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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 1:1-11 and Acts 19:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in seminary, I had a text book that was probably two inches thick.  It was on one subject:  baptism.  This sermon won’t be that long.  I promise.

Actually, I’m a little amused that the book on baptism was that long because there’s actually quite a bit of common understanding of baptism in the ecumenical community.  When the World Council of Churches decided to issue a collection of statements on the ecumenical convergence of theologies around baptism, communion, and ordination, the section on baptism was the shortest because it needed the least explanations.  Ecumenically, the understandings of what baptism is and means are pretty solid and widely shared.  The understandings about communion and ordination vary widely, but on baptism, there is a strong convergence.

I’m not sure how the convergence came about.  If you look at the book of the Acts of the Apostles (the book we heard a reading from today), you will see that the ways baptism was practiced by the early church varied.  Expand your search to the whole of the New Testament, you’ll find even more variation.  You will find stories of baptisms performed in the name of Jesus and in the name of God and you’ll hear a call that baptisms be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).  You will find stories where it seems that a person needs to profess a faith in Jesus to be baptized and stories where, if the head of a household is baptized, the whole household is baptized regardless of what the other members of the household believe.  Sometimes it’s clear that the one baptized is immersed, is dunked under the waters of baptism, and sometimes it’s not so clear how much water is used.

There is an obvious connection between the baptisms John performed in the River Jordan and the baptisms practiced in the early church.  John’s baptism was a mark of repentance, of turning, of taking a new direction in life.  It was an act that forgave sins.  While the mark of repentance and entering a new way of life were (and are) definitely part of what baptism was (and is) in the Jesus movement, Christians see baptism as something more.

There is something about the Holy Spirit in baptism.  We heard about it in our reading from Acts.  Paul meets up with a group of people in Ephesus who think they’re following Jesus, but they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit.  They’d been baptized, but only in the tradition of John.  They get baptized in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s the whole question about Jesus being baptized by John.  If John was preaching a baptism for the repentance of sin, why was Jesus baptized?  David Lose points out that in John’s gospel, there’s no report of Jesus’ being baptized.  Instead, the Baptist reports seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus.

The other three Gospels share an account of Jesus’ baptism.  They do not, unfortunately, resolve the question of why Jesus was baptized.  “In fact,” Lose says, “when you listen to the essentials of Mark’s terse account, perhaps what is most striking is that Jesus doesn’t really do or say much of anything that sheds light on what’s going on.  As Mark writes, ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’

“Do you see what I mean?  Jesus is rather passive in all that happens.  But, on second thought, perhaps that’s just the way it should be.  After all, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  This is the start of his long and difficult journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  And so at his baptism, Jesus doesn’t have to do anything, but rather simply receives the gift of the Holy Spirit and of God’s favor.  Indeed, it is a powerful word of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment”[1] that Jesus receives – “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased” – and this points to another thing that baptism is all about.

In baptism, we are claimed by God.  Just as we are, God claims us.  And in that process, we receive a blessed identity:  beloved children of God.  And in that process, God makes a commitment to us and we make a commitment to God.

Let me share with you some of the key points about baptism – points about which Christianity in its many denominations agree.  These are from the World Council of Church’s document[2] on baptism.  Baptism is rooted in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It has been practiced from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  “Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ.  It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people.…  Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection; a washing away of sin; a new birth; an enlightenment by Christ; a re-clothing in Christ; a renewal by the Spirit; the experience of salvation from the flood; an exodus from bondage; and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended.”[3]

I’ll refer you to the World Council of Churches document if you want to unpack what those statements mean, but I want to dig a little deeper into one of them:  Incorporation into the Body of Christ.  This is an important understanding of the meaning of baptism.  Baptism brings us together into the community of believers.  It makes us part of the Body of Christ.  The document says, “baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship.  Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.”[4]

The first question a candidate for baptism is asked in liturgy for baptism that’s in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship is this:  Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?  In Chalice Worship, the Disciples of Christ worship book, there seems to be an assumption that the answer to this question is “yes,” since the person is standing there.  But that is the most basic thing we understand about baptism.  When one is baptized, they become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.

So, if baptism is becoming part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, what is “membership” in a church all about?  Well, in some denominations, I think a fair answer is “not much more than a label.”  If you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re more a member of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, than a member of a particular parish.  But as the polity, the way a denomination works politically, becomes more congregational (with a little “c,” meaning having local autonomy), membership takes on more meaning, and more responsibility.

When you join a congregation that is part of the Disciples of Christ tradition or the United Church of Christ tradition, you become a voting member of that church.  Members vote on church budgets each year, they vote on which members should serve in key leadership positions, they vote on calling their pastors, and they vote on the bylaws that govern how they function.

But being a member is more than voting.  We typically receive new members as part of the worship service because becoming a member is a prayerful and worshipful act.  Lillian Daniel describes it this way:  “You will experience real power in that moment [of joining a church], when you tell the people around you and God that this is now your spiritual home.

“When you join, you make a connection, you join a community.  The Bible’s word for that is ‘covenant.’  When you join, you make a covenant.  A covenant is an exchange of holy promises.  In making a covenant we promise to serve God together.  So it’s not just new members who join the church.  Rather, everyone – new members and existing members – joins one another.  As we make our promises to one another we remember God’s promises to us and promise to serve God as best we are able.”[5]

That’s why joining a church is different from joining a gym.  “When you join a church, you’re not just on the receiving end [of services, the way you are when you join a gym], but on the giving end as well.  You are promising to do more than show up and use the facilities.  Will you hold other people in prayer and in love?  Will you make a contribution to the community by volunteering as you are able and financially?  And let’s be clear, you [join a church] because somewhere in your journey, you sensed that there was more to this life than what you see in front of you.  You sense that God is still speaking.”[6]

That is why, traditionally in both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, joining a church, becoming a member of a church, is seen as a reaffirmation of baptism.  The liturgy we currently use when we receive new members is based on the baptism liturgy.  The questions we ask people who are uniting with the church are questions we ask when someone is baptized.  That is why the bylaws of Niles Discovery Church say, “Any baptized person may seek membership in this church.  Uniting with the congregation is an act of reaffirmation of baptism.”

 

But perhaps it is time to change our bylaws.  More and more people raised without a church background.  So it is becoming more common for people to find a spiritual home in a local church and feel like they don’t know enough about the Bible or Christian history or theology to be ready to make the faith commitment that baptism calls us to.  I’m also finding more and more people who were baptized, typically as infants, are finding themselves to be questioning the most basic thing about faith – that there is a divine something that we call “God” whose love is made visible in the sacrament of baptism.

People from both of these groups may find a home, a spiritual home, at Niles Discovery Church and want to formally commit to being part of this community of faith, even though they have lots of questions about the “faith” part of “community of faith.”  Should we continue to see baptism as a requirement of membership in our church?

An Episcopal priest offered me this analogy:  When someone comes to our church, we immediately issue them a Green Card.  We say they are welcome to stay and be part of the community.  But if they want to be able to vote, they have to take a citizenship test, and that’s the sacrament of baptism.  Then they can register to vote, which is joining the church as a member.

The analogy is insufficient because it sees membership as merely a matter of voting, and as I just said, it’s much more than that.  Membership is a matter of covenant.  Still, is this (what the bylaws currently say about baptism and membership) how we want to function?

I’ll stop there and invite you into some reflection.  And then we’ll carry on the discussion during our Town Hall Meeting.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • Reflect on a memory you have of a baptism (yours or someone else’s)
  • Whether you consider yourself part or not, what does it mean to you to be part of “the faith and family of Jesus Christ”?
  • Whether you’re a member or not, what does it mean to you to be a member of Niles Discovery Church?

____________

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 1 B: Powerful Words for a New Year,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/ (posted and accessed on 4 January 2018).

[2] This is actually from the first part of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” [BEM] adopted in Lima, Peru, in 1982.  You can find the document at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text.

[3] Paragraph 2 of BEM.

[4] Paragraph 5 of BEM.

[5] Lillian Daniel, So You’re Thinking About Joining the Church, a brochure published by the United Church of Christ that is undated.

[6] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 31, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a dream a few weeks back.  I was teaching a high school math class and as a sample problem to told this story.  My father decided to open a pet store.  The grand opening was intensely popular.  You would not believe the lion he had coming out the front door.

I don’t think it was an angel giving me a message.  Or maybe it was – and the message is, “Don’t quite your day job.”

Matthew begins his gospel not so much humorously as ironically.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  It’s a sign that he’s the fulfillment of the messianic promise.  And yet the first to recognize him and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazers, immigrants from the east.

We’ve mushed together the birth narratives, those overtures to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We’ve tried to harmonize these two different tunes.  This is the crèche my family used when I was growing up.  It was my mother’s childhood crèche, and it may have been her mother’s childhood crèche, though I don’t know that for sure.  You’ll notice both a shepherd and kings are at this stable.  I think there used to be more shepherds.  And an angel I would put on the stable roof.  I’m sure scenes like this contribute to the harmonization of the two stories in our minds.

I love the carol “The First Noel,” though it, too, contributes to the amalgamation of the two stories.  And it’s a bit of a pity, because if we take Matthew’s story by itself, we’ll see some interesting things going on, things we miss when we read the stories together.  And even when we do manage to separate Luke’s story from Matthew’s, we need to free ourselves from the images of kings.  We have to resist the influence of Hebrew scriptures like Psalm 72’s lines about kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king and falling down before him.  We have to let go of the notion that they were kings, and the number 3, and the names and faces the magi were given in the seventh century.[1]

When we do this, when we get to a purer reading of Matthew’s story, we’ll see things like that fact that the magi’s visit comes “after Jesus was born.”  Those are the words Matthew uses in the first verse of Chapter 2.  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem …”  He might be walking by the time the magi visit.

And when the magi get to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, “they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (verses 10 and 11).  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem.

At least Botticelli comes close.  The house is broken down, but there are no shepherds or barn animals.  And it seems that the whole town has turned our when these strangers from the east show up.

And, did you notice that the magi ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  Herod asks his advisors “where the Messiah was to be born” (verses 2 and 4).  “The Messiah, for Matthew, is King of the Jews.”

But think about this:  Matthew doesn’t use the title “king” again “until Pilate judges and executes Jesus at the end of his gospel.”[2]  Matthew is doing something here, tying together Herod and Pilate.  I think he’s reminding the readers that Roman power was behind any power Herod the Great had.  And, as we’ll look at more closely next week, the desire to kill Jesus starts at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  “Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill, and Roman-appointed Pilate succeeds in killing Jesus, the messianic King of the Jews.”[3]

But I was going to say something about how this overture to Matthew’s gospel is ironic.  First, the magi, these Gentile immigrants from the east, are the first to recognize and worship Jesus.  Then there’s Herod, who knows enough to know that this news is a political threat, but who doesn’t know his Hebrew scriptures enough to know where the Messiah is to be born.  Herod must be wondering, as Will Willimon noted, “What does the future hold?  Can a baby threaten the government?  Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?”[4]

And then there are the gifts the magi bring.  We know who Jesus is, so maybe this presentation of gifts makes a little sense to us.  At least, it made a little sense in my childhood sense of the story.  These are wise men, after all, so they would know who Jesus really is.

But imagine how ridiculous, preposterous this must have sounded to the people for whom Matthew was first writing.  Star gazers from another culture and country coming to a peasant family in backwater Bethlehem and presenting expensive gifts.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh – this does not make sense!  No reaction from Jesus’ mom and dad – this does not make sense!  People with power giving gifts to people who had no power – this does not make sense!

“In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status,” Diana Butler Bass notes.  “When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations.  Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy.  In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude – in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe.  Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.”[5]

By having foreign people of stature present gifts to Jesus, an infant peasant, Matthew is turning gift-giving on its head.  “Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts – they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod, or some rival ruler.  And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached.  Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.

“This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement.”[6]  What happened in Bethlehem was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression.  Rather, what Matthew is doing is proclaiming the same sort of thing that that is on Mary’s lips in Luke’s gospel when she sings, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

In Matthew’s gospel, these rich stargazers leave their gifts with a poor family and “go away empty-handed.  No strings attached.  No more quid pro quo.  No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.”[7]

Next to Holy Week, Christmas just might be the most political time of the church year.  Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is trembling in his boots.  There’s a new king in town, only he doesn’t rule from Herod Tower.  No, this new king is living in the backwoods town of Bethlehem.  And he’s not welcomed by the political elite or the 1 percent or even by biblical scholars at the Temple, but by immigrant nonbelievers from the east.

These are the themes that play out in Matthew’s overture to his gospel.  A baby causes fear in the halls of the powerful.  An infant gathers around himself outsiders, those whom the principalities and powers would oppress.  This is the baby who will with his people start dismantling the empire stone by stone without raising an army of firing a shot.[8]

There is one more thing about this story – the angel angle.  Actually, Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that an angel is involved – only a dream.  But in other dreams in Matthew’s gospel, it is often an angel speaking through the dream.

When the magi come to Herod to inquire about the newborn king, Herod orders them to return to him once the find the child.  They don’t.  It’s almost a throwaway line:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Warned in a dream.  How I wish Matthew had fleshed out this part of the story.  I’d love to know how he would have described the dream.  Would there have been an angel with a simple message:  “Don’t go back to Herod; go home by another route”?  Would it have been more symbolic, maybe some star the magi had to interpret?  Might they have been told the reason to avoid Herod?

But Matthew doesn’t elaborate.  All we get is one line.  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

It occurs to me – and I don’t think I’ve ever read someone else interpret the story this way – that the magi were performing civil disobedience.  The king of Israel had ordered them to come back to his court to tell them what they had found.  They didn’t follow the order.  They broke the law.  They went home by another road.

And this is one of the places where I think Matthew’s story intersects with our time.  This is not a time for pacification.  This is a time for resistance.  This is a time for shaking things up.  “We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.”[9]

The entire world is facing the dangers of climate change, and the current President of the United States insists that it isn’t real, calling it “a scam” and pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.  And just this Thursday, he mocked climate science because it’s cold in the eastern United States.

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

  • The top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled since 1968 while, despite the so-called “war on poverty,” the percentage of U.S. families living in poverty has remained essentially unchanged.
  • Though ours is the richest country in the world, 30.6 million children (43 percent) live at or below twice the poverty line, which is considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and laws designed to make it harder to vote.
  • The prison population in the U.S. has grown by 5 times from 1978 to 2015, with non-white prisoner growing from 49% to 66% of those imprisoned.[10]

“Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth-century Christian martyr killed by the powers that ruled El Salvador [in 1980], once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world, in a world still ruled by Herod and Caesar.  So also [I think] we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.  But Good Friday and the descent of darkness do not have the final word – unless we let them.

“Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow him.  Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around him, he is, for Christians, Emmanuel: ‘God with us.’”[11]

This is a great time to be wise people, people willing to obey God and not human authority.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (accessed 26 December 2017).

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 137.

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

[4] William Willimon, “Christmas: Herod in Trouble,” A Peculiar Prophet, https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/christmas-herod-in-trouble/ (posted 19 December 2016; accessed 27 December 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “Why Jesus’ first Christmas gifts were truly shocking,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/25/why-jesus-first-christmas-gifts-were-truly-shocking/?utm_term=.a0e26c852f23 (posted and accessed 25 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sarah Anderson, “10 Reasons to Revive the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/10-reasons-to-revive-the-1968-poor-peoples-campaign/ (posted 4 December 2017; accessed 30 December 2017).

[11] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 243.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:8-20 and Luke 1:46-55
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives is who they say were the first (beyond Mary and Joseph) to recognize the importance of the child.  Matthew tells of magi, learned men coming from the east to pay the child homage.  I’ll talk more about them next week.

Luke says that the first to recognize the importance of the child were shepherds.  And the shepherds didn’t come to this conclusion on their own.  They as a group experienced a visitation from an angel bringing them glad tidings of great joy, telling them about the birth of a child in Bethlehem.  And then the shepherds decided to go check out for themselves what they’d been told.

I’ve been pondering, pretty much all month, this question:  Why shepherds?  The answers lie in the social and political reality of Jesus’ day, and they lie in what Luke was trying to accomplish in his gospel.  Marcus Borg summed up the social and political reality of Jesus day in one sentence:  “Jesus and early Christians lived within the largest and most powerful domination system of the ancient world.”[1]

The good news that Jesus brought, the good news the adult Jesus preached and embodied was and is God’s loving alternative to domination systems.  That’s one reason Luke tell us that angels came to the shepherds and they were the first to receive the news.  Shepherds were part of the masses, the common people, the lower part of the lower classes.[2]

Many scholars have concluded that shepherds were even lower than that.  They say that shepherds were social outcasts in the time of Jesus,[3] and whether or not that’s accurate, it is certain that they led a difficult life on the periphery of the community.  While they were lucky to have employment, their job was pretty much 24/7.  Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter the weather.  They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals.  Each night, the shepherds would gather their flocks into places called “sheepfolds.”  These could be stone walls made by the shepherds or natural enclosures, such as a cave.  In the morning, they led the flocks out to graze.[4]  And so the days went, one after the next.

And this brings us to what Luke was trying to do with his Gospel.  One of Luke’s major concerns is the marginalized.  We get hints of this throughout his birth narrative.  The angel appears to shepherds because they qualify as the “lowly” and the “hungry,” the very people in the political manifesto Mary sang when she embraced God’s mission in this birth.  Luke insists that people who have resources are obligated to care for people who don’t, for the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized.[5]

There’s another thing that Luke is doing by telling us about this angelic visitation to the shepherds – he’s setting up Jesus as the new David.  We’re in Bethlehem, the city of David.  And remember, before he became king of Israel, David was a shepherd.

And then there’s the language the angel uses in the announcement.  The angel calls the baby “a savior” and “the Lord.”  And then the whole angelic host sing of glory to God and peace on earth.  Savior and lord are titles claimed by the Roman emperors from Caesar Augustus onward.  And peace was something Caesar Augustus promised the empire – pax Romana.  Luke is setting up the whole gospel of kingdom of God as being the alternative to the kingdom of Rome.  And Luke is setting up the different ways to peace.  “Augustus became Rome’s Peace-Bringer with peace through violent victory but Jesus became God’s Peace-Bringer with peace through non-violent justice.”[6]

John Dominic Crossan says, “The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment.  For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of [the] … Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was:  religion, war, victory, peace.  Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory.  But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program:  religion, non-violence, justice, peace.  Its mantra was peace through justice.  Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John’s powerful parable:  God’s Kingdom, as distinct from Rome’s Kingdom, precludes violence – not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36).

“Victory’s violence establishes not peace but lull – until the next and always more violent round of war.  The Christian challenge of Christmas is this:  justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God’s world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth.”

Then Crossan asks, “But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all?  Hint:  ask what is fair – in first or 21st century – of the 99 percent of earth’s people and not of the 1 percent.”[7]

We need only go to the Greek island of Lesbos, to the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, to talk to our culture’s equivalent of the shepherds.  More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded in a space meant for 2,330.

Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  “The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Among [the people now forced to call Moria home] are Kareema and her elderly mother, Kamila, who spent the past few years trapped in Deir al-Zour in Syria under the rule of the Islamic State.…  ‘There was no electricity; we were using oil lamps.  It was as though we returned to the Stone Ages,’ Kareema told me.  Though they suffered terribly – ‘We left because there were no longer doctors, hospitals or health care,” she said – nothing prepared mother and daughter for Moria.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…

“The Christmas story is their story more than anyone else’s.  It is a story of displacement, in which Mary and Joseph leave their home and give birth to Jesus in strange city.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is born at the margins of society, poor and wrapped in cloth and laid ‘in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’…

“If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married.  Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside.…

“As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.

“There is much at stake for them in our looking.  If the people I met don’t get out of the camp soon, they risk freezing to death.  But looking at Moira can also teach us about what Christmas really is – a story of how our salvation is bound up in the lives of those who suffer most.”[8]

I think Luke would agree.

In the 14th century, mystic Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”

What good is it, indeed?

Amen.

[1] Marcus Borg, Convictions, reposted on https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/photos/p.1605197432871687/1605197432871687/ on 15 December 2017.

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 48.

[3] See, for instance, https://factsandtrends.net/2015/12/17/christmas-urban-legends-shepherds-as-outcasts/.

[4] “How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus,” American Bible Society, http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/how-people-made-a-living-in-the-time-of-jesus (accessed 23 December 2017).

[5] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 48.

[6] John Dominic Crossan, first light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God, a reader for the “Living the Questions” series, copyright 2009 by livingthequestions.com, page 8. Found online on 23 December 2017 at http://www.unitedchurchgranville.org/uploads/4/2/8/5/4285724/first_light_reader.pdf.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas,” Huffinton Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/the-challenge-of-christma_b_1129931.html (posted 12 December 2011; accessed 23 December 2017).

[8] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

SaveSave

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 21:15-19 and Luke 24:13-24
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the questions Jesus asked as recorded in the Gospels.  We started with the first question recorded:  “What are you looking for?”  Jesus asked it of some people who would become his disciples.  Today, we come to the resurrection.

If I was the resurrected Christ and I was appearing to my disciples, I think I would probably say, “Ta-dah!”  I suppose giving them a blessing would be high on my priority list.  Jesus does offer a blessing in two of John’s and one of Luke’s resurrection stories, but not in any of the others.

I might think, “Here’s my chance to give them one more lesson in theology,” or “Here’s one last chance to offer a word of reassurance.”  Or maybe I’d think, “I should really, really clearly explain what this resurrection thing is and what it is all about, because they’re going to have a hard time understanding it.”

I don’t think asking questions would be high on my priority list.  But I skimmed through the resurrection stories in the gospels and sure enough, the resurrected Christ asks a bunch of questions.  And some of them are fairly common place question.  Like the question straight out of a 1980s sitcom Jesus asks the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

That’s the first thing the resurrected Christ says to the disciples when he encounters them on the road.  “What are you talking about?”

Martin Copenhaver points out how inappropriate another of resurrected Christ’s question is.  This takes place in John’s gospel, just before the reading we heard from that gospel.  “The risen Jesus stands on the beach watching some of his disciples fishing from a boat.  He asks, ‘Have you caught anything to eat?’  [Copenhaver is quoting from the Common English Bible.]  It is a question fishermen are used to hearing, particularly from those who have no experience with fishing.  No fisherman I know would ask the question that way.  It’s just not done.  Phrasing the question that way implies that success is up to the fisherman, which is particularly annoying when the answer is no, as it is in this case.  So the preferred way to ask that question among fishermen is, ‘Any luck?’  But Jesus is a landlubber.”[1]

Or maybe it’s just that the resurrected Christ is obsessed with food.  Not only does he ask the disciples about catching food in John’s gospel, he asks about food in Luke’s gospel, too.  “Do you have anything to eat?”[2]  Coperhaven again:  “That doesn’t sound like the question of a risen Lord.  It sounds more like the question of a teenager arriving home from school:  ‘Hey, I’m starving.  What’s there to eat?’

“Jesus’ disciples respond to his question in the only suitable way:  they give him something to eat, a broiled fish, and he eats it.

“… Apparently, this rising from the dead business really works up an appetite.  Who knew?”[3]

One interpretation of this hungry Resurrected One story is that “Eating in front of his disciples is a way to demonstrate that he is real.  He’s not a ghost.  Ghosts don’t eat.  It’s a way of making clear that Jesus isn’t a figment of his disciples’ imaginations.  The resurrection is not merely a psychological experience in the minds of his followers.  It is Jesus, in the midst of them again, in a way that was previously unknown and as unimaginable to them as it is to us.”[4]

This interpretation makes sense to me, and I think the whole food and the resurrected Christ is much broader and deeper.  When the Emmaus road story moves to food, we remember the communion table.  And when we hear about a hungry resurrected Christ, we remember the hungry people in our city and around the globe.

And then there’s the breakfast on the beach.  Like in Luke’s gospel, the resurrected Christ eats some broiled fish.  Only this time, he’s the chef – or at least that’s how the story sounds to me.  Told by Jesus to cast their nets on the other side of the boat after Jesus had established that they hadn’t caught anything to eat, the disciples come ashore with a net filled with fish.  They find Jesus, a fire, and fish cooking, and Jesus inviting them to breakfast.

When breakfast is winding down, Jesus turns to Peter to talk with him.  “Simon son of John …” – it’s Peter’s formal name.  It reminds me of when my mother called me “Jeffrey” I knew she meant business (and if it was “Jeffrey Sawyer Spencer,” I knew I was in trouble.)

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  It’s not clear what the word ‘these’ is referring to.  I’ve generally heard it to refer to everything else in life, though sometimes I think maybe it’s referring to the life he knew before he knew Jesus, the fishing life.  Simon son of John, do you love me more than you love your old way of life?  But maybe the ‘these’ refers to the other disciples.  Simon son of John, do you love me more than you love your fellow disciples?  Or even, Simon son of John, do you love me more than the other disciples love me?  Maybe it means all of this all at once.

Simon son of John, do you love me?

Is there a question a person can ask that leaves them more vulnerable than that one?  Do you love?

Coperhaven says that “it is disquieting to hear this question from Jesus.  It seems like an unwelcome role reversal.  After all, isn’t it Jesus’ job to love us?  In spite of our stumbling and our bumbling, even in the face of our fickle faith, Jesus is supposed to love us.  Isn’t that the essence of the good news? ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’

“When Jesus asks to be loved, it suggests a vulnerability that I’m not sure I want Jesus to have.  It does not make Jesus sound emotionally needy, exactly, but it does imply that he has emotional needs.  To suggest that Jesus might want love suggests that he might be very much like you or me, because we all want to be loved.  Which, of course, is just the point.  Jesus is like us, vulnerable to the hurts of life, even now, after he is raised.”[5]

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter.

“Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” Peter replies.

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus tells him.

And then it happens a second time.

And then it happens a third time.  It’s like Jesus just won’t let the question go.  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And this third time, Peter’s feelings are hurt.  The gospel writer doesn’t tell us why Peter’s feelings are hurt, but I think Peter interprets this third asking of the question to be an expression of Jesus’ doubts about Peter’s devotion.  “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus doesn’t tend to repeat his questions, so why is he repeating this one?  Is Peter right, that Jesus doubt’s Peter’s devotion?  It could be as simple as being a case of literary symmetry.  In John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter sort of followed at a distance.  He was hanging around Temple while Jesus was inside facing the charges being brought against him.  Three times, Peter is asked if he’s a disciple of Jesus and three times Peter denies knowing Jesus.  And here, three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Perhaps the resurrected Christ is giving Peter three chances to declare his devotion to redeem the three denials.

Perhaps the resurrected Christ knows Peter better than Peter knows himself.  Perhaps Peter needs to be asked three times so that he can hear himself declare his love of Jesus.  Perhaps it was Peter who needed to hear the answers.

But there’s something else happening in the Greek, the language that John’s gospel was written in.  The Greeks have several words for love.  Two of the words are agape and phileoAgape love is the love that comes without conditions, the love that does not ask anything in return, the love that is self-giving and sacrificial.  It is kind of love we associate with Jesus.  It is the kind of love we disciples of Jesus seek to embody, though I think we seldom achieve it.

Phileo love is a sibling love, the love of a deep friendship, a warm and generous love, but not completely unconditional.  It is a kind of love that is more within our grasp.  “The first two times Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ he is using the word agape.  And both times when Peter responds, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you,’ he is using the word phileo.  In other words, Jesus asks Peter if he loves in with the kind of unconditional love associated with agape, but Peter is not able to respond in those terms.  Peter may not be capable of agape yet, but he is able to love Jesus like a brother, like a true friend.

“Recognizing Peter’s limitations, Jesus asks the question a third time, but in a different way.  The third time, when Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ he is using the word phileo.  And this time, Peter is able to respond in kind: ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love (phileo) you.’  In other words, the third time around, Jesus asks the question at Peter’s level.  Peter may not yet be capable of agape, of unconditional love, but he is capable of phileo, of loving Jesus like a brother and friend.  So that is what Jesus asks of him.”[6]

Coperhaven, who has been leading us over these past few weeks as we’ve looked at Jesus as the questioner, points out that “there are three questions that Jesus repeats in the gospels.”[7]  Scattered through John’s gospel, Jesus asks, “What (or who) are you looking for?”  Repeated in three of the Gospels, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And here in John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly asks Peter, “Do you love me?”

“Those three questions, read together, capture so much about what it means to encounter Jesus. …

“‘What are you looking for?’ is a question for those who yearn for God knows what (quite literally) and end up concluding that what they are yearning for is God.

“‘What do you want me to do for you?’ is the question asked by a Lord who acts more like a servant, eager to tend to our needs.

“‘Do you love me?’ is the question asked by someone who wants to be in relationship with you and is willing to become completely vulnerable in order to do so.

“If you want to grasp what a Christ life entails, repeat often these three questions and hold them close.”[8]

Amen.

[1] Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 120.

[2] Luke 24:41.

[3] Copenhaver, op. cit., 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 125-126.

[6] Ibid, 127-128.

[7] Ibid, 128.

[8] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 15:21-39 and Psalm 139:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Why, Pastor Jeff?  Why?”  She didn’t usually call me “Pastor Jeff.”  Typically, I was simply “Jeff.”  But her child, not yet in kindergarten, was in the local Children’s Hospital having just been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  “Why did God do this to my son?” she asked me.

I don’t remember ever feeling so inadequate to the calling.

At a theological level, I didn’t (and don’t) believe God gave her child diabetes.  At a medical level, I knew there was something strange going on with her family’s autoimmune system.  Both of her boys – this youngster and her eldest child – had Crohn’s disease.  And her adult brother had recently gone through a Guillain-Barré crisis.

But her question wasn’t a medical one, nor was it a theological one.  Her question was a lament from the cross:  “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”  And I didn’t know what to say.

These words from today’s gospel lesson have echoed in my mind and heart as news of the earthquake along the Iran/Iraq border broke.  I imagine similar cries were made this week in Greece and Sri Lanka, just as they were made in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and across the Caribbean.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

According to Matthew and Mark, this question is the final thing Jesus said before he died.  A question is the final thing Jesus said before he died.  “And yet, the question Jesus asks on the cross is different from all his other questions.  It isn’t a rhetorical question or a teaching tool.  It is not offered for the benefit of Jesus’ hearers.  Rather, it is an agonizing question that is difficult to hear.  This question stands alone, which is appropriate because it is itself an expression of isolation:  ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’  This question is raw and threatening, like an open wound.  It sounds like an expression of despair, of hopelessness, of doubt even, which, of course, is just what it is.  And it hangs in the air unanswered.

“We are never very good at letting those whom we admire be fully human, shed human tears, or express human agony.  And when the one we hear expressing despair is Jesus, it is not just our view of him that can be shaken but also our view of God and our view of ourselves.  If Jesus doubts, even for a moment, it can seem like enough to scatter our light and fragile faith.”[1]

Even without this moment recorded in the Gospels, feelings of injustice, deep hurt, the seeming absence of God in our own lives is a threat to our faith.  And there on the cross, when Jesus is experiencing true injustice, excruciating pain, and deep loneliness, he does not reassure us with a statement of faith.  He does not reassure himself or us by quoting Psalm 139, “If I ascend to heaven, you [God] are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, [the world of the dead,] you are there.”[2]  No, he quotes Psalm 22.  He quotes the first verse of Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is called a Psalm of lament.  There is a whole genre of biblical literature called “lament.”  There’s a whole book of the Hebrew Bible that is call “Lamentations.”  About a third of the Psalms fall into this genre.  Martin Copenhaver claims that there are more prayers of lament in the Bible than there are prayers of praise.[3]

Psalms of lament typically follow a standard pattern.  They start with an expression of grief and consternation – typically a complaint that God isn’t doing God’s job (or at least not going what the lamenter thinks is God’s job).  There is usually some sort of “Get with it, God,” message in there, too.  Then the lament turns to a plea for God’s help.  And finally, it ends with an expression of affirmation and trust, often including a reminder – probably there to remind the one lamenting more than to remind anyone else – of how God has been faithful in the past.

“One might summarize the movements of a lament in this way:  First, ‘God, you are not doing your job.’  Second, ‘God, you need to do your job.’  Third, ‘I am confident you will do your job because you have in the past.’”[4]

Commentators have suggested that Jesus must have known this pattern of lament, as would have those reading the gospels.  They might say that while Jesus only quotes the beginning of the Psalm, he knows how it ends; “God did not despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered – God did not hide God’s face from me.  No, God listened when I cried out for help.”[5]

These commentators suggest that Jesus didn’t need to quote the rest of the Psalm.  He knew where it was headed, as do we.  So the line that is quoted isn’t quite such a cry of abandonment, it isn’t quite such an expression of desolation as it first seems.

Others say that, even though this is a cry of desolation, it is still a cry of faith:  “My God, my God.”  “Jewish author Elie Wiesel, who as a boy was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, [told] a story that reflects some of this same dynamic:

‘Inside the kingdom of night I witnessed a strange trial.  Three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, decided one winter evening to indict God for having allowed his children to be massacred.  An awesome conclave, particularly in view of the fact that it was held in a concentration camp.  But what happened next is to me even more awesome still.  After the trial at which God had been found guilty as charged, one of the rabbis looked at the watch which he had somehow managed to preserve in the kingdom of night and said, “Ah, it is time for prayers.”  And with that the three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, all bowed their heads and prayed.’

“Perhaps the words of the persecuted Jesus may be viewed in the same way.  The God who has been found guilty of absence remains a God to be approached through prayer.  The God who is absent is still ‘My God, my God.’  In moments of agony that is sometimes the closest we can come to a statement of faith.”[6]

These interpretations may be helpful, but they are, I think, also potentially dangerous.  If they take away the sting of Jesus’ words, if they soften the depth of his anguish, his pain, his sense of abandonment and desolation, they do us a disservice.  “[A]s difficult as it may be to let these words stand as stark and threatening as they sound, it is only when we do so that we can receive their true blessing.”[7]

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is “the question of those who wonder how it is that circumstances seem to conspire against them and who begin to conclude that God is in on the conspiracy.”[8]  It is the question of the father in the waiting room at Children’s Hospital.  It is the question of the mother clutching her child crushed by a building that falls in an earthquake.  It is the question of each one of us when we feel abandoned.

Martin Coperhaven points out, “No one feels so alone as the one who feels deserted by God.  And note the cruel irony that the absence of God is only a problem for the believer.  Furthermore, the greater one’s faith, the greater the potential for disillusionment when that faith is directed toward a God who seems to have left without a trace.  It is the one who rejoices most in God’s presence who is the most bereft when God is gone.  By this measure, could anyone have felt so deserted, so alone, all, all alone, as Jesus on the cross?

“‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  It is difficult to let that question stand, raw and not explained away, yet there are gracious benefits in doing just that.”[9]  This question, more than any other he asked, shows us how truly human Jesus was.  It is a question that reminds me that Jesus has walked in the same darkness as me.  It is a question that reminds me that Jesus experienced as deep a hopelessness as I might feel, and that gives me hope.

Amen.

[1] Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 109-110.

[2] Psalm 139:8

[3] Copenhaver, op. cit., 111.

[4] Ibid, 112.

[5] Psalm 22:24, inclusive language mine.

[6] Copenhaver, op. cit., 113, quoting Robert McAfee Brown quoting Elie Wiesel in Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 154.

[7] Ibid, 114.

[8] Ibid, 115.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 6:19-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I imagine there won’t be much more than a handful of people here today who don’t know someone who lost something in the Sonoma and Napa County fires earlier this month.  A fellow bass in the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus has an apartment in San Francisco and some property in Wikiup, an area just a little north of Santa Rosa.  This is what is left of his vacation home on that property.

He’s a collector of cars, not really antiques, but vintage cars.  There is nothing salvageable left of the cars he had on this property.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories to tell.  If not from these fires, from the hurricanes that have devastated the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas over the past several weeks.  Or perhaps you have a personal story of the sudden, uncontrollable loss of property or household.  These losses seem so capricious, as if Mother Earth is suddenly angry and starts flailing her arms, destroying everything they hit.

“At least you’re okay.”  “At least you’re safe.”  I suppose I could go back and count up how many times people responded to my chorus friend’s Facebook posts about not knowing what was happening in the evacuation zone, then about seeing a satellite photo of the area that suggested his home was destroyed, and then of being allowed to see for himself and of these pictures of ash.  And, yes, I am very grateful my friend is safe, but that doesn’t make the loss any less real.

My friend is, I think, still mostly in a state of shock.  He’s seen the nothingness of the ash, the haunting witness of the chimney, the crumpled exoskeleton of his cars.  But the depth of the loss hasn’t set in.  For the loss isn’t just of the stuff.  It’s the loss of the tangible memories that will need to be grieved.

When my home was broken into several years ago, the thieves took the jewelry box on my dresser.  They didn’t open it, or they would have left it.  It has nothing of resale value in it.  But it had my mother’s sorority pin in it, and a pen knife with the name of the company her father started when he immigrated to the United States engraved on the handle.  And even more important to me, it had a lapel pin I bought my mother when I was 9 or 10 years old, of a dove.  Smaller than the end of my finger, that pin is the one thing I miss most of all.

The thieves stole stuff, sure enough.  But they also stole those tangible memories of my mother.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  Jesus might as well have said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where wildfires and hurricanes consume and where thieves break in and steal.”

In context, Jesus has talking about spiritual things.  When you give alms, be so quiet about it that even your left hand doesn’t even know what your right hand is doing.  When you pray, don’t make a show of it; keep it simple; keep it between you and God.  When you fast, don’t make a show of it; keep it between you and God.  And then he says, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth …”

Because of the context, some people think that the “treasures” Jesus is talking about must also be intangible, spiritual things.  However, I think when he talks about the “treasures” we store up on earth, he is literally taking about things, things that can be destroyed, that moth and rust and fire and hurricane literally consume.

Tom Sine asks and interesting question:  “How many of us unwittingly have allowed aspirations and values of the imperial global shopping mall define for us what is important and what is of value – what is the ‘good life’?”[1]  I know I succumb to the cultural definition of “the good life,” and I’m a professional Jesus-follower.  Despite my best intentions, I get caught up in what Sine calls “the up-scaling impulses of our middle-class lifestyles.”[2]  “If we are serious about finding a way to embody more authentically the aspirations and values of our faith instead of those of the culture, we need … to rediscover the kingdom of God as not only a theology we affirm on Sunday but a reason to get out of bed on Monday.”[3]

This will take new images, a new mind-set, a new way of thinking.  The pathway to those new images, to that new mind-set, to that new way of thinking is right there in today’s gospel lesson.  We need to store up our treasures in heaven.

Maybe there’s a problem with the word “in.”  “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  The word “in” implies that heaven is a place, the place we go to when we die.  And while heaven may be what God has instore for us after this life ends, it is certainly a reality here and now.  Heaven, the kin-dom of God, is at hand; it is within you; it is now.

So, how do we dream ourselves into, live ourselves into, serve ourselves into, celebrate ourselves into that reality that is already here?  How can we act ourselves into a new way of thinking and seeing and being that frees us from the valuing of things so that we can value each other and the rest of creation, so that we can value relationships?  Jesus says it has to do with our relationship with the material, particularly with money.

David Weiss somewhat amusingly write about Jesus’ relationship with money, with things.  “Although I suspect that Jesus’ views on wealth sit rather uncomfortably beside our own, he didn’t have a problem with material goods.  After all, he knew how to throw a party; he entertained thousands (albeit on rather simple fare: loaves and fishes) and still had leftovers (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10).  He turned water into wine, and not just into Mogen David (or worse, Boone’s Farm!); we’re talking a vintage wine that impressed the connoisseurs (John 2:1-10).  And he didn’t seem to mind at all when a woman of some means (regardless of her reputation) bathed his feet with costly perfume in a scene so suggestive that it unnerved even the Calvin Kleins of the first century Jewish community (Luke 7:36-50).

“Yet Jesus saw a clear priority between goods and people.  Goods are here in order to serve the needs and celebrate the joys of people.  People are not here in order to accumulate goods; nor simply to labor so that others might accumulate goods; and least of all to become pawns in a system in which wealth takes on a life of its own and bends human lives at all levels to its own inhuman and inexorable yearning to see more and more of itself.”[4]

When Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he is inviting us to look at how we use things.  Take a look at your bank and credit card statements and see how you spend your money.  Take a look at where and how your wealth is invested.  That’s where your treasure is.  That’s what’s important to you.  That’s what your value.  That’s where your heart is.

Today, as you know, is Pledge Sunday.  We’ve been traveling along the Generous Way of Jesus, and today we take a stand.  Today we say, “I’m going to store up this portion of my money in heaven by investing in the church.”  (Then it’s the responsibility of us as a community to make sure those investments get used to further the kin-dom of God.)

So, here’s what’s going to happen.  In a moment, you will be invited forward.  We ask that you bring your pledge, today’s offering, your green attendance sheet – whatever gift you are ready to make today.  Come forward to either side of the communion table, place your gift in one of the baskets and receive a blessing from Pastor Brenda or me.  I know that there are people who pledged online; if you’re one of them, come forward and receive a blessing.  If you’re visiting for the first time or if you’re still fairly new to the church, we don’t expect you to make a pledge.  Still, please come forward with your attendance sheet and let that be your offering, and receive a blessing.  There’s no particular order in which we’re asking people to come forward – just come when you feel moved to do so.

So, my friends, my fellow sojourners along the Generous Way of Jesus, come in celebration, come is hope, come in love.

Amen.

[1] Tom Sine, “Making It Real,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/making-it-real (written in 2008; accessed 16 October 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David R. Weiss, “Putting the Rich on Notice,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/putting-rich-notice (posted written in 1998; accessed 16 October 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

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

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid, 87.

[6] Ibid, 89.

[7] Ibid, 94.

[8] Ibid, 92.

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