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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

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

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s so much more in Isaiah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] McLaren, page 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 65-66.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, Month 21, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 15:11-32 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In 2003, the chorus I was singing with went on tour in New Zealand and Australia.  We really only got to see a little bit of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – but I went to New Zealand early, did some traveling on my own, visited museums, and felt got to see much of the country.  I felt like I really began to understand its history and cultures.  Humans didn’t come to the islands we now call New Zealand until the late 1200s.  That’s not even a thousand years ago.  Europeans didn’t arrive until the 1600s.  The first settlers were eastern Polynesians, people who over the centuries had migrated across the ocean from Taiwan, island-hopping to the east and south.[1]

When I think about those Polynesian explorers, I’m stunned.  They stood on the water’s edge or maybe even on the highest point of the island they were on and looked out at the vast nothingness and decided to get into canoes and head out into the unknown, trusting that they would find a place to land.  No GPS to guide them.  No satellite images to assure them that out there in that direction there’s another island.  And still they stepped out (or rather paddled out) into the unknown, boldly going where no one had gone before, little canoes bobbing on the vast ocean of the unknown.

earthrise - NASA; public domainApollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon.  On December 24, 1968, mission commander Frank Borman and astronaut William Anders looked out the window and noticed the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.  Anders scrambled to get the camera with the color film and took this picture.[2]  “We came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet,” Bill Anders said.[3]

A year later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.”  Looking up at earth from Tranquility Base, the earth was so small that Armstrong noted that he could blot it out with his thumb.  He was asked later if this made him feel big.  “No,” he replied, “it made me feel really, really small.”[4]

I can’t help it, but when I contemplate these sorts of things I end up wondering where it’s all going and what it all means.  Are we human beings merely an infestation on one planet orbiting one average star of the one hundred billion of stars swirling in one galaxy among 225 billions of galaxies in the vast universe?

At some level, we are very small.  At some level, we are inconsequential.  And at some point, perhaps in eight billion years or so, our sun will turn into a red dwarf and this planet will be incinerated.[5]  The chances of human civilization existing at that point are pretty slim.  An asteroid or a comet crashing into the earth would end human civilization – and that certainly could happen in the next eight billion years.  We could end human civilization ourselves with nuclear weapons or biological warfare.  More likely, we will cripple human civilization to the point of collapse through climate change.  And there is, as activists like to remind us, no planet B.

At some point, our species will die out and there will be no one left to remember that any of this ever existed.  And, as Brian McLaren says, “If this prediction is the whole truth, our unremembered lives and their illusory meaning will be reduced to nothing, gone forever – utterly, absolutely, infinitely gone.”[6]

The good news – at least if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the prediction isn’t the whole truth.  The good news – if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the end is not infinite nothingness.  There is God in the end.  Almost like a fairytale, where the princess and the prince marry and live happily ever after, the Bible keeps pointing to a great feast, to a wedding banquet when “humanity welcomes God into its heart.”[7]

Our gospel lesson is an example of how our scriptures point to this ending.  In the parable from Luke, “human history can be seen [in] the story …  The family experiences conflict.  The rebellious younger son runs away and for a while forgets his true identity.  The dutiful older son stays home but also forgets his true identity.  The younger son reaches a crisis and comes home.  He is welcomed by the father, which then creates a crisis for the older son.  Of course, the story isn’t only about the identity crises of the sons.  It also reveals the true identity of the father, whose heart goes out to both brothers, who graciously love them even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other.  The story ends with a celebration – a welcome-home party, a reunion.”[8]

But, did you notice that the story’s ending is not fully resolved?  We know what the father does in the end:  he throws a banquet fit for a wedding.  We know what the younger brother does:  he accepts his father’s welcome, forgiveness, and love.  But we don’t know what the older brother does.  Will he “remain outside, nursing his petty resentments?  Or will he come inside to join the Big Celebration and rediscover his true identity?”[9]

When I was younger, I found myself identifying most with the younger son.  I understood the desire to strike out on one’s own, to embrace that freedom, to seek adventure.  And I understood how easy it is to make bad choices, to ashame ones parents, to feel along and lost, to forget who and whose I really am.

Now, I find myself identifying much more with the older son.  I understand the call of duty and responsibility.  I’ve experienced that sense of working hard and feeling like I wasn’t getting the acknowledgement I deserve (or at least that I think I deserve).  I’ve even felt something like the older son’s – what? jealousy?

Most important, though, is the sense of God that this story presents:  that deep longing for all to come, for all to enjoy the feast, for all to discover or rediscover their true identity in God’s family.[10]

This points to the purpose of giving your pastors sabbaticals.  In addition to acknowledging our hard work, you are creating space for us to enjoy the feast and to rediscover and deepen our true identity in God’s family.  Why wait until we’re dead to enjoy the banquet?  Why not feast now?

So, tomorrow I’m going to disappear for three months.  Not only will I disappear from this building, but I’ll disappear from Facebook (I feel the need to rest from that medium, too).  I’ll spend time with family, and while I don’t expect my father to kill a fatted calf when we get together, I do expect him to eat some of his birthday cake.  I’ll spend some time in nature, allowing the beauty of creation fill me with awe – and I’ll bring back pictures.  I’ll read some books that have been on my reading list for months (or even years) and catch up on a four-inch high pile of journals that I haven’t kept up with.  I’ll spend some time in intentional community that is grounded in a rhythm of prayer.  And I’ll, as our special music suggested, just breathe.[11]

In my head, I believe that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  But sometimes I need to stop and let my heart fall into that truth.  Sometimes I need to stop and renew my soul.  And that’s really what I most want to accomplish on this sabbatical.

I hope to follow the flow of the parable of the Prodigal.  The parable of the Prodigal flows toward reconciliation.  God’s love is not found in right belief or doctrine.  God’s love is found in love.  “If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, [then] the great, big, beautiful, wonderful, holy, mysterious, reconciling heart of God waits to be discovered and experienced,”[12] again and again and again.

“Human speculation – whether religious or scientific – does the best it can, like a little boat that ventures out on the surface of a deep, deep ocean, under the dome of a fathomless sky.  Our eyes cannot see beyond the rim.  Our ears cannot hear the music beneath the silence.  Our hearts cannot imagine the meaning above us, below us, around us, within us.  But the Spirit blows like wind.  And so this mystery humbles us even as it dignifies us.  This mystery impresses us with our smallness even as it inspires us with our ultimate value.  This mystery dislodges us from lesser attachments so we sail on in hope.  This mystery dares us to believe that the big love of God is big enough to swallow all death and overflow with aliveness for us all.

“‘Do not fear,’ the Spirit whispers.  ‘All shall be well.’  That is why we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy.”[13]

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught you attention or imagination; or
… a moment in your life when everything came together and, for at least a moment, “all was well”; or
… the image of the end as a great homecoming celebration, or a great marriage banquet; or
… the image of being in a small boat, buoyed up by depths that you cannot fathom, feeling what it means to be upheld by mystery, letting God’s peace surround you.

[1] “Māori people,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māori_people#History (accessed 18 August 2016).

[2] “Earthrise,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise (accessed 20 August 2016).

[3] Robert Poole, “For teh Apollo astronauts, a small world,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/19/opinion/oe-poole19 (posted 19 July 2009; accessed 20 August 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 52, page 259. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 260.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Two in the congregation sang Jonny Diaz’s “Breathe.” You can listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnjeMwxFuBA.

[12] Ibid, 261.

[13] Ibid, 262.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Revelation 22:1-5 and Psalm 126
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

zaatari-refugee-ca_3397466k

An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013. From “The Telegraph.”

I’ve been wondering this week, if I were a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where would I find hope?

If I were a Palestinian, raised by parents in a refugee camp, now raising my children in the same refugee camp, where would I find hope?

If I were a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who, like the generations before me, was trapped in a cycle of poverty,[1] where would I find hope?

If I was a member of parliament in the Solomon Islands who has watched several small islands disappear because of erosion and rising sea levels, who has watched villages literally washed to sea as tropical storms increase in strength because of climate change[2] – where would I find hope?

If I were an African-American bus driver in St. Louis who sees how my nation has created a new Jim Crow by building a cradle to prison pipeline[3] that siphons black children, especially black boys, out of the schools and into the prisons, labeling them as “convicts” so they can’t get a job when they’re released, so the end up trying to get by only to be arrested again – where would I find hope?

If I were a Christian living in Rome during the reigns of Emperors Nero or Domitian, emperors who had essentially made me illegal by demanding I worship them as gods, something that would violate the very core of my being and faith – where would I find hope?

I can imagine those early followers of Jesus thinking something like this:  “Jesus has been gone now for decades.  The world doesn’t seem to be getting better.  If anything, with a mad dictator in Rome, it’s getting worse.  Maybe Jesus was wrong … maybe it’s time for us to forget about this ‘[…] love your enemies’ business.  Maybe we need to take matters into our own hands and strap on a sword to fight for our future.  Or maybe we should just eat, drink, make a buck, and be merry, because tomorrow we might all be dead.”[4]

This is the context in which Revelation was written.  I know there are plenty of Christians who think Revelation is some sort of coded book that, if properly decoded, will reveal exactly how God will bring the world and history to an end.  But it’s not.  Yes, it is sort of in code, but it’s not about the end of history or the world.  Revelation was written to bring the Spirit of Hope to an oppressed but faithful people.  “It addressed the crisis at hand.  Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world.…  Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ – a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency – will triumph.”[5]

While Revelation is typically classified as apocalyptic literature (which literally means writing that unveils or reveals), I see Revelation primarily as an example of literature of the oppressed.  Sometime literature of the oppressed needs to be coded.  To remain silent to the present injustice would be an act of complicity, of cooperation with the injustice.  But to speak up in some situations can get you killed (or at least disappeared).

Revelation is this type of literature.  “Instead of saying ‘The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,’ which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated.  Instead of saying, ‘The religious establishment is corrupt,’ it tells a story about a whore.  Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that collapsed in failure.”[6]

Brian McLaren points out, “People who read Revelation without understanding the context tend to miss some telling details.  For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword.  Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels.  But they miss the fact that he carries the sword in his mouth, not his hand.  Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  His … words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors.  In addition, we notice his robe is blood-stained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love.  In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”[7]

Revelation is a source of hope, a vehicle for the Spirit of Hope to come upon these oppressed, first century Christians.  This understanding of Revelation is what got me wondering where I would find hope if I were a Syrian refugee, or a Palestinian parent, or an Oglala Lakota, or a Solomon Island parliamentarian, or an African-American bus driver.  I know I wouldn’t find hope in a rifle or a rocket launcher or a riot.  So where would I find hope?

Maybe in the faces of some children playing soccer.  Maybe I would find hope in the news that Christian denominations in the United States were standing up for my human rights.[8]  Maybe I would find hope in watching my children learn our history and culture and keep our language alive.  Maybe I would find hope in accounts of people around the globe taking to the streets to demand climate action.  Or maybe I would find hope in something as simple and beautiful as poetry.

Last Sunday, I asked by Facebook friends to tell me, “What gives you hope in times of distress?”  Before I share some of their responses, maybe you’d like to think about your answer.  What gives you hope in times of distress?

Here are some of the responses from a few of my Facebook friends:

  • Stories of people who have survived worse and become happy. My having survived worse.  Being loved just the way I am no matter what.  Belief that love will outlast and best all the worsts.  Seeing and creating something beautiful helps too,…  Being able to laugh, be heard, and get the tears out also help.
  • Remembering friends who turned terrible circumstances into growth.… Seeing the refugee team at the Olympics, knowing the adversity they faced as they left the circumstances in their homelands and found life in new countries.  Experiencing the presence of God in my life, in me and in others when I least expect it.  Knowing I am loved and I can love with abandon.
  • Trusting that even in the midst of crises of any kind, we are all carried by a loving God, even if we don’t know it at the time.…
  • Watching toddlers as they learn new things and get excited.
  • Helping others, recognizing that I have the power to improve people’s situations, even if it’s just about feeling good for a brief moment.
  • I remind myself that other people have survived worse things. I sing to myself.  I practice a positive message and say it aloud as often as I can.  I call my best friend and moan, secure in the knowledge that it will go no further.  I pray for help.
  • [Remembering that] God IS good, even when I can’t see it – and eventually, love (always) wins.
  • Looking out at the stars and remembering that both God and the universe are bigger than our folly.
  • The love of my cat.
  • Seeing my grandsons … be kind to other kids.
  • Instances where people have offered kindness and assistance to others when they themselves have little to give.
  • I have a few people who I can rely on for support. I don’t always expect answers or solutions.  Sometimes just saying something out loud helps me work things out.
  • Perspective also helps.

Today’s scripture reading comes from “a beautiful visionary scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is as relevant today as it was in the first century.…  It pictures a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth.  This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere.  It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within.  Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures if offers and bring the treasures they can offer.  From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness.  Along its banks grows the Tree of Life.  All of this, of course, evokes God’s own words in Revelation:  ‘Behold! I’m making all things new!’”[9]

Central to this image is this idea:  “God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven.  It has always been about God descending to dwell among us.  Faithfulness wasn’t [and isn’t] waiting passively for a future that had already been determined.  Faithfulness meant [and means] participating with God in God’s unfolding story.…  God [is] descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.

“What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today.  Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now.  The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now.  True aliveness is available now.”[10]  The Spirit of Hope is among us here and now.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

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

… a time when an invitation changed your life; or

… how you are (or aren’t) listening to contemporary examples of “literature of the oppressed;” or

… the image of creation inviting God, and God inviting creation, through the powerful word, “Hope.”

[1] “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Re-Member, http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx (accessed 13 August 2016).

[2] Reuters, “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (posted 10 May 2016; accessed 13 August 2016).  See also, Tierney Smith, “Solomon Islans town first in Pacific to relocate because of climate change,” tck tck tck, http://tcktcktck.org/2014/08/solomon-islands-town-first-pacific-relocate-climate-change/ (posted 19 August 2014; accessed 13 August 2016).

[3] The “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund to describe the fact that “1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.”  Learn more about this problem and ways you can be involved in addressing it at http://www.childrensdefense.org/campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/

[4] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 51, page 255. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 256, emphasis added.

[8] “Disinvestment from Israel,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinvestment_from_Israel (accessed 13 August 2016).

[9] McLaren, op.cit., 257.

[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philippians 1:20-30 and Psalm 90
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s sermon, as you may have deduced from the sermon title, is about life. So, of course, I want to talk about death.

Here’s the thing. Fear gets in the way of life. And there is perhaps no greater fear in the human condition than the fear of death.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist famous for her ground-breaking work on death and dying, and David Kessler, another expert of death and dying, wrote: “If we could literally reach into you and remove all your fears – every one of them – how different would your life be? Think about it. If nothing stopped you from following your dreams, your life would probably be very different. This is what the dying learn. Dying makes our worst fears come forward to be faced directly. It helps us see the different life that is possible, and in that vision, takes the rest of our fears away.

“Unfortunately, by the time the fear is gone most of us are too sick or too old to do those things we would have done before, had we not been afraid.… Thus, one lesson becomes clear: we must transcend our fears while we can still do those things we dream of.

“To transcend fear though, we must move somewhere else emotionally; we must move into love.

“Happiness, anxiety, joy, resentment – we have many words for the many emotions we experience in our lifetimes. But deep down, at our cores, there are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt.

“It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear. Can you think of a time when you’ve been in both love and fear? It’s impossible.”[1]

mr_00056508Now, I’m not sure I’m in complete agreement with this. I think it’s possible to vacillating so quickly between these two emotions it can feel like we’re experiencing both at the same time. For instance, imagine a teenager asking someone out on a first date. That’s going to feel like love and fear at the same time. But imagine, too, if that teenager were to choose to be only in a state of love when making that invitation. Imagine how different that experience would be – for both the asker and the askee – from the typical sweaty-palmed, voice-shaking invitation.

And that’s kinda my point. Fear gets in the way of life.

And the fear of death is one of the biggest fears we deal with. As I did some research on this topic, I came across this story.[2]

Once upon a time, a man set out on a sea voyage with many others. After they were some distance from shore, the seas got rougher and rougher, until a ferocious storm threatened to upend the ship and send it spiraling into the depths. [At this point as I read, I thought about Jonah and how he got tossed overboard and swallowed up by a big fish.] Everyone on board was beyond terrified – except this one man who just sat passively and seemingly at ease with the situation. [This made me think of Jesus, asleep on the boat as his disciples panicked.] At last, when it became clear the storm was passing, a group approached the man and asked him, “How could you remain so calm when we were only a second away from possible death?”

The man eyed them evenly and replied, “When is it ever different in life?”

Live in fear or live in love.

I have come to an understanding of death as the passage we make to dwell in the fullness of God’s love. Christian faith has influenced this understanding. Authors have written about it with words like, “death is merely a doorway, a passage from one way of living in God’s presence in the present to another way of living in God’s presence – in the open space of unseized possibility we call the future.”[3]

For me, this understanding solidified in a dream. Though I was living in California when I had this dream, in the dream I was back in Lexington, Massachusetts (where I grew up). I was walking across the town square known as “The Battle Green” toward Mass Ave, when the ground below me suddenly melted. You know how when you hold a piece of paper over a burning candle, the paper will turn brown and then burst into flame? That’s what the ground did. It was there; it turned brown; and suddenly it was lava.

I tried to run, but somehow the rational part of my brain crept into my dream and I realized it’s impossible to run on a liquid. “Oh,” I thought, “I must be dead.” And as soon as I acknowledged that I was dead, I was overcome by a great sense of peace.

I’ve had dreams when I’ve come close to dying. I’ve had dreams when my rational brain intervened to wake me up from some danger. This dream I had when the ground melted – this is the only dream I can remember when I actually died.

And I knew it was okay.

Writing about death, Brian McLaren says, “Nobody knows for sure, but in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can expect to experience death as a passage, like birth, the end of one life stage and the beginning of another. We don’t know how that passage will come … like a slow slipping away of disease, like a sudden jolt or shock of an accident. However it happens, we can expect to discover that we’re not falling out of life, but deeper into it.

“On the other side, we can expect [and I (Jeff) believe we will find] as never before the unimaginable light or energy of God’s presence. We will enter into a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all of our evil, pride, lust, greed, resentment, and fear will be instantly melted out of us. We will at that moment more fully understand how much we have been forgiven, and so we will more than ever be filled with love … love for God who forgives, and with God, love for everyone and everything …”[4]

I don’t know if we will “meet” people who have died before us. If we do, I don’t think it will be like meeting someone at a family reunion in this life. I do believe that the illusion that we are all separate will fall away and we will understand and experience the connectedness and relatedness of all humanity, of all creation. It will be the fullest and “most exquisite sense of oneness and interrelatedness and harmony – a sense of belonging and connectedness that we approach only vaguely and clumsily in our most ecstatic moments in this life.”[5]

Perhaps I could describe this as a waking up. Or that it will be “like diving or falling or stepping into a big wave on the beach. You will feel yourself lifted off your feet and taken up into a swirl and curl and spin more powerful than you can now imagine. But there will be no fear, because the motion and flow will be the dance of [the Trinity]. The rising tide will be life and joy. The undertow will be love, and you will be drawn deeper and deeper in.”[6]

In our lesson from Philippians, Paul wrote, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” as it is translated in the New Revised Standard Version. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”[7] Not exactly straight forward, Paul.

Eugene Peterson translated that verse with more than ten words in The Message. “[E]verything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.”[8]

McLaren interprets the line this way: “On one hand, we feel a pull to stay here in this life, enjoying the light and love and goodness of God with so many people who are dear to us, with so much good work left to be done. On the other hand, we feel an equal and opposite pull toward the light and love and goodness of God experienced more directly beyond this life.”[9]

While I think this is true, I also think we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the next experience. Rather, I hope this vision, this hope, frees us from the fear of death so that we can fully live and fully love now. You see, when we overcome our fear of death, we are liberated for life. Our values, perspectives, and actions shift for the better. “To believe that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and consummated in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation. To participate in a network of relationships that isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree – think of how that would make every person matter and how it would free you to live with boundless, loving aliveness.”[10]

I can think of two spiritual practices that are helping me move from fear to love. The first is the practice of pausing to see the world as God sees it. The second is gratitude.

13876555_10208884602168310_1454543373759746488_nThe first is not easy, but let me share an example of what I mean by this. A Facebook friend posted this picture[11] yesterday afternoon. His comment about the picture: “These are both someone’s son. These are both esteemed by God – precious, loved, dignified, and worthy. Both breathe the same air and bleed the same blood beating from the same heart. One will sleep on clean sheets tonight, safely tucked in with a kiss. The other will not. Turn our hearts, God. Give us eyes to see.”

The second, practicing gratitude, is easier and there’s even an app for it. The app was inspired by the writings and attitude of Shalin Shah, a 22-year-old who died of cancer in 2015. In a blog post published shortly before he died, Shah described moving through his fear of death to realize his true purpose in life ― to inspire others to live their lives fully. Following Shah’s lead, the app reminds users to slow down and give thanks.[12] Whether you use the app or a pen and a journal, the practice of gratitude can help you move from fear to love.

Kubler-Ross and Kessler tell us it’s like this: “We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other [– fear or love]. There is no neutrality in this. If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”[13]

May we all choose to live in alliance with God’s Spirit of Life, which is love, so that we may be fully alive.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

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

… a time when you had a significant encounter with death; or

… the idea that people are enslaved by the fear of death; or

… any one of the images of dying and death from the sermon or your own imagination, and to hold that image in the presence of God until you feel that death can be your friend, not your enemy.

[1] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, “When You Don’t Choose Love You Choose Fear,” from Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living, reprinted on Awakin.org, http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=680 (accessed 6 August 2016).

[2] Mark Tyrrell, “Dealing with a Fear of Death,” Uncommon Help, http://www.uncommonhelp.me/articles/dealing-with-a-fear-of-death/ (accessed 2 August 2016).

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 50. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Philippians 1:21, NRSV.

[8] Philippians 1:21, The Message.

[9] McLaren, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ryan Phipps, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10208884602168310 (posted and accessed 6 August 2016).

[12] Antonia Blumberg, “This Simple Gratitude App Was Inspired By A 22-Year-Old Who Died Of Cancer,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-simple-gratitude-app-was-inspired-by-a-22-year-old-who-died-of-cancer_us_57a3a580e4b056bad214f622 (posted 5 August 2016; accessed 6 August 2016).

[13] Kubler-Ross and Kessler, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 31, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and Psalm 98
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘judgment’?

I did a Google image search on the word ‘judgment’ and the first big swath of images were of gavels.  There were a few scales, the scales we associate with the legal system.  I had to dig down a ways to get to an image that had to with anything else – like decision-making.  The sense of ‘judgment’ in the American zeitgeist connects to the criminal justice system.

And that connection links the word ‘judgment’ to condemnation and punishment.  That’s not too surprising when you consider that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 724 people locked up per 100,000 people in the general population.  That’s a rate that is five times the world median.[1]  So it’s not surprising that we associate ‘judgment’ with condemnation and punishment when you look at how our jails and prisons function, especially compared to prisons in another country.

Did you notice that quick clip of someone at a TED Talk?  He mentioned a difference sort of approach to prisons – from condemnation and punishment, to restorative justice.  Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime.  It seeks to restore (thus, its name) balance, harmony, and well-being.[2]

While I’d love for you all to think about criminal justice reform and maybe even work for it, that’s not the subject of today’s sermon.  I bring this up to prime the pump.  The focus on today’s sermon is on God’s judgment.  Which brings me to some other images.

“The Last Judgment”

Classical paintings of the final judgment are filled with images of condemnation and punishment.  This is “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo.  It is the altarpiece behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.  “While traditional medieval last judgments showed figures dressed according to their social positions, Michelangelo created a new standard.  His groundbreaking concept of the event shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank.  The artist portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned by showing the saved ascending on the left and the damned descending on the right.”[3]  Condemnation and punishment.

I’m not sure how this view of God became so predominant in Christian theology.  It probably has something to do with the co-opting of Christianity by Empire, and the primary image of God moving from Jesus’ metaphor of “Father” to something more like Caesar.  Certainly literal interpretations of Matthew 25 influenced things.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,…  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”[4]  And, the passage goes on to also talk about eternal punishment.

The tough part comes when we realizes that we are all goats, that we have all failed to notice Jesus in his distressing disguise, at least some of the time.  What hope do we have?

Our hope, I think is two-fold.  First, we don’t always miss Jesus, so we’re not just goats – we’re good goats.  Second, God’s judgment isn’t punitive.  God’s judgment is restorative.

Brian McLaren says that “in biblical times, good judges did more than condemn or punish.  They worked to set things right, to restore balance, harmony, and well-being.  Their justice was restorative, not just punitive.  The final goal of judgment was to curtail or convert all that was evil so that good would be free to fun wild.”[5]  And he says that this is God’s form of judgment, too – a judgment that sets things right.

This sense of God’s judgment undergirds Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous hope, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[6]  This is actually a paraphrase of comment by the early 19th century transcendentalist Theodore Parker predicting the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause:  “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[7]

As a Christian, my hope is that all in me that has not yet been put right in my lifetime will be put right by God in the life to come.  I do not see it being put right by the torture of hellfire and brimstone.  Yes, I now there have been plenty of Christian preachers who warn of tortures to come if we don’t find holiness in this life, but I don’t think that’s how God works.  In fact, I think that’s a misinterpretation of God’s use of fire in judgment.

In the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the image of fire as the tool God uses to burn away shoddy construction.  The foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ, he says, and it’s up to us to build on that foundation.  We can use quality items to build our lives, or we can use substandard items.  God’s judgment will burn away the substandard items, saving only us and that from our lives that is good

McLaren expands on this metaphor:  “So if some of us have constructed our lives like a shoddy builder, using worthless building materials, there won’t be much of our life’s story left.  We will experience the purification of judgment as loss, regret, remorse.  We thought we were pretty smart, powerful, superior, or successful, but the purifying fire will surprise us with the bitter truth.  In contrast, others of us who thought ourselves nothing special will be surprised in a positive way.  Thousands of deeds of kindness that we had long forgotten will have been remembered by God, and we will feel the reward of God saying, ‘Welcome into my joy!’”[8]

As wonderful as this hope is, you all know that I think how faith is lived now in this life is more important than the hope faith provides for the next life.  This fire, God’s fire of restorative judgment, can also work in our lives now.  When we open ourselves to the flames of the Spirit of holiness now, the shoddy building materials can be burnt away now.

Sometimes, I think this refining fire comes in the form of trials and difficulties.  We all experience them, and sometimes they can feel like a punishment for some wrongdoing.  But that’s not what they are.  They are consequences of the choices we and others make.  Some of these experiences, let’s be clear, can be horrendous.  When someone suffers child abuse or spousal abuse, that is the consequence of choices someone else has made.  It is certainly not a punishment from God and it is not the victim’s fault.  And I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would ever use such experiences to draw us deeper into holiness.  I suspect, more likely, that the Spirit simply wants to heal the wounds – physical, emotional, and spiritual – that abuse causes.

But other trials and difficulties – those the Spirit of Holiness will use, if we allow it, as a refining fire to burn away the dross in our lives.  “So, … delay is like a fire that burns away our impatience.  Annoyances are like flames that burn away our selfishness.  The demands of duty are like degrees of heat that burn away our laziness.  The unkind words and deeds of others are like a furnace in which our character is tempered, until we learn to bless, not curse, in response.”[9]

Here’s the thing.  “If we believe in judgment – in God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear.  We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world.  If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice, and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just, and peaceable now.  If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward the light each day in this life.”[10]

restorative justice 2You’ve probably seen the first two frames of this cartoon before.  The left frame is typically labeled “Equality”; the middle is labeled either “Equity” or “Justice.”  Take a look at this version that adds a third frame.[11]  In the left frame, it is assumed that everyone will benefit from the same supports, but, obviously, they don’t.  In the middle frame, each person is given different supports to make it possible for all of them to see the game.  In the right frame, all three can see the game, not because of supports, but because the systemic barrier that caused the inequality in the first place has been removed.  This is what restorative justice looks like.

This is what the Spirit of Holiness does in our lives – our lives as individuals and our life together as community – when its refining fires burn away the straw and the dross.  Opening ourselves to the Spirit of Holiness that sets things right again typically means opening ourselves to some painful experiences.  The restorative fires of God’s judgment can be painful.  “Like a mother in childbirth, groaning with pain and anticipation, the Spirit groans within us.  She will not rest until all is made whole, and all is made holey, and all is made well.”[12]

Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scriptures that captured your attention; or
… a time when what seemed impossible became possible and then actual for you; or
… the idea that life’s troubles are like a refining or purifying fire; or
… the image of a refiner’s fire. As you picture that image of heat and purification, ask yourself what areas of your life are being purified these days. Hold these areas up to God.

[1] “World Prison Populations,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm (probably posted in 2011; accessed 30 July 2016).  See also http://www.idcr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/WPPL-9-22.pdf

[2] Learn more about restorative justice at websites like http://restorativejustice.org and http://rjoyoakland.org/restorative-justice/.

[3]The Last Judgment (Michelangelo),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_(Michelangelo) (accessed 30 July 2016).

[4] Matthew 25:31-32, 34-36, NRSV.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 49. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967.

[7] “Theodore Parker,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Parker (accessed 30 July 2016).

[8] McLaren, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The cartoon is taken from “Equity and Inclusion Lens Handbook,” a Resource for Community Agencies created (as best I can tell) by the City for All Women Initiative of Ottawa, Canada, 2015. It can be found at http://www.cawi-ivtf.org/sites/default/files/publications/ei_lens_community-agencies-jan-2016-en-print.pdf (accessed 30 July 2016).

[12] McLaren, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 24, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20 and Acts 4:1-22
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Martin Luther gets the credit for writing the lyrics to our opening hymn.[1] He also gets credit for the tune, though some the tune was one sung at local bars, and originally had much less pomp and a lot more swing.

Some people have an immediate negative reaction to the hymn. They don’t like all the language about evil.
“For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe,
with craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.”
Oh, we are doomed by the craft and power of the great adversary.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear for God has willed the truth to triumph through us.
The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them;
their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure,
one little word shall fell them.”
That word, we learn in verse 4, is Christ.

The world Luther describes in this hymn is one in which a great struggle is taking place between the forces of evil and the forces of good. “Pish posh,” some say. “The world is the world and these notions of spirits is poppycock.” And I joined them for a time, until I got to reading Walter Wink.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink’s seminal work is, I think, his trilogy of books on power. Heavy reading – a little heavier than I was willing to do. Then, in 1998, he wrote The Powers that Be, an accessible distillation of this previous work about power. This is from the introduction.

“All of us deal with the Powers That Be. They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families. But the Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. These Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful. We could do nothing without them. Who wants to do without timely mail delivery or well-maintained roads? But the Powers are also the source of unmitigated evils.

“A corporation routinely dumps known carcinogens into a river that is the source of drinking water for towns downstream. Another industry attempts to hook children into addiction to cigarettes despite evidence that a third of them will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses. A dictator wages war against his own citizens in order to maintain his grasp on power. A contractor pays off a building inspector so he can violate code and put up a shoddy and possibly unsafe structure. A power plant exposes its employees to radioactive poisoning; the employee who attempts to document these safety infractions is forced off the road by another car and dies. All her documents are missing.

“Welcome to the world of the Powers.”[2]

The powers that be can promote goodness or evil. As Wink pointed out, when the powers make sure everyone in a community has access to emergency medical services, the powers are working for good. When, in an effort to save the municipality money (which a first glance is a good thing), the powers allow the water system in Flint, Michigan, to be and remain poisoned, the powers are working for evil.

The powers, Wink points out, “are not merely the people in power or the institutions they staff. Managers are, in fact, more or less interchangeable. Most people in managerial positions would tend to make the same sorts of moves. A great many of their decisions are being made for them by the logic of the market, the pressures of competition, and/or the cost of workers. Executives can be more humane. But a company owner who decides to raise salaries and benefits will soon face challenges from competitors who pay less. Greater forces are at work – unseen Powers – that shape the present and dictate the future.”[3]

Traditional Christian religious imagery personifies these powers as angels and demons fluttering about in the sky. But we don’t need to embrace that literalism to embrace the reality of the spiritual forces that are at work, impinging on and in some cases determining our lives. Instead, we can acknowledge that spiritual forces are real, though not embodied in spiritual beings fluttering about in the sky. “The Powers That Be are not, then, simply people and their institutions …; they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures. If we want to change those systems, we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well.”[4]

But how? How do we change the systems?

Our natural responses to being confronted by evil are reflexive: fight or flight. Flight changes nothing. Can fight change things?

“Unjust systems,” Wink writes, “perpetuate themselves by means of institutionalized violence. For example, racial segregation in the southeastern United States was supported by Jim Crow laws, state and local police, the court and penal systems, and extralegal acts of terrorism – all sustained, passively or actively, by the vast majority of white citizens. Blacks who ‘stepped out of line’ were savagely exterminated. Against such monolithic Powers it was and is tempting to use violence in response. But we have repeatedly seen how those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those who they oppose. How, then, can we overcome evil without doing evil – and becoming evil ourselves?”[5]

Fight or flight are only two options. Jesus offers a third way that is both practical and spiritual, the way of nonviolence.

Last week, I talked about how we are invited to be co-conspirators with the Holy Spirit to bring blessings to the world. Sometimes this means confronting the powers that be. Sometimes this means confronting the evil in the world, and not just the cruel behavior of individuals, but the evil of systems that oppress and even kill.

The big challenge for me is making sure I don’t become what I’m opposing. It’s so easy to convince myself “that evil is over there among them, and only moral rightness is here among us. In this accusatory state of mind, focused so exclusively on the faults of [my] counterparts, [I] become utterly blind to [my] own deteriorating innocence and disintegrating morality.”[6]

It is so easy to think that the evil must be destroyed; that’s what the “fight” response tells us; it is what the myth of redemptive violence tells us. Following Jesus’ third way is not easy. Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, not to destroy them. The goal is not the destruction of our enemies, but their transformation.

I don’t know how Paul figured this out, but he did. Brian McLaren wrote, “[Paul] kept reminding the disciples that they … were struggling against invisible systems and structures of evil that possess and control flesh-and-blood people. The real enemies back then and now are invisible realities like racism, greed, fear, ambition, nationalism, religious supremacy, and the like – forces that capture decent people and pull their strings as if they were puppets to make them do terrible things.”[7] Listen again to what Paul told the Ephesians:

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[8]

This is the armor of the nonviolent activist. This is the armor of Jesus’ third way. The power we, as disciples of Jesus, are supposed to embrace and use is Spirit Power. This is not the power of this world. This is not the power of military might. This is not the power of being ‘over’ another. This is the power that brings God’s truth and love, the only real power that can save.

Listen to McLaren again:  “Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or value systems judge and accuse, the Holy Spirit inspires compassion and understanding. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or movements drive people toward harming others, the Holy Spirit leads us to boldly and compassionately stand up for those being harmed. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or ideologies spread propaganda and misinformation, the Holy Spirit boldly speaks the simply truth. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or mind-sets spread theft, death, and destruction, God’s Holy Spirit spreads true aliveness.”[9]

11SUBThomas-jumbo

Paul Grüninger

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what this looks like. Well, let me share a story. “In the spring of 1939, 47-year-old Paul Grüninger was a middle-level police official in St. Gallen, a picturesque Swiss town near the Austrian border. The son of middle-class parents who ran a local cigar shop and a mediocre student who enjoyed the soccer field more than his studies, Grüninger became an unprepossessing man of quiet conventionality. After dutifully serving time in the Swiss army in World War I, he obtained a teaching diploma, settled into a position at an elementary school, attended church on Sundays and married Alice Federer, a fellow teacher.

“To please both his mother and Alice, Grüninger applied for a better-paying position in the police department, a job that involved mainly filling out reports and arranging security details for occasional visiting dignitaries. Or so it seemed.

“In April 1939, Grüninger found his way to work blocked by a uniformed officer who told him: ‘Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises.’ An investigation had revealed that Grüninger was secretly altering the documents of Jews fleeing Austria for the safety of Switzerland. ‘Non-Aryan’ refugees were not allowed to cross the border after August 19, 1938, but all it took was a few strokes of Grüninger’s pen to predate the passport and perhaps save a life, a small action but one of great personal risk.

“Grüninger was dismissed from his position, ordered to turn in his uniform and subjected to criminal charges. The authorities spread false rumors that Grüninger had demanded sexual favors from those he aided. Disgraced as a law breaker and shunned by his neighbors, Grüninger peddled raincoats and animal feed until he died in poverty in 1972.”[10]

That’s what following Jesus’ third way looks like.

And it looks like the Israeli soldier who refuses to serve if deployed to the occupied territories. And it looks like the Wall Street whistleblower who can’t find a job anymore in finance. And it looks like the Serb who kept identifying his Croat neighbors with Serbian names to keep them from getting swept up and killed during the Yugoslav Wars.[11]

“As we walk this road together, we are being prepared and strengthened for struggle. We’re learning to cut the strings of ‘unholy spirits’ that have been our puppet masters in the past. We’re learning to be filled, led, and guided, not by a spirit of fear but by the Holy Spirit instead … a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind to face with courage whatever crises may come.”[12]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

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

… a time where you suffered in some way for standing up for what was right, or when someone else paid a price for standing up for you, or

… the idea that racism, revenge, religious supremacy, tribalism, political partisanship, fear, or economic greed can “possess” people, or

… your life as a tree in a storm: imagine deep roots, a strong trunk, and flexible branches, and after holding this image for a few moments, ask God for the strength to stand bold and strong against whatever adversity may come.

[1] “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 1-2.

[3] Ibid, 2-3.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 48. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ephesians 6:11-17, NRSV.

[9] McLaren, op. cit.

[10] Thomas G. Long, “Faith Matters: Small acts of courage,” Christian Century (2 May 2012): 47.

[11] Susan Gardner, “Book discussion: Eyal Press’ ‘Beautiful Souls’ … and whether Edward Snowden is one of them,” Daily Kos, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/6/16/1215736/-Book-discussion-Eyal-Press-Beautiful-Souls-and-whether-Edward-Snowden-is-one-of-them (posted 16 June 2013; accessed 23 July 2016).

[12] McLaren, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philemon 1:8-19 and Hebrews 13:1-8
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a difficult couple weeks for my soul. I expect the same is true for many of you. In addition to the triumphs and tragedies of our personal lives, there has been so much violence in the news:

  • a particularly brutal attack in Bangladesh;
  • car bombs in Baghdad;
  • 2 police shootings that were caught on tape (and at least 29 others that did not make the national news[1]);
  • 5 police officers killed in Dallas (and at least five others who were killed by guns or cars that did not make the national news[2]);
  • this morning there are stories of police officers shot and killed in Baton Rogue;
  • a truck driving through a crowd celebrating in Nice, France.

In an act of self-care, I decided not to watch the videos of the police shootings in Baton Rogue and Falcon Heights. And, in my efforts to protect my soul from this heart-rending news, I may have missed other attacks and violence that took place in the first two weeks of this month.

13697064_1140713779283174_8897850904786793655_nYesterday, I posted this picture on the church’s Facebook page. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was a staunch anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested and eventually connected with an attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was 39 when he was executed by the Nazis.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I agree with Bonhoeffer. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. But what to say and how to act – that’s not always clear. Here’s what I wrote with the picture:

It’s not always easy to figure out how to speak out against evil. How do we speak out against the evil of the murders in Nice, France, on Thursday and not participate in evil ourselves?
The traps are too easy. As a nation, we could speak out with our own violence through our military. As a church, we could easily lump together all people from one ethnicity or religion and blame them all for the actions of a few or of one. We could write a post on Facebook, but does that really speak God’s truth to evil?
While there are no simple answers, the call is clear. We cannot remain silent when we are aware of evil.

This call, to speak and to act, is part of our call as followers of Jesus. We are called to join the Spirit Conspiracy to bring blessings to others. “Conspire” literally means “to breathe with,” which I find interesting, since the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the Greek word for breath. Another way to think about this call is that we are called to get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life.

And there are plenty of areas of our lives, plenty of circles of influence where, if we get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life, we will bring blessings to others. Consider these circles of influence.

There’s your family. No one is in a better position than you to bring blessing to your family – your spouse, your kids, your siblings, your parents – than you. There are others who are in an equal position to you, but there’s on one in a better position than you. “When Jesus wanted to confront religious hypocrisy in his day, he pointed out the way hypocrites served their religion at the expense of their families.”[3] Paul wrote about family relationships in ways that probably brought more blessing than the social norms, as sexist as those writings seems to us today. My point is that it’s not just the Spirit calling us to conspire to bring blessing to our families; there are biblical calls, too.

Then there are our economic choices that are a circle of influence. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing through our economic choices. If you’re an employer, you can offer a wage that brings a blessing. If you’re a consumer, you can make purchase choices in ways that bring blessings – are the people all along the supply chain paid justly? Is the environment protected or damaged by this product and its manufacture?

Likewise, our neighborhoods can be blessed by our conspiring with the Spirit. As we address the sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods. As we extend hospitality, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods.

“The Spirit is looking for conspirators who are interested in plotting goodness in their communities. ‘What would our community look like if God’s dreams for it were coming true?’ we [can] ask. The answer gives us a vision to work toward.”[4]

Likewise, we can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to vulnerable people, the people who are typically forgotten or ignored. The biblical mandate is to care for widows and orphans, for immigrants, prisoners, the sick, and the poor. We can easily add to that list: the homeless, the under-educated, the unemployed, the underpaid, refugees, and more.

And if conspiring with the Spirit to bring blessing to these circles of influence isn’t challenging enough for you, I’ve got another: your critiques, opponents, and enemies. Imagine what the election season would be like if the candidates and their supporters conspired with the Spirit to bring a blessing to their opponents. That’s probably a pipedream, but we – you and I – could start. And not just when it comes to politics. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who annoy us (and the people we annoy). We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who don’t understand us and who we don’t understand, to people who try our patience and whose patience we try.

“Rather than write them off as unimportant and unwanted, we need to rediscover them as some of the most important people we know. If we ignore them, our growth in the Spirit will be stunted. If we let the Spirit guide us in what we say to their faces and behind their backs, we will become more Christ-like.”[5]

White House photographer Pete Souza has taken something close to two million photographs of President Obama, since Obama took office. Each year he posts 75 to 100 that he thinks are the best of the year. Several people have sifted through the photos claiming that these 16 are Souza’s favorites. He denies the claim. Still, from those annual postings, people have gathered what they think are a good sampling of them.

pete-souza-white-house-obama-favorites-4One such collection[6] includes photos that are humorous, photos that are cute, and photos that are poignant. One photo from early in Obama’s presidency shows him fist-bumping one of the White House custodians. They are in a hallway, moving from one meeting to another. Aids accompany the President. And the President pauses to acknowledge a staff worker who cleans floors and toilets and empties the trash.

What we say or fail to say can make a difference in someone else’s life. We can use our words as part of our conspiracy with the Spirit to being blessings, or we can wound. In the letter of James, the author says that if your life were a ship, your words would be its rudder. A fist-bump here, and “thank you” there can make a difference in steering us in the Spirit’s direction. As McLaren puts it, “If you’re a part of the Spirit’s conspiracy, you can be God’s secret agent of blessing to anyone in any of these circles.”[7]

There’s one circle of influence that I haven’t mentioned: work. I did this because in the book we’re using for this yearlong sermon series, Brian McLaren uses the letter to Philemon as an example here. McLaren points out that Paul used the opportunity of Onesimus running away to him to urge slave owners to treat their slaves better. My problem is that Paul appealed to his love for Onesimus rather than to Onesimus’ own personhood. My problem is that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.

Yes, Paul moves the needle. Yes, Paul suggests that owners should treat their slaves with respect and kindness. Yes, Paul urges slaves to work with pride and dignity. But he fails to condemn slavery.

There’s probably a lesson here for our contemporary workplaces. We should treat each other with respect and kindness. We should treat each other fairly, and bosses should pay their employees a just wage. But the issue at hand for Onesimus was whether Paul was going to send him back to slavery or order Philemon to end Onesimus’ slavery. And Paul failed to get his breathing fully in sync with the Breath of Life.

McLaren begins the chapter that is the fodder for next week’s sermon by saying, “Sooner or later, everyone should be arrested and imprisoned for a good cause. Or if not arrested and imprisoned, put in a position of suffering and sacrifice. Or if not that, at least be criticized or inconvenienced a little. Because if we’re co-conspirators with the Spirit of God to bring blessing to our world, sooner or later it’s going to cost us something and get us in trouble.”[8]

Sometimes this mission is pretty easy to fulfill. Sometimes a fist-bump in the hallway will make the difference. Sometimes it’s hard and it will get us in trouble. Sometimes we’re faced with great evil, and the way to speak out, the way to act is not clear, and so we will struggle to conspire with the Spirit. Sometimes, like Paul, we will act and not go as far as we should. Sometimes, like Bonhoeffer, we will be asked to pay a great price.

Still, the mission is before us: “to be a secret agent of God’s commonwealth, conspiring with others [and the Holy Spirit] behind the scenes to plot goodness and foment kindness wherever you may be.”[9]

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on:

  • Anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention.
  • A time when you felt the Spirit guided you to go above and beyond your normal way of responding to a situation.
  • A time when the words you chose steered you either toward or away from the Spirit’s guidance.
  • Or imagine a walk through your typical day, from waking to going to bed – and imagine yourself as a portal of blessing in each circle of influence you move in and out of in that day.

[1] “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/ (updated regularly, The Washington Post tracks police shootings in the United States; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last update was for a police shooting on 13 July 2016).

[2] “Honoring Officers Killed in 2016,” Officer Down Memorial Page, https://www.odmp.org/search/year (updated regularly; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last officer death noted was on 12 July 2016).

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The White House’s Pete Souza Has Shot Nearly 2M Photos of Obama, Here are 55 of His Favorites,” Twisted Sifter, http://twistedsifter.com/2016/07/pete-souza-white-house-photog-favorite-obama-photos/ (posted 7 July 2016; accessed 16 July 2016).

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 48. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[9] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 12, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 22:34-40 and James 3:13-18
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We woke up this morning to the news that a gunman killed 50 and injured 52 or 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. First, I want to say that we are far from knowing all the facts. In the days, weeks, even months ahead, we will get more information, some of which will contradict the information we have now. It is far, far, far, too early to label this act or to interpret motives or to draw conclusions. Now is the time to grieve and to pray for the victims and the first responders and the hospital staffs who are treating the wounded as we speak. Now is the time to pray for the police who need to make official notifications to the families of the 50 who died. Now is the time to pray for those families.

I went to bed last night with a sermon manuscript sitting on my desk that has moments of lightness, moments of humor. I hope no one will be offended if I preach it as I wrote it this week. There is no intent to minimize the depth of this tragedy. Rather, this tragedy invites us, in the context of today’s sermon, to ask if the perpetrator of the shooting knew how to love himself.

The question is asked in the singular. A lawyer in Matthew, a scribe in Mark, asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. Not what are the greatest commandments, plural. Which is the greatest commandment, singular.

Jesus answers the question in the plural. The greatest commandment is to love God with your whole being. The second is like it, Jesus says: Love your neighbor as yourself.

For Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor are never far from each other. And if we are to love each other as we love ourselves, we need to figure out what a healthy self-love looks like. Perhaps, with the help of the Spirit, we can discern not only a healthy form of self-love, but one that is holy, too.

Think back to the story in Genesis that we often refer to as “the fall.” There’s a whole lot going on in this story – much, much more than I’m going to mention today. The thing from the story that I want to lift up today is that there are really two sins committed in the story.

The first sin is a sort of narcissism. Adam and Eve decide that they should be able to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that the limits and the rules don’t apply to them. They are so full of themselves, they think they are so much bigger than they really are, that they eat what they shouldn’t. After they eat, they realize that they are naked and feel ashamed about it. So they go into hiding. This is the second sin, the sin of shame, of thinking they are smaller than they really are.

Being too full of themselves and being too empty of themselves: these are the two sins in this ancient story. A healthy and holy self-love is somewhere in between.

Self-denial, the ignoring of one’s own needs, is certainly not self-love. I think ignoring ones own wants is also not self-love. I know that God has been cast as a divine killjoy. God has been cast as the holy judge, “sitting in heaven with a sourpuss glare, eyes roaming to and fro across the Earth to find anyone who is having fun – especially sexual fun – and stop[ping] it immediately!”[1]

I don’t know if it’s more silly or sad that we’ve done that to God. “Pleasure, of course, was originally the Creator’s idea. By giving us taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch, God was making possible an amazing array of pleasures: from eating to sex, from music to sport, from painting to gardening, from dance to travel. Human pleasure is a good and beautiful creation, mirroring, it would seem, a great capacity for enjoyment that exists in God. We are told that God takes pleasure in creation and in us, something all parents, teachers, and artists understand in relation to their children, students, and works of art. So again and again in the Bible, we are reminded that our Creator has given us all things to enjoy richly, and that in God’s presence is fullness of joy. The Creator is definitely pro-pleasure.”[2]

We should not feel ashamed for enjoying experiences and aspects of life simply because we are enjoying them. God is not a divine killjoy

On the other hand, just because something is enjoyable doesn’t make it advisable. We need to have some boundaries, and not just for the sake of others. We need them for ourselves. Think about the big pleasures in life – food, drink, sex, owning, winning, resting, playing, working. It is possible to become addicted to all of these or to find too much of a sense of identity or purpose in all of these.

So, it’s not surprising, that there are plenty of rules and warming about pleasures in the Bible. “When we indulge in pleasures without self-examination or self-control, great pleasure can quickly lead to great pain,”[3] as any recovering addict (or any family member of an addict) can tell you.

Our faith tradition has handed down guidelines and rules to help us from falling into the demands of “what I want, when I want it, as much as I want.” The rules are a great help – as a starting place.

If our faith doesn’t mature, then the rules are helpful. The rules tell us right from wrong, legal from illegal. If our faith matures, we get a new emphasis in our faith: wisdom. Instead of asking “is this right or wrong?” we start asking: “Will this help or hinder me in reaching my higher goals?” “Where will this lead in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term?” “What unintended consequences might happen?” “Who might be hurt by this?” “Are there better alternatives?” “Is this the best time?” “Should I seek counsel before moving forward?”[4]

Brian McLaren points out, “Wisdom helps us see how a hasty purchase of a desired indulgence can lead to the long-term pressure of debt.” Wisdom reminds us that a one-night sexual liaison can lead to lasting consequences for both parties and their families, be that spouses, children, parents, others – and possibly for generations to come. Wisdom knows that a business short-cut can cost us our reputation and possibly long-term business viability for the sake of short-term financial gains. “Wisdom guides us to see beyond life’s immediate pleasures to potential consequences that are less obvious and less pleasant.”[5]

But wisdom doesn’t just say, “No,” or even “Not now.” “Wisdom also helps us see how excessively denying ourselves pleasure can [also] become unwise.” Parents who deny themselves time to care for their relationship for the sake of the children can put their relationship in jeopardy. Wisdom reminds the work-a-holic like me to stop and do something fun, something renewing, even something frivolous to avoid burn-out that can lead to resenting work.[6]

Wisdom teaches practices of self-care, sometime stepping on the brakes and sometimes stepping on the accelerator. “We all need wisdom to know our limits and keep our balance, to know when to say yes and when to say ‘That’s enough’ or ‘That’s unwise’ or ‘This isn’t the right time.’ We need wisdom to know when to ask for help – from a friend or professional – when we are in over our heads. We need wisdom to monitor the difference between legitimate desires and dangerous temptations. We even need wisdom to keep different kinds of pleasure in a healthy and sustainable balance.”[7]

The wisdom I’m talking about really isn’t all that lofty – at least at its beginning. Even young children can find some degree of wisdom and embrace it. There’s a famous experiment that was first performed at Stanford University in the 1960s and 70s about delaying gratification. It’s been reproduced a number of times.[8]

Embracing the wisdom to learn self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-care, is a great step. But it’s not the final step. “Rules are good, wisdom is better, and love is best of all.”[9]

God wants you to be able to look at yourself with the same love that God has when God looks at you. This is not always easy. We can block our view of ourselves with our shame. We can distort our view of ourselves with self-absorption, self-centeredness, and selfishness. Or we can engage in Spirit-guided self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-giving, and learn to really love ourselves.

June is Gay Pride month and I can testify to how important this month, and especially Gay Pride festivals and parades, can be. I went to my first Gay Pride Parade three decades ago. It was the San Francisco Pride Parade, so it was a big event. I plunged right in. The power of the parade for me was being in a place where being gay was the norm. I had spent the previous half of my life feeling like I was weird, abnormal, broken. I had spent the previous half of my life feeling ashamed of my being. That parade had a healing impact on my life. It was one day of celebration that told me that I wasn’t broken, that I wasn’t weird. It was a day of celebration that told me that I was normal and that I was loveable. It chipped away at the walls I had erected against loving myself. And I can tell you, God didn’t want me treating my neighbor the way I was treating myself.

God isn’t a divine killjoy. God wants each one of us to love ourselves the way God love us. “If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of … love of self that is good, right, wise, and necessary. And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: To journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love. There we find God. There we find our neighbor. And there we find ourselves.”[10]

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
to reflect on a time when a rule, a wise saying, or a mentor helped you in some way; or
to reflect on how you respond to the idea that if we love ourselves, we will practice self-examination, self-control, self-development, self-care, and self-giving rather than self-indulgence; or
to imagine those who love you most – parents, spouse, friends, children, God – are standing with you as they see and love you.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 44. Retrieved from amazon.com.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] These questions are slightly modified from McLaren, ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] The experiment itself was actually much more involved than just examining how children deal with delayed gratification. The psychologist, Walter Mischel, also looked at the children in the initial test later in the lives and found that those who were able to wait longer for the preferred, bigger rewards (who were able to delay gratification) tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures. Learn more at “Stanford marshmallow experiment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment
[9] McLaren, op. cit.
[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 5, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A week and a half ago, we held once of our every-four-months “Deepening Membership” gatherings. The subject of this gathering was “service,” and to get us going, I asked the people to share a story of a time they were involved in some act of service where they felt especially connected to God. Everyone (well, everyone except me) shared a story that included some element of connecting with other people, typically a person in need, sometimes with others offering service.

There is something about the experience of connecting with another person in the context of service that moves us beyond ourselves and into what a friend of mine call “The Big Love,” her preferred name for God. When we are connecting with our neighbor, we are connecting with God. When we love our neighbor, not just with mind and heart, but with hands and feet and voice, we are loving God.

This is the challenge Jesus makes to the lawyer who seemed to be looking for a loophole. “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus answers with the story we call “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” And in the telling, Jesus reminds us that loving our neighbor may require that we cross socially-dictated boundaries. This is an over-simplification, but basically, Jews at the time of Jesus generally viewed Samaritans with a special contempt. While the Romans were viewed with contempt because they were the occupying, oppressive force, Samaritans were viewed with contempt because they claimed to worship Yahweh, the Jewish God, but not at the Temple in Jerusalem, and not guided by the same group of prophets. They were seen not just as pagans, but as perverters of the faith.

In the story Jesus tells, Jewish leaders ignore their fellow Jew, robbed and beaten at the side of the road. It was a perverter of the faith who came to the Jew’s aid. Even Samaritans, outsiders, people you look on with contempt, are your neighbors.

For millennia, from before the advent of agriculture, human cultures have taught that same is safe and different is dangerous. Brian McLaren says, “That belief probably served our ancestors well at certain points in our history. Their survival often depended on maintaining trust in ‘our’ tribe and fear of other tribes. That’s why they used paint, feathers, clothing, language, and even religion as markers, so everyone would know who was same and safe and us and who was different and dangerous and them.

“Driven by that belief, our ancestors spread out around the world, each tribe staking out its own territory, each guarding its borders from invasion by others, each trying to expand its territory whenever possible, each driving others farther and farther away. No wonder our history is written in blood: wars, conquests, invasions, occupations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. The winners take all, and the losers, if they aren’t killed and enslaved, escape to begin again somewhere else.

“Eventually, because the earth is a sphere, our dispersing tribes had to come full circle and encounter one another again. That is our challenge today. We must find a way to live together on a crowded planet. We have to graduate from thinking in terms of ‘our kind versus their kind’ to thinking in terms of ‘humankind.’ We must turn from the ways of our ancestors and stop trying to kill off, subjugate, or fend off everyone we judge different and dangerous. We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation.”[1]

McLaren goes on to say, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays.   But it means all our human tribes – nations, religions, cultures, parties – need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life. True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why our societies running it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. Not inferiority, but equality. Not resentment, but reconciliation. Not isolation, but connection. Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.”[2]

What that looks like isn’t always clear. Most of you know that we have a young man – he goes by the name Lucky – who is making camp in our memorial garden. We have connected him with an Abode Services social worker and we’ve set some rules that he’s supposed to live by:

  • His tent is supposed to be down and packed away by 9:00 a.m., and not set back up until 7:00 p.m.
  • He’s supposed to keep the area clean.
  • He’s not to be in the building unless Pastor Brenda or I are here.
  • When he has coffee or eats something, he has to clean his dishes.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: Is this the clean personal and social fuel of openness, of service, of equality, of reconciliation, of connection, of hospitality? Is this loving our neighbor? I’m not sure. I hope that in this case it is. But I realize it might not be.

Back in November, United Church of Christ pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi wrote a poem she titled, “The Good Syrian.”[3]

So the American is beaten up
in the parking lot, mugged,
at the Mall of New Hampshire,
and a Christian comes by
and doesn’t stop for a moment
because it is Black Friday
and there is shopping.

Then a politician comes by.
It is primary season
and both the Democrats
and Republicans
are thick on the ground
in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth,
but the politician doesn’t stop
because his handlers
tell him it’s not a photo-op.
And finally a Syrian comes by
one of those who is –
as the poem tells it heartbreak –
on our streets
because home is like the
mouth of a shark.

And the Syrian is Muslim
and the Syrian is kind.
And the American
does not want him
for a neighbor.
But God put him there
in the answer
to questions about love.

Today is Faith Formation Sunday. We took a moment earlier in the service to thank our Sunday School Teachers and we took a moment to mark the important milestone in the life of one of our youth – his graduating from High School this month – recognizing that secular education plays an important role in the forming of faith. I said that one way to look at why the church exists is this: the equipping of people to be disciples of Jesus.

McLaren says, “[Churches] at their best are Spirit-schools of love, engaging everyone, from little children to great-grandparents, in the lifelong learning. In the school of the Spirit, everyone majors in love.”[4]

[Please watch from 5:57 to the end.  This video is the trailer for a educational series; you can learn more about it here.]

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 someone affirmed one of your unique gifts or abilities or when you appreciated the unique gifts or abilities of another;
or a time when someone came to your aid and acted as a neighbor to you, or a time when you acted as a neighbor to another;
or meditate in silence, simply holding the term “neighbor” before God. Open yourself to the depths of meaning in this beautiful term.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 43. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maren Tirabassi, “Parable of the Good Syrian,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/maren.tirabassi/posts/968297036567313 (posted 27 November 2015; accessed 4 June 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 29, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Mark 12:28-34
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

About a million years ago (okay, I guess it was closer to 30) when I was a chaplain at the Juvenile Hall in Martinez, I had a simple psychological test I’d give to see if a kid had all their marbles.[1] I would explain that I was going to administer the test and then I would say, “Eeny meeny miny.” The kid I was talking to would typically look at me quizzically and say/ask, “Moe?” I’d say, “Congratulations! You have all your marbles,” and they would smile. Then I’d explain:

Slide26I said this was a test, but I didn’t ask a question. I just said, “eeny meeny miny,” and you had to think about what I had said – that’s your first marble, your thinking marble. You thought to yourself, “He said ‘eeny meeny miny,’ but that’s not a question. Maybe he wants me to save the next word.” “What’s the next word? I know the next word. Moe.” This is where your second marble came in – your knowing marble. You said, “Moe,” to me. I said, “Congratulations,” and you smiled, revealing a feeling of happiness – and that’s really where I saw that you have your third marble – your feeling marble. You’ve got the three basic marbles: thinking, knowing, and feeling.

Isn’t it nice of the traffic department to put up these reminders all around the streets to remind us to use all our marbles when we’re making a decision, reminding us to stop and think before we go?

These three marbles also relate to Freud’s ego states (ego, super ego, id), and they relate to transactional analysis’ ego states (adult, parent, child). Theologically, I connect them to the greatest commandment.

Listen again to Mark 12:28-34:

One of the scribes came near and heard them [Jesus and some other religious leaders] disputing with one another, and seeing that he [Jesus] answered them well, he [the scribe] asked him [Jesus], “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Slide34The greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. I interpret this to mean loving God with one’s whole being, with all your marbles and the marble bag, to love God with your feeling, your knowing, your thinking, and the body that contains these powers.

I also find myself resistant to loving on command. How does one love on command? Yet this is how Jesus frames loving God. It’s the most important commandment. He quotes Mosaic law, he quotes the Shema. The Shema is considered the most important part of the Jewish prayer service. The Shema is recited twice daily during morning and evening prayer. It is typically the first prayer parents teach their children.[2] And it is the first commandment in the list of commandments the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy.

Jesus doesn’t stop with commanded us to love God. He commands us to love our neighbors (as we heard). And Matthew reports him commanding us to love even our enemies. We will get into these commandments in the weeks ahead. Today we look at how to love God with all our marbles.

I suppose the first thing to figure out when it comes to loving God is to figure out who this God is. Christianity has done more than its fair share of damage to the sense many have of God. God has been cast as “an angry old white man with a beard, oppressing women and minorities, promoting discrimination and war, and blessing the destruction of the planet.”[3]

God has been cast as “the curator of a religious museum who seems to have a taste for all that is outdated, archaic, dour, and dusty.”[4]

And God is been cast as “a testy border guard who won’t let new arrivals through heavens passport control office unless they correctly answer a lot of technical doctrinal questions with a score of 100 percent.”[5]

None of these images of God are particularly easy to love. Luckily, even if those are accurate depictions of God (and I don’t think they are), we don’t have to do this loving on our own. A couple weeks ago we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit. I believe that our ability to love is powered by the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit uses whatever ember or spark exist with in us, and from that “tiniest beginning, our whole lives – our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength – can be set aflame with love for God.”[6]

Like I said, I don’t think those negative castings of God are accurate, so that makes loving God easier. Except, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe as we move away from those negative images of God, we move to something that is more ephemeral, less tangible, and therefore perhaps more difficult to love. In the first two and a half minutes of this video, you get to hear some descriptions of God that are closer to my sense of who God is.

[7]

Even if this is a more accurate casting of God, we are still left with the question, how do we love this creator, this energy, this sustainer, this relationship, with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength?

Even if God is this more ephemeral, less tangible being (for lack of a better word), I think loving God isn’t really all that different from loving another human being. And you know how you make that kind of love grow. You move toward that person and a special way. You appreciate their qualities and honor their dignity. You enjoy your beloved’s company. You support their dreams and desires. You make yourself available to them, because being in love is a mutual relationship.

“Similarly, when we learn to love God, we appreciate God’s qualities. We honor and respect God’s dignity. We enjoy God’s presence and are curious you know more and more of God’s heart. We support God’s dreams coming true. And we want to be appreciated, honored, enjoyed, known, and supported as well – to surrender ourselves to God in mutuality.”[8]

So, you might know that I’m in love with God because you notice that we spend time together. You might notice my appreciation for God, my gratitude. Maybe you noticed that I have respect for God. You might even notice that I apologize to God sometimes, seeking forgiveness for the choices I make that hurt my relationship with God. You might notice that I spend time supporting God’s dreams and plans, not just saying, “thy will be done on earth,” but also doing something about it. If our love is mutual, you might notice that I open myself up to receiving God’s love for me, opening myself to God’s support and help, leaning on God in my sorrow and pain, trusting God with my deepest fears and doubts and disillusionment. Maybe you notice me trusting God enough to handle my anger.

I know I’m still a long way from loving God perfectly. Still, I believe this: the Spirit of love is at work in this world, and when I allow that Spirit to work in me, there is nothing quite like loving God.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
a time when you felt “in love” with God; or
the similarities and differences between human love and loving God; or
I invite you to simply sit with God, in silence, in love. When your mind distracts you and wanders off, simply acknowledge that has happened and turn your attention back to God, being aware of God’s constant loving attention toward you.

[1] I am forever indebted to my colleague and mentor the Rev. Keith Spooner who taught me this test.
[2] “Shema Yisrael,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shema_Yisrael (accessed 28 May 2016).
[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 42. Retrieved from amazon.com.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The film clip is from the trailer for Transforming Through Love, a 3-film series on participating in God’s dream of wholeness, produced by The Work of the People. Downloaded 28 May 2016. More information at http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/bundle/transforming-through-love
[8] McLaren, op. cit.

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