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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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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:18-25 and Jeremiah 33:14-16
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The headlines of the past week have been disturbing, chilling.  “One dead as torrential rain triggers flash flooding in Australia.”  “Record-breaking heat wave and ‘catastrophic’ wildfires hit Australia.”  “The photos of destruction from the Alaska earthquake are haunting.”  “Apocalyptic images show the unfathomable devastation caused by California’s deadly Camp Fire.”[1]

How do we hope in the midst of this news?

It may sound strange, but it is precisely in the midst of this kind of news that Advent calls us to hope.  You see, Advent is an apocalyptic season.  Traditionally, Advent is the season when Christians remember that we live in a time between times.  Advent isn’t just about preparing for the celebration of the first coming of Jesus – his birth.  It is also about preparing for the second coming of Jesus.  At least traditionally.  And because the visions of the second coming of Jesus have been tied up in destruction and the end of the world, Advent can have an apocalyptic edge to it.

Only, that’s not the real meaning of the word.  ‘Apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing.’  I suppose that God’s truth could be unveiled in a cataclysmic fashion, but it’s not necessary.  God’s truth can be and often is revealed in many quieter, subtler ways.  All an apocalypse takes is a pulling back of a curtain to reveal the truth.  When Toto pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the dog is performing an apocalypse.  An apocalypse may shake the foundations of lives, of cultures, of political systems, but it doesn’t need to do it with great, destructive power.

Did you notice the reference to an apocalypse in the second lesson today?  Leah Schade notes, “In his letter to the Romans, Paul recognized that Creation was ‘subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it’ (v. 20).  Scholars debate whether ‘the one’ is God or human beings.  So it’s unclear who has subjected Creation to suffering – people or God?  In any case, what is absolutely clear is that ‘creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (v. 21).”

Looking at the passage from an environmental point of view, which I think is justified since it is about ‘creation,’ she goes on:  “When will this happen?  When the Children of God are ‘revealed.’  From an environmental perspective, this passage calls for Christians to show themselves to be actively working on behalf of Creation for ‘redemption’ that comes through Christ.

“This passage is also important for instilling a sense of hope in those who are suffering the travails of this time.  While we may not yet see a world healed from the ravages of humankind, our faith inspires hope, which, in turn, compels us to work to make that hope a reality.”[2]

Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic is a man [sic] who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” and “A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”[3]  Cynicism leads to looking at the world and saying, ‘love is impossible.’  It leads to thinking that self-interest has overpowered virtue and selfishness to what really motivates people.  Sentimentality leads to looking at the world and saying, ‘love is everywhere,’ even though it’s obviously not.  It leads to ignoring the reality of evil and becomes a form of escapism.

“Cynics and sentimentalists eventually end up in pretty much the same place,” writes Tim Suttle.  “They both disengage from responsibility for the future.  The cynic says, ‘everything’s terrible why bother to work for change?’  The sentimentalist says, ‘Everything’s fine, so there’s no need to change.’  Both approaches abandon the human call to co-create and shape our common life toward the kingdom of God.”[4]

And while we may have powerless, inactive cynicism and sentimentalist in one hand, in the other hand, there’s hope.  Hope, Paul says, is something beyond seeing.  And I wonder if hope might combine the best of cynicism and sentimentality.  You see, for all their powerlessness, cynicism and sentimentalism each reveals a little bit of truth.  Hope combines the ability to tell the truth about the evil in the world (the truth of cynicism), and the belief that the world is essentially good (the truth of sentimentalism).  And in combining them, hope “transforms them into action – a new way of being in the world.  “Hope is able to say:  although things are broken, they won’t always be.”[5]

Christy NaMee Eriksen, from her Facebook page, photo by Ryan Cortes

I’ve had my eyes open for hope this week.  On Tuesday, a person named Christy NaMee Eriksen posted this story on Facebook.

“There is a little boy next to me, he must be 2 or 3.  Even when his legs are fully extended they don’t touch the seat in front of him.  Mostly he just touches me, which is okay.  His father looks to be in his 40s, salt and pepper hair, broad shoulders and unexciting blue jeans.  He’s tall.  I assume he is the kind of tall that takes care of people, like reaches for things in the overhead bin for old ladies or carries multiple children to the house at once; that gentle, spacious tall.  But who knows.

“‘Do you want to lay down?’ he keeps asking his son in English, who does not want to lay down.  ‘Baby, do you want to take a nap?’ he suggests, but the son does not want to take a nap.  I like how English sounds in his mouth; it bounces, like rain in a hard city.

“We take off.  The son and I look out the window, watching the world get smaller and smaller.

“Then the father, all 6 foot mountain of him, curls himself into a seashell and lays his upper body in his son’s lap.  Without speaking, his son puts one tiny arm on his shoulder and one tiny arm around his head and his little back is strong and his little eyes are soft, and like this he holds his father.  Now the son is making circles with his palm, very small ripples across the landscape of his father.  Now he is slowly stroking his father’s wild sideburn with one finger.  I think they must have done this before.

“The father is asleep.  If you held them up to your ear, I bet you could hear the ocean inside them.  I bet everything in their ocean has a home to belong to.  Even I belong here, simply by being here, an innocent bystander to the intimacy of strangers.”

You might think this story is sentimentality.  But NaMee goes on.

“Why are some children born into sweetness and some are born into war?  Line up their fathers and how could you tell their tenderness apart.  I cannot fathom at this beloved moment or at any other, how a grown man could ever shoot tear gas at another man’s child.  How a woman could walk their child 3000 desperate miles to our doorstep and still some mothers would not let them in.  In many ways, we have already built the wall.

“Perhaps our anxious leaders have never held space like this, where no one is alone and there is always enough room.  I want to bottle it up and share it.  I want to swim in it and be free.  I want to be immigrant and rooted, here, forty thousand feet above America.  Where there is not a person, not a place, not a planet too small to love generously.”[6]

That, for me, is hope.

There a meme that crossed by path this week that shares an aspect of Advent hope.  HOPE:  Helping Oppressed People Everywhere.

I read a story yesterday about a 9-year-old girl from Napa named Riley who got Steph Curry to change how his sneakers are sold.[7]  When she found out that his Curry 5 shoes are only listed in boys’ sizes on the Under Armor website, she wrote Curry a letter asking why.  Curry’s response thanked her for pointing out the problem, explained that the website was getting corrected, and offered her a free pair of shoes.  When Curry posted a picture of his hand-written response on Twitter, he tweeted, “Appreciate you helping us get better Riley!”

A 9-year-old standing up for equal rights, and a famous adult see that action as “helping us get better” – that kindles my hope.

Pursuing Advent hope involved entering the shadows, those places where all seems lost.  It means sitting with those whose lives are broken.  And once we have entered the shadows (both intellectually and emotionally), we can act and find our way into hope.[8]

I’m really not all that big on the second coming.  I don’t think many progressive Christians are.  If Jesus comes again to bring an end to the age, fine.  Whatever.  I trust God to make all that work.  Rather than the second coming, Advent for me focuses much more on what St. Bernard of Clairvaux referred to, back in the early 12th century, as the third coming of Jesus.

“The third [coming],” he preached, “lies between the other two.  It is invisible, while the other two are visible.  In the first coming [Jesus] was seen on earth, dwelling among men; …  In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God … The intermediate coming is a hidden one;… in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power…”[9]

While Bernard said, “Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last,”[10] still lifting up the second coming, the final revelation of the age, as the important coming, I think of this “third coming” as the important coming, because it is the road on which we travel once we decide to follow Jesus.  And so, for us at least, Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Jesus in our lives, a mystical coming, a coming that brings with it transformation and hope.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation:

  • What is the source of your hope?
  • What kindles hope in you?
  • How do you put your hope into action?

_______________

[1] Headlines taken from various news websites over the past week.

[2] Leah D. Schade, “A Dozen Bible Passages for Preaching a Creation-Care Sermon,” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/2018/04/dozen-bible-passages-preaching-creation-care-sermon/ (posted 14 April 2018; accessed 29 November 2018).

[3] Quoted by Tim Suttle, “Advent is a Time for Hope: Oscar Wilde on Cynics & Sentimentalists,” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2018/11/advent-is-a-time-for-hope-oscar-wilde-on-cynics-sentimentalists.html (posted and accessed 29 November 2018).

[4] Ibid, punctuation corrected.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Christy NaMee Eriksen, Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/christynamee/posts/10156111444254506 (posted 27 November 2018; accessed 28 November 2018).

[7] Tod Perry, “A nine-year-old girl asked Steph Cutty why his shoes aren’t available in girls’ sizes and his response was surprising,” Good, https://www.good.is/articles/steph-curry-girls-shoes (posted 30 November 2018; accessed 1 December 2018).

[8] Salt Project, “Hope is a verb,” salt*, http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/advent-week-one-lectionary-commentary (posted and accessed 27 November 2018).

[9] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “The Three Comings of the Lord,” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/advent/story.php?id=30845 (written in the 12th century; published online 2 December 2008; accessed 1 December 2018).

[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 25, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:25-33
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Many of you know I have a practice of writing a prayer of thanksgiving almost every night and posting it on my Facebook timeline.  I also post the prayer on a Tumblr (a blogging platform) that I reserve only for these prayers.  I suspect I’m an atypical Tumblr blogger in that I only follow a handful of other Tumblrs.  There’s an architecture Tumblr I follow because he posts beautiful photos and I love architecture.  I follow the National Public Radio Tumblr, though I’ve probably heard on the radio 90% of the stories they post.  And I follow a Tumblr called, “Humans of New York.”

Humans of New York” typically posts once a day – a picture of someone in New York and a paragraph-length quote from that person.  Last Monday, this was the picture posted.  And this was the quote that went with the picture:

“My wife urged me to take this little trip to New York so that I can clear my head.  It’s just for two days.  But my leash has been so short lately that it feels like an eternity.  Part of me definitely died when our daughter was born.  I was always a free spirited person.  I traveled a lot.  I never had a boss.  I had all the choices in the world.  But a lot of that disappeared in order to make things possible for my daughter.  I watch her during the day.  And I’m not mad about it.  This is the happiest time of my life.  It would be great if my daughter was here right now.  It’d be so fun to watch her run around the park.  But I’d also be worried about her safety.  And the diaper bag.  And the car seat.  And the stroller.  And our next meal.  And our next place to stay.  There’s always a flickering flame of worry that doesn’t go away.…”[1]

I suspect that his words resonate with the experiences of many of you who have children, be they grown or still at home.  “There’s always a flickering flame of worry that doesn’t go away.”

This truth spoken by this anonymous human in New York contrasts sharply with the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  “… do not worry about your life … can any of your worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?… Therefore, do not worry.”

It seems to me that telling someone, “Don’t worry!” is a little like telling someone, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!”  Or at least it’s about a ridiculous.  Worrying is a normal part of life.  It can be an outgrowth of love – love for self and love for others.  Our human of New York has that constant “flickering flame of worry” because he loves his daughter.

So, what do we make of Jesus’ words?

I would start here:  love is not the only source of worry.  Greed can also be a source of worry.  And I’m not just talking about our own personal greed being a source of worry, though it can be that, too.  We can worry about not having enough or of losing what we have.  I think Jesus is addressing this specific worry.  Don’t worry about having enough food or about having fancy clothing to wear, he tells the people listing to his “Sermon on the Mount.”  And I admit to this worry – not for today or even for this decade.  I worry about it in retirement.  Not often, but sometimes I wonder if I will have the resources to make ends meet into my 90s.

The other greed that I was thinking about is corporate greed.  It actually harnesses worry to feed itself.  Corporations advertise to get us to think we need something so we’ll buy it.  There are three basic tools advertising uses to produce that sense of need:  fear, fantasy, and lies.  Fear is especially effective.  Typically, it’s a low-grade fear – you know, worry.  “This is such an awesome movie! Don’t miss it!” the advertisement tells us.  That pitch is actually working on our fear, in particular our fear of missing out.  Similarly, advertising targeting parents will manipulate their fear that they might be bad at it, and then offers their product as a solution.

Politicians do the same thing in their advertising.  First, they create something for you to fear, then they offer themselves as the solution.  And people end up voting for someone whose policies are much scarier than the manufactured fear.

I think Jesus would say that same thing to these worries:  don’t.  Don’t stew on whatever it is you’re worrying about.  That threat the politician is selling you?  It isn’t a threat.  Do your best and trust your parenting.  You’ll be just fine if you don’t see the movie.  Save some money and trust the future.

About a year-and-a-half into the Great Recession, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote a reflection that addresses this challenge of not worrying.[2]  He identified that he called “three dimensions of the moral-theological foundations of the current economic crisis:”  autonomy, anxiety, and greed.

One of the operative myths in American culture is the myth of the rugged individual.  This myth proclaims that we are each autonomous, owing no one anything, accountable to no one, and relying on no one by ourselves.  It resists what we might called the “communitarian reality” – that we are, in fact, connected and that we need each other.  This myth also encourages us to each organize our life around our individual needs, issues, and priorities.  Interestingly, a person who perceived themself as autonomous is called “the fool” in the Psalms, in large part because the autonomous person has no need for God.  In fact, the autonomous individual chaffs against any divine claim on them, especially the claims of divine restraint.

“But the downside of such theological autonomy is that without the restraint of God, one is also without the resource of God.”  The autonomous person has to believe they are self-sufficient, but creating security and satisfaction by oneself is impossible.  The outcome of living by the myth of the rugged individual is a life without security and satisfaction, a life filled with worry and anxiety.  To cope with this anxiety, in an effort to find security and satisfaction, the autonomous person needs to constantly accumulate.  The belief is that having enough will lead to a sense of safety and satisfaction, but it is never achieved.  So the autonomous person falls in to the trap of the endless rat race, chasing the unattainable, which in turn “produces bottomless anxiety—about the market, about performance, about self-worth.  The autonomous person in the end has nowhere to put [their] anxiety except to ‘suck it up’ and keep moving.

“In Leviticus 26:36-37, Moses characterizes the anxiety of a person (or a people) cut off from God and fated to a life under curse:  ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues.  They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though no one pursues.’

“Such a person finds threat, danger, and insecurity everywhere.  The only sensible response to [the] imagined threat is greater effort that in turn only produces a new round of anxiety.”

You can see where this is going.  Each round of anxiety leads to a round of accumulation.  The autonomous person attempts to calm their anxiety with greed.  When we understand this, “It is not difficult to understand why those with the most think they do not yet have enough,” says Brueggemann.  “And those with less imitate the ravenously greedy ones, so that there is collusion between those who have much and want more and those who have little but long for much.  This collusion readily produces subprime loans in which creditors see easy interest income and debtors imagine a better life beyond present deprivation.”

We need only look at the Bible for an alternative to “this hopeless, self-devouring process.”  One of the themes that runs through both testaments is covenant.  God covenants with creation at the flood, with Abraham and Sarah and their progeny, and with the Hebrews at Mount Sinai.  The people covenant with God and reaffirm that covenant throughout the dramatic arc of the Hebrew scriptures.  And Jesus established a new covenant at the Last Supper.  Covenant “binds the self to the holy, faithful God and to neighbors who are members in a common economy.”

Likewise, we regularly see an invitation away from anxiety and “to the abundance of God.”  From the picture of God as “creator who sets creation into its destiny of fruitfulness, so that the world teems with abundance,” to the stories of God providing for the escaping slaves in the wilderness, to Jesus feeding the multitudes, we see the abundance of God.  “Whereas autonomous economics begins with a premise of scarcity, biblical faith is grounded in the generosity of God who wills and provides abundance.  And here persons who are members of a covenantal neighborhood respond to divine abundance with generous gratitude, willing to share with sisters and brothers.”  It is out of this covenantally grounded vision of divine abundance that Jesus urges his followers, “Do not worry,… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

And the Bible offers an alternative to greed:  “the neighborly practice of generosity.  The champions of acquisitiveness regard others as threats and competitors.  But in a covenantal frame of reference grounded in God’s abundance, others are seen to be brothers and sisters whose life is in a community of solidarity that shares the God-given resources for the well-being of all.”

A week ago, I thought this to be a strange gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Sunday.  I’m not thinking that way now.

If Brueggemann’s analysis is accurate, and I think it is, a question remains – or perhaps it’s three questions:

  • How do we move from the myth of autonomy into covenant community?
  • How do we move from anxiety to abundance?
  • How do we move from greed to generosity?

I suspect there are several ways that can help us make these moves.  One that I have identified is this:  thanksgiving.

When we practice gratitude, when we conscientiously offer our thanks, we recognized that we are bound to each other.  I’ve noticed in myself and with others that this does not happen immediately – at least not typically.  We can be so immersed in the myth of autonomy that our beginning practices of giving thanks can actually reinforce it.  “Thank you that I was about to pull myself up by my own bootstraps today, God.”  But over time, the prayers will change.  “Thank you, God, that I was welcomed to that table by those people to share that wonderful food that so many prepared.”  Thanksgiving draws me into community.

Similarly, a practice of thanksgiving can move us from worry to recognizing the good gifts that God provides.[3]  Worry focuses on obstacles and threats.  Gratitude focuses on blessings.  The more we focus on obstacles and worries, the more aggrieved and threatened we are likely to feel.  The more we focus on blessings, the more we will see the abundance of blessings that have always been present.

Gratitude also greases the movement from greed to generosity.  Because gratitude focuses on gifts received, it relieves anxieties, and as anxieties are relieved, the greed response diminishes.  The more one recognizes that God’s economy is one of gifts, the more one is likely to join that economy and become part of the giving.

So, when Jesus told the people on the mount, “Don’t worry,” he just might have been inviting them into a practice of thanksgiving.  Which makes this a very appropriate reading for Thanksgiving Sunday.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

How has a practice of giving thanks moved you …

  • from autonomy to community?
  • from anxiety to abundance?
  • from greed to generosity?

How will you bring more thanksgiving into your life?

_______________

[1] A guy on a park bench, Humans of New York, http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/180286164521/my-wife-urged-me-to-take-this-little-trip-to-new (posted and accessed 19 November 2018).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/anxiety-and-greed-milk-and-honey (written February 2009; accessed 20 November 2018).  The quotes that follow are from this article; I’m not bothering to footnote each one.

[3] This has been called the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry.” You can learn more about it at http://freakonomics.com/podcast/why-is-my-life-so-hard/, among other places.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Ruth 1:1-18
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We do the book of Ruth a disservice when we grab only a few verses to read in worship.  While I think that the verses we heard today include some of the most beautiful in scripture, the short story is really meant to be read as a whole.  If you haven’t read the four chapters in one sitting during the past few years, do yourself a favor and read them this week.

And, while I encourage you to read the original with week, everyone needs to be familiar with the basic plot points today for this sermon. So, here is the cliff notes version of the whole story.

An important contextual note:  Like all scripture, the story of Ruth is set within a framework of cultural assumptions and norms we need to be aware of.  One of them was that “women had no identity or security separate from males – either the ones they married or the ones they gave birth to.  Women were defined more often than not by their roles as sexual partners and bearers of heirs.”[1]

The story begins with a famine in the land of Judah.  Because of that famine, Elimelech takes his small family – his wife and his two sons – to Moab.  The story doesn’t say if they were part of a caravan of hungry refugees or if they made their way to this foreign country on their own.  We are simply told that they made their way to Moab to escape the famine.

It appears that Moab was welcoming enough for Elimelech’s family to establish themselves.  Even after Elimelech died, his sons each married local women.

Then tragedy struck again.  Elimelech’s sons died.  This left a household of three women without a male in their family.  Vulnerable in this situation, Naomi (Elimelech’s wife) decided to return to Judah.  She told her daughters-in-law to return to their birth families in Moab, and Orpah did. But Ruth refuses to go, uttering these beautiful words of love and commitment.  “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following after you; for where you go I will go, and where you live I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

“When Naomi saw that Ruth could not be swayed, the two of them traveled together to Bethlehem.  They went to the fields of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi.  There Ruth gleaned among the ears of grain in order to feed Naomi and herself.”[2]

It is worth noting that Boaz could not order his regular workers to harvest everything.  Jewish law required landowners not to harvest what grew in the corners of the field and not to return to harvest what they missed on the first go-round.  That food was left for the poor, for people to come and glean in order to feed themselves. Social compassion was more important than efficiency.  Although Boaz was generous-hearted, it was Ruth’s right to glean.[3]

“When Boaz came to the fields and saw Ruth among the stalks of grain, he inquired of his servant in charge of the reapers, ‘Whose maiden is this?’  When the servant explained that Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, Boaz said to her, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my maidens.…  Have I not charged the young men not to molest you?  And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn’ (Ruth 2:8-9).

“Ruth was deeply touched by this kindness, and equally so by Boaz’ invitation to share a meal with him and the others of his house.  For his part, Boaz had been moved by Ruth’s care for her aging mother-in-law.  Ruth gathered up some extra food after the meal, then gleaned in the fields until evening, and returned to Naomi to share all that she had acquired.  Naomi was relieved for the protection that Ruth had been granted by Boaz and encouraged her to stay close to Boaz’ maidens, which she did until the end of the barley and wheat harvest.

“Naomi then began to be concerned about Ruth’s future, saying to her, ‘My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?  Now is not Boaz our kinsman?  See, he is winnowing barley tonight.  Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor …’ (Ruth 3:1-3).

“Ruth did as Naomi had counseled her.  After Boaz had eaten and drunk and fallen asleep at the end of a heap of grain, Ruth went and lay near him.  At midnight Boaz was startled to roll over and find a woman at his feet [if you know what I mean].  When he groggily asked who she was, Ruth explained that she was there to ask him as next of kin to her deceased husband to perform his duty of marriage to her.  Boaz explained that there was a nearer relative who should be offered the first opportunity to marry her, but that if he refused, Boaz would be glad to oblige. So the next morning Boaz went to the city gate, where such business was customarily transacted, and talked with the next of kin in the presence of the [community’s] elders.”[4]  A deal was struck and “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.”  (Ruth 4:13)

The story ends with this little tidbit of information.  Boaz and Ruth had a son named Obed, and Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David.  Which makes Ruth, a foreigner, the great-grandmother of the greatest king of Israel.

“Ruth’s choice to give up her country and her gods for Naomi is countercultural in more ways than one.  The story hinges on Ruth’s and Naomi’s commitment to each other, the ways they work within a male-dominated system to care for and support each other. “Ironically, Ruth’s beautiful, lyrical words, ‘where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16), are often read during weddings.  But this is Ruth’s cross-generational, cross-tribal, and cross-religion pledge to her mother-in-law, not to a husband.

“The story of Ruth and Naomi is one that is repeated again through history.  Ones who are displaced, more often than not women, without home or certain means, find each other and stay with each other.  Instead of mutual vulnerability making them weaker, their relationship brings forth grace and strength.  God moves in subversion of what culture names as security and power.”[5]

I cannot read this story without thinking of the so-called caravan of people from Central America coming north to the USA as they flee violence and hunger in their home countries.  Rabbi Arthur Washow raises some chilling questions about this story as he projects it onto contemporary America.

“[I]f Ruth came to America today, what would happen?

“Would she be admitted at the border?

“Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion – detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolater?

“Would she be deported as merely an ‘economic refugee,’ not a worthy candidate for asylum?

“Would she have to show a ‘green card’ before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?

“Would she be sent to ‘workfare’ with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?

“Would she face contempt because she and Naomi, traveling without a man, might be a lesbian couple?…

“When she boldly ‘uncovers the feet’ of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the ‘family values’ that some religious folk now proclaim?…”[6]

While President Trump attempts to circumvent current immigration law in his effort to keep the asylum seekers traveling through Mexico from gaining legal access to the United States, the book of Ruth compels us to look not just at U.S. interests, but at the interests, the needs, the plight of these Central American refugees.

Though they have been described regularly as either fleeing gang violence or extreme poverty, there is another crucial driving factor behind the migrant caravan:  climate change.  “Most members of the migrant caravans come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – three countries devastated by violence, organised crime and systemic corruption, the roots of which can be traced back to the region’s cold war conflicts [(for which our own CIA bears significant responsibility)].

“Experts say that alongside those factors, climate change in the region is exacerbating – and sometimes causing – a miasma of other problems including crop failures and poverty.

“And they warn that in the coming decades, it is likely to push millions more people north towards the US.…

“According to Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, ‘The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat.  This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.’”[7]

With a third of all employment in Central American linked to agriculture, any disruption to farming practices, like those caused by climate change, can have devastating economic consequences.  Economic disruption can lead to increased violence and other forms of criminality.  And the spiral continues.[8]

“A study of Central American migrants by the World Food Program last year found that nearly half described themselves as food insecure.  The research found an increasing trend of young people moving as a result of … poverty and lack of work.”[9]

The book of Ruth is so jam-packed with relevance, it may be one of the most relevant books of the Bible today.  This is a story about border crossing and culture mixing.  It is a story of the importance of having truly committed friends in the struggle for justice.  It is a story agency in the struggle against the patriarchy, of women working together to be the directors of their own lives.  It is a story about the importance of creating community.

And here are three other things this story is about.  It is a story about confronting racism.  “Some scholars believe that Ruth was written to combat the xenophobia and ethnic purity articulated and legalized in Ezra and Nehemiah.  In hopes of a new beginning after the Exile, the religious-political leaders ban intermarriage and force Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives. Ezra and Nehemiah believe God’s demands purity and purity begins in the home with the exorcism of otherness.  But, Ruth is a foreigner.  She marries an upstanding child of Abraham and is a direct ancestor – the great grandmother – of the Great King David.  Israel’s greatest king is of mixed-race heritage.”[10]

This makes the story one about God’s “gentle, inobtrusive, non-coercive, and persistent”[11]radically inclusive love.

And finally, the story is an invitation.  It is an invitation for each of us, regardless of our life-situation, “to claim our agency as creators of a new and just world along with God.  Our positive use of our freedom gives birth to God’s presence in our world.  We are invited to welcome outsiders and foreigners and, if we are outsiders and foreigners, to know that God loves and guides us.  We are challenged to become agents and adventures, leaving a legacy of grace and transformation wherever we are.”[12]

Amen.

_______________

[1]Julie Polter, “Together and Strong,” Sojourners,https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/together-and-strong(accessed 6 November 2018).

[2]Joyce Hollyday, “‘You Shall Not Afflict …’,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/you-shall-not-afflict(accessed 6 November 2018).

[3]Rabbi Arthur Washow, “What if the Bible’s Ruth came to America Today?” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/what-if-bibles-ruth-came-america-today(accessed 6 November 2018).

[4]Hollyday, op. cit.

[5]Polter,op. cit.

[6]Washow, op. cit.

[7]Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren, “The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: climate change,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america (posted 30 October 2018; accessed 9 November 2018).

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Bruce Epperly, “Ruth, Immigration, and the Seven Steps of Creative Transformation,” Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2018/10/ruth-immigration-and-the-seven-steps-of-creative-transformation/(posted 23 October 2018; accessed 9 November 2018).

[11]Ibid

[12]Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 28, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Micah 6:1-8 and Luke 11:37-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One evening, years ago, when I lived on the edge of King County, Washington, I drove into Seattle to meet up with some friends to see a movie.  I stopped in a pizza shop to grab something to eat before the movie.  The pizza shop had a red, tiled floor, which (given Seattle’s propensity to drizzle) was damp.  As I stood in line, my foot slid out from underneath me and I quickly got up close and personal with that red tile.  I lay there, immediately feeling like a klutz.  Almost as quickly, someone spoke up.

Now, there are three things I would have expected to hear from a bystander.  I would have expected a bystander to point at me and laugh; or I would have expected a bystander to ask if I was okay; or I would have expected a bystander to offer a hand to help me up.  None of those what the immediate response.  What I heard, almost as quickly as I fell, were two words:  “Sue ’em.”

When I dropped a 45-pound weight on my big toe at the gym something like nine years ago, the staff was relatively compassionate when I hobbled over to the staff area.  They were very quick to get me some requested ice.  And the club manager tried to act nonchalant as he sat with me and inquired as to what happened.  But I could tell that underneath his questions, he was preparing a defense for a possible lawsuit – one that I had no intention of filing.

It seems to me that American culture is sue-happy.  It is a pity, perhaps even a shame (as in, “we should be ashamed”), that we so quickly move our disputes to the courthouse, rather than working them out with each other.  One might think that, given our cultural propensity to move to the courthouse, we would immediately notice that Micah 6:1-8 is a lawsuit.  Perhaps it’s the power of verse 8 that draws our attention away from the details of verses 1-7, but I don’t want to gloss over them.

The scene opens with God as bailiff, calling the parties in the lawsuit to the court and to plead their case.

“Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.”

Then God switches roles and makes a case in the most peculiar way.  One might expect God to lay out the charges, to explain that the “controversy with his people” is.  There is a broken relationship between God and Israel and the community within Israel itself is broken.  But God doesn’t blast Israel.  God doesn’t say, “You, O Israel, have broken covenant with me!  You, O Israel, are not caring for your people!”  Instead, God asks, “Where did I go wrong?”

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.…”

That is not a prosecution strategy you’re going to see on “Law & Order.”

I wonder how it would work in the case Juliana v. U.S.  If you’re not familiar with this case, let me tell you about it.  In 2015, 21 youth sued the federal government (including then-President Barack Obama) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.  Their complaint claims that, through the government’s “actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”[1]  In other words, this group of youth are suing the government for allow and even encouraging climate change to happen.

The case has been dragging through the courts.  The government has tried repeatedly to get the case dismissed.  Lower courts have repeatedly denied this motion.  That denial has been appealed.  A trial date was set for tomorrow, October 29, but it has been delayed by yet another motion to the Supreme Court.  It is not clear when, or even if, the Supreme Court will allow the case to go forward.  Nonetheless, demonstrations have been planned for today and tomorrow across the country, including one tomorrow, 3:00-6:00, outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.[2]  (Yes, I’m inviting you to attend.)

Assuming the Supreme Court allows this case to go to trial, can you imagine the youth standing up in the court and turning to the government’s lawyers and saying, “Where did we go wrong?  What did we do that you would destroy our future?  How have we offended you that you would allow the environment to be destroyed?”  I don’t know how effective a legal strategy that would be, but it is what these youth are saying on behalf of all youth and all future generations.  What have we done that you should destroy our future?

It may be an ineffective legal strategy for the American federal courts, yet it is essentially God’s legal strategy in the case of Micah 6:1-8.  “I have repeatedly saved you, first by bringing you out of slavery in Egypt.  And yet I’ve offended you?  Yet somehow you’re wearied of me?  Let me what I’ve done to you.”

Israel, through the mouth of Micah, seems to have convicted themselves in response to God’s pleading.  They seem to say, “We’re guilty,” with their response, which comes as a series of questions:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

Notice how the response keeps getting bigger, more demanding, more costly.  Yes, God is God, and we should come before God, we should bow before God in recognition of that fact.  We should offer our contrition for having turned our backs on God and each other.  But what do we bring?  What would satisfy God for our sinfulness?  Should we offer sacrifices?  Should we come with thousands of ram and rivers of oil?  What is an appropriate sacrifice?

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

And then Micah responds:

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Yesterday morning, a white man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people.  These are their names.  Micah’s prophetic word from thousands of years ago resonates today.

Rev. William Barber, II, said, speaking of this horrific act, “I’m reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: ‘we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.’”[3]  The system, the way of life, the philosophy at work that produces murderers like this one, need to be named and challenged.  These are transgressions that we as a society have committed and ten thousand rivers of oil will not make up for this.

Micah is right.  There is only one way to address this, and that is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

All this month, we’ve been inviting each other to think about our financial giving to the church during the next year.  The primary question has been, “What shall we bring?”  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our “yes” to God.  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our stories to the community.  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our gifts – our skills, our time, and our money – to support the church’s ministry.

Today we bring our financial pledges.  From a practical point of view, we do this to help the leadership of the church build a budget for next year.  From a spiritual point of view, we do this to encourage ourselves to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  As this scripture points out, God doesn’t want our calves and our rams and our rivers of oil.

God wants our whole lives.

You see, “a life of relationship with God inevitably results in constant and intentional (not [simply] random) acts of justice and love of mercy.  Acting justly means actively working to rectify that which favors some and crushes others.  Loving mercy includes giving one’s self as offering over and over.  Loving mercy means offering generosity and forgiveness, out of a love that transcends our prejudice, because God has, does, and will continue to do the same for us.  A humble walk with God implies that we recognize justice and mercy aren’t dependent on our standards or abilities.  Humility keeps our egos in check so that we don’t think of ourselves as ‘magnanimous vigilantes’ but rather as humble followers responding to the call from” God.[4]

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation

In addition to your financial pledge today, how could it look like to pledge

  • to be more deeply involved in bringing justice to our land?
  • to more consistently doing acts of loving kindness and mercy?
  • to walk more humbly with God?

_______________

[1] Our Children’s Trust, https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit (accessed 27 October 2018).

[2] Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/events/1689974634457709/

[3] The Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, quoted on the California Poor People’s Campaign Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/californiappc/posts/358047208266413 (posted and accessed 28 October 2018).

[4] Daphne Gascot Aries, “What Shall We Bring? Micah 1:35, 5:2-51, 6:6-8,” an essay written as part of the stewardship materials we have been using this season.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 17:16-31and Matthew 28:1-10
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Paul was on the run.  Well, maybe not on the run, but he was at least on the walk.  Paul was basically “hiding out” in Athens.  In the prior chapters, he has attempted to share the Gospel in Thessalonica and Berea and – well, things did not go well.   Basically, Paul was on the lam.  He was hiding out.

And he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

We come into the story in the midst of one of his evangelical journeys, traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting new churches and encouraging the converts to this new way, this new religion of Jesus-followers.  Silas and Timothy have stayed behind at their last stop and Paul has gone on ahead to Athens. Paul had some time waiting for the others to catch up, and, in his wanderings around Athens, he got upset.  He noticed that the city was full of idols, and as a good Jew, this was upsetting.  Upsetting enough that Paul had to say something.

So every day, he would go somewhere where there were people – the synagogue, the marketplace – and he would talk about God and Jesus and the resurrection.  He got into arguments with Epicureans, who believed that the gods did not intervene in daily life.[1]  He got into arguments with Stoics, who suppressed passions and focused on behavior over beliefs.[2]  Based on who he argued with, it appears that Paul thought that what you believed mattered, that you should believe in one God (Yahweh) who is active in daily life, and that there are reasons to be passionate.

The Areopagus

Some of the people who he got into discussion with took Paul out to the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill by the Romans, for further discussion.  In classical times, the Areopagus was the seat of the Athenian court of appeals, a place of justice and judgment.[3]  By this time, the author of Acts seems to say that it had become a place of much more common conversation:  “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the description.[4]  The more vernacular paraphrase, The Message, translates the description, “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.”[5]

Paul used this as another opportunity to share his story.  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[6]

In his travels around Athens, Paul not only found the upsetting altars and idols, he also found an altar to “an unknown god.” I guess the Athenians were covering all the bases.  Paul found the opening he needed to share his story.  He used this “unknown god” as a vehicle to tell his story about Yahweh and Jesus (though, interestingly, Paul doesn’t specifically name Jesus).

Paul tells them that the uncontainable God is the creator of the universe and gives us life.  “From one ancestor,” Paul says, “[Yahweh] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for … and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”[7]

Paul makes an interesting assumption here – one that I agree with:  Human beings long for a connection with the intimately transcendent, with holy-ness, with the ultimate within which we live and move and have out being.  Human beings long for God.  And since God made us, we can’t make God.  This God we long for can’t be limited to altars and shrines and idols.

Paul’s “doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent.  Only late in the paragraph of Paul’s speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to ‘a man whom [God] has appointed’ (Acts 17: 31).  The speech culminates with reference to Jesus about whom Paul makes this affirmation:  First, Jesus is raised from the dead.  Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.”[8]  The One who made us calls us to repent from our ignorance and from our unrighteousness.

When I saw that this as one of the scripture readings recommended for this year’s pledge campaign, I thought, “We’ve got to use it.”  I love how Paul can’t keep his mouth shut.  He has a story to tell.  He wants to tell it.  And he is wise enough to find his opening.

I imagine Paul wandering the streets of Athens, Noticing the altar to an unknown God, and thinking, “I can use that.  I was looking for an opening and there it is. That’s my door to sharing my story.”

As I studied this scripture more carefully I noticed that Paul had more than his story and this opening.  Looking carefully at the story, I see he had five things.

First, he had his story to share.  Paul was an upholder of the purity of Judaism when he had an experience, an encounter with the resurrected Christ.  His life was transformed.  He had a whole new purpose – letting people know about what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what he knew in his life and it’s what he had to share.

Second, he had a reason for sharing it.  He probably had reasons (plural) for sharing it. Here in Athens, we read that his reason was how upset he was by seeing all the altars to false gods and idols.  The people of the city didn’t even know who the real God was, let alone anything about Jesus.

Third, he had people to share it with.  People gathered in the synagogue and in the market place. They liked to talk, to gossip.  They liked to argue philosophy.

Fourth, he had an opening – the altar to an unknown god.

And fifth, he had the persistence to keep sharing it until someone started to listen.  He went to the synagogue.  He went to the market place.  He went to that Areopagus.  And eventually, some people listened and were convinced and joined this movement of Jesus-followers.

Now, I don’t want you to lose track of all five of these things.  I assume you have all five of them as well.  But having a reason for sharing your story, having people to share it with, having an opening to share it, and having the persistence to keep sharing it really don’t matter if you don’t know what your story is.

What is your story?

My story is not early as dramatic as Paul’s (though it’s worth pointing out that in this situation, here on Mars Hill, Paul doesn’t share the dramatic parts of his story).  I don’t have a blasted off my donkey and blinded conversion experience. My story is one of always being connected with God, though my understanding of what I mean when I say “God” is continually evolving.

Maybe I haven’t been knocked off my ass by God, but I’ve been wowed by God.  I’ve had experiences of the intimately transcendent that have taken me out of myself and into a greater wholeness.  And I’ve discovered that my life has meaning and grounding and direction because of my relationship with God – the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  I have come to realize that if I didn’t have that relationship I might still have found meaning and grounding and direction – it just would have been in one of the idols of our culture, an idol like accumulation, or greed, or even violence. Instead, I’ve found meaning, grounding, and direction in Yahweh.

But that’s not much of a story, is it?  On Mars Hill, this philosophical description might be effective.  In most of the rest of life, it’s the stories of the incidents moving me from one point to another on this journey that would be compelling.

For someone, my story of coming to terms with my sexuality and coming to terms with the reality of God fully embracing me, sexuality and all, might be the story they need to hear.

For another person, my story of how I came to be so convinced that climate change is the moral issue of our day may be the story I need to share, and for someone else, that story might turn them off.

For someone else, it might be my story of struggling to love people who seem to me to be so hateful that they need to hear.

And for someone else, my story of God’s love and power experienced in my journey through grief after my mother died might connect in a way mothering else I might say could.

Regardless, I need to bring my stories.

Someone might need to know that I believe that what you believe is much less important than how you love, though I suspect I would communicate more if I told my story about struggling when I friend I deeply respected as a progressive Christian told me her story about speaking in tongues.

And someone else might need to know that there are Christians who don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, though I suspect I would communicate more if I brought my story about my mom blowing my 10-year-old mind when she told me she didn’t believe in a literal hell.

And maybe I need to bring my story about how I’ve learned that without a community that is also basing its life on a relationship with the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my faith journey would founder.  Maybe I need to bring my story of needing and discovering a community that welcomes me on my faith journey exactly where I am and encourages me to continue the journey.

Maybe I need to bring my story of how nothing but God has managed to fill the God-shaped hole in my life.  Not diversions and lies.  Not accolades and power.  Not accumulation and possessions.  Nothing really fits, nothing really fills it the way God does.

During this pledge campaign, we’re asking the question, “What shall we bring?”  Last week I suggested that we need to bring our “yes” to God.  This week, it’s all about our stories.

Imagine if the Marys did what the angel and Jesus told them to do.  Imagine they went back to the disciples and said, “Jesus has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  You will see him there.  Go to Galilee.”  Nothing more. Just what the angel and Jesus told them to say.

The disciples would have said something like, “Are you nuts?”

Instead, the Marys told their story.  The told the disciple something like, “First thing this morning, as the sun was coming up, we went to the tomb where we buried him. And while we were there, an angel appeared, and the earth shook, and the Roman guards collapsed with fright.  And the angel told us that Jesus is raised.

And sure enough, the tomb was empty.  Then the angel told us to tell you that he is raised and was going ahead of us to Galilee.

“We were so overcome with joy, we started running back here – and on the way, Jesus appeared to us.  That’s right, our Jesus who the Roman’s executed and who we buried in a tomb, appeared to us and told us to tell you to go to Galilee and that you would see him there.  Let’s go!”

Their story – not just their message, but their story – was so compelling, you and I are followers of Jesus.

My friends, bring your story!

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

  1. What is you story?  (Do not go on to question 2 until you have answered question 1.)
  2. What is/are your reason/s for sharing it?
  3. With whom could you share it?
  4. What opening might there be to share it?
  5. Do you have the persistence to keep sharing it?

[1]“Epicureanism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism(24 May 2014).

[2]“Stoicism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism(24 May 2014).

[3]“Areopagus,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus(24 May 2014).

[4]Acts 17:21, NRSV.

[5]Acts 17:21, The Message.

[6]Acts 17:22b-23, NRSV.

[7]Acts 17:26-27, NRSV.

[8]Walter Brueggemann, “A Daring Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/daring-love(24 May 2014).

I mentioned in my sermon on 7 October that I would write a blog post about why I think Brett Kavanaugh is not qualified to serve as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the USA.  Here is that post.

I think the Senate was wrong to confirm Judge Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court Justice.  He was not and is not qualified for the position.

If Kavanaugh is guilty of the assault that Dr. Blasey Ford accused him of, the violence of the assault rises to the level disqualifying him even though he was a teen at the time the assault happened.

If, on the other hand, Blasey Ford is mistaken as to who perpetrated the assault, there are plenty of other reasons that Kavanaugh is unqualified.

One of the hallmarks of the American judicial system is that the courts are (supposed to be) independent.  In confirming Kavanaugh, the Senate has undermined this idea.  He is beholden to the Federalist Society for his nomination and the Republican Party for his confirmation.  He is beholden to the President who nominated him, which would be true of any nominee.  But he refused to recuse himself from any cases that may come before the court involving presidential power as it applies to the President who nominated him.  This refusal makes him unqualified.  His partisan statements during his testimony at the September 27 hearing show he is not independent.

The temperament during that testimony also shows that he does not possess a “judicial temperament” and that makes him unqualified for a seat on the Supreme Court.

My friend Jim Peck has pointed out other ways he is not an independent jurist:

“He is beholden to the white male prep boy, frat boy, top drawer college network that protects and promotes its own even when they haven’t earned that protection.

“He has not advanced primarily on his own merit but on his connections.  He has had every advantage in life, has never suffered as far as I can tell, has never sacrificed, has caused trouble but never been in any trouble.

“He has gone from one protected enclave to another without being held accountable for any of his actions.  And now he is being promoted by his connections to be part of what is possibly the most protected enclave in America, the Supreme Court.”

And then there’s the issue of his obfuscation at best and outright lying at worst that he perpetrated during the hearings.  In my opinion, he should be investigated for perjury by the House Judiciary Committee and, if they think a case of perjury can be proved, he should be impeached.

I cannot imagine bringing a case before him about partisan gerrymandering, voter identification, or some other partisan-laden case and expect to get a fair hearing.

Kavanaugh’s record indicates, in the words of Senator Angus King, “an overly rigid judicial philosophy that would threaten protections for healthcare, personal liberty and a women’s right to choose, the environment, and campaign finance laws.”  For these reasons, I opposed his nomination and am saddened to see him confirmed a Justice of the Supreme Court.  But that philosophy does not make him disqualified.

No, he is disqualified because he is not an independent jurist and he does not have a judicial temperament.  The Senate made a big mistake confirming his nomination.

_______________

You might want to read about a statement issued by leaders in the United Church of Christ, or about a statement issued by the National Council of Churches.

How I reached these positions:

Here’s where I’m starting from.  We elect our legislators to legislate.  I expect them to do it.  When a measure comes from the legislature for an issue that requires the citizens vote on it, I start with a biased “yes” position; the people we hired to legislate are recommending that we do this thing.  When a measure comes from the legislature simply because they are too chicken to legislate, I start with a biased “no” position; the legislature should do the job they were hired to do and not make us do it for them.  Only props 1, 2, and 7 come from the legislature. Props 1 & 2 require voter approval (involve issuing bonds).  More on 7 below.

It’s tougher when a measure come from a citizens’ initiative.  It looks like direct democracy.  The only problem is that it isn’t.  First, there is no opportunity to amend the measure.  All we get to do is vote it up or down.  True democracy involves an intermediate step of “perfecting” the measure or motion through the amendment process.  We don’t get to do this.  Second, with the massive amounts of money it takes to get something on the ballot and then to campaign for it, you know special interests are involved.  Money is one of the corrupting influences in American politics.  So I start from a biased “no” position on citizen initiatives.

Here are just a few sentences on why I’ve come to my position on each Proposition on the ballot.

Prop 1:  Yes.  There are far too many people unhoused in California and the numbers of unhoused people are rising.  Money is needed to build more housing.  This measure comes from the legislature.  It gets my support.

Prop 2:  Yes. This comes from the legislature and cleans up Proposition 63, passed in 2004, so Prop 63 can actually fulfill its promise.

Prop 3:  No.  This is the latest costly water bond measure, measures that have failed to address the state’s water shortage.  Prop 3 fails to fund any new dam construction, which I think is necessary to address future droughts.  If these bonds for these purposes are necessary, then the legislature should write a similar bond measure for us to vote on.

Prop 4:  A soft No. This proposition comes to us from the California Children’s Hospital Association. The money these bonds will raise are for children’s hospitals.  If this public money is truly needed, the legislature should write a similar bond measure for us to vote on.

Prop 5:  No.  As the California Council of Churches points out, this is so poorly written it will almost certainly end up in court being litigated rather than actually going into law.  This seems to me to be a lawyer employment plan.

Prop 6:  No.  We should be taxing gasoline and diesel at higher amounts (to encourage people to stop using it), not removing the small taxes we already have.

Prop 7:  Yes.  I grumble every time I have to change the clocks because of Daylight Savings Time beginning or ending.  We should be on Daylight Savings Time year-round.  It’s a pity that this proposition only give the legislature the power to make the change and doesn’t just do it.

Prop 8:  Yes. It’s a pity that this initiative was necessary to curb this form of run-away healthcare costs, but the legislature didn’t act.  This so clearly serves people, especially people in need, it gets my support.

Prop 9:  Was removed by the California Supreme Court

Prop 10:  Yes. Cities need to have the power to create rent control laws.

Prop 11:  No. Look at who’s funding this – American Medical Response. They want to get out of some labor-related law suits and not have to pay EMTs and EMT-Paramedics when they are on call and not responding to a need.

Prop 12:  Undecided; leaning yes.  Proponents argue that Proposition 2 (2008) was too vaguely written to protect animals. While it stated that animals must have room to lie down and move, it did not list specific area requirements.  Proponents claim this vagueness has allowed producers to continue to cram animals into cruel spaces.  They say this measure will clean up the law by laying out precisely how much space animals must be provided.  Opponents claim this is another poorly written law that will not actually protect animals, particularly chickens.  They say that while Proposition 2 (2008) did not specify measurements, it mandated enough space to move, lie down, and spread wings, etc., while now Proposition 12 allows much smaller spaces.  In particular, they argue that the one-square-foot of space requirement for chickens is still too small.

This grid was created by Octavia Tuohey and posted on Facebook.  I have not fact-checked it, but she got the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club correct.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 12:1-9 and Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This past week, I’ve been thinking about the importance of ‘no,’ even though the theme for this sermon is on the importance and power of ‘yes.’  I find the Senate’s ‘yes’ to Judge Kavanaugh troublesome.  I wanted their ‘no,’ though I didn’t expect it.

I could list my reasons why I find his confirmation troublesome, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of our personal assessments.  I’ll leave that for a blog post I may get to before the week is out.  Today, or at least during this sermon, I invite you to use the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as an object lesson for my larger point:  that choosing ‘no’ and choosing ‘yes’ has impact and repercussions, not just for the people saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but for others as well.

Three-and-a-half years ago, an organizational consultant named Tony Schwartz wrote an article for The New York Times about “the power of starting with ‘yes’” for business leaders and managers.  He begins with a little anecdote.  “As I write this column, my two dogs have been lying quietly near my desk.  I just conducted a little experiment with them.  First, I said a single word – ‘Yes’ – with unbridled enthusiasm.  The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me.  Next I said ‘No,’ firmly.  Both dogs looked down and slunk away.  I felt as bad as they did.”[1]

I suspect the dogs were responding as much to his tone of voice as the actual words.  Still, you know how empowering it feels to be told, ‘Yes.’  I’m sure Barack Obama chose “Yes, we can!” as a 2008 campaign slogan for many reasons.  One of them had to be that the slogan felt affirming and empowering as it drew people into community and common purpose.

Schwartz points out, “‘No’ is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger.  It’s something you say instinctively and protectively to a 3-year-old when he’s about to pull a lamp off a table and onto himself or to a 15-year-old who announces she’s planning to take up cliff jumping.

“In situations like those, the instinct to say ‘no’ serves us well.”[2]  It even has an evolutionary benefit.  Quoting a psychologist, Schwartz adds, “‘Organisms … attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats.  Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.’”[3]

“There is a difference,” Schwartz points out, “between surviving and thriving.  Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving.  The problem with ‘no’ as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness, and shuts down innovation, collaboration, and connection.”[4]

For an example, Schwartz points to research by the psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues, that has found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a married couple falls below 5 to 1 – if it falls below five positive interactions for every one negative interaction – divorce is far more likely.[5]  Negative interactions are so powerful in a relationship that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh the impact of one negative interaction.

Starting with ‘yes,’ stepping into a situation with an attitude of ‘yes,’ is important, not simply because such an attitude is energizing and builds safety and trust, but because starting with ‘no’ is so destructive.

Imagine how different the world would be if, instead of saying, “Let it be with me just as you say,”[6] Mary had said, “Nope.  No way!”  Mary’s ‘yes’ to God changed the world.  As did Abram’s.  Though Abram’s ‘yes’ needs a little more unpacking, I think.

Abram’s story seems to start with our reading in chapter 12.  It seems to start almost out of the blue.  “Now Yahweh said to Abram …”  Of course, none of our stories start out of the blue.  We all come from somewhere.

Abram’s story starts in chapter 11, and his ancestors’ stories start even earlier.  It’s not much more than a genealogical mention in chapter 12, and I know I’m typically tempted to skip over the biblical genealogies.  But in those last verses of the genealogy in chapter 11, we learn that Abram is the son of Terah, brother of Nahor and Haran, husband of Sarai, and uncle of Lot.  And we learn that even though their family was from Ur, Terah took his family and left Ur, for reasons that are not enumerated, and headed off for the land of Canaan.

This is significant because, when God shows up in chapter 12, in today’s reading, Abram is already headed in the direction of Canaan.  True, their journey seems to have stalled at Haran (that is, the community of Haran, not to be confused with Abram’s brother Haran).  Perhaps the invitation from God acts as a kick in the pants to get them moving again.

In any event, this call from God isn’t as dramatic a “change the course of your life” call as I’ve generally thought it to be.  It is more of an invitation to continue or to get back to what had already begun.  Still, I think there is something new happening here.  I think the key to that new thing is found in the blessing God gives Abram:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[7]

If you were at Tim Weible’s installation last week, you heard me preach about how tribalism in human evolution led to violence.  (It still does, as far as I can tell.)  Still, tribalism served a purpose.  In hunter/gatherer cultures, the tribe provided protection, belonging, and identity.  That is why tribes are inward-focused.

Here, in the blessing God gives Abram, God invites Abram to look outward.  Abram’s tribe, the “great nation” he will father, rather than turning inward for defense, is called to turn outward for blessing, to be a blessing.

“The purpose of the blessing is to be a blessing to others.  From the very beginning, the invitation to be part of God’s people is a call to look outward to the needs of others.  The generous sharing of our gifts, financial and otherwise, is then a natural and necessary action for those of us who call ourselves the people of God.  Our blessings never stop with us.  They always flow onward to someone else.”[8]  Our blessings never stops with us.

Lee Hull Moses, who wrote a commentary on this passage I used in creating today’s sermon, shared a story that explains what I mean.  “Years ago, when my parents bought me my first used car – primarily so they could stop driving back and forth to pick me up from college – my dad included a note along with the instructions to keep the oil changed and gas tank filled:  Use this to help people.  I don’t know that I followed that advice as often as he would have liked, but it’s been a good reminder to me that the things we own are best understood as tools by which we serve our neighbors.”[9]

The things we own are best understood as tools of blessing.

That would be our ideal relationship with our stuff.  I know I’m some distance from that ideal relationship.  But I’m working on it.

I think it’s worth noting that when Abram brought his ‘yes’ to God’s invitation to continue to Canaan, he didn’t drop everything to follow.  Quite the opposite.  He packed up all his possessions, including “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran,” to set off on the journey.  And there’s no mention that he discussed the matter with Sarai.  He made a decision and off they all went.  While these aspects of the story are disturbing, it’s nice to know that God calls people who aren’t perfect.

And when Abram led his family and possessions to Canaan, they didn’t do it all at once.  The journey takes quite a while, first to Shechem, then Moreh, then Bethel, and on to the Negeb.  At each stop along the way, Abram did the same thing.  He pitched a tent and built an altar.  Then he did it again.

It’s not a bad way to structure a life:  listen for God, follow the call, set up an altar, worship, be a blessing … rinse and repeat.

As I wrote in my newsletter column (which I’m sure you all read and memorized), we hold a pledge campaign each fall for at least two reasons – one practical and one theological.  The practical reason is that it helps us create a budget.  Knowing about how much money will be coming in can help us plan our spending.

The theological reason is to encourage us to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  This season is about our stewardship of our whole lives.  Today we are invited to consider how we are stewards of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  And we are invited to consider how we are stewards of our listening for God’s invitations to take the next step on our journeys – our individual journeys and our congregation’s journey.

The invitation is to bring your ‘yes’ to God so that we might be a greater blessing to the world and so that we might join God in changing the world.

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

What might God be kicking our church in the pants to continue (or start)?

What will it take to do this?

How will we show our ‘Yes’?

_______________

[1] Tony Schwartz, “The Power of Starting With ‘Yes’,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/18/business/dealbook/the-power-of-starting-with-yes.html (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 26 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schwartz, quoting Roy Baumeister, “Bad is strong than good,” link broken.

[4] Schwartz, op. cit. Oxford commas added.

[5] See, for instance, Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science,” The Gottman Institute, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/ (posted 4 October 2017; accessed 6 October 2018).

[6] Luke 1:38, The Message.

[7] Genesis 12:2, The New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added.

[8] From a commentary by Lee Hull Moses that is part of the stewardship campaign materials Niles Discovery Church purchased from the Center for Faith and Giving, https://centerforfaithandgiving.org.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 30, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  The Book of Esther
(focus scriptures:  Esther 4:9-17 and Esther 7:1-6)
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love the story of Esther.  And I hate it.

I tend to love an underdog story to begin with, especially when the underdog wins.  And in the Esther story we have a woman who has no power and who, due to circumstances beyond her control, ends up in a position to save an entire people from annihilation.  But those circumstances that are beyond her control as so patriarchal, and the story is so disturbingly quite about that.  That silence drives me crazy.

Here’s what I mean by patriarchal circumstances.  To start off with, Queen Vashti gets banished because she says, “No,” to the king’s desire to display her as a sexual object.  Then, the selection process to find a new queen is essentially a stripped-down beauty pageant with only the bathing suit competition.  (And, yes, I meant that double entendre.)  To add insult to patriarchy, it seems that the women have no choice about entering the contest.  And then there’s the whole thing about Esther not being able to talk to her husband without being summoned by him.  Who cares if the woman has something on her mind?  She only gets to talk to her husband the king if he has something on his mind.

I would really love it if the book made it clear that this sort of patriarchal supremacy was wrong.  The book sort of hints at this.  The main character is a woman – that’s helpful.  This woman’s cultural location dictates she have no power, and she finds power anyway.  This woman’s cultural location places no value on her intellect, ability to understand, and her ability to plan – all of which the story does because they are vital to her successfully rescuing her people.  Yes, it’s scary.  Yes, it could cost even her her life.  She has all kinds of reasons to take no risks, but she takes the risks anyway.  As her cousin and adoptive parent points out, “Perhaps you have come to regal dignity for just such a time as this.”

There is a theological challenge in that line (probably the most famous line from the book).  It implies that there is some grand plan that is known only to the mind of God.  It implies that, while we may think we have free will, God is actually calling the shots, moving people around some humongous chess board, playing both the black and white pieces, so the great plot of this grand plan will unfold as scripted.  And if that’s what’s going on, God, why not do away with the Hamans of the world to start with.

No, I do not believe there is a grand plan that God is making unfold.  And I don’t even believe God has seven and a half billion little plans – one for each of us on the planet.  I do believe in callings – that God has desires for goodness and love and that God sees ways (plural) for each of us to help move the world toward that goodness and love.  But God hasn’t scripted how we will get there.  So that means that there will be plenty of suffering along the way.  God does not will for us this pain and suffering.  Rather, I believe that God suffers with us and collaborates with us to bring healing and life and love, even out of our sufferings, to the world.  So, if I were writing this story, I would have Mordecai say, “Look where you are, Esther.  You can take advantage of this unique position to bring the world closer to God’s goodness and love in such a time as this.”

I understand the urge to say it’s all part of some divine plan.  Who but God could have known that the US news cycle would be caught up with the allegations of sexual assault against a Supreme Court Justice nominee this week when I decided two months ago to preach on the story of Esther?  Who but God could have known that on Thursday well over ten million people would turn in to TV, cable, and radio stations to hear the testimony offered before the Senate Judiciary Committee?  Who but God could have known how timely the quotes that ran on our church’s Facebook page all last week would be when I scheduled them ten days ago?

It’s easy to look back and see God’s hand at work guiding all this.  And maybe it was.  I think it more likely, though, that it is coincidence.  For if God is guiding this, making it unfold this way, I would rather God guide sexual and physical abusers away from their abuse to begin with.  No, I think it is coincidence that I am preaching on Esther today and the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony for Thursday.  And that coincidence preaches.

Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony is a reminder that the Esther story is very much alive today.  I could not bring myself to listen to all of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony nor to all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday.  I told myself I had too much work to do, and I did have work to do.  But that may have been a protective reaction.  I didn’t want to subject myself to the pain that I knew both of them would express.  And taking care of ourselves is important.  If my reflecting on this testimony is or becomes too uncomfortable for you, I will not be offended if you choose to step outside for a while.  Take someone with you if that will make you feel safer.  I hope you’ll come back for communion.  I know I need that shared meal today, and you might, too.

I could not bring myself to listen to all of their testimony, but I did listen to some of it.  And I was right:  it was difficult to listen to.  Part of what made it so difficult for me to listen to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was the fear I heard in her voice.  She didn’t want to be there.  She didn’t want to relive this horrific experience in vivid detail and then have it dissected by powerful people who were used to being in the spotlight, who enjoy being in the spotlight, who were literally sitting above her in physical positions of power.

But no one else could have shared her truth.  No one else could speak up in this way in such a time as this.

Another part of what made listening to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony so hard is that I knew and I know there are people of all genders (and especially women) for whom this testimony and this news reporting has and will continue to bring up memories of abuse they have suffered – that you have suffered.  For you I have a message, a message that may be easier to hear coming from women.

I think it is important for me, a white man, to listen, especially to women.  Late yesterday morning I put a post on Facebook inviting women in our church to post their reactions to the news, comments that I could quote in today’s sermon.[1]  I really didn’t leave people much time to respond, so only a few did.  Here’s what they had to say.

Tarrah Henrie said, “We need to raise our daughters to be brave and wise like Esther.  We need to raise our sons to care for and respect others like Jesus taught.  Each generation is moving in the right direction.  Also, I think Matthew 5:29 is clear in stating that it is not the woman’s fault if a man feels lust.  It is really up to him to control himself.  And seriously, the majority of men are good people.  There is a small percent of men that are making women unsafe.”

Without further comment, Joane Luesse pointed me to the video of two women, sexual assault survivors, who confronted Senator Flake after he announced his intention to vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.[2]  It was the first words on the video that were hardest for me.  “Don’t look away from me!  Look at me!”  The raw pain in her voice and those words summed up the larger issues that the accusations against Kavanaugh represent – that the people who are victimized by sexualize assaults are not being seen, and in not being seen, their humanity is being denied.

In one of her posts about this news (a post she referred me to), Cindy Sojourner pointed out how important it is to be prepared to hear and believe when a loved one, people in our own families, discloses their victimization.

Delya Stoltz connected up Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about having her mouth covered by Brett Kavanaugh and fearing that he might inadvertently kill her to the work she (Delya) is doing on strangulation prevention, particularly in intimate partner assaults.  The people who are studying and training first responders in this field (like Delya) include any form of restricting a person’s access to oxygen or blood – smothering, strangulation, suffocation, positional asphyxia, etc. – in this family of assault.  Delya pointed out to me, “People without a willingness to restrict another’s breath in a violent and controlling setting don’t suddenly become willing to do so when intoxicated.  It’s a distinct personality profile and it’s deeply concerning.”[3]

The longest response came from Lauren D’Ambrosio who offered specific advice of what we can do.  “Men:  call out your friends, sons, nephews, coworkers, and even bosses when they show sexist or misogynistic behavior (words, actions, storytelling, etc).  Yes, it’s uncomfortable.  Yes, it may make you cringe.  Yes, it may affect the relationship – but is that the kind of relationship you want to keep?  If you see women being ignored, interrupted, or undermined … call it out.  Something like, ‘I didn’t hear what Kristine was saying because she was interrupted.  What was that?’  It is important to call out the cause that is unacceptable (i.e. the interrupting), not just the effect (that you didn’t hear her).  … Use your position of power/privilege to give [women] their voice back.

“Everyone:  Don’t force your children to hug/kiss their relatives hello if they don’t want to; a wave is fine.  Grandpa’s disappointment is less important than your child’s autonomy.  Don’t [shrug] off poor behavior on your/your friend’s part with ‘oh, it’s no big deal,’ ‘you’re being too sensitive,’ or ‘jeez, everything is bothering you.’  Be reflective, and ask the individual if something is truly bothering them.  Discuss a boundary, then respect it.  This goes for grown adults and children/teens.  You will not be seen as weak for asking them for more information about how to not make someone uncomfortable, but you will be seen as rude if you ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable.”

I am grateful for the women who chose to share a response with me and for allowing me to include it in this sermon.  It makes me think about how, really, every day is a “for such a time as this” moment.  Until God’s kindom is established, there will be injustices that need to be confronted, truths that need to be told.

Each and every one of us has come to some station in life that makes us a perfect person to speak out.  “Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?” the contemporary prophet Marian Wright Edelman asks us.  The answer, of course, is, “No one.”

Yes, speaking up, confronting power, standing up for those who cannot stand on their own, for those who have not come to their own version of royal dignity, will be scary.  Speaking truth to power is scary.  It is dangerous.  Power sometimes rolls over and crushes you.  But nobody ever said we have the right to give up.

So, hear some advice from some of other prophets of the past several decades.[4]

Usually, after the sermon we have some time for contemplation.  Today, instead, I invite you to recite this statement written by Professor Sharon Fennema.[5]  She calls it “A Creed for Days Like This.”  I think of it as “A Creed for Such a Time as This.”

The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which is translated, “I believe.”  We’ve come to think of creeds as dogmatic statements.  Please don’t read this one dogmatically.  Read it as an invitation.

I believe that God weeps for the ways we shatter each other.
I believe that my body is not an apology or an invitation.
I believe that Jesus, revolutionary love incarnate, trusted the wisdom of women.
I believe that we have the right to say what happens to our bodies.
I believe that the Spirit moves in acts of resistance to patriarch, misogyny, white supremacy and colonialism.
I believe that both those of us who report and those of us who can’t or don’t report are courageous and praiseworthy.
I believe in a church that listens to and learns from the resilience of women.
I believe that our vulnerability is our strength.
I believe that the communion of saints lives in the flesh and bones of survivors.
I believe that no means no.
I believe that the forgiveness of sins must center the sinned-against
I believe that the time’s up.
I believe that bodies are resurrected when we bear witness to and believe the stories, when we name femicide for what it is, and when we refuse to acquiesce to rape culture.
I believe that when we dedicate ourselves to movements that build the world we are seeking as we fight to make it real, the kindom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
I believe women.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See https://www.facebook.com/RevJSS/posts/10214366059719919 for my post and the exact responses.

[2] Niraj Chokshi and Stead W. Herndon, “Jeff Flake Is Confronted on Video by Sexual Assault Survivors,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/us/politics/jeff-flake-protesters-kavanaugh.html (posted 28 September 2018; accessed 29 September 2018).

[3] From a conversation via text message with Delya on 29 September 2018; Delya granted me permission to quote her.

[4] These quotes are from Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds September 30, 2018,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_30_2018 (accessed 19 September 2018).

[5] Sharon Fennema, “A Creed for Days Like This,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/sharon.fennema/posts/10156022719207449 (posted and accessed 28 September 2018). Use by permission of the author.

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