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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.

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I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?

I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author[1] includes this advice:

  • Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.

This author also suggests:

  • Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
  • Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
  • Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
  • Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
  • Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
  • Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”

It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.

Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”[2]

As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.

While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year,[3] that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.

The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking.[4] It will take action.

And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.

So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”[5]

Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”[6]

I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently.[7] This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.

And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.

Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year,[8] but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.

If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,”[9] it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.

Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.

Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.

I did not do so well with these three resolutions.

But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.

And here he is in context.

Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.

He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.[10]

I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.

I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.

[1] Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[2] Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[3] On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.

[4] Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).

[5] Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).

[6] Camacho, op. cit.

[7] “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[8] Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “August Landmesser,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Landmesser (accessed 30 December 2016).

According to the Mayo Clinic website, the “DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner”

Some people (me included) think that Donald Trump may have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It is, like most personality disorders, very hard to treat and very hard to live with. A person named Nell Ziehl wrote a post on Facebook that is getting forwarded with advice about dealing with someone who has NPD. I don’t know who Nell is or what Nell’s credentials are, but from my personal experience with people who have personality disorders, this seems like good, basic advice. So, I’m reposting Nell’s advice here:

I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are trying to grapple with it for the first time because of our president-elect, who almost certainly suffers from it. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) It’s not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.

2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this. While it’s important to pretend “good faith” and remind him of promises, as Bernie and others are doing, that’s for his supporters, so *they* can see the inconsistency. He won’t care. So if you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.

3) You can influence him by making him feel good. There are already people like Bannon who are ready to use him for their own ends. The GOP is excited to try. Watch them, not him. President Obama, in his wisdom, is treating him well in hopes of influencing him and possibly averting the worst. If he gets enough accolades for better behavior, he might continue to try it. But don’t count on it.

4) Ultimately, he will betray anyone who tries to get close to him. It might take a while, though, so we can’t count on that.

5) He only cares about himself and those he views as extensions of himself, like his children. (People with NPD can’t understand others as fully human or distinct.) He desires accumulation of wealth and power because it fills a hole. (Melania is probably an acquired item, not an extension.) He will have no qualms *at all* about stealing everything he can from the country, and he’ll be happy to help others do so, if they make him feel good. That is likely the only thing he will intentionally accomplish.

6) It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD. They do not observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy. It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT ALLOW OTHERS, ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA, TO DO THIS. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about this, step away until you recalibrate.

7) People with NPD often recruit helpers, referred to in the literature as “enablers” when they allow bad behavior and “flying monkeys” when they perpetrate bad behavior on behalf of the narcissist. Although it’s easiest to prey on vulnerable or malicious people, good people can be unwittingly recruited. It will be important to support good people around him if and when they attempt to stay clear or break away.

8) They like to foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations. He will probably behave worst toward those closest to him, but that doesn’t mean (obviously) that his actions won’t have consequences for the rest of us. He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.

9) Gaslighting — where someone tells you that the reality you’ve experienced isn’t true — is real and torturous. He will gaslight, his followers will gaslight. The GOP has been gaslighting for 30 years. Learn the signs and find ways to stay focused on what you know to be true.

10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Don’t circulate his stupid tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.

Much love and I’ll post something fun for the holidays too, I promise.

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.

Yesterday, I found myself needing to simply turn off Twitter. The news from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota was too depressing.

Today, I am feeling angry, a righteous anger about how racism is continuing to play itself out in government policy and action. And I am wanting to “do something.” So I started by researching what I could do and now I share this incomplete list of things you and I can do, even though most of us are far away from the front lines.

Background

The Seattle Times published a pretty good (though overly simple) summary about the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the water protectors (led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) who are protesting the DAPL. You can read it here.

The summary fails to note some important things:

  • While the pipeline is probably safer than transporting the oil by rail (Bakkan oil is extremely volatile, making train transport very risky), that does not mean that the pipeline is safe. Spills (and explosions) are still probable at some point along the almost 1200-miles of the DAPL route. (Bullet point updated 11/29/16.)
  • For the Native Americans on the front lines, this is an act of prayer, a spiritual practice.
  • There is insufficient explanation why they call themselves “Protectors,” not “protesters.” See video below. #WaterIsLife
  • The article fails to speak about the dangers of extracting any (Bakkan or otherwise) carbon (in the form of fossil fuels) from the ground and putting it in the atmosphere. While the Standing Rock Tribe’s objections are about the dangers to the waters and the lands, the dangers of climate change are an important reason to oppose all fossil fuel infrastructure construction. As the hashtag says, when it comes to fossil fuels, we need to #KeepItInTheGround.
  • The conduct of police agencies has been questionable throughout this protest, including shooting at media and protester drones, strip searching people arrested for misdemeanors, and jamming cell phone service during mass arrests.
  • Gathering a full background picture would be incomplete without reading the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s two-page background paper. You can read it here.
  • The specifics of the Standing Rock Tribe’s legal claims can be found in this court filing.

Things You Can Do

Keep Learning 

  • Some news sources are covering the issue better than others. I’ve appreciated NPR’s coverage.
  • Bill McKibben wrote a great piece on the pipeline in the New York Times on 10/28/16. Read it here. (This link added 10/29/16.)
  • Social media are proving to be helpful, often providing more accurate and more up-to-the-minute coverage than classic news media. I’m following #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) and #IStandWithStandingRock on Twitter; they probably work on other social media, too.

Sign Petitions

  • Youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have a petition you’re invited to sign.
  • There is a petition on the White House website calling for the cessation of construction of the DAPL.
  • There is a similar petition on the Care2 website.
  • The ACLU has a petition calling for a demilitarization of the police response.
  • CREDO action has a petition calling for North Dakota and the Department of Justice to respect journalists’ freedoms and a petition calling on the President to stope the DAPL.
  • Moveon.org has a petition, too. (This link added 10/29/16)

Contact Politicians directly

When leaving a message stating your thoughts about this subject please be professional.

  • Call North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200.
  • Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414
  • Call the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, (202) 514-4609, asking them to send observers to make sure the Protectors civil rights are not violated.
  • Tweet to these officials on a daily basis (or as close to that as you can manage): @NDGovDalrymple, @POTUS, @BarackObama, @DOJ, Attorney General @LorettaLynch
  • Call the Army Corps of Engineers and demand that they reverse the permit: (202) 761-5903

Call the Companies

Call, email, and/or write the executives of the companies that are building the pipeline:

  • Lee Hanse Executive Vice President Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 800 E Sonterra Blvd #400 San Antonio, Texas 78258 Telephone: (210) 403-6455 Lee.Hanse@energytransfer.com
  • Glenn Emery Vice President Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 800 E Sonterra Blvd #400 San Antonio, Texas 78258 Telephone: (210) 403-6762 Glenn.Emery@energytransfer.com
  • Michael (Cliff) Waters Lead Analyst Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. 1300 Main St. Houston, Texas 77002 Telephone: (713) 989-2404 Michael.Waters@energytransfer.com

Make a donation

Join an action

This is gleaned from https://nodaplsolidarity.org. Go there for more ideas and details.

  • Take action in your own community. Target the Army Corp of Engineers, banks, pipeline companies, corporations and elected officials behind the pipeline. Taking action includes lock-downs at offices, sit-ins, taking up space, rallies, call-in days, divesting from banks, mass mailings, and interruptions. Register at NoDAPLSolidarity.org to join the network of Global Solidarity.
  • Organize yourself and/or large groups of people from your community to come to Standing Rock. Contact them at Organizing@NoDAPLSolidarity.org to discuss details and schedule a time frame.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, Month 21, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 15:11-32 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In 2003, the chorus I was singing with went on tour in New Zealand and Australia.  We really only got to see a little bit of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – but I went to New Zealand early, did some traveling on my own, visited museums, and felt got to see much of the country.  I felt like I really began to understand its history and cultures.  Humans didn’t come to the islands we now call New Zealand until the late 1200s.  That’s not even a thousand years ago.  Europeans didn’t arrive until the 1600s.  The first settlers were eastern Polynesians, people who over the centuries had migrated across the ocean from Taiwan, island-hopping to the east and south.[1]

When I think about those Polynesian explorers, I’m stunned.  They stood on the water’s edge or maybe even on the highest point of the island they were on and looked out at the vast nothingness and decided to get into canoes and head out into the unknown, trusting that they would find a place to land.  No GPS to guide them.  No satellite images to assure them that out there in that direction there’s another island.  And still they stepped out (or rather paddled out) into the unknown, boldly going where no one had gone before, little canoes bobbing on the vast ocean of the unknown.

earthrise - NASA; public domainApollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon.  On December 24, 1968, mission commander Frank Borman and astronaut William Anders looked out the window and noticed the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.  Anders scrambled to get the camera with the color film and took this picture.[2]  “We came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet,” Bill Anders said.[3]

A year later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.”  Looking up at earth from Tranquility Base, the earth was so small that Armstrong noted that he could blot it out with his thumb.  He was asked later if this made him feel big.  “No,” he replied, “it made me feel really, really small.”[4]

I can’t help it, but when I contemplate these sorts of things I end up wondering where it’s all going and what it all means.  Are we human beings merely an infestation on one planet orbiting one average star of the one hundred billion of stars swirling in one galaxy among 225 billions of galaxies in the vast universe?

At some level, we are very small.  At some level, we are inconsequential.  And at some point, perhaps in eight billion years or so, our sun will turn into a red dwarf and this planet will be incinerated.[5]  The chances of human civilization existing at that point are pretty slim.  An asteroid or a comet crashing into the earth would end human civilization – and that certainly could happen in the next eight billion years.  We could end human civilization ourselves with nuclear weapons or biological warfare.  More likely, we will cripple human civilization to the point of collapse through climate change.  And there is, as activists like to remind us, no planet B.

At some point, our species will die out and there will be no one left to remember that any of this ever existed.  And, as Brian McLaren says, “If this prediction is the whole truth, our unremembered lives and their illusory meaning will be reduced to nothing, gone forever – utterly, absolutely, infinitely gone.”[6]

The good news – at least if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the prediction isn’t the whole truth.  The good news – if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the end is not infinite nothingness.  There is God in the end.  Almost like a fairytale, where the princess and the prince marry and live happily ever after, the Bible keeps pointing to a great feast, to a wedding banquet when “humanity welcomes God into its heart.”[7]

Our gospel lesson is an example of how our scriptures point to this ending.  In the parable from Luke, “human history can be seen [in] the story …  The family experiences conflict.  The rebellious younger son runs away and for a while forgets his true identity.  The dutiful older son stays home but also forgets his true identity.  The younger son reaches a crisis and comes home.  He is welcomed by the father, which then creates a crisis for the older son.  Of course, the story isn’t only about the identity crises of the sons.  It also reveals the true identity of the father, whose heart goes out to both brothers, who graciously love them even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other.  The story ends with a celebration – a welcome-home party, a reunion.”[8]

But, did you notice that the story’s ending is not fully resolved?  We know what the father does in the end:  he throws a banquet fit for a wedding.  We know what the younger brother does:  he accepts his father’s welcome, forgiveness, and love.  But we don’t know what the older brother does.  Will he “remain outside, nursing his petty resentments?  Or will he come inside to join the Big Celebration and rediscover his true identity?”[9]

When I was younger, I found myself identifying most with the younger son.  I understood the desire to strike out on one’s own, to embrace that freedom, to seek adventure.  And I understood how easy it is to make bad choices, to ashame ones parents, to feel along and lost, to forget who and whose I really am.

Now, I find myself identifying much more with the older son.  I understand the call of duty and responsibility.  I’ve experienced that sense of working hard and feeling like I wasn’t getting the acknowledgement I deserve (or at least that I think I deserve).  I’ve even felt something like the older son’s – what? jealousy?

Most important, though, is the sense of God that this story presents:  that deep longing for all to come, for all to enjoy the feast, for all to discover or rediscover their true identity in God’s family.[10]

This points to the purpose of giving your pastors sabbaticals.  In addition to acknowledging our hard work, you are creating space for us to enjoy the feast and to rediscover and deepen our true identity in God’s family.  Why wait until we’re dead to enjoy the banquet?  Why not feast now?

So, tomorrow I’m going to disappear for three months.  Not only will I disappear from this building, but I’ll disappear from Facebook (I feel the need to rest from that medium, too).  I’ll spend time with family, and while I don’t expect my father to kill a fatted calf when we get together, I do expect him to eat some of his birthday cake.  I’ll spend some time in nature, allowing the beauty of creation fill me with awe – and I’ll bring back pictures.  I’ll read some books that have been on my reading list for months (or even years) and catch up on a four-inch high pile of journals that I haven’t kept up with.  I’ll spend some time in intentional community that is grounded in a rhythm of prayer.  And I’ll, as our special music suggested, just breathe.[11]

In my head, I believe that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  But sometimes I need to stop and let my heart fall into that truth.  Sometimes I need to stop and renew my soul.  And that’s really what I most want to accomplish on this sabbatical.

I hope to follow the flow of the parable of the Prodigal.  The parable of the Prodigal flows toward reconciliation.  God’s love is not found in right belief or doctrine.  God’s love is found in love.  “If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, [then] the great, big, beautiful, wonderful, holy, mysterious, reconciling heart of God waits to be discovered and experienced,”[12] again and again and again.

“Human speculation – whether religious or scientific – does the best it can, like a little boat that ventures out on the surface of a deep, deep ocean, under the dome of a fathomless sky.  Our eyes cannot see beyond the rim.  Our ears cannot hear the music beneath the silence.  Our hearts cannot imagine the meaning above us, below us, around us, within us.  But the Spirit blows like wind.  And so this mystery humbles us even as it dignifies us.  This mystery impresses us with our smallness even as it inspires us with our ultimate value.  This mystery dislodges us from lesser attachments so we sail on in hope.  This mystery dares us to believe that the big love of God is big enough to swallow all death and overflow with aliveness for us all.

“‘Do not fear,’ the Spirit whispers.  ‘All shall be well.’  That is why we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy.”[13]

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught you attention or imagination; or
… a moment in your life when everything came together and, for at least a moment, “all was well”; or
… the image of the end as a great homecoming celebration, or a great marriage banquet; or
… the image of being in a small boat, buoyed up by depths that you cannot fathom, feeling what it means to be upheld by mystery, letting God’s peace surround you.

[1] “Māori people,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māori_people#History (accessed 18 August 2016).

[2] “Earthrise,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise (accessed 20 August 2016).

[3] Robert Poole, “For teh Apollo astronauts, a small world,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/19/opinion/oe-poole19 (posted 19 July 2009; accessed 20 August 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 52, page 259. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 260.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Two in the congregation sang Jonny Diaz’s “Breathe.” You can listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnjeMwxFuBA.

[12] Ibid, 261.

[13] Ibid, 262.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Revelation 22:1-5 and Psalm 126
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

zaatari-refugee-ca_3397466k

An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013. From “The Telegraph.”

I’ve been wondering this week, if I were a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where would I find hope?

If I were a Palestinian, raised by parents in a refugee camp, now raising my children in the same refugee camp, where would I find hope?

If I were a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who, like the generations before me, was trapped in a cycle of poverty,[1] where would I find hope?

If I was a member of parliament in the Solomon Islands who has watched several small islands disappear because of erosion and rising sea levels, who has watched villages literally washed to sea as tropical storms increase in strength because of climate change[2] – where would I find hope?

If I were an African-American bus driver in St. Louis who sees how my nation has created a new Jim Crow by building a cradle to prison pipeline[3] that siphons black children, especially black boys, out of the schools and into the prisons, labeling them as “convicts” so they can’t get a job when they’re released, so the end up trying to get by only to be arrested again – where would I find hope?

If I were a Christian living in Rome during the reigns of Emperors Nero or Domitian, emperors who had essentially made me illegal by demanding I worship them as gods, something that would violate the very core of my being and faith – where would I find hope?

I can imagine those early followers of Jesus thinking something like this:  “Jesus has been gone now for decades.  The world doesn’t seem to be getting better.  If anything, with a mad dictator in Rome, it’s getting worse.  Maybe Jesus was wrong … maybe it’s time for us to forget about this ‘[…] love your enemies’ business.  Maybe we need to take matters into our own hands and strap on a sword to fight for our future.  Or maybe we should just eat, drink, make a buck, and be merry, because tomorrow we might all be dead.”[4]

This is the context in which Revelation was written.  I know there are plenty of Christians who think Revelation is some sort of coded book that, if properly decoded, will reveal exactly how God will bring the world and history to an end.  But it’s not.  Yes, it is sort of in code, but it’s not about the end of history or the world.  Revelation was written to bring the Spirit of Hope to an oppressed but faithful people.  “It addressed the crisis at hand.  Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world.…  Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ – a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency – will triumph.”[5]

While Revelation is typically classified as apocalyptic literature (which literally means writing that unveils or reveals), I see Revelation primarily as an example of literature of the oppressed.  Sometime literature of the oppressed needs to be coded.  To remain silent to the present injustice would be an act of complicity, of cooperation with the injustice.  But to speak up in some situations can get you killed (or at least disappeared).

Revelation is this type of literature.  “Instead of saying ‘The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,’ which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated.  Instead of saying, ‘The religious establishment is corrupt,’ it tells a story about a whore.  Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that collapsed in failure.”[6]

Brian McLaren points out, “People who read Revelation without understanding the context tend to miss some telling details.  For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword.  Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels.  But they miss the fact that he carries the sword in his mouth, not his hand.  Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  His … words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors.  In addition, we notice his robe is blood-stained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love.  In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”[7]

Revelation is a source of hope, a vehicle for the Spirit of Hope to come upon these oppressed, first century Christians.  This understanding of Revelation is what got me wondering where I would find hope if I were a Syrian refugee, or a Palestinian parent, or an Oglala Lakota, or a Solomon Island parliamentarian, or an African-American bus driver.  I know I wouldn’t find hope in a rifle or a rocket launcher or a riot.  So where would I find hope?

Maybe in the faces of some children playing soccer.  Maybe I would find hope in the news that Christian denominations in the United States were standing up for my human rights.[8]  Maybe I would find hope in watching my children learn our history and culture and keep our language alive.  Maybe I would find hope in accounts of people around the globe taking to the streets to demand climate action.  Or maybe I would find hope in something as simple and beautiful as poetry.

Last Sunday, I asked by Facebook friends to tell me, “What gives you hope in times of distress?”  Before I share some of their responses, maybe you’d like to think about your answer.  What gives you hope in times of distress?

Here are some of the responses from a few of my Facebook friends:

  • Stories of people who have survived worse and become happy. My having survived worse.  Being loved just the way I am no matter what.  Belief that love will outlast and best all the worsts.  Seeing and creating something beautiful helps too,…  Being able to laugh, be heard, and get the tears out also help.
  • Remembering friends who turned terrible circumstances into growth.… Seeing the refugee team at the Olympics, knowing the adversity they faced as they left the circumstances in their homelands and found life in new countries.  Experiencing the presence of God in my life, in me and in others when I least expect it.  Knowing I am loved and I can love with abandon.
  • Trusting that even in the midst of crises of any kind, we are all carried by a loving God, even if we don’t know it at the time.…
  • Watching toddlers as they learn new things and get excited.
  • Helping others, recognizing that I have the power to improve people’s situations, even if it’s just about feeling good for a brief moment.
  • I remind myself that other people have survived worse things. I sing to myself.  I practice a positive message and say it aloud as often as I can.  I call my best friend and moan, secure in the knowledge that it will go no further.  I pray for help.
  • [Remembering that] God IS good, even when I can’t see it – and eventually, love (always) wins.
  • Looking out at the stars and remembering that both God and the universe are bigger than our folly.
  • The love of my cat.
  • Seeing my grandsons … be kind to other kids.
  • Instances where people have offered kindness and assistance to others when they themselves have little to give.
  • I have a few people who I can rely on for support. I don’t always expect answers or solutions.  Sometimes just saying something out loud helps me work things out.
  • Perspective also helps.

Today’s scripture reading comes from “a beautiful visionary scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is as relevant today as it was in the first century.…  It pictures a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth.  This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere.  It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within.  Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures if offers and bring the treasures they can offer.  From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness.  Along its banks grows the Tree of Life.  All of this, of course, evokes God’s own words in Revelation:  ‘Behold! I’m making all things new!’”[9]

Central to this image is this idea:  “God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven.  It has always been about God descending to dwell among us.  Faithfulness wasn’t [and isn’t] waiting passively for a future that had already been determined.  Faithfulness meant [and means] participating with God in God’s unfolding story.…  God [is] descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.

“What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today.  Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now.  The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now.  True aliveness is available now.”[10]  The Spirit of Hope is among us here and now.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything in the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when an invitation changed your life; or

… how you are (or aren’t) listening to contemporary examples of “literature of the oppressed;” or

… the image of creation inviting God, and God inviting creation, through the powerful word, “Hope.”

[1] “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Re-Member, http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx (accessed 13 August 2016).

[2] Reuters, “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (posted 10 May 2016; accessed 13 August 2016).  See also, Tierney Smith, “Solomon Islans town first in Pacific to relocate because of climate change,” tck tck tck, http://tcktcktck.org/2014/08/solomon-islands-town-first-pacific-relocate-climate-change/ (posted 19 August 2014; accessed 13 August 2016).

[3] The “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund to describe the fact that “1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.”  Learn more about this problem and ways you can be involved in addressing it at http://www.childrensdefense.org/campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/

[4] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 51, page 255. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 256, emphasis added.

[8] “Disinvestment from Israel,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinvestment_from_Israel (accessed 13 August 2016).

[9] McLaren, op.cit., 257.

[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 5, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A week and a half ago, we held once of our every-four-months “Deepening Membership” gatherings. The subject of this gathering was “service,” and to get us going, I asked the people to share a story of a time they were involved in some act of service where they felt especially connected to God. Everyone (well, everyone except me) shared a story that included some element of connecting with other people, typically a person in need, sometimes with others offering service.

There is something about the experience of connecting with another person in the context of service that moves us beyond ourselves and into what a friend of mine call “The Big Love,” her preferred name for God. When we are connecting with our neighbor, we are connecting with God. When we love our neighbor, not just with mind and heart, but with hands and feet and voice, we are loving God.

This is the challenge Jesus makes to the lawyer who seemed to be looking for a loophole. “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus answers with the story we call “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” And in the telling, Jesus reminds us that loving our neighbor may require that we cross socially-dictated boundaries. This is an over-simplification, but basically, Jews at the time of Jesus generally viewed Samaritans with a special contempt. While the Romans were viewed with contempt because they were the occupying, oppressive force, Samaritans were viewed with contempt because they claimed to worship Yahweh, the Jewish God, but not at the Temple in Jerusalem, and not guided by the same group of prophets. They were seen not just as pagans, but as perverters of the faith.

In the story Jesus tells, Jewish leaders ignore their fellow Jew, robbed and beaten at the side of the road. It was a perverter of the faith who came to the Jew’s aid. Even Samaritans, outsiders, people you look on with contempt, are your neighbors.

For millennia, from before the advent of agriculture, human cultures have taught that same is safe and different is dangerous. Brian McLaren says, “That belief probably served our ancestors well at certain points in our history. Their survival often depended on maintaining trust in ‘our’ tribe and fear of other tribes. That’s why they used paint, feathers, clothing, language, and even religion as markers, so everyone would know who was same and safe and us and who was different and dangerous and them.

“Driven by that belief, our ancestors spread out around the world, each tribe staking out its own territory, each guarding its borders from invasion by others, each trying to expand its territory whenever possible, each driving others farther and farther away. No wonder our history is written in blood: wars, conquests, invasions, occupations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. The winners take all, and the losers, if they aren’t killed and enslaved, escape to begin again somewhere else.

“Eventually, because the earth is a sphere, our dispersing tribes had to come full circle and encounter one another again. That is our challenge today. We must find a way to live together on a crowded planet. We have to graduate from thinking in terms of ‘our kind versus their kind’ to thinking in terms of ‘humankind.’ We must turn from the ways of our ancestors and stop trying to kill off, subjugate, or fend off everyone we judge different and dangerous. We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation.”[1]

McLaren goes on to say, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays.   But it means all our human tribes – nations, religions, cultures, parties – need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life. True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why our societies running it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. Not inferiority, but equality. Not resentment, but reconciliation. Not isolation, but connection. Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.”[2]

What that looks like isn’t always clear. Most of you know that we have a young man – he goes by the name Lucky – who is making camp in our memorial garden. We have connected him with an Abode Services social worker and we’ve set some rules that he’s supposed to live by:

  • His tent is supposed to be down and packed away by 9:00 a.m., and not set back up until 7:00 p.m.
  • He’s supposed to keep the area clean.
  • He’s not to be in the building unless Pastor Brenda or I are here.
  • When he has coffee or eats something, he has to clean his dishes.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: Is this the clean personal and social fuel of openness, of service, of equality, of reconciliation, of connection, of hospitality? Is this loving our neighbor? I’m not sure. I hope that in this case it is. But I realize it might not be.

Back in November, United Church of Christ pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi wrote a poem she titled, “The Good Syrian.”[3]

So the American is beaten up
in the parking lot, mugged,
at the Mall of New Hampshire,
and a Christian comes by
and doesn’t stop for a moment
because it is Black Friday
and there is shopping.

Then a politician comes by.
It is primary season
and both the Democrats
and Republicans
are thick on the ground
in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth,
but the politician doesn’t stop
because his handlers
tell him it’s not a photo-op.
And finally a Syrian comes by
one of those who is –
as the poem tells it heartbreak –
on our streets
because home is like the
mouth of a shark.

And the Syrian is Muslim
and the Syrian is kind.
And the American
does not want him
for a neighbor.
But God put him there
in the answer
to questions about love.

Today is Faith Formation Sunday. We took a moment earlier in the service to thank our Sunday School Teachers and we took a moment to mark the important milestone in the life of one of our youth – his graduating from High School this month – recognizing that secular education plays an important role in the forming of faith. I said that one way to look at why the church exists is this: the equipping of people to be disciples of Jesus.

McLaren says, “[Churches] at their best are Spirit-schools of love, engaging everyone, from little children to great-grandparents, in the lifelong learning. In the school of the Spirit, everyone majors in love.”[4]

[Please watch from 5:57 to the end.  This video is the trailer for a educational series; you can learn more about it here.]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention;
or a time when someone affirmed one of your unique gifts or abilities or when you appreciated the unique gifts or abilities of another;
or a time when someone came to your aid and acted as a neighbor to you, or a time when you acted as a neighbor to another;
or meditate in silence, simply holding the term “neighbor” before God. Open yourself to the depths of meaning in this beautiful term.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 43. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maren Tirabassi, “Parable of the Good Syrian,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/maren.tirabassi/posts/968297036567313 (posted 27 November 2015; accessed 4 June 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 40. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Acts 2:38, NRSV.

[3] 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.”[1]

            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.”[2]

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.”[3] St. Augustine does some impressively convoluted math (that I don’t get) to force the number into making some symbolic sense.[4]

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.’”[5]

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.”[6] 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?

Follow me.

These words are a literal call to discipleship. A disciple is “a follower, a student, an apprentice, one who learns by imitating a master.”[7]

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.”[8]

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?
[1] Steven Charleston, in a Facebook post dated 1 April 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1004829352935270.
[2] Walter Wink, “Resurrection Flashes,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/resurrection-flashes (accessed 6 April 2016).
[3] Jason Byasse, “Death, Upended,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/death-upended (accessed 6 April 2016).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Wink, op. cit.
[6] Michaela Bruzzese, “Surrender to Life,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/surrender-life (accessed 6 April 2016).
[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 179.
[8] Ibid.

 

 

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:1-35
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It was a Saturday, the Sabbath day. But it wasn’t any Saturday. It was the day after the Roman government brutally executed Jesus. His followers saw his arrest, followed his trial, though from a distance. Some even witnessed his execution and, we are told, took his body and laid it in a tomb.

A friend of mine points out, “There are no stories in the sacred text of my tradition about his family’s grief, about the pain of his intimates Mary Magdalene or John (the disciple whom Jesus loved), no stories about his friends’ despair or his followers’ shock. The text is silent. But any of us who have lost a beloved, particularly to violent and tragic death, need no stories. We know what they felt.”[1]

I try as best I can each year to enter into the story of Holy Week. I try, as best I can, not just to read the story, but to imagine myself there. And so this week I have tried to imagine what the disciples were feeling. Deep grief, no doubt. The one they had hoped would redeem Israel had been crushed by the elites. The religious authorities and the government authorities colluded to have him killed. I imagine they were angry, too. I get angry when I hear about injustice, let alone witness it. And I’ve always assumed they were scared of the Romans, scared that they might be next.

But on re-reading today’s gospel lesson, I realize that it doesn’t say that the disciples were afraid of the government. So I went back and re-read all the Easter accounts in the four gospels and I was surprised to find no mention of the disciples being afraid of the Romans. There’s plenty of fear in the stories, but with one exception, that fear comes from seeing angels or seeing the appearances of the resurrected Christ himself.

Only in John are the disciples in a locked room because they are afraid – and then only on Sunday evening, not Friday night, not on Saturday, not on Sunday morning or afternoon. John says they locked the door out of fear, not of the Romans, but of “the Jews.” And if you read the Passion story in John, you’ll see how readily he blames “the Jews” for Jesus’ crucifixion. It can end up sounding quite anti-Semitic, which, given the likelihood that John’s gospel was written around the same time that the followers of Jesus were being kicked out of the synagogues, isn’t too surprising. John probably had an ax to grind.

The fact is that crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, so Jesus was killed under Roman authority, and any collusion on the part of any Jews would have been collusion on the part of the Jewish elites, especially members of the Temple priest class. If the disciples were afraid of the Roman government, that reality didn’t make it into the stories.

I am not the only one who has this assumption that the disciples were huddled in a locked room on that first Easter morning, fearing for their lives. One commentary I read on our Gospel story in preparation for this sermon says, “The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a ‘He told you so, didn’t he?’ way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. ‘Ohhhh, that’s right, we remember now …’ [the women say] – and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they’ve seen and experienced in the past few days).”[2]

Only the text doesn’t say any of that. The text says the women are terrified by the angel, and the text doesn’t say anything about the men being afraid at all.

Maybe it’s projection. Maybe we read into the story something that isn’t there. Maybe our own fears get projected into the gospel narratives. It sure seems like we have reasons to fear. The attack in Brussels on Tuesday initially evoked that response in me. But then, that’s the terrorists’ goal, isn’t it: to instill a sense to terror in the populace?

Terror Attacks 26 March 2016So, I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the disciples to the death of Jesus in the context of terrorist attacks. And if you’ll permit a short aside here, I’d like to make a confession. Just this month, there have been at least eight terrorist attacks around the world. On March 7, the small town of Shabqadar, Pakistan, was rocked by a suicide bomb, killing around 10 and injuring around 30. On March 13, gunmen belonging to the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda opened fire Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast; 22 were killed. On the same day, Kurdish militants set off a car bomb in the heart of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing at least 37. On March 16, a blast killed at least 15 and injured around 30 people in Pashawar, Pakistan. Also on March 16, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a mosque in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing 26. On March 20, a suicide bomber killed five people and injured more than 30 in Istanbul, Turkey. On March 21, unidentified gunmen opened fire at a hotel in Bamako, Mali; only one person was killed, one of the attackers.[3] And on March 22, there were the attacks in Brussels, killing 31 and wounding some 300.[4] Eight terrorist-attacks this month.

My confession is this: I want to acknowledge the narrowness of my own awareness, that it took an attack in a European country (that is, a white country) for me to pay attention. The same seems to be true of the news media in my country, at least the news media I consume. I, right along with the rest of the mainstream of this nation, still have work to do to address the racism that is baked into our identity and being.

Aside finished; now back to the main thrust of my sermon.

So, what if the disciples weren’t afraid of the Roman government the way I’ve always assumed? What if, despite all they knew of the cruelty of the government, its willingness to torture and maim and kill for its own political goals, the disciples weren’t afraid? I think, perhaps, that might have been one of the things that made them open to the transformative power of the resurrection.

I don’t pretend to know what happened on the Sunday after Jesus was killed. I know that for some Christians it is really important that the tomb was empty, that the resurrection of Jesus involved his physical body. It may have. But if it did, I don’t think it involved a resuscitation of his flesh. One of the reasons John may have written about the locked room was so that Jesus’ appearance there would include an element of the metaphysical. Certainly the story we heard in the second part of our gospel lesson suggests something other than the reanimation of Jesus’ molecules. These disciples don’t recognize him and when they finally do recognize him, he vanishes. Poof. But maybe I’m wrong.

My point is, I don’t think it matters whether Jesus’ resurrection included the reanimation of his body. What’s important about the resurrection is not the impact it had on Jesus. What’s important about the resurrection is the impact it had on Jesus’ disciples.

The faithful women who went to the grave to tend to Jesus’ body, to tend to death, changed as a result of their experience at the grave. And it started with them remembering what Jesus had said. The men in the dazzling clothing (angels, we assume) remind them. In the same way, for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it started with the remembering of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that Jesus said and did.

The God who spoke through the Prophet Isaiah about “new heavens and a new earth” began with the resurrection a new creation and grounded it in hope. The resurrection “isn’t only about ‘my own personal life after I die,’ then, but about God’s whole new creation, God’s new age, an age and a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, to compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God’s new age, God’s new earth. There is a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.”[5]

With the resurrection, the uprising begins.

As N.T. Wright, in the book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (the book that the adult Sunday School will start studying next week), says, “Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever.”[6] And they are what this uprising is all about.

I’m with John Dominic Crossan. “What could not have been predicted and might not have been expected was that the end was not the end. Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place.… Jesus’ own followers … talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and [therefore] probably female [or perhaps unnamed so this person can be any of us]. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake[, with the multitude, and in the upper room]. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits.”[7]

It doesn’t matter if this actually happened, because it happens all the time. Every time we come to the table, we are invited to participate in the resurrection. The bread is broken and we are invited to open our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst. We are invited to participate in the drama of Jesus’ body and blood being alive again in us, reunited in us, transforming us into a community of resurrection.

Easter is the beginning of a new age. But like Jesus at the table who disappeared when he was recognized, that new age had both begun in an uprising and has not come to its fullness. People still suffer. Terrorists still bomb and kill and countries still war. Our hearts are still torn and our health still worries us. Our loved ones still die and our doubts still trouble us.

And yet, Christ is alive.

And so we know, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, “life defeats death, peace is more powerful than war, love is greater than hatred, and good will outlasts evil. Foolish people think that killing the Messenger will kill the message! They don’t understand the power of Resurrection! Graves are temporary. May Divine Life spring forth out of the ashes of all of our struggles and renew us for the challenges to come.”[8]

Now, to add one more dimension to the sermon, as we enter into a time of quiet contemplation, I invite you to imagine the scene when the risen Christ broke the bread and suddenly disappeared. Hold that moment of disappearance in silence, and open your heart to the possibility of absence becoming fullness.

[1] Lizann Bassham, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 26 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/lizann.bassham/posts/10154066387264288.

[2] Kathryn M. Matthews, “Additional Reflection on Luke 24:1-12,” Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_27_2016 (accessed 21 March 2016), emphasis added.

[3] Tanvi Misra, “Beyond Brussels: 8 Other Cities Attacked by Terrorists in March,” The Atlantic Citylab, http://www.citylab.com/crime/2016/03/apart-from-brussels-here-are-8-other-cities-attacked-by-extremists-this-month/474855/ (posted 22 March 2016; accessed 23 March 2016).

[4] Jess McHugh, “Europe Terrorist Attacks 2016: Timeline Of Bombings And Terror Threats Before Brussels,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/europe-terrorist-attacks-2016-timeline-bombings-terror-threats-brussels-2341851 (posted 24 March 2016; accessed 26 March 2016).

[5] Kathryn M. Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), xiii.

[8] Yvette Flunder, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 24 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/yflunder/posts/10153388229660894.

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