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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is our church making bread or making signs?

Are we sharing bread or junk food?

_______________

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 24, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 13:1-10 and Mark 4:35-41
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The administration was contemplating the idea of separating children from their immigrant parents, even if they have an asylum claim, back in March of 2017.  Reuters reported on it 15 months ago, saying, “Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children …”[1]

Implementation of the policy was announced on April 7 of this year by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy,[2]  a policy that called for the criminal prosecution every person who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation – regardless of asylum claims.  I haven’t been able to tell when the policy was actually put into practice.  By the end of May, just under 2,000 children had been separated from their parents and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.[3]  On June 14, Jeff Sessions justified this policy of separating children (including infants) from their parents by referring to Romans 13:1-7.[4]

It wasn’t any one thing that caused the major protests to this policy.  Some people were paying attention.  Over a year ago, the news that the administration was even considering this policy provoked a protest at the White House that included members of the United Church of Christ.[5]

Recently, the release of images moved many of us.  This image has become iconic of the policy.  It is a photograph of a 2-year-old girl screaming while a U.S. border agent pats down her mother as she is arrested.

It was made by John Moore on June 12.[6]  It is not the only photograph he made that night when he shadowed Border Patrol agents.

Moore’s goal was to get some pictures of families coming over the border.  Families usually travel at night and typically surrender themselves to the first Border Patrol agents they found.  They were coming to escape, children in tow – typically coming to escape violence.  So they present themselves to the Board Patrol agents and ask for asylum.

Four rafts came across the Rio Grande that night and the occupants were captured quickly by the Border Patrol agents Moore was shadowing.  “As the guards lined up the families on [that] Tuesday night, Moore saw a woman breast-feed a toddler in the middle of the road.  ‘There was no place for privacy,’ Moore said, so she did it in the headlights of Border Patrol vehicle.”[7]

One by one, the “families were … questioned and searched.  When the agents were done with them, they were loaded into the back of a van, to be taken to whatever fate the U.S. immigration system had in store.”[8]  Moore noticed the Honduran mother “crouched in the dust as she waited for her turn, eyes level with her daughter’s.  In Moore’s photo, it looked like she was tying the girl’s shoes.  But she was not.  She was unlacing them.

Border Patrol confiscates all personal items from everyone.  They take hairbands; they take belts; they take money; they take wedding rings; they take all personal items.  They take the shoelaces from everybody, including the children.[9]

And then it was the Honduran mother’s turn to be processed.  “The mother set the girl down, and an agent began to run gloved hands across her body.  Immediately, the girl began to scream.”[10]

And Moore took this picture.

When Moore made these images, he knew what the U.S. policy was for families crossing into the country without documentation, even if they had asylum claims.  He assumed that the 2-year-old girl and this boy who Moore also photographed that night would be separated from their mothers, shipped off to a HHS holding area, and eventually moved into a state-controlled foster care system.  Their mothers would be jailed and await deportation hearings.  It turns out that the 2-year-old was not separated from her mother,[11] but I do not know what happened to this boy.

He may well be lost in the system.  And I really do mean lost in the system.  There’s a real chance that many of the separated children (and there are still something like 1800 of them) might never see their parents again, at least not until they are adults.

And I’m not the only one saying this.  A former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Sandweg, says so, too.[12]  When a child is separated from their parents by Homeland Security and placed in the custody of Health and Human Services, the child is suddenly classified as an “unaccompanied minor.”  HHS has a responsibility to move all unaccompanied minors in their custody out of what I can only call concentration camps and into homes.  That means into foster homes.  But the foster care system is run by states with their own laws and rules, and that complicates things.

In the coming months, there will be children who can’t speak for themselves in state family courts.  An advocate will be appointed to represent the best interests of each child.  “Meanwhile,” Sandweg said in an interview on NPR, “the parent is shipped off let’s say to Honduras.  There they are.  They don’t speak English.  They don’t have any money [to] hire a U.S. lawyer.

“And now their child is caught up in the state child welfare system where an advocate might argue it is not in the best interest of that child to be sent back to violence-ridden Honduras to live in a life of poverty and under threat of gang violence.…  [Meanwhile, the parent can’t appear in family court because they’ve been deported or they’re in detention, so they run the risk of losing their parental rights.]  I think there is a very serious risk that of the people who are already deported, that they are not going to see their child again … anytime soon, at a minimum – if not … until adulthood.”[13]

And let’s be clear, the semi-reversal Executive Order recently signed by President Trump does not solve this problem.  It simply “replaces one injustice with another by calling for the federal government to imprison families together – indefinitely.  We need to keep up the pressure until we’re heard – children do not belong in prison of any kind.  Families belong together in communities, not in cages.”[14]

There is, I think, one other thing that has galvanized many people to stand up in protest of this policy:  the Attorney General’s use of the Bible to justify the policy.

For some, it was that any government official would turn to the holy writings of any religion to justify a policy.  For these people, it was mixing of church and state that got under their skin.

For others (and I count myself among this group), it was the misuse of my sacred scriptures to justify a sinful policy.  I want to spend the rest of this sermon helping you see how Romans 13 was misused.  This is sort of a biblical self-defense sermon.

Session’s use of Romans 13 to support injustice is hardly a new heresy in U.S. history.  During the American Revolution, the passage was used by Tories to oppose the revolution.  It was also used to oppose the abolitionist movement and to support the fugitive slave law.  That’s not exactly the company I’d want to keep when looking for a scripture to support my actions if I held political power.  Still, it’s the one Sessions turned to.

That said, out of context, the passage does seem to call Christians to support the government’s actions.  In context, however …

When you consider that by the time Paul wrote this he had experienced significant hostility from all sorts of authorities, a plain reading of this text makes no sense.  Paul had been threatened and imprisoned for breaking the law and behaving “unRoman” – see Acts 16 and 17, for instance.  Eventually, the Roman government would execute him  It seems to unlikely that Paul would call for blanket support of any government that was in power.

So, what do we make of this passage if we put it in historical and scriptural context?  Here are a few ways to look at it, courtesy of Melissa Florer-Bixler.[15]

Perhaps Paul is trying to say that God is in control of everything, including human political institutions.  “In this reading Paul is telling the church in Rome that Caesar, with his claims of divinity, is no more than a puppet with God pulling the strings.”  Since I don’t believe that God controls everything (even if Paul did), I find this reading unsatisfactory.

Perhaps Paul is warning against religious zealotry.  Don’t go overboard, Paul would be saying with this reading.  Keep paying your taxes; don’t rock the boat.  If you have to resist, do only what is necessary.  Given Paul’s tendency to rock the boat, I’m still not to satisfied with this reading.

Perhaps Paul has included this passage knowing that the letter will likely be seen by the authorities, so he includes it with a wink and a nod so the letter will get past the empire’s checkpoints between Corinth and Rome.  If this reading is accurate, I can understand why Sessions and others in power would read it as a support of their positions, when the rest of us know Paul really meant something different.

Perhaps we should read Romans 13 only after we’ve read Romans 12.  Chapter 12 “speaks to the character of the beloved community, the forms life will take within God’s life in Jesus.  The call in Romans 13 is to live this Romans 12 life in ‘submission,’ but never in obedience.  It may be incumbent upon our witness to the gospel to participate in a sit-in protesting unjust laws, but [then] we submit to the arrest we know will take place.”  This, I think, is the best reading of Romans 13:1-7.

Authority comes from God.  Power comes from people.  And there is a difference between authority and power.  When power aligns with God’s justice, you can support it.  But when power ignores God’s justice, it should be resisted, even if that means needing to submit to the powers as a consequence of the resistance.

There is another idea that came to me as the Romans passage was read this morning.  A question, really:  What if we’ve gotten the punctuation wrong?

We know that Paul’s letters were only half (at best) of a conversation he was having with early churches.  The letters were responses to letters he had received.  What if Paul was quoting part of a letter from the Romans to him back to them?  Because that ancient Greek didn’t have punctuation, translators have been making guesses.  What if we’ve gotten the punctuation wrong?[16]

Here’s something I like to do when I’m interpreting scripture.  I ask myself, does my interpretation support the main thrust of scripture or go against it?  I ask myself, does my interpretation support the gospel of Jesus?  When a particular passage of scripture conflicts with Jesus, Jesus always wins.

Jeff Sessions’ reading of Romans 13:1-7 as a biblical support of his sinful immigration policy conflicts with the gospel of Jesus.  William Barber and Liz Theoharis put it this way:  “Sessions is operating from the same playbook of biblical heresy that was used to support the genocide of Native Americans, lock black people in chattel slavery and segregate people under Jim Crow.  He’s using old tricks that go all the way back to slave master religion.  He’s adding to this the sin of making children the prey – something the Bible clearly recognizes as evil.”[17]

And I would add that he is going against the major thrust of scripture, especially by apply this passage to his immigration policy.  Take a look at this short and incomplete overview of scriptures about refugees.

It turns out that all Jeff Sessions needed to do to get a better understanding of Romans 13:1-7 was to keep reading.  Verses 8-10 explain that all the law – that is, all of the commandments about how we should relate to each other – are summed up in this one word:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  If the Administration wants to fulfill the law, stop enforcing sinful laws, and start loving our neighbors, including refugees who come to our borders.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples are traveling.  They are going from familiar ground to foreign ground.  They are moving from the land of the Jews to the land of the Gentiles.  “The other side of the sea represents hostile territory, people presumed undeserving of what a messianic project intends.  I imagine a question mark on the disciples’ faces as Jesus directs them to set sail for this community of others.  Jesus invites them to detach from the familiar shores of Capernaum toward the strange and foreign shores of the Gerasenes.”[18]  Is it any wonder that a storm stirred up?

If we look at this story as a metaphor, if we see ourselves in the boat being directed by Jesus to move away from familiarity to strangeness, then perhaps we can understand the storm the disciples encounter.  Even if the idea of more people from Central America finding safety and a home in the United States is strangeness for you, even if the idea stirs up a storm for you, keep sailing.  Even if the idea of standing up and protesting the policies of the administration, possibly even taking direct action and risking arrest, is strangeness for you, even if the idea stirs up a storm for you, keep sailing.  Remember the rest of the story, the rest of the metaphor:  With faith, we can still the storms, take the risks, and travel into what we perceive as dangerous territory.

And once we’re there, we can fulfill the law by loving our neighbors, whoever they may be.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Julia Edwards Ainsley, “Exclusive: Trump administration considering separating women, children at Mexico border,” Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-children/exclusive-trump-administration-considering-separating-women-children-at-u-s-mexico-border-idUSKBN16A2ES (posted 3 March 2017; accessed 23 June 2018).

[2] Doris Meissner, quoted by Chris Cillizza, “The remarkable history of the family separation crisis,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/18/politics/donald-trump-immigration-policies-q-and-a/index.html (posted 18 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[3] Jaclyn Gallucci, “1,995 Children Have Been Separated From Their Families by Border Patrol, DHS Confirms,” Fortune, http://amp.timeinc.net/fortune/2018/06/16/children-parents-separated-border (posted 16 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[4] Julie Zauzmer and Keith McMillian, “Sessions cites Bible passage used to defend slavery in defense of separating immigrant families,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/14/jeff-sessions-points-to-the-bible-in-defense-of-separating-immigrant-families/?utm_term=.322a0c768db6 (posted 15 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[5] Connie Larkman, “UCC Immigration advocate protesting separation of families arrested at the White House,” The United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/_news_ucc_immigration_advocate_protesting_separation_of_families_arrested_at_the_white_house_06022017 (posted 2 June 2017; accessed 23 June 2018).

[6] Avi Selk, “‘I wanted to stop her crying’: The image of a migrant child that broke a photographer’s heart,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/06/18/i-wanted-to-stop-her-crying-the-image-of-a-migrant-child-that-broke-a-photographers-heart/?utm_term=.3b959967422a (Posted 18 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, updated introduction to the webpage dated 22 June 2018.

[12] John Sandweg interviewed by Mary Louise Kelly, “Former ICE Director Says Some Migrant Family Separations Could Be Permanent,” National Public Radio, (posted 21 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rev. Jennifer Butler, Faith in Public Life, quoted by Eileen Altman on Facebook, 21 June 2018, https://www.facebook.com/eileen.altman/posts/10156612830039974

[15] Melissa Florer-Bixler, “How Jeff Sessions reads Roman’s 13 and how my Mennonite Sunday school class does,” Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/how-jeff-sessions-reads-romans-13-and-how-my-mennonite-sunday-school-class-does (posted 15 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[16] After worship, I experimented with the punctuation.  The result is available on my blog at https://wp.me/pBRG6-sH.

[17] Rev. William Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis, “Jeff Sessions got the Bible wrong. We care for strangers, not rob their rights,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/19/jeff-sessions-biblical-heresy-immigration (posted 19 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[18] Willie Dwayne Francois III, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/june-24-ordinary-12b-mark-435-41 (posted 22 may 2018; accessed 19 June 2018).

[See update below.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 26 June 2018

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

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

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

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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 8:2-11 and Luke 24:1-11
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have long considered the passage we heard from John 8 to be a pretty good argument against the death penalty.  The law says that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Jesus stops the crowd from carrying out that penalty.  It seems pretty clear that Jesus is anti-death penalty.

At least in the case of adultery.

When only one of the party is brought to justice.

And that last statement is an important one for this sermon series.  The crowd is only seeking to punish the woman, as if the adultery is her fault.  She was caught in the act, they say.  That means the other party was there.  Why aren’t they hauling the man away to be killed, too?  It’s as if the guy gets a pass.

For generations, we’ve been letting men get away with sexual harassment and sexual assault.  We’ve been slut-shaming the women and giving the men a pass.  In my studying for this sermon series, I’ve learned some of the reasons why people sexually harass.

According to John Pryor, a psychologist at Illinois State University, there are three personality factors that increase the likelihood that a man will be a sexual harasser:  a lack of empathy, a belief in traditional gender roles, and a tendency toward authoritarianism.  In his research, Pryor found that when men with these personality traits are in an environment or system that suggests they can get away with it, they will do it.[1]

Add to this information the results of more recent studies showing that power makes people impulsive, less worried about social conventions, and less concerned about the effect of ones actions on others.  Other studies show that powerful people become more focused on themselves, are more likely to objectify others, and are more likely to overestimate how much others like them.  Sometimes powerful people will think that there are sexual signals coming from subordinates that simply aren’t there.[2]

Why men are much more likely to sexually harass than women is not completely clear.  “It’s not like women are somehow immune from dark personality traits,” psychologist Louise Fitzgerald said, “but we know from gender research that men are more aggressive, more socialized to seek sex and believe they have a right to it.”[3]

I do not think this greater aggression is simply biological.  It is not, as Andrew Sullivan proposed in a column for New York magazine,[4] simply a matter of testosterone.  There is something about the ways we raise boys that makes the men they grow into more aggressive than women, particularly more sexually aggressive.  One of the dangerous ways we do this is by doing what happened in the story from John’s gospel.  We give the men a pass.

Consider these three things we tell boys and girls that gives boys a pass.

  • Boys will be boys.
  • He does that because he likes you.
  • It’s just locker room talk.

Perhaps a little more strongly than the other two phrases (though I think all three do this), saying, “Boys will be boys,” teaches that there is only one way to be a boy, and that way is to be violent, rough, and tumble.  It implies that boys are biologically wired to be violent and that they should be excused from the consequences of that behavior.  It turns out, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot, that there is very little difference between the brains of girls and boys.[5]  When our culture buys into the idea that maleness is to be equated with violence, we excuse behaviors that hurt others physically or emotionally.

The junior high boy snaps the bra strap of the junior high girl in the hallway.  When the girl informs a teacher, the teacher says the boy did it because “he likes you and doesn’t know another way to tell you.”  It gets said again and again.  I am guilty of saying it – not at the junior high level, but with elementary kids.  When we say it, we are reinforcing that idea that boys are incapable of expressing themselves through any means other than violence.

“When we dismiss boys’ aggression as evidence of affection,… we sell all children short.  To girls, the message is, ‘That violent act to which you did not consent means that he feels love for you.’  And the message to boys is, ‘When you feel an emotion, you should express it through violence.’”[6]

Consider what those messages do.  They imply “that it’s strange for boys to have feelings of love that are disconnected from feelings of violence [or power over another].…  When we tell our boys it’s normal to show that they like someone by hurting them, we don’t just excuse toxic masculinity – we encourage it.  We are effectively not teaching our children what safe and consensual relationships look like at the moments when they are just starting to come of age sexually.”[7]

Likewise, we give boys and men a pass when we excuse their stories of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”  We’re essentially saying “boys will be boys,” but in an advanced way.  We are saying not only that it is okay, but that it is appropriate, that it is expected for boys and men to perform their masculinity and their sexuality in aggressive ways.  And that is toxic for all of us.

Aziz Ansari

About three weeks ago, a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari was published online.[8]  They met, exchanged phone numbers, exchanged text messages, and then went out on a date.  The date ended in Ansari’s apartment and became very sexual very quickly – from kissing to undressing to Ansari saying he was going to go grab a condom, all in a matter minutes.  “Grace [the woman’s pseudonym] voiced her hesitation explicitly.  ‘I said something like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”’  She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him.  She did, but not for long.”[9]  The date ended, and she left – very upset.  For her, this was a #MeToo moment.

There was a lot of push back about this article – a lot.  The woman was not an employee of Ansari, so there were no workplace dynamics in the situation.  “Her repeated objections and pleas that they ‘slow down’ were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex.  Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.  “Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.”[10]

This question is, I think, the other side of the enculturation issue I just scratched the surface of about male sexual aggression.  And I’ll tell you, I don’t know all the possible reasons.  But I found a very informative article online that opened my eyes, titled “The female price of male pleasure.”  I hope you will read it; click here.

It’s thesis is this:  “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time.  And to ignore their discomfort.”[11]  Loofbourow, the author of the article, starts with this little factoid:  According to a study published on the National Institutes of Health website, 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.[12]  She goes on to explore how and why women and men have entirely different understandings of what makes sexual intercourse “bad sex.”

She notes that there are five times as many clinical trials studying men’s sexual pleasure as there are studies into the severe physical pain some women experience during sex.  Why?  “Because,” she concludes, “we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.”

She writes about women who continue having sexual intercourse even though it is painful.  She writes about women being taught to expect the first time they have sexual intercourse to be painful – and if the first time, why not the second time?  And then there’s the discomfort the fashion industry pushes on women, largely for the sexual gratification of men.

One of the reasons women don’t just leave when a social encounter turns uncomfortable sexually is that they are taught that uncomfortable is the norm.  This is probably also a reason that some women don’t realize that the uncomfortable situation they just had – in the workplace or at school or at church or at the sports club – was sexual harassment.  And even if they do recognize it as such, it may be a reason they don’t bother reporting it.

There are two other reasons I can think of that people (of all genders) don’t report sexual harassment and sexual assaults.  The first is that they don’t think they’re going to be believed.  It’s what happened to the women in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, and they weren’t even reporting an assault.  The women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid after the crucifixion to give it a proper preparation.  But when they get there, the body is gone and they have an angelic visitation.  When they report what happened to the men who were followers of Jesus, they are not believed.  The men don’t believe them.

The other reason I can think of that people don’t report sexual harassment and sexual violence is that they worry that their reporting will be met with more violence.  You may remember the recent special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.  One of the candidates, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct in the weeks leading up to the election.  This is what happened to home of Tina Moore, one of the accusers.[13]

The fire is being investigated as an arson.  The fear that reporting will be met with more violence is reasonable.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to touch on in this sermon:  What do we do about all this?  I’ll go into this in much more detail next week.  This week, I want to say there are at least three basic things we can do when we see harassment, or even assault, taking place:

  • We can disrupt the situation. This needs to be done in a way that is as safe as possible.  You may want some support from another when you do this.  I’ll offer some examples of how this can be done next week.
  • We can confront the harasser. This doesn’t have to be done in the moment and it isn’t appropriate in all situations.  But when it’s appropriate there are ways to do this.  More next week.
  • And we can ask the target of the harassment how we can help. This might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in the with target of harassment and offer to help – like offering to go with them to Human Resources if the harassment takes place at work.

The other thing that’s important to do when someone discloses harassment or abuse.  Believe them.  Telling someone, “I believe you,” can give them the support they need to get the help they need to get the healing they deserve.  We can do a better job than the male disciples did on Easter morning.

Amen.

_______________

[1] William Wan, “What makes some men sexual harassers? …” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/12/20/what-makes-some-men-sexual-harassers-science-tries-to-explain-the-harvey-weinsteins-of-the-world/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/01/sullivan-metoo-must-choose-between-reality-and-ideology.html

[5] Colleen Clemens, “Say No to ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’” Teaching Tolerance, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/say-no-to-boys-will-be-boys (posted 17 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Katie Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” babe.net, https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355 (posted 14 January 2018 [as best I can tell]; accessed 3 February 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lili Loofbourow, “The female price of male pleasure,” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/749978/female-price-male-pleasure (posted 25 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25648245

[13] M.L. Nestel, “Over $150,000 raised after Roy Moore accuser’s home burns down in suspicious fire,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/100000-raised-roy-moore-accusers-home-burns-suspicious/story?id=52192189 (posted 7 January 2018; accessed 3 January 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 20, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
On this Sunday, we celebrated Pastor Jeff’s 30th anniversary of ordained ministry.
Scriptures:  Psalm 46 and Luke 15:11-32
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a hymn written by Martin Luther about 500 years ago.  He wrote the lyrics in German, of course, so we sang a translation.  The original music was probably a pop song in his day, a tune he might have picked up in a tavern being sung by the crowds, a tune he repurposed for his hymn.  The original tune swung a bit more and wasn’t so squared off to sound so pomp and circumstance-y.  Still, it’s a good hymn, one that I’ve liked since I was a teenager, one that was in the running for my ordination service thirty years ago.

Martin Luther

It’s based on, rather freely, on Psalm 46.  I don’t know my Luther well enough to know why he liked this Psalm and decided to write a hymn based on it.  I do know why I like this Psalm.

Just this week, I read two different ways of analyzing the Psalm based on its form.  I won’t take you down the road of the first of these, though this is the kind of stuff theology nerds like me geek out on.  This analysis points to two points (and yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence).  The first point is the song’s refrain, that God is our refuge – the song starts with and concludes with this, and it is an anchor point in middle of the song.  The second point, the central points of the song’s two sections (as this particular analysis divides the song):  God is in the midst of the city; it will not be moved; and  be still and know that I am God.  I would summarize these two points as, “God is God and you’re not.”

The second form analysis of the Psalm sees three stanzas, each three verses long.  The first stanza “juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar.”[1]  Rolf Jacobson says, “The image of ‘earth’ shaking and ‘sea’ roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order.  This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience.  The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature.  Thus, the ‘law’ that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator.”[2]

I disagree with his assessment that creation is in a “fallen condition.”  Yes, earthquakes and floods and tsunamis happen.  Yes, disease and disability strike not just humans, but other species as well.  Yes, we are all going to die.  But I don’t see these as signs of any “fallen condition” of creation.  Rather, I see them as part of the ongoing creative energy of the universe.  This stanza’s point is that because God is a present help in trouble, even natural disaster, we do not need to be engulfed with existential angst.

Stanza two moves from nature being in an uproar to the nations being in an uproar.  I’m not reading the political into the Psalm.  The Psalm itself gets political.  I don’t know what the political threat to Israel was when this Psalm was written – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – and it doesn’t really matter now.  What’s important now is the witness of the Psalm – that when the nations are in an uproar, when kingdoms totter, God is still God.  And the sun will come up tomorrow.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Stanza three points to the power and purpose of God – and our response.  God is working out the kin-dom in our midst.  God is making wars to cease, breaking the bow and shattering the spear.  And our response – to be still.  Be still and know that God is God (and that you and I and principalities and powers of our age are not God).  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Phyllis Tickle

I’ve preached before about how I think we are in the midst of a great church rummage sale (and, no, I’m not talking about the flea market happening next weekend).  Though she points to the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer for the genesis of the idea, Phyllis Tickle articulated the theory most clearly for me – “that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”[3]  There really wasn’t a church for the first rummage sale, 2,000 years ago.  Tickle called it “The Great Transformation” and it took place when a man was recognized by his disciples as “Emmanuel, God With Us.”  Five hundred years later, the Roman Empire collapsed and the church entered an era of preservation with the advent of the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories.  Five hundred years later, the church split in “The Great Schism,” creating the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Five hundred years after that, “The Great Reformation” shook up the church once again.  And five hundred years after that … is today.

Tickle said that in each of these times, the church was wrestling with one key question:  What is authoritative?  And in each of these great rummage sales, a new authority emerges.  Obviously, for The Great Transformation, Jesus was the new authority.  I couldn’t find my copy of her book The Great Emergence this week, and I don’t remember what the new authority was that emerged from the second rummage sale, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with monasticism.  At the Great Schism, the new authority was the bishop of Rome, or the Pope, as he’s typically known.  At the Great Reformation, the new authority was scripture.

Tickle thought that the Spirit is likely going to be the new authority in whatever this new church that’s emerging will turn out to be.  I wonder if it might be Nature.  Or some combination of Spirit and Nature.

In any event, I had no idea that I would be pastoring in the midst of a rummage sale when I answered the call to become an ordained minister.  When God’s call got through (I realize in retrospect that God had been calling my whole life, but there was too much static on the line) in 1982, we were just beginning to experience the end of Christendom.  I had no idea it was happening.  I grew up in a time when the default assumption in American society was “Christian.”  In fact, the default assumption was “Mainline Protestant.”  Yes, there were Catholics and Jews around, but the default assumption was Mainline Protestant.  All the members of the Supreme Court were either Mainline Protestants or Jews.  All the Presidents except for Kennedy were Protestants, and almost all of them Mainline Protestants.  School vacation schedules considered the church calendar as they were being designed.

And all that has disappeared during my time in ordained ministry.  This shift, along with the explosive growth of computer technology and post-modernity taking root, have contributed energy to the great church rummage sale we’re experiencing now.  And one of the reasons I’m really glad to be fulfilling my call to ordained ministry here at Niles Discovery Church is that you are a church that is willing to try new things.

If you look at each of the great rummage sales the church has had in the past 2,000 years, while something new always emerged from it, whatever used to be also remained – though smaller, often healthier because new things made the old thing into some self-examination.  I don’t know if Niles Discovery Church will emerge as part of whatever the new things is or if we will be part of the stronger, smaller, faithful continuation of Progressive Christianity.  But I do know that we will be faithful as we seek to fulfill our call as part of the body of Christ.

“30 Years and Counting,” I titled this sermon.  Perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but it you’d permit a bit of self-indulgence.  This is the fifth ministry setting I’ve had in those thirty years.  The first three were completed in under ten years.  Short ministries or long, I always learned things in each setting.

Working as a chaplain at the juvenile hall, I learned about the urgency of now and the difference I could make in a moment.  I also learned that I have to be willing to let go of long-term results.  I could plant seeds, but I would never know if they would produce fruit.  I typically didn’t even know if they would take root.  So I learned to be faithful to my calling and to leave the results to God.

At the church in Spokane where I served as Associate Pastor and then Interim Pastor, I learned how important congregational buy-in is on projects.  The bigger the project, the more important getting this buy-in is.  And that typically means slowing down so people can catch up to the leaders.

I learned about the importance of integrity when I served the church in Richland, Washington, as an Interim Pastor.

And at the church in Carnation, Washington, where I served as pastor for a decade, I learned that my leadership doesn’t matter if I’m leading in a direction the church doesn’t want to go.  I also learned how important it is for the members of a church to nurture their friendships and to create a safe space for each other.

And here in Fremont, where I’ve served for a dozen years (at Niles Congregational Church and at Niles Discovery Church, as the first merged into the second), I’ve learned how important it is for a church and a pastor to be willing to risk in order to stay faithful.  That’s where I think we’re going in the years ahead.  I think we’re going to keep stepping into risky ministries in order to stay faithful.

I picked the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be read at my ordination because it answers a profound question.  What must we do to live in the kin-dom of God?  Love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.  It really is that simple.  And it really is that risky.

Loving that radically will mean crossing boundaries – like the Samaritan crossed when he saved a Jew.  Loving that radically will mean inviting people we don’t know (like an innkeeper, say) to help us heal the brokenness in the world.  Loving that radically will mean handing over what we have to others so that all might experience wholeness and justice.

bell hooks once said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.  The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”[4]

I think that is why Jesus calls us to love, to take the risks of love.  For loving builds the kin-dom of God.  And here’s a bit of good news.  We can take those risks – though the mountains should shake in the heart of the sea, though the nations are in an uproar – we can take the risks to love.  For the Lord of hosts is with us.  God is in the midst of the city.

Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1110 (accesses 19 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2008/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 19 August 2017).

[4] bell hooks, quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155129096928500 (posted and accessed 26 July 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 5:1-20 and “Kids Who Die,” by Langston Hughes
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s gospel lesson is a wonderful, dramatic story.  Jesus has been teaching by the Sea of Galilee.  That night, he and his disciples get in a boat to cross the sea.  While Jesus sleeps, a storm kicks up, severely scaring the disciples.  They wake Jesus and he stills the storm.

They get to the other side of the sea, in the country of the Gerasenes, an area where Gentiles live.  They step out of the boat and are met by a madman who has made his home in the cemetery.  I’ve always pictured Jesus coming ashore and wandering directly into the cemetery, though that’s not exactly what the scripture says.  I’ve also pictured the man as naked and unbathed, with matted hair and beard.  The story doesn’t say that either, though later, when he’s been saved by Jesus, there is a line about him being clothed.

There is no question but that the man is tormented.  He has lost his own voice to what torments him; all he does is howl.  When words come out of this mouth, that the words of the demons that we hear.  He injures himself because he is in so much pain.  The demons that torment him have stripped away his humanity – completely.  Only the demons speak, and when they do, they recognize who Jesus is and the threat Jesus poses.

The story is rich with symbolism.  In the Hebrew scriptures, the sea represents chaos.  In the story right before this one, Jesus show he is master over chaos when he calms the chaotic, life-threatening storm on the sea.  The man who meets them when they come ashore is the personification of chaos.  They come ashore in the land of the unclean (the Gentiles), in an area that is unclean (a cemetery), and are confronted by someone who is unclean (the man who is possessed).

If there is any person who is less than fully human, it’s this guy.  If there is anyone who is less worthy, of less value, it’s this guy.  This man is “other” on so many levels.  And Jesus sees right through this “otherness,” seeing the man’s true humanity.

When I picked this lesson for this sermon, I thought about the “otherness” of the man possessed.  I thought about how racism “others” people of color.  Racism says that whiteness is normal and people who aren’t white are abnormal, not fully human, less than, other.  I looked at how Jesus saw through that “otherness” and heard a call to go and do likewise.

But as I reflected on this scripture this past week, I came to see society in the man possessed.  Society is possessed by the demon of racism.  And racism has a legion of faces.

This is not Kelly’s son, but this child is just about the age of her son in the story she tells.

“My son was about 2 years old,” writes Kelly Brown Douglas.  “I had taken him to the park to play in a Flintstones-like car that was in the park’s playground.  This particular park was next door to an elementary school.  After being in the park for about 15 minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park.  Two little boys, one blonde-haired the other redheaded, ran down to the car where my son was playing.  Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out.  Soon the two little boys began fighting over who was going to play in the car.  My son looked on with the fascination of a 2-year-old.  The little redheaded boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking.  He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son.  With all the venom that a 7- or 8-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.’  This little white boy was angry.  A black boy had intruded upon his space.  My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.

“I was horrified.  Before I could say anything to the offending boy the white teacher, who was in earshot, approached.  She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son.  I expected her to have a conversation with the little boy and to make him apologize.  Instead, she looked at my 2-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime, and said to the little boys, ‘Come on with me, before there is trouble.’  At that moment, I was seething with anger.  I took my son and left the park.

“As we walked away, I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain.  At 2 years old, my son was already viewed as a criminal.  At 7 or 8 years old the link between a black boy’s body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy.  If at 2 years old, a white teacher already regarded my son as a troublemaker, I feared what the future might bring.”[1]

That is one of the legion of faces of racism today; there are many others.  I asked a group of friends who live in the Tri-Cities[2] to share with me their experiences with racism.  I tried to get a cross-section of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and I was blessed with several responses, especially given how quick a response I had asked for in my request.  Here’s just a sample.

One friend is a Muslim woman.  She and her husband are immigrants from Pakistan.  They have three children.  She told me that their eldest has pale skin and, when little, was often mistaken for a Caucasian.  His experience was quite different from that of his little brother.  The younger brother tans easily and has a mole on his forehead.  From early elementary school, he was teased.  In Middle School, he was called names like “Zit Face,” “terrorist,” “Gandhi dot,” and “sand monkey” – to mention just a few of the names that his mother is aware of.

A European-American shared some incidents she witnessed or learned about in her neighborhood.  In Union City, after an off-campus shooting, the Union City police pulled together suspected gang members and their friends, all of whom were African American, for questioning.  She wonders what role racism played in that roundup.

Her neighbor reported his car tagged with a gang symbol.  Some of the responding police suggested the perpetrators were wannabe gang members and called them “grease monkeys” and “welfare cases.”

Another friend, a middle-aged woman from south Asia, immigrated in 1978 and became a citizen in 1986.  She shared how for the first twenty-plus years she lived in the United States, she volunteered in her children’s schools, in Girl Scouts, in camps, in sports programs, and on the boards of several non-profit organizations.  Then came the attacks on September 11, 2001.  “It is painful to be labeled as terrorist,” she told me, “because of the 9/11 tragedy, [especially] after being a part of the American fabric for over 20 years and serving and trying to make America a better nation for all.  Our loyalties are questioned every day since that tragedy by asking us to condemn those or any other terrorists acts since then, no matter who is responsible and where it happens.”

This is a woman with a deeply compassionate heart, and she told me about another incident that happened to a young Latina who worked in Starbucks.  One day, my friend saw that the barista was upset and asked her what had happened.  Earlier that day, a customer had asked the barista a question about school.  The barista proudly told the customer that she had just graduated from high school.  The customer responded, “So this is it for you because your kind do not go to college, you will get pregnant and have babies.”  The barista was too stunned to respond, even though she could have said that she had a full scholarship to attend a university that fall.

These stories I’ve shared are about just one form of power that Racism takes.  You know the old expression, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”  It refers to the fact that the vast majority of an iceberg is underwater.  It applies here.  These overt acts of racism are the portion of the iceberg we can easily see.  Below the surface there are other powers at work.

The first power we see is “Power Against” or “Power Over.”  This is the power I’ve talked about so far, the power that works against people of color.  When racism wields this power, it tells the shop clerk to follow that African-American kids through the store because she is suspect, that it’s okay for a cop to label a Latino kid a “grease monkey,” and that the future for a 2-year-old black boy is jail.

The second power of racism is often harder to see.  It is the “Power For” people who are white.  This is the power that allows me to assume I will be treated justly in the court system, or to assume that I will get a job interview based solely on the fact that my name “sounds” white.  This is the power that gets me a bank loan when an equally qualified person of color doesn’t get it.  It is the power that allows me to assume that I will be shown the apartment if it’s available, as assumption people of color cannot always make.

One of the people who I asked to share stories of racism told me one about a time her daughter got caught shoplifting.  The mom threatened to “let them” have her arrested, and that this would ruin her chances to get into college, and there would be all kinds of consequences for her stupid actions, and (as the mom put it) “blah, blah, blah.”  The mom talked about grounding, severe consequences at home that hadn’t yet been imagined.  She said to the child that you need to apologize, assure the store person that you will never do anything like this again.  This went on until the store person said to the mom, “Obviously, you will make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Your child’s name will be kept on our records and isn’t allowed back in here.”  No police report filed.  No jail time.  No criminal record.  The daughter got to go home, got go to college.  The mom points out that she and her daughter are white.

This is racism’s Power For white people at work.

So is the fact that the GI Bill made home loans available to white GIs after World War II, but not to black GIs.[3]

One of my friends pointed out that white people general don’t acknowledge that their families have benefited from access to college educations, home loans, inherited wealth, job preferences, networking, safe travel, white-biased testing, financial and social training, etc.  All this is racism’s Power For white people.

And then there’s the third power of racism, the Power that Distorts the truth:  that we are each and all made in the image of God.  This is the power of racism that gets deeply and perhaps I should say demonically internalized.  Any time I feel better than, more than, scared of someone of darker hue, this is the result of this third power of racism distorting the truth in me.

A white friend shared with me about dating an African-American man.  My friend said, “Watching women clutch their purses or actually cross the street when they walked by my beautiful and gentle boyfriend was shocking to me.  Overhearing a family ask to move their seats away from our vicinity in a Black Angus restaurant was an eye-opener.”  This is racism’s Power that Distorts at work.  Racism distorted these strangers’ views of my friend’s boyfriend.

It is the same Power of racism at work in a friend who is of several races.  He shared with me how through his adolescence he tried so hard to be white.  He said, “I desperately wanted to be accepted by the White community.  I wanted to be as white as possible, forsaking the color of my skin, my heritage, and my culture,” this despite the fact that his white friends often bullied him, calling him “half-breed.”  Racism distorted my friend’s sense of his own full humanity and it has taken a lot of personal work to reclaim it.

Being aware of these Powers racism has is a start, but it is not enough.  Some of the work that we need to do is very personal, and I’ll talk about that next week.  The other work is communal work.  Obviously, standing up to overt acts of racial prejudice is one way we can address racism’s Power Against.  Working on policy change so that racism’s Power Against and Power For are rooted out is another activity we can engage in.  For instance, we could work for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.  And we as a congregation could develop partnerships with faith communities whose members are predominantly people of color.

The past sermons in this series have shown just how deeply racism runs in our culture and country.  We are not going to get rid of it easily.  But the more we are aware of racism’s powers, the more likely we will find ways to cast out this demonic legion that possesses us.

Amen.

[1] Kelly Brown Douglas, “The Stories That Matter from a Black Mother to Her Son,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/faith-action/stories-matter-black-mother-her-son (posted and accessed 20 March 2017).

[2] Fremont, Newark, and Union City are called the “Tri-Cities” here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

[3] See, for instance, http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/After-the-War-Blacks-and-the-GI-Bill.pdf and http://www.demos.org/blog/11/11/13/how-gi-bill-left-out-african-americans.

I’ve had a blog post churning inside me since people took to the sidewalks and street of Berkeley to shut down a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California.

I wondered (before the protests) if the best response would have been to ignore him. If he came to a lecture hall and there was no audience, no newspaper reporter, no TV cameras, that would be the cruelest cut of all. But, a student group invited him so he was going to have some audience. And the things he typically says at these kinds of events are hate-filled (and sexist and Islamophobic and racist [and probably homophobic]) and allowing that kind of speech to go unchallenged can be dangerous, for that kind of speech insights violence. So something had to be done.

The students who wanted the event cancelled were not attempting to violate his freedom of speech. He would still have the right to speak, just as you and I have the right to speak. But you’re right to speak does not give you the right so say hateful, hurtful things on my Facebook timeline or in my living room or on my campus home. Go speak somewhere else, Milo, just not here.

So the students who didn’t want his hate-filled words spoken on their campus organized to stop them. I am proud of their purpose and I am proud of their success. I am sorry their protests ended up including property damage. I don’t think it needed to in order to be successful and, in fact I think it hurt the long-term effectiveness of the progressive agenda of equality and inclusion (the very things Milo opposes).

A colleague and friend points out that the black bloc tacticians are not the only ones we need to be condemning. I have heard nothing about the role of the campus college Republicans in all this. She says, “That seems really important to me,” and I agree with her. She goes on, “They invited someone they know incites violence towards women and people of color …” Are them culpable for what happened, too?

There needs to be engagement between the left and the right. We need to talk to one another and truly listen. But we can’t have these conversations as if real people aren’t being hurt. They are. Let’s talk about real people, not just you and me.

There also needs to be better training in nonviolence. And that training has to include how to respond to black bloc infiltrators (and other agents/provocateurs). I spoke with a former State Department employee a few weeks ago, someone who is now an academic expert on Russia. She warned that the danger is not only from anarchists who utilize black bloc tactics. She warned that the extreme right may take a page out of Russia’s playbook on the Crimea. Russia paid a woman and helped her move from one city to another to get interviewed on local TV, appearing to be a local little old lady, to say how horrible things were and how Russia was needed. The academic suggested that white nationalists could end up paying some people wearing Democratic Party-identifiable t-shirt to beat someone up (say someone who is African-American) and either hope that someone catches it on their cell phone or pay someone else to catch it on their cell phone and give it to local media (I’m so glad I was there to catch this) in an effort to discredit the Democratic Party.

Another friend described one such strategy to deal with people who would wield property damage as a tactic in what would otherwise be a peaceful protest. “… tell everyone to rapidly grab their neighbor protesters and put themselves physically between the black bloc idiots and whatever they want to destroy. Other protesters recruit help for you, fast, and message the protest leaders so they can respond. Once you have 3-5x more people than the local concentration of black bloc, you perform a ‘show of force’ — almost but not quite encircling the troublemakers, leaving only 1 exit. That is the direction you want them to go. And weirdly, it almost always works.”

Working for justice is a moral duty. We need to learn how to do it effectively.

On November 15, Timothy Snyder (Housum Professor of History at Yale University) posted the following on Facebook. I repost it here because I think it is good advice for lovers of democracy in this and every age.

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

–Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History, Yale University,
15 November 2016.

If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.

I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”

I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.

While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.

Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.  People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.

To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.

And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.

As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:

For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.

The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.

When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.

Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.

Alex is a 6-year-old child from Scarsdale, New York. When he saw this image, he wrote a letter to the one person he thought could make a difference, President Obama. Alex asked the President to find the Syrian boy (Alex assumed the boy, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, was an orphan after he was rescued from the rubble of his bombed out home) and to bring Omran to live with Alex’s family. “We will give him a home, and he will be our brother,” Alex wrote.

Alex also told the President that he has a friend at school from Syria named Omar, implying that he wouldn’t have any problem befriending another Syrian, and he thought the two of them, Omran and Omar, could be friends. I like that Alex thought that he could be part of teaching Omran English, but more than that, I like that Alex knew that Omran would bring something to teach, too:  “another language.”

The White House published the letter and the President read it at a U.N. Summit on Refugees. According to President Obama, “Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray.”

While Omran and his family were injured when their house was destroyed by the airstrike, perhaps miraculously, everyone in his immediate family survived.

You can read the letter from Alex here. You can read a news report about this story here.

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