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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.

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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).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 29, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 6:1-15
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Some of you may be wondering, “Why is Pastor Jeff preaching on this story again?”  While I’m certain I’ve preached on John 6:1-15 before – several times before – I don’t remember when the last time was.

The reason the story is familiar to so many is that it shows up six times in the four gospels.  Twice in Matthew, twice in Mark, once in Luke, and once in John we read about Jesus feeding vast multitudes with just a few loaves of bread.[1]  In other words, the story shows up often in our reading of the gospels.  It must have been an important story to the first generations of Christians.  And it shows up often in the lectionary.  So you’ll hear pastors often preaching on it.

The six versions all have the same basic plot.  A large crowd shows up to see Jesus somewhere out in the countryside.  At some point someone realizes that all these people need to be fed.  Jesus suggests or implies that the disciples should take care of feeding them.  The disciples say it’s financially and/or logistically impossible to do so with the paltry supplies they have.  Jesus takes what they have, blesses it, and gives it to the crowd.  And the next thing you know, everybody has had enough to eat and the disciples are collecting the leftovers.

There are four things I particularly like about the way John tells the story.

  1. Jesus wants to go on retreat, so he and the disciples head across the sea of Galilee. Maybe because I’m just coming off a week of study leave that was a retreat, I empathize with this desire.  My study leave was very restorative.  The only problem is that the crowds follow Jesus around the lake.  So much for Jesus’ retreat.
  2. John identifies the lake as both the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberias. He’s the only gospel writer to use the Roman name of the lake.  Either John is writing for an audience who didn’t know what a Jew would be referring to with the name “Sea of Galilee,” or John is doing something else here.  I think it is much more likely that John is doing something else.  More on this in a moment.
  3. John doesn’t name the real hero of the story, but clearly it’s the mom who packed the kid’s lunch.
  4. Only John includes the postscript to the story about the people wanting to make Jesus their king, something he rejects.

The second and fourth of these highlight John’s agenda.  He mentions the Roman name for the Sea of Galilee and almost immediately mentions the Jewish festival of Passover.  He mentions the Romans and he reminds his audience of the foundational story of Judaism, the Passover story.  He mentions the occupying power and he reminds his audience that God is a God who delivers people from bondage into freedom.  I think John is reminding his audience of the tension that exists between the Empire of Rome and the kin-dom of God.

This tension continues through the story to its conclusion, when Jesus rejects the people’s attempt to challenge the Empire by making Jesus a political leader.  Jesus picks another way to challenge empire.  We need to hold on to that tension as we read this story and listen for how Jesus challenges empire in favor of the kin-dom of God.

The primary way I think Jesus challenges empire is by challenging the imperial economy.  The imperial economy is based on an assumption of scarcity.  The imperial economy assumes that the economy is a zero-sum-game.  If I’m going to get mine, someone else will is going to lose theirs.

We saw this in the Exodus story.  The Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, worried about how they were going to get enough to eat.  In Numbers (11:13), Moses wonders how he will feed the people he is leading into freedom.  He asks God, “Where am I going to get meat to give to all these people?”  God provides enough for everybody.

Jesus almost quotes Moses when he asks Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?”  Of course, the big difference is the Moses didn’t know the answer to his question, while Jesus did know the answer.

Moses and the Hebrews learned in the wilderness that in God’s economy, there is enough for everyone is we share.  Jesus demonstrated in the wilderness that in God’s economy, there is enough for everyone if we share.  In addition to making sure hungry people had enough to eat, Jesus challenges the imperial mentality of scarcity and he rejects the imperial notion of “power over.”

This is a challenge for us today, too.  As one commentator put it, “At its heart, it’s a story about our fears that we will not be cared for; about our tendencies to see the world – from the day’s headlines to our own interpersonal struggles – through lenses of scarcity; and about God’s work of feeding, of abundantly providing for our needs, and at the same time calling us to help provide for the needs of others.”[2]

It is an amazing, counter-cultural message, this notion that there really is enough if we are good stewards of creation.  There’s a story I love that makes this point, I think.

There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn.  Every year he entered examples of his crop in the county fair and almost every year won the award for the best grown corn.  One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him, hoping to learn something interesting about how he grew it.  What the reporter discovered, must to his surprise, is that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors.

“Why on earth would you share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.

“If I want to have a good crop,” the farmer answered, “I have to do this.  You do know, don’t you, that the wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field.  If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn.  If I want to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”[3]

This is the sentiment echoed by the theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann in a reflection on the stories of the feeding of the multitudes.  “If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all.  [In these feeding stories,] Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.”[4]  Brueggemann also said, “When people forget that Jesus is the bread of the world, they start eating junk food – the food of … Herod, the bread of moralism and of power.”[5]

Which makes me think about the church in general and our congregation specifically.  Does the church (do we) remember that Jesus is the bread of the world?  Or does the church (do we) get caught up in moralism and the lure of power?  Are we serving the bread of love to each other and the community, or are we serving junk food?

I’ve read that German theologian Helmut Thielicke used to tell a story about a hungry man.  He was walking down the street and he noticed a sign in a store window:  “We Sell Bread.”  “Great,” the hungry man thought, and he went inside.

“I’d like to buy some bread,” he told the clerk behind the counter.

“Oh, I’m afraid there’s been a mistake,” the woman said.  “We don’t sell bread.”

“The sign in the window says, ‘We Sell Bread,’” the hungry man said.  “What do you mean, you don’t sell bread?”

“You misunderstand,” the clerk explained.  “We make signs, like the one in the window.  We don’t actually make bread.”

Alas, the hungry man could not eat signs.  What he needed was bread.[6]

These stories we’ve explored today leave me with some questions, that I invite you to ponder:

Is our church making bread or making signs?

Are we sharing bread or junk food?

_______________

[1] Matthew 4:13-21 and 5:32-39; Mark 6:31-44 and 8:1-9; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-15.

[2] “Enough: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Tenth Week After Pentecost,” Salt Project, http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/progressive-christian-lectionary-resource (posted and accessed 24 July 2018).

[3] I’ve seen various versions of this story over the years. I was reminded of this story this week by Kaila Russell on Facebook.

[4] Brandon Weencher, quoting Walter Brueggeman without specific citation, in “Bread or Junk Food?” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/bread-or-junk-food (accessed 24 July 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adapted from a Facebook post shared by JL Harper III, on 25 July 2018 in a close clergy group. Harper cites “homiletics online” as the source of the story.

[See update below.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 26 June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Moving into Triads

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

Homily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breath Prayer

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

Guided Reflection

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

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

A Time of Sharing

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

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

Scriptural Affirmation – Psalm 63:1

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

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together.

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

_______________

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

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

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

[4]Ibid, 94.

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

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

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

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

Moving into Triads

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

Homily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guided Reflection

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

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

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

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

A Time of Sharing

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

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

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

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

Scriptural Affirmation

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

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together

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

_______________

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

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

Moving into Triads

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

Homily

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

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

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

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

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

Breath Prayer

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

Guided Reflection

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

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

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

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

A Time of Sharing

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

Scriptural Affirmation

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

Prayer of Affirmation

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breath Prayer

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

Reflection

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

Sharing

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

Scriptural Affirmation

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

Prayer of Affirmation

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

_______________

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

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

[3]Ibid.

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

Here’s the plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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