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What follows is a lengthy report, which, honestly, I would have made shorter if I could have figured out how.

Assembly and Synod – background

Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ (which are commonly abbreviated as DOC and UCC respectively) are covenantally based; each congregation has autonomy to govern their own affairs and all the congregations live in covenant with the other congregations and expressions of the denominations. In the DOC, congregations are grouped geographically into Regions (we’re part of the Christian Church in Northern California-Nevada). In the UCC, congregations are grouped geographically into Associations (we’re part of the Bay Association) and the Associations are grouped geographically into Conferences (we’re part of the Northern California-Nevada Conference).

Both denominations have denomination-wide ministries. In the DOC there are the National Benevolent Association (that’s right, the NBA), Disciples Home Mission, the Council for Christian Unity, and the Division of Oversea Ministries/Global Ministries (to name just four of the at least fifteen General Ministries of the denomination. In the UCC there are Local Church Ministries, Justice and Witness Ministries, and Wider Church Ministries/Global Ministries (to name just three of the six National Settings of the denomination).

We are a part of the regional and general ministries of our denominations both because of our congregation’s covenant to be part of the denominations and because of our financial support of these ministries through our annual budget.

I spent the first two weeks of July attending the national/international gatherings of our two denominations. For the UCC, it is a national gathering because our churches are all within the USA. For the DOC, it’s an international gathering because we have congregations in both Canada and the USA. There aren’t very many DOC congregations in Canada so, sadly, much of the language used at the meeting tended to forget about them.

These meetings happen every two years on the odd numbered years. The UCC’s gathering is called General Synod and the DOC’s gathering is called General Assembly. Delegates to the UCC’s General Synod are selected by Conferences; I attended General Synod as a “visitor” and got to participate in banquets, worship, and workshops, but I didn’t get a voice or a vote on the resolutions that came before the Synod. Delegates to the DOC’s General Assembly are potentially all the pastors in the DOC plus delegates selected by congregations (typically two per congregation). We could have sent four delegates (me, Pastor Brenda, and two church members), but I was the only person representing the congregation at General Assembly.

Synod and Assembly – themes

General Synod was held in Baltimore and happened first. The theme for General Synod was “Make Glad,” based on a verse from Psalm 46. Psalm 46 is a scripture that is very meaningful to me and I will be preaching on it on August 20 when we mark the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination.

It seems to me that General Synod focuses primarily on the resolutions they consider. The whole resolution process is very involved. The resolutions typically come from Conferences or ministries in the national settings of the church. Then they are assigned to committees randomly made up of delegates from across the UCC. The committee can modify the resolution, wordsmithing it, hopefully improving it, and (in some cases) combining it with other similar resolutions that come to Synod. Once the committee has modified the resolution, it is presented to the whole Synod, where it is debated, potentially further amended, and voted on. It’s quite an involved process and it means that the schedule is different every day.

William Barber

There are some workshops that are offered. I attended one where the Disciple of Christ minister the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, spoke. Actually, I’m not sure Dr. Barber knows how to give a speech; he knows how to preach. He also spoke (I mean preached) at a Gala that night. It was one of two amazing sermons I heard at Synod. Dr. Barber is helping to organize a new, nationwide Poor People’s Campaign here on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Poor People’s Campaign organized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I will be preaching about this new Poor People’s Campaign in September.

Another highlight of Synod was a keynote conversation with Glennon Doyle, an author and the founder of Momastery, an online community where millions of readers meet each week to experience her shameless and laugh-out-loud funny essays about faith, freedom, addiction, recovery, motherhood and serving the marginalized. To be honest, I had low expectations, but Glennon was engaging, witty, and insightful. She has a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/glennonmelton) that you might want to check out.

General Assembly was held in Indianapolis. The theme for this General Assembly was “One” and the focus scripture was John 17:20-21, a line from the lengthy prayer Jesus prays in the Gospel of John before his arrest and crucifixion. “I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Some of you may recognize that the official motto of the UCC comes from these two verses: “That they may all be one.” I was amused that it was the DOC that was focusing on this verse.

The really big thing that happened at General Assembly was the election of a new General Minister and President. Sharon Watkins completed two six-year terms so it was time for someone new. We elected Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens as the new GMP. Terri is the first African American woman to take a leadership role like this in an historically mainline church in the USA. She may even be the first African American woman to take leadership of any denomination in the USA. I think her election points to the strides the DOC has made in addressing racism within the denomination and how the General Assembly’s theme, ‘One,’ is being lived out in the church.

Assembly has a higher emphasis on education and worship than does Synod (at least that’s my experience) and maybe that’s why there seem to be more visitors at Assembly. Instead of spending so much time on wordsmithing resolutions, the Assembly either says, “Yes, this is the sense of the Assembly” or “No, this isn’t the sense of the Assembly” or “This needs more work before we will vote on it.” This allows the Assembly to talk about the issues rather than the wording, but I still noticed a lack of voices of opposition to issues being discussed. One of the issues we discussed was how to include more voices in the discussions about the issues, both before Assembly within local churches and during Assembly. No decisions were made, but it is something that the DOC is seeking to do. And it is a reminder to me that we need to find creative ways to make sure all voices are heard when the church (in all its settings) seeks to understand God’s will and call.

Synod and Assembly – Resolutions

I guess it’s not surprising that similar issues came before both the Synod and the Assembly. Both gatherings adopted resolutions calling both the church and the nation to grow in our welcome of immigrants. Both bodies adopted resolutions condemning Israel for its treatment of Palestinian juveniles arrested in the occupied territories. Both bodies made amendments to their organizing documents (the Constitution and Bylaws in the case of the UCC and the Design in the case of the DOC); the amendments to the UCC’s Constitution still need to be ratified by the Conferences.

Both the Synod and the Assembly adopted resolutions on climate change, though their foci were different. The Synod resolution focused on the prophetic role of the church in addressing climate change. In addition to calling on the church to continue learning about and advocating for policies that address climate change, the Assembly resolution calls for members, congregations, and ministries of the denomination to become carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon positive by 2035. This is a bold invitation and I hope we will take it seriously. I think our biggest challenge as a congregation will be figuring out how to make up for the carbon we release by burning natural gas to heat the church.

The Assembly adopted the resolution endorsed by our congregation, repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. I spoke in favor of this resolution, telling the Assembly of your endorsement of it. The UCC had adopted a repudiation a few Synods ago. The Synod adopted a resolution on the economy that calls for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

The Synod adopted a resolution that will change the way some of our denominational ministries do fundraising. I am not yet clear on the implications of this resolution for our congregation. It will be interesting to see how it is lived out. Meanwhile, the Assembly received and commended to the congregations a study document on “Stewardship as a Spiritual Discipline,” a document I hope we will engage with in the coming biennium.

Synod and Assembly – the non-meeting (the really good) stuff

While I’m always fascinated by the process of writing, (in the case of the UCC) amending, discussing, and voting on resolutions, they are not the only important thing that happens at these events for me. The most important thing for me is the sense of connection attending brings me. I am reminded how we, our congregation and each of us, are part of something bigger. I get to hear stories about what’s happening at other churches, what’s going well and what they’re struggling with. I am reminded that we are not alone.

I also treasure the opportunity to hear great preaching. Sometimes this happens at the formal worship services. Sometimes this happens at banquets and rallies. Banquets may be too strong a word. Eating cafeteria scrambled eggs off of plastic plates (yeah, I’ll be complaining about the plastic plates) at 7:00 in the morning is hard to think of as a banquet. Still, it is worth going because you never know what you’ll learn. Two of the best sermons I heard were at breakfast banquets. And even when there isn’t a great preacher, the banquets are interesting. They are sponsored by one or two of the ministries or special interest groups of the denominations and they are one of the best ways to network with people in the denominations who are passionate about those issues and ministries.

Traci Blackmon

I got to hear the Rev. Traci Blackmon (who was elected one of the executive ministers of the UCC at Synod) preach at both gatherings. Her sermon at General Synod was built around an image that I may well use sometime in the future. Her sermon at General Assembly (at a breakfast meeting, really) is making me rethink protesting and nonviolent tactics. And as I mentioned earlier, I got to hear the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, a few times at the meetings. Every time he spoke about a resolution being considered by the General Assembly (and I think he did three times), the whole assembly knew they had heard the word of God.

If you would like to see photos from General Synod, check out bit.ly/2uH94NR. I’m not aware of a central gathering of photos from General Assembly, but if you do a photo search on Facebook for #docweareone or search for that hashtag on Twitter, you’ll find some.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 23, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Genesis 28:10-19
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We had a red brick walkway that led to the front door of the house I grew up in.  It had been laid decades before I was born and had a few small dips and humps in it, but very little space between the bricks.  And yet, somehow, grass managed to grow between the bricks for about a third of the walk.  Getting sent out to weed the walk always seemed like punishment.  It was boring and there was no shade and the grass hung on tenaciously.  Half the time the stalk of the grass would break, rather than the root, and only on the rarest of occasions was it possible to actually pull out the full grass, root and all.  I suspect I got to weed the front walk because the one time my mother asked me to weed the garden I pulled up the daffodils that had been growing there for years.

The memory of pulling up the daffodils came flooding back as I studied today’s gospel lesson.  It is so easy for the untrained gardener to destroy what is wanted in an effort to extract what is not.  I like the definition of a weed that says, a weed is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it.  I also like the advice, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything.  What grows back is weeds.”[1]  This approach to gardening works for me.  Maybe it’s obvious that the characters in the parable I most identify with are the slaves who ask if they should rip out the weeds.

In Matthew’s narrative, this parable comes right after another parable, one that is probably a little more familiar, that is also about seeds.  In that parable, a planter goes scattering seed and the seed falls in four different kinds of soil – on a path; on rocky, shallow soil; on weed-infested soil; and on good soil – and only the seed that fell on the good soil produced grain.  Then Matthew has Jesus explain the meaning of the parable to the disciples.  And right after explaining the parable of the four soils, Matthew has Jesus tell the parable we heard today.  And then a couple short parables, almost aphorisms.  And then Matthew has Jesus explaining today’s parable.

Most biblical scholars think that the explanations are from the early church, not Jesus.  I actually find it reassuring that Matthew includes his explanation (he includes one for the parable of the four soils, too).  I think these parables are pretty obtuse by themselves and the fact that Matthew’s early church community created these explanations is reassuring because it means the early church found them obtuse as well and needing an explanation.  But that’s not too surprising.

Parables are, as David Lose put it, “suggestive, evocative, sometimes disconcerting, offering glimpses into the kingdom of God, but not explanations or definitions.”[2]  Accepting only one explanation of a parable does it a disservice, in my opinion.  So, while they may have captured a meaning of the parable for them in their day, I want to set aside their explanation and see what we can harvest from the parable today.

The first thing that I notice is that farmer is not a sharecropper.  He is rich enough to own slaves, so he probably owns the land as well.  This might not make him part of the 1 percent, but he is part of the top 10 percent.  So, like me, the people listening to Jesus would have identified with the slaves – but for different reasons.  They would have identified with the slaves because 90 percent of the population was peasant class – farm laborers, sharecroppers, day laborers, fishers, miners, construction workers, servants, slaves, the disabled, and the untouchables.[3]

If they identify with the slaves, might they have been rooting (if you’ll pardon the expression) for the weeds?  Having more agricultural sense than I have, could their suggestion to rip up the weeds be subversive, knowing full well that doing so would ruin the crop as well?  So, I’m left wondering, what if the kin-dom of God is like the weeds or the one who sowed the weeds – subversive and undermining the domination system?

Laurel Dykstra says that the weeds sown in this parable are a specific species: darnel.  “Darnel looks very much like wheat when it is immature,” she writes; “its roots intertwine with those of the wheat and its toxic grains are loosely attached to the stem.  The problem of what to do with an infested field does not have a simple solution – pull up the shoots and you pull up the wheat; wait until the harvest and you poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop with falling seeds.

“For the landless peasants who were Jesus’ audience, the economic loss represented by a contaminated field could mean the death of a child to malnutrition.  To the wealthy landowner in this story, it means loss of profit.  A rich man who imagines that simple bad luck must be the work of some enemy, and who stands to lose only income, might not have been a sympathetic character to peasants.  For him the kingdom of God is a noxious weed.

“The kingdom parables ‘put before us,’ in stark relief, the conditions of life under empire.  The rich risk their profit, the poor their lives and the lives of their children.  The few live in luxury sustained by enmity, scarcity, profit, and accumulation, and they are supported by the labor of those who struggle with poverty and constant vulnerability.”[4]

Another way to look at the parable is to ask, “When have I felt that way?”  I doubt the experience of the servants is foreign to you; it certainly isn’t for me.  I’ve been frustrated when things have gone the way I thought they would.  I’ve thought I’d prepared the soil and planted good seeds (metaphorically speaking) for some plan I have, and then something goes awry.  I want to correct it, like the slaves, to make it right – even if that means risking damage to something important.  It feels like life has ganged up on me, as if some enemy has done this.

I bet you’ve felt the same way at least at some point in your life.  “When the cancer returns, when the job goes away, when the relationship ends, when depression sets in, when addiction robs a loved one (or ourselves) of life, when a congregation is divided, when a loved one’s life is cut short, when war forces thousands to flee as refugees, when the world turns its back on people in need.  At these times, the sense that this world is not what God intended can be almost unbearable, and you don’t have to believe in a red-suited devil with a pointy tail and pitchfork to name the reality of sin, brokenness, and evil in the world.  … [T]he temptation to use this parable to explain evil probably won’t turn out that well.  But can we at least acknowledge [the reality of evil]?

“And, having acknowledged it, can we then also acknowledge that this is not God’s design or desire?

“I have witnessed time and again how difficult it is for many of us to avoid the temptation to explain evil – quite ironically! – by assigning it to some greater plan God supposedly has for us.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s part of God’s plan,’ someone says to another after tragedy.  Or, ‘Don’t worry, God never gives us more than we can handle’ [as if such hardship is something from God].  Or, ‘God’s purpose for this will reveal itself in time.’  All of these words of supposed comfort end up assigning God responsibility for tragedy and brokenness …

“I think one of the things this parable suggests is that God does not will evil for us, not in any way, shape, or form.  That our tragedies are not part of God’s plan.  That God never, ever wants us to suffer.  Rather, according to Paul, ‘God works for the good in all things” for those God loves.’”[5]

“Are there ways to find ‘healing’ amid devastation?  Yes.  Can one be ‘transformed’ by the hell life thrusts upon them?  Absolutely.  [In fact, I believe it is God’s desire that we find healing and transformation when tragedy happens.]  But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve.”[6]  So, rather than these platitudes that end up blaming God for tragedy, we can sit with our friends when the weeds are growing in their crops and simply be, giving them the space to grieve.

It’s important to remember that we don’t all grieve in the same way.  In fact, we don’t necessarily grieve in the same way as we respond to different tragedies.  Different weeds need different ways of dealing with them.  According to Todd Weir who learned cutting weeds at age 13 in Iowa, “A cockle burr had shallow but widespread roots and had to be pulled out to get all the roots.  If you hacked it off at the ground level with a hoe it would be back in a week.  A milkweed had a very long tap root that could not be pulled out.  If you did try to pull it up, three separate sprouts would be back in a week.  Milkweeds had to be hacked off with a hoe and would ‘bleed’ and die as the sap ran out.  If you didn’t handle the weeds right, hours of backbreaking work in the sun would be completely wasted.”[7]

On the other hand, sometimes you can’t tell the weed from the crop.  Or maybe you can tell the difference, but it’s impossible to eradicate the weeds without destroying the crop – as the parable suggests.  “Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.”[8]

If this parable makes you ask, “Am I wheat or weed?” let me tell you the answer.  You’re both.  We all are.  And our church is both wheat and weeds.  We may think we know who’s who, as if one could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify them.  Ooooo.  Weed sticker.  You need to sit in the back on the left.  Wheat?  Up front, on the right, please.[9]

Luckily, God is not only just.  God is also merciful.  So, while we are both wheat and weed, when the final sorting comes, we will be transformed into a bumper crop.

I was walking home from church one day last week when I noticed a blackberry.  I kept walking, maybe a couple steps, when I decided to go back and take a closer look at its beauty, hanging there right next to the sidewalk.  I thought about eating it, but decided instead to just enjoy its berriness.  And I took this picture.

There’s a poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that includes these lines:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.[10]

I didn’t take off my shoes, but I marveled at the berry’s majesty.  And that night, reflecting on the day, I wondered who would end up communing with God, feasting on the berry’s goodness.  Would some child skipping by pluck its juiciness and feast?  Would some lucky bird or squirrel dine?  Would the berry just revel in its own berriness and eventually go to seed?

On the west side of the mountains in Washington State, blackberries are typically considered a weed.  The climate is, it seems, perfect for them, and if you disturb the ground, they will grow.  And you will spend the rest of your days trying to get rid of them.

Still, they produce these berries…

As I reflect on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I have one more thought:  In addition to everything else the parable might mean, might it not just be an invitation to notice both the wheat and the weeds, the farmer and the slaves, and see in them both an invitation to an awareness of the presence of God?

Like Jacob at Bethel, as I walked home from church that day, God was there and I didn’t know it – until I stopped and noticed the blackberry.

Amen.

[1] From a sermon illustration that was provided in an email dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[2] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/07/pentecost-7-a-on-the-question-of-evil/ (posted and accessed 20 July 2017).

[3] See Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 83.

[4] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Seeds and Weeds,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/seeds-and-weeds (accessed 18 July 2017).

[5] Lose, op. cit.

[6] Tim Lawrence, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” The Adversity Within, http://www.timjlawrence.com/blog/2015/10/19/everything-doesnt-happen-for-a-reason (posted 20 October 2015; accessed 15 July 2017).

[7] Todd Weir, “Wheat and Tares,” from the emailed dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[8] Robert Farrar Capon, quoted by James C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: July 23, 2017,” MinistryMatters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8303/weekly-preaching-july-23-2017 (posted 19 July 2017; accessed 22 July 2017).

[9] Howell, Ibid.

[10] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “86. From ‘Aurora Leigh’,” Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html (accessed 22 July 2017).

Some people think my preaching is “awfully political.” I think it’s awfully gospel.

I don’t say it’s wrong to mock people with disabilities because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t reject the notion that demeaning, groping, insulting, and assaulting women is “just how men are” because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t demand policy changes, even risking arrest, that address climate change because it’s political; I put my body on the line because the gospel of Jesus Christ says I must care for my neighbors, the poor, the vulnerable — the very people who will suffer the most because of climate change.

I don’t support a free press because it’s political; I support a free press because the freedom to follow Jesus is link to the freedom of speech.

I don’t speak out when religious and ethnic minorities are targeted with misinformation campaigns that have dramatically increased hate crimes against them because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

Don’t believe that the president of the United States is above the rule of law because it’s political; I believe that everyone is accountable, especially our leaders, to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t say it’s wrong to turn away desperate refugee families, including many children, from safety (a decision that is based on misinformation and fear) because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t call my Senators to oppose a healthcare bill that would likely increase the abortion rate and definitely leave my friends with special needs kids bankrupt and desperate because it’s political; I call my Senators because the gospel of Jesus Christ tells me to care for the sick.

I don’t expect the president of the United States to behave with some semblance of decorum and decency, even on Twitter, because it’s political; I expect proper behavior because the gospel of Jesus Christ expect proper behavior.

I don’t get angry when Christian leaders shrug off sexual assault, lying, racism, bullying, cruelty to the vulnerable, and unapologetic greed and self-aggrandizement because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t turn over tables when Christians sing hymns in honor of this administration’s ethno-nationalist agenda because it’s political; I do it because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

Sure, it may look political to you, but it’s following the Gospel of Jesus Christ to me.


This post was inspired by a Facebook post by Rachel Held Evens. You can read her original post at https://www.facebook.com/rachelheldevans.page/posts/10155101515379442

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 25, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:3-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A colleague was collecting some recommendations yesterday on Facebook.  I’m not sure how he’s going to use the data he collects, but he asked, “Which Bible passages would you want your children to memorize?”  Being someone who is adept at having opinions, I shared my list.  Then I looked at what other had posted.  There were lots of good suggestions, but I had to laugh when someone posted Matthew 10:35-36.  “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Today’s gospel lesson has one of the more challenging passages attributed to Jesus.  These words grate against the image of Jesus so many of us hold.  Brian McLaren says, “Many people have been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus.  He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit.  He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi.  Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

“The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures.”[1]  The real Jesus is defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative.

That’s the Jesus we hear in this gospel lesson.  The passage comes in the midst of an almost chapter-long address by Jesus in which he gives his twelve disciples instructions as he sends them out to carry on his work.  Kathryn Matthews notes that “Matthew writes for a community that claims a relationship, a kinship, with these apostles, who gave up everything to follow Jesus.  This little community of early Christians listens for how God is sending them in their own turn, a generation or so later, and they’re undoubtedly wrestling with how much they may have to give up, too, and what the risks are that they will run.

“Perhaps they’ve already paid a price for being disciples of this Jesus, especially if their family ties have been strained or broken by their new faith commitment.  Family ties were even more important in that time and culture than they are today, if we can imagine such a thing.  And broken relationships meant more than hard feelings and spoiled family functions and fights over inheritances:  they could be a matter of life and death in a culture where family identity and connections protected you from the many dangers in life.

“Matthew makes Jesus sound as if he’s sending his apostles out on a secret, dangerous mission.”[2]  And we’re not just talking about the early Christian martyrs who gave up their lives – literally, dramatically, violently – for the gospel.  We’re talking about “those lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures, including even the stability of the family itself.”[3]

The bold challenge here is that Jesus didn’t just call the disciples to reject consumerism, or racism, or any other ism you can think of.  You and I want to give up those things, as challenging as doing so may be.  Now, Jesus called them to be ready to give up their families.  “Jesus gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew, the claim of family love,” Fred Craddock wrote.  “Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society.”[4]  And in so doing, it seems to me that Jesus touched on the most basic, most heart-connected part of human life.

Even deeper, even more important, even more powerful than our love for family is the love of God, and needs to be our love for God.  I know that people work hard to build families.  Even those who are lucky enough to be born into families that are filled with love, building and maintaining a family takes energy.  And on this Pride Sunday, I can’t help but think of members of the LGBTQ+ community who have had to build and maintain families from scratch because they experienced rejection from their birth families.  And still, Jesus calls – even requires – that we love him above all other loves, no matter the cost to us, including those very families we have worked so hard to build and maintain.

It is so easy to domesticate the gospel, to declaw it as if it were a pet cat we didn’t want shredding the upholstery on the sofa.  “[W]e can too easily conflate the good news with good citizenship, good behavior or maybe simply not causing trouble, or just following orders.”[5]  But think about where this leads.

In one of her published sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it.…  There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself.”[6]  Except, of course, that’s not true.  Taylor reminds us, “The gospel is not a table knife but a sword.  It can set free and it can divide.  The gospel is not pablum.  It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties…”[7]

I’ve tried to think of more contemporary examples of what I’m talking about.  If I get too contemporary, I’ll be accused of being partisan, so let me go back a few decades.  Think about the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.  It’s pretty clear to me now which side Jesus was on, but back then there were plenty of Christian families – at least there were plenty of white Christian families – that were divided when it came to choosing which side to stand with.  From the Montgomery bus boycott to the march to Selma, the gospel divided families as some people heard it’s call to struggle for justice.

And think of the Vietnam War.  I know there were families that were divided when some people heard the gospel calling them to oppose the war, to march against the war, to even commit illegal acts in their efforts to stop the war.

It’s a strange choice of words for Jesus, I think:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  Unless he was being ironic or he’s using hyperbole.  Swords, after all, would be used to protect families, not to divide them.

Retired Catholic Archbishop Hunthausen says, “When Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of heaven, he gave no maps or blueprints.  He told us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to sell what we have, to feed the poor, and to follow him all the way to the cross.  He promised that we would share his life and his death, and after that his new life; he promised that God would provide for those who seek the kingdom first.  He promised the resurrection, but only after the crucifixion.…

“Jesus calls us to take risks, to make difficult choices.  This is our cross, the point where we can die a little to self and be reborn in the Spirit’s life of compassion.

“I believe that we can all find the actions to which we are called by meditating on Jesus’ teachings and then by beginning to live them.  Those teachings point us toward a commitment to a life of nonviolence, a way of living that comes from the very heart of the gospel and has Jesus as its model.”[8]  The disciplined life of nonviolence is not simple, and it brings its own kind of suffering – a suffering that comes out of love.  And it brings its own kind of death, a death of ego, so that we can rise to life in Christ.

There is a difference between non-violence (with a hyphen) and nonviolence (without a hyphen).  Non-violence (with a hyphen) is simply the absence of violence.  Bystanders can be non-violent (with a hyphen) and still do nothing about injustice and violence.  But nonviolence (without a hyphen) seeks a positive peace, a peace filled with restoration of relationships, the creation of just social systems that serve the needs of the whole population, and the constructive resolution of conflict in reconciliation.[9]

This means that a life of nonviolence will seek out the justice.  It will confront systems of oppression.  It will work to transform negative peace into positive peace.

Consider this:  Martin Luther King was arrested somewhere around 30 times for his nonviolent protests against systems of racism.  About half of those arrests for the crime of – you guessed it – disturbing the peace.

And that’s what he was doing.  He was disturbing the negative peace so that it could be transformed into a positive peace.

As followers of Jesus, we cannot avoid the call of the cross.  This is how Hunthausen explains it:  “Jesus’ first call in the gospel is to love God and one’s neighbor.  But when he gives flesh to that commandment by the more specific call to the cross, and by his own death, I am afraid that like most of you I prefer to think in abstract terms, not in the specific context in which our Lord lived and died.  And yet a life of nonviolence is ‘taking up the cross,’ ‘losing one’s life’ for the truth of the gospel, for that love of God in which we are all one.”[10]

Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, “Beyond Fire and Brimstone,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/beyond-fire-and-brimstone (accessed 20 June 2017).

[2] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds June 25, 2017,” Samuel, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_25_2017 (accessed 21 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A, quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[5] Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Values,” Gospel Medicine, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 16.

[7] Ibid, 18.

[8] Raymond Hunthausen, “The Undiscovered Secret of the Nuclear Age,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/undiscovered-secret-nuclear-age?parent=50801#PTWproper7A (accessed 20 June 2017).

[9] See, for instance, http://www.irenees.net/bdf_fiche-notions-186_en.html.

[10] Hunthausen, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost, June 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 3:1-12 and Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As I’ve contemplated flame this week, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to fire.  I like to light a candle to mark a time as sacred.  I have gotten lost in the single flame of a candle.  And who doesn’t like the candles on a birthday cake, even if there needs to be almost two-thousand of them?  But still, my thoughts kept drifting from flame to fire.

Twice in my life, fires in woodstoves have kept me warm in otherwise very cold conditions.  One winter when I was living in western Washington, there was a windstorm that brought down many branches and trees.  The branches and trees took down electrical lines.  And because I lived in a ruralish area, it took a full week before power was restored.  My furnace was a heat pump, so I moved into the family room of my home where there was a woodstove in the fireplace.  I dragged the mattress from the guest bed down there and made a little nest for myself.  And each night, I lit a fire, warmed up the room, then turned down the flow of air into the stove to keep the fire burning slowly through the night.

The other time happened when I was staying in my father’s cabin in New Hampshire during the first week of September.  Labor Day weekend, the temperature plummeted, as it can do in New Hampshire.  It got so cold I woke up in the middle of the night.  I got a fire going in the woodstove in the cabin and about an hour or two later the little cabin had warmed enough that I could get back to sleep.

When I think about fire, I think of it contained in a woodstove or a fireplace or a campfire.  I think of it warming me and comforting me and stilling my spirit.  I think of seasoned maple and pine logs snapping and popping as they burn.  The closest thing to a destructive fire I’ve experienced was a chimney fire I had that I didn’t find out about until I contemplated switching insurance companies and the new company insisted on a building inspection.  It had burned hot enough to crack the terracotta flue liner, but briefly enough I never knew it happened.

That’s fire’s paradox, isn’t it?  On one hand, fire gives warmth and light, and it lets us cook and read late into the night.  And on the other hand, fire destroys and consumes.  It devours whole towns, annihilates whole cities.  “Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire is a threat to both.”[1]

The big challenge that cold night in the cabin was that I had to get out from under the pile of blankets to get a fire going.  Well, that was the first challenge.  The second challenge was that I needed more wood than was inside and I needed kindling.  So I had to go outside for those.  The third challenge was that my father and step-mother had recycled the newspaper, so I had to scrounge for something to light with the matches that would light the kindling that would light the logs.  The challenge the next day was getting things in the wood stove cool enough that I was comfortable leaving the cabin for a paddle around the lake.

“We could say the same of life with God – we cannot always summon a sense of God’s presence, even when we do the things we were taught in Sunday school would work; in other seasons, God roars into our lives in ways we wish we could avoid, tamp down, put out entirely.”[2]  It takes the match to get the newspaper burning, and it take the burning newspaper to light the kindling, and it takes the burning kindling to ignite the log.  It is the rare person who can burn for God without some external source of heat.  I know I didn’t get there on my own.  My mother and Sunday School teachers and friends helped lay the fire and ignite the newspaper.

And once the fires going, it takes tending.  I know I’ve built plenty of fires that were much more smoke than flame.  And I’ve tended fires that got burning so hot and fast that they consumed the fuel in no time at all.  And I’ve tended fires that weren’t sufficiently fed or that got too spread out and then cooled off and went out.  And so it is in my friendship with Jesus.  My zeal might burn too fast, or it might cool down and flicker out.  Either way, the flame is extinguished.  Sure, there are habits, practices, I can engage in to tend this fire, to keep the flame of God’s presence near.  Still, sometimes the flames leap and dance, not because of anything I did.  Sometimes the flames die, despite everything I did.[3]

“God appears as flame again and again in scripture.  God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush, and then, centuries later, at the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples as flame.  Those two episodes might be the most familiar flames in scripture, but there are many other instances of God drawing near to people as or in fire:  God’s presence as a ‘flaming torch’ in the covenant [making] of Genesis 15; the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness [into freedom]; and God’s glory is ‘like a consuming fire’ on Sinai.…

“What might all these flames mean for our friendship with God?

“Often, in scripture, especially in the prophets, fire seems to stand principally for God’s anger, God’s jealousy.”[4]  But even there, it is not just the consuming fire, the destructive fire.  Even God’s anger and God’s jealousy need not be a conflagration.  According the Malachi, God is like a refiner’s fire, that burns off the impurities leaving only the precious metal.  Sometimes fire’s destructiveness is also regenerative.  “Fires can clear weaker trees from a forest and therefore allow the healthier, larger trees to flourish.  Soil nourished by burned vegetation becomes more nutritious for the trees the remain.  And some trees require fire to survive,”[5] like the lodgepole pine and several other conifers.

“Could the Bible’s fiery imagery suggest that God’s destruction is regenerative?  That God destroys not me but my sin, my hardness of heart, my fear, precisely so that I might be renewed? …

“Maybe, if God is fire, we are a grove of ponderosa pines.  Without the heat and burn of God’s flame, our pinecones would remain closed tight around the seeds that are needed for our thriving and growth and new life.”[6]

The rabbis note that it takes some time – five minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes – for a bush to burn.  But the miracle, they say, is not that the bush wasn’t consumed as it burned.  The miracle is the Moses paid attention, that he paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed.  “Only after God saw that Moses had stood still long enough to notice the bush in its unconsuming fire did God call out to him.…  Attentiveness, apparently, was the key attribute God needed for his chief prophet, deliverer, and friend.  God needed a prophet and friend who could stop and stay still and look with focus and concentration; God needed a prophet and friend who could really see.  God could have called to Moses in the form of a fellow shepherd, or in the form of a rock, or in the form of a breeze.  Instead, God arrested the attention of Moses as a flame.”[7]

This doesn’t surprise me.  As I said, I can get lost in the flame of a candle.  I can sit in silence as a fire crackles and hisses and flames curl around the logs.  At one point this week, I thought about playing the yule log during this sermon.  I thought it might be funny, and calming, and maybe even comforting.  I decided it would also be too distracting.  Like me, too many of you would just get lost in the flames.

But maybe that’s why the burning bush worked as a way to call to Moses.  “Fire captivates.  To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”[8]

I suppose one invitation form the story of the burning bush is the invitation to notice how busy our lives are, to notice how hard it is to notice.  “We are all so distracted, rushing so hurriedly through the day that we barely notice our friends or ourselves,”[9] let alone God.  We get distracted, sending text messages, checking Facebook, worrying about children.

But this isn’t the only lesson.  God wants to hold our gaze.  “The God who wants to fix our attention and say, Here, look here, look at Me, don’t look away – that God is a lover.  That’s what lovers do, after all.  They gaze at each other utterly not distracted, utterly focused in their longing and their delight.”[10]

In her book, Wearing God, the book we’ve used as the basis of this sermon series, Lauren Winner tells a story[11] that is, unfortunately, too long, to simply read to you.  The story centers around two basins.  One basin is the basin she and her friend Isaac take every year on Maundy Thursday to what she says is “a small, ineffectual protest at an immigration detention center in Cary, North Carolina.  Every year, a stalwart band of Holy Week pilgrims gathers in a grocery parking lot in Cary, and … [they] process to the immigration detention center and set up two chairs.  One chair is occupied by whoever is having her feet washed, and the other chair is left empty, as a reminder of the people who are absent from us – from our families and our churches – because of current immigration law.”

On one particular Maundy Thursday, Winner’s thoughts wander to another basin, a basin carried my Nhat Chi Mai to a Buddhist temple in Saigon on May 16, 1967.  “Her friends assumed she was there for the traditional washing of the Buddha, but her basin was full of gasoline, not water.  Nhat Chi Mai poured the gasoline over herself and lit herself on fire.  She sat in the lotus position while she burned, and she prayed, and she died.”  She had written to the U.S. government, “I pray that the flame that is consuming my body will burn away all ambition and hatred which have been pushing many of us into Hell of the soul and creating so much suffering among human beings.  I pray that the human race will be able to inherit Buddha’s Compassion, Jesus’ love, and the legacy of man’s humaneness.”

Reflecting on the differences in their basins – Nhat’s held gasoline; Winner’s holds water – Winner writes, “It is a venerated thing in the Christian tradition to imitate Christ even to the point of death,…  I wonder what kind of faith one would have to have – in the resurrection, in the resurrected body, in setting your treasure by in heaven – in order to burn yourself to death in protest.  I am not alone in not knowing what to think:  even Buddhists and Christians in Vietnam in the 1960s did not know what to think about self-immolation.  Was this truly a nonviolent protest?  Was it worship or suicide?”

“There’s a relationship that I can’t quite pin down between Nhat Chi Mai’s body and the burning bush.  Here body’s being consumed and the bush’s refusal to be consumed – both command attention.

“It is not just attention to the truth about ourselves that God’s flame can direct.  God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world.…  Before you can act, first you have to see.”  In a way, it can be argued that prayer is not productive.  Prayer does not get God to change an immigration policy or to stop a war.  It is not a means to an end.  And yet, I know that my own halting history of prayer, that engaging various forms of prayer is forming me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God’s world.

As we move into a short time of reflection, I have a few questions for you to consider as we conclude this sermon series:
What sustains your spiritual fire?
How is God’s fire regenerative in your spiritual life?
How is God captivating your attention?
What situation in your life or in the world is God calling your attention to?

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 206.

[2] Ibid, 208.

[3] Ibid, 208-209.

[4] Ibid, 209-210.

[5] Ibid, 210.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 214-215.

[8] Ibid, 215.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 221-225.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Good Friday, April 14, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Scriptures quoted from the New Revised Standard Version

            Simply put, I reject penal substitutionary atonement.  Well, maybe that’s not so simply put.  So, let me unpack that phrase, “penal substitutionary atonement.”  An atonement is an act that makes reparation for a wrong or injury.  It is an act that allows two parties to become at one again, thus the division of the word as “at-one-ment.”

Substitutionary atonement is an act made, not by the one who harmed the aggrieved person, but by someone on their behalf.  So, when a parent acts on behalf of a child who has done something to wrong or injury a neighbor, that substitutionary atonement.

And penal substitutionary atonement is a substitutionary act of atonement that involves punishment or penalty.

In Christian theology, penal substitutionary atonement is the belief that the only way for us sinners to be at-one with God again was if someone – someone who was perfect, without sin – paid the penalty on our behalf with their life.  This theology looks at the death of Jesus on the cross as the punishment (penal) borne on our behalf (substitutionary) so that we may be in right relationship with God (atonement).  In this theology, Good Friday is “good” because we are saved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

There are lots of reasons I reject this theology.  The most basic of these reasons is the portrait it paints of God.  I reject the idea that God requires suffering of anyone to forgive and reconcile.

So, then, if Jesus didn’t die as part of some substitutionary atonement scheme, why did Jesus die?  Jesus died because he was seen to be a threat to the established power structure.  The principalities and powers of his day – the Roman government and the Jewish religious establishment – say the good news that Jesus preached to threaten their power.  Whatever mob that came together against Jesus did not do so because God caused it.  The principalities and powers wanted him gone, and that was enough.  The contagion of violence is enough.

Jesus died for us, but not for God.  The cross is not what God requires in order to forgive, but what God endures as God forgives.  Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Good Friday is the ultimate reality check, the graphic reminder that there is an end to all things.  We are called to confront our mortality.  We cannot escape into worlds of our own creation, but we must stand before the final authority of change.  Nothing stays the same.  And there, in that one truth, hidden away in the apparent darkness of this day, is the small seed of our liberation.  Nothing stays the same.  No, thank God, it doesn’t.  The deep message of Good Friday speaks a profound truth: nothing lives forever.  Nothing.  Not even death.  Even it has to change.  It has to become something new.”[1]

And this reality check is one of the two big things that make Good Friday “good” for me.  The other is the way of courage it reveals.

The gospels tell us that in what turned out to be the last months of his life, Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem – in theory the city of peace, but in reality the city of the principalities and powers of his life.  He headed to Jerusalem to face off against the principalities and powers, the systems that believe that we can be saved through violence, to proclaim his way of peace and justice and love.  And at some point along the way, he came to realize that the way he was walking and talking would be seen as a threat and lead to his arrest and execution.  Still, he kept walking.  It was his call.

Even in the hours before his arrest, when he knew it was just around the corner, he prayed about it, and somehow managed to maintain his integrity to the call.  He managed to stay on the path, even though it would cost him his life.  He got to his “okay.”  In the presence of God, he moved to the place where he could say, “Okay.  Not my will, but your will be done.”

Listen again to the story.

            Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  [Matthew 26:36-42]

Jesus seemed to know that the path he was on would lead to his death.  And, even though it was leading to his death, he sensed that the path he was on was still, somehow, the will of God.  It wasn’t God’s will that he die, but that he remain faithful to God’s call for justice and love, even in the shadow of death.  In prayer, Jesus got to his “okay.”  “Okay, God, I don’t want to be killed, but I know you call me to embody your love, and your love is leading me this way.  So, okay, your will, not mine, be done.”

Matthew goes on tell about Jesus’ arrest and his so-called trials before the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor, Pilate.  He tells about Jesus being mocked and beaten and being led away to be crucified.

            And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” …

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.…

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.  [Matthew 27:35-37, 45-50, 57-61]

[1] Steven Charleston, a post on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1327331527351716 (posted and accessed 14 April 2017).

I have a bunch of questions about the legalities of what happened on the United Express flight – questions about contract law and the legal authority of airline employees to kick someone off a plane. But this reflection isn’t about the legalities. This reflection is about two other issues:  morality and being an upstander.

Father James Martin does a great job cutting through the noise to get to some of the moral questions in this “short take.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I’ll quote a couple paragraphs. He writes, “When we watch the video of the event something in us says, ‘That’s not right.’ Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online – not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws.”

As the headline of the “short take” says, “The United Airlines debacle … is about the morality of capitalism.” And my conclusion is that capitalism, at least as it is practiced in most of the United States today, is immoral. It places profit over people – every time.

Martin goes on, “Someone in authority – pilots, stewards, ground crew – might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people:  They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules.”

I’ve been wondering about those of us who are not “someone in authority.” We, too, have been conditioned to follow the rules and laws, even when the rules and laws are unjust. So, what would I have done if I had been a passenger on that airplane? Would I have stood up against the unjust assault on my fellow passenger’s dignity, knowing full well that doing so would likely get me ejected from the aircraft and possibly arrested?

What keeps me from being an upstander (as opposed to a bystander) when systems and authorities act immorally?

I think the answers are:  fear and conditioning.  I also think that Jesus calls me beyond my fear and conditioning. May I follow that call.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 2, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 5:11-21 and Psalm 51:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a seminary professor who thought that the church’s mission was summed up in our reading from 2 Corinthians.  He said that the church’s mission is summed up in the line about how God was in Christ, reconciling the world with God, and now God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.  The church’s job, this professor said, can be summed up like this:  we are to be a vehicle of reconciling the world with God.

While I think the universal church’s job does include reconciling humanity and God, I think there is an additional task:  Reconciling humanity with itself.  Of course, since I don’t believe creation and God are all the separable, the act of some aspect of creation coming back into right relationship with itself is a form of that aspect of creation being reconciled with God.  So, maybe I’m not disagreeing with my professor all that much.  I’ll stop there, before I get lost in some theological esoterica, saying this:  the church’s mission includes, and perhaps should even be focused on, reconciliation.

The full passage we heard from this letter to the Christians in Corinth is about Jesus changing lives.  Here’s my paraphrase of the reading (remember that Paul is writing):
Knowing God revealed in Jesus has changed us.  Sure, to some people we now seem a little nuts – but that’s because God has changed us.  And if we don’t seem nuts to you, that’s because God is changing you, too.  Our priorities have changed.  How we view the world has changed.  How we view you has changed.  We used to live in the world in a way that separated us from God and from people.  No more.  Now we’re reconciled with God.  Nothing stands in the way of our relationship with God.  And now we are helping people find that change in their own lives.

When I take a metaphoric look at the stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people metaphorically, I see Jesus doing exactly what Paul says Jesus was doing.  Jesus was bringing people back into right relationship with God and with their communities.  And when I look at what Jesus said, as recorded in the gospels, he was calling communities to get into right relationship with God and all their people.

I think the act of reconciliation is salvific.  And that, John claims, is what Jesus was all about:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV).  But reconciliation isn’t easy.  If you’ve ever experienced a betrayal in a relationship with someone you love, you know how difficult reconciliation is.  Salvation isn’t easy.  Jesuit John Harriott wrote, “Salvation is not comfortable.  Salvation is not a gentle application of Vaseline to a small cut, but the breaking and resetting of ill-set bones.  We discover our need when we are faced with situations over which we have no control, and in which we have no hope.”[1]

A demand of reconciliation is change.  And change is hard.  A result of salvation is change.  And change is hard.  But Jesus was about transforming lives.  And that hard, painful work is exactly what it’s going to take if we are going to be about the work of ending racism.

The rest of the sermon is primarily for the white people in the congregation (including myself).  That is because I have come to realize that racism is a white person’s disease and it is only if we white people do our work that it can finally be banished.

Being able to claim a “white” identity in the United States comes with certain social, cultural, and economic advantages, from getting a call back for a job interview, to finding an apartment, to getting a booking an Airbnb.  I’ve explored in the previous sermons in this series how this privilege has deep historic roots in our culture.  But acknowledging it, this privilege, is not intended to induce guilt.  Rather, acknowledging it helps us build a sense of responsibility.[2]

If you have any doubts about the reality of white privilege, I encourage you to read the essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh.[3]  In it, she rattles off over two dozen simple ways white folk experience privilege without even realizing it in day-to-day life.  These privileges were born out of a culture of white supremacy – a reality I’ve explored over the past few weeks.

Two professors at Calvin College have pointed out that the denial of the reality of white privilege is actually born out of that same white supremacy.  “If you deny white privilege, if society is indeed meritocratic and the game is essentially fair, it is difficult to avoid assumptions about who tends to win and who tends to lose.  If the white population is not privileged in some way, how else does one explain the discrepancies between them and people of color?  What’s left is assuming that white people are just smarter, more moral, work harder, or have a stronger culture.”[4]

Peggy McIntosh says, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that white folk walk around with without even realizing it.  We even open the knapsack and take out those resources from time to time without even realizing it.  Waking up to the reality that we are doing it, waking up to the reality of this privilege is the first step in the transformation of white people, the first step that is needed to end racism.

You see, this is very much a gospel activity.  Racism is a sin.  And Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation is a ministry of repentance, of turning from sin and toward the beloved community.  But it’s hard work, because white supremacy is an idol, and if you ever want to see someone get mad, really mad, threaten their idol.  And just to remind you, an idol is anything we hold onto more tightly than God, anything we worship and honor and value more highly than God.  An idol is any power that holds more sway in our lives than God.  And power, Richard Rohr points out, “never surrenders without a fight.”[5]

“If your entire life has been to live unquestioned in your position of power – a power that was culturally given to you but you think you earned – there is almost no way you will give it up without major failure, suffering, humiliation, or defeat.”[6]  That’s why a growing awareness of white privilege can hurt so much.

Which brings us to the second step in the transformation Jesus wants to work on us white people.  The Calvin College professors advise, “Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry.  It is so easy to medicate with avoidance, delusion, and quick tears.  Repentance requires real sorrow and grief.  It is a sorrow that acknowledges that we have missed the mark, that we have fallen so very short.”[7]

Heather Caliri suggests we can find a model in the story of King Josiah in 2 Kings.  “In 2 Kings 22, Josiah starts restoring the temple after his father and grandfather neglected it.  In the midst of construction, Josiah’s high priest finds the book of the Law and reads it in front of the king.  Upon hearing it, Josiah tears his clothes in grief.…

“Before Josiah’s reign, two generations of Judeans neglected to teach the law.  Josiah and his subjects literally didn’t know any better.  “God still holds them responsible for the sins of their fathers.  To our Western ears, that might sound unfair, even if generational sin is a constant Biblical theme.  Like Josiah, we inherited [the] sin [of racism] not of our own making.  Yet it’s very much our problem.

“Saying things are better now is no excuse.  Josiah could have said the same – after all, he was trying to restore the temple before he discovered the Law.  God required hard repentance anyway.

“Josiah, grieved by his discovery, sent for [the Prophet] Huldah and listened as she blasted him with more bad news.  Josiah could have tuned out her negativity – especially when the sins didn’t happen on his watch, and he’d already done so much to change things.  Instead, he listened.”[8]

To be honest, that’s mostly what I’ve been doing in this sermon series.  I’ve been reading and researching our history and discovering things I’d never been taught.  I’ve sought out articles by and stories from people of color to better understand how they experience this culture.  I have tried, with some success, to open my eyes to the horror of slavery and its brutal legacy, and to the near genocide of the first peoples who lived on this land.  In that process, I have worked on recognizing my prejudices and biases.  This has not been easy work, but if we take Josiah’s story seriously, we must do as he did and patiently listen.  Then, and only then, will we be ready to take action.

“Once Josiah hears [the Prophet] Huldah’s words, he acts.  He burns Asherah poles, deposes priests and dismantles idolatry for 20 years.  Josiah demolishes a complex, idolatrous system.

“Systems span generations.  When our ancestors set up a sinful system, we carry on sinning unless someone dismantles it with tireless energy.  That’s why holding children accountable for the sins of their fathers makes sense.

“Josiah also teaches us who should dismantle systems.  Josiah confronted a system that, as king, benefited him enormously.  But his leadership was crucial – how can anything change unless those with power take action?

“In our own country, black people and other people of color largely lead the way on racial justice, even though they’ve historically had little institutional power.  Though some people and some white institutions have taken brave steps, we have not, as a people, stepped up as Josiah did.  [Since] white people created racist systems, God tasks us with the primary responsibility for challenging them.”[9]

So, here are a few concrete things white people can do to start the process of dismantling racism:

  1. Don’t ask African-American to forget what their ancestors went through as slaves in this country, or ask them to ignore how that impacts them daily.
  2. Don’t detach ourselves from what our ancestors or people that look like us have created, maintained, and have benefited from—and that we continue to benefit from.
  3. Remember that we were born into a system of white supremacy that we did not create, but must actively help to dismantle.
  4. Don’t be afraid to have the ugly conversations with people who look like us, and don’t be afraid to listen to and learn from the people who don’t look like us.
  5. Shut up while people of color tell their own stories, in their own ways, and to their own ends.
  6. Accept the truths and experiences of racial injustice shared by people of color as valid.
  7. Listen to people of color, advocate for people of color, sympathize with people of color, fight alongside people of color, and raise our voices to match the outcries being made by people of color.
  8. Be an ally by standing up against racial injustice, celebrating racial diversity, and taking on this fight as our own.[10]

“Josiah’s story is ultimately a tragedy.  When he dies, his own son goes right back to the idolatrous systems Josiah worked to eradicate.

“I once assumed that the Civil Rights movement had taken care of the sins of previous generations.  Josiah’s failure reveals my naiveté.  Between slavery and [the latest] versions of Jim Crow, we’ve experienced nearly [400] years of state-supported racism in America.  Josiah, in contrast, inherited a fairly new problem:  His father and grandfather wreaked havoc for only 57 years.  Yet 20 years of Josiah’s sustained effort wasn’t enough.  If Josiah couldn’t accomplish change in one generation, how can we assume we did [or we will]?”[11]

This will be a long struggle.  It is a multi-generational struggle.  White people have a lot to confess, and turning the whole system around in an act of societal repentance is a very big ask.  But it is the transformational ministry Jesus is doing in us individually and in us as a church.  And it is the transformational ministry, this ministry of reconciliation, Jesus has given to us.

Amen.

[1] John Harriott, SJ, quoted by Ryan Dowell Baum on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/revryandb/posts/1725011814455430 (posted and accessed 29 March 2017).

[2] Joseph Kuilema and Christina Edmondson, “Confronting White Privilege,” The Banner, http://thebanner.org/features/2017/01/confronting-white-privilege (posted 20 January 2017; accessed 27 March 2017).

[3] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” The National SEED Project, https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack (copyright 1989).

[4] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[5] Romal J. Tune, “Richard Rohr on White Privilege,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/richard-rohr-white-privilege (posted 19 January 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[8] Heather Caliri, “Repenting of Systemic Racism,” Relevant, http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/current/repenting-systemic-racism (posted 7 September 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).  I’ve done some re-setting of her paragraphs.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This is taken from one of my own Facebook posts from 24 February 2016.

[11] Caliri, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 5:1-20 and “Kids Who Die,” by Langston Hughes
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s gospel lesson is a wonderful, dramatic story.  Jesus has been teaching by the Sea of Galilee.  That night, he and his disciples get in a boat to cross the sea.  While Jesus sleeps, a storm kicks up, severely scaring the disciples.  They wake Jesus and he stills the storm.

They get to the other side of the sea, in the country of the Gerasenes, an area where Gentiles live.  They step out of the boat and are met by a madman who has made his home in the cemetery.  I’ve always pictured Jesus coming ashore and wandering directly into the cemetery, though that’s not exactly what the scripture says.  I’ve also pictured the man as naked and unbathed, with matted hair and beard.  The story doesn’t say that either, though later, when he’s been saved by Jesus, there is a line about him being clothed.

There is no question but that the man is tormented.  He has lost his own voice to what torments him; all he does is howl.  When words come out of this mouth, that the words of the demons that we hear.  He injures himself because he is in so much pain.  The demons that torment him have stripped away his humanity – completely.  Only the demons speak, and when they do, they recognize who Jesus is and the threat Jesus poses.

The story is rich with symbolism.  In the Hebrew scriptures, the sea represents chaos.  In the story right before this one, Jesus show he is master over chaos when he calms the chaotic, life-threatening storm on the sea.  The man who meets them when they come ashore is the personification of chaos.  They come ashore in the land of the unclean (the Gentiles), in an area that is unclean (a cemetery), and are confronted by someone who is unclean (the man who is possessed).

If there is any person who is less than fully human, it’s this guy.  If there is anyone who is less worthy, of less value, it’s this guy.  This man is “other” on so many levels.  And Jesus sees right through this “otherness,” seeing the man’s true humanity.

When I picked this lesson for this sermon, I thought about the “otherness” of the man possessed.  I thought about how racism “others” people of color.  Racism says that whiteness is normal and people who aren’t white are abnormal, not fully human, less than, other.  I looked at how Jesus saw through that “otherness” and heard a call to go and do likewise.

But as I reflected on this scripture this past week, I came to see society in the man possessed.  Society is possessed by the demon of racism.  And racism has a legion of faces.

This is not Kelly’s son, but this child is just about the age of her son in the story she tells.

“My son was about 2 years old,” writes Kelly Brown Douglas.  “I had taken him to the park to play in a Flintstones-like car that was in the park’s playground.  This particular park was next door to an elementary school.  After being in the park for about 15 minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park.  Two little boys, one blonde-haired the other redheaded, ran down to the car where my son was playing.  Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out.  Soon the two little boys began fighting over who was going to play in the car.  My son looked on with the fascination of a 2-year-old.  The little redheaded boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking.  He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son.  With all the venom that a 7- or 8-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.’  This little white boy was angry.  A black boy had intruded upon his space.  My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.

“I was horrified.  Before I could say anything to the offending boy the white teacher, who was in earshot, approached.  She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son.  I expected her to have a conversation with the little boy and to make him apologize.  Instead, she looked at my 2-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime, and said to the little boys, ‘Come on with me, before there is trouble.’  At that moment, I was seething with anger.  I took my son and left the park.

“As we walked away, I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain.  At 2 years old, my son was already viewed as a criminal.  At 7 or 8 years old the link between a black boy’s body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy.  If at 2 years old, a white teacher already regarded my son as a troublemaker, I feared what the future might bring.”[1]

That is one of the legion of faces of racism today; there are many others.  I asked a group of friends who live in the Tri-Cities[2] to share with me their experiences with racism.  I tried to get a cross-section of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and I was blessed with several responses, especially given how quick a response I had asked for in my request.  Here’s just a sample.

One friend is a Muslim woman.  She and her husband are immigrants from Pakistan.  They have three children.  She told me that their eldest has pale skin and, when little, was often mistaken for a Caucasian.  His experience was quite different from that of his little brother.  The younger brother tans easily and has a mole on his forehead.  From early elementary school, he was teased.  In Middle School, he was called names like “Zit Face,” “terrorist,” “Gandhi dot,” and “sand monkey” – to mention just a few of the names that his mother is aware of.

A European-American shared some incidents she witnessed or learned about in her neighborhood.  In Union City, after an off-campus shooting, the Union City police pulled together suspected gang members and their friends, all of whom were African American, for questioning.  She wonders what role racism played in that roundup.

Her neighbor reported his car tagged with a gang symbol.  Some of the responding police suggested the perpetrators were wannabe gang members and called them “grease monkeys” and “welfare cases.”

Another friend, a middle-aged woman from south Asia, immigrated in 1978 and became a citizen in 1986.  She shared how for the first twenty-plus years she lived in the United States, she volunteered in her children’s schools, in Girl Scouts, in camps, in sports programs, and on the boards of several non-profit organizations.  Then came the attacks on September 11, 2001.  “It is painful to be labeled as terrorist,” she told me, “because of the 9/11 tragedy, [especially] after being a part of the American fabric for over 20 years and serving and trying to make America a better nation for all.  Our loyalties are questioned every day since that tragedy by asking us to condemn those or any other terrorists acts since then, no matter who is responsible and where it happens.”

This is a woman with a deeply compassionate heart, and she told me about another incident that happened to a young Latina who worked in Starbucks.  One day, my friend saw that the barista was upset and asked her what had happened.  Earlier that day, a customer had asked the barista a question about school.  The barista proudly told the customer that she had just graduated from high school.  The customer responded, “So this is it for you because your kind do not go to college, you will get pregnant and have babies.”  The barista was too stunned to respond, even though she could have said that she had a full scholarship to attend a university that fall.

These stories I’ve shared are about just one form of power that Racism takes.  You know the old expression, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”  It refers to the fact that the vast majority of an iceberg is underwater.  It applies here.  These overt acts of racism are the portion of the iceberg we can easily see.  Below the surface there are other powers at work.

The first power we see is “Power Against” or “Power Over.”  This is the power I’ve talked about so far, the power that works against people of color.  When racism wields this power, it tells the shop clerk to follow that African-American kids through the store because she is suspect, that it’s okay for a cop to label a Latino kid a “grease monkey,” and that the future for a 2-year-old black boy is jail.

The second power of racism is often harder to see.  It is the “Power For” people who are white.  This is the power that allows me to assume I will be treated justly in the court system, or to assume that I will get a job interview based solely on the fact that my name “sounds” white.  This is the power that gets me a bank loan when an equally qualified person of color doesn’t get it.  It is the power that allows me to assume that I will be shown the apartment if it’s available, as assumption people of color cannot always make.

One of the people who I asked to share stories of racism told me one about a time her daughter got caught shoplifting.  The mom threatened to “let them” have her arrested, and that this would ruin her chances to get into college, and there would be all kinds of consequences for her stupid actions, and (as the mom put it) “blah, blah, blah.”  The mom talked about grounding, severe consequences at home that hadn’t yet been imagined.  She said to the child that you need to apologize, assure the store person that you will never do anything like this again.  This went on until the store person said to the mom, “Obviously, you will make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Your child’s name will be kept on our records and isn’t allowed back in here.”  No police report filed.  No jail time.  No criminal record.  The daughter got to go home, got go to college.  The mom points out that she and her daughter are white.

This is racism’s Power For white people at work.

So is the fact that the GI Bill made home loans available to white GIs after World War II, but not to black GIs.[3]

One of my friends pointed out that white people general don’t acknowledge that their families have benefited from access to college educations, home loans, inherited wealth, job preferences, networking, safe travel, white-biased testing, financial and social training, etc.  All this is racism’s Power For white people.

And then there’s the third power of racism, the Power that Distorts the truth:  that we are each and all made in the image of God.  This is the power of racism that gets deeply and perhaps I should say demonically internalized.  Any time I feel better than, more than, scared of someone of darker hue, this is the result of this third power of racism distorting the truth in me.

A white friend shared with me about dating an African-American man.  My friend said, “Watching women clutch their purses or actually cross the street when they walked by my beautiful and gentle boyfriend was shocking to me.  Overhearing a family ask to move their seats away from our vicinity in a Black Angus restaurant was an eye-opener.”  This is racism’s Power that Distorts at work.  Racism distorted these strangers’ views of my friend’s boyfriend.

It is the same Power of racism at work in a friend who is of several races.  He shared with me how through his adolescence he tried so hard to be white.  He said, “I desperately wanted to be accepted by the White community.  I wanted to be as white as possible, forsaking the color of my skin, my heritage, and my culture,” this despite the fact that his white friends often bullied him, calling him “half-breed.”  Racism distorted my friend’s sense of his own full humanity and it has taken a lot of personal work to reclaim it.

Being aware of these Powers racism has is a start, but it is not enough.  Some of the work that we need to do is very personal, and I’ll talk about that next week.  The other work is communal work.  Obviously, standing up to overt acts of racial prejudice is one way we can address racism’s Power Against.  Working on policy change so that racism’s Power Against and Power For are rooted out is another activity we can engage in.  For instance, we could work for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.  And we as a congregation could develop partnerships with faith communities whose members are predominantly people of color.

The past sermons in this series have shown just how deeply racism runs in our culture and country.  We are not going to get rid of it easily.  But the more we are aware of racism’s powers, the more likely we will find ways to cast out this demonic legion that possesses us.

Amen.

[1] Kelly Brown Douglas, “The Stories That Matter from a Black Mother to Her Son,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/faith-action/stories-matter-black-mother-her-son (posted and accessed 20 March 2017).

[2] Fremont, Newark, and Union City are called the “Tri-Cities” here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

[3] See, for instance, http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/After-the-War-Blacks-and-the-GI-Bill.pdf and http://www.demos.org/blog/11/11/13/how-gi-bill-left-out-african-americans.

There was so much ground to cover in today’s sermon that I just couldn’t cover everything. One thing I didn’t talk about was the racist tweet from Congressman Steve King of Iowa, posted on March 12.

As you can see, King’s tweet is in support of his fellow anti-immigrant demagogue Geert Wilders (who is seeking to become the next Dutch prime minister), praising him as one who “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

The “our” of “our destiny” is White people. Since he’s tweeting about someone in Europe, one could assume that this isn’t just about White America, but it is about something bigger. And, sure enough, it is.

Asked by New Day host Chris Cuomo to defend the comments on March 13, King doubled down on his view that “western civilization” must be defended. Pressed on whether he believes “a Muslim American, an Italian American, Jewish American, [are] all equal, all the same thing,” King hesitated.

“They contribute differently to our culture and civilization,” the Iowa Republican responded. “Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will.” Watch the video.

When King talks about “the American civilization” and “the American culture,” he’s talking about White, Anglo-Saxon-based culture. And when he talks about “assimilation,” he’s talking about stripping non-Whites of their culture so the White-supremacist culture of controlling the United States doesn’t have to change. I have no doubt that Congressman King believes that the racist, Anglo-Saxon-based culture that has held power in the United States is supreme to all other cultures. It is a racist belief.

The Southern Poverty Law Center points out that this racist belief is based on lies.

It’s a lie, for example, that immigrants don’t want to learn English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56% of first-generation immigrants speak English “well” or “very well,” and the demand for English instruction actually far outstrips supply.

It’s a lie that immigrants are violent or criminal. According to a new report by The Sentencing Project, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. Higher levels of immigration may even have contributed to the historic drop in crime rates, researchers say.

In the run-up to both of President Trump’s Muslim bans, perhaps the most widely circulated lie has been that refugees are not screened before entering the country, that banning them will keep the U.S. safe from terror.  This is patently false.  Refugees undergo more rigorous screenings than any other individuals the government allows in the U.S., and we know that no deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to people from the countries covered by either executive order in the last 30 years.

All of these lies, however far-fetched, are based on the same dangerous falsehood:  that immigrants and refugees are somehow not like us:  that they’re not students in search of an education; that they’re not families trying to make ends meet; that as “somebody else’s babies,” they don’t belong here.

The truth is that immigrants are our neighbors and our friends.  They are Americans.

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