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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 26, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Esther 4:9-17and Matthew 7:15-20
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

From time to time, writing a sermon seems like a waste of time.  This is especially true when someone has already written what I want to say.  In her book Inspired, Rachel Held Evans wrote a wonderful reflection on the story of Esther.[1]  Almost all of today’s sermon is from that reflection.

 

A teenage boy wearing a black cape and felt hat strolls across the stage.  Behind him, a cavalcade of middle school princesses, pirates, and superheroes bows.

“Make way for Lord Haman!” cries the caller, a boy of eleven or twelve wearing a Mad Hatter costume.

At Haman’s name, the audience erupts into a deafening roar, drowning the villain’s words in boos, catcalls, and thunderous stomps.…

Onstage, only Mordecai stands erect, declaring with muffled defiance through his costume beard, “I only bow to God!” The audience cheers.

“What kind of man is this?” asks Haman of a nearby Princess Elsa.

“A Jew,” she replies.

Everyone in the audience knows what’s next.…

It’s a strange way to mark a thwarted genocide, but every year, this is how Jews across the world celebrate Purim, a holiday recounting the tale of Haman, Mordecai, King Xerxes, and Queen Esther – one of the best resistance stories in Scripture.

As Lauren Winner wrote, “Purim is like Halloween and Mardi Gras and bunch of other stuff all mixed up together.  It’s a holiday in which there’s revelry and inversion and people all dress up.  They wear masks.  When you go to the synagogue to hear the book of Esther read, you are instructed by the rabbis to shout and scream whenever you hear the name Haman so that his name gets drowned out.  You’re also instructed to get really drunk on Purim, so drunk, the rabbis say, that you can no longer tell the difference between Haman’s name and the king’s name.”

Indeed, the biblical story, which tells how Mordecai and Esther helped saved their people from a pogrom by the Persian Empire, lends itself to such an interpretation.  Many of the characters, particularly those of the Persian court, are so hapless and exaggerated, you can’t help but laugh.  Nearly every major plot point unfolds at some banquet, and the text includes all sorts of dramatic twists and turns.  It’s a story fit for the stage.

Yet the text itself includes some disturbing details.  As a kid, I always imagined Queen Esther to be something of a beauty pageant contestant.  Having received the PG version of the tale in church, I figured that in addition to the “twelve months of beautification” Esther underwent before meeting King Xerxes, she must have performed some kind of talent and answered questions from a glass bowl before winning the heart of a love-struck royal.  I never learned in Sunday school that Esther, whose Jewish name was Hadassah, was forced, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes’s harem.  Or that the king had banished his first wife, Queen Vashti, for refusing to publicly flaunt her body before his drunken friends.  Or that under the care of the royal eunuchs, Esther and the women of the king’s harem each took a turn in the king’s bed to see who would please him best. Or that the women received just one night with the king, after which they were transferred to the eunuchs in charge of the concubines, with the instruction not to return to the king’s chamber unless summoned by name, under the penalty of death.

They left those details out of the flannelgraphs.…

The Greek historian Herodotus, author of History of the Persian Wars, wrote just twenty-five years after the reign of Xerxes and provided some insight into his might and cruelty, including the fact that five hundred young boys were gathered each year from the kingdom and castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Persian court.  It’s important to remember that the bodies of these eunuchs, and the bodies of the women like Esther who were forced into the royal harem, were the property of the empire. This was the forced concubinage of women who, in a patriarchal culture in an occupied territory, had no authority over their own marriages or bodies.

The story begins with a banquet.  At the height of his glory and wealth, King Xerxes throws a lavish, multiday celebration for all the nobles of his court.  He hosts feasts day and night in the palace garden, where fine linens hang from marble pillars and merrymakers lounge on couches made of gold.  The king tells his servants to give each man as much wine as he wants to drink, so as the days wear on, the party grows wilder.

On the seventh day, when Xerxes is “in high spirits from wine,” he commands his eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti to the garden.  He wants to display his wife’s body before all the drunken men of the court, for she is “lovely to look at” (Esther 1:10-11).

Well, when the attendants deliver the king’s command, Vashti refuses to obey. The woman simply won’t come out.

Her defiance infuriates the king, who consults his closest advisers on how to respond to his wife’s disobedience.  A confidant named Memukan takes advantage and turns this little domestic dispute into a full-blown national crisis.…

[Letting a woman say “No” to the king, he argues, will cause the collapse of the social structure.  If someone at the bottom of the power pyramid can get away with saying “No” to the person at the top of the pyramid, then anyone anywhere in the pyramid will think they can get away with saying “No” to those above them.

So, Vashti is banished and a decree is sent forth,] delivered to every province and in every language of the empire, [that] proclaims that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” and that “every man should be ruler of his own household” (vv. 20, 22).

The overreaction is downright comical.

Audiences at Purim plays roar with laughter at these pathetic, insecure men, so threatened by one woman’s autonomy that they issue kingdom-wide edicts declaring men the rulers of their homes.

But behind the joke is a warning.  Xerxes and his court have a habit of making major, national decisions based on personal offense and whims.  [This is a warning for us, too.]  Beneath the pomp and wealth is a dangerous fragility with which our heroes, and the Jewish people, must contend.

After banishing Vashti, the king gets lonely.  Once his “fury had subsided” (2:1), he is persuaded by his attendants to search the land for its most beautiful virgins with the goal of finding a new, more obedient queen.  Among the women forced into the harem is Esther, a beautiful Jewish orphan under the care of her cousin, Mordecai.  While preparing for her encounter with the king, Esther wins the favor of everyone she meets, including the royal eunuchs, who, like Esther, had themselves been taken and used by the king.  The cunning eunuchs pull more strings in the palace than anyone realizes, and they prove important allies as the story unfolds.

With the help of the eunuchs, Esther is chosen queen, though she is forbidden from speaking with the king without a summons.  No one in the palace knows she is a Jew.  Meanwhile, Mordecai, too, is commended when he uncovers an assassination plot by two of King Xerxes’s courtiers.  The cousins seem poised to live a relatively privileged lifestyle among the occupying empire, until Haman – Boooooooo! – is appointed viceroy.

When Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman as he passes, Haman’s fury turns to disdain for all Jews.  The villain convinces a disinterested, persuadable King Xerxes to exterminate every Jew in the empire, then sends dispatches throughout the land with the order to “destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jews – young and old, women and children – on a single day” (3:13).  Haman chooses the day by casting lots, the fate of an entire race left to a game of chance.… While the Jews fast and pray in fear, King Xerxes and Haman celebrate over drinks.  The text says, “The city of Susa was bewildered” (v. 15).

Terrified for his people, Mordecai implores Esther to intercede with the king, urging that perhaps she has “come to royal position for such a time as this” (4:14). After three days of fasting, Esther works up the courage to approach the throne without a summons.  To her relief, the king extends his scepter to indicate her life will be spared.  Esther invites both the king and Haman to a series of banquets, setting just the right stage to reveal her true identity.

Meanwhile, Haman plots to have Mordecai hanged, but a bout with insomnia leads King Xerxes to a bunch of old court records that remind him that Mordecai has yet to be honored for saving his life.  (King Xerxes, you will find, is a rather forgetful fellow.)  In a deliciously ironic scene, King Xerxes asks Haman how a man faithful to the king ought to be honored.  Assuming Xerxes is referring to Haman himself, he tells the king to throw a grand parade for the man, dress him in the king’s royal robes and give him a royal horse, and declare throughout the city that this is how a man who loves his king will be praised.  Imagine Haman’s horror when King Xerxes tells him to do these things for Mordecai!

Mordecai gets his parade, Haman goes home to cry to his wife, and Esther plans her big reveal.

At Esther’s second banquet, she tells the king that her people have been targeted for genocide and begs him for mercy.  The king is horrified.  “Who on earth would plan such a thing?” he essentially demands, his previous conversation with Haman about eliminating an entire people group apparently slipping his mind.

Esther points to the villain.  “An adversary and enemy!  This vile Haman!”

Haman, seeing he’s been bested, falls onto Esther’s couch in agony to beg for pardon.  Xerxes interprets this as the man making a pass at his wife, and Haman’s fate is sealed. The villain is hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.  Esther secures permission for the Jews to take revenge on their enemies, on the very day those enemies had planned to eliminate them.  The story ends in a Tarantino-style bloodbath [which I could have done without].

Many people notice that the book of Esther is the only one in Scripture that fails to mention God, and indeed its religious themes are covert.  However, God’s presence is discernible, not simply in the providential unfolding of the Jewish people’s deliverance, but as a contrast to the impotent, aimless reign of the bumbling King Xerxes and his Persian court.  Though intent on flaunting the “vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor of his majesty” (1:4), Xerxes turns out to be little more than a pathetic puppet, coaxed and coddled by advisers, eunuchs, and villains, and ultimately controlled by a Jewish orphan and her cousin.  Haman’s rage against the Jews is petty and childish.  Major empire-wide decisions get made, not after prayer and fasting, but over drinks at banquets or by casting lots.  The story of Esther pulls back the veil on the empire to reveal that behind the golden chairs and packed harems and patriarchal edicts are a bunch of insecure, weak men whose attempts to puff themselves up only make them look silly.  It is an empty, foolish power.  The emperor has no clothes.

This would all be terribly frightening were it not for the quiet, and at times hidden, hand of God, working all things together for good.  I suspect this is why the Jews dress up in costume, feast, celebrate, and laugh in response to a story about their near destruction as a people.  They laugh because, like a thrown-together middle school Purim play, the power of the empire is just a big show.  In the end, the God of Israel – of Abraham, Moses, and Esther – gets the last word, using the weak to humble the powerful.

The[2]story of Esther as a story of resistance. It is a story of civil disobedience. It is a story of feminism.  And I am grateful that there is a story like this one – of resistance, civil disobedience, and feminism – in the bible.

Vashti’s “No” to being objectified could have led to her execution.  Esther’s “Yes” to standing up for her people could have led to her execution.  Nevertheless, they persisted.  And their story calls us to persist.

And while I hear the challenge to persist, to risk, to speak truth to power and to stand on the side of justice, I also find comfort in this story.  I find comfort because it reminds me “that a misogynistic king running a dangerously dysfunctional superpower is nothing new and nothing God can’t handle.”  Amen.

_______________

Questions for Contemplation:

How might you be called to act in such a time as this?

How might we as a church be called to act in such a time as this?

How can you be of support to those who are persisting?

_______________

[1]Rachel Held Evans, Inspired(Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018), 130-137.

[2]The conclusion of the sermon (these next three paragraphs) is mine, though it is influenced by RHE (and I quote her in the final sentence).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 14, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 23:26-49
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die.”[1]

Those are the opening words of Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s important work, Saving Paradise.  “Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century.  Why not? …

“Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true.  Surely the art historians were wrong.  The crucified Christ as too important to Western Christianity.  How would it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches?”[2]

The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald,

I was stunned by these opening words when I read them about a decade ago.  Like most Western Christians, I have long been familiar with pictures and carvings of Jesus on the cross, dying in agony.  I was taught that the crucifixion of Christ saved the world and that everyone who was a Christian believed this.  I rejected that belief decades ago, finding some very basic theological problems with it.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I attended a conference last weekend that included keynote addresses by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans.  Bolz-Weber gave a wonderful, if somewhat mocking, summary of this atonement theology most of us were taught.  I wish I had a video tape of what she said.  It was humorous.  And it was accurate.  Here’s essentially what she said – in a much drier format.

Humanity is an alienated state of relationship with God because of our sinfulness.  That sinfulness (in this theology I’ve rejected) may be from the original sin of Adam and Eve or it may be because we are basically screw-ups.  Whatever the cause, that sin, that disobedience, is a crime against God.  “Disobedience requires punishment, or else it is not being taken seriously.  Hence God must require a punishment, the payment of a price, before God can forgive our sins or crimes.”[3]  The only problem is that none of us is good enough, none of us in pure enough to pay that price, to endure that punishment.  So, God sent Jesus to pay the price.  God sent Jesus, His Son, to suffer the cruelty of crucifixion because only Jesus was good enough and pure enough to have his suffering count enough.  Jesus is the price that had to be paid to free us from the punishment we so certainly deserve.

It turns out that this understanding, this theology of atonement, dates from the late 11th century, from 1097, in fact, in a book written by St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury[4] – about 100 year after depictions of the crucifixion started showing up in Christian art.

My big problem with this theology is that it makes God out to be a child abuser.  That’s the thought I had about it 30 years ago.  If God sent his Son to suffer, that’s child abuse.  And I don’t believe that is an accurate understanding of God.  I’m not the only one who’s thought this.  In a sermon published on the web, Bolz-Weber puts it this way:  “The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and, well, somebody had to pay.”[5]

Yes, sacrificial imagery is used in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and in references to the crucifixion in the Epistles, “but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus execution.  [For instance,] They also see it as the domination system’s ‘no’ to Jesus (and God)…”[6] and that in that ‘no,’ the moral bankruptcy of the powers that be is revealed.  And the New Testament authors also see the crucifixion as the revelation of the path to transformation.  And they see it as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us.[7]

For instance, Paul writes “again and again of Jesus’s death, of the cross and Christ crucified.  It is ‘the wisdom and power of God,’ though it is ‘a stumbling block’ to Jews and ‘foolishness’ to Gentiles.  It is the demonstration of God’s love for us, the sacrifice that makes our redemption possible, and the path of personal transformation as dying and rising that lies at the heart of the Christian life.”[8]

I sometimes wonder if all of it, everything from St. Anselm all the way back to Paul, is simply the byproduct of the human desire to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning in the meaningless.  It’s not that the adage, “Everything happens for a reason” is wrong.  I think it’s true.  It’s just that sometimes the reason is, you’re a jerk.  Or that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and the laws of physics apply no matter what your spirituality is.  Or you made bad choices.  Or somebody else made bad choices.  Or that there’s evil in the world and the powers that be want to silence any challenge to their power.

Maybe Jesus died because the Roman Empire killed him.  Full stop.

We want it to have some meaning, as have Christians through the millennia, and so we push a meaning onto it.  We say that it’s a sacrifice.  And I think it was – in the broad sense of the word, in the sense that we say Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi and Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer each “sacrificed their lives for the causes to which they were devoted.”[9]  In this sense, I’m comfortable speaking of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kin-dom of God.  “The more specific meaning of sacrifice in relation to Jesus’s death speaks of it as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a dying for the sins of the world.”[10]  To that specific meaning, I say, “No.”

Of course Jesus’ death, Jesus’ execution is a stumbling block and foolishness.  What sort of self-respecting messiah would get himself killed?  As Bolz-Weber points out, “During his ministry people had seen what he could pull off.  Healing others, feeding others, providing huge vats of wine out of water for others – with those kinds of powers and a little more self-esteem? man … Jesus could have had it all.  ‘Save yourself,’ they chanted.…

“The leaders, the first thief, the crowds, the soldiers – they all mocked Jesus as though to say obviously you’re not the son of God because the God we know is powerful and vengeful and slightly insecure and would never allow himself to take this level of insult.  The crowds made some fairly reasonable suggestions for what a genuine Messiah might do in a situation like his own crucifixion.…  [But then] everyone thinks God should do what we would do if we were God.  And then we judge God according to how we think God is doing with that.…

“We’d love God to be the King of our particular value system.  But here’s the thing – most of God is unknowable.  Period.  And, really, we should probably be grateful for that.

“When it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.”[11]  And maybe, just maybe we can see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.

If God is saying anything from the cross, I think it might be something like, “This is the logical end of your value system.  Here is where it will always end.  In the suffering of God.  [And] here is the extent I will go … to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hanged me.  I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed-up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger, better version of the best parts of you or a bigger, badder version of the worst parts of you.”[12]

If Jesus is exalted on the cross, it’s to show us that “Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.…  [For] from his roughhewn throne of a cross [(if it is any sort of a throne)] Jesus looks at the world … [at] those who betrayed him, those who executed him, those who loved him, and those who ignored him, and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is … forgiveness.  ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.’ …  From his cross, Christ … loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us.”[13]

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection

If Jesus’ crucifixion is to be viewed as a sacrifice, what does that sacrifice say to you and to the church?  What it is calling you/us to do and be?

What does the crucifixion tell you (if anything) about God? about Jesus? about you?

_______________

[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), ix.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 139.

[4] Ibid, 138.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on the Cross,” goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/948520-sermon-on-the-cross-christ-the-king-sunday (posted 21 November 2010; accessed 13 April 2019). I’ve done some editing to clean up typos a grammar.

[6] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 139.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 140-141.

[9] Ibid, 154.

[10] Ibid, 154.

[11] Nadia Bolz-Weber, op. cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

A sermon* preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 7, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 2:4b-17 and Job 38:1-11; 39:5-8, 26-30
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This last sermon in this series is the most personal of the bunch.  Jim Antal and abby mohaupt are two of my climate heroes, and when I decided to include them in this series on Saints, I didn’t realize I was also going to need to include Bill McKibben.  The thing is, Bill has had an important influence on Jim, abby, and me, and so, I’m going to start with him.

Bill McKibben

Bill and I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.  Though Bill was a year ahead of me in school and we went to different junior highs, our lives managed to overlap.  We both gave tours of “the historic Lexington Battle Green” when we were in junior high, and we were in church youth group together (though I was more involved than he), and we were the prime organizers of local protests against President Jimmy Carter’s reinstitution of draft registration the summer after my first year of college.  Bill had completed his second year at Harvard when we gathered on the Lexington Battle Green on a weekly basis to protest – an appropriate spot if ever there was one to stand in opposition to the government.

When he graduated from Harvard, Bill got a job writing for The New Yorker magazine.  The next time I heard from Bill was on the radio when he was on a tour promoting his 1989 book The End of Nature.  This was the first book published in the United States for a general audience on global warming.  He had done the research to see just what a dangerous situation human beings were putting ourselves into by changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.

I wish I could tell you that Bill’s book was the thing that got me to be serious about the dangers of global warming.  It (and some articles he wrote for various journals and magazines) started building my awareness, but it was Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, that really converted me.  The film made something click.  I don’t know how I managed to almost immediately see the connections as clearly as I did.  Somehow, I saw that a warmer planet would change weather patterns, which would shift where and how much water would be available, which would change how and where and if crops grew, which would lead to famines and mass migrations, which would likely lead to war.

People starving, people forced to leave their homes, and war are moral issues.  And that is why, for over a decade, I’ve been saying that climate change is the moral issue of our day.

Jim Antal

The End of Nature impacted Jim Antal, too, though he was aware of the dangers of climate change before Bill’s book was published.  Jim is the recently retired Conference Minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.  I think the first time I met him face-to-face was at a General Synod, the every two-years meeting of people from across the UCC, where we worship and eat and learn, and where delegates vote on resolutions.  One of the resolutions before the Synod that year called for the various settings of the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels.  It turned out that Jim was a champion of that resolution and that resolution was the most important one to me of all the resolutions coming before Synod that year.

Jim’s traces his journey to being one of the strongest voices in the UCC calling for us to address climate change back to a road trip he took with his father when he was 15.  Jim’s parents had divorced, and he moved to California to live with his father.  That summer, they did a tour of some of the National Parks out here in the western United States as a way to get reacquainted with each other.  Jim fell in love with the outdoors.  Over the next two summers, Jim hiked the John Muir Trail.

He went off to college and, while he was there, he organized his campus’s celebration of the first Earth Day.  Jim reminded me that the first Earth Day was organized by a Republican Senator as a cross-country teach-in and that a massive 10% of Americans participated.

James Hansen

Jim’s father, the man who took Jim on the tour of National Parks that caused Jim to fall in love with the outdoors and led him to his passion for environmental ethics, worked in the fossil fuel industry.  He was a chemical engineer for Mobil Oil.  Jim’s brother followed their father into the sciences and is a world expert on charcoal.  Though Jim didn’t pursue science as a career, the exposure to science and scientific thinking caused Jim to pay attention to Carl Sagan’s writing about global warming in the 1970s.  And Jim paid attention when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of global warming in 1988.  That’s when he started preaching about climate change.  The following year, his commitment to preaching on climate change was strengthened by Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature.

Jim describes himself as a “big picture thinker.”  “I take in the whole thing first [and then the details].  The greenhouse effect started getting talked about and I saw the whole picture and the threat to the earth,” he told me.

When I asked Jim to expand on that threat, he said, “God provided humanity with sufficient freedom that we can extinguish life as God created it.”  Jim suggested that I check out the United Nations’ website pages on climate change because I’ll find that they intersect with their pages about population.  Jim told me that if we don’t do anything about climate change, sometime between 2045 and 2070, the world’s population will plummet because of water and food shortages, wars, and massive refugee movements.  We will go from 9 billion people to 2 billion people.

“What are the theological implications of living in a world where the gift of nature is good for only one quarter of the people on the earth?” he asked me rhetorically.  “In one or two generations, when 3 of 4 people are dying off?  The theological implications are infinite.”

“Imagine a world where the earth is no longer friendly to life as we’ve known it.”

“If we’re not preaching once a month on climate change, in a couple generations every sermon we preach will be on grief.”

abby mohaupt and Jeff Spencer

abby mohaupt also sees the grave dangers climate change is posing to humanity and the rest of creation.  abby and I met in Richmond on August 3, 2013.  We were protesting at the Chevron refinery, and Bill McKibben had something to do with our presence.  For several years, Bill had been calling for upper-middle class white people to start engaging in civil disobedience to protest the fossil fuel industry.  He especially called on middle-aged people, people like me, people with the most privilege when it came to the American criminal justice system, to engage in these acts.  abby isn’t middle-aged, but she, too, answered the call.  I won’t go into what happened that day, but you can read about it in the sermon I preached the following day.

abby started reflecting on ecology and theology in broad strokes while she was in seminary – “both where the earth is hurting and where the earth brings joy.”  When she did her internship at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, she was assigned to staff their ecology group, and during that year, Bill McKibben was part of a cross-country bus tour.  It was called the “Do the Math” tour, and it was calling on people like you and me to organize both institutions – like churches and pension funds and cities – and ourselves to divest from fossil fuels.  abby took 20 people from her church to the Palo Alto tour stop.  That got her interested in divestment and she is a leader in getting the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from fossil fuels.

In addition to organizing her denomination and seminaries to divest, abby is working on her PhD dissertation on feminist and womanist theology, climate change, and environmental racism.  Yet this isn’t just an academic issue for abby.  She currently lives in Pescadero.  “I live near the ocean now,” she told me, “so when I hear stories about the oceans rising, it is the ocean I live next to, the ocean that I love that will take over the land where I live now.  It’s real.  It’s very real.”

I asked abby and Jim what they do to enable them to hope in the midst of this reality.  Jim told me, “Every morning my first thought is gratitude.  Having this big picture, I’m just astonished that there is such a thing as life.…  [I wake up in the morning and think] ‘Oh my God, there is such a thing as life and I can bear witness to the truth [today].’  [That’s why] I can be dedicated to what can otherwise be depressing work.”

He also told me that over the course of his career he has had a theological shift, from a concern about personal salvation to collective salvation.  He noted that he is hardly the first to talk about this shift and he pointed me to the work of Richard Rohr and Teilhard de Chardin.  Jim said, “I don’t spend conscious time thinking about my personal salvation; but of humanity standing before God having set the stage of wrecking God’s creation.”  That is why Jim has been an activist in his ministry and continues to be an activist in retirement.

“When consciousness and all that is around you is infused with God, that naturally leads to activism if it turns out that you’re living on the hinge of history, when that very creation is in jeopardy.”

Presbyterianism comes out of Calvinism, which can have a focus on the depravity of humanity.  abby said, “Everything we do has a taint of sin in it.…  Everything we do has a carbon foot print.  This has led me to a place of confession.…  We need each other and we need God to make a way.”

She went on:  “Once we understand everything we do has a carbon footprint, we can’t be in judgment about each other’s carbon footprint.  We need to be open to God’s grace, which helps us understand and face the real reality of climate change.  In this reality of climate chaos, where everything we do adds to the chaos, we can be overwhelmed or we can turn into God’s grace which will give me courage and humility to respond to the reality of climate change.…

“Every time I try to make my carbon foot print smaller, I try to think about how this impacts my relationship with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit.  The closer we feel to the earth, the closer we feel to God.”

If I’m right (and I think I am) that climate change is the moral issue of our day, we need saints like Jim Antal and abby mohaupt to help us find our way, a way that includes protest and activism and policy lobbying, and a way that includes confession and community and spiritual grounding.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

What confession are you/we called to in response to the witness of Jim and abby?

What action can you/we take to address climate change this month?

_______________

*The quotes in this sermon are from interviews I had with Jim Antal and abby mohaupt over the past few weeks. I deeply appreciate their openness and willingness to share.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 31, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 5:1-9and Matthew 5:43-47
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things I’m loving about this sermon series is how much I’m learning.  For instance, in my research this week I was introduced to some women I was not familiar with.  I knew who Rosa Parks was and I knew the name Fannie Lou Hamer, though I couldn’t have told you anything about Hamer.  I wasn’t familiar with even the names Dorothy I. Height and Gloria Richardson.  I would have guessed that Juanita Jones Abernathy was somehow related to Ralph Abernathy.  And it turns out they were married, but Juanita was much more than Ralph’s wife.  I had heard of the Highlander Folk School,[1] but I knew nothing about Septima Clark, her connection to the school, or how that connection fueled the Civil Rights movement.  I knew nonviolence, both as a strategy and a philosophy, needed to be taught, but I’d never heard of Dorothy Cotton.

Ella Baker

Than then there’s Ella Baker.  I’d heard of Ella Baker, thanks to “Ella’s Song” by another Civil Rights heroine, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, but I didn’t know anything about her.  I had assumed (rightly) that Ella Baker had said the words that became the lyrics of the song, including these words:  “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”[2]  As powerful and still-relevant as these words (words that echo the cries of the Black Lives Matter movement) are, Ella Baker was much more than a song-inspirer.

To start with, without Ella Baker, there wouldn’t have been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Baker was serving as Executive Secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when she organized a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina during the Easter weekend of 1960. She had immediately recognized the potential of the students involved in the lunch counter sit-in movement and wanted to bring leaders of the movement together to meet one another and to consider future work.  Baker persuaded Martin Luther King to put up the $800 needed to hold the conference.  King hoped they would become an SCLC student wing. Baker encouraged them to think about forming their own organization, which they did – and SNCC was born.

Speaking to the conference, Ella Baker told the students that their struggle was “much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized coke.”  In presenting this bigger picture, Baker displayed a talent she had been employing for more than two decades:  assisting people to empower themselves.  She encouraged the formation of SNCC to be from the bottom up.[3]

Julian Bond (center front) and other SNCC Atlanta office staff, 1963

It is Ella Baker’s insight about community organizing that I find most fascinating and encouraging.  She saw that in the Civil Rights movement there were two ways of organizing.  One was for groups to be formed around a leader, typically a charismatic person.  The other was to form groups that drew forth their own leaders.  Baker believed in “unlocking the power of every person to strengthen their communities and shape their lives.”[4]

“You didn’t see me on television,” Baker said, “you didn’t see news stories about me.  The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come.  My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”[5]

As I mentioned, Baker was Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  That means that she worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  She claimed that the movement was responsible for King’s leadership.  “You see, I think that, to be very honest, the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement,” she said in 1968, a couple months after King was assassinated.  “This is not a discredit to him.  This is, to me, as it should be.”[6]  An interesting point of view.

The message I got growing up was that King made the movement.  I was taught that it was King’s oratory that galvanized people to face the struggles.  I suspect that this is actually a case of both-and. The movement lifted up King, as Baker suggests, and King galvanized the movement, which allowed the movement to lift him, which …

King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., 1963

So, yes, when I think of King, I think of the great orator.  I also think of a gifted political strategist, and a prophet in the biblical sense of the word.  He “proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God, remaining true to his mission even to the laying down of his life.”[7]

I am saddened that we have domesticated King. Popular culture has reduced King to a color-blind dreamer of a nice America.  President Reagan – who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and who signed the law establishing Martin Luther King Day in 1983 – quoted King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech two years later to argue against affirmative action.  The way Reagan used King is how America has come to use King – as a weapon to sanitize oppression in America.[8]

But I would like us to remember that Martin Luther King, Jr., was hated by much of America.  “He was one of the most polarizing figures in the United States during his final few years of life.…  King wanted peace, but not at the expense of equality.  He wanted little black girls and boys to play with little white girls and boys, but not if it meant pretending racism didn’t exist.  He respected authority, but challenged those wearing badges and carrying batons and sitting in the Oval Office.

“He wanted moral clarity, not cheap comfort. Were he alive today, he’d still be hated by those wedded to the status quo.  Because he’d notice the poor still being vilified as lazy.  He’d see large corporations … brag proudly about modest pay increases then quietly announce thousands of layoffs.…  He’d know the government pays private collectors triple what they retrieve in back taxes from the low-income while high-income tax cheats skate.

“Let us … remember when King refused to denounce protesters by saying ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.  And what is it America has failed to hear?  It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.  And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.’

King being arrested in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama

“And [let us remember] when he critiqued capitalism:  ‘Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.’

“And [let us remember] when he demanded ‘a radical redistribution of political and economic power.’

“And [let us remember] when he said, ‘Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.  It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.’

“And [let us remember] when he was exasperated by those telling him to wait:  ‘Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’

“[King] wanted justice and peace.  If he could have only one, there’s no doubt which he’d choose.”[9]

I picked the reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today because the story of God taking the side of the enslaved and God raising up a leader to facedown the principalities and powers of the day is an important story, is perhaps thebiblical touchstone of the Civil Rights movement.  I picked the reading from the Sermon on the Mount because it is what I view to be the hardest commandment in scripture to fulfill.

And when think about the Civil Rights movement, a movement whose work is not finished, and when I think about the leaders of that movement, the Ella Bakers and the Martin Luther Kings, I see people who somehow managed to live into both scripture readings at the same time.

There is more, so much more to be said about these scripture readings.  But for today, let’s allow the lives of Ella Baker and Martin Luther King preach to us, and challenge us.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

How might you/we become stronger people?

What are you/we willing to risk for the sake of God’s justice-demanding love?

_______________

[1]Now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Highlander Center suffered a significantfire on Fridaythat destroyed the building that housed the executive offices of the Center (one of ten buildings on the Center’s campus). Sadly, this building contained decades of archives from the Center.

[2]Nikita Stewart, “50 Years After Dr. King’s Death, Remembering the Women Who Steered the Movement,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/us/women-civil-rights.html (posted 2 April 2018; accessed 26 March 2019).

[3]“Ella Baker,” SNCC Digital, https://snccdigital.org/people/ella-baker/ (accessed 26 March 2019).

[4]“Who Was Ella Baker?” Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, https://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker (accessed 26 March 2019).

[5]“Ella Baker > Quotes,” GoodReads, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/116766.Ella_Baker (accessed 30 March 2019).

[6]Quoted and cited as 19 June 1968 in “Baker, Ella Josephine,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/baker-ella-josephine (accessed 26 March 2019).

[7]Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time(New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 152.

[8]Jeneé Osterheldt, “Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a colorblind dreamer,” The Boston Globe, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/01/20/martin-luther-king-wasn-colorblind-dreamer/Z1Yhlw4WVw0XnnBNuLtUrN/story.html (posted 21 January 2019; accessed 26 March 2019).

[9]The Observer Editorial Board, “Let’s remember the MLK who wasn’t liked,” The Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article224748225.html (updated 29 January 2019; accessed 26 March 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 24, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 25:31-40 and Luke 4:16-21
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

From the 1930s to the 1970s, El Salvador was ruled by a series of military dictatorships.  The society was significantly bifurcated, with a small oligarchy holding the economic and political power, and a large peasant class.  The peasant class included the Native peoples.

During the 1970s, things got especially unstable politically.  A turning point was the 1972 presidential election, where was an attempt at democratic reforms was made.  It failed, thanks to widespread election fraud.  The leader of the opposition, the side that wanted democratic reform, ended up exiled.  “These events eroded hope of reform through democratic means and persuaded those opposed to the government that armed insurrection was the only way to achieve change.”[1]

It was during these years, between the fraudulent 1972 election and the outbreak of all-out civil war in 1980, that Oscar Romero was appointed Catholic Bishop of San Salvador.  It was 1977, and the oligarchy was delighted with his selection.  “Known as a pious and relatively conservative bishop, there was nothing in this background to suggest that he was a man to challenge the status quo.”[2]

            That was not the case.

            This is how one short biography describes what happened:  “Within weeks of his consecration he found himself officiating at the funeral of his friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest of the archdiocese, who was assassinated as a result of his commitment to social justice.  Romero is deeply shaken by this event, which marked a new level in the frenzy of violence overtaking the country.  In the weeks and months following Grande’s death Romero underwent a profound transformation.  Some would speak of a conversion — as astonishing to his new friends as it was to his foes.  From a once timid and conventional cleric, there emerged a fearless and outspoken champion of justice.  His weekly sermons, broadcast by radio throughout country, featured an inventory of the week’s violations of human rights, casting the glaring light of the gospel on the realities of the day.  His increasingly public role as the conscience of the nation earned him not only the bitter enmity of the country’s oligarchy, but also the resentment of many of his conservative fellow bishops.  There were those among them who muttered that Romero was talking like a subversive.”[3]

            “For Romero, the church’s option for the poor was not just a matter of pastoral priorities.  It was a defining characteristic of Christian faith:  ‘A church that does not unite itself the poor in order to denounce from the place of the poor the injustice committed against them is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ,’ he wrote.  On another occasion he said, ‘On this point there is no possible neutrality.  We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death.…  We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.’”[4]

            Military coups and countercoups and the fraudulent elections brought forth a succession of governments, each promising reform and not delivering.  This left the military and the death squads free to suppress the popular demand for justice.  “As avenues for peaceful change were systematically thwarted, full-scale civil war became inevitable.  In 1980, weeks before his death, Romero sent a letter to President Jimmy Carter appealing for a halt to further U.S. military assistance to the junta, ‘thus avoiding greater bloodshed in this suffering country.’  On March 23, 1980, the day before his death, he appealed directly to members of the military, calling them to refuse illegal orders:”[5]

            Here is a recording of that homily with a translation.[6]

“The next day, [which was 39 years ago today,] as he was saying Mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Sisters’ cancer hospital where he lived, a single rifle shot was fired from the rear of the chapel.  Romero was struck in the heart and died within minutes.”[7]

I suspect that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is better known by the people in this room than Oscar Romero.  Her story also involves a conversion, but her conversion led her to a different kind of ministry.  On September 10, 1946, Sister Agnes (as she was then known) was on a train in the Himalayas in northern India.  She was a teacher at a school run by her order, the Loreto Sisters.  She’d taught in their schools for over 20 years and was well liked by her middle-class students.

            Who would have thought that riding on a train in the mountains would have been the setting for her transformation?  It was.  Something happened on that train ride.  She received what was described as a “call within a call.”  “God, she suddenly felt, wanted something more from her:  ‘He wanted me to be poor with the poor and to love him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.’

            “So, with the permission of her congregation, she left her convent … [and went] to seek Jesus in the desperate byways of Calcutta.  Eventually she was joined by others — including many of her former students.  They became the Missionaries of Charity.  And she became Mother Teresa.”[8]

            She worked for years before her ministry came to a more general attention.  When she did come to the public’s attention, I think she was first, and perhaps best, known for her home for the dying in Calcutta.  “There, destitute and dying men and women, gathering off the streets of the city, were welcomed to receive loving care and respect until they died.

Those who would live like ‘animals in the gutter’ were enabled, in Mother Teresa’s home, to ‘die like angels’ — knowing that they were truly valued and loved as precious children of God.

“It was not mother Teresa’s way to change social structures.  ‘We are not social workers,’ she said, but ‘contemplatives in the heart of the world.  For we are touching the body of Christ twenty-four hours a day.’”[9]

            She truly sought God in (as she put it) “distressing disguise” among the poorest.  “God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless,” she wrote; “hungry, not only for bread, but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; nakedness, not of clothing only, but nakedness of that compassion that very few people give to the unknown; homelessness, not only just for a shelter made of stone, but that homelessness that comes from having no one to call your own.”[10]

“[She did not] have any exalted sense of her own vocation.  ‘We can do no great things,’ she said, ‘only small things with great love.’  Often when people beg to join her in her ‘wonderful work’ in Calcutta, she would respond gently but firmly:  ‘Find your own Calcutta!’  As she explained, ‘Don’t search for God in far lands — he is not there.  He is close to you, he is with you.  Just keep the lamp burning and you will always see him.  Watch and pray.  Keep kindling the lamp and you will see his love and you will see how sweet is the Lord you love.’”[11]

            Mother Teresa had a philosophy that suggested, “before we try to love the entire world, we should start by trying to love one other person — someone apparently unlovable, unwanted, or rejected.”[12]  While I agree with her that we should love the person who is in front of us, I think she was wrong when she said, “You can save only one at a time.”[13]  We can, perhaps, only help one at a time, but we do not save any of them.  One of the peculiar things we learn from Matthew 25 is that when we serve “the least of these,” we are not saving them.  They are saving us.

            For your consideration today, the lives of these two 20th century saints.  One life echoed the passage we heard from Luke.  Oscar Romero spoke God’s truth to the world so that systems of oppression might be transformed into systems of justice.  The other life echoed the passage we heard from Matthew.  Teresa of Calcutta saw the Christ in the lives of the naked, hungry, homeless outcasts of Calcutta.  Both followed Jesus.  And both lives invite us to risk – in one way or another – as we follow Jesus.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for consideration:

How might God be calling you/us to be a voice for justice and to help transform systems from oppression to justice?

How might God be calling you/us to open our eyes to see Jesus in his distressing disguise right here in our own Calcutta?


[1] “The History of El Salvador,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_El_Salvador (accessed 23 March 2019).

[2] Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 131.

[3] Ibid, 132.

[4] Ibid, 132.

[5] Ibid, 132-133.

[6] I showed this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o15gEAdlMUQ.  A dramatic English reading of this homily from the docudrama Romero can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuZV6whwj1g.

[7] Ellsberg, 133.

[8] Ibid, 393.

[9] Ibid, 393.

[10] Quoted by Ellsberg, 393.

[11] Ibid, 393-394.

[12] Ibid, 394.

[13] Ibid, 394.

 

 

On Sunday, 17 March 2019, a community candlelight vigil was held at the Band Pavilion, Central Park, Fremont, California, to stand and pray in solidarity with the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, and Muslims around the world. I estimate that over 500 people were present. These are the remarks I prepared for and shared at the vigil.

Good evening.  My name is Jeff Spencer.  I am the senior pastor at Niles Discovery Church, and I have the privilege to serve this year as the President of the Tri-City Interfaith Council.  Thank you for being here tonight and thank you for this opportunity to say a few words.

Finding words to say after such barbarism as befell Christchurch, New Zealand, is difficult.  I ache for my friends who live in New Zealand and I ache for the pain I know so many families are suffering.  I remember this truth:  When one suffers, all suffer, for we are family, the human family.

One of the people who has spoken meaningfully (at least for me) was New Zealand’s Prime Minister.  Here are a few of her words:  “For those of you who are … questioning how this could have happened here, we — New Zealand — we were not a target because we are a safe harbor for those who hate.  We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism.  We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things.  Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.  And those values, I can assure you, will not, and cannot, be shaken by this attack.

“We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages.  And amongst that diversity we share common values.  And the one [value] that we place the currency on right now … is our compassion and support for the community of those directly affected by this tragedy.

“[We also voice] the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people who did this.  You may have chosen us — but we utterly reject and condemn you.”

I read those words and I thought of the Tri-Cities.  We, too, are a diverse community that shares common values of kindness and compassion, of being a home for those in need of refuge.  And we are here tonight to voice our utter rejection and condemnation of people who perpetrate and people who directly or tacitly support the kind of hate that leads to such acts of violence.

I want to say something to the white people here tonight.  Think about this:
The Christchurch Mosques:  White supremacist.
Tree Of Life Synagogue:  White supremacist.
Mother Emanuel AME Church:  White supremacist.
Oak Creek Sikh Gurdwara:  White supremacist.
Overland Park Jewish Center:  White supremacist.
Islamic Center of Quebec City:  White supremacist.

There are two things we need to take away from this brief litany:

First, the problem here is very clear:  White supremacists and white supremacy.  White supremacy is a problem white people are responsible for solving.

Second, the tactic is very clear:  When white supremacy and white supremacists want to wound our community, they attack our houses of prayer.  That is why all of us — regardless of our races, regardless of our religious and spiritual traditions — must continue to stand up for each other.  While our ways of praying and our ways of understanding the Great Mystery may be different, we must continue to be present for each other so white supremacist tactics will not tear down the fabric that we know is made more lush by that very diversity

I would like to close with a prayer, and in this prayer I use the word “God.”  Please consider it a shorthand that points to the Unnamable Mystery that infuses all of life, giving it value and dignity — however it is you understand that Unnamable Mystery.

Please pray* with me.

God, we weep with you for Christchurch.  Our hearts are torn open for those who lost family and friends to this unimaginable violence.  Our minds are bent trying to understand this kind of hatred.  And our spirits send love to those who must overcome fear.  In trauma, we pray peace. In hospitals, we pray healing.  In schools and mosques, on marae and at churches, we pray many great and small works of kindness, not just today, but in days to come.  And in mourning, we pray a knowing that all the world grieves.  Amen.

_______________

*This prayer is adapted from one published on https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/03/15/prayer-for-christchurch/

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, March 3, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 34:29-35and Luke 9:28-36
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Some of you are familiar with this sculpture, so you know the answer to my question.  This question is really for those of you who aren’t familiar with it.  Who or what is this a sculpture of?  If I told you it was carved by Michelangelo, would that help you guess?

This is a sculpture of Moses, and you may be wondering:  What’s up with the horns?  It turns out that there have been some translation problems.  In our first lesson, we heard about Moses coming down off Mount Sinai for a second time with the Ten Commandments.

The story of the first time he comes down of Mount Sinai starts in Exodus 20.  There, God dictates the laws, starting with the Ten Commandments.  The list of laws goes on for quite a while – four chapters. Then, in chapter 24, Moses goes up on the mountain for 40 days.  While he’s up there, God dictates some more rules (for eight more chapters), mostly about the priesthood and worship.  Finally, in chapter 32, Moses comes down off the mountain with the stone tablets of the law, only to discover that the Israelites, nervous at how long he’d been gone, had made an idol for themselves to worship.  On seeing this spectacle, Moses smashes the stone tablets.

Luckily Moses and God managed to cool down, and at God’s direction, Moses went back up the mountain to commune with God.  As directed, he lugged two replacement stone tablets he made back up the mountain with him.  Moses stayed up on the mountain another 40 days, and came back down with the second edition of the Ten Commandments.  And that’s where our scripture lesson picks up.

Moses came down off the mountain and didn’t realize that his face was glowing.  Here’s where the translation problem happens.  The word that gets translated “glowing” or “beaming” is very similar to the Hebrew word that is commonly used to refer to an animal’s horn.  Early Greek and Latin translations made the mistake of confusing the words and so Michelangelo carved Moses as having horns.[1]

It seems to me to be a strange mistake to make. Though maybe 16th century Italian didn’t have a phrase that was the equivalent of “her face was beaming.”  I’m sure they’d experienced it.  A young child gets praised from a parent or grandparent and – you see a beaming face.  I’ve seen the beams emanating from teenagers who are so in love that I’ve worried it might be contagious.  And I know I’ve experienced women who are pregnant to be like radioactive buddhas.

We get a bunch of glowing in our gospel lesson, and on a mountain top, too.  Jesus has just heard Peter’s declaration that he’s the Messiah, the Christ.  I mentioned last week that it seems to me that hearing someone else tell him that he’s the Christ causes something to click for Jesus.  It’s like one part of his brain sent a text message to another part of his brain and *ding*.  “I really am the Christ,” he seems to say to himself, “and that means the principalities and powers are going to kill me. And if you want to follow me, you need to be ready to die, too.  In fact, you need to embrace that possibility daily.”

I don’t know about you, but if I had just realized that God was calling me to not just embrace the possibility of dying, but to confront the principalities and powers knowing with certainty that they would kill me in response, I’m pretty sure my fight/flight/freeze response would be triggered big time.  I would need to step back from everything – everything – and get centered.  I’d need to talk to some close and trusted friends.  And I would need to talk to God.  I would need to get some reassurance from God that it was necessary and that it, even my death, would turn out okay.

One of the things that I think is happening in the drama of the Transfiguration is that Jesus is getting precisely that reassurance.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray.  While he’s praying, Jesus starts glowing.  His face changes and his clothes become blindingly white. And two people show up:  Moses and Elijah – Moses, the father of the law, and Elijah, the father of the prophets.

One way Luke is unique in his telling of the Transfiguration is that he tells us what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus talk about. Many translations say they talked about Jesus imminent “departure” or his “passing” – the one he would soon accomplish in Jerusalem.  The Greek is much richer.  They discuss Jesus’ “exodus.”[2] The Exodus (with a capital “E”) is the foundational story of Judaism.  It is a story of liberation and life and redemption.  And here, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus talk about Jesus’ exodus.

It’s not surprising to me that they talk about liberation, life, and redemption.  Think back to how Luke begins his telling of the ministry of Jesus.[3]  Jesus goes to his home town 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.”[4]  Luke begins his telling of Jesus and his good news by setting it as a mission of liberation, of life, of redemption.

And here at the Transfiguration, Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah – the fathers of a religion birthed out of the big “E” Exodus, the big “E” story of liberation, life, and redemption – about his exodus.  Yes, being the Christ means you’ll be killed by the principalities and powers, and that will be the new vehicle of liberation, life, and redemption.

Another way Luke’s telling of the Transfiguration is unique is that Peter, James, and John fall asleep.  None of the commentaries I read on this passage examined this detail, but I can’t help but wonder if Luke is drawing a connection between this time of prayer and another time of prayer that will come later in his gospel, one also connected to Jesus’ struggle with his death at the hands of the principalities and powers.  I’m speaking, of course, of Jesus praying at Gethsemane just before he was arrested.  As he is praying again about his exodus, the disciples fall asleep.

At the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John don’t miss all the important spiritual action. They wake up in time to see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah standing together in their radiance.  Though the disciples don’t hear the discussion, it is a powerful sight.  When Moses and Elijah leave, Peter starts talking, not even thinking about what he’s saying.  “Dude! That was so cool!  Let’s capture this moment forever.”  Though Peter doesn’t understand much more than the fact that he is having a powerful, mystical experience, the Mystery responds, enveloping the disciples in divine radiance, like a brilliant, think cloud, and they hear the words Jesus heard at his baptism:  “This is my Son.”

It is tempting to desire a life filled with mountain top experiences.  It is tempting to chase after the mystical, to seek that radiant cloud of knowing and being known.  And it’s tempting, if we find that cloud, to want to stay there.  It’s nice up there.  It’s nice to be separated from the struggle and the desperation of those who need the exodus, to be separated from those who need liberation, life, and redemption.

Except that such a separation is actually impossible, for we, each one of us, is in need to the exodus; each one of us is in need of liberation, life, and redemption.  Each one of us has brokenness in need of healing; each one of us needs our ransom paid, our freedom secured.  And so we can’t get away from that fact.  The best we can hope for are moment of deep connection that pulls us out of ourselves and into that unnamable something we call God.

Eventually, Moses and Elijah leave.  Eventually, the cloud lifts.  Eventually, it’s just you and me and Jesus standing there and it’s time to head back down the mountain.  If we’re lucky, we won’t be the same.  If we’re lucky, we, too, have been transfigured.  If we’re lucky, that radiation exposure will have changed us, and maybe we’ll come back down the mountain glowing.

Moses’ face shown so brightly when he came down the mountain that it freaked out his fellow Israelites.  So, he veiled it.  He had been “in the presence of a light so incandescent it had been known to kill people.”[5]  And after that experience, his face was the moon – a reflection of a light we cannot look at directly.

There is a story I heard long ago that has stuck with me.  It is a story of a man who was a boy in Europe during World War II.  I don’t remember if he lived on the Axis or Allied side of the line; I don’t think it matters.  For him, the war as about seeking shelter as planes flew over his city dropping bomb.  And it was about trying to find a childhood in the midst of the rubble.

One day while wondering around a bombed-out home, he found a piece of broken mirror.  It was shiny and caught his attention, so he picked it up and started playing with it.  He had some fun playing “reflect the sunlight into the dark corners of the rubble” – so much fun that he rubbed down the edges of the mirror against some bricks and rocks until he could safely carry the shard of mirror in his pocket.  And on days when the bombs weren’t dropping, he’d play reflect the light.

The boy grew and became a man, and he said that he discovered that the game he played as a child was, in fact, his vocation. His calling in life, no matter what job he had, no matter where he was, was to reflect the light into the dark corners of the rubble of people’s lives.  Only the light he was called to reflect wasn’t the light of the sun.  It was the light of God.

This shining, this reflecting of God’s light is what the season from Epiphany to Lent – the season we conclude today – is about. It is a season of light.  We started with the magi following the light of a star to worship Jesus, and each text in the lectionary from January 6 to Transfiguration Sunday is meant to throw light on who Jesus is and what he means to the world.[6]  Today’s texts of shining faces and landscapes and promises gives us a glimpse at the glory we are called to reflect into the world.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation:

What mountaintop experiences have you had?

How are you reflecting the light of God into the shadowy corners of the world?

_______________

[1]Raymond Apple, “Beams on a shin gin face – Ki Tissa,” OzTorah, https://www.oztorah.com/2009/03/beams-on-a-shining-face-ki-tissa/#.XHtG0y2ZNMM (accessed 26 February 2019).

[2]Jim Rice, “Just Who is Transformed?” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/just-who-transformed?parent=45411 (accessed 26 February 2019).

[3]David Lose, “Transfiguration C: Listen to Him,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/transfiguration-c-listen-to-him/ (posted and accessed 1 March 2019).

[4]Luke 4:18-19, NRSV.

[5]Jason Byassee, “A Face Alight,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/face-alight (accessed 26 February 2019).

[6]Ibid.

Bill McKibben

I just finished reading Bill McKibben’s The New Yorker article, “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet.” It was published in November and I may have read it then (some portions sounded very familiar), but Bill writes a lot and quite well, so I may have read similar things he wrote in other articles. It’s lengthy, and it is totally worth the time to read it. And if you’re like me, it will leave you depressed.

As Bill described the impacts of a warming planet – retreating glaciers, the coming desertification, portions of the globe becoming humanly uninhabitable because of the heat, the collapse of farming that has happened regionally and will happen with greater and greater frequency – images of a film I saw decades ago came to mind. The film depicts the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war in a small town, far enough away from where the bombs dropped to avoid the initial devastation, but close enough that the fallout impacts everyone. I did a little googling and I think the movie was Testament.

Among the scenes from the movie that came to mind as I read Bill’s article is of a minister presiding over a mass funeral/cremation as people die from radiation sickness (at least that’s how I remember the scene). I was in my first year of seminary when I saw the movie, wondering what my vocation would be like. I keep wondering if we will have mass casualties from weather events as the climate chaos becomes more profound over the next decades. I wonder if that scene, that I had come to assume wouldn’t be part of my ministry after the Reagan administration left office, might become part of what it means to be a pastor in the midst of the Athropocene.

We know that we are at the beginning of a mass extinction. Insect biomass is dropping by 2.5% per year. Huge numbers of species will be lost before they are even identified. Mammals, birds, and reptiles are dying at slower rates, but they are disappearing. As agriculture falters and ecosystems collapse, will human deaths from heatwaves and hunger, from scarcity of water and war become so intense that scene from the 1980s movie will be played out in real life?

I hope not. But I wonder. And that’s why Bill’s article has left me depressed.

Luckily, Bill doesn’t stop with doom and gloom news. There are signs of hope. Bill mentions the one-person school strike in Sweden led by Greta Thunberg that galvanized attention last year. Today, thousands of students in the United Kingdom went on strike for climate justice. And a global climate strike is planned for March 15.

The sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that Bill mentions calling for a Green New Deal back in November has led (in no small part, thanks to the organizing of the Sunrise Movement) to the filing of a congressional resolution calling for Green New Deal. There may be real congressional debate about real mitigation to the pending climate chaos.

Much more political action is needed. Repentance (as in a change of heart and a change of direction) are needed. Bad theology, especially bad Christian theology, has led to destructive assumptions about the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. “The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts,” John Muir wrote in 1867 (Bill quotes him in the article). Would that more of us realized this.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Epiphany, January 6, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love that, having heard the Christmas story for over half a century and having preached on it for over 30 years, I’m still discovering new things in it.  Two months ago, I was planning on recycling an old idea I had about the story of the magi for today’s sermon.  It’s a solid understanding of the story.  It has three points, as you might have guessed from the title.  But I’ve got to admit, the third point was a little scripturally weak.

Until this week.

The way Matthew tells the story, by the time he has the magi show up, Jesus might have been walking.  The actual birth of Jesus takes place back in chapter 1.  Mary and Joseph are engaged.  Mary gets pregnant.  Thanks to a dream, Joseph doesn’t cut of the engagement, but marries the pregnant Mary. She gives birth.  And Joseph names the child Jesus.  It’s all wrapped up by the twenty-fifth verse of chapter 1.

The magi show up sometime later.  How much later we don’t know, but based on the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, it may be as many as two years later.  The reason for the delay is the magi’s journey.  But their journey brings me to my second point.

My first point follows an implied action by the magi.  In order to have “observed his star at its rising,” the magi had to be observing.  And that’s my first point:  be on the lookout.  Be observant for signs of God at work in the world.  If we’re not watching, we’ll miss the signs.  Seek the star.  I don’t mean to literally take up star gazing (though that may be a worthwhile spiritual practice, so I’m also not saying don’t take up astronomy).  I’m saying be on the lookout for signs.

The second thing the magi do is they respond to the sign they saw.  They saw a star that made them think that a new king of the Jews was born or was about to be born.  Nifty. They could have celebrated the birth in their home country.  They could have advised political leaders there “in the East” that they might want to know that a political shift in Israel was coming.  But they didn’t do these things.  They set off on a journey.  They followed the star.  Even though Israel was an occupied country and King Herod the Great was more a puppet of Rome than anything else, they saw a sign that led them to believe that a new king was born.  And they decided to follow up on that sign.

How they went about following up – let’s just say that they did not seem to have any sense of realpolitik.  There was no way Herod the Great was vacating the throne unless he died, or Rome demanded it. The magi might have thought that a new king was born, but realpolitik would say this king wasn’t going to sit on any throne unless Rome made it happen.  Realpolitik would advise:  don’t bother going to pay this supposed “new king” homage.

My second point is this:  once you see the signs of what God is up to, respond.  Don’t let a concern for conventional wisdom or realpolitik slow you down.  When God is at work, a faithful response is called for.  Do it.

Seeking the star is step one.  Following the star is step two.

I like to image that, once the magi had returned home, the story continues.  Call if fan fiction, if you like.  I imagine the magi returning to their homes and telling others about the wonders at work in the world.  I imagine them being stars in their own communities – not in the sense of being famous, but in the sense of being a sign in the heavens, or on the street, or around the dining room table, for others to see that God is at work in the world.

And that is my third point:  Be a star.  Let God use you to let others know what God is up to.

The thing is, I don’t think I need my fan fiction to make this third point.  As I studied and prayed with today’s gospel lesson this week, I had an insight.  Two insights, really.

The first is not all that profound.  I had an insight as to why, for years, I preferred Luke’s birth narrative over Matthew’s.  I’d rather be a shepherd than a magus.  It’s pretty cool that the shepherds get an angelic announcement and go celebrate.  On the other hand, the magi get the star and they’re wise enough to interpret its meaning.  So that’s not the reason I’ve preferred Luke.  It’s something else.

It’s been something about the shepherds.  Consider their social status.  They have no power, no prestige, not education.  And I tend to cheer for the underdog.  The magi, on the other hand, have power, prestige, and education.  Yet, for all their power, prestige, and education, the magi come off just as naïve as the shepherds.  They see the star.  They interpret it to mean that a new “king of the Jews” is born.  They go to Jerusalem – which I suppose makes sense.  A new king would be born in the capital, right?

Except they don’t go there to find the child.  They go there for directions.  They go there to ask where they should go to find the child. What do they think Herod is going to do with this information?  How naïve can they be?

I excuse the shepherds’ naiveté.  Heck, I embrace the shepherds’ naiveté.  An angel comes and tells them – tells me – “Behold!  I bring you glad tidings of greet joy. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign to you:  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.” “Dudes!  Let’s check this out!” seems to be a wholly appropriate reaction.

The magi – they just haven’t seemed all that wise to me.

That is, until I had the second insight – the important insight.  Maybe they weren’t as naïve as they first appear to be.  Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing.  Maybe these eastern intellectuals are purposefully poking the bear.

Biblical scholar John J. Pilch suggests that “these strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism.”[1]  The way Matthew knits the story, these strangers, these wise men have come a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  Not to pay homage to the current king.  They go to the current king for directions, and that makes the current king afraid.  They are poking not just Herod in the eye, but all of Rome and all Roman puppets.  “The vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times.”[2]

I suppose Matthew’s original audience would have seen these wise men, these strangers, these Magi as “‘very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers’”[3]of some nation in area of what today we know as Iran or Iraq.  Back then, would Matthew’s original audience have thought of that land and thought immediately of Babylon, the land of the exile?  Perhaps. Richard Swanson muses that if they had been historical figures, perhaps they would have been influenced by Jews that remained in Babylon after the Exile, tutored in sensing the goodness of God, “trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world.”[4]  Perhaps that’s how some of Matthew’s original audience thought of them.

The story is very good at evoking images in our minds.  I assume it did for Matthew’s original audience, too.  Potentates coming to the seat and symbol of power in Jerusalem and, with a simple question, terrifying the tyrant of their day.  When they finally come to Jesus, they find “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms” – as Shelley D.B. Copeland describes it.[5]  And they lay before the toddler and his mother their gifts, gifts fit for a king, gifts that purposefully evoke our reading from Isaiah 60.

And the story ends with them leaving for home, but “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Illegal activity, right there at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  Herod had ordered them to come back to Jerusalem once they found the child.  But they don’t.  They take a different way home.

Civil disobedience, poking the powers that be right in the eye, is at the core of this story.  Here’s my third point, reworked a little bit:  When we follow the star, when we daringly follow the star, even if that means facing down the principalities and powers of the day, we become a star for others.

I cannot hear this story without thinking of all the political leaders of our day who are paranoid about losing power and who are willing to do almost anything to hang on to it.  I cannot hear this story without thinking of the well-intentioned people who are being manipulated by individuals, and corporations, and governments via social media and countless other ways to view the world distortedly.  And now I cannot hear this story without also seeing those who have become wise to the machinations of others and who stand firm in their resistance.[6]  These, too, are stars declaring the wondrous works of God.  These, too, are stars you or I might be called to follow.  And in following, perhaps we, too, might become stars for others.

We think of the story of the magi as being a story of three kings.  It’s not. It’s the story of two kings.  One is called “the Great” and one is called “Emmanuel.”  One rules with violence and paranoia and one rules with love and grace.

Who will be our king?

Amen.

_______________

[1]Cited by Kathryn Matthew, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019 (accessed 31 December 2018).

[2]Ibid.

[3]Matthews, quoting Pilch from The Cultural World of Jesus Year A.

[4]Matthews, quoting Swanson from Provoking the Gospel of Matthew.

[5]Matthews, quoting Copeland, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1.

[6]David Lose, “Ephiphany C 2018 – The Other Christmas Story,” http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/epiphany-c-2018-the-other-christmas-story/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 11:1-9 and Revelation 21:1-4
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s because of a piece of music that, when we get to the Peace candle (and this year, the peace cup),[1] I think of this picture[2] and the passage from Isaiah 11.  I think I first heard the piece of music three years ago.  Someone posted a link to it on Facebook.  I listened to it and fell in love.

That happens to me sometimes.  Sometimes it happens when I sing a piece of music, as has happened several times preparing for concerts with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus.  Sometimes I need only listen to it, and it gets under my skin and into my soul.  Occasionally it is the music itself, music without lyrics or with lyrics that I don’t understand, that I fall in love with.  A combination of harmonies and rhythms sometimes reach into my soul and claim me.  The “O fortuna” movement of Carmina Burana grabbed hold of me when I was in grade school, and I can describe the exact circumstances and setting of the first time I heard Pachelbel’s Canon in D – it so mesmerized me.

More often, it is the combination of lyrics and music that entice me.  It is the combination that makes “While Shepherd’s Watched” my favorite piece that GGMC is singing in our concerts over the next 10 days.  And it’s the combination of lyrics and music that made me fall in love with Glenn L. Rudolph’s “The Dream Isaiah Saw”[3] – the song that makes me thing of Isaiah 11 and this picture when we get to Peace Sunday in Advent.

American poet and hymnist Thomas Troeger took the images from Isaiah 11 and created a powerful poem.[4]  The refrain is a prayer, but unlike most refrains, the final line changes each time it comes around:
Little child, whose bed is straw,
take new lodging in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

Then it changes to “Justice purifying law.”

Then it changes to “Knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.”

This movement – from the cessation of violence, to the institution of true justice that purifies law, to the transformation of the heart – is, I think, the movement that gets us to the Peaceable Kingdom.

Rudolph took Troeger’s poem and set it to music that moves from foreboding to triumph.  Rather than spend time describing something you haven’t heard, I’ll just say that Rudolph does a wonderful job using a simple organ and piano accompaniment, and adding drums and brass (instruments we might associate more with martial music than the music of peace) to mirror the transformative movement of the lyrics.  And I’ll include a link to a recording of the song in the sermon manuscript that I post online.

The images in the first verse of the song are not new.  The following two verses reinterpret those images as Troeger moves us through his progression toward peace.  They are the images from Isaiah 11:1-9.  They are the images Edward Hicks tried to capture in his painting.

Hicks was around 40 when he first painted “The Peaceable Kingdom.”  I say, “first,” because he painted over 60 versions of the scene.  We know it was over 60 because 62 survive.[5]

Hicks was born into an Anglican and Tory family during the American Revolution.  His mother died when he was an infant and he was raised by a Quaker family named Twining.  As a teen, he apprenticed as a carriage painter,  and at 20, when his apprenticeship was completed, he started working independently painting coaches and houses.

He considered his teen-aged years to be ones of wayward living and started attending a Quaker Meeting in his early 20s.  He met the woman who became his wife at the Meeting and less than a decade after he started attending the meeting, the congregation recognized him as a Quaker minister.  To support his young family and his unpaid, itinerant ministry, he opened a carriage-and-sign painting shop.

While Hicks did get the occasional commission for an easel painting, it appears that most of his easel paintings were given away to family and friends.  This was certainly the case for his Peaceable Kingdom series.  According to Victoria Emily Jones, Hicks pursued this particular theme “to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of the 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism within the Society of Friends [as the Quakers are formally known], the first in the denomination’s history.  (Edward’s cousin Elias led the liberal faction that split from the mainstream.)  His Kingdom paintings reference the schism through a blasted tree trunk, which doubles also as a reference to the ‘stump’ of Jesse out of which Christ sprung up.”[6]

This is one of his earlier renditions, 1822-1825.

In this, we see the animals from Isaiah 11 peacefully co-existing, with a little child (presumably Jesus) holding one of them.  I find it interesting, though, that there are no snakes in this early version.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the legend around this painting.  It’s a rhyming paraphrase of Isaiah, taken from a prayer book of the same era:

The wolf shall with the lambkin dwell in peace,
His grim carniv’rous nature then shall cease;
The leopard with the harmless kid lay down,
And not one savage beast be seen to frown;
The lion and the calf shall forward move,
A little child shall lead them on in love;
When man is moved and led by sovereign grace,
To seek that state of everlasting peace.

There’s no mistaking that Hicks is referring Isaiah 11 in this painting.  It is easy to miss, however, a little scene in the background.  Under the bridge.  This detail is from a version he did almost immediately after the one we were just looking at.

This is a depiction of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn signing a treaty of perpetual friendship with the Lenape Indians in 1681, 99 years before Hicks’ birth.  This is a scene that is included in many of his Peaceable Kingdom paintings, sometimes prominently and sometimes as a minor detail.  According to Victoria Emily Jones, “This, Edward thought, is what it looks like to put into practice the values of brotherly love and peace that Christ came to teach us.  Penn did honor this treaty, but his successors did not – a fact that Edward was painfully aware of.

“In place of this vignette, Edward sometimes depicted instead a congregation of leading Quaker figures unfurling a banner that paraphrases the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Christ:  peace on earth, goodwill to men (Luke 2”14).  And often the directive ‘Mind the light within,’ a reference to the Quaker doctrine of the inward light (Christ himself), which indwells believers, giving them a direct and personal experience of God.”[7]

In the 1834 version that’s at the beginning of this manuscript, the version that now hangs in the National Gallery of Art, the background scene is of the treaty-making.  But there’s something else I notice about this version, painted almost a decade and a half since he started exploring this motif in art.  There’s a chasm between the Peaceable Kingdom and the treaty signing.

Art critic Holland Cotter notes of the Peaceable Kingdom series that over time, “Additional children and animals crowd in.  The carnivorous beasts – lions, leopards, wolves – grow in size.  Where once they had cast their eyes docilely to the ground, they now stare out, alert, aggressive, challenging, even rabidly agitated.

“Hicks meant the beasts to typify human traits in line with his view of contemporary Quaker politics:  the lion symbolized power gained through wealth, the leopard a suave, threatening worldliness.  Occasionally animals are in conflict.  But even when they aren’t, the assemblies have a jumbled, restive feeling.  The ground beneath them is eroding; a fissure in the earth separates them from Penn’s treaty behind.

“Then, around 1840, the mood shifts again.  [This is from 1844-46.]

The artist was in his 60s.  He saw that the ideological battle [within Quakerism] he had anguished over would remain unresolved.  The … animals start to look aged and weary.”[8]

Perhaps this progression in his paintings reveals the progression of how Hicks felt about the prospects for peace.  How are you feeling about the prospects of peace?  Old a weary?  As if a chasm exists between our best efforts and Kin-dom of Peace?

Or do you have hope?

“Today we live between the two advents of Christ,” writes Jones.  “The Prince of Peace has come as a little child to tame our wild hearts, but somehow peace still seems so elusive.  Edward Hicks wrestled constantly with the tension between the already and not-yet aspects of Christ’s kingdom, and we are called to do the same.”[9]

I believe that a necessary step to bring the reign of peace is to bring true justice.  I’m not alone in that thought.  Isaiah says of the shoot that ‘shall come out of the stump of Jesse,’ of this descendant of King David, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; … Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  And according to Troeger’s poem, it’s a necessary step to get to the dream Isaiah saw.

But establishing that true justice, a justice that isn’t necessarily “fair” because it has a preferential option for the poor and the powerless, is not easy.  Interestingly enough, one of the ways I think we can get to this justice is through music.

Maybe you’ve forgotten the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, or perhaps you never heard it.  During the siege of Sarajevo, during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, Vedran Smailović played his cello, out in the open.  He is perhaps best known for playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace after a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food there.[10]  His witness, his defiance, his bravery helped nudge the needle toward justice and peace.

And there’s a story about Pete Seeger that I love.  “In the 1970s, Pete Seeger was invited to sing in Barcelona, Spain.  Francisco Franco’s fascist government, … was still in power but declining.  A pro-democracy movement was gaining strength and to prove it, they invited America’s best-known freedom singer to Spain.  More than a hundred thousand people were in the stadium, where rock bands had played all day.  But the crowd had come for Seeger.  As Pete prepared to go on, government officials handed him a list of songs he was not allowed to sing.  Pete studied it mournfully, saying it looked an awful lot like his set list.  But they insisted:  he must not sing any of these songs.

“Pete took the government’s list of banned songs and strolled on stage.  He held up the paper and said, ‘I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to sing these songs.’  He grinned at the crowd and said, ‘So I’ll just play the chords; maybe you know the words.  They didn’t say anything about you singing them.’  He strummed his banjo to one song after another, and they all sang.  A hundred thousand defiant freedom singers breaking the law with Pete Seeger, filling the stadium with words their government did not want them to hear, words they all knew and had sung together, in secret circles, for years.  What could the government do?  Arrest a hundred thousand singers?  It had been beaten by a few banjo chords …”[11]

Peace, the dream Isaiah saw, is both here and not yet.  I believe we can make choices, as the offertory will remind us, that will help make real the dream of life redeemed from fang and claw, of justice purifying the law, and of our hearts filled with knowledge, wisdom, worship, and awe.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation:

What steps can you take this week to bring peace …
… into your heart?
… into your personal relationships?
… into the world?

_______________

[1] Because of the recent wildfires in California, in addition to lighting an Advent candle each week, we are pouring out an Advent cup of water, remembering light and life.

[2] The images used in this manuscript are downloaded from https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/ or the websites this page links to.

[3] You can listen to a descent recording of this song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FqhPh72kB0.

[4] You can read the poem at http://thebarefootpastor.blogspot.com/2009/12/dream-isaiah-saw.html.

[5] Holland Cotter, “Art Review; Finding Endless Conflict Hidden in a Peaceable Kingdom,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/16/arts/art-review-finding-endless-conflict-hidden-in-a-peaceable-kingdom.html (posted 16 June 2000; accessed 8 December 2018).

[6] Victoria Emily Jones, “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks,” Art and Theology, https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/ (posted 6 December 2016; accessed 8 December 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cotter, op. cit.

[9] Jones, op. cit.

[10] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedran_Smailović for more information.

[11] newmexicobear, “One more Pete Seeger Story,” DailyKos, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2014/1/31/1273976/-One-more-Pete-Seeger-Story (posted 31 January 2014; accessed 8 December 2018).

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