You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Justice’ category.

A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 13, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Psalm 63and Isaiah 55:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart in the back of the sanctuary.

Homily

As I’ve thought about thirst these past couple weeks, I remembered some shocking statistics that I went hunting to confirm. According to the World Health Organization, 29% of the global population doesn’t have a reliable, safe water source in their homes.  Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces and contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 deaths from diarrhea each year.  If that weren’t bad enough, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.[2]  Thank you, climate change.

Closer to home, over half a million household (that’s 1.4 million to 1.7 million people here in the United States of America) don’t have complete plumbing facilities in their homes.  “Of the 20 counties with the highest percentage of households lacking access to complete plumbing, all were rural and 13 had a majority Native American or Alaskan Native population.”[3]

The United Nations recommends that, in order to remain affordable, water rates should not exceed 3% of a household’s income.  For the poorest 20% in the USA, the average is pushing that threshold.  But that’s the cost average.  “One study found that 13.8 million low-income households (constituting 11.9 percent of all U.S. households) already spend more than 4.5 percent of their income on water, and the share of U.S. households with unaffordable water bills could triple in the next five years if current projections are unchanged.”[4]

And then there’s Flint, Michigan.  I won’t get into the injustice of that fiasco other than to say that the Governor has decided to end the free bottled water program in Flint, claiming that water quality has been restored,[5]while some residents and scientists say that the water is not yet safe.[6]

I bring this very real issue of thirst because we’re about to use thirst as a metaphor for our spiritual lives.  I can’t ignore the concrete issue of physical thirst and I think we owe it to those who thirst for water to acknowledge their need.  I hope that one way we can connect with these people is by examining our own thirsts that are not physical, but are very real just the same.  I’m talking about our spiritual thirsts.

Joyce Rupp writes, “It is a rare day when we are completely satisfied.  Usually we are hoping, wishing, longing, thirsting, for something more, something different, something else we think will satisfy us or make our lives happier. We are often like an empty cup waiting to be filled with whatever it is we think is missing in our lives.”[7]

Madison Avenue tells us that our spiritual thirst can be quenched with stuff.  Our egos tell us that our spiritual thirst can be quenched with recognition, prestige, power, and success.  Our minds might tell us to quench our spiritual thirst can be quenched with food or alcohol or drugs or entertainment or work or – well, with anything that can be addictive.

But our souls – our souls tell us that the only thing that can truly quench our spiritual thirst is to drink from the well of living water.

What is your soul thirsting for?  Peace of mind and heart?  Healing of old wounds?  Self-acceptance?  Justice for the world?  A deeper sense of your true self?  Harmony with family?  Wisdom to make good choices and decisions?  Forgiveness of yourself and others?  Freedom? A word from God?

The invitation from our empty cups to look deeply into our lives to see the nature, the quality, and the intensity of our thirsts. Let us ask God for living water for our souls and then hold our waiting cup to receive.

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes. Breathing in, pray, “Thirsting, thirsting …” and breathing out pray, “… for you, O God.”

Guided Reflection

As you hold your empty cup in your hands, notice its emptiness.  Let its emptiness remind you of your yearnings.  For whom and for what do you most thirst?

How hold the cup close to your heart.  Be thirsty for God.  Be filled with God.

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every two minutes) or you can just share as the Spirit moves you.

Here are some prompts to help you begin your sharing:
I thirst for …
My spiritual thirst has been quenched when …

Scriptural Affirmation – Psalm 63:1

O God, you are my God,
I see you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
were there is no water.

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together.

God, from the well of your grace, give yourself to me, for you are enough. And if I ask for anything less, I will be in want.  Only in you do find fulfillment.  Amen.

_______________

[1]This sermon is based on Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 38-40.

[2]World Health Organization, “Drinking-water,” http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water (posted 7 February 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[3]Saurav Sarkar and Shailly Gupta Barnes, co-editors, The Souls of Poor Folk, published in 2018 online by the Poor People’s Campaign at https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/PPC-Audit-Full-410835a.pdf, page 13.

[4]Ibid, 94.

[5]CNN Library, “Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html (last updated 8 April 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[6]Nathalie Baptiste, “Officials Say Flint’s Water Is Safe. Residents Say It’s Not. Scientists Say It’s Complicated.” https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/04/officials-say-flints-water-is-safe-residents-say-its-not-scientists-say-its-complicated/ (posted 16 April 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[7]Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 38.

Advertisements

Long one of my goals, a movement is gaining momentum to get the City of Fremont to divest from fossil fuels and to take other  measures that both signal the need to address climate change and to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. As this blog entry is published, the final language of a request is set and we are actively asking for endorsements of it.

Here’s the plan:

The request is actually addressed to the Fremont Human Relations Commission and it asks them to forward a resolution to the Fremont City Council for their action that meets the following goals:

  • Divest fully from the fossil fuel sector and adopt policies to ban future investment;
  • Formally request that all retirement funds into which the city contributes fully divest from the fossil fuel sector and adopt policies to ban future investment;
  • File a lawsuit against the fossil fuel sector for responsibility for climate change, or join a lawsuit already filed by Marin County, San Mateo County, Santa Cruz County, the City of San Francisco, Oakland, and Imperial Beach;
  • Commit to a fast and just transition to 100% renewable energy for all of Fremont by 2050 at the latest; and
  • Adopt regulations to guarantee that there are no new fossil fuel infrastructure projects built within or traveling through Fremont.

The request lays out the rationale for these goals and addresses concerns about possible financial impact. You can read the full request here. You can even print a copy and collect signatures. Just mail them to me at my church by April 23. My address is:

Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Niles Discovery Church
36600 Niles Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94536

Once the request is in the hands of the Human Relations Commission, we may need to pressure them to work on drafting the resolution. Once the resolution is in the hands of the City Council, lobbying and showing up to meetings will be the order of the day.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:43-47 and Mark 6:31-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“What you’re describing, Jeff, sure sounds an awful lot like communism.”

I can understand why this was an initial response to this Lenten sermon series.  The Sabbath economy does sound a lot like communism.  In the story of the manna in the wilderness, our introduction to God’s alternative to the Imperial economy, everyone has enough to eat every day.  Those who gather more than they needed somehow ended up with only what they needed, and those who gathered less than they needed somehow ended up with enough.  From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs.

And when we read in Acts how the earliest Christian lived, it sounds like communism.  They held all property in common and distributed resources according to each person’s needs.

There is, of course, one big difference between what these stories in the Bible describe and how communism has been practiced in the 20th and 21st centuries:  Totalitarianism.

The early Christians we read about in Acts chose to be part of this economy of sharing, of sufficiency, of self-restraint, of rest.  It was not mandated from outside.  No strongman forced people into this economy.  The participants chose to live this way.

And it has been pointed out to me that there are things to be said for capitalism.  Great innovations have come within our capitalist system.  I’m very grateful for medical advances.  And I love that I can send my nephew (who always seems to be wearing shorts) a goofy meme in a text massage that he gets instantaneously even though he lives 750 miles away.  750 miles north.  Where it gets cold.

Would these innovations have happened if we lived with a different economic system?  Who’s to say?  I suspect some of them would have, at least eventually.  To say they all required capitalism to be innovated is to say that only the accumulation of capital – that is, only greed – drives innovation.  And I don’t believe that’s true.

Still, many of the amazing things in our lives came about under capitalism.  So, why knock capitalism?

It can be argued that Western capitalism was built on cotton and slavery.  And, in fact, Harvard professor Sven Beckert makes exactly that argument:  “When we marshal big arguments about the West’s superior economic performance, and build these arguments upon an account of the West’s allegedly superior institutions like private-property rights, lean government, and the rule of law, we need to remember that the world Westerners forged was equally characterized by exactly the opposite:  vast confiscation of land and labor, huge state intervention in the form of colonialism, and the rule of violence and coercion.  And we also need to qualify the fairy tale we like to tell about capitalism and free labor.  Global capitalism is characterized by a whole variety of labor regimes, one of which, a crucial one, was slavery.”[1]

The class stratification of capitalism largely mirrors the class stratification of the Imperial economy (at least not here in the USA; it’s not so drastic in Scandinavian countries and in Japan).  The use of slavery to build capitalism mirrors the Imperial economy.  And the Imperial economy is the economy the biblical witness encourages us to reject, in favor of God’s Sabbath economy.

It’s not just the witness of the Torah to promotes the Sabbath economy.  Jesus preached the Sabbath Jubilee, the Jubilee that calls for the forgiveness of debts and the return of lands (which was wealth redistribution).  Jesus pointed out the corruption of the Imperial system and lifted up as heroes people who resisted it.  And Paul rejected the patronage system that is so integral to the Imperial economy.

And it is not just that our capitalist economy mirrors the Imperial economy.  Add to it this reality.  Since World War II, the basis of capitalism has become, increasingly, consumption beyond what is needed.  Build-in obsolescence and manipulated desire move us to consume what is not needed.[2]  In 2001, after the terrorist attacks along the east coast of the USA, we were told that the way to fight back was to go to the store and buy stuff.  Why?  Because the economy is dependent on consumption.  That wouldn’t be such a problem except that consumption destroys the environment.  When we consume more than we need, our impact on all of life on earth is detrimental.

We need a new economic system.

But what might that be?

I don’t have an answer to this question.

We could, I suppose, withdraw from the common economy and create our own enclave.  We could do what the Amish have done, separating ourselves from the world.  If that means doing without those innovations I spoke about earlier, I’m not too keen on that idea.

We could create a new monasticism, I suppose.  If we go back the fall of the Roman empire we might be able to learn something from the rise of monastic movement in European Christianity.  Benedict, who is seen as the granddaddy of monasticism, wrote a rule that called for various disciplines, including these three (that remain the basic vows of Roman Catholic religious life):  poverty, chastity, and obedience.  According to Ched Myers, those “early monks understood three key things about the dominant culture of their time:

  • It was built upon the concentration of wealth and exploitation. If their communities were to repent [of this sin,] they must become as self-sufficient as possible.
  • The root of wealth-concentration was private property. If they wanted to resist the ‘temptations of the world’ they must renounce exclusive ownership.
  • The exploitation of human labor was the root of all alienation … If their communities were to restore human dignity they must practice manual (that is, unalienated) labor.

For the first monastic communities the vow of ‘poverty’ [was] actually intended to inspire a social model that would eradicate poverty.”[3]

I think that ancient monastic evaluation of their times applies to our times.  If we can’t change the system that allows for the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny portion of the population, but we don’t want to support it, we might need to withdraw from it.  But that was easier to do in an agrarian culture.  I don’t know how we could truly withdraw from the capitalist system.  Would we do without bank accounts?  It’s hard to live in a capitalist economy, even in a separate community, without some capital.  I’m not sure creating a new monasticism would really free us from participation in the contemporary version of the Imperial economy.  Besides, I’m not too keen on that chastity and obedience bit.

I caught a snippet of one part of the Humankind two-part radio program on Dorothy Day this weekend.[4]  She and family adopted a voluntary poverty as a way of living out Sabbath economics (I’d call it that; I’m not sure what she would call it).  It was an imperfect Sabbath economics, but it sure was a lot closer to the real thing than I’ve managed to do.  At some point, I’ll go back and listen to the full two-parts to learn more about her.  In the meantime, I’ll let her example of voluntary poverty – which she saw as different from destitution, so perhaps it’s more accurate to call it voluntary simplicity – continue to challenge me.

Ched Myers suggests four things churches can do to help transform how we participate in the contemporary Imperial economy.[5]

  • We can cultivate a “Jubilee literacy.” We can come to a deeper, maybe even a bones-deep, understanding of the Sabbath economy and what it means for follow the Jubilee proclaimer Jesus.  When we do that, it will give us a lens to look at all we do in life.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice of repentance and forgiveness. This needs to apply to our personal lives and become so normal to us that it starts to influence our societal lives.  This might even move us to look at who the contemporary Imperial economy has hurt and move us to work for reparations.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice around practical economic disciplines. Individually, we can look at consumption, finances, and work.  We can form support groups for this reflective and ongoing work.  And we can consider our consumption and finances as a community.
  • We can participate in political movements that address issues of economic policy. This goes back to cultivating a Jubilee literacy.  That literacy has to influence our involvement so it is theologically grounded.  This involvement can, of course, be at local, state, national, and international levels.

I would add a fifth thing that we as a church can do, though maybe this fits in as part of Myers’ third suggestion.  We can examine our practices of outreach.  The history of mainline American Protestant mission work has been modeled on the patron-client paradigm.  We need to build within our church culture a sensitivity to this so we can combat it.  Our mission work must become fully mutual and based in solidarity with, rather than service to.

The issues of economy – Sabbath verses Imperial – do not stand alone.  50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., diagnosed the connections.  “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”[6]  He saw the repercussions of embracing the Imperial economy, of serving the Imperial economy, of remaining beholden to the Imperial economy.  He cited three major consequences:  racism, poverty, and militarism.

We know there are other consequences.  I made reference just a little while ago to the consequence of environmental degradation.  Sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism could easily be added to the list.

King knew it then, and we know it now:  these are moral issues.  When people in the riches country in the world live in poverty, it is a moral issue.  When systems won’t allow people of color to move ahead economically, to exercise their right (including the right to vote), and to pursue their dreams, it is a moral issue.  When we spend over 50% of our federal discretionary budget on wars (past, present, and future) and on more and more weapons, it is a moral issue.  When we refuse to protect ourselves and our neighbors around the world from the devastation of climate change, it is a moral issue.

And it demands a moral response.

That is why I have joined the Poor People’s Campaign:  A National Call for Moral Revival.  I have joined tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation – the nation’s distorted morality.  This is a nation-wide, coordinated, nonviolent mobilization.  Beginning on Mother’s Day, the campaign will begin 40 days of widespread civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and voter education.

I hope you will join me as we work to move our nation – if not to a Sabbath economy, at least a little further away from the Imperial economy.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Sven Beckert, “How the West got rich and modern capitalism was born,” PBS News Hour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/west-got-rich-modern-capitalism-born (posted 13 February 2015; accessed 13 March 2018).

[2] See, for instance, https://storyofstuff.org for information about how this has worked.

[3] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 61-62.

[4] For more on the program, go to https://www.humanmedia.org/product/dorothy-day/.

[5] Myers, op. cit., 61.

[6] Quoted by Lindsay Koshgarian, “This Martin Luther King Day, Militarism, Racism and Poverty are Still With Us,” National Priorities Project, https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-day-militarism-racism-and-poverty-are-still-us/ (posted 15 January 2018; accessed 17 March 2018).

SaveSave

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 2 Corinthians 9:1-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I created this graphic for a sermon some 13 months ago.  It is an attempt to describe the population distribution of the Roman Empire socio-economically.  You can see in the picture that those with power and wealth were quite small in number and that there really isn’t much of what we would think of today as a middle class.  There was the very small upper class and the very large lower class.

I suspect you don’t spend as much time pondering these sort of things, but I’ve wondered how it is that the very small upper class could possibly stay in power when there were so many people who had neither wealth nor power.  Why didn’t they just rise up and overthrow the elites?  The answer appears to be the Patronage System.

According to John Dominic Crossan, what kept the society from completely breaking apart were “multiple ligatures of patronage and clientage.  Those without power could be clients to the patrons above them, and those patrons might even be themselves clients to others far more powerful still.”[1]

The patronage system didn’t just grease the wheels of politics and the economy.  In a patronage system, “influence was a moral duty: the emperor’s needed it, the moralists praised it, and countless inscriptions publicly proclaimed it.”[2]  Clients had a moral duty to give their patrons their obeisance and patrons had a moral duty to provide that which was necessary to live for their clients.  Of course, patrons wouldn’t give their clients much more than the bear minimum, or they might start to climb that narrow pipe and positions could be reversed.  And given the importance of shame and honor in the society, a patron just couldn’t be shamed by that.

You can see how the patronage system really isn’t separable from the rest of the Imperial economy.  While the rich because rich through systems of injustice (especially the accumulation of land) that I’ve talked about in previous sermons in this series, the have-nots tolerated, or at least didn’t see how to overturn, the injustice because patronage system demanded their participation.

The patronage system as oil for the Imperial economy is, I think, the biggest difference between the Imperial economy and contemporary capitalism.  While the size of the middle class has expanded and contracted over time, it exists as part of contemporary capitalism.  Yes, the adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” carries plenty of truth to it in contemporary capitalism, and the old boys’ network is alive and well with plenty of mutual back-scratching today, classical patronage does not hold the power it once did.  Even the ultra-wealthy – the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gateses, David and Charles Kochs, Oprah Winfreys, and George Soroses of American capitalism – may have disproportionate influence in our society, they don’t control things at the level the ultra-wealthy did in the Roman Empire.

In her upcoming book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass writes about the patronage system:  “The emperor or king gave his subjects the ‘gifts’ of protection and provision.  In return, subjects offered loyalty, homage, service, tithes, and taxes.  If you failed to return the ruler’s favor – such as not paying a tribute or refusing to send your son to serve in the army – you were branded an ‘ingrate.’  Ingratitude was disloyalty and sometimes treason, crimes punishable by denial of favor, reduction in rank, seizure of property, enslavement, prison, exile, or death.  Most pre-capitalist societies practiced this quid pro quo sort of gratitude, with its complex of gifts given, debts incurred, and favors owed.  In it limited benefits flowed down from privileged benefactors to regular people; and most of the wealth flowed up from subject beneficiaries in the form of ‘gratitude’ to those at the top.  Gratitude was not a feeling.  It was the law.”[3]

When I was on Study Leave in November, I heard a wonderful lecture by Bass where she talked about how the patronage system has played itself out in Christian theology.  The pre-modern view of the cosmos mirrored the oil can diagram of the social structure.  The cosmic map was of “a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, here we feared we might go after death.  The church,” Bass explained, “mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below.”[4]

This is the image of that God up in heaven, at least as painted by a European.  The great patron looks down on us clients down below.  The priests (patronage brokers of a sort) send our prayers up in the holy elevator to God and God sends down commandments for us to obey.  It is our duty to obey and to offer our thanksgivings to God.  And just like in the economic and political spheres of life, in the spiritual sphere we are obliged to offer our obeisance to our spiritual patrons – to the priests, to the bishops, and ultimately to God.

If God brings us to freedom from slavery, if God brings us to freedom from the Imperial economy of scarcity, greed, and never-ending work, to a Sabbath economy of abundance, self-restraint, and Sabbath rest, how did we get this Imperial theology?  If Jesus was a Jubilee practitioner who came to proclaim God’s Sabbath economy and to restore its freedom, how did the church lose sight of it?  Though I like to blame Paul for all kinds of problems, I don’t think we can blame Paul for this.

As Ched Myers puts it, “Footprints of the Jubilee tradition can be found throughout Paul’s pastoral correspondence.  The Corinthian epistles provide a wonderful example of how Paul’s practice reflected a fundamental concern for social justice, resistance to Roman norms … and desire to demonstrate faith commitment by wealth-sharing.

“Corinth in Paul’s time was characterized by a culture of ‘new wealth.’  It had been sacked by the Romans, then rebuilt a century later and repopulated with immigrants, entrepreneurs, military veterans and freed slaves.  Located along key trading routes, it was prosperous, ambitious, and competitive – and marked by huge disparities between its ‘nouveau’ elite and its laboring and slave classes.”[5]

We can interpret from what he says in his letters to the church in Corinth that he was criticised by some Corinthians for “his disinterest in matters of social status, rhetorical style, and public performance. …

“Against … prestige-oriented Christianity Paul pits his own commitment to costly discipleship (2 Cor 4:8-11).  He contrasts himself with ‘hucksters of the Word of God’ (2 Cor 2:17) and those who ‘pride themselves on position’ (2 Cor 5:12), defending his apostolic credentials in terms of marginalization rather than status, of suffering rather than self-advancement, and … of grace rather than merit.”[6]

Myers points out, “Under the patronage ethos it was expected that Paul would support his pastoral ministry in Corinth either by professional religious begging or by positioning himself as an ‘in-house philosopher’ sponsored by a wealthy patron.  Paul, however, steadfastly (and in the eyes of many Corinthians, unreasonably) refused to become a client of the rich.  Instead, he insisted on supporting himself through a trade (1 Cor 9; see 1 Thes 2:9).  This stance offended members of the aristocracy and lowered Paul’s prestige in their eyes because he worked for his funds.”[7]

It’s pretty clear that Paul was pushing against the social stratification of Corinth.  He expected their relationships to reflect the new, revolutionary social structure of equality.  He is regularly outraged by their reproduction of the divisions of the wider culture.  We see this reflected quite clearly in the community’s celebration of communion and Paul’s reactions to it.

Paul’s discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols was not just about diet and conscience.  Only the affluent could afford meat, so those scandalized were probably the poor in the church.  “Meanwhile, some aristocratic Christians were interpreting Paul’s ‘gospel of freedom’ as license to continue participating in the Roman Temple feasts.  These public gatherings were crucial to legitimizing patronage … and [the] consolidation of economic-political solidarity among upper classes.”[8]

The dining habits at these public gatherings was very stratified, with those of higher social, political, and economic status (those are almost synonymous) eating with the host in the dining room, while the rabble ate elsewhere.  That practice was brought into the church when they celebrated communion, with the rich eating their fill before the poor members of the community even showed up.  We heard in our reading from 1 Corinthians how that infuriated Paul.  “He calls [this practice] a ‘profanation’ of the body of Christ, and even speculates whether such abominations might lead to illness and death.”[9]  “If you must eat this way, go home,” he tells them.

In the wider society, what one eats and with whom identifies one’s social status, and Paul will have none of that at the communion table.  “For Paul, the church was to model an alternative society where there was no patronage, no hierarchy, no rich and poor.”[10]  In other words, Paul embraced Sabbath economics and insisted that it be lived out around the Table.

He also lobbied for a Sabbath economics to be lived out around the offering plate.  In many of his letters, he writes about his efforts to collect money for the economically disadvantaged Christians in Jerusalem.  Our writing from 2 Corinthians is part of his plea to the Corinthians about his project.  And here, he appeals directly to the scriptural tradition of Sabbath economics.

Paul does not demand that the Corinthian church participate in the collection.  To do so would undermine the freedom of the Sabbath economy.  “So he employs instead a variety of rhetorical strategies to persuade, some of which are almost amusing.  First Paul points to the generosity of other communities, hoping either to shame the Corinthians or to inspire them to friendly competition (8:1-7).  Then he points to Christ’s example of ‘class defection’ (8:9). …

“Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will interpret his appeal to share wealth according to the expectations and conventions of patronage.  But the obligatory and dependent nature of the patronage relationship was precisely what Paul wished to avoid.  He was asking for Christian justice and solidarity, not charity or patronage (see 2 Cor 9:5-7).  For this reason, he refers to the project ten times in 2 Corinthians 8-9 as the work of ‘grace’ (Gk charis).  Paul, the great apostle of ‘grace alone,’ here makes it clear that this is not just a theological concept.  [Grace] must include practices of economic sharing.”[11]

“By understanding Christ’s life and death as a ‘Jubilee-event’ Paul invites us onto a path of grace which seeks constantly to redistribute power, prestige and resources ‘as a matter of equality.’  Not only does Paul set a personal example by refusing Corinthian patronage and insisting that the church there do the same, he also invites these Gentile Christians to practice international economic solidarity with a minority that was widely despised in the Hellenistic world:  Palestinian Jews.”[12]

Myers concludes his reflections on Paul and Sabbath economics with these thoughts:  “Today, the crushing burden of indebtedness and profound inequality imprisons more and more people in First and Third Worlds alike.  If our North American churches are to advocate for redistributive justice for the poor, we, like the first century Corinthians, will have to cease mirroring the dominant culture of the global capitalism, with its empty promises of upward mobility and trickle-down justice.  We must turn toward the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, which is central not only to the Hebrew Bible and the Jesus-tradition, but to Paul’s pastoral strategy as well.  The apostle insisted that only disciplines of redistribution can overturn our calcified traditions and structures of charity, class entitlement, and meritocracy.”[13]

To that I would add this more personal and spiritual note.  If we do what Myers suggests, if we 21st century Christians adopt a Sabbath economic practice, we will have a spiritual awakening about God.  We will realize how limiting this image of God-in-the-sky is.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was not talking about what happens after we’ve ridden the cosmic elevator into the heavens after we die.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was talking about God’s political and social vision for humanity, a vision that includes a Sabbath economy and that continues to stand in stark contrast to political and social visions that dominate and oppress.  “Jesus’ own prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come. They will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10), seeks to align earthly ethics with the divine order of God’s dwelling.”[14]  And because for Jesus the kingdom of God is here, at hand, come near, God must be here, at hand, come near.  Heaven and God are “here-and-now, not there-and-then.”[15]  Amen.

_______________

[1] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 96.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The quote is from Diana Butler Bass’ forthcoming book, Grateful, posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10156156300209496 (8 March 2018).

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 4.

[5] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 53.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 58-59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

[14] Bass, Grounded, op. cit., 119.

[15] Ibid, 120.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The parables of Jesus can be divided into two general categories:

  • parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19-31); and
  • parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …” and others that use “kingdom of God” or kingdom of heaven” language, for instance in Matthew 18).

Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language; he didn’t talk over the heads of the illiterate peasants who were his primary audience.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.  That doesn’t mean the parables were easy to understand.

I had a professor in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies being friends, and unexpected vindication.  The thing that makes the parables puzzles is how challenging it is to figure out the wisdom Jesus is trying to impart.

In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, we often interpret them as morality tales, as moral fables, and in the process, we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.  This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story in our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.

And that does the parables of Jesus a disservice.  They are much too wild to be domesticated.

The parable told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.  In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that there is no mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  There is back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

King James

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  In the best case, they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  In the worst case, they purposefully tried to weaken the power of the parable (given that they worked for a king).  In either case, this addition wreaks havoc on an accurate understanding of the parable.

When we assume (or are told) that this parable is about “the kingdom of heaven,” we too easily allegorize the story.  When we do this, the Master in the story ends up representing God, and a pretty darn ugly picture of God at that.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) read this story and preach on how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.

They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household, a huge household – the closest thing in his day to the corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to highly responsible positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards” – though they were still clearly slaves.

We know we’re talking about a great household because of the sums of money used in the story.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[2]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent 16 or 17 years – if they don’t take any Sabbath days of rest.

If you worked 8 hours a day for 365 days a year (no Sabbath days of rest) at California’s current minimum wage,[3] for 16½ years, you’d earn something over half a million dollars.  That means the eight talents in the story represent over $4 million.  And this is just the money he wants these three slaves to take care of while he’s gone.  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slaves double their master’s money.  A domesticated interpretation of this parable lauds these slaves, though this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  They knew all too well how the Imperial economy works, and who suffers as a result.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at 12%.  I’ve read[4] that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[5] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew the story of how the rich get so rich in the Empire’s economy.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, people who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.  The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.

But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

When you look at the parable through the lens of Sabbath economics, the third slave is, in fact, the hero.

When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  When we hear the parable allegorically, we hear an invitation to enter heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.  These two slaves get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then we turn to the third slave.  Jesus’ audience knows what’s going to happen to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here, you have what is yours.”

I wonder how many people heard Jesus tell this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  And they would have understood this third slave’s fear.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell.  And so perhaps he is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  No, he is sent to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, exploited and rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

When I posted this story[6] from The Washington Post on Facebook Friday night, I didn’t realize I was thinking about today’s sermon.  By Saturday morning, I did.  The headline does a good job of summarizing the story.  Greta Lindecrantz, a 67-year-old white woman, is in jail for contempt of court.  Her contempt?  She refuses to testify in a criminal appeal.

She refuses to testify because the State of Colorado is seeking to kill the defendant.  The case is an appeal of a death sentence, and the prosecution wants Lindecrantz to testify on their behalf, to testify supporting their efforts to have the death sentence stand.  Lindecrantz, a Mennonite, is refusing to testify because she refuses to help the state kill the defendant.  Mennonites, a small denomination in Christianity, have opposed the death penalty since their founding in the 1500s.

Some are interpreting the court’s decision to jail Lindecrantz as an attempt to break her will, to make her violate her conscience, to make her abandon her faith.

The case raises some interesting questions for me.  These questions have nothing to do with the specifics of the case.  The questions are about me.  The chief question is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching on how the Imperial economy is not the Sabbath economy God’s desires for us.  I have insinuated that the economy of the United States is closer to an Imperial economy than a Sabbath economy.  Like ancient Imperial economics, ours was built on slavery.  And while we may no longer have legal slavery, minimum wage is not a living wage, and the racism that justified slavery is still at work, disenfranchising people of color and imprisoning people of color at staggeringly disproportionate rates.

The Imperial economies of the ancient world put huge portions of wealth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population.  Here in the United States, the wealthiest one percent of the population owns 40% of the country’s wealth.[7]  That’s more wealth than the bottom 90% own.

The wealthiest 1% of the population controls more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Under Sabbath economics (in pietopia, as the Washington Post calls it), if you have a community of 100 people, everyone gets a slice of pie.  But in the United States, the wealthiest 20% of the population get 4½ slices of pie each.  And the poorest 20% of the population owe a slice of pie to the people at the top.  The average net worth for the bottom 40% of the population is negative.  They owe money.

   

I know all this.  Still, I participate in the system.  I participate in it because I haven’t figured out how to resist it without being cast out to where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And I don’t want to go and live this hell.

Still, the moral conviction of Greta Lindecrantz haunts me.

And I am thinking that it’s time to confront the system with the moral power of our faith.

So, the question our gospel lesson and the news pushes me to wrestle with is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

_______________

[1] This sermon is based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.

[2] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[3] California’s minimum wage for corporations with 26 or more employees is currently $11/hour. See http://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/mw-2017.pdf.

[4] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[5] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.

[6] Meagan Flynn, “Mennonite woman jailed for refusing on religious grounds to testify in death-penalty case,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/01/mennonite-woman-jailed-for-refusing-on-religious-grounds-to-testify-in-death-penalty-case/ (posted 1 March 2018; accessed 2 March 2018).

[7] The following statistics are from Christopher Ingraham, “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/the-richest-1-percent-now-owns-more-of-the-countrys-wealth-than-at-any-time-in-the-past-50-years/ (posted 6 December 2017; accessed 2 March 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 25, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:17-27 and Leviticus 25:8-13
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think that Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath economics is rooted in the tradition of the Jubilee Year.

Last week, we heard the story of the manna in the wilderness from Exodus 16.  We established that the core values of the Sabbath economy are:

  • Everyone has enough;
  • No one has too much; and
  • The economy is not dependent solely on human labor – that is, that one can take a day off each week and there will still be enough for everyone.

By the time we get to Exodus 23, we hear about the Sabbath year.  Every seven years, the land gets to rest.  It is left fallow, and whatever is produced is gleaned by the poor and wildlife.  This Sabbath year restores equilibrium to the community, and it does this by restraining the activity of ‘productive’ members of the economy and by freeing the constraints that have limited the activities of those the economy has marginalized (namely, the poor and the natural environment).

By the time the book of Deuteronomy is written, the interpretation of the Sabbath year has expanded.  Now it includes debt relief.  Check out Deuteronomy 15 for the details.  “This debt relief was intended as a hedge against the inevitable tendency of human societies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few, creating hierarchical classes with the poor at the bottom.  In agrarian societies such as biblical Israel (or parts of the Third World today), the cycle of poverty began when a family fell into debt, deepened when [the family] had to sell off its land in order to service the debt, and reached its conclusion when landless peasants could only sell their labor becoming bond-slaves.”[1]

Something very similar happened in the United States after the Civil War, when freed slaves ended up being share croppers and were sucked into a debt cycle that left the essentially slaves again.  Debt forgiveness as outlined in Deuteronomy 15 includes freeing debt-slaves, sending them away with sufficient resources to make it on their own.

The fullest expression of this Sabbath economic logic is outlined in the Levitical Jubilee.  We heard part of the passage from Leviticus that establishes the Jubilee.  Every fiftieth year is established as a Jubilee.  The land is given rest.  Debts are forgiven.  Slaves are freed.  The land is restored to the members of the tribes to whom it was originally given after the conquest.  “The rationale for this unilateral restructuring of the community’s assets was to remind Israel that the land [ultimately] belongs to God (25:23) and that they are an exodus people who must never return to a system of slavery (25:42)”[2] and the Imperial economy.

When Luke tells the story of Jesus beginning his public ministry, he sets the story in Nazareth.  Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]

It is widely recognized that proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” meant proclaiming a year of jubilee.  That’s why Jesus is bringing good news to the poor and release to the captives.  That is why Jesus is letting the oppressed go free.  “Jubilee consciousness defined Jesus’ call to discipleship, lay at the heart of this his teaching, and stood at the center of his conflict with the Judean public order.”[4]

There’s at least a whole sermon just on how the Jubilee ethic runs through the gospels in Jesus’ teaching and actions.  But I want to get to today’s gospel lesson.  So, let’s just acknowledge that the Sabbath economy, where everyone has enough and no one has too much (guaranteed by its periodic forgiveness of debts and redistribution of wealth), is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.

Think for a moment about how this story made you feel as you heard it read.  Was it familiar enough that you know where it was going, so you erected a bulwark against it touching your feelings?  Did it make you feel uncomfortable? judged?  (I don’t want to think of myself as rich even though I probably am.)  Did you want to explain away what this passage seems to be saying?

Here’s what this passage does not say:  It does not say that it’s important that those who have significant resources to take care not to let their affluence get in the way of their love for God and the church.  That lesson waters down – no, it ignores what Jesus is really saying.

Let’s try to figure out what the story does say.

The story has a movement.  It starts off with the rich man being concerned about eternal life (and I think he means eternal life after this life).  Jesus moves the discussion from the rich man’s concern about “eternal life” to Jesus’ concern about “the kingdom of God.”  And when Jesus talks about “the kingdom of God,” he’s presenting the alternative to the kingdom of Rome.  The kingdom of God is presented as the alternative to an empire that was politically oppressive, economically exploitative, and religiously legitimated.[5]

If we remember that the kingdom of God is Jesus’ alternative to the kingdom of Rome, we can understand why Jesus would tell his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!…  Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is right!  How hard it is for the rich to leave the Empire of Rome and join the Commonwealth of God.  That’s because God’s Commonwealth is based on a Sabbath economy, not an Imperial economy.  In the Imperial economy, in the economy of the Empire of Rome, there is no such thing as a concept of too much and there’s no such thing as a concept of too little.  It doesn’t matter how much you have; it can’t become “too much.”  The poor don’t have enough to live on?  That’s just the way it is and there’s no such things as “too little.”

On the other hand, in the Sabbath economy, in the economy of the Commonwealth of God, there are concepts of too much and too little.  Those concepts exist to help you know if you have a Sabbath economy or not.  If people have too much or people have too little, you don’t have a Sabbath economy.  It is oxymoronic to have a rich person, a person who has too much, in the kingdom of God.  By definition, the rich cannot enter the kingdom of God – at least not with their wealth intact.

But fear not.  This is not simply a condemnation of wealth.  It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a condemnation of the system that allows disparities of wealth to occur.

Let’s dig a little deeper.[6]

The rich man gives himself away in the first question he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The word, “inherit,” is a verb used in connection with real property.  We are told this man is rich, and in first century Palestine, land (not commodities) was the basis of wealth.  In fact, verse 22, which tells us he had many possessions, can be translated, “he possessed many properties.”  The tiny landed class of first century Jews took great care to “keep it in the family,” doing all they could to pass their possessions from one generation to the next.  For this man, eternal life, like property, is something to be inherited.

Estates grew rich in one of three ways.  Family assets could be consolidated through marriage or political alliances.  Sometimes expropriated land was distributed through political patronage.  But most often, land was acquired through a debt-default system that I described earlier, a system that reminds me of the payday loan business plan.  Small agricultural landholders, suffering under the burdens of tithes, taxes, tariffs, and operating expenses, would fall behind in the payments and they were forced to take out loans secured by their land.  When unable to service the loans, the land was lost to the lenders.

Since there weren’t banks, the lenders were the large landowners who had surplus capital.  Thus, land holdings got bigger and bigger, the rich got richer and richer, and the poor got poorer and poorer.

Remembering this, you may find Jesus’ list of commandments interesting.  “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”  Jesus skipped the first four of the big ten (worship God; don’t make and worship idols; don’t use God’s name in vain; keep the Sabbath holy).  These are givens.  But did you notice that he replaced “do not covet your neighbors stuff” with something else?

“You shall not defraud,” Jesus says.  Think about the payday loan industry.  It’s designed for borrowers who need quick cash.  Someone is making it, paycheck to paycheck, but the car breaks down, so they take out a payday loan, a short-term loan that they’re supposed to repay when they get their next paycheck.  The thing is, borrowers are often over-extended already and are unable to pay off the loan on time.  The loan may have an initial “flat 15% fee or an interest rate that doesn’t seem particularly high.  But costs can quickly add up if the loan isn’t paid off, and the effective annual interest rate is actually 300% or more.”[7]  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra calls this “a rigged debt cycle.”[8]  People take out a loan, and then take out another loan to pay off the previous loan, etc., etc., until they are in a hole so deep they can’t get out.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was in the process of establishing rules to help protect poor people from these leaches, but under the Trump administration, the Bureau has moved to protect the lenders, not the borrowers.[9]

“You shall not defraud,” Jesus said.  You shall not defraud.  I suppose, technically, the payday loan business isn’t fraud.  The rigged debt cycle is all spelled out in the loan papers, I suppose – except for the part about it being a rigged system.  Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of legal fraud, it sure violates the spirit of Jesus’ commandment.

It impresses me that Jesus was able to look at this man who prospered because of a corrupt, fraudulent system and still love him.  Maybe that’s because for Jesus, love does not equivocate.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him.  Here, the word “lack” implies that the man is in debt.  How’s that for a turn of events?  But in the logic of the kingdom of God, in the logic of Sabbath economics, this rich man is poor.  “Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”  Jesus is asking this man to let go of the wealth he has accumulated through his participation in the Empire’s economy.  And by redistributing this wealth to the poor, Jesus is inviting the rich man to embrace God’s economy.

“Jesus is not inviting this man to change his attitude toward his wealth, nor to treat his servants better, nor to reform his personal life.  He is asserting the precondition for discipleship:  economic justice.  Stung, the man whirls and slinks away.”[10]

I realize that what I am preaching is heresy to capitalists.  “Private controlled wealth is the backbone of capitalism and it is predicated upon the exploitation of natural resources and human labor.  Profit maximization renders socio-economic stratification, objectification and alienation inevitable.  According to the gospel, however, those who are privileged within this system cannot enter the Kingdom [of God].…  So the unequivocal gospel invitation to repentance is addressed to us.  To deconstruct our ‘inheritance’ and redistribute the wealth as reparation to the poor – that is what it means for us to follow Jesus.”[11]

Does Jesus really expect his followers (that is, us) to participate in a Sabbath distribution of wealth as a condition of discipleship?

Yes, he does.  As impossible as it seems, he does.  “I know it seem impossible to you,” Jesus tells us, “but for God all things are possible.”

_______________

[1] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 14.

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] See Luke 4:16-21. This quote is verses 18 and 19.

[4] Myers, op. cit., 23.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 130.

[6] This deeper digging is based on Myers, op. cit., chapter 4, pages 30-37.

[7] Jim Puzzanghera, “Consumer protection bureau cracks down on payday lenders with tough nationwide regulations,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-payday-loan-regulations-20171005-story.html (posted 5 October, 2017; accessed 24 February 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] See David Lazarus, “In bizarre reversal under Trump, consumer agency reveals moves to protect payday lenders,” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/business/lazarus/la-fi-lazarus-cfpb-payday-lenders-20180119-story.html (posted 19 January 2018; accessed 24 February 2018).

[10] Myers, op. cit., 34.

[11] Ibid, 36-37.

SaveSave

What Is It?
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 16:2-5, 9-35 and Mark 2:23-28
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Warning:  I’m about to do some math.

According to ApartmentList.com,[1] the median monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the United States is $1160.  A rent of $1160/mo x 12mo/yr = a rent of $13,920/yr.  There are 52 weeks in a year, so that’s $267.69/wk.  Rent, I was taught, shouldn’t be more than a third of your income.  So, if one’s rent is one-third of one’s income, that means someone renting a median-priced 2-bedroom apartment should be making at least $803 per week.  For a 40-hour work-week, that requires an hourly wage of $20/hour.

The national minimum wage is $7.25.[2]

Another way of looking at this:  someone would have to work 110 hours a week (two and three-quarter full-time minimum-wage jobs) to afford a median-priced 2-bedroom apartment.  110 hours per week.  Add seven hours of sleep a night, and you have 9 hours left each week (one and a quarter hours each day) for eating, taking a shower, paying the bills, running errands, etc.

According to Rent Café,[3] the average[4] monthly rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Fremont, California, one year ago was $2547.  Doing the same math ($2547/mo times 12mo/yr divided by 52 wk/yr) shows a weekly rent of $587.77.  Which means one should have a weekly income of $1763.31.

The minimum wage in California in 2017 was $10.50 per hour.[5]  That’s 168 hours of work a week at minimum wage to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment in Fremont.  A week is 168 hours long.

This is a contemporary version of the Imperial economic system that stands in opposition to God’s Sabbath economic system, the system we are introduced to in today’s reading from Exodus.

The story of the Exodus is the foundational story of the Jews, and in that story, we find the foundational story of understanding Sabbath Economics.  We run into the concept of the Sabbath in the first story in that collection of stories we call the Bible.  God creates all there is in six days, and upon reflecting on this wondrous work, God rest.  The pattern is set from the beginning:  good work is followed by rest.  Notice, that the purpose of this divine rest on the seventh day of creation is not in order to do more work on the eighth day.  There is no “back to work after the weekend” for God.  The purpose of the Sabbath is so God can enjoy the work already completed.

The next time we run into the Sabbath day is in today’s reading from the Exodus narrative, here in this archetypal story of hunger and bread in the wilderness.  The Hebrews have been sprung from slavery, but now they must face the harsh realities of life outside the imperial system.  Their first test of character is how they will sustain themselves, an economic test.  If you listen to the story, you’ll hear that they could not imagine an economic system apart for the Egyptian political-military-technological complex that enslaved them.

You hear it in their complaint to Moses:  “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  It’s not just whining.  It’s an inability to imagine another possibility for sustenance, the inability to imagine another economy.

So God gives the Hebrews instructions on how to gather the gift of bread from God.  This, their first test on following instruction, is an economic lesson.  Ched Myers (I’m basing the sermons in this series on his work[6]) notes that for tens of thousands of years, human beings’ survival was based on a cooperative, egalitarian lifestyle.  Prior to the rise of concentrated agriculture, cities, and eventually imperial economies based on slavery, hunting and gathering (and even local horticulture) required the cooperation of the community.[7]  The instructions God gives the Hebrews is a call to an alternative economy, an alternative to the Imperial economy, that is (in many ways) like this initial economy.

Three characteristics of God’s alternative economy are seen in the instructions God gives the Hebrews.  First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs.  Second, this bread should not be “stored up,” even overnight.  Third, there are special instructions for keeping the Sabbath.  Let’s take a deeper look at the implications of these three instructions and what they tell us about God’s Sabbath economy.

The first instruction:  every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs.  In contrast to the conditions of great deprivation under Egypt’s Imperial economy (read the beginning of the book of Exodus to get a picture of what those were), here, in God’s economy, everyone has enough.  “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”  In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and there is such a thing as “too little.”  Contrast that with the ever-widening wealth gap in the United States.

The second instruction:  the gathered bread should not be “stored up.”  Wealth and power in Egypt were defined by surplus accumulation.  Look at the story of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob.  By the time we get to the book of Exodus, we find out that the descendants of Joseph and his brothers are slaves forced to build not just buildings, but “supply cities” (1:11) in which the Empire’s plunder and the tribute of subjected people were gathered.  It reminds me of a Karl Marx quote about the dictum of capitalism:  “Accumulate, accumulate – this is Moses and the Prophets!”[8]  It also reminds me of the advertising motto of the now defunct Eagle Hardware chain:  “More of everything.”

This instruction, not to store up the collected manna, runs counter to the values of the Imperial economy.  In the Imperial economy, wealth and resources are drawn together into greater and greater concentrations of idolatrous power.  In God’s economy, wealth is supposed to keep circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating through strategies of accumulation.

The third instruction is the special instruction for the Sabbath.  We haven’t gotten to the part of the Exodus story where Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from the top of Mount Sinai, so this instruction to keep the Sabbath as a day separate and different from the other six is something new.  Torah’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit.  This ethic of Sabbath rest is not just for the people.  Land is given Sabbath rest by allowing it to lie fallow every seven years.  “You shall let the land rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.”  The people are reminded that the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift that the people should justly distribute, not hoard.

“Sabbath observance requires a leap of faith, a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that God is willing and able to provide enough for the good life,” writes Richard Lowery.  “Sabbath promises seven days of prosperity for six days of work.  It operates on the assumption that human life and prosperity exceed human productivity.”[9]

The lessons of this story are so fundamental that the people were instructed to keep a jarful of the manna in front of the Covenant.  (Did you catch that at the end of today’s reading?)  Sabbath observation means remembering every week the three basic principles of God’s economy:  That there is enough for everyone.  That no one should have too much (the prohibition on accumulation).  That the economy is not dependent solely on human labor.

The manna story illustrates human dependence on God’s economy, the economy of grace.  Dependence not on human labor, not on human technology, not on human social organizations, but on God’s grace.  This vision, of course, runs counter to economics as we know it.

Our resistance to, our skepticism of this vision of an economy of grace seems to be humorously anticipated in the story itself.  “Manna” is a play on words.  It can be translated, “What is it?” – the words the people said when they were first sent out to collect this gift from God.  The two basic assumptions of the Imperial economy are so ingrained in us – that the natural condition is scarcity and that human appetites are limitless – we look at God’s gifts and say, “What is it?”

And because we believe that the natural condition is scarcity and that human appetites are limitless, we think we have to get ours before somebody else does.  So we accumulate.  We hoard.  This story from the Exodus invites us to pick a different economy, a non-Imperial economy, a Sabbath economy.  We are invited to pick an economy based on the principles of abundance and self-restraint, an economy based on the assumption that God provides enough for survival and prosperity for human life, and that human needs and wants are (or at least can be) limited.  In this economy, no one need starve or suffer the elements through lack of housing or clothing.

On its surface, the Gospel lesson seems to contradict the lessons from the Exodus story.  The disciples are out walking through a field on the Sabbath, gleaning grain.  The Pharisees who see this call Jesus on it.  Jesus justifies their actions by reminding his accusers of a story about the great King David who broken the rules because he and his companions were hungry.

This story happens right after Jesus has identified himself as “the Son of Man,” one who has authority to forgive sins.  It’s important to recognize that in the Aramaic, the language of Jesus, there is one word that means both “sin” and “debt.”[10]  That’s why, when we say, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer, we’re talking about both forgiveness of sins and proclaiming the Jubilee Year – the once every 50 years when debts are forgiven and land is returned to its original owners.

It might seem like Jesus is ignoring Sabbath obligations because – well, because he is.  At least I think he is.  He is reinterpreting the Sabbath, moving it away from a set of rules and bringing it back to its original meaning as a gift of rest and a sign of the sufficiency of God’s created order.  He is confirming that the purpose of the Sabbath is to humanize us in a world where so much of our socio-economic reasoning and practice is dehumanizing.  It is any wonder that Jesus’ central struggle with the religious authorities of his day was not over theology, but over the meaning of Sabbath?

We’ll get into Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath economics much more deeply next week.  For now, suffice it to say that the manna story, the foundation for Sabbath economics, has a central place in Jesus’ consciousness, and when Jesus call us into God’s kin-dom, he is calling us into this alternative, anti-Imperial economy.

May we be brave enough to heed that call.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/rental-data/ for information about how they came up with this figure.

[2] Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/minimumwage (accessed 17 February 2018).

[3] See https://www.rentcafe.com/average-rent-market-trends/us/ca/fremont/ for information about how they came up with this number.

[4] They don’t say whether that’s median or mean, but it’s a large enough sample the numbers are probably very close.

[5] This was actually the minimum wage if the company had more than 25 employees. It is now $11/hr. See California Department of Industry Relations, https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm (accessed 17 February 2018).

[6] This sermon is based largely on Chapter 1 of Ched Myers’ The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 10-17.

[7] Ibid, 11.

[8] I don’t know if Marx actually said this, but it’s attributed to him.  From more on this quote, see James G. Devine, Marx’s Law of Capitalist Accumulation Revisited, http://myweb.lmu.edu/jdevine/AGLoCA.pdf (accessed 19 March 2011), 20.

[9] Richard Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, quoted by Myers, op cit, 13.

[10] Myers, op. cit., 24.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 1:26-31 and Galatians 3:19-29
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We planned this sermon series because there was so much news about sexual violence.  It is an issue that we simply needed to address here in the church, from the pulpit.  As we planned the series, as I dug into the issue and learned more, I realized that the vast majority of sexual violence is connected to patriarchy.  Yes, men are sometimes the victims of sexual violence.  Yes, women are sometimes to the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And the vast majority of those targeted with sexual violence are women, and the vast majority of those who perpetrate sexual violence are men.  Sexual violence is, in our society at large, foremost an issue of men wielding their power in sexualized ways toward some sexual end for themselves.

Since this is the last sermon in this series, perhaps it’s time I explained what I mean by ‘patriarchy.’[1] Patriarchy is a social order that favors men (particularly cisgender, heterosexual men) at the expense of everyone else.  To do this, patriarchy relies on dualistic thinking.  A person is either male or female, and this is determined at birth,  so there is no room for gender fluidity or transgender identity.  To do this, patriarchy names certain qualities as masculine and superior, and other qualities as feminine and inferior.  Power, control, rationality, and competitiveness are examples of masculine-labeled qualities and they are considered superior to feminine-labeled qualities like emotional expressiveness, compassion, and nurture.  This leads to men and women having specific roles, with men leading and women supporting, and with male-labeled job getting paid more than female-labeled jobs.

Patriarchy supports (demands) male domination, and when women move into positions of power (become corporate executives, politicians, etc.), they are expected to behave “like men.”  The weird thing is that most men I know are not interested in dominating women.  Rather, it is the system people of all genders have been born into and participate in unconsciously.  So, while male-identified people reap most of the benefits of patriarchy, people of all genders support it – unless we consciously resist it.

Much of the Bible seems to support patriarchy.  The formative stories of the Hebrew scriptures are steeped in patriarchy.  I think this is more an example of the authors participating in patriarchy unconsciously than it is an endorsement of it.  Similarly, patriarchy has (probably unconsciously) influenced the way we translate the Bible into English (and other languages).  See the first sermon in this series for more on that.

Yet, despite the omnipresence of patriarchy, there are glimpses in scripture of another way.  The first creation story says that people are created in the image of God, regardless of their gender.  And in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in the community of Jesus-followers, cultural distinctions, class distinctions, and gender distinctions are unimportant, for we are all one, we are all equal in Christ.  In other words, patriarchy is not part of God’s desire for humanity and the beloved community Jesus is leading us to is not patriarchal.

So, how do we get to that non-patriarchal, beloved community?  Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a person went for her daily walk along the banks of the river that ran through town.  As she walked along, she heard what sounded an awful lot like a baby crying.  When she looked around, she realized that the sound was coming from a basket in the middle of the river that was floating downstream with the current.  Our heroine jumped into the river, swam out to the basket, and brought the baby ashore.  She dropped the baby off at her parent’s home and they agreed to care for the baby.

The next day, our heroine went for her daily walk along the river and, sure enough, another basket was floating along.  Worrying that it, too, might hold a baby, our heroine jumped into the river and rescued the baby.  She took this baby to her neighbor’s home to be cared for.

You can probably tell where this story is going.  The third day, our heroine had an appointment and couldn’t go for her daily walk along the river, so she had another friend take the walk for her.  Sure enough, the friend went into the river to pull out another baby.

It wasn’t long before our heroine organized a river patrol.  And then some friends built an orphanage, and before you knew it, the whole town was organized to take care of the babies that kept getting pulled out of the river.

Then one day, at one of the organizing meetings, somebody made a bold suggestion.  “I was thinking,” this person said, “maybe some of us might go upstream to find out why these babies keep getting loaded into baskets and plopped into the river.  Maybe there’s something we can do to stop it.”

We can look at the work of the church, particularly the mission work, as having two components: downstream mission work and upstream mission work.  Both are vital.  The downstream mission work looks at the needs that are right before us and addresses them.  It pulls the babies out of the water and cares for them.  Upstream mission work looks at the needs that are right before us and asks why they’re happening.  It goes upstream and asks, “Why?” and “How do we change it?”

There are people who don’t have enough money each month to keep a roof over their head and to buy groceries, and they have transportation limitations.  So we are helping our local food bank bring the food to them with the mobile food van project.  This is virally important downstream work and makes a huge difference in the lives of the people served.  There is also an upstream aspect to this need.  Why are people so poor that they can’t afford both rent and food?  This is a question about the system.

It is my hope that the #MeToo movement will lead our society to holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.  This is a type of downstream work.  It is a vital type of downstream work.  Holding an individual perpetrator of sexual violence accountable will make an important difference, especially for the target of that violence.

I mentioned some other downstream work in my sermon last week.  I mentioned how important it is to believe the stories we hear from people (especially from women) who have experienced sexual violence.  And it’s important that we tell them that we believe them.  Maybe something we (as a church) could do is to create a space where people can tell their stories – and be believed.  And when those stories are about experience of sexual harassment and abuse that took place in the church (for this can happen in the church just as easily as it takes place anywhere else in society), we could figure out what act of repentance by the church is needed.

I also suggested last week that one of the things we can do when we witness some form of harassment or abuse taking place is to interrupt it.  Have you heard about the New York superhero known as Snackman?  He defused a fight on the subway by standing between the combatants while eating potato chips.  Let’s go to the film.

We don’t have to use potato chips to interrupt.  We can get the target out of the situation or we can distract the assailant.  All it took was a woman walking by and slowing down to create the moment for me to escape from a sexual assault when I was a teen.

There are ways to confront a harasser (I wouldn’t do this with an assaulter).  Later, “when the harasser is less likely to escalate the situation, [we can ask] questions like:  ‘Were you aware of how you came off in that conversation?’  Researchers also suggest talking openly about inappropriate behavior, like asking colleagues:  ‘Did you notice that?  Am I the only one who sees it this way?’  It might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in with a victim and offer to help.”[2]  In the work setting, that help might take the form of offering to go with them to Human Resources, if they want.  At church, it might take the form of offering to go with them to talk to a pastor.

Sharyn Potter, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who runs a research group for sexual violence prevention, says, “A bystander saying ‘This isn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong,’ is really, really important.”[3]

These are just a few examples of downstream work that we can do.  Upstream work is always harder than the downstream work because it’s the work that changes whole systems.[4]  Yet, because so much about sexual violence is powered by patriarchy, only by overcoming patriarchy will we be able to curtail the sexual violence.

You’ve probably heard about girls being sent home from school because their outfits were deemed to be “distracting.”  But think about the message that sends.  When we interrupt a girl’s school day to force her to change her clothes, or when we send her home because her shorts are too short or her bra strap is visible, we are telling her that making sure boys have a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her own education.  Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, maybe we could teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.  But that would take a systemic change.

Patriarchy effects all of us and we all participate in it, but because men benefit from it, men bear the primary responsibility for disestablishing it.  As Lindy West pointed out, “Only 2.6 percent of construction workers are female.  We didn’t install this glass ceiling, and it is not our responsibility to demolish it.”[5]  In this sense, overcoming patriarchy is more a men’s issue than a women’s issue.

One of the ways we could address a part of patriarchy is for us to stop teaching sex education in our public school and start teaching sexuality education.  The difference between sex education and sexuality education is that the former focuses on plumbing and mechanics and the latter focuses on the whole human being.  Imagine if we taught that we need to listen to each other in our intimate relationships, that sexual expression should happen in the context of an affirmative ‘yes,’ rather than teaching merely that ‘no means no.’

And if our schools won’t do it, maybe our churches (at least progressive churches like ours) should offer holistic sexuality education to the general public.

We’re also going to have to hold media accountable.  Whether this is for male-dominated journalism, for the glass ceilings and unequal pay that persist in Hollywood, or for the victim-blaming that gets echoed in media, they all need to be held accountable.

And we need to address legislation.  When bills are introduced that take away a woman’s agency and when bills are introduced that support male domination, we must condemn them and fight against them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to change how we raise our children, especially how we raise our sons.  There is a lot I could say about this, but for now I’ll limit myself to just a couple ideas.  First, I want to say that changing the way we raise our sons is difficult.  It means going against all the messages they will receive from our patriarchal society.  All the more reason to be intentional about it.  There was a great article in The New York Times back in June about raising feminist sons.[6]  It offers a dozen specific attitudes and actions for parents to adopt in how they raise their children, especially their sons.  It covers things like helping our sons increase their emotional intelligence, and providing them with positive role models, and considering how work is divided up in the home, and the importance of our sons having different kinds of friendships.  I think these suggests apply to teachers and grandparents and church friends, too.  I encourage you to read it.

We need to teach our sons – and all men, really – that power and position are not an end in themselves.  Nor are they a license to prey upon those who are less strong or in subordinate positions.  Rather, when men have them, for whatever reason, they allow a man more ways to be of service to those around him.  That’s what Jesus taught.  By itself it means little that you are bigger or stronger or more exalted.  The measure of a man – the measure of a person – is found in what you do with those things.[7]

Amen.

_______________

[1] This definition and explanation is based largely on Drew Serres, “Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It),” Organizing Change, https://organizingchange.org/patriarchy-persists-can-change/ (posted at least two years ago; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “The #MeToo Moment: How to Be a (Good) Bystander,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/us/the-metoo-moment-how-to-be-a-good-bystander.html (posted 12 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] Many of the following ideas come from Drew Serres, op cit.

[5] Lindy West, “Why Is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/opinion/why-is-fixing-sexism-womens-work.html (posted 3 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Agnes Lee, “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/upshot/how-to-raise-a-feminist-son.html (posted 2 June 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[7] Based on Leonard Pitts, Jr., “What does it really mean to be a man?” The Bellingham Herald, http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/BellinghamHerald/shared/ShowArticle.aspx (posted 25 November 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

This is the second sermon of the four-part sermon series on patriarch and sexualized violence being preached at Niles Discovery Church this winter. The third in the series was actually posted just before this one.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on January 28, 2018, by the Rev. Brenda Loreman.
Scripture:  John 4:7-30, 39 and Judges 19:16-30
Copyright © 2018 by Brenda Loreman

My guess is that, unless you’ve read the Bible cover to cover or been to seminary, you are unfamiliar with our text from Judges. I think there are many reasons for this. For one thing, the passage is not part of any church service in the liturgical year and is not part of the revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Bible readings that many churches use for worship and preaching—and so it is not read out loud in church unless a preacher deliberately chooses to have it read. The passage is so gruesome and brutal that most readers and listeners rightly find it offensive. The passage defies any hopeful interpretation or message of the good news of God’s redeeming work in the world.

Through the millennia, the church’s primary response to this text has been a vast silence. And so we rarely read it and rarely confront what it has to say to us, and about us. But I think it’s imperative that we end that silence. Because our silence in the face of this text—and others like it in the Bible—and our inability to confront it, is connected to our silence and inability to confront how our society normalizes sexual assault and sexual violence.

It’s impossible for me to fully explicate or interpret this complicated text in a twenty-minute sermon; I know I won’t do it justice. But I want to point out some important ideas about it and connect those ideas to the legacy of silence and misogyny they have left in our Christian tradition.

In the chronology of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges happens after the Israelites have followed Moses from Egypt to Canaan, and before the twelve tribes of Israel were gathered into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon. The ancient editors of Judges repeatedly remind the reader of the book that this was a time when there was no king in the land, implying that a lack of strong leadership is the reason for such a gruesome act happening; when there is no king, lawlessness will prevail.

The primary historical interpretation of this text is not that it is a commentary on society’s brutality against women. Instead, the crime of Gibeah is a crime perpetrated on the Levite, whose property had been destroyed, and who was not shown proper hospitality by the Benjaminites. Additionally, there is often an assumption among historical interpreters that the concubine must have done something to disturb the peace in her household and anger the Levite.

Notice that the Levite shows no concern for the welfare of his concubine throughout the night. Notice that he shows no sorrow over her assault and death. Notice that he doesn’t even check to make sure she’s actually dead before he dismembers her. He never even acknowledges her humanity. Her only purpose for him is a way to seek revenge against a community who had wronged him.

Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible offers an alternative interpretation of the concubine’s story. For Trible, it is important that we interpret this story “of outrage on behalf of [its] female [victim] in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again.”[1] When we speak for the nameless woman of the story, we “interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition,” and we “recognize the contemporaneity of the story,” because “misogyny belongs to every age.”[2]

It seems a stretch to apply an ancient dismembered concubine to our culture today, but I don’t think it is. The culture that was willing to see the concubine as nothing more than a collection of body parts still exists today, and feminists and sociologists call it “rape culture.”

According to feminist authors Emilie Buchwald Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.[3]

Like racism and white privilege, rape culture is so deeply embedded in our culture and part of societal norms that most of us don’t realize it’s there. Here’s an example.

I’m almost certain that everyone in the room has seen this photo, of a sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate to end of World War II. Even if you aren’t old enough to remember it appearing on the cover of Life magazine the week after August 14, 1945, you’ve probably seen it since then. It has become an iconic expression of the wild exuberance and joyful release that the country experienced on that day.

Photographer Albert Eisenstaedt didn’t pause long enough to get the names of the sailor and nurse after he took the photo, and for many years their identities remained a mystery. The image of a passionate kiss seems romantic—a couple sharing their joy at the brutal war being over. But later research in the years following the release of the photo have determined that the pair are most likely George Mendonça, a sailor on leave in New York City, and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant working in the city. They had never met before, but found themselves in the crowds gathering in the streets as people began to celebrate after hearing the announcement from President Truman that Japan had surrendered.

I have always liked this photo, thinking it captured so well the euphoria at the end of the war. But in the light of my study of rape culture and living in the present moment of the #MeToo moment, I’ve been reevaluating the image and its message.

Look carefully at the body language of Friedman. Her body is turned awkwardly away from Mendonça, at a stiff angle. Mendonça is holding her tightly, essentially putting her in a head lock, and she is not returning his embrace.

Like any good photographer, Eisenstaedt snapped several photos of the pair in an effort to capture the best exposure and composition. Here’s another image of the same scene. In this version, notice that Friedman’s hand is wedged between the two of them.

And in a third version, Friedman’s hand is clenched in a fist next to Mendonça’s face.

Nothing about her posture in any of the photos says that she is a willing participant in the kiss.

I might be tempted to dismiss my suspicions about the nature of Mendonça’s and Friedman’s encounter if it weren’t for what Friedman herself has said about it in interviews:

“That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vise-grip.”

“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”[4]

Unwanted and nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault; rather than an image of a romantic encounter, this is an image of an assault. The fact that we tend to explain it away by saying it’s from a different time—or that Friedman herself didn’t consider it assault, or that the sailor couldn’t be blamed for having some fun on such a joyful day, or that it’s just a kiss—is part of the deep, underlying problem with rape culture. We live in a society where we are willing to explain away and excuse sexual assault. It’s time to stop. It’s time to tell the ancient hidden stories of the nameless concubines, and it’s time to allow, encourage, and provide a safe space for women everywhere to tell their own stories, to acknowledge our complicity in allowing rape culture to flourish, and to find a way to make a change so that we no longer confuse sexual assault with romance.

Statistics tell us that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.[5] These statistics are appalling, but I think we need to remember that they only refer to the sexual assaults that actually get reported to authorities. In all likelihood, the number is greater. And I tend to believe that every woman has a story to tell about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

Late last year, the Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City told a story about a gathering of parishioners she had at her home. As a small but diverse group gathered around her table for dinner, “one of the men in the group brought up the subject of sexual harassment allegations we’re seeing all over the media. He asked what he could do. As a woman sitting at that table,” Butler said, “I appreciated his questions. But it quickly became apparent that those questions were not the most pressing issues on our minds.” Every woman at Butler’s table began to share her own “Me, Too” story:

“I remember the first time I saw a male teacher looking down my shirt. When I complained, I was told to button more buttons.”

“The first time a man exposed himself to me, I was at a neighborhood pool. I was 7.”

“In my all-girl’s elementary school, I had to stay after school some days when my mom was working late. I hated it because the janitor would push me up against the counter and touch my body. When I reported it, I was told just to stay away from him.”[6]

Around Butler’s intergenerational and interracial table, table, it became clear that for many women, “sexual harassment and abuse of women is part of everyday life.”[7] In my own conversations with women—and some men as well—I have discovered the same thing.

And the church has been complicit in upholding rape culture and misogyny, “implicated by thousands of years of institutional and personal abuse of women, almost an entire existence of keeping women subverted and victimized. I don’t think we even know how deep and inbred this sin of the church actually is. But like most things, the church will be dragged kicking and screaming into the conversation. Because women, like all the women around [Rev. Butler’s] dinner table […], will start telling their stories. And we will not stop.”[8]

For the sake of argument, I assume that “most Christians agree that Jesus wouldn’t appreciate the sexual exploitation or abuse of women.” So it’s time that the church, “an institution claiming to represent the values of Jesus, take necessary steps to enter a conversation we should have been leading long ago.”[9]

It’s time for us start talking about misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism in general. It’s time to acknowledge the “constant, wearing, culturally inbred experience of sexual harassment.”[10]  It’s time for us to listen to women, to provide a platform for us to tell our stories and to honor those stories as holy.

It’s time for us to lift up the story of the nameless concubine, to take to heart her story and confess its present reality.  It’s time for us to hear the stories of women the way Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well: to listen without judgement, to engage in respectful conversation, and to offer the gift of living water, the spirit that binds human life together, that brings about wholeness and healing. Amen.

_______________

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 3.

[2] Trible, 86-87. Emphasis mine.

[3] Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth, eds. Transforming a Rape Culture (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2005), xi.

[4] “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” blog post at Crates and Ribbons, https://cratesandribbons.com/2012/09/30/the-kissing-sailor-or-the-selective-blindness-of-rape-culture-vj-day-times-square/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[5] Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. https://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/national-statistics-on-sexual-violence/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[6] Amy Butler, “What Churches Must Do Right Now to Stop Being Part of The Sexual Harassment Problem,” Washington Post, December 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/01/what-churches-must-do-right-now-to-stop-being-part-of-the-sexual-harassment-problem/?utm_term=.c4328f0b0843. Accessed January 25, 2017.

[7] Butler, ibid.

[8] Butler, ibid.

[9] Butler, ibid.

[10] Butler, ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 21, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 21:8-21 and Mark 14:3-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This headline ran in the online version of the Daily News last week.  “Mich. man’s wife says he was deported to Mexico after legal error.”  The person who is doing the talking, the person being quoted is the woman.  And yet she is identified as “Mich. man’s wife.”  She is identified in terms of whose she is.

Why didn’t the headline say, “Mich. woman says her husband was deported to Mexico after legal error”?  Patriarchy.

Was the headline writing trying to be sexist?  Who knows, but I suspect not.  The problems is that male dominance is so pervasive in our culture, most of us won’t even hear it or see it when it’s happening.

Part of our sacred texts includes a story of a man who wields his power, power he has because he is a man, and the way he wields his power is to throw a slave and her child out of the household and into the wilderness to fend for themselves, presumably to die.  It’s the story we heard today.  It’s part of the story of the patriarch of the Hebrew people (who is also seen as the patriarch of Christian and Muslim people).  It’s part of a larger saga that is filled with call and response, promise and impatience, deceit and intrigue, forcing God’s hand and God tolerating it, jealousy and betrayal, abuse and salvation, and much, much more.  The story offers (among many other things) a window into the gender issues and gender power dynamics of its time.

In the small part of the story we heard today, we see that the male is the head of the household.  Sarah may be the one who is feeling insecure and jealous, but Abraham – the male head of the household – is the one who makes the decisions.  And it’s worth noting that Sarah’s insecurity and jealousy is because of a male child.  Had either Ishmael or Isaac been a girls, Sarah wouldn’t have worried.

If you’re not familiar with the story, I encourage you to read it.  Here’s a synopsis.  Abraham senses that he is called by God to leave his home and strike out on an adventure, so he packs up his household and off they go.  God, he believes, promises to make him and his wife Sarah the parents of a new nation – despite the fact that they are already old and have never had any children.  Eventually they get impatient waiting for the child that God has promised, so Sarah suggests that they have a surrogate child.  She suggests that Abraham have sexual intercourse with the slave Hagar.  Abraham does; Hagar gets pregnant; and a son is born who is named Ishmael.

Wouldn’t you know it.  Once they’ve agreed that they aren’t going to have children together and Ishmael is born, Sarah gets pregnant.  She has a son who is named Isaac.  And when Isaac is weaned … well, that’s where we pick up the story.

Suddenly, the son born to Hagar is a threat to Isaac inheriting the household and the promise.  So Sarah lobbies Abraham, the head of the household, to have Hagar and Ishmael thrown out.  And Abraham does just that.

This story isn’t just about Abraham wielding his power as a man.  It is also about sex trafficking – for that is what Hagar suffers at Sarah’s hands.  It is also about rape – because Hagar didn’t have an opportunity to give her consent to having sex with Abraham.  There are aspects of this story – like all the stories about families in the Hebrew scriptures – that are very disturbing if they go unchallenged.  These stories reflect the patriarchal culture in which they were written.

In this story, the sexism inherent in the culture even creeps into the way God is portrayed.  Did you notice that the angel comes to a sobbing Hagar to reassure her that God has heard the boy’s cries?  Hagar is the one sobbing, but God hears the boy and it’s the boy’s cries that seem to move God to action.  Oy vey!

I suppose it’s good news that the Christian church isn’t responsible for creating the theological context in which sexism took hold, the way it is for creating the theological context in which racism took hold.[1]  No, the Christian church is only responsible for perpetuating and codifying patriarchy.  Consider, for instance, how things get translated.

If you’re looking for a patriarchal text, check out 1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

Paul is writing about the practice of worship in the Corinthian church in chapter 14, and we get to this passage.[2]

            What then, brethren?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.  But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God.  Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.  If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  What!  Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.  If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.  So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Whenever I read scripture aloud, I try to do some interpretation of it in the way I do the reading.  What I emphasize orally comes across as more important than what I de-emphasize.  I don’t know what to do with verse 36.  I don’t understand what the word “What!” is doing there.  Still, this is how the passage has been translated.

I’m not a Greek scholar, so I can’t argue with the translation.  So, about two decades ago, I asked a Greek scholar if this was a good translation of the Greek.  He said it was – in terms of the words.  But the oldest text from which the translations are derived do not have punctuation.  So figuring out where sentences begin and end or where paragraphs begin and end is potentially problematic.

We do know that the letters we have that were written by Paul were parts of exchanges.  Letters were sent between churches and Paul – in both directions.  That means that Paul is likely responding to a letter that, given the content of Paul’s letter, was probably about (among other things) arguments about worship in the Corinthian church.  I can imagine Paul standing there, with a letter from the Corinthians in his hands, dictating his response to a scribe.  And I can imagine him, from time to time, quoting the Corinthian’s letter back to them, particularly if they wrote something that really got under his skin.  So, imagine if we got the punctuation wrong.  What if what Paul wrote was this:

… For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
[Quoting from a letter from Corinth:]  “The women should keep silence in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
What?!  Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual,…

Suddenly Paul is offended by the sexist assumptions in the Corinthian church, not supporting them.  And now, finally, that “What!” makes sense.  It’s an expression of his outrage.

And yet, for hundreds of years, the Christian church has punctuated the text so that it supports patriarchy, so that it codifies patriarchy.  My Greek scholar friend insisted that this way of punctuating the passage totally works in the Greek.

We’ve done the same sort of thing with our Gospel lesson.  Jesus is in the house of Simon the leper – which, let’s acknowledge, is a pretty radical thing on its own.  A woman comes in, breaks open a bottle of nard, and anoints Jesus, pouring it on his head.  It’s shocking, I tell you!  Shocking!  The people who were there were shocked.  And they said so.  Jesus, on the other hand, sees it as an act of love, of caring.  Mark tells us that Jesus saw this as an act of preparing his body for burial (this happens just a day or two before his crucifixion).

It is not uncommon for people to assume that the woman who did this must have been a prostitute, it being such a sensual act.  Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the woman’s character.  They may also be merging this story with a different story in Luke 7 where a woman whom we’re told is “a sinner,” anoints and cries on Jesus feet, only to dry them with her hair.  She, too, is demonized as a prostitute even though there is nothing in the text to point us in that direction.

And did you catch that Jesus says to the people at Simon’s house, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”?  This act will be told in remembrance of her – and we have no idea what her name is.

The Christian church may not be responsible for creating patriarchy, but we are responsible for perpetuating it, for codifying it.  We do that with the stories we tell that we don’t challenge.  We do it with the way we translate texts.  We do it with the assumptions and interpretations we make.

And we codified patriarchy in the 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned women from even participating in the celebration of the Eucharist.[3]  The ban on the ordination of women probably begun before that.  It wasn’t until after the Reformation that women started being ordained (again).  Here in the United States, it began with the ordination by the Congregational Church of Antoinette Brown in 1853.  The Christian church suffered without the ordained leadership of women for at least 1300 years, and probably longer.  Why?  Because we codified patriarchy into our way of being church.

And this is stunningly confounding to me.  For me, “Christmas is not the birth of an alpha male who plays by the old set of patriarchal rules, but rather, it is the celebration of the omega male:  the model of a new humanity for both women and men.  The way of Christ, as [I] understand it, is not a way of eye-for-eye revenge, but a way of nonviolent resistance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  It is not a way of domination, but service.  It is not a way of leading through displays of physical, sexual, or financial prowess, but through displays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control.”[4]

“Although he frequently refers to God as Father, I believe Jesus is a deconstructor of patriarchy, not a defender.  Consider:  His fatherly metaphor decenters the dominant kingly metaphor of his day, toning down kingly patriarchy to familial patriarchy.  The familial patriarchy of his parables and aphorisms (If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more …?) emphasizes kindness, compassion, and love, not power, domination, punishment, and revenge.  He exposes the inherent dishonesty of patriarchy with powerful political insight when he says, ‘Call no one Lord … Call no one Father.’ (Matthew 23)  He turns patriarchy upside down and inside out when he washes his disciples’ feet.  Peter’s negative reaction can be seen as Peter’s (and the church’s?) resistance to Jesus’ radical rejection of patriarchy.  … Jesus’ self-giving on the cross is the most powerful rejection of patriarchy imaginable.  Instead of seizing and holding power by killing others, Jesus lays down his life and offers his broken, torn body as a life-giving gift … Jesus is, we might say, the anti-Caesar, the antithesis of patriarchy.”[5]

May we help the church universal find ways to de-codify patriarchy and to more closely follow the way of Jesus.

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • How aware are you of impact and affect of patriarchy in everyday life?
  • When have you been a co-conspirator with patriarchy’s destructive powers?
  • How does your image of God support or oppose patriarchy?

____________

[1] See my sermon, “The Church’s Role in Normalizing Racism,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/the-churchs-role-in-normalizing-racism/ (preached 5 March 2017).

[2] This is from the Revised Standard Version.  I use this version because when I re-punctuate it below, I don’t have to change any of the words.  Because of the way translating works, I would have to change some of the words if I used a different translation.

[3] “Ordination of women,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordination_of_women (accessed 20 January 2018).

[4] Post by Brian McLaren on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/mclaren.brian/posts/10155976325702990, 27 November 2017.

[5] Ibid.

Categories

Jeff’s Twitter Feed

Archives

Blog Stats

  • 26,980 hits
Advertisements