the desert as he prepared for what his ministry became under Nazism. Let me share just one quote from this book, all of which is appropriate at this point in the sermon. And please excuse the non-inclusive language of this 1930’s German, recognizing that when he says “man,” he means “person,” and the pronoun “he” for this person should really be “he or she.”

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.… The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake.”[11]

It occurs to me that “the world Christian is more familiar to us today than the word disciple. These days, Christian often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus of a cliff than it does to his true followers. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the power and challenge of that earlier, more primary word disciple. The word disciple occurs over 250 times in the New Testament, in contract to the word Christian, which occurs only three time. Maybe those statistics are trying to tell us something.”[12]

The adventure Jesus invites us to join is one that involves leaving everything behind. It is an adventure that begins with dying. And then it moves to discerning Jesus’ good news for today and working to make it real.

As we move into a time of quite, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when you went through some hardship or temptation that prepared you for a later opportunity; or

… the dangers of being captivated by the support of your loyal fans and being intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics; or

… the image of Jesus standing near you at your work, calling your name, and saying these two words to you, “Follow me.”

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 20, page 92. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship [Kindle version], location 1279-1286. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[12] McLaren, op. cit., 94.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 8, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 2:41-52 and Luke 3:1-14, 21-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our first lesson is the conclusion of the overture to Luke’s gospel. You may remember I talked about this a month ago, this idea that the birth and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke serve a similar purpose as an overture to a Broadway musical. They act as a bridge to bring you into the story you’re about to hear and they introduce the themes you’ll hear later in the story.

So we heard the end of Luke’s overture. It’s his last chance to get you ready to hear the rest of his gospel. And as simple as the story is, it is rich with foreshadowing.

The setting is the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is the most important festival of the Hebrew year. This is when the Jews remember how God led them from slavery to freedom, how God made them a people with the gift of the Torah. The Passover story is told in both the past- and present-tenses; God freed us and God is freeing us. So the story is about both Egypt and Jerusalem, both Pharaoh and Caesar. When Luke finishes his gospel, Jesus will be back in Jerusalem and it will be at the Passover and he will be facing down the Pharaoh of his day, Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem.

There’s a wonderful moment any parent can identify with in today’s first lesson. The family is returning to Nazareth with a big crowd of neighbors who also went to Jerusalem for the Passover. They assume Jesus is with his friends, somewhere in the crowd. When they discover that he is not, the search begins. For three days, they look for him, going back to Jerusalem. Three days. That will show up again at the end of Luke’s gospel.

When they finally find him, he’s in the Temple. He has to be in the courtyard, because his mother is present, and women were only allowed so far into the Temple. But he’s not playing tiddlywinks with some other kids. He’s with teachers, with rabbis, deep in discussion. He’s asking impressive questions and he’s giving impressive answers. Now, one assumes that the answers he’s giving are to the questions the teachers are asking. That certainly would be the Jewish style of exploring a text or discussing theology. Everybody gets to ask questions and everybody gets to offer their answers, and somewhere in the midst of all that, some word of God’s truth will emerge. But the text doesn’t say that – at least the English translation doesn’t say that. It could be that Jesus’ impressive answers are his answers to his own questions.

Imagine the setting. Learned teachers sitting around the Temple courtyard, talking theology. This 12-year-old joins the discussion and starts asking questions, deep, penetrating questions. A kid questioning men who are the authorities in the field. And his questions are wise, as are his answers. He is teaching the teachers and questioning their authority – a theme that will come up again and again in Luke’s gospel.

And then there’s this. When his parents find him, he’s surprised that they think he is lost. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” At the annunciation, Gabriel told Mary that her child would be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ and ‘the Son of God’ (1:32, 35). We know Jesus’ secret identity. And if we missed it there, Jesus says it here. “Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status and asserts to his parents – but publically – that he is the Son of God and this is his Father’s house.”[1]

This theme of Jesus as the Son of God is one of the first themes we hear in the main body of Luke’s gospel. Our second lesson is about John at the River Jordan baptizing people and Jesus coming to be baptized. And it is in the act of baptism that heaven proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Luke begins the main body of his gospel the same way he started his overture: by talking about John the baptizer. You’ll recall from the overture that John’s father, Zechariah, was a Temple priest. Brian McLaren says that this probably meant that John had some comfort and privilege growing up.[2] Priestly positions were clan-based, so one would have thought John would have grown up to become a Temple Priest. As a PK (a priest’s kid), John would have known all about Tevilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water in a Mikva, an indoor pool naturally sourced with water.[3] It was used as an act of purification and it was a central part of the conversion ritual in Judaism. This purification was required before entering the Temple, to allow Jews to present themselves to God free from the contamination of the outside world. McLaren points out that this ritual also “preserved religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners.’”[4]

“Can you imagine how shocking it was for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the Temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the Jordan River? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions have meant?

“John’s departure from both family and Temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s Temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Traveling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions … by sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarized John’s message: repent, which means ‘rethink everything,’ or ‘question your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values.’ His baptism of repentance symbolized being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.

“Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptized by John. His protest movement grew, and with it, expectations and hope.…

“John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus [according to Matthew’s gospel], couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)

“Among the crowds coming to be baptized one day was a young man about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside.”[5] And by receiving John’s baptism, something radical and transformative began.

Retired Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan tells of baptizing a two-year-old boy in a Sunday worship service. After the child had been baptized, Pastor Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy’s head and said to him, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” It was a holy moment made more holy by the little boy’s response: “Uh-oh!”[6]

There is a deep element of “Uh-oh” in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. The demands on our lives are not a trifling matter when we’re disciples of Jesus. We have to rethink everything our culture tells us. We have to question our assumptions about what is of value and where the boundaries of love should be.

Luckily, it’s not all burden. There is also a deep blessing in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was baptized by John, he experienced heaven cracking open and God’s spirit pouring down. This man, this physical human body experienced not just the water moistening skin, but a bath of God’s love. And God’s voice called out to him saying, “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

God says the same thing to us.

We live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels to identify and define us, and often separate us – Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight or bi, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list of labels goes on. “Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.”[7] Though we live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels, only one really matters and really defines us, once we’ve gotten wet. We are Christians, disciples of Jesus.

And like Jesus, we, too, are beloved children of God. Sure, the other labels may have some meaning to us. It’s just that “while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us.”[8] Only the name we receive in baptism truly defines us: Beloved Child of God.

In Jewish culture, Jesus officially came of age when he was 12. But his real coming of age – of the new age he was bringing – happens at his baptism. He is now “a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb [as John called him], a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.

“When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope, and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.”[9]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… the memory of your own baptism or some other recognition of a milestone in your life; or
… the idea of John the Baptist breaking with tradition and what that would look like in your life; or
… this message from God to you:  “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

[1] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 255.

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 19, page 87. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[3] “History of Baptism,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_baptism (accessed 7 January 2017).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid, 87-89.

[6] From an email from sermons.com dated 3 January 2017.

[7] David Lose, “Baptism of Our Lord A: Family Name,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/baptism-of-our-lord-a-family-name/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 89.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.

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I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?

I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author[1] includes this advice:

  • Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.

This author also suggests:

  • Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
  • Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
  • Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
  • Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
  • Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
  • Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”

It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.

Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”[2]

As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.

While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year,[3] that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.

The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking.[4] It will take action.

And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.

So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”[5]

Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”[6]

I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently.[7] This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.

And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.

Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year,[8] but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.

If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,”[9] it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.

Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.

Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.

I did not do so well with these three resolutions.

But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.

And here he is in context.

Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.

He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.[10]

I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.

I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.

[1] Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[2] Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[3] On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.

[4] Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).

[5] Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).

[6] Camacho, op. cit.

[7] “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[8] Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “August Landmesser,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Landmesser (accessed 30 December 2016).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 11, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and Matthew 5:38-47
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Whatever happened to the overture?

I suspect there are enough theatre nerds in this congregation (I count myself among them – obviously) that I can’t be the only one who’s wondered this. The musical theatre overture has, for the most part, disappeared. And it’s been fading away for a long time. According to a National Public Radio story from eight years ago, one reason the overture has pretty much disappeared is money. Tighter budgets have led to smaller orchestras, which means simpler orchestrations, which means no overture.[1] An article in The New York Times from ten years ago says the demise of the overture goes back now 40 years. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.

“Who could forget the great overture to ‘A Chorus Line’? First there’s that infectious hop-step vamp from the song ‘One.’ Then come some of the show’s most familiar melodies: ‘I Hope I Get It,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘What I Did for Love.’ Finally the orchestra swings back for a rousing half-chorus of ‘One’ that would make even gouty musical-theater-phobes want to leap to their feet with excitement.

“Oh, wait – ‘A Chorus Line’ doesn’t have an overture.…

“Back in 1975, a month before the original production’s debut, Marvin Hamlisch did write a ‘Chorus Line’ overture like the one described. But the director, Michael Bennett, and the show’s other creators decided not to include it, fearing it would destroy the illusion that the audience was watching an actual audition as the lights went up.…

“Thanks in part to ‘A Chorus Line,’ the Broadway orchestra and the Broadway overture would rarely emerge from that obscurity again.”[2]

No, I haven’t lost my mind, and, yes, I do remember that this is a sermon. I just want to remind you of what an overture is – or was. The overture, typically several minutes long, was “made up of melodies heard later in the show and [was] played by an orchestra before the curtain [went] up.”[3] It introduced musical themes to the audience, acting “like a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter.”[4]

And that’s exactly what Matthew is doing in the first two chapters of his gospel, the chapters where Matthew talks about Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is an idea that is new to me, introduced by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas. Luke does it, too, with his birth and childhood narrative, also the first two chapters of his gospel. Both authors introduce the themes that will play out in the rest of their gospels.

The big theme we hear in Matthew’s overture is that Jesus is the new Moses. It’s here in our first lesson. Just as Moses was born under an evil ruler, the Pharaoh, Jesus is born under the evil King Herod. Just as Moses needed to escape the slaughter of Jewish newborns, Jesus needs to escape the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.[5]

Crossan and Borg go on to suggest that the number five is important. There are in this overture, five dreams move the story along and five prophetic fulfillments are cited. This calls to mind the Torah, they say, because it is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also called “the books of Moses.” And like the five books of Moses, the main body of Matthew’s gospel is easily divided into five sections:

  • the Law discourse (the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reinterprets the law Moses received – on a mountain);
  • the missionary discourse;
  • the parable discourse;
  • the community discourse; and
  • the eschatological discourse.[6]

Borg and Crossan point to other ways this overture introduces the theme that Jesus is the new Moses, but I don’t want to get lost in the weeds (or bulrushes) digging into these. Instead, I want to you hear this general idea:

The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke – their overtures – are important not because any of it happened historically (and aside from Mary being pregnant and giving birth, is likely that little else in the story happened historically). No, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are important because they tell us where the story is going.

And where does Matthew tell us where the story is going? Just in the reading we heard today, we hear both that non-Jews will seek Jesus and that wise ones will seek him. We hear that Jesus will be the new Davidic king (a subtheme in the overture lifted up elsewhere). We hear that the principalities and powers will find Jesus threatening and will seek to kill him. We hear that God has an escape plan for Jesus, that death won’t have the final word.

Do you see one reason why it’s important to keep Herod in Christmas? The overture doesn’t work without him.

Of course it’s not the only reason to keep Herod in Christmas. Any first or second century Jew would know what a despot Herod the Great was. Yes, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, an important sign of Jewish identity. But he was a puppet king, dependent on the Roman empire for his status. “Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labor for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons.”[7]

You can see why it was not a far-fetched storyline to have Herod kill all the infant and toddler boys in Bethlehem in Matthew’s overture. There are some important questions that are raised by having Herod in this story. We know how Herod managed power and dealt with threats. How will we? We know how Herod used violence to get his way. Will we?

“Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power.

“The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.”[8]

Brian McLaren points out, “All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grand children. Most of the [uniformed] casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”[9]

By keeping Herod in Christmas, we are forced to grapple with what we believe about God. “Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?”[10]

Our second lesson answers these question – but in a whole new way. From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus holds up the ethic of love as the real fulfillment of the law. And this love needs to be deep, deep enough to turn your enemies into friends. When faced with oppression, the typical responses are fight or flight. “An eye for an eye” is a call to meet violence with violence. The other response is to let the violence crush you.

Jesus offers a third way: meet violence with non-violent activism. Because someone would only strike you with their right hand, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, they’ve backhanded you. Doing that means they are treating you as an inferior. By offering your left cheek, you are saying, “If you want to hit me, you’ll have to hit me as your equal.” If someone sues you for your only possession, the clothes off your back, give them your underwear, too. If they reduce you to being naked, they have lost face. The only person who would force you to go a mile would be a Roman soldier. They were known for forcing locals to carry their packs and were restricted to only forcing that for one mile. By insisting that you go two miles, you’ll get the occupying soldier in trouble.

There is a third way, Jesus says, to fight for the dignity of the oppressed without becoming an oppressor.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus,” McLaren says, “is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with the vulnerable … in defiance of the [oppressors] who see [the vulnerable] as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation with the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.

“Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season, we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long a children pay the price, and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.

“… In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and come near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness [of the story] of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.”[11]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture readings that caught your interest; or
… a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness; or
… the idea that Matthew’s birth narrative is an “overture” to his gospel; or
… to hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and power-hungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby—then observe what happens in your heart and offer a prayer of response.

[1] Jeff Lunden, “Broadway’s Best Musical Revival: The Overture?” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91480130 (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).

[2] Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/theater/01gree.html (posted 1 October 2006; accessed 8 December 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lunden, op. cit.

[5] Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 41-42.

[6] Ibid, 42-46.

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 16, page 71. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 72-73.

[10] Ibid, 73.

[11] Ibid, 73-74.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:9-11 and Luke 1:67-79
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I wonder what it is like for Cubans today. With Fidel Castro’s death on Friday, I wonder what sort of dreams and hopes, what sort of griefs and fears average Cubans are feeling. Fidel Castro took power in 1959. That means that 75% of the Cuban population has only known the Castro form of Communism and a Castro at the helm.[1] Are they feeling grief at Fidel’s death? Are they feeling like there is a power vacuum (even though Fidel handed power to his brother Raúl eight years ago)? Are they fearful that they may lose all they’ve known, or are they hopeful about changes that might be able to come? Or maybe they’re feeling a combination of these things.

I wonder what it is like for people in Syria and Iraq who live in the shadow of ISIS. Are their lives filled with fear or are they (at least some of them) somehow holding on to hopes and dreams?

And I wonder what it is like for the refugees – whose who fled Cuba generations ago and those who have fled ISIS in this generation. Is there hope in their fleeing or is it only desperation? Do they hope to return home or have they oriented their lives to the new land they how inhabit?

Brian McLaren points out, “Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires, and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behavior will lead.

“One of the most important prophetic compositions was the Book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally be attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonized by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behavior would lead to decline and defeat.

“That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40-55, often called Second Isaiah, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would someday return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66.”[2]

Imagine with me for a moment what it was like for the people of Second Isaiah. Imagine what it was like for those who had been forcibly removed from their homes and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Yahweh, they believed, had promised them this land, but a foreign army had conquered them, removed them from their homes, and sent them into exile. Yahweh’s home was in Jerusalem, but they were forced to live in Babylon. Yahweh’s house, the Temple, had been destroyed. Where and how could they find hope?

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Not that I was trying to mimic Isaiah, but my sabbatical can be divided into three parts. The first part was a great road trip that took me up the coast, across to Glacier National Park, south to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and back home. It included, almost by accident, a stop at the Minidoka Internment Camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho. There is very little at the National Historical Park now: mostly open fields and gravel paths; a few concrete pads that were the foundations of garages and warehouses; a collapsing root cellar. The sentry tower and barbed wire fence are reconstructions. Only one of the original tarpaper barracks remains; the others were demolished or sold to farmers in the area, but only to white farmers. None of the internees were allowed to purchase any of the buildings or equipment that was deemed surplus after the war.

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

At its height, there were over 9,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens incarcerated in the camp, making Minidoka something like the fourth largest community in Idaho at the time. These thousands upon thousands of people of Japanese heritage are America’s 20th century exiles. Like the Babylonian army, the U.S. Army forced these people out of their homes and businesses and placed them in concentration camps.

According to the stories I read and heard at Minidoka, it was only through community that they were able to find hope. And, while the United States built the barracks, it was the people concentrated in the camp that built the community.

Of course, the internment of people of Japanese ancestry is not the only exile in United States history. The government’s treatment of the people who were here first, the Native Americans, was our original forced exile. I won’t rehearse the history; I can’t; I don’t know all of it. I know just enough of the Trail of Tears and the concentration on “Reservations” and the violations of treaties and the attempts to “kill the Indian” to save the child to know it was a story all too similar to that of the Judean exile in Babylon.

Aside from the elections, there was one news story that held my attention during my sabbatical: the story of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands and along and under important water sources for the Standing Rock and everyone downstream of them. Up until the past few weeks, the mainstream news media were pretty much ignoring the story. However, because the Dakota Access Pipeline is new fossil fuel infrastructure, organizations fighting climate change were paying attention, and that got my attention starting in August.

On one level, this story sounds like every other story of the Indian Exile: white people with their police and military and corporations and courts giving Indians the shaft. Again.

But something different is happening this time. The National Public Radio podcast, “Code Switch” notes that the history “of indigenous people fighting to protect not just their land, but the land, is centuries old.” But this time, “The scope of the resistance at Standing Rock exceeds just about every protest in Native American history.”[3] The big thing that’s different is that Native tribes and nations from across North America, in both what is now the United States and what is now Canada, are showing up in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. Not only that, but indigenous groups from around the world are offering their support.[4]

This gives me hope, this community and solidarity that is growing around the globe. And because of that solidary (at least in part), this is now about way more than a particular pipeline in a particular place. What’s happening along the Cannonball River is becoming a clash of ideas and systems that have been at odds on this continent for five centuries. The thing is, because the Standing Rock are grounding their movement in prayer, this clash has the real potential to work itself out in a way where we are all transformed and we are all winners. And that gives me hope.

“To be alive is to desire, to hope, and to dream,” Brian McLaren writes.[5] Unfortunately, throughout human history, “some of us desire power and kill, enslave, and oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites, or dominated by stronger nations nearby.”[6]

If we read the prophets and the gospels in the Bible, one thing will be clear: While God loves everyone, God takes the side of the enslaved and oppressed, the wilderness wanderers and exiles, the people yearning for justice and peace. We heard the words in today’s scripture lessons.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Lord God … will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And there’s so much more in Isaiah.

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Isaiah’s words and images inspire so much hope that Jesus and his followers quote this book more than any other writer.

“Many other prophets added their own colors to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beastlike empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.

“In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled, either.… [So] their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future.”[7] To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to believe that the promised time is coming and that the promised land will be received. It is what we pray for every time we say, “Thy kin-dom come on earth.” But that is only a wish and not true hope if it does not spur us to action. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to translate hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.

Now, as we enter a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything for the sermon or scripture readings that caught you attention; or
… recall a time when you kept hope or lost hope; or
… the imagery from Isaiah (“He shall feed his flock …”), and how you would translate that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world; or
… an image from today’s scripture readings – hold it in your heart, in God’s presence and let it inspire a simple prayer.

[1] “Cuba Age structure,” Index Mundi, http://www.indexmundi.com/cuba/age_structure.html (accessed 26 November 2016).

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 14, page 64. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[3] Leah Donnella, “The Standing Rock Resistance Is Unprecedented (It’s also Centuries Old),” Code Switch, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/11/22/502068751/the-standing-rock-resistance-is-unprecedented-it-s-also-centuries-old (posted 22 November 2016; accessed 26 November 2016).

[4] Just as an example, Maori have set up a Facebook page in solidarity (https://www.facebook.com/maorisolidarity/) and have sent people to pray and stand in solidarity to the protest camps.

[5] McLaren, page 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 65-66.

If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.

I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”

I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.

While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.

Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.  People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.

To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.

And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.

As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:

For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.

The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.

When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.

Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.

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