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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Ruth 1:1-18
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We do the book of Ruth a disservice when we grab only a few verses to read in worship.  While I think that the verses we heard today include some of the most beautiful in scripture, the short story is really meant to be read as a whole.  If you haven’t read the four chapters in one sitting during the past few years, do yourself a favor and read them this week.

And, while I encourage you to read the original with week, everyone needs to be familiar with the basic plot points today for this sermon. So, here is the cliff notes version of the whole story.

An important contextual note:  Like all scripture, the story of Ruth is set within a framework of cultural assumptions and norms we need to be aware of.  One of them was that “women had no identity or security separate from males – either the ones they married or the ones they gave birth to.  Women were defined more often than not by their roles as sexual partners and bearers of heirs.”[1]

The story begins with a famine in the land of Judah.  Because of that famine, Elimelech takes his small family – his wife and his two sons – to Moab.  The story doesn’t say if they were part of a caravan of hungry refugees or if they made their way to this foreign country on their own.  We are simply told that they made their way to Moab to escape the famine.

It appears that Moab was welcoming enough for Elimelech’s family to establish themselves.  Even after Elimelech died, his sons each married local women.

Then tragedy struck again.  Elimelech’s sons died.  This left a household of three women without a male in their family.  Vulnerable in this situation, Naomi (Elimelech’s wife) decided to return to Judah.  She told her daughters-in-law to return to their birth families in Moab, and Orpah did. But Ruth refuses to go, uttering these beautiful words of love and commitment.  “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following after you; for where you go I will go, and where you live I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

“When Naomi saw that Ruth could not be swayed, the two of them traveled together to Bethlehem.  They went to the fields of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi.  There Ruth gleaned among the ears of grain in order to feed Naomi and herself.”[2]

It is worth noting that Boaz could not order his regular workers to harvest everything.  Jewish law required landowners not to harvest what grew in the corners of the field and not to return to harvest what they missed on the first go-round.  That food was left for the poor, for people to come and glean in order to feed themselves. Social compassion was more important than efficiency.  Although Boaz was generous-hearted, it was Ruth’s right to glean.[3]

“When Boaz came to the fields and saw Ruth among the stalks of grain, he inquired of his servant in charge of the reapers, ‘Whose maiden is this?’  When the servant explained that Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, Boaz said to her, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my maidens.…  Have I not charged the young men not to molest you?  And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn’ (Ruth 2:8-9).

“Ruth was deeply touched by this kindness, and equally so by Boaz’ invitation to share a meal with him and the others of his house.  For his part, Boaz had been moved by Ruth’s care for her aging mother-in-law.  Ruth gathered up some extra food after the meal, then gleaned in the fields until evening, and returned to Naomi to share all that she had acquired.  Naomi was relieved for the protection that Ruth had been granted by Boaz and encouraged her to stay close to Boaz’ maidens, which she did until the end of the barley and wheat harvest.

“Naomi then began to be concerned about Ruth’s future, saying to her, ‘My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?  Now is not Boaz our kinsman?  See, he is winnowing barley tonight.  Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor …’ (Ruth 3:1-3).

“Ruth did as Naomi had counseled her.  After Boaz had eaten and drunk and fallen asleep at the end of a heap of grain, Ruth went and lay near him.  At midnight Boaz was startled to roll over and find a woman at his feet [if you know what I mean].  When he groggily asked who she was, Ruth explained that she was there to ask him as next of kin to her deceased husband to perform his duty of marriage to her.  Boaz explained that there was a nearer relative who should be offered the first opportunity to marry her, but that if he refused, Boaz would be glad to oblige. So the next morning Boaz went to the city gate, where such business was customarily transacted, and talked with the next of kin in the presence of the [community’s] elders.”[4]  A deal was struck and “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.”  (Ruth 4:13)

The story ends with this little tidbit of information.  Boaz and Ruth had a son named Obed, and Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David.  Which makes Ruth, a foreigner, the great-grandmother of the greatest king of Israel.

“Ruth’s choice to give up her country and her gods for Naomi is countercultural in more ways than one.  The story hinges on Ruth’s and Naomi’s commitment to each other, the ways they work within a male-dominated system to care for and support each other. “Ironically, Ruth’s beautiful, lyrical words, ‘where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16), are often read during weddings.  But this is Ruth’s cross-generational, cross-tribal, and cross-religion pledge to her mother-in-law, not to a husband.

“The story of Ruth and Naomi is one that is repeated again through history.  Ones who are displaced, more often than not women, without home or certain means, find each other and stay with each other.  Instead of mutual vulnerability making them weaker, their relationship brings forth grace and strength.  God moves in subversion of what culture names as security and power.”[5]

I cannot read this story without thinking of the so-called caravan of people from Central America coming north to the USA as they flee violence and hunger in their home countries.  Rabbi Arthur Washow raises some chilling questions about this story as he projects it onto contemporary America.

“[I]f Ruth came to America today, what would happen?

“Would she be admitted at the border?

“Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion – detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolater?

“Would she be deported as merely an ‘economic refugee,’ not a worthy candidate for asylum?

“Would she have to show a ‘green card’ before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?

“Would she be sent to ‘workfare’ with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?

“Would she face contempt because she and Naomi, traveling without a man, might be a lesbian couple?…

“When she boldly ‘uncovers the feet’ of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the ‘family values’ that some religious folk now proclaim?…”[6]

While President Trump attempts to circumvent current immigration law in his effort to keep the asylum seekers traveling through Mexico from gaining legal access to the United States, the book of Ruth compels us to look not just at U.S. interests, but at the interests, the needs, the plight of these Central American refugees.

Though they have been described regularly as either fleeing gang violence or extreme poverty, there is another crucial driving factor behind the migrant caravan:  climate change.  “Most members of the migrant caravans come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – three countries devastated by violence, organised crime and systemic corruption, the roots of which can be traced back to the region’s cold war conflicts [(for which our own CIA bears significant responsibility)].

“Experts say that alongside those factors, climate change in the region is exacerbating – and sometimes causing – a miasma of other problems including crop failures and poverty.

“And they warn that in the coming decades, it is likely to push millions more people north towards the US.…

“According to Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, ‘The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat.  This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.’”[7]

With a third of all employment in Central American linked to agriculture, any disruption to farming practices, like those caused by climate change, can have devastating economic consequences.  Economic disruption can lead to increased violence and other forms of criminality.  And the spiral continues.[8]

“A study of Central American migrants by the World Food Program last year found that nearly half described themselves as food insecure.  The research found an increasing trend of young people moving as a result of … poverty and lack of work.”[9]

The book of Ruth is so jam-packed with relevance, it may be one of the most relevant books of the Bible today.  This is a story about border crossing and culture mixing.  It is a story of the importance of having truly committed friends in the struggle for justice.  It is a story agency in the struggle against the patriarchy, of women working together to be the directors of their own lives.  It is a story about the importance of creating community.

And here are three other things this story is about.  It is a story about confronting racism.  “Some scholars believe that Ruth was written to combat the xenophobia and ethnic purity articulated and legalized in Ezra and Nehemiah.  In hopes of a new beginning after the Exile, the religious-political leaders ban intermarriage and force Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives. Ezra and Nehemiah believe God’s demands purity and purity begins in the home with the exorcism of otherness.  But, Ruth is a foreigner.  She marries an upstanding child of Abraham and is a direct ancestor – the great grandmother – of the Great King David.  Israel’s greatest king is of mixed-race heritage.”[10]

This makes the story one about God’s “gentle, inobtrusive, non-coercive, and persistent”[11]radically inclusive love.

And finally, the story is an invitation.  It is an invitation for each of us, regardless of our life-situation, “to claim our agency as creators of a new and just world along with God.  Our positive use of our freedom gives birth to God’s presence in our world.  We are invited to welcome outsiders and foreigners and, if we are outsiders and foreigners, to know that God loves and guides us.  We are challenged to become agents and adventures, leaving a legacy of grace and transformation wherever we are.”[12]

Amen.

_______________

[1]Julie Polter, “Together and Strong,” Sojourners,https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/together-and-strong(accessed 6 November 2018).

[2]Joyce Hollyday, “‘You Shall Not Afflict …’,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/you-shall-not-afflict(accessed 6 November 2018).

[3]Rabbi Arthur Washow, “What if the Bible’s Ruth came to America Today?” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/what-if-bibles-ruth-came-america-today(accessed 6 November 2018).

[4]Hollyday, op. cit.

[5]Polter,op. cit.

[6]Washow, op. cit.

[7]Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren, “The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: climate change,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america (posted 30 October 2018; accessed 9 November 2018).

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Bruce Epperly, “Ruth, Immigration, and the Seven Steps of Creative Transformation,” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2018/10/ruth-immigration-and-the-seven-steps-of-creative-transformation/(posted 23 October 2018; accessed 9 November 2018).

[11]Ibid

[12]Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 28, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Micah 6:1-8 and Luke 11:37-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One evening, years ago, when I lived on the edge of King County, Washington, I drove into Seattle to meet up with some friends to see a movie.  I stopped in a pizza shop to grab something to eat before the movie.  The pizza shop had a red, tiled floor, which (given Seattle’s propensity to drizzle) was damp.  As I stood in line, my foot slid out from underneath me and I quickly got up close and personal with that red tile.  I lay there, immediately feeling like a klutz.  Almost as quickly, someone spoke up.

Now, there are three things I would have expected to hear from a bystander.  I would have expected a bystander to point at me and laugh; or I would have expected a bystander to ask if I was okay; or I would have expected a bystander to offer a hand to help me up.  None of those what the immediate response.  What I heard, almost as quickly as I fell, were two words:  “Sue ’em.”

When I dropped a 45-pound weight on my big toe at the gym something like nine years ago, the staff was relatively compassionate when I hobbled over to the staff area.  They were very quick to get me some requested ice.  And the club manager tried to act nonchalant as he sat with me and inquired as to what happened.  But I could tell that underneath his questions, he was preparing a defense for a possible lawsuit – one that I had no intention of filing.

It seems to me that American culture is sue-happy.  It is a pity, perhaps even a shame (as in, “we should be ashamed”), that we so quickly move our disputes to the courthouse, rather than working them out with each other.  One might think that, given our cultural propensity to move to the courthouse, we would immediately notice that Micah 6:1-8 is a lawsuit.  Perhaps it’s the power of verse 8 that draws our attention away from the details of verses 1-7, but I don’t want to gloss over them.

The scene opens with God as bailiff, calling the parties in the lawsuit to the court and to plead their case.

“Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.”

Then God switches roles and makes a case in the most peculiar way.  One might expect God to lay out the charges, to explain that the “controversy with his people” is.  There is a broken relationship between God and Israel and the community within Israel itself is broken.  But God doesn’t blast Israel.  God doesn’t say, “You, O Israel, have broken covenant with me!  You, O Israel, are not caring for your people!”  Instead, God asks, “Where did I go wrong?”

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.…”

That is not a prosecution strategy you’re going to see on “Law & Order.”

I wonder how it would work in the case Juliana v. U.S.  If you’re not familiar with this case, let me tell you about it.  In 2015, 21 youth sued the federal government (including then-President Barack Obama) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.  Their complaint claims that, through the government’s “actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”[1]  In other words, this group of youth are suing the government for allow and even encouraging climate change to happen.

The case has been dragging through the courts.  The government has tried repeatedly to get the case dismissed.  Lower courts have repeatedly denied this motion.  That denial has been appealed.  A trial date was set for tomorrow, October 29, but it has been delayed by yet another motion to the Supreme Court.  It is not clear when, or even if, the Supreme Court will allow the case to go forward.  Nonetheless, demonstrations have been planned for today and tomorrow across the country, including one tomorrow, 3:00-6:00, outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.[2]  (Yes, I’m inviting you to attend.)

Assuming the Supreme Court allows this case to go to trial, can you imagine the youth standing up in the court and turning to the government’s lawyers and saying, “Where did we go wrong?  What did we do that you would destroy our future?  How have we offended you that you would allow the environment to be destroyed?”  I don’t know how effective a legal strategy that would be, but it is what these youth are saying on behalf of all youth and all future generations.  What have we done that you should destroy our future?

It may be an ineffective legal strategy for the American federal courts, yet it is essentially God’s legal strategy in the case of Micah 6:1-8.  “I have repeatedly saved you, first by bringing you out of slavery in Egypt.  And yet I’ve offended you?  Yet somehow you’re wearied of me?  Let me what I’ve done to you.”

Israel, through the mouth of Micah, seems to have convicted themselves in response to God’s pleading.  They seem to say, “We’re guilty,” with their response, which comes as a series of questions:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

Notice how the response keeps getting bigger, more demanding, more costly.  Yes, God is God, and we should come before God, we should bow before God in recognition of that fact.  We should offer our contrition for having turned our backs on God and each other.  But what do we bring?  What would satisfy God for our sinfulness?  Should we offer sacrifices?  Should we come with thousands of ram and rivers of oil?  What is an appropriate sacrifice?

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

And then Micah responds:

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Yesterday morning, a white man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people.  These are their names.  Micah’s prophetic word from thousands of years ago resonates today.

Rev. William Barber, II, said, speaking of this horrific act, “I’m reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: ‘we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.’”[3]  The system, the way of life, the philosophy at work that produces murderers like this one, need to be named and challenged.  These are transgressions that we as a society have committed and ten thousand rivers of oil will not make up for this.

Micah is right.  There is only one way to address this, and that is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

All this month, we’ve been inviting each other to think about our financial giving to the church during the next year.  The primary question has been, “What shall we bring?”  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our “yes” to God.  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our stories to the community.  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our gifts – our skills, our time, and our money – to support the church’s ministry.

Today we bring our financial pledges.  From a practical point of view, we do this to help the leadership of the church build a budget for next year.  From a spiritual point of view, we do this to encourage ourselves to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  As this scripture points out, God doesn’t want our calves and our rams and our rivers of oil.

God wants our whole lives.

You see, “a life of relationship with God inevitably results in constant and intentional (not [simply] random) acts of justice and love of mercy.  Acting justly means actively working to rectify that which favors some and crushes others.  Loving mercy includes giving one’s self as offering over and over.  Loving mercy means offering generosity and forgiveness, out of a love that transcends our prejudice, because God has, does, and will continue to do the same for us.  A humble walk with God implies that we recognize justice and mercy aren’t dependent on our standards or abilities.  Humility keeps our egos in check so that we don’t think of ourselves as ‘magnanimous vigilantes’ but rather as humble followers responding to the call from” God.[4]

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation

In addition to your financial pledge today, how could it look like to pledge

  • to be more deeply involved in bringing justice to our land?
  • to more consistently doing acts of loving kindness and mercy?
  • to walk more humbly with God?

_______________

[1] Our Children’s Trust, https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit (accessed 27 October 2018).

[2] Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/events/1689974634457709/

[3] The Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, quoted on the California Poor People’s Campaign Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/californiappc/posts/358047208266413 (posted and accessed 28 October 2018).

[4] Daphne Gascot Aries, “What Shall We Bring? Micah 1:35, 5:2-51, 6:6-8,” an essay written as part of the stewardship materials we have been using this season.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 17:16-31and Matthew 28:1-10
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Paul was on the run.  Well, maybe not on the run, but he was at least on the walk.  Paul was basically “hiding out” in Athens.  In the prior chapters, he has attempted to share the Gospel in Thessalonica and Berea and – well, things did not go well.   Basically, Paul was on the lam.  He was hiding out.

And he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

We come into the story in the midst of one of his evangelical journeys, traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting new churches and encouraging the converts to this new way, this new religion of Jesus-followers.  Silas and Timothy have stayed behind at their last stop and Paul has gone on ahead to Athens. Paul had some time waiting for the others to catch up, and, in his wanderings around Athens, he got upset.  He noticed that the city was full of idols, and as a good Jew, this was upsetting.  Upsetting enough that Paul had to say something.

So every day, he would go somewhere where there were people – the synagogue, the marketplace – and he would talk about God and Jesus and the resurrection.  He got into arguments with Epicureans, who believed that the gods did not intervene in daily life.[1]  He got into arguments with Stoics, who suppressed passions and focused on behavior over beliefs.[2]  Based on who he argued with, it appears that Paul thought that what you believed mattered, that you should believe in one God (Yahweh) who is active in daily life, and that there are reasons to be passionate.

The Areopagus

Some of the people who he got into discussion with took Paul out to the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill by the Romans, for further discussion.  In classical times, the Areopagus was the seat of the Athenian court of appeals, a place of justice and judgment.[3]  By this time, the author of Acts seems to say that it had become a place of much more common conversation:  “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the description.[4]  The more vernacular paraphrase, The Message, translates the description, “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.”[5]

Paul used this as another opportunity to share his story.  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[6]

In his travels around Athens, Paul not only found the upsetting altars and idols, he also found an altar to “an unknown god.” I guess the Athenians were covering all the bases.  Paul found the opening he needed to share his story.  He used this “unknown god” as a vehicle to tell his story about Yahweh and Jesus (though, interestingly, Paul doesn’t specifically name Jesus).

Paul tells them that the uncontainable God is the creator of the universe and gives us life.  “From one ancestor,” Paul says, “[Yahweh] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for … and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”[7]

Paul makes an interesting assumption here – one that I agree with:  Human beings long for a connection with the intimately transcendent, with holy-ness, with the ultimate within which we live and move and have out being.  Human beings long for God.  And since God made us, we can’t make God.  This God we long for can’t be limited to altars and shrines and idols.

Paul’s “doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent.  Only late in the paragraph of Paul’s speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to ‘a man whom [God] has appointed’ (Acts 17: 31).  The speech culminates with reference to Jesus about whom Paul makes this affirmation:  First, Jesus is raised from the dead.  Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.”[8]  The One who made us calls us to repent from our ignorance and from our unrighteousness.

When I saw that this as one of the scripture readings recommended for this year’s pledge campaign, I thought, “We’ve got to use it.”  I love how Paul can’t keep his mouth shut.  He has a story to tell.  He wants to tell it.  And he is wise enough to find his opening.

I imagine Paul wandering the streets of Athens, Noticing the altar to an unknown God, and thinking, “I can use that.  I was looking for an opening and there it is. That’s my door to sharing my story.”

As I studied this scripture more carefully I noticed that Paul had more than his story and this opening.  Looking carefully at the story, I see he had five things.

First, he had his story to share.  Paul was an upholder of the purity of Judaism when he had an experience, an encounter with the resurrected Christ.  His life was transformed.  He had a whole new purpose – letting people know about what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what he knew in his life and it’s what he had to share.

Second, he had a reason for sharing it.  He probably had reasons (plural) for sharing it. Here in Athens, we read that his reason was how upset he was by seeing all the altars to false gods and idols.  The people of the city didn’t even know who the real God was, let alone anything about Jesus.

Third, he had people to share it with.  People gathered in the synagogue and in the market place. They liked to talk, to gossip.  They liked to argue philosophy.

Fourth, he had an opening – the altar to an unknown god.

And fifth, he had the persistence to keep sharing it until someone started to listen.  He went to the synagogue.  He went to the market place.  He went to that Areopagus.  And eventually, some people listened and were convinced and joined this movement of Jesus-followers.

Now, I don’t want you to lose track of all five of these things.  I assume you have all five of them as well.  But having a reason for sharing your story, having people to share it with, having an opening to share it, and having the persistence to keep sharing it really don’t matter if you don’t know what your story is.

What is your story?

My story is not early as dramatic as Paul’s (though it’s worth pointing out that in this situation, here on Mars Hill, Paul doesn’t share the dramatic parts of his story).  I don’t have a blasted off my donkey and blinded conversion experience. My story is one of always being connected with God, though my understanding of what I mean when I say “God” is continually evolving.

Maybe I haven’t been knocked off my ass by God, but I’ve been wowed by God.  I’ve had experiences of the intimately transcendent that have taken me out of myself and into a greater wholeness.  And I’ve discovered that my life has meaning and grounding and direction because of my relationship with God – the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  I have come to realize that if I didn’t have that relationship I might still have found meaning and grounding and direction – it just would have been in one of the idols of our culture, an idol like accumulation, or greed, or even violence. Instead, I’ve found meaning, grounding, and direction in Yahweh.

But that’s not much of a story, is it?  On Mars Hill, this philosophical description might be effective.  In most of the rest of life, it’s the stories of the incidents moving me from one point to another on this journey that would be compelling.

For someone, my story of coming to terms with my sexuality and coming to terms with the reality of God fully embracing me, sexuality and all, might be the story they need to hear.

For another person, my story of how I came to be so convinced that climate change is the moral issue of our day may be the story I need to share, and for someone else, that story might turn them off.

For someone else, it might be my story of struggling to love people who seem to me to be so hateful that they need to hear.

And for someone else, my story of God’s love and power experienced in my journey through grief after my mother died might connect in a way mothering else I might say could.

Regardless, I need to bring my stories.

Someone might need to know that I believe that what you believe is much less important than how you love, though I suspect I would communicate more if I told my story about struggling when I friend I deeply respected as a progressive Christian told me her story about speaking in tongues.

And someone else might need to know that there are Christians who don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, though I suspect I would communicate more if I brought my story about my mom blowing my 10-year-old mind when she told me she didn’t believe in a literal hell.

And maybe I need to bring my story about how I’ve learned that without a community that is also basing its life on a relationship with the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my faith journey would founder.  Maybe I need to bring my story of needing and discovering a community that welcomes me on my faith journey exactly where I am and encourages me to continue the journey.

Maybe I need to bring my story of how nothing but God has managed to fill the God-shaped hole in my life.  Not diversions and lies.  Not accolades and power.  Not accumulation and possessions.  Nothing really fits, nothing really fills it the way God does.

During this pledge campaign, we’re asking the question, “What shall we bring?”  Last week I suggested that we need to bring our “yes” to God.  This week, it’s all about our stories.

Imagine if the Marys did what the angel and Jesus told them to do.  Imagine they went back to the disciples and said, “Jesus has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  You will see him there.  Go to Galilee.”  Nothing more. Just what the angel and Jesus told them to say.

The disciples would have said something like, “Are you nuts?”

Instead, the Marys told their story.  The told the disciple something like, “First thing this morning, as the sun was coming up, we went to the tomb where we buried him. And while we were there, an angel appeared, and the earth shook, and the Roman guards collapsed with fright.  And the angel told us that Jesus is raised.

And sure enough, the tomb was empty.  Then the angel told us to tell you that he is raised and was going ahead of us to Galilee.

“We were so overcome with joy, we started running back here – and on the way, Jesus appeared to us.  That’s right, our Jesus who the Roman’s executed and who we buried in a tomb, appeared to us and told us to tell you to go to Galilee and that you would see him there.  Let’s go!”

Their story – not just their message, but their story – was so compelling, you and I are followers of Jesus.

My friends, bring your story!

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

  1. What is you story?  (Do not go on to question 2 until you have answered question 1.)
  2. What is/are your reason/s for sharing it?
  3. With whom could you share it?
  4. What opening might there be to share it?
  5. Do you have the persistence to keep sharing it?

[1]“Epicureanism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism(24 May 2014).

[2]“Stoicism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism(24 May 2014).

[3]“Areopagus,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus(24 May 2014).

[4]Acts 17:21, NRSV.

[5]Acts 17:21, The Message.

[6]Acts 17:22b-23, NRSV.

[7]Acts 17:26-27, NRSV.

[8]Walter Brueggemann, “A Daring Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/daring-love(24 May 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 12:1-9 and Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This past week, I’ve been thinking about the importance of ‘no,’ even though the theme for this sermon is on the importance and power of ‘yes.’  I find the Senate’s ‘yes’ to Judge Kavanaugh troublesome.  I wanted their ‘no,’ though I didn’t expect it.

I could list my reasons why I find his confirmation troublesome, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of our personal assessments.  I’ll leave that for a blog post I may get to before the week is out.  Today, or at least during this sermon, I invite you to use the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as an object lesson for my larger point:  that choosing ‘no’ and choosing ‘yes’ has impact and repercussions, not just for the people saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but for others as well.

Three-and-a-half years ago, an organizational consultant named Tony Schwartz wrote an article for The New York Times about “the power of starting with ‘yes’” for business leaders and managers.  He begins with a little anecdote.  “As I write this column, my two dogs have been lying quietly near my desk.  I just conducted a little experiment with them.  First, I said a single word – ‘Yes’ – with unbridled enthusiasm.  The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me.  Next I said ‘No,’ firmly.  Both dogs looked down and slunk away.  I felt as bad as they did.”[1]

I suspect the dogs were responding as much to his tone of voice as the actual words.  Still, you know how empowering it feels to be told, ‘Yes.’  I’m sure Barack Obama chose “Yes, we can!” as a 2008 campaign slogan for many reasons.  One of them had to be that the slogan felt affirming and empowering as it drew people into community and common purpose.

Schwartz points out, “‘No’ is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger.  It’s something you say instinctively and protectively to a 3-year-old when he’s about to pull a lamp off a table and onto himself or to a 15-year-old who announces she’s planning to take up cliff jumping.

“In situations like those, the instinct to say ‘no’ serves us well.”[2]  It even has an evolutionary benefit.  Quoting a psychologist, Schwartz adds, “‘Organisms … attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats.  Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.’”[3]

“There is a difference,” Schwartz points out, “between surviving and thriving.  Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving.  The problem with ‘no’ as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness, and shuts down innovation, collaboration, and connection.”[4]

For an example, Schwartz points to research by the psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues, that has found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a married couple falls below 5 to 1 – if it falls below five positive interactions for every one negative interaction – divorce is far more likely.[5]  Negative interactions are so powerful in a relationship that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh the impact of one negative interaction.

Starting with ‘yes,’ stepping into a situation with an attitude of ‘yes,’ is important, not simply because such an attitude is energizing and builds safety and trust, but because starting with ‘no’ is so destructive.

Imagine how different the world would be if, instead of saying, “Let it be with me just as you say,”[6] Mary had said, “Nope.  No way!”  Mary’s ‘yes’ to God changed the world.  As did Abram’s.  Though Abram’s ‘yes’ needs a little more unpacking, I think.

Abram’s story seems to start with our reading in chapter 12.  It seems to start almost out of the blue.  “Now Yahweh said to Abram …”  Of course, none of our stories start out of the blue.  We all come from somewhere.

Abram’s story starts in chapter 11, and his ancestors’ stories start even earlier.  It’s not much more than a genealogical mention in chapter 12, and I know I’m typically tempted to skip over the biblical genealogies.  But in those last verses of the genealogy in chapter 11, we learn that Abram is the son of Terah, brother of Nahor and Haran, husband of Sarai, and uncle of Lot.  And we learn that even though their family was from Ur, Terah took his family and left Ur, for reasons that are not enumerated, and headed off for the land of Canaan.

This is significant because, when God shows up in chapter 12, in today’s reading, Abram is already headed in the direction of Canaan.  True, their journey seems to have stalled at Haran (that is, the community of Haran, not to be confused with Abram’s brother Haran).  Perhaps the invitation from God acts as a kick in the pants to get them moving again.

In any event, this call from God isn’t as dramatic a “change the course of your life” call as I’ve generally thought it to be.  It is more of an invitation to continue or to get back to what had already begun.  Still, I think there is something new happening here.  I think the key to that new thing is found in the blessing God gives Abram:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[7]

If you were at Tim Weible’s installation last week, you heard me preach about how tribalism in human evolution led to violence.  (It still does, as far as I can tell.)  Still, tribalism served a purpose.  In hunter/gatherer cultures, the tribe provided protection, belonging, and identity.  That is why tribes are inward-focused.

Here, in the blessing God gives Abram, God invites Abram to look outward.  Abram’s tribe, the “great nation” he will father, rather than turning inward for defense, is called to turn outward for blessing, to be a blessing.

“The purpose of the blessing is to be a blessing to others.  From the very beginning, the invitation to be part of God’s people is a call to look outward to the needs of others.  The generous sharing of our gifts, financial and otherwise, is then a natural and necessary action for those of us who call ourselves the people of God.  Our blessings never stop with us.  They always flow onward to someone else.”[8]  Our blessings never stops with us.

Lee Hull Moses, who wrote a commentary on this passage I used in creating today’s sermon, shared a story that explains what I mean.  “Years ago, when my parents bought me my first used car – primarily so they could stop driving back and forth to pick me up from college – my dad included a note along with the instructions to keep the oil changed and gas tank filled:  Use this to help people.  I don’t know that I followed that advice as often as he would have liked, but it’s been a good reminder to me that the things we own are best understood as tools by which we serve our neighbors.”[9]

The things we own are best understood as tools of blessing.

That would be our ideal relationship with our stuff.  I know I’m some distance from that ideal relationship.  But I’m working on it.

I think it’s worth noting that when Abram brought his ‘yes’ to God’s invitation to continue to Canaan, he didn’t drop everything to follow.  Quite the opposite.  He packed up all his possessions, including “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran,” to set off on the journey.  And there’s no mention that he discussed the matter with Sarai.  He made a decision and off they all went.  While these aspects of the story are disturbing, it’s nice to know that God calls people who aren’t perfect.

And when Abram led his family and possessions to Canaan, they didn’t do it all at once.  The journey takes quite a while, first to Shechem, then Moreh, then Bethel, and on to the Negeb.  At each stop along the way, Abram did the same thing.  He pitched a tent and built an altar.  Then he did it again.

It’s not a bad way to structure a life:  listen for God, follow the call, set up an altar, worship, be a blessing … rinse and repeat.

As I wrote in my newsletter column (which I’m sure you all read and memorized), we hold a pledge campaign each fall for at least two reasons – one practical and one theological.  The practical reason is that it helps us create a budget.  Knowing about how much money will be coming in can help us plan our spending.

The theological reason is to encourage us to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  This season is about our stewardship of our whole lives.  Today we are invited to consider how we are stewards of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  And we are invited to consider how we are stewards of our listening for God’s invitations to take the next step on our journeys – our individual journeys and our congregation’s journey.

The invitation is to bring your ‘yes’ to God so that we might be a greater blessing to the world and so that we might join God in changing the world.

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

What might God be kicking our church in the pants to continue (or start)?

What will it take to do this?

How will we show our ‘Yes’?

_______________

[1] Tony Schwartz, “The Power of Starting With ‘Yes’,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/18/business/dealbook/the-power-of-starting-with-yes.html (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 26 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schwartz, quoting Roy Baumeister, “Bad is strong than good,” link broken.

[4] Schwartz, op. cit. Oxford commas added.

[5] See, for instance, Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science,” The Gottman Institute, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/ (posted 4 October 2017; accessed 6 October 2018).

[6] Luke 1:38, The Message.

[7] Genesis 12:2, The New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added.

[8] From a commentary by Lee Hull Moses that is part of the stewardship campaign materials Niles Discovery Church purchased from the Center for Faith and Giving, https://centerforfaithandgiving.org.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 30, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  The Book of Esther
(focus scriptures:  Esther 4:9-17 and Esther 7:1-6)
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love the story of Esther.  And I hate it.

I tend to love an underdog story to begin with, especially when the underdog wins.  And in the Esther story we have a woman who has no power and who, due to circumstances beyond her control, ends up in a position to save an entire people from annihilation.  But those circumstances that are beyond her control as so patriarchal, and the story is so disturbingly quite about that.  That silence drives me crazy.

Here’s what I mean by patriarchal circumstances.  To start off with, Queen Vashti gets banished because she says, “No,” to the king’s desire to display her as a sexual object.  Then, the selection process to find a new queen is essentially a stripped-down beauty pageant with only the bathing suit competition.  (And, yes, I meant that double entendre.)  To add insult to patriarchy, it seems that the women have no choice about entering the contest.  And then there’s the whole thing about Esther not being able to talk to her husband without being summoned by him.  Who cares if the woman has something on her mind?  She only gets to talk to her husband the king if he has something on his mind.

I would really love it if the book made it clear that this sort of patriarchal supremacy was wrong.  The book sort of hints at this.  The main character is a woman – that’s helpful.  This woman’s cultural location dictates she have no power, and she finds power anyway.  This woman’s cultural location places no value on her intellect, ability to understand, and her ability to plan – all of which the story does because they are vital to her successfully rescuing her people.  Yes, it’s scary.  Yes, it could cost even her her life.  She has all kinds of reasons to take no risks, but she takes the risks anyway.  As her cousin and adoptive parent points out, “Perhaps you have come to regal dignity for just such a time as this.”

There is a theological challenge in that line (probably the most famous line from the book).  It implies that there is some grand plan that is known only to the mind of God.  It implies that, while we may think we have free will, God is actually calling the shots, moving people around some humongous chess board, playing both the black and white pieces, so the great plot of this grand plan will unfold as scripted.  And if that’s what’s going on, God, why not do away with the Hamans of the world to start with.

No, I do not believe there is a grand plan that God is making unfold.  And I don’t even believe God has seven and a half billion little plans – one for each of us on the planet.  I do believe in callings – that God has desires for goodness and love and that God sees ways (plural) for each of us to help move the world toward that goodness and love.  But God hasn’t scripted how we will get there.  So that means that there will be plenty of suffering along the way.  God does not will for us this pain and suffering.  Rather, I believe that God suffers with us and collaborates with us to bring healing and life and love, even out of our sufferings, to the world.  So, if I were writing this story, I would have Mordecai say, “Look where you are, Esther.  You can take advantage of this unique position to bring the world closer to God’s goodness and love in such a time as this.”

I understand the urge to say it’s all part of some divine plan.  Who but God could have known that the US news cycle would be caught up with the allegations of sexual assault against a Supreme Court Justice nominee this week when I decided two months ago to preach on the story of Esther?  Who but God could have known that on Thursday well over ten million people would turn in to TV, cable, and radio stations to hear the testimony offered before the Senate Judiciary Committee?  Who but God could have known how timely the quotes that ran on our church’s Facebook page all last week would be when I scheduled them ten days ago?

It’s easy to look back and see God’s hand at work guiding all this.  And maybe it was.  I think it more likely, though, that it is coincidence.  For if God is guiding this, making it unfold this way, I would rather God guide sexual and physical abusers away from their abuse to begin with.  No, I think it is coincidence that I am preaching on Esther today and the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony for Thursday.  And that coincidence preaches.

Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony is a reminder that the Esther story is very much alive today.  I could not bring myself to listen to all of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony nor to all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday.  I told myself I had too much work to do, and I did have work to do.  But that may have been a protective reaction.  I didn’t want to subject myself to the pain that I knew both of them would express.  And taking care of ourselves is important.  If my reflecting on this testimony is or becomes too uncomfortable for you, I will not be offended if you choose to step outside for a while.  Take someone with you if that will make you feel safer.  I hope you’ll come back for communion.  I know I need that shared meal today, and you might, too.

I could not bring myself to listen to all of their testimony, but I did listen to some of it.  And I was right:  it was difficult to listen to.  Part of what made it so difficult for me to listen to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was the fear I heard in her voice.  She didn’t want to be there.  She didn’t want to relive this horrific experience in vivid detail and then have it dissected by powerful people who were used to being in the spotlight, who enjoy being in the spotlight, who were literally sitting above her in physical positions of power.

But no one else could have shared her truth.  No one else could speak up in this way in such a time as this.

Another part of what made listening to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony so hard is that I knew and I know there are people of all genders (and especially women) for whom this testimony and this news reporting has and will continue to bring up memories of abuse they have suffered – that you have suffered.  For you I have a message, a message that may be easier to hear coming from women.

I think it is important for me, a white man, to listen, especially to women.  Late yesterday morning I put a post on Facebook inviting women in our church to post their reactions to the news, comments that I could quote in today’s sermon.[1]  I really didn’t leave people much time to respond, so only a few did.  Here’s what they had to say.

Tarrah Henrie said, “We need to raise our daughters to be brave and wise like Esther.  We need to raise our sons to care for and respect others like Jesus taught.  Each generation is moving in the right direction.  Also, I think Matthew 5:29 is clear in stating that it is not the woman’s fault if a man feels lust.  It is really up to him to control himself.  And seriously, the majority of men are good people.  There is a small percent of men that are making women unsafe.”

Without further comment, Joane Luesse pointed me to the video of two women, sexual assault survivors, who confronted Senator Flake after he announced his intention to vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.[2]  It was the first words on the video that were hardest for me.  “Don’t look away from me!  Look at me!”  The raw pain in her voice and those words summed up the larger issues that the accusations against Kavanaugh represent – that the people who are victimized by sexualize assaults are not being seen, and in not being seen, their humanity is being denied.

In one of her posts about this news (a post she referred me to), Cindy Sojourner pointed out how important it is to be prepared to hear and believe when a loved one, people in our own families, discloses their victimization.

Delya Stoltz connected up Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about having her mouth covered by Brett Kavanaugh and fearing that he might inadvertently kill her to the work she (Delya) is doing on strangulation prevention, particularly in intimate partner assaults.  The people who are studying and training first responders in this field (like Delya) include any form of restricting a person’s access to oxygen or blood – smothering, strangulation, suffocation, positional asphyxia, etc. – in this family of assault.  Delya pointed out to me, “People without a willingness to restrict another’s breath in a violent and controlling setting don’t suddenly become willing to do so when intoxicated.  It’s a distinct personality profile and it’s deeply concerning.”[3]

The longest response came from Lauren D’Ambrosio who offered specific advice of what we can do.  “Men:  call out your friends, sons, nephews, coworkers, and even bosses when they show sexist or misogynistic behavior (words, actions, storytelling, etc).  Yes, it’s uncomfortable.  Yes, it may make you cringe.  Yes, it may affect the relationship – but is that the kind of relationship you want to keep?  If you see women being ignored, interrupted, or undermined … call it out.  Something like, ‘I didn’t hear what Kristine was saying because she was interrupted.  What was that?’  It is important to call out the cause that is unacceptable (i.e. the interrupting), not just the effect (that you didn’t hear her).  … Use your position of power/privilege to give [women] their voice back.

“Everyone:  Don’t force your children to hug/kiss their relatives hello if they don’t want to; a wave is fine.  Grandpa’s disappointment is less important than your child’s autonomy.  Don’t [shrug] off poor behavior on your/your friend’s part with ‘oh, it’s no big deal,’ ‘you’re being too sensitive,’ or ‘jeez, everything is bothering you.’  Be reflective, and ask the individual if something is truly bothering them.  Discuss a boundary, then respect it.  This goes for grown adults and children/teens.  You will not be seen as weak for asking them for more information about how to not make someone uncomfortable, but you will be seen as rude if you ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable.”

I am grateful for the women who chose to share a response with me and for allowing me to include it in this sermon.  It makes me think about how, really, every day is a “for such a time as this” moment.  Until God’s kindom is established, there will be injustices that need to be confronted, truths that need to be told.

Each and every one of us has come to some station in life that makes us a perfect person to speak out.  “Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?” the contemporary prophet Marian Wright Edelman asks us.  The answer, of course, is, “No one.”

Yes, speaking up, confronting power, standing up for those who cannot stand on their own, for those who have not come to their own version of royal dignity, will be scary.  Speaking truth to power is scary.  It is dangerous.  Power sometimes rolls over and crushes you.  But nobody ever said we have the right to give up.

So, hear some advice from some of other prophets of the past several decades.[4]

Usually, after the sermon we have some time for contemplation.  Today, instead, I invite you to recite this statement written by Professor Sharon Fennema.[5]  She calls it “A Creed for Days Like This.”  I think of it as “A Creed for Such a Time as This.”

The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which is translated, “I believe.”  We’ve come to think of creeds as dogmatic statements.  Please don’t read this one dogmatically.  Read it as an invitation.

I believe that God weeps for the ways we shatter each other.
I believe that my body is not an apology or an invitation.
I believe that Jesus, revolutionary love incarnate, trusted the wisdom of women.
I believe that we have the right to say what happens to our bodies.
I believe that the Spirit moves in acts of resistance to patriarch, misogyny, white supremacy and colonialism.
I believe that both those of us who report and those of us who can’t or don’t report are courageous and praiseworthy.
I believe in a church that listens to and learns from the resilience of women.
I believe that our vulnerability is our strength.
I believe that the communion of saints lives in the flesh and bones of survivors.
I believe that no means no.
I believe that the forgiveness of sins must center the sinned-against
I believe that the time’s up.
I believe that bodies are resurrected when we bear witness to and believe the stories, when we name femicide for what it is, and when we refuse to acquiesce to rape culture.
I believe that when we dedicate ourselves to movements that build the world we are seeking as we fight to make it real, the kindom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
I believe women.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See https://www.facebook.com/RevJSS/posts/10214366059719919 for my post and the exact responses.

[2] Niraj Chokshi and Stead W. Herndon, “Jeff Flake Is Confronted on Video by Sexual Assault Survivors,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/us/politics/jeff-flake-protesters-kavanaugh.html (posted 28 September 2018; accessed 29 September 2018).

[3] From a conversation via text message with Delya on 29 September 2018; Delya granted me permission to quote her.

[4] These quotes are from Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds September 30, 2018,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_30_2018 (accessed 19 September 2018).

[5] Sharon Fennema, “A Creed for Days Like This,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/sharon.fennema/posts/10156022719207449 (posted and accessed 28 September 2018). Use by permission of the author.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 30, 2018, at the Installation of
the Rev. Timothy Weible as Chaplain at Bridge Hospice,
by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 10:25-37
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I invite you to think for a moment of a time when you were involved in some act of service where you felt especially connected to God.

My suspicion is that your memory includes some element of connecting with other people, typically a person in need, sometimes with others offering service.  There is something about the experience of connecting with another person in the context of service that moves us beyond ourselves and into what a friend of mine call “The Big Love,” her preferred name for God.  When we are connecting with our neighbor, we are connecting with God.  When we love our neighbor, not just with mind and heart, but with hands and feet and voice, we are loving God.

This is the challenge Jesus makes to the lawyer who seemed to be looking for a loophole.  “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus.  Jesus answers with the story we call “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  And in the telling, Jesus reminds us that loving our neighbor may require that we cross socially-dictated boundaries.

This is an over-simplification, but basically, Jews at the time of Jesus generally viewed Samaritans with a special contempt.  While the Romans were viewed with contempt because they were the occupying, oppressive force, Samaritans were viewed with contempt because they claimed to worship Yahweh, the Jewish God, but not at the Temple in Jerusalem, and not guided by the same group of prophets.  They were seen not just as Gentile, but as perverters of the faith.

“The Good Samaritan” by Vincent Van Gogh

In the story Jesus tells, Jewish leaders ignore their fellow Jew, robbed and beaten at the side of the road.  They may have had good reasons (at least in their own minds) for not helping.  There was a guy, robbed, beaten, stripped naked, left half-dead at the side of the road.  This was obviously a dangerous area.  It might be dangerous to pause long enough to help this person.  “I can’t take the risk to help this poor, unfortunate soul,” I can imagine them thinking.  I can imagine that internal dialog because I have had similar conversations with myself.

So the religious leaders – let those of us who are clergy beware – pass our crime victim in the gutter.  And a perverter of the faith comes to the Jew’s aid.  The moral of the story, Jesus says, it that even Samaritans, outsiders, people you look on with contempt, are your neighbors.

For millennia, from before the advent of agriculture, human cultures have taught that same is safe and different is dangerous.  Brian McLaren says, “That belief probably served our ancestors well at certain points in our history.  Their survival often depended on maintaining trust in ‘our’ tribe and fear of other tribes.  That’s why they used paint, feathers, clothing, language, and even religion as markers, so everyone would know who was same and safe and us and who was different and dangerous and them.

“Driven by that belief, our ancestors spread out around the world, each tribe staking out its own territory, each guarding its borders from invasion by others, each trying to expand its territory whenever possible, each driving others farther and farther away.  No wonder our history is written in blood:  wars, conquests, invasions, occupations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions.  The winners take all, and the losers, if they aren’t killed and enslaved, escape to begin again somewhere else.

“Eventually, because the earth is a sphere, our dispersing tribes had to come full circle and encounter one another again.  That is our challenge today. We must find a way to live together on a crowded planet.  We have to graduate from thinking in terms of ‘our kind versus their kind’ to thinking in terms of ‘humankind.’  We must turn from the ways of our ancestors and stop trying to kill off, subjugate, or fend off everyone we judge different and dangerous.  We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation.”[1]

McLaren goes on to say, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays.  But it means all our human tribes – nations, religions, cultures, parties – need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life.  True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar.  That’s why our societies running it, even though it’s destroying us.  More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel.  Not fear, but love.  Not prejudice, but openness.  Not supremacy, but service.  Not inferiority, but equality.  Not resentment, but reconciliation.  Not isolation, but connection.  Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.”[2]

What that looks like isn’t always clear.  If you think back to that experience of service that connected you to God, the one you thought about at the beginning of this sermon, I’m guessing it was pretty clear to you (or it became clear to you) what loving your neighbor as yourself looked like.  But it’s not always clear.

Is giving money to that person in the median holding a sign asking for money the loving thing to do?  Is ignoring the person, hidden between the bike rack and the bushes, lighting up a crack pipe the loving thing to do?  Is calling the police on that person who has broken the law but doesn’t have the resources to deal with the criminal justice system the loving thing to do?  And what if that person is a person of color?

Listen to the parable again, rewritten as a poem by United Church of Christ pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi.[3]

So the American is beaten up
in the parking lot, mugged,
at the Mall of New Hampshire,
and a Christian comes by
and doesn’t stop for a moment
because it is Black Friday
and there is shopping.

Then a politician comes by.
It is primary season
and both the Democrats
and Republicans
are thick on the ground
in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth,
but the politician doesn’t stop
because his handlers
tell him it’s not a photo-op.

And finally a Syrian comes by
one of those who is –
as the poem tells it heartbreak –
on our streets
because home is like the
mouth of a shark.

And the Syrian is Muslim
and the Syrian is kind.
And the American
does not want him
for a neighbor.
But God put him there
in the answer
to questions about love.

We’re here today to install the Rev. Timothy Weible as a chaplain for Bridge Hospice.  The biggest mistake people make with hospice is not calling them in early enough.  Because hospice is a wholistic care program, it offers not just pain management, but care for the whole person – and the person’s family.  That’s why hospice agencies have chaplains – in addition to nurses, home health aides, and social workers.  When people delay bringing in hospice, they don’t get the full benefit of care, though the family can continue to take advantage of various services, especially bereavement support.  People who work in hospice are a special breed.

While people can flunk out of hospice – “I’m sorry patient, but your condition keeps improving so you’re no longer eligible for these services” – most patients’ health continues to deteriorate, and they eventually die.  Hospice can help make that process as comfortable as possible, not just for the patient, but for the whole family.  And a big part of the reason that process can be made comfortable is the people (yes, the medications help, too).

In some communities that are largely homogeneous, hospice staffs can reflect that.  Here in the Bay Area, a place where those dispersed tribes come full circle and meet again, hospice agencies need people who are truly open hearted, meeting people – patients and family – where they are, being open to different cultures and values, being open to different experiences, norms, and expectations.

I think about dogmatic Christians (or, I suppose dogmatic people of any religious tradition) as chaplains, and I feel a chill.  I am truly pleased that the United Church of Christ is offering another clergy person to serve as a chaplain here in the Bay Area.  Because we come from a tradition that is not dogmatic and, in fact, acknowledges that there are many paths into the Mystery we call God that seem to work for other people, UCC clergy make, in my humble opinion, great chaplains.  But what I’m really saying is that people like Tim, people who can see the person at the side of the road as neighbor, are the people we need doing his sort of work.

All of us who claim to follow Jesus are called to see the outsider as our neighbor.  All of us are called to look at our neighbor through the eyes of compassion as we journey down the road.  As Thomas Merton said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”  Or as this meme encourages, don’t just believe there is good in the world, be the good in the world.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 43. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maren Tirabassi, “Parable of the Good Syrian,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/maren.tirabassi/posts/968297036567313 (posted 27 November 2015; accessed 4 June 2016).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 23, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 12:1-21
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A bunch of months ago we had a Town Hall Meeting to discuss the requirements that are in our church bylaws for membership.  After that Town Hall Meeting and subsequent discussions in Cabinet and between Pastor Brenda and me, Pastor Brenda and I decided to hold a spread-out sermon series where we would preach a sermon related to some aspect of membership and baptism, and that each of these sermons would have an opportunity for a post-worship service discussion.

A month and a half ago, when I was making plans for sermons in September, I thought that today might be a good day for one of those sermons.  We’re not going to have the post-worship discussion because there is a different post-worship discussion happening, one that is equally important that will help us grow in how we live out our Open and Affirming covenant.  And, to be honest, as I’ve worked on this sermon over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that what we really need is several consecutive weeks on the topic.  When Pastor Brenda returns from her sabbatical, she and I will schedule that series (probably sometime in the spring).  In the meantime, I hope this sermon both stands on its own and that it will be something we can refer to when that series rolls around.

As I thought about how we might discuss what appropriate membership requirements might be for a church that embodies (or at least seeks to embody) a radical welcome, I realized we should probably start by making sure we’re all on the same page about what it means to be a church.  So that’s the topic for today’s sermon.

I want to start by talking about the Rotary International.  I’m picking on Rotary both because they do good work and because they are an organization that is, in several ways, like the church.  And if we can identify how the church is different from the Rotary (and other community organizations), we can better understand what it means to be a church.

So, similarities:  Rotary has local “Rotary Clubs,” like a church has local congregations.  Local Rotary Clubs brings people together for fellowship and mission, like a local church does.  Though perhaps not as diverse as the community it is in, local Rotary Clubs will include people with diverse skills, backgrounds, interests, and gifts – and both of those things can be said about local churches.  Rotary Clubs “unite dedicated people to exchange ideas, build relationships, and take action,”[1] just like local churches do.  Rotary Clubs work on projects locally that make the lives of their neighbors better and work together on projects internationally to make lives around the world better, which the church, when it’s living out its mandate, also does.  From a legal point of view, Rotary is a non-profit corporation, just like the church.  Like Disciples of Christ congregations and United Church of Christ congregations, a Rotary Club is a membership corporation – people join their local club/congregation, and the local club/congregation is connected to a wider network of clubs/congregations.

Even the meeting schedule is similar.  Most Rotary Clubs meet weekly, just like the church.  And those weekly Rotary Club meetings often (perhaps even typically) include a presentation on a topic of importance to the wider community.  Which isn’t quite a sermon.  And here is where I think we start to get a glimpse into what makes the church different from service groups like the Rotary.  And in that difference, I think we can better understand what it means to be a church.

The God-thing is defining for the church.  We don’t gather for a meeting each week.  We gather to be intentional about being in God’s presence so we can offer God our worship.  We gather to be in community together in our praying, in our listening for the living Word of God, and in our seeking to respond to the Word we hear.

There are other communities that gather to offer God their worship and their prayers that aren’t churches.  Jews do this every week in communities they call synagogues.  Muslims can offer their five daily prayers anywhere, but they will try to be in community for pray at least occasionally by gathering in a mosque.  The thing that makes the church’s gathering for prayer different these other communities gathering for prayer is Jesus.  We have found that Jesus offers a way of approaching God and of hearing God’s living Word that works for us.

John Shelby Spong famously said, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist.  All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.  I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”[2]  I would add that while my tradition doesn’t define God, it does define me.  I am a Christian.  I am a follower of Jesus.

What Jesus probably looked like, according to forensic anthropologists.

That said, it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t start Christianity.  Like many others,[3] I don’t think Jesus intended to start a religion.  I think he wanted to clean up Judaism, to reform Judaism, but he wasn’t trying to create a rival religion.  And his earliest followers followed him within the context of a Jewish identity.  These so-called “Followers of the Way” didn’t become a separate religion until they were kicked out of the synagogue sometime around 88.

And I don’t blame the synagogue for kicking them out.  Some were welcoming non-Jews into the community of Followers of the Way.  Others were continuing to push Jesus’ reforms.  In some cases, those two groups overlapped.  “Don’t change us; go be your own thing!” they were told.  And Christianity was born.

So, I’m a Christian as much by virtue of the Followers of the Way being kicked out of the synagogue as I am by being a follower of Jesus.  I suppose otherwise I’d be a Jesus-y-Jew.  But I’m not sure how much that helps us know what it means to be a church – other than being church having something to do with following the way of Jesus.  Not that following the way of Jesus is a little thing.  In fact, I think it is the central thing.  Still, I think there is more to say about being a church

We may talk about “the church” as being that building at 36600 Niles Blvd., but that’s not truly accurate.  The early Congregationalists in the Americas referred to the place where they gathered for worship, “the Meetinghouse,” not the church.  It was the place where they met for worship.  This cartoon more accurately points to where to find the church than a street address will.  The church is not a building at a particular location.  It is a people.  And those people are out in the world most of the week.

The state may require us to define that community with articles of incorporation and bylaws, but that’s only our legal definition.  A church is truly held together by covenant, by sacred promise.  And covenant is not just a promise between people.  A covenant is a promise between people and God.  That’s another way that being a church is different from being a service club or a community non-profit.  The relationships that are of concern to us are with each other and with humanity, yes, and we are concerned about our relationships with God.

Because God is a partner with us in covenant, our sense of purpose, our sense of mission always includes a call to be in service of God’s concern for the whole world.  Our covenant is part of the lineage of covenants God has established that call us out into the world.  God promised Abraham and Sarah that the world would be blessed by their descendants.  God calls the Hebrews to be a holy nation in the Sinai covenant.  Isaiah says that Israel is a light to the nations.  And in the letter we call 1 Peter, we are told that Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nations, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]

We live out this covenant identity by being, as some theologians have put it, a “sign, foretaste, and instrument of the Kingdom of God.”[5]  This makes me think of our congregation’s mission statement, how we have articulated our sense of calling at this time in our life together:  “Following the example of Jesus, Niles Discovery Church welcomes all people, grows in our relationship with God and each other, and serves our neighbors near and far.”

Of course, churches, ours included, don’t always embody that “foretaste of the kin-dom of God” thing.  We are, after all, a collection of people.  And as our quote for reflection today reminds us, the church isn’t full of hypocrites; there’s always room for more.

Paul was reminding us in our reading from Romans that the struggle is real.  While God is calling us to follow the example of Jesus with radically inclusive love, deepening relationship with God and each other, and service for and with our neighbors, the world is calling us to other ways grounded in other values.  That’s why he calls the church in Rome and us not to conform to this world, but to be transformed so we are able to discern the will of God.

Then he uses a metaphor for the church that he’s used before (particularly in his correspondence with the church in Corinth) – the church as a body, as the body of Christ today.  We each have different skills, abilities, and passions, and that’s for the good of the body.  We are to use the gifts we’ve been given to help carry out the will of God that we’ve discerned.

Then he talks about how the church’s life should be grounded in love.  “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” he writes. “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  I do not think this is an exhaustive list.  He is not saying these are the only things we should be doing.  But he is pointing out how we are to live together as a church.

And then he gets radical:  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  But this should surprise us.  This is the way of Jesus, offering forgiveness even to the least deserving.  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” he writes.  “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably [not just with each other, but] with all.”

So, let me sum up my main points:

  • Being a church means being connected to God and God’s purposes.
  • Being a church means following the way of Jesus to build that connection to God and God’s purposes.
  • Being a church means being in covenant with each other and with God as we seek and fail and seek again to live a life based in love.

Amen.

 

Questions for quiet reflection

  • How are you and how are we doing at being connected to God and God’s purposes?
  • In what ways are we living the way of Jesus as a church, and in what ways are we failing to do so?
  • How might our covenant with each other and with God be strengthened?

_______________

[1] From https://rotary.org/en/about-rotary/our-structure (accessed 22 September 2018).

[2] Quoted all over the Internet.

[3] See, for instance, Ed Taylor, “Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – The Christian Church,” ProgressiveChristianity.org, https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/affirmations-and-confessions-of-a-progressive-christian-layman-the-christian-church/ (posted 9 December 2014; accessed 18 September 2018).

[4] 1 Peter 2:9, NRSV.

[5] James V. Brownson, The Promise of Baptism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2007), 12.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 16, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 8:27-38and Psalm 19
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As best I can figure, it was the summer between fourth and fifth grade when I saw a tract with a graphic that looked something like this.  The little pamphlet explained that we human beings are over on the left side of the graphic, in the land of sinfulness where hell awaits us, and that God is over on the right side, in all “his” righteousness and purity.  A massive gulf exists between humanity and God, a gulf of our own making, dug by Adam and Eve’s original sin and expanded by our sinfulness.  We have dug ourselves away from God and now we owe God big time.  Now a penalty is due.  God in all his righteousness deserves payment for our sinfulness and separation.  And we, in our sinfulness, are unworthy to make the payment.  Luckily, there is a way across the gulf.  The cross of Jesus is that bridge, and that when we accept that Jesus paid that penalty, when we accept Jesus’ death as our ticket out of hell and death, we can cross that bridge.

To my 10-year-old mind, this made sense.  I knew that I did things that made my parents disappointed and angry.  It made sense to me that the same would be true of my behavior and how God felt about me. But I also felt like there was something wrong with this diagram.  I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but I felt that there was something wrong.

I’ve come to know that the primary thing that I think is wrong with this is the assumptions it makes about God.  This theology has a name: “penal substitutionary atonement.”  And this theology depicts God as primarily, and perhaps only, as a great judge.  It places God as the supreme justice of a cosmic legal system that is more complicated and more vengeful than our earthly justice system.  It sets God apart and above, and that is not my experience of God.  Penal substitutionary atonement is “a dogma that has dominated the landscape of Western Christian thought and practice.  Like much else in our imperial Christian inheritance, it is linked to the doctrine of original sin.”[1]  Like much else in our imperial Christian inheritance, it served the principalities and powers much more than it served God’s creation and God’s people.

So, if the cross is not about Jesus making a substitutionary sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sinfulness, what is it about?

One of the features of Iona is that there are lots of stone crosses.  There is this and another cross in front of the Abbey church.  And there’s a cross along the side of the road to the north of the Abbey.  There are ancient crosses that have been excavated and reassembled in the museum.  And crosses carved on grave stones.  A cross commemorating war dead.  This cross is a reproduction of an ancient cross now reassembled in the museum.

Why is Christianity so obsessed with the cross?

Actually, Christianity hasn’t been obsessed with the cross from its beginning.  Representations of the cross only became common in Christianity in the 600s,[2]and it took another 300 years for images of the body of Jesus to appear on the cross[3]– just in time to help with recruiting for the crusades when the church asked young men to go die for Jesus.

John Philip Newell explains that in Celtic spirituality, the cross is not so much about the sacrifice of Jesus (and certainly not about a penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice), as it is about the revelation of God.  It is akin, he says, to what Julian of Norwich called “showings.”  When she was a young woman, Julian has a “series of dreamlike visions or revelations of Christ.”[4]  Once, when she was desperately ill, Newell writes, “she sees so much blood in her vision of Christ that she says if it had been real blood, her bed would have been soaked to overflowing.  But the blood of Christ she sees is not about payment to God for sin.  It is about the very nature of love.  It is a revelation or a showing of what it means to long for love and to live for love.…  For it is because we love that we are in grief when our loved ones die.  It is because we love our children that we are in pain when we see them suffer.  It is because we love our nations that we are in agony when we see them being false to themselves.  And it is because we love the earth that we weep at the violation of its body.”[5]

I was on the Island of Iona, there amongst all those stone crosses, at the center of Celtic Christian spirituality, when I read John Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts.  In the book he writes about “the Celtic belief that the Heartbeat of life is Love. That is the first and deepest sound within the unfolding cosmos.  It vibrates at the heart of all things.  Christ is viewed as disclosing the passion of God to us.  The cross is a theophany or showing of Love and the desire for oneness. It reveals God, rather than appeases God.”[6]

I read these words, and I stopped.  I pulled out a little post-it note and wrote, “If JPN is right, that the cross reveals God, then for us to take up our cross is to engage in God-revealing.  Taking up our crosses is to take up giving ourselves away to one another.”

This, for me, is a new understanding of what Jesus could have meant in the passage we read today.  I don’t think it is the only understanding, but it is one that profoundly moves me.  For us to take up our cross is to engage in God-revealing.

Four years ago, John Philip shared a story in a blog post that connects to this.  “On Iona, one of the high-standing crosses in front of the abbey is St. Martin’s Cross, with its distinctive Celtic feature of cross form and circle form combined as a way of pointing to the oneness of Christ and creation.  At the heart of St. Martin’s Cross, where the vertical line and the horizontal line intersect, is an image of the Mother and Child.  She holds the child against her breast.  She has paid the price of labor and now holds the newborn close to her.  She has born the pain of giving birth.  And now she will sustain the child with her own being, with the milk of her love.  In the Celtic world it is said that there is a mother’s heart at the heart of God. At the heart of a mother’s heart is the willingness to make sacrifices for her child.  It is a revelation of the very heart of God’s being.  And it is a revelation also of the human heart made in the image of God’s heart.

St. Martin’s Cross

“In Christ of the Celts, I tell the story of being brushed by an eagle.  I had been hiking up an arroyo in New Mexico, and as I bent to pass under a fallen pine tree, I was met by an eagle swooping in the opposite direction with a rabbit in her talons.  Either she had not noticed me or was so intent on the catch that she was not bothered by my presence.  So we met under the tree’s fallen trunk, and her strong wing touched my left arm.  It was an exhilarating experience, to have physical contact with this untamed icon of heaven.  I was aware also that it was a spiritual experience, for in Christian symbolism the eagle is associated with John the Beloved, who sees with a height of unitary vision the oneness of all things.  But the most important part of the story I did not tell in Christ of the Celts, for it had not yet happened.

“After my eagle experience, there was someone in particular with whom I wanted to share the story.  It was Ronald Royball, a native musician and storyteller from Santa Fe.  We had met years earlier, and he had told me about a life-changing dream in which a great eagle had swept down from the sky to touch his hand with its wing tip.  When Ronald woke, he realized he was to be a musician, playing the native flute and sharing the wisdom of his people through music and story.

“So it was Ronald whom I especially wanted to tell.  He joined me for lunch close to the arroyo where I had hiked the previous year.  And with some pride I told him in great detail about everything that had happened, and showed him exactly where on my arm the eagle had brushed against me.  When finally I finished, Ronald said, ‘John Philip, I want you to think about the rabbit. The rabbit is Christ.  The rabbit connected you and the eagle.  The rabbit made heaven and earth one for you.  And he lost his life doing so.  I want you to think about the rabbit.  The rabbit is Christ.’  He spoke not one word to me about the eagle!

“When I heard Ronald’s words, I knew he was right.  I had missed the main point of the story.  Yes, of course, I shall always be thrilled to know that I was brushed by an eagle.  But I would not have met the eagle without the sacrifice of the rabbit.  This is not to say that every part of the story can be directly applied spiritually. The rabbit did not choose to offer itself, although Native American wisdom would probably perceive an element of choice in all of nature’s sacrifices.  But Ronald’s words prompted me to ask more deeply what this experience was about.  His words prompted me to ask what the costly connections are that I am to make in my life.  What are the costly connections we are to make?  The encounter with the eagle was a meeting also with the rabbit.”[7]

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, you might want to think about one or more of these questions:

  • How does the cross of Jesus reveal God to you?
  • How can you participate in revealing God?
    • What sacrifices does that participation ask of you?
  • Who and what have been the ‘rabbits’ in your life, bringing you into contact with the Divine?
    • What sacrifices have they had to make to do so?

_______________

[1]John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation(Glasgow: Wild Good Publications, 2008), p. 95.

[2]According to a sign in the museum at the Iona Abbey.

[3]Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradice(Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), p. ix.

[4]Newell, Christ of the Celts, p. 87.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid, p. 17.

[7]John Philip Newell, “The Mother Heart of God,” Heartbeat, https://heartbeatjourney.org/the-mother-heart-of-god-john-philip-newell-celtic-spirituality-isle-of-iona/ (posted 3 September 2014; accessed 11 September 2018). A few typographical corrections have been made, along with one or two grammatical corrections.

A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 2, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 10:25-37and James 1:17-27
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I realize it’s been quite a while since I’ve shared the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town.  As you might suspect, it’s been a quiet week.  The southerners from Massachusetts and Connecticut are in town at full force, grabbing the last few days of summer at their cottages and cabins at “the lake,” as if there is only one in all of New Hampshire.  School starts this week in Mount William, and in many of those southern towns, it seems.  Teachers have been in their classrooms getting them ready. Elementary students are excitedly buying school supplies.  High schoolers are dreading that the permission to sleep in is almost gone and they will be catching those early buses to get to the John Stark Regional High School.

I suppose it’s news that Scott Barnes left for seminary last week. He’s the first to head off to seminary from the Mount William Congregational Church in decades.  It was quite the little fête last Sunday at the worship service as this young man, raised in the church, was blessed.

Howard Friend, the pastor at the Congregational Church, remembers when he first met Scott.  It was at the beginning of his call to that church.  Scottie was all of five or six years old when his family first arrived at the church.  Pastor Howard remembers Scottie bouncing around the Sunday school classrooms with his older brother, and twirling on his father’s hand while being led through the church parking lot.  His naturally large eyes looked even bigger behind his think glasses, giving him the appearance of always being surprised.

Scottie’s parents, Craig and Diana, joined the church because they wanted their sons baptized.  Their welcome was almost overwhelming; in those days the church was struggling to attract younger members, so when this family showed up, the exuberance of the greeters was almost too much.  Soon enough, though, the Barneses settled into the life of the church.

Over the years though, it became clear that something was amiss with Diana.  First, she started missing meetings.  Then Pastor Howard noticed that only Scott, his brother, and his father attended worship. When Diana did come, she was disheveled and inattentive.

When Craig made an appointment with his pastor, he immediately plunged into the deep water.  “She drinks so much.  I can’t make her stop.”  He went on to describe the horrible arguments, the days he would come home from work to find her passed out when she was supposed to be watching the boys, the bottles hidden around the house, and her repeated fender benders.  It was Pastor Howard’s turn to be overwhelmed, but rather than it being from a too enthusiastic welcome, it was by the hell this family was living in, a hell that somehow snuck under the radar of the church. When Pastor Howard brought up treatment options, Craig replied, “That’s how the worst of the fights start.”

It took one crisis too many, one crisis that put the boys’ lives in jeopardy, that finally convinced Diana to go for treatment. Unfortunately, she didn’t stay sober, and eventually Craig decided that, for the sake of his sons, he had to divorce her.  And through it all, the church was there for them – all of them.  Members of the church offered babysitting, covered dishes, prayers, and friendship to Craig.  A member of the church who had been sober for 20 years befriended Diana, even though she stopped coming to the church.  And that friendship may have been the thing that eventually led Diana to try treatment again and to find some sanity in sobriety.

Meanwhile, the boys were given starring roles in the Christmas pageants, found their best friends in the youth group, and went on mission trips to learn about themselves and people from difference cultures. Everyone knew what the family’s problems were, but there was never a word of judgment or even pity.  The people of Mount William Congregational Church were just being the church.  They were, without even thinking about it, embodying that holy something called grace.

I don’t know when it was that Scott became so reflective – maybe it was while he was away at college – but it sure showed last Sunday, during the service.  He was invited to “say a few words” and Scott decided to talk about the reason he was going to seminary.  The reason he felt called to ministry was really quite simple.  “I’ve never been able to get over the love of this congregation, the love that kept showing up on our doorstep year after year when there was only heartache on the other side.  That truly is following the call of Jesus.  And now, it’s my turn.”

It occurs to me, though, that offering help is often easier for many of us to do than it is to ask for help.  And I think that asking for help is also a way to follow Jesus’ call.

A case in point from last winter:  William Kincaid.  Now, he didn’t have particularly good role models when it comes to asking for help. Childhood polio greatly weakened his mother’s left side, and though she could have benefited from it, she didn’t take kindly to people offering to help carry a stack of books or navigate a flight of stairs.  His father carried the atrocities of Iwo Jima with him for 60 years without ever asking anyone to help shoulder the emotional burden.

Oh, William had learned the lesson of the importance of asking for help time and again.  He’d even confessed it – but without correcting it.

And then one morning last January, he looked down and there they were, a woman and her husband kneeling at his feet, putting his socks on him. A week and a half earlier, a January storm left a glaze of ice on everything.  That afternoon he waved good-bye to a friend and approached the steps that connect the church parking lot to the sidewalk – and slipped.  Down the entire flight of granite steps, hitting each step with his back before coming to rest on the small mound of snow that ran the length of the sidewalk.  By the next day, his entire body had knotted itself around his lower back and he could not stand up.

Once again, the people of the Mount William Congregational Church stepped into action as soon as they heard the news.  They made generous offers; William awkwardly obliged.  “Sure, I mean, if you’re going by the pharmacy anyway.”  “OK, if you’re getting a sandwich for yourself and are going to be in the neighborhood.”  “Well, I think I can drive myself to physical therapy, but I’d enjoy the company.”

But he couldn’t pick up the phone and ask someone to come and just sit with him.  He couldn’t initiate the favor of having someone drive him to their home to sit in their whirlpool, even though people wanted to know how they could help.  He couldn’t bring himself to ask someone to drop off some food or heat packs or some badly needed muscle relaxants.

This big mistake caught up with him quickly, and it caused him to make a lot of smaller yet still consequential ones.  William could ask for just about anything else – for people to increase their financial giving to the church, for the congregation to volunteer tutor at the elementary school, for individuals to come with him to testify at a meeting of the Board of Selectmen – but he couldn’t ask for help for himself.

Until, of course, he had no choice but to ask for help.  A new vulnerability enveloped William, and not just because he couldn’t put on his own socks, or because he had to lie on the floor of a minivan while being driven to physical therapy.  It was more than that.  His cloak of invincibility had shredded.

And with that vulnerability came a deep sadness, partly because he realized he had made his own life more difficult, and more importantly because his insistence on not needing help had made him less of a genuine companion on the journey with others.

Those friends did more than put his socks on for him.  They ushered him at least a few steps in the direction of mutuality and solidarity.  It’s a gift to be strong and scrappy, but something like the January ice eventually comes to us all.  The greater gift is to be human with each other, to be as open to receiving help as we are eager to give it, and to allow a community’s care and companionship to laugh away the most debilitating mistakes of all.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, we all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

_______________

[1]This sermon was inspired by, and I quote and paraphrase from, M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters: The rest of the story,” Christian Century, 1 May 2013 edition, p. 57, and William B. Kincaid, “Mistake: Essays by readers,” Christian Century, 6 July 2016 edition, pp. 26-27.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 5, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 5:21-43
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

While I was on vacation and study leave last month, I had occasion to visit several churches.  In reverse chronological order:  I worshipped at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco (I’ll share more about why I did that next month in another sermon).  I prayed twice a day in the Abbey during my week on Iona.  I toured the Glasgow Cathedral.  I worshipped at an evening service at St. George’s Tron church, in Glasgow.  I toured the Chester Cathedral.  I sang in the Bath Abbey with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus.

I rehearsed at St. Michael’s Without in Bath.  “Without what?” you ask?  Without the city medieval city walls.  There is a St. Michael’s Within in Bath as well.  I was taken by a door handle at St. Michael’s Without.

I sang in Christ Church Cathedral at Oxford University.  I worshiped at the Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  And I worshipped at St Bartholomew-the-Great (not to be confused with St. Bartholomew-the-Less) in the City of London.

The music at St. Bartholomew-the-Great was very impressive.  They have a professional quartet who sang a contemporary setting of the traditional lyrics for a mass.  The sermon, on the other hand, was dreadful.  The scripture was the gospel reading we heard today, and the Anglican priest did a riff on sandwiches and a British retail chain called Marks & Spencer.  Despite their auspicious name (you can’t go wrong with Spencer in your company name) and the wide variety of things they sell, they are apparently especially known for packaged sandwiches.

At this point, I am hoping there is someone in the congregation who is wondering about what sandwiches have to do with this gospel lesson.  There is, actually, a connection – more of a literary one than a theological one.  The story telling device Mark uses has a formal name that I never remember.  I remember its informal name:  a sandwich.

In a sandwich, a storyteller starts one story, interrupts it with another, and then finishes the first.  The story of Jairus’ daughter is the bread of the sandwich; the story of the hemorrhaging woman is the filling of the sandwich.

It’s helpful to understand how a sandwich works as a literary device.  Understanding the remarkable retail success of Marks & Spencer’s packaged sandwiches, not so much.  Literary sandwiches typically have common themes in the stories, as well as differences.  The similarities typically act to help tie the two stories together.  They are the toothpick in the sandwich.  The differences typically help point you to the storyteller’s point.  The story in the middle, the sandwich’s filling, is the more important story for the storyteller.

I was listening as the scripture was being read.  I recognized the sandwich.  As the reading comes to its conclusion, Mark makes a comment.  It seems parenthetical, as if it’s not important, as if it’s just something he’s mentioning.  In fact, the New Revised Standard Version puts this comment in parentheses.  Mark mentions that the girl was 12 years old.

“Hang on,” I thought.  “Hadn’t the woman in the crowd been hemorrhaging for 12 years?”  I took out my mobile phone and opened by Bible app.  (I wonder what my neighbors thought I was doing.)  Sure enough:  12 years.

“That’s not just an imposed similarity to tie the stories together,” I thought.  “That’s not just a parenthetical comment.  Mark is doing something here.”  And I started wondering what that might be.

12 years.  That’s why I’m preaching on this text today.  I’ve been wondering about those 12 years for a month now.

Let’s take a closer look at the text.  Start by noting that Jesus was not opposed by all Jewish leaders.  Jairus is a leader of the local synagogue and he sought out this popular healer to assist his daughter.  He even begs Jesus to help, falling at his feet.

Jesus agrees, but his trip to Jairus’ house is interrupted.  An unnamed woman approaches Jesus secretly – unlike the named religious leader.  Why secretly?  We have to guess, but the best guesses are that she is a woman and a woman shouldn’t speak in public with a man who is not kin, and her medical condition.

Though Mark never says that her hemorrhaging is caused by a uterine issue, that’s the likely candidate.  If she had a wound that would not heal and that kept bleeding, I don’t see how she could be stealthy in her approach to Jesus.  She has a condition of continuous bleeding that she can, to some extent, hide.  However, if it is a uterine condition that is causing this, if this woman has what is essentially a non-stop period, she is rendered non-stop ritually unclean.  This is why her medical condition would push her to stay separated from the larger community.

What we know about this unnamed woman is that she has a medical condition that makes her suffer, and that she once had money to spend on doctors, but all of that money is now spent and it brought her no relief.  We can assume that she is now poor.  If she had male relations, they are not on the scene at this point.  They are not present to lift up her case (unlike the sick girl who has her father).  And, if she had any male relations earlier, they may well have abandoned her by now.

We don’t know what spurred her boldness or her belief that simply touching Jesus’ clothing would be enough to make her well.  We simply see a bold woman who acted to take care of herself.  She carries out her plan.  She approaches Jesus and touches his clothing.

“Just as the woman understood the changes in her body, so Jesus recognized a change in his body.”[1]  Notice that Jesus plays no active role in this woman’s healing.  She touches Jesus’ clothing and is healed.  Jesus only knows that something has happened, not what has happened.  But he wants to know what happened.  So he asks, “Who touched me?”

Again, the woman comes forward, this time driven by fear rather than boldness.  She tells the whole truth.  She could have snuck away with her healing, but she comes back and testifies to what happened.  And rather than being angry for stealing his power, Jesus commends her.  “Daughter,” he calls her, recognizing her full humanity, her connection to the human family, making her his kin, “your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

The story returns to the journey to Jairus’ house.  People traditionally interpret the healing of the unnamed woman as causing a delay, and blame that delay with keeping Jesus from reaching the girl in time to keep her from dying.  That is not in this story.  It is in the story about Jesus being delayed from healing Lazarus in John’s gospel, but it’s not here in Mark.  In Mark, Jesus is on the way to Jairus’ house when word reaches Jairus that between the time he set out to find Jesus and that moment, his daughter has died.  There is no need to bother the teacher any more.

Jesus challenges Jairus to hold on to his faith (“only believe,” he says), the faith that led him to the healer in the first place.  Jesus goes to where she is laying, takes her by the hand, and tells her to get up.  And she does.  Then Jesus tells her parents to give her a Marks & Spencer sandwich.

As the Anglican priest prattled on about sandwiches, I started thinking about the 12 years.  It is not just some unnamed illness that is causing this 12-year-old girl to be facing death.  With the onset of puberty, she is becoming fertile.  She has or will soon being menstruating.  She is entering the age when, in her culture, she would be eligible for marriage.  The girl is dying, and a woman is being born.

I thought, too, about the woman who has suffered from non-stop bleeding for 12 years, presumably vaginal bleeding, that (thank you, Jesus) has suddenly stopped.  Depending on the cause of this condition, a modern treatment would be hormone therapy or a hysterectomy, either of which would cause her fertility to end.  In the reading from Mark, her fertility comes to an end with her encounter with Jesus.

In many pagan traditions, womanhood is divided into three stages – Maiden, Mother, and Crone.  The title “Crone” gets a bad rep these days – thank you, fairytales.  That’s too bad, because a Crone in these traditions is a possessor of wisdom.  In this reading from Mark, we see Jesus embracing, celebrating, and empowering the transformations that are necessary to move from one life-stage of womanhood to another.

And there’s more healing transformation happening in this story, too.  We think of the girl as being the one with the illness that led to her death.  We think of the woman as being the one with an illness that caused her to suffer and make her poor and marginalized.  Jesus doesn’t heal only them.  He heals their communities as well.

Ilya Repin: Raising of Jairus’ Daughter

This is something that is happening in almost all (and perhaps all) of the healing stories in the gospels.  Dee Dee Risher notes, that Jesus’ “healings took place primarily outside synagogues – outdoors in streets and deserts – is no surprise.  There were practical reasons rooted in social divisions.  The priestly code made many of those with illnesses (leprosy, bleeding, deformed parts of the body, lameness, blindness) social outcasts.  If Jesus was a healer, his ministry would necessarily focus on the most marginal and powerless members of the social order.  His healing challenged the assumptions of a society that drew lines around who was in and who was out.  It redefined community and social class.  This attention to societal and communal wholeness is a challenge to conservative healing theologies that pay no attention to social placement and do nothing to challenge marginalization in our communities.”[2]

Jairus’ family’s and friends’ grief is transformed into joy.  And when the family is told to give the girl something to eat, all of us are reminded to feed the bodies and souls of all people.  When Jesus calls the woman who reached out to him, “Daughter,” her whole community was challenge to see her as kin.

12 years is a long time to wait for wholeness.  May we work so that people who are suffering – including those gathered in this room – find wholeness more quickly.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Except where otherwise noted, this summary is based on Emerson Powery, “Commentary on Mark 5:21-43,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1323 (accessed 31 July 2018).

[2] Dee Dee Risher, “The Stumbling Block of Healing,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/stumbling-block-healing (accessed 31 July 2018).

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