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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 14, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 23:26-49
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die.”[1]

Those are the opening words of Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s important work, Saving Paradise.  “Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century.  Why not? …

“Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true.  Surely the art historians were wrong.  The crucified Christ as too important to Western Christianity.  How would it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches?”[2]

The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald,

I was stunned by these opening words when I read them about a decade ago.  Like most Western Christians, I have long been familiar with pictures and carvings of Jesus on the cross, dying in agony.  I was taught that the crucifixion of Christ saved the world and that everyone who was a Christian believed this.  I rejected that belief decades ago, finding some very basic theological problems with it.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I attended a conference last weekend that included keynote addresses by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans.  Bolz-Weber gave a wonderful, if somewhat mocking, summary of this atonement theology most of us were taught.  I wish I had a video tape of what she said.  It was humorous.  And it was accurate.  Here’s essentially what she said – in a much drier format.

Humanity is an alienated state of relationship with God because of our sinfulness.  That sinfulness (in this theology I’ve rejected) may be from the original sin of Adam and Eve or it may be because we are basically screw-ups.  Whatever the cause, that sin, that disobedience, is a crime against God.  “Disobedience requires punishment, or else it is not being taken seriously.  Hence God must require a punishment, the payment of a price, before God can forgive our sins or crimes.”[3]  The only problem is that none of us is good enough, none of us in pure enough to pay that price, to endure that punishment.  So, God sent Jesus to pay the price.  God sent Jesus, His Son, to suffer the cruelty of crucifixion because only Jesus was good enough and pure enough to have his suffering count enough.  Jesus is the price that had to be paid to free us from the punishment we so certainly deserve.

It turns out that this understanding, this theology of atonement, dates from the late 11th century, from 1097, in fact, in a book written by St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury[4] – about 100 year after depictions of the crucifixion started showing up in Christian art.

My big problem with this theology is that it makes God out to be a child abuser.  That’s the thought I had about it 30 years ago.  If God sent his Son to suffer, that’s child abuse.  And I don’t believe that is an accurate understanding of God.  I’m not the only one who’s thought this.  In a sermon published on the web, Bolz-Weber puts it this way:  “The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and, well, somebody had to pay.”[5]

Yes, sacrificial imagery is used in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and in references to the crucifixion in the Epistles, “but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus execution.  [For instance,] They also see it as the domination system’s ‘no’ to Jesus (and God)…”[6] and that in that ‘no,’ the moral bankruptcy of the powers that be is revealed.  And the New Testament authors also see the crucifixion as the revelation of the path to transformation.  And they see it as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us.[7]

For instance, Paul writes “again and again of Jesus’s death, of the cross and Christ crucified.  It is ‘the wisdom and power of God,’ though it is ‘a stumbling block’ to Jews and ‘foolishness’ to Gentiles.  It is the demonstration of God’s love for us, the sacrifice that makes our redemption possible, and the path of personal transformation as dying and rising that lies at the heart of the Christian life.”[8]

I sometimes wonder if all of it, everything from St. Anselm all the way back to Paul, is simply the byproduct of the human desire to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning in the meaningless.  It’s not that the adage, “Everything happens for a reason” is wrong.  I think it’s true.  It’s just that sometimes the reason is, you’re a jerk.  Or that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and the laws of physics apply no matter what your spirituality is.  Or you made bad choices.  Or somebody else made bad choices.  Or that there’s evil in the world and the powers that be want to silence any challenge to their power.

Maybe Jesus died because the Roman Empire killed him.  Full stop.

We want it to have some meaning, as have Christians through the millennia, and so we push a meaning onto it.  We say that it’s a sacrifice.  And I think it was – in the broad sense of the word, in the sense that we say Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi and Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer each “sacrificed their lives for the causes to which they were devoted.”[9]  In this sense, I’m comfortable speaking of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kin-dom of God.  “The more specific meaning of sacrifice in relation to Jesus’s death speaks of it as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a dying for the sins of the world.”[10]  To that specific meaning, I say, “No.”

Of course Jesus’ death, Jesus’ execution is a stumbling block and foolishness.  What sort of self-respecting messiah would get himself killed?  As Bolz-Weber points out, “During his ministry people had seen what he could pull off.  Healing others, feeding others, providing huge vats of wine out of water for others – with those kinds of powers and a little more self-esteem? man … Jesus could have had it all.  ‘Save yourself,’ they chanted.…

“The leaders, the first thief, the crowds, the soldiers – they all mocked Jesus as though to say obviously you’re not the son of God because the God we know is powerful and vengeful and slightly insecure and would never allow himself to take this level of insult.  The crowds made some fairly reasonable suggestions for what a genuine Messiah might do in a situation like his own crucifixion.…  [But then] everyone thinks God should do what we would do if we were God.  And then we judge God according to how we think God is doing with that.…

“We’d love God to be the King of our particular value system.  But here’s the thing – most of God is unknowable.  Period.  And, really, we should probably be grateful for that.

“When it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.”[11]  And maybe, just maybe we can see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.

If God is saying anything from the cross, I think it might be something like, “This is the logical end of your value system.  Here is where it will always end.  In the suffering of God.  [And] here is the extent I will go … to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hanged me.  I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed-up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger, better version of the best parts of you or a bigger, badder version of the worst parts of you.”[12]

If Jesus is exalted on the cross, it’s to show us that “Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.…  [For] from his roughhewn throne of a cross [(if it is any sort of a throne)] Jesus looks at the world … [at] those who betrayed him, those who executed him, those who loved him, and those who ignored him, and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is … forgiveness.  ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.’ …  From his cross, Christ … loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us.”[13]

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection

If Jesus’ crucifixion is to be viewed as a sacrifice, what does that sacrifice say to you and to the church?  What it is calling you/us to do and be?

What does the crucifixion tell you (if anything) about God? about Jesus? about you?

_______________

[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), ix.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 139.

[4] Ibid, 138.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on the Cross,” goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/948520-sermon-on-the-cross-christ-the-king-sunday (posted 21 November 2010; accessed 13 April 2019). I’ve done some editing to clean up typos a grammar.

[6] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 139.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 140-141.

[9] Ibid, 154.

[10] Ibid, 154.

[11] Nadia Bolz-Weber, op. cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

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A sermon* preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 7, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 2:4b-17 and Job 38:1-11; 39:5-8, 26-30
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This last sermon in this series is the most personal of the bunch.  Jim Antal and abby mohaupt are two of my climate heroes, and when I decided to include them in this series on Saints, I didn’t realize I was also going to need to include Bill McKibben.  The thing is, Bill has had an important influence on Jim, abby, and me, and so, I’m going to start with him.

Bill McKibben

Bill and I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.  Though Bill was a year ahead of me in school and we went to different junior highs, our lives managed to overlap.  We both gave tours of “the historic Lexington Battle Green” when we were in junior high, and we were in church youth group together (though I was more involved than he), and we were the prime organizers of local protests against President Jimmy Carter’s reinstitution of draft registration the summer after my first year of college.  Bill had completed his second year at Harvard when we gathered on the Lexington Battle Green on a weekly basis to protest – an appropriate spot if ever there was one to stand in opposition to the government.

When he graduated from Harvard, Bill got a job writing for The New Yorker magazine.  The next time I heard from Bill was on the radio when he was on a tour promoting his 1989 book The End of Nature.  This was the first book published in the United States for a general audience on global warming.  He had done the research to see just what a dangerous situation human beings were putting ourselves into by changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.

I wish I could tell you that Bill’s book was the thing that got me to be serious about the dangers of global warming.  It (and some articles he wrote for various journals and magazines) started building my awareness, but it was Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, that really converted me.  The film made something click.  I don’t know how I managed to almost immediately see the connections as clearly as I did.  Somehow, I saw that a warmer planet would change weather patterns, which would shift where and how much water would be available, which would change how and where and if crops grew, which would lead to famines and mass migrations, which would likely lead to war.

People starving, people forced to leave their homes, and war are moral issues.  And that is why, for over a decade, I’ve been saying that climate change is the moral issue of our day.

Jim Antal

The End of Nature impacted Jim Antal, too, though he was aware of the dangers of climate change before Bill’s book was published.  Jim is the recently retired Conference Minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.  I think the first time I met him face-to-face was at a General Synod, the every two-years meeting of people from across the UCC, where we worship and eat and learn, and where delegates vote on resolutions.  One of the resolutions before the Synod that year called for the various settings of the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels.  It turned out that Jim was a champion of that resolution and that resolution was the most important one to me of all the resolutions coming before Synod that year.

Jim’s traces his journey to being one of the strongest voices in the UCC calling for us to address climate change back to a road trip he took with his father when he was 15.  Jim’s parents had divorced, and he moved to California to live with his father.  That summer, they did a tour of some of the National Parks out here in the western United States as a way to get reacquainted with each other.  Jim fell in love with the outdoors.  Over the next two summers, Jim hiked the John Muir Trail.

He went off to college and, while he was there, he organized his campus’s celebration of the first Earth Day.  Jim reminded me that the first Earth Day was organized by a Republican Senator as a cross-country teach-in and that a massive 10% of Americans participated.

James Hansen

Jim’s father, the man who took Jim on the tour of National Parks that caused Jim to fall in love with the outdoors and led him to his passion for environmental ethics, worked in the fossil fuel industry.  He was a chemical engineer for Mobil Oil.  Jim’s brother followed their father into the sciences and is a world expert on charcoal.  Though Jim didn’t pursue science as a career, the exposure to science and scientific thinking caused Jim to pay attention to Carl Sagan’s writing about global warming in the 1970s.  And Jim paid attention when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of global warming in 1988.  That’s when he started preaching about climate change.  The following year, his commitment to preaching on climate change was strengthened by Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature.

Jim describes himself as a “big picture thinker.”  “I take in the whole thing first [and then the details].  The greenhouse effect started getting talked about and I saw the whole picture and the threat to the earth,” he told me.

When I asked Jim to expand on that threat, he said, “God provided humanity with sufficient freedom that we can extinguish life as God created it.”  Jim suggested that I check out the United Nations’ website pages on climate change because I’ll find that they intersect with their pages about population.  Jim told me that if we don’t do anything about climate change, sometime between 2045 and 2070, the world’s population will plummet because of water and food shortages, wars, and massive refugee movements.  We will go from 9 billion people to 2 billion people.

“What are the theological implications of living in a world where the gift of nature is good for only one quarter of the people on the earth?” he asked me rhetorically.  “In one or two generations, when 3 of 4 people are dying off?  The theological implications are infinite.”

“Imagine a world where the earth is no longer friendly to life as we’ve known it.”

“If we’re not preaching once a month on climate change, in a couple generations every sermon we preach will be on grief.”

abby mohaupt and Jeff Spencer

abby mohaupt also sees the grave dangers climate change is posing to humanity and the rest of creation.  abby and I met in Richmond on August 3, 2013.  We were protesting at the Chevron refinery, and Bill McKibben had something to do with our presence.  For several years, Bill had been calling for upper-middle class white people to start engaging in civil disobedience to protest the fossil fuel industry.  He especially called on middle-aged people, people like me, people with the most privilege when it came to the American criminal justice system, to engage in these acts.  abby isn’t middle-aged, but she, too, answered the call.  I won’t go into what happened that day, but you can read about it in the sermon I preached the following day.

abby started reflecting on ecology and theology in broad strokes while she was in seminary – “both where the earth is hurting and where the earth brings joy.”  When she did her internship at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, she was assigned to staff their ecology group, and during that year, Bill McKibben was part of a cross-country bus tour.  It was called the “Do the Math” tour, and it was calling on people like you and me to organize both institutions – like churches and pension funds and cities – and ourselves to divest from fossil fuels.  abby took 20 people from her church to the Palo Alto tour stop.  That got her interested in divestment and she is a leader in getting the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from fossil fuels.

In addition to organizing her denomination and seminaries to divest, abby is working on her PhD dissertation on feminist and womanist theology, climate change, and environmental racism.  Yet this isn’t just an academic issue for abby.  She currently lives in Pescadero.  “I live near the ocean now,” she told me, “so when I hear stories about the oceans rising, it is the ocean I live next to, the ocean that I love that will take over the land where I live now.  It’s real.  It’s very real.”

I asked abby and Jim what they do to enable them to hope in the midst of this reality.  Jim told me, “Every morning my first thought is gratitude.  Having this big picture, I’m just astonished that there is such a thing as life.…  [I wake up in the morning and think] ‘Oh my God, there is such a thing as life and I can bear witness to the truth [today].’  [That’s why] I can be dedicated to what can otherwise be depressing work.”

He also told me that over the course of his career he has had a theological shift, from a concern about personal salvation to collective salvation.  He noted that he is hardly the first to talk about this shift and he pointed me to the work of Richard Rohr and Teilhard de Chardin.  Jim said, “I don’t spend conscious time thinking about my personal salvation; but of humanity standing before God having set the stage of wrecking God’s creation.”  That is why Jim has been an activist in his ministry and continues to be an activist in retirement.

“When consciousness and all that is around you is infused with God, that naturally leads to activism if it turns out that you’re living on the hinge of history, when that very creation is in jeopardy.”

Presbyterianism comes out of Calvinism, which can have a focus on the depravity of humanity.  abby said, “Everything we do has a taint of sin in it.…  Everything we do has a carbon foot print.  This has led me to a place of confession.…  We need each other and we need God to make a way.”

She went on:  “Once we understand everything we do has a carbon footprint, we can’t be in judgment about each other’s carbon footprint.  We need to be open to God’s grace, which helps us understand and face the real reality of climate change.  In this reality of climate chaos, where everything we do adds to the chaos, we can be overwhelmed or we can turn into God’s grace which will give me courage and humility to respond to the reality of climate change.…

“Every time I try to make my carbon foot print smaller, I try to think about how this impacts my relationship with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit.  The closer we feel to the earth, the closer we feel to God.”

If I’m right (and I think I am) that climate change is the moral issue of our day, we need saints like Jim Antal and abby mohaupt to help us find our way, a way that includes protest and activism and policy lobbying, and a way that includes confession and community and spiritual grounding.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

What confession are you/we called to in response to the witness of Jim and abby?

What action can you/we take to address climate change this month?

_______________

*The quotes in this sermon are from interviews I had with Jim Antal and abby mohaupt over the past few weeks. I deeply appreciate their openness and willingness to share.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 31, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 5:1-9and Matthew 5:43-47
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things I’m loving about this sermon series is how much I’m learning.  For instance, in my research this week I was introduced to some women I was not familiar with.  I knew who Rosa Parks was and I knew the name Fannie Lou Hamer, though I couldn’t have told you anything about Hamer.  I wasn’t familiar with even the names Dorothy I. Height and Gloria Richardson.  I would have guessed that Juanita Jones Abernathy was somehow related to Ralph Abernathy.  And it turns out they were married, but Juanita was much more than Ralph’s wife.  I had heard of the Highlander Folk School,[1] but I knew nothing about Septima Clark, her connection to the school, or how that connection fueled the Civil Rights movement.  I knew nonviolence, both as a strategy and a philosophy, needed to be taught, but I’d never heard of Dorothy Cotton.

Ella Baker

Than then there’s Ella Baker.  I’d heard of Ella Baker, thanks to “Ella’s Song” by another Civil Rights heroine, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, but I didn’t know anything about her.  I had assumed (rightly) that Ella Baker had said the words that became the lyrics of the song, including these words:  “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”[2]  As powerful and still-relevant as these words (words that echo the cries of the Black Lives Matter movement) are, Ella Baker was much more than a song-inspirer.

To start with, without Ella Baker, there wouldn’t have been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Baker was serving as Executive Secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when she organized a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina during the Easter weekend of 1960. She had immediately recognized the potential of the students involved in the lunch counter sit-in movement and wanted to bring leaders of the movement together to meet one another and to consider future work.  Baker persuaded Martin Luther King to put up the $800 needed to hold the conference.  King hoped they would become an SCLC student wing. Baker encouraged them to think about forming their own organization, which they did – and SNCC was born.

Speaking to the conference, Ella Baker told the students that their struggle was “much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized coke.”  In presenting this bigger picture, Baker displayed a talent she had been employing for more than two decades:  assisting people to empower themselves.  She encouraged the formation of SNCC to be from the bottom up.[3]

Julian Bond (center front) and other SNCC Atlanta office staff, 1963

It is Ella Baker’s insight about community organizing that I find most fascinating and encouraging.  She saw that in the Civil Rights movement there were two ways of organizing.  One was for groups to be formed around a leader, typically a charismatic person.  The other was to form groups that drew forth their own leaders.  Baker believed in “unlocking the power of every person to strengthen their communities and shape their lives.”[4]

“You didn’t see me on television,” Baker said, “you didn’t see news stories about me.  The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come.  My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”[5]

As I mentioned, Baker was Executive Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  That means that she worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  She claimed that the movement was responsible for King’s leadership.  “You see, I think that, to be very honest, the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement,” she said in 1968, a couple months after King was assassinated.  “This is not a discredit to him.  This is, to me, as it should be.”[6]  An interesting point of view.

The message I got growing up was that King made the movement.  I was taught that it was King’s oratory that galvanized people to face the struggles.  I suspect that this is actually a case of both-and. The movement lifted up King, as Baker suggests, and King galvanized the movement, which allowed the movement to lift him, which …

King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., 1963

So, yes, when I think of King, I think of the great orator.  I also think of a gifted political strategist, and a prophet in the biblical sense of the word.  He “proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God, remaining true to his mission even to the laying down of his life.”[7]

I am saddened that we have domesticated King. Popular culture has reduced King to a color-blind dreamer of a nice America.  President Reagan – who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and who signed the law establishing Martin Luther King Day in 1983 – quoted King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech two years later to argue against affirmative action.  The way Reagan used King is how America has come to use King – as a weapon to sanitize oppression in America.[8]

But I would like us to remember that Martin Luther King, Jr., was hated by much of America.  “He was one of the most polarizing figures in the United States during his final few years of life.…  King wanted peace, but not at the expense of equality.  He wanted little black girls and boys to play with little white girls and boys, but not if it meant pretending racism didn’t exist.  He respected authority, but challenged those wearing badges and carrying batons and sitting in the Oval Office.

“He wanted moral clarity, not cheap comfort. Were he alive today, he’d still be hated by those wedded to the status quo.  Because he’d notice the poor still being vilified as lazy.  He’d see large corporations … brag proudly about modest pay increases then quietly announce thousands of layoffs.…  He’d know the government pays private collectors triple what they retrieve in back taxes from the low-income while high-income tax cheats skate.

“Let us … remember when King refused to denounce protesters by saying ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.  And what is it America has failed to hear?  It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.  And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.’

King being arrested in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama

“And [let us remember] when he critiqued capitalism:  ‘Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.’

“And [let us remember] when he demanded ‘a radical redistribution of political and economic power.’

“And [let us remember] when he said, ‘Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.  It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.’

“And [let us remember] when he was exasperated by those telling him to wait:  ‘Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’

“[King] wanted justice and peace.  If he could have only one, there’s no doubt which he’d choose.”[9]

I picked the reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today because the story of God taking the side of the enslaved and God raising up a leader to facedown the principalities and powers of the day is an important story, is perhaps thebiblical touchstone of the Civil Rights movement.  I picked the reading from the Sermon on the Mount because it is what I view to be the hardest commandment in scripture to fulfill.

And when think about the Civil Rights movement, a movement whose work is not finished, and when I think about the leaders of that movement, the Ella Bakers and the Martin Luther Kings, I see people who somehow managed to live into both scripture readings at the same time.

There is more, so much more to be said about these scripture readings.  But for today, let’s allow the lives of Ella Baker and Martin Luther King preach to us, and challenge us.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for reflection:

How might you/we become stronger people?

What are you/we willing to risk for the sake of God’s justice-demanding love?

_______________

[1]Now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Highlander Center suffered a significantfire on Fridaythat destroyed the building that housed the executive offices of the Center (one of ten buildings on the Center’s campus). Sadly, this building contained decades of archives from the Center.

[2]Nikita Stewart, “50 Years After Dr. King’s Death, Remembering the Women Who Steered the Movement,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/us/women-civil-rights.html (posted 2 April 2018; accessed 26 March 2019).

[3]“Ella Baker,” SNCC Digital, https://snccdigital.org/people/ella-baker/ (accessed 26 March 2019).

[4]“Who Was Ella Baker?” Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, https://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker (accessed 26 March 2019).

[5]“Ella Baker > Quotes,” GoodReads, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/116766.Ella_Baker (accessed 30 March 2019).

[6]Quoted and cited as 19 June 1968 in “Baker, Ella Josephine,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/baker-ella-josephine (accessed 26 March 2019).

[7]Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time(New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 152.

[8]Jeneé Osterheldt, “Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a colorblind dreamer,” The Boston Globe, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/01/20/martin-luther-king-wasn-colorblind-dreamer/Z1Yhlw4WVw0XnnBNuLtUrN/story.html (posted 21 January 2019; accessed 26 March 2019).

[9]The Observer Editorial Board, “Let’s remember the MLK who wasn’t liked,” The Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article224748225.html (updated 29 January 2019; accessed 26 March 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 24, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 25:31-40 and Luke 4:16-21
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

From the 1930s to the 1970s, El Salvador was ruled by a series of military dictatorships.  The society was significantly bifurcated, with a small oligarchy holding the economic and political power, and a large peasant class.  The peasant class included the Native peoples.

During the 1970s, things got especially unstable politically.  A turning point was the 1972 presidential election, where was an attempt at democratic reforms was made.  It failed, thanks to widespread election fraud.  The leader of the opposition, the side that wanted democratic reform, ended up exiled.  “These events eroded hope of reform through democratic means and persuaded those opposed to the government that armed insurrection was the only way to achieve change.”[1]

It was during these years, between the fraudulent 1972 election and the outbreak of all-out civil war in 1980, that Oscar Romero was appointed Catholic Bishop of San Salvador.  It was 1977, and the oligarchy was delighted with his selection.  “Known as a pious and relatively conservative bishop, there was nothing in this background to suggest that he was a man to challenge the status quo.”[2]

            That was not the case.

            This is how one short biography describes what happened:  “Within weeks of his consecration he found himself officiating at the funeral of his friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest of the archdiocese, who was assassinated as a result of his commitment to social justice.  Romero is deeply shaken by this event, which marked a new level in the frenzy of violence overtaking the country.  In the weeks and months following Grande’s death Romero underwent a profound transformation.  Some would speak of a conversion — as astonishing to his new friends as it was to his foes.  From a once timid and conventional cleric, there emerged a fearless and outspoken champion of justice.  His weekly sermons, broadcast by radio throughout country, featured an inventory of the week’s violations of human rights, casting the glaring light of the gospel on the realities of the day.  His increasingly public role as the conscience of the nation earned him not only the bitter enmity of the country’s oligarchy, but also the resentment of many of his conservative fellow bishops.  There were those among them who muttered that Romero was talking like a subversive.”[3]

            “For Romero, the church’s option for the poor was not just a matter of pastoral priorities.  It was a defining characteristic of Christian faith:  ‘A church that does not unite itself the poor in order to denounce from the place of the poor the injustice committed against them is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ,’ he wrote.  On another occasion he said, ‘On this point there is no possible neutrality.  We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death.…  We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.’”[4]

            Military coups and countercoups and the fraudulent elections brought forth a succession of governments, each promising reform and not delivering.  This left the military and the death squads free to suppress the popular demand for justice.  “As avenues for peaceful change were systematically thwarted, full-scale civil war became inevitable.  In 1980, weeks before his death, Romero sent a letter to President Jimmy Carter appealing for a halt to further U.S. military assistance to the junta, ‘thus avoiding greater bloodshed in this suffering country.’  On March 23, 1980, the day before his death, he appealed directly to members of the military, calling them to refuse illegal orders:”[5]

            Here is a recording of that homily with a translation.[6]

“The next day, [which was 39 years ago today,] as he was saying Mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Sisters’ cancer hospital where he lived, a single rifle shot was fired from the rear of the chapel.  Romero was struck in the heart and died within minutes.”[7]

I suspect that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is better known by the people in this room than Oscar Romero.  Her story also involves a conversion, but her conversion led her to a different kind of ministry.  On September 10, 1946, Sister Agnes (as she was then known) was on a train in the Himalayas in northern India.  She was a teacher at a school run by her order, the Loreto Sisters.  She’d taught in their schools for over 20 years and was well liked by her middle-class students.

            Who would have thought that riding on a train in the mountains would have been the setting for her transformation?  It was.  Something happened on that train ride.  She received what was described as a “call within a call.”  “God, she suddenly felt, wanted something more from her:  ‘He wanted me to be poor with the poor and to love him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.’

            “So, with the permission of her congregation, she left her convent … [and went] to seek Jesus in the desperate byways of Calcutta.  Eventually she was joined by others — including many of her former students.  They became the Missionaries of Charity.  And she became Mother Teresa.”[8]

            She worked for years before her ministry came to a more general attention.  When she did come to the public’s attention, I think she was first, and perhaps best, known for her home for the dying in Calcutta.  “There, destitute and dying men and women, gathering off the streets of the city, were welcomed to receive loving care and respect until they died.

Those who would live like ‘animals in the gutter’ were enabled, in Mother Teresa’s home, to ‘die like angels’ — knowing that they were truly valued and loved as precious children of God.

“It was not mother Teresa’s way to change social structures.  ‘We are not social workers,’ she said, but ‘contemplatives in the heart of the world.  For we are touching the body of Christ twenty-four hours a day.’”[9]

            She truly sought God in (as she put it) “distressing disguise” among the poorest.  “God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless,” she wrote; “hungry, not only for bread, but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; nakedness, not of clothing only, but nakedness of that compassion that very few people give to the unknown; homelessness, not only just for a shelter made of stone, but that homelessness that comes from having no one to call your own.”[10]

“[She did not] have any exalted sense of her own vocation.  ‘We can do no great things,’ she said, ‘only small things with great love.’  Often when people beg to join her in her ‘wonderful work’ in Calcutta, she would respond gently but firmly:  ‘Find your own Calcutta!’  As she explained, ‘Don’t search for God in far lands — he is not there.  He is close to you, he is with you.  Just keep the lamp burning and you will always see him.  Watch and pray.  Keep kindling the lamp and you will see his love and you will see how sweet is the Lord you love.’”[11]

            Mother Teresa had a philosophy that suggested, “before we try to love the entire world, we should start by trying to love one other person — someone apparently unlovable, unwanted, or rejected.”[12]  While I agree with her that we should love the person who is in front of us, I think she was wrong when she said, “You can save only one at a time.”[13]  We can, perhaps, only help one at a time, but we do not save any of them.  One of the peculiar things we learn from Matthew 25 is that when we serve “the least of these,” we are not saving them.  They are saving us.

            For your consideration today, the lives of these two 20th century saints.  One life echoed the passage we heard from Luke.  Oscar Romero spoke God’s truth to the world so that systems of oppression might be transformed into systems of justice.  The other life echoed the passage we heard from Matthew.  Teresa of Calcutta saw the Christ in the lives of the naked, hungry, homeless outcasts of Calcutta.  Both followed Jesus.  And both lives invite us to risk – in one way or another – as we follow Jesus.

Amen.

_______________

Questions for consideration:

How might God be calling you/us to be a voice for justice and to help transform systems from oppression to justice?

How might God be calling you/us to open our eyes to see Jesus in his distressing disguise right here in our own Calcutta?


[1] “The History of El Salvador,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_El_Salvador (accessed 23 March 2019).

[2] Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 131.

[3] Ibid, 132.

[4] Ibid, 132.

[5] Ibid, 132-133.

[6] I showed this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o15gEAdlMUQ.  A dramatic English reading of this homily from the docudrama Romero can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuZV6whwj1g.

[7] Ellsberg, 133.

[8] Ibid, 393.

[9] Ibid, 393.

[10] Quoted by Ellsberg, 393.

[11] Ibid, 393-394.

[12] Ibid, 394.

[13] Ibid, 394.

 

 

On Sunday, 17 March 2019, a community candlelight vigil was held at the Band Pavilion, Central Park, Fremont, California, to stand and pray in solidarity with the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, and Muslims around the world. I estimate that over 500 people were present. These are the remarks I prepared for and shared at the vigil.

Good evening.  My name is Jeff Spencer.  I am the senior pastor at Niles Discovery Church, and I have the privilege to serve this year as the President of the Tri-City Interfaith Council.  Thank you for being here tonight and thank you for this opportunity to say a few words.

Finding words to say after such barbarism as befell Christchurch, New Zealand, is difficult.  I ache for my friends who live in New Zealand and I ache for the pain I know so many families are suffering.  I remember this truth:  When one suffers, all suffer, for we are family, the human family.

One of the people who has spoken meaningfully (at least for me) was New Zealand’s Prime Minister.  Here are a few of her words:  “For those of you who are … questioning how this could have happened here, we — New Zealand — we were not a target because we are a safe harbor for those who hate.  We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism.  We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things.  Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.  And those values, I can assure you, will not, and cannot, be shaken by this attack.

“We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages.  And amongst that diversity we share common values.  And the one [value] that we place the currency on right now … is our compassion and support for the community of those directly affected by this tragedy.

“[We also voice] the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people who did this.  You may have chosen us — but we utterly reject and condemn you.”

I read those words and I thought of the Tri-Cities.  We, too, are a diverse community that shares common values of kindness and compassion, of being a home for those in need of refuge.  And we are here tonight to voice our utter rejection and condemnation of people who perpetrate and people who directly or tacitly support the kind of hate that leads to such acts of violence.

I want to say something to the white people here tonight.  Think about this:
The Christchurch Mosques:  White supremacist.
Tree Of Life Synagogue:  White supremacist.
Mother Emanuel AME Church:  White supremacist.
Oak Creek Sikh Gurdwara:  White supremacist.
Overland Park Jewish Center:  White supremacist.
Islamic Center of Quebec City:  White supremacist.

There are two things we need to take away from this brief litany:

First, the problem here is very clear:  White supremacists and white supremacy.  White supremacy is a problem white people are responsible for solving.

Second, the tactic is very clear:  When white supremacy and white supremacists want to wound our community, they attack our houses of prayer.  That is why all of us — regardless of our races, regardless of our religious and spiritual traditions — must continue to stand up for each other.  While our ways of praying and our ways of understanding the Great Mystery may be different, we must continue to be present for each other so white supremacist tactics will not tear down the fabric that we know is made more lush by that very diversity

I would like to close with a prayer, and in this prayer I use the word “God.”  Please consider it a shorthand that points to the Unnamable Mystery that infuses all of life, giving it value and dignity — however it is you understand that Unnamable Mystery.

Please pray* with me.

God, we weep with you for Christchurch.  Our hearts are torn open for those who lost family and friends to this unimaginable violence.  Our minds are bent trying to understand this kind of hatred.  And our spirits send love to those who must overcome fear.  In trauma, we pray peace. In hospitals, we pray healing.  In schools and mosques, on marae and at churches, we pray many great and small works of kindness, not just today, but in days to come.  And in mourning, we pray a knowing that all the world grieves.  Amen.

_______________

*This prayer is adapted from one published on https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/03/15/prayer-for-christchurch/

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 17, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 10:34-48
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This is one of my two favorite pictures of me from the past 15 years.  Without a doubt, it is the company I’m in that makes me look good.  The company and the occasion.  The occasion was Clara’s baptism, April 2011.

I love performing baptisms of infants and toddlers.  They are holy moments, pure moments.  This child, who has done nothing but exist, who has done nothing to try to hide from God’s love, nor done anything to earn God’s love, is, nonetheless, celebrated, and we declare they are part of God’s beloved family.

I also think we should, except in rare, emergency situations, stop doing infant and child baptisms.  We can do infant dedications where thanks are given to God for the child and the parents (and godparents, if there are any) commit to raise the child in the faith.  But we should stop doing infant baptisms.

We’ve learned in the course of this sermon series that the most consistent understanding of baptism over the past 2,000 years is that baptism is the sacrament through which one becomes a member of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, and because I believe that becoming a member of the faith and family of Jesus should be a choice, rather than something that is imposed, I’ve concluded we should offer baptism to people who have decided for themselves to follow Jesus.

This sermon is an examination of what a liturgy of baptism should look like that has both a progressive theological integrity and ecumenical recognition.  There are certain things the global Christian community expects are included in a baptism liturgy, and I have no desire to separate us from the world-wide communion of Christians.  So, as we go forward with this sermon, I will assume the baptismal liturgy we’re searching for is one for what’s called “believer’s baptisms;” that is, for baptisms where the one to be baptized wants to be baptized.

Before we dig into this search, there is one aspect or assumption about baptism that I don’t think Pastor Brenda or I mentioned in any of the sermons in this series.  That assumption is that baptism is a one-time sacrament.  Whether baptized as a baby or as an octogenarian, a person is only baptized once.  And once baptized, always baptized.  The justification for this position is a little arguing over “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” to me, and I don’t want to digress into that discussion.  Let me suggest that we accept it as the ecumenical understanding and the understanding of our denominations – that baptism happens at most once in a person’s life.

That said, I also support people choosing to reaffirm their baptismal covenant when moved to do so, and there are several ways to do that, some of which involve water, perhaps even a whole bunch of water.

I also think it is important to know that neither of our denominations has a “this is it” liturgy book, the way the Episcopal Church does, for instance.  In the Episcopal Church, there is The Book of Common Prayer, and if you want to know how to do a baptism as an Episcopalian, you can look it up.  In the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, we have bunches of liturgical resources and plenty of ideas and approaches to consider.

There are, however, two primary resources for worship.  The United Church of Christ has Book of Worship (notice that “the” is missing from the title), and the Disciples of Christ have Chalice Worship.  While everything in them has a degree of “suggestion” to it, they do represent the most common liturgical theology and understanding of the denominations.  That’s why I’m using the baptism liturgies from them as a starting place for this search for a Progressive Christian baptism liturgy.

I have a handout for you that the ushers will pass out now.  You’ll see it has three columns.  The first is an outline with some script of the liturgy for baptism from the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship.  The second is an outline with some script of the liturgy for baptism from the Disciples of Christ’s Chalice Worship.  The third column is my suggestion of a starting point for a Progressive Christian baptism liturgy, but I want to talk about the first two columns before we get to the third.

You’ll notice that the content of the UCC and DOC liturgies are very similar to each other, though the order of things differs.  The one thing that the UCC liturgy has that the DOC liturgy doesn’t is at the top of the second page:  the “Congregational Assent.”  In introductions to baptism in both Book of Worship and Chalice Worship, there is mention that the sacrament of baptism should be celebrated in the context of worship.  As it’s explained in Book of Worship, “Baptism is not only a personal celebration in the lives of the individual candidates and their families, but also a central celebration in the life of the local church which embodies the universal church in a particular place.  For this reason, baptism should take place in the presence of the community of faith gathered for public worship.”  Because baptism is a commitment to be on a Christian faith journey, and because we travel together, I think it is appropriate for the congregation to voice their support and encouragement for the one being baptized.  So, you’ll see I’ve included it in the third column.

You’ll also notice that I’ve left out most of the options of what the pastor can say from most of the elements in the liturgies.  However, I’ve included the script (if you will) for the sections that might be understood as the baptismal vows.  And I’ve included the script of what is said in the act of baptism itself.  I’ve done this because I think these are the areas around which we might find the most resistance and disagreement as a congregation.  So let’s take a closer look at those questions that get asked of the candidates first, and then move on to the words that are said at the baptism itself.

In the UCC liturgy, the first question a candidate for baptism gets asked is, “Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?”  Since the basic, consistent understanding of Christian baptism over the past 2,000 years has been that it is the sacrament through which one becomes a member of the faith and family of Jesus, this seems to me to be an appropriate question to ask.

The next question, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” may sound like a strange question to our ears.  We don’t talk much about “the powers of evil” or the “freedom of new life in Christ.”  But if baptism is understood as a turning point in one’s life, a turning from whatever path one has been on and to the Jesus-path, then a question about that seems appropriate.  Ecumenically, there is an expectation that a baptism liturgy includes “a renunciation of evil.”[1]

The third question is the one about which I suspect there is the greatest resistance in our congregation.  “Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”  Of the five questions in the UCC liturgy, this one comes closest to asking about a belief, rather than asking about faith.  This is the headiest of the questions.  I think that’s because “Christ,” “Lord,” and “Savior” are very loaded words.  I know that my understanding of them has shifted over the years.  For me right now, they are mostly a political statement.  “Lord and Savior” was a title Caesar claimed.  For the first three centuries of Christianity, for a follow of Jesus to say that he is “Lord and Savior” was to say that Caesar is not, which was a radical, dangerous thing to say.  There are many other nuances to that I find in the profession, enough for a book, probably.  For now let me say that wrestling with that question is important spiritual the theological work for anyone who claims the title “Christian” to do.

The fourth question is a mouthful:  “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”  I think what it’s asking is, “Do you promise to follow Jesus?” and trying to express some of what that means.

The fifth question, another mouthful, asks us to recognize that being a Christian is not a static thing, that following Jesus is an active thing.  Following Jesus, this question suggests, means growing in faith, being part of community, and working to fulfill Jesus’ mission in the world.

The language of the questions in the Disciple’s liturgy is simpler and more direct.  And there are only three questions.  “Do you renounce evil, repent of your sins, and turn to Christ?”

Like the second question in the UCC liturgy, this question points to the idea of baptism as a turning point, a commitment to a new way of life.  It even includes the word “turn.”  The second question is another wording of what the third UCC question asks, and it will be met with similar resistance, I suspect.

The third question in the DOC liturgy has a similar function, I think, as the “Affirmation of Faith” in the UCC liturgy.  This is a question of belief in the triune God.  In the DOC liturgy, only the candidates for baptism are asked this question.  In the UCC liturgy, the whole congregation is asked to profess such a belief.

Can I be honest and heretical with you?  My belief in God as trinity is now much, much less important to me than it was when I was ordained.  The concept of the trinity helped we struggle with my questions about who/what God is.  No longer.  Now, for me, the trinity is much more of a metaphor than a doctrine.  Plus, a few years ago, when I preached on the trinity, I concluded that one cannot explain the trinity without saying something heretical.  And I showed this picture.

That said, I still want to use the historic, trinitarian formula for referring to God at the time of baptism itself.  If we go back to our handout, to the section “Act of Baptism,” you’ll see that in both liturgies, this traditional trinitarian formula is used.  It goes back to Matthew 28, the scripture we heard today.  And it goes to the ecumenical convergence around baptism.  The World Council of Churches document on this convergence says, “Baptism is administered with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”[2]  This statement is so supported ecumenically, there is no commentary about it.  In fact, this statement is pretty much the ecumenical bottom line for a baptism to be recognized:  There needs to be some water used, and it needs to be done in the name the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

While “Father” as a referent to God is not as impactful for me as it once was, and while “Father” genders God in a way that I think is inaccurate (I think God is beyond gender), I want to use this traditional language for the sake of the unity of the church.  Chalice Worship says, “Although Disciples make a point that no creedal statement should stand between the believer and Christ as a test of fellowship, the church has always baptized person in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, it is appropriate to ask the candidates to affirm these words of baptism in a noncreedal way.”

If you look now to the third column, you’ll see what I’m suggesting as a starting place for developing a Progressive Christian liturgy for baptism.  I’m suggesting we start with an invitation.  It just seems the polite thing to do.  Then there is some explanation about baptism.  Exactly what is said would still need to be figured out.  It would serve the same purpose as the “Welcome” and the “Address” in the UCC liturgy and the “Scripture Sentences” and “Statement of Purpose” in the DOC liturgy.

The section that is “Questions of the Candidates” in the UCC liturgy and “Renunciation of Evil and Confession of Faith” in the DOC liturgy is replaced with something that has three parts.  First, there is a question about desire to become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.  I explained earlier why I think this is an appropriate question to ask.  Then, second, rather than questions about renouncing evil, Jesus as Lord and Savior, and a profession of faith in the triune God, I’m suggesting we ask the candidates to give their testimony.  This would be an opportunity for the candidates for baptism to talk about their relationship with the Divine, to talk about what following Jesus means to them, to talk about evil and goodness and the struggle to live faithfully, and to talk about why this is the right time for them to make a commitment to follow Jesus.  If baptism is a sacrament of faith, then it is a sacrament of relationship rather than mental assent.  If baptism is a step on a journey of discipleship, then why not give this disciple a chance to talk about their journey?

Finally, I’ve swiped the questions of commitment, the questions of promising to follow Jesus from the UCC liturgy.  They might be reworded, but I think it is appropriate to have some sort of question(s) of commitment.  I’m thinking about the times in history when baptism was understood primarily to be about making a commitment, and I don’t want to lose that.

I’m suggesting we keep an opportunity for the community to offer their support.  A prayer over the waters of baptism is appropriate just as a prayer over the bread and cup is appropriate each time we celebrate communion.  I’ve kept the historic trinitarian formula for the act of baptism, but added a little twist, and maybe there’s a way to twist it a little more.  And, finally, there is a prayer for the baptized and a benediction to close out that part of the liturgy so we can return to the wider context of worship in which baptism is celebrated.

As I said in the announcements, we’re going to finish the sermon during the Town Hall Meeting.  Actually, you’re going to finish the sermon during the Town Hall Meeting.  Here are the questions we are going to discuss:

  • What do you think about my claim that we should only practice believer’s baptism?
  • What would you ask of a candidate for baptism? How would you like them to express their faith?
  • How would you word questions of commitment? Or what would you replace those questions with if we didn’t ask questions?

Let’s take a little time right now to think about these questions in preparation for our discussion.

_______________

[1] See paragraph 20 of the “Baptism” section of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 111 from the World Council of Churches, published in 1982. It is available online at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text

[2] Ibid, paragraph 17.

Bill McKibben

I just finished reading Bill McKibben’s The New Yorker article, “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet.” It was published in November and I may have read it then (some portions sounded very familiar), but Bill writes a lot and quite well, so I may have read similar things he wrote in other articles. It’s lengthy, and it is totally worth the time to read it. And if you’re like me, it will leave you depressed.

As Bill described the impacts of a warming planet – retreating glaciers, the coming desertification, portions of the globe becoming humanly uninhabitable because of the heat, the collapse of farming that has happened regionally and will happen with greater and greater frequency – images of a film I saw decades ago came to mind. The film depicts the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war in a small town, far enough away from where the bombs dropped to avoid the initial devastation, but close enough that the fallout impacts everyone. I did a little googling and I think the movie was Testament.

Among the scenes from the movie that came to mind as I read Bill’s article is of a minister presiding over a mass funeral/cremation as people die from radiation sickness (at least that’s how I remember the scene). I was in my first year of seminary when I saw the movie, wondering what my vocation would be like. I keep wondering if we will have mass casualties from weather events as the climate chaos becomes more profound over the next decades. I wonder if that scene, that I had come to assume wouldn’t be part of my ministry after the Reagan administration left office, might become part of what it means to be a pastor in the midst of the Athropocene.

We know that we are at the beginning of a mass extinction. Insect biomass is dropping by 2.5% per year. Huge numbers of species will be lost before they are even identified. Mammals, birds, and reptiles are dying at slower rates, but they are disappearing. As agriculture falters and ecosystems collapse, will human deaths from heatwaves and hunger, from scarcity of water and war become so intense that scene from the 1980s movie will be played out in real life?

I hope not. But I wonder. And that’s why Bill’s article has left me depressed.

Luckily, Bill doesn’t stop with doom and gloom news. There are signs of hope. Bill mentions the one-person school strike in Sweden led by Greta Thunberg that galvanized attention last year. Today, thousands of students in the United Kingdom went on strike for climate justice. And a global climate strike is planned for March 15.

The sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that Bill mentions calling for a Green New Deal back in November has led (in no small part, thanks to the organizing of the Sunrise Movement) to the filing of a congressional resolution calling for Green New Deal. There may be real congressional debate about real mitigation to the pending climate chaos.

Much more political action is needed. Repentance (as in a change of heart and a change of direction) are needed. Bad theology, especially bad Christian theology, has led to destructive assumptions about the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. “The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts,” John Muir wrote in 1867 (Bill quotes him in the article). Would that more of us realized this.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Epiphany, January 6, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love that, having heard the Christmas story for over half a century and having preached on it for over 30 years, I’m still discovering new things in it.  Two months ago, I was planning on recycling an old idea I had about the story of the magi for today’s sermon.  It’s a solid understanding of the story.  It has three points, as you might have guessed from the title.  But I’ve got to admit, the third point was a little scripturally weak.

Until this week.

The way Matthew tells the story, by the time he has the magi show up, Jesus might have been walking.  The actual birth of Jesus takes place back in chapter 1.  Mary and Joseph are engaged.  Mary gets pregnant.  Thanks to a dream, Joseph doesn’t cut of the engagement, but marries the pregnant Mary. She gives birth.  And Joseph names the child Jesus.  It’s all wrapped up by the twenty-fifth verse of chapter 1.

The magi show up sometime later.  How much later we don’t know, but based on the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, it may be as many as two years later.  The reason for the delay is the magi’s journey.  But their journey brings me to my second point.

My first point follows an implied action by the magi.  In order to have “observed his star at its rising,” the magi had to be observing.  And that’s my first point:  be on the lookout.  Be observant for signs of God at work in the world.  If we’re not watching, we’ll miss the signs.  Seek the star.  I don’t mean to literally take up star gazing (though that may be a worthwhile spiritual practice, so I’m also not saying don’t take up astronomy).  I’m saying be on the lookout for signs.

The second thing the magi do is they respond to the sign they saw.  They saw a star that made them think that a new king of the Jews was born or was about to be born.  Nifty. They could have celebrated the birth in their home country.  They could have advised political leaders there “in the East” that they might want to know that a political shift in Israel was coming.  But they didn’t do these things.  They set off on a journey.  They followed the star.  Even though Israel was an occupied country and King Herod the Great was more a puppet of Rome than anything else, they saw a sign that led them to believe that a new king was born.  And they decided to follow up on that sign.

How they went about following up – let’s just say that they did not seem to have any sense of realpolitik.  There was no way Herod the Great was vacating the throne unless he died, or Rome demanded it. The magi might have thought that a new king was born, but realpolitik would say this king wasn’t going to sit on any throne unless Rome made it happen.  Realpolitik would advise:  don’t bother going to pay this supposed “new king” homage.

My second point is this:  once you see the signs of what God is up to, respond.  Don’t let a concern for conventional wisdom or realpolitik slow you down.  When God is at work, a faithful response is called for.  Do it.

Seeking the star is step one.  Following the star is step two.

I like to image that, once the magi had returned home, the story continues.  Call if fan fiction, if you like.  I imagine the magi returning to their homes and telling others about the wonders at work in the world.  I imagine them being stars in their own communities – not in the sense of being famous, but in the sense of being a sign in the heavens, or on the street, or around the dining room table, for others to see that God is at work in the world.

And that is my third point:  Be a star.  Let God use you to let others know what God is up to.

The thing is, I don’t think I need my fan fiction to make this third point.  As I studied and prayed with today’s gospel lesson this week, I had an insight.  Two insights, really.

The first is not all that profound.  I had an insight as to why, for years, I preferred Luke’s birth narrative over Matthew’s.  I’d rather be a shepherd than a magus.  It’s pretty cool that the shepherds get an angelic announcement and go celebrate.  On the other hand, the magi get the star and they’re wise enough to interpret its meaning.  So that’s not the reason I’ve preferred Luke.  It’s something else.

It’s been something about the shepherds.  Consider their social status.  They have no power, no prestige, not education.  And I tend to cheer for the underdog.  The magi, on the other hand, have power, prestige, and education.  Yet, for all their power, prestige, and education, the magi come off just as naïve as the shepherds.  They see the star.  They interpret it to mean that a new “king of the Jews” is born.  They go to Jerusalem – which I suppose makes sense.  A new king would be born in the capital, right?

Except they don’t go there to find the child.  They go there for directions.  They go there to ask where they should go to find the child. What do they think Herod is going to do with this information?  How naïve can they be?

I excuse the shepherds’ naiveté.  Heck, I embrace the shepherds’ naiveté.  An angel comes and tells them – tells me – “Behold!  I bring you glad tidings of greet joy. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign to you:  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.” “Dudes!  Let’s check this out!” seems to be a wholly appropriate reaction.

The magi – they just haven’t seemed all that wise to me.

That is, until I had the second insight – the important insight.  Maybe they weren’t as naïve as they first appear to be.  Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing.  Maybe these eastern intellectuals are purposefully poking the bear.

Biblical scholar John J. Pilch suggests that “these strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism.”[1]  The way Matthew knits the story, these strangers, these wise men have come a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  Not to pay homage to the current king.  They go to the current king for directions, and that makes the current king afraid.  They are poking not just Herod in the eye, but all of Rome and all Roman puppets.  “The vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times.”[2]

I suppose Matthew’s original audience would have seen these wise men, these strangers, these Magi as “‘very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers’”[3]of some nation in area of what today we know as Iran or Iraq.  Back then, would Matthew’s original audience have thought of that land and thought immediately of Babylon, the land of the exile?  Perhaps. Richard Swanson muses that if they had been historical figures, perhaps they would have been influenced by Jews that remained in Babylon after the Exile, tutored in sensing the goodness of God, “trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world.”[4]  Perhaps that’s how some of Matthew’s original audience thought of them.

The story is very good at evoking images in our minds.  I assume it did for Matthew’s original audience, too.  Potentates coming to the seat and symbol of power in Jerusalem and, with a simple question, terrifying the tyrant of their day.  When they finally come to Jesus, they find “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms” – as Shelley D.B. Copeland describes it.[5]  And they lay before the toddler and his mother their gifts, gifts fit for a king, gifts that purposefully evoke our reading from Isaiah 60.

And the story ends with them leaving for home, but “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Illegal activity, right there at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  Herod had ordered them to come back to Jerusalem once they found the child.  But they don’t.  They take a different way home.

Civil disobedience, poking the powers that be right in the eye, is at the core of this story.  Here’s my third point, reworked a little bit:  When we follow the star, when we daringly follow the star, even if that means facing down the principalities and powers of the day, we become a star for others.

I cannot hear this story without thinking of all the political leaders of our day who are paranoid about losing power and who are willing to do almost anything to hang on to it.  I cannot hear this story without thinking of the well-intentioned people who are being manipulated by individuals, and corporations, and governments via social media and countless other ways to view the world distortedly.  And now I cannot hear this story without also seeing those who have become wise to the machinations of others and who stand firm in their resistance.[6]  These, too, are stars declaring the wondrous works of God.  These, too, are stars you or I might be called to follow.  And in following, perhaps we, too, might become stars for others.

We think of the story of the magi as being a story of three kings.  It’s not. It’s the story of two kings.  One is called “the Great” and one is called “Emmanuel.”  One rules with violence and paranoia and one rules with love and grace.

Who will be our king?

Amen.

_______________

[1]Cited by Kathryn Matthew, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019 (accessed 31 December 2018).

[2]Ibid.

[3]Matthews, quoting Pilch from The Cultural World of Jesus Year A.

[4]Matthews, quoting Swanson from Provoking the Gospel of Matthew.

[5]Matthews, quoting Copeland, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1.

[6]David Lose, “Ephiphany C 2018 – The Other Christmas Story,” http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/epiphany-c-2018-the-other-christmas-story/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2019).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would she be admitted at the border?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

_______________

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

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

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

[4]Hollyday, op. cit.

[5]Polter,op. cit.

[6]Washow, op. cit.

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

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

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

[11]Ibid

[12]Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Micah responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

God wants our whole lives.

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

Amen.

_______________

Questions for contemplation

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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