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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.
I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?
I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author includes this advice:
- Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.
This author also suggests:
- Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
- Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
- Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
- Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
- Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
- Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”
It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.
Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”
As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.
While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year, that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.
The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking. It will take action.
And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.
So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”
Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”
I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently. This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.
And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.
Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year, but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.
If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,” it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.
Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.
Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.
I did not do so well with these three resolutions.
But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.
And here he is in context.
Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.
He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.
I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.
I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.
 Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.
 Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).
 Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).
 Camacho, op. cit.
 “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:9-11 and Luke 1:67-79
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I wonder what it is like for Cubans today. With Fidel Castro’s death on Friday, I wonder what sort of dreams and hopes, what sort of griefs and fears average Cubans are feeling. Fidel Castro took power in 1959. That means that 75% of the Cuban population has only known the Castro form of Communism and a Castro at the helm. Are they feeling grief at Fidel’s death? Are they feeling like there is a power vacuum (even though Fidel handed power to his brother Raúl eight years ago)? Are they fearful that they may lose all they’ve known, or are they hopeful about changes that might be able to come? Or maybe they’re feeling a combination of these things.
I wonder what it is like for people in Syria and Iraq who live in the shadow of ISIS. Are their lives filled with fear or are they (at least some of them) somehow holding on to hopes and dreams?
And I wonder what it is like for the refugees – whose who fled Cuba generations ago and those who have fled ISIS in this generation. Is there hope in their fleeing or is it only desperation? Do they hope to return home or have they oriented their lives to the new land they how inhabit?
Brian McLaren points out, “Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires, and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behavior will lead.
“One of the most important prophetic compositions was the Book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally be attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonized by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behavior would lead to decline and defeat.
“That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40-55, often called Second Isaiah, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would someday return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66.”
Imagine with me for a moment what it was like for the people of Second Isaiah. Imagine what it was like for those who had been forcibly removed from their homes and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Yahweh, they believed, had promised them this land, but a foreign army had conquered them, removed them from their homes, and sent them into exile. Yahweh’s home was in Jerusalem, but they were forced to live in Babylon. Yahweh’s house, the Temple, had been destroyed. Where and how could they find hope?
Not that I was trying to mimic Isaiah, but my sabbatical can be divided into three parts. The first part was a great road trip that took me up the coast, across to Glacier National Park, south to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and back home. It included, almost by accident, a stop at the Minidoka Internment Camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho. There is very little at the National Historical Park now: mostly open fields and gravel paths; a few concrete pads that were the foundations of garages and warehouses; a collapsing root cellar. The sentry tower and barbed wire fence are reconstructions. Only one of the original tarpaper barracks remains; the others were demolished or sold to farmers in the area, but only to white farmers. None of the internees were allowed to purchase any of the buildings or equipment that was deemed surplus after the war.
At its height, there were over 9,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens incarcerated in the camp, making Minidoka something like the fourth largest community in Idaho at the time. These thousands upon thousands of people of Japanese heritage are America’s 20th century exiles. Like the Babylonian army, the U.S. Army forced these people out of their homes and businesses and placed them in concentration camps.
According to the stories I read and heard at Minidoka, it was only through community that they were able to find hope. And, while the United States built the barracks, it was the people concentrated in the camp that built the community.
Of course, the internment of people of Japanese ancestry is not the only exile in United States history. The government’s treatment of the people who were here first, the Native Americans, was our original forced exile. I won’t rehearse the history; I can’t; I don’t know all of it. I know just enough of the Trail of Tears and the concentration on “Reservations” and the violations of treaties and the attempts to “kill the Indian” to save the child to know it was a story all too similar to that of the Judean exile in Babylon.
Aside from the elections, there was one news story that held my attention during my sabbatical: the story of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands and along and under important water sources for the Standing Rock and everyone downstream of them. Up until the past few weeks, the mainstream news media were pretty much ignoring the story. However, because the Dakota Access Pipeline is new fossil fuel infrastructure, organizations fighting climate change were paying attention, and that got my attention starting in August.
On one level, this story sounds like every other story of the Indian Exile: white people with their police and military and corporations and courts giving Indians the shaft. Again.
But something different is happening this time. The National Public Radio podcast, “Code Switch” notes that the history “of indigenous people fighting to protect not just their land, but the land, is centuries old.” But this time, “The scope of the resistance at Standing Rock exceeds just about every protest in Native American history.” The big thing that’s different is that Native tribes and nations from across North America, in both what is now the United States and what is now Canada, are showing up in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. Not only that, but indigenous groups from around the world are offering their support.
This gives me hope, this community and solidarity that is growing around the globe. And because of that solidary (at least in part), this is now about way more than a particular pipeline in a particular place. What’s happening along the Cannonball River is becoming a clash of ideas and systems that have been at odds on this continent for five centuries. The thing is, because the Standing Rock are grounding their movement in prayer, this clash has the real potential to work itself out in a way where we are all transformed and we are all winners. And that gives me hope.
“To be alive is to desire, to hope, and to dream,” Brian McLaren writes. Unfortunately, throughout human history, “some of us desire power and kill, enslave, and oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites, or dominated by stronger nations nearby.”
If we read the prophets and the gospels in the Bible, one thing will be clear: While God loves everyone, God takes the side of the enslaved and oppressed, the wilderness wanderers and exiles, the people yearning for justice and peace. We heard the words in today’s scripture lessons.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The Lord God … will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
And there’s so much more in Isaiah.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)
Isaiah’s words and images inspire so much hope that Jesus and his followers quote this book more than any other writer.
“Many other prophets added their own colors to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beastlike empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.
“In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled, either.… [So] their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.
“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future.” To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to believe that the promised time is coming and that the promised land will be received. It is what we pray for every time we say, “Thy kin-dom come on earth.” But that is only a wish and not true hope if it does not spur us to action. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to translate hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.
Now, as we enter a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything for the sermon or scripture readings that caught you attention; or
… recall a time when you kept hope or lost hope; or
… the imagery from Isaiah (“He shall feed his flock …”), and how you would translate that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world; or
… an image from today’s scripture readings – hold it in your heart, in God’s presence and let it inspire a simple prayer.
 Leah Donnella, “The Standing Rock Resistance Is Unprecedented (It’s also Centuries Old),” Code Switch, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/11/22/502068751/the-standing-rock-resistance-is-unprecedented-it-s-also-centuries-old (posted 22 November 2016; accessed 26 November 2016).
 McLaren, page 63.
 Ibid, 65-66.
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.
While I will not be at this Clergy Day of Action, my prayers will be … and I hope to find a way to be physically present with those who are protecting our mother earth some time in the new year.
Put on the whole blanket of God, to keep you warm in the Great Plains November. Our struggle is not only against corporations and against the authorities that line up with them, but mostly against the almost cosmic powers of racism, against the spiritual evil with so much terrible history, so much powerful media, and so many insidious whispers – this is not my battle.
Therefore take up the whole blanket of God, so that you may be united on November 3, having come from the love in your heart to stand firm in justice. Therefore fasten the belt of listening to those whose land this is and who have been here since April, and put on the sweater or jacket or poncho of community. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to dance, walk or be jailed for the water of life…
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One year ago, in the fall 2015 edition of EARTHletter, the newsletter of the Earth Ministry in Seattle Washington, Dr. Kevin O’Brien published this article titled,”Finding Hope Outside.” It is too good a column to not share, so I do so without express permission. The Feast of St. Francis seems an especially appropriate day to share it.
We are only beginning to understand all that Pope Francis was signaling when he chose to name himself after a medieval friar. This name, never used by a previous Pope, suggests that he is pulling the church outside – outside of the merely-human world into God’s whole creation, outside of its gilded image to the poor within its midst, and outside of any barriers that separate human beings from one another.
St. Francis is most famous today because of his love for the natural world. One story tells of the cricket that kept him awake one night by singing outside his room. Francis opened his window and sang along rather than sleep that night. Another story tells us that when Francis took a 40-day retreat on Mount Alverno, a falcon came to visit him every morning at exactly the same time so he could maintain his rigorous monastic prayer schedule. Francis called every creature “sister” or “brother,” and had a deep sense of his connection to all: brother sun, sister moon, brother bear, sister wolf, sister ant, even brother mosquito. He prayed for and with every creature.
This love for nature changed the way the Saint worshiped. As a teenager, while praying alone in a dilapidated Assisi Church, he heard a voice say, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” He immediately began to gather stones and build up the church around him, and that church still stands in Assisi today.
But, as time went by, St. Francis begin to wonder if the “ruined” house of God was not a physical structure, but the Christian community itself: a community that focused more on itself than service to others, more on ornate structures than feeding the poor or praising God with all creatures. He spent his life not constructing church buildings but going outside them with a wandering religious community. They lived outside, along with God’s sun and moon and ants and mosquitoes. Francis synthesize the spiritual and the natural; his love of nature and his love of God were two notes in perfect harmony.
Many of us draw hope from St. Francis for our world: if a holy man one thousand years ago could learn to love God’s world so deeply, then perhaps more of us can learn to love it, too. Perhaps we can use that love to save it from the ravages of climate change, of extinction, of pollution. If he could build a new kind of faith outside the walls of churches, perhaps we can build a new kind of life that celebrates God’s creation rather than degrading it.
We live in troubled times, and it often seems like human beings are waging war on the rest of the planet. Francis offers the hope that we can step outside of that conflict by meeting God’s other creatures and recognizing our kinship with them.
The hope Francis found outside church walls was not just about the natural world, though. By bringing his friars outside the walls of traditional monastic life, he brought them into conversation with the people who were living there without choosing it: the homeless, the sick, the marginalized. Francis’ connection to nature was inherently also a connection to the poor. And, just as he did with the natural world, he found hope and love in his connection to them.
This may be the deepest lesson that Pope Francis’ Laudato Si asks us to learn from St. Francis: to love the earth is to love the poor, and to love the poor is to love the earth. As the encyclical puts it, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment” (§49).
It can be easy to live our lives within our own social class. Those who are economically comfortable all too often create enclaves where we never encounter the less fortunate. The saint and the pope both remind us that if we love God and love God’s earth we must move outside, encountering God’s people who are poor, learning from them, and empowering them.
We must also learn to overcome other boundaries we put up between one another, the other walls that separate humanity. St. Francis model this during the 5th Crusade, deciding he was needed when he heard that Christians were battling Muslims in Egypt. He walked across enemy lines and requested a meeting with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, and spoke honestly with the Sultan about his faith. This is the first time we know of in the history of the Crusades that a Christian and a Muslim leader sat down together to talk about their faith in God. Francis was allowed to go in peace and given an escort to visit Jerusalem as a Christian pilgrim. While other forces kept the war raging, Francis offered a model of stepping outside one’s narrow allegiances to recognize common ground.
Earth Ministry offered another example of stepping outside narrow allegiances during the effort to move Washington State beyond coal a few years ago. By working not only with environmentalists but also with workers and management at the states’ only coal plant, Earth Ministry helped to shepherd a plan agreed to by both the industry and the environmental community in 2011, a plan that will end the industrial burning of coal in our state by 2025. Because Earth Ministry talked to all sides and kept communication open, the deal serves as another model for people coming together and talking rather than fighting across from familiar battle lines.
Pope Francis also crossed boundaries in Laudato Si, insisting that he writes not only for Catholics but for all people of good will. The encyclical tells us that the only way to solve the problems of war, poverty, and climate change are for human beings to come together in universal solidarity, to understand that all people – all creatures – are sisters and brothers in God’s family, sharing one world and one future.
The assertion that moved me more than any other comes near the encyclical’s conclusion: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (§233). Here Pope Francis expresses his faith – the universe is unfolding in God and calls people to make faith real by finding beauty and meaning in the creation … a leaf, a trail, a dewdrop – in our neighbors – in the faces of the poor.
The Pope’s message resonates with the Saint’s, and both promise that we will find hope in our world when we move outside the structures we have built into the natural world. We will find hope when remove outside the limits we have placed on ourselves and into the full family of humanity.
Hope is right outside.
Dr. Kevin J. O’Brien is the treasurer of Earth Ministry’s Board of Directors and the co-author of An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, and Ethics.
“The International Geological Conference suggested last month that in about 1950 the earth entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene epoch, marked by a human impact on the earth so profound that humans are not likely to survive it. The previous epoch, the Holocene, with 12,000 years of stable climate since the last iceage, was the period when human civilization developed. Among the first marks of this new epoch were the radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests that were blown into the stratosphere before settling down into the earth. Another sign is the emission of carbon gases that are causing global warming, the rise of sea levels, and the extinction of some plant and animal life.”
From the 28 Sept. 2016 edition of Christian Century, page 9, citing the 29 August edition of the Guardian.
“Agnotology is the word Stanford University science historian Robert Proctor coined to describe the deliberate dissemination and misinformation, often to try to sell a product. The tobacco industry developed a strategy to cast doubt on scientific studies showing that smoking causes cancer. In politics, the campaign to cast doubts on President Obama’s national origins was an example of agnotology. Climate deniers use a similar strategy. The news media often perpetuate agnotology in the interest of offering a balanced perspective, and the Internet provides a platform for people to pose as experts while engaging in agnotology. ‘We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,’ says Proctor.”
Quoted from the 16 March 2016 edition of Christian Century, page 9. The cite the BBC, January 6, as their source.
If you haven’t seen the documentary (or read the book) Merchants of Doubt, I highly recommend it. It’s all about how agnotology is used by corporations to increase profits. Right now, Standing Rock Sioux are protesting the building of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline. To counter this protest, it appears that pro-pipeline organization (read: Big Oil) has directly or indirectly created fake Twitter accounts to make it look like there is public support for the pipeline.
Read more about the Standing Rock protests at http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access (where there are old stories and up-to-date stories listed.
“What we’ve seen for the first six months of 2016 is really quite alarming. We would have thought it would take several years to warm up like this. We don’t have as much time as we thought.” ~ David Carlson, director of the World Meteorological Organization’s climate research program on projections that 2016 will be the hottest year on record [from The Guardian, 21 July 2016]
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, Month 21, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 15:11-32 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
In 2003, the chorus I was singing with went on tour in New Zealand and Australia. We really only got to see a little bit of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – but I went to New Zealand early, did some traveling on my own, visited museums, and felt got to see much of the country. I felt like I really began to understand its history and cultures. Humans didn’t come to the islands we now call New Zealand until the late 1200s. That’s not even a thousand years ago. Europeans didn’t arrive until the 1600s. The first settlers were eastern Polynesians, people who over the centuries had migrated across the ocean from Taiwan, island-hopping to the east and south.
When I think about those Polynesian explorers, I’m stunned. They stood on the water’s edge or maybe even on the highest point of the island they were on and looked out at the vast nothingness and decided to get into canoes and head out into the unknown, trusting that they would find a place to land. No GPS to guide them. No satellite images to assure them that out there in that direction there’s another island. And still they stepped out (or rather paddled out) into the unknown, boldly going where no one had gone before, little canoes bobbing on the vast ocean of the unknown.
Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon. On December 24, 1968, mission commander Frank Borman and astronaut William Anders looked out the window and noticed the earth rising over the horizon of the moon. Anders scrambled to get the camera with the color film and took this picture. “We came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet,” Bill Anders said.
A year later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.” Looking up at earth from Tranquility Base, the earth was so small that Armstrong noted that he could blot it out with his thumb. He was asked later if this made him feel big. “No,” he replied, “it made me feel really, really small.”
I can’t help it, but when I contemplate these sorts of things I end up wondering where it’s all going and what it all means. Are we human beings merely an infestation on one planet orbiting one average star of the one hundred billion of stars swirling in one galaxy among 225 billions of galaxies in the vast universe?
At some level, we are very small. At some level, we are inconsequential. And at some point, perhaps in eight billion years or so, our sun will turn into a red dwarf and this planet will be incinerated. The chances of human civilization existing at that point are pretty slim. An asteroid or a comet crashing into the earth would end human civilization – and that certainly could happen in the next eight billion years. We could end human civilization ourselves with nuclear weapons or biological warfare. More likely, we will cripple human civilization to the point of collapse through climate change. And there is, as activists like to remind us, no planet B.
At some point, our species will die out and there will be no one left to remember that any of this ever existed. And, as Brian McLaren says, “If this prediction is the whole truth, our unremembered lives and their illusory meaning will be reduced to nothing, gone forever – utterly, absolutely, infinitely gone.”
The good news – at least if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the prediction isn’t the whole truth. The good news – if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the end is not infinite nothingness. There is God in the end. Almost like a fairytale, where the princess and the prince marry and live happily ever after, the Bible keeps pointing to a great feast, to a wedding banquet when “humanity welcomes God into its heart.”
Our gospel lesson is an example of how our scriptures point to this ending. In the parable from Luke, “human history can be seen [in] the story … The family experiences conflict. The rebellious younger son runs away and for a while forgets his true identity. The dutiful older son stays home but also forgets his true identity. The younger son reaches a crisis and comes home. He is welcomed by the father, which then creates a crisis for the older son. Of course, the story isn’t only about the identity crises of the sons. It also reveals the true identity of the father, whose heart goes out to both brothers, who graciously love them even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other. The story ends with a celebration – a welcome-home party, a reunion.”
But, did you notice that the story’s ending is not fully resolved? We know what the father does in the end: he throws a banquet fit for a wedding. We know what the younger brother does: he accepts his father’s welcome, forgiveness, and love. But we don’t know what the older brother does. Will he “remain outside, nursing his petty resentments? Or will he come inside to join the Big Celebration and rediscover his true identity?”
When I was younger, I found myself identifying most with the younger son. I understood the desire to strike out on one’s own, to embrace that freedom, to seek adventure. And I understood how easy it is to make bad choices, to ashame ones parents, to feel along and lost, to forget who and whose I really am.
Now, I find myself identifying much more with the older son. I understand the call of duty and responsibility. I’ve experienced that sense of working hard and feeling like I wasn’t getting the acknowledgement I deserve (or at least that I think I deserve). I’ve even felt something like the older son’s – what? jealousy?
Most important, though, is the sense of God that this story presents: that deep longing for all to come, for all to enjoy the feast, for all to discover or rediscover their true identity in God’s family.
This points to the purpose of giving your pastors sabbaticals. In addition to acknowledging our hard work, you are creating space for us to enjoy the feast and to rediscover and deepen our true identity in God’s family. Why wait until we’re dead to enjoy the banquet? Why not feast now?
So, tomorrow I’m going to disappear for three months. Not only will I disappear from this building, but I’ll disappear from Facebook (I feel the need to rest from that medium, too). I’ll spend time with family, and while I don’t expect my father to kill a fatted calf when we get together, I do expect him to eat some of his birthday cake. I’ll spend some time in nature, allowing the beauty of creation fill me with awe – and I’ll bring back pictures. I’ll read some books that have been on my reading list for months (or even years) and catch up on a four-inch high pile of journals that I haven’t kept up with. I’ll spend some time in intentional community that is grounded in a rhythm of prayer. And I’ll, as our special music suggested, just breathe.
In my head, I believe that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But sometimes I need to stop and let my heart fall into that truth. Sometimes I need to stop and renew my soul. And that’s really what I most want to accomplish on this sabbatical.
I hope to follow the flow of the parable of the Prodigal. The parable of the Prodigal flows toward reconciliation. God’s love is not found in right belief or doctrine. God’s love is found in love. “If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, [then] the great, big, beautiful, wonderful, holy, mysterious, reconciling heart of God waits to be discovered and experienced,” again and again and again.
“Human speculation – whether religious or scientific – does the best it can, like a little boat that ventures out on the surface of a deep, deep ocean, under the dome of a fathomless sky. Our eyes cannot see beyond the rim. Our ears cannot hear the music beneath the silence. Our hearts cannot imagine the meaning above us, below us, around us, within us. But the Spirit blows like wind. And so this mystery humbles us even as it dignifies us. This mystery impresses us with our smallness even as it inspires us with our ultimate value. This mystery dislodges us from lesser attachments so we sail on in hope. This mystery dares us to believe that the big love of God is big enough to swallow all death and overflow with aliveness for us all.
“‘Do not fear,’ the Spirit whispers. ‘All shall be well.’ That is why we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy.”
As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught you attention or imagination; or
… a moment in your life when everything came together and, for at least a moment, “all was well”; or
… the image of the end as a great homecoming celebration, or a great marriage banquet; or
… the image of being in a small boat, buoyed up by depths that you cannot fathom, feeling what it means to be upheld by mystery, letting God’s peace surround you.
 “Māori people,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māori_people#History (accessed 18 August 2016).
 Robert Poole, “For teh Apollo astronauts, a small world,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/19/opinion/oe-poole19 (posted 19 July 2009; accessed 20 August 2016).
 Ibid, 260.
 Ibid, 261.
 Ibid, 262.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 22:1-5 and Psalm 126
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’ve been wondering this week, if I were a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where would I find hope?
If I were a Palestinian, raised by parents in a refugee camp, now raising my children in the same refugee camp, where would I find hope?
If I were a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who, like the generations before me, was trapped in a cycle of poverty, where would I find hope?
If I was a member of parliament in the Solomon Islands who has watched several small islands disappear because of erosion and rising sea levels, who has watched villages literally washed to sea as tropical storms increase in strength because of climate change – where would I find hope?
If I were an African-American bus driver in St. Louis who sees how my nation has created a new Jim Crow by building a cradle to prison pipeline that siphons black children, especially black boys, out of the schools and into the prisons, labeling them as “convicts” so they can’t get a job when they’re released, so the end up trying to get by only to be arrested again – where would I find hope?
If I were a Christian living in Rome during the reigns of Emperors Nero or Domitian, emperors who had essentially made me illegal by demanding I worship them as gods, something that would violate the very core of my being and faith – where would I find hope?
I can imagine those early followers of Jesus thinking something like this: “Jesus has been gone now for decades. The world doesn’t seem to be getting better. If anything, with a mad dictator in Rome, it’s getting worse. Maybe Jesus was wrong … maybe it’s time for us to forget about this ‘[…] love your enemies’ business. Maybe we need to take matters into our own hands and strap on a sword to fight for our future. Or maybe we should just eat, drink, make a buck, and be merry, because tomorrow we might all be dead.”
This is the context in which Revelation was written. I know there are plenty of Christians who think Revelation is some sort of coded book that, if properly decoded, will reveal exactly how God will bring the world and history to an end. But it’s not. Yes, it is sort of in code, but it’s not about the end of history or the world. Revelation was written to bring the Spirit of Hope to an oppressed but faithful people. “It addressed the crisis at hand. Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world. Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world. Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world.… Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ – a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency – will triumph.”
While Revelation is typically classified as apocalyptic literature (which literally means writing that unveils or reveals), I see Revelation primarily as an example of literature of the oppressed. Sometime literature of the oppressed needs to be coded. To remain silent to the present injustice would be an act of complicity, of cooperation with the injustice. But to speak up in some situations can get you killed (or at least disappeared).
Revelation is this type of literature. “Instead of saying ‘The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,’ which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated. Instead of saying, ‘The religious establishment is corrupt,’ it tells a story about a whore. Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that collapsed in failure.”
Brian McLaren points out, “People who read Revelation without understanding the context tend to miss some telling details. For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword. Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels. But they miss the fact that he carries the sword in his mouth, not his hand. Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. His … words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors. In addition, we notice his robe is blood-stained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love. In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Revelation is a source of hope, a vehicle for the Spirit of Hope to come upon these oppressed, first century Christians. This understanding of Revelation is what got me wondering where I would find hope if I were a Syrian refugee, or a Palestinian parent, or an Oglala Lakota, or a Solomon Island parliamentarian, or an African-American bus driver. I know I wouldn’t find hope in a rifle or a rocket launcher or a riot. So where would I find hope?
Maybe in the faces of some children playing soccer. Maybe I would find hope in the news that Christian denominations in the United States were standing up for my human rights. Maybe I would find hope in watching my children learn our history and culture and keep our language alive. Maybe I would find hope in accounts of people around the globe taking to the streets to demand climate action. Or maybe I would find hope in something as simple and beautiful as poetry.
Last Sunday, I asked by Facebook friends to tell me, “What gives you hope in times of distress?” Before I share some of their responses, maybe you’d like to think about your answer. What gives you hope in times of distress?
Here are some of the responses from a few of my Facebook friends:
- Stories of people who have survived worse and become happy. My having survived worse. Being loved just the way I am no matter what. Belief that love will outlast and best all the worsts. Seeing and creating something beautiful helps too,… Being able to laugh, be heard, and get the tears out also help.
- Remembering friends who turned terrible circumstances into growth.… Seeing the refugee team at the Olympics, knowing the adversity they faced as they left the circumstances in their homelands and found life in new countries. Experiencing the presence of God in my life, in me and in others when I least expect it. Knowing I am loved and I can love with abandon.
- Trusting that even in the midst of crises of any kind, we are all carried by a loving God, even if we don’t know it at the time.…
- Watching toddlers as they learn new things and get excited.
- Helping others, recognizing that I have the power to improve people’s situations, even if it’s just about feeling good for a brief moment.
- I remind myself that other people have survived worse things. I sing to myself. I practice a positive message and say it aloud as often as I can. I call my best friend and moan, secure in the knowledge that it will go no further. I pray for help.
- [Remembering that] God IS good, even when I can’t see it – and eventually, love (always) wins.
- Looking out at the stars and remembering that both God and the universe are bigger than our folly.
- The love of my cat.
- Seeing my grandsons … be kind to other kids.
- Instances where people have offered kindness and assistance to others when they themselves have little to give.
- I have a few people who I can rely on for support. I don’t always expect answers or solutions. Sometimes just saying something out loud helps me work things out.
- Perspective also helps.
Today’s scripture reading comes from “a beautiful visionary scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is as relevant today as it was in the first century.… It pictures a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth. This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere. It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within. Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures if offers and bring the treasures they can offer. From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness. Along its banks grows the Tree of Life. All of this, of course, evokes God’s own words in Revelation: ‘Behold! I’m making all things new!’”
Central to this image is this idea: “God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t [and isn’t] waiting passively for a future that had already been determined. Faithfulness meant [and means] participating with God in God’s unfolding story.… God [is] descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.
“What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now. True aliveness is available now.” The Spirit of Hope is among us here and now.
As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when an invitation changed your life; or
… how you are (or aren’t) listening to contemporary examples of “literature of the oppressed;” or
… the image of creation inviting God, and God inviting creation, through the powerful word, “Hope.”
 “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Re-Member, http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx (accessed 13 August 2016).
 Reuters, “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (posted 10 May 2016; accessed 13 August 2016). See also, Tierney Smith, “Solomon Islans town first in Pacific to relocate because of climate change,” tck tck tck, http://tcktcktck.org/2014/08/solomon-islands-town-first-pacific-relocate-climate-change/ (posted 19 August 2014; accessed 13 August 2016).
 The “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund to describe the fact that “1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.” Learn more about this problem and ways you can be involved in addressing it at http://www.childrensdefense.org/campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/
 Ibid, 256, emphasis added.
 “Disinvestment from Israel,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinvestment_from_Israel (accessed 13 August 2016).
 McLaren, op.cit., 257.