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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 17:16-31and Matthew 28:1-10
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Paul was on the run.  Well, maybe not on the run, but he was at least on the walk.  Paul was basically “hiding out” in Athens.  In the prior chapters, he has attempted to share the Gospel in Thessalonica and Berea and – well, things did not go well.   Basically, Paul was on the lam.  He was hiding out.

And he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

We come into the story in the midst of one of his evangelical journeys, traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting new churches and encouraging the converts to this new way, this new religion of Jesus-followers.  Silas and Timothy have stayed behind at their last stop and Paul has gone on ahead to Athens. Paul had some time waiting for the others to catch up, and, in his wanderings around Athens, he got upset.  He noticed that the city was full of idols, and as a good Jew, this was upsetting.  Upsetting enough that Paul had to say something.

So every day, he would go somewhere where there were people – the synagogue, the marketplace – and he would talk about God and Jesus and the resurrection.  He got into arguments with Epicureans, who believed that the gods did not intervene in daily life.[1]  He got into arguments with Stoics, who suppressed passions and focused on behavior over beliefs.[2]  Based on who he argued with, it appears that Paul thought that what you believed mattered, that you should believe in one God (Yahweh) who is active in daily life, and that there are reasons to be passionate.

The Areopagus

Some of the people who he got into discussion with took Paul out to the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill by the Romans, for further discussion.  In classical times, the Areopagus was the seat of the Athenian court of appeals, a place of justice and judgment.[3]  By this time, the author of Acts seems to say that it had become a place of much more common conversation:  “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the description.[4]  The more vernacular paraphrase, The Message, translates the description, “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.”[5]

Paul used this as another opportunity to share his story.  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[6]

In his travels around Athens, Paul not only found the upsetting altars and idols, he also found an altar to “an unknown god.” I guess the Athenians were covering all the bases.  Paul found the opening he needed to share his story.  He used this “unknown god” as a vehicle to tell his story about Yahweh and Jesus (though, interestingly, Paul doesn’t specifically name Jesus).

Paul tells them that the uncontainable God is the creator of the universe and gives us life.  “From one ancestor,” Paul says, “[Yahweh] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for … and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”[7]

Paul makes an interesting assumption here – one that I agree with:  Human beings long for a connection with the intimately transcendent, with holy-ness, with the ultimate within which we live and move and have out being.  Human beings long for God.  And since God made us, we can’t make God.  This God we long for can’t be limited to altars and shrines and idols.

Paul’s “doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent.  Only late in the paragraph of Paul’s speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to ‘a man whom [God] has appointed’ (Acts 17: 31).  The speech culminates with reference to Jesus about whom Paul makes this affirmation:  First, Jesus is raised from the dead.  Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.”[8]  The One who made us calls us to repent from our ignorance and from our unrighteousness.

When I saw that this as one of the scripture readings recommended for this year’s pledge campaign, I thought, “We’ve got to use it.”  I love how Paul can’t keep his mouth shut.  He has a story to tell.  He wants to tell it.  And he is wise enough to find his opening.

I imagine Paul wandering the streets of Athens, Noticing the altar to an unknown God, and thinking, “I can use that.  I was looking for an opening and there it is. That’s my door to sharing my story.”

As I studied this scripture more carefully I noticed that Paul had more than his story and this opening.  Looking carefully at the story, I see he had five things.

First, he had his story to share.  Paul was an upholder of the purity of Judaism when he had an experience, an encounter with the resurrected Christ.  His life was transformed.  He had a whole new purpose – letting people know about what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what he knew in his life and it’s what he had to share.

Second, he had a reason for sharing it.  He probably had reasons (plural) for sharing it. Here in Athens, we read that his reason was how upset he was by seeing all the altars to false gods and idols.  The people of the city didn’t even know who the real God was, let alone anything about Jesus.

Third, he had people to share it with.  People gathered in the synagogue and in the market place. They liked to talk, to gossip.  They liked to argue philosophy.

Fourth, he had an opening – the altar to an unknown god.

And fifth, he had the persistence to keep sharing it until someone started to listen.  He went to the synagogue.  He went to the market place.  He went to that Areopagus.  And eventually, some people listened and were convinced and joined this movement of Jesus-followers.

Now, I don’t want you to lose track of all five of these things.  I assume you have all five of them as well.  But having a reason for sharing your story, having people to share it with, having an opening to share it, and having the persistence to keep sharing it really don’t matter if you don’t know what your story is.

What is your story?

My story is not early as dramatic as Paul’s (though it’s worth pointing out that in this situation, here on Mars Hill, Paul doesn’t share the dramatic parts of his story).  I don’t have a blasted off my donkey and blinded conversion experience. My story is one of always being connected with God, though my understanding of what I mean when I say “God” is continually evolving.

Maybe I haven’t been knocked off my ass by God, but I’ve been wowed by God.  I’ve had experiences of the intimately transcendent that have taken me out of myself and into a greater wholeness.  And I’ve discovered that my life has meaning and grounding and direction because of my relationship with God – the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  I have come to realize that if I didn’t have that relationship I might still have found meaning and grounding and direction – it just would have been in one of the idols of our culture, an idol like accumulation, or greed, or even violence. Instead, I’ve found meaning, grounding, and direction in Yahweh.

But that’s not much of a story, is it?  On Mars Hill, this philosophical description might be effective.  In most of the rest of life, it’s the stories of the incidents moving me from one point to another on this journey that would be compelling.

For someone, my story of coming to terms with my sexuality and coming to terms with the reality of God fully embracing me, sexuality and all, might be the story they need to hear.

For another person, my story of how I came to be so convinced that climate change is the moral issue of our day may be the story I need to share, and for someone else, that story might turn them off.

For someone else, it might be my story of struggling to love people who seem to me to be so hateful that they need to hear.

And for someone else, my story of God’s love and power experienced in my journey through grief after my mother died might connect in a way mothering else I might say could.

Regardless, I need to bring my stories.

Someone might need to know that I believe that what you believe is much less important than how you love, though I suspect I would communicate more if I told my story about struggling when I friend I deeply respected as a progressive Christian told me her story about speaking in tongues.

And someone else might need to know that there are Christians who don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, though I suspect I would communicate more if I brought my story about my mom blowing my 10-year-old mind when she told me she didn’t believe in a literal hell.

And maybe I need to bring my story about how I’ve learned that without a community that is also basing its life on a relationship with the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my faith journey would founder.  Maybe I need to bring my story of needing and discovering a community that welcomes me on my faith journey exactly where I am and encourages me to continue the journey.

Maybe I need to bring my story of how nothing but God has managed to fill the God-shaped hole in my life.  Not diversions and lies.  Not accolades and power.  Not accumulation and possessions.  Nothing really fits, nothing really fills it the way God does.

During this pledge campaign, we’re asking the question, “What shall we bring?”  Last week I suggested that we need to bring our “yes” to God.  This week, it’s all about our stories.

Imagine if the Marys did what the angel and Jesus told them to do.  Imagine they went back to the disciples and said, “Jesus has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  You will see him there.  Go to Galilee.”  Nothing more. Just what the angel and Jesus told them to say.

The disciples would have said something like, “Are you nuts?”

Instead, the Marys told their story.  The told the disciple something like, “First thing this morning, as the sun was coming up, we went to the tomb where we buried him. And while we were there, an angel appeared, and the earth shook, and the Roman guards collapsed with fright.  And the angel told us that Jesus is raised.

And sure enough, the tomb was empty.  Then the angel told us to tell you that he is raised and was going ahead of us to Galilee.

“We were so overcome with joy, we started running back here – and on the way, Jesus appeared to us.  That’s right, our Jesus who the Roman’s executed and who we buried in a tomb, appeared to us and told us to tell you to go to Galilee and that you would see him there.  Let’s go!”

Their story – not just their message, but their story – was so compelling, you and I are followers of Jesus.

My friends, bring your story!

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

  1. What is you story?  (Do not go on to question 2 until you have answered question 1.)
  2. What is/are your reason/s for sharing it?
  3. With whom could you share it?
  4. What opening might there be to share it?
  5. Do you have the persistence to keep sharing it?

[1]“Epicureanism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism(24 May 2014).

[2]“Stoicism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism(24 May 2014).

[3]“Areopagus,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus(24 May 2014).

[4]Acts 17:21, NRSV.

[5]Acts 17:21, The Message.

[6]Acts 17:22b-23, NRSV.

[7]Acts 17:26-27, NRSV.

[8]Walter Brueggemann, “A Daring Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/daring-love(24 May 2014).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 12:1-9 and Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This past week, I’ve been thinking about the importance of ‘no,’ even though the theme for this sermon is on the importance and power of ‘yes.’  I find the Senate’s ‘yes’ to Judge Kavanaugh troublesome.  I wanted their ‘no,’ though I didn’t expect it.

I could list my reasons why I find his confirmation troublesome, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of our personal assessments.  I’ll leave that for a blog post I may get to before the week is out.  Today, or at least during this sermon, I invite you to use the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as an object lesson for my larger point:  that choosing ‘no’ and choosing ‘yes’ has impact and repercussions, not just for the people saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but for others as well.

Three-and-a-half years ago, an organizational consultant named Tony Schwartz wrote an article for The New York Times about “the power of starting with ‘yes’” for business leaders and managers.  He begins with a little anecdote.  “As I write this column, my two dogs have been lying quietly near my desk.  I just conducted a little experiment with them.  First, I said a single word – ‘Yes’ – with unbridled enthusiasm.  The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me.  Next I said ‘No,’ firmly.  Both dogs looked down and slunk away.  I felt as bad as they did.”[1]

I suspect the dogs were responding as much to his tone of voice as the actual words.  Still, you know how empowering it feels to be told, ‘Yes.’  I’m sure Barack Obama chose “Yes, we can!” as a 2008 campaign slogan for many reasons.  One of them had to be that the slogan felt affirming and empowering as it drew people into community and common purpose.

Schwartz points out, “‘No’ is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger.  It’s something you say instinctively and protectively to a 3-year-old when he’s about to pull a lamp off a table and onto himself or to a 15-year-old who announces she’s planning to take up cliff jumping.

“In situations like those, the instinct to say ‘no’ serves us well.”[2]  It even has an evolutionary benefit.  Quoting a psychologist, Schwartz adds, “‘Organisms … attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats.  Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.’”[3]

“There is a difference,” Schwartz points out, “between surviving and thriving.  Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving.  The problem with ‘no’ as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness, and shuts down innovation, collaboration, and connection.”[4]

For an example, Schwartz points to research by the psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues, that has found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a married couple falls below 5 to 1 – if it falls below five positive interactions for every one negative interaction – divorce is far more likely.[5]  Negative interactions are so powerful in a relationship that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh the impact of one negative interaction.

Starting with ‘yes,’ stepping into a situation with an attitude of ‘yes,’ is important, not simply because such an attitude is energizing and builds safety and trust, but because starting with ‘no’ is so destructive.

Imagine how different the world would be if, instead of saying, “Let it be with me just as you say,”[6] Mary had said, “Nope.  No way!”  Mary’s ‘yes’ to God changed the world.  As did Abram’s.  Though Abram’s ‘yes’ needs a little more unpacking, I think.

Abram’s story seems to start with our reading in chapter 12.  It seems to start almost out of the blue.  “Now Yahweh said to Abram …”  Of course, none of our stories start out of the blue.  We all come from somewhere.

Abram’s story starts in chapter 11, and his ancestors’ stories start even earlier.  It’s not much more than a genealogical mention in chapter 12, and I know I’m typically tempted to skip over the biblical genealogies.  But in those last verses of the genealogy in chapter 11, we learn that Abram is the son of Terah, brother of Nahor and Haran, husband of Sarai, and uncle of Lot.  And we learn that even though their family was from Ur, Terah took his family and left Ur, for reasons that are not enumerated, and headed off for the land of Canaan.

This is significant because, when God shows up in chapter 12, in today’s reading, Abram is already headed in the direction of Canaan.  True, their journey seems to have stalled at Haran (that is, the community of Haran, not to be confused with Abram’s brother Haran).  Perhaps the invitation from God acts as a kick in the pants to get them moving again.

In any event, this call from God isn’t as dramatic a “change the course of your life” call as I’ve generally thought it to be.  It is more of an invitation to continue or to get back to what had already begun.  Still, I think there is something new happening here.  I think the key to that new thing is found in the blessing God gives Abram:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[7]

If you were at Tim Weible’s installation last week, you heard me preach about how tribalism in human evolution led to violence.  (It still does, as far as I can tell.)  Still, tribalism served a purpose.  In hunter/gatherer cultures, the tribe provided protection, belonging, and identity.  That is why tribes are inward-focused.

Here, in the blessing God gives Abram, God invites Abram to look outward.  Abram’s tribe, the “great nation” he will father, rather than turning inward for defense, is called to turn outward for blessing, to be a blessing.

“The purpose of the blessing is to be a blessing to others.  From the very beginning, the invitation to be part of God’s people is a call to look outward to the needs of others.  The generous sharing of our gifts, financial and otherwise, is then a natural and necessary action for those of us who call ourselves the people of God.  Our blessings never stop with us.  They always flow onward to someone else.”[8]  Our blessings never stops with us.

Lee Hull Moses, who wrote a commentary on this passage I used in creating today’s sermon, shared a story that explains what I mean.  “Years ago, when my parents bought me my first used car – primarily so they could stop driving back and forth to pick me up from college – my dad included a note along with the instructions to keep the oil changed and gas tank filled:  Use this to help people.  I don’t know that I followed that advice as often as he would have liked, but it’s been a good reminder to me that the things we own are best understood as tools by which we serve our neighbors.”[9]

The things we own are best understood as tools of blessing.

That would be our ideal relationship with our stuff.  I know I’m some distance from that ideal relationship.  But I’m working on it.

I think it’s worth noting that when Abram brought his ‘yes’ to God’s invitation to continue to Canaan, he didn’t drop everything to follow.  Quite the opposite.  He packed up all his possessions, including “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran,” to set off on the journey.  And there’s no mention that he discussed the matter with Sarai.  He made a decision and off they all went.  While these aspects of the story are disturbing, it’s nice to know that God calls people who aren’t perfect.

And when Abram led his family and possessions to Canaan, they didn’t do it all at once.  The journey takes quite a while, first to Shechem, then Moreh, then Bethel, and on to the Negeb.  At each stop along the way, Abram did the same thing.  He pitched a tent and built an altar.  Then he did it again.

It’s not a bad way to structure a life:  listen for God, follow the call, set up an altar, worship, be a blessing … rinse and repeat.

As I wrote in my newsletter column (which I’m sure you all read and memorized), we hold a pledge campaign each fall for at least two reasons – one practical and one theological.  The practical reason is that it helps us create a budget.  Knowing about how much money will be coming in can help us plan our spending.

The theological reason is to encourage us to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  This season is about our stewardship of our whole lives.  Today we are invited to consider how we are stewards of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  And we are invited to consider how we are stewards of our listening for God’s invitations to take the next step on our journeys – our individual journeys and our congregation’s journey.

The invitation is to bring your ‘yes’ to God so that we might be a greater blessing to the world and so that we might join God in changing the world.

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

What might God be kicking our church in the pants to continue (or start)?

What will it take to do this?

How will we show our ‘Yes’?

_______________

[1] Tony Schwartz, “The Power of Starting With ‘Yes’,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/18/business/dealbook/the-power-of-starting-with-yes.html (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 26 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schwartz, quoting Roy Baumeister, “Bad is strong than good,” link broken.

[4] Schwartz, op. cit. Oxford commas added.

[5] See, for instance, Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science,” The Gottman Institute, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/ (posted 4 October 2017; accessed 6 October 2018).

[6] Luke 1:38, The Message.

[7] Genesis 12:2, The New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added.

[8] From a commentary by Lee Hull Moses that is part of the stewardship campaign materials Niles Discovery Church purchased from the Center for Faith and Giving, https://centerforfaithandgiving.org.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 30, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  The Book of Esther
(focus scriptures:  Esther 4:9-17 and Esther 7:1-6)
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love the story of Esther.  And I hate it.

I tend to love an underdog story to begin with, especially when the underdog wins.  And in the Esther story we have a woman who has no power and who, due to circumstances beyond her control, ends up in a position to save an entire people from annihilation.  But those circumstances that are beyond her control as so patriarchal, and the story is so disturbingly quite about that.  That silence drives me crazy.

Here’s what I mean by patriarchal circumstances.  To start off with, Queen Vashti gets banished because she says, “No,” to the king’s desire to display her as a sexual object.  Then, the selection process to find a new queen is essentially a stripped-down beauty pageant with only the bathing suit competition.  (And, yes, I meant that double entendre.)  To add insult to patriarchy, it seems that the women have no choice about entering the contest.  And then there’s the whole thing about Esther not being able to talk to her husband without being summoned by him.  Who cares if the woman has something on her mind?  She only gets to talk to her husband the king if he has something on his mind.

I would really love it if the book made it clear that this sort of patriarchal supremacy was wrong.  The book sort of hints at this.  The main character is a woman – that’s helpful.  This woman’s cultural location dictates she have no power, and she finds power anyway.  This woman’s cultural location places no value on her intellect, ability to understand, and her ability to plan – all of which the story does because they are vital to her successfully rescuing her people.  Yes, it’s scary.  Yes, it could cost even her her life.  She has all kinds of reasons to take no risks, but she takes the risks anyway.  As her cousin and adoptive parent points out, “Perhaps you have come to regal dignity for just such a time as this.”

There is a theological challenge in that line (probably the most famous line from the book).  It implies that there is some grand plan that is known only to the mind of God.  It implies that, while we may think we have free will, God is actually calling the shots, moving people around some humongous chess board, playing both the black and white pieces, so the great plot of this grand plan will unfold as scripted.  And if that’s what’s going on, God, why not do away with the Hamans of the world to start with.

No, I do not believe there is a grand plan that God is making unfold.  And I don’t even believe God has seven and a half billion little plans – one for each of us on the planet.  I do believe in callings – that God has desires for goodness and love and that God sees ways (plural) for each of us to help move the world toward that goodness and love.  But God hasn’t scripted how we will get there.  So that means that there will be plenty of suffering along the way.  God does not will for us this pain and suffering.  Rather, I believe that God suffers with us and collaborates with us to bring healing and life and love, even out of our sufferings, to the world.  So, if I were writing this story, I would have Mordecai say, “Look where you are, Esther.  You can take advantage of this unique position to bring the world closer to God’s goodness and love in such a time as this.”

I understand the urge to say it’s all part of some divine plan.  Who but God could have known that the US news cycle would be caught up with the allegations of sexual assault against a Supreme Court Justice nominee this week when I decided two months ago to preach on the story of Esther?  Who but God could have known that on Thursday well over ten million people would turn in to TV, cable, and radio stations to hear the testimony offered before the Senate Judiciary Committee?  Who but God could have known how timely the quotes that ran on our church’s Facebook page all last week would be when I scheduled them ten days ago?

It’s easy to look back and see God’s hand at work guiding all this.  And maybe it was.  I think it more likely, though, that it is coincidence.  For if God is guiding this, making it unfold this way, I would rather God guide sexual and physical abusers away from their abuse to begin with.  No, I think it is coincidence that I am preaching on Esther today and the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony for Thursday.  And that coincidence preaches.

Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony is a reminder that the Esther story is very much alive today.  I could not bring myself to listen to all of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony nor to all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday.  I told myself I had too much work to do, and I did have work to do.  But that may have been a protective reaction.  I didn’t want to subject myself to the pain that I knew both of them would express.  And taking care of ourselves is important.  If my reflecting on this testimony is or becomes too uncomfortable for you, I will not be offended if you choose to step outside for a while.  Take someone with you if that will make you feel safer.  I hope you’ll come back for communion.  I know I need that shared meal today, and you might, too.

I could not bring myself to listen to all of their testimony, but I did listen to some of it.  And I was right:  it was difficult to listen to.  Part of what made it so difficult for me to listen to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was the fear I heard in her voice.  She didn’t want to be there.  She didn’t want to relive this horrific experience in vivid detail and then have it dissected by powerful people who were used to being in the spotlight, who enjoy being in the spotlight, who were literally sitting above her in physical positions of power.

But no one else could have shared her truth.  No one else could speak up in this way in such a time as this.

Another part of what made listening to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony so hard is that I knew and I know there are people of all genders (and especially women) for whom this testimony and this news reporting has and will continue to bring up memories of abuse they have suffered – that you have suffered.  For you I have a message, a message that may be easier to hear coming from women.

I think it is important for me, a white man, to listen, especially to women.  Late yesterday morning I put a post on Facebook inviting women in our church to post their reactions to the news, comments that I could quote in today’s sermon.[1]  I really didn’t leave people much time to respond, so only a few did.  Here’s what they had to say.

Tarrah Henrie said, “We need to raise our daughters to be brave and wise like Esther.  We need to raise our sons to care for and respect others like Jesus taught.  Each generation is moving in the right direction.  Also, I think Matthew 5:29 is clear in stating that it is not the woman’s fault if a man feels lust.  It is really up to him to control himself.  And seriously, the majority of men are good people.  There is a small percent of men that are making women unsafe.”

Without further comment, Joane Luesse pointed me to the video of two women, sexual assault survivors, who confronted Senator Flake after he announced his intention to vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.[2]  It was the first words on the video that were hardest for me.  “Don’t look away from me!  Look at me!”  The raw pain in her voice and those words summed up the larger issues that the accusations against Kavanaugh represent – that the people who are victimized by sexualize assaults are not being seen, and in not being seen, their humanity is being denied.

In one of her posts about this news (a post she referred me to), Cindy Sojourner pointed out how important it is to be prepared to hear and believe when a loved one, people in our own families, discloses their victimization.

Delya Stoltz connected up Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about having her mouth covered by Brett Kavanaugh and fearing that he might inadvertently kill her to the work she (Delya) is doing on strangulation prevention, particularly in intimate partner assaults.  The people who are studying and training first responders in this field (like Delya) include any form of restricting a person’s access to oxygen or blood – smothering, strangulation, suffocation, positional asphyxia, etc. – in this family of assault.  Delya pointed out to me, “People without a willingness to restrict another’s breath in a violent and controlling setting don’t suddenly become willing to do so when intoxicated.  It’s a distinct personality profile and it’s deeply concerning.”[3]

The longest response came from Lauren D’Ambrosio who offered specific advice of what we can do.  “Men:  call out your friends, sons, nephews, coworkers, and even bosses when they show sexist or misogynistic behavior (words, actions, storytelling, etc).  Yes, it’s uncomfortable.  Yes, it may make you cringe.  Yes, it may affect the relationship – but is that the kind of relationship you want to keep?  If you see women being ignored, interrupted, or undermined … call it out.  Something like, ‘I didn’t hear what Kristine was saying because she was interrupted.  What was that?’  It is important to call out the cause that is unacceptable (i.e. the interrupting), not just the effect (that you didn’t hear her).  … Use your position of power/privilege to give [women] their voice back.

“Everyone:  Don’t force your children to hug/kiss their relatives hello if they don’t want to; a wave is fine.  Grandpa’s disappointment is less important than your child’s autonomy.  Don’t [shrug] off poor behavior on your/your friend’s part with ‘oh, it’s no big deal,’ ‘you’re being too sensitive,’ or ‘jeez, everything is bothering you.’  Be reflective, and ask the individual if something is truly bothering them.  Discuss a boundary, then respect it.  This goes for grown adults and children/teens.  You will not be seen as weak for asking them for more information about how to not make someone uncomfortable, but you will be seen as rude if you ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable.”

I am grateful for the women who chose to share a response with me and for allowing me to include it in this sermon.  It makes me think about how, really, every day is a “for such a time as this” moment.  Until God’s kindom is established, there will be injustices that need to be confronted, truths that need to be told.

Each and every one of us has come to some station in life that makes us a perfect person to speak out.  “Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?” the contemporary prophet Marian Wright Edelman asks us.  The answer, of course, is, “No one.”

Yes, speaking up, confronting power, standing up for those who cannot stand on their own, for those who have not come to their own version of royal dignity, will be scary.  Speaking truth to power is scary.  It is dangerous.  Power sometimes rolls over and crushes you.  But nobody ever said we have the right to give up.

So, hear some advice from some of other prophets of the past several decades.[4]

Usually, after the sermon we have some time for contemplation.  Today, instead, I invite you to recite this statement written by Professor Sharon Fennema.[5]  She calls it “A Creed for Days Like This.”  I think of it as “A Creed for Such a Time as This.”

The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which is translated, “I believe.”  We’ve come to think of creeds as dogmatic statements.  Please don’t read this one dogmatically.  Read it as an invitation.

I believe that God weeps for the ways we shatter each other.
I believe that my body is not an apology or an invitation.
I believe that Jesus, revolutionary love incarnate, trusted the wisdom of women.
I believe that we have the right to say what happens to our bodies.
I believe that the Spirit moves in acts of resistance to patriarch, misogyny, white supremacy and colonialism.
I believe that both those of us who report and those of us who can’t or don’t report are courageous and praiseworthy.
I believe in a church that listens to and learns from the resilience of women.
I believe that our vulnerability is our strength.
I believe that the communion of saints lives in the flesh and bones of survivors.
I believe that no means no.
I believe that the forgiveness of sins must center the sinned-against
I believe that the time’s up.
I believe that bodies are resurrected when we bear witness to and believe the stories, when we name femicide for what it is, and when we refuse to acquiesce to rape culture.
I believe that when we dedicate ourselves to movements that build the world we are seeking as we fight to make it real, the kindom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
I believe women.

Amen.

_______________

[1] See https://www.facebook.com/RevJSS/posts/10214366059719919 for my post and the exact responses.

[2] Niraj Chokshi and Stead W. Herndon, “Jeff Flake Is Confronted on Video by Sexual Assault Survivors,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/us/politics/jeff-flake-protesters-kavanaugh.html (posted 28 September 2018; accessed 29 September 2018).

[3] From a conversation via text message with Delya on 29 September 2018; Delya granted me permission to quote her.

[4] These quotes are from Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds September 30, 2018,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_30_2018 (accessed 19 September 2018).

[5] Sharon Fennema, “A Creed for Days Like This,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/sharon.fennema/posts/10156022719207449 (posted and accessed 28 September 2018). Use by permission of the author.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 30, 2018, at the Installation of
the Rev. Timothy Weible as Chaplain at Bridge Hospice,
by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 10:25-37
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I invite you to think for a moment of a time when you were involved in some act of service where you felt especially connected to God.

My suspicion is that your memory includes 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 Gentile, but as perverters of the faith.

“The Good Samaritan” by Vincent Van Gogh

In the story Jesus tells, Jewish leaders ignore their fellow Jew, robbed and beaten at the side of the road.  They may have had good reasons (at least in their own minds) for not helping.  There was a guy, robbed, beaten, stripped naked, left half-dead at the side of the road.  This was obviously a dangerous area.  It might be dangerous to pause long enough to help this person.  “I can’t take the risk to help this poor, unfortunate soul,” I can imagine them thinking.  I can imagine that internal dialog because I have had similar conversations with myself.

So the religious leaders – let those of us who are clergy beware – pass our crime victim in the gutter.  And a perverter of the faith comes to the Jew’s aid.  The moral of the story, Jesus says, it that 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.  If you think back to that experience of service that connected you to God, the one you thought about at the beginning of this sermon, I’m guessing it was pretty clear to you (or it became clear to you) what loving your neighbor as yourself looked like.  But it’s not always clear.

Is giving money to that person in the median holding a sign asking for money the loving thing to do?  Is ignoring the person, hidden between the bike rack and the bushes, lighting up a crack pipe the loving thing to do?  Is calling the police on that person who has broken the law but doesn’t have the resources to deal with the criminal justice system the loving thing to do?  And what if that person is a person of color?

Listen to the parable again, rewritten as a poem by United Church of Christ pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi.[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.

We’re here today to install the Rev. Timothy Weible as a chaplain for Bridge Hospice.  The biggest mistake people make with hospice is not calling them in early enough.  Because hospice is a wholistic care program, it offers not just pain management, but care for the whole person – and the person’s family.  That’s why hospice agencies have chaplains – in addition to nurses, home health aides, and social workers.  When people delay bringing in hospice, they don’t get the full benefit of care, though the family can continue to take advantage of various services, especially bereavement support.  People who work in hospice are a special breed.

While people can flunk out of hospice – “I’m sorry patient, but your condition keeps improving so you’re no longer eligible for these services” – most patients’ health continues to deteriorate, and they eventually die.  Hospice can help make that process as comfortable as possible, not just for the patient, but for the whole family.  And a big part of the reason that process can be made comfortable is the people (yes, the medications help, too).

In some communities that are largely homogeneous, hospice staffs can reflect that.  Here in the Bay Area, a place where those dispersed tribes come full circle and meet again, hospice agencies need people who are truly open hearted, meeting people – patients and family – where they are, being open to different cultures and values, being open to different experiences, norms, and expectations.

I think about dogmatic Christians (or, I suppose dogmatic people of any religious tradition) as chaplains, and I feel a chill.  I am truly pleased that the United Church of Christ is offering another clergy person to serve as a chaplain here in the Bay Area.  Because we come from a tradition that is not dogmatic and, in fact, acknowledges that there are many paths into the Mystery we call God that seem to work for other people, UCC clergy make, in my humble opinion, great chaplains.  But what I’m really saying is that people like Tim, people who can see the person at the side of the road as neighbor, are the people we need doing his sort of work.

All of us who claim to follow Jesus are called to see the outsider as our neighbor.  All of us are called to look at our neighbor through the eyes of compassion as we journey down the road.  As Thomas Merton said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”  Or as this meme encourages, don’t just believe there is good in the world, be the good in the world.

Amen.

_______________

[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).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 23, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 12:1-21
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A bunch of months ago we had a Town Hall Meeting to discuss the requirements that are in our church bylaws for membership.  After that Town Hall Meeting and subsequent discussions in Cabinet and between Pastor Brenda and me, Pastor Brenda and I decided to hold a spread-out sermon series where we would preach a sermon related to some aspect of membership and baptism, and that each of these sermons would have an opportunity for a post-worship service discussion.

A month and a half ago, when I was making plans for sermons in September, I thought that today might be a good day for one of those sermons.  We’re not going to have the post-worship discussion because there is a different post-worship discussion happening, one that is equally important that will help us grow in how we live out our Open and Affirming covenant.  And, to be honest, as I’ve worked on this sermon over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that what we really need is several consecutive weeks on the topic.  When Pastor Brenda returns from her sabbatical, she and I will schedule that series (probably sometime in the spring).  In the meantime, I hope this sermon both stands on its own and that it will be something we can refer to when that series rolls around.

As I thought about how we might discuss what appropriate membership requirements might be for a church that embodies (or at least seeks to embody) a radical welcome, I realized we should probably start by making sure we’re all on the same page about what it means to be a church.  So that’s the topic for today’s sermon.

I want to start by talking about the Rotary International.  I’m picking on Rotary both because they do good work and because they are an organization that is, in several ways, like the church.  And if we can identify how the church is different from the Rotary (and other community organizations), we can better understand what it means to be a church.

So, similarities:  Rotary has local “Rotary Clubs,” like a church has local congregations.  Local Rotary Clubs brings people together for fellowship and mission, like a local church does.  Though perhaps not as diverse as the community it is in, local Rotary Clubs will include people with diverse skills, backgrounds, interests, and gifts – and both of those things can be said about local churches.  Rotary Clubs “unite dedicated people to exchange ideas, build relationships, and take action,”[1] just like local churches do.  Rotary Clubs work on projects locally that make the lives of their neighbors better and work together on projects internationally to make lives around the world better, which the church, when it’s living out its mandate, also does.  From a legal point of view, Rotary is a non-profit corporation, just like the church.  Like Disciples of Christ congregations and United Church of Christ congregations, a Rotary Club is a membership corporation – people join their local club/congregation, and the local club/congregation is connected to a wider network of clubs/congregations.

Even the meeting schedule is similar.  Most Rotary Clubs meet weekly, just like the church.  And those weekly Rotary Club meetings often (perhaps even typically) include a presentation on a topic of importance to the wider community.  Which isn’t quite a sermon.  And here is where I think we start to get a glimpse into what makes the church different from service groups like the Rotary.  And in that difference, I think we can better understand what it means to be a church.

The God-thing is defining for the church.  We don’t gather for a meeting each week.  We gather to be intentional about being in God’s presence so we can offer God our worship.  We gather to be in community together in our praying, in our listening for the living Word of God, and in our seeking to respond to the Word we hear.

There are other communities that gather to offer God their worship and their prayers that aren’t churches.  Jews do this every week in communities they call synagogues.  Muslims can offer their five daily prayers anywhere, but they will try to be in community for pray at least occasionally by gathering in a mosque.  The thing that makes the church’s gathering for prayer different these other communities gathering for prayer is Jesus.  We have found that Jesus offers a way of approaching God and of hearing God’s living Word that works for us.

John Shelby Spong famously said, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist.  All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.  I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”[2]  I would add that while my tradition doesn’t define God, it does define me.  I am a Christian.  I am a follower of Jesus.

What Jesus probably looked like, according to forensic anthropologists.

That said, it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t start Christianity.  Like many others,[3] I don’t think Jesus intended to start a religion.  I think he wanted to clean up Judaism, to reform Judaism, but he wasn’t trying to create a rival religion.  And his earliest followers followed him within the context of a Jewish identity.  These so-called “Followers of the Way” didn’t become a separate religion until they were kicked out of the synagogue sometime around 88.

And I don’t blame the synagogue for kicking them out.  Some were welcoming non-Jews into the community of Followers of the Way.  Others were continuing to push Jesus’ reforms.  In some cases, those two groups overlapped.  “Don’t change us; go be your own thing!” they were told.  And Christianity was born.

So, I’m a Christian as much by virtue of the Followers of the Way being kicked out of the synagogue as I am by being a follower of Jesus.  I suppose otherwise I’d be a Jesus-y-Jew.  But I’m not sure how much that helps us know what it means to be a church – other than being church having something to do with following the way of Jesus.  Not that following the way of Jesus is a little thing.  In fact, I think it is the central thing.  Still, I think there is more to say about being a church

We may talk about “the church” as being that building at 36600 Niles Blvd., but that’s not truly accurate.  The early Congregationalists in the Americas referred to the place where they gathered for worship, “the Meetinghouse,” not the church.  It was the place where they met for worship.  This cartoon more accurately points to where to find the church than a street address will.  The church is not a building at a particular location.  It is a people.  And those people are out in the world most of the week.

The state may require us to define that community with articles of incorporation and bylaws, but that’s only our legal definition.  A church is truly held together by covenant, by sacred promise.  And covenant is not just a promise between people.  A covenant is a promise between people and God.  That’s another way that being a church is different from being a service club or a community non-profit.  The relationships that are of concern to us are with each other and with humanity, yes, and we are concerned about our relationships with God.

Because God is a partner with us in covenant, our sense of purpose, our sense of mission always includes a call to be in service of God’s concern for the whole world.  Our covenant is part of the lineage of covenants God has established that call us out into the world.  God promised Abraham and Sarah that the world would be blessed by their descendants.  God calls the Hebrews to be a holy nation in the Sinai covenant.  Isaiah says that Israel is a light to the nations.  And in the letter we call 1 Peter, we are told that Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nations, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]

We live out this covenant identity by being, as some theologians have put it, a “sign, foretaste, and instrument of the Kingdom of God.”[5]  This makes me think of our congregation’s mission statement, how we have articulated our sense of calling at this time in our life together:  “Following the example of Jesus, Niles Discovery Church welcomes all people, grows in our relationship with God and each other, and serves our neighbors near and far.”

Of course, churches, ours included, don’t always embody that “foretaste of the kin-dom of God” thing.  We are, after all, a collection of people.  And as our quote for reflection today reminds us, the church isn’t full of hypocrites; there’s always room for more.

Paul was reminding us in our reading from Romans that the struggle is real.  While God is calling us to follow the example of Jesus with radically inclusive love, deepening relationship with God and each other, and service for and with our neighbors, the world is calling us to other ways grounded in other values.  That’s why he calls the church in Rome and us not to conform to this world, but to be transformed so we are able to discern the will of God.

Then he uses a metaphor for the church that he’s used before (particularly in his correspondence with the church in Corinth) – the church as a body, as the body of Christ today.  We each have different skills, abilities, and passions, and that’s for the good of the body.  We are to use the gifts we’ve been given to help carry out the will of God that we’ve discerned.

Then he talks about how the church’s life should be grounded in love.  “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” he writes. “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  I do not think this is an exhaustive list.  He is not saying these are the only things we should be doing.  But he is pointing out how we are to live together as a church.

And then he gets radical:  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  But this should surprise us.  This is the way of Jesus, offering forgiveness even to the least deserving.  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” he writes.  “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably [not just with each other, but] with all.”

So, let me sum up my main points:

  • Being a church means being connected to God and God’s purposes.
  • Being a church means following the way of Jesus to build that connection to God and God’s purposes.
  • Being a church means being in covenant with each other and with God as we seek and fail and seek again to live a life based in love.

Amen.

 

Questions for quiet reflection

  • How are you and how are we doing at being connected to God and God’s purposes?
  • In what ways are we living the way of Jesus as a church, and in what ways are we failing to do so?
  • How might our covenant with each other and with God be strengthened?

_______________

[1] From https://rotary.org/en/about-rotary/our-structure (accessed 22 September 2018).

[2] Quoted all over the Internet.

[3] See, for instance, Ed Taylor, “Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – The Christian Church,” ProgressiveChristianity.org, https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/affirmations-and-confessions-of-a-progressive-christian-layman-the-christian-church/ (posted 9 December 2014; accessed 18 September 2018).

[4] 1 Peter 2:9, NRSV.

[5] James V. Brownson, The Promise of Baptism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2007), 12.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 16, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 8:27-38and Psalm 19
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As best I can figure, it was the summer between fourth and fifth grade when I saw a tract with a graphic that looked something like this.  The little pamphlet explained that we human beings are over on the left side of the graphic, in the land of sinfulness where hell awaits us, and that God is over on the right side, in all “his” righteousness and purity.  A massive gulf exists between humanity and God, a gulf of our own making, dug by Adam and Eve’s original sin and expanded by our sinfulness.  We have dug ourselves away from God and now we owe God big time.  Now a penalty is due.  God in all his righteousness deserves payment for our sinfulness and separation.  And we, in our sinfulness, are unworthy to make the payment.  Luckily, there is a way across the gulf.  The cross of Jesus is that bridge, and that when we accept that Jesus paid that penalty, when we accept Jesus’ death as our ticket out of hell and death, we can cross that bridge.

To my 10-year-old mind, this made sense.  I knew that I did things that made my parents disappointed and angry.  It made sense to me that the same would be true of my behavior and how God felt about me. But I also felt like there was something wrong with this diagram.  I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but I felt that there was something wrong.

I’ve come to know that the primary thing that I think is wrong with this is the assumptions it makes about God.  This theology has a name: “penal substitutionary atonement.”  And this theology depicts God as primarily, and perhaps only, as a great judge.  It places God as the supreme justice of a cosmic legal system that is more complicated and more vengeful than our earthly justice system.  It sets God apart and above, and that is not my experience of God.  Penal substitutionary atonement is “a dogma that has dominated the landscape of Western Christian thought and practice.  Like much else in our imperial Christian inheritance, it is linked to the doctrine of original sin.”[1]  Like much else in our imperial Christian inheritance, it served the principalities and powers much more than it served God’s creation and God’s people.

So, if the cross is not about Jesus making a substitutionary sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sinfulness, what is it about?

One of the features of Iona is that there are lots of stone crosses.  There is this and another cross in front of the Abbey church.  And there’s a cross along the side of the road to the north of the Abbey.  There are ancient crosses that have been excavated and reassembled in the museum.  And crosses carved on grave stones.  A cross commemorating war dead.  This cross is a reproduction of an ancient cross now reassembled in the museum.

Why is Christianity so obsessed with the cross?

Actually, Christianity hasn’t been obsessed with the cross from its beginning.  Representations of the cross only became common in Christianity in the 600s,[2]and it took another 300 years for images of the body of Jesus to appear on the cross[3]– just in time to help with recruiting for the crusades when the church asked young men to go die for Jesus.

John Philip Newell explains that in Celtic spirituality, the cross is not so much about the sacrifice of Jesus (and certainly not about a penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice), as it is about the revelation of God.  It is akin, he says, to what Julian of Norwich called “showings.”  When she was a young woman, Julian has a “series of dreamlike visions or revelations of Christ.”[4]  Once, when she was desperately ill, Newell writes, “she sees so much blood in her vision of Christ that she says if it had been real blood, her bed would have been soaked to overflowing.  But the blood of Christ she sees is not about payment to God for sin.  It is about the very nature of love.  It is a revelation or a showing of what it means to long for love and to live for love.…  For it is because we love that we are in grief when our loved ones die.  It is because we love our children that we are in pain when we see them suffer.  It is because we love our nations that we are in agony when we see them being false to themselves.  And it is because we love the earth that we weep at the violation of its body.”[5]

I was on the Island of Iona, there amongst all those stone crosses, at the center of Celtic Christian spirituality, when I read John Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts.  In the book he writes about “the Celtic belief that the Heartbeat of life is Love. That is the first and deepest sound within the unfolding cosmos.  It vibrates at the heart of all things.  Christ is viewed as disclosing the passion of God to us.  The cross is a theophany or showing of Love and the desire for oneness. It reveals God, rather than appeases God.”[6]

I read these words, and I stopped.  I pulled out a little post-it note and wrote, “If JPN is right, that the cross reveals God, then for us to take up our cross is to engage in God-revealing.  Taking up our crosses is to take up giving ourselves away to one another.”

This, for me, is a new understanding of what Jesus could have meant in the passage we read today.  I don’t think it is the only understanding, but it is one that profoundly moves me.  For us to take up our cross is to engage in God-revealing.

Four years ago, John Philip shared a story in a blog post that connects to this.  “On Iona, one of the high-standing crosses in front of the abbey is St. Martin’s Cross, with its distinctive Celtic feature of cross form and circle form combined as a way of pointing to the oneness of Christ and creation.  At the heart of St. Martin’s Cross, where the vertical line and the horizontal line intersect, is an image of the Mother and Child.  She holds the child against her breast.  She has paid the price of labor and now holds the newborn close to her.  She has born the pain of giving birth.  And now she will sustain the child with her own being, with the milk of her love.  In the Celtic world it is said that there is a mother’s heart at the heart of God. At the heart of a mother’s heart is the willingness to make sacrifices for her child.  It is a revelation of the very heart of God’s being.  And it is a revelation also of the human heart made in the image of God’s heart.

St. Martin’s Cross

“In Christ of the Celts, I tell the story of being brushed by an eagle.  I had been hiking up an arroyo in New Mexico, and as I bent to pass under a fallen pine tree, I was met by an eagle swooping in the opposite direction with a rabbit in her talons.  Either she had not noticed me or was so intent on the catch that she was not bothered by my presence.  So we met under the tree’s fallen trunk, and her strong wing touched my left arm.  It was an exhilarating experience, to have physical contact with this untamed icon of heaven.  I was aware also that it was a spiritual experience, for in Christian symbolism the eagle is associated with John the Beloved, who sees with a height of unitary vision the oneness of all things.  But the most important part of the story I did not tell in Christ of the Celts, for it had not yet happened.

“After my eagle experience, there was someone in particular with whom I wanted to share the story.  It was Ronald Royball, a native musician and storyteller from Santa Fe.  We had met years earlier, and he had told me about a life-changing dream in which a great eagle had swept down from the sky to touch his hand with its wing tip.  When Ronald woke, he realized he was to be a musician, playing the native flute and sharing the wisdom of his people through music and story.

“So it was Ronald whom I especially wanted to tell.  He joined me for lunch close to the arroyo where I had hiked the previous year.  And with some pride I told him in great detail about everything that had happened, and showed him exactly where on my arm the eagle had brushed against me.  When finally I finished, Ronald said, ‘John Philip, I want you to think about the rabbit. The rabbit is Christ.  The rabbit connected you and the eagle.  The rabbit made heaven and earth one for you.  And he lost his life doing so.  I want you to think about the rabbit.  The rabbit is Christ.’  He spoke not one word to me about the eagle!

“When I heard Ronald’s words, I knew he was right.  I had missed the main point of the story.  Yes, of course, I shall always be thrilled to know that I was brushed by an eagle.  But I would not have met the eagle without the sacrifice of the rabbit.  This is not to say that every part of the story can be directly applied spiritually. The rabbit did not choose to offer itself, although Native American wisdom would probably perceive an element of choice in all of nature’s sacrifices.  But Ronald’s words prompted me to ask more deeply what this experience was about.  His words prompted me to ask what the costly connections are that I am to make in my life.  What are the costly connections we are to make?  The encounter with the eagle was a meeting also with the rabbit.”[7]

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, you might want to think about one or more of these questions:

  • How does the cross of Jesus reveal God to you?
  • How can you participate in revealing God?
    • What sacrifices does that participation ask of you?
  • Who and what have been the ‘rabbits’ in your life, bringing you into contact with the Divine?
    • What sacrifices have they had to make to do so?

_______________

[1]John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation(Glasgow: Wild Good Publications, 2008), p. 95.

[2]According to a sign in the museum at the Iona Abbey.

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

[4]Newell, Christ of the Celts, p. 87.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid, p. 17.

[7]John Philip Newell, “The Mother Heart of God,” Heartbeat, https://heartbeatjourney.org/the-mother-heart-of-god-john-philip-newell-celtic-spirituality-isle-of-iona/ (posted 3 September 2014; accessed 11 September 2018). A few typographical corrections have been made, along with one or two grammatical corrections.

A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 2, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 10:25-37and James 1:17-27
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I realize it’s been quite a while since I’ve shared the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town.  As you might suspect, it’s been a quiet week.  The southerners from Massachusetts and Connecticut are in town at full force, grabbing the last few days of summer at their cottages and cabins at “the lake,” as if there is only one in all of New Hampshire.  School starts this week in Mount William, and in many of those southern towns, it seems.  Teachers have been in their classrooms getting them ready. Elementary students are excitedly buying school supplies.  High schoolers are dreading that the permission to sleep in is almost gone and they will be catching those early buses to get to the John Stark Regional High School.

I suppose it’s news that Scott Barnes left for seminary last week. He’s the first to head off to seminary from the Mount William Congregational Church in decades.  It was quite the little fête last Sunday at the worship service as this young man, raised in the church, was blessed.

Howard Friend, the pastor at the Congregational Church, remembers when he first met Scott.  It was at the beginning of his call to that church.  Scottie was all of five or six years old when his family first arrived at the church.  Pastor Howard remembers Scottie bouncing around the Sunday school classrooms with his older brother, and twirling on his father’s hand while being led through the church parking lot.  His naturally large eyes looked even bigger behind his think glasses, giving him the appearance of always being surprised.

Scottie’s parents, Craig and Diana, joined the church because they wanted their sons baptized.  Their welcome was almost overwhelming; in those days the church was struggling to attract younger members, so when this family showed up, the exuberance of the greeters was almost too much.  Soon enough, though, the Barneses settled into the life of the church.

Over the years though, it became clear that something was amiss with Diana.  First, she started missing meetings.  Then Pastor Howard noticed that only Scott, his brother, and his father attended worship. When Diana did come, she was disheveled and inattentive.

When Craig made an appointment with his pastor, he immediately plunged into the deep water.  “She drinks so much.  I can’t make her stop.”  He went on to describe the horrible arguments, the days he would come home from work to find her passed out when she was supposed to be watching the boys, the bottles hidden around the house, and her repeated fender benders.  It was Pastor Howard’s turn to be overwhelmed, but rather than it being from a too enthusiastic welcome, it was by the hell this family was living in, a hell that somehow snuck under the radar of the church. When Pastor Howard brought up treatment options, Craig replied, “That’s how the worst of the fights start.”

It took one crisis too many, one crisis that put the boys’ lives in jeopardy, that finally convinced Diana to go for treatment. Unfortunately, she didn’t stay sober, and eventually Craig decided that, for the sake of his sons, he had to divorce her.  And through it all, the church was there for them – all of them.  Members of the church offered babysitting, covered dishes, prayers, and friendship to Craig.  A member of the church who had been sober for 20 years befriended Diana, even though she stopped coming to the church.  And that friendship may have been the thing that eventually led Diana to try treatment again and to find some sanity in sobriety.

Meanwhile, the boys were given starring roles in the Christmas pageants, found their best friends in the youth group, and went on mission trips to learn about themselves and people from difference cultures. Everyone knew what the family’s problems were, but there was never a word of judgment or even pity.  The people of Mount William Congregational Church were just being the church.  They were, without even thinking about it, embodying that holy something called grace.

I don’t know when it was that Scott became so reflective – maybe it was while he was away at college – but it sure showed last Sunday, during the service.  He was invited to “say a few words” and Scott decided to talk about the reason he was going to seminary.  The reason he felt called to ministry was really quite simple.  “I’ve never been able to get over the love of this congregation, the love that kept showing up on our doorstep year after year when there was only heartache on the other side.  That truly is following the call of Jesus.  And now, it’s my turn.”

It occurs to me, though, that offering help is often easier for many of us to do than it is to ask for help.  And I think that asking for help is also a way to follow Jesus’ call.

A case in point from last winter:  William Kincaid.  Now, he didn’t have particularly good role models when it comes to asking for help. Childhood polio greatly weakened his mother’s left side, and though she could have benefited from it, she didn’t take kindly to people offering to help carry a stack of books or navigate a flight of stairs.  His father carried the atrocities of Iwo Jima with him for 60 years without ever asking anyone to help shoulder the emotional burden.

Oh, William had learned the lesson of the importance of asking for help time and again.  He’d even confessed it – but without correcting it.

And then one morning last January, he looked down and there they were, a woman and her husband kneeling at his feet, putting his socks on him. A week and a half earlier, a January storm left a glaze of ice on everything.  That afternoon he waved good-bye to a friend and approached the steps that connect the church parking lot to the sidewalk – and slipped.  Down the entire flight of granite steps, hitting each step with his back before coming to rest on the small mound of snow that ran the length of the sidewalk.  By the next day, his entire body had knotted itself around his lower back and he could not stand up.

Once again, the people of the Mount William Congregational Church stepped into action as soon as they heard the news.  They made generous offers; William awkwardly obliged.  “Sure, I mean, if you’re going by the pharmacy anyway.”  “OK, if you’re getting a sandwich for yourself and are going to be in the neighborhood.”  “Well, I think I can drive myself to physical therapy, but I’d enjoy the company.”

But he couldn’t pick up the phone and ask someone to come and just sit with him.  He couldn’t initiate the favor of having someone drive him to their home to sit in their whirlpool, even though people wanted to know how they could help.  He couldn’t bring himself to ask someone to drop off some food or heat packs or some badly needed muscle relaxants.

This big mistake caught up with him quickly, and it caused him to make a lot of smaller yet still consequential ones.  William could ask for just about anything else – for people to increase their financial giving to the church, for the congregation to volunteer tutor at the elementary school, for individuals to come with him to testify at a meeting of the Board of Selectmen – but he couldn’t ask for help for himself.

Until, of course, he had no choice but to ask for help.  A new vulnerability enveloped William, and not just because he couldn’t put on his own socks, or because he had to lie on the floor of a minivan while being driven to physical therapy.  It was more than that.  His cloak of invincibility had shredded.

And with that vulnerability came a deep sadness, partly because he realized he had made his own life more difficult, and more importantly because his insistence on not needing help had made him less of a genuine companion on the journey with others.

Those friends did more than put his socks on for him.  They ushered him at least a few steps in the direction of mutuality and solidarity.  It’s a gift to be strong and scrappy, but something like the January ice eventually comes to us all.  The greater gift is to be human with each other, to be as open to receiving help as we are eager to give it, and to allow a community’s care and companionship to laugh away the most debilitating mistakes of all.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, we all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

_______________

[1]This sermon was inspired by, and I quote and paraphrase from, M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters: The rest of the story,” Christian Century, 1 May 2013 edition, p. 57, and William B. Kincaid, “Mistake: Essays by readers,” Christian Century, 6 July 2016 edition, pp. 26-27.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 19, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 and Psalm 111
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There have been some globally significant deaths in the past few days.  Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died on Thursday.  Kofi Annan, former General Secretary of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize laureate (and an alumnus of my alma mater, Macalester College), died yesterday.  When I heard about Aretha’s death, I thought to myself, “The Queen is dead … and there’s no one to succeed her.”  Usually, when a monarch dies, there is a successor.

It’s been said that the primary duty of Princess Diana was to provide the United Kingdom with an heir and a spare.  She did that:  my cousins, Wills and Harry.

Making sure there was an heir to King David was not a problem.  With his multiple wives there were multiple sons, and with his impending death in chapter one of 1 Kings, a power struggle began.  Solomon is David’s pick and is actually crowned before David’s death.

Our reading picks up with the death of David. I like how delicately it’s put.  In the NRSV, “David slept with his ancestors.”  In The Message, “David joined his ancestors.”

So Solomon ascends to the throne.  Our reading skips the bit about Solomon consolidating his power in a – well, let’s just say that there was blood to clean up.  And our reading skips the part about Solomon working on his kingdom’s safety with a marriage alliance:  he marries a daughter of Pharaoh.

We pick up the 1 Kings narrative with stories about how righteous Solomon is.  He goes to the holy places of Israel and offers sacrifices.  He’s a good guy (especially if you ignore the parts of the story that we skipped).  One of the holy places Solomon goes to is Gibeon.  And while he is there he has a dream, the one we heard about in our reading.  God appears to Solomon “in the dream and gives him a life-changing invitation: ‘Ask what I should give you.’  Solomon begins his answer by acknowledging God’s love for his father, David – a love that has placed Solomon on his father’s throne, so that David’s legacy and family line will continue.  Solomon describes himself as ‘only a little child’ – perhaps a reference to his youthfulness (although his exact age here is unknown), or a figure of speech reflecting his sense of the enormity of his responsibility as king.”[1]

Then, Solomon puts in his request.  What would you ask for?  You’ve got one wish.  You’ve just become king.  What would you ask for?

Solomon asks for wisdom.  And not just any wisdom.  Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message:  “Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well, discerning the difference between good and evil.”  The New Revised Standard Version translates it, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”  The New International Version says he asks for “a discerning heart.”  The English Standard Version says he asks for “an understanding mind.”  The American Standard Bible says, “an understanding heart.”  The Contemporary English Version says simply, “make me wise.”

All of them say he wants this wisdom so that he can know or discern the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. Here’s a little Bible quiz.  Who remembers who else in the Bible sought to know the difference between good and evil?  The answer is, Adam and Eve.  They were forbidden to eat the fruit of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And, of course, that’s the one they most wanted.  The big difference here is that Adam and Eve were trying to be like God, and Solomon is trying to be an effective servant of God.

But more interesting, to me at least, than this call back to the early chapter of Genesis is how challenging it is to translate the Hebrew into English and why so many different translations use different words.  I think part of the reason is that understanding what wisdom really is takes – well, wisdom.  If the issue was knowledge or even intelligence, I think it would be easier to write about.  Writing about wisdom is harder.  We end up writing about the heart, and not just the mind.  We seem to understand that wisdom has something to do with feelings, yes, and …

… somethingmore.  Intuition, perhaps.  Sensory input, maybe.  Experience, probably.

Arianna Huffington wrote a book several years ago titled Thrive.  I haven’t read it; I’ve only read about it.  In it, apparently, she outlines a “third metric” for measuring success.  This from a woman who had plenty of power and money, the typical first two metrics for measuring success in our culture.  Her“third metric” “embraces well-being, wonder, giving—and wisdom. Here is how she defines it:

  • Understanding life as a classroom where we can learn even from our struggles
  • Practicing and expressing gratitude
  • Paying attention to our intuition and interior life
  • Appreciating the difference between information and wisdom
  • Slowing down in our culture of hurry sickness
  • Being mindful instead of operating on automatic pilot”[2]

I like this list.  I know that when I can move from seeing only the pains in a struggle to seeing the lessons in the struggle, my life improves.  I know that the practice of looking for reasons to give thanks and then expressing that thanksgiving has grounded me spiritually.  I know my life is simply better when I listen to my intuition and to what my souls is saying.  This usually requires me to slow down and to be intentional.  I know I don’t like it when someone won’t listen to what I have to say, yet I do that to myself all the time when I get too busy.  Having information is helpful, but applying it wisely is even more helpful. As the saying goes, “Knowledge, is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” I already mentioned one of the reasons slowing down is important—it gives me time to listen to myself.  Another is that it helps me be aware of the reasons I have to be grateful.  Only by slowing down on my walk to the barber yesterday could I enjoy these little flowers.  And I only noticed them by being mindful (at least a little bit) to what was around me as I walked.

April Yamasaki points out the parallels between Huffington’s list and Solomon’s wisdom.  Today’s scripture reading “also suggests three measures of success:  riches and honor (neither of which he asks for) and wisdom (which he does).  For Solomon, wisdom includes gratitude; after he wakes from his dream, he offers sacrifices in thanksgiving to God.”[3]

Yamasaki ponders, “If Solomon were an older and more experienced ruler when God appears to him in his dream, I wonder if he would ask for wisdom.  Would he ask for wisdom if he were not already wealthy and powerful?  If Huffington hadn’t already been rich and influential, would she have discovered that third metric?  What might wisdom mean for us ordinary folk?”[4]

What might wisdom mean for us ordinary folk?”

I’ve been pondering this question all week.  And my mind kept coming back to an experience I had when I was about the same age as Solomon was when the scriptures say he had his dream.  I was about half-way through college, preparing myself to be a math teacher, but it didn’t feel quite right for me.  At worship one Sunday, the scripture reading was of the healing of Bartimaeus, a man who was blind until he met Jesus.  As I listened to the reading I had something like a lucid dream.  It was as if I was transported to those dusty roads and I was there watching the story unfold, listening to what everyone was saying.  Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”  I knew how Bartimaeus was going to answer, that he wanted to be able to see. And I wanted him to say something different.  For all the world, I wanted him to say something different.  I wanted Bartimaeus to ask Jesus to tell me what I was supposed to do with my life.  But Bartimaeus asked from his sight, and I returned to the wooden pew St. Paul, Minnesota, disappointed and none the wiser.

Or maybe I was a little wiser.  At least I knew how much I longed for direction, for a clearer sense of call. And that clearer sense of call did eventually come.

I’m not sure what to make of this reminiscing, what it has to tell me about what wisdom might mean to us ordinary folk.  Except that maybe wisdom is relational.  There was an intimacy I had with Jesus and Bartimaeus in that moment in worship.  And Solomon has an intensely intimate moment with God in his dream.  And maybe wisdom has an ethical dimension regardless of our station.  Being able to discern between right and wrong, between good and evil – the specific wisdom Solomon asks for – is only helpful if it leads to action, to behavior, to right living and right decision-making.  And maybe wisdom has an emotional dimension.  My trip to the dusty roads of first century Palestine was certainly an emotional experience, and I imagine Solomon’s dream left him with deep feelings that moved him to offer sacrifices in praise and thanksgiving.

When I started making plans for today’s sermon about a month ago, I couldn’t help but think of the current situation in the United States with political leadership and what seems to me to be a lack of wisdom.  But I don’t think that commentary is needed today.  Or if you need that commentary, I’ll leave it to you to offer it to yourself.

Instead, I think concluding with a question for your refection is enough.

If God came to you in a dream and offered you one wish, what would you ask for?

Would you ask for wisdom?  Would you ask for something else that you think you need more than you need wisdom to serve God and God’s people?  Or would you ask for something to satisfy a personal desire, to satisfy a “want”?

I’ll leave it to you to finish today’s sermon.

_______________

[1]April Yamasaki, “August 16, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time …,” Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-07/august-16-20th-sunday-ordinary-time (posted 4 August 2015; accessed 15 August 2018).

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 29, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 6:1-15
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Some of you may be wondering, “Why is Pastor Jeff preaching on this story again?”  While I’m certain I’ve preached on John 6:1-15 before – several times before – I don’t remember when the last time was.

The reason the story is familiar to so many is that it shows up six times in the four gospels.  Twice in Matthew, twice in Mark, once in Luke, and once in John we read about Jesus feeding vast multitudes with just a few loaves of bread.[1]  In other words, the story shows up often in our reading of the gospels.  It must have been an important story to the first generations of Christians.  And it shows up often in the lectionary.  So you’ll hear pastors often preaching on it.

The six versions all have the same basic plot.  A large crowd shows up to see Jesus somewhere out in the countryside.  At some point someone realizes that all these people need to be fed.  Jesus suggests or implies that the disciples should take care of feeding them.  The disciples say it’s financially and/or logistically impossible to do so with the paltry supplies they have.  Jesus takes what they have, blesses it, and gives it to the crowd.  And the next thing you know, everybody has had enough to eat and the disciples are collecting the leftovers.

There are four things I particularly like about the way John tells the story.

  1. Jesus wants to go on retreat, so he and the disciples head across the sea of Galilee. Maybe because I’m just coming off a week of study leave that was a retreat, I empathize with this desire.  My study leave was very restorative.  The only problem is that the crowds follow Jesus around the lake.  So much for Jesus’ retreat.
  2. John identifies the lake as both the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberias. He’s the only gospel writer to use the Roman name of the lake.  Either John is writing for an audience who didn’t know what a Jew would be referring to with the name “Sea of Galilee,” or John is doing something else here.  I think it is much more likely that John is doing something else.  More on this in a moment.
  3. John doesn’t name the real hero of the story, but clearly it’s the mom who packed the kid’s lunch.
  4. Only John includes the postscript to the story about the people wanting to make Jesus their king, something he rejects.

The second and fourth of these highlight John’s agenda.  He mentions the Roman name for the Sea of Galilee and almost immediately mentions the Jewish festival of Passover.  He mentions the Romans and he reminds his audience of the foundational story of Judaism, the Passover story.  He mentions the occupying power and he reminds his audience that God is a God who delivers people from bondage into freedom.  I think John is reminding his audience of the tension that exists between the Empire of Rome and the kin-dom of God.

This tension continues through the story to its conclusion, when Jesus rejects the people’s attempt to challenge the Empire by making Jesus a political leader.  Jesus picks another way to challenge empire.  We need to hold on to that tension as we read this story and listen for how Jesus challenges empire in favor of the kin-dom of God.

The primary way I think Jesus challenges empire is by challenging the imperial economy.  The imperial economy is based on an assumption of scarcity.  The imperial economy assumes that the economy is a zero-sum-game.  If I’m going to get mine, someone else will is going to lose theirs.

We saw this in the Exodus story.  The Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, worried about how they were going to get enough to eat.  In Numbers (11:13), Moses wonders how he will feed the people he is leading into freedom.  He asks God, “Where am I going to get meat to give to all these people?”  God provides enough for everybody.

Jesus almost quotes Moses when he asks Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?”  Of course, the big difference is the Moses didn’t know the answer to his question, while Jesus did know the answer.

Moses and the Hebrews learned in the wilderness that in God’s economy, there is enough for everyone is we share.  Jesus demonstrated in the wilderness that in God’s economy, there is enough for everyone if we share.  In addition to making sure hungry people had enough to eat, Jesus challenges the imperial mentality of scarcity and he rejects the imperial notion of “power over.”

This is a challenge for us today, too.  As one commentator put it, “At its heart, it’s a story about our fears that we will not be cared for; about our tendencies to see the world – from the day’s headlines to our own interpersonal struggles – through lenses of scarcity; and about God’s work of feeding, of abundantly providing for our needs, and at the same time calling us to help provide for the needs of others.”[2]

It is an amazing, counter-cultural message, this notion that there really is enough if we are good stewards of creation.  There’s a story I love that makes this point, I think.

There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn.  Every year he entered examples of his crop in the county fair and almost every year won the award for the best grown corn.  One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him, hoping to learn something interesting about how he grew it.  What the reporter discovered, must to his surprise, is that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors.

“Why on earth would you share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.

“If I want to have a good crop,” the farmer answered, “I have to do this.  You do know, don’t you, that the wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field.  If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn.  If I want to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”[3]

This is the sentiment echoed by the theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann in a reflection on the stories of the feeding of the multitudes.  “If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all.  [In these feeding stories,] Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.”[4]  Brueggemann also said, “When people forget that Jesus is the bread of the world, they start eating junk food – the food of … Herod, the bread of moralism and of power.”[5]

Which makes me think about the church in general and our congregation specifically.  Does the church (do we) remember that Jesus is the bread of the world?  Or does the church (do we) get caught up in moralism and the lure of power?  Are we serving the bread of love to each other and the community, or are we serving junk food?

I’ve read that German theologian Helmut Thielicke used to tell a story about a hungry man.  He was walking down the street and he noticed a sign in a store window:  “We Sell Bread.”  “Great,” the hungry man thought, and he went inside.

“I’d like to buy some bread,” he told the clerk behind the counter.

“Oh, I’m afraid there’s been a mistake,” the woman said.  “We don’t sell bread.”

“The sign in the window says, ‘We Sell Bread,’” the hungry man said.  “What do you mean, you don’t sell bread?”

“You misunderstand,” the clerk explained.  “We make signs, like the one in the window.  We don’t actually make bread.”

Alas, the hungry man could not eat signs.  What he needed was bread.[6]

These stories we’ve explored today leave me with some questions, that I invite you to ponder:

Is our church making bread or making signs?

Are we sharing bread or junk food?

_______________

[1] Matthew 4:13-21 and 5:32-39; Mark 6:31-44 and 8:1-9; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-15.

[2] “Enough: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Tenth Week After Pentecost,” Salt Project, http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/progressive-christian-lectionary-resource (posted and accessed 24 July 2018).

[3] I’ve seen various versions of this story over the years. I was reminded of this story this week by Kaila Russell on Facebook.

[4] Brandon Weencher, quoting Walter Brueggeman without specific citation, in “Bread or Junk Food?” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/bread-or-junk-food (accessed 24 July 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adapted from a Facebook post shared by JL Harper III, on 25 July 2018 in a close clergy group. Harper cites “homiletics online” as the source of the story.

Diana Butler Bass

I wish I had read this Twitter thread by Diana Butler Bass before I wrote last Sunday’s sermon. It would have helped.

I’m posting the Twitter thread here, with the advisory that when Diana writes for publication, she is very careful about her style and she does many re-drafts before publication. Not so with Twitter. She seems a little embarrassed when her Twitter threads are gathered together into one essay like I’m doing here.

The thread was published on 14 June 2018, starting with https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/1007385188375191557

—————

A little background on Romans 13:1-7. This section of Romans is quite controversial, not clear cut.

Some contemporary scholars believe that they were a parenthetical section in the text – because the overall argument does not flow in ways typical of Paul’s writing.

Others insist that these verses were not universal principles of political theology. Instead, Paul was addressing a very particular problem of Jewish Christians who lived in Rome, c. mid-50s.

The Roman church was ethnically split between Jewish and Gentile believers. The Jews were influenced by politics in Palestine, where a rising ride of revolutionary Jewish nationalism was occurring at the time of this letter’s writing.

A large group of Jews had just returned to Rome from exile in Palestine and were, most likely, influenced by this revolutionary spirit.

They joined the Roman Christian community, which was largely Gentile and pagan in background. Thus, there was probably an emerging schism within the Roman church.

And, with Nero now on the throne, the LAST thing Christians in Rome could afford was a split. They needed to be unified to face down imperial pressure and persecution (not to mention Nero’s newly imposed excessive taxation).

Thus, Paul was writing with a pastoral and ecclesiastical concern: church unity.

Paul’s plea to be subject to governing authorities must be understood in this context — he wanted to contain an emerging radical Jewish nationalism that could have undone the fragile unity of a community under threat.

In essence, he says that Jewish nationalist Christians should accept the rule of the Empire in order to prevent another expulsion from Rome.

Paul knows Rome stinks. He knows it is a brutal, unjust, horrible empire. It murdered Jesus for pity’s sake. Most Paul’s works are subtle or not-so-subtle subversions of Rome.

He sometimes seems to argue for submission on occasion — mostly as a way of protecting the safety and wellbeing of the church.

He freaking hates Rome.

If a political authority usurps this verse to enforce obedience, it is an abominable misuse of the Bible. It isn’t an instruction for citizens. It is a specific teaching for a particular problem in early Christianity-of the potential for nationalism to override Christian love.

Romans 13:1-7 is Paul the Pragmatist at work, not Paul the Universal Theologian.

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