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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

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

____________

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 31, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a dream a few weeks back.  I was teaching a high school math class and as a sample problem to told this story.  My father decided to open a pet store.  The grand opening was intensely popular.  You would not believe the lion he had coming out the front door.

I don’t think it was an angel giving me a message.  Or maybe it was – and the message is, “Don’t quite your day job.”

Matthew begins his gospel not so much humorously as ironically.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  It’s a sign that he’s the fulfillment of the messianic promise.  And yet the first to recognize him and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazers, immigrants from the east.

We’ve mushed together the birth narratives, those overtures to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We’ve tried to harmonize these two different tunes.  This is the crèche my family used when I was growing up.  It was my mother’s childhood crèche, and it may have been her mother’s childhood crèche, though I don’t know that for sure.  You’ll notice both a shepherd and kings are at this stable.  I think there used to be more shepherds.  And an angel I would put on the stable roof.  I’m sure scenes like this contribute to the harmonization of the two stories in our minds.

I love the carol “The First Noel,” though it, too, contributes to the amalgamation of the two stories.  And it’s a bit of a pity, because if we take Matthew’s story by itself, we’ll see some interesting things going on, things we miss when we read the stories together.  And even when we do manage to separate Luke’s story from Matthew’s, we need to free ourselves from the images of kings.  We have to resist the influence of Hebrew scriptures like Psalm 72’s lines about kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king and falling down before him.  We have to let go of the notion that they were kings, and the number 3, and the names and faces the magi were given in the seventh century.[1]

When we do this, when we get to a purer reading of Matthew’s story, we’ll see things like that fact that the magi’s visit comes “after Jesus was born.”  Those are the words Matthew uses in the first verse of Chapter 2.  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem …”  He might be walking by the time the magi visit.

And when the magi get to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, “they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (verses 10 and 11).  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem.

At least Botticelli comes close.  The house is broken down, but there are no shepherds or barn animals.  And it seems that the whole town has turned our when these strangers from the east show up.

And, did you notice that the magi ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  Herod asks his advisors “where the Messiah was to be born” (verses 2 and 4).  “The Messiah, for Matthew, is King of the Jews.”

But think about this:  Matthew doesn’t use the title “king” again “until Pilate judges and executes Jesus at the end of his gospel.”[2]  Matthew is doing something here, tying together Herod and Pilate.  I think he’s reminding the readers that Roman power was behind any power Herod the Great had.  And, as we’ll look at more closely next week, the desire to kill Jesus starts at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  “Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill, and Roman-appointed Pilate succeeds in killing Jesus, the messianic King of the Jews.”[3]

But I was going to say something about how this overture to Matthew’s gospel is ironic.  First, the magi, these Gentile immigrants from the east, are the first to recognize and worship Jesus.  Then there’s Herod, who knows enough to know that this news is a political threat, but who doesn’t know his Hebrew scriptures enough to know where the Messiah is to be born.  Herod must be wondering, as Will Willimon noted, “What does the future hold?  Can a baby threaten the government?  Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?”[4]

And then there are the gifts the magi bring.  We know who Jesus is, so maybe this presentation of gifts makes a little sense to us.  At least, it made a little sense in my childhood sense of the story.  These are wise men, after all, so they would know who Jesus really is.

But imagine how ridiculous, preposterous this must have sounded to the people for whom Matthew was first writing.  Star gazers from another culture and country coming to a peasant family in backwater Bethlehem and presenting expensive gifts.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh – this does not make sense!  No reaction from Jesus’ mom and dad – this does not make sense!  People with power giving gifts to people who had no power – this does not make sense!

“In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status,” Diana Butler Bass notes.  “When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations.  Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy.  In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude – in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe.  Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.”[5]

By having foreign people of stature present gifts to Jesus, an infant peasant, Matthew is turning gift-giving on its head.  “Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts – they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod, or some rival ruler.  And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached.  Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.

“This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement.”[6]  What happened in Bethlehem was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression.  Rather, what Matthew is doing is proclaiming the same sort of thing that that is on Mary’s lips in Luke’s gospel when she sings, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

In Matthew’s gospel, these rich stargazers leave their gifts with a poor family and “go away empty-handed.  No strings attached.  No more quid pro quo.  No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.”[7]

Next to Holy Week, Christmas just might be the most political time of the church year.  Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is trembling in his boots.  There’s a new king in town, only he doesn’t rule from Herod Tower.  No, this new king is living in the backwoods town of Bethlehem.  And he’s not welcomed by the political elite or the 1 percent or even by biblical scholars at the Temple, but by immigrant nonbelievers from the east.

These are the themes that play out in Matthew’s overture to his gospel.  A baby causes fear in the halls of the powerful.  An infant gathers around himself outsiders, those whom the principalities and powers would oppress.  This is the baby who will with his people start dismantling the empire stone by stone without raising an army of firing a shot.[8]

There is one more thing about this story – the angel angle.  Actually, Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that an angel is involved – only a dream.  But in other dreams in Matthew’s gospel, it is often an angel speaking through the dream.

When the magi come to Herod to inquire about the newborn king, Herod orders them to return to him once the find the child.  They don’t.  It’s almost a throwaway line:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Warned in a dream.  How I wish Matthew had fleshed out this part of the story.  I’d love to know how he would have described the dream.  Would there have been an angel with a simple message:  “Don’t go back to Herod; go home by another route”?  Would it have been more symbolic, maybe some star the magi had to interpret?  Might they have been told the reason to avoid Herod?

But Matthew doesn’t elaborate.  All we get is one line.  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

It occurs to me – and I don’t think I’ve ever read someone else interpret the story this way – that the magi were performing civil disobedience.  The king of Israel had ordered them to come back to his court to tell them what they had found.  They didn’t follow the order.  They broke the law.  They went home by another road.

And this is one of the places where I think Matthew’s story intersects with our time.  This is not a time for pacification.  This is a time for resistance.  This is a time for shaking things up.  “We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.”[9]

The entire world is facing the dangers of climate change, and the current President of the United States insists that it isn’t real, calling it “a scam” and pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.  And just this Thursday, he mocked climate science because it’s cold in the eastern United States.

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

  • The top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled since 1968 while, despite the so-called “war on poverty,” the percentage of U.S. families living in poverty has remained essentially unchanged.
  • Though ours is the richest country in the world, 30.6 million children (43 percent) live at or below twice the poverty line, which is considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and laws designed to make it harder to vote.
  • The prison population in the U.S. has grown by 5 times from 1978 to 2015, with non-white prisoner growing from 49% to 66% of those imprisoned.[10]

“Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth-century Christian martyr killed by the powers that ruled El Salvador [in 1980], once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world, in a world still ruled by Herod and Caesar.  So also [I think] we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.  But Good Friday and the descent of darkness do not have the final word – unless we let them.

“Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow him.  Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around him, he is, for Christians, Emmanuel: ‘God with us.’”[11]

This is a great time to be wise people, people willing to obey God and not human authority.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (accessed 26 December 2017).

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 137.

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

[4] William Willimon, “Christmas: Herod in Trouble,” A Peculiar Prophet, https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/christmas-herod-in-trouble/ (posted 19 December 2016; accessed 27 December 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “Why Jesus’ first Christmas gifts were truly shocking,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/25/why-jesus-first-christmas-gifts-were-truly-shocking/?utm_term=.a0e26c852f23 (posted and accessed 25 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sarah Anderson, “10 Reasons to Revive the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/10-reasons-to-revive-the-1968-poor-peoples-campaign/ (posted 4 December 2017; accessed 30 December 2017).

[11] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 243.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:8-20 and Luke 1:46-55
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives is who they say were the first (beyond Mary and Joseph) to recognize the importance of the child.  Matthew tells of magi, learned men coming from the east to pay the child homage.  I’ll talk more about them next week.

Luke says that the first to recognize the importance of the child were shepherds.  And the shepherds didn’t come to this conclusion on their own.  They as a group experienced a visitation from an angel bringing them glad tidings of great joy, telling them about the birth of a child in Bethlehem.  And then the shepherds decided to go check out for themselves what they’d been told.

I’ve been pondering, pretty much all month, this question:  Why shepherds?  The answers lie in the social and political reality of Jesus’ day, and they lie in what Luke was trying to accomplish in his gospel.  Marcus Borg summed up the social and political reality of Jesus day in one sentence:  “Jesus and early Christians lived within the largest and most powerful domination system of the ancient world.”[1]

The good news that Jesus brought, the good news the adult Jesus preached and embodied was and is God’s loving alternative to domination systems.  That’s one reason Luke tell us that angels came to the shepherds and they were the first to receive the news.  Shepherds were part of the masses, the common people, the lower part of the lower classes.[2]

Many scholars have concluded that shepherds were even lower than that.  They say that shepherds were social outcasts in the time of Jesus,[3] and whether or not that’s accurate, it is certain that they led a difficult life on the periphery of the community.  While they were lucky to have employment, their job was pretty much 24/7.  Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter the weather.  They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals.  Each night, the shepherds would gather their flocks into places called “sheepfolds.”  These could be stone walls made by the shepherds or natural enclosures, such as a cave.  In the morning, they led the flocks out to graze.[4]  And so the days went, one after the next.

And this brings us to what Luke was trying to do with his Gospel.  One of Luke’s major concerns is the marginalized.  We get hints of this throughout his birth narrative.  The angel appears to shepherds because they qualify as the “lowly” and the “hungry,” the very people in the political manifesto Mary sang when she embraced God’s mission in this birth.  Luke insists that people who have resources are obligated to care for people who don’t, for the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized.[5]

There’s another thing that Luke is doing by telling us about this angelic visitation to the shepherds – he’s setting up Jesus as the new David.  We’re in Bethlehem, the city of David.  And remember, before he became king of Israel, David was a shepherd.

And then there’s the language the angel uses in the announcement.  The angel calls the baby “a savior” and “the Lord.”  And then the whole angelic host sing of glory to God and peace on earth.  Savior and lord are titles claimed by the Roman emperors from Caesar Augustus onward.  And peace was something Caesar Augustus promised the empire – pax Romana.  Luke is setting up the whole gospel of kingdom of God as being the alternative to the kingdom of Rome.  And Luke is setting up the different ways to peace.  “Augustus became Rome’s Peace-Bringer with peace through violent victory but Jesus became God’s Peace-Bringer with peace through non-violent justice.”[6]

John Dominic Crossan says, “The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment.  For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of [the] … Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was:  religion, war, victory, peace.  Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory.  But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program:  religion, non-violence, justice, peace.  Its mantra was peace through justice.  Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John’s powerful parable:  God’s Kingdom, as distinct from Rome’s Kingdom, precludes violence – not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36).

“Victory’s violence establishes not peace but lull – until the next and always more violent round of war.  The Christian challenge of Christmas is this:  justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God’s world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth.”

Then Crossan asks, “But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all?  Hint:  ask what is fair – in first or 21st century – of the 99 percent of earth’s people and not of the 1 percent.”[7]

We need only go to the Greek island of Lesbos, to the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, to talk to our culture’s equivalent of the shepherds.  More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded in a space meant for 2,330.

Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  “The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Among [the people now forced to call Moria home] are Kareema and her elderly mother, Kamila, who spent the past few years trapped in Deir al-Zour in Syria under the rule of the Islamic State.…  ‘There was no electricity; we were using oil lamps.  It was as though we returned to the Stone Ages,’ Kareema told me.  Though they suffered terribly – ‘We left because there were no longer doctors, hospitals or health care,” she said – nothing prepared mother and daughter for Moria.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…

“The Christmas story is their story more than anyone else’s.  It is a story of displacement, in which Mary and Joseph leave their home and give birth to Jesus in strange city.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is born at the margins of society, poor and wrapped in cloth and laid ‘in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’…

“If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married.  Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside.…

“As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.

“There is much at stake for them in our looking.  If the people I met don’t get out of the camp soon, they risk freezing to death.  But looking at Moira can also teach us about what Christmas really is – a story of how our salvation is bound up in the lives of those who suffer most.”[8]

I think Luke would agree.

In the 14th century, mystic Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”

What good is it, indeed?

Amen.

[1] Marcus Borg, Convictions, reposted on https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/photos/p.1605197432871687/1605197432871687/ on 15 December 2017.

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 48.

[3] See, for instance, https://factsandtrends.net/2015/12/17/christmas-urban-legends-shepherds-as-outcasts/.

[4] “How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus,” American Bible Society, http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/how-people-made-a-living-in-the-time-of-jesus (accessed 23 December 2017).

[5] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 48.

[6] John Dominic Crossan, first light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God, a reader for the “Living the Questions” series, copyright 2009 by livingthequestions.com, page 8. Found online on 23 December 2017 at http://www.unitedchurchgranville.org/uploads/4/2/8/5/4285724/first_light_reader.pdf.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas,” Huffinton Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/the-challenge-of-christma_b_1129931.html (posted 12 December 2011; accessed 23 December 2017).

[8] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

SaveSave

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 15:21-39 and Psalm 139:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Why, Pastor Jeff?  Why?”  She didn’t usually call me “Pastor Jeff.”  Typically, I was simply “Jeff.”  But her child, not yet in kindergarten, was in the local Children’s Hospital having just been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  “Why did God do this to my son?” she asked me.

I don’t remember ever feeling so inadequate to the calling.

At a theological level, I didn’t (and don’t) believe God gave her child diabetes.  At a medical level, I knew there was something strange going on with her family’s autoimmune system.  Both of her boys – this youngster and her eldest child – had Crohn’s disease.  And her adult brother had recently gone through a Guillain-Barré crisis.

But her question wasn’t a medical one, nor was it a theological one.  Her question was a lament from the cross:  “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”  And I didn’t know what to say.

These words from today’s gospel lesson have echoed in my mind and heart as news of the earthquake along the Iran/Iraq border broke.  I imagine similar cries were made this week in Greece and Sri Lanka, just as they were made in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and across the Caribbean.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

According to Matthew and Mark, this question is the final thing Jesus said before he died.  A question is the final thing Jesus said before he died.  “And yet, the question Jesus asks on the cross is different from all his other questions.  It isn’t a rhetorical question or a teaching tool.  It is not offered for the benefit of Jesus’ hearers.  Rather, it is an agonizing question that is difficult to hear.  This question stands alone, which is appropriate because it is itself an expression of isolation:  ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’  This question is raw and threatening, like an open wound.  It sounds like an expression of despair, of hopelessness, of doubt even, which, of course, is just what it is.  And it hangs in the air unanswered.

“We are never very good at letting those whom we admire be fully human, shed human tears, or express human agony.  And when the one we hear expressing despair is Jesus, it is not just our view of him that can be shaken but also our view of God and our view of ourselves.  If Jesus doubts, even for a moment, it can seem like enough to scatter our light and fragile faith.”[1]

Even without this moment recorded in the Gospels, feelings of injustice, deep hurt, the seeming absence of God in our own lives is a threat to our faith.  And there on the cross, when Jesus is experiencing true injustice, excruciating pain, and deep loneliness, he does not reassure us with a statement of faith.  He does not reassure himself or us by quoting Psalm 139, “If I ascend to heaven, you [God] are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, [the world of the dead,] you are there.”[2]  No, he quotes Psalm 22.  He quotes the first verse of Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is called a Psalm of lament.  There is a whole genre of biblical literature called “lament.”  There’s a whole book of the Hebrew Bible that is call “Lamentations.”  About a third of the Psalms fall into this genre.  Martin Copenhaver claims that there are more prayers of lament in the Bible than there are prayers of praise.[3]

Psalms of lament typically follow a standard pattern.  They start with an expression of grief and consternation – typically a complaint that God isn’t doing God’s job (or at least not going what the lamenter thinks is God’s job).  There is usually some sort of “Get with it, God,” message in there, too.  Then the lament turns to a plea for God’s help.  And finally, it ends with an expression of affirmation and trust, often including a reminder – probably there to remind the one lamenting more than to remind anyone else – of how God has been faithful in the past.

“One might summarize the movements of a lament in this way:  First, ‘God, you are not doing your job.’  Second, ‘God, you need to do your job.’  Third, ‘I am confident you will do your job because you have in the past.’”[4]

Commentators have suggested that Jesus must have known this pattern of lament, as would have those reading the gospels.  They might say that while Jesus only quotes the beginning of the Psalm, he knows how it ends; “God did not despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered – God did not hide God’s face from me.  No, God listened when I cried out for help.”[5]

These commentators suggest that Jesus didn’t need to quote the rest of the Psalm.  He knew where it was headed, as do we.  So the line that is quoted isn’t quite such a cry of abandonment, it isn’t quite such an expression of desolation as it first seems.

Others say that, even though this is a cry of desolation, it is still a cry of faith:  “My God, my God.”  “Jewish author Elie Wiesel, who as a boy was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, [told] a story that reflects some of this same dynamic:

‘Inside the kingdom of night I witnessed a strange trial.  Three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, decided one winter evening to indict God for having allowed his children to be massacred.  An awesome conclave, particularly in view of the fact that it was held in a concentration camp.  But what happened next is to me even more awesome still.  After the trial at which God had been found guilty as charged, one of the rabbis looked at the watch which he had somehow managed to preserve in the kingdom of night and said, “Ah, it is time for prayers.”  And with that the three rabbis, all erudite and pious men, all bowed their heads and prayed.’

“Perhaps the words of the persecuted Jesus may be viewed in the same way.  The God who has been found guilty of absence remains a God to be approached through prayer.  The God who is absent is still ‘My God, my God.’  In moments of agony that is sometimes the closest we can come to a statement of faith.”[6]

These interpretations may be helpful, but they are, I think, also potentially dangerous.  If they take away the sting of Jesus’ words, if they soften the depth of his anguish, his pain, his sense of abandonment and desolation, they do us a disservice.  “[A]s difficult as it may be to let these words stand as stark and threatening as they sound, it is only when we do so that we can receive their true blessing.”[7]

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is “the question of those who wonder how it is that circumstances seem to conspire against them and who begin to conclude that God is in on the conspiracy.”[8]  It is the question of the father in the waiting room at Children’s Hospital.  It is the question of the mother clutching her child crushed by a building that falls in an earthquake.  It is the question of each one of us when we feel abandoned.

Martin Coperhaven points out, “No one feels so alone as the one who feels deserted by God.  And note the cruel irony that the absence of God is only a problem for the believer.  Furthermore, the greater one’s faith, the greater the potential for disillusionment when that faith is directed toward a God who seems to have left without a trace.  It is the one who rejoices most in God’s presence who is the most bereft when God is gone.  By this measure, could anyone have felt so deserted, so alone, all, all alone, as Jesus on the cross?

“‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  It is difficult to let that question stand, raw and not explained away, yet there are gracious benefits in doing just that.”[9]  This question, more than any other he asked, shows us how truly human Jesus was.  It is a question that reminds me that Jesus has walked in the same darkness as me.  It is a question that reminds me that Jesus experienced as deep a hopelessness as I might feel, and that gives me hope.

Amen.

[1] Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 109-110.

[2] Psalm 139:8

[3] Copenhaver, op. cit., 111.

[4] Ibid, 112.

[5] Psalm 22:24, inclusive language mine.

[6] Copenhaver, op. cit., 113, quoting Robert McAfee Brown quoting Elie Wiesel in Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 154.

[7] Ibid, 114.

[8] Ibid, 115.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 17, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 4:16-20 and Micah 6:1-8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I spent some time last week trying to remember what was going on in the world in 1980 and 1981.  I remember that there was fighting in El Salvador and Nicaragua between rival political groups.  The Soviet Union had invaded and was fighting a war in Afghanistan.  The Iran Hostage Crisis was unfolding through all of 1980, ending as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States in January of ’81.  That was the first presidential election I voted in.

I did a little hunting online to see what else was going on.  Though Israel entered into a peace agreement with Egypt in 1978, in 1980 and ’81, Israel was skirmishing with its neighbors (particularly with Lebanon, and a notable air raid in Iraq).  I forgot that the Iran/Iraq War started in 1980, lasting through that decade.  This was also when the Solidarity movement in Poland started – and was met with Martial Law being declared.  And in 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated, showing how high the cost of peacemaking can actually be.

I’ve been thinking about this because in 1981, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution establishing September 21 as a day devoted to “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.”[1]  The theme for this year’s peace day is “Together for Peace.”

United Church of Christ recognizes the Sunday preceding September 21 as “Just Peace Sunday.”  So today is Just Peace Sunday.  The term, “Just Peace,” goes back in the United Church of Christ to 1985.  That is the year when the 15th General Synod of the UCC adopted the “Just Peace pronouncement.”  This pronouncement “articulated for the first time a UCC position on war and peace that is distinct from other historic Christian approaches, namely the theories and practices of Crusade, Pacifism, and Just War.”[2]

While it is unlikely that the early church was officially pacifist, a rejection of violence runs deep in Christian theology of the first four centuries.  Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this pacifist stream seems to go largely underground.  By the eleventh century, Christianity had become a Eurocentric and warrior religion, launching crusades to conquer the “Holy Lands.”

Thomas Aquinas

Around the same time the Crusades ended, Thomas Aquinas laid out the beginnings of what became the Just War doctrine or Just War theory.  It has two parts, two sets of criteria.  The first establishes the right to go to war; the second establishes right conduct within a war.  This doctrine has held sway in the West for almost a thousand years, influencing everything from the Geneva Conventions to recent Presidents’ justifications of going to war.

Menno Simons

But the Just War doctrine is not the only Christian response to war.  By the sixteenth century, with the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist stream again surfaced.  It’s most famous advocate from that time is probably Menno Simons.  He held that one could either follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, or one could follow the Prince of Strife.  Several denominations birthed out of the Reformation followed this path, and they are often known as “peace churches.”  They include the Church of the Brethren, the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish.

In 1981, the same year that the United Nations established the International Day of Peace, a youth delegate to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod 13 brought a resolution calling on the UCC to become a “peace church.”  This resolution would have led the UCC to identify with the pacifist tradition in Christianity, rather than the Just War tradition.  Over the next four years, as the denomination wrestled with this call, a new theory was born.  Rather than focusing on what makes a war just, it focused on what makes a peace just.  And in 1985, the UCC affirmed a pronouncement “Affirming the United Church of Christ to be a Just Peace Church,” the first Christian denomination to do so.

“Just Peace was defined in the pronouncement as the ‘interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence’ and was grounded … in the biblical concerts of covenant and shalom.  Just Peace offer[s] a holistic view of working at the intersection of peace and justice, acknowledging the connections between violence and systemic issues like environmental degradation, racism, economic disparity, homophobia, and the loss of civil and human rights.…  [T]he pronouncement offer[s] with prophetic conviction the vision that ‘war can and must be eliminated’ and the shared hope that ‘peace is possible.’”[3]

Just as in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches can officially become “Open and Affirming Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to welcome LGBTQ+ people, and just as in the Disciples of Christ, churches can officially become “Green Chalice Congregations” by participating in certain study and by taking certain actions to decrease the church’s environmental impact, the UCC recognizes individual churches as “Just Peace congregations” when they participate in certain study and by take certain actions.  We could do this.  We could become a Just Peace congregation.

But you may ask, “Why?  Why would we want to become a Just Peace congregation?”  To be honest, we might not.  If we actually engage the discussion, if we actually do the study and let it call us to action, we might not like where it takes us.  Corey Fields writes, “[P]eople get trolled, families split apart, and pastors get fired when you start asking how we can take Jesus seriously.  Jesus is fine as a name, but if you create an encounter between Jesus and the personal lives or politics of Christians, you might have trouble.

“You can read Jesus’ words declaring blessed the ‘peacemakers,’ ‘the meek,’ and ‘the merciful’ (Matt. 5:3-10), and you might get nods of approval, but if you start talking about actually being merciful towards the desperate or peaceful towards the violent, you might be called foolish. …

“You can quote Jesus’ approach to our material possessions as ‘treasures on earth where moths and vermin destroy’ (Matt. 6:19-20), or tell the story of the rich man being told to sell all he has (Mark 10:17-22).  You can get a wink and a smile as you read Jesus saying that it’s ‘easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle’ (Luke 18:25).  But start talking about actual economic equity, and you might be called a communist.

“Surrounded by glimmering Christmas lights and angelic choruses, we read the story of a young Jesus’ family having to flee a violent ruler (Matt. 2:13-18).  But bring up that this made Jesus’ family refugees and ask how this should inform our approach to the millions in similar situations today, and you might be told to get your politics out of church.

“You can read the passage where Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (Luke 4:18-19) [that’s today’s gospel lesson], saying that fulfilled in Him is God’s mission to ‘proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  You’re fine as long as you understand these words in a spiritualized, abstract way ([even though] Isaiah didn’t).  But beware if you start talking about how to seek actual freedom and redemption for the imprisoned, or if you start trying to define who is actually ‘oppressed’ and how to actually set them free.  (And have you ever looked into what ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ refers to?)”[4]

Too often we want, as white author Wilbur Rees suggests, only $3 worth of God:[5]

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

But if we engage with a Just Peace study as part of determining if we want to become a Just Peace congregation, but may end up with a lot more than $3 worth of God.  We may end up with enough to transform our lives.

Too often people just jump to verse 8 when they read Micah 6:1-8.  When you do that, you miss the set up.  It’s a lawsuit.  Israel has been served with papers by none other than Yahweh.  It’s time for Israel to plead their case.  The case against Israel is that they have failed to keep covenant with God.  God, on the other hand, has kept covenant with Israel.  So how are they going to respond?

Israel’s response is to get in deep with the sacrificial Temple system.  Perhaps burnt offerings of calves a year old would be an appropriate act of contrition.  Or maybe God deserves more: thousands of rams.  Or tens of thousands of rivers of oil.  Or maybe even our firstborn.  Maybe we need to offer up our children on the altar of sacrifice as we seem to do so easily on the altar of war.

Only, that’s not what God wants.  God has shown us mortals what is good and what God requires:  That we do justice, that we love kindness, and that we walk humbly with God.

If Niles Discovery Church were to be served with papers, if God were to bring a case before the mountains and the foundations of the earth against us, what would the charge be?  That we have only bought $3 worth of God when God wants to give us everything?  That, while we are doing a good job at downstream social justice work, we have failed to do enough upstream social justice work?  That we are great at pulling the children out of the river and caring for them, but we have failed to go upstream and find out why the children keep ending up in the river in the first place?

“Micah 6:8 teaches us ‘to do justice.  To love mercy.  And to walk humbly with your God’ – these are active, not passive, pursuits.  We are enjoined to seek and create the change that our world so desperately needs.

“For Americans [who are Christians], this means the protection and promotion of voting rights; it means an honest reckoning with the school-to-prison pipeline and a reversal of the choices that have led to unprecedented mass incarceration; it means deconstructing the structural inequities that create educational disadvantages, early mortality, and generational poverty.”[6]  It means addressing the climate crisis with action that is as radical as ending slavery was in the 19th century.

As our anthem sang out, God has work for us to do.

Amen.

[1] “About,” U.N. International Day of Peace, http://internationaldayofpeace.org/about/ (accessed 16 September 2017).

[2] United Church of Christ, Just Peace Church Handbook (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2015), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corey Fields, “Be careful how close you let Jesus get to real life,” Baptist News Global, https://baptistnews.com/article/careful-close-let-jesus-get-real-life/#.Wb3UK63MyH0 (posted 30 August 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

[5] Quoted several places online, including Ibid.

[6] Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Reverend and rabbi: Removing symbols of racism isn’t enough, we need policy action,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/09/05/reverend-and-rabbi-removing-symbols-of-racism-isnt-enough-we-need-policy-action/?utm_term=.26ae01efdc21 (posted 5 September 2017; accessed 12 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/news_charlottesville_state_of_emergency_ends_unite_the_right_rally_08122017 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-charlottesville-white-nationalists-rally-20170812-story.html (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/car-hits-crowd-protesters-white-nationalist-rally-virginia/story (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10154669492056496 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/recognizing-gods-presence-0 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8345/how-god-answers-the-worst-prayer-in-the-bible (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble?parent=51401 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-10-a-something-more/ (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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