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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 17, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 4:16-20 and Micah 6:1-8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I spent some time last week trying to remember what was going on in the world in 1980 and 1981.  I remember that there was fighting in El Salvador and Nicaragua between rival political groups.  The Soviet Union had invaded and was fighting a war in Afghanistan.  The Iran Hostage Crisis was unfolding through all of 1980, ending as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States in January of ’81.  That was the first presidential election I voted in.

I did a little hunting online to see what else was going on.  Though Israel entered into a peace agreement with Egypt in 1978, in 1980 and ’81, Israel was skirmishing with its neighbors (particularly with Lebanon, and a notable air raid in Iraq).  I forgot that the Iran/Iraq War started in 1980, lasting through that decade.  This was also when the Solidarity movement in Poland started – and was met with Martial Law being declared.  And in 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated, showing how high the cost of peacemaking can actually be.

I’ve been thinking about this because in 1981, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution establishing September 21 as a day devoted to “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.”[1]  The theme for this year’s peace day is “Together for Peace.”

United Church of Christ recognizes the Sunday preceding September 21 as “Just Peace Sunday.”  So today is Just Peace Sunday.  The term, “Just Peace,” goes back in the United Church of Christ to 1985.  That is the year when the 15th General Synod of the UCC adopted the “Just Peace pronouncement.”  This pronouncement “articulated for the first time a UCC position on war and peace that is distinct from other historic Christian approaches, namely the theories and practices of Crusade, Pacifism, and Just War.”[2]

While it is unlikely that the early church was officially pacifist, a rejection of violence runs deep in Christian theology of the first four centuries.  Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this pacifist stream seems to go largely underground.  By the eleventh century, Christianity had become a Eurocentric and warrior religion, launching crusades to conquer the “Holy Lands.”

Thomas Aquinas

Around the same time the Crusades ended, Thomas Aquinas laid out the beginnings of what became the Just War doctrine or Just War theory.  It has two parts, two sets of criteria.  The first establishes the right to go to war; the second establishes right conduct within a war.  This doctrine has held sway in the West for almost a thousand years, influencing everything from the Geneva Conventions to recent Presidents’ justifications of going to war.

Menno Simons

But the Just War doctrine is not the only Christian response to war.  By the sixteenth century, with the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist stream again surfaced.  It’s most famous advocate from that time is probably Menno Simons.  He held that one could either follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, or one could follow the Prince of Strife.  Several denominations birthed out of the Reformation followed this path, and they are often known as “peace churches.”  They include the Church of the Brethren, the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish.

In 1981, the same year that the United Nations established the International Day of Peace, a youth delegate to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod 13 brought a resolution calling on the UCC to become a “peace church.”  This resolution would have led the UCC to identify with the pacifist tradition in Christianity, rather than the Just War tradition.  Over the next four years, as the denomination wrestled with this call, a new theory was born.  Rather than focusing on what makes a war just, it focused on what makes a peace just.  And in 1985, the UCC affirmed a pronouncement “Affirming the United Church of Christ to be a Just Peace Church,” the first Christian denomination to do so.

“Just Peace was defined in the pronouncement as the ‘interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence’ and was grounded … in the biblical concerts of covenant and shalom.  Just Peace offer[s] a holistic view of working at the intersection of peace and justice, acknowledging the connections between violence and systemic issues like environmental degradation, racism, economic disparity, homophobia, and the loss of civil and human rights.…  [T]he pronouncement offer[s] with prophetic conviction the vision that ‘war can and must be eliminated’ and the shared hope that ‘peace is possible.’”[3]

Just as in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches can officially become “Open and Affirming Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to welcome LGBTQ+ people, and just as in the Disciples of Christ, churches can officially become “Green Chalice Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to decrease the church’s environmental impact, the UCC recognizes individual churches as “Just Peace congregations” when they participate in certain study and by take certain actions.  We could do this.  We could become a Just Peace congregation.

But you may ask, “Why?  Why would we want to become a Just Peace congregation?”  To be honest, we might not.  If we actually engage the discussion, if we actually do the study and let it call us to action, we might not like where it takes us.  Corey Fields writes, “[P]eople get trolled, families split apart, and pastors get fired when you start asking how we can take Jesus seriously.  Jesus is fine as a name, but if you create an encounter between Jesus and the personal lives or politics of Christians, you might have trouble.

“You can read Jesus’ words declaring blessed the ‘peacemakers,’ ‘the meek,’ and ‘the merciful’ (Matt. 5:3-10), and you might get nods of approval, but if you start talking about actually being merciful towards the desperate or peaceful towards the violent, you might be called foolish. …

“You can quote Jesus’ approach to our material possessions as ‘treasures on earth where moths and vermin destroy’ (Matt. 6:19-20), or tell the story of the rich man being told to sell all he has (Mark 10:17-22).  You can get a wink and a smile as you read Jesus saying that it’s ‘easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle’ (Luke 18:25).  But start talking about actual economic equity, and you might be called a communist.

“Surrounded by glimmering Christmas lights and angelic choruses, we read the story of a young Jesus’ family having to flee a violent ruler (Matt. 2:13-18).  But bring up that this made Jesus’ family refugees and ask how this should inform our approach to the millions in similar situations today, and you might be told to get your politics out of church.

“You can read the passage where Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (Luke 4:18-19) [that’s today’s gospel lesson], saying that fulfilled in Him is God’s mission to ‘proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  You’re fine as long as you understand these words in a spiritualized, abstract way ([even though] Isaiah didn’t).  But beware if you start talking about how to seek actual freedom and redemption for the imprisoned, or if you start trying to define who is actually ‘oppressed’ and how to actually set them free.  (And have you ever looked into what ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ refers to?)”[4]

Too often we want, as white author Wilbur Rees suggests, only $3 worth of God:[5]

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

But if we engage with a Just Peace study as part of determining if we want to become a Just Peace congregation, but may end up with a lot more than $3 worth of God.  We may end up with enough to transform our lives.

Too often people just jump to verse 8 when they read Micah 6:1-8.  When you do that, you miss the set up.  It’s a lawsuit.  Israel has been served with papers by none other than Yahweh.  It’s time for Israel to plead their case.  The case against Israel is that they have failed to keep covenant with God.  God, on the other hand, has kept covenant with Israel.  So how are they going to respond?

Israel’s response is to get in deep with the sacrificial Temple system.  Perhaps burnt offerings of calves a year old would be an appropriate act of contrition.  Or maybe God deserves more: thousands of rams.  Or tens of thousands of rivers of oil.  Or maybe even our firstborn.  Maybe we need to offer up our children on the altar of sacrifice as we seem to do so easily on the altar of war.

Only, that’s not what God wants.  God has shown us mortals what is good and what God requires:  That we do justice, that we love kindness, and that we walk humbly with God.

If Niles Discovery Church were to be served with papers, if God were to bring a case before the mountains and the foundations of the earth against us, what would the charge be?  That we have only bought $3 worth of God when God wants to give us everything?  That, while we are doing a good job at downstream social justice work, we have failed to do enough upstream social justice work?  That we are great at pulling the children out of the river and caring for them, but we have failed to go upstream and find out why the children keep ending up in the river in the first place?

“Micah 6:8 teaches us ‘to do justice.  To love mercy.  And to walk humbly with your God’ – these are active, not passive, pursuits.  We are enjoined to seek and create the change that our world so desperately needs.

“For Americans [who are Christians], this means the protection and promotion of voting rights; it means an honest reckoning with the school-to-prison pipeline and a reversal of the choices that have led to unprecedented mass incarceration; it means deconstructing the structural inequities that create educational disadvantages, early mortality, and generational poverty.”[6]  It means addressing the climate crisis with action that is as radical as ending slavery was in the 19th century.

As our anthem sang out, God has work for us to do.

Amen.

[1] “About,” U.N. International Day of Peace, http://internationaldayofpeace.org/about/ (accessed 16 September 2017).

[2] United Church of Christ, Just Peace Church Handbook (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2015), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corey Fields, “Be careful how close you let Jesus get to real life,” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/careful-close-let-jesus-get-real-life/#.Wb3UK63MyH0 (posted 30 August 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

[5] Quoted several places online, including Ibid.

[6] Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Reverend and rabbi: Removing symbols of racism isn’t enough, we need policy action,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/09/05/reverend-and-rabbi-removing-symbols-of-racism-isnt-enough-we-need-policy-action/?utm_term=.26ae01efdc21 (posted 5 September 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

[Updated: 3 Sept. 2o17]

In the final days of August, the self-titled “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” released their “Nashville Statement,” reiterating their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, condemning lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and denying the reality of gender variance beyond the male/female binary. This “manifesto” is composed of 14 beliefs, rejects the idea that otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree on gay, lesbian and transgender issues. The leaders refer to this mentality as “moral indifference.”

Author, historian, and theologian Diana Butler Bass tweeted a thread on some history behind the Nashville Statement. I encourage you to read the whole thing. She points out that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was stated in 1987 by men in response to the formation of two women’s organizations within Evangelical Christianity that embraced to one degree or another equality. She tweets, “For the last 30 years, feminism and LBGT issues have roiled in evangelical circles w/o [without] a clear consensus on theology. But opposition to one has generally resulted in opposition to the other.  For the biblical hermeneutic [the lens through which one views scripture when doing theology] behind both is the same.” This biblical hermeneutic that sees women and LGBTQ+ people as second class has become the predominant one within Evangelical Christianity.

I have read some very strongly worded renunciations of the “Nashville Statement. I particularly like John Pavlovitz’s somewhat snarky “translation” of the Nashville Statement in which he removes “the sanctified verbiage.”

One comment really struck me was posted on Facebook by Travis Ables and quoted by my Facebook friend Mike Morrell. It says in part, “Fascinating that in the time we’re living in, evangelical theologians chose to double down on bigotry in a statement no one was asking for. They could have addressed Trumpism, racism, and fascism. They could have shelved their agenda and released a call to action for victims of natural disasters. They could have issued a soul-searching plea to reexamine the idolatry of nationalism in the white church. They could have issued anathemas against the apostate religious leaders who still stand in support of the president after Charlottesville. In fact, addressing these issues would have been the only way to say something with any integrity or meaning, a chance to show that the church might still give a damn about the agonies our country is going through.”

The simple fact of the matter is that the Nashville Statement is bad theology. As Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie M. Townes put it, “The Nashville Statement skips past the depth of God’s expansive love and cloaks itself in an arrogant and fearful Christianity that insists that this is the will of God. Not true. Not prophetic. Not biblical.” If you’re interested in a deconstruction of the Nashville Statement pointing out it’s bad theology, I refer you to this post by Chuck McKnight.

In response, several groups have issued statements with better theology and that lift up God’s radically inclusive love. Christians United has issued a statement using the same format at the “Nashville Statement” of affirmations and denials that I have signed. While I’m not fully comfortable with the traditional notion of the “fallenness of humanity,” that seems a minor quibble when statements such as this need vast numbers of Christians signing them. The Disciples LGBTQ+ Alliance also supports the Christians United statement.

Another statement I’ve signed is the “Connecticut Statement.” It uses the same format and I am much more comfortable with its theology.

So, what can you do? Well, if you’re a Christian, here are just a couple options:

  • Sign the United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming Coalition’s petition, “The ‘Nashville Statement’ Is an Affront to Our Values as Christians.”
  • Sign onto the Christians United statement.
  • Sign onto the Connecticut Statement.
  • And most importantly, post something in your social media networks that shows your support as a Christian of LGBTQ+ people. Do this regularly.

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.

When you think back to 2015, about what happened that year, what events come to your mind?

I’ve been digging through back issues of the Christian Century that I hadn’t read over the past 18 months or so, finding little gems (some of which I’ve posted here; some of which I’ve filed away for future sermons). The 23 December 2015 edition included a collection of quotes from they year — this is something that they do in their final issue of the year. The collection brought back memories of things that happened that year, some of them echoing through this year. Here are a few of the quotes (with a definite USA bias).

UK columnist Giles Fraser had an important insight about the “war on terror,” which could be repeated this year (if you increase the number of years he mentioned):

The war on terror is now in its 15th year. And yet things are demonstrably no better. Why? Because we still have no vision of what peace might look like.

Do you remember that Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress in 2015? Sadly, still true today.

Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.

One of the major tragedies of 2015 was the murder of nine members of a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was stuck by how quickly members of that church offered forgiveness to the accused shooter, Dylann Roof. I wasn’t surprised by devout Christians offering forgiveness; I am surprised — impressed, really — at how quickly they could offer it. Speaking to Roof, Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, said:

You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all move toward forgiveness as faithfully.

Justice took a huge step forward in the United States in 2015 when equal marriage rights were granted same-gender-loving people in all 50 states. This right continues to be celebrated in 2016, and Justice Kennedy’s words were and are important. Here’s a brief example:

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do not respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.

One of the amazing things that happened during the presidential campaign was when Bernie Sanders when to fundamentalist Christian Liberty University. He said how important it is to talk with and listen to people you disagree with, and so he went to this setting. Here’s one of the things he said about the income and wealth gap in the United States.

There is no justice … when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And it your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.

And, of course, 2015 was the hottest year on record (until then – 2016 will be even hotter). I don’t have a great quote about this, but it’s a news story that can’t be ignored.

Do you have a quote from 2015 (or event) that you think was really important? Add it in a comment.

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[1]);
  • 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[2]);
  • 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.

13697064_1140713779283174_8897850904786793655_nYesterday, 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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.

pete-souza-white-house-obama-favorites-4One such collection[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8]

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.”[9]

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.

[1] “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).

[2] “Honoring Officers Killed in 2016,” Officer Down Memorial Page, https://www.odmp.org/search/year (updated regularly; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last officer death noted was on 12 July 2016).

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “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).

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 48. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[9] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 12, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 22:34-40 and James 3:13-18
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We woke up this morning to the news that a gunman killed 50 and injured 52 or 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. First, I want to say that we are far from knowing all the facts. In the days, weeks, even months ahead, we will get more information, some of which will contradict the information we have now. It is far, far, far, too early to label this act or to interpret motives or to draw conclusions. Now is the time to grieve and to pray for the victims and the first responders and the hospital staffs who are treating the wounded as we speak. Now is the time to pray for the police who need to make official notifications to the families of the 50 who died. Now is the time to pray for those families.

I went to bed last night with a sermon manuscript sitting on my desk that has moments of lightness, moments of humor. I hope no one will be offended if I preach it as I wrote it this week. There is no intent to minimize the depth of this tragedy. Rather, this tragedy invites us, in the context of today’s sermon, to ask if the perpetrator of the shooting knew how to love himself.

The question is asked in the singular. A lawyer in Matthew, a scribe in Mark, asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. Not what are the greatest commandments, plural. Which is the greatest commandment, singular.

Jesus answers the question in the plural. The greatest commandment is to love God with your whole being. The second is like it, Jesus says: Love your neighbor as yourself.

For Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor are never far from each other. And if we are to love each other as we love ourselves, we need to figure out what a healthy self-love looks like. Perhaps, with the help of the Spirit, we can discern not only a healthy form of self-love, but one that is holy, too.

Think back to the story in Genesis that we often refer to as “the fall.” There’s a whole lot going on in this story – much, much more than I’m going to mention today. The thing from the story that I want to lift up today is that there are really two sins committed in the story.

The first sin is a sort of narcissism. Adam and Eve decide that they should be able to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that the limits and the rules don’t apply to them. They are so full of themselves, they think they are so much bigger than they really are, that they eat what they shouldn’t. After they eat, they realize that they are naked and feel ashamed about it. So they go into hiding. This is the second sin, the sin of shame, of thinking they are smaller than they really are.

Being too full of themselves and being too empty of themselves: these are the two sins in this ancient story. A healthy and holy self-love is somewhere in between.

Self-denial, the ignoring of one’s own needs, is certainly not self-love. I think ignoring ones own wants is also not self-love. I know that God has been cast as a divine killjoy. God has been cast as the holy judge, “sitting in heaven with a sourpuss glare, eyes roaming to and fro across the Earth to find anyone who is having fun – especially sexual fun – and stop[ping] it immediately!”[1]

I don’t know if it’s more silly or sad that we’ve done that to God. “Pleasure, of course, was originally the Creator’s idea. By giving us taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch, God was making possible an amazing array of pleasures: from eating to sex, from music to sport, from painting to gardening, from dance to travel. Human pleasure is a good and beautiful creation, mirroring, it would seem, a great capacity for enjoyment that exists in God. We are told that God takes pleasure in creation and in us, something all parents, teachers, and artists understand in relation to their children, students, and works of art. So again and again in the Bible, we are reminded that our Creator has given us all things to enjoy richly, and that in God’s presence is fullness of joy. The Creator is definitely pro-pleasure.”[2]

We should not feel ashamed for enjoying experiences and aspects of life simply because we are enjoying them. God is not a divine killjoy

On the other hand, just because something is enjoyable doesn’t make it advisable. We need to have some boundaries, and not just for the sake of others. We need them for ourselves. Think about the big pleasures in life – food, drink, sex, owning, winning, resting, playing, working. It is possible to become addicted to all of these or to find too much of a sense of identity or purpose in all of these.

So, it’s not surprising, that there are plenty of rules and warming about pleasures in the Bible. “When we indulge in pleasures without self-examination or self-control, great pleasure can quickly lead to great pain,”[3] as any recovering addict (or any family member of an addict) can tell you.

Our faith tradition has handed down guidelines and rules to help us from falling into the demands of “what I want, when I want it, as much as I want.” The rules are a great help – as a starting place.

If our faith doesn’t mature, then the rules are helpful. The rules tell us right from wrong, legal from illegal. If our faith matures, we get a new emphasis in our faith: wisdom. Instead of asking “is this right or wrong?” we start asking: “Will this help or hinder me in reaching my higher goals?” “Where will this lead in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term?” “What unintended consequences might happen?” “Who might be hurt by this?” “Are there better alternatives?” “Is this the best time?” “Should I seek counsel before moving forward?”[4]

Brian McLaren points out, “Wisdom helps us see how a hasty purchase of a desired indulgence can lead to the long-term pressure of debt.” Wisdom reminds us that a one-night sexual liaison can lead to lasting consequences for both parties and their families, be that spouses, children, parents, others – and possibly for generations to come. Wisdom knows that a business short-cut can cost us our reputation and possibly long-term business viability for the sake of short-term financial gains. “Wisdom guides us to see beyond life’s immediate pleasures to potential consequences that are less obvious and less pleasant.”[5]

But wisdom doesn’t just say, “No,” or even “Not now.” “Wisdom also helps us see how excessively denying ourselves pleasure can [also] become unwise.” Parents who deny themselves time to care for their relationship for the sake of the children can put their relationship in jeopardy. Wisdom reminds the work-a-holic like me to stop and do something fun, something renewing, even something frivolous to avoid burn-out that can lead to resenting work.[6]

Wisdom teaches practices of self-care, sometime stepping on the brakes and sometimes stepping on the accelerator. “We all need wisdom to know our limits and keep our balance, to know when to say yes and when to say ‘That’s enough’ or ‘That’s unwise’ or ‘This isn’t the right time.’ We need wisdom to know when to ask for help – from a friend or professional – when we are in over our heads. We need wisdom to monitor the difference between legitimate desires and dangerous temptations. We even need wisdom to keep different kinds of pleasure in a healthy and sustainable balance.”[7]

The wisdom I’m talking about really isn’t all that lofty – at least at its beginning. Even young children can find some degree of wisdom and embrace it. There’s a famous experiment that was first performed at Stanford University in the 1960s and 70s about delaying gratification. It’s been reproduced a number of times.[8]

Embracing the wisdom to learn self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-care, is a great step. But it’s not the final step. “Rules are good, wisdom is better, and love is best of all.”[9]

God wants you to be able to look at yourself with the same love that God has when God looks at you. This is not always easy. We can block our view of ourselves with our shame. We can distort our view of ourselves with self-absorption, self-centeredness, and selfishness. Or we can engage in Spirit-guided self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-giving, and learn to really love ourselves.

June is Gay Pride month and I can testify to how important this month, and especially Gay Pride festivals and parades, can be. I went to my first Gay Pride Parade three decades ago. It was the San Francisco Pride Parade, so it was a big event. I plunged right in. The power of the parade for me was being in a place where being gay was the norm. I had spent the previous half of my life feeling like I was weird, abnormal, broken. I had spent the previous half of my life feeling ashamed of my being. That parade had a healing impact on my life. It was one day of celebration that told me that I wasn’t broken, that I wasn’t weird. It was a day of celebration that told me that I was normal and that I was loveable. It chipped away at the walls I had erected against loving myself. And I can tell you, God didn’t want me treating my neighbor the way I was treating myself.

God isn’t a divine killjoy. God wants each one of us to love ourselves the way God love us. “If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of … love of self that is good, right, wise, and necessary. And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: To journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love. There we find God. There we find our neighbor. And there we find ourselves.”[10]

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
to reflect on a time when a rule, a wise saying, or a mentor helped you in some way; or
to reflect on how you respond to the idea that if we love ourselves, we will practice self-examination, self-control, self-development, self-care, and self-giving rather than self-indulgence; or
to imagine those who love you most – parents, spouse, friends, children, God – are standing with you as they see and love you.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 44. Retrieved from amazon.com.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] These questions are slightly modified from McLaren, ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] The experiment itself was actually much more involved than just examining how children deal with delayed gratification. The psychologist, Walter Mischel, also looked at the children in the initial test later in the lives and found that those who were able to wait longer for the preferred, bigger rewards (who were able to delay gratification) tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures. Learn more at “Stanford marshmallow experiment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment
[9] McLaren, op. cit.
[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 4, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:2-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a young teenager, my father’s sister decided to get married.  She’d been married, had a child, and was divorced before I was born.[1]  So I only knew my aunt as a single mother.  I also started reading the Bible and trying to understand what is meant as a young teenager, and I started with the gospels, and I started with Mark (because it’s the shortest).  This means that I read today’s gospel lesson at about the same time my divorced aunt decided to marry her boyfriend.

I was concerned.  I’m not sure if I was more concerned about how Jesus would view my aunt or how the addition of an uncle and his family would impact my family’s celebration of Christmas – but I was concerned.

I was confronted by this scripture reading again about a quarter of a century ago, which seems much too long ago, so let’s just say it was 24 years ago.  I was serving a church in Spokane and was part of an ecumenical lectionary study group:  three episcopal priests, a Disciples of Christ pastor, a Presbyterian pastor or two, me, maybe someone else.

Today’s gospel lesson came up in the lectionary.  It was paired with Genesis 2:18-24, the section of the second creation story where the woman is created from the rib of the man.  It included the sentence Jesus quotes about the two becoming one flesh.  The Psalm was 128, which includes these lines:  “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.  You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.  Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.”[2]

The others in the Bible study started talking about the lessons as I considered the risk of saying out loud what was going on in my heart.  I wasn’t out to very many people in Spokane, but I decided to risk coming out to these colleagues.  I told them that as a gay man, I found these scriptures difficult to hear because they didn’t just ignore my reality, they denied my reality.

Afghan MSF medical personnel treat civilians injured following an offensive against Taliban militants by Afghan and coalition forces at the MSF hospital in Kunduz. Photo from NBC website.

And here we are, 24 years later, with this gospel lesson again.  It’s paired with different readings in the lectionary now, but the reading itself hasn’t changed.  And it feels as if it has little to do with the fact that today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, World Communion Sunday, and the first day of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  And it feels like it has little to do with the fact that during the past week there was yet another mass shooting, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, or that yesterday, a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Afghanistan was bombed by my country, killing 19 people – 12 staff working for the international aid organization and seven patients, including three children – and that a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan labeled the deaths and destruction as “collateral damage.”[3]

Not only does it feel like it has nothing to do with these events, it’s a disturbing passage.  In all honesty, passages like this make me want to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s knife and just remove it from the Bible.

And that’s actually one of the reasons I decided to preach on it.  When I find myself angered by or resistant to some scripture, I take it as a sign that I should do some wrestling with is.  So I’ve been wrestling with the scripture.  And I think, maybe, the scripture is winning.

One of the commentaries I looked at points out, “the prohibition of divorce appears in many early texts of the followers of Jesus … and may derive from Jesus himself.  Some interpreters argue that it was introduced to protect women from being abandoned without support, but there is nothing [overt] in any of these texts to suggest this [is the point Jesus is making].  Further, the Qumran sect also prohibited divorce with the same scriptural argument as here:  marriage was ordained at creation.…  Among his followers the prohibition of divorce might have addressed the situation of those who were separating for celibacy [and was an argument against that practice[4]].…  Biblical law allowed only men to initiate divorce (Deut. 24:1-4), but in this period Jewish women, in accordance with Roman law, also initiated divorces…”[5]  In other words, it’s hard to unpack the social context in which this passage was written.

And as I’ve wrestled with it, I realize that I hear it very personally.  I hear it personally because of my aunt’s marriage when I was a teen and because of how erased it made me feel as a young adult.  And I suspect most of us hear it personally.  The end of reading and hearing it so personally is that is that we end up “feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable.  Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.”[6]

But what if he didn’t.

David Lose is of help here.  “Note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene:  ‘Some Pharisees came and to test him, said “Is it lawful …”’  Did you catch that?  This isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce.  It’s a test.  Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law.  There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce.  Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances.  And with this question/test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.

“And Jesus is having none of it.  He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life.  Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.”[7]

Now, these Pharisees who are testing Jesus probably don’t care about Roman law.  They are testing him about Mosaic law.  And the fact of the matter is that under Mosaic law, only men could file for divorce and, because of the extreme patriarchal nature of the society, divorce left women pretty much without anything – no status, no reputation, no economic security.  Men, Jesus is saying, can’t just cast their wives aside – even though it’s legal.  In fact, the law is meant to protect the vulnerable and the hurting, and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.[8]

The Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, to trap him, about the specifics of a law, and Jesus pushes past pedantic arguments.  Jesus talks about the purpose of the law.  And in doing so, he talks about the kind of community we will be.  Jesus is “inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that is, founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.”[9]

Another reason I think that Jesus as Mark presents him really isn’t focusing on divorce, but on community, is because of the next bit in the lesson, the part about the children.  These days, most Bibles get printed like this.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

You have the scripture translated into English, and the editors have added section headings and they may have decided to put the words attributed to Jesus in red ink to set them off from the other words.  Good translations will also have footnotes to point out when the translation is iffy.

The original looked more like this.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Not only is it in Greek, you’ll notice that the section headings are missing.  That’s because the authors didn’t include them.  For the authors, the writing was one whole.  Even what you see here has editorial additions.  The originals didn’t even have chapter and verse numbers.  The oldest manuscripts don’t even have punctuation and capitalization is completely inconsistent.

For our ears, the narrative in Mark seems to shift.  Jesus was talking about divorce and now he’s talking about children.  No wonder editors put in a new section heading.  But Mark didn’t have the section headings.  There’s a reason the admonition about including children comes right after the test about the law.  Jesus’ reaction to the two situations is essentially the same.

“Let’s recall the context:  Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest.  Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable.  In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus.  Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away.  And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

“This whole passage, I think, is about community.  But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek.  It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent.  Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk.  It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.  This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.”[10]

broken peopleMaybe this quote should have been on the cover of our bulletin today:  “God uses broken people like you and me to rescue broken people like you and me.”[11]

“Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need … [T]o be broken is, in fact, to be human.  And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves.  Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.”[12]

When Mark quotes Jesus about divorce, these words are based in the values that embrace us despite – maybe even because of – our brokenness.  These are Jesus’ family values.  And in the light of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and in the light of World Communion Sunday, and in the shadow of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, and in the shadow of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, I need to be reminded of Jesus’ family values:  that we are a family of broken people rescuing broken people.

And there are plenty of broken people who need us.

Amen.

[1] The divorce may actually have been after I was born, but I have no memory of every meeting her first husband.

[2] Psalm 128:1-4, NRSV.

[3] Scott Newman and Emma Bowman, “Kunduz Airstrike Reportedly Kills 19 At Doctors Without Borders Hospital,” National Public Radio: The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/03/445435361/after-u-s-airstrike-3-dead-at-doctors-without-borders-hospital (posted and updated 3 October 2015; accessed 3 October 2015).

[4] Though, I would point out that there is nothing overt in any of this text to suggest this is the point Jesus (or rather Mark) is making.

[5] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80-81.

[6] David Lose, “Pentecost 19 B: Communities of the Broken and Blessed,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/ (posted and accessed on 28 September 2015).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Eddie Cortes is a pastor; he blogs at http://eddiecortes.com.

[12] David Lose, op. cit., spelling error corrected.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 5, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 6:1-13
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Portrait,” by Stanley Kunitz[1]

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

I suspect that most of us (perhaps all of us) still feel the burn of slaps – physical or emotional – from our pasts.  I can think back on some memories and still feel the flush of embarrassments long past, and I still want to hide under the covers and not come out.  I can think back on fights and break ups long over and still feel guilt or shame for how I handled them, how I treated others.  I can think back on some past hurts and I know the wound still hasn’t healed fully for I still feel the pain.  We think the past is the past, but it is still with us.

In some ways, memory is a gift.  Without memory, we only have this moment.  Without memory, we have no story.  Have you ever woken up from a deep sleep and not known where you are, or even who you are?  Memory is that which tells us not just where we are, but who we are.  Proust once said, “Memory comes like a rope let down from heaven to draw one out of the abyss of unbeing.”[2]

And in other ways, memory is a burning slap on the cheek, a thorn in the flesh.  And often, as I just expressed, that burning remains because we hold on to it.

Sometimes the burn can come from other people’s memories.  I think that’s what happened to Jesus in our Gospel lesson today.  He’s back in his hometown, in the synagogue, teaching.  It’s powerful stuff.  The people who heard him were astounded, the story says.  But they still took offense.  Where did he get all this?  “This is Mary’s kid, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon.”  (An aside here:  I wonder if Simon felt left out.  Jesus, James, Joses, Judas – his parents couldn’t think of another “J” name?)

“This is Mary’s kid, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon.  We won’t bother naming his sisters, because, you know, we’re sexist, but they’re here, too.”  And notice that they don’t name Jesus’ father.  Perhaps they were impugning his parentage?  Maybe that was the thing they remembered about him that made his wisdom offensive.  Maybe it was something else from his past that they wouldn’t let go of.  A community memory that stung like a slap on Jesus’ face.  Mary’s son couldn’t be a prophet.  He’s not what they think a prophet should be.  And so rather than letting go of their memories and revising their expectations, they dismiss him.

I got a similar reaction from my parents when I told them that I was going to seminary to become a pastor.  They knew what sort of a teenager I was and I don’t think they could imagine me in the role.  Rather than revise their expectations of me …

When my childhood church had an opening (more than two decades ago, now), I thought about applying, but there were plenty of people in that church who wouldn’t be able to see me as anyone other than “Bill and Sue’s boy.”  So I didn’t bother submitting my Profile.  Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad.  After all, if Jesus wouldn’t be taken seriously in his hometown, why would I be taken seriously in my hometown?

What I’m talking about, I suppose, is a form of prejudice – informed prejudice, but prejudice all the same.  We get a reputation in our childhoods or our adolescences and we can’t shake it.  A judgment about who we are has been made and we’re stuck with it.  Like a finger super-glued to the broken vase we were trying to put back together, that reputation isn’t going anywhere.  You’re a klutz or brainiac or cutup or the creative type or a slow learner or a troublemaker or whatever label you’re given.

A colleague writes about calling on a family that was new to the neighborhood.  “The father of the family introduced his children:  ‘This is Pete. He’s the clumsy one of the lot.’  ‘That’s Kathy coming in with mud on her shoes.  She’s the sloppy one.’  ‘As always, Mike is last.  He’ll be late for his own funeral, I promise you.’”[3]

No wonder people move away from home.

If we’re lucky, we realize we’re more than the label we’ve been given – whether by family or by neighbors and peers – and we can create and live up to our own expectations for ourselves.  If we’re lucky, we find the solvent so we aren’t super-glued to our faults.

Paul writes about having a “thorn in the flesh.”  He calls it a messenger of Satan that torments him.  He never tells us what that thorn is.  Some biblical scholars have suggested what is illustrated in this picture.  I think, more likely, it is something of his own making, a slap on the cheek he gave himself, or he keeps giving himself.

It’s been suggested that Paul might have been gay and, for whatever reason, thought that to be something he had to deny and resist.  I can understand how someone with that point of view might see being gay as a thorn in the flesh.  If he thought that being gay was sinful, then he would have seen those attractions as coming from Satan and tormenting him.  If that was the case, how sad for Paul – that he didn’t realize that being gay was just as much of a gift as being heterosexual.

But this thorn in the flesh could just as easily be something else, anything else, really, that he was ashamed of, some guilt that he was carrying around.  Or it could be some disability that made him feel less than whole – which, again, would be sad, for living with a disability doesn’t make one un-whole.

My friend Jim’s father died when Jim was a little boy.  His father was an institutional chaplain and then started working for the national settings of his denomination, touring around the country to connect with chaplains and to assist ministry students discern if they were called to chaplaincy.  On one of his trips to the western United States he found a camper van for sale.  He wrote home to his wife back east, telling her about the camper van and suggesting that it would be a good purchase for the family.  His wife, Jim mother’s, wrote back saying, “I’m quite sure you have already purchased the van.  We’ll talk about it when you get home.”

Jim’s father started back east but never made it home.  Twenty or so miles from their home, he drove the van off an embankment, crashed, and died.

Jim’s mother is now in her nineties.  She lives in a retirement community and, aside from doctor’s appointments, doesn’t really leave ever.  When Jim was visiting recently, she asked him to go to the bank to get some rings out of the safe deposit box.  Why keep them locked away, she figured.  Why not wear them and enjoy them.  As Jim looked through the safe deposit box, he found the bill of sale from the van.  Five decades later, she still had the bill of sale for the van.  Locked away with important documents and valuables.

Locked away.

Jim asked his mother about it.  She said that she always regretted that her last words to her husband offered in that last letter to him where short, even angry.  A thorn in her flesh for five decades.

Why carry that burden for five decades?

There’s a fable about a man who was riding his donkey into town.  As he rode, he carried a 100-pound sack of wheat across his shoulders.  Someone asked him why he didn’t take the weight off his shoulders and strap it to the donkey.  “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” the man said.  “I couldn’t ask the donkey to carry that weight.”

Far too many of us carry burdens that we really don’t have to carry.  Shame typically keeps our burdens on our shoulders, when we could lay them down.  Shame typically keeps the thorn in our flesh.  Shame for the terse words we uttered to a loved one.  Shame for some distorted sense of our unwholeness.  Shame for something we did or for something we failed to do in the past.  Even shame for something that was done to us.

Jim’s mother locked away the bill of sale and she locked away the shame and the guilt in her heart.  But once the box is unlocked, once the wound is revealed, once the guilt is shared, healing can happen.  She will never be able to undo the final letter she sent her husband.  She will never be able to change the anger in her final words to the man she loved.  But in sharing her burden, by telling her story – and discovering that she is still loved – healing has begun.

If this sermon has brought to mind some thorn in your flesh, some shame you are carrying, please accept this invitation:  share it.  Find someone to share your burden with.  You don’t have to carry it alone.  Let the fresh air of honesty bring healing to your wounds.  And, who knows, God may work a second miracle, too.

You see, sometime of the wounds we carry can actually be vehicles for healing of others.  Sometimes it is in our weakness that God’s glory is revealed.  Three times, Paul writes, he asked God to relieve him of the torment he suffered.  God’s response:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  God loves to use our imperfections, our woundedness, our powerlessness for the healing of the world.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to bring healing.  He “gave them authority over the unclean spirits,” Mark says.  In other words, Jesus gave them the authority to heal the sickness of the world.  He sent them out without provision – no bread, no bag, no money.  They were powerless – and in their powerlessness, they found the power over unclean spirits.

These past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about the sin of racism.  I suspect many of you have, too.  I believe that it is only by journeying into weakness that white folk like me can have power over this unclean spirit.  Only by recognizing and releasing white privilege, by embracing powerlessness, can white people bring healing.

The same tactic is true for our burning cheeks, the burdens we carry, the thorns in our flesh.  When we let them invite us into powerlessness, God power is revealed and healing comes.  Dare we journey into weakness?  Dare we step into powerlessness?

[1] Stanley Kunitz, “The Portrait,” poets.org, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/portrait (accessed 2 July 2015). My thanks to Pastor Brenda for pointing me to this poem.

[2] Quoted on “Memory and Forgetting,” on Radio Lab (about 46 minutes into the show).  https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/515238

[3] Attributed to James S. Hewett in an email from sermons.com dated 30 June 2015.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 26, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 14:15-24
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Once upon a time,[1] there was a boy named Haile.  He was a happy boy living with his mother and father in their home in Ethiopia.  But one day his mother died and Haile was so hurt, and so confused, and so angry.

A year passed and his father decided to remarry.  But, Haile remained so hurt, and so confused, and so angry.  So when Zeynab met him and hugged him he pulled away from her.  When she fixed him his favorite foods for dinner he didn’t eat.  When she made him a play suit out of fine cloth he ran through the woods and played so roughly he tore the clothes up.  Whenever she spoke to him he ignored her.

One day when her husband was gone hunting, Zeynab went to Haile’s bedroom to talk to him.  “Haile, I love you so much and I really need you to love …”  Before she could finish Haile jumped up and said, “I hate you, you aren’t my mother.”  And he ran out of the house.

That night, as the other two slept, Zayneb went out and walked deep into the forest to the home of the shaman.   The shaman was a very wise woman who knew the ways of peoples’ minds and hearts.  “I need you to make me a love potion so my step-son will love me,” said Zayneb.

“Well,” the old woman said slowly, “Before I can give you a love potion, you must bring me the whisker from a ferocious lion.”

Zeynab’s eyes grew large as she said, “How am I supposed to do that?”

“Use your imagination,” said the shaman.

Zeynab went home and slept just a few more hours.  She got up before the sun rose and put several large pieces of raw meat in a bag and headed toward the hills.  She walked until she found a cave that had large paw prints around it.  Zeynab took a piece of meat from her bag and placed it in front of the entrance to the cave.  Then she hid in the bushes about 50 feet from the entrance and waited.  After a few minutes a large, very ferocious looking lion stepped out of the cave, looked around, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.

Zayneb waited for a couple of hours then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a second piece of meat in front of it.   Then she moved back only 25 feet and didn’t hide in the bushes.  After a few minutes the lion came out.  He looked around, stared at Zayneb, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.

Zayneb waited for a couple of hours more and then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a third piece of meat in front of it.  She moved back only two steps.  After a few minutes the lion came out.  He looked around, stared at Zayneb.  She stared back at the lion.  Although she was shaking inside, she didn’t move her body.  She just stared right back at the lion’s large brown eyes.  The lion smelled the meat and began eating.

Very slowly Zayneb extended her hand, grabbed a whisker and quickly pulled it out.  The lion kept eating as slowly, very slowly, as if walking on a tight rope, Zayneb backed away toward the bushes.  When she got into the forest she ran back to the shaman’s home.  Breathing heavily, she rushed into the shaman’s house and held up the whisker.  “See, here, I brought you a lion’s whisker.  Now, give me a love potion.”

The shaman took the whisker and looked at it.  “Ah, this does look like a ferocious lion’s whisker.  But, I don’t have any love potions.”  And she threw the whisker on the fire.

“What, what do you mean?” screamed Zayneb.

“Tell me,” the shaman asked calmly, “how did you get that lion’s whisker?”

“Well, I had to be very, very careful and patient.  I was very gentle and very quiet, and persistent.”

“Yes, and you were very courageous.  See, you have all of the skills you will need to get your stepson to love you without a magic potion.”

When asked by a Pharisee what the greatest commandment is, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (6:4-5).  “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  He says, “This is the greatest and first commandment.  Then he quickly adds, quoting from Leviticus (19:18), “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Loving God with our whole being is not always easy.  Like Haile, we can be resistant to loving God.  Or we can be resistant to loving God all the way.  It’s not that we dislike God.  But we can make all sorts of assumptions about God – that God is demanding or judgmental or hard to please – and so we may hold back, being resistant to really letting ourselves go with our love.  Or we can be distracted by life and it gets in the way of our loving God with our whole being.

I read a story[2] this week about a woman who got a puppy named Zeke.  This was 15 years ago, long before the TV shows about training your dog.  Nonetheless, she immediately hired a trainer to help her get the dog housebroken and on his way to obedience.  She was surprised when trainer said she should wait a few weeks before she started training.  “A foundation needs to be established before any teaching can begin,” the trainer said.  He explained, “This dog can’t be in relationship with you as the pack leader until you first help him with one important thing: confidence.  We must build-up Zeke’s self-confidence so he can bond with you.  Only then will he follow your lead.”

Like Zeke, we can have an inferiority complex about our ability to be in relationship with God.  Are we loveable enough to bond with God?  Are we worried that we’ll be whacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper?

Loving God is framed as a commandment, but it’s really more of an invitation.  God loves us with a courageous, gentle, quiet persistence – all in the hope that we will love God back.

We can only guess at why Jesus answered more than was asked, why he added the second most important commandment in his answer.  My suspicion is that love of God without love of neighbor is like faith without works.

Loving our neighbor is often more difficult than loving God – or at least differently difficult.  Our neighbors can be really annoying or down right mean.  And it’s so easy to question the motivations someone has when they do something.  We attribute evil, hurtful intentions to people who do something that hurts us.  We attribute mean-spiritedness to people who say something that stings.  How are we do love these neighbors?

One worthwhile piece of advice came from a marriage seminar (described as “mediocre” by the author[3] who was writing about it):  “Think of the most generous explanation for your spouse’s behavior and believe it.”  Yes, easier said than done.  But what a wonderful attitude to have.  Imagine if we did that in all situations.

“Think of the most generous explanation for anyone’s behavior and believe it.”  Imagine how interactions with others would change if we cultivated that mindset.  Imagine how much easier it would be to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Our lesson from Luke’s gospel comes at the end of a dinner party.  Jesus is eating a meal at the home of a leader of the Pharisees.  We get to listen in on the conversation.  Jesus offers some practical advice, particularly in an honor/shame culture.  When you go to a dinner party, don’t take one of the important seats.  You might get told to go sit at the table by the kitchen when someone more important than you comes in.  Go sit at the kids’ table and let the host call you up to a more prestigious seat.  That will make you look good.

Then he tells his host, Nice party, but next time, don’t invite your relatives and the rich guy down the street.  They’ll just feel obligated to return the favor.  Instead, invite “the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  They won’t be able to repay you, so it will be a real gift.

I can hear the thoughts of many at the table with Jesus:  Ew! Who wants to eat with them?!

One guest has a different response.  The host doesn’t say anything, but this other guest says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”  The guest takes what Jesus has been saying about life here and now and makes a comment about the realm to come.

Jesus’ pulls this guest and all of us back to the here and now by telling a story.

A man plans a banquet and invites his guests.  When everything is ready, he sends out his slaves to tell the guests that it’s time to come.  The invited guests give excuses – lame excuses in my book.  “I can’t come because I have to check out this property I just bought.”  Who buys property without checking it out before hand?  “I can’t come because I have just bought five yoke of oxen and I need to make sure they can pull a plow.”  Who buys a tractor without making sure it can do the job?  “I can’t come because I just got married, and, well, you know …”  Okay, maybe that’s not such a lame excuse.

But look at the excuses.  This is a rich guy who invites rich people to his banquet.  They can buy land and multiple yokes of oxen.  When his guests won’t come, he sends out his slaves to go find other guests.  “Bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” he tells his slaves.

So they do, but there are still empty seats at the banquet.  So the man sends his slaves out again to check under the bridges and down by the railroad tracks.  Bring everyone in; my house will be full.

I hear Jesus saying, “Sure, it’s a blessing to eat bread in the kin-dom of God.  But why wait until then?  Let’s make the kin-dom now!  Invite everyone in!  Don’t leave anyone out!”

To love our neighbors is to welcome them, to invite them to the table of God’s abundance, to create a space for them, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.

When First Christian Church and Niles Congregational Church were in the initial discussions that led to the creation of Niles Discovery Church, we did an exercise that I remain grateful for.  We asked the participants, the members and friends of the two congregations, to identify the values, the norms of their congregations.  The one thing that people from each congregation could agree on is that their congregation valued being an Open and Affirming[4] congregation.  They valued the purposeful and explicit welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into the full life of the church.

I have called this the original charism of Niles Discovery Church.  Expressing and extending God’s extravagant welcome is a core component of Niles Discovery Church’s mission.  It’s a core component of our mission because it is a core component of fulfilling the great commandments.  Extending God’s extravagant welcome is one of the ways we show our love of God and our love of neighbor.  It’s how we make Jesus’ parable about the banquet come alive.

growlogobrownThe reason I wanted to talk about this today is that we launched our fall pledge campaign last week.  Hopefully you received a letter or an email (or both) from Barbara Swint, our Moderator.  So you know our theme.  We’re focusing on the mission of our church in this campaign, and we’re inviting you to make a financial pledge for 2015 to underwrite that mission.

When we fulfill that component of our mission that can be summed up in the word, “Welcome,” we are offering something the Tri-Cities desperately needs, something we are uniquely suited to offer.

So this week, I invite you to think about God’s love for you, God’s invitation to love God back, and God’s challenge to love our neighbors as we love ourselves – especially though the act of welcome.

Amen.

[1] This story is quoted almost exactly (I did make a few revisions and deleted some parts for length) from a telling of this tale by Skywalker Storyteller that can be found at http://www.storyteller.net/stories/text/8 (accessed 23 October 2014).  The tale can be found in Ethiopian, Korean, and Japanese folklore (with different family members and different animals).  This is a retelling of the Ethiopian version.

[2] Susanne Bossert, “Relax,” The Juniper Tree, http://www.juniperstories.com/blog/2014/10/18/3iswzkduabiezd975afhnfj7po686e (posted 18 October 2014; accessed 23 October 2014).

[3] Tina Fox, “Being ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ People,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5489/being-benefit-of-the-doubt-people (accessed 23 October 2014).

[4] Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ have movements of welcome of the lgbt community called “Open and Affirming.”  You can learn more about the DOC’s O&A movement at http://gladalliance.org/site/open-affirming-ministries/ and about the UCC’s ONA movement at http://ucccoalition.org/ona/.

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