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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.
“Agnotology is the word Stanford University science historian Robert Proctor coined to describe the deliberate dissemination and misinformation, often to try to sell a product. The tobacco industry developed a strategy to cast doubt on scientific studies showing that smoking causes cancer. In politics, the campaign to cast doubts on President Obama’s national origins was an example of agnotology. Climate deniers use a similar strategy. The news media often perpetuate agnotology in the interest of offering a balanced perspective, and the Internet provides a platform for people to pose as experts while engaging in agnotology. ‘We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,’ says Proctor.”
Quoted from the 16 March 2016 edition of Christian Century, page 9. The cite the BBC, January 6, as their source.
If you haven’t seen the documentary (or read the book) Merchants of Doubt, I highly recommend it. It’s all about how agnotology is used by corporations to increase profits. Right now, Standing Rock Sioux are protesting the building of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline. To counter this protest, it appears that pro-pipeline organization (read: Big Oil) has directly or indirectly created fake Twitter accounts to make it look like there is public support for the pipeline.
Read more about the Standing Rock protests at http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access (where there are old stories and up-to-date stories listed.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philemon 1:8-19 and Hebrews 13:1-8
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It’s been a difficult couple weeks for my soul. I expect the same is true for many of you. In addition to the triumphs and tragedies of our personal lives, there has been so much violence in the news:
- a particularly brutal attack in Bangladesh;
- car bombs in Baghdad;
- 2 police shootings that were caught on tape (and at least 29 others that did not make the national news);
- 5 police officers killed in Dallas (and at least five others who were killed by guns or cars that did not make the national news);
- this morning there are stories of police officers shot and killed in Baton Rogue;
- a truck driving through a crowd celebrating in Nice, France.
In an act of self-care, I decided not to watch the videos of the police shootings in Baton Rogue and Falcon Heights. And, in my efforts to protect my soul from this heart-rending news, I may have missed other attacks and violence that took place in the first two weeks of this month.
Yesterday, I posted this picture on the church’s Facebook page. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was a staunch anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested and eventually connected with an attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was 39 when he was executed by the Nazis.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I agree with Bonhoeffer. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. But what to say and how to act – that’s not always clear. Here’s what I wrote with the picture:
It’s not always easy to figure out how to speak out against evil. How do we speak out against the evil of the murders in Nice, France, on Thursday and not participate in evil ourselves?
The traps are too easy. As a nation, we could speak out with our own violence through our military. As a church, we could easily lump together all people from one ethnicity or religion and blame them all for the actions of a few or of one. We could write a post on Facebook, but does that really speak God’s truth to evil?
While there are no simple answers, the call is clear. We cannot remain silent when we are aware of evil.
This call, to speak and to act, is part of our call as followers of Jesus. We are called to join the Spirit Conspiracy to bring blessings to others. “Conspire” literally means “to breathe with,” which I find interesting, since the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the Greek word for breath. Another way to think about this call is that we are called to get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life.
And there are plenty of areas of our lives, plenty of circles of influence where, if we get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life, we will bring blessings to others. Consider these circles of influence.
There’s your family. No one is in a better position than you to bring blessing to your family – your spouse, your kids, your siblings, your parents – than you. There are others who are in an equal position to you, but there’s on one in a better position than you. “When Jesus wanted to confront religious hypocrisy in his day, he pointed out the way hypocrites served their religion at the expense of their families.” Paul wrote about family relationships in ways that probably brought more blessing than the social norms, as sexist as those writings seems to us today. My point is that it’s not just the Spirit calling us to conspire to bring blessing to our families; there are biblical calls, too.
Then there are our economic choices that are a circle of influence. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing through our economic choices. If you’re an employer, you can offer a wage that brings a blessing. If you’re a consumer, you can make purchase choices in ways that bring blessings – are the people all along the supply chain paid justly? Is the environment protected or damaged by this product and its manufacture?
Likewise, our neighborhoods can be blessed by our conspiring with the Spirit. As we address the sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods. As we extend hospitality, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods.
“The Spirit is looking for conspirators who are interested in plotting goodness in their communities. ‘What would our community look like if God’s dreams for it were coming true?’ we [can] ask. The answer gives us a vision to work toward.”
Likewise, we can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to vulnerable people, the people who are typically forgotten or ignored. The biblical mandate is to care for widows and orphans, for immigrants, prisoners, the sick, and the poor. We can easily add to that list: the homeless, the under-educated, the unemployed, the underpaid, refugees, and more.
And if conspiring with the Spirit to bring blessing to these circles of influence isn’t challenging enough for you, I’ve got another: your critiques, opponents, and enemies. Imagine what the election season would be like if the candidates and their supporters conspired with the Spirit to bring a blessing to their opponents. That’s probably a pipedream, but we – you and I – could start. And not just when it comes to politics. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who annoy us (and the people we annoy). We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who don’t understand us and who we don’t understand, to people who try our patience and whose patience we try.
“Rather than write them off as unimportant and unwanted, we need to rediscover them as some of the most important people we know. If we ignore them, our growth in the Spirit will be stunted. If we let the Spirit guide us in what we say to their faces and behind their backs, we will become more Christ-like.”
White House photographer Pete Souza has taken something close to two million photographs of President Obama, since Obama took office. Each year he posts 75 to 100 that he thinks are the best of the year. Several people have sifted through the photos claiming that these 16 are Souza’s favorites. He denies the claim. Still, from those annual postings, people have gathered what they think are a good sampling of them.
One such collection includes photos that are humorous, photos that are cute, and photos that are poignant. One photo from early in Obama’s presidency shows him fist-bumping one of the White House custodians. They are in a hallway, moving from one meeting to another. Aids accompany the President. And the President pauses to acknowledge a staff worker who cleans floors and toilets and empties the trash.
What we say or fail to say can make a difference in someone else’s life. We can use our words as part of our conspiracy with the Spirit to being blessings, or we can wound. In the letter of James, the author says that if your life were a ship, your words would be its rudder. A fist-bump here, and “thank you” there can make a difference in steering us in the Spirit’s direction. As McLaren puts it, “If you’re a part of the Spirit’s conspiracy, you can be God’s secret agent of blessing to anyone in any of these circles.”
There’s one circle of influence that I haven’t mentioned: work. I did this because in the book we’re using for this yearlong sermon series, Brian McLaren uses the letter to Philemon as an example here. McLaren points out that Paul used the opportunity of Onesimus running away to him to urge slave owners to treat their slaves better. My problem is that Paul appealed to his love for Onesimus rather than to Onesimus’ own personhood. My problem is that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.
Yes, Paul moves the needle. Yes, Paul suggests that owners should treat their slaves with respect and kindness. Yes, Paul urges slaves to work with pride and dignity. But he fails to condemn slavery.
There’s probably a lesson here for our contemporary workplaces. We should treat each other with respect and kindness. We should treat each other fairly, and bosses should pay their employees a just wage. But the issue at hand for Onesimus was whether Paul was going to send him back to slavery or order Philemon to end Onesimus’ slavery. And Paul failed to get his breathing fully in sync with the Breath of Life.
McLaren begins the chapter that is the fodder for next week’s sermon by saying, “Sooner or later, everyone should be arrested and imprisoned for a good cause. Or if not arrested and imprisoned, put in a position of suffering and sacrifice. Or if not that, at least be criticized or inconvenienced a little. Because if we’re co-conspirators with the Spirit of God to bring blessing to our world, sooner or later it’s going to cost us something and get us in trouble.”
Sometimes this mission is pretty easy to fulfill. Sometimes a fist-bump in the hallway will make the difference. Sometimes it’s hard and it will get us in trouble. Sometimes we’re faced with great evil, and the way to speak out, the way to act is not clear, and so we will struggle to conspire with the Spirit. Sometimes, like Paul, we will act and not go as far as we should. Sometimes, like Bonhoeffer, we will be asked to pay a great price.
Still, the mission is before us: “to be a secret agent of God’s commonwealth, conspiring with others [and the Holy Spirit] behind the scenes to plot goodness and foment kindness wherever you may be.”
As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on:
- Anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention.
- A time when you felt the Spirit guided you to go above and beyond your normal way of responding to a situation.
- A time when the words you chose steered you either toward or away from the Spirit’s guidance.
- Or imagine a walk through your typical day, from waking to going to bed – and imagine yourself as a portal of blessing in each circle of influence you move in and out of in that day.
 “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/ (updated regularly, The Washington Post tracks police shootings in the United States; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last update was for a police shooting on 13 July 2016).
 “The White House’s Pete Souza Has Shot Nearly 2M Photos of Obama, Here are 55 of His Favorites,” Twisted Sifter, http://twistedsifter.com/2016/07/pete-souza-white-house-photog-favorite-obama-photos/ (posted 7 July 2016; accessed 16 July 2016).
“Although Jesus is called teacher in the Gospel of Mark, that Gospel includes little of the teaching of Jesus. His parables confound his listeners rather than leading to greater understanding. Jesus’ teaching in Mark is performative, says Brian Blount; Jesus taught by the way he lived. He doesn’t teacher love as a concept, he acts it out by touching lepers and allowing diseased people to touch him, engaging women as equals, associating with the marginalized, and breaking laws that don’t promote human well-being. If we want to teach the reign of God as Jesus taught it, then we need to craft a curriculum that does more than inform.” ~ Christian Century, 8 June 2016 edition, page 9, citing the April edition of Interpretation.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Acts 2:1-18 and John 3:1-18
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
[Because this worship service included confirmations, this sermon is shorter than usual.]
Today’s gospel lesson is one that has been used by some Christians as an impetus to evangelize and an argument to convince people to make a confession of faith in Jesus. You might have missed it because the translation we used today is The Message, but today’s reading included the famous verse, John 3:16. Some of you probably have it memorized, maybe even in the King James Version. “God so love the world that he have his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not parish but have everlasting life.”
This gets used by some Christian to convince others to make a confession of faith in Jesus so they can have “everlasting life.” It is also an impetus to do that form of evangelizing because they interpret it to imply that this is a matter of eternal life and death. “We need to bring more people to believe in Jesus,” they would say, “because, if we do, they’ll go to heaven.”
I don’t believe that’s what John meant. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus was about. Jesus came that our live might be full – full of love, full of hope, full of completeness, full of direction and purpose.
That’s what Jesus was getting at as he Nicodemus spoke past each other in John’s narrative. Because there’s a “this word has two meanings” thing going on in the Greek, we miss Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus. When Jesus talks about being born from above, Nicodemus hears Jesus talking about being born again – which is a pretty ridiculous idea. Who can climb back into the womb and be born again. You won’t fit.
Jesus tries to explain. “I’m talking about the Spirit, Nicodemus. The Spirit is moving! You can’t see it, but you can see evidence of it. You can see evidence of it in me, in my life, in my message.”
In fact, I would say that core to Jesus’ life and message was this good news: “the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come … and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement?
“That was what the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost, according to Luke, when the Spirit manifested as wind and fire. Suddenly, the Spirit-filled disciples began speaking in languages they had never learned. This strange sign is full of significance. The Spirit of God, it tells us, is multilingual. The Spirit isn’t restricted to one elite language or one superior culture, as almost everyone had assumed. Instead, the Spirit speaks to everyone everywhere in his or her native language.”
Our scripture lesson from Acts told the first part of the Pentecost story, but it didn’t include all of Peter’s testimony, and it didn’t include the result of that testimony. So I’ll tell you about the result. The crowd that heard Peter asked him what they should do. Peter told them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Yesterday, we set up our new baptistry and baptized Maddi Wagner. And Grady Mahusay, Maddie Monkman, and Megan Keesis reaffirmed their baptisms. We did this with lots of water. We dunked them all the way under the water. We buried them in the water and for a moment breath stopped. And then they were born anew as they rose to new life. In this sacrament of the church, they participated in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
In the Reformed tradition, we recognize two sacraments: baptism and communion. These two rituals of the church are considered sacraments because they are the only rituals of the church that Jesus participated in. The Roman Catholic tradition recognizes seven sacraments among its rituals. In addition to baptism and communion, they see confirmation, confession, anointing, marriage, and ordination as sacraments. In the Reformed tradition, we call these other five rituals “rites,” sacred rituals, but not “sacraments,” because – as far as we know – Jesus was never married or ordained or …
I don’t think the distinction between sacraments and rites was part of the early church. In fact, there was no separation between baptism and confirmation. One was baptized and then blessed by the bishop, all in one ritual. But as the church grew, the bishop couldn’t be there for every baptism, and so would make the rounds after the fact and confirm that the baptisms were legit.
Now, we don’t have bishops in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and – well, I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of church history and polity. So, let me just get to how we see it now. Now, we see confirmation as a choice that baptized person makes – whether baptized as an infant when their parents made baptismal promises or later when they made the baptismal promises themselves. And in that choice, the baptized person is confirming that they are responsible for these baptismal promises.
Confirmation is much more a turning point than an ending. Confirmation marks a shift of responsibility – from parents to child – for the spiritual journey. I have yet to meet someone who had grown close enough to God to be able to say that the journey was complete. So by confirming their faith, these young people are choosing the label ‘Christian’ and the responsibility of figuring out how to actually be a Christian. And by blessing them, we are confirming that we have seen the evidence that the Holy Spirit is moving in their lives.
One of the places I turn to so I can be a little more open to how the Spirit is moving is to the just-about-daily reflection posted by Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston on Facebook. Yesterday, he posted this:
“We are being transformed, each one of us, in our own way. For some, this change comes gradually, unfolding over a lifetime, a process of growing nurtured by the slow acquisition of wisdom. For others, the shift comes in a sudden rush, accelerated by some breakthrough experience, a burst of spiritual energy propelling the spirit forward. For many, it is a combination of the two, years of steady search punctuated by moments of dazzling insight. We are all being transformed. No soul stays the same.”
The Spirit is moving! We are all being transformed. None of us stays the same.
As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on anything that caught your attention in our scripture readings or sermon, or to reflect on one of these:
- Reflect on a time when you experienced the Holy Spirit in a powerful way.
- Sit with and respond to the imagery of death, burial, and resurrection with Christ.
- Hold the word “open” in God’s presence. Let images of openness come to you. Direct this openness to God’s Spirit as a desire to be filled.
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 40. Retrieved from amazon.com.
 Acts 2:38, NRSV.
 Steven Charleston, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1031287823622756 (posted and accessed 14 May 2016).
The Uprising of Discipleship
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 21:1-19
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
“Religion is not a lottery, though some may believe otherwise. If our faith was only a question of picking the winning number to earn us an exclusive afterlife of luxury, then we would miss the whole point. Spiritual life is defined by service, not by salvation. We are called to practice justice, exercise compassion, give generously to help others. That is the hard work of living by faith. We do all of this without demand of a reward for love is its own reward. Heaven is not a winning ticket separating winners and losers but a promise we all inherit when we put service before self.”
This quote from Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston has lingered with me since he posted it at the beginning of the month on Facebook. And it informs today’s sermon.
Today is the third Sunday of Easter. We are in the season of resurrection. Just as Christmas lasts for 12 days, Easter lasts for 50 days. Today’s scripture lesson is an epilogue to John’s gospel. Most people think that John’s gospel ended with what we call chapter 20 and that chapter 21 was added sometime later. But that tidbit of text criticism is neither here nor there as far as today’s sermon is concerned. Today, we look at the bulk of chapter 21 as one more story from the texts we call “scripture,” one more story that talks about the uprising that began on Easter.
The disciples have had a series of experiences of the palpable presence of Jesus even though he was killed. First Mary of Magdala had an experience in the cemetery where Jesus’ body had been buried. Then Jesus showed up in a locked room with the disciples. And again a week later, he showed up in a room with the disciples, even though the door was shut.
It is now sometime later and the disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee. Peter announces that he’s going fishing. John doesn’t share what Peter’s motivation was. I’ve always read into the story that Peter, impulsive fellow that he was, felt like he had to do something. Jesus was dead, but he wasn’t. But he wasn’t around all the time like he used to be. And here we are back in Galilee and we’re hanging out together because, well, what else are we going to do. And suddenly Peter announces his going fishing. So what are the rest of us going to do? We go with him.
Peter in a fishing boat makes me think of when Jesus called Peter. Peter and his brother Andrew were on the Sea of Galilee (or as John calls it here, the Sea of Tiberius), and Jesus came by and called them, “Come follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” Only that’s not in John; that’s in the synoptic gospels. John doesn’t tell us how Peter put food on the table, just that his brother Andrew called Peter to come check out Jesus because Andrew thought Jesus just might be the Messiah. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if John’s community knew the synoptic story of Peter’s call.
This is a story in John’s gospel, and we’re not at the beginning of the story of Jesus ministry. We’re at the other end of the story, sometime after the resurrection. Peter declares to the other disciples that he’s going fishing, and a bunch of the other disciples went with him. And they were out all night and caught nothing. At daybreak, a stranger shows up on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They cast their nets and there are so many fish the net should break.
One of the disciples declares, “It’s the Lord.” On hearing this, Peter puts on some clothes and jump in the water to swim to shore. Which seems backwards to me – putting on clothing and jumping in the water. Walter Wink points out that this story has the feeling of a farce in its deliberate playfulness: “no fish, too many fish; non-recognition, recognition; Peter swimming fully clothed; the entire fish-count, in unison; Jesus as short-order cook.”
And I have to agree – especially about the fish thing. Why 153 fish? Why that exact number? Theologians and biblical commentators have debated through the ages. “St. Jerome imagined it was the total number of fish species in the world, signifying the church’s worldwide mission. But first century people already knew more than that many fish.” St. Augustine does some impressively convoluted math (that I don’t get) to force the number into making some symbolic sense.
I like the chutzpah of one commentary who suggested the number may have been picked because that is the number of fish that were in the net. The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes this is a factual story rather than a theological story, and like the rest of John, the truth of the stories are in their theology, not their facts.
For an explanation, I like Wink’s idea that it’s all part of the farce. You see, things shift as soon as everybody’s ashore and gather around Jesus. Jesus serves them breakfast, bread and fish. Just like with the multitude on the hillside months earlier, Jesus serves his followers bread and fish. It’s an Easter communion scene.
And then Jesus pulls Peter aside. Jesus takes aside the man who was so upset that the only thing he could think to do was to go fishing. Jesus takes aside the man who promised he would never desert Jesus and within hours had denied even knowing him – three times. Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him this question three times. And three times, Peter declares his love for Jesus. Perhaps the symmetry is purposeful. Perhaps with each question, Peter is working out his guilt and finding forgiveness and reconciliation.
But John was written in Greek and the Greeks have several words that we translate as “love” in English, and two of them are used here. “Peter, do you agapas (the highest, self-giving love, agape) me?
Peter: ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I philo (to have friendship, affection for) you.’
Jesus: ‘Feed my lambs.’
A second time Jesus asks: Do you agapas me?
‘Yes Lord; you know that I philo you.’
‘Tend my sheep.’
A third time Jesus asks, Do you phileis me?
Peter, grieved that this third time Jesus had adopted his word, replies, ‘You know everything; you know that I philo you.’
‘Feed my sheep.’”
Even without the response of “Feed my sheep,” it’s clear that there’s something going on with the use of these two words we translate “love.” Is there something about the call to love and follow Jesus without reservation, to love him unconditionally? Is there some acknowledgement of our inability to love without condition and Jesus’ accepting us all the same? Is there something being said about our inability to truly, fully reciprocate God’s love for us? I think, perhaps, yes.
With the response of “Feed my sheep,” I also hear the reassurance that we, like Peter, are called to act in response to Jesus’ love for us, even if imperfectly. The text continues with Jesus speaking to Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
Jesus has been telling Peter to care for the community: Feed my sheep. And, “in case he doesn’t understand what this entails, Jesus assures him that the kingdom requires total servanthood.… Though the first half of his life was spent planning, controlling, and going wherever he wished, discipleship means that ‘someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
“Though the text claims that this was meant to foreshadow the way in which Peter would die, it actually says much more about the way Peter would live his life in Jesus: in full obedience to the gospel.” Is it any wonder that the last thing Jesus says to Peter in John’s gospel are the same words that, according to Mark’s gospel, were the first said by Jesus to Peter?
These words are a literal call to discipleship. A disciple is “a follower, a student, an apprentice, one who learns by imitating a master.”
On Easter Sunday, I said that the resurrection was much more about what happens to us than about what happened to Jesus. Maybe the resurrection is about getting a first-class ticket to eternity, but if it is, that’s not what’s important. Easter is the inauguration of an uprising. One mark of this uprising is fellowship, a fellowship of scarred and scared and doubting people – I talked about that last week. Another mark of this uprising is discipleship. The people that are part of this uprising are disciples of Jesus, the one who, on the day before his execution, knelt at his disciples’ feet and washed them. And then he told them that he had a commandment for them: Love one another.
This is the one Peter was called to follow. And how does he follow? How is he a disciple? By feeding Jesus’ flock.
That’s why I quoted Bishop Charleston at the beginning of the sermon. “Spiritual life is defined by service, not by salvation. We are called to practice justice, exercise compassion, give generously to help others. That is the hard work of living by faith.” That is the hard work of discipleship.
Like Peter, if we want to be part of this uprising, we are called to follow Jesus. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect – just look at Peter with his philia-love of Jesus. “But it does mean we are growing and learning, always humble and willing to get up again after we fall, always moving forward on the road we are walking.”
It’s a strange position to be in, being part of the flock that Peter is called to feed and being called like Peter to feed the flock. But that’s what we’re called to be as part of this uprising. We are disciples who are learning even as we are teaching new disciples. Yes, we will make mistakes. Yes, some of our efforts will prove fruitless. And when that happens, Jesus will come by and encourage us to give it one more try, maybe a little differently this time, casting our nets on the other side of the boat.
As we move into our time of reflection, I invite you to meditate on anything in the sermon to strikes you, or to consider one or more of these questions:
- Hold the image of tired fishers at daybreak, being told to cast their nets one more time. What does this image say to your life right now?
- How have you been drawn toward discipleship by another person?
- How do you relate to the story of Peter with its dramatic ups and downs?
 Steven Charleston, in a Facebook post dated 1 April 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1004829352935270.
 Walter Wink, “Resurrection Flashes,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/resurrection-flashes (accessed 6 April 2016).
 Jason Byasse, “Death, Upended,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/death-upended (accessed 6 April 2016).
 Wink, op. cit.
 Michaela Bruzzese, “Surrender to Life,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/surrender-life (accessed 6 April 2016).
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 179.
This is a follow-up to the sermon manuscript I posted tonight, “Journey into Exile.”
This video does a pretty good job of explaining the causes (at least some of them) of the Syrian refugee crisis — in a little over six minutes.
One of the things I failed to do in my sermon was include the voice of any of the people who are refugees from Syria (or anywhere else). You can read the story of one refugee here.
An issue I didn’t even bring up is the issue of statelessness. Because each country sets its own rules about what it takes to be a citizen, some children born to refugees aren’t granted citizenship anywhere. They grow up stateless. You can read more about why this happens and why it matters here.
Finally, Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and the public information service at UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) offers 8 practical ways to help refugees here.