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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

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

____________

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

[2] Ibid, 138.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

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

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

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

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

Amen.

_______________

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

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

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

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

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Luke would agree.

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

What good is it, indeed?

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SaveSave

Here’s today’s climate news, gleaned from today’s tweets from @BillMcKibben.

The Keystone Pipeline (the little brother of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline) leaked nearly a quarter of a million gallons of oil in northeastern South Dakota. Lessons:
1. Pipelines will leak.
2. See #1
3. #KeepItInTheGround
4. #NoKXL
http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Keystone-pipeline-leaks-210K-gallons-of-oil-in-12363576.php

Energy Transfer Partners (the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline) hired a private security firm, TigerSwan, to gather information for what would become a sprawling conspiracy lawsuit accusing environmentalist groups of inciting the anti-pipeline protests in an effort to increase donations. Lessons:
1. When oil companies face resistance they fight dirty.
2. Remember lesson from previous story.
3. #NoDAPL
https://theintercept.com/2017/11/15/dakota-access-pipeline-dapl-tigerswan-energy-transfer-partners-rico-lawsuit/

World’s largest sovereign wealth fund, belonging to Norway, proposes divesting from oil and gas to make it “less vulnerable to a permanent drop in oil and gas prices.” Lessons:
1. Just as divestment makes sense for ecological reasons, it makes sense for economic reasons.
2. This means that the world’s oldest oil fortune (Rockefeller) and its biggest (Norway’s wealth fund) are divesting from fossil fuel.
3. #DivestFossilFuel
https://www.ft.com/content/d18efd20-09a9-3400-a09c-dacfd747d3ab

The Energy industry has been “jolted” by this news. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/16/oil-and-gas-shares-dip-as-norways-central-bank-advises-oslo-to-divest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Aquinas

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

Menno Simons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] Quoted several places online, including Ibid.

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

[Updated: 3 Sept. 2o17]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 20, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
On this Sunday, we celebrated Pastor Jeff’s 30th anniversary of ordained ministry.
Scriptures:  Psalm 46 and Luke 15:11-32
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a hymn written by Martin Luther about 500 years ago.  He wrote the lyrics in German, of course, so we sang a translation.  The original music was probably a pop song in his day, a tune he might have picked up in a tavern being sung by the crowds, a tune he repurposed for his hymn.  The original tune swung a bit more and wasn’t so squared off to sound so pomp and circumstance-y.  Still, it’s a good hymn, one that I’ve liked since I was a teenager, one that was in the running for my ordination service thirty years ago.

Martin Luther

It’s based on, rather freely, on Psalm 46.  I don’t know my Luther well enough to know why he liked this Psalm and decided to write a hymn based on it.  I do know why I like this Psalm.

Just this week, I read two different ways of analyzing the Psalm based on its form.  I won’t take you down the road of the first of these, though this is the kind of stuff theology nerds like me geek out on.  This analysis points to two points (and yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence).  The first point is the song’s refrain, that God is our refuge – the song starts with and concludes with this, and it is an anchor point in middle of the song.  The second point, the central points of the song’s two sections (as this particular analysis divides the song):  God is in the midst of the city; it will not be moved; and  be still and know that I am God.  I would summarize these two points as, “God is God and you’re not.”

The second form analysis of the Psalm sees three stanzas, each three verses long.  The first stanza “juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar.”[1]  Rolf Jacobson says, “The image of ‘earth’ shaking and ‘sea’ roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order.  This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience.  The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature.  Thus, the ‘law’ that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator.”[2]

I disagree with his assessment that creation is in a “fallen condition.”  Yes, earthquakes and floods and tsunamis happen.  Yes, disease and disability strike not just humans, but other species as well.  Yes, we are all going to die.  But I don’t see these as signs of any “fallen condition” of creation.  Rather, I see them as part of the ongoing creative energy of the universe.  This stanza’s point is that because God is a present help in trouble, even natural disaster, we do not need to be engulfed with existential angst.

Stanza two moves from nature being in an uproar to the nations being in an uproar.  I’m not reading the political into the Psalm.  The Psalm itself gets political.  I don’t know what the political threat to Israel was when this Psalm was written – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – and it doesn’t really matter now.  What’s important now is the witness of the Psalm – that when the nations are in an uproar, when kingdoms totter, God is still God.  And the sun will come up tomorrow.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Stanza three points to the power and purpose of God – and our response.  God is working out the kin-dom in our midst.  God is making wars to cease, breaking the bow and shattering the spear.  And our response – to be still.  Be still and know that God is God (and that you and I and principalities and powers of our age are not God).  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Phyllis Tickle

I’ve preached before about how I think we are in the midst of a great church rummage sale (and, no, I’m not talking about the flea market happening next weekend).  Though she points to the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer for the genesis of the idea, Phyllis Tickle articulated the theory most clearly for me – “that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”[3]  There really wasn’t a church for the first rummage sale, 2,000 years ago.  Tickle called it “The Great Transformation” and it took place when a man was recognized by his disciples as “Emmanuel, God With Us.”  Five hundred years later, the Roman Empire collapsed and the church entered an era of preservation with the advent of the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories.  Five hundred years later, the church split in “The Great Schism,” creating the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Five hundred years after that, “The Great Reformation” shook up the church once again.  And five hundred years after that … is today.

Tickle said that in each of these times, the church was wrestling with one key question:  What is authoritative?  And in each of these great rummage sales, a new authority emerges.  Obviously, for The Great Transformation, Jesus was the new authority.  I couldn’t find my copy of her book The Great Emergence this week, and I don’t remember what the new authority was that emerged from the second rummage sale, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with monasticism.  At the Great Schism, the new authority was the bishop of Rome, or the Pope, as he’s typically known.  At the Great Reformation, the new authority was scripture.

Tickle thought that the Spirit is likely going to be the new authority in whatever this new church that’s emerging will turn out to be.  I wonder if it might be Nature.  Or some combination of Spirit and Nature.

In any event, I had no idea that I would be pastoring in the midst of a rummage sale when I answered the call to become an ordained minister.  When God’s call got through (I realize in retrospect that God had been calling my whole life, but there was too much static on the line) in 1982, we were just beginning to experience the end of Christendom.  I had no idea it was happening.  I grew up in a time when the default assumption in American society was “Christian.”  In fact, the default assumption was “Mainline Protestant.”  Yes, there were Catholics and Jews around, but the default assumption was Mainline Protestant.  All the members of the Supreme Court were either Mainline Protestants or Jews.  All the Presidents except for Kennedy were Protestants, and almost all of them Mainline Protestants.  School vacation schedules considered the church calendar as they were being designed.

And all that has disappeared during my time in ordained ministry.  This shift, along with the explosive growth of computer technology and post-modernity taking root, have contributed energy to the great church rummage sale we’re experiencing now.  And one of the reasons I’m really glad to be fulfilling my call to ordained ministry here at Niles Discovery Church is that you are a church that is willing to try new things.

If you look at each of the great rummage sales the church has had in the past 2,000 years, while something new always emerged from it, whatever used to be also remained – though smaller, often healthier because new things made the old thing into some self-examination.  I don’t know if Niles Discovery Church will emerge as part of whatever the new things is or if we will be part of the stronger, smaller, faithful continuation of Progressive Christianity.  But I do know that we will be faithful as we seek to fulfill our call as part of the body of Christ.

“30 Years and Counting,” I titled this sermon.  Perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but it you’d permit a bit of self-indulgence.  This is the fifth ministry setting I’ve had in those thirty years.  The first three were completed in under ten years.  Short ministries or long, I always learned things in each setting.

Working as a chaplain at the juvenile hall, I learned about the urgency of now and the difference I could make in a moment.  I also learned that I have to be willing to let go of long-term results.  I could plant seeds, but I would never know if they would produce fruit.  I typically didn’t even know if they would take root.  So I learned to be faithful to my calling and to leave the results to God.

At the church in Spokane where I served as Associate Pastor and then Interim Pastor, I learned how important congregational buy-in is on projects.  The bigger the project, the more important getting this buy-in is.  And that typically means slowing down so people can catch up to the leaders.

I learned about the importance of integrity when I served the church in Richland, Washington, as an Interim Pastor.

And at the church in Carnation, Washington, where I served as pastor for a decade, I learned that my leadership doesn’t matter if I’m leading in a direction the church doesn’t want to go.  I also learned how important it is for the members of a church to nurture their friendships and to create a safe space for each other.

And here in Fremont, where I’ve served for a dozen years (at Niles Congregational Church and at Niles Discovery Church, as the first merged into the second), I’ve learned how important it is for a church and a pastor to be willing to risk in order to stay faithful.  That’s where I think we’re going in the years ahead.  I think we’re going to keep stepping into risky ministries in order to stay faithful.

I picked the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be read at my ordination because it answers a profound question.  What must we do to live in the kin-dom of God?  Love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.  It really is that simple.  And it really is that risky.

Loving that radically will mean crossing boundaries – like the Samaritan crossed when he saved a Jew.  Loving that radically will mean inviting people we don’t know (like an innkeeper, say) to help us heal the brokenness in the world.  Loving that radically will mean handing over what we have to others so that all might experience wholeness and justice.

bell hooks once said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.  The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”[4]

I think that is why Jesus calls us to love, to take the risks of love.  For loving builds the kin-dom of God.  And here’s a bit of good news.  We can take those risks – though the mountains should shake in the heart of the sea, though the nations are in an uproar – we can take the risks to love.  For the Lord of hosts is with us.  God is in the midst of the city.

Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1110 (accesses 19 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2008/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 19 August 2017).

[4] bell hooks, quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155129096928500 (posted and accessed 26 July 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

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

[12] Ibid.

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

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

SaveSave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, they produce these berries…

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

[5] Lose, op. cit.

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

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

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

[9] Howell, Ibid.

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

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