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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 5:1-20 and “Kids Who Die,” by Langston Hughes
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s gospel lesson is a wonderful, dramatic story.  Jesus has been teaching by the Sea of Galilee.  That night, he and his disciples get in a boat to cross the sea.  While Jesus sleeps, a storm kicks up, severely scaring the disciples.  They wake Jesus and he stills the storm.

They get to the other side of the sea, in the country of the Gerasenes, an area where Gentiles live.  They step out of the boat and are met by a madman who has made his home in the cemetery.  I’ve always pictured Jesus coming ashore and wandering directly into the cemetery, though that’s not exactly what the scripture says.  I’ve also pictured the man as naked and unbathed, with matted hair and beard.  The story doesn’t say that either, though later, when he’s been saved by Jesus, there is a line about him being clothed.

There is no question but that the man is tormented.  He has lost his own voice to what torments him; all he does is howl.  When words come out of this mouth, that the words of the demons that we hear.  He injures himself because he is in so much pain.  The demons that torment him have stripped away his humanity – completely.  Only the demons speak, and when they do, they recognize who Jesus is and the threat Jesus poses.

The story is rich with symbolism.  In the Hebrew scriptures, the sea represents chaos.  In the story right before this one, Jesus show he is master over chaos when he calms the chaotic, life-threatening storm on the sea.  The man who meets them when they come ashore is the personification of chaos.  They come ashore in the land of the unclean (the Gentiles), in an area that is unclean (a cemetery), and are confronted by someone who is unclean (the man who is possessed).

If there is any person who is less than fully human, it’s this guy.  If there is anyone who is less worthy, of less value, it’s this guy.  This man is “other” on so many levels.  And Jesus sees right through this “otherness,” seeing the man’s true humanity.

When I picked this lesson for this sermon, I thought about the “otherness” of the man possessed.  I thought about how racism “others” people of color.  Racism says that whiteness is normal and people who aren’t white are abnormal, not fully human, less than, other.  I looked at how Jesus saw through that “otherness” and heard a call to go and do likewise.

But as I reflected on this scripture this past week, I came to see society in the man possessed.  Society is possessed by the demon of racism.  And racism has a legion of faces.

This is not Kelly’s son, but this child is just about the age of her son in the story she tells.

“My son was about 2 years old,” writes Kelly Brown Douglas.  “I had taken him to the park to play in a Flintstones-like car that was in the park’s playground.  This particular park was next door to an elementary school.  After being in the park for about 15 minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park.  Two little boys, one blonde-haired the other redheaded, ran down to the car where my son was playing.  Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out.  Soon the two little boys began fighting over who was going to play in the car.  My son looked on with the fascination of a 2-year-old.  The little redheaded boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking.  He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son.  With all the venom that a 7- or 8-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.’  This little white boy was angry.  A black boy had intruded upon his space.  My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.

“I was horrified.  Before I could say anything to the offending boy the white teacher, who was in earshot, approached.  She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son.  I expected her to have a conversation with the little boy and to make him apologize.  Instead, she looked at my 2-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime, and said to the little boys, ‘Come on with me, before there is trouble.’  At that moment, I was seething with anger.  I took my son and left the park.

“As we walked away, I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain.  At 2 years old, my son was already viewed as a criminal.  At 7 or 8 years old the link between a black boy’s body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy.  If at 2 years old, a white teacher already regarded my son as a troublemaker, I feared what the future might bring.”[1]

That is one of the legion of faces of racism today; there are many others.  I asked a group of friends who live in the Tri-Cities[2] to share with me their experiences with racism.  I tried to get a cross-section of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and I was blessed with several responses, especially given how quick a response I had asked for in my request.  Here’s just a sample.

One friend is a Muslim woman.  She and her husband are immigrants from Pakistan.  They have three children.  She told me that their eldest has pale skin and, when little, was often mistaken for a Caucasian.  His experience was quite different from that of his little brother.  The younger brother tans easily and has a mole on his forehead.  From early elementary school, he was teased.  In Middle School, he was called names like “Zit Face,” “terrorist,” “Gandhi dot,” and “sand monkey” – to mention just a few of the names that his mother is aware of.

A European-American shared some incidents she witnessed or learned about in her neighborhood.  In Union City, after an off-campus shooting, the Union City police pulled together suspected gang members and their friends, all of whom were African American, for questioning.  She wonders what role racism played in that roundup.

Her neighbor reported his car tagged with a gang symbol.  Some of the responding police suggested the perpetrators were wannabe gang members and called them “grease monkeys” and “welfare cases.”

Another friend, a middle-aged woman from south Asia, immigrated in 1978 and became a citizen in 1986.  She shared how for the first twenty-plus years she lived in the United States, she volunteered in her children’s schools, in Girl Scouts, in camps, in sports programs, and on the boards of several non-profit organizations.  Then came the attacks on September 11, 2001.  “It is painful to be labeled as terrorist,” she told me, “because of the 9/11 tragedy, [especially] after being a part of the American fabric for over 20 years and serving and trying to make America a better nation for all.  Our loyalties are questioned every day since that tragedy by asking us to condemn those or any other terrorists acts since then, no matter who is responsible and where it happens.”

This is a woman with a deeply compassionate heart, and she told me about another incident that happened to a young Latina who worked in Starbucks.  One day, my friend saw that the barista was upset and asked her what had happened.  Earlier that day, a customer had asked the barista a question about school.  The barista proudly told the customer that she had just graduated from high school.  The customer responded, “So this is it for you because your kind do not go to college, you will get pregnant and have babies.”  The barista was too stunned to respond, even though she could have said that she had a full scholarship to attend a university that fall.

These stories I’ve shared are about just one form of power that Racism takes.  You know the old expression, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”  It refers to the fact that the vast majority of an iceberg is underwater.  It applies here.  These overt acts of racism are the portion of the iceberg we can easily see.  Below the surface there are other powers at work.

The first power we see is “Power Against” or “Power Over.”  This is the power I’ve talked about so far, the power that works against people of color.  When racism wields this power, it tells the shop clerk to follow that African-American kids through the store because she is suspect, that it’s okay for a cop to label a Latino kid a “grease monkey,” and that the future for a 2-year-old black boy is jail.

The second power of racism is often harder to see.  It is the “Power For” people who are white.  This is the power that allows me to assume I will be treated justly in the court system, or to assume that I will get a job interview based solely on the fact that my name “sounds” white.  This is the power that gets me a bank loan when an equally qualified person of color doesn’t get it.  It is the power that allows me to assume that I will be shown the apartment if it’s available, as assumption people of color cannot always make.

One of the people who I asked to share stories of racism told me one about a time her daughter got caught shoplifting.  The mom threatened to “let them” have her arrested, and that this would ruin her chances to get into college, and there would be all kinds of consequences for her stupid actions, and (as the mom put it) “blah, blah, blah.”  The mom talked about grounding, severe consequences at home that hadn’t yet been imagined.  She said to the child that you need to apologize, assure the store person that you will never do anything like this again.  This went on until the store person said to the mom, “Obviously, you will make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Your child’s name will be kept on our records and isn’t allowed back in here.”  No police report filed.  No jail time.  No criminal record.  The daughter got to go home, got go to college.  The mom points out that she and her daughter are white.

This is racism’s Power For white people at work.

So is the fact that the GI Bill made home loans available to white GIs after World War II, but not to black GIs.[3]

One of my friends pointed out that white people general don’t acknowledge that their families have benefited from access to college educations, home loans, inherited wealth, job preferences, networking, safe travel, white-biased testing, financial and social training, etc.  All this is racism’s Power For white people.

And then there’s the third power of racism, the Power that Distorts the truth:  that we are each and all made in the image of God.  This is the power of racism that gets deeply and perhaps I should say demonically internalized.  Any time I feel better than, more than, scared of someone of darker hue, this is the result of this third power of racism distorting the truth in me.

A white friend shared with me about dating an African-American man.  My friend said, “Watching women clutch their purses or actually cross the street when they walked by my beautiful and gentle boyfriend was shocking to me.  Overhearing a family ask to move their seats away from our vicinity in a Black Angus restaurant was an eye-opener.”  This is racism’s Power that Distorts at work.  Racism distorted these strangers’ views of my friend’s boyfriend.

It is the same Power of racism at work in a friend who is of several races.  He shared with me how through his adolescence he tried so hard to be white.  He said, “I desperately wanted to be accepted by the White community.  I wanted to be as white as possible, forsaking the color of my skin, my heritage, and my culture,” this despite the fact that his white friends often bullied him, calling him “half-breed.”  Racism distorted my friend’s sense of his own full humanity and it has taken a lot of personal work to reclaim it.

Being aware of these Powers racism has is a start, but it is not enough.  Some of the work that we need to do is very personal, and I’ll talk about that next week.  The other work is communal work.  Obviously, standing up to overt acts of racial prejudice is one way we can address racism’s Power Against.  Working on policy change so that racism’s Power Against and Power For are rooted out is another activity we can engage in.  For instance, we could work for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.  And we as a congregation could develop partnerships with faith communities whose members are predominantly people of color.

The past sermons in this series have shown just how deeply racism runs in our culture and country.  We are not going to get rid of it easily.  But the more we are aware of racism’s powers, the more likely we will find ways to cast out this demonic legion that possesses us.

Amen.

[1] Kelly Brown Douglas, “The Stories That Matter from a Black Mother to Her Son,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/faith-action/stories-matter-black-mother-her-son (posted and accessed 20 March 2017).

[2] Fremont, Newark, and Union City are called the “Tri-Cities” here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

[3] See, for instance, http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/After-the-War-Blacks-and-the-GI-Bill.pdf and http://www.demos.org/blog/11/11/13/how-gi-bill-left-out-african-americans.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 12, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Galatians 3:23-39 and Daniel 1:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Protestors in Washington this past Friday

“Despite bitter cold, wind, rain and hail,” the PBS Newshour reports, “hundreds of members of Native American tribes and supporters from around the country turned out Friday to march on the White House, in an effort to turn the momentum of the Standing Rock protests [against the building of a oil pipeline through and near reservation land] into a more sustained movement for native rights.

“The march and a rally in Lafayette Square across from the White House came after four days of protest, prayer and lobbying on Capitol Hill, where Native communities called for the protection of natural resources and demanded the new administration honor treaties with indigenous peoples.”[1]

Five and a quarter centuries after the Doctrine of Discovery emboldened Europeans to come to the Americas and claim them, five and a quarter centuries after the people living on America’s soil were first enslaved or killed with the blessing of the church, the descendants of those first nations are still fighting for their rights and their sovereignty.

If you’re wondering how it is possible that the Doctrine of Discovery is still active in our society, the answer is easy: It’s in our cultural DNA. Let me explain what I mean.

Last week, I talked about how the church is responsible for creating the Doctrine of Discovery and blessing the colonial expansion of Christian nations, which of course meant European countries. Thanks to the Doctrine, by the 1600s, Spain had established colonies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and what is now Florida. Likewise, the Portuguese had established a foothold in South American.

England had gained military power and started establishing colonies in North America. The Doctrine of Discovery gave the justification for the English to do this. Back in 1497, just a few years after Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, a English-financed explorer planted the English flag in what is now Newfoundland, so they felt they could claim they had “discovered” the land. In 1607, they founded Jamestown, and in 1621 the Plymouth colony was established by English Pilgrims.

In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims set out to establish their utopia, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown that would have repercussions for the next four hundred years. The ship carried Africans, but they were not passengers. They were the cargo. While they may have been the first slaves brought to an English colony as cargo, they were hardly the first slave brought from Africa to the Americas. “By 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves.”[2]

Dum Diversas

The African slave trade was justified the same way the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement or murder of the native peoples living there was justified: the Doctrine of Discovery. Successive Popes had said that European kings should “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue … all Saracens and Pagans and all enemies of Christ … to reduce their persons in perpetual slavery … and to take away all of their possessions and property” (to quote the 1452 Papal Bull Dum Diversas). Historian Howard Zinn notes, “By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.”[3]

A century and a half after the English started establishing colonies in North America and importing Africans to work as slaves, the colonists decided it was time to break ties with the king. And so they fought a war and managed to win, declaring their independence with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, when they said “all men,” they didn’t mean all people. They meant all property-owning, white, males.

Although this new nation was founded on freedom from tyranny, the idea that white people and Christians had certain divine rights was nevertheless ingrained in our nation’s cultural DNA and quite literally into our policies. As someone raised in New England and whose family goes back to the Mayflower, I like to think of myself as coming from a people who opposed the evils of slavery. But New Englanders profited directly and indirectly from the slave trade and the three-fifths compromise in our constitution was pushed by the Yankees. They didn’t want Blacks counted as people when it came to deciding how many Representatives southern states received. And nobody wanted the Indians counted. Thus, it was compromised that the population of the states would be set by “adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years [that is, indentured servants], and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”[4] Well, the only other people who were left were slaves of African ancestry.

Chief Justice John Marshall, author of the M’Intosh decision

Another way this supremacy of the white people because part of our policies and cultural DNA was through the court. The 1823 Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh is a key example. While the decision is often framed as “private citizens could not purchase lands from Native Americans,”[5] what it really said is that Indians really didn’t own the property in the first place. The decision “begins with a lengthy discussion of history of the European discovery of the Americas and the legal foundations of the American Colonies. In particular, [the decision] focuses on the manner in which each European power acquired land from the indigenous occupants. Synthesizing the law of nations, [it] traces the outlines of the ‘discovery doctrine’ – namely, that a European power gains radical title (also known as sovereignty) to the land it discovers. As a corollary, the discovering power gains the exclusive right to extinguish the ‘right of occupancy’ of the indigenous occupants, which otherwise survived the assumption of sovereignty.”[6]

Then the decision says that when the United States “declared independence from Great Britain, the United States government inherited the British right of preemption over Native American lands. The legal result is that the only Native American conveyances of land which can create valid title are sales of land to the federal government.”[7] The decision literally calls the Native peoples “heathens” in justifying this decision.

For Native Americans, this decision foreshadowed the Trail of Tears and almost two hundred years of forced removals, violence, and broken treaties. The very things the Standing Rock Sioux were protesting this weekend are a direct legacy of these attitudes and this decision.

John O’Sullivan

In 1845, the political leader and prominent editor named John L. O’Sullivan gave the Doctrine of Discovery a uniquely American flavor when he coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to defend U.S. expansion and claims of new territory to the west. It furthered the sense among U.S. citizens of an inevitable or natural right to expand the nation and to spread “freedom and democracy” (though only to those deemed capable of self-government, which certainly did not include Blacks or Native Americans). Of course, Johnson v. M’Intosh gave the legal cover for simply taking the land from the inhabitants as our nation pushed west.

Our denominations are not immune from the racism of the Doctrine of Discovery and the United States’ spin on it, Manifest Destiny. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was complicit in white American exceptionalism. The denomination’s founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, were 19th century men. As white, free, land-owning, educated, males, they acquired great privilege. There is little wonder they adopted, most likely without any conscious thought, the American power construct.

Campbell was an immigrant from Scotland. Immigrants choose to live in a land different from their birth, and Campbell had a deep desire for his chosen nation to be the best. Fully adopting the social concept of manifest destiny, adding a touch of Protestant superiority, mixing in some white superiority, and Campbell developed a social construct for Disciples. Writing “The Destiny of Our Country” in the August 1852 edition of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell pronounced, “In our countries [sic] destiny is involved the destiny of Protestantism, and in its destiny the destiny of all the nations of the world. God has given, in awful charge, to Protestant England and Protestant America – the Anglo-Saxon race – the fortunes, not of Christendom only, but of all the world.”[8]

Alexander Campbell

As the issue of slavery took on a greater and greater importance in the United States, Campbell wrote, “Much as I may sympathize with a black man, I love the white man more,” thus endorsing a church system that places white folk first and theologically supported Aquinas’ argument of soul layering (which I talked about last week), placing the white soul a notch higher than the soul of a person of color.[9]

After the Civil War, during the initial months of his administration, President Ulysses S. Grant decided he needed to address the so-called “Indian Problem.” Disciples pastor David Bell points out, “five years earlier the United States had ended a war to ensure only one nation would occupy the land from sea to shining sea. However, once the Civil War was over, the reality that years of treaty making between the U.S. and American Tribes had created multiple independent Indian nations across the American landscape confronted the Grant administration. The question before the Grant administration was how to eliminate the Indian nations – thus the Grant Peace policy.

“To eliminate Tribal sovereignty and nationhood the U.S. had to first ‘abrogate’ existing treaties. A rider on the March 3, 1871 Indian appropriation bill made it a reality that, ‘no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty’ [U.S. Statutes at Large, 16:566]. This radical congressional action of dismantling Tribal identity and structure changed the U.S. government’s opinion of American Tribes from that of sovereign nations to that of designated ‘wards.’”[10]

Now that Native Americans were considered wards, the United States initiated a program to do away with Indian identity. In 1870, Congress passed an appropriation for Indian education. This allowed the government to recruit a wide variety of Christian denominations to establish Indian mission school with the goal of converting and civilizing the Indians. Attendance at these mission schools was made mandatory on many reservations for all native children aged six through sixteen.[11] I’m not sure if the Disciples of Christ actually ran such a school on the Yakama Reservation in Washington, but I do know that the DOC has had a mission on the reservation since about this time, a mission that still functions today.

The good news is that how the mission functions has changed in many ways since it was founded. Just this year, they have supported the call for Native rights at the Standing Rock demonstrations and at Oak Flats, and they will be working with the Inter-Tribal coalition of the Diné, Ute Mountain, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute to bring awareness and support for the Bears Ears National Monument. The Yakama Christian Mission has gone from a tool of white supremacy to a vehicle of protection of “the North American Landscape and her Indigenous People.”[12]

The United Church of Christ is also complicit in white supremacy. The Congregationalists (one of the predecessor denominations of the UCC) sent missionaries out into the world – that is, out to the heathens who just happened to be non-whites – to bring them Christianity and civilization. One of the places they went was Hawaii. The Congregationalist missionaries and perhaps moreso their children were complicit in the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani.

As the UCC said in their 1993 apology to the Hawaiian people, “Some of these [missionary] men and women … sometimes confused the ways of the West with the ways of the Christ. Assumptions of cultural and racial superiority and alien economic understanding led some of them and those who followed them to discount or undervalue the strengths of the mature society they encountered. Therefore, the rich indigenous values of na Kanaka Maoli, their language, their spirituality, and their regard for the land, were denigrated. The resulting social, political, and economic implications of these harmful attitudes contributed to the suffering of na Kanaka Maoli in that time and into the present.” The United Church of Christ’s apology came with some money for restitution, too.[13]

Apologies and restitution are a start. Changing behavior to demonstrate a new attitude is a start. But what else can we as a church do to overcome how deeply ingrained racism is not just in our society, but in the churches as well?

If we really believe what Paul wrote to the Galatians, that distinctions of ethnicity and distinctions of economic and societal status and even distinctions of gender do not matter, for we are all one in Christ, then we need to do our best to remove racism from our cultural DNA.

The culture that Daniel and his friends were forced into wanted them to violate their consciences. The Babylonians wanted them to do things that went against their values, but they held fast and made a way of conscience when one might of thought there could be no way. My hope is that we can do the same – that we will hold fast to our values of equality and community even when the culture around us continues to allow white supremacy to function.

Last year, the General Board of the Disciples of Christ received a report from the “Racist Language Audit Task Force.” The report goes through the official documents of the denomination – the bylaws (called the “Design”), the standing rules for meetings, denominational policies, and other such documents – and makes specific recommendations of how these documents can be changed to be less racist. In essence, they made recommendations for how the General Ministries of the DOC can work to remove some of the racism from the denomination’s DNA.

As you know, during this sermon series, I am making a suggestion of a possible action we as a congregation or we as individuals can take to respond to some aspect of racism. My suggestion for this week is that we create our own Racist Language Audit Task Force to recommend how our bylaws, policies, and meeting rules (and even our Strategic Plan, if it’s needed) could be less racist.

That’s one concrete example of something we can do to be less racist. I want to offer one more concrete example of something some other people did. I’m not sure how we can apply it to our congregation, but it is a story that gives me hope.

About five weeks ago, a Native American man told Diana Butler Bass a story about something that had happened at the Standing Rock protests in the preceding months. She wrote about this story: “At the height of the prayer protest, there was also great violence. At one point, a white man stood up and called out, ‘Everyone here who is white, come to the front! We will form a shield that the security forces must shoot us first!’ And they did so. All the white folks who had gathered at Standing Rock surrounded all the native people, all holding hands, and stood between the water protectors and the guns.

“The native man told me this story with tears in his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘terrible things are happening. But never in my life – never in the history of my tribe – did white people stand between us and the bullets. Terrible things are happening. And beautiful, brave things as well.’”[14]

May we all find beautiful, brave things to do. Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Flock and Iman Smith, “Strengthened by Standing Rock, Native Americans march on D.C. What’s next for the movement?” PBS Newshour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/strengthened-standing-rock-native-americans-march-d-c-whats-next-movement/ (posted and accessed 10 March 2017).

[2] Howard Zinn, “Drawing the Color Line,” History Is a Weapon, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncolorline.html (accessed 10 March 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 2.

[5] “Johnson v. M’Intosh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_v._M’Intosh (accessed 10 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alexander Campbell, quoted by David B. Bell, “Disciples Unified Destiny,” Landscape Mending, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 20 July 2011; accessed 10 March 2017).

[9] Ibid.

[10] David B. Bell, “An 1870 Faith Based Initiative,” Landscape Mending, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 20 July 2011; accessed 10 March 2017). Verb tenses changed to fit the past tense voice of the sermon.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Yakama Christian Mission’s mission statement is “To advocate and educate in favor of the North American Landscape and her Indigenous People.” Learn more at https://yakamamission.org/.

[13] The Rev. Mr. Paul Sherry, as part of his formal apology to the Hawaiian people on behalf of the United Church of Christ, recorded at https://uccapology.wordpress.com (accessed 10 March 2017).

[14] Diana Butler Bass, in a Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154589452273500 on 11 February 2017 (accessed most recently on 10 March 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

My mother, it turns out, was right. I was in ninth grade when I announced that I wanted to become a minister when I grew up. While my parents thought this was just the latest in a string of professions I wanted to pursue (in third grade, I wanted to be a forest ranger), my mother took full advantage of the announcement.

The public high school I went to was large enough and well funded enough that it offered several options and several levels for classes in many subjects. Several languages were taught at various levels. Everything from math basics to second year calculus were taught by the math department. The social studies department offered several choices of subjects.

I was taking World Civilizations I in ninth grade and had no desire to take World Civilizations II in tenth grade – too much reading and writing. But my mother said that if I wanted to be a minister, I needed to know my history so I needed to take World Civ II in tenth grade.

That’s right: my mom knew how to take advantage of whatever resources were at hand to get her kids to do what she wanted. And, yes, she was right: Understanding history is important for doing theology.

Today, we’re going to do a little history because it’s a necessary part of understanding the church’s role in normalizing racism in the United States. Oh, but the history we learn versus the history that actually happened …

For instance, in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And what is Columbus famous for? Well, I was taught that Columbus discovered America. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We actually need to start before Jesus. We need to start back with Aristotle. Aristotle thought that all living things (plants, animals, humans) have a structure. Plants have a vegetative structure that is primarily about taking in nutrients, reproducing, and such. Animals have this structure plus a sensitive structure that interacts via the sense with the environment and that creates desire. Humans add to this a rational structure – which, according to Aristotle, makes us unique. Thus, Aristotle thought there was a hierarchy of living things, with humans at the pinnacle.[1]

slide1Saint Augustine of Hippo took Aristotle’s argument and restructured it into a theological construct. In his famous Confessions, Augustine held “… a perfect man to be in Christ – not the body of a man only, nor, in the body, an animal soul without a rational one as well, but a true man. And this man I held to be superior to all others, not only because he was a form of the Truth, but also because of the great excellence and perfection of his human nature, due to his participation in wisdom.”[2]

If I’m reading this correctly, Augustine held that humans were superior to other creatures because of our connection to and our participation in wisdom. That is, humans are special because of our rationality. And I think he may also be suggesting (or at least he could be interpreted to be suggesting) that Christians (that is, those who are in Christ) are more connected to rationality than other humans.

“Thomas Aquinas furthers Augustine’s work of setting the ‘rational soul’ of humans against that of the ‘animal soul.’ Aquinas holds much of creation has a soul, yet there is clearly a difference between the rational soul of humans and [the soul] of, say, a dog. This standpoint places the rational human soul as better than and therefore above all other created souls. Thus, Aquinas argues for soul layering where the human rational soul is above all other created souls. This soul layering argument allowed Christianity to create a structure of belief where not only does the animal soul reside at a level lower than that of the rational human soul, but also, those humans who are not rational have a soul that resides somewhere between that of the rational person and that of a dog.”[3]

A couple hundred years before Aquinas, “in 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict – the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (meaning empty land). It gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to ‘discover’ or claim land in non-Christian areas. This policy was extended in 1452 [a couple hundred years after Aquinas] when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and used this idea to justify war, colonization, and even slavery.

“By the time Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. When he reached the Americas, Columbus performed a ceremony to ‘take possession’ of all lands ‘discovered,’ meaning all territory not occupied by Christians. Upon his return to Europe in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Cetera, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had already ‘discovered’ and all lands that it might come upon in the future. This decree also expressed the Pope’s wish to convert the natives of these lands to Catholicism in order to strengthen the ‘Christian Empire.’”[4]

Keep in mind that all of this is happening before the Reformation. So this is action by our direct spiritual ancestors. And I can’t escape a connection to this Doctrine by saying that I’m a Mayflower descendant, not a descendant of the Spanish. You see, the Doctrine of Discovery is baked into our United States culture (and I’ll get into that next week).

No, this Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed European kings and princes to send armies into non-Christian lands (that is non-European lands), allowed Europeans to come to the Americas and subjugate the peoples already living here, for they were judged to be insufficiently rational to be equal to the European conquerors.

I find this philosophy that allowed Christians to come and kill people just because they were not Christian to be directly contradicted by the brief section of the Sermon on the Mount we heard today. When Jesus said, “Love you enemies,” I don’t think he meant we should kill them, or enslave them, or commit genocide against them. Yet that is what Christians did when they “discovered” the Americas.

But maybe that’s too easy, too glib a biblical response to this history of ours. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman invites us to a little more nuance, in part because the story is troubling. The story is troubling because Jesus comes across as a bit of a jerk. A desperate woman with a seriously sick child comes to Jesus seeking help, and Jesus response is an ethnic slur. No theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls this unnamed woman a dog, and that’s an ethnic slur. And though the modern concept of “race” had not yet been developed, this ethnic slur is pretty close to being a racial slur.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman by Rembrandt

“Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman” by Rembrandt

“To be clear,” writes David Henson, “while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus [racial] prejudice equals racism.”[5]

When faced with the complexities of the sin of personal and systemic racism, it is much easier to think of Jesus as transcending them all and loving all peoples regardless of skin color or culture of origin. We want Jesus to be the simple, easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems. Jesus loves the little children of the world, and their little dogs, too.

In truth, at least in Mark’s gospel, rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout our country not too long ago, and seems to be echoing still. It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet prepared for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.

If it does nothing else, the story of the Syrophoenician woman teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity (I’m talking Jesus here) can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Just as we are today in our culture, Jesus was reared into the prejudiced worldview of his culture. He could not easily escape it. And neither can we.

“But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist.  It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed or the Other, reveals who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside with dismissive prejudice as dogs?

“Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth they are speaking?

“When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his ethnic slur, Jesus listens. And he hears.

“[I think] it is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.

“‘But even the dogs get table scraps,’ she replies, a subtle calling out of his dehumanizing language.

“Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith.

“Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into prejudice and power.

“He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

“When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again.”[6]

The movie The Mission (a movie that connects to the sin of the Doctrine of Discovery deeply) ends with the slaughter of a group of native peoples in South America by European “discoverers.” Then, in the penultimate scene, Señor Hontar, the governor of the Portuguese-claimed territories and the Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano are together in a room when they get news of the slaughter.

Hontar says to the Cardinal: We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.

The Cardinal corrects him: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.

The Christian church, through the Doctrine of Discovery, has made this corner of the world racist. So what do we do about it?

My goal in this sermon series is to give you something concrete you can do individually or we can do as a congregation to address some aspect of racism. Here’s what I have in mind this week. Because the church has normalized the sin of racism by espousing the Doctrine of Discovery, it seems to me that the first thing we can do it to repudiate the Doctrine.

And we actually have an opportunity to do this as a congregation. The Disciples of Christ will hold their General Assembly this summer and one of the resolutions that will be voted on will be a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. We can, as a congregation, endorse this resolution formally and send word to the General Assembly of our action. Copies of the resolution are in the fellowship hall, I believe on the snack table.

I think that, if we are to endorse the resolution, endorsement should be done by a formal vote of the congregation, and there are three ways we can do that:

  • One or more of you can request that the Cabinet call a Special Congregational Meeting, which could be held in April, for the purpose of voting on endorsement.
  • One or more of you can ask the Cabinet to put endorsement of the resolution on the Annual Meeting agenda (which will be held on May 7).
  • Or, if it’s not on the Annual Meeting agenda, one of you can make a motion at the Annual Meeting that we endorse the resolution.

How we proceed – if we proceed – is really up to you.

[1] John G. Messerly, “Summary of Aristotle’s Theory of Human Nature,” Reason and Meaning, http://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/10/17/theories-of-human-nature-chapter-9-aristotle-part-1/ (posted 17 October 2014; accessed 4 March 2017).

[2] Quoted by David B. Bell, “When Reason Becomes Faith,” Bent Grass: DoD and DOC History, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 2 July 2011; accessed 4 March 2017).

[3] Bell, “When Reason Becomes Faith,” op. cit.

[4] “Lewis and Clark: The Unheard Voices,” Anti-Defamation League, http://archive.adl.org/education/curriculum_connections/doctrine_of_discovery.html (posted 2005; accessed 4 March 2017).

[5] David R. Henson, “Crumbs: Jesus and the Ethnic Slur,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/ (posted 2 September 2015; accessed 4 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This sermon may be more of a testimony than a sermon. I want to tell you about the evolution of my daily examen.

The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice in the Church. As you may have guessed from its name, in involves examining something. As a spiritual practice, it typically involves examining oneself. The purpose of the practice is to help one see when and where and how God has been at work in one’s life.

The Daily Examen, as the name suggests, is an examen that is done on a daily basis. In other words, if one participates in a daily examen, one spends time, typically at the end of the day, prayerfully examining the day, reflecting in some way on when and where and how God has been at work in one’s day – and when and where and how one has been a faithful disciple of Jesus.

There are many prayer techniques, many ways of doing a daily examen, the most famous of which is probably the one developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius lived through the first decades of the Protestant Reformation and he founded the religious order known as the Jesuits. I don’t know if or how his experience being devoted in obedience to the Pope (as all Jesuits were) or being an instrumental part of the Counterreformation influenced what became his spiritual exercises or the specific form of his daily examen. What I do know is that he is remembered much more for his spiritual exercises than for anything else, except maybe for founding the Jesuits.

img_2033As I said, there are many ways of praying a daily examen. I’ve found that there’s a flipbook available to help you with a daily examen. I found a daily examen outline that has an ecological focus. There’s even an app for it.

Whatever technique you use for a daily examen, one of the important element of it is thanksgiving. While it may be a framed less than explicitly, every daily examen that I’ve found has thanksgiving as a core step to it. That’s why about three and a half years ago I decided to make thanksgiving the central part of a prayer practice I started.

I was going to be leading a workshop on social media and spirituality for Christian educators and I started an experiment so I could share my personal experience with my workshop attendees. I decided to write and post on Facebook a prayer of thanksgiving each night (well, almost each night – I missed some over the course of the past three and a half years). This is the form the practice took at first. I would sit at the computer and think about the day. I would think about what happened, where and when and how I sensed the presence of God during the day. I would decide what I wanted to thank God for. And I would write a prayer of thanksgiving and click “post.”

About a year and a half ago, I decided to use journaling for my pre-thanksgiving prayer reflection. I have kept a journal on and off for years – more off than on. But I bought myself a new journal and I had an old fountain pen repaired, and I started journaling. And journaling has been part of my daily examen since then.

Let me just say, if you want to journal as a spiritual practice, find a journal that has paper you enjoy writing on and a pen or pencil you enjoy writing with. It will make the practice much easier to maintain. For some of you, that will mean getting a spiral notebook and a Bic pen. For me, it meant getting a bound journal I liked and getting my fountain pen working again.

Then, last year, my daily examen took another change. Our Ash Wednesday worship service was essentially the same as tonight’s service. We had four scripture readings – the same readings we will use tonight. Each was followed by a question – the same questions we will ask tonight. And we sang hymns after the times of reflecting on those questions – the same hymns we will sing tonight.

The four scriptures and questions were selected in the hopes that each of us would connect to at least one them. Using the work of Corrine Ware, Pastor Brenda and I recognized that some people find their spirituality grounded in thoughtfulness, that some people have what Ware calls “a head spirituality.” Others find their spirituality grounded in feelings, especially feelings evoked through their connections with others. These people have what Ware calls “a heart spirituality.” Others find their spirituality grounded in contemplation and have what Ware calls “a mystic spirituality.” And other find their spirituality grounded in expressing compassion and working for justice. These people have what Ware calls “a kingdom spirituality.”

So last year – like tonight – we had four readings and four questions, each corresponding to one of these four spiritual types. What happened to me after last year’s Ash Wednesday service is that I started asking myself four more questions during Lent I don’t remember how I framed the questions at the beginning of Lent, but I can tell you how I ask them each night now. I ask myself:

  • How have you practiced Study today? (head spirituality)
  • How have you practiced Community today? (heart spirituality)
  • How have you practiced Stillness today? (mystic spirituality) and
  • How have you practiced Service today? (kingdom spirituality)

Some days my answer to one or more of those questions is, “Not at all.” Sometimes one of those questions will remind me of something that happened during the day and I will know of one more reason to give thanks.

So, my daily examen now has five steps.

  • I sit and center for a moment.
  • I journal about the day.
  • I ask myself those four questions (and I’ve actually added a fifth, but it is the material for another sermon on another day) and journal my answers.
  • I write my prayer of thanksgiving.
  • And I post it online.

The result has been a deeper relationship with God, a deeper sense of my own discipleship, an awareness of my growing edges and my spiritual needs, and a life that at least nightly brings me to give thanks no matter how sad or angry or hurt or helpless I’ve felt during the day.

I hope you hear this sharing in a couple ways. I hope you hear that spiritual practices take exactly that – practice. I hope you hear that I have found meaning in our worship services and that sometimes they can even impact my daily life. And I hope you hear an invitation – to explore and experiment with your spiritual practices – and a hope – that you, too, might find something helpful in this worship service not just for tonight, but for the rest of Lent, and maybe even beyond.

Amen.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-28 and Isaiah 42:1-9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Brian McLaren calls Jesus’ visit with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi a fieldtrip.[1] I think that’s an interesting framing (it reinforces the idea of Jesus as a teacher) and, if nothing else, it lifts up the importance of the location.

And the location is important. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of their base in Galilee. The location has a long history as a place of worship. Canaanites worshiped the god Baal there. Later, the Greek god Pan was worshiped there. Eventually, the Romans replaced the Greeks and around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was part of the region the Romans had Herod the Great controlling.

When Herod the Great died, the area he ruled was divided among his surviving sons to rule. This area north and east of the Jordan was placed by the Roman emperor under Philip’s control. He changed the name of the town to Caesarea Philippi – the first part of the name honoring his patron, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor; the second part of the name honoring himself (can you say, “ego issues”?). The second part of the name actually did serve a practical purpose. There was another community called Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, so calling this community Caesarea Philippi did distinguish it. But, yeah, ego issues.

Imagine what it would have been like for a rabbi to take a group of Jews to this Caesar-ville.[2] You walk the streets and are reminded, simply by the location, that a foreign army occupies your country. You walk the streets and you are reminded that you are not free. It might be like a Native American teacher taking a group to Wounded Knee or a Japanese teacher taking a class to Hiroshima.

There in the middle of a place where many gods have been worshiped over the centuries, there in the middle of the latest Caesar-ville, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This vignette takes place in Mark and Luke as well, only the question is a little different. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people (or the crowds) say that I am?” In Matthew, the question is, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” So there’s a reason Matthew uses “Son of Man.”

In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus uses “Son of Man,” he is almost using it as a first person pronoun, so at one level Jesus is essentially asking the same question as in Mark and Luke. But that’s not the only way Matthew uses “Son of Man.” There is a strong association of “Son of Man” in Matthew’s gospel with “the Son of Man” being the judge at the end of time and of “the Son of Man” having a kingdom.[3]

So, here we are in Caesar-ville, and Jesus is asking who the people say the final judge is. His disciples’ answers express some of the theology of the day. Maybe the Son of Man was a prophet of old. Maybe the Son of Man was John the Baptist (who has been killed by this point in Matthew’s narrative).

As I read Matthew’s version of the exchange, I feel like Jesus knows the answer he going to get to his next question. “But who do you say that I am?” The obvious answer is, “the Son of Man,” the one who will judge the nations at the end of time, the one who has the alternative kingdom. I don’t get that feeling in Mark’s and Luke’s versions, but here in Matthew’s version Jesus’ second question feels almost like a leading question.

Peter offers the answer: “You are the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ), the Son of the living God.” Not just the Son of Man, mind you, but the Son of the living God. To our ears, this sounds like a theological claim, but given the setting, it is as much a political statement as it is a theological statement. In Greek, Christ, in Hebrew, Messiah – it means “the one anointed as liberating king.”[4]

“To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’

“Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods,’ but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and live God.”[5]

Here’s what McLaren says about Jesus response to Peter’s confession. “[Jesus] speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centers of evil.’ Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically-charged setting.”[6]

Most (maybe even all) Jews who thought God would send the Messiah during the Roman occupation assumed the Messiah to be a liberating king by being the leader of an army – an army that would prevail against the powers that oppressed them. This is the Messiah Peter was expecting. And if Jesus truly was the Messiah, then the one thing he cannot be is defeated. He will conquer and capture the enemies. He must torture and kill the enemies. But that’s not what Jesus says will happen.

Yes, he’s going to travel south to Jerusalem, the seat of power. But he’s not going with an army and he’s not going to wage a war. He is going to be conquered, captured, tortured, and killed by the very agents of oppression that the Messiah is supposed to save them from. And then be raised.

But Peter doesn’t seem to hear that last part. He takes Jesus aside. That’s not the way the story is supposed to go. “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.” “Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, Satanic, the opposite of God’s plan.”[7]

Since the beginning, Jesus has taught a different way, a third way to over come the principalities and powers. If you’re not a part of the Adult Sunday School class, I encourage you to join. And if you can’t join, I encourage you to read the book they are reading and discussing anyway. They are about halfway through The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink, and in it Wink speaks directly to today’s gospel lesson.

“The Domination System,” he says, “grows out of the fundamental belief that violence must be used to overcome violence.”[8] Thus, the Domination System is stuck in a cycle of violence. As a program to overcome the Domination System, the kin-dom of God must overcome this cycle of violence, so that is what Jesus did. That is why Jesus said that he is going to Jerusalem and why he would be killed. The cross laid bare the domination system and refused to play its game of cycling violence.

“When the Powers That Be [that’s Wink’s term for the principalities and powers of oppression] catch the merest whiff of God’s new order, they automatically mobilize all their might to crush it. Even before the full fury of the Powers was unleashed on Jesus, he apparently predicted the outcome of the confrontation [as we heard in today’s scripture lesson]. The Powers are so immense, and the opposition so weak, that every attempt at fundamental change seems doomed to failure. Merely winning does not satisfy the Powers; they must win big, in order to demoralize opposition before it can gain momentum. Gratuitous violence, mocking derision, and intimidating brutality in the means of execution typify the Power – all this is standard, unexceptional. Jesus died just like all the others who challenged the world-dominating Power.

“Something went awry in Jesus’ case, however. The Powers scourged him with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy. They mocked him with a robe and a crown of thorns, spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed, ridiculing him with the ironic ovation, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ – not knowing how their acclamation would echo down the centuries. They stripped him naked and crucified him in humiliation, all unaware that this very act had stripped the Powers of the last covering that disguised the towering wrongness of the whole way of life that their violence defended. They nailed him to the cross, not realizing that with each hammer’s blow they were nailing up, for the whole world to see, the affidavit by which the Domination System would be condemned.”[9]

We heard our invitation to participate in this work in our gospel lesson. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Wink interprets this for us: “One does not become free from the Powers by defeating them in a frontal attack. Rather, one dies to their control … [W]e are liberated, not by striking back at what enslaves us – for even striking back reveals that we are still controlled by violence – but by a willingness to die rather than submit to its command.…

“We must die to such things as racism, false patriotism, greed, and homophobia. We must, in short, die to the Domination System in order to live authentically.”[10]

What Wink is saying is just as paradoxical as what Jesus said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But, as Wink points out, “Dying to the Power is not, finally, a way of saving our souls, but of making ourselves expendable in the divine effort to rein in the recalcitrant Powers. When Jesus said, ‘Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it’ (Luke 17:33), he drew a line in the sand and asked if we would step across – step out of one entire world, where violence is always the ultimate solution, into another world, where the spiral of violence is finally broken by those willing to absorb its impact with their own flesh. That approach to living is nonviolence, Jesus’ ‘third way.’”[11]

Jesus’ third way is intensely powerful.[12] It is a way that is alternative to both the way of remaining victim and the way of participating in the cycle of violence. It is a way that both refused to submit to evil and to oppose evil on its own terms. It is a way that is both assertive and nonviolent. It is the way of the kin-dom of God.

I’ve spoken of it before, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would like to share an example of how it is at work today.

smt1Erdem Gunduz was called “the standing man of Turkey.” His story goes back to June of 2013. The Turkish government had cleared Taksim Square after weeks of clashes with the police. That “might have seemed like the end of it for many protesters, until [this] lone man decided to take a stand, literally, against the government. For more than six hours [one] Monday night, Erdem Gunduz stood motionless in Taksim Square, passively ignoring any prodding or harassment from police and people passing by.”[13] He stood alone for hours, and then other people began to join him, silently staring toward the cultural center. By midnight, several hundred people had joined Gunduz’s protest.

smt3“As word of the standing man spread across the Internet, Turks adopted the hashtag #duranadam, which means ‘standing man’ in Turkish. Before long, people in other parts of Turkey began their own standing protests in solidarity with the man.”[14]

The Standing Man of Turkey and those who followed his lead did not stop the domination system in their country. But they found a way to resist it, to refuse both to be victims of it and to be participants in its violence. They found Jesus’ third way.

When theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass looks at what is going on in this nation and in other countries (especially in western Europe), she see troubling evidence of the domination system at work. She says that there are many causes, including economic anxiety, racism, generalized fear, misogyny, etc. “But,” she says, “this has been primarily motivated by a idolatrous vision of God – one that believes God is a white-skinned, gendered Judge, Father, and King who sits on a throne in heaven. They want that God to punish their enemies, heretics, and evildoers, and bless them, His faithful people, with material prosperity and power – and to return everything to their imagined vision of Eden.

“It isn’t that complicated. There was deep appeal to a myth, the primary myth at the center of European Christianity.

“Through time, this myth was rejected by many – mystics, saints, and seers – but was perpetrated by a church of the rich and powerful. We are living in that story still. A story where the empire of wealth uses a convenient God to enslave the many; and where a sacred resistance grows to protest on behalf of truly God – the One who is Compassion, Who is Love.

“Jesus hates that we have used him in service to a myth of power. For he came and still cries out against this idolatry.”[15]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong; or
… what it means for you to take up your cross and follow Jesus in your life and in the midst of current events; or
… this: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 25, page 116. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] This is also McLaren’s term.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 2009) s.v. “Son of Man,” 345.

[4] McLaren, op. cit., 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 117-118.

[7] Ibid, 118.

[8] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 91.

[9] Ibid, 82-83.

[10] Ibid, 93-95.

[11] Ibid. 97.

[12] See Chapter 5 of The Powers That Be for a full explanation of Jesus’ third way.

[13] Andy Carvin, “The ‘Standing Man’ Of Turkey: Act Of Quiet Protest Goes Viral,” The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/06/18/193183899/the-standing-man-of-turkey-act-of-quiet-protest-goes-viral (posted 18 June 2013; accessed 16 February 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post on 7 February 2017 https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154577500398500 (accessed 18 February 2017). I have changed what she had as ALL CAPS to italics.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 12, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 16:19-31 and Jonah 4:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Coastal Redwoods

Coastal Redwoods

Imagine that you lived along the coast of what is now Humboldt County, say a thousand years ago. In the direction of the rising sun, there are trees that tower so tall they seem to touch the sky. You know they don’t, since you’ve been further east and climbed mountains taller than the trees and you haven’t touched the sky, but the trees are still impressive. When you stand at the water’s edge, you look out across a vast ocean. At the end of the day, you can watch the sun dip down across the edge of the ocean. You’ve traced its path, rising from behind the great trees arching across the sky, and descending down to the water’s edge, down to where the dome of the sky comes down to the earth.

Sunset over the Pacific

Sunset over the Pacific

Through your own observations (and maybe through the stories you’ve been told since your childhood), a model of the cosmos begins to emerge. The ground and the mountains and the lakes and the oceans are like a table, lumpy in some places and wet in others. Above is a dome on which hang the stars, the moon, and the sun. Water sometimes comes out of the sky, so there must be waters beyond the dome. And there must be something under the earth that holds it up, some sort of foundation. And, if you believe that there is a god or gods who seem to be controlling the capriciousness of life, they must live beyond the dome or under the earth (or people would have seen them by now).

I don’t know what sort of diagram of the cosmos a person who lived north of us between the ocean and the trees a thousand years ago would have drawn, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was something like what I’ve described. What I’ve described is what a Jew or Christian or Muslim of a thousand years ago would have drawn, would have understood. It would have been the cosmology they would have held. Well, it would have been the basics of it. Muslim cosmology of that time would have been more complex, with seven heavenly domes, one arching over the next, all over the earth. And there would have been seven earths.[1] But the basic model was considered sound across these faith traditions.

The cover art[2] on your announcement folder is a drawing of this model. You’ll notice scriptural references from the Christian Bible – both the Old and New Testament references – to support this cosmology. This view of the cosmos is typically called a three-tiered cosmology. The underworld is below; the earth is in the middle; and the heavens (or heaven) are above.

In her book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass wrote about this cosmology: “Not so long ago, believers confidently asserted that … [w]e occupied a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, where we feared we might go after death. The church mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below. Stories and sermons taught us that God occupied the high places, looking over the world and caring for it from afar, occasionally interrupting the course of human affairs with some miraculous reminder of divine power. Those same tales emphasized the gap between worldly places and the holy mountains, between the creation and an Almighty Creator. Religious authorities mediated the gap, explaining right doctrine and holy living. If you wanted to live with God forever in heaven, then you listened to them, believed and obeyed.”[3]

Jesus was born into a world that believed this three-tiered cosmos was reality. God was in heaven, and hell … well hell is more complicated. Brian McLaren writes, “The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews … had little to say about the afterlife … Their focus was on this life and on how to be good and faithful human beings within it. Other Jews … had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions.

“To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

“To the west, the Greeks had a more elaborate schema. Although there were many permutations, in general, souls were sorted into four groups at death: the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil, and the incurably evil. The curably evil went to Tartarus where they would experience eternal conscious torment. The holy and heroic were admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of joy and peace. Those in between might be sent back to Earth for multiple reincarnations until they could be properly sorted for shipment to Tartarus or the Elysian Fields.

“Then there were the Persian Zoroastrians to the east. In Zoroastrianism, the recently departed souls would be judged by two angels, Rashnu and Mithra. The worthy would be welcomed into the Zoroastrian version of heaven. The unworthy would be banished to the realm of the Satanic figure Ahriman – their version of hell.

“A large number of Jews had been exiles in the Persian empire in the sixth century BC, and the Persians ruled over the Jews for about 150 years after they returned to rebuild Jerusalem. After that, the Greeks ruled and tried to impose their culture and religion. So it’s not surprising that many Jews adopted a mix of Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife. For many of them, the heaven-bound could be easily identified. They were religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and healthy in body … all signs of an upright life today that would be rewarded after death. The hell-bound were just as easily identified: uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor, and physically sick or disabled … signs of a sinful, undisciplined life now that would be further punished later.”[4]

The gospels certainly lead us to believe that Jesus thought there was an afterlife. The story of the rich man and Lazarus includes an afterlife – for both the rich man and the poor man. But we may have missed how scandalous the story is. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and …”

Well, conventional theology would have said that he, the poor man, should have ended up in eternal torment and that the rich man would end up at Abraham’s bosom. But that’s not how Jesus tells the story. No, the roles are reversed.

In Jesus’ theology, “Heaven’s gates are opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick, and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors. Imagine how this overturning of the conventional understanding of hell must have shocked everyone – multitudes and religious elites alike.

“Again and again, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and reversed it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell and he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he wasn’t simply arguing for a different understanding of the afterlife. He was doing something far more important and radical: proclaiming a transformative vision of God. God is not the one who punishes some with poverty and sickness, nor is God the one who favors the rich and righteous. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those fire-and-brimstone passages that countless preachers have used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: Jesus used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God!”[5]

All that said, Jesus was still using the conventional cosmology. But for me, the old, three-tiered cosmology has crumbled. Copernicus helped start that crumbling by describing a model that had the sun at the center with the earth revolving around it, rather than the sun going around the earth. Then we got airplanes and we didn’t see God in the clouds. And we sent spaceships beyond the earth, and we didn’t find heaven. And, it turns out, the earth doesn’t just revolve around the sun. The sun is moving through space, so the earth is moving in a spiral, a vortex. Take a look at the first minute of this video.[6]

So, since the old cosmology doesn’t work anymore, where is God? God isn’t up there in heaven (because heaven isn’t “up there). No, God isn’t up there. God is with and within. God is with and within each one of us and with and within all of creation. And each one of us and all of creation is with and within God.

But what about heaven and hell?

As far as heaven goes, the old three-tiered model tells us that heaven is up and God is in heaven. Maybe rather than saying that God is where heaven is, we should be saying that heaven is where God is. That is, heaven is with and within each one of us and with and within all of creation. And each one of us and all of creation is within heaven. So heaven is where (or maybe better, heaven is when) the hungry are fed and the thirsty have clean water to drink and the stranger is welcomed and the prisoner is seen and the ill are healed.

Bass points out that “the book of Revelation is not a heavenly escape story. Instead, it tells the opposite tale. We do not go to heaven. Heaven comes to us. The end of history is not destruction; rather, its end is sacred restoration. When sin and evil pass away, a holy city descends to us …”[7]

As for hell – well, it’s moved in right next door, too. If World War II taught us anything, between the Holocaust and the Bomb, we learned “that we are fully capable of creating the terrors of hell right here and no longer need a lake of fire to prove the existence of evil.”[8]

The purpose of the fire and brimstone language of Jesus “was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.

“Sadly, many religious people still use the imagery of hell more in the conventional way Jesus sought to reverse. Like Jonah, they seem disappointed that God’s grace might get the final word. If more of us would reexamine this fascinating dimension of Jesus’ teaching and come to a deeper understanding of it, we would see what a courageous, subversive, and fascinating leader he was, point us to a radically different way of seeing God, life, and being alive.”[9]

Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well; or
… the parable of the rich man and Lazarus ; or
… the image of the rich man walking by Lazarus in the gutter and ask God if you are stepping over anyone in life.

[1] “Cosmology of the Qur’an,” Wikiislam, http://wikiislam.net/wiki/Cosmology_of_the_Quran (accessed 11 February 2017).

[2] http://biologos.org/files/resources/3_tier_universe.jpg

[3] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 4.

[4] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 24, page 111-112. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[5] Ibid, 113.

[6] Watch a minute or two of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jHsq36_NTU&spfreload=10.

[7] Bass, op. cit., 269.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 114.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 18:15-30 and Luke 18:35–19:9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things that biblical scholarship has embraced quite fully is the idea that one needs to understand the cultural context in which a scripture was written if one is going to fully understand what a scripture might mean for that time which, in turn, gives us some sense of what it might mean for today. So, one needs to understand the cultural context of Roman occupied Judea about 2,000 years ago if one is going to understand what the gospel writers meant and what Jesus was all about. And I think knowing what the gospel writers mean and what Jesus was all about is pretty important to this community, Niles Discovery Church, since we are a community of Jesus-followers. So, let’s spend a little while reflecting on Jesus’ cultural context.

The world into which Jesus was born and grew up was what Marcus Borg and other scholars call “an imperial form of a preindustrial agricultural domination system. This was the most common type of society from the development of agriculture … until the industrial revolution of a few centuries ago. The piling up of adjectives – imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system – may be inelegant and even discouraging, but each illuminates a central feature of Jesus’s world.”[1]

Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. By “agricultural,” we mean it was an agrarian culture. Food wasn’t simply hunted and gathered; it was cultivated. Being “preindustrial,” the fuel source for work – agricultural and otherwise – was human or animal muscle.

Now we get to the interesting words: imperial domination system. Domination systems are characterized by four primary features. “First, these societies were politically oppressive. They were ruled by a few, typically by a monarchy and aristocracy and their associates. With their extended families, the ruling elites (as they are commonly called) were usually about 1 to 2 percent of the population.… Ordinary people had no voice or power in the shaping of society.

“Second, these societies were economically oppressive. The wealthy and powerful acquired a high percentage of the society’s annual production of wealth, typically from half to two-thirds [of the wealth].…

“Third, these societies were religiously oppressive. According to religion as developed by the elites, rulers ruled by divine right, and the social order and its laws reflected the will of God. Rulers maintained that they did not set it up this way – God did. Of course, religion sometimes became the source of protest against such claims. But in all premodern societies known to us the wealthy and powerful used religion to legitimate their place in the social order.

“Fourth, these societies were marked by armed conflict, by organized violence. Elites could increase their wealth and power only by increasing agricultural production from their own people or by acquiring land and its agricultural production from another society. The ruling elites thus needed armies, whether to increase their own holdings or to defend their holdings against others. Wars were common. They were not fought for nationalistic reasons … but were initiated by ruling elites for the sake of acquiring wealth from the agricultural lands of neighboring societies.”[2]

The result of these commonalities of domination systems was that they ended up having two classes. Yes, there were distinctions within the two classes, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but there were just two classes. In that world, “there was no ‘middle class’ in our sense of a bulge in the middle. Rather, there was a very small class at the very top, no significant middle, and the vast majority of the population (around 90 percent) at the bottom.”[3]

The divisions between these two classes were political – there were the rulers and the ruled – and economic – there were the wealthy, their retainers (government and religious officials, military officers and bureaucrats, managers and stewards, scribes and servants, and urban merchants who sold to them – about 5 percent of the population), and the peasant class.

The typical way to depict this social structure is with a pyramid. Here’s one I found on the web. The problem with this depiction is that it suggests that there was a middle class of sorts. I think an old oilcan is a much better graphic. The elites and their retainers make up the long neck of the oilcan, and the base holds the peasant class This group was “mostly agricultural workers; some owned small parcels of land and others were tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or day laborers. It also included other manual workers such as fishermen, construction workers, artisans, miners, and low ranking servants. At the very bottom were the radically marginalized: the homeless, beggars, the lame and blind, the unclean and untouchable,”[4] and slaves.

Tiberius was Caesar, he was at the top. His local rulers – Pilate, governor of Judea; Herod Antipas, “king” of Galilee; Philip, ruling the area north and east of Galilee – were all beholden to the top of the oilcan. They had power only as long as their patron allowed them to have power. Thus, though the brothers Herod and Philip were Jews, they were first and foremost collaborators with the Roman Empire.

slide36Jesus and his family were part of the peasant class. If Joseph was a carpenter, he would have been a laborer who, if he got work today, would have money to buy food today. If he didn’t get work, his family went hungry. That’s the world Jesus grew up in. That’s the world in which Jesus heard the Hebrew Prophets read. That’s the world in which the story of the Exodus was told. That’s the world that shaped him.

90 percent of the population were like Jesus, at least in this regard. 90 percent. I think it’s fair to call them the multitudes.

In his parables and actions, Jesus “constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management – the stewards, tax collectors, and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.”[5]

Jesus addressed the social realities of his day by constantly turning the oilcan over. Through his actions and words, he lifted up a vision of what could be. He called this vision “the kingdom of God.” While this may have come from his experience in an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system, it also seems to have come from his compassion. Matthew describes Jesus looking at the multitudes and then write this: “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

We see this attitude in our readings today. First, there’s an exchange about children. No adult male would waste his time with children, at least not children who were not his own. His disciples thought that their important teacher has important things to do, so they sent the children away. But Jesus rebuked them, saying that the kingdom of God belongs to them. To them. To children. In the hierarchy of the peasant class, children were pretty darn low. But Jesus turns the oil can upside down.

Luke juxtaposes this interchange about the children with an encounter with “a certain ruler.” This is someone from somewhere along the long, narrow neck of the oilcan. He wants eternal life, the life that is full, the life of the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. Become like them. Become part of the multitude and turn the oilcan upside down.

How hard it is to let go of power, be it economic or political or religious. The ruler really didn’t like Jesus’ suggestion of what to do. “It is easier,” Jesus says, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Society would tell you that Jesus didn’t have time for a blind beggar. After all, someone who is disabled and a beggar is way down there with the children – maybe even lower. But Jesus says, “Bring him to me,” and gives him vision. And the oilcan is turned over.

And Luke again juxtaposes this story with an encounter of someone who is rich. Zacchaeus was a Roman collaborator (for he collected taxes), so that put him right around the connection of the narrow neck of the oilcan to the main body of the can. He was curious about who this Jesus was that people were all excited about. Jesus goes to his home (how upsetting that must have been to the multitudes) to share a meal. Zacchaeus says he is giving away half his possessions to the poor. Half his possessions. And, he says, if I’ve been a cheat (something tax collectors were notorious for being), that he would pay back four times what he cheated.

This is a story of someone there at the bottom of the neck stepping away from power and joining the multitudes. Jesus characterizes this as “salvation coming to this house.”

Those four examples come from just one chapter in one gospel. The gospels are full of such stories, of Jesus siding with the multitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) The Catholics have a term for this phenomenon. They call it God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Latin American liberation theologians (mostly Catholic, but some Protestants, too) noticed “a trend throughout biblical texts, where there is a demonstrable preference given to powerless individuals who live on the margins of society.”[6] God, they concluded, must side with the poor whenever there’s a question. That’s certainly what I see Jesus doing.

So what does that mean for us? To quote Catholic canon law, “The Christian faithful are … obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.”[7] If God takes the side of the poor, then we who call ourselves Christians have an obligation, first and foremost, to care for the poor and vulnerable.

Which brings us to today. We are two weeks into the Trump presidency. Speaking only for myself here, I have seen actions he has taken – formal, like Executive Orders, and informal, like insulting comments at the National Prayer Breakfast – that have upset me and in some cases caused me to fear for our constitutional democracy. Some of the analysis I’ve read has added to this anxiety. And so has my reading of the Bible.

I planned today’s readings and topic a year ago. As I’ve prepared for this sermon, I’ve read some scholarly work comparing the Roman imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system with the United States, including sections of Richard Horsley’s 2003 book, Jesus and Empire. He finds many parallels between the first century Roman Empire and the United States of America. If I may quote him.

“Both in the period of settlement and in the Revolutionary War, the colonists and rebels understood themselves as a biblical people, the new Israel achieving liberation from political and religious tyranny and establishing a new democratic covenant. In the excitement of independence, however, political leaders reached for a more grandiose sense of what they were about. The new nation was a new Rome, practicing republican virtue. They soon pretended, however, that building an empire would not corrupt that virtue. … Despite the hesitation of some, the American Republic like the Roman Republic proceeded to build an empire, practicing the same brutality against the people it conquered.”[8]

In drawing parallels between the Roman Empire and the American Empire, Horsley points to our engagement in armed conflict, from the conquest of the land through the near genocide of the Native people, to the conquest of half of Mexico in war, to the seizing of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, to our undeclared war in Vietnam, to the killings by U.S. trained death squads in Latin America.

He points to our political oppression – not so much at home (at least not yet), but like the Roman Empire, in other territories, squashing political freedom in other countries like Guatemala and Iran under President Eisenhower and Chile under President Nixon. His book was published before our overthrow of the government in Iraq.

And he points to our economic oppression wielded internationally through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He notices that we consume 75 percent of the world resources while we have only 4.4 percent of the world’s population.

The only thing missing from Borg’s list of hallmarks of an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system is religious oppression, and with President Trump’s attempted ban on some Muslim immigrants and refugees and the fact that one of his chief advisors has a record as an anti-Semite, we may have that fourth hallmark now.

I don’t know what we should do politically about this situation – I’m not a political scientist. I am, however, a theologian. And I can tell you where Jesus would be. Jesus would be with the multitudes. And I can tell you what God’s preference is. God has a preferential option for the poor. And maybe those realities can inform what we, a Christian community, should be doing.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt like one of the multitude, or like one of the elites; or
… the idea of Jesus having a “preferential option for the poor”; or
… the image of some group of people you normally turn away from and repeat these words silently:  “They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

[1] Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 79.

[2] Ibid, 81-82.

[3] Ibid, 83.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 23, page 106. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Kira Dault, “”What is the preferential option for the poor?” U.S. Catholic: Faith in Real Life, http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201501/what-preferential-option-poor-29649 (posted January 2015; accessed 1 February 2017).

[7] Quoted in Ibid.

[8] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) [Kindle version], loc 1888-1893. Retrieved from amazon.com.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:21-28 and John 2:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

"Head of a Woman," by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

“Head of a Woman,” by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

This painting is “Head of a Woman,” an oil painting from 1960 by Pablo Picasso. It is an example of his early cubist work.[1]

When I was a kid, I didn’t like cubism. My mom studied art, so there were a sufficient number of art books around the house for me to be exposed to several different styles of art at a young age. I didn’t like any form of abstract art as a kid because it didn’t look like what one would actually see. If you’re painting the head of a woman, the painting should look like the woman’s head. I didn’t understand what cubism was doing.

Today, I like this picture. I like it to some extent because of its form and color – how it looks. But what I really like about this painting is what Picasso was doing. At first glance, it looks like he’s painted a goofy looking face from straight on. But if you divide the picture in half, you see two profiles of the woman, one right and one life. What Picasso was doing and what cubism in general does is depict the same scene from multiple points of view at once. In this case, we’re looking at this woman’s head from her left, her right, and from directly in front of her.

head-rightCubism is considered one of several types of Modern Art. And I suppose it is. But I like to think of it (no offense to any art historians in the congregation) as Postmodern Art.

Postmodernism is largely a rejection of the Enlightenment quest for certainty. The Enlightenment “was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”[2] This philosophy helped thirteen of the American colonies to break away from monarchy of King George III and declare their independence. “The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method”[3] and, while there was great doubt about how much the human mind could know, there was a quest for certainty.[4]

This reliance on science and knowledge continued into Modernism with the onset of industrialization, with Modernism affirming “the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation.”[5]

Postmodernism evolves with new questions. Instead of questioning the authority of a monarch, it questions the authority of any certainty. So it ends up being quite open to various claims of truth. Another hallmark of Postmodernism is a refusal to focus on a single metanarrative, a single overarching story. This puts Postmodernism at odd with Christianity because Christianity does focus on a single metanarrative – the Bible. Still there are plenty of Christians who consider themselves to be Postmodernists and plenty of Postmodernists who consider themselves to be Christians. Many find a spiritual home in progressive Christianity because, while progressive Christians focus on a single metanarrative, we don’t reject as invalid other metanarratives simply because they aren’t ours. But that’s not important to the point I’m making today.

It is the openness to various claims of truth, of seeing things from multiple points of view, that connects to what is happening in cubism and why I think cubism is in many ways Postmodern art. Postmodernism says that something can be both completely true from my point of view and false from yours. Both points of view are valid. Cubism’s desire to hold, to express multiple points of view at the same time seems very Postmodern to me.

The difference that I’m trying to highlight between Postmodern thought and Modern thought can be summed up in this cartoon. Which one is right? Is it a 9 or a 6? Modern Philosophy would say that there is one correct answer, that it is either a 9 or a 6. Postmodern thought would say it is both, depending on your point of view.

At this point, my sermon could go one of two directions. I could preach about how Postmodern thought has influenced the advent of “truthiness,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” I could talk about the challenge we face both in holding openness to differing personal experiences and holding firmly onto the empirical nature of science and math. I’m not going to preach that sermon today. I may at some other time, but not today.

Today I want to explore how Modern and Postmodern thought impacts our reading and understanding of the miracles stories of Jesus, stories like we heard today. This room is filled with Modern and Postmodern minds. I’m wondering what we make of the miracles of Jesus, like the ones we heard about in today’s scripture lessons.

If you are purely a child of the Enlightenment, you might do what Thomas Jefferson did. He went through the gospels and literally excised the miracles of Jesus with a knife. Anything that went against rational thought and science couldn’t have happened, so we’ll simply remove it from the text. He then took what was left over from all four gospels and rearranged them into his own narrative, creating a gospel according to Jefferson. Today’s readings ended up in his trashcan. That’s one approach to the miracles of Jesus.

John Shelby Spong says that the miracle at the Cana wedding should be understood metaphorically. It is the introduction to the section of John’s gospel that Spong refers to as “the Book of Signs. Each sign in this section of the fourth gospel “is depicted as a mighty act, done quite publicly, that points to something even bigger and more important. At the same time,… the signs accounts are filled with strange references, enigmatic words, unusual actions and dramatically drawn characters, all of which appear to mitigate against these signs ever having been understood as literal events that occurred inside the normal flow of history.”[6]

The first clue for us that this story isn’t really about a wedding in Cana is in the opening words. “On the third day” makes us (or at least it’s supposed to make us) think of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus tells his mother, “My hour has not yet come,” he is again referring to his crucifixion. Spong says that this story is about “calling Israel into a new status,” a new relationship with God, one where the “wine of the spirit has replaced the waters of purification.”[7] Searching out the metaphor in the miracles is another approach.

Marcus Borg wrote that, in addition to several summary passages in the gospels about Jesus healing many people, “The synoptic gospels also contain many individual stories of exorcisms and healings. In addition to possession by evil spirits, the conditions treated include fever, paralysis, withered hand, bent back, hemorrhage, deafness and dumbness, blindness, dropsy, coma, and skin disease.”[8] Borg writes, “Behind this picture of Jesus as a healer and exorcist, I affirm a historical core.… I see the claim that Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms as history remembered. Indeed, more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.”[9]

While Borg wouldn’t say whether or not the specific healing/exorcism we heard about in our lesson from Mark happened, he would say it is an example of how Jesus was remembered by his followers, that he healed people like this. Understanding the miracles as the early followers of Jesus understanding and experience of him – that’s another approach.

Brian McLaren suggests that we use these stories to stimulate questions about our own lives. He looks at the story of the wedding at Cana and wonders: “In what ways are our lives – and our religions, and our cultures – like a wedding banquet that is running out of wine? What are we running out of? What are the stone containers in our day – huge but empty vessels used for religious purposes? What would it mean for whose empty containers to be filled – with wine? And why so much wine? Can you imagine what 180 gallons of wine would mean to a small Galilean village? What might that superabundance signify? What might it mean for Jesus to repurpose containers used to separate the clean from the unclean? And what might it mean for God to save the best for last?”[10]

He looks at the story of healing we heard from Mark and asks: “What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs, and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behavior? What unclean or unhealthy thought patterns, value systems, and ideologies inhabit, oppress, and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus? In what way might this individual symbolize our whole society? In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its ‘clean spirit,’ to something unclean or unhealthy? “And what would it mean for faith in the power of God to liberate us from these unhealthy, imbalanced, self-destructive disorders? Dare we believe that we could be set free? Dare we trust that we could be restored to health? Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us – today?”[11] Perhaps we can call this a literary approach, where the story stimulates reflection about our own lives and our community life.

Which approach works best for you? Ignoring the miracles? Looking for a metaphor in the miracles? Embracing the experience of the first followers of Jesus as a healer? Inviting miracles stories to stimulate questions about our own lives?

John Newton

In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” I picked this hymn because of the story behind it, a story I know many of you are familiar with. For those of you who don’t know the back-story, the hymn was penned by John Newton in 1773, during the Enlightenment. It is thought that it was at some level a reflection on his own life. After serving a conscription in the British Navy, Newton entered the Atlantic slave trade, eventually captaining a ship. He had a conversion experience during a storm off the coast of Ireland and eventually left the seafaring life to study theology. He became an important abolitionist in Britain. It was while he was serving as a curate in a church in Olney that he wrote “Amazing Grace.”[12]

In the hymn, Newton writes about experiencing a miracle. The miracle he experienced wasn’t one of an abundance of wine nor was it the healing of a physical malady. But it was the miracle of a healing. God’s grace embraced him and he went from being lost to found, from being blind to seeing. This miracle is much easier for our Modern minds to accept because it is a healing of the attitude rather than a healing of something physical. But does that somehow make it more believable than someone’s literal heart healing without medical intervention?

Did Jesus’ first disciples experience him as a healer because they lived in a pre-Modern time so they didn’t have scientific skepticism? Or has scientific skepticism gotten in the way of our awareness of the metaphysical?

The miracles of Jesus – are they sixes or nines? Or are the both? Or might they be something else altogether that we just don’t recognize? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know this: They are significant and they are wonder-filled.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt you experienced a miracle, or when you prayed for a miracle that never came; or
… one of the ideas of how to approach miracles talked about in the sermon and how that approach may apply to other stories in scripture; or
… the image and sounds and smells and tastes of an empty ceremonial stone container being filled with water that is transformed into wine, then sit with the words empty, full, and transformed.

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/ (accessed 20 January 2017).

[2] “Age of Enlightenment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment (accessed 20 January 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] krm, “Doubt and Certainty in the Age of Enlightenment,” Johns Hopkins University Press, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/doubt-and-certainty-age-enlightenment (posted 11 October 2011; accessed 20 January 2017).

[5] Blogstuff, https://dturneresq.wordpress.com/2007/10/20/the-history-of-thought-since-the-reformation-from-wikipedia/ (posted 20 October 2007; accessed 20 January 2017).

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 13.

[7] Ibid, 84.

[8] Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 66. (This book was also written by N. T. Wright, with the two of them taking turns writing and responding to each other. This quote is from a section written by Borg.)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 21, page 98. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[11] Ibid, page 99.

[12] “Amazing Grace,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace (accessed 21 January 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 15, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 4:1-30 and Luke 5:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Maybe I should begin with a confession – that this sermon title is perhaps a bit of false advertising. When someone invites me on an adventure, I expect it to have some excitement and to end with a sense of “that was fun.” I’m not sure that’s where I’m going.

The second thing I should do to start with is to show you a little video clip. I know I showed this two weeks ago, but the difference between knowing your why and picking your appropriate what is going to be important in this sermon.

When you know your why, your what has more impact because you’re walking in or toward your purpose.

Our scripture readings cover a lot of territory. Last week we heard Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus. Today, we pick up right after that. Though not as immediate as in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, Jesus’ response to being baptized is to go off by himself into the wilderness to pray. Jesus fasts, a prayer form that some find very helpful. After his fasting has gone on for quite some time, instead of having a deep communion with God, Jesus has an encounter with the personification of temptation and rationalization.

I think what’s happening here is this: At his baptism Jesus experienced some clarity of his call. His why became clear. Let the people know that the liberating love you know and that they should love in that same way. What wasn’t clear yet was his what. This is certainly one way of looking at these temptations.

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by magic. Wow the people by turning stones into bread. Fill their bellies and they’ll follow you. And you can have whatever you want in the process. “Public influence and private indulgence – if you just use your miraculous powers to acquire whatever you desire!”[1]

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by gaining political power. Bow down and worship evil and you’ll get all the kingdoms of the world. On this path, “self-seeking power, not self-giving love, reigns supreme.”[2]

And then there’s this one: Following your why won’t kill you. Go ahead and jump of the top of the Temple. The fall won’t kill you. God won’t let that happen to his beloved child. That notion that fulfilling your why may cost your life? Forget it.

Jesus comes out of the desert not just with clarity of his why but also of his what, at least some of the whats he’ll not use. “He will not use his power for personal comfort and pleasure. He will refuse unscrupulous means to achieve just and peaceful ends. He will not reach for spectacle over substance.… [He won’t be] driven by a human lust for pleasure, power, or prestige.”[3]

He will be empowered by the Spirit, and he will be willing to pay the ultimate price. And if we want to join the adventure … are we willing to let the Spirit empower us, and are we willing to pay the ultimate price?

Following his desert experience, Jesus goes to his hometown, and on the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue. “There is a time in the synagogue gathering where men can read a passage of Scripture and offer a comment upon it. So on this day, Jesus stands and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll until he comes to the passage that speaks of the Spirit anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.”[4]

That’s exactly what he experienced in his baptism. That’s a wonderful summation of his why. That’s his mission statement. And he says so. Jesus sits down – “a teacher’s customary posture in those days. He offers his amazing commentary – notable for its brevity and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in you hearing.’”[5]

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-6-17-42-amHow’s that for an inaugural address? I checked something out this morning. Jesus’ inaugural address could have been tweeted – with room to spare.

“Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone, or Sri Lanka. In an interview on BBC or Al Jazeera he [or she] says, ‘Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! It’s time for CEOs to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous raises to all their lower-paid employees! It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories, and armies to turn in their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swing sets, and garden tools. It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say “someday” or “tomorrow.” The time is today!’”[6]

Who would listen to that? I think such a prophet would be ignored by the vast majority of people, especially by people in power. The only people I can think of who would listen would be people who know the pain of oppression and violence. Only people who would hear hope in these words would listen. Anyone who would hear these words threatening their power and prestige would ignore this prophet or try to make the prophet seem like a crackpot.

Jesus hometown crowd is impressed that their hometown boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. “But Jesus won’t let them simply be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from Scriptures, one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. God bypassed many needy people of our religion and nation, Jesus says, to help those foreigners, those Gentiles, those outsiders. You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.”[7] Jesus is telling them that this good news that has been fulfilled in their hearing isn’t just for them. It’s for all humanity.

The only sense I can make of what happens next is that Jesus’ hometown synagogue feels betrayed. How could the promise God made through the prophet Isaiah to the Jews be for everyone? The crowd quickly flips from proud to furious. They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they try to push Jesus over the edge of a cliff. They might as well be trying to push him off the roof of the Temple.

If Jesus didn’t have the clarity of his why, everything would have fallen apart just as it began. If Jesus hadn’t wrestled with some of the whats, seeing which ones would go against the very character of his why, he might have taken his calling in an unfruitful direction. He needed his time in the wilderness “to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as he did, [if we dare to join the adventure,] we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.”[8]

“Jesus managed to avoid execution that day. But he knew it wouldn’t be his last brush with hostile opposition.”[9] He continued his preaching and healing. And soon he began inviting select individuals to become his followers.

In our second lesson, we heard about his calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John to be his first followers. If you’re a fan of the gospel of John, you’ll hear echoes of John resurrection story that takes place at the lake and involves a significant fishing success. But it’s the final words of the passage that most interest me: “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left everything and followed him.

“As with aspiring musicians who are invited to become the students of a master-musician, this was a momentous decision for them. To become disciples of a rabbi meant entering a rigorous program of transformation, learning a new way of life, a new set of values, a new set of skills. It meant leaving behind the comforts of home and facing a new set of dangers on the road. Once they were thoroughly apprenticed as disciples, they would be sent out as apostles to spread the rabbi’s controversial and challenging message everywhere. One [does] not say yes to discipleship lightly.”[10]

bonhoefferI am currently reading one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books, The Cost of Discipleship, considered by many to be his most important book. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, a theologian, an anti-Nazi dissident, and a key founding member of the Confessing Church – a movement to keep the church separate from the Nazi party and faithful to Jesus. The Cost of Discipleship was published in 1937, during the rise of the Nazi party, and in some ways may have served as Bonhoeffer’s time in the desert as he prepared for what his ministry became under Nazism. Let me share just one quote from this book, all of which is appropriate at this point in the sermon. And please excuse the non-inclusive language of this 1930’s German, recognizing that when he says “man,” he means “person,” and the pronoun “he” for this person should really be “he or she.”

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.… The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake.”[11]

It occurs to me that “the world Christian is more familiar to us today than the word disciple. These days, Christian often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus of a cliff than it does to his true followers. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the power and challenge of that earlier, more primary word disciple. The word disciple occurs over 250 times in the New Testament, in contract to the word Christian, which occurs only three time. Maybe those statistics are trying to tell us something.”[12]

The adventure Jesus invites us to join is one that involves leaving everything behind. It is an adventure that begins with dying. And then it moves to discerning Jesus’ good news for today and working to make it real.

As we move into a time of quite, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when you went through some hardship or temptation that prepared you for a later opportunity; or

… the dangers of being captivated by the support of your loyal fans and being intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics; or

… the image of Jesus standing near you at your work, calling your name, and saying these two words to you, “Follow me.”

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 20, page 92. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship [Kindle version], location 1279-1286. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[12] McLaren, op. cit., 94.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 8, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 2:41-52 and Luke 3:1-14, 21-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our first lesson is the conclusion of the overture to Luke’s gospel. You may remember I talked about this a month ago, this idea that the birth and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke serve a similar purpose as an overture to a Broadway musical. They act as a bridge to bring you into the story you’re about to hear and they introduce the themes you’ll hear later in the story.

So we heard the end of Luke’s overture. It’s his last chance to get you ready to hear the rest of his gospel. And as simple as the story is, it is rich with foreshadowing.

The setting is the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is the most important festival of the Hebrew year. This is when the Jews remember how God led them from slavery to freedom, how God made them a people with the gift of the Torah. The Passover story is told in both the past- and present-tenses; God freed us and God is freeing us. So the story is about both Egypt and Jerusalem, both Pharaoh and Caesar. When Luke finishes his gospel, Jesus will be back in Jerusalem and it will be at the Passover and he will be facing down the Pharaoh of his day, Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem.

There’s a wonderful moment any parent can identify with in today’s first lesson. The family is returning to Nazareth with a big crowd of neighbors who also went to Jerusalem for the Passover. They assume Jesus is with his friends, somewhere in the crowd. When they discover that he is not, the search begins. For three days, they look for him, going back to Jerusalem. Three days. That will show up again at the end of Luke’s gospel.

When they finally find him, he’s in the Temple. He has to be in the courtyard, because his mother is present, and women were only allowed so far into the Temple. But he’s not playing tiddlywinks with some other kids. He’s with teachers, with rabbis, deep in discussion. He’s asking impressive questions and he’s giving impressive answers. Now, one assumes that the answers he’s giving are to the questions the teachers are asking. That certainly would be the Jewish style of exploring a text or discussing theology. Everybody gets to ask questions and everybody gets to offer their answers, and somewhere in the midst of all that, some word of God’s truth will emerge. But the text doesn’t say that – at least the English translation doesn’t say that. It could be that Jesus’ impressive answers are his answers to his own questions.

Imagine the setting. Learned teachers sitting around the Temple courtyard, talking theology. This 12-year-old joins the discussion and starts asking questions, deep, penetrating questions. A kid questioning men who are the authorities in the field. And his questions are wise, as are his answers. He is teaching the teachers and questioning their authority – a theme that will come up again and again in Luke’s gospel.

And then there’s this. When his parents find him, he’s surprised that they think he is lost. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” At the annunciation, Gabriel told Mary that her child would be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ and ‘the Son of God’ (1:32, 35). We know Jesus’ secret identity. And if we missed it there, Jesus says it here. “Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status and asserts to his parents – but publically – that he is the Son of God and this is his Father’s house.”[1]

This theme of Jesus as the Son of God is one of the first themes we hear in the main body of Luke’s gospel. Our second lesson is about John at the River Jordan baptizing people and Jesus coming to be baptized. And it is in the act of baptism that heaven proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Luke begins the main body of his gospel the same way he started his overture: by talking about John the baptizer. You’ll recall from the overture that John’s father, Zechariah, was a Temple priest. Brian McLaren says that this probably meant that John had some comfort and privilege growing up.[2] Priestly positions were clan-based, so one would have thought John would have grown up to become a Temple Priest. As a PK (a priest’s kid), John would have known all about Tevilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water in a Mikva, an indoor pool naturally sourced with water.[3] It was used as an act of purification and it was a central part of the conversion ritual in Judaism. This purification was required before entering the Temple, to allow Jews to present themselves to God free from the contamination of the outside world. McLaren points out that this ritual also “preserved religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners.’”[4]

“Can you imagine how shocking it was for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the Temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the Jordan River? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions have meant?

“John’s departure from both family and Temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s Temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Traveling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions … by sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarized John’s message: repent, which means ‘rethink everything,’ or ‘question your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values.’ His baptism of repentance symbolized being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.

“Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptized by John. His protest movement grew, and with it, expectations and hope.…

“John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus [according to Matthew’s gospel], couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)

“Among the crowds coming to be baptized one day was a young man about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside.”[5] And by receiving John’s baptism, something radical and transformative began.

Retired Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan tells of baptizing a two-year-old boy in a Sunday worship service. After the child had been baptized, Pastor Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy’s head and said to him, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” It was a holy moment made more holy by the little boy’s response: “Uh-oh!”[6]

There is a deep element of “Uh-oh” in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. The demands on our lives are not a trifling matter when we’re disciples of Jesus. We have to rethink everything our culture tells us. We have to question our assumptions about what is of value and where the boundaries of love should be.

Luckily, it’s not all burden. There is also a deep blessing in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was baptized by John, he experienced heaven cracking open and God’s spirit pouring down. This man, this physical human body experienced not just the water moistening skin, but a bath of God’s love. And God’s voice called out to him saying, “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

God says the same thing to us.

We live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels to identify and define us, and often separate us – Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight or bi, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list of labels goes on. “Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.”[7] Though we live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels, only one really matters and really defines us, once we’ve gotten wet. We are Christians, disciples of Jesus.

And like Jesus, we, too, are beloved children of God. Sure, the other labels may have some meaning to us. It’s just that “while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us.”[8] Only the name we receive in baptism truly defines us: Beloved Child of God.

In Jewish culture, Jesus officially came of age when he was 12. But his real coming of age – of the new age he was bringing – happens at his baptism. He is now “a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb [as John called him], a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.

“When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope, and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.”[9]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… the memory of your own baptism or some other recognition of a milestone in your life; or
… the idea of John the Baptist breaking with tradition and what that would look like in your life; or
… this message from God to you:  “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

[1] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 255.

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 19, page 87. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[3] “History of Baptism,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_baptism (accessed 7 January 2017).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid, 87-89.

[6] From an email from sermons.com dated 3 January 2017.

[7] David Lose, “Baptism of Our Lord A: Family Name,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/baptism-of-our-lord-a-family-name/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 89.

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