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A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 2, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 10:25-37and James 1:17-27
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I realize it’s been quite a while since I’ve shared the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town.  As you might suspect, it’s been a quiet week.  The southerners from Massachusetts and Connecticut are in town at full force, grabbing the last few days of summer at their cottages and cabins at “the lake,” as if there is only one in all of New Hampshire.  School starts this week in Mount William, and in many of those southern towns, it seems.  Teachers have been in their classrooms getting them ready. Elementary students are excitedly buying school supplies.  High schoolers are dreading that the permission to sleep in is almost gone and they will be catching those early buses to get to the John Stark Regional High School.

I suppose it’s news that Scott Barnes left for seminary last week. He’s the first to head off to seminary from the Mount William Congregational Church in decades.  It was quite the little fête last Sunday at the worship service as this young man, raised in the church, was blessed.

Howard Friend, the pastor at the Congregational Church, remembers when he first met Scott.  It was at the beginning of his call to that church.  Scottie was all of five or six years old when his family first arrived at the church.  Pastor Howard remembers Scottie bouncing around the Sunday school classrooms with his older brother, and twirling on his father’s hand while being led through the church parking lot.  His naturally large eyes looked even bigger behind his think glasses, giving him the appearance of always being surprised.

Scottie’s parents, Craig and Diana, joined the church because they wanted their sons baptized.  Their welcome was almost overwhelming; in those days the church was struggling to attract younger members, so when this family showed up, the exuberance of the greeters was almost too much.  Soon enough, though, the Barneses settled into the life of the church.

Over the years though, it became clear that something was amiss with Diana.  First, she started missing meetings.  Then Pastor Howard noticed that only Scott, his brother, and his father attended worship. When Diana did come, she was disheveled and inattentive.

When Craig made an appointment with his pastor, he immediately plunged into the deep water.  “She drinks so much.  I can’t make her stop.”  He went on to describe the horrible arguments, the days he would come home from work to find her passed out when she was supposed to be watching the boys, the bottles hidden around the house, and her repeated fender benders.  It was Pastor Howard’s turn to be overwhelmed, but rather than it being from a too enthusiastic welcome, it was by the hell this family was living in, a hell that somehow snuck under the radar of the church. When Pastor Howard brought up treatment options, Craig replied, “That’s how the worst of the fights start.”

It took one crisis too many, one crisis that put the boys’ lives in jeopardy, that finally convinced Diana to go for treatment. Unfortunately, she didn’t stay sober, and eventually Craig decided that, for the sake of his sons, he had to divorce her.  And through it all, the church was there for them – all of them.  Members of the church offered babysitting, covered dishes, prayers, and friendship to Craig.  A member of the church who had been sober for 20 years befriended Diana, even though she stopped coming to the church.  And that friendship may have been the thing that eventually led Diana to try treatment again and to find some sanity in sobriety.

Meanwhile, the boys were given starring roles in the Christmas pageants, found their best friends in the youth group, and went on mission trips to learn about themselves and people from difference cultures. Everyone knew what the family’s problems were, but there was never a word of judgment or even pity.  The people of Mount William Congregational Church were just being the church.  They were, without even thinking about it, embodying that holy something called grace.

I don’t know when it was that Scott became so reflective – maybe it was while he was away at college – but it sure showed last Sunday, during the service.  He was invited to “say a few words” and Scott decided to talk about the reason he was going to seminary.  The reason he felt called to ministry was really quite simple.  “I’ve never been able to get over the love of this congregation, the love that kept showing up on our doorstep year after year when there was only heartache on the other side.  That truly is following the call of Jesus.  And now, it’s my turn.”

It occurs to me, though, that offering help is often easier for many of us to do than it is to ask for help.  And I think that asking for help is also a way to follow Jesus’ call.

A case in point from last winter:  William Kincaid.  Now, he didn’t have particularly good role models when it comes to asking for help. Childhood polio greatly weakened his mother’s left side, and though she could have benefited from it, she didn’t take kindly to people offering to help carry a stack of books or navigate a flight of stairs.  His father carried the atrocities of Iwo Jima with him for 60 years without ever asking anyone to help shoulder the emotional burden.

Oh, William had learned the lesson of the importance of asking for help time and again.  He’d even confessed it – but without correcting it.

And then one morning last January, he looked down and there they were, a woman and her husband kneeling at his feet, putting his socks on him. A week and a half earlier, a January storm left a glaze of ice on everything.  That afternoon he waved good-bye to a friend and approached the steps that connect the church parking lot to the sidewalk – and slipped.  Down the entire flight of granite steps, hitting each step with his back before coming to rest on the small mound of snow that ran the length of the sidewalk.  By the next day, his entire body had knotted itself around his lower back and he could not stand up.

Once again, the people of the Mount William Congregational Church stepped into action as soon as they heard the news.  They made generous offers; William awkwardly obliged.  “Sure, I mean, if you’re going by the pharmacy anyway.”  “OK, if you’re getting a sandwich for yourself and are going to be in the neighborhood.”  “Well, I think I can drive myself to physical therapy, but I’d enjoy the company.”

But he couldn’t pick up the phone and ask someone to come and just sit with him.  He couldn’t initiate the favor of having someone drive him to their home to sit in their whirlpool, even though people wanted to know how they could help.  He couldn’t bring himself to ask someone to drop off some food or heat packs or some badly needed muscle relaxants.

This big mistake caught up with him quickly, and it caused him to make a lot of smaller yet still consequential ones.  William could ask for just about anything else – for people to increase their financial giving to the church, for the congregation to volunteer tutor at the elementary school, for individuals to come with him to testify at a meeting of the Board of Selectmen – but he couldn’t ask for help for himself.

Until, of course, he had no choice but to ask for help.  A new vulnerability enveloped William, and not just because he couldn’t put on his own socks, or because he had to lie on the floor of a minivan while being driven to physical therapy.  It was more than that.  His cloak of invincibility had shredded.

And with that vulnerability came a deep sadness, partly because he realized he had made his own life more difficult, and more importantly because his insistence on not needing help had made him less of a genuine companion on the journey with others.

Those friends did more than put his socks on for him.  They ushered him at least a few steps in the direction of mutuality and solidarity.  It’s a gift to be strong and scrappy, but something like the January ice eventually comes to us all.  The greater gift is to be human with each other, to be as open to receiving help as we are eager to give it, and to allow a community’s care and companionship to laugh away the most debilitating mistakes of all.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, we all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.


[1]This sermon was inspired by, and I quote and paraphrase from, M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters: The rest of the story,” Christian Century, 1 May 2013 edition, p. 57, and William B. Kincaid, “Mistake: Essays by readers,” Christian Century, 6 July 2016 edition, pp. 26-27.


[Updated: 3 Sept. 2o17]

In the final days of August, the self-titled “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” released their “Nashville Statement,” reiterating their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, condemning lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and denying the reality of gender variance beyond the male/female binary. This “manifesto” is composed of 14 beliefs, rejects the idea that otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree on gay, lesbian and transgender issues. The leaders refer to this mentality as “moral indifference.”

Author, historian, and theologian Diana Butler Bass tweeted a thread on some history behind the Nashville Statement. I encourage you to read the whole thing. She points out that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was stated in 1987 by men in response to the formation of two women’s organizations within Evangelical Christianity that embraced to one degree or another equality. She tweets, “For the last 30 years, feminism and LBGT issues have roiled in evangelical circles w/o [without] a clear consensus on theology. But opposition to one has generally resulted in opposition to the other.  For the biblical hermeneutic [the lens through which one views scripture when doing theology] behind both is the same.” This biblical hermeneutic that sees women and LGBTQ+ people as second class has become the predominant one within Evangelical Christianity.

I have read some very strongly worded renunciations of the “Nashville Statement. I particularly like John Pavlovitz’s somewhat snarky “translation” of the Nashville Statement in which he removes “the sanctified verbiage.”

One comment really struck me was posted on Facebook by Travis Ables and quoted by my Facebook friend Mike Morrell. It says in part, “Fascinating that in the time we’re living in, evangelical theologians chose to double down on bigotry in a statement no one was asking for. They could have addressed Trumpism, racism, and fascism. They could have shelved their agenda and released a call to action for victims of natural disasters. They could have issued a soul-searching plea to reexamine the idolatry of nationalism in the white church. They could have issued anathemas against the apostate religious leaders who still stand in support of the president after Charlottesville. In fact, addressing these issues would have been the only way to say something with any integrity or meaning, a chance to show that the church might still give a damn about the agonies our country is going through.”

The simple fact of the matter is that the Nashville Statement is bad theology. As Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie M. Townes put it, “The Nashville Statement skips past the depth of God’s expansive love and cloaks itself in an arrogant and fearful Christianity that insists that this is the will of God. Not true. Not prophetic. Not biblical.” If you’re interested in a deconstruction of the Nashville Statement pointing out it’s bad theology, I refer you to this post by Chuck McKnight.

In response, several groups have issued statements with better theology and that lift up God’s radically inclusive love. Christians United has issued a statement using the same format at the “Nashville Statement” of affirmations and denials that I have signed. While I’m not fully comfortable with the traditional notion of the “fallenness of humanity,” that seems a minor quibble when statements such as this need vast numbers of Christians signing them. The Disciples LGBTQ+ Alliance also supports the Christians United statement.

Another statement I’ve signed is the “Connecticut Statement.” It uses the same format and I am much more comfortable with its theology.

So, what can you do? Well, if you’re a Christian, here are just a couple options:

  • Sign the United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming Coalition’s petition, “The ‘Nashville Statement’ Is an Affront to Our Values as Christians.”
  • Sign onto the Christians United statement.
  • Sign onto the Connecticut Statement.
  • And most importantly, post something in your social media networks that shows your support as a Christian of LGBTQ+ people. Do this regularly.

If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.

I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”

I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.

While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.

Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.  People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.

To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.

And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.

As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:

For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.

The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.

When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.

Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.

When you think back to 2015, about what happened that year, what events come to your mind?

I’ve been digging through back issues of the Christian Century that I hadn’t read over the past 18 months or so, finding little gems (some of which I’ve posted here; some of which I’ve filed away for future sermons). The 23 December 2015 edition included a collection of quotes from they year — this is something that they do in their final issue of the year. The collection brought back memories of things that happened that year, some of them echoing through this year. Here are a few of the quotes (with a definite USA bias).

UK columnist Giles Fraser had an important insight about the “war on terror,” which could be repeated this year (if you increase the number of years he mentioned):

The war on terror is now in its 15th year. And yet things are demonstrably no better. Why? Because we still have no vision of what peace might look like.

Do you remember that Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress in 2015? Sadly, still true today.

Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.

One of the major tragedies of 2015 was the murder of nine members of a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was stuck by how quickly members of that church offered forgiveness to the accused shooter, Dylann Roof. I wasn’t surprised by devout Christians offering forgiveness; I am surprised — impressed, really — at how quickly they could offer it. Speaking to Roof, Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, said:

You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all move toward forgiveness as faithfully.

Justice took a huge step forward in the United States in 2015 when equal marriage rights were granted same-gender-loving people in all 50 states. This right continues to be celebrated in 2016, and Justice Kennedy’s words were and are important. Here’s a brief example:

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do not respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.

One of the amazing things that happened during the presidential campaign was when Bernie Sanders when to fundamentalist Christian Liberty University. He said how important it is to talk with and listen to people you disagree with, and so he went to this setting. Here’s one of the things he said about the income and wealth gap in the United States.

There is no justice … when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And it your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.

And, of course, 2015 was the hottest year on record (until then – 2016 will be even hotter). I don’t have a great quote about this, but it’s a news story that can’t be ignored.

Do you have a quote from 2015 (or event) that you think was really important? Add it in a comment.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 4, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:2-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a young teenager, my father’s sister decided to get married.  She’d been married, had a child, and was divorced before I was born.[1]  So I only knew my aunt as a single mother.  I also started reading the Bible and trying to understand what is meant as a young teenager, and I started with the gospels, and I started with Mark (because it’s the shortest).  This means that I read today’s gospel lesson at about the same time my divorced aunt decided to marry her boyfriend.

I was concerned.  I’m not sure if I was more concerned about how Jesus would view my aunt or how the addition of an uncle and his family would impact my family’s celebration of Christmas – but I was concerned.

I was confronted by this scripture reading again about a quarter of a century ago, which seems much too long ago, so let’s just say it was 24 years ago.  I was serving a church in Spokane and was part of an ecumenical lectionary study group:  three episcopal priests, a Disciples of Christ pastor, a Presbyterian pastor or two, me, maybe someone else.

Today’s gospel lesson came up in the lectionary.  It was paired with Genesis 2:18-24, the section of the second creation story where the woman is created from the rib of the man.  It included the sentence Jesus quotes about the two becoming one flesh.  The Psalm was 128, which includes these lines:  “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.  You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.  Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.”[2]

The others in the Bible study started talking about the lessons as I considered the risk of saying out loud what was going on in my heart.  I wasn’t out to very many people in Spokane, but I decided to risk coming out to these colleagues.  I told them that as a gay man, I found these scriptures difficult to hear because they didn’t just ignore my reality, they denied my reality.

Afghan MSF medical personnel treat civilians injured following an offensive against Taliban militants by Afghan and coalition forces at the MSF hospital in Kunduz. Photo from NBC website.

And here we are, 24 years later, with this gospel lesson again.  It’s paired with different readings in the lectionary now, but the reading itself hasn’t changed.  And it feels as if it has little to do with the fact that today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, World Communion Sunday, and the first day of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  And it feels like it has little to do with the fact that during the past week there was yet another mass shooting, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, or that yesterday, a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Afghanistan was bombed by my country, killing 19 people – 12 staff working for the international aid organization and seven patients, including three children – and that a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan labeled the deaths and destruction as “collateral damage.”[3]

Not only does it feel like it has nothing to do with these events, it’s a disturbing passage.  In all honesty, passages like this make me want to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s knife and just remove it from the Bible.

And that’s actually one of the reasons I decided to preach on it.  When I find myself angered by or resistant to some scripture, I take it as a sign that I should do some wrestling with is.  So I’ve been wrestling with the scripture.  And I think, maybe, the scripture is winning.

One of the commentaries I looked at points out, “the prohibition of divorce appears in many early texts of the followers of Jesus … and may derive from Jesus himself.  Some interpreters argue that it was introduced to protect women from being abandoned without support, but there is nothing [overt] in any of these texts to suggest this [is the point Jesus is making].  Further, the Qumran sect also prohibited divorce with the same scriptural argument as here:  marriage was ordained at creation.…  Among his followers the prohibition of divorce might have addressed the situation of those who were separating for celibacy [and was an argument against that practice[4]].…  Biblical law allowed only men to initiate divorce (Deut. 24:1-4), but in this period Jewish women, in accordance with Roman law, also initiated divorces…”[5]  In other words, it’s hard to unpack the social context in which this passage was written.

And as I’ve wrestled with it, I realize that I hear it very personally.  I hear it personally because of my aunt’s marriage when I was a teen and because of how erased it made me feel as a young adult.  And I suspect most of us hear it personally.  The end of reading and hearing it so personally is that is that we end up “feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable.  Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.”[6]

But what if he didn’t.

David Lose is of help here.  “Note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene:  ‘Some Pharisees came and to test him, said “Is it lawful …”’  Did you catch that?  This isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce.  It’s a test.  Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law.  There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce.  Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances.  And with this question/test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.

“And Jesus is having none of it.  He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life.  Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.”[7]

Now, these Pharisees who are testing Jesus probably don’t care about Roman law.  They are testing him about Mosaic law.  And the fact of the matter is that under Mosaic law, only men could file for divorce and, because of the extreme patriarchal nature of the society, divorce left women pretty much without anything – no status, no reputation, no economic security.  Men, Jesus is saying, can’t just cast their wives aside – even though it’s legal.  In fact, the law is meant to protect the vulnerable and the hurting, and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.[8]

The Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, to trap him, about the specifics of a law, and Jesus pushes past pedantic arguments.  Jesus talks about the purpose of the law.  And in doing so, he talks about the kind of community we will be.  Jesus is “inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that is, founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.”[9]

Another reason I think that Jesus as Mark presents him really isn’t focusing on divorce, but on community, is because of the next bit in the lesson, the part about the children.  These days, most Bibles get printed like this.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

You have the scripture translated into English, and the editors have added section headings and they may have decided to put the words attributed to Jesus in red ink to set them off from the other words.  Good translations will also have footnotes to point out when the translation is iffy.

The original looked more like this.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Not only is it in Greek, you’ll notice that the section headings are missing.  That’s because the authors didn’t include them.  For the authors, the writing was one whole.  Even what you see here has editorial additions.  The originals didn’t even have chapter and verse numbers.  The oldest manuscripts don’t even have punctuation and capitalization is completely inconsistent.

For our ears, the narrative in Mark seems to shift.  Jesus was talking about divorce and now he’s talking about children.  No wonder editors put in a new section heading.  But Mark didn’t have the section headings.  There’s a reason the admonition about including children comes right after the test about the law.  Jesus’ reaction to the two situations is essentially the same.

“Let’s recall the context:  Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest.  Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable.  In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus.  Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away.  And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

“This whole passage, I think, is about community.  But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek.  It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent.  Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk.  It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.  This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.”[10]

broken peopleMaybe this quote should have been on the cover of our bulletin today:  “God uses broken people like you and me to rescue broken people like you and me.”[11]

“Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need … [T]o be broken is, in fact, to be human.  And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves.  Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.”[12]

When Mark quotes Jesus about divorce, these words are based in the values that embrace us despite – maybe even because of – our brokenness.  These are Jesus’ family values.  And in the light of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and in the light of World Communion Sunday, and in the shadow of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, and in the shadow of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, I need to be reminded of Jesus’ family values:  that we are a family of broken people rescuing broken people.

And there are plenty of broken people who need us.


[1] The divorce may actually have been after I was born, but I have no memory of every meeting her first husband.

[2] Psalm 128:1-4, NRSV.

[3] Scott Newman and Emma Bowman, “Kunduz Airstrike Reportedly Kills 19 At Doctors Without Borders Hospital,” National Public Radio: The Two Way, (posted and updated 3 October 2015; accessed 3 October 2015).

[4] Though, I would point out that there is nothing overt in any of this text to suggest this is the point Jesus (or rather Mark) is making.

[5] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80-81.

[6] David Lose, “Pentecost 19 B: Communities of the Broken and Blessed,” … in the Meantime, (posted and accessed on 28 September 2015).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Eddie Cortes is a pastor; he blogs at

[12] David Lose, op. cit., spelling error corrected.

From Michael D. Schuenemeyer, Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, national setting of the United Church of Christ

Dear Conference Ministers and Clergy attending the 30 General Synod of the United Church of Christ:

Given the strong possibility of a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that could make marriage equality the law of the land throughout the country, we are working on a contingency for performing same sex weddings at General Synod.  However, at this point, we are still working  to get all the required pieces in place to perform weddings should same sex couples be able to get marriage licenses while we are at General Synod.  At the same time, we recognize the some UCC clergy visiting Ohio for Synod may wish to be able to perform legal marriages and the information in this email contains links and information that help clergy prepare for this possibility.

Please note, it is important for interested clergy to apply for an Ohio “Minister License” immediately in order to have the proper legal authorization/credentials to perform a legal wedding in Ohio.

While we do not know when or how the court will rule, we know that it is possible that same sex marriage could be legal before synod begins, sometime during synod, sometime after synod, or God forbid, not at all.  We know that the Supreme Court’s decision could come at any time between now and June 29.  Many feel it will be June 29, the last day the court is scheduled to have a conference of this term.  That is the Monday of General Synod.  We also know that the Probate Justices in Cuyahoga County have printed gender neutral marriage licenses and desire to make them available to same sex couples as soon as possible should the court rule favorably.

I am working with local officials and Equality Ohio to get a permit for Mall C, the green lawn directly across from the Cleveland Convention Center, over-looking Lake Erie, where weddings could be performed at any time it may become possible to do so during our General Synod meeting.

There is also a chance we may not get the permit and may not logistically be able to make it happen.  As I mentioned earlier, we are still working on putting these pieces together.  I will provide updated information as I can, but I want to share this information now so you and the any clergy you know who are coming to Synod may know about this possibility and if you/ they wish to participate, you/they may be prepared to do so by acquiring the Ohio Minister License and bring it with them to Synod.

I hope this is helpful.

Blessings and peace,

What is required to do wedding in Ohio

Ohio Minister License

You must have a “Minister License” to perform weddings in Ohio.  The process for obtaining a “Minister License” and the link to the application is at:

You will need to provide a copy of your ordination certificate and/or a copy of the page in the most recent UCC Yearbook where you name is listed as an Ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ (or other communion, as applicable).  Plus there is a $10 fee.  The time is short it is important to submit your application as soon as possible.

Ohio Marriage Law

Marriage Law in Ohio is fairly straightforward and is available at

The following are relevant sections addressing who may solemnize a marriage in Ohio and other related policies.

3101.08 Who may solemnize marriages.

An ordained or licensed minister of any religious society or congregation within this state who is licensed to solemnize marriages, a judge of a county court in accordance with section 1907.18 of the Revised Code, a judge of a municipal court in accordance with section 1901.14 of the Revised Code, a probate judge in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code, the mayor of a municipal corporation in any county in which such municipal corporation wholly or partly lies, the superintendent of the state school for the deaf, or any religious society in conformity with the rules of its church, may join together as husband and wife any persons who are not prohibited by law from being joined in marriage.

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

3101.09 Prohibition.

No person, except those legally authorized, shall attempt to solemnize a marriage, and no marriage shall be solemnized without the issuance of a license.

Effective Date: 10-01-1953

3101.10 License to solemnize marriages.

A minister upon producing to the secretary of state, credentials of the minister’s being a regularly ordained or licensed minister of any religious society or congregation, shall be entitled to receive from the secretary of state a license authorizing the minister to solemnize marriages in this state so long as the minister continues as a regular minister in that society or congregation. A minister shall produce for inspection the minister’s license to solemnize marriages upon demand of any party to a marriage at which the minister officiates or proposes to officiate or upon demand of any probate judge.

Amended by 129th General Assembly File No.52, SB 124, §1, eff. 1/13/2012.

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.11 Recording license to solemnize marriages.

The secretary of state shall enter the name of a minister licensed to solemnize marriages upon a record kept in the office of the secretary of state.

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.12 Evidence of recording.

When the name of a minister licensed to solemnize marriages is entered upon the record by the secretary of state, such record and the license issued under section 3101.10 of the Revised Code shall be evidence that such minister is authorized to solemnize marriages in this state.

Effective Date: 06-04-1976

3101.13 Marriage record.

Except as otherwise provided in this section, a certificate of every marriage solemnized shall be transmitted by the authorized person solemnizing the marriage, within thirty days after the solemnization, to the probate judge of the county in which the marriage license was issued. If, in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code, a probate judge solemnizes a marriage and if the probate judge issued the marriage license to the husband and wife, the probate judge shall file a certificate of that solemnized marriage in the probate judge’s office within thirty days after the solemnization. All of the transmitted and filed certificates shall be consecutively numbered and recorded in the order in which they are received.

Amended by 129th General Assembly File No.52, SB 124, §1, eff. 1/13/2012.

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

3101.14 Notice on license of penalty for failure to return certificate of solemnized marriage.

Every marriage license shall have printed upon it in prominent type the notice that, unless the person solemnizing the marriage returns a certificate of the solemnized marriage to the probate court that issued the marriage license within thirty days after performing the ceremony, or, if the person solemnizing the marriage is a probate judge who is acting in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code and who issued the marriage license to the husband and wife, unless that probate judge files a certificate of the solemnized marriage in the probate judge’s office within thirty days after the solemnization, the person or probate judge is guilty of a minor misdemeanor and, upon conviction, may be punished by a fine of fifty dollars. An envelope suitable for returning the certificate of marriage, and addressed to the proper probate court, shall be given with each license, except that this requirement does not apply if a marriage is to be solemnized by a probate judge who is acting in accordance with section 2101.27 of the Revised Code and who issued the marriage license to the husband and wife.

Amended by 129th General Assembly File No.52, SB 124, §1, eff. 1/13/2012.

Effective Date: 04-11-1991

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 12, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philippians 4:1-9 and Exodus 32:1-14
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Once upon a time, a woman on a cruise met a man who claimed that he was an expert at guessing men’s professions.[1] Apparently this skill did not cross over to guessing women’s professions, but he claimed he could do it for men. Intrigued, the woman asked her new friend to prove he had this skill, and since the boat was filled with people neither of them knew, it seemed to be a good test population. The woman pointed to a man seated on a deckchair. “What’s his profession?”

“He’s a doctor,” the man said. They walked over to check and, sure enough, he was right.

“How did you know?’ she asked him.

“Notice the lines of caring on his forehead. I knew he was a man of great compassion.”

“How about that man over there?” she challenged, pointing to a man playing shuffle board.

“Oh, he’s a lawyer,” the man said confidently. They checked and, sure enough, he was right. “He seemed to have a scholarly and formal look despite the game he is playing, so I figured he’s a lawyer,” the man explained before he could be asked. “And that man over there by the railing,” he said confidently, “he’s a minister.”

They went over to check. “Are you a minister?” the woman asked him.

“No. No, I’m seasick.”

Christians in general and clergy in particular have a reputation in wider society of being far too serious, even dower – and hypocritical of course. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul suggests that we should live in such a way as to challenge that first reputation.

This letter is part of his prison correspondence, letters he wrote to Christian communities during his various incarcerations. This time he was imprisoned in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This was part of the Roman Empire, so he was imprisoned under Roman imperial authority. Earlier in the letter, he wrote about how he was imprisoned “for Christ” and “for defense of the gospel.” I take that to mean that he was imprisoned for proclaiming the good news of Jesus, the crucified and risen One, and I take the imprisonment to mean that the good new of Jesus was seen as a challenge to imperial rule, a challenge to the domination system. And, given that his imprisonment in Rome for the same reasons ended in his death, I assume that this imprisonment was not without risk.

In our reading from the letter today, Paul admonishes Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Many interpret this to mean that these two leaders of the church in Philippi were in conflict with each other, and that might be accurate. It is also possible that they were in conflict with Paul about something, or that the whole church was in conflict and these to women represented the opposing points of view. Whatever the particulars of the conflict and whoever it was that was in conflict, what is clear is that Paul has expounded on the power of the gospel being rooted in love, not violence (in contrast to Rome’s power). So, to have the mind of Christ is to choose God’s power of love over Rome’s power of domination.

Wall Street Bull (via

Consider for a moment what powers seek to claim you. Rome’s power of domination and violence certainly still tries to claim us. Ego, I know, tries to claim me, and I suspect I’m not alone. It’s been said, “When the center of the universe is discovered, there will be a lot of people who are disappointed to find out it’s not them.” Using lies, fantasy, and fear, commercials (whether for products or for politics) seek to claim us. The accumulation of wealth tries to claim us. There are golden calves of all sorts around us that want our worship, false gods that claim their power is the best power to have.

Paul says that as followers of Jesus, we should choose God’s power of love.

Paul’s call for unity in the phrase “be of the same mind” is not a call to conformity or submission. “The Greek phroneo means to exercise the mind … It is striking that in this story of powerful women, exercising the mind – together in Christ and with the support of companions – is the way of problem-solving.”[2] Community is central to this passage.

Paul is suffering in prison and the community in Philippi is suffering in conflict. And Paul says, “Get together. Be of the same mind. Support one another. And rejoice.” And not just “rejoice,” but “Rejoice always.” And just in case he wasn’t clear the first time, he repeats himself: “Again I will say, Rejoice.” Don’t live like you’re at the rail, seasick. Rejoice.

Now, Paul is not talking about some Pollyanna cheerfulness. Paul is calling upon the church in Philippi to a bold and courageous testimony to the power of Christ’s way, a way that pours itself out in love and in so doing transforms the world. (He talked about that in chapter 2.) To get there, he encourages the community at Philippi to focus on all that is just, pure, pleasing, excellent, and worthy of praise.

In fact, the word “rejoice” is in the plural in Greek.[3] “All y’all rejoice,” might be how Paul would have said it had he been from Texas. And even that might not capture it, because all y’all can still be separate, each of us doing it on our own. His call is for the church to rejoice together. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared in community. And I think Paul is right — and I suddenly understand one of my personal Facebook rules: If I literally laugh out loud at something someone else has posted, I share it, I repost it. I think, maybe, I do this because my joy isn’t complete unless I share that joy. Like I said, community is central to Paul’s message.

Now, if you’ll allow me a slight diversion, a quick poll: How many of you here today are in a marriage or had a marriage that lasted more than 30 years? I ask because you’ll be able to confirm or refute this theory of mine. I’m convinced that love is wonderful, but what really makes a marriage last is commitment. No matter how wonderful you mate is, he or she has done some things or has some habits or said some things or fails to do something that really grates. And I mean really grates – to the point of making that person pretty unlovable. And the reason you don’t toss in the towel is that you have a commitment to that person. And so you’ve found ways to put up with the grating habits, and to overlook the failures, and to forgive the hurts. Does that ring true to your experience? I see nodding heads.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul wrote. Except, of course, he wrote in Greek, and what we read is a translation, so that’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. A few scholars I read this week like the older Revised Standard Version’s translation better. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance.”

Rejoice in the Lord always. That’s not so easy when your spouse or your fellow community member is grating on your nerves. Forbearance makes it possible. It’s not easy when you’re in conflict. Forbearance makes it possible. Rejoicing always isn’t so easy when you’re facing some power of opposition. Forbearance makes it possible.

And rejoicing in the face of challenge, in the face of adversity is a subversive activity. “It overturns threatening situations and frustrates those with selfish plans. Tyrants in every age have feared it, because they do not understand its origin.… In situations of opposition, Paul perceives another actor God, whose gracious action is not self-evident. [Rejoicing] is not an escape from the pain of life; it is a reconsideration and reinvestment in life from a different liberating perspective.”[4]

I find this thought reassuring. A quick scroll through Google’s news page and it’s enough to leave one quite depressed. The protests in Ferguson continue, two months after the homicide of Michael Brown by a uniformed police officer. The Ebola crisis continues in western Africa, though the news stories might make you think the crisis was happening in America and western Europe. The war with ISIL continues. A major typhoon slammed into Japan on Saturday and another one hit the coast of India last night.

How does one rejoice in the midst of such pain and devastation? The answer, I think, is prayer. And I don’t just mean the technique of prayer. I’m talking about the act of being in relationship with God. When we practice an awareness of the presence of God, even in difficult situations, we let go of being our own savior, we let go of thinking that violence can save us, we let go of the need to accumulate, we let go of the golden calves that would have us worship them. When we practice an awareness of the presence of God, we are able to rejoice in the Lord always.

And perhaps it becomes like a feedback loop. I think is was Teilhard de Chardin who said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” When we are aware of the presence of God, we are able to rejoice. And when we rejoice, we are witness to the infallible sign of the presence of God.

There is always a danger in trivializing prayer. I’ve been told that Reinhold Niebuhr often quoted an agnostic friend who objected to the church, “not because of its dogmas but because of its trivialities,” by which he meant its “preoccupation with trivial concerns with the world hanging on the rim of disaster.”

Fred Craddock

There’s a story told about one of my preaching heroes, Fred Craddock, that illustrates what I mean.[5] It’s one of those stories that’s true even if it never happened. He was invited to attend a prayer meeting at a home in a wealthy suburb of Atlanta. The group shared their “weighty” prayer concerns — things like a date coming up on Friday night and the purchase of a new car. One man announced they had had 75 answered prayers since the group started meeting. Then one of them turned to Craddock and asked, “What do you think, Dr. Craddock?”

Craddock is a small man who speaks and preached in a gentle voice. I imagine him being more than reticent to criticize anyone’s praying But that night, he was offended by the reduction of God to what Paul Tillich called, “the Cosmic Bellhop.” He couldn’t help himself.  He said, “Do you mean to tell me when people are starving in Africa and the poor are suffering in India and parents in Latin America can’t sleep through the night wondering if the death squads will visit them, you folks are praying about dates and new cars?”

There is always a danger of trivializing prayer. But when prayer is about being in relationship with God, about the practice of being aware of the presence of God, it can transform us. And we will be able to rejoice always.


[1] Based on a joke attributed to Bill Bouknight, that was included in an email from dated 7 October 2014.

[2] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Euodia and Syntuche,” Sojourners, (accessed 5 October 2014).

[3] Nathan Eddy, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 159.

[4] Ibid, p. 161.

[5] This story is attributed to Larry Bethune in a sermon titled “Friends in High Places” in that email from cited earlier.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:21-37
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

So I dug through my file for this Sunday and discovered that, as far as I can tell, I have never preached on today’s gospel lesson.  On the years when the season after Epiphany was long enough to include a 6th Sunday and it was year A of the three-year lectionary cycle, I have chosen one of the other lessons assigned to the day to preach on.  I’m not surprised by this.  Jesus’ teaching, as recorded by Matthew, is not the easiest collection of sayings to hear.  Who wants to be reminded about the anger that we hold?  Who wants to preach about adultery?  Who wants to confront the lies and obfuscations we tell?

These are the topics Jesus addresses in this passage.  And I am going to try to address them, so fasten your seatbelts and put your tray tables and seatbacks in their upright and locked positions.  But before we take off, there is something else happening this weekend that I want you to know about.

Interfaith Power and Light, a national organization concerned about the moral implications of climate change, has called on congregations of all faith traditions to spend some time this weekend teaching about and taking action on climate change.  So my plan is to talk about the three topics Jesus addresses and to talk about how they relate to our abilities to respond (our respons-ibilities) to climate change.

Each section in today’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard that is was said, …”  Then Jesus goes on, “But I say to you …”  Jesus completes the first sentence by quoting one of the Ten Commandments.  “You have heard that is was said to those of ancient time, ‘You shall not murder.’”  Not murdering, not committing adultery, and not bearing false witness are three of the Ten Commandments.

Both versions of the Ten Commandments – in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – start with God reminding the Hebrews of who God is.  “I am the Lord you God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” is how it’s phrased in Exodus 20:5.  That focus – freeing the people from slavery – is the identifier in Deuteronomy, too.  The Ten Commandments are given to a people God has just freed from slavery.  The Ten Commandments are part of God’s freedom plan.  “The law was offered to encourage people to live together in peace and harmony with God and with each other.”[1]

Jesus was not replacing the Ten Commandments.  Jesus was not saying the originals weren’t good enough.  He was calling people to move past a simple fulfillment of the law and to get to the heart of the matter.  “Jesus felt like people had strayed away from the real purpose of the law and the prophets.  To Jesus, the law was not a rule book to enslave people.  The intent was to promote the common welfare of the people through just relationships.”[2]

So, in the first of these three topic in today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus warns against anger, he’s not saying, “Never get angry.”  He’s saying that holding on to anger is destructive to us, to the person we’re angry at, to our community, and to our relationship with God.  We need to reconcile with our neighbor before we make a sacrifice at the Temple Altar because “right relationship with God is predicated upon having a right relationship with your neighbor(s).”[3]

That’s why the second great commandment comes right along with the first.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength – that’s the greatest commandment, Jesus says.  And the second, Jesus adds without being asked, is right up there:  love your neighbor as yourself.  Your relationship with God is important, and so is your relationship with your neighbors.  In fact, the two can’t be separated.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I was taught that saying as a child.  I was taught it almost as a mantra to use when I was teased on the playground (or by a big sister).  It was supposed to help me let the teasing roll off me like water off a duck’s back.  Of course, it isn’t true.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my spirit.

In this section of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is reminding us that words can kill.  This is very important for me to remember.  As someone who ‘gets’ how dangerous climate change is, I can get angry toward climate change denialists.  I need to remember that I am in community with these people and that my relationship with God is predicated on my relationship with them.

The Buddha supposedly said something like, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”[4]  If the Buddha didn’t say it, he should have.  It’s true.  Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Jesus is asking us to look more deeply at relationships.  “The Old Testament Law condemned murder (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:18), but at the heart of this law lies a respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God.” [5]

The men hearing this idea, that their relationship with God is predicated on their relationship with the neighbors, was probably challenging for many of them.  But they probably heard it in connection to their relationships with their male neighbors only.  The thing is, Jesus doesn’t stop there.  In a world where women had no agency, Jesus expands this radical thinking to include them, too.  He moves on to another commandment – the one about not committing adultery.

Adultery was a property concern in Jesus’ day.  Women were the property and responsibility of their fathers and then their husbands.  If they were widows, they were the responsibility of their sons.  So when Jesus teaches men against committing adultery and even against objectifying women, he is calling them to recognize and respect the boundaries of their marriages and to recognize and respect the personhood of women.

The same is true for the teaching on divorce.  Women aren’t simply a piece of property to be discarded when you’re done with them.  Husbands have a commitment to their wives.

Of course, marriage is far from the only commitment we have in our lives.  If you have children, you have a commitment to them.  If you are a child – and all of you are – you have (or had) a commitment to your parents.  We have a commitment to this faith community.  And on the list goes.

The answer to Cain’s question is, “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.”  We have a commitment to our brothers and sisters, whether they are siblings by blood or siblings by being part of humanity.  We are in relationship with everyone around the globe and we have a responsibility to care about what happens to them.

When climate change causes them to no longer have access to water or caused their homes to be flooded or their farms to cease to be able to produce food, that is a concern for all of us because of our commitment to them.  And we have a responsibility to help keep that from happening.  Just as Jesus tells husbands that they can’t just dismiss their wives, we can’t just dismiss the farmers in the Central Valley as their farms dry up, or the people of the Maldives as their nation submerges under rising sea levels, or the people of Bangladesh (or England) as their homes are flooded from drastic changes in rain patterns.

About eight years ago, humorist and TV personality Stephen Colbert introduced us to a new word:  truthiness.  Created as part of Colbert’s comedy “news” show, “truthiness” became part of American English.  It is defined as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.”[6]

Almost two thousand years earlier, Jesus was speaking out against truthiness, in favor of truth.  Don’t take an oath to prove that you are speaking truthfully.  Speak the truth – all the time.  Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” Full stop.

Jay Michaelson writes about how a problem with truthiness is that it can go so far as to be evil.  “Climate change specifically is perhaps the most challenging case of all, because of the billions of dollars that have been spent to lie to Americans over the last twenty years.  … [T]here really is a vast right-wing conspiracy to lie about climate change, and it has worked.  Half of Americans don’t ‘believe’ that climate change is real, despite a 99.5% (!) scientific consensus – with the .5% being, unsurprisingly, scientists in the employment of industry.

“This is what evil is:  lying, in a way that causes harm, in order to enrich oneself.  Progressives may not like the language of good and evil (so much judgment!) but it is a public religious language that communicates exactly what the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ … do.  They lie, they harm, and they do it to make money.  Pure evil.”[7]

Michaelson goes on to explain that we can’t solve the climate change dilemma by simply changing our light bulbs.  He writes, “It really doesn’t matter if you use paper or plastic, or if you bring your canvas bag from home.  Personal actions are a tiny drop in a huge bucket.  We need systemic change and political change, and we’re not going to get that by turning inward on ourselves, finding additional ways to be personally and pointlessly pious.

“Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance …  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.”[8]

How do we fight for it?  One way is to paint the fossil fuel industry’s business plan as what it is:  immoral.  And we can do that by divesting from stock and bond holdings in this industry sector – the way we divested from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa to paint what they were doing as immoral.  There is a petition in Ford Hall that you can sign calling on the City of Fremont to divest, and I will be presenting it to the City Council on Tuesday night.

Another way is to lobby for policy changes.  A small step for doing this is available during coffee hour, too.  There are postcards that you can address to Senator Feinstein calling on her to support the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standards for New and Existing Power Plants.  You can sign one and turn it in to me.  Then, this afternoon, you can contact the Secretary of State and the President by email or snail mail and urge them to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.

When Jesus talked about these commandments, he wasn’t trying to shame anyone.  He wasn’t trying to make anyone feel extra-guilty.  He was trying to get people to look at our covenant with God and to move past the letter of the law and to embrace the heart of the matter.

It’s not just about avoiding murdering people; it’s about how we deal with our anger and how we resist or embrace forgiveness and reconciliation.  It’s not just about keeping your pants zipped; it’s about seeing the personhood in everyone and keeping accountable to your commitments.  It’s not just about making sure your testimony is truthful; it’s about living an honest life.

May our lives embrace these Jesus-values.  Amen.


[1] Nancy Hasting Schested, “God’s Family Values,” Sojourners,, accessed on 11 February 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Reginald Broadnax, “Matthew 5:21-26 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 94.

[4] One of those unverifiable quotes floating around Facebook.

[5] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted by Karen Georgia Thompson in her “Sermon Seeds” column for 16 February 2014, United Church of Christ,, accessed on 11 February 2014.

[6] “Truthiness,”, accessed 15 February 2014.

[7] Jay Michaelson, “Climate Change is Sin – Here’s How to Repent For It,” Religion Dispatches,, accessed on 12 February 2014.

[8] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, CA
on Sunday, September 8, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Ruth 1:16-17
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I was getting ready for General Synod when the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision that affirmed the decision of the Ninth Circuit that overturned Proposition 8.  I rejoiced at the news that, once again, same-gender couples could be legally married in California.  With that decision, the percentage of the US population living in a state with equal marriage rights stands at 30%.[i]  Equal marriage rights are available in 13 states and the District of Columbia.[ii]

I had planned to go to the press conference at Grace Cathedral when the decision was announced.  Regardless of which way the decision went, clergy and faith leaders had planned to gather at Grace Cathedral to speak in favor of marriage equality.  When I heard the decision, I knew the press conference would be a celebration, but I ended up in a car, driving to Long Beach, for General Synod, the biennial national meeting of the United Church of Christ.

I was at the UCC’s General Synod in 2005, in Atlanta, when an equal marriage rights resolution[iii] was adopted.  We were the first American denomination to call for this, and the moment the resolution passed was a holy moment, a God-infused moment.  It seemed poetic to me that the resolution was adopted on the 4th of July, Independence Day.

Three years later, the justice called for in this resolution came to California.  For four-and-a-half brief months, same-gender couples had the right to enter into the contract of marriage.  And for four-and-a-half brief months, I had the right to solemnize this legal contract.  Then the November elections happened and our rights were taken away.  While I continued to officiate at weddings, I decided that, as a matter of conscience, I could no longer sign anyone’s legal contract paperwork until the State allowed me to sign everyone’s legal paperwork.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, our rights have been restored.

The United Church of Christ has a long and proud history of calling for justice.  The Disciples of Christ’s history isn’t focused here as much.  Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the origins of the DOC.  The theological forefathers of the denomination broke away from Presbyterianism because of the dogma that was being forced on them.  The Stone/Campbell movement took the position that scripture was the only rule of faith.  Any catechism, any doctrine, any resolution was written by a human and, therefore, fallible.  I think this philosophy has become part of the DNA of the DOC, so there is a resistance to adopting resolutions that take a stand.

On the other hand, the UCC has a long history of taking stands in resolutions and actions.  There is a litany of historical firsts in the UCC, including:[iv]  the first to ordain a woman, an African American, and an openly gay man in the United States; the first to publish a pamphlet against slavery in the United States; the first to create a foreign mission society in the United States; the first college, the first co-ed college, and the first school for the deaf in the United States; and, as I said, the UCC was the first denomination to call for equal marriage rights in the United States.

So, today I invite you to join me in celebrating the fulfillment of this call in our state.  Yes, 70% of the US population still lives in states that don’t have full marriage equality.  Yes, there are 37 states that offer somewhere between less than full equality and nothing at all.  But today I want to focus on what has been accomplished.  And one of the ways I want to celebrate this with you is by preforming a legal wedding today.

Why, I’ve been asked, are we celebrating this legal wedding in the midst of worship?  I actually wonder why we celebrate weddings at time other than when the community of faith is gathered together.  If part of a wedding is the community’s witnessing and blessing the covenant and contract made at a wedding, doesn’t it make sense for it to happen when the community is gathered?  Sure, the community gathers at times other than Sunday mornings and the community could gather on a Tuesday night or a Saturday afternoon to witness and bless a wedding.  But when a couple is already part of the faith community, especially when the couple’s deepest ties to the area are through the faith community, why not do this during a regular worship service?

Mark and JT were married 8 years ago in North Carolina.  Of course it wasn’t a legal marriage.  Then a temporary job brought Mark and JT to California.  And then their right to make their marriage legal was restored.  And so they decided to do something about it.  What better place and time to do this than here and now?

But this is not just a celebration of justice.  As much as Dr. Cornell West may be right – that justice is what love looks like in public – this isn’t just a celebration justice and love.  Every wedding – whether the religious covenant, the legal contract, or both – is about commitment.

I know we like to think that weddings are about love – and they are.  I know we like to think that weddings are about trust – and they are.  I know we like to think that weddings are about honesty – and they are.  I know we like to think that weddings are about forgiveness – and they are.  Underneath all these is a foundation, and that foundation is commitment.

You see, sometimes your partner is not very loveable.  Sometimes things happen that make trusting your partner difficult.  Sometimes it’s scary to be honest with your partner.  Sometimes it’s just hard to forgive your partner.  It is commitment that keeps a marriage a marriage when love comes difficultly, when trust is bruised, honesty is scary, and when forgiveness seems far away.

I read recently that when Benedict wrote his rule for monasteries in the sixth century he included specific instructions for how a novice would be received into the monastic community.  “The new and presumably young novice would enter a room called the oratory and vow stability, fidelity and obedience.  Then he would say, ‘Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope’ (Ps. 119:116, Rule of St. Benedict).  Benedict would then instruct the novice to pull off his street clothes and put on the habit of the monks.  We would expect this.

“But the next thing is surprising:  the old street clothes were to be placed in the monk’s closet.”[v]

Now, one might wonder why Benedict would be so concerned about the preservation of these street clothes.   To be honest, I would have thought that Benedict would have demanded that the old clothes be burned, making the vow to become a monk permanent.  But, it turns out, Benedict had his reasons.

“By leaving the street clothes in his closet, the monk confronted two habits every morning for the rest of his life.   He could put on the habit of the monk or return to the habit of the streets and leave the monastery.  He had to keep choosing what he had chosen.”[vi]  He had to keep choosing his commitment.

It struck me as I read this that the same is true for marriage.  Perhaps those of you who are married could create your own daily ritual with your wedding ring where you choose your commitment again each day.

It is the theme of commitment that makes the passage from Ruth so oddly appropriate for weddings.  I say “oddly” because Naomi and Ruth are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.  The book of Ruth tells us that Naomi’s husband and sons died, leaving three women to fend for themselves.  Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and to the families.  Orpah does, but Ruth refuses.  Ruth had made a commitment to be part of her new family and she decides to stick with it.

“Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge I will lodge.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die and there I will be buried.”  With those profound words, Ruth reaffirms her commitment.

So, in the spirit of Ruth’s reaffirmation of her commitment, I invite JT and Mark to come forward and to join Pastor Brenda and me in the chancel.


[i] “States,” Freedom to Marry, (14 September 2013).

[ii] Ibid.

[iv] You can read more about these UCC firsts at

[v] Craig Barnes, “Boxed in,” Christian Century, 21 August 2013, p. 35.

[vi] Ibid.

Three posts on the web were all brought to my attention yesterday, all relating to attitudes toward sexual minority people.

First, the Southern Poverty Law Center, probably the most important organization monitoring hate and hate groups in the United States, released their winter Intelligence Report in late 2010.  In the article, “Gays Remain Minority Most Targeted by Hate Crimes,” reminds us that the Christian Right actually blamed the victims of anti-gay bullying and the organizations that seek to protect them for the bullying gay kids receive and for the suicides that much to frequently follow:

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said gay rights activists “pressure these students to declare a disordered sexual preference when they’re too young to know better, [so] they share some culpability.” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a key critic of anti-bullying programs, said gay activists were “exploiting these tragedies to push their agenda.” He said that gay kids may know “intuitively” that their desires are “abnormal” and that the claim, pushed by gay activists, that they can’t change “may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.” Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel said those activists want “to use the tragedies to increase pressure on the real victims: Christians.”

However, the Report concludes that, in fact, lgbt people and people perceived to be lgbt “are by far the group most targeted in American for violent hate crimes.”

The bottom line: Gay people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.

The second posting is an essay by Mark D. Jordan on Religion Dispatches (posted on March 22), “Who Wins When Bible is Blamed for Gay Bashing?”  The thrust of Jordan’s essay is not what concerns me today (you can read it if you’re curious).  Instead, I was shocked to learn about the news story that sparked his writing.  Quoting from the essay:

[A] young man is accused of killing an older man for making sexual advances. The weapon was a sock filled with stones; the young man told police that he had been instructed in prayer to apply the Old Testament punishment of stoning.

Combined with the article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, this news is depressing – both for lgbt people and for progressive Christians.

And then, I came upon a third posting on The Christian Science Monitor website.  The opinion piece by Jonathan Merritt posted on March 24, “Evangelical shift on gays: Why ‘clobber scriptures’ are losing ground” brings some good news.

Merritt notes, “The truth is that the vast majority of evangelicals – approximately 7 in 10 – still say they believe homosexual behavior is ‘morally wrong.’”  Nonetheless, he (and I) see a shift coming.  The shift is coming from the younger generation.  Jay Bakker (son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, yes that Jim and Tammy Faye) is calling for a re-evaluation of the Christian right’s stand on lgbt people.  Merritt writes:

Brian McLaren, bestselling author and founder of the emerging church movement, moved toward affirmation of gays and lesbians in his 2010 book “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” He condemns Christians’ obsession with sexuality and urges them to construct “a more honest and robust Christian anthropology.” Christian music icons Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz came out of the closet this past year and asked their fans to reconsider their views.

Apparently the sociological data support this conclusion:

Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), says the data he’s collected bears this shift out. For example, PRRI’s research found that a majority of young evangelicals (ages 18 to 34) now support recognition for some sort of same-sex union. While PRRI’s president Robert Jones is hesitant to predict the future, he notes that the trends among evangelicals on same-sex issues all point in one direction and the group can expect “sea change within a generation.”

The news for lgbt people (and for progressive Christians) isn’t always good.  Lgbt folk are still the primary targets of hate crimes.  People still use the Bible to justify murder.  But things are changing.  Even conservative Christianity may be catching up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.



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