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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 20, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Faith, as Pastor Brenda pointed out in her sermon[1] last week, is central to Christianity, and it’s important to remember that “faith” and “belief” are different concepts.  Belief is intellectual.  Faith is relational.  While belief can be a component of faith, but it is not all that faith is.  Faith is not only or merely that to which we give our mental assent.

Faith orients us.  It defines how we approach the world, how we relate to creation.  To have faith in the one Jesus called “Abba” is to see creation as loving and hope-filled.

Related to this is the aspect of faith that can be labeled “trust” or even “radical trust.”  As Marcus Borg put it, “[R]adical trust [in God] is what can free us from that self-preoccupation and anxiety that mars our lives and confines our lives. It frees us for that self-forgetfulness of faith, for that willingness to live our lives in a way that is spent in the name of a larger vision, that willingness to spend and be spent.”[2]  Faith as trust allows us to die so we might live; it allows us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Faith is also about fidelity.  Are we faithful in our relationship with God?  Do we trust God to be faithful in relationship with us?

Pastor Brenda reminded us of the ecumenical convergence of understanding baptism that includes these overlapping and complementary understandings:

  • Baptism is the cleansing, washing, or forgiveness of sin. This is what John the Baptist preached at the River Jordan and what Peter preached at Pentecost.  This can be interpreted as getting afterlife insurance, or as a time of choosing a new direction in life, repentance, a metanoia, a changing of direction.  I choose the second of these, which is connected to the next understanding.
  • Baptism is a new birth or regeneration. This understanding in echoed in John 3, when Jesus talks about being “born from above” and “born again” in some word play with Nicodemus, and in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 5, when he says that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  This talk of being “in Christ” is related to the next understanding.
  • Baptism is a union with Christ in his death and resurrection. This is especially symbolized in immersion baptism, when a person is buried in the water (and if left there, will die), and then rises to this new life we just talked about.
  • Baptism is a reception of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit came upon and claimed Jesus at his baptism, the church says that the Holy Spirit comes upon and claims each one of us at our baptism.  One of the gifts that comes from the Holy Spirit is the gift to rise to new life with Christ.  The Holy Spirit also unites us into one body, the next understanding of baptism.
  • Baptism is incorporation into the church. In baptism, we are not only united with Christ, we are united with each other.  We become part of the one body (to use Paul’s image), the universal church.

Phyllis Tickle

Finally, Pastor Brenda talked about Phyllis Tickle’s rummage sale theory.  Every 500ish years, a new movement in the church emerges that decides to get rid of old things that are getting in the way.  Tickle said that one of the things that spurs this is a question of authority.[3]  I don’t know if she every pointed to this as part of her theory, but around the year 0, within Judaism, there was a new group that emerged that claimed that Jesus had authority.  About 500 years later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and the power vacuum that created, there was another question of where authority lay as Europe drifted into its Dark Ages.  Around 1000ish, in the Great Schism, the question was about the authority of the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope).  Around 1500ish, in the Great Reformation, reformers on the continent claimed that scripture was the correct authority.  And around 2000ish – we’re right in the middle of it.

Pastor Brenda noted that two of the major shifts in the primary understandings of baptism happened right around two of these rummage sales, and that (assuming we are in the midst of a rummage sale) another shift in our primary understanding of baptism could be coming.  The first of these was the shift to seeing baptism as afterlife insurance, and thus the need to baptize babies – which became normative around 500ish.  The second was the reemergence of believer’s baptism as part of the Great Reformation in the 1500s.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, the two denominations that we are officially a part of, come from the same part of the Christian tree – the Protestant part – though they come from different branches.  In the 1500s, there were two breakings-away from the Roman Catholic Church, one centered in Germany and Switzerland, and one centered in England.  They are both categorized as part of the Great Reformation.  However, I think the real reformation in England was delayed.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, Oliver Cromwell (l-r)

You’re probably at least a little familiar with some of the main characters involved in the Reformation in mainland Europe.  Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, sought to get his church back on track and ended up getting kicked out and starting the Lutheran churches.  Once Luther questioned the authority of the Pope, lots of other people did, too.  Huldrych Zwingli brought his twist to the Reformation in Zurich.  A little later, John Calvin, put his twist on the Reformation movement in Geneva.  Calvin influenced John Knox, who brought Calvinism to Scotland (and started Presbyterianism there).

Meanwhile, in England, Henry VIII, broke with the Roman Catholic Church, establishing the Anglican Church.  He didn’t do a major makeover of Catholicism (as was happening in Germany and Switzerland and spreading across Europe), as much as he changed the name.  Essentially, he replaced the Pope with himself, creating the English Catholic Church (as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church).  Of course, that wasn’t the official name and it’s an overstatement, but it’s good enough for today.

I don’t think the true reformation of Christianity in England happened until the Puritans and Pilgrims came along.  They were the ones who called for radical shifting.  The Pilgrims wanted to leave England to found their theocratic utopia in the Americas.  The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England.  Congregationalism came out of those two traditions.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) comes out of Presbyterianism – which came from John Knox, who was influenced so heavily by John Calvin.  The Christian Church movement was also influenced by the Baptists.

The United Church of Christ is the merging together of four major (and several minor) streams in the first half of the 20th century.  Those major streams have their headwaters on different Protestant mountains.  The German Evangelicals in American stream is primarily fed by Luther’s Reformation.  The German Reformed Church in American is primarily fed by Zwingli’s Reformation.  As I mentioned, the Congregationalist Church in American came from the Puritan/Pilgrim Reformation.  And (believe it or not) it’s the Baptist Reformation that Pastor Brenda mentioned last week that fed the fourth stream called “the Christian Church” (a similar movement that happened simultaneously to the development of the Christian Church movement out of which the Disciples of Christ comes, though in different geographic locations).

Given this diversity, you might think that there has to be a huge diversity of understandings of baptism within the United Church of Christ, let alone between the UCC and the Disciples of Christ.  Surprisingly, there isn’t.  The biggest differences have to do with how much:  how much faith and how much water.  I’ll unpack that in a moment

First, let’s go back to the ecumenical understandings of baptism.  There’s one more understanding I want to add to this list.  It wasn’t on Pastor Brenda’s list last week because there isn’t an ecumenical convergence on this understanding.  Though perhaps many or even most denominations would have this understanding, there hasn’t been ecumenical discussion about it.

This sixth understanding sees baptism as the great equalizer.  We heard about this in our Epistle lesson today.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The church in Galatia was debating if Jesus-followers needed to keep all the Hebraic laws.

Paul says that in baptism, we lose the identities we had that divide us into groups.  When we “put on Christ,” when we are “clothed with Christ,” the divisions of Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female disappear and we become one in Christ.  In baptism we are incorporated into the church.  And, because baptism is the great equalizer, the distinctions that separate us in the rest of the world disappear in church.

This is echoed our reading from Acts.  An outsider’s outsider – he’s black, he’s a convert to Judaism (or maybe only a spiritual seeker), he works for a foreign government, and he’s a eunuch (and therefore within Judaism officially seen as not whole) – and none of these is a reason to withhold baptism.  For we are all equally one in Christ.

All six of these understandings of baptism are held by both denominations, though perhaps one understanding being of more importance than another within a different region or congregation – which isn’t surprising given the theological spectrum within both denominations.  For instance, progressive congregations might deemphasize the idea of baptism being a cleaning of sin and emphasize baptism as being a great equalizer.

As I said, the big difference has to do with how much:  how much faith and how much water.  Because three of the four streams that largely made up the United Church of Christ came out of Protestant traditions that continued to practice infant baptism as normative, most congregations in the UCC have continued to practice infant baptism.  In these churches, baptism does not require any faith on the part of the baptized.  And from a practical point of view – we’re talking about infants here – immersion isn’t practiced.  So, how much?  No faith and not much water.

Disciples congregations and congregations in the UCC that came out of the UCC’s Christian Church stream practice believer’s baptism, and typically by full immersion.    In other words, they require some faith and generally want to use lots of water.

We’ll look more deeply at this point of divergence on February 17 when we talk about the baptismal liturgy, because while these are theological issues, they play themselves out liturgically.  For now let me say this.  Because I do not believe there is any need for baptismal afterlife insurance, there is no need to baptize infants.  And so, when it comes to understanding baptism, we should assume that believer’s baptism is normative.

In other words, we should expect some faith if we’re going to baptize someone.  (And remember the beginning of this sermon.  Expecting faith is not the same as expecting belief.  Expecting faith is about expecting the person to be in relationship with God, and in particular God as revealed by Jesus.)  We should also use some water, but, as I said, we’ll talk more about that on February 17.

That’s what the church should expect of someone seeking baptism.  But what can a person expect of the church?   We are, I suspect, in the midst of another rummage sale.  We are in the midst of what Tickle labeled “The Great Emergence.”  Is a new understanding of baptism coming with it?  Maybe.

In the early church, baptism was seen as a sort of matriculation.  When someone was baptized, they started their journey as a follower of Jesus.  This is what happened with the Ethiopian eunuch.  Eventually, it became a marking point along the journey.  People might study and practice the way of Jesus for years before taking the plunge (literally and figuratively) of the commitment of baptism.  Then baptism became the antidote to original sin.  And then, for at least some of the church, it became again a matriculation into a journey of discipleship that invites people into a new life free from past sin, that invites them into union with Jesus and to receive the Holy Spirit, that incorporates them into the faith and family of Jesus, and that makes them equal with all Jesus’ disciples.

If something new is coming, I don’t know what it is.  I can’t help but wonder if, as Christianity loses sway in American culture (which I think it a good thing), baptism might regain that radical nature and commitment it once implied.  I can’t help but wonder if choosing to be a Christian, if choosing to follow Jesus will become such an atypical choice that choosing baptism will become a sign of a deeper commitment than it seems to be now.

This leads me to a few questions for your contemplation:

  • What does it mean to you to be a follower of Jesus?
  • If baptism isn’t the sacrament of the church that incorporates you into the faith and family of Jesus, what is?
  • Can one be a follower of Jesus and not be baptized?
  • If you are baptized, what does your baptism mean to you?


[1] Brenda Loreman, “A Historical and Ecumenical Look at Baptism,” Niles Discovery Church, (preached at Niles Discovery Church on 13 January 2019; accessed 19 January 2019).

[2] Marcus Borg, “What is Faith?” a sermon preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis Tennessee on 16 March 2001, (accessed 19 Jan 2019).

[3] She mentioned this in a talk I heard her give years ago.  Though I don’t remember where I was (or she, she Skyped in) and when this was, that particular idea stuck with me.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Epiphany, January 6, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love that, having heard the Christmas story for over half a century and having preached on it for over 30 years, I’m still discovering new things in it.  Two months ago, I was planning on recycling an old idea I had about the story of the magi for today’s sermon.  It’s a solid understanding of the story.  It has three points, as you might have guessed from the title.  But I’ve got to admit, the third point was a little scripturally weak.

Until this week.

The way Matthew tells the story, by the time he has the magi show up, Jesus might have been walking.  The actual birth of Jesus takes place back in chapter 1.  Mary and Joseph are engaged.  Mary gets pregnant.  Thanks to a dream, Joseph doesn’t cut of the engagement, but marries the pregnant Mary. She gives birth.  And Joseph names the child Jesus.  It’s all wrapped up by the twenty-fifth verse of chapter 1.

The magi show up sometime later.  How much later we don’t know, but based on the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, it may be as many as two years later.  The reason for the delay is the magi’s journey.  But their journey brings me to my second point.

My first point follows an implied action by the magi.  In order to have “observed his star at its rising,” the magi had to be observing.  And that’s my first point:  be on the lookout.  Be observant for signs of God at work in the world.  If we’re not watching, we’ll miss the signs.  Seek the star.  I don’t mean to literally take up star gazing (though that may be a worthwhile spiritual practice, so I’m also not saying don’t take up astronomy).  I’m saying be on the lookout for signs.

The second thing the magi do is they respond to the sign they saw.  They saw a star that made them think that a new king of the Jews was born or was about to be born.  Nifty. They could have celebrated the birth in their home country.  They could have advised political leaders there “in the East” that they might want to know that a political shift in Israel was coming.  But they didn’t do these things.  They set off on a journey.  They followed the star.  Even though Israel was an occupied country and King Herod the Great was more a puppet of Rome than anything else, they saw a sign that led them to believe that a new king was born.  And they decided to follow up on that sign.

How they went about following up – let’s just say that they did not seem to have any sense of realpolitik.  There was no way Herod the Great was vacating the throne unless he died, or Rome demanded it. The magi might have thought that a new king was born, but realpolitik would say this king wasn’t going to sit on any throne unless Rome made it happen.  Realpolitik would advise:  don’t bother going to pay this supposed “new king” homage.

My second point is this:  once you see the signs of what God is up to, respond.  Don’t let a concern for conventional wisdom or realpolitik slow you down.  When God is at work, a faithful response is called for.  Do it.

Seeking the star is step one.  Following the star is step two.

I like to image that, once the magi had returned home, the story continues.  Call if fan fiction, if you like.  I imagine the magi returning to their homes and telling others about the wonders at work in the world.  I imagine them being stars in their own communities – not in the sense of being famous, but in the sense of being a sign in the heavens, or on the street, or around the dining room table, for others to see that God is at work in the world.

And that is my third point:  Be a star.  Let God use you to let others know what God is up to.

The thing is, I don’t think I need my fan fiction to make this third point.  As I studied and prayed with today’s gospel lesson this week, I had an insight.  Two insights, really.

The first is not all that profound.  I had an insight as to why, for years, I preferred Luke’s birth narrative over Matthew’s.  I’d rather be a shepherd than a magus.  It’s pretty cool that the shepherds get an angelic announcement and go celebrate.  On the other hand, the magi get the star and they’re wise enough to interpret its meaning.  So that’s not the reason I’ve preferred Luke.  It’s something else.

It’s been something about the shepherds.  Consider their social status.  They have no power, no prestige, not education.  And I tend to cheer for the underdog.  The magi, on the other hand, have power, prestige, and education.  Yet, for all their power, prestige, and education, the magi come off just as naïve as the shepherds.  They see the star.  They interpret it to mean that a new “king of the Jews” is born.  They go to Jerusalem – which I suppose makes sense.  A new king would be born in the capital, right?

Except they don’t go there to find the child.  They go there for directions.  They go there to ask where they should go to find the child. What do they think Herod is going to do with this information?  How naïve can they be?

I excuse the shepherds’ naiveté.  Heck, I embrace the shepherds’ naiveté.  An angel comes and tells them – tells me – “Behold!  I bring you glad tidings of greet joy. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign to you:  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.” “Dudes!  Let’s check this out!” seems to be a wholly appropriate reaction.

The magi – they just haven’t seemed all that wise to me.

That is, until I had the second insight – the important insight.  Maybe they weren’t as naïve as they first appear to be.  Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing.  Maybe these eastern intellectuals are purposefully poking the bear.

Biblical scholar John J. Pilch suggests that “these strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism.”[1]  The way Matthew knits the story, these strangers, these wise men have come a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  Not to pay homage to the current king.  They go to the current king for directions, and that makes the current king afraid.  They are poking not just Herod in the eye, but all of Rome and all Roman puppets.  “The vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times.”[2]

I suppose Matthew’s original audience would have seen these wise men, these strangers, these Magi as “‘very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers’”[3]of some nation in area of what today we know as Iran or Iraq.  Back then, would Matthew’s original audience have thought of that land and thought immediately of Babylon, the land of the exile?  Perhaps. Richard Swanson muses that if they had been historical figures, perhaps they would have been influenced by Jews that remained in Babylon after the Exile, tutored in sensing the goodness of God, “trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world.”[4]  Perhaps that’s how some of Matthew’s original audience thought of them.

The story is very good at evoking images in our minds.  I assume it did for Matthew’s original audience, too.  Potentates coming to the seat and symbol of power in Jerusalem and, with a simple question, terrifying the tyrant of their day.  When they finally come to Jesus, they find “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms” – as Shelley D.B. Copeland describes it.[5]  And they lay before the toddler and his mother their gifts, gifts fit for a king, gifts that purposefully evoke our reading from Isaiah 60.

And the story ends with them leaving for home, but “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Illegal activity, right there at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  Herod had ordered them to come back to Jerusalem once they found the child.  But they don’t.  They take a different way home.

Civil disobedience, poking the powers that be right in the eye, is at the core of this story.  Here’s my third point, reworked a little bit:  When we follow the star, when we daringly follow the star, even if that means facing down the principalities and powers of the day, we become a star for others.

I cannot hear this story without thinking of all the political leaders of our day who are paranoid about losing power and who are willing to do almost anything to hang on to it.  I cannot hear this story without thinking of the well-intentioned people who are being manipulated by individuals, and corporations, and governments via social media and countless other ways to view the world distortedly.  And now I cannot hear this story without also seeing those who have become wise to the machinations of others and who stand firm in their resistance.[6]  These, too, are stars declaring the wondrous works of God.  These, too, are stars you or I might be called to follow.  And in following, perhaps we, too, might become stars for others.

We think of the story of the magi as being a story of three kings.  It’s not. It’s the story of two kings.  One is called “the Great” and one is called “Emmanuel.”  One rules with violence and paranoia and one rules with love and grace.

Who will be our king?



[1]Cited by Kathryn Matthew, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (accessed 31 December 2018).


[3]Matthews, quoting Pilch from The Cultural World of Jesus Year A.

[4]Matthews, quoting Swanson from Provoking the Gospel of Matthew.

[5]Matthews, quoting Copeland, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1.

[6]David Lose, “Ephiphany C 2018 – The Other Christmas Story,” (posted and accessed 4 January 2019).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 30, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:41-52 and 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As I wandered into Panera for a late lunch and the task of weaving together the threads I’d been collecting all week into a sermon, a man I took to be the grandfather pushed a stroller toward a table.  In the stroller was a child, perhaps seven months old, staring intensely at her grandfather with big, beautiful, brown eyes.  I wondered how this child’s parents ever got anything done when they have such beautiful eyes to look at, such a precious child to smile and babble and sing to.

Maybe the looking and the smiling and the babbling and the singing gets old.  Or simply too tiring.  Or maybe the need to have a moment to eat or pee overcomes the amazing delight present in an infant and handing the baby off to a partner or a grandparent is exactly what a parent needs.

I’m reminded of a 15th century illustration I saw a photo of this week.  Joseph sits on the floor, tending to the infant Jesus.  Mary is sitting up, studying a book, scripture, we assume.  I assume the painting was influenced by a tradition that Mary was sufficiently learned that she could teach Jesus what he needed to know to grow up and fulfill his ministry.

I’m not sure why this tradition decided it was Mary and not Joseph who was Jesus’ teacher.  It’s certainly counter-cultural – both in the context of ancient Palestine and in the context of 15th century Europe – for a woman to be the learned one in a household.  I don’t know what generated this tradition, but it won’t surprise me if today’s gospel lesson had something to do with it.  Jesus had to have a teacher if he was going to hold his own in a theological discussion with his elders.  Maybe it was his mother.  And if it was his mother, she would have had to have learned at some point.  And so there are paintings of Mary studying.

They are, of course, anachronistic:  Mary dressed as a wealthy European, when historically she was a peasant Jew from Israel.  And historically, she was almost certainly illiterate.  If Joseph was able to read, it would most likely have only been enough to read a passage or two of scripture.  Being able to read a passage of scripture is the level of literacy Jesus is depicted as having in Luke’s gospel.  He was able to find a passage and read it from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Still, it’s fun to imagine what Jesus’ childhood was like.  There’s actually a very short, non-canonical book about Jesus’ childhood called, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.”[1]  It includes a story of a 5-year-old Jesus playing in the mud, forming sparrows.  When an adult saw it, he complained to Joseph that Jesus had made clay – which would have been okay, except it was the Sabbath, and making clay is a form of work and Jews aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath.  When Joseph scolded Jesus, Jesus clapped his hands and told the sparrows to fly away, which they did.  Impressive stuff for a 5-year-old.

As I imagine Jesus’ childhood, I imagine Mary and Joseph practicing what today would be called “free range parenting.”  I suspect you’ve heard of “free range parenting.”  It’s a counter movement to “helicopter parenting.”

In helicopter parenting, a parent (or a trusted adult) is always keeping an eye on things.  The helicopter parent makes sure the child has activities to participate in, so there is soccer practice to go to, and swim lessons to attend, and piano lessons on Tuesdays, and dance class on Thursdays.

Helicopter parenting started in earnest in the 1980s.  The primary motivation was protecting children from harm.  If you keep the children busy, they can’t get into trouble.  And if you know where the children are, they can’t come to harm by some stranger.

More recently, however, the primary motivation has shifted.  According to a recent article in The New York Times, “While this kind of intensive parenting – constantly teaching and monitoring children – has been the norm for upper-middle-class parents since the 1990s, new research shows that people across class divides now consider it the best way to raise children, even if they don’t have the resources to enact it.”[2]

According to the article, the primary motivation for this style of parenting is no longer safety.  It’s economic anxiety.  “For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents,” the article says.  “For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.”[3]

I understand the perceptions that led to helicopter parenting.  In the 1980s and 90s, there were a number of high-profile child assaults and abductions, and it was scary.  The reality is that they were and are exceedingly rare[4] and helicopter parenting out of a sense of fear was not and is not warranted.  This new anxiety, this economic anxiety, does have some basis in reality.  How much, is not exactly clear to me.  Nor is it clear to me how much of a hedge against it helicopter parenting is.

What is clear to me is that something is lost in this kind of intense parenting.  The elementary school my niece and nephew attended is three blocks from their house.  When they were in kindergarten and second grade, my sister would have gladly had they walk to school, if the other kids in the neighborhood walked to school and there could be a little herd of them.  She tried to make this happen, but all the other parents walked their kids to school, so that forced my sister to walk her kids to school.  So my niece and nephew never got to negotiate those unsupervised childhood relationships that happened for me when I walked to school.

Free range parenting has a very different philosophy from helicopter parenting.  In free range parenting, parents willingly step back and allow their children to explore the world without constantly hovering.  No doubt, some of my support of free range parenting is nostalgic.  I quite enjoyed my childhood, when my friends and I were allowed to ride our bikes in the neighborhood for hours on end, provided I was home by six.  Or in the winter, I could go drag my sled up Edgewood Road and zip down the sidewalk and over the jump we made of the piled-up snow at the end of Joan Fox’s driveway, until my fingers were just too cold for one more run.

I also support free range parenting because it instills a sense of freedom, self-reliance, and resilience in kids.  I’m with the proponents who say free range parenting increases self-confidence and self-sufficiency, increases levels of active play (which helps combat the negative health impacts of childhood and adolescent obesity), and improves social skills.

Yes, the absence of the village, the absence of that sense of community support parents once had, make free range parenting harder than it was a generation or two ago.  And yes, there is always the possibility of a concerned neighbor, rather than being part building that missing village, will call the police or CPS.  Still, I say “yes” to free range parenting.  I’m not alone in this.  There are playgrounds in Great Britain where they are bringing back risk to playgrounds to build childhood resilience.[5]

I bring all this up because I don’t want anyone reporting Mary and Joseph to Child Protective Services.  It could be that Mary and Joseph practiced free range parenting.  He was 12, after all.  He knew (I think we can safely assume) what the plans were, when the group they were traveling with planned to leave.  Of course he’d be where he was supposed to be.  When they discovered that Jesus wasn’t where he was supposed to be, they went looking for him.

When they found him, when they tracked him down at the Temple, Luke describes a very human interchange.  I can hear the exasperation in Mary’s voice.  “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  Hardly “Mary, meek and mild.”  And Jesus response – I know my parents would have considered it “talking back.”

But then, I think one of the things Luke is doing is marking the beginning of the shift in relationship between Jesus and his parents.  At the beginning of the story, Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem with Jesus to celebrate the Passover.  At the end of the story, Jesus returns to Nazareth with his parents.  By the end of the story, Jesus is the subject of the sentence about journeying.

Another shift that happens in the narrative is that Jesus is starting to reach out beyond his family.  When his parents finally track him down, they find him in the Temple in the middle of a gather of adult men.  He is not giving them all the answers to their questions.  Rather, he is engaging with them in an adult conversation about the questions they’re discussing.

William Herzog writes that Luke “does not assume that Jesus is engaged in a contest and besting his opponents as though this were some first-century version of Jeopardy.  Rather, Jesus is engaged in a lively and respectful conversation and demonstrating a wisdom well beyond his years.”[6]

Still, I think it is the answer to his mother’s question that is most important here.  “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  There are echoes of the end of the story right here at the beginning.  “After three days” of looking for Jesus, they find him.  “After three days” – this is an allusion to the three days from Good Friday to Easter.  Whenever you hear “three days” in the gospel, you need to think about the resurrection.  They find him at the Temple.  In the days leading to his crucifixion, Jesus will return to the Temple and drive out the money-changers.

“My Father’s house,” he calls the Temple.  Borg and Crossan say that this is the most important part of this story because it identifies who Jesus is.  In chapter 1, Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be called “the Son of the Most High” and “the Son of God.”  In chapter 3, at his baptism, God announces from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  In between these two heavenly pronouncements, here in the Temple, in chapter 2, Luke places the statement in Jesus’ own mouth.  Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status.  He’s talking to his parents when he says it, but he’s saying it publicly:  he is the Son of God.[7]

Luke doesn’t craft an additional story to help us understand how Jesus came to that self-understanding.  I can’t help but wonder if being free to explore who he was in his childhood might not have been key to that.  If Mary and Joseph were free range parents, might not Jesus’ own exploration of the world help him reflect on his place in it?

I think the freedom to make choices, including bad ones, and still experience God’s love is an important part of my spiritual journey.  I think having and taking the opportunity to explore – to explore nature and culture and my own psyche – has helped me understand who I am in relationship with God.  And while “Father” isn’t my personal favorite term for God, I’m thankful that I’ve never experienced God the Father as a helicopter parent.

Anyway, that’s the sermon cloth I’ve woven this week.  That’s what I’ve been pondering.  Maybe you’d like to think about it for a little while, too.

A question for reflection:  How have you benefited from God allowing us to be free-range children?  Consider especially how this has impacted your spiritual growth and your ability to love.


[1] See for a recent English translation.

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” The New York Times, (posted 25 December 2018; accessed 26 December 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, and Andrea J. Sedlak, “Child Victims of Stereotypical Kidnappings Known to Law Enforcement in 2011,” U.S. Department of Justice, (posted in 2016; accessed 29 December 2018).

[5] Ellen Barry, “In Britain’s Playgrouns, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience,” The New York Times, (posted 10 March 2018; accessed 29 December 2018).

[6] William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (accessed 26 December 2018).

[7] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 254-255.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 24, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas Eve 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the debut of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night.” The following Reflections were shared during our 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve worship service.

Reflection One:  Salzburg, 1818

Imagine with me, for a moment, the scene of Jesus’ birth – at least the scene the way Luke tells it.  Mary is in the ninth month of her pregnancy when she and her fiancé Joseph have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman government has ordered it.  That’s a trip of 80 to 90 miles.  Though paintings may show Mary on a donkey, Luke doesn’t say anything about an animal-assisted transportation, so they probably had to make it on foot.  Imagine walking from here to Sacramento.

When they finally get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor. Her mother, we assume because of Luke’s silence on the matter, isn’t there.  No friends around to provide comfort or assistance.  She’d probably never met any Bethlehem midwives.  Giving birth at home is sufficiently anxiety-producing.  Going into labor far from home – I can’t imagine.

“The Nativity” by Gari Melchers

And then there are her accommodations.  “Luke doesn’t actually tell us that Mary was in a barn with sheep and goats, [and] with the cattle ‘lowing.’  He does tell us there was a manger, which was a feeding trough for animals.  Where would this feeding trough have been?  Early church tradition has it located in a stable or cave behind or under a house.  (The word for that location, often referred to as “inn” in the Bible, is better translated as “guest room.”)  In those days, people often brought their sheep in at the end of the day and kept their donkeys overnight to be tended.  In other words, [Luke invites us to] think of the place where Mary gave birth as a first-century parking garage.”[1]

To be honest, the way Luke describes things, I can’t imagine that is was a “silent night.”’  I imagine it being filled with all kinds of noise – animals, the guesthouse, and of course the clamor and cries surrounding childbirth.  Mary, who has carried the Messiah for nine months, is in a place she doesn’t want to be, in the elements, giving birth among the animals.

Of course, God never promised her or any of us that life will be easy, that all will be calm, that all will be bright.  On the contrary:  if you want to find God, look amid the animal dung and the cries of disappointment and fear.  Look to the brokenness of the world.

Brokenness is exactly what almost everyone in Europe had been experiencing in 1816.  The Napoleonic Wars had only ended in the autumn of 1815.  Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in April of 1815, pumping enough ash into the air to cause global temperatures to drop around a degree Fahrenheit, which in turn caused crop failures in 1816, the “year without a summer.”[2]

By the fall of 1816, the town of Mariapfarr, Austria, where a priest named Joseph Mohr served, was reeling.  The “Twelve years of war had decimated the country’s political and social infrastructure.”

Oberndorf’s Silent Night Chapel

Father “Mohr’s congregation was poverty-stricken, hungry, and traumatized.  So he crafted a set of six poetic verses to convey [the] hope that there was still a God who cared.”[3]  A literal translation of the original German includes the line “today all the power of fatherly love is poured out, and Jesus as brother embraces the peoples of the world.”[4]

“In 1817, Mohr transferred to the parish of St. Nicholas in the town of Oberndorf, just south of Salzburg.  There, he asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher and organist, to write the music for the six verses.”[5] And 200 years ago tonight, Joseph and Franz sang “Silent Night” together for the first time in front of Joseph’s congregation, with Joseph playing his guitar. (Legend has it that the church organ had been damaged by mice or water and wasn’t working.)[6]

Given all that the people of Salzburg (and really all of Europe) had gone through, it is not surprising how well the song was received. Yes, it romanticized that first Christmas:  “Everything is asleep.  Only the faithful holy couple are awake, alone.  Lovely boy with curly hair.”[7] That’s a direct translation of part of the first verse.  As holy and as figuratively bright as that night was, it couldn’t have been silent or calm.  But we’re two thousand years from that night, so maybe it’s okay to imagine the story in a way that offers a little more of what we need.

After over a decade of war, after a year without a summer and the famine that caused, people needed the reassurance that with God, all can be calm and bright.  And maybe we need that reassurance, too.

Reflection Two:  Seattle, 1993

I moved to Carnation, Washington to serve the United Church of Christ congregation there in 1993.  Carnation is officially a city, but its population is fewer than 1800, and when I lived there, it didn’t have any traffic signals (and maybe it still doesn’t).  The town is located in the lower Snoqualmie River valley, the last valley before you get into the Cascade Mountains, and is famous as the home of the Carnation Dairy (from whence came Carnation Evaporated Milk).  It was a rural town.  It still is rather rural, though I don’t think there are any active dairy farms there anymore.

As rural as the community was, it was only a 45-minute drive into Seattle – well, 45 minutes plus traffic.  I moved to Carnation in the fall and decided to join the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus that January.  In the meantime, I did some volunteering with the Chorus.  It was through that volunteering that I found out about the Christmas Eve concert SLGC participated in.

In 1993, there were plenty of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* people who were not welcome in their homes.  Many had been so hurt by their churches that they had given up on religion.  And so the LGBTQ+ community made their own families and made their own Christmas rituals. One of those rituals for the Seattle community was a midnight concert at the Egyptian Theatre, performed by the three or four LGBTQ+ identified Seattle choruses.  The Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus was one of them.

My church’s Christmas Eve service was in the early evening that year, so I was able to go into Seattle and help out backstage at this midnight concert.  I think there were four choruses that sang that year.  Though it was 25 years ago, I still remember two of the pieces that were sung – both sung by maybe 80 or so members of the Seattle Men’s Chorus.

One was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah – only they changed the words, from “hallelujah” to “Honolulu.”  Seattle has a reputation for being a place where in the winter “it shall rain for ever and ever,” so, of course, everybody wanted to go to Honolulu.

Kevin Gallagher

The Seattle Men’s Chorus has, I believe from its beginning, had its concerts interpreted in American Sign Language.  So the guys are singing their repetitious lyrics – “Honolulu. Honolulu. Honolulu. Honolulu. Honolulu.… And it shall rain for ever and ever.”  And Kevin Gallagher is signing away.  Only “Honolulu” started out as “H-O-N-O-L-U-L-U” (spelled out with his fingers) and by the end of the piece he was signing “Honolulu” as something about wearing a Speedo, rubbing suntan lotion on his body, and lying on the beach. It was a hoot.

They probably sang another song, and then they sang “Silent Night.”

Clio has been learning ASL and I asked her to sign the first verse of “Silent Night” for us.  She’s going to sign it as I say the lyrics.

The Chorus sang the first verse and Kevin signed it.

Then the Chorus sang the first verse again, with everybody – all 80 men – signing it.

And then they sang the first verse a third time, only instead of singing it in English, they all signed it silently in unison using ASL. And all you heard was the movement of their tuxes.

Listen one more time as Clio signs “Silent Night.”

Reflection Three:  The Trenches, 1914[8]

In December, 1914, young men from France, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, and other European countries were five months into a war that would eventually be called “The Great War,” “The War to End All Wars,” and finally, “World War I.”

In sections along the western front, young men from Great Britain and young men from Germany were living opposite each other in trenches, having already experienced attacks and counter attacks that gave each side nothing more than injury and death.

In other sections along the western front, it was young men from France or Belgium living in the trenches opposite young men from Germany who were living in their trenches.  Likewise, they had already experienced attacks and counter attacks that gave each side nothing more than injury and death.

The war had already claimed hundreds of thousands of killed, wounded, and missing.  Both sides expected a long and bloody war.  The penalty for fraternizing with the enemy was death.

For many in the trenches, there was no hope and no possibility of peace.  Love had been replaced with hardship and suffering.  Joy, it seemed, was an impossibility.

But as Christmas approached, in sections dotting the western front, friendly banter echoed across the lines.  Many German soldiers had worked in Britain as waiters, cooks, and cabbies and so they spoke English quite well.

And in several places along the lines, music was the vehicle that brought back the hope, that established some peace, and created a space in the hearts of these combatants for love and joy.

A week before Christmas near Armentiêres, Germans troops slipped a chocolate cake into the British lines. “We propose having a concert tonight,” the note read, “as it is our Captain’s birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend.”  At the appointed hour eight German heads appeared above the trench and sang lustily.

When the British applauded, a German called out, “Please come mit us into the chorus.”

A Brit shouted back, “We’d rather die than sing German.”

Without missing a beat, the German replied, “It would kill us if you did.”

In several places along the line, it was one song in particular that brought about impromptu truces, declared by the enlisted grunts (defying the official positions of the Generals on both sides of the war).  A French soldier played that song on his harmonica, which was met by a violin solo from the German lines.  Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment was transfixed by the moonlight, the frost, and candlelight on the Tannenbaums the German’s had used to line their trenches, but it was hearing this particular song echo across No Man’s Land that made that night into what he called “one of the highlights of my life.”

At another section along the line, Private Frank Sumpter, a British soldier, was one of the first in this troop to recognize what the Germans were singing on the other side of No Man’s Land.

And the British sang along.


[1]Adam Hamilton, “Not Silent in Bethlehem,” Adam Hamilton, (posted 7 December 2018; accessed 12 December 2018).

[2]“Year Without a Summer,” Wikipedia, (accessed 24 December 2018).

[3]Sarah Eyerly, “The humble origins of ‘Silent Night,’” TCPalm, (posted and accessed 24 December 2018).



[6]Michael E. Ruane, “Silent Night: How a beloved Christmas carol was born of war and disaster 200 years ago,” The Washington Post, (posted and accessed 23 December 2018).


[8]Resources used from this reflection include a sermon by the Rev. Fred Small (which in turn, was based on information in Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce(New York: The Free Press, 2001)), and “Christmas Truce of 1914,” History, (accessed 22 December 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 11:1-9 and Revelation 21:1-4
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s because of a piece of music that, when we get to the Peace candle (and this year, the peace cup),[1] I think of this picture[2] and the passage from Isaiah 11.  I think I first heard the piece of music three years ago.  Someone posted a link to it on Facebook.  I listened to it and fell in love.

That happens to me sometimes.  Sometimes it happens when I sing a piece of music, as has happened several times preparing for concerts with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus.  Sometimes I need only listen to it, and it gets under my skin and into my soul.  Occasionally it is the music itself, music without lyrics or with lyrics that I don’t understand, that I fall in love with.  A combination of harmonies and rhythms sometimes reach into my soul and claim me.  The “O fortuna” movement of Carmina Burana grabbed hold of me when I was in grade school, and I can describe the exact circumstances and setting of the first time I heard Pachelbel’s Canon in D – it so mesmerized me.

More often, it is the combination of lyrics and music that entice me.  It is the combination that makes “While Shepherd’s Watched” my favorite piece that GGMC is singing in our concerts over the next 10 days.  And it’s the combination of lyrics and music that made me fall in love with Glenn L. Rudolph’s “The Dream Isaiah Saw”[3] – the song that makes me thing of Isaiah 11 and this picture when we get to Peace Sunday in Advent.

American poet and hymnist Thomas Troeger took the images from Isaiah 11 and created a powerful poem.[4]  The refrain is a prayer, but unlike most refrains, the final line changes each time it comes around:
Little child, whose bed is straw,
take new lodging in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

Then it changes to “Justice purifying law.”

Then it changes to “Knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.”

This movement – from the cessation of violence, to the institution of true justice that purifies law, to the transformation of the heart – is, I think, the movement that gets us to the Peaceable Kingdom.

Rudolph took Troeger’s poem and set it to music that moves from foreboding to triumph.  Rather than spend time describing something you haven’t heard, I’ll just say that Rudolph does a wonderful job using a simple organ and piano accompaniment, and adding drums and brass (instruments we might associate more with martial music than the music of peace) to mirror the transformative movement of the lyrics.  And I’ll include a link to a recording of the song in the sermon manuscript that I post online.

The images in the first verse of the song are not new.  The following two verses reinterpret those images as Troeger moves us through his progression toward peace.  They are the images from Isaiah 11:1-9.  They are the images Edward Hicks tried to capture in his painting.

Hicks was around 40 when he first painted “The Peaceable Kingdom.”  I say, “first,” because he painted over 60 versions of the scene.  We know it was over 60 because 62 survive.[5]

Hicks was born into an Anglican and Tory family during the American Revolution.  His mother died when he was an infant and he was raised by a Quaker family named Twining.  As a teen, he apprenticed as a carriage painter,  and at 20, when his apprenticeship was completed, he started working independently painting coaches and houses.

He considered his teen-aged years to be ones of wayward living and started attending a Quaker Meeting in his early 20s.  He met the woman who became his wife at the Meeting and less than a decade after he started attending the meeting, the congregation recognized him as a Quaker minister.  To support his young family and his unpaid, itinerant ministry, he opened a carriage-and-sign painting shop.

While Hicks did get the occasional commission for an easel painting, it appears that most of his easel paintings were given away to family and friends.  This was certainly the case for his Peaceable Kingdom series.  According to Victoria Emily Jones, Hicks pursued this particular theme “to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of the 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism within the Society of Friends [as the Quakers are formally known], the first in the denomination’s history.  (Edward’s cousin Elias led the liberal faction that split from the mainstream.)  His Kingdom paintings reference the schism through a blasted tree trunk, which doubles also as a reference to the ‘stump’ of Jesse out of which Christ sprung up.”[6]

This is one of his earlier renditions, 1822-1825.

In this, we see the animals from Isaiah 11 peacefully co-existing, with a little child (presumably Jesus) holding one of them.  I find it interesting, though, that there are no snakes in this early version.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the legend around this painting.  It’s a rhyming paraphrase of Isaiah, taken from a prayer book of the same era:

The wolf shall with the lambkin dwell in peace,
His grim carniv’rous nature then shall cease;
The leopard with the harmless kid lay down,
And not one savage beast be seen to frown;
The lion and the calf shall forward move,
A little child shall lead them on in love;
When man is moved and led by sovereign grace,
To seek that state of everlasting peace.

There’s no mistaking that Hicks is referring Isaiah 11 in this painting.  It is easy to miss, however, a little scene in the background.  Under the bridge.  This detail is from a version he did almost immediately after the one we were just looking at.

This is a depiction of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn signing a treaty of perpetual friendship with the Lenape Indians in 1681, 99 years before Hicks’ birth.  This is a scene that is included in many of his Peaceable Kingdom paintings, sometimes prominently and sometimes as a minor detail.  According to Victoria Emily Jones, “This, Edward thought, is what it looks like to put into practice the values of brotherly love and peace that Christ came to teach us.  Penn did honor this treaty, but his successors did not – a fact that Edward was painfully aware of.

“In place of this vignette, Edward sometimes depicted instead a congregation of leading Quaker figures unfurling a banner that paraphrases the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Christ:  peace on earth, goodwill to men (Luke 2”14).  And often the directive ‘Mind the light within,’ a reference to the Quaker doctrine of the inward light (Christ himself), which indwells believers, giving them a direct and personal experience of God.”[7]

In the 1834 version that’s at the beginning of this manuscript, the version that now hangs in the National Gallery of Art, the background scene is of the treaty-making.  But there’s something else I notice about this version, painted almost a decade and a half since he started exploring this motif in art.  There’s a chasm between the Peaceable Kingdom and the treaty signing.

Art critic Holland Cotter notes of the Peaceable Kingdom series that over time, “Additional children and animals crowd in.  The carnivorous beasts – lions, leopards, wolves – grow in size.  Where once they had cast their eyes docilely to the ground, they now stare out, alert, aggressive, challenging, even rabidly agitated.

“Hicks meant the beasts to typify human traits in line with his view of contemporary Quaker politics:  the lion symbolized power gained through wealth, the leopard a suave, threatening worldliness.  Occasionally animals are in conflict.  But even when they aren’t, the assemblies have a jumbled, restive feeling.  The ground beneath them is eroding; a fissure in the earth separates them from Penn’s treaty behind.

“Then, around 1840, the mood shifts again.  [This is from 1844-46.]

The artist was in his 60s.  He saw that the ideological battle [within Quakerism] he had anguished over would remain unresolved.  The … animals start to look aged and weary.”[8]

Perhaps this progression in his paintings reveals the progression of how Hicks felt about the prospects for peace.  How are you feeling about the prospects of peace?  Old a weary?  As if a chasm exists between our best efforts and Kin-dom of Peace?

Or do you have hope?

“Today we live between the two advents of Christ,” writes Jones.  “The Prince of Peace has come as a little child to tame our wild hearts, but somehow peace still seems so elusive.  Edward Hicks wrestled constantly with the tension between the already and not-yet aspects of Christ’s kingdom, and we are called to do the same.”[9]

I believe that a necessary step to bring the reign of peace is to bring true justice.  I’m not alone in that thought.  Isaiah says of the shoot that ‘shall come out of the stump of Jesse,’ of this descendant of King David, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; … Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  And according to Troeger’s poem, it’s a necessary step to get to the dream Isaiah saw.

But establishing that true justice, a justice that isn’t necessarily “fair” because it has a preferential option for the poor and the powerless, is not easy.  Interestingly enough, one of the ways I think we can get to this justice is through music.

Maybe you’ve forgotten the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, or perhaps you never heard it.  During the siege of Sarajevo, during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, Vedran Smailović played his cello, out in the open.  He is perhaps best known for playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace after a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food there.[10]  His witness, his defiance, his bravery helped nudge the needle toward justice and peace.

And there’s a story about Pete Seeger that I love.  “In the 1970s, Pete Seeger was invited to sing in Barcelona, Spain.  Francisco Franco’s fascist government, … was still in power but declining.  A pro-democracy movement was gaining strength and to prove it, they invited America’s best-known freedom singer to Spain.  More than a hundred thousand people were in the stadium, where rock bands had played all day.  But the crowd had come for Seeger.  As Pete prepared to go on, government officials handed him a list of songs he was not allowed to sing.  Pete studied it mournfully, saying it looked an awful lot like his set list.  But they insisted:  he must not sing any of these songs.

“Pete took the government’s list of banned songs and strolled on stage.  He held up the paper and said, ‘I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to sing these songs.’  He grinned at the crowd and said, ‘So I’ll just play the chords; maybe you know the words.  They didn’t say anything about you singing them.’  He strummed his banjo to one song after another, and they all sang.  A hundred thousand defiant freedom singers breaking the law with Pete Seeger, filling the stadium with words their government did not want them to hear, words they all knew and had sung together, in secret circles, for years.  What could the government do?  Arrest a hundred thousand singers?  It had been beaten by a few banjo chords …”[11]

Peace, the dream Isaiah saw, is both here and not yet.  I believe we can make choices, as the offertory will remind us, that will help make real the dream of life redeemed from fang and claw, of justice purifying the law, and of our hearts filled with knowledge, wisdom, worship, and awe.



Questions for contemplation:

What steps can you take this week to bring peace …
… into your heart?
… into your personal relationships?
… into the world?


[1] Because of the recent wildfires in California, in addition to lighting an Advent candle each week, we are pouring out an Advent cup of water, remembering light and life.

[2] The images used in this manuscript are downloaded from or the websites this page links to.

[3] You can listen to a descent recording of this song at

[4] You can read the poem at

[5] Holland Cotter, “Art Review; Finding Endless Conflict Hidden in a Peaceable Kingdom,” The New York Times, (posted 16 June 2000; accessed 8 December 2018).

[6] Victoria Emily Jones, “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks,” Art and Theology, (posted 6 December 2016; accessed 8 December 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cotter, op. cit.

[9] Jones, op. cit.

[10] Seeć for more information.

[11] newmexicobear, “One more Pete Seeger Story,” DailyKos, (posted 31 January 2014; accessed 8 December 2018).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:18-25 and Jeremiah 33:14-16
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The headlines of the past week have been disturbing, chilling.  “One dead as torrential rain triggers flash flooding in Australia.”  “Record-breaking heat wave and ‘catastrophic’ wildfires hit Australia.”  “The photos of destruction from the Alaska earthquake are haunting.”  “Apocalyptic images show the unfathomable devastation caused by California’s deadly Camp Fire.”[1]

How do we hope in the midst of this news?

It may sound strange, but it is precisely in the midst of this kind of news that Advent calls us to hope.  You see, Advent is an apocalyptic season.  Traditionally, Advent is the season when Christians remember that we live in a time between times.  Advent isn’t just about preparing for the celebration of the first coming of Jesus – his birth.  It is also about preparing for the second coming of Jesus.  At least traditionally.  And because the visions of the second coming of Jesus have been tied up in destruction and the end of the world, Advent can have an apocalyptic edge to it.

Only, that’s not the real meaning of the word.  ‘Apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing.’  I suppose that God’s truth could be unveiled in a cataclysmic fashion, but it’s not necessary.  God’s truth can be and often is revealed in many quieter, subtler ways.  All an apocalypse takes is a pulling back of a curtain to reveal the truth.  When Toto pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the dog is performing an apocalypse.  An apocalypse may shake the foundations of lives, of cultures, of political systems, but it doesn’t need to do it with great, destructive power.

Did you notice the reference to an apocalypse in the second lesson today?  Leah Schade notes, “In his letter to the Romans, Paul recognized that Creation was ‘subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it’ (v. 20).  Scholars debate whether ‘the one’ is God or human beings.  So it’s unclear who has subjected Creation to suffering – people or God?  In any case, what is absolutely clear is that ‘creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (v. 21).”

Looking at the passage from an environmental point of view, which I think is justified since it is about ‘creation,’ she goes on:  “When will this happen?  When the Children of God are ‘revealed.’  From an environmental perspective, this passage calls for Christians to show themselves to be actively working on behalf of Creation for ‘redemption’ that comes through Christ.

“This passage is also important for instilling a sense of hope in those who are suffering the travails of this time.  While we may not yet see a world healed from the ravages of humankind, our faith inspires hope, which, in turn, compels us to work to make that hope a reality.”[2]

Oscar Wilde said, “A cynic is a man [sic] who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” and “A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”[3]  Cynicism leads to looking at the world and saying, ‘love is impossible.’  It leads to thinking that self-interest has overpowered virtue and selfishness to what really motivates people.  Sentimentality leads to looking at the world and saying, ‘love is everywhere,’ even though it’s obviously not.  It leads to ignoring the reality of evil and becomes a form of escapism.

“Cynics and sentimentalists eventually end up in pretty much the same place,” writes Tim Suttle.  “They both disengage from responsibility for the future.  The cynic says, ‘everything’s terrible why bother to work for change?’  The sentimentalist says, ‘Everything’s fine, so there’s no need to change.’  Both approaches abandon the human call to co-create and shape our common life toward the kingdom of God.”[4]

And while we may have powerless, inactive cynicism and sentimentalist in one hand, in the other hand, there’s hope.  Hope, Paul says, is something beyond seeing.  And I wonder if hope might combine the best of cynicism and sentimentality.  You see, for all their powerlessness, cynicism and sentimentalism each reveals a little bit of truth.  Hope combines the ability to tell the truth about the evil in the world (the truth of cynicism), and the belief that the world is essentially good (the truth of sentimentalism).  And in combining them, hope “transforms them into action – a new way of being in the world.  “Hope is able to say:  although things are broken, they won’t always be.”[5]

Christy NaMee Eriksen, from her Facebook page, photo by Ryan Cortes

I’ve had my eyes open for hope this week.  On Tuesday, a person named Christy NaMee Eriksen posted this story on Facebook.

“There is a little boy next to me, he must be 2 or 3.  Even when his legs are fully extended they don’t touch the seat in front of him.  Mostly he just touches me, which is okay.  His father looks to be in his 40s, salt and pepper hair, broad shoulders and unexciting blue jeans.  He’s tall.  I assume he is the kind of tall that takes care of people, like reaches for things in the overhead bin for old ladies or carries multiple children to the house at once; that gentle, spacious tall.  But who knows.

“‘Do you want to lay down?’ he keeps asking his son in English, who does not want to lay down.  ‘Baby, do you want to take a nap?’ he suggests, but the son does not want to take a nap.  I like how English sounds in his mouth; it bounces, like rain in a hard city.

“We take off.  The son and I look out the window, watching the world get smaller and smaller.

“Then the father, all 6 foot mountain of him, curls himself into a seashell and lays his upper body in his son’s lap.  Without speaking, his son puts one tiny arm on his shoulder and one tiny arm around his head and his little back is strong and his little eyes are soft, and like this he holds his father.  Now the son is making circles with his palm, very small ripples across the landscape of his father.  Now he is slowly stroking his father’s wild sideburn with one finger.  I think they must have done this before.

“The father is asleep.  If you held them up to your ear, I bet you could hear the ocean inside them.  I bet everything in their ocean has a home to belong to.  Even I belong here, simply by being here, an innocent bystander to the intimacy of strangers.”

You might think this story is sentimentality.  But NaMee goes on.

“Why are some children born into sweetness and some are born into war?  Line up their fathers and how could you tell their tenderness apart.  I cannot fathom at this beloved moment or at any other, how a grown man could ever shoot tear gas at another man’s child.  How a woman could walk their child 3000 desperate miles to our doorstep and still some mothers would not let them in.  In many ways, we have already built the wall.

“Perhaps our anxious leaders have never held space like this, where no one is alone and there is always enough room.  I want to bottle it up and share it.  I want to swim in it and be free.  I want to be immigrant and rooted, here, forty thousand feet above America.  Where there is not a person, not a place, not a planet too small to love generously.”[6]

That, for me, is hope.

There a meme that crossed by path this week that shares an aspect of Advent hope.  HOPE:  Helping Oppressed People Everywhere.

I read a story yesterday about a 9-year-old girl from Napa named Riley who got Steph Curry to change how his sneakers are sold.[7]  When she found out that his Curry 5 shoes are only listed in boys’ sizes on the Under Armor website, she wrote Curry a letter asking why.  Curry’s response thanked her for pointing out the problem, explained that the website was getting corrected, and offered her a free pair of shoes.  When Curry posted a picture of his hand-written response on Twitter, he tweeted, “Appreciate you helping us get better Riley!”

A 9-year-old standing up for equal rights, and a famous adult see that action as “helping us get better” – that kindles my hope.

Pursuing Advent hope involved entering the shadows, those places where all seems lost.  It means sitting with those whose lives are broken.  And once we have entered the shadows (both intellectually and emotionally), we can act and find our way into hope.[8]

I’m really not all that big on the second coming.  I don’t think many progressive Christians are.  If Jesus comes again to bring an end to the age, fine.  Whatever.  I trust God to make all that work.  Rather than the second coming, Advent for me focuses much more on what St. Bernard of Clairvaux referred to, back in the early 12th century, as the third coming of Jesus.

“The third [coming],” he preached, “lies between the other two.  It is invisible, while the other two are visible.  In the first coming [Jesus] was seen on earth, dwelling among men; …  In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God … The intermediate coming is a hidden one;… in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power…”[9]

While Bernard said, “Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last,”[10] still lifting up the second coming, the final revelation of the age, as the important coming, I think of this “third coming” as the important coming, because it is the road on which we travel once we decide to follow Jesus.  And so, for us at least, Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Jesus in our lives, a mystical coming, a coming that brings with it transformation and hope.



Questions for contemplation:

  • What is the source of your hope?
  • What kindles hope in you?
  • How do you put your hope into action?


[1] Headlines taken from various news websites over the past week.

[2] Leah D. Schade, “A Dozen Bible Passages for Preaching a Creation-Care Sermon,” Patheos, (posted 14 April 2018; accessed 29 November 2018).

[3] Quoted by Tim Suttle, “Advent is a Time for Hope: Oscar Wilde on Cynics & Sentimentalists,” Patheos, (posted and accessed 29 November 2018).

[4] Ibid, punctuation corrected.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Christy NaMee Eriksen, Facebook post, (posted 27 November 2018; accessed 28 November 2018).

[7] Tod Perry, “A nine-year-old girl asked Steph Cutty why his shoes aren’t available in girls’ sizes and his response was surprising,” Good, (posted 30 November 2018; accessed 1 December 2018).

[8] Salt Project, “Hope is a verb,” salt*, (posted and accessed 27 November 2018).

[9] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “The Three Comings of the Lord,” Catholic Online, (written in the 12th century; published online 2 December 2008; accessed 1 December 2018).

[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 25, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:25-33
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Many of you know I have a practice of writing a prayer of thanksgiving almost every night and posting it on my Facebook timeline.  I also post the prayer on a Tumblr (a blogging platform) that I reserve only for these prayers.  I suspect I’m an atypical Tumblr blogger in that I only follow a handful of other Tumblrs.  There’s an architecture Tumblr I follow because he posts beautiful photos and I love architecture.  I follow the National Public Radio Tumblr, though I’ve probably heard on the radio 90% of the stories they post.  And I follow a Tumblr called, “Humans of New York.”

Humans of New York” typically posts once a day – a picture of someone in New York and a paragraph-length quote from that person.  Last Monday, this was the picture posted.  And this was the quote that went with the picture:

“My wife urged me to take this little trip to New York so that I can clear my head.  It’s just for two days.  But my leash has been so short lately that it feels like an eternity.  Part of me definitely died when our daughter was born.  I was always a free spirited person.  I traveled a lot.  I never had a boss.  I had all the choices in the world.  But a lot of that disappeared in order to make things possible for my daughter.  I watch her during the day.  And I’m not mad about it.  This is the happiest time of my life.  It would be great if my daughter was here right now.  It’d be so fun to watch her run around the park.  But I’d also be worried about her safety.  And the diaper bag.  And the car seat.  And the stroller.  And our next meal.  And our next place to stay.  There’s always a flickering flame of worry that doesn’t go away.…”[1]

I suspect that his words resonate with the experiences of many of you who have children, be they grown or still at home.  “There’s always a flickering flame of worry that doesn’t go away.”

This truth spoken by this anonymous human in New York contrasts sharply with the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  “… do not worry about your life … can any of your worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?… Therefore, do not worry.”

It seems to me that telling someone, “Don’t worry!” is a little like telling someone, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!”  Or at least it’s about a ridiculous.  Worrying is a normal part of life.  It can be an outgrowth of love – love for self and love for others.  Our human of New York has that constant “flickering flame of worry” because he loves his daughter.

So, what do we make of Jesus’ words?

I would start here:  love is not the only source of worry.  Greed can also be a source of worry.  And I’m not just talking about our own personal greed being a source of worry, though it can be that, too.  We can worry about not having enough or of losing what we have.  I think Jesus is addressing this specific worry.  Don’t worry about having enough food or about having fancy clothing to wear, he tells the people listing to his “Sermon on the Mount.”  And I admit to this worry – not for today or even for this decade.  I worry about it in retirement.  Not often, but sometimes I wonder if I will have the resources to make ends meet into my 90s.

The other greed that I was thinking about is corporate greed.  It actually harnesses worry to feed itself.  Corporations advertise to get us to think we need something so we’ll buy it.  There are three basic tools advertising uses to produce that sense of need:  fear, fantasy, and lies.  Fear is especially effective.  Typically, it’s a low-grade fear – you know, worry.  “This is such an awesome movie! Don’t miss it!” the advertisement tells us.  That pitch is actually working on our fear, in particular our fear of missing out.  Similarly, advertising targeting parents will manipulate their fear that they might be bad at it, and then offers their product as a solution.

Politicians do the same thing in their advertising.  First, they create something for you to fear, then they offer themselves as the solution.  And people end up voting for someone whose policies are much scarier than the manufactured fear.

I think Jesus would say that same thing to these worries:  don’t.  Don’t stew on whatever it is you’re worrying about.  That threat the politician is selling you?  It isn’t a threat.  Do your best and trust your parenting.  You’ll be just fine if you don’t see the movie.  Save some money and trust the future.

About a year-and-a-half into the Great Recession, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote a reflection that addresses this challenge of not worrying.[2]  He identified that he called “three dimensions of the moral-theological foundations of the current economic crisis:”  autonomy, anxiety, and greed.

One of the operative myths in American culture is the myth of the rugged individual.  This myth proclaims that we are each autonomous, owing no one anything, accountable to no one, and relying on no one by ourselves.  It resists what we might called the “communitarian reality” – that we are, in fact, connected and that we need each other.  This myth also encourages us to each organize our life around our individual needs, issues, and priorities.  Interestingly, a person who perceived themself as autonomous is called “the fool” in the Psalms, in large part because the autonomous person has no need for God.  In fact, the autonomous individual chaffs against any divine claim on them, especially the claims of divine restraint.

“But the downside of such theological autonomy is that without the restraint of God, one is also without the resource of God.”  The autonomous person has to believe they are self-sufficient, but creating security and satisfaction by oneself is impossible.  The outcome of living by the myth of the rugged individual is a life without security and satisfaction, a life filled with worry and anxiety.  To cope with this anxiety, in an effort to find security and satisfaction, the autonomous person needs to constantly accumulate.  The belief is that having enough will lead to a sense of safety and satisfaction, but it is never achieved.  So the autonomous person falls in to the trap of the endless rat race, chasing the unattainable, which in turn “produces bottomless anxiety—about the market, about performance, about self-worth.  The autonomous person in the end has nowhere to put [their] anxiety except to ‘suck it up’ and keep moving.

“In Leviticus 26:36-37, Moses characterizes the anxiety of a person (or a people) cut off from God and fated to a life under curse:  ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues.  They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though no one pursues.’

“Such a person finds threat, danger, and insecurity everywhere.  The only sensible response to [the] imagined threat is greater effort that in turn only produces a new round of anxiety.”

You can see where this is going.  Each round of anxiety leads to a round of accumulation.  The autonomous person attempts to calm their anxiety with greed.  When we understand this, “It is not difficult to understand why those with the most think they do not yet have enough,” says Brueggemann.  “And those with less imitate the ravenously greedy ones, so that there is collusion between those who have much and want more and those who have little but long for much.  This collusion readily produces subprime loans in which creditors see easy interest income and debtors imagine a better life beyond present deprivation.”

We need only look at the Bible for an alternative to “this hopeless, self-devouring process.”  One of the themes that runs through both testaments is covenant.  God covenants with creation at the flood, with Abraham and Sarah and their progeny, and with the Hebrews at Mount Sinai.  The people covenant with God and reaffirm that covenant throughout the dramatic arc of the Hebrew scriptures.  And Jesus established a new covenant at the Last Supper.  Covenant “binds the self to the holy, faithful God and to neighbors who are members in a common economy.”

Likewise, we regularly see an invitation away from anxiety and “to the abundance of God.”  From the picture of God as “creator who sets creation into its destiny of fruitfulness, so that the world teems with abundance,” to the stories of God providing for the escaping slaves in the wilderness, to Jesus feeding the multitudes, we see the abundance of God.  “Whereas autonomous economics begins with a premise of scarcity, biblical faith is grounded in the generosity of God who wills and provides abundance.  And here persons who are members of a covenantal neighborhood respond to divine abundance with generous gratitude, willing to share with sisters and brothers.”  It is out of this covenantally grounded vision of divine abundance that Jesus urges his followers, “Do not worry,… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

And the Bible offers an alternative to greed:  “the neighborly practice of generosity.  The champions of acquisitiveness regard others as threats and competitors.  But in a covenantal frame of reference grounded in God’s abundance, others are seen to be brothers and sisters whose life is in a community of solidarity that shares the God-given resources for the well-being of all.”

A week ago, I thought this to be a strange gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Sunday.  I’m not thinking that way now.

If Brueggemann’s analysis is accurate, and I think it is, a question remains – or perhaps it’s three questions:

  • How do we move from the myth of autonomy into covenant community?
  • How do we move from anxiety to abundance?
  • How do we move from greed to generosity?

I suspect there are several ways that can help us make these moves.  One that I have identified is this:  thanksgiving.

When we practice gratitude, when we conscientiously offer our thanks, we recognized that we are bound to each other.  I’ve noticed in myself and with others that this does not happen immediately – at least not typically.  We can be so immersed in the myth of autonomy that our beginning practices of giving thanks can actually reinforce it.  “Thank you that I was about to pull myself up by my own bootstraps today, God.”  But over time, the prayers will change.  “Thank you, God, that I was welcomed to that table by those people to share that wonderful food that so many prepared.”  Thanksgiving draws me into community.

Similarly, a practice of thanksgiving can move us from worry to recognizing the good gifts that God provides.[3]  Worry focuses on obstacles and threats.  Gratitude focuses on blessings.  The more we focus on obstacles and worries, the more aggrieved and threatened we are likely to feel.  The more we focus on blessings, the more we will see the abundance of blessings that have always been present.

Gratitude also greases the movement from greed to generosity.  Because gratitude focuses on gifts received, it relieves anxieties, and as anxieties are relieved, the greed response diminishes.  The more one recognizes that God’s economy is one of gifts, the more one is likely to join that economy and become part of the giving.

So, when Jesus told the people on the mount, “Don’t worry,” he just might have been inviting them into a practice of thanksgiving.  Which makes this a very appropriate reading for Thanksgiving Sunday.



Questions for reflection:

How has a practice of giving thanks moved you …

  • from autonomy to community?
  • from anxiety to abundance?
  • from greed to generosity?

How will you bring more thanksgiving into your life?


[1] A guy on a park bench, Humans of New York, (posted and accessed 19 November 2018).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey,” Sojourners, (written February 2009; accessed 20 November 2018).  The quotes that follow are from this article; I’m not bothering to footnote each one.

[3] This has been called the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry.” You can learn more about it at, among other places.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Ruth 1:1-18
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We do the book of Ruth a disservice when we grab only a few verses to read in worship.  While I think that the verses we heard today include some of the most beautiful in scripture, the short story is really meant to be read as a whole.  If you haven’t read the four chapters in one sitting during the past few years, do yourself a favor and read them this week.

And, while I encourage you to read the original with week, everyone needs to be familiar with the basic plot points today for this sermon. So, here is the cliff notes version of the whole story.

An important contextual note:  Like all scripture, the story of Ruth is set within a framework of cultural assumptions and norms we need to be aware of.  One of them was that “women had no identity or security separate from males – either the ones they married or the ones they gave birth to.  Women were defined more often than not by their roles as sexual partners and bearers of heirs.”[1]

The story begins with a famine in the land of Judah.  Because of that famine, Elimelech takes his small family – his wife and his two sons – to Moab.  The story doesn’t say if they were part of a caravan of hungry refugees or if they made their way to this foreign country on their own.  We are simply told that they made their way to Moab to escape the famine.

It appears that Moab was welcoming enough for Elimelech’s family to establish themselves.  Even after Elimelech died, his sons each married local women.

Then tragedy struck again.  Elimelech’s sons died.  This left a household of three women without a male in their family.  Vulnerable in this situation, Naomi (Elimelech’s wife) decided to return to Judah.  She told her daughters-in-law to return to their birth families in Moab, and Orpah did. But Ruth refuses to go, uttering these beautiful words of love and commitment.  “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following after you; for where you go I will go, and where you live I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

“When Naomi saw that Ruth could not be swayed, the two of them traveled together to Bethlehem.  They went to the fields of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi.  There Ruth gleaned among the ears of grain in order to feed Naomi and herself.”[2]

It is worth noting that Boaz could not order his regular workers to harvest everything.  Jewish law required landowners not to harvest what grew in the corners of the field and not to return to harvest what they missed on the first go-round.  That food was left for the poor, for people to come and glean in order to feed themselves. Social compassion was more important than efficiency.  Although Boaz was generous-hearted, it was Ruth’s right to glean.[3]

“When Boaz came to the fields and saw Ruth among the stalks of grain, he inquired of his servant in charge of the reapers, ‘Whose maiden is this?’  When the servant explained that Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, Boaz said to her, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my maidens.…  Have I not charged the young men not to molest you?  And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn’ (Ruth 2:8-9).

“Ruth was deeply touched by this kindness, and equally so by Boaz’ invitation to share a meal with him and the others of his house.  For his part, Boaz had been moved by Ruth’s care for her aging mother-in-law.  Ruth gathered up some extra food after the meal, then gleaned in the fields until evening, and returned to Naomi to share all that she had acquired.  Naomi was relieved for the protection that Ruth had been granted by Boaz and encouraged her to stay close to Boaz’ maidens, which she did until the end of the barley and wheat harvest.

“Naomi then began to be concerned about Ruth’s future, saying to her, ‘My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you?  Now is not Boaz our kinsman?  See, he is winnowing barley tonight.  Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor …’ (Ruth 3:1-3).

“Ruth did as Naomi had counseled her.  After Boaz had eaten and drunk and fallen asleep at the end of a heap of grain, Ruth went and lay near him.  At midnight Boaz was startled to roll over and find a woman at his feet [if you know what I mean].  When he groggily asked who she was, Ruth explained that she was there to ask him as next of kin to her deceased husband to perform his duty of marriage to her.  Boaz explained that there was a nearer relative who should be offered the first opportunity to marry her, but that if he refused, Boaz would be glad to oblige. So the next morning Boaz went to the city gate, where such business was customarily transacted, and talked with the next of kin in the presence of the [community’s] elders.”[4]  A deal was struck and “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.”  (Ruth 4:13)

The story ends with this little tidbit of information.  Boaz and Ruth had a son named Obed, and Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David.  Which makes Ruth, a foreigner, the great-grandmother of the greatest king of Israel.

“Ruth’s choice to give up her country and her gods for Naomi is countercultural in more ways than one.  The story hinges on Ruth’s and Naomi’s commitment to each other, the ways they work within a male-dominated system to care for and support each other. “Ironically, Ruth’s beautiful, lyrical words, ‘where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16), are often read during weddings.  But this is Ruth’s cross-generational, cross-tribal, and cross-religion pledge to her mother-in-law, not to a husband.

“The story of Ruth and Naomi is one that is repeated again through history.  Ones who are displaced, more often than not women, without home or certain means, find each other and stay with each other.  Instead of mutual vulnerability making them weaker, their relationship brings forth grace and strength.  God moves in subversion of what culture names as security and power.”[5]

I cannot read this story without thinking of the so-called caravan of people from Central America coming north to the USA as they flee violence and hunger in their home countries.  Rabbi Arthur Washow raises some chilling questions about this story as he projects it onto contemporary America.

“[I]f Ruth came to America today, what would happen?

“Would she be admitted at the border?

“Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion – detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolater?

“Would she be deported as merely an ‘economic refugee,’ not a worthy candidate for asylum?

“Would she have to show a ‘green card’ before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?

“Would she be sent to ‘workfare’ with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?

“Would she face contempt because she and Naomi, traveling without a man, might be a lesbian couple?…

“When she boldly ‘uncovers the feet’ of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the ‘family values’ that some religious folk now proclaim?…”[6]

While President Trump attempts to circumvent current immigration law in his effort to keep the asylum seekers traveling through Mexico from gaining legal access to the United States, the book of Ruth compels us to look not just at U.S. interests, but at the interests, the needs, the plight of these Central American refugees.

Though they have been described regularly as either fleeing gang violence or extreme poverty, there is another crucial driving factor behind the migrant caravan:  climate change.  “Most members of the migrant caravans come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – three countries devastated by violence, organised crime and systemic corruption, the roots of which can be traced back to the region’s cold war conflicts [(for which our own CIA bears significant responsibility)].

“Experts say that alongside those factors, climate change in the region is exacerbating – and sometimes causing – a miasma of other problems including crop failures and poverty.

“And they warn that in the coming decades, it is likely to push millions more people north towards the US.…

“According to Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, ‘The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat.  This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.’”[7]

With a third of all employment in Central American linked to agriculture, any disruption to farming practices, like those caused by climate change, can have devastating economic consequences.  Economic disruption can lead to increased violence and other forms of criminality.  And the spiral continues.[8]

“A study of Central American migrants by the World Food Program last year found that nearly half described themselves as food insecure.  The research found an increasing trend of young people moving as a result of … poverty and lack of work.”[9]

The book of Ruth is so jam-packed with relevance, it may be one of the most relevant books of the Bible today.  This is a story about border crossing and culture mixing.  It is a story of the importance of having truly committed friends in the struggle for justice.  It is a story agency in the struggle against the patriarchy, of women working together to be the directors of their own lives.  It is a story about the importance of creating community.

And here are three other things this story is about.  It is a story about confronting racism.  “Some scholars believe that Ruth was written to combat the xenophobia and ethnic purity articulated and legalized in Ezra and Nehemiah.  In hopes of a new beginning after the Exile, the religious-political leaders ban intermarriage and force Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives. Ezra and Nehemiah believe God’s demands purity and purity begins in the home with the exorcism of otherness.  But, Ruth is a foreigner.  She marries an upstanding child of Abraham and is a direct ancestor – the great grandmother – of the Great King David.  Israel’s greatest king is of mixed-race heritage.”[10]

This makes the story one about God’s “gentle, inobtrusive, non-coercive, and persistent”[11]radically inclusive love.

And finally, the story is an invitation.  It is an invitation for each of us, regardless of our life-situation, “to claim our agency as creators of a new and just world along with God.  Our positive use of our freedom gives birth to God’s presence in our world.  We are invited to welcome outsiders and foreigners and, if we are outsiders and foreigners, to know that God loves and guides us.  We are challenged to become agents and adventures, leaving a legacy of grace and transformation wherever we are.”[12]



[1]Julie Polter, “Together and Strong,” Sojourners, 6 November 2018).

[2]Joyce Hollyday, “‘You Shall Not Afflict …’,” Sojourners, 6 November 2018).

[3]Rabbi Arthur Washow, “What if the Bible’s Ruth came to America Today?” Sojourners, 6 November 2018).

[4]Hollyday, op. cit.

[5]Polter,op. cit.

[6]Washow, op. cit.

[7]Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren, “The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: climate change,” The Guardian, (posted 30 October 2018; accessed 9 November 2018).



[10]Bruce Epperly, “Ruth, Immigration, and the Seven Steps of Creative Transformation,” Patheos, 23 October 2018; accessed 9 November 2018).



A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 28, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Micah 6:1-8 and Luke 11:37-44
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One evening, years ago, when I lived on the edge of King County, Washington, I drove into Seattle to meet up with some friends to see a movie.  I stopped in a pizza shop to grab something to eat before the movie.  The pizza shop had a red, tiled floor, which (given Seattle’s propensity to drizzle) was damp.  As I stood in line, my foot slid out from underneath me and I quickly got up close and personal with that red tile.  I lay there, immediately feeling like a klutz.  Almost as quickly, someone spoke up.

Now, there are three things I would have expected to hear from a bystander.  I would have expected a bystander to point at me and laugh; or I would have expected a bystander to ask if I was okay; or I would have expected a bystander to offer a hand to help me up.  None of those what the immediate response.  What I heard, almost as quickly as I fell, were two words:  “Sue ’em.”

When I dropped a 45-pound weight on my big toe at the gym something like nine years ago, the staff was relatively compassionate when I hobbled over to the staff area.  They were very quick to get me some requested ice.  And the club manager tried to act nonchalant as he sat with me and inquired as to what happened.  But I could tell that underneath his questions, he was preparing a defense for a possible lawsuit – one that I had no intention of filing.

It seems to me that American culture is sue-happy.  It is a pity, perhaps even a shame (as in, “we should be ashamed”), that we so quickly move our disputes to the courthouse, rather than working them out with each other.  One might think that, given our cultural propensity to move to the courthouse, we would immediately notice that Micah 6:1-8 is a lawsuit.  Perhaps it’s the power of verse 8 that draws our attention away from the details of verses 1-7, but I don’t want to gloss over them.

The scene opens with God as bailiff, calling the parties in the lawsuit to the court and to plead their case.

“Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.”

Then God switches roles and makes a case in the most peculiar way.  One might expect God to lay out the charges, to explain that the “controversy with his people” is.  There is a broken relationship between God and Israel and the community within Israel itself is broken.  But God doesn’t blast Israel.  God doesn’t say, “You, O Israel, have broken covenant with me!  You, O Israel, are not caring for your people!”  Instead, God asks, “Where did I go wrong?”

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.…”

That is not a prosecution strategy you’re going to see on “Law & Order.”

I wonder how it would work in the case Juliana v. U.S.  If you’re not familiar with this case, let me tell you about it.  In 2015, 21 youth sued the federal government (including then-President Barack Obama) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.  Their complaint claims that, through the government’s “actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”[1]  In other words, this group of youth are suing the government for allow and even encouraging climate change to happen.

The case has been dragging through the courts.  The government has tried repeatedly to get the case dismissed.  Lower courts have repeatedly denied this motion.  That denial has been appealed.  A trial date was set for tomorrow, October 29, but it has been delayed by yet another motion to the Supreme Court.  It is not clear when, or even if, the Supreme Court will allow the case to go forward.  Nonetheless, demonstrations have been planned for today and tomorrow across the country, including one tomorrow, 3:00-6:00, outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.[2]  (Yes, I’m inviting you to attend.)

Assuming the Supreme Court allows this case to go to trial, can you imagine the youth standing up in the court and turning to the government’s lawyers and saying, “Where did we go wrong?  What did we do that you would destroy our future?  How have we offended you that you would allow the environment to be destroyed?”  I don’t know how effective a legal strategy that would be, but it is what these youth are saying on behalf of all youth and all future generations.  What have we done that you should destroy our future?

It may be an ineffective legal strategy for the American federal courts, yet it is essentially God’s legal strategy in the case of Micah 6:1-8.  “I have repeatedly saved you, first by bringing you out of slavery in Egypt.  And yet I’ve offended you?  Yet somehow you’re wearied of me?  Let me what I’ve done to you.”

Israel, through the mouth of Micah, seems to have convicted themselves in response to God’s pleading.  They seem to say, “We’re guilty,” with their response, which comes as a series of questions:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

Notice how the response keeps getting bigger, more demanding, more costly.  Yes, God is God, and we should come before God, we should bow before God in recognition of that fact.  We should offer our contrition for having turned our backs on God and each other.  But what do we bring?  What would satisfy God for our sinfulness?  Should we offer sacrifices?  Should we come with thousands of ram and rivers of oil?  What is an appropriate sacrifice?

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

And then Micah responds:

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Yesterday morning, a white man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people.  These are their names.  Micah’s prophetic word from thousands of years ago resonates today.

Rev. William Barber, II, said, speaking of this horrific act, “I’m reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: ‘we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.’”[3]  The system, the way of life, the philosophy at work that produces murderers like this one, need to be named and challenged.  These are transgressions that we as a society have committed and ten thousand rivers of oil will not make up for this.

Micah is right.  There is only one way to address this, and that is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

All this month, we’ve been inviting each other to think about our financial giving to the church during the next year.  The primary question has been, “What shall we bring?”  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our “yes” to God.  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our stories to the community.  We’ve talked about the importance of bringing our gifts – our skills, our time, and our money – to support the church’s ministry.

Today we bring our financial pledges.  From a practical point of view, we do this to help the leadership of the church build a budget for next year.  From a spiritual point of view, we do this to encourage ourselves to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  As this scripture points out, God doesn’t want our calves and our rams and our rivers of oil.

God wants our whole lives.

You see, “a life of relationship with God inevitably results in constant and intentional (not [simply] random) acts of justice and love of mercy.  Acting justly means actively working to rectify that which favors some and crushes others.  Loving mercy includes giving one’s self as offering over and over.  Loving mercy means offering generosity and forgiveness, out of a love that transcends our prejudice, because God has, does, and will continue to do the same for us.  A humble walk with God implies that we recognize justice and mercy aren’t dependent on our standards or abilities.  Humility keeps our egos in check so that we don’t think of ourselves as ‘magnanimous vigilantes’ but rather as humble followers responding to the call from” God.[4]



Questions for contemplation

In addition to your financial pledge today, how could it look like to pledge

  • to be more deeply involved in bringing justice to our land?
  • to more consistently doing acts of loving kindness and mercy?
  • to walk more humbly with God?


[1] Our Children’s Trust, (accessed 27 October 2018).

[2] Learn more at

[3] The Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, quoted on the California Poor People’s Campaign Facebook page, (posted and accessed 28 October 2018).

[4] Daphne Gascot Aries, “What Shall We Bring? Micah 1:35, 5:2-51, 6:6-8,” an essay written as part of the stewardship materials we have been using this season.

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!


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, May 2014).

[2]“Stoicism,” Wikipedia, May 2014).

[3]“Areopagus,” Wikipedia, 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, May 2014).


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