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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:9-11 and Luke 1:67-79
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I wonder what it is like for Cubans today. With Fidel Castro’s death on Friday, I wonder what sort of dreams and hopes, what sort of griefs and fears average Cubans are feeling. Fidel Castro took power in 1959. That means that 75% of the Cuban population has only known the Castro form of Communism and a Castro at the helm.[1] Are they feeling grief at Fidel’s death? Are they feeling like there is a power vacuum (even though Fidel handed power to his brother Raúl eight years ago)? Are they fearful that they may lose all they’ve known, or are they hopeful about changes that might be able to come? Or maybe they’re feeling a combination of these things.

I wonder what it is like for people in Syria and Iraq who live in the shadow of ISIS. Are their lives filled with fear or are they (at least some of them) somehow holding on to hopes and dreams?

And I wonder what it is like for the refugees – whose who fled Cuba generations ago and those who have fled ISIS in this generation. Is there hope in their fleeing or is it only desperation? Do they hope to return home or have they oriented their lives to the new land they how inhabit?

Brian McLaren points out, “Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires, and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behavior will lead.

“One of the most important prophetic compositions was the Book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally be attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonized by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behavior would lead to decline and defeat.

“That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40-55, often called Second Isaiah, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would someday return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66.”[2]

Imagine with me for a moment what it was like for the people of Second Isaiah. Imagine what it was like for those who had been forcibly removed from their homes and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Yahweh, they believed, had promised them this land, but a foreign army had conquered them, removed them from their homes, and sent them into exile. Yahweh’s home was in Jerusalem, but they were forced to live in Babylon. Yahweh’s house, the Temple, had been destroyed. Where and how could they find hope?

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Not that I was trying to mimic Isaiah, but my sabbatical can be divided into three parts. The first part was a great road trip that took me up the coast, across to Glacier National Park, south to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and back home. It included, almost by accident, a stop at the Minidoka Internment Camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho. There is very little at the National Historical Park now: mostly open fields and gravel paths; a few concrete pads that were the foundations of garages and warehouses; a collapsing root cellar. The sentry tower and barbed wire fence are reconstructions. Only one of the original tarpaper barracks remains; the others were demolished or sold to farmers in the area, but only to white farmers. None of the internees were allowed to purchase any of the buildings or equipment that was deemed surplus after the war.

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

At its height, there were over 9,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens incarcerated in the camp, making Minidoka something like the fourth largest community in Idaho at the time. These thousands upon thousands of people of Japanese heritage are America’s 20th century exiles. Like the Babylonian army, the U.S. Army forced these people out of their homes and businesses and placed them in concentration camps.

According to the stories I read and heard at Minidoka, it was only through community that they were able to find hope. And, while the United States built the barracks, it was the people concentrated in the camp that built the community.

Of course, the internment of people of Japanese ancestry is not the only exile in United States history. The government’s treatment of the people who were here first, the Native Americans, was our original forced exile. I won’t rehearse the history; I can’t; I don’t know all of it. I know just enough of the Trail of Tears and the concentration on “Reservations” and the violations of treaties and the attempts to “kill the Indian” to save the child to know it was a story all too similar to that of the Judean exile in Babylon.

Aside from the elections, there was one news story that held my attention during my sabbatical: the story of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands and along and under important water sources for the Standing Rock and everyone downstream of them. Up until the past few weeks, the mainstream news media were pretty much ignoring the story. However, because the Dakota Access Pipeline is new fossil fuel infrastructure, organizations fighting climate change were paying attention, and that got my attention starting in August.

On one level, this story sounds like every other story of the Indian Exile: white people with their police and military and corporations and courts giving Indians the shaft. Again.

But something different is happening this time. The National Public Radio podcast, “Code Switch” notes that the history “of indigenous people fighting to protect not just their land, but the land, is centuries old.” But this time, “The scope of the resistance at Standing Rock exceeds just about every protest in Native American history.”[3] The big thing that’s different is that Native tribes and nations from across North America, in both what is now the United States and what is now Canada, are showing up in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. Not only that, but indigenous groups from around the world are offering their support.[4]

This gives me hope, this community and solidarity that is growing around the globe. And because of that solidary (at least in part), this is now about way more than a particular pipeline in a particular place. What’s happening along the Cannonball River is becoming a clash of ideas and systems that have been at odds on this continent for five centuries. The thing is, because the Standing Rock are grounding their movement in prayer, this clash has the real potential to work itself out in a way where we are all transformed and we are all winners. And that gives me hope.

“To be alive is to desire, to hope, and to dream,” Brian McLaren writes.[5] Unfortunately, throughout human history, “some of us desire power and kill, enslave, and oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites, or dominated by stronger nations nearby.”[6]

If we read the prophets and the gospels in the Bible, one thing will be clear: While God loves everyone, God takes the side of the enslaved and oppressed, the wilderness wanderers and exiles, the people yearning for justice and peace. We heard the words in today’s scripture lessons.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Lord God … will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And there’s so much more in Isaiah.

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Isaiah’s words and images inspire so much hope that Jesus and his followers quote this book more than any other writer.

“Many other prophets added their own colors to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beastlike empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.

“In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled, either.… [So] their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future.”[7] To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to believe that the promised time is coming and that the promised land will be received. It is what we pray for every time we say, “Thy kin-dom come on earth.” But that is only a wish and not true hope if it does not spur us to action. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to translate hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.

Now, as we enter a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything for the sermon or scripture readings that caught you attention; or
… recall a time when you kept hope or lost hope; or
… the imagery from Isaiah (“He shall feed his flock …”), and how you would translate that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world; or
… an image from today’s scripture readings – hold it in your heart, in God’s presence and let it inspire a simple prayer.

[1] “Cuba Age structure,” Index Mundi, http://www.indexmundi.com/cuba/age_structure.html (accessed 26 November 2016).

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 14, page 64. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[3] Leah Donnella, “The Standing Rock Resistance Is Unprecedented (It’s also Centuries Old),” Code Switch, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/11/22/502068751/the-standing-rock-resistance-is-unprecedented-it-s-also-centuries-old (posted 22 November 2016; accessed 26 November 2016).

[4] Just as an example, Maori have set up a Facebook page in solidarity (https://www.facebook.com/maorisolidarity/) and have sent people to pray and stand in solidarity to the protest camps.

[5] McLaren, page 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 65-66.

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According to the Mayo Clinic website, the “DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner”

Some people (me included) think that Donald Trump may have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It is, like most personality disorders, very hard to treat and very hard to live with. A person named Nell Ziehl wrote a post on Facebook that is getting forwarded with advice about dealing with someone who has NPD. I don’t know who Nell is or what Nell’s credentials are, but from my personal experience with people who have personality disorders, this seems like good, basic advice. So, I’m reposting Nell’s advice here:

I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are trying to grapple with it for the first time because of our president-elect, who almost certainly suffers from it. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) It’s not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.

2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this. While it’s important to pretend “good faith” and remind him of promises, as Bernie and others are doing, that’s for his supporters, so *they* can see the inconsistency. He won’t care. So if you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.

3) You can influence him by making him feel good. There are already people like Bannon who are ready to use him for their own ends. The GOP is excited to try. Watch them, not him. President Obama, in his wisdom, is treating him well in hopes of influencing him and possibly averting the worst. If he gets enough accolades for better behavior, he might continue to try it. But don’t count on it.

4) Ultimately, he will betray anyone who tries to get close to him. It might take a while, though, so we can’t count on that.

5) He only cares about himself and those he views as extensions of himself, like his children. (People with NPD can’t understand others as fully human or distinct.) He desires accumulation of wealth and power because it fills a hole. (Melania is probably an acquired item, not an extension.) He will have no qualms *at all* about stealing everything he can from the country, and he’ll be happy to help others do so, if they make him feel good. That is likely the only thing he will intentionally accomplish.

6) It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD. They do not observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy. It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT ALLOW OTHERS, ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA, TO DO THIS. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about this, step away until you recalibrate.

7) People with NPD often recruit helpers, referred to in the literature as “enablers” when they allow bad behavior and “flying monkeys” when they perpetrate bad behavior on behalf of the narcissist. Although it’s easiest to prey on vulnerable or malicious people, good people can be unwittingly recruited. It will be important to support good people around him if and when they attempt to stay clear or break away.

8) They like to foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations. He will probably behave worst toward those closest to him, but that doesn’t mean (obviously) that his actions won’t have consequences for the rest of us. He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.

9) Gaslighting — where someone tells you that the reality you’ve experienced isn’t true — is real and torturous. He will gaslight, his followers will gaslight. The GOP has been gaslighting for 30 years. Learn the signs and find ways to stay focused on what you know to be true.

10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Don’t circulate his stupid tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.

Much love and I’ll post something fun for the holidays too, I promise.

The world was caught off-guard by the rise of radical Islam, says Jonathan Sacks, former head rabbi of Great Britain, because it was captivated by a narrative that suggests secularism will eventually prevail over religion. Science, technology, free market economies, and even liberal democracy have failed to recognize that humans are meaning-seeking creatures who ask basic questions of identity: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?

Extremist violent religion is a betrayal of the Abrahamic way, Sacks goes on to say. “Now is the time for us to say what we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham.… We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed.”

from “Century Marks,” Christian Century, 11 November 2015, page 8
citing Wall Street Journal, 2 October 2015

Scientists have concluded that the emotional responses to terrorism are out of proportion to the actual risk. After 9/11 about 30 percent of the population thought they themselves would personally experience terrorism with[in] a year. Women tend to respond to terrorism with fear, men with anger. Anger reduces the ability to respond to perceived threats rationally and leads people to take greater risks in response to perceived threats.

from “Century Marks,” Christian Century, 20 January 2016 edition, page 8.
citing NPR, 22 December 2015, as their source for this information

You’ve probably seen statistics about how inaccurate this perceived threat really is. Assuming this refers to 30% of the U.S. population, we should be more afraid of toddlers than terrorists. In the US in 2015, more people were shot and killed by toddlers than by terrorists. However, what I find really interesting about this little article is the response to the perceived threat (as unfounded as it may be): fear and anger.

In my experience, fear and anger often walk hand-in-hand within the individual. One may seem bigger or stronger at any given time, but when one is there the other probably is, too. I suspect the gender difference noted has more to do with enculturalization than anything else: culture teaches us that it’s okay for woman to be afraid but not angry; that it’s okay for men to be angry but not afraid.

But what if we were to choose to respond to perceived threats (no matter how realistic they are) with love? What if we were to follow Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies? Even if our love doesn’t change those who we find threatening, it would change us. For the better.

“Joining a religious group may do more to offer ‘sustained happiness’ than other forms of social participation. Researchers in the Netherlands, analyzing 9,000 Europeans over age 50, looked at four areas: volunteering or working for a charity; taking educational courses; participating in a religious organization; and participating in political organizations. Taking part in a religious organization was the only one of the four that resulted in sustained happiness. The researchers were’t able to conclude whether the benefits came from the religious organizations themselves or from faith.”

From the “Century Marks” column of Christian Century, 16 September 2015 edition, page 8.

Another possibility could be that happier people are more likely join religious organizations, but maybe if you’d like to be happier, you could give a religious organization a try.

Agnotology is the word Stanford University science historian Robert Proctor coined to describe the deliberate dissemination and misinformation, often to try to sell a product. The tobacco industry developed a strategy to cast doubt on scientific studies showing that smoking causes cancer. In politics, the campaign to cast doubts on President Obama’s national origins was an example of agnotology. Climate deniers use a similar strategy. The news media often perpetuate agnotology in the interest of offering a balanced perspective, and the Internet provides a platform for people to pose as experts while engaging in agnotology. ‘We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,’ says Proctor.”

Quoted from the 16 March 2016 edition of Christian Century, page 9. The cite the BBC, January 6, as their source.

If you haven’t seen the documentary (or read the book) Merchants of Doubt, I highly recommend it. It’s all about how agnotology is used by corporations to increase profits. Right now, Standing Rock Sioux are protesting the building of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline. To counter this protest, it appears that pro-pipeline organization (read: Big Oil) has directly or indirectly created fake Twitter accounts to make it look like there is public support for the pipeline.

Read more about the Standing Rock protests at http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access (where there are old stories and up-to-date stories listed.

“Since the early 2000s, Americans have said in polls that crime has increased since the previous year, despite the fact that the national crime rate is about half of what it was in 1991, the peak year. There were, on average, 20,377 murders per year during the Reagan administration. In 2014 there were 14,249 murders. In the meantime, the population has increased 35 percent, driving the per capita rate of murder way down. The perception that crime is on the increase is likely fed by the media coverage, the entertainment industry, and by political rhetoric that plays on people’s fears.”

From the “Century Marks” column in the 17 August 2016 edition of Christian Century. The column cites New York Magazine, 19 July 2016 as their source.

This fall, beware of that last thing – politicians playing on (and stoking) fears.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:1-35
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It was a Saturday, the Sabbath day. But it wasn’t any Saturday. It was the day after the Roman government brutally executed Jesus. His followers saw his arrest, followed his trial, though from a distance. Some even witnessed his execution and, we are told, took his body and laid it in a tomb.

A friend of mine points out, “There are no stories in the sacred text of my tradition about his family’s grief, about the pain of his intimates Mary Magdalene or John (the disciple whom Jesus loved), no stories about his friends’ despair or his followers’ shock. The text is silent. But any of us who have lost a beloved, particularly to violent and tragic death, need no stories. We know what they felt.”[1]

I try as best I can each year to enter into the story of Holy Week. I try, as best I can, not just to read the story, but to imagine myself there. And so this week I have tried to imagine what the disciples were feeling. Deep grief, no doubt. The one they had hoped would redeem Israel had been crushed by the elites. The religious authorities and the government authorities colluded to have him killed. I imagine they were angry, too. I get angry when I hear about injustice, let alone witness it. And I’ve always assumed they were scared of the Romans, scared that they might be next.

But on re-reading today’s gospel lesson, I realize that it doesn’t say that the disciples were afraid of the government. So I went back and re-read all the Easter accounts in the four gospels and I was surprised to find no mention of the disciples being afraid of the Romans. There’s plenty of fear in the stories, but with one exception, that fear comes from seeing angels or seeing the appearances of the resurrected Christ himself.

Only in John are the disciples in a locked room because they are afraid – and then only on Sunday evening, not Friday night, not on Saturday, not on Sunday morning or afternoon. John says they locked the door out of fear, not of the Romans, but of “the Jews.” And if you read the Passion story in John, you’ll see how readily he blames “the Jews” for Jesus’ crucifixion. It can end up sounding quite anti-Semitic, which, given the likelihood that John’s gospel was written around the same time that the followers of Jesus were being kicked out of the synagogues, isn’t too surprising. John probably had an ax to grind.

The fact is that crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, so Jesus was killed under Roman authority, and any collusion on the part of any Jews would have been collusion on the part of the Jewish elites, especially members of the Temple priest class. If the disciples were afraid of the Roman government, that reality didn’t make it into the stories.

I am not the only one who has this assumption that the disciples were huddled in a locked room on that first Easter morning, fearing for their lives. One commentary I read on our Gospel story in preparation for this sermon says, “The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a ‘He told you so, didn’t he?’ way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. ‘Ohhhh, that’s right, we remember now …’ [the women say] – and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they’ve seen and experienced in the past few days).”[2]

Only the text doesn’t say any of that. The text says the women are terrified by the angel, and the text doesn’t say anything about the men being afraid at all.

Maybe it’s projection. Maybe we read into the story something that isn’t there. Maybe our own fears get projected into the gospel narratives. It sure seems like we have reasons to fear. The attack in Brussels on Tuesday initially evoked that response in me. But then, that’s the terrorists’ goal, isn’t it: to instill a sense to terror in the populace?

Terror Attacks 26 March 2016So, I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the disciples to the death of Jesus in the context of terrorist attacks. And if you’ll permit a short aside here, I’d like to make a confession. Just this month, there have been at least eight terrorist attacks around the world. On March 7, the small town of Shabqadar, Pakistan, was rocked by a suicide bomb, killing around 10 and injuring around 30. On March 13, gunmen belonging to the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda opened fire Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast; 22 were killed. On the same day, Kurdish militants set off a car bomb in the heart of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing at least 37. On March 16, a blast killed at least 15 and injured around 30 people in Pashawar, Pakistan. Also on March 16, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a mosque in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing 26. On March 20, a suicide bomber killed five people and injured more than 30 in Istanbul, Turkey. On March 21, unidentified gunmen opened fire at a hotel in Bamako, Mali; only one person was killed, one of the attackers.[3] And on March 22, there were the attacks in Brussels, killing 31 and wounding some 300.[4] Eight terrorist-attacks this month.

My confession is this: I want to acknowledge the narrowness of my own awareness, that it took an attack in a European country (that is, a white country) for me to pay attention. The same seems to be true of the news media in my country, at least the news media I consume. I, right along with the rest of the mainstream of this nation, still have work to do to address the racism that is baked into our identity and being.

Aside finished; now back to the main thrust of my sermon.

So, what if the disciples weren’t afraid of the Roman government the way I’ve always assumed? What if, despite all they knew of the cruelty of the government, its willingness to torture and maim and kill for its own political goals, the disciples weren’t afraid? I think, perhaps, that might have been one of the things that made them open to the transformative power of the resurrection.

I don’t pretend to know what happened on the Sunday after Jesus was killed. I know that for some Christians it is really important that the tomb was empty, that the resurrection of Jesus involved his physical body. It may have. But if it did, I don’t think it involved a resuscitation of his flesh. One of the reasons John may have written about the locked room was so that Jesus’ appearance there would include an element of the metaphysical. Certainly the story we heard in the second part of our gospel lesson suggests something other than the reanimation of Jesus’ molecules. These disciples don’t recognize him and when they finally do recognize him, he vanishes. Poof. But maybe I’m wrong.

My point is, I don’t think it matters whether Jesus’ resurrection included the reanimation of his body. What’s important about the resurrection is not the impact it had on Jesus. What’s important about the resurrection is the impact it had on Jesus’ disciples.

The faithful women who went to the grave to tend to Jesus’ body, to tend to death, changed as a result of their experience at the grave. And it started with them remembering what Jesus had said. The men in the dazzling clothing (angels, we assume) remind them. In the same way, for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it started with the remembering of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that Jesus said and did.

The God who spoke through the Prophet Isaiah about “new heavens and a new earth” began with the resurrection a new creation and grounded it in hope. The resurrection “isn’t only about ‘my own personal life after I die,’ then, but about God’s whole new creation, God’s new age, an age and a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, to compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God’s new age, God’s new earth. There is a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.”[5]

With the resurrection, the uprising begins.

As N.T. Wright, in the book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (the book that the adult Sunday School will start studying next week), says, “Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever.”[6] And they are what this uprising is all about.

I’m with John Dominic Crossan. “What could not have been predicted and might not have been expected was that the end was not the end. Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place.… Jesus’ own followers … talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and [therefore] probably female [or perhaps unnamed so this person can be any of us]. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake[, with the multitude, and in the upper room]. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits.”[7]

It doesn’t matter if this actually happened, because it happens all the time. Every time we come to the table, we are invited to participate in the resurrection. The bread is broken and we are invited to open our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst. We are invited to participate in the drama of Jesus’ body and blood being alive again in us, reunited in us, transforming us into a community of resurrection.

Easter is the beginning of a new age. But like Jesus at the table who disappeared when he was recognized, that new age had both begun in an uprising and has not come to its fullness. People still suffer. Terrorists still bomb and kill and countries still war. Our hearts are still torn and our health still worries us. Our loved ones still die and our doubts still trouble us.

And yet, Christ is alive.

And so we know, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, “life defeats death, peace is more powerful than war, love is greater than hatred, and good will outlasts evil. Foolish people think that killing the Messenger will kill the message! They don’t understand the power of Resurrection! Graves are temporary. May Divine Life spring forth out of the ashes of all of our struggles and renew us for the challenges to come.”[8]

Now, to add one more dimension to the sermon, as we enter into a time of quiet contemplation, I invite you to imagine the scene when the risen Christ broke the bread and suddenly disappeared. Hold that moment of disappearance in silence, and open your heart to the possibility of absence becoming fullness.

[1] Lizann Bassham, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 26 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/lizann.bassham/posts/10154066387264288.

[2] Kathryn M. Matthews, “Additional Reflection on Luke 24:1-12,” Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_27_2016 (accessed 21 March 2016), emphasis added.

[3] Tanvi Misra, “Beyond Brussels: 8 Other Cities Attacked by Terrorists in March,” The Atlantic Citylab, http://www.citylab.com/crime/2016/03/apart-from-brussels-here-are-8-other-cities-attacked-by-extremists-this-month/474855/ (posted 22 March 2016; accessed 23 March 2016).

[4] Jess McHugh, “Europe Terrorist Attacks 2016: Timeline Of Bombings And Terror Threats Before Brussels,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/europe-terrorist-attacks-2016-timeline-bombings-terror-threats-brussels-2341851 (posted 24 March 2016; accessed 26 March 2016).

[5] Kathryn M. Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), xiii.

[8] Yvette Flunder, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 24 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/yflunder/posts/10153388229660894.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 6, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 6:19–7:12
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I was on the train by myself. That was fine. I’m used to riding on trains by myself. It was when I realized that I was on the wrong train that my anxiety started to rise. The fact that I was in France and I don’t speak French was certainly a contributing factor. “Please, God, may the conductor speak English.” And God answered my prayer: No.

Luckily, the conductor was compassionate. He wrote something on a piece of paper, and said something with some hand gestures that I guessed meant I was supposed to get off the train when we got to a town with the name on the paper. For the next twelve hours (it was probably only 30 or 40 minutes – maybe only 20) I watched the electronic ticker ahead of me on the ceiling of the train car, looking for the word the conductor had written on the paper.

Finally, I saw it. I got off the train, found a timetable, figured out when a train to Geneva would come, and finally started to relax. As I sat on the platform, waiting for the train that would actually take me to Switzerland, I started kicking myself right in the ego for being so stupid that I got on the wrong train.

By the time I got to Geneva, all I had lost was a long layover that I had hoped to spend with a cousin, but who had cancelled the day before. I even made the train I had planned to get to Zurich, and then a connection to Wettingen, where a different cousin didn’t meet me because he thought I was going to meet him in Baden – but that’s another story.

In today’s section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts by asking us to consider where our hearts are, to think about what we value. In a society that values wealth and power, Jesus suggests our values should be focused elsewhere. Treasures on earth or treasures in heaven? You can’t serve God and wealth. It’s one or the other. That’s why, Jesus says, I tell you not to worry about material things. Material things are not what is important. Worry won’t add to your life. Strive first for the kin-dom of God. Tomorrow with bring it’s own troubles. Be present here, now, in this moment, not worrying about some possible future.

There are lots of reasons to be anxious. One typical reason we get anxious is that we worry about things that are beyond our control. There I was, on the wrong train and there was nothing I could do about it. I hear this from parents – worried about their children and feeling powerless to do anything about their futures and the choices they make. Except, of course, they helped their children become the people they are. And they ignore the fact that they are still their parents and can provide some level of safety net. Instead, they may try to manipulate, control, or disempower their kids, thus undermining the parenting they have done for years.

I bet you know of someone, perhaps yourself, who feared so much that they would lose the person they loved that they started clinging and grasping and smothering – and actually ended up driving the person away.

I’m not talking about anxiety disorders. Those are real medical issues that have to do with brain wiring and chemistry. I’m talking about situational anxieties.

When you have this kind of anxiety, you are experiencing a trust deficit. Whether it is a lack of trust in yourself (like I had on the train in France) or a lack of trust in another (like a parent with a child) or a lack of trust in God, when you are anxious about your life, you don’t experience your life – you only experience your anxiety.

Do you remember what happened while I was waiting for the correct train to Geneva? I started taking it out on myself. This is pretty typical. All too often, “anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy.”[1]

We see this wholesale every four years during the presidential campaign. Whether it’s the immigrants or the Wall Street banks, the candidates tell us to deal with our anxieties – whatever they are actually about – by identifying an enemy to blame. Aaron Sorken summed this up really well in the 1995 film, The American President. The widowed President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) is facing reelection, and his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, is coming after him by attacking his girlfriend, Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Rumson paints Wade as a threat to America. In the movie’s climax, the President interrupts a press conference to defend himself and his girlfriend from Rumson’s attacks. There’s one little clip I want to play from the speech he gives to the press (the important part starts at 2:14 and runs to 2:37).[2]

Of course, what the movie doesn’t show is that the President’s reelection campaign will end up doing the essentially same thing – sometime after the credit roll. This isn’t surprising – both that they don’t show this in the movie and that it will inevitable happen. This is what almost all advertising does. To get us to buy stuff – be it political candidates or stuff we don’t need – advertising uses fantasies and lies, and most of all, fear.

“Here’s a gizmo you need to get for your toddler so they won’t be stupid.” My sister once told me how effective this advertising tool, fear, is on her – especially as a mom, especially when her kids were little.

As I said earlier, fear typically leads us to judgment. As President Shepherd said, it’s all about “Making you afraid of it and telling you who to blame for it.”[3] This is done by creating and judging a “them” of evil, untrustworthy semi-people and an “us” of good, trustworthy fully-people.

There’s that word, “trust,” again. When we create and judge an untrustworthy “them,” we get a feedback loop. The untrustworthiness leads to more anxiety, which leads to more judgment, which leads to more anxiety … Trust is an antidote to this, especially trusting God in the midst of what our anxiety tells us is a dangerous world.

Jesus offers an additional antidote to judgmentalism. Just as focusing on the kin-dom of God helps release our fears, self-examination can release our judgmentalism. “Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus[ing] on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.”[4]

We posted a few memes about this on our Facebook page this past week:

Quoting the Dali Lama, one says (complete with spelling error), “What is love? Love is the absence of judgement.”[5]

Another says, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently from you.”[6]

12805960_1054510974570122_7904256972084190311_nAnd the one that was posted yesterday, which seems to resonate with lots of people, says, “When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”[7]

“Put simply, if we want to experience nonjudgmental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions, we will do unto all others – with no exceptions, as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realization that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgment-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.

“Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realize how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his [or her] mom or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or a snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call our for help?”[8]

So, here’s my point – my three points, really:

Our anxieties are more dangerous to us than whatever it is that we’re anxious about.

Our habit of condemning is more dangerous to us than what we condemn in others.

And our misery is unnecessary because each of us is truly, truly love.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. And I invite you to savor the feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 141.
[2] See the clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSQmHWOrNQk. The part that’s important starts at about 2:14 and runs to 2:39.
[3] Ibid.
[4] McLaren, op. cit., 142.
[5] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510424570177/?type=3&size=960%2C594&fbid=1054510424570177
[6] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054511171236769/?type=3&size=400%2C560&fbid=1054511171236769
[7] Quoting Ram Dass, https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510974570122/?type=3&size=600%2C900&fbid=1054510974570122
[8] McLaren, op. cit., 142-143.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and “Home” by Warsan Shire
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What was it that first drew your attention to the Syrian refugee crisis? For some of you, I suspect it was news reports about ISIS and the need for people to flee. For others, perhaps it was the numbers. Syria had a population of about 22 million.[1] Suddenly, over 4 million of them left as refugees. 18% of the population. That would be like everybody in the choir except the basses suddenly leaving our worship service. In addition, 7.6 million are, what the United Nations High Commission on Refugees calls, “internally displaced persons.” That’s over half the Syrian population fleeing within the country or leaving the country all together. Over half.[2]

For others, it was probably the September publication of this photograph[3] or one like it.

syrian-boy-drowns-650-afp_650x400_51441283742            These news reports and images moved us to feel compassion.

Then the November mass murders in Paris occurred. Syrian refugees were quickly blamed, then ISIS infiltrators posing as Syrian refugees. Even though it turns out that the Paris attackers were almost certainly European Union nationals,[4] much of our nation responded with fear. Then Christmas happened, and American news media got lost in the presidential elections.

I heard there was more news about the refugees to be paying attention to, so I did some searching this week. I actually had to go to a British news site to learn about yet more drownings of refugees trying to reach Greece.

“More than 30 migrants including three children have drowned after their boat capsized in rough water off the Turkish coast.

“They had been trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, Turkish authorities said.

“The first of the bodies began to wash up on the beach at around 5am along the coast of Ayvalik, a Turkish town directly opposite Lesbos.

“Twelve other people were rescued at the site as the Turkish coastguard searched for survivors who had tried to make the crossing.”[5]

From a distance, we get to be obsessive about presidential politics. From a distance, we get to lose track of what is happening halfway around the globe as we celebrate Christmas. That doesn’t mean that what’s happening halfway around the globe stops happening.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love celebrating Christmas. Given my profession, it’s plenty stressful, but I love it. I love the anticipation, the drama of Advent pulling us into a time between times, the hope proclaimed yet unfulfilled. I love the songs of yearning, traditional and contemporary like “What Child Is This?” and “Mary, Did You Know?” I love the story – I suppose that should be plural, since Matthew’s and Luke’s stories are so different – I love the stories. And, I love the Christian claim mysterious as it is, that says, somehow in this birth, somehow in this child, God is with us.

Author Jim Wallis writes, “It’s not just that God came, but how God came.” He points to Luke’s story: “It wasn’t accidental that the savior of the world was born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were literally homeless at the time of his birth.” And he points to Matthew’s story: “And soon Jesus and his family were made refugees and had to flee their country because the most powerful political ruler around the Christ child felt very threatened by his coming.

“At least King Herod got the fact that his political power would indeed be undermined by the coming of Jesus and the new kingdom [Jesus] would bring.…

“Herod was the king assigned by Rome to rule over the Jews. And when he heard about the birth of Jesus he was ‘frightened’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘worried’ or ‘troubled’ or ‘terrified’ as different gospel translations report.

“Why? Because the closest political ruler to Jesus at the time of his birth believed Jesus could become a threat to his power. Herod asked all the people who might know, ‘Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?’ The king then called the now famous wise men, who were traveling from the East to see the child, in for a meeting with him at the palace where he tried to manipulate them to come back and tell him where they had found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage.’

“Most of the stories about the three wise men focus on the gifts they presented to the Christ child when they ultimately found him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our re-telling the story often doesn’t focus so much on the political threat Jesus posed to political power when he was born. And we talk even less about what happened when the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod after they found Jesus. In another dream, [the one we heard today,] Joseph was told to quickly leave the country with his new family, into Egypt where they would stay until King Herod died. ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ So Jesus became a refugee fleeing political power.…

religious-03-flight-to-egypt

“Flight to Egypt-3” by Tamara Harutyunyan

“To protect himself, Herod killed all the baby boys, hoping to kill Jesus, in what our tradition calls the ‘Massacre of the Innocents,’ which is too often how political power reacts when it is threatened. Innocents are often threatened by political power as are many today in the most recent rhetoric of our own political candidates in their attacks on immigrants, refugees, people of other religions, all the ‘others’ who are not like ‘us’ and even the children who are said to threaten us.”[6]

Yesterday, we screened the documentary abUSed. The film documents a 2008 raid on Agriprocessors, at the time, the nation’s largest kosher meat packing plant, by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It shows how ICE and the office of the Attorney General treated undocumented workers like animals, violated their rights, ripped apart families, and devastated a rural community.

Postville, Iowa, was a town of about 2000. When ICE raided the plant, they arrested 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 2 Israelis, and 4 Ukrainians. Eighteen were juveniles.[7] That’s 389 arrests, 20% of the population. And they were arrested not just for being in the country and working without proper documentation, but for felonies like document fraud charges.

bilde

Mass deportations from the Postville raid.

300 were convicted in four days, mostly by coercing plea bargains. “Neither the owner, Aaron Rubashkin, nor his sons Sholom and Heshy Rubashkin, who were in charge of the management of Agriprocessors, were convicted of immigration and labor law violations.”[8]

If we really want to stop undocumented people from coming to the United States, the simplest thing to do is prosecute the people who hire them. If American businesses won’t hire undocumented workers, they won’t come here looking for work. And that really is the reason these people came to Postville. They wanted to work. They wanted to earn money so they could feed their families. That’s why they came to the United States.

I find it interesting that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, brought down all sorts of barriers to free trade – except if the only thing you have to trade is your labor. That you cannot move across the borders freely.

Of course, that was then, 2008. This is now. And this past week, the Obama administration has begun “a nationwide operation to deport a new wave of illegal immigrants.”[9]

imrs.phpThe Washington Post reports, “The raids were the first in a broad operation by the Obama administration that is targeting hundreds of families for deportation who have crossed the southern U.S. border illegally since the start of last year. The operation … is the first large-scale effort to deport families fleeing violence in Central America, authorities said.”[10]

That’s right: the families we are arresting and deporting are here not just to earn a living. They are here to escape violence. And we are sending them back to that violence.

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run from the border
when you see the whole city running as well.”[11]

Throughout Advent and Christmas and even into this first Sunday after Epiphany, our theme has been “Journey.” Members and friends of the church were invited to reflect on their families’ journeys in art, the art you see hanging around the sanctuary. Through Advent, we focused on the journeys of important characters in the first chapters of Luke’s gospel.

Last week and this, we’ve turned to Matthew’s gospel and the journey of the Magi by starlight and the journey of the Holy Family into exile. And that is where we leave them, in exile fleeing violence, just like so many others around the world today, as this series concludes.

For those of us who are lucky enough not to be living in exile, we are reminded that the Holy Family may well be living among us or seeking refuge among us because the principalities and powers are still seeking to snuff out the life of the one whose birth reminds us that God is with us in profound ways.

[1] “Population, total,” The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL (accessed 9 January 2016).

[2] “Syrian Arab Republic,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e486a76.html (accessed 9 January 2016).

[3] See, for instance, http://www.ndtv.com/world-news/my-children-slipped-through-my-hands-father-of-drowned-syrian-boy-1214048.

[4] Ishaan Tharoor, “Were Syrian refugees involved in the Paris attacks? What we know and don’t know,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/were-syrian-refugees-involved-in-the-paris-attacks-what-we-know-and-dont-know/ (posted 17 November 2015; accessed 9 January 2016).

[5] Eirini Lemos, “Dozens of migrants including three children drown trying to reach Greek island of Lesbos,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/12082819/Dozens-of-migrants-including-three-children-drown-trying-to-reach-Greek-island-of-Lesbos.html (posted 5 January 2016; accessed 9 January 2016).

[6] Jim Wallis, “Why Jesus Was, and Is, a Political Threat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/why-jesus-was-and-political-threat (posted 23 December 2015; accessed 1 January 2016).

[7] “Postville Raid,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postville_Raid (accessed 9 January 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lisa Rein, “U.S. authorities begin raids, taking 121 illegal immigrants into custody over the weekend,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2016/01/04/u-s-authorities-begin-raids-taking-121-illegal-immigrants-into-custody-over-the-weekend/ (posted 4 January 2016, accessed 9 January 2015).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Warsan Shire, from her poem “Home,” published, probably among other places, here http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/ (accessed 5 January 2015).

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