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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 John 4:18-21 and Deuteronomy 24:14-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It might be helpful if I being with a little glossary. Refugees are people fleeing civil unrest, war, famine, or persecution, sometimes a combination. They are leaving everything they have known to start over in a place they believe is safe. Not all people who flee civil unrest, war, famine, or persecution end up fleeing to another country. Some simply move to another part of their country – and are called “internally displaced.” But when they move to another country, they are considered “refugees.”
We are probably more aware of the refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq than other refugees. However, because of famine that is looming in four countries, I suspect we will be seeing more refugee crises.
In addition to the four countries mentioned in that video, the United Nations has identified Kenya as another country facing a food crisis, where more than 2.7 million people are food insecure, and that this number could reach four million by April.
When we talk about U.S. immigration policy, we’re talking about refugees, yes. But more likely, we’re talking about immigrants. Immigrants are people moving from one country to another primarily for economic or educational opportunities, or for family reunification. Immigrants can follow a process defined in law and go to a new country legally, or they can go to a new country without following the process defined in law and go to the new country illegally. Immigrants who come to the United States legally often, but not always, have a specific opportunity identified – a job lined up or a college admission. Immigrants who come to the United States illegally rarely have a specific opportunity identified.
When my great-great-great-great – actually, I don’t remember how many greats it is – grandparents moved to this continent, they didn’t have visas. The people who lived here at the time didn’t issue visas. John and Priscilla were on a boat called Mayflower and they thought that the permission of the English government to establish a colony was all the permission they needed.
150 years later, their descendants (at least some of them) decided it was time to declare their independence from Great Britain. Thirteen years later, the founding fathers got around to putting together the nuts and bolts of the new nation and its government, and when the first Congress convened in 1790, one of the first acts they passed was a naturalization act. This law “provided the first rules to be followed by the United States in the granting of national citizenship. This law limited naturalization to aliens who were ‘free white persons’ and thus left out indentured servants, slaves, free blacks, and later Asians, as well as women.”
It would be anachronistic to call this restriction “racist” (or “sexist”). Notions of race weren’t really developed for another hundred years or so. Still, as I’ve talked about in previous sermons in this series, this attitude that white Anglo-Saxons are better than other humans weaved the patterns of racism into the fabric of our nation.
Immigration into this new nation came from two places initially. The bulk of the immigration was from Western Europe. There was also, until 1804, the importation of Africans to serve as slaves. (After 1804, the slave population continued to grow because the child of a slave was a slave.) The Western Europeans were sufficiently like the Anglo-Saxon founders of the nation and they assimilated rather smoothly. The Africans were held in bondage and so were not seen as a threat to the Anglo-Saxon-American way of life. But that started to change in the 1800s.
If you’re like me, you were taught that the Irish potato famine was caused by a fungal blight that wiped out the potato crop in Ireland. “While the blight did strike and take down most of Ireland’s potatoes, the truth is that Ireland was exporting more than enough food to feed everyone at the same time as the famine was happening. Run as a colony of the vast British Empire, Ireland was a colonial food-producing operation, much like India and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, but locals were not allowed to eat the very food they were producing.
“In other words, a million Irish starved for no reason other than greed.” But this is a sermon on immigration policy, not economic policy, so we’ll save that line of thought for another day.
Not only did a million of Irish starve, but about two million emigrated, most (about three-quarters) coming to the United States. They faced suspicion upon their arrival here. They weren’t WASPs, and this bothered those who were in power. As with other non-WASP immigrants, they faced a “nativist” backlash. Catholics, Jews, and people speaking anything other than English were the favored targets of nativism. Technically speaking, “Nativism is the political position of supporting a favored status for the native majority of a nation while targeting and threatening newcomers or immigrants.” In the United States, “native majority” had nothing to do with Native Americans. It meant – and still means – English-speaking, white people.
Also in the middle of the 1800s, gold was discovered in California. Not only did this mean that east coasters came to the west coast, but people from all around the world came to the west coast – even from China. “There is a rich an interesting history of the conflicts that developed between the Chinese immigrants and the Americans who had migrated from the eastern United States. Riots and violence were regularly recurring features. A generation of populist politicians built their careers by stirring up hysteria against the yellow peril. Finally, agitation reached a level sufficient to persuade congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act” in 1882. Not only did the Chinese Exclusion Act keep new immigrants from China out of the country, it also “affected the Chinese who had already settled in the United States. Any Chinese who left the United States had to obtain certifications for reentry, and the Act made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens by excluding them from U.S. citizenship.”
“When the US entered World War I, about one in four US residents were not native born. Tension between the new arrivals and the nativists was chronically high. Following the war this resulted in an effort to shut down immigration. This was codified in the Immigration Act of 1924. Also know as the Johnson-Reed Act, it “limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890…. The law was aimed at further restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans who were immigrating in large numbers starting in the 1890s, as well as prohibiting the immigration of East Asians and Asian Indians.”
My maternal grandmother got caught by this act. There were so few Swiss in the United States in 1890, the number allowed in during the mid and late 1920s was very small, and she repeatedly didn’t make the quota. I need to do a little family archeology to find out how she eventually made it into the United States.
If we’re surveying U.S. immigration policy, we can’t skip over the so-called “Mexican Repatriation” – a blot on our country’s history that I never learned about in school. “The Mexican Repatriation refers to a forced migration that took place between 1929 and 1939, when as many as one million people [estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to two million people] of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the US. The term ‘Repatriation,’ though commonly used, is inaccurate, since approximately 60% of those driven out were U.S. citizens.” Because the forced movement was based on race while it ignored citizenship, one might wonder if this effort meets the modern standards to label it an incident of ethnic cleansing.
As we did following World War I, after World War II, the United States tightened immigration rules. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 organized the various rules and laws into one act. On the surface, it looked like the law moved away from racism. “The Act abolished racial restrictions found in United States immigration and naturalization statutes going back to the Naturalization Act of 1790.” However, these restrictions were replaced with nation-of-origin quotas. But if you allow 51,227 people to immigrate from Germany but only 512 from the Belgian Congo – well, maybe you just have racial restrictions by another name.
The nation-of-origin quotas actually only applied to one class of immigrant, topping the number of these regular immigrants at 270,000 per year. This did not include those with special skills for employment or who had relatives who were U.S. citizens; they were exempt from the quota. And it did not include refugees, who could apply for immigration under a procedure set following World War II though international agreement.
The last significant immigration act was passed in 1965. This act “abolished the national origins quota system that had structured American immigration policy since the 1920s, replacing it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or residents of the U.S. Numerical restrictions on visas were set at 170,000 per year, not including immediate relatives of U.S. citizens,” and some other rarified cases. While this was a step in the right direction, vestiges of racism remain in the practice of administering immigration law. Officially, Congress ended the national-origins quotas to create a policy that was “equal.” But “equal” means that every country has the same cap, and this was actually done to limit legal immigration from Mexico and countries in Asia. A 1986 law included extra visas for nationals from 36 countries, most of which are in Europe. The Diversity Visa program launched by the 1990 immigration reform bill was established to favor Europeans.
This brings us to today. Today, we live in a country of about 320 million people. About 300 million of them are citizens. Of the remaining roughly 20 million, about half are legal immigrants and the other half are in the country illegally. The immigrants who are here without documentation either came without documents or overstayed the permission they had to be here. It has been the policy of the United States to deport the people who are here without documentation. Poking around trying to find numbers, I discovered that definitions have changed. It looks to me like administrations didn’t classify removals of people who had just illegally crossed the border as deportations until the Obama administration (and it’s not clear to me when the Obama administration started calling them deportations). So President Obama may or may not have deported more people than any other President (at least so far) – it’s unclear.
Two things are clear:
- Deportations are continuing under the Trump administration – though according to the USA Today, “The first major immigration raid under President Trump shows a clear shift in the federal government’s deportation strategy, focusing more on undocumented immigrants without criminal records than under President Obama.”
- The levels of anxiety in families where one or more of the parents is here without documentation is skyrocketing as they fear that their families may be torn apart by a deportation.
Meanwhile, President Trump has tried yet again to ban travel from Syria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia – at least temporarily. (Yes, the last two countries on that list are facing famine.) The order also bans all refugees from entering the country for at least 120 days. While the ban has been halted by federal judges, it is clear what the President wants to do.
I don’t want to argue the constitutionality of order – I’ll let the lawyers and judges hash that out. What I want to talk about is how this legacy of racism in our immigration policies goes against the gospel of Jesus Christ. When our policies say – directly or indirectly – that you are more or less worthy because of your race (in this case, worthy or unworthy to become part of our country), that goes against the truth that we are all created in the image of God, that we are all precious in the heart of God, that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
Heck, it goes against one of the strongest through line in scripture. Listen to this.
Listen again to these words from our lesson from 1 John: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
So, how do we as a church address this legacy of racism in our immigration policy? I’ve got a couple ideas. We could investigate becoming a sanctuary congregation. We could volunteer to sponsor a refugee family. A contingent of our congregation could participate in a border immersion program and report back to the congregation. And if you want to do something personally, you can volunteer at an immigrants’ rights organization.
Since we are a non-creedal church, we generally don’t recite creeds. I know I’m resistant to reciting creeds because I want to go through them with a pen so I can cross out things that I don’t believe or that I think are too easily open to misinterpretation. Still, I’m going to invite you to join me in reciting a creed today – not as a statement of belief, but as a statement of hope.
I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus, the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, the God of foreigners and immigrants.
I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean, who was born away from his people and his home, who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger. When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power. Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us, who speaks all languages, lives in all countries, and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home for foreigners and for all believers. I believe that the communion of saints begins when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity. I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God, and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.
I believe that in the Resurrection God will unite us as one people in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner but all will be citizens of the kingdom where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.
 “UN aid chief urges global action as starvation, famine loom for 20 million across four countries,” UN News Centre, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56339#.WM4hgxiZOH1 (posted 10 March 2017; accessed 15 March 2017).
 I think it’s something like 13 or 14 “greats” between John Alden and Priscilla Mullins (they married once they were in the Americas) and me.
 Ocean Malandra, “EarthRx: The Irish Potato Famine Was Caused by Capitalism, Not a Fungus,” Paste, https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/03/earthrx-the-irish-potato-famine-was-caused-by-capi.html (posted 13 March 2016; accessed 17 March 2017).
 Lyon, op. cit.
 Wikipedia, “Chinese Exclusion Act,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Exclusion_Act (accessed 18 March 2017).
 Lyon, op. cit.
 Wikipedia, “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952 (accessed 18 March 2017).
 These are sample numbers shared with my by Jim Peck.
 Students at the University of Washington-Bothell, “1965 Immigration and Nationality Act …” U.S. Immigration Legislation Online, http://library.uwb.edu/Static/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html (accessed 18 March 2017).
 David Cook-Martin and David Scott FitzGerald, “How Legacies of Racism Persist in U.S. Immigration Policy,” Scholars Strategy Network, http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/how-legacies-racism-persist-us-immigration-policy (posted June 2014; accessed 18 March 2017).
 “Population Distribution by Citizenship Status,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-by-citizenship-status/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D (accessed 18 March 2017).
 Alan Gomez, “Trump immigration raids show greater focus on non-criminals,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/02/16/president-trump-immigration-raids-target-fewer-criminals/97988770/ (posted 16 February 2017, accessed 19 March 2017).
 See, for instance, Andrew Gumbel, “Doctors see a new condition among immigrant children: fear of Trump,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/25/donald-trump-immigration-deportation-children-doctors (posted 25 November 2016; accessed 18 March 2017).
 Written by José Luis Casal, now director of Presbyterian World Mission, prepared it for a worship service for the Assembly of APCE in Chicago around 1998 or 1999.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-28 and Isaiah 42:1-9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Brian McLaren calls Jesus’ visit with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi a fieldtrip. I think that’s an interesting framing (it reinforces the idea of Jesus as a teacher) and, if nothing else, it lifts up the importance of the location.
And the location is important. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of their base in Galilee. The location has a long history as a place of worship. Canaanites worshiped the god Baal there. Later, the Greek god Pan was worshiped there. Eventually, the Romans replaced the Greeks and around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was part of the region the Romans had Herod the Great controlling.
When Herod the Great died, the area he ruled was divided among his surviving sons to rule. This area north and east of the Jordan was placed by the Roman emperor under Philip’s control. He changed the name of the town to Caesarea Philippi – the first part of the name honoring his patron, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor; the second part of the name honoring himself (can you say, “ego issues”?). The second part of the name actually did serve a practical purpose. There was another community called Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, so calling this community Caesarea Philippi did distinguish it. But, yeah, ego issues.
Imagine what it would have been like for a rabbi to take a group of Jews to this Caesar-ville. You walk the streets and are reminded, simply by the location, that a foreign army occupies your country. You walk the streets and you are reminded that you are not free. It might be like a Native American teacher taking a group to Wounded Knee or a Japanese teacher taking a class to Hiroshima.
There in the middle of a place where many gods have been worshiped over the centuries, there in the middle of the latest Caesar-ville, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This vignette takes place in Mark and Luke as well, only the question is a little different. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people (or the crowds) say that I am?” In Matthew, the question is, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” So there’s a reason Matthew uses “Son of Man.”
In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus uses “Son of Man,” he is almost using it as a first person pronoun, so at one level Jesus is essentially asking the same question as in Mark and Luke. But that’s not the only way Matthew uses “Son of Man.” There is a strong association of “Son of Man” in Matthew’s gospel with “the Son of Man” being the judge at the end of time and of “the Son of Man” having a kingdom.
So, here we are in Caesar-ville, and Jesus is asking who the people say the final judge is. His disciples’ answers express some of the theology of the day. Maybe the Son of Man was a prophet of old. Maybe the Son of Man was John the Baptist (who has been killed by this point in Matthew’s narrative).
As I read Matthew’s version of the exchange, I feel like Jesus knows the answer he going to get to his next question. “But who do you say that I am?” The obvious answer is, “the Son of Man,” the one who will judge the nations at the end of time, the one who has the alternative kingdom. I don’t get that feeling in Mark’s and Luke’s versions, but here in Matthew’s version Jesus’ second question feels almost like a leading question.
Peter offers the answer: “You are the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ), the Son of the living God.” Not just the Son of Man, mind you, but the Son of the living God. To our ears, this sounds like a theological claim, but given the setting, it is as much a political statement as it is a theological statement. In Greek, Christ, in Hebrew, Messiah – it means “the one anointed as liberating king.”
“To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’
“Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods,’ but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and live God.”
Here’s what McLaren says about Jesus response to Peter’s confession. “[Jesus] speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centers of evil.’ Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically-charged setting.”
Most (maybe even all) Jews who thought God would send the Messiah during the Roman occupation assumed the Messiah to be a liberating king by being the leader of an army – an army that would prevail against the powers that oppressed them. This is the Messiah Peter was expecting. And if Jesus truly was the Messiah, then the one thing he cannot be is defeated. He will conquer and capture the enemies. He must torture and kill the enemies. But that’s not what Jesus says will happen.
Yes, he’s going to travel south to Jerusalem, the seat of power. But he’s not going with an army and he’s not going to wage a war. He is going to be conquered, captured, tortured, and killed by the very agents of oppression that the Messiah is supposed to save them from. And then be raised.
But Peter doesn’t seem to hear that last part. He takes Jesus aside. That’s not the way the story is supposed to go. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” “Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, Satanic, the opposite of God’s plan.”
Since the beginning, Jesus has taught a different way, a third way to over come the principalities and powers. If you’re not a part of the Adult Sunday School class, I encourage you to join. And if you can’t join, I encourage you to read the book they are reading and discussing anyway. They are about halfway through The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink, and in it Wink speaks directly to today’s gospel lesson.
“The Domination System,” he says, “grows out of the fundamental belief that violence must be used to overcome violence.” Thus, the Domination System is stuck in a cycle of violence. As a program to overcome the Domination System, the kin-dom of God must overcome this cycle of violence, so that is what Jesus did. That is why Jesus said that he is going to Jerusalem and why he would be killed. The cross laid bare the domination system and refused to play its game of cycling violence.
“When the Powers That Be [that’s Wink’s term for the principalities and powers of oppression] catch the merest whiff of God’s new order, they automatically mobilize all their might to crush it. Even before the full fury of the Powers was unleashed on Jesus, he apparently predicted the outcome of the confrontation [as we heard in today’s scripture lesson]. The Powers are so immense, and the opposition so weak, that every attempt at fundamental change seems doomed to failure. Merely winning does not satisfy the Powers; they must win big, in order to demoralize opposition before it can gain momentum. Gratuitous violence, mocking derision, and intimidating brutality in the means of execution typify the Power – all this is standard, unexceptional. Jesus died just like all the others who challenged the world-dominating Power.
“Something went awry in Jesus’ case, however. The Powers scourged him with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy. They mocked him with a robe and a crown of thorns, spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed, ridiculing him with the ironic ovation, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ – not knowing how their acclamation would echo down the centuries. They stripped him naked and crucified him in humiliation, all unaware that this very act had stripped the Powers of the last covering that disguised the towering wrongness of the whole way of life that their violence defended. They nailed him to the cross, not realizing that with each hammer’s blow they were nailing up, for the whole world to see, the affidavit by which the Domination System would be condemned.”
We heard our invitation to participate in this work in our gospel lesson. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Wink interprets this for us: “One does not become free from the Powers by defeating them in a frontal attack. Rather, one dies to their control … [W]e are liberated, not by striking back at what enslaves us – for even striking back reveals that we are still controlled by violence – but by a willingness to die rather than submit to its command.…
“We must die to such things as racism, false patriotism, greed, and homophobia. We must, in short, die to the Domination System in order to live authentically.”
What Wink is saying is just as paradoxical as what Jesus said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But, as Wink points out, “Dying to the Power is not, finally, a way of saving our souls, but of making ourselves expendable in the divine effort to rein in the recalcitrant Powers. When Jesus said, ‘Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it’ (Luke 17:33), he drew a line in the sand and asked if we would step across – step out of one entire world, where violence is always the ultimate solution, into another world, where the spiral of violence is finally broken by those willing to absorb its impact with their own flesh. That approach to living is nonviolence, Jesus’ ‘third way.’”
Jesus’ third way is intensely powerful. It is a way that is alternative to both the way of remaining victim and the way of participating in the cycle of violence. It is a way that both refused to submit to evil and to oppose evil on its own terms. It is a way that is both assertive and nonviolent. It is the way of the kin-dom of God.
I’ve spoken of it before, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would like to share an example of how it is at work today.
Erdem Gunduz was called “the standing man of Turkey.” His story goes back to June of 2013. The Turkish government had cleared Taksim Square after weeks of clashes with the police. That “might have seemed like the end of it for many protesters, until [this] lone man decided to take a stand, literally, against the government. For more than six hours [one] Monday night, Erdem Gunduz stood motionless in Taksim Square, passively ignoring any prodding or harassment from police and people passing by.” He stood alone for hours, and then other people began to join him, silently staring toward the cultural center. By midnight, several hundred people had joined Gunduz’s protest.
“As word of the standing man spread across the Internet, Turks adopted the hashtag #duranadam, which means ‘standing man’ in Turkish. Before long, people in other parts of Turkey began their own standing protests in solidarity with the man.”
The Standing Man of Turkey and those who followed his lead did not stop the domination system in their country. But they found a way to resist it, to refuse both to be victims of it and to be participants in its violence. They found Jesus’ third way.
When theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass looks at what is going on in this nation and in other countries (especially in western Europe), she see troubling evidence of the domination system at work. She says that there are many causes, including economic anxiety, racism, generalized fear, misogyny, etc. “But,” she says, “this has been primarily motivated by a idolatrous vision of God – one that believes God is a white-skinned, gendered Judge, Father, and King who sits on a throne in heaven. They want that God to punish their enemies, heretics, and evildoers, and bless them, His faithful people, with material prosperity and power – and to return everything to their imagined vision of Eden.
“It isn’t that complicated. There was deep appeal to a myth, the primary myth at the center of European Christianity.
“Through time, this myth was rejected by many – mystics, saints, and seers – but was perpetrated by a church of the rich and powerful. We are living in that story still. A story where the empire of wealth uses a convenient God to enslave the many; and where a sacred resistance grows to protest on behalf of truly God – the One who is Compassion, Who is Love.
“Jesus hates that we have used him in service to a myth of power. For he came and still cries out against this idolatry.”
Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong; or
… what it means for you to take up your cross and follow Jesus in your life and in the midst of current events; or
… this: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.
 This is also McLaren’s term.
 The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 2009) s.v. “Son of Man,” 345.
 McLaren, op. cit., 117.
 Ibid, 117-118.
 Ibid, 118.
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 91.
 Ibid, 82-83.
 Ibid, 93-95.
 Ibid. 97.
 See Chapter 5 of The Powers That Be for a full explanation of Jesus’ third way.
 Andy Carvin, “The ‘Standing Man’ Of Turkey: Act Of Quiet Protest Goes Viral,” The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/06/18/193183899/the-standing-man-of-turkey-act-of-quiet-protest-goes-viral (posted 18 June 2013; accessed 16 February 2017).
 Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post on 7 February 2017 https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154577500398500 (accessed 18 February 2017). I have changed what she had as ALL CAPS to italics.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 4:1-20 and Mark 4:21-34
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Who is Jesus to you?
If I call myself a Christian, I am saying that I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ, namely Jesus. So my answer to the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” will impact how I live my life as a Christian. If you don’t mind me answering, at least to start, in the negative, I would say that I am becoming less and less convinced that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah. After his death and resurrection, the early church clearly came to see him as the Messiah, but prior to that, I’m leaning toward Jesus not thinking of himself as the Messiah. And if he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah, I suspect he wasn’t as eschatologically focused as the gospels make him out to be. In other words, I don’t think Jesus was as concerned about death and the afterlife and the end of time and the final judgment as he is often portrayed as being. Jesus was much more concerned about this world and this life.
Jesus showed that concern in several ways. He was a spirit person, someone who was experientially aware of the reality and presence of God. He showed his concern for this world in his mediation of the sacred to others. He was a healer. I talked about this last week, and all I’ll add today is that he showed his concern for this world by transforming the lives of people around him. He was a social prophet, “similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel. As such, he criticized the elites (economic, political, and religious) of his time, was an advocate for an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.” We will touch on this today and next week. He “was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church.” This also will be explored, at least a bit, this week and next. And he was a teacher – the primary subject of today’s sermon.
I suppose that all of these descriptions of Jesus overlap or intersect. One of the ways he showed he was a spirit person was by healing people. I don’t think you can separate his social prophecy from his becoming a movement founder. He taught through his healings. “By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatized God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life. By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped.… And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social, or personal.”
In synagogue gatherings and on hillsides, he gave talks about things theological. At a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up and in public places when his critiques tried to catch him with tricky questions, he found teachable moments. His guerrilla-theater demonstrations (like on Palm Sunday) and his acts of civil disobedience (like chasing money changers from the Temple), provided learning opportunities for people who were paying attention. “Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.”
And then there were his parables.
Perhaps it is time for a quiz. What is greater than God and more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it you’ll die? (Answer: Nothing.) How about this one: You threw away the outside and cooked the inside. Then you ate the outside and threw away the inside. What did you eat? (Answer: An ear of corn.)
John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the primary ways to understand or interpret some of the parables attributed to Jesus in the gospels is to see them as riddles. He says that when a parable is a riddle narrative, “not only the general story itself, but even its multiple parts each and all point elsewhere. Such riddle parables are also called allegories.”
That is certainly how Mark treats the parable of the sower. We heard this in our first lesson from Mark. Jesus tells the story about a farmer who goes to sow some seed and the seed falls in six different kinds of soil. We usually only notice that there are four kinds of soil – the path, the rocky, the thorny, and the good – but the good really comes in three kinds – soil that produces a thirty-fold crop, soil that produces a sixty-fold crop, and soil that produces a one-hundred-fold crop. Still, we see a silly farmer, casting seed where even the horticulturally-challenged know it won’t produce anything.
But, of course, the parable isn’t about horticulture and it isn’t about a sower. The parable, as Mark understands it, is a riddle, an allegory.
Another way to understand and interpret some of the parables of Jesus is to see them as example parables. Example parables are stories that invite us to go and do (or, in some cases, don’t do) likewise. Aesop’s fables fall into this category.
You might remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel. King David spies this sexy woman taking a bath and decides he wants her for himself. To do this, he has to get rid of her husband, Uriah, one of his generals. So David sends Uriah on a suicide mission and he is killed. God is none too pleased with this and sends the prophet Nathan to David to set him straight. Would you like that job? Go and tell the king, who had one of his generals killed, that God is not pleased? Nathan does this by telling an example parable.
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)
Crossan says, “Although a ruler should always be apprehensive at the approach of a prophet, David walks right into Nathan’s parabolic trap:”
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:5-7a)
Yes, it’s sad that Nathan completely misses how the system promotes the objectification and possession of women, but his story is still a great example of an example parable.
Crossan has also identified a third way to understand and interpret Jesus’ parables. He says that Jesus’ parables were challenge parables, at least originally, though they were changed into example parables and riddle parables by the gospel authors. Challenge parables challenge “us to think, to discuss, to argue, and to decide about meaning.” They challenge us, the hearers, “to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways. They invite [us] their hearers to ponder ‘whatever is taken totally for granted in our world’.”
While I haven’t delved very deeply into Crossan’s work on parables (yet), I think he is on to something. I imagine that maybe half of Jesus’ parables include the phrase “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” – and this kingdom totally challenges what is taken for granted in our world. We heard this today in our second reading. “The Kingdom, something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like ‘a grain of mustard seed.’ Moreover, mustard was a weed, thus, the Kingdom is like a weed. [In another parable,] The Kingdom is compared to something impure: it is like a woman (associated with impurity) putting leaven (which was impure) into flour.” And on they go, overturning conventional wisdom.
“[F]or Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It was at hand, or within reach, today. To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realized that kingdoms were the dominant social, political, and economic reality of Jesus’ day. Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, and civilization all resonate in that one word: kingdom.”
Brian McLaren writes, “The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom. They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments. The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution. And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion. It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.
“Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations, and parables. But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.
“By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best and only option. He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies. He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation. It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering. In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s nonviolent noncompliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be. He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.”
When Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the “Beloved Community,” I think he was talking about the kingdom of God. The King Center explains it this way: “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
As lofty and utopian as this may sound, when King talked about the Beloved Community, he wasn’t talking about something found only in the great beyond. He was talking about something attainable, something that is at hand. “The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”
We have seen in the past few weeks how our nation has moved away from the Beloved Community. Most recently, the ban on refugees and immigrants and visitors from a handful of nations that are Muslim-majority is an example. People with valid visas and green-cards are being detained at the border. This is empire action that is completely contrary to the values of the Beloved Community, contrary to the values of the kingdom of God. And that is why people have taken to the sidewalks and airport terminals – to help our country move in the direction of the Beloved Community, not away.
We still need Jesus the teacher. We need to pay attention to his actions and his words. We need to follow him toward the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the way of living and being in community that challenges the most basic values of the powers that be.
As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect …
… on anything from the scripture readings or sermon that caught your attention; or
… on the memory of one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant; or
… how you might translate or reinterpret the term “kingdom of God;” or
… how the “kingdom of God” is coming in your life, your family, your community.
 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins, 1994). 30.
 Ibid, 102.
 These two riddles are from Mike Page, “Classic Riddles 1-100,” Savage Legend, https://savagelegend.com/misc-resources/classic-riddles-1-100/ (accessed 28 January 2017).
 John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 18.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 47.
 Greg Carey, “Crossan on Parables and Gospels,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/dont-fear-this-book-cross_b_1417435.html (posted 16 April 2012; accessed 28 January 2017).
 Borg, op. cit., 80.
 McLaren, op. cit., page 103.
 Ibid, 103-104.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.
I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?
I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author includes this advice:
- Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.
This author also suggests:
- Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
- Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
- Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
- Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
- Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
- Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”
It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.
Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”
As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.
While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year, that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.
The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking. It will take action.
And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.
So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”
Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”
I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently. This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.
And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.
Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year, but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.
If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,” it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.
Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.
Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.
I did not do so well with these three resolutions.
But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.
And here he is in context.
Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.
He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.
I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.
I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.
 Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.
 Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).
 Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).
 Camacho, op. cit.
 “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 11, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and Matthew 5:38-47
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Whatever happened to the overture?
I suspect there are enough theatre nerds in this congregation (I count myself among them – obviously) that I can’t be the only one who’s wondered this. The musical theatre overture has, for the most part, disappeared. And it’s been fading away for a long time. According to a National Public Radio story from eight years ago, one reason the overture has pretty much disappeared is money. Tighter budgets have led to smaller orchestras, which means simpler orchestrations, which means no overture. An article in The New York Times from ten years ago says the demise of the overture goes back now 40 years. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.
“Who could forget the great overture to ‘A Chorus Line’? First there’s that infectious hop-step vamp from the song ‘One.’ Then come some of the show’s most familiar melodies: ‘I Hope I Get It,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘What I Did for Love.’ Finally the orchestra swings back for a rousing half-chorus of ‘One’ that would make even gouty musical-theater-phobes want to leap to their feet with excitement.
“Oh, wait – ‘A Chorus Line’ doesn’t have an overture.…
“Back in 1975, a month before the original production’s debut, Marvin Hamlisch did write a ‘Chorus Line’ overture like the one described. But the director, Michael Bennett, and the show’s other creators decided not to include it, fearing it would destroy the illusion that the audience was watching an actual audition as the lights went up.…
“Thanks in part to ‘A Chorus Line,’ the Broadway orchestra and the Broadway overture would rarely emerge from that obscurity again.”
No, I haven’t lost my mind, and, yes, I do remember that this is a sermon. I just want to remind you of what an overture is – or was. The overture, typically several minutes long, was “made up of melodies heard later in the show and [was] played by an orchestra before the curtain [went] up.” It introduced musical themes to the audience, acting “like a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter.”
And that’s exactly what Matthew is doing in the first two chapters of his gospel, the chapters where Matthew talks about Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is an idea that is new to me, introduced by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas. Luke does it, too, with his birth and childhood narrative, also the first two chapters of his gospel. Both authors introduce the themes that will play out in the rest of their gospels.
The big theme we hear in Matthew’s overture is that Jesus is the new Moses. It’s here in our first lesson. Just as Moses was born under an evil ruler, the Pharaoh, Jesus is born under the evil King Herod. Just as Moses needed to escape the slaughter of Jewish newborns, Jesus needs to escape the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.
Crossan and Borg go on to suggest that the number five is important. There are in this overture, five dreams move the story along and five prophetic fulfillments are cited. This calls to mind the Torah, they say, because it is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also called “the books of Moses.” And like the five books of Moses, the main body of Matthew’s gospel is easily divided into five sections:
- the Law discourse (the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reinterprets the law Moses received – on a mountain);
- the missionary discourse;
- the parable discourse;
- the community discourse; and
- the eschatological discourse.
Borg and Crossan point to other ways this overture introduces the theme that Jesus is the new Moses, but I don’t want to get lost in the weeds (or bulrushes) digging into these. Instead, I want to you hear this general idea:
The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke – their overtures – are important not because any of it happened historically (and aside from Mary being pregnant and giving birth, is likely that little else in the story happened historically). No, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are important because they tell us where the story is going.
And where does Matthew tell us where the story is going? Just in the reading we heard today, we hear both that non-Jews will seek Jesus and that wise ones will seek him. We hear that Jesus will be the new Davidic king (a subtheme in the overture lifted up elsewhere). We hear that the principalities and powers will find Jesus threatening and will seek to kill him. We hear that God has an escape plan for Jesus, that death won’t have the final word.
Do you see one reason why it’s important to keep Herod in Christmas? The overture doesn’t work without him.
Of course it’s not the only reason to keep Herod in Christmas. Any first or second century Jew would know what a despot Herod the Great was. Yes, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, an important sign of Jewish identity. But he was a puppet king, dependent on the Roman empire for his status. “Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labor for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons.”
You can see why it was not a far-fetched storyline to have Herod kill all the infant and toddler boys in Bethlehem in Matthew’s overture. There are some important questions that are raised by having Herod in this story. We know how Herod managed power and dealt with threats. How will we? We know how Herod used violence to get his way. Will we?
“Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power.
“The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.”
Brian McLaren points out, “All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grand children. Most of the [uniformed] casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”
By keeping Herod in Christmas, we are forced to grapple with what we believe about God. “Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?”
Our second lesson answers these question – but in a whole new way. From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus holds up the ethic of love as the real fulfillment of the law. And this love needs to be deep, deep enough to turn your enemies into friends. When faced with oppression, the typical responses are fight or flight. “An eye for an eye” is a call to meet violence with violence. The other response is to let the violence crush you.
Jesus offers a third way: meet violence with non-violent activism. Because someone would only strike you with their right hand, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, they’ve backhanded you. Doing that means they are treating you as an inferior. By offering your left cheek, you are saying, “If you want to hit me, you’ll have to hit me as your equal.” If someone sues you for your only possession, the clothes off your back, give them your underwear, too. If they reduce you to being naked, they have lost face. The only person who would force you to go a mile would be a Roman soldier. They were known for forcing locals to carry their packs and were restricted to only forcing that for one mile. By insisting that you go two miles, you’ll get the occupying soldier in trouble.
There is a third way, Jesus says, to fight for the dignity of the oppressed without becoming an oppressor.
“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus,” McLaren says, “is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with the vulnerable … in defiance of the [oppressors] who see [the vulnerable] as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation with the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.
“Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season, we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long a children pay the price, and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.
“… In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and come near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness [of the story] of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.”
Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture readings that caught your interest; or
… a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness; or
… the idea that Matthew’s birth narrative is an “overture” to his gospel; or
… to hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and power-hungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby—then observe what happens in your heart and offer a prayer of response.
 Jeff Lunden, “Broadway’s Best Musical Revival: The Overture?” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91480130 (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).
 Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/theater/01gree.html (posted 1 October 2006; accessed 8 December 2016).
 Lunden, op. cit.
 Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 41-42.
 Ibid, 42-46.
 Ibid, 71-72.
 Ibid, 72-73.
 Ibid, 73.
 Ibid, 73-74.
On November 15, Timothy Snyder (Housum Professor of History at Yale University) posted the following on Facebook. I repost it here because I think it is good advice for lovers of democracy in this and every age.
Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
–Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History, Yale University,
15 November 2016.
Today in my country, the USA, we commemorate the armistice of WWI with this national holiday now called Veterans’ Day. Today, I lift up my favorite veteran, my father, William T. Spencer. My dad served in the Air Force during the Korean War, leaving his reserve duty requirements (after active duty) as a Captain.
Just a few days ago, he and I were talking about end of life stuff — his estate planning, durable powers of attorney for healthcare, and a little bit of memorial service planning. He made it clear that he did not want me (or any family member) to contact the Veterans Administration when he dies, no military honors or grave. “My flag was stolen during the Vietnam War,” he said. He was talking about how, for him, the U.S. flag used to be a symbol of the patriotism that works constantly to transform the United States into a more perfect union. But for my dad (and for at least some others in his generation), the flag was co-opted and its symbolism came to be about militarism and conservative politics.
His comments reminded me of an essay Bill Moyers wrote years ago where he laments a similar loss of the flag. On this Veterans’ Day, I wish I could figure out how to give the flag back to my father.
Alex is a 6-year-old child from Scarsdale, New York. When he saw this image, he wrote a letter to the one person he thought could make a difference, President Obama. Alex asked the President to find the Syrian boy (Alex assumed the boy, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, was an orphan after he was rescued from the rubble of his bombed out home) and to bring Omran to live with Alex’s family. “We will give him a home, and he will be our brother,” Alex wrote.
Alex also told the President that he has a friend at school from Syria named Omar, implying that he wouldn’t have any problem befriending another Syrian, and he thought the two of them, Omran and Omar, could be friends. I like that Alex thought that he could be part of teaching Omran English, but more than that, I like that Alex knew that Omran would bring something to teach, too: “another language.”
The White House published the letter and the President read it at a U.N. Summit on Refugees. According to President Obama, “Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray.”
While Omran and his family were injured when their house was destroyed by the airstrike, perhaps miraculously, everyone in his immediate family survived.
When you think back to 2015, about what happened that year, what events come to your mind?
I’ve been digging through back issues of the Christian Century that I hadn’t read over the past 18 months or so, finding little gems (some of which I’ve posted here; some of which I’ve filed away for future sermons). The 23 December 2015 edition included a collection of quotes from they year — this is something that they do in their final issue of the year. The collection brought back memories of things that happened that year, some of them echoing through this year. Here are a few of the quotes (with a definite USA bias).
UK columnist Giles Fraser had an important insight about the “war on terror,” which could be repeated this year (if you increase the number of years he mentioned):
The war on terror is now in its 15th year. And yet things are demonstrably no better. Why? Because we still have no vision of what peace might look like.
Do you remember that Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress in 2015? Sadly, still true today.
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.
One of the major tragedies of 2015 was the murder of nine members of a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was stuck by how quickly members of that church offered forgiveness to the accused shooter, Dylann Roof. I wasn’t surprised by devout Christians offering forgiveness; I am surprised — impressed, really — at how quickly they could offer it. Speaking to Roof, Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, said:
You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all move toward forgiveness as faithfully.
Justice took a huge step forward in the United States in 2015 when equal marriage rights were granted same-gender-loving people in all 50 states. This right continues to be celebrated in 2016, and Justice Kennedy’s words were and are important. Here’s a brief example:
It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do not respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.
One of the amazing things that happened during the presidential campaign was when Bernie Sanders when to fundamentalist Christian Liberty University. He said how important it is to talk with and listen to people you disagree with, and so he went to this setting. Here’s one of the things he said about the income and wealth gap in the United States.
There is no justice … when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And it your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.
Do you have a quote from 2015 (or event) that you think was really important? Add it in a comment.
The world was caught off-guard by the rise of radical Islam, says Jonathan Sacks, former head rabbi of Great Britain, because it was captivated by a narrative that suggests secularism will eventually prevail over religion. Science, technology, free market economies, and even liberal democracy have failed to recognize that humans are meaning-seeking creatures who ask basic questions of identity: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?
Extremist violent religion is a betrayal of the Abrahamic way, Sacks goes on to say. “Now is the time for us to say what we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham.… We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed.”
from “Century Marks,” Christian Century, 11 November 2015, page 8
citing Wall Street Journal, 2 October 2015