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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 18:15-30 and Luke 18:35–19:9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
One of the things that biblical scholarship has embraced quite fully is the idea that one needs to understand the cultural context in which a scripture was written if one is going to fully understand what a scripture might mean for that time which, in turn, gives us some sense of what it might mean for today. So, one needs to understand the cultural context of Roman occupied Judea about 2,000 years ago if one is going to understand what the gospel writers meant and what Jesus was all about. And I think knowing what the gospel writers mean and what Jesus was all about is pretty important to this community, Niles Discovery Church, since we are a community of Jesus-followers. So, let’s spend a little while reflecting on Jesus’ cultural context.
The world into which Jesus was born and grew up was what Marcus Borg and other scholars call “an imperial form of a preindustrial agricultural domination system. This was the most common type of society from the development of agriculture … until the industrial revolution of a few centuries ago. The piling up of adjectives – imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system – may be inelegant and even discouraging, but each illuminates a central feature of Jesus’s world.”
Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. By “agricultural,” we mean it was an agrarian culture. Food wasn’t simply hunted and gathered; it was cultivated. Being “preindustrial,” the fuel source for work – agricultural and otherwise – was human or animal muscle.
Now we get to the interesting words: imperial domination system. Domination systems are characterized by four primary features. “First, these societies were politically oppressive. They were ruled by a few, typically by a monarchy and aristocracy and their associates. With their extended families, the ruling elites (as they are commonly called) were usually about 1 to 2 percent of the population.… Ordinary people had no voice or power in the shaping of society.
“Second, these societies were economically oppressive. The wealthy and powerful acquired a high percentage of the society’s annual production of wealth, typically from half to two-thirds [of the wealth].…
“Third, these societies were religiously oppressive. According to religion as developed by the elites, rulers ruled by divine right, and the social order and its laws reflected the will of God. Rulers maintained that they did not set it up this way – God did. Of course, religion sometimes became the source of protest against such claims. But in all premodern societies known to us the wealthy and powerful used religion to legitimate their place in the social order.
“Fourth, these societies were marked by armed conflict, by organized violence. Elites could increase their wealth and power only by increasing agricultural production from their own people or by acquiring land and its agricultural production from another society. The ruling elites thus needed armies, whether to increase their own holdings or to defend their holdings against others. Wars were common. They were not fought for nationalistic reasons … but were initiated by ruling elites for the sake of acquiring wealth from the agricultural lands of neighboring societies.”
The result of these commonalities of domination systems was that they ended up having two classes. Yes, there were distinctions within the two classes, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but there were just two classes. In that world, “there was no ‘middle class’ in our sense of a bulge in the middle. Rather, there was a very small class at the very top, no significant middle, and the vast majority of the population (around 90 percent) at the bottom.”
The divisions between these two classes were political – there were the rulers and the ruled – and economic – there were the wealthy, their retainers (government and religious officials, military officers and bureaucrats, managers and stewards, scribes and servants, and urban merchants who sold to them – about 5 percent of the population), and the peasant class.
The typical way to depict this social structure is with a pyramid. Here’s one I found on the web. The problem with this depiction is that it suggests that there was a middle class of sorts. I think an old oilcan is a much better graphic. The elites and their retainers make up the long neck of the oilcan, and the base holds the peasant class This group was “mostly agricultural workers; some owned small parcels of land and others were tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or day laborers. It also included other manual workers such as fishermen, construction workers, artisans, miners, and low ranking servants. At the very bottom were the radically marginalized: the homeless, beggars, the lame and blind, the unclean and untouchable,” and slaves.
Tiberius was Caesar, he was at the top. His local rulers – Pilate, governor of Judea; Herod Antipas, “king” of Galilee; Philip, ruling the area north and east of Galilee – were all beholden to the top of the oilcan. They had power only as long as their patron allowed them to have power. Thus, though the brothers Herod and Philip were Jews, they were first and foremost collaborators with the Roman Empire.
Jesus and his family were part of the peasant class. If Joseph was a carpenter, he would have been a laborer who, if he got work today, would have money to buy food today. If he didn’t get work, his family went hungry. That’s the world Jesus grew up in. That’s the world in which Jesus heard the Hebrew Prophets read. That’s the world in which the story of the Exodus was told. That’s the world that shaped him.
90 percent of the population were like Jesus, at least in this regard. 90 percent. I think it’s fair to call them the multitudes.
In his parables and actions, Jesus “constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management – the stewards, tax collectors, and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.”
Jesus addressed the social realities of his day by constantly turning the oilcan over. Through his actions and words, he lifted up a vision of what could be. He called this vision “the kingdom of God.” While this may have come from his experience in an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system, it also seems to have come from his compassion. Matthew describes Jesus looking at the multitudes and then write this: “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
We see this attitude in our readings today. First, there’s an exchange about children. No adult male would waste his time with children, at least not children who were not his own. His disciples thought that their important teacher has important things to do, so they sent the children away. But Jesus rebuked them, saying that the kingdom of God belongs to them. To them. To children. In the hierarchy of the peasant class, children were pretty darn low. But Jesus turns the oil can upside down.
Luke juxtaposes this interchange about the children with an encounter with “a certain ruler.” This is someone from somewhere along the long, narrow neck of the oilcan. He wants eternal life, the life that is full, the life of the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. Become like them. Become part of the multitude and turn the oilcan upside down.
How hard it is to let go of power, be it economic or political or religious. The ruler really didn’t like Jesus’ suggestion of what to do. “It is easier,” Jesus says, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Society would tell you that Jesus didn’t have time for a blind beggar. After all, someone who is disabled and a beggar is way down there with the children – maybe even lower. But Jesus says, “Bring him to me,” and gives him vision. And the oilcan is turned over.
And Luke again juxtaposes this story with an encounter of someone who is rich. Zacchaeus was a Roman collaborator (for he collected taxes), so that put him right around the connection of the narrow neck of the oilcan to the main body of the can. He was curious about who this Jesus was that people were all excited about. Jesus goes to his home (how upsetting that must have been to the multitudes) to share a meal. Zacchaeus says he is giving away half his possessions to the poor. Half his possessions. And, he says, if I’ve been a cheat (something tax collectors were notorious for being), that he would pay back four times what he cheated.
This is a story of someone there at the bottom of the neck stepping away from power and joining the multitudes. Jesus characterizes this as “salvation coming to this house.”
Those four examples come from just one chapter in one gospel. The gospels are full of such stories, of Jesus siding with the multitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) The Catholics have a term for this phenomenon. They call it God’s “preferential option for the poor.”
Latin American liberation theologians (mostly Catholic, but some Protestants, too) noticed “a trend throughout biblical texts, where there is a demonstrable preference given to powerless individuals who live on the margins of society.” God, they concluded, must side with the poor whenever there’s a question. That’s certainly what I see Jesus doing.
So what does that mean for us? To quote Catholic canon law, “The Christian faithful are … obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.” If God takes the side of the poor, then we who call ourselves Christians have an obligation, first and foremost, to care for the poor and vulnerable.
Which brings us to today. We are two weeks into the Trump presidency. Speaking only for myself here, I have seen actions he has taken – formal, like Executive Orders, and informal, like insulting comments at the National Prayer Breakfast – that have upset me and in some cases caused me to fear for our constitutional democracy. Some of the analysis I’ve read has added to this anxiety. And so has my reading of the Bible.
I planned today’s readings and topic a year ago. As I’ve prepared for this sermon, I’ve read some scholarly work comparing the Roman imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system with the United States, including sections of Richard Horsley’s 2003 book, Jesus and Empire. He finds many parallels between the first century Roman Empire and the United States of America. If I may quote him.
“Both in the period of settlement and in the Revolutionary War, the colonists and rebels understood themselves as a biblical people, the new Israel achieving liberation from political and religious tyranny and establishing a new democratic covenant. In the excitement of independence, however, political leaders reached for a more grandiose sense of what they were about. The new nation was a new Rome, practicing republican virtue. They soon pretended, however, that building an empire would not corrupt that virtue. … Despite the hesitation of some, the American Republic like the Roman Republic proceeded to build an empire, practicing the same brutality against the people it conquered.”
In drawing parallels between the Roman Empire and the American Empire, Horsley points to our engagement in armed conflict, from the conquest of the land through the near genocide of the Native people, to the conquest of half of Mexico in war, to the seizing of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, to our undeclared war in Vietnam, to the killings by U.S. trained death squads in Latin America.
He points to our political oppression – not so much at home (at least not yet), but like the Roman Empire, in other territories, squashing political freedom in other countries like Guatemala and Iran under President Eisenhower and Chile under President Nixon. His book was published before our overthrow of the government in Iraq.
And he points to our economic oppression wielded internationally through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He notices that we consume 75 percent of the world resources while we have only 4.4 percent of the world’s population.
The only thing missing from Borg’s list of hallmarks of an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system is religious oppression, and with President Trump’s attempted ban on some Muslim immigrants and refugees and the fact that one of his chief advisors has a record as an anti-Semite, we may have that fourth hallmark now.
I don’t know what we should do politically about this situation – I’m not a political scientist. I am, however, a theologian. And I can tell you where Jesus would be. Jesus would be with the multitudes. And I can tell you what God’s preference is. God has a preferential option for the poor. And maybe those realities can inform what we, a Christian community, should be doing.
As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt like one of the multitude, or like one of the elites; or
… the idea of Jesus having a “preferential option for the poor”; or
… the image of some group of people you normally turn away from and repeat these words silently: “They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
 Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 79.
 Ibid, 81-82.
 Ibid, 83.
 Kira Dault, “”What is the preferential option for the poor?” U.S. Catholic: Faith in Real Life, http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201501/what-preferential-option-poor-29649 (posted January 2015; accessed 1 February 2017).
 Quoted in Ibid.
If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.
I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”
I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.
While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.
Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.
Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.
To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.
And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.
As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:
For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.
The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.
When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.
Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.
While I will not be at this Clergy Day of Action, my prayers will be … and I hope to find a way to be physically present with those who are protecting our mother earth some time in the new year.
Put on the whole blanket of God, to keep you warm in the Great Plains November. Our struggle is not only against corporations and against the authorities that line up with them, but mostly against the almost cosmic powers of racism, against the spiritual evil with so much terrible history, so much powerful media, and so many insidious whispers – this is not my battle.
Therefore take up the whole blanket of God, so that you may be united on November 3, having come from the love in your heart to stand firm in justice. Therefore fasten the belt of listening to those whose land this is and who have been here since April, and put on the sweater or jacket or poncho of community. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to dance, walk or be jailed for the water of life…
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Today, I am feeling angry, a righteous anger about how racism is continuing to play itself out in government policy and action. And I am wanting to “do something.” So I started by researching what I could do and now I share this incomplete list of things you and I can do, even though most of us are far away from the front lines.
The Seattle Times published a pretty good (though overly simple) summary about the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the water protectors (led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) who are protesting the DAPL. You can read it here.
The summary fails to note some important things:
- While the pipeline is probably safer than transporting the oil by rail (Bakkan oil is extremely volatile, making train transport very risky), that does not mean that the pipeline is safe. Spills (and explosions) are still probable at some point along the almost 1200-miles of the DAPL route. (Bullet point updated 11/29/16.)
- For the Native Americans on the front lines, this is an act of prayer, a spiritual practice.
- There is insufficient explanation why they call themselves “Protectors,” not “protesters.” See video below. #WaterIsLife
- The article fails to speak about the dangers of extracting any (Bakkan or otherwise) carbon (in the form of fossil fuels) from the ground and putting it in the atmosphere. While the Standing Rock Tribe’s objections are about the dangers to the waters and the lands, the dangers of climate change are an important reason to oppose all fossil fuel infrastructure construction. As the hashtag says, when it comes to fossil fuels, we need to #KeepItInTheGround.
- The conduct of police agencies has been questionable throughout this protest, including shooting at media and protester drones, strip searching people arrested for misdemeanors, and jamming cell phone service during mass arrests.
- Gathering a full background picture would be incomplete without reading the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s two-page background paper. You can read it here.
- The specifics of the Standing Rock Tribe’s legal claims can be found in this court filing.
Things You Can Do
- Some news sources are covering the issue better than others. I’ve appreciated NPR’s coverage.
- Bill McKibben wrote a great piece on the pipeline in the New York Times on 10/28/16. Read it here. (This link added 10/29/16.)
- Social media are proving to be helpful, often providing more accurate and more up-to-the-minute coverage than classic news media. I’m following #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) and #IStandWithStandingRock on Twitter; they probably work on other social media, too.
- Youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have a petition you’re invited to sign.
- There is a petition on the White House website calling for the cessation of construction of the DAPL.
- There is a similar petition on the Care2 website.
- The ACLU has a petition calling for a demilitarization of the police response.
- CREDO action has a petition calling for North Dakota and the Department of Justice to respect journalists’ freedoms and a petition calling on the President to stope the DAPL.
- Moveon.org has a petition, too. (This link added 10/29/16)
Contact Politicians directly
When leaving a message stating your thoughts about this subject please be professional.
- Call North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200.
- Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414
- Call the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, (202) 514-4609, asking them to send observers to make sure the Protectors civil rights are not violated.
- Tweet to these officials on a daily basis (or as close to that as you can manage): @NDGovDalrymple, @POTUS, @BarackObama, @DOJ, Attorney General @LorettaLynch
- Call the Army Corps of Engineers and demand that they reverse the permit: (202) 761-5903
Call the Companies
Call, email, and/or write the executives of the companies that are building the pipeline:
- Lee Hanse Executive Vice President Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 800 E Sonterra Blvd #400 San Antonio, Texas 78258 Telephone: (210) 403-6455 Lee.Hanse@energytransfer.com
- Glenn Emery Vice President Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 800 E Sonterra Blvd #400 San Antonio, Texas 78258 Telephone: (210) 403-6762 Glenn.Emery@energytransfer.com
- Michael (Cliff) Waters Lead Analyst Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 1300 Main St. Houston, Texas 77002 Telephone: (713) 989-2404 Michael.Waters@energytransfer.com
Make a donation
- Donate to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
- Purchase and ship a specific item from the Sacred Stone Camp Supply List
- Contribute to the Sacred Stone Camp Legal Defense Fund
- Contribute to the Sacred Stone Camp gofundme account
- Contribute to the Red Warrior Camp gofundme account
- Go to the Sacred Stone Camp Amazon Wishlist and send them some stuff
Join an action
This is gleaned from https://nodaplsolidarity.org. Go there for more ideas and details.
- Take action in your own community. Target the Army Corp of Engineers, banks, pipeline companies, corporations and elected officials behind the pipeline. Taking action includes lock-downs at offices, sit-ins, taking up space, rallies, call-in days, divesting from banks, mass mailings, and interruptions. Register at NoDAPLSolidarity.org to join the network of Global Solidarity.
- Organize yourself and/or large groups of people from your community to come to Standing Rock. Contact them at Organizing@NoDAPLSolidarity.org to discuss details and schedule a time frame.
When you think back to 2015, about what happened that year, what events come to your mind?
I’ve been digging through back issues of the Christian Century that I hadn’t read over the past 18 months or so, finding little gems (some of which I’ve posted here; some of which I’ve filed away for future sermons). The 23 December 2015 edition included a collection of quotes from they year — this is something that they do in their final issue of the year. The collection brought back memories of things that happened that year, some of them echoing through this year. Here are a few of the quotes (with a definite USA bias).
UK columnist Giles Fraser had an important insight about the “war on terror,” which could be repeated this year (if you increase the number of years he mentioned):
The war on terror is now in its 15th year. And yet things are demonstrably no better. Why? Because we still have no vision of what peace might look like.
Do you remember that Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress in 2015? Sadly, still true today.
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.
One of the major tragedies of 2015 was the murder of nine members of a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was stuck by how quickly members of that church offered forgiveness to the accused shooter, Dylann Roof. I wasn’t surprised by devout Christians offering forgiveness; I am surprised — impressed, really — at how quickly they could offer it. Speaking to Roof, Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, said:
You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all move toward forgiveness as faithfully.
Justice took a huge step forward in the United States in 2015 when equal marriage rights were granted same-gender-loving people in all 50 states. This right continues to be celebrated in 2016, and Justice Kennedy’s words were and are important. Here’s a brief example:
It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do not respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.
One of the amazing things that happened during the presidential campaign was when Bernie Sanders when to fundamentalist Christian Liberty University. He said how important it is to talk with and listen to people you disagree with, and so he went to this setting. Here’s one of the things he said about the income and wealth gap in the United States.
There is no justice … when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And it your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.
Do you have a quote from 2015 (or event) that you think was really important? Add it in a comment.
Elections are about answering questions — not just about who will be elected, but about what we as a society value. We are just a little over two weeks away from an election in my country, the United States of America, and the presidential contest is getting all the attention and press. Interesting since who gets elected to that office will still leave some important questions unanswered. The President’s powers are limited, so who holds that office will not determine the answers to questions like:
- Will low-income Americans earn a higher minimum wage?
- How will the public pensions issue be resolved without leaving current and future retirees financially insecure?
- How will funding be allocated to public universities or for child-care assistance or for mental health care?
- Will poor people have access to health insurance?
It’s the so-called “down ticket” elections that will answer these questions and others like them. And I’m not just talking about who we elect as U.S. Senators and Representatives. As an editorial in The Christian Century put it (11 November 2015), “The real action is at the state and local levels. This is where minimum wage ordinances are being debated and passed, where public unions and social welfare advocates are squaring off against budget hawks, where federal money often arrives in the form of flexible block grants that might or might not be put to effective use.”
The editorial goes on, “Local levels of government are also where an individual’s voice and vote count the most. And the smaller the jurisdiction, the more likely a political conversation will involve citizens who know each other — people whose real relationships can help get them past slogans and entrenched positions.”
So, pay attention to those “down ticket” elections. Please.
In this presidential election year, my answer is, “Yes. Yes, I’m better off than I was four years ago and eight years ago. And that’s the wrong question to ask.”
Or maybe it’s only one of may questions we should be asking.
How about my neighbor (whom I’m supposed to love as myself)? Is my neighbor better off them she was four or eight years ago? And not just my next door neighbor. I should be asking this about all my neighbors in my city and state and country. And I should be asking this about my neighbors in other countries.
But let’s not stop there. We should be asking it about other species and the environment as a whole.
And lest you think this is just about the current presidential election, it’s not. Let’s consider the TPP – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – under consideration by Congress right now. The TPP is a complex trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries (including the United States). And when I say, “complex,” I mean complex. It took ten years to develop and has over 30 chapters.
I have yet to hear any politician speak to the particulars. In this election year, the TPP is really not much more than a symbol, a symbol that is being spun primarily to represent global trade that threatens American jobs. “A Trump Administration will end [the war on the American worker] by getting a fair deal for the American people. The era of economic surrender will finally be over,” is how Trump is spinning the symbol.
The Clinton campaign isn’t much different. “I will do everything in my power to defend American jobs and American workers. Any trade deal must meet three tests to earn my support: it must create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security.”
Both candidates are only asking if the TPP will make us better off in four years than we are now. What about asking how it impacts our international neighbors? What about asking how it impacts the environment? What about asking how it circumvents legal system in the partner countries, perverting justice? What about asking how it protects (or fails to protect) the environment?
The TPP aims to cut 18,000 different tariffs, all in the name of “free trade” across international borders. If the only thing I have to trade is my labor and I can’t freely transport it across international borders, is it really a “free trade deal”?
Given the complexity of international trade – including national differences in resources, worker skills, labor supply, labor laws and protects, markets, and political and social conditions – the terms of mutually beneficial trade can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker or a 30-second sound bite in the spin room.
I oppose the TPP and will until my questions are satisfactorily answered. But that’s really not the point of this post. The real point is that we need to move beyond our shortsighted, self-centered questions and think about our local and international neighbors (and not just our human neighbors) when it comes to trade deals and elections and really any policy decision we make.
“What if every adult citizen received a universal basic income — a stipend of $10,000 each year, with a smaller allowance for children? Would people stop working? Would those in poverty use their stipend wisely or foolishly? An experiment along these lines was tried in Manitoba in the 1970s. The quality of life went up, hospitalizations went down, more teens stayed in school, and the rate of work changed very little. Richard Nixon tried to get a universal income bill through Congress. Support for universal income has come from the left and the right. It’s a way to eliminate paternalistic government programs and at the same time reduce poverty and give workers more options and leverage in the marketplace.”
Quoted from Christian Century, 20 July 2016 edition, page 8. They cite the New Yorker, June 20 as their source.
I have long thought that a universal basic income would be a great idea, but I thought it was my radical lefty learning that supported it. But of course conservatives like the idea — if it shuts down some government programs. And libertarians (if they’re willing to admit that we have an obligation to help our impoverished neighbors) would love the idea of it coming with no strings attached (small government and all that). Of course, I want to pay for it by adding additional tax brackets at the top of incomes and taxing them heavily, but that’s another story.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philemon 1:8-19 and Hebrews 13:1-8
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It’s been a difficult couple weeks for my soul. I expect the same is true for many of you. In addition to the triumphs and tragedies of our personal lives, there has been so much violence in the news:
- a particularly brutal attack in Bangladesh;
- car bombs in Baghdad;
- 2 police shootings that were caught on tape (and at least 29 others that did not make the national news);
- 5 police officers killed in Dallas (and at least five others who were killed by guns or cars that did not make the national news);
- this morning there are stories of police officers shot and killed in Baton Rogue;
- a truck driving through a crowd celebrating in Nice, France.
In an act of self-care, I decided not to watch the videos of the police shootings in Baton Rogue and Falcon Heights. And, in my efforts to protect my soul from this heart-rending news, I may have missed other attacks and violence that took place in the first two weeks of this month.
Yesterday, I posted this picture on the church’s Facebook page. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was a staunch anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested and eventually connected with an attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was 39 when he was executed by the Nazis.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I agree with Bonhoeffer. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. But what to say and how to act – that’s not always clear. Here’s what I wrote with the picture:
It’s not always easy to figure out how to speak out against evil. How do we speak out against the evil of the murders in Nice, France, on Thursday and not participate in evil ourselves?
The traps are too easy. As a nation, we could speak out with our own violence through our military. As a church, we could easily lump together all people from one ethnicity or religion and blame them all for the actions of a few or of one. We could write a post on Facebook, but does that really speak God’s truth to evil?
While there are no simple answers, the call is clear. We cannot remain silent when we are aware of evil.
This call, to speak and to act, is part of our call as followers of Jesus. We are called to join the Spirit Conspiracy to bring blessings to others. “Conspire” literally means “to breathe with,” which I find interesting, since the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the Greek word for breath. Another way to think about this call is that we are called to get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life.
And there are plenty of areas of our lives, plenty of circles of influence where, if we get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life, we will bring blessings to others. Consider these circles of influence.
There’s your family. No one is in a better position than you to bring blessing to your family – your spouse, your kids, your siblings, your parents – than you. There are others who are in an equal position to you, but there’s on one in a better position than you. “When Jesus wanted to confront religious hypocrisy in his day, he pointed out the way hypocrites served their religion at the expense of their families.” Paul wrote about family relationships in ways that probably brought more blessing than the social norms, as sexist as those writings seems to us today. My point is that it’s not just the Spirit calling us to conspire to bring blessing to our families; there are biblical calls, too.
Then there are our economic choices that are a circle of influence. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing through our economic choices. If you’re an employer, you can offer a wage that brings a blessing. If you’re a consumer, you can make purchase choices in ways that bring blessings – are the people all along the supply chain paid justly? Is the environment protected or damaged by this product and its manufacture?
Likewise, our neighborhoods can be blessed by our conspiring with the Spirit. As we address the sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods. As we extend hospitality, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods.
“The Spirit is looking for conspirators who are interested in plotting goodness in their communities. ‘What would our community look like if God’s dreams for it were coming true?’ we [can] ask. The answer gives us a vision to work toward.”
Likewise, we can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to vulnerable people, the people who are typically forgotten or ignored. The biblical mandate is to care for widows and orphans, for immigrants, prisoners, the sick, and the poor. We can easily add to that list: the homeless, the under-educated, the unemployed, the underpaid, refugees, and more.
And if conspiring with the Spirit to bring blessing to these circles of influence isn’t challenging enough for you, I’ve got another: your critiques, opponents, and enemies. Imagine what the election season would be like if the candidates and their supporters conspired with the Spirit to bring a blessing to their opponents. That’s probably a pipedream, but we – you and I – could start. And not just when it comes to politics. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who annoy us (and the people we annoy). We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who don’t understand us and who we don’t understand, to people who try our patience and whose patience we try.
“Rather than write them off as unimportant and unwanted, we need to rediscover them as some of the most important people we know. If we ignore them, our growth in the Spirit will be stunted. If we let the Spirit guide us in what we say to their faces and behind their backs, we will become more Christ-like.”
White House photographer Pete Souza has taken something close to two million photographs of President Obama, since Obama took office. Each year he posts 75 to 100 that he thinks are the best of the year. Several people have sifted through the photos claiming that these 16 are Souza’s favorites. He denies the claim. Still, from those annual postings, people have gathered what they think are a good sampling of them.
One such collection includes photos that are humorous, photos that are cute, and photos that are poignant. One photo from early in Obama’s presidency shows him fist-bumping one of the White House custodians. They are in a hallway, moving from one meeting to another. Aids accompany the President. And the President pauses to acknowledge a staff worker who cleans floors and toilets and empties the trash.
What we say or fail to say can make a difference in someone else’s life. We can use our words as part of our conspiracy with the Spirit to being blessings, or we can wound. In the letter of James, the author says that if your life were a ship, your words would be its rudder. A fist-bump here, and “thank you” there can make a difference in steering us in the Spirit’s direction. As McLaren puts it, “If you’re a part of the Spirit’s conspiracy, you can be God’s secret agent of blessing to anyone in any of these circles.”
There’s one circle of influence that I haven’t mentioned: work. I did this because in the book we’re using for this yearlong sermon series, Brian McLaren uses the letter to Philemon as an example here. McLaren points out that Paul used the opportunity of Onesimus running away to him to urge slave owners to treat their slaves better. My problem is that Paul appealed to his love for Onesimus rather than to Onesimus’ own personhood. My problem is that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.
Yes, Paul moves the needle. Yes, Paul suggests that owners should treat their slaves with respect and kindness. Yes, Paul urges slaves to work with pride and dignity. But he fails to condemn slavery.
There’s probably a lesson here for our contemporary workplaces. We should treat each other with respect and kindness. We should treat each other fairly, and bosses should pay their employees a just wage. But the issue at hand for Onesimus was whether Paul was going to send him back to slavery or order Philemon to end Onesimus’ slavery. And Paul failed to get his breathing fully in sync with the Breath of Life.
McLaren begins the chapter that is the fodder for next week’s sermon by saying, “Sooner or later, everyone should be arrested and imprisoned for a good cause. Or if not arrested and imprisoned, put in a position of suffering and sacrifice. Or if not that, at least be criticized or inconvenienced a little. Because if we’re co-conspirators with the Spirit of God to bring blessing to our world, sooner or later it’s going to cost us something and get us in trouble.”
Sometimes this mission is pretty easy to fulfill. Sometimes a fist-bump in the hallway will make the difference. Sometimes it’s hard and it will get us in trouble. Sometimes we’re faced with great evil, and the way to speak out, the way to act is not clear, and so we will struggle to conspire with the Spirit. Sometimes, like Paul, we will act and not go as far as we should. Sometimes, like Bonhoeffer, we will be asked to pay a great price.
Still, the mission is before us: “to be a secret agent of God’s commonwealth, conspiring with others [and the Holy Spirit] behind the scenes to plot goodness and foment kindness wherever you may be.”
As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on:
- Anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention.
- A time when you felt the Spirit guided you to go above and beyond your normal way of responding to a situation.
- A time when the words you chose steered you either toward or away from the Spirit’s guidance.
- Or imagine a walk through your typical day, from waking to going to bed – and imagine yourself as a portal of blessing in each circle of influence you move in and out of in that day.
 “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/ (updated regularly, The Washington Post tracks police shootings in the United States; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last update was for a police shooting on 13 July 2016).
 “The White House’s Pete Souza Has Shot Nearly 2M Photos of Obama, Here are 55 of His Favorites,” Twisted Sifter, http://twistedsifter.com/2016/07/pete-souza-white-house-photog-favorite-obama-photos/ (posted 7 July 2016; accessed 16 July 2016).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 1, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
In the weeks since Easter Sunday, we’ve been talking about the uprising that began with the resurrection. While I can’t tell you exactly what the resurrection was, I know this: The resurrection resulted in the uprising of a movement. The disciples of Jesus changed from followers to leaders and they gathered new followers, people who wanted to be part of this uprising that offered a path that was different from the roads the Empire of Rome was so famous for. This uprising forged a new path, a new road they made by walking it.
We are inheritors of this uprising and, like those first members of the uprising, we make our road by walking it. This path was and is different from the ways of the Empire. This road we make by walking is marked by it being a fellowship of scared and scarred people who find courage and healing in community. This road we make by walking is marked by a discipleship where we are both leaders and followers, teachers and students. This road we make by walking is marked by worship that brought everyone from every background into a state of equality. This road we make by walking is marked by partnerships that can even make enemies into friends. This road we make by walking is marked by the strange relationship we end up having with money – the subject of today’s sermon.
I invite you to think about how your relationship with money began and how it was formed. Think about your experiences, what you were taught, how you felt and feel about money.
My introduction to money was with an allowance. Each week, my parents gave me some money that I was free to do with as I chose. It wasn’t a lot and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to spend it, but it was mine. I was encouraged to think about what would happen if I spent it now rather than letting it accumulate. I think, perhaps, my parents were trying to teach me that sometimes I have to wait to buy something.
I was encouraged to save and I opened a savings account at an early age – I don’t remember how young I was, but I know I was in grade school. I remember arguing with my parents when I was in junior high that the inflation rate was so much higher than the interest rate I was earning, the real value of my savings was actually decreasing so they should be okay with me withdrawing it to buy a walkie-talkie to match Danny Kennealy’s. Yes, I was a little mathematician when I was in seventh grade.
The other important lesson my father gave me, and this one was very direct, was about credit cards. He co-signed for my first credit card, a MasterCharge (back before VISA). He told me to pay off the full balance the first month, pay off most of the balance the second month so they can charge me a little interest on the unpaid balance and will think I’m going to make them money, then pay off the full balance the third month and each month thereafter. “And,” he said as he signed the application for the card, “I never want to hear from them. Ever.” He didn’t. And except for a few times when I had some major expenses like a car repair, I’ve never charged more than I could pay off that month.
Other lessons came later. My parents never did the three jars lesson that is on the cover to the bulletin. The idea is to teach not just savings, but sharing as well. Had they participated in this activity, I would have been encouraged to divide my allowance (and birthday money) among the three jars, one for spending now, one for saving, and one for giving away. My parents never talked about how they decided how much money to give to the church or how they decided what other organizations they would support. I never really started thinking about giving until I was ordained and I needed to raise the money to pay my own salary when I was working for a Council of Churches as a chaplain.
And I didn’t really start thinking about the power of compound interest until I was several years into my professional life and an older colleague was encouraging me to start saving for retirement while I was in my 20s. A side effect of this lesson in particular, and the other lessons as well, is that I was taught that my safety lies in my savings. My safety is in my savings. It may say “in God we trust” on the money, but that’s not the lesson the economy really teaches.
These overt foundational stories formed my relationship with money. But there are other lessons learned as well, covert lessons, lessons the culture taught without teaching. One of them is the money is power. Sometime called the “Gold Rule” (and not to be confused with the Golden Rule), the Gold Rule say, “The one with the gold rules.” Another rule is, “the bottom line is the bottom line.” Profits are more important than how other people or the environment are treated. “What’s mine is mine and I’m going to keep it” is another rule, or at least a mantra of the Empire’s economy. Some people go so far as to chant, “What’s yours is mine and I’m going to take it.” These are the rules that allow, even encourage corporations to pay slave wages in foreign countries, to dump their toxic waste in countries that don’t have good environmental protections (or to break the environmental laws in this country).
The uprising had a very different relationship with money. “When the uprising first began in Jerusalem, people started bringing all their possessions to the apostles. Since they knew it wasn’t God’s will for some … to have luxuries while other lacked necessities, those with surplus began to share freely with those in need. … All things [were held] in common. As you might expect, that created some problems. Some old prejudices sprang up between Jews and Greeks, and some people began playing games, pretending to be more generous than they really were. In spite of the problems, holding all things in common was a beautiful thing.”
As the expected return of Jesus didn’t happen, the “all things in common rule” was followed by fewer and fewer communities of the uprising. The one thing that didn’t change was the realization that the systems of this world run on one economy and the Commonwealth of God runs on another. The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that money brings power, privilege, and superiority; it teaches that money brings responsibility for neighbors. The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that what’s mine is mine, but that what’s mine is God’s. And if what’s mine is God’s than it’s not mine really at all. It’s God’s and I’m only the steward of it. Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “I choose to follow Jesus.” How we use our time, our potential, our possessions, our privilege, our power, and our money is all a matter of stewardship – because all of it is God’s, not ours.
And the uprising had (and still has) a radical idea: Stop working for money and start working for Christ. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be paid for your work, but that the payment isn’t the primary purpose of your work. The primary purpose of your work is to follow Jesus. So that means that your profession needs to be one that decreases harm to the environment and our fellow human beings. The notion that we work for Jesus and not for money is why the original members of the uprising weren’t allowed to be soldiers.
Brian McLaren says that the early Christians used the jam-jar method of budgeting. What is needed to meet the basic needs of the family? That goes in the spending jar. What’s left is divided between the saving jar (like an ant storing food for winter) and the giving jar. The money in the giving jar is the money that would be presented in the offering that I described in my sermon two weeks ago. This money was used for the work of compassion, justice, restoration, and peace. It supported the leaders of the uprising and it supported the vulnerable in the uprising – the sick, the widows, the orphans, the elderly, those who had lost their homes and land and work. “That’s what stewardship is, really, love in action.”
“Paul always reminds us,” McLaren writes, “that nothing has any value without love. That explains why money is so deceptive. It deceives people about what has true value. You cannot serve two masters, Jesus taught. If you love God, you will hate money, because it always gets in the way of loving God. If you love money, you will hate God, because God always gets in the way of loving money.”
This attitude about stewardship is, I think, one of the most radical things about the uprising that started with the resurrection. If it’s not one of the most radical, it is one of the most challenging for me personally.
Some of the lessons I was taught are in keeping with the uprising’s idea of stewardship. The importance of delaying purchases, the importance of meeting needs before wants, the importance of living within my means, the importance of giving a portion of my income away – these don’t conflict with the uprising of stewardship. But those other lessons – my safety is in my savings; the one with the gold rules; the bottom line is the bottom line; what mine is mine and I’m going to keep it – those go against the uprising of stewardship. And they are the lessons I still need to excise from my brain and heart.
Preparing this sermon reminded me of a sermon series I did several years ago on God’s Economy. I think it may be one of the most important sermon series I have ever preached. Or maybe it’s the one I most need to hear. Maybe I’ll dig it out and preach it again next Lent or Easter.
For now, I invite you to reflect in silence on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or reflect on one of these:
Reflect on a time when you got mixed up about what really has value.
How do you respond to the idea of dividing your income into three parts—to spend, to save, and to give away?
Reflect on the tension between loving God and loving money. See if any insights come to you. Ask God to help you be a wise steward or manager of the resources that are entrusted to you.
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 38. Retrieved from amazon.com.
 See, for instance, Scot McKnight, “The Early Church and Military Service,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/07/08/the-early-church-and-military-service/ (posted 8 July 2013; accessed 30 April 2016).
 Jeffrey Spencer, “The Uprising of Worship,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/the-uprising-of-worship/ (posted 17 April 2016).
 McLaren, op. cit.