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Lizann Bassham

On May 27, 2018, my dearest friend, Lizann Bassham, died. I was one of four speakers she identified before she died to speak at her memorial service. What follows are my reflections and those of Gwion Raven.

Lizann was an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a Reclaiming Witch. My relationship with Lizann started when we were in seminary together; she knew Gwion through the Reclaiming community.

Seeing People with Amazing Grace

In the fall of 1983, a geeky guy (math major geeky) from suburban Boston met an energetic, passionate gal with wild red hair from a little, very rural valley in Trinity County.  They were both pretty fresh out of college and they were both enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree program at Pacific School of Religion, but that’s about where their similarities ended – at least from all outward appearances.  Somehow, they became friends, and over the following 35 years, their friendship deepened, deepened to the point that, during her most recent hospitalizations, the red-headed gal explained their relationship to medical staff by referring to the geeky math major as her “gay husband.”

I blame Lizann.  I really think that she is more responsible for the friendship than I am.  When I look back over the 35 years, I see all the ways she gave to the friendship, nurtured the friendship.  It’s not that I simply went along for the ride.  I don’t think I used the friendship.  But every time I felt like I was giving to the friendship, I was flooded back with so much more.

I may be conflating a few memories, but during a spring break – it might have been that first year at PSR – the dining hall was closed.  I returned from working at the Juvenile Hall in Martinez, feeling a little bummed.  It was my birthday, but no one at the Juvenile Hall knew it, so no one recognized it.  I hadn’t made dinner plans, so I figured I’d wander down to Euclid Avenue and eat by myself – on my birthday.  (Please, start playing the violins.)  As I walked between Anderson and Benton, the two dorms at PSR, on my way to Euclid, someone called out to me from the Benton kitchen and invited me in for dinner that a group was preparing.  I’m pretty sure Lizann was the primary instigator and organizer of this shared dinner plan.  I figured, what the heck, at least I wouldn’t be alone.  I could pretend it was a birthday dinner, even though none of them knew it was my birthday.

Toward the end of dinner, Deb Smith got up and disappeared.  A moment or two later, Craig Morton, one of Lizann’s high school friends who was hanging out with her, disappeared after Deb.  I wondered what bee had gotten into their bonnet, but I shook it off.  In a little while, they came back.  With a birthday cake.  Somebody remembered that it was my birthday and was keeping an eye out for me to make sure I came to be part of my surprise birthday party.  That’s the sort of community Lizann built.  These are the sorts of friendships Lizann built.

When I finished my degree and was approved for ordination, there was only one person from seminary who had to be there.  And being there meant going somewhere.  Because my church membership was in a church in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I went to college, I was ordained there.  Lizann flew out to be part of that for me.  She and my family of birth – those were the people who I needed to be there.

When Lizann met Jeff Wilson (Jeff number 2, I like to point out) and they decided to get married, I thought it was awfully sweet of Jeff to ask me to be one of the ushers.  He barely knew me; he just knew that I was important to Lizann and Lizann was important to me.

Even though I moved to Washington State in 1989, and distance separated us, our friendship deepened – Lizann making more of the effort to come up to see me than me making the effort to come down to California to see her.  Of course, her mother getting a call to a little church in eastern Washington gave Lizann two reasons to some north.  And it meant I got to celebrate more Thanksgivings with her.  And in 2004, when it was time to look for a new call and I was trying to decide between a church in New Jersey and a church in the Bay Area, Lizann helped me figure out which was the better call for me.

As Lizann’s medical condition worsened, I started reflecting on our relationship more intentionally.  I tried to figure out how our friendship happened.  Some of it was circumstance:  two fairly fresh out of college students in a small graduate school trying to figure out how to live out our callings from the divine.  But there was something else, some magic ingredient that Lizann brought.

It was while Luanne Buchanan was reading Facebook posts and comments to Lizann one afternoon or evening during her final week in this life that I figured out what that magic ingredient was.  Someone wrote something like, “You saw me so I could see myself.”  Immediately, I thought, “That’s it.  That’s what Lizann gave me that made her so precious to me.  She saw me.  She truly saw me.  And she loved me anyway.  And that enabled me to see myself and love myself anyway.”

I wish I had asked her why she picked “Amazing Grace” as one of the two songs for her memorial service.  That’s a mystery I’ll just have to live with.  What I do know is that Lizann embodied that Amazing Grace.  She saw us, truly saw us, and loved us anyway – which enables us to truly see ourselves and love ourselves anyway.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Jeffrey Spencer

_______________

Walk Between the Worlds

There is a saying in the Pagan community. It’s as close as we get to a unifying axiom. It states “We are between the worlds. And what we do between the worlds, changes all the worlds”. It’s a prayer, a wish, a spell, an invitation to the universe and the gods, to the very forces of Nature and imminent magick to conspire with us, to help us, to bring about the changes that are called for.

I’ve heard Lizann recite those words many times but more importantly, I witnessed Lizann living those words. Upon reflection though, it’s not entirely accurate to say Lizann lived those words, rather these words came alive through Lizann. She embodied them completely. It’s as if those sixteen words,“We are between the worlds. And what we do between the worlds, changes all the worlds”, existed for the sheer delight of being brought to life by Lizann.

Lizann walked effortlessly, no let’s be clear, Lizann danced between many worlds and found a way to make bridges, to foster understanding, to weave disparate threads together and in doing so, she created a tapestry so rich, so vivid, so indefatigably beautiful that we all just wanted to be wrapped up in it and behold it.

As an example, and I’m sure we all have a million examples, Lizann could talk about Star Trek and volunteer work and her father’s Rickenbacker guitar and feminist theory and the best cup of chai at the Farmer’s market here in Sebastopol and the profound Mystery of The Holy Trinity and whiskey and how it feels to dance freely around a glowing bonfire, deep in the woods with a hundred witches and Jesus and Mary and the goddess Brigid and her beloved trickster friend Loki, and the earthquake of 1906, and the glory of the living desert at the alluvial fan, and LGBTQ rights, and walking barefoot in the mud, and justice, and what a blessing it was to have officiated so many weddings.

Lizann walked in this world as a witch. Now that probably raises a few eyebrows in this house of God. If it’s any consolation, Lizann was also a Christian minister and that raised a few eyebrows around the cauldron too. Lizann was comfortable and thrived in both of these worlds because her spell, her prayer was the same no matter which robes she was wearing. Witches don’t often share our spells but this one time I will. It’s the oldest of magics we practice, it’s the first spell people us ask about, and it is found in all of the great books. Love. Love is the law. The goddess says “My law is love is unto all beings”

In 1 Corinthians 13, there is a oft quoted passage about love. It starts with “Love is patient, love is kind.”

I’m going to insert Lizann’s name into this beautiful verse. I think you’ll recognize this as Lizann’s spell and prayer.

“Lizann is patient. Lizann is kind. Lizann does not envy, Lizann does not boast, Lizann is not proud”. – I might take a slight exception to this line, as Lizann had an inordinate amount of things to be proud of –  “Lizann does not dishonor others, Lizann is not self-seeking, Lizann is not easily angered, Lizann keeps no record of wrongs. Lizann does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Lizann always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Love was Lizann’s law and she practiced this spell right up until the moment of her death. Love is an act of devotion and of service. Love is making sure that everyone who comes to visit feels comforted and not at all awkward that you are the one lying there dying of cancer. Love is ensuring you have a way to process it all. Love is having compassion for the cancer cells that are dying and wishing them peace. Love is telling people it’s okay to cry and that they don’t have to hold back the tears or pretend to be composed. Love is teaching everybody what it is to die with dignity and grace and exceptionally good humor and exuberant wonder.

Of course, Lizann knew that the lesson she was gifting us was never about her own demise, but about showing us what it is to live a full life.  Her leaving was as beautiful as her life. How could it be otherwise?

Lizann’s last words to me, were meant to be shared. Our foreheads were touching. She stroked my cheek and played with my hair. I held her other hand.

“It’s all so very beautiful. All of it. Even the pain is beautiful. It is all so very beautiful. I can see that from where I am now”.

May you return in beauty and love, dear friend. May you continue to walk between the worlds and change all of the worlds. May the Other world have an abundance of mud puddles and may you dance in them all.

Hail The Goer.

What is remembered lives.

Copyright (c) 2018 Gwion Raven

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By Diana Butler Bass
18 May 2018[1]https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/997527543833128960

If prayers solve the problem of gun violence, then it appears fairly obvious the God isn’t answering those prayers.
BECAUSE prayers don’t. We choose. And we keep choosing badly.

Because “thoughts and prayers” are magical thinking. I believe in prayer. But that’s not how prayer works.

Prayer works by bringing us into alignment with compassion. By changing us. And by changing us, we change things.
You don’t sit around waiting for some distant God to reach down and fix stuff — or give you a pass because you’ve uttered a prayer.

And clearly all those “thoughts and prayers” politicians don’t understand anything about prayer. Because they keep acting the same way. They keep doing the same thing: nothing.

So let’s call this what it is: a pious charade.

Because God is Compassion. God is Love. God is pissed off at our behavior right now. Remember that God who said not to harm a hair of a little one? The God who welcomed children?

Yes. That God is grieving today. With the families of course, but grieving for the corrupt stupidity of those in leadership in this country.

Diana Butler Bass

Because those leaders choose money and power over children.

Holding a seat in Congress is more important than any of us. Than love.

It is sick. And even sicker that they dress it up with religious language.

Because their behavior goes against the very heart of God.

So, don’t pray unless you are willing to be changed. To have your whole world turned inside out. To trade earthly power for the love of God and neighbor. To let go of ideology and lobbyist cash and embrace the children.

Until you are willing to pray like that, your prayers are nothing more than talking points.

And guess what? The God you say you believe in knows that. (As pretty much the rest of us do too).

But prayers about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven — those are welcome. In case you are wondering, no guns there.

_______________

[1]On 18 May 2018, there was yet another school shooting, this one in Santa Fe, Texas, where at least 10 were killed and at least 10 were injured.  See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/18/us/school-shooting-santa-fe-texas.html

A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 13, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Psalm 63and Isaiah 55:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart in the back of the sanctuary.

Homily

As I’ve thought about thirst these past couple weeks, I remembered some shocking statistics that I went hunting to confirm. According to the World Health Organization, 29% of the global population doesn’t have a reliable, safe water source in their homes.  Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces and contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 deaths from diarrhea each year.  If that weren’t bad enough, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.[2]  Thank you, climate change.

Closer to home, over half a million household (that’s 1.4 million to 1.7 million people here in the United States of America) don’t have complete plumbing facilities in their homes.  “Of the 20 counties with the highest percentage of households lacking access to complete plumbing, all were rural and 13 had a majority Native American or Alaskan Native population.”[3]

The United Nations recommends that, in order to remain affordable, water rates should not exceed 3% of a household’s income.  For the poorest 20% in the USA, the average is pushing that threshold.  But that’s the cost average.  “One study found that 13.8 million low-income households (constituting 11.9 percent of all U.S. households) already spend more than 4.5 percent of their income on water, and the share of U.S. households with unaffordable water bills could triple in the next five years if current projections are unchanged.”[4]

And then there’s Flint, Michigan.  I won’t get into the injustice of that fiasco other than to say that the Governor has decided to end the free bottled water program in Flint, claiming that water quality has been restored,[5]while some residents and scientists say that the water is not yet safe.[6]

I bring this very real issue of thirst because we’re about to use thirst as a metaphor for our spiritual lives.  I can’t ignore the concrete issue of physical thirst and I think we owe it to those who thirst for water to acknowledge their need.  I hope that one way we can connect with these people is by examining our own thirsts that are not physical, but are very real just the same.  I’m talking about our spiritual thirsts.

Joyce Rupp writes, “It is a rare day when we are completely satisfied.  Usually we are hoping, wishing, longing, thirsting, for something more, something different, something else we think will satisfy us or make our lives happier. We are often like an empty cup waiting to be filled with whatever it is we think is missing in our lives.”[7]

Madison Avenue tells us that our spiritual thirst can be quenched with stuff.  Our egos tell us that our spiritual thirst can be quenched with recognition, prestige, power, and success.  Our minds might tell us to quench our spiritual thirst can be quenched with food or alcohol or drugs or entertainment or work or – well, with anything that can be addictive.

But our souls – our souls tell us that the only thing that can truly quench our spiritual thirst is to drink from the well of living water.

What is your soul thirsting for?  Peace of mind and heart?  Healing of old wounds?  Self-acceptance?  Justice for the world?  A deeper sense of your true self?  Harmony with family?  Wisdom to make good choices and decisions?  Forgiveness of yourself and others?  Freedom? A word from God?

The invitation from our empty cups to look deeply into our lives to see the nature, the quality, and the intensity of our thirsts. Let us ask God for living water for our souls and then hold our waiting cup to receive.

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes. Breathing in, pray, “Thirsting, thirsting …” and breathing out pray, “… for you, O God.”

Guided Reflection

As you hold your empty cup in your hands, notice its emptiness.  Let its emptiness remind you of your yearnings.  For whom and for what do you most thirst?

How hold the cup close to your heart.  Be thirsty for God.  Be filled with God.

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every two minutes) or you can just share as the Spirit moves you.

Here are some prompts to help you begin your sharing:
I thirst for …
My spiritual thirst has been quenched when …

Scriptural Affirmation – Psalm 63:1

O God, you are my God,
I see you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
were there is no water.

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together.

God, from the well of your grace, give yourself to me, for you are enough. And if I ask for anything less, I will be in want.  Only in you do find fulfillment.  Amen.

_______________

[1]This sermon is based on Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 38-40.

[2]World Health Organization, “Drinking-water,” http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water (posted 7 February 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[3]Saurav Sarkar and Shailly Gupta Barnes, co-editors, The Souls of Poor Folk, published in 2018 online by the Poor People’s Campaign at https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/PPC-Audit-Full-410835a.pdf, page 13.

[4]Ibid, 94.

[5]CNN Library, “Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html (last updated 8 April 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[6]Nathalie Baptiste, “Officials Say Flint’s Water Is Safe. Residents Say It’s Not. Scientists Say It’s Complicated.” https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/04/officials-say-flints-water-is-safe-residents-say-its-not-scientists-say-its-complicated/ (posted 16 April 2018; accessed 12 May 2018).

[7]Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 38.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 22, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 4:5-12 and Mark 6:1-3a
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart in the back of the sanctuary.

Homily

I wonder how many times I’ve resolved (New Year’s or otherwise) to adopt some spiritual practice that I think would be good for me or that would make me more spiritual mature or would make me better in some way.  I’m sure the number is high.

I think I’m pretty resistant to making such a resolution now, but back in the days when I would make such a resolution, I’ve entered into the practice or program with great earnestness.  I would want to do it “right.”  I could get so caught up in doing spiritual stuff “right,” it’s almost laughable.  It would be much more laughable if I still didn’t sometimes fall into that trap.

One of the ways I think this is a trap is that underlying it is an assumption that I am responsible for my own spiritual growth, that my spiritual growth was up to me.  The way out of the trap has been realizing that my spiritual growth is reliant on God’s loving energy moving through me.  I thought I was seeking to improve myself or mature myself or better myself.  Really what I was seeking was my own transformation.  And transformation is reliant on the work of God.

Jesus’ invitation for me to take up my cross, his invitation for me to die so that I might live is an invitation to let go of my ego.  For you, the invitation may be different, but for me it’s about letting go of my ego.  Not the easiest thing to do when part of your job is to get up in front of a crowd more weeks than not and say something that you think will be impactful and important.

Still, I have found that when I allow my ego to control my inner life, my spiritual life, I get nowhere.  It is as if I have filled my cup with my ego and there’s no room for God.  When I empty my cup, when I dump out the ego that thinks it can control and transform, then there is room.  I have found that when I empty my cup, then God can (and so far always does) choose to fill my up with loving energy.  My ego may think it’s the perfect thing to fill my cup, but I am at my best when I am an empty vessel.  That is when God fills me with loving energy.

Personal growth does take some effort on my part.  Letting my ego die so Christ can live in me takes effort – for me, at least.  Letting myself go and trusting God takes some effort.  But I can’t force the growth.  That’s God’s department.  I can yearn for transformation.  I can be faithful in a spiritual practice (especially if I can let go of doing it perfectly).  But if I think that the spiritual practice does anything more than open my spirit, if I think my spiritual practice does anything more than help me become the empty cup, all I will do is stumble along, and I will bear no fruit.

Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God gives the growth.

Another way I stumble is by focusing on the results.  Am I transforming fast enough?  Am I transforming enough?  When I start judging myself that way, I end up reviving my ego, I end up drawing my ego center stage again, and then I get in the way of what God is doing.  When I start judging myself, I forget that I am at my best when I am an empty cup, a vessel for God’s loving energy.
Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in think these words to yourself, “Your power …” and breathing out think these words, “… moving through me.”

Guided Reflection

As you hold the cup, notice the space inside it.  Remember that the cup is a container.  That space is designed to hold something.

Now, set the cup down.  Feel your own pulse – in your wrist or your neck.  Or place your hand over your heart and feel it pumping.  Visualize the blood pumping through your body.  Remember that it carries nutrients to every part of your body.  Visualize it bringing glucose to all the different cells in your body.  See it sustaining life, bringing energy for growth.

Close your eyes and sense God’s goodness filling your spirit.  Picture God’s energy pulsing through you.  Welcome God’s loving energy surging through your being.

Pick up your cup again, and ask yourself one of these questions:
How have I known God’s power working in me and through me?
What are some obstacles blocking the flow of loving energy within me?
What part of my life most needs the powerful touch of God?

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing within your triad.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every six minutes) or you can just share and the Spirit moves you.  Here are some prompts to help you begin your sharing:

I have known God’s power working in me and through me when …

An obstacle blocking the flow of God’s loving energy through me is …

A part of my life that needs the powerful touch of God is …

Scriptural Affirmation

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

Prayer of Affirmation

Let us pray together

Energizing and transforming God, the pulse of your presence fills my life with love.  Keep reminding me that I do not grow by my own efforts alone.  Thank you for the comfort and freedom of knowing that it is your power working through me that creates growth in my spiritual life.  Amen.

_______________

[1] This sermon is based on Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 30-32.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 15, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 15:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-17
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Moving into Triads

If you’re not already sitting in a group of three, please move so you are.  If you didn’t bring a cup, please pick one up from the cart.

Homily

For many of us, our primary image of the Ark of the Covenant was formed by Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and the movies.  Of course, their image of the Ark of the Covenant was formed by the Hebrew scriptures.  If you read about the Ark from that original source, you’ll get the sense of the Ark almost being a container of God’s presence.  Wherever the Ark went, God was there, the power of God was there.  And in the Hebrew scriptures, when the Temple is built, it becomes a container of God’s presence.

But the Hebrew scriptures don’t leave God in a box or in the Temple.  “The Divine Presence is everywhere, always moving and always calling to people wherever they may be.”[1]

If we look at the Gospels, we see Jesus declaring that the Divine Presence isn’t just around us.  It is within us.  Jesus in quoted in John’s gospel using “the image of the vine and the branches to emphasize that the same life that surges through all parts of the plant is similar to the life of God that surges through our being.  God is no longer just ‘out there.’  God is also here, within us.  The spirit of Jesus lives on in our bodily temples.  We have become the home of God.”[2]

We are mini Arks of the Covenant.  God goes with us wherever we go.  And we can carry God into each relationship and experience.

In a real way, our experiences shape our images and understandings of God.  And our images and understandings of God shape our experiences of God.  If we imagine God as the powerful one who is on high and remote from us, or if your experience of God is of God high and remote, it may be hard to imagine God within us.  But that is the invitation:  to see ourselves as containers of God’s presence.

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in, pray:  Faithful Love …  Breathing out, pray: … dwelling in me

Guided Reflection

As you hold the cup, take notice of the space within the cup.  That space is designed to hold something.  Imagine that space holding something that brings you joy or comfort or peace.

Think of the space within yourself.  It is filled with the Divine Presence.

Draw near to this Loving Presence.  Sense this Loving Presence permeating your entire being.  Rest in silence and tranquility

Listen to God say to you, “I am here.”

A Time of Sharing

You’re invited to move to a time of sharing.  This will be six minutes long.  You can divide the time up so each person gets two minutes (I’ll ring a bell every six minutes) or you can just share and the Spirit moves you.  You can begin your sharing with this prompt or by sharing anything that came up for you during the guided reflection:  I am most aware of God dwelling within me when …

Scriptural Affirmation

Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

Prayer of Affirmation

O Divine Presence, you have danced your way into my innermost being.  O Mystery of Life, you have tended and nurtured me.  You have enriched my spirit and watered my dryness.  You have poured your abundant love into the veins of my soul.  O Divine Presence, thank you for surrounding me with your love and pulsing your radiant energy through my being.  Amen.

[1] Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 28.

[2] Ibid.

A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 8, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 43:1-7 and Romans 14:7-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Sermon

If we’re lucky, we have people in our lives who are love songs.  I mean more than having people in our lives who love us.  I mean having people who, when you think about them or are with them, you feel like you’re being serenaded with a love song.  I mean people who love you so much that sometimes your love leaks out of your eyes when you just look at them.  Do you know what you mean?

One of my wishes is that every child experiences their parents that way.  I imagine it beginning in each child’s infancy.  I imagine a parent holding their infant child in their arms and looking down at the child’s face and singing them to sleep.  That might not even be the first time a parent is a love song to a child, but it one of the earliest.  In that look and in that music is the depth of love I’m talking about.

I know that there are parents who are not love songs for their children, but my wish is that it was so.  If we’re lucky, our parents are love songs.  And if we’re lucky, we have other people in our lives who are love songs, too – or instead of, if our parents didn’t manage to be love songs.

I know I have people in my life who are love songs.  One of my friends comes to mind.  She may be coming to mind especially because cancer is threatening her life and so I am more keenly aware of the music I will lose if cancer ends her life too quickly. I hope you have people in our life who are love songs.  I also hope that you are a love song so someone else (and hopefully to more than one person) in your life.

Maybe God is a love song in your life.  Maybe you can imagine God holding you and singing to you in your infancy.  And maybe you can imagine God looking on you with a love that vibrates the universe.

Maybe that’s too hard to do.  Sometimes it can be hard to accept our own loveableness.  Joyce Rupp suggests that the cup can be a teacher of our own loveableness.  “Think of the cup as a symbol of our unique self,” she writes.  “Many coffee and tea cups have a special shape and size, a ‘personality,’ so to speak, just as each human person does.  Like a cup, our physical, psychological, and spiritual shape is unique to each of us.  We cannot take someone else’s body, or spirituality, or personality and make it our own any more than a cup can change its color and shape to match each person who drinks from it.  [But that’s okay.]  The cup is a good container no matter who uses it.  It is of value itself.”[2]

It’s not always easy to see our own value.  I know I have a habit of comparing myself to others – I wish I could preach like that person; I wish I had that vocal tone in my singing; I wish I was as spiritual grounded as that person.  I have found that the more I accept myself as loved by God and the more I accept myself as gifted in my own ways, the more I can accept my own spiritual path.  And the more I can accept my own spiritual path, the more authentically I can sing God’s love song.  And the more I authentically sing God’s love song, the more I can be a love song for others

Even if you don’t typically feel awe or gratitude or compassion when you think of yourself, try to believe it today.  Imagine God holding you and singing a love song to you. Ask God to help you to see yourself as a song of love, a cup of goodness, bringing life to others.[3]

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in pray, “I am …” and breathing out pray, “… a love song.

Reflection

Notice the cup in your hands – its style, shape, color, size, texture.  Imagine yourself as a cup held in God’s hands.  Accept your uniqueness and your goodness.  Thank God for creating you as you are.

Sharing

I invite you to share in your triads, using this prompt as a starting place and sharing whatever else you choose to:  “When I think about God loving me unconditionally as I am, I …”

Scriptural Affirmation

I have called you by name, you are mine …  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Prayer of Affirmation

Thank you, Divine Creator, for the person I am. I am a cup of life.  I have love and goodness within me.  Help me to hear your music in my soul.  Let me not doubt my value or question my worth.  Help me to know and accept who I am.  I am yours.  Amen.

_______________

[1]This sermon is the first of six based on “Week I” of Joyce Rupp’s The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997). While I and Pastor Brenda will bring our own thoughts to this work, the bulk of the design of the sermon and time of reflection is based on Rupp’s work, and we are grateful for it.

[2]Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 25-26.

[3]Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:1-18 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The last time it happened was before I was born.  The next time it with happen is after I am eligible for full Social Security benefits, so I may be retired.  I must take full advantage of it happening now.  Today.  Today is Easter and April Fool’s Day.

Lest you think combining Easter and April Fool’s is sacrilegious, let me remind you that there are plenty of jokes in the Bible.  They may be serious, in terms of their message, but they are jokes.

Take, for instance, a story that is told in the first three gospels.  It happens in the days leading up to Jesus’ execution.  He’s in the Temple teaching and he gets asked about paying taxes.  Maybe I should save this story for two weeks from today – for April 15.  Jesus gets asked a question about paying taxes, and to paraphrase what happens, he asks the questioner if they have a $20 on them.  Jesus looks at it.  He asks somebody, “Whose picture is on it?”  “Jackson,” they say.  “Well, then, give to the genocidal government the things that are the genocidal government’s, but give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus tells them.  And for all we know (the Bible doesn’t tell us), Jesus pockets the $20.

That’s not a laugh-out-loud funny joke, but satire often isn’t laugh-out-loud funny.  Still, when we remember what all good Jews knew back in Jesus’ time – that everything in creation belongs to God – there’s more of a humorous twist to the story.

Of course, the people who were trying to trap Jesus with their question ended up quite frustrated, because he didn’t specifically answer their question.  They just couldn’t nail him down.

If you think that’s bad, be happy none of the gospel writers told about the time Jesus walked into an inn, handed the innkeeper three nails, and asked, “Can you put me up for the night?”

Wait.  I’ve got one more.  It’s visual.

To understand why the resurrection is the greatest joke ever, we need to remember the context.  The week started with a political demonstration, with Jesus’ political street theatre.  The week started with Jesus’ mocking parade into the city.  The synoptic gospels say he went from that demonstration to another one, to another bit of political theatre, when he chased out the money changers and sacrificial animal sellers.

He spent time teaching and lecturing and facing questions.  He told his joke about paying taxes.  On Thursday, it was time for the Passover, so he supped with his disciples.

After they ate, Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray.  He asked them to keep watch as he prayed.  And they fell asleep, which was the beginning of the time-honored tradition of sleeping during worship.

Of course, it was there in Gethsemane that Jesus was arrested and hauled off to the religious and political powers.  They wanted to get rid of this pesky, brown-skinned, boundary-breaking, radically inclusive, deeply loving guy who gave away free healthcare.

While Jesus was before the Sanhedrin, Peter was hanging out in the courtyard, probably trying to find out what was happening.  He was recognized as a Galilean and so he was questioned about knowing Jesus.  He said he didn’t.  Three times, he denied Jesus – just as Jesus had predicted he would.  Which isn’t as amazing as one might think.  Peter had denied Jesus before.  It’s just that that experience didn’t get into the Bible.

It was the next day when the principalities and powers got their way and Jesus was crucified.  The Roman government executed him as a political radical.  And he was buried in a tomb hewn from solid rock and a large stone was placed in front of the entrance.

You gotta wonder what it was like for the disciples that next day.  It was the Sabbath, so they weren’t supposed to do much anyway.  They probably sat around, remembering the one who they thought would save Israel, the one who had been killed by the government.  Jesus had spent all this time talking about the Son of God, and they were pretty sure he was talking about himself.  And now he was dead and buried.

Strange what a difference a day can make.  If they had known on the Saturday what they ended up knowing just 24 hours later, they would have been singing.  “The Son will come out tomorrow.”

Sunday did come, and with it, that phenomenon we call “the resurrection.”  The disciples experienced the presence of Jesus.  I love the way the gospel storytellers try to explain it.

In Mark’s gospel, there’s actually no resurrected Jesus.  The women go to the tomb to do the preparation of the body that should have been done on Friday, but the sun had set and the Sabbath had begun.  So, it’s early Sunday morning and they go to the tomb and find it empty.  There’s a man there, dressed in white.  Mark doesn’t say it’s an angel, though I’ve interpreted it that way until this week, when Pastor Brenda pointed out that being dressed in white, the man could represent someone dressed for baptism.  This is an intriguing notion, especially given some of my other thoughts about Mark’s gospel, but we’d be here for at least an additional hour if I were to try to unpack that.  Instead, I want to point out the humor of the scene.

The women go to the tomb with their spices and stuff, but they haven’t figured out how to actually get into the tomb to prepare the body.  Not exactly good pre-planning.  Then, when they get there, they discover that the stone has been rolled away, mysteriously, and the body is missing.  There’s the man there, dressed in white, who tells them to tell the disciples the Jesus is going ahead to Galilee and that he’ll meet them there.  And this is how Mark concludes his gospel:  “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Apparently, the women thought the first rule of resurrection club is, “You do not talk about resurrection club.”

Jesus spends all that time teaching and demonstrating the power of the kin-dom of God here on earth.  He suffers humiliation, betrayal, condemnation, and execution.  The mystery of the resurrection happens.  And they don’t tell anything to anyone.  So sorry, but you don’t get a gospel.  April Fool!

John’s telling of the resurrection has its own humor, too.  First of all, there’s the foot-race between two of the disciples.  Peter and “the beloved disciple” run to the tomb.  The beloved disciple gets there first; he’s quicker.  Peter follows behind and heads right into the empty tomb.  Then Peter leaves, confused.  The beloved disciple, entering the tomb second, sees and believes.  It’s not exactly clear what the beloved disciples believes, just that the beloved disciple is, once again, quicker.  That’s fine, John.  Go ahead.  Rub it in.

Peter and the beloved disciple return, leaving Mary to grieve by herself.  We’re in on what happens next, so the joke is on Mary.  Jesus shows up, but Mary doesn’t recognize him.  She thinks he’s the gardener.  April Fool!  It’s me, Jesus.

Or, maybe the joke is on us, too.  Maybe the joke is pointing out how we fail to recognize the resurrected Jesus in our lives.

Easter is filled with jokes, and I think the greatest joke of all is the joke played on death itself.  Death thinks it is the final word.  There’s death and that’s it.  But God says, “Not so fast, death.”

The resurrection is the greatest joke because it says that death isn’t the final word.  There is something, some love, beyond death.

The apostle Paul goes so far as to humorously mock death in his first letter to the Corinthians:  “Where is your victory, Death?  Where is your sting, Death?”

This greatest joke reminds us, when we are experiencing terrible things, we know that even the worst thing is only the next to the last thing that will happen.[1]  As Frederick Buechner points out, “That means not just that you shall laugh when the time comes, but that you can laugh a little even now in the midst of the weeping because you know that the time is coming.  All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the ending will be a happy ending.  That is what the laughter is about.  It is the laughter of faith.  It is the divine comedy.”[2]

So may this Easter and your life be filled with laughter.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Jeanne Torrence Finley, “Easter and April Fools,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8888/easter-and-april-fools (posted and accessed 27 March 2018).

[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, quoted by Finley, ibid.

Long one of my goals, a movement is gaining momentum to get the City of Fremont to divest from fossil fuels and to take other  measures that both signal the need to address climate change and to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. As this blog entry is published, the final language of a request is set and we are actively asking for endorsements of it.

Here’s the plan:

The request is actually addressed to the Fremont Human Relations Commission and it asks them to forward a resolution to the Fremont City Council for their action that meets the following goals:

  • Divest fully from the fossil fuel sector and adopt policies to ban future investment;
  • Formally request that all retirement funds into which the city contributes fully divest from the fossil fuel sector and adopt policies to ban future investment;
  • File a lawsuit against the fossil fuel sector for responsibility for climate change, or join a lawsuit already filed by Marin County, San Mateo County, Santa Cruz County, the City of San Francisco, Oakland, and Imperial Beach;
  • Commit to a fast and just transition to 100% renewable energy for all of Fremont by 2050 at the latest; and
  • Adopt regulations to guarantee that there are no new fossil fuel infrastructure projects built within or traveling through Fremont.

The request lays out the rationale for these goals and addresses concerns about possible financial impact. You can read the full request here. You can even print a copy and collect signatures. Just mail them to me at my church by April 23. My address is:

Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Niles Discovery Church
36600 Niles Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94536

Once the request is in the hands of the Human Relations Commission, we may need to pressure them to work on drafting the resolution. Once the resolution is in the hands of the City Council, lobbying and showing up to meetings will be the order of the day.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 18, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:43-47 and Mark 6:31-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“What you’re describing, Jeff, sure sounds an awful lot like communism.”

I can understand why this was an initial response to this Lenten sermon series.  The Sabbath economy does sound a lot like communism.  In the story of the manna in the wilderness, our introduction to God’s alternative to the Imperial economy, everyone has enough to eat every day.  Those who gather more than they needed somehow ended up with only what they needed, and those who gathered less than they needed somehow ended up with enough.  From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs.

And when we read in Acts how the earliest Christian lived, it sounds like communism.  They held all property in common and distributed resources according to each person’s needs.

There is, of course, one big difference between what these stories in the Bible describe and how communism has been practiced in the 20th and 21st centuries:  Totalitarianism.

The early Christians we read about in Acts chose to be part of this economy of sharing, of sufficiency, of self-restraint, of rest.  It was not mandated from outside.  No strongman forced people into this economy.  The participants chose to live this way.

And it has been pointed out to me that there are things to be said for capitalism.  Great innovations have come within our capitalist system.  I’m very grateful for medical advances.  And I love that I can send my nephew (who always seems to be wearing shorts) a goofy meme in a text massage that he gets instantaneously even though he lives 750 miles away.  750 miles north.  Where it gets cold.

Would these innovations have happened if we lived with a different economic system?  Who’s to say?  I suspect some of them would have, at least eventually.  To say they all required capitalism to be innovated is to say that only the accumulation of capital – that is, only greed – drives innovation.  And I don’t believe that’s true.

Still, many of the amazing things in our lives came about under capitalism.  So, why knock capitalism?

It can be argued that Western capitalism was built on cotton and slavery.  And, in fact, Harvard professor Sven Beckert makes exactly that argument:  “When we marshal big arguments about the West’s superior economic performance, and build these arguments upon an account of the West’s allegedly superior institutions like private-property rights, lean government, and the rule of law, we need to remember that the world Westerners forged was equally characterized by exactly the opposite:  vast confiscation of land and labor, huge state intervention in the form of colonialism, and the rule of violence and coercion.  And we also need to qualify the fairy tale we like to tell about capitalism and free labor.  Global capitalism is characterized by a whole variety of labor regimes, one of which, a crucial one, was slavery.”[1]

The class stratification of capitalism largely mirrors the class stratification of the Imperial economy (at least not here in the USA; it’s not so drastic in Scandinavian countries and in Japan).  The use of slavery to build capitalism mirrors the Imperial economy.  And the Imperial economy is the economy the biblical witness encourages us to reject, in favor of God’s Sabbath economy.

It’s not just the witness of the Torah to promotes the Sabbath economy.  Jesus preached the Sabbath Jubilee, the Jubilee that calls for the forgiveness of debts and the return of lands (which was wealth redistribution).  Jesus pointed out the corruption of the Imperial system and lifted up as heroes people who resisted it.  And Paul rejected the patronage system that is so integral to the Imperial economy.

And it is not just that our capitalist economy mirrors the Imperial economy.  Add to it this reality.  Since World War II, the basis of capitalism has become, increasingly, consumption beyond what is needed.  Build-in obsolescence and manipulated desire move us to consume what is not needed.[2]  In 2001, after the terrorist attacks along the east coast of the USA, we were told that the way to fight back was to go to the store and buy stuff.  Why?  Because the economy is dependent on consumption.  That wouldn’t be such a problem except that consumption destroys the environment.  When we consume more than we need, our impact on all of life on earth is detrimental.

We need a new economic system.

But what might that be?

I don’t have an answer to this question.

We could, I suppose, withdraw from the common economy and create our own enclave.  We could do what the Amish have done, separating ourselves from the world.  If that means doing without those innovations I spoke about earlier, I’m not too keen on that idea.

We could create a new monasticism, I suppose.  If we go back the fall of the Roman empire we might be able to learn something from the rise of monastic movement in European Christianity.  Benedict, who is seen as the granddaddy of monasticism, wrote a rule that called for various disciplines, including these three (that remain the basic vows of Roman Catholic religious life):  poverty, chastity, and obedience.  According to Ched Myers, those “early monks understood three key things about the dominant culture of their time:

  • It was built upon the concentration of wealth and exploitation. If their communities were to repent [of this sin,] they must become as self-sufficient as possible.
  • The root of wealth-concentration was private property. If they wanted to resist the ‘temptations of the world’ they must renounce exclusive ownership.
  • The exploitation of human labor was the root of all alienation … If their communities were to restore human dignity they must practice manual (that is, unalienated) labor.

For the first monastic communities the vow of ‘poverty’ [was] actually intended to inspire a social model that would eradicate poverty.”[3]

I think that ancient monastic evaluation of their times applies to our times.  If we can’t change the system that allows for the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny portion of the population, but we don’t want to support it, we might need to withdraw from it.  But that was easier to do in an agrarian culture.  I don’t know how we could truly withdraw from the capitalist system.  Would we do without bank accounts?  It’s hard to live in a capitalist economy, even in a separate community, without some capital.  I’m not sure creating a new monasticism would really free us from participation in the contemporary version of the Imperial economy.  Besides, I’m not too keen on that chastity and obedience bit.

I caught a snippet of one part of the Humankind two-part radio program on Dorothy Day this weekend.[4]  She and family adopted a voluntary poverty as a way of living out Sabbath economics (I’d call it that; I’m not sure what she would call it).  It was an imperfect Sabbath economics, but it sure was a lot closer to the real thing than I’ve managed to do.  At some point, I’ll go back and listen to the full two-parts to learn more about her.  In the meantime, I’ll let her example of voluntary poverty – which she saw as different from destitution, so perhaps it’s more accurate to call it voluntary simplicity – continue to challenge me.

Ched Myers suggests four things churches can do to help transform how we participate in the contemporary Imperial economy.[5]

  • We can cultivate a “Jubilee literacy.” We can come to a deeper, maybe even a bones-deep, understanding of the Sabbath economy and what it means for follow the Jubilee proclaimer Jesus.  When we do that, it will give us a lens to look at all we do in life.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice of repentance and forgiveness. This needs to apply to our personal lives and become so normal to us that it starts to influence our societal lives.  This might even move us to look at who the contemporary Imperial economy has hurt and move us to work for reparations.
  • We can cultivate a deeper practice around practical economic disciplines. Individually, we can look at consumption, finances, and work.  We can form support groups for this reflective and ongoing work.  And we can consider our consumption and finances as a community.
  • We can participate in political movements that address issues of economic policy. This goes back to cultivating a Jubilee literacy.  That literacy has to influence our involvement so it is theologically grounded.  This involvement can, of course, be at local, state, national, and international levels.

I would add a fifth thing that we as a church can do, though maybe this fits in as part of Myers’ third suggestion.  We can examine our practices of outreach.  The history of mainline American Protestant mission work has been modeled on the patron-client paradigm.  We need to build within our church culture a sensitivity to this so we can combat it.  Our mission work must become fully mutual and based in solidarity with, rather than service to.

The issues of economy – Sabbath verses Imperial – do not stand alone.  50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., diagnosed the connections.  “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”[6]  He saw the repercussions of embracing the Imperial economy, of serving the Imperial economy, of remaining beholden to the Imperial economy.  He cited three major consequences:  racism, poverty, and militarism.

We know there are other consequences.  I made reference just a little while ago to the consequence of environmental degradation.  Sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism could easily be added to the list.

King knew it then, and we know it now:  these are moral issues.  When people in the riches country in the world live in poverty, it is a moral issue.  When systems won’t allow people of color to move ahead economically, to exercise their right (including the right to vote), and to pursue their dreams, it is a moral issue.  When we spend over 50% of our federal discretionary budget on wars (past, present, and future) and on more and more weapons, it is a moral issue.  When we refuse to protect ourselves and our neighbors around the world from the devastation of climate change, it is a moral issue.

And it demands a moral response.

That is why I have joined the Poor People’s Campaign:  A National Call for Moral Revival.  I have joined tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation – the nation’s distorted morality.  This is a nation-wide, coordinated, nonviolent mobilization.  Beginning on Mother’s Day, the campaign will begin 40 days of widespread civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and voter education.

I hope you will join me as we work to move our nation – if not to a Sabbath economy, at least a little further away from the Imperial economy.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Sven Beckert, “How the West got rich and modern capitalism was born,” PBS News Hour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/west-got-rich-modern-capitalism-born (posted 13 February 2015; accessed 13 March 2018).

[2] See, for instance, https://storyofstuff.org for information about how this has worked.

[3] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 61-62.

[4] For more on the program, go to https://www.humanmedia.org/product/dorothy-day/.

[5] Myers, op. cit., 61.

[6] Quoted by Lindsay Koshgarian, “This Martin Luther King Day, Militarism, Racism and Poverty are Still With Us,” National Priorities Project, https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-day-militarism-racism-and-poverty-are-still-us/ (posted 15 January 2018; accessed 17 March 2018).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 2 Corinthians 9:1-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I created this graphic for a sermon some 13 months ago.  It is an attempt to describe the population distribution of the Roman Empire socio-economically.  You can see in the picture that those with power and wealth were quite small in number and that there really isn’t much of what we would think of today as a middle class.  There was the very small upper class and the very large lower class.

I suspect you don’t spend as much time pondering these sort of things, but I’ve wondered how it is that the very small upper class could possibly stay in power when there were so many people who had neither wealth nor power.  Why didn’t they just rise up and overthrow the elites?  The answer appears to be the Patronage System.

According to John Dominic Crossan, what kept the society from completely breaking apart were “multiple ligatures of patronage and clientage.  Those without power could be clients to the patrons above them, and those patrons might even be themselves clients to others far more powerful still.”[1]

The patronage system didn’t just grease the wheels of politics and the economy.  In a patronage system, “influence was a moral duty: the emperor’s needed it, the moralists praised it, and countless inscriptions publicly proclaimed it.”[2]  Clients had a moral duty to give their patrons their obeisance and patrons had a moral duty to provide that which was necessary to live for their clients.  Of course, patrons wouldn’t give their clients much more than the bear minimum, or they might start to climb that narrow pipe and positions could be reversed.  And given the importance of shame and honor in the society, a patron just couldn’t be shamed by that.

You can see how the patronage system really isn’t separable from the rest of the Imperial economy.  While the rich because rich through systems of injustice (especially the accumulation of land) that I’ve talked about in previous sermons in this series, the have-nots tolerated, or at least didn’t see how to overturn, the injustice because patronage system demanded their participation.

The patronage system as oil for the Imperial economy is, I think, the biggest difference between the Imperial economy and contemporary capitalism.  While the size of the middle class has expanded and contracted over time, it exists as part of contemporary capitalism.  Yes, the adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” carries plenty of truth to it in contemporary capitalism, and the old boys’ network is alive and well with plenty of mutual back-scratching today, classical patronage does not hold the power it once did.  Even the ultra-wealthy – the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gateses, David and Charles Kochs, Oprah Winfreys, and George Soroses of American capitalism – may have disproportionate influence in our society, they don’t control things at the level the ultra-wealthy did in the Roman Empire.

In her upcoming book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass writes about the patronage system:  “The emperor or king gave his subjects the ‘gifts’ of protection and provision.  In return, subjects offered loyalty, homage, service, tithes, and taxes.  If you failed to return the ruler’s favor – such as not paying a tribute or refusing to send your son to serve in the army – you were branded an ‘ingrate.’  Ingratitude was disloyalty and sometimes treason, crimes punishable by denial of favor, reduction in rank, seizure of property, enslavement, prison, exile, or death.  Most pre-capitalist societies practiced this quid pro quo sort of gratitude, with its complex of gifts given, debts incurred, and favors owed.  In it limited benefits flowed down from privileged benefactors to regular people; and most of the wealth flowed up from subject beneficiaries in the form of ‘gratitude’ to those at the top.  Gratitude was not a feeling.  It was the law.”[3]

When I was on Study Leave in November, I heard a wonderful lecture by Bass where she talked about how the patronage system has played itself out in Christian theology.  The pre-modern view of the cosmos mirrored the oil can diagram of the social structure.  The cosmic map was of “a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, here we feared we might go after death.  The church,” Bass explained, “mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below.”[4]

This is the image of that God up in heaven, at least as painted by a European.  The great patron looks down on us clients down below.  The priests (patronage brokers of a sort) send our prayers up in the holy elevator to God and God sends down commandments for us to obey.  It is our duty to obey and to offer our thanksgivings to God.  And just like in the economic and political spheres of life, in the spiritual sphere we are obliged to offer our obeisance to our spiritual patrons – to the priests, to the bishops, and ultimately to God.

If God brings us to freedom from slavery, if God brings us to freedom from the Imperial economy of scarcity, greed, and never-ending work, to a Sabbath economy of abundance, self-restraint, and Sabbath rest, how did we get this Imperial theology?  If Jesus was a Jubilee practitioner who came to proclaim God’s Sabbath economy and to restore its freedom, how did the church lose sight of it?  Though I like to blame Paul for all kinds of problems, I don’t think we can blame Paul for this.

As Ched Myers puts it, “Footprints of the Jubilee tradition can be found throughout Paul’s pastoral correspondence.  The Corinthian epistles provide a wonderful example of how Paul’s practice reflected a fundamental concern for social justice, resistance to Roman norms … and desire to demonstrate faith commitment by wealth-sharing.

“Corinth in Paul’s time was characterized by a culture of ‘new wealth.’  It had been sacked by the Romans, then rebuilt a century later and repopulated with immigrants, entrepreneurs, military veterans and freed slaves.  Located along key trading routes, it was prosperous, ambitious, and competitive – and marked by huge disparities between its ‘nouveau’ elite and its laboring and slave classes.”[5]

We can interpret from what he says in his letters to the church in Corinth that he was criticised by some Corinthians for “his disinterest in matters of social status, rhetorical style, and public performance. …

“Against … prestige-oriented Christianity Paul pits his own commitment to costly discipleship (2 Cor 4:8-11).  He contrasts himself with ‘hucksters of the Word of God’ (2 Cor 2:17) and those who ‘pride themselves on position’ (2 Cor 5:12), defending his apostolic credentials in terms of marginalization rather than status, of suffering rather than self-advancement, and … of grace rather than merit.”[6]

Myers points out, “Under the patronage ethos it was expected that Paul would support his pastoral ministry in Corinth either by professional religious begging or by positioning himself as an ‘in-house philosopher’ sponsored by a wealthy patron.  Paul, however, steadfastly (and in the eyes of many Corinthians, unreasonably) refused to become a client of the rich.  Instead, he insisted on supporting himself through a trade (1 Cor 9; see 1 Thes 2:9).  This stance offended members of the aristocracy and lowered Paul’s prestige in their eyes because he worked for his funds.”[7]

It’s pretty clear that Paul was pushing against the social stratification of Corinth.  He expected their relationships to reflect the new, revolutionary social structure of equality.  He is regularly outraged by their reproduction of the divisions of the wider culture.  We see this reflected quite clearly in the community’s celebration of communion and Paul’s reactions to it.

Paul’s discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols was not just about diet and conscience.  Only the affluent could afford meat, so those scandalized were probably the poor in the church.  “Meanwhile, some aristocratic Christians were interpreting Paul’s ‘gospel of freedom’ as license to continue participating in the Roman Temple feasts.  These public gatherings were crucial to legitimizing patronage … and [the] consolidation of economic-political solidarity among upper classes.”[8]

The dining habits at these public gatherings was very stratified, with those of higher social, political, and economic status (those are almost synonymous) eating with the host in the dining room, while the rabble ate elsewhere.  That practice was brought into the church when they celebrated communion, with the rich eating their fill before the poor members of the community even showed up.  We heard in our reading from 1 Corinthians how that infuriated Paul.  “He calls [this practice] a ‘profanation’ of the body of Christ, and even speculates whether such abominations might lead to illness and death.”[9]  “If you must eat this way, go home,” he tells them.

In the wider society, what one eats and with whom identifies one’s social status, and Paul will have none of that at the communion table.  “For Paul, the church was to model an alternative society where there was no patronage, no hierarchy, no rich and poor.”[10]  In other words, Paul embraced Sabbath economics and insisted that it be lived out around the Table.

He also lobbied for a Sabbath economics to be lived out around the offering plate.  In many of his letters, he writes about his efforts to collect money for the economically disadvantaged Christians in Jerusalem.  Our writing from 2 Corinthians is part of his plea to the Corinthians about his project.  And here, he appeals directly to the scriptural tradition of Sabbath economics.

Paul does not demand that the Corinthian church participate in the collection.  To do so would undermine the freedom of the Sabbath economy.  “So he employs instead a variety of rhetorical strategies to persuade, some of which are almost amusing.  First Paul points to the generosity of other communities, hoping either to shame the Corinthians or to inspire them to friendly competition (8:1-7).  Then he points to Christ’s example of ‘class defection’ (8:9). …

“Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will interpret his appeal to share wealth according to the expectations and conventions of patronage.  But the obligatory and dependent nature of the patronage relationship was precisely what Paul wished to avoid.  He was asking for Christian justice and solidarity, not charity or patronage (see 2 Cor 9:5-7).  For this reason, he refers to the project ten times in 2 Corinthians 8-9 as the work of ‘grace’ (Gk charis).  Paul, the great apostle of ‘grace alone,’ here makes it clear that this is not just a theological concept.  [Grace] must include practices of economic sharing.”[11]

“By understanding Christ’s life and death as a ‘Jubilee-event’ Paul invites us onto a path of grace which seeks constantly to redistribute power, prestige and resources ‘as a matter of equality.’  Not only does Paul set a personal example by refusing Corinthian patronage and insisting that the church there do the same, he also invites these Gentile Christians to practice international economic solidarity with a minority that was widely despised in the Hellenistic world:  Palestinian Jews.”[12]

Myers concludes his reflections on Paul and Sabbath economics with these thoughts:  “Today, the crushing burden of indebtedness and profound inequality imprisons more and more people in First and Third Worlds alike.  If our North American churches are to advocate for redistributive justice for the poor, we, like the first century Corinthians, will have to cease mirroring the dominant culture of the global capitalism, with its empty promises of upward mobility and trickle-down justice.  We must turn toward the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, which is central not only to the Hebrew Bible and the Jesus-tradition, but to Paul’s pastoral strategy as well.  The apostle insisted that only disciplines of redistribution can overturn our calcified traditions and structures of charity, class entitlement, and meritocracy.”[13]

To that I would add this more personal and spiritual note.  If we do what Myers suggests, if we 21st century Christians adopt a Sabbath economic practice, we will have a spiritual awakening about God.  We will realize how limiting this image of God-in-the-sky is.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was not talking about what happens after we’ve ridden the cosmic elevator into the heavens after we die.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was talking about God’s political and social vision for humanity, a vision that includes a Sabbath economy and that continues to stand in stark contrast to political and social visions that dominate and oppress.  “Jesus’ own prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come. They will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10), seeks to align earthly ethics with the divine order of God’s dwelling.”[14]  And because for Jesus the kingdom of God is here, at hand, come near, God must be here, at hand, come near.  Heaven and God are “here-and-now, not there-and-then.”[15]  Amen.

_______________

[1] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 96.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The quote is from Diana Butler Bass’ forthcoming book, Grateful, posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10156156300209496 (8 March 2018).

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

[5] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 53.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 58-59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

[14] Bass, Grounded, op. cit., 119.

[15] Ibid, 120.

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