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A sermon* preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 7, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 2:4b-17 and Job 38:1-11; 39:5-8, 26-30
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This last sermon in this series is the most personal of the bunch.  Jim Antal and abby mohaupt are two of my climate heroes, and when I decided to include them in this series on Saints, I didn’t realize I was also going to need to include Bill McKibben.  The thing is, Bill has had an important influence on Jim, abby, and me, and so, I’m going to start with him.

Bill McKibben

Bill and I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.  Though Bill was a year ahead of me in school and we went to different junior highs, our lives managed to overlap.  We both gave tours of “the historic Lexington Battle Green” when we were in junior high, and we were in church youth group together (though I was more involved than he), and we were the prime organizers of local protests against President Jimmy Carter’s reinstitution of draft registration the summer after my first year of college.  Bill had completed his second year at Harvard when we gathered on the Lexington Battle Green on a weekly basis to protest – an appropriate spot if ever there was one to stand in opposition to the government.

When he graduated from Harvard, Bill got a job writing for The New Yorker magazine.  The next time I heard from Bill was on the radio when he was on a tour promoting his 1989 book The End of Nature.  This was the first book published in the United States for a general audience on global warming.  He had done the research to see just what a dangerous situation human beings were putting ourselves into by changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.

I wish I could tell you that Bill’s book was the thing that got me to be serious about the dangers of global warming.  It (and some articles he wrote for various journals and magazines) started building my awareness, but it was Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, that really converted me.  The film made something click.  I don’t know how I managed to almost immediately see the connections as clearly as I did.  Somehow, I saw that a warmer planet would change weather patterns, which would shift where and how much water would be available, which would change how and where and if crops grew, which would lead to famines and mass migrations, which would likely lead to war.

People starving, people forced to leave their homes, and war are moral issues.  And that is why, for over a decade, I’ve been saying that climate change is the moral issue of our day.

Jim Antal

The End of Nature impacted Jim Antal, too, though he was aware of the dangers of climate change before Bill’s book was published.  Jim is the recently retired Conference Minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.  I think the first time I met him face-to-face was at a General Synod, the every two-years meeting of people from across the UCC, where we worship and eat and learn, and where delegates vote on resolutions.  One of the resolutions before the Synod that year called for the various settings of the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels.  It turned out that Jim was a champion of that resolution and that resolution was the most important one to me of all the resolutions coming before Synod that year.

Jim’s traces his journey to being one of the strongest voices in the UCC calling for us to address climate change back to a road trip he took with his father when he was 15.  Jim’s parents had divorced, and he moved to California to live with his father.  That summer, they did a tour of some of the National Parks out here in the western United States as a way to get reacquainted with each other.  Jim fell in love with the outdoors.  Over the next two summers, Jim hiked the John Muir Trail.

He went off to college and, while he was there, he organized his campus’s celebration of the first Earth Day.  Jim reminded me that the first Earth Day was organized by a Republican Senator as a cross-country teach-in and that a massive 10% of Americans participated.

James Hansen

Jim’s father, the man who took Jim on the tour of National Parks that caused Jim to fall in love with the outdoors and led him to his passion for environmental ethics, worked in the fossil fuel industry.  He was a chemical engineer for Mobil Oil.  Jim’s brother followed their father into the sciences and is a world expert on charcoal.  Though Jim didn’t pursue science as a career, the exposure to science and scientific thinking caused Jim to pay attention to Carl Sagan’s writing about global warming in the 1970s.  And Jim paid attention when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of global warming in 1988.  That’s when he started preaching about climate change.  The following year, his commitment to preaching on climate change was strengthened by Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature.

Jim describes himself as a “big picture thinker.”  “I take in the whole thing first [and then the details].  The greenhouse effect started getting talked about and I saw the whole picture and the threat to the earth,” he told me.

When I asked Jim to expand on that threat, he said, “God provided humanity with sufficient freedom that we can extinguish life as God created it.”  Jim suggested that I check out the United Nations’ website pages on climate change because I’ll find that they intersect with their pages about population.  Jim told me that if we don’t do anything about climate change, sometime between 2045 and 2070, the world’s population will plummet because of water and food shortages, wars, and massive refugee movements.  We will go from 9 billion people to 2 billion people.

“What are the theological implications of living in a world where the gift of nature is good for only one quarter of the people on the earth?” he asked me rhetorically.  “In one or two generations, when 3 of 4 people are dying off?  The theological implications are infinite.”

“Imagine a world where the earth is no longer friendly to life as we’ve known it.”

“If we’re not preaching once a month on climate change, in a couple generations every sermon we preach will be on grief.”

abby mohaupt and Jeff Spencer

abby mohaupt also sees the grave dangers climate change is posing to humanity and the rest of creation.  abby and I met in Richmond on August 3, 2013.  We were protesting at the Chevron refinery, and Bill McKibben had something to do with our presence.  For several years, Bill had been calling for upper-middle class white people to start engaging in civil disobedience to protest the fossil fuel industry.  He especially called on middle-aged people, people like me, people with the most privilege when it came to the American criminal justice system, to engage in these acts.  abby isn’t middle-aged, but she, too, answered the call.  I won’t go into what happened that day, but you can read about it in the sermon I preached the following day.

abby started reflecting on ecology and theology in broad strokes while she was in seminary – “both where the earth is hurting and where the earth brings joy.”  When she did her internship at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, she was assigned to staff their ecology group, and during that year, Bill McKibben was part of a cross-country bus tour.  It was called the “Do the Math” tour, and it was calling on people like you and me to organize both institutions – like churches and pension funds and cities – and ourselves to divest from fossil fuels.  abby took 20 people from her church to the Palo Alto tour stop.  That got her interested in divestment and she is a leader in getting the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from fossil fuels.

In addition to organizing her denomination and seminaries to divest, abby is working on her PhD dissertation on feminist and womanist theology, climate change, and environmental racism.  Yet this isn’t just an academic issue for abby.  She currently lives in Pescadero.  “I live near the ocean now,” she told me, “so when I hear stories about the oceans rising, it is the ocean I live next to, the ocean that I love that will take over the land where I live now.  It’s real.  It’s very real.”

I asked abby and Jim what they do to enable them to hope in the midst of this reality.  Jim told me, “Every morning my first thought is gratitude.  Having this big picture, I’m just astonished that there is such a thing as life.…  [I wake up in the morning and think] ‘Oh my God, there is such a thing as life and I can bear witness to the truth [today].’  [That’s why] I can be dedicated to what can otherwise be depressing work.”

He also told me that over the course of his career he has had a theological shift, from a concern about personal salvation to collective salvation.  He noted that he is hardly the first to talk about this shift and he pointed me to the work of Richard Rohr and Teilhard de Chardin.  Jim said, “I don’t spend conscious time thinking about my personal salvation; but of humanity standing before God having set the stage of wrecking God’s creation.”  That is why Jim has been an activist in his ministry and continues to be an activist in retirement.

“When consciousness and all that is around you is infused with God, that naturally leads to activism if it turns out that you’re living on the hinge of history, when that very creation is in jeopardy.”

Presbyterianism comes out of Calvinism, which can have a focus on the depravity of humanity.  abby said, “Everything we do has a taint of sin in it.…  Everything we do has a carbon foot print.  This has led me to a place of confession.…  We need each other and we need God to make a way.”

She went on:  “Once we understand everything we do has a carbon footprint, we can’t be in judgment about each other’s carbon footprint.  We need to be open to God’s grace, which helps us understand and face the real reality of climate change.  In this reality of climate chaos, where everything we do adds to the chaos, we can be overwhelmed or we can turn into God’s grace which will give me courage and humility to respond to the reality of climate change.…

“Every time I try to make my carbon foot print smaller, I try to think about how this impacts my relationship with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit.  The closer we feel to the earth, the closer we feel to God.”

If I’m right (and I think I am) that climate change is the moral issue of our day, we need saints like Jim Antal and abby mohaupt to help us find our way, a way that includes protest and activism and policy lobbying, and a way that includes confession and community and spiritual grounding.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

What confession are you/we called to in response to the witness of Jim and abby?

What action can you/we take to address climate change this month?

_______________

*The quotes in this sermon are from interviews I had with Jim Antal and abby mohaupt over the past few weeks. I deeply appreciate their openness and willingness to share.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 31, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 5:1-9and Matthew 5:43-47
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things I’m loving about this sermon series is how much I’m learning.  For instance, in my research this week I was introduced to some women I was not familiar with.  I knew who Rosa Parks was and I knew the name Fannie Lou Hamer, though I couldn’t have told you anything about Hamer.  I wasn’t familiar with even the names Dorothy I. Height and Gloria Richardson.  I would have guessed that Juanita Jones Abernathy was somehow related to Ralph Abernathy.  And it turns out they were married, but Juanita was much more than Ralph’s wife.  I had heard of the Highlander Folk School,[1] but I knew nothing about Septima Clark, her connection to the school, or how that connection fueled the Civil Rights movement.  I knew nonviolence, both as a strategy and a philosophy, needed to be taught, but I’d never heard of Dorothy Cotton.

Ella Baker

Than then there’s Ella Baker.  I’d heard of Ella Baker, thanks to “Ella’s Song” by another Civil Rights heroine, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, but I didn’t know anything about her.  I had assumed (rightly) that Ella Baker had said the words that became the lyrics of the song, including these words:  “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”[2]  As powerful and still-relevant as these words (words that echo the cries of the Black Lives Matter movement) are, Ella Baker was much more than a song-inspirer.

To start with, without Ella Baker, there wouldn’t have been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Baker was serving as Executive Secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when she organized a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina during the Easter weekend of 1960. She had immediately recognized the potential of the students involved in the lunch counter sit-in movement and wanted to bring leaders of the movement together to meet one another and to consider future work.  Baker persuaded Martin Luther King to put up the $800 needed to hold the conference.  King hoped they would become an SCLC student wing. Baker encouraged them to think about forming their own organization, which they did – and SNCC was born.

Speaking to the conference, Ella Baker told the students that their struggle was “much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized coke.”  In presenting this bigger picture, Baker displayed a talent she had been employing for more than two decades:  assisting people to empower themselves.  She encouraged the formation of SNCC to be from the bottom up.[3]

Julian Bond (center front) and other SNCC Atlanta office staff, 1963

It is Ella Baker’s insight about community organizing that I find most fascinating and encouraging.  She saw that in the Civil Rights movement there were two ways of organizing.  One was for groups to be formed around a leader, typically a charismatic person.  The other was to form groups that drew forth their own leaders.  Baker believed in “unlocking the power of every person to strengthen their communities and shape their lives.”[4]

“You didn’t see me on television,” Baker said, “you didn’t see news stories about me.  The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come.  My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”[5]

As I mentioned, Baker was Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  That means that she worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  She claimed that the movement was responsible for King’s leadership.  “You see, I think that, to be very honest, the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement,” she said in 1968, a couple months after King was assassinated.  “This is not a discredit to him.  This is, to me, as it should be.”[6]  An interesting point of view.

The message I got growing up was that King made the movement.  I was taught that it was King’s oratory that galvanized people to face the struggles.  I suspect that this is actually a case of both-and. The movement lifted up King, as Baker suggests, and King galvanized the movement, which allowed the movement to lift him, which …

King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., 1963

So, yes, when I think of King, I think of the great orator.  I also think of a gifted political strategist, and a prophet in the biblical sense of the word.  He “proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God, remaining true to his mission even to the laying down of his life.”[7]

I am saddened that we have domesticated King. Popular culture has reduced King to a color-blind dreamer of a nice America.  President Reagan – who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and who signed the law establishing Martin Luther King Day in 1983 – quoted King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech two years later to argue against affirmative action.  The way Reagan used King is how America has come to use King – as a weapon to sanitize oppression in America.[8]

But I would like us to remember that Martin Luther King, Jr., was hated by much of America.  “He was one of the most polarizing figures in the United States during his final few years of life.…  King wanted peace, but not at the expense of equality.  He wanted little black girls and boys to play with little white girls and boys, but not if it meant pretending racism didn’t exist.  He respected authority, but challenged those wearing badges and carrying batons and sitting in the Oval Office.

“He wanted moral clarity, not cheap comfort. Were he alive today, he’d still be hated by those wedded to the status quo.  Because he’d notice the poor still being vilified as lazy.  He’d see large corporations … brag proudly about modest pay increases then quietly announce thousands of layoffs.…  He’d know the government pays private collectors triple what they retrieve in back taxes from the low-income while high-income tax cheats skate.

“Let us … remember when King refused to denounce protesters by saying ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.  And what is it America has failed to hear?  It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.  And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.’

King being arrested in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama

“And [let us remember] when he critiqued capitalism:  ‘Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.’

“And [let us remember] when he demanded ‘a radical redistribution of political and economic power.’

“And [let us remember] when he said, ‘Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.  It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.’

“And [let us remember] when he was exasperated by those telling him to wait:  ‘Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’

“[King] wanted justice and peace.  If he could have only one, there’s no doubt which he’d choose.”[9]

I picked the reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today because the story of God taking the side of the enslaved and God raising up a leader to facedown the principalities and powers of the day is an important story, is perhaps thebiblical touchstone of the Civil Rights movement.  I picked the reading from the Sermon on the Mount because it is what I view to be the hardest commandment in scripture to fulfill.

And when think about the Civil Rights movement, a movement whose work is not finished, and when I think about the leaders of that movement, the Ella Bakers and the Martin Luther Kings, I see people who somehow managed to live into both scripture readings at the same time.

There is more, so much more to be said about these scripture readings.  But for today, let’s allow the lives of Ella Baker and Martin Luther King preach to us, and challenge us.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

How might you/we become stronger people?

What are you/we willing to risk for the sake of God’s justice-demanding love?

_______________

[1]Now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Highlander Center suffered a significantfire on Fridaythat destroyed the building that housed the executive offices of the Center (one of ten buildings on the Center’s campus). Sadly, this building contained decades of archives from the Center.

[2]Nikita Stewart, “50 Years After Dr. King’s Death, Remembering the Women Who Steered the Movement,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/us/women-civil-rights.html (posted 2 April 2018; accessed 26 March 2019).

[3]“Ella Baker,” SNCC Digital, https://snccdigital.org/people/ella-baker/ (accessed 26 March 2019).

[4]“Who Was Ella Baker?” Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, https://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker (accessed 26 March 2019).

[5]“Ella Baker > Quotes,” GoodReads, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/116766.Ella_Baker (accessed 30 March 2019).

[6]Quoted and cited as 19 June 1968 in “Baker, Ella Josephine,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/baker-ella-josephine (accessed 26 March 2019).

[7]Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time(New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 152.

[8]Jeneé Osterheldt, “Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a colorblind dreamer,” The Boston Globe, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/01/20/martin-luther-king-wasn-colorblind-dreamer/Z1Yhlw4WVw0XnnBNuLtUrN/story.html (posted 21 January 2019; accessed 26 March 2019).

[9]The Observer Editorial Board, “Let’s remember the MLK who wasn’t liked,” The Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article224748225.html (updated 29 January 2019; accessed 26 March 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 25, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:25-33
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Many of you know I have a practice of writing a prayer of thanksgiving almost every night and posting it on my Facebook timeline.  I also post the prayer on a Tumblr (a blogging platform) that I reserve only for these prayers.  I suspect I’m an atypical Tumblr blogger in that I only follow a handful of other Tumblrs.  There’s an architecture Tumblr I follow because he posts beautiful photos and I love architecture.  I follow the National Public Radio Tumblr, though I’ve probably heard on the radio 90% of the stories they post.  And I follow a Tumblr called, “Humans of New York.”

Humans of New York” typically posts once a day – a picture of someone in New York and a paragraph-length quote from that person.  Last Monday, this was the picture posted.  And this was the quote that went with the picture:

“My wife urged me to take this little trip to New York so that I can clear my head.  It’s just for two days.  But my leash has been so short lately that it feels like an eternity.  Part of me definitely died when our daughter was born.  I was always a free spirited person.  I traveled a lot.  I never had a boss.  I had all the choices in the world.  But a lot of that disappeared in order to make things possible for my daughter.  I watch her during the day.  And I’m not mad about it.  This is the happiest time of my life.  It would be great if my daughter was here right now.  It’d be so fun to watch her run around the park.  But I’d also be worried about her safety.  And the diaper bag.  And the car seat.  And the stroller.  And our next meal.  And our next place to stay.  There’s always a flickering flame of worry that doesn’t go away.…”[1]

I suspect that his words resonate with the experiences of many of you who have children, be they grown or still at home.  “There’s always a flickering flame of worry that doesn’t go away.”

This truth spoken by this anonymous human in New York contrasts sharply with the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  “… do not worry about your life … can any of your worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?… Therefore, do not worry.”

It seems to me that telling someone, “Don’t worry!” is a little like telling someone, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!”  Or at least it’s about a ridiculous.  Worrying is a normal part of life.  It can be an outgrowth of love – love for self and love for others.  Our human of New York has that constant “flickering flame of worry” because he loves his daughter.

So, what do we make of Jesus’ words?

I would start here:  love is not the only source of worry.  Greed can also be a source of worry.  And I’m not just talking about our own personal greed being a source of worry, though it can be that, too.  We can worry about not having enough or of losing what we have.  I think Jesus is addressing this specific worry.  Don’t worry about having enough food or about having fancy clothing to wear, he tells the people listing to his “Sermon on the Mount.”  And I admit to this worry – not for today or even for this decade.  I worry about it in retirement.  Not often, but sometimes I wonder if I will have the resources to make ends meet into my 90s.

The other greed that I was thinking about is corporate greed.  It actually harnesses worry to feed itself.  Corporations advertise to get us to think we need something so we’ll buy it.  There are three basic tools advertising uses to produce that sense of need:  fear, fantasy, and lies.  Fear is especially effective.  Typically, it’s a low-grade fear – you know, worry.  “This is such an awesome movie! Don’t miss it!” the advertisement tells us.  That pitch is actually working on our fear, in particular our fear of missing out.  Similarly, advertising targeting parents will manipulate their fear that they might be bad at it, and then offers their product as a solution.

Politicians do the same thing in their advertising.  First, they create something for you to fear, then they offer themselves as the solution.  And people end up voting for someone whose policies are much scarier than the manufactured fear.

I think Jesus would say that same thing to these worries:  don’t.  Don’t stew on whatever it is you’re worrying about.  That threat the politician is selling you?  It isn’t a threat.  Do your best and trust your parenting.  You’ll be just fine if you don’t see the movie.  Save some money and trust the future.

About a year-and-a-half into the Great Recession, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote a reflection that addresses this challenge of not worrying.[2]  He identified that he called “three dimensions of the moral-theological foundations of the current economic crisis:”  autonomy, anxiety, and greed.

One of the operative myths in American culture is the myth of the rugged individual.  This myth proclaims that we are each autonomous, owing no one anything, accountable to no one, and relying on no one by ourselves.  It resists what we might called the “communitarian reality” – that we are, in fact, connected and that we need each other.  This myth also encourages us to each organize our life around our individual needs, issues, and priorities.  Interestingly, a person who perceived themself as autonomous is called “the fool” in the Psalms, in large part because the autonomous person has no need for God.  In fact, the autonomous individual chaffs against any divine claim on them, especially the claims of divine restraint.

“But the downside of such theological autonomy is that without the restraint of God, one is also without the resource of God.”  The autonomous person has to believe they are self-sufficient, but creating security and satisfaction by oneself is impossible.  The outcome of living by the myth of the rugged individual is a life without security and satisfaction, a life filled with worry and anxiety.  To cope with this anxiety, in an effort to find security and satisfaction, the autonomous person needs to constantly accumulate.  The belief is that having enough will lead to a sense of safety and satisfaction, but it is never achieved.  So the autonomous person falls in to the trap of the endless rat race, chasing the unattainable, which in turn “produces bottomless anxiety—about the market, about performance, about self-worth.  The autonomous person in the end has nowhere to put [their] anxiety except to ‘suck it up’ and keep moving.

“In Leviticus 26:36-37, Moses characterizes the anxiety of a person (or a people) cut off from God and fated to a life under curse:  ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues.  They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though no one pursues.’

“Such a person finds threat, danger, and insecurity everywhere.  The only sensible response to [the] imagined threat is greater effort that in turn only produces a new round of anxiety.”

You can see where this is going.  Each round of anxiety leads to a round of accumulation.  The autonomous person attempts to calm their anxiety with greed.  When we understand this, “It is not difficult to understand why those with the most think they do not yet have enough,” says Brueggemann.  “And those with less imitate the ravenously greedy ones, so that there is collusion between those who have much and want more and those who have little but long for much.  This collusion readily produces subprime loans in which creditors see easy interest income and debtors imagine a better life beyond present deprivation.”

We need only look at the Bible for an alternative to “this hopeless, self-devouring process.”  One of the themes that runs through both testaments is covenant.  God covenants with creation at the flood, with Abraham and Sarah and their progeny, and with the Hebrews at Mount Sinai.  The people covenant with God and reaffirm that covenant throughout the dramatic arc of the Hebrew scriptures.  And Jesus established a new covenant at the Last Supper.  Covenant “binds the self to the holy, faithful God and to neighbors who are members in a common economy.”

Likewise, we regularly see an invitation away from anxiety and “to the abundance of God.”  From the picture of God as “creator who sets creation into its destiny of fruitfulness, so that the world teems with abundance,” to the stories of God providing for the escaping slaves in the wilderness, to Jesus feeding the multitudes, we see the abundance of God.  “Whereas autonomous economics begins with a premise of scarcity, biblical faith is grounded in the generosity of God who wills and provides abundance.  And here persons who are members of a covenantal neighborhood respond to divine abundance with generous gratitude, willing to share with sisters and brothers.”  It is out of this covenantally grounded vision of divine abundance that Jesus urges his followers, “Do not worry,… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

And the Bible offers an alternative to greed:  “the neighborly practice of generosity.  The champions of acquisitiveness regard others as threats and competitors.  But in a covenantal frame of reference grounded in God’s abundance, others are seen to be brothers and sisters whose life is in a community of solidarity that shares the God-given resources for the well-being of all.”

A week ago, I thought this to be a strange gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Sunday.  I’m not thinking that way now.

If Brueggemann’s analysis is accurate, and I think it is, a question remains – or perhaps it’s three questions:

  • How do we move from the myth of autonomy into covenant community?
  • How do we move from anxiety to abundance?
  • How do we move from greed to generosity?

I suspect there are several ways that can help us make these moves.  One that I have identified is this:  thanksgiving.

When we practice gratitude, when we conscientiously offer our thanks, we recognized that we are bound to each other.  I’ve noticed in myself and with others that this does not happen immediately – at least not typically.  We can be so immersed in the myth of autonomy that our beginning practices of giving thanks can actually reinforce it.  “Thank you that I was about to pull myself up by my own bootstraps today, God.”  But over time, the prayers will change.  “Thank you, God, that I was welcomed to that table by those people to share that wonderful food that so many prepared.”  Thanksgiving draws me into community.

Similarly, a practice of thanksgiving can move us from worry to recognizing the good gifts that God provides.[3]  Worry focuses on obstacles and threats.  Gratitude focuses on blessings.  The more we focus on obstacles and worries, the more aggrieved and threatened we are likely to feel.  The more we focus on blessings, the more we will see the abundance of blessings that have always been present.

Gratitude also greases the movement from greed to generosity.  Because gratitude focuses on gifts received, it relieves anxieties, and as anxieties are relieved, the greed response diminishes.  The more one recognizes that God’s economy is one of gifts, the more one is likely to join that economy and become part of the giving.

So, when Jesus told the people on the mount, “Don’t worry,” he just might have been inviting them into a practice of thanksgiving.  Which makes this a very appropriate reading for Thanksgiving Sunday.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

How has a practice of giving thanks moved you …

  • from autonomy to community?
  • from anxiety to abundance?
  • from greed to generosity?

How will you bring more thanksgiving into your life?

_______________

[1] A guy on a park bench, Humans of New York, http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/180286164521/my-wife-urged-me-to-take-this-little-trip-to-new (posted and accessed 19 November 2018).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/anxiety-and-greed-milk-and-honey (written February 2009; accessed 20 November 2018).  The quotes that follow are from this article; I’m not bothering to footnote each one.

[3] This has been called the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry.” You can learn more about it at http://freakonomics.com/podcast/why-is-my-life-so-hard/, among other places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would she be admitted at the border?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

_______________

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

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

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

[4]Hollyday, op. cit.

[5]Polter,op. cit.

[6]Washow, op. cit.

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

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

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

[11]Ibid

[12]Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Micah responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

God wants our whole lives.

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

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

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

What will it take to do this?

How will we show our ‘Yes’?

_______________

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

[6] Luke 1:38, The Message.

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

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

[9] Ibid.

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

Here’s the plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a new economic system.

But what might that be?

I don’t have an answer to this question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it demands a moral response.

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

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

Amen.

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 58-59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

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

[15] Ibid, 120.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

Still, the moral conviction of Greta Lindecrantz haunts me.

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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