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During worship today, as the liturgist read Romans 13:1-10, I thought to myself, What if we’ve gotten the punctuation wrong?  We know that the letters from Paul are responses to letters Paul received, that they are part of a conversation, but we only have half of the conversation (at best). We also know that the Greek didn’t have punctuation, so translators have had to guess where to add what punctuation and where to make paragraph breaks.  So, what if the punctuation we’ve been using is wrong?

What follows is the NRSV of Romans 13:1-10, but I’ve changed the punctuation.  It starts with Paul reading from a letter he received from the Christians in Rome, essentially quoting them back to themselves.

[Paul, reading from a letter from the Romans:]  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Do you wish to have no fear of the authority?  Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!  It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”

Therefore [as in “so your conclusion is”], One must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience?  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing?  Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due?

[No, no, no, no, no.]  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

This re-punctuation of Romans 13:1-10 makes it much more consistent with chapter 12.

Update: 26 June 2018

John Dominic Crossan, an important biblical scholar, says that there isn’t much evidence that Paul’s letter to the Romans was a response to a letter from the church in Rome. So the idea that Paul is quoting the Romans back to themselves isn’t very persuasive. He also says, “[Romans 13:1-7] is so utterly unPauline in general and particular that only [the] lack of evidence (again!) stops me from assuming an interpolation–but that seems like special pleading without such manuscript evidence.”

In other words, re-punctuating doesn’t really work, because there isn’t sufficient evidence that this letter was a response. Nor is there sufficient manuscript evidence that some future editor added this passage to Paul’s letter.

However, The Jewish Annotated New Testament points out, “The person or institution to which the community should subordinate itself is not specified. It could refer to synagogue rulers, also called “archorites,” the world translated ‘rulers’ in v. 3 ….  That would follow the general line of instruction, concerned with how these non-Jews were to behave among those who did not share their convictions, and who perhaps were in a position to bring pressure on them to alter those convictions. …”

Why is it that I (and may other Christians) assume that Paul is referring to governmental authorities? That probably says more about me than it does about Paul.

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A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 13, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Psalm 63and Isaiah 55:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart in the back of the sanctuary.

Homily

As I’ve thought about thirst these past couple weeks, I remembered some shocking statistics that I went hunting to confirm. According to the World Health Organization, 29% of the global population doesn’t have a reliable, safe water source in their homes.  Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces and contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 deaths from diarrhea each year.  If that weren’t bad enough, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.[2]  Thank you, climate change.

Closer to home, over half a million household (that’s 1.4 million to 1.7 million people here in the United States of America) don’t have complete plumbing facilities in their homes.  “Of the 20 counties with the highest percentage of households lacking access to complete plumbing, all were rural and 13 had a majority Native American or Alaskan Native population.”[3]

The United Nations recommends that, in order to remain affordable, water rates should not exceed 3% of a household’s income.  For the poorest 20% in the USA, the average is pushing that threshold.  But that’s the cost average.  “One study found that 13.8 million low-income households (constituting 11.9 percent of all U.S. households) already spend more than 4.5 percent of their income on water, and the share of U.S. households with unaffordable water bills could triple in the next five years if current projections are unchanged.”[4]

And then there’s Flint, Michigan.  I won’t get into the injustice of that fiasco other than to say that the Governor has decided to end the free bottled water program in Flint, claiming that water quality has been restored,[5]while some residents and scientists say that the water is not yet safe.[6]

I bring this very real issue of thirst because we’re about to use thirst as a metaphor for our spiritual lives.  I can’t ignore the concrete issue of physical thirst and I think we owe it to those who thirst for water to acknowledge their need.  I hope that one way we can connect with these people is by examining our own thirsts that are not physical, but are very real just the same.  I’m talking about our spiritual thirsts.

Joyce Rupp writes, “It is a rare day when we are completely satisfied.  Usually we are hoping, wishing, longing, thirsting, for something more, something different, something else we think will satisfy us or make our lives happier. We are often like an empty cup waiting to be filled with whatever it is we think is missing in our lives.”[7]

Madison Avenue tells us that our spiritual thirst can be quenched with stuff.  Our egos tell us that our spiritual thirst can be quenched with recognition, prestige, power, and success.  Our minds might tell us to quench our spiritual thirst can be quenched with food or alcohol or drugs or entertainment or work or – well, with anything that can be addictive.

But our souls – our souls tell us that the only thing that can truly quench our spiritual thirst is to drink from the well of living water.

What is your soul thirsting for?  Peace of mind and heart?  Healing of old wounds?  Self-acceptance?  Justice for the world?  A deeper sense of your true self?  Harmony with family?  Wisdom to make good choices and decisions?  Forgiveness of yourself and others?  Freedom? A word from God?

The invitation from our empty cups to look deeply into our lives to see the nature, the quality, and the intensity of our thirsts. Let us ask God for living water for our souls and then hold our waiting cup to receive.

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes. Breathing in, pray, “Thirsting, thirsting …” and breathing out pray, “… for you, O God.”

Guided Reflection

As you hold your empty cup in your hands, notice its emptiness.  Let its emptiness remind you of your yearnings.  For whom and for what do you most thirst?

How hold the cup close to your heart.  Be thirsty for God.  Be filled with God.

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every two minutes) or you can just share as the Spirit moves you.

Here are some prompts to help you begin your sharing:
I thirst for …
My spiritual thirst has been quenched when …

Scriptural Affirmation – Psalm 63:1

O God, you are my God,
I see you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
were there is no water.

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together.

God, from the well of your grace, give yourself to me, for you are enough. And if I ask for anything less, I will be in want.  Only in you do find fulfillment.  Amen.

_______________

[1]This sermon is based on Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 38-40.

[2]World Health Organization, “Drinking-water,” http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water (posted 7 February 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[3]Saurav Sarkar and Shailly Gupta Barnes, co-editors, The Souls of Poor Folk, published in 2018 online by the Poor People’s Campaign at https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/PPC-Audit-Full-410835a.pdf, page 13.

[4]Ibid, 94.

[5]CNN Library, “Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html (last updated 8 April 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[6]Nathalie Baptiste, “Officials Say Flint’s Water Is Safe. Residents Say It’s Not. Scientists Say It’s Complicated.” https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/04/officials-say-flints-water-is-safe-residents-say-its-not-scientists-say-its-complicated/ (posted 16 April 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[7]Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 38.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 22, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 4:5-12 and Mark 6:1-3a
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart in the back of the sanctuary.

Homily

I wonder how many times I’ve resolved (New Year’s or otherwise) to adopt some spiritual practice that I think would be good for me or that would make me more spiritual mature or would make me better in some way.  I’m sure the number is high.

I think I’m pretty resistant to making such a resolution now, but back in the days when I would make such a resolution, I’ve entered into the practice or program with great earnestness.  I would want to do it “right.”  I could get so caught up in doing spiritual stuff “right,” it’s almost laughable.  It would be much more laughable if I still didn’t sometimes fall into that trap.

One of the ways I think this is a trap is that underlying it is an assumption that I am responsible for my own spiritual growth, that my spiritual growth was up to me.  The way out of the trap has been realizing that my spiritual growth is reliant on God’s loving energy moving through me.  I thought I was seeking to improve myself or mature myself or better myself.  Really what I was seeking was my own transformation.  And transformation is reliant on the work of God.

Jesus’ invitation for me to take up my cross, his invitation for me to die so that I might live is an invitation to let go of my ego.  For you, the invitation may be different, but for me it’s about letting go of my ego.  Not the easiest thing to do when part of your job is to get up in front of a crowd more weeks than not and say something that you think will be impactful and important.

Still, I have found that when I allow my ego to control my inner life, my spiritual life, I get nowhere.  It is as if I have filled my cup with my ego and there’s no room for God.  When I empty my cup, when I dump out the ego that thinks it can control and transform, then there is room.  I have found that when I empty my cup, then God can (and so far always does) choose to fill my up with loving energy.  My ego may think it’s the perfect thing to fill my cup, but I am at my best when I am an empty vessel.  That is when God fills me with loving energy.

Personal growth does take some effort on my part.  Letting my ego die so Christ can live in me takes effort – for me, at least.  Letting myself go and trusting God takes some effort.  But I can’t force the growth.  That’s God’s department.  I can yearn for transformation.  I can be faithful in a spiritual practice (especially if I can let go of doing it perfectly).  But if I think that the spiritual practice does anything more than open my spirit, if I think my spiritual practice does anything more than help me become the empty cup, all I will do is stumble along, and I will bear no fruit.

Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God gives the growth.

Another way I stumble is by focusing on the results.  Am I transforming fast enough?  Am I transforming enough?  When I start judging myself that way, I end up reviving my ego, I end up drawing my ego center stage again, and then I get in the way of what God is doing.  When I start judging myself, I forget that I am at my best when I am an empty cup, a vessel for God’s loving energy.
Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in think these words to yourself, “Your power …” and breathing out think these words, “… moving through me.”

Guided Reflection

As you hold the cup, notice the space inside it.  Remember that the cup is a container.  That space is designed to hold something.

Now, set the cup down.  Feel your own pulse – in your wrist or your neck.  Or place your hand over your heart and feel it pumping.  Visualize the blood pumping through your body.  Remember that it carries nutrients to every part of your body.  Visualize it bringing glucose to all the different cells in your body.  See it sustaining life, bringing energy for growth.

Close your eyes and sense God’s goodness filling your spirit.  Picture God’s energy pulsing through you.  Welcome God’s loving energy surging through your being.

Pick up your cup again, and ask yourself one of these questions:
How have I known God’s power working in me and through me?
What are some obstacles blocking the flow of loving energy within me?
What part of my life most needs the powerful touch of God?

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing within your triad.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every six minutes) or you can just share and the Spirit moves you.  Here are some prompts to help you begin your sharing:

I have known God’s power working in me and through me when …

An obstacle blocking the flow of God’s loving energy through me is …

A part of my life that needs the powerful touch of God is …

Scriptural Affirmation

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together

Energizing and transforming God, the pulse of your presence fills my life with love.  Keep reminding me that I do not grow by my own efforts alone.  Thank you for the comfort and freedom of knowing that it is your power working through me that creates growth in my spiritual life.  Amen.

_______________

[1] This sermon is based on Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 30-32.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 15, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 15:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-17
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart.

Homily

For many of us, our primary image of the Ark of the Covenant was formed by Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and the movies.  Of course, their image of the Ark of the Covenant was formed by the Hebrew scriptures.  If you read about the Ark from that original source, you’ll get the sense of the Ark almost being a container of God’s presence.  Wherever the Ark went, God was there, the power of God was there.  And in the Hebrew scriptures, when the Temple is built, it becomes a container of God’s presence.

But the Hebrew scriptures don’t leave God in a box or in the Temple.  “The Divine Presence is everywhere, always moving and always calling to people wherever they may be.”[1]

If we look at the Gospels, we see Jesus declaring that the Divine Presence isn’t just around us.  It is within us.  Jesus in quoted in John’s gospel using “the image of the vine and the branches to emphasize that the same life that surges through all parts of the plant is similar to the life of God that surges through our being.  God is no longer just ‘out there.’  God is also here, within us.  The spirit of Jesus lives on in our bodily temples.  We have become the home of God.”[2]

We are mini Arks of the Covenant.  God goes with us wherever we go.  And we can carry God into each relationship and experience.

In a real way, our experiences shape our images and understandings of God.  And our images and understandings of God shape our experiences of God.  If we imagine God as the powerful one who is on high and remote from us, or if your experience of God is of God high and remote, it may be hard to imagine God within us.  But that is the invitation:  to see ourselves as containers of God’s presence.

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in, pray:  Faithful Love …  Breathing out, pray: … dwelling in me

Guided Reflection

As you hold the cup, take notice of the space within the cup.  That space is designed to hold something.  Imagine that space holding something that brings you joy or comfort or peace.

Think of the space within yourself.  It is filled with the Divine Presence.

Draw near to this Loving Presence.  Sense this Loving Presence permeating your entire being.  Rest in silence and tranquility

Listen to God say to you, “I am here.”

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every six minutes) or you can just share and the Spirit moves you.  You can begin your sharing with this prompt or by sharing anything that came up for you during the guided reflection:  I am most aware of God dwelling within me when …

Scriptural Affirmation

Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

Prayer of Affirmation

O Divine Presence, you have danced your way into my innermost being.  O Mystery of Life, you have tended and nurtured me.  You have enriched my spirit and watered my dryness.  You have poured your abundant love into the veins of my soul.  O Divine Presence, thank you for surrounding me with your love and pulsing your radiant energy through my being.  Amen.

[1] Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 28.

[2] Ibid.

A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 8, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 43:1-7 and Romans 14:7-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Sermon

If we’re lucky, we have people in our lives who are love songs.  I mean more than having people in our lives who love us.  I mean having people who, when you think about them or are with them, you feel like you’re being serenaded with a love song.  I mean people who love you so much that sometimes your love leaks out of your eyes when you just look at them.  Do you know what you mean?

One of my wishes is that every child experiences their parents that way.  I imagine it beginning in each child’s infancy.  I imagine a parent holding their infant child in their arms and looking down at the child’s face and singing them to sleep.  That might not even be the first time a parent is a love song to a child, but it one of the earliest.  In that look and in that music is the depth of love I’m talking about.

I know that there are parents who are not love songs for their children, but my wish is that it was so.  If we’re lucky, our parents are love songs.  And if we’re lucky, we have other people in our lives who are love songs, too – or instead of, if our parents didn’t manage to be love songs.

I know I have people in my life who are love songs.  One of my friends comes to mind.  She may be coming to mind especially because cancer is threatening her life and so I am more keenly aware of the music I will lose if cancer ends her life too quickly. I hope you have people in our life who are love songs.  I also hope that you are a love song so someone else (and hopefully to more than one person) in your life.

Maybe God is a love song in your life.  Maybe you can imagine God holding you and singing to you in your infancy.  And maybe you can imagine God looking on you with a love that vibrates the universe.

Maybe that’s too hard to do.  Sometimes it can be hard to accept our own loveableness.  Joyce Rupp suggests that the cup can be a teacher of our own loveableness.  “Think of the cup as a symbol of our unique self,” she writes.  “Many coffee and tea cups have a special shape and size, a ‘personality,’ so to speak, just as each human person does.  Like a cup, our physical, psychological, and spiritual shape is unique to each of us.  We cannot take someone else’s body, or spirituality, or personality and make it our own any more than a cup can change its color and shape to match each person who drinks from it.  [But that’s okay.]  The cup is a good container no matter who uses it.  It is of value itself.”[2]

It’s not always easy to see our own value.  I know I have a habit of comparing myself to others – I wish I could preach like that person; I wish I had that vocal tone in my singing; I wish I was as spiritual grounded as that person.  I have found that the more I accept myself as loved by God and the more I accept myself as gifted in my own ways, the more I can accept my own spiritual path.  And the more I can accept my own spiritual path, the more authentically I can sing God’s love song.  And the more I authentically sing God’s love song, the more I can be a love song for others

Even if you don’t typically feel awe or gratitude or compassion when you think of yourself, try to believe it today.  Imagine God holding you and singing a love song to you. Ask God to help you to see yourself as a song of love, a cup of goodness, bringing life to others.[3]

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in pray, “I am …” and breathing out pray, “… a love song.

Reflection

Notice the cup in your hands – its style, shape, color, size, texture.  Imagine yourself as a cup held in God’s hands.  Accept your uniqueness and your goodness.  Thank God for creating you as you are.

Sharing

I invite you to share in your triads, using this prompt as a starting place and sharing whatever else you choose to:  “When I think about God loving me unconditionally as I am, I …”

Scriptural Affirmation

I have called you by name, you are mine …  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Prayer of Affirmation

Thank you, Divine Creator, for the person I am. I am a cup of life.  I have love and goodness within me.  Help me to hear your music in my soul.  Let me not doubt my value or question my worth.  Help me to know and accept who I am.  I am yours.  Amen.

_______________

[1]This sermon is the first of six based on “Week I” of Joyce Rupp’s The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997). While I and Pastor Brenda will bring our own thoughts to this work, the bulk of the design of the sermon and time of reflection is based on Rupp’s work, and we are grateful for it.

[2]Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 25-26.

[3]Ibid.

Long one of my goals, a movement is gaining momentum to get the City of Fremont to divest from fossil fuels and to take other  measures that both signal the need to address climate change and to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. As this blog entry is published, the final language of a request is set and we are actively asking for endorsements of it.

Here’s the plan:

The request is actually addressed to the Fremont Human Relations Commission and it asks them to forward a resolution to the Fremont City Council for their action that meets the following goals:

  • Divest fully from the fossil fuel sector and adopt policies to ban future investment;
  • Formally request that all retirement funds into which the city contributes fully divest from the fossil fuel sector and adopt policies to ban future investment;
  • File a lawsuit against the fossil fuel sector for responsibility for climate change, or join a lawsuit already filed by Marin County, San Mateo County, Santa Cruz County, the City of San Francisco, Oakland, and Imperial Beach;
  • Commit to a fast and just transition to 100% renewable energy for all of Fremont by 2050 at the latest; and
  • Adopt regulations to guarantee that there are no new fossil fuel infrastructure projects built within or traveling through Fremont.

The request lays out the rationale for these goals and addresses concerns about possible financial impact. You can read the full request here. You can even print a copy and collect signatures. Just mail them to me at my church by April 23. My address is:

Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Niles Discovery Church
36600 Niles Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94536

Once the request is in the hands of the Human Relations Commission, we may need to pressure them to work on drafting the resolution. Once the resolution is in the hands of the City Council, lobbying and showing up to meetings will be the order of the day.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:43-47 and Mark 6:31-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“What you’re describing, Jeff, sure sounds an awful lot like communism.”

I can understand why this was an initial response to this Lenten sermon series.  The Sabbath economy does sound a lot like communism.  In the story of the manna in the wilderness, our introduction to God’s alternative to the Imperial economy, everyone has enough to eat every day.  Those who gather more than they needed somehow ended up with only what they needed, and those who gathered less than they needed somehow ended up with enough.  From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs.

And when we read in Acts how the earliest Christian lived, it sounds like communism.  They held all property in common and distributed resources according to each person’s needs.

There is, of course, one big difference between what these stories in the Bible describe and how communism has been practiced in the 20th and 21st centuries:  Totalitarianism.

The early Christians we read about in Acts chose to be part of this economy of sharing, of sufficiency, of self-restraint, of rest.  It was not mandated from outside.  No strongman forced people into this economy.  The participants chose to live this way.

And it has been pointed out to me that there are things to be said for capitalism.  Great innovations have come within our capitalist system.  I’m very grateful for medical advances.  And I love that I can send my nephew (who always seems to be wearing shorts) a goofy meme in a text massage that he gets instantaneously even though he lives 750 miles away.  750 miles north.  Where it gets cold.

Would these innovations have happened if we lived with a different economic system?  Who’s to say?  I suspect some of them would have, at least eventually.  To say they all required capitalism to be innovated is to say that only the accumulation of capital – that is, only greed – drives innovation.  And I don’t believe that’s true.

Still, many of the amazing things in our lives came about under capitalism.  So, why knock capitalism?

It can be argued that Western capitalism was built on cotton and slavery.  And, in fact, Harvard professor Sven Beckert makes exactly that argument:  “When we marshal big arguments about the West’s superior economic performance, and build these arguments upon an account of the West’s allegedly superior institutions like private-property rights, lean government, and the rule of law, we need to remember that the world Westerners forged was equally characterized by exactly the opposite:  vast confiscation of land and labor, huge state intervention in the form of colonialism, and the rule of violence and coercion.  And we also need to qualify the fairy tale we like to tell about capitalism and free labor.  Global capitalism is characterized by a whole variety of labor regimes, one of which, a crucial one, was slavery.”[1]

The class stratification of capitalism largely mirrors the class stratification of the Imperial economy (at least not here in the USA; it’s not so drastic in Scandinavian countries and in Japan).  The use of slavery to build capitalism mirrors the Imperial economy.  And the Imperial economy is the economy the biblical witness encourages us to reject, in favor of God’s Sabbath economy.

It’s not just the witness of the Torah to promotes the Sabbath economy.  Jesus preached the Sabbath Jubilee, the Jubilee that calls for the forgiveness of debts and the return of lands (which was wealth redistribution).  Jesus pointed out the corruption of the Imperial system and lifted up as heroes people who resisted it.  And Paul rejected the patronage system that is so integral to the Imperial economy.

And it is not just that our capitalist economy mirrors the Imperial economy.  Add to it this reality.  Since World War II, the basis of capitalism has become, increasingly, consumption beyond what is needed.  Build-in obsolescence and manipulated desire move us to consume what is not needed.[2]  In 2001, after the terrorist attacks along the east coast of the USA, we were told that the way to fight back was to go to the store and buy stuff.  Why?  Because the economy is dependent on consumption.  That wouldn’t be such a problem except that consumption destroys the environment.  When we consume more than we need, our impact on all of life on earth is detrimental.

We need a new economic system.

But what might that be?

I don’t have an answer to this question.

We could, I suppose, withdraw from the common economy and create our own enclave.  We could do what the Amish have done, separating ourselves from the world.  If that means doing without those innovations I spoke about earlier, I’m not too keen on that idea.

We could create a new monasticism, I suppose.  If we go back the fall of the Roman empire we might be able to learn something from the rise of monastic movement in European Christianity.  Benedict, who is seen as the granddaddy of monasticism, wrote a rule that called for various disciplines, including these three (that remain the basic vows of Roman Catholic religious life):  poverty, chastity, and obedience.  According to Ched Myers, those “early monks understood three key things about the dominant culture of their time:

  • It was built upon the concentration of wealth and exploitation. If their communities were to repent [of this sin,] they must become as self-sufficient as possible.
  • The root of wealth-concentration was private property. If they wanted to resist the ‘temptations of the world’ they must renounce exclusive ownership.
  • The exploitation of human labor was the root of all alienation … If their communities were to restore human dignity they must practice manual (that is, unalienated) labor.

For the first monastic communities the vow of ‘poverty’ [was] actually intended to inspire a social model that would eradicate poverty.”[3]

I think that ancient monastic evaluation of their times applies to our times.  If we can’t change the system that allows for the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny portion of the population, but we don’t want to support it, we might need to withdraw from it.  But that was easier to do in an agrarian culture.  I don’t know how we could truly withdraw from the capitalist system.  Would we do without bank accounts?  It’s hard to live in a capitalist economy, even in a separate community, without some capital.  I’m not sure creating a new monasticism would really free us from participation in the contemporary version of the Imperial economy.  Besides, I’m not too keen on that chastity and obedience bit.

I caught a snippet of one part of the Humankind two-part radio program on Dorothy Day this weekend.[4]  She and family adopted a voluntary poverty as a way of living out Sabbath economics (I’d call it that; I’m not sure what she would call it).  It was an imperfect Sabbath economics, but it sure was a lot closer to the real thing than I’ve managed to do.  At some point, I’ll go back and listen to the full two-parts to learn more about her.  In the meantime, I’ll let her example of voluntary poverty – which she saw as different from destitution, so perhaps it’s more accurate to call it voluntary simplicity – continue to challenge me.

Ched Myers suggests four things churches can do to help transform how we participate in the contemporary Imperial economy.[5]

  • We can cultivate a “Jubilee literacy.” We can come to a deeper, maybe even a bones-deep, understanding of the Sabbath economy and what it means for follow the Jubilee proclaimer Jesus.  When we do that, it will give us a lens to look at all we do in life.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice of repentance and forgiveness. This needs to apply to our personal lives and become so normal to us that it starts to influence our societal lives.  This might even move us to look at who the contemporary Imperial economy has hurt and move us to work for reparations.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice around practical economic disciplines. Individually, we can look at consumption, finances, and work.  We can form support groups for this reflective and ongoing work.  And we can consider our consumption and finances as a community.
  • We can participate in political movements that address issues of economic policy. This goes back to cultivating a Jubilee literacy.  That literacy has to influence our involvement so it is theologically grounded.  This involvement can, of course, be at local, state, national, and international levels.

I would add a fifth thing that we as a church can do, though maybe this fits in as part of Myers’ third suggestion.  We can examine our practices of outreach.  The history of mainline American Protestant mission work has been modeled on the patron-client paradigm.  We need to build within our church culture a sensitivity to this so we can combat it.  Our mission work must become fully mutual and based in solidarity with, rather than service to.

The issues of economy – Sabbath verses Imperial – do not stand alone.  50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., diagnosed the connections.  “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”[6]  He saw the repercussions of embracing the Imperial economy, of serving the Imperial economy, of remaining beholden to the Imperial economy.  He cited three major consequences:  racism, poverty, and militarism.

We know there are other consequences.  I made reference just a little while ago to the consequence of environmental degradation.  Sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism could easily be added to the list.

King knew it then, and we know it now:  these are moral issues.  When people in the riches country in the world live in poverty, it is a moral issue.  When systems won’t allow people of color to move ahead economically, to exercise their right (including the right to vote), and to pursue their dreams, it is a moral issue.  When we spend over 50% of our federal discretionary budget on wars (past, present, and future) and on more and more weapons, it is a moral issue.  When we refuse to protect ourselves and our neighbors around the world from the devastation of climate change, it is a moral issue.

And it demands a moral response.

That is why I have joined the Poor People’s Campaign:  A National Call for Moral Revival.  I have joined tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation – the nation’s distorted morality.  This is a nation-wide, coordinated, nonviolent mobilization.  Beginning on Mother’s Day, the campaign will begin 40 days of widespread civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and voter education.

I hope you will join me as we work to move our nation – if not to a Sabbath economy, at least a little further away from the Imperial economy.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Sven Beckert, “How the West got rich and modern capitalism was born,” PBS News Hour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/west-got-rich-modern-capitalism-born (posted 13 February 2015; accessed 13 March 2018).

[2] See, for instance, https://storyofstuff.org for information about how this has worked.

[3] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 61-62.

[4] For more on the program, go to https://www.humanmedia.org/product/dorothy-day/.

[5] Myers, op. cit., 61.

[6] Quoted by Lindsay Koshgarian, “This Martin Luther King Day, Militarism, Racism and Poverty are Still With Us,” National Priorities Project, https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-day-militarism-racism-and-poverty-are-still-us/ (posted 15 January 2018; accessed 17 March 2018).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 58-59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

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

[15] Ibid, 120.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The parables of Jesus can be divided into two general categories:

  • parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19-31); and
  • parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …” and others that use “kingdom of God” or kingdom of heaven” language, for instance in Matthew 18).

Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language; he didn’t talk over the heads of the illiterate peasants who were his primary audience.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.  That doesn’t mean the parables were easy to understand.

I had a professor in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies being friends, and unexpected vindication.  The thing that makes the parables puzzles is how challenging it is to figure out the wisdom Jesus is trying to impart.

In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, we often interpret them as morality tales, as moral fables, and in the process, we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.  This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story in our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.

And that does the parables of Jesus a disservice.  They are much too wild to be domesticated.

The parable told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.  In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that there is no mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  There is back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

King James

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  In the best case, they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  In the worst case, they purposefully tried to weaken the power of the parable (given that they worked for a king).  In either case, this addition wreaks havoc on an accurate understanding of the parable.

When we assume (or are told) that this parable is about “the kingdom of heaven,” we too easily allegorize the story.  When we do this, the Master in the story ends up representing God, and a pretty darn ugly picture of God at that.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) read this story and preach on how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.

They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household, a huge household – the closest thing in his day to the corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to highly responsible positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards” – though they were still clearly slaves.

We know we’re talking about a great household because of the sums of money used in the story.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[2]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent 16 or 17 years – if they don’t take any Sabbath days of rest.

If you worked 8 hours a day for 365 days a year (no Sabbath days of rest) at California’s current minimum wage,[3] for 16½ years, you’d earn something over half a million dollars.  That means the eight talents in the story represent over $4 million.  And this is just the money he wants these three slaves to take care of while he’s gone.  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slaves double their master’s money.  A domesticated interpretation of this parable lauds these slaves, though this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  They knew all too well how the Imperial economy works, and who suffers as a result.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at 12%.  I’ve read[4] that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[5] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew the story of how the rich get so rich in the Empire’s economy.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, people who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.  The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.

But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

When you look at the parable through the lens of Sabbath economics, the third slave is, in fact, the hero.

When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  When we hear the parable allegorically, we hear an invitation to enter heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.  These two slaves get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then we turn to the third slave.  Jesus’ audience knows what’s going to happen to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here, you have what is yours.”

I wonder how many people heard Jesus tell this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  And they would have understood this third slave’s fear.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell.  And so perhaps he is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  No, he is sent to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, exploited and rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

When I posted this story[6] from The Washington Post on Facebook Friday night, I didn’t realize I was thinking about today’s sermon.  By Saturday morning, I did.  The headline does a good job of summarizing the story.  Greta Lindecrantz, a 67-year-old white woman, is in jail for contempt of court.  Her contempt?  She refuses to testify in a criminal appeal.

She refuses to testify because the State of Colorado is seeking to kill the defendant.  The case is an appeal of a death sentence, and the prosecution wants Lindecrantz to testify on their behalf, to testify supporting their efforts to have the death sentence stand.  Lindecrantz, a Mennonite, is refusing to testify because she refuses to help the state kill the defendant.  Mennonites, a small denomination in Christianity, have opposed the death penalty since their founding in the 1500s.

Some are interpreting the court’s decision to jail Lindecrantz as an attempt to break her will, to make her violate her conscience, to make her abandon her faith.

The case raises some interesting questions for me.  These questions have nothing to do with the specifics of the case.  The questions are about me.  The chief question is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching on how the Imperial economy is not the Sabbath economy God’s desires for us.  I have insinuated that the economy of the United States is closer to an Imperial economy than a Sabbath economy.  Like ancient Imperial economics, ours was built on slavery.  And while we may no longer have legal slavery, minimum wage is not a living wage, and the racism that justified slavery is still at work, disenfranchising people of color and imprisoning people of color at staggeringly disproportionate rates.

The Imperial economies of the ancient world put huge portions of wealth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population.  Here in the United States, the wealthiest one percent of the population owns 40% of the country’s wealth.[7]  That’s more wealth than the bottom 90% own.

The wealthiest 1% of the population controls more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Under Sabbath economics (in pietopia, as the Washington Post calls it), if you have a community of 100 people, everyone gets a slice of pie.  But in the United States, the wealthiest 20% of the population get 4½ slices of pie each.  And the poorest 20% of the population owe a slice of pie to the people at the top.  The average net worth for the bottom 40% of the population is negative.  They owe money.

   

I know all this.  Still, I participate in the system.  I participate in it because I haven’t figured out how to resist it without being cast out to where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And I don’t want to go and live this hell.

Still, the moral conviction of Greta Lindecrantz haunts me.

And I am thinking that it’s time to confront the system with the moral power of our faith.

So, the question our gospel lesson and the news pushes me to wrestle with is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

_______________

[1] This sermon is based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.

[2] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[3] California’s minimum wage for corporations with 26 or more employees is currently $11/hour. See http://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/mw-2017.pdf.

[4] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[5] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.

[6] Meagan Flynn, “Mennonite woman jailed for refusing on religious grounds to testify in death-penalty case,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/01/mennonite-woman-jailed-for-refusing-on-religious-grounds-to-testify-in-death-penalty-case/ (posted 1 March 2018; accessed 2 March 2018).

[7] The following statistics are from Christopher Ingraham, “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/the-richest-1-percent-now-owns-more-of-the-countrys-wealth-than-at-any-time-in-the-past-50-years/ (posted 6 December 2017; accessed 2 March 2018).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s dig a little deeper.[6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

[2] Ibid, 15.

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

[11] Ibid, 36-37.

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