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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 11, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The Gospel lesson we just heard is traditionally called “the Great Commission,” but I noticed this week that the commission is just one of the three important things in this passage.  Three things, and they are all interrelated.

First, there is the wonderful line about doubt.  The resurrection has happened.  The disciples have experienced the presence of Jesus even though he’d been killed.  Matthew has the disciples gather on a mountain top, a location of holy events throughout the Bible.  They see Jesus and they worship him; “but, Matthew says, “some doubted.”

How glorious is that?!  There they are in the very presence of the resurrected Christ, and some of them doubt.

Doubt is part of the life of a disciple.  Doubt is normal and as much a part of the life of a disciple as trust is.  In fact, the famous theological Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.…  Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  16th century reformer John Calvin said, “Surely … we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”  Madeleine L’Engle said, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.…  Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”  And, perhaps my favorite quote about doubt comes from Frederick Buechner:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”[1]

Getting back to the scripture lesson, there they are on the mountain top, worshipping Jesus, and some of them doubting, and Jesus gives them a job to do.  This “great commission” is the second thing in this passage.  “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells them.  This is one of several passages used by the church through the ages to inform their sense of mission.

Now, I suspect I am not the only one here who has some resistance to a call to go into all the world to make and baptize disciples.  It sounds too – what? – too aggressively Christian, maybe?  It sounds too much like going out to save souls.  But when I can get past that knee-jerk reaction, I can hear an invitation – for me to go extend the invitation, within and beyond the community of Jesus-followers, to a deeper and deeper life of discipleship.  Figuring out what it looks like to love God and neighbor in any given situation is not always easy to do, and I need people who are on the journey to help me figure that stuff out.  That’s what the line about “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” means to me.  I need to come together in prayer and worship, in study and fellowship and service to figure out how to best obey the most basic thing that Jesus taught:  That the law and the prophets can be summed up in these two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s one of the reasons it is important to pause and say thank you to all the people who make our coming together on Sunday mornings possible and meaningful.

And then there’s the third thing:  a promise.  Jesus comes to his disciples despite – or maybe even because of – their doubt.  And he commissions them to keep going deeper into their own discipleship even as they invite others to discipleship with them.  And he finishes with a promise:  “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.

“Notice Jesus’ language:  it’s not just future tense.  Christ is with us.  Even now.  Even here.  Even amid our struggles at home or at work or at our congregations or in the world.  Christ is with us.   Encouraging us, comforting us, working with us, guiding us, granting us the grace and courage necessary to be the people of God in the world right now.”[2]

“The very last thing Matthew records of everything Jesus said and did is a promise:  ‘And I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  Right here, right now, and forever.”[3]

This sermon started out as being for our high school graduates and I was going to focus on doubt, because doubts are such a normal part of the faith journey, especially for young adults.  It became something for us all.  We all experience doubts in the midst of our faith, and we can use those doubts to encourage our journeys.  We are all called to mission, often in different forms, for we are different people, often in different forms at different stages of our lives, for we are evolving people.  And we all are recipients of Jesus’ promise, that he is with us, present tense, to the end of time.

“Go ahead and doubt,” Jesus says.  “I’ve got work for you to do anyway.  And don’t sweat it because I’m still around.”

Amen.

[1] These quotes taken from Tim Suttle, “Ten Great Quotes About Doubt & the Christian Experience,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2016/04/ten-great-quotes-about-doubt-the-christian-experience.html (posted 25 April 2016; accessed 7 June 2017).

[2] David Lose, “Trinity Sunday A: ‘The Great Promise,’” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/ (posted and accessed 7 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 8, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 2:41-52 and Luke 3:1-14, 21-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our first lesson is the conclusion of the overture to Luke’s gospel. You may remember I talked about this a month ago, this idea that the birth and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke serve a similar purpose as an overture to a Broadway musical. They act as a bridge to bring you into the story you’re about to hear and they introduce the themes you’ll hear later in the story.

So we heard the end of Luke’s overture. It’s his last chance to get you ready to hear the rest of his gospel. And as simple as the story is, it is rich with foreshadowing.

The setting is the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is the most important festival of the Hebrew year. This is when the Jews remember how God led them from slavery to freedom, how God made them a people with the gift of the Torah. The Passover story is told in both the past- and present-tenses; God freed us and God is freeing us. So the story is about both Egypt and Jerusalem, both Pharaoh and Caesar. When Luke finishes his gospel, Jesus will be back in Jerusalem and it will be at the Passover and he will be facing down the Pharaoh of his day, Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem.

There’s a wonderful moment any parent can identify with in today’s first lesson. The family is returning to Nazareth with a big crowd of neighbors who also went to Jerusalem for the Passover. They assume Jesus is with his friends, somewhere in the crowd. When they discover that he is not, the search begins. For three days, they look for him, going back to Jerusalem. Three days. That will show up again at the end of Luke’s gospel.

When they finally find him, he’s in the Temple. He has to be in the courtyard, because his mother is present, and women were only allowed so far into the Temple. But he’s not playing tiddlywinks with some other kids. He’s with teachers, with rabbis, deep in discussion. He’s asking impressive questions and he’s giving impressive answers. Now, one assumes that the answers he’s giving are to the questions the teachers are asking. That certainly would be the Jewish style of exploring a text or discussing theology. Everybody gets to ask questions and everybody gets to offer their answers, and somewhere in the midst of all that, some word of God’s truth will emerge. But the text doesn’t say that – at least the English translation doesn’t say that. It could be that Jesus’ impressive answers are his answers to his own questions.

Imagine the setting. Learned teachers sitting around the Temple courtyard, talking theology. This 12-year-old joins the discussion and starts asking questions, deep, penetrating questions. A kid questioning men who are the authorities in the field. And his questions are wise, as are his answers. He is teaching the teachers and questioning their authority – a theme that will come up again and again in Luke’s gospel.

And then there’s this. When his parents find him, he’s surprised that they think he is lost. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” At the annunciation, Gabriel told Mary that her child would be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ and ‘the Son of God’ (1:32, 35). We know Jesus’ secret identity. And if we missed it there, Jesus says it here. “Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status and asserts to his parents – but publically – that he is the Son of God and this is his Father’s house.”[1]

This theme of Jesus as the Son of God is one of the first themes we hear in the main body of Luke’s gospel. Our second lesson is about John at the River Jordan baptizing people and Jesus coming to be baptized. And it is in the act of baptism that heaven proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Luke begins the main body of his gospel the same way he started his overture: by talking about John the baptizer. You’ll recall from the overture that John’s father, Zechariah, was a Temple priest. Brian McLaren says that this probably meant that John had some comfort and privilege growing up.[2] Priestly positions were clan-based, so one would have thought John would have grown up to become a Temple Priest. As a PK (a priest’s kid), John would have known all about Tevilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water in a Mikva, an indoor pool naturally sourced with water.[3] It was used as an act of purification and it was a central part of the conversion ritual in Judaism. This purification was required before entering the Temple, to allow Jews to present themselves to God free from the contamination of the outside world. McLaren points out that this ritual also “preserved religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners.’”[4]

“Can you imagine how shocking it was for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the Temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the Jordan River? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions have meant?

“John’s departure from both family and Temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s Temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Traveling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions … by sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarized John’s message: repent, which means ‘rethink everything,’ or ‘question your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values.’ His baptism of repentance symbolized being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.

“Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptized by John. His protest movement grew, and with it, expectations and hope.…

“John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus [according to Matthew’s gospel], couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)

“Among the crowds coming to be baptized one day was a young man about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside.”[5] And by receiving John’s baptism, something radical and transformative began.

Retired Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan tells of baptizing a two-year-old boy in a Sunday worship service. After the child had been baptized, Pastor Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy’s head and said to him, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” It was a holy moment made more holy by the little boy’s response: “Uh-oh!”[6]

There is a deep element of “Uh-oh” in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. The demands on our lives are not a trifling matter when we’re disciples of Jesus. We have to rethink everything our culture tells us. We have to question our assumptions about what is of value and where the boundaries of love should be.

Luckily, it’s not all burden. There is also a deep blessing in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was baptized by John, he experienced heaven cracking open and God’s spirit pouring down. This man, this physical human body experienced not just the water moistening skin, but a bath of God’s love. And God’s voice called out to him saying, “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

God says the same thing to us.

We live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels to identify and define us, and often separate us – Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight or bi, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list of labels goes on. “Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.”[7] Though we live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels, only one really matters and really defines us, once we’ve gotten wet. We are Christians, disciples of Jesus.

And like Jesus, we, too, are beloved children of God. Sure, the other labels may have some meaning to us. It’s just that “while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us.”[8] Only the name we receive in baptism truly defines us: Beloved Child of God.

In Jewish culture, Jesus officially came of age when he was 12. But his real coming of age – of the new age he was bringing – happens at his baptism. He is now “a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb [as John called him], a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.

“When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope, and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.”[9]

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
… the memory of your own baptism or some other recognition of a milestone in your life; or
… the idea of John the Baptist breaking with tradition and what that would look like in your life; or
… this message from God to you:  “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

[1] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 255.

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 19, page 87. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[3] “History of Baptism,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_baptism (accessed 7 January 2017).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid, 87-89.

[6] From an email from sermons.com dated 3 January 2017.

[7] David Lose, “Baptism of Our Lord A: Family Name,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/baptism-of-our-lord-a-family-name/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 89.

“Nearly all mass murderers are men – 98 percent by one count. Gender is the most common feature among mass murderers, not race, religion, nationality, political persuasion, or history of mental illness. Toxic masculinity, when faced with disappointment, can turn to hostility and violence toward others. Collecting and using guns is a way for men with grievances to show their dominance over others. While women tent to blame themselves for failure, men tend to project their failures onto others.”

From the “Century Marks” column in the 17 August 2016 edition of Christian Century. The column cites Atlantic, 16 June 2016 as their source.

“Although Jesus is called teacher in the Gospel of Mark, that Gospel includes little of the teaching of Jesus. His parables confound his listeners rather than leading to greater understanding. Jesus’ teaching in Mark is performative, says Brian Blount; Jesus taught by the way he lived. He doesn’t teacher love as a concept, he acts it out by touching lepers and allowing diseased people to touch him, engaging women as equals, associating with the marginalized, and breaking laws that don’t promote human well-being. If we want to teach the reign of God as Jesus taught it, then we need to craft a curriculum that does more than inform.”  ~ Christian Century, 8 June 2016 edition, page 9, citing the April edition of Interpretation.

We lived in the same town, but we lived in two worlds.

A high school classmate* recently posted on his Facebook page an experience he had as a young teen in our home town. A Lexington police officer cornered my friend with his (the cop’s) cruiser in the high school parking lot and told my friend, “Nigger boys like you go missing all the time. You should never go near my daughter.”

I had no idea that a police officer in my town would ever use that kind of language.  I had not idea that a police officer would be so contemptuous toward one of my classmates. When I reacted to my friend’s post with horror and surprise, my friend shook it off—of course cops in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the 1970s would say something like this.

Let’s be clear: This cop threaten the life of the kid, a 14-year-old, and my friend is practically casual about it.

We lived in the same town, but we lived in two worlds. I think we still do.

*Just in case it’s not clear to you, my classmate is African-American.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-18 and John 3:1-18
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

[Because this worship service included confirmations, this sermon is shorter than usual.]

Today’s gospel lesson is one that has been used by some Christians as an impetus to evangelize and an argument to convince people to make a confession of faith in Jesus.  You might have missed it because the translation we used today is The Message, but today’s reading included the famous verse, John 3:16.  Some of you probably have it memorized, maybe even in the King James Version.  “God so love the world that he have his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not parish but have everlasting life.”

This gets used by some Christian to convince others to make a confession of faith in Jesus so they can have “everlasting life.”  It is also an impetus to do that form of evangelizing because they interpret it to imply that this is a matter of eternal life and death.  “We need to bring more people to believe in Jesus,” they would say, “because, if we do, they’ll go to heaven.”

I don’t believe that’s what John meant.  And I don’t think that’s what Jesus was about.  Jesus came that our live might be full – full of love, full of hope, full of completeness, full of direction and purpose.

That’s what Jesus was getting at as he Nicodemus spoke past each other in John’s narrative.  Because there’s a “this word has two meanings” thing going on in the Greek, we miss Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus.  When Jesus talks about being born from above, Nicodemus hears Jesus talking about being born again – which is a pretty ridiculous idea.  Who can climb back into the womb and be born again.  You won’t fit.

Jesus tries to explain.  “I’m talking about the Spirit, Nicodemus.  The Spirit is moving!  You can’t see it, but you can see evidence of it.  You can see evidence of it in me, in my life, in my message.”

In fact, I would say that core to Jesus’ life and message was this good news:  “the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world.  And that gives us a choice:  do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda,  or do we let go, let be, and let come … and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement?

“That was what the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost, according to Luke, when the Spirit manifested as wind and fire.  Suddenly, the Spirit-filled disciples began speaking in languages they had never learned.  This strange sign is full of significance.  The Spirit of God, it tells us, is multilingual.  The Spirit isn’t restricted to one elite language or one superior culture, as almost everyone had assumed.  Instead, the Spirit speaks to everyone everywhere in his or her native language.”[1]

Our scripture lesson from Acts told the first part of the Pentecost story, but it didn’t include all of Peter’s testimony, and it didn’t include the result of that testimony.  So I’ll tell you about the result.  The crowd that heard Peter asked him what they should do.  Peter told them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[2]

Yesterday, we set up our new baptistry and baptized Maddi Wagner.  And Grady Mahusay, Maddie Monkman, and Megan Keesis reaffirmed their baptisms.  We did this with lots of water.  We dunked them all the way under the water.  We buried them in the water and for a moment breath stopped.  And then they were born anew as they rose to new life.  In this sacrament of the church, they participated in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

In the Reformed tradition, we recognize two sacraments:  baptism and communion.  These two rituals of the church are considered sacraments because they are the only rituals of the church that Jesus participated in.  The Roman Catholic tradition recognizes seven sacraments among its rituals.  In addition to baptism and communion, they see confirmation, confession, anointing, marriage, and ordination as sacraments.  In the Reformed tradition, we call these other five rituals “rites,” sacred rituals, but not “sacraments,” because – as far as we know – Jesus was never married or ordained or …

I don’t think the distinction between sacraments and rites was part of the early church.  In fact, there was no separation between baptism and confirmation.  One was baptized and then blessed by the bishop, all in one ritual.  But as the church grew, the bishop couldn’t be there for every baptism, and so would make the rounds after the fact and confirm that the baptisms were legit.

Now, we don’t have bishops in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and – well, I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of church history and polity.  So, let me just get to how we see it now.  Now, we see confirmation as a choice that baptized person makes – whether baptized as an infant when their parents made baptismal promises or later when they made the baptismal promises themselves.  And in that choice, the baptized person is confirming that they are responsible for these baptismal promises.

Confirmation is much more a turning point than an ending.  Confirmation marks a shift of responsibility – from parents to child – for the spiritual journey.  I have yet to meet someone who had grown close enough to God to be able to say that the journey was complete.  So by confirming their faith, these young people are choosing the label ‘Christian’ and the responsibility of figuring out how to actually be a Christian.  And by blessing them, we are confirming that we have seen the evidence that the Holy Spirit is moving in their lives.

One of the places I turn to so I can be a little more open to how the Spirit is moving is to the just-about-daily reflection posted by Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston on Facebook.  Yesterday, he posted this:

“We are being transformed, each one of us, in our own way.  For some, this change comes gradually, unfolding over a lifetime, a process of growing nurtured by the slow acquisition of wisdom.  For others, the shift comes in a sudden rush, accelerated by some breakthrough experience, a burst of spiritual energy propelling the spirit forward.  For many, it is a combination of the two, years of steady search punctuated by moments of dazzling insight.  We are all being transformed.  No soul stays the same.”[3]

The Spirit is moving!  We are all being transformed.  None of us stays the same.

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on anything that caught your attention in our scripture readings or sermon, or to reflect on one of these:

  • Reflect on a time when you experienced the Holy Spirit in a powerful way.
  • Sit with and respond to the imagery of death, burial, and resurrection with Christ.
  • Hold the word “open” in God’s presence. Let images of openness come to you.  Direct this openness to God’s Spirit as a desire to be filled.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 40. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Acts 2:38, NRSV.

[3] Steven Charleston, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1031287823622756 (posted and accessed 14 May 2016).

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 9:28-43a
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  None of the presidential candidates came town this week and that helped.  The primaries are on Tuesday, so that’s a bit of a surprise.  Usually at least one of them will swing by the Chowder House to do some glad-handing.

There was an incident at the Chowder House on Wednesday.  Patty was quietly minding her own business, eating her soup alone in her booth, when a voice startled her from the booth behind.  “Not so loud!” the guy said.

“What?” Patty questioned, as she took another spoonful of soup.

“I said, ‘Not so loud!’” was his muffled reply.

Embarrassed at being told she was slurping her soup, she pushed away her bowl and started her grilled cheese sandwich.

“How was your day?” questioned the man from behind once again.

“Pretty good” responded Patty, confused that this stranger would care.

“Did you pass the exam?” came the next question from behind.

“I don’t know, I didn’t get my grade yet,” replied a thoroughly bewildered Patty.

“I’ll have to call you back when I’m out of here”, came the voice from behind once again.  “Some nut job is answering every question I ask you!”[2]

I’d say the weather is much nuttier than Patty.  A few weeks ago, everywhere between Delaware and Kentucky was buried in snow and that same storm system dropped not one snowflake in Mount William.  It’s been in the 40s and 50s this past week, though the temperature has dropped down to the teen this weekend.  Freezing – warm – freezing – warm.  No one has been able to do any ice fishing at all, and winter only has a few weeks left.  It snowed in Rhode Island and on up to Boston on Friday, but only a dusting fell in Mount William.

My goddaughter is grousing because, for the past five years, she and a group of here crazy friends have gone snow camping over Presidents Day weekend and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to this year.  They would have to go to the White Mountains, and then they’d have to climb up to four or five thousand feet to get into deep enough snow – and at those elevations, the igloo they’d build would be for survival, not for camping.  Not quite the same things as driving their snowmobiles up Mount William along the old logging road turned snowmobile trail, then off the trail to a spot where one of them would say, “Here.  Let’s camp here.”

I called her and asked why this tradition is so important to her.  Her Presidents Day weekend sojourns (or snojourns, as I like to call them) are a strange combination of adventure and independence mixed with dependence and risk.  There’s the exhilaration of driving the snowmobiles up into the woods, the roar of the engines, the sense of power.  There’s the planning that’s needed to get away from the parents and the cooperation that’s needed to build the shelters.  There’s the challenge of getting a fire going.  And then, at night, in the cold, there is a stillness, a quiet that is deeper than most quiets because sounds are absorbed by the snow.  This quiet, she said, makes her feel both so small and so connected to the universe at the same time.

She didn’t use the word “awe,” but I think that’s what she’s getting at.  She didn’t use the word “holy,” but I think that’s what she experiences, what she’s afraid she will miss this year.  On a clear, quiet night, when the moon is out, the snow is a different kind of white, a holy kind of white, and the sky is a different kind of black, a holy kind of black, and they conspire to transfigure the bare tree branches and the evergreens and puffs of moisture that ascend with each exhalation.

As she told me about the teenage adventure she would miss this month, memories of feeling like my toes had frozen and broken off when I went cross-country skiing with my church youth group a hundred years ago flooded back.  Truly, the best part of winter is watching it from California.  But as her voice quieted, and she spoke of the quiet that descends at night, I thought about how it is in silence that I can most often hear God.

Maybe it was talk of being up on Mount William that brought back another memory.  Maybe it was thinking about God.  Maybe both combined, but when I got off the phone, I remembered an experience when God transfigured my sense of time as I walked in the mountains of the other side of the continent.

I know I’ve told this story before, so excuse me if you remember it.  The fact is that this experience from fifteen years ago remains one of those mountaintop experiences, one of those transcendent experiences that mark my spiritual journey.

I was up in the north Cascades at a Lutheran retreat center.[3]  One of the afternoon workshops offered that day was on meditative walking and it, logically, ended with a meditative walk.  The walk was along one of the more level trails that ran along the side of the mountains on one side of a canyon.  Praying ourselves into readiness and quiet, one at a time, we started walking down the trail.  After walking for several minutes, I came to a large boulder, maybe the size of a VW bus that had been taken off its wheels.  The boulder sat there on a shelf, the mountain raising steeply on my left and falling steeply on my right, beyond this shelf and the boulder.  It was obvious that this boulder had been there a long time.  Trees had grown around it and mosses were growing on decayed leaves and pine needles that had accumulated on the boulder over the years.

The boulder had been witness to much and so I approached it reverently.  I placed a hand on it, to honor it, and as I touched it, it was as if the boulder spoke.  “I’m moving,” it said.  This massive piece of granite (at least I think it was granite; I’m not a geologist) that had rested on this shelf for decades, perhaps centuries or longer, told me that it was moving.  And in that moment, my sense of time shifted.  Suddenly, instead of minutes or months or decades, I sense time at a geologic pace – and what the boulder said to me made sense.  From a geologic sense of time, this firm, steady boulder was falling down the mountain.  This experience of time transfigured lasted only a moment, but the memory of this mystical experience has never gone away.

Those mystical, transcendent moments, if we’re lucky enough to have them, never go away – even if we wish the would.  I remember another mystical moment when all around me was transfigured and I realized with painful clarity that I was being a selfish buffoon.  I think this was also the moment I began to grow up.

Began to grow up, mind you.  It took me at least another decade to finish, and probably more, if I’ve made it there at all.

It must have been a Sunday afternoon because my parents and younger sister were at the family room table drinking tea and my father was working on the crossword puzzle in the Sunday New York Times magazine.  I had joined them, taking a break from the homework I needed to get finished so I could go off to youth group that evening.  My mother mentioned casually that something was planned for the next Sunday – I couldn’t tell you what it was.

I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained.  I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that were probably only half hatched and that I had, of course, told no one else about.

My father said something calm and reasonable.  I said something rude.  My mother gave me the sharp, cutting look that only a mother can do.  I said something breathtakingly selfish.  My sister said something conciliatory.  I said something sneering and angry.  And my mother put down her tea.  I can tell you exactly what happened, for time slowed down and everything was transfigured.  Steam rolled off the tea in the gray-blue tea mug with a handle of two circles, each one big enough for a finger.  As it lowered toward the round, white table, I became aware of the forsythia outside; I could see it through the windows in the door.  Its bright yellow blossoms radiated, pulsing.  I knew that when the tea reached the table, she would say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control.  And in that moment of the cup descending, I saw myself and realized I was being a fool.

It wasn’t a trumpet blast, there wasn’t a voice speaking from the clouds, but it was a clarity that was as shocking as my behavior – maybe more so.  It wasn’t that I was embarrassed (though I was embarrassed later).  It was that I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was.  I understood, in that moment – and I believe for the first time in my life – that I was being a fool.

I kept right on being a fool, of course.  You cannot escape yourself that quickly, not as a teenager, or later either, it turns out.  Often you keep playing the bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and throw down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tiptoe into the next moment.  Often you stay inside the prison of your confidence and mock dignity even as you peer through the bars, mortified.

As I remember, I stormed off and the world spun on relentlessly through the stars and whatever was planned happened and we all grew older.  And eventually, the house was sold and God knows where that table is now (someone stole it out of my sister’s garage years ago).  Who knows?  It might be sitting in some family room and there might be a seething teenager sitting at it right now, facing a forsythia or some other bush, seeing a hint of who they might grow up to be, if they can stop being the fool.  With all my heart, I wish them well.

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

[1] The last third of this sermon is based on “A Fool’s Awakening,” by Brian Doyle, printed in the 19 February 2014 edition of Christian Century, p. 12.
[2] This joke was adapted from a joke on Family Friend Jokes, http://www.familyfriendjokes.com/jokes/jokes-for-the-teen/teenager/ (accessed 6 February 2016).
[3] The retreat center is Holden Village, a former mining town that is off the grid.  This past summer, Holden Village was surrounded by the Wolverine Creek Fire and, while the village was spared, much of the forest, the roads, and the trails were damaged.  I wonder what it will look like next time I go there.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer,
based on the story, “No Room in the Inn,” by Katherine Paterson.[1]
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2007, 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Warm, but quiet.  “Wearing sandals.  It’s a Christmas miracle,” my friend Steve Sarles posted on Facebook this morning.[2]  Of course, he lives in the south – you know, in the Boston suburbs.  But it’s plenty warm in Mount William.

I’m okay with the lakes not being frozen over and there being no snow on the ground at Christmas.  It seems like Christmases were either brown or a foot-deep in white when I was growing up.  Still, there should be little pockets of ice between the rocks along the shore in the lake coves that don’t get the winter sunlight during the day.  That’s just not happening this year with temperatures touching 60.  I’ve heard weather forecasters saying that the El Niño in the Pacific is causing – or at least contribution to – the warm weather on the Atlantic coast and even the tornados that struck the southeast yesterday.  How weird is that?

Speaking of weird, the Christmas card from Frank Dearborn says that he’s a grandfather.  I used to babysit that kid, and he’s grandfather now.  If he’s old enough for that, then I’m – there’s just no way that I’m that old.

When he heard the news that his daughter was pregnant, he called the Bed and Breakfast his parents used to run and made reservations.  Frank was determined to have a four-generation Christmas back in Mount William – and he’s made it happen.  Frank and Jill, their two kids, their kids’ spouses, and their granddaughter are at the Grove Hill Inn (the owners who bought out Francine and Ernest eight years ago changed the name).  Tomorrow morning, Francine and Ernest Dearborn will drive up from Nashua and the family will celebrate at what was once their home.

It was opening the door to the downstairs powder room yesterday that brought the memory back this time.  Frank has had plenty of meaningful Christmases – the first with his wife, the one when their daughter was 10 and she suggested they pool the money they would have spent on presents and give it to the food bank, the one when Jill’s father was so sick and still insisted on taking the family to the midnight Christmas Eve service.  But the Christmas of 1988 when Frank was 18 – this was one of the most transformative experiences of his life.

Begin born into a family that ran a B&B meant that Frank had a job from the day he would make hospital corners.  By the time he was a teenager, he was cleaning rooms and helping out in the kitchen, and he spent most of the summer cutting and splitting fire wood for the winter guests.  But that Christmas, the winter after he turned 18, his parents decided to give themselves a treat, to close down the Inn for the holiday and to take a trip to somewhere warm.  That meant that Frank had the old B&B to himself – no guests, no parents, a stack of movies that his parents wouldn’t let him to watch when there were guests at the Inn.

It was snowing hard the day he drove his parents all the way into Boston to catch their flight to Florida.  He tried to look a little sad as he hugged his parents goodbye – his Christmas present to his mother.  The drive back to Mount William was slow with all the accumulated snow.  He was tired and hungry by the time he got to the village center, so he decided to stop of at Bessie and Winona’s Chowder House for something to eat.  He wasn’t much of a chowder fan, but Winona made a great meat loaf and the cup of coffee was bottomless.

The woodstove was crackling warm and the smell of meatloaf and homemade bread filled the place.  Ewell Biggs and Ames Whitehead were sitting at the counter drinking coffee when he got there.  They gave Frank the typical male New Hampshire nod and grunt of greeting.  Frank nodded back and sat down, waiting for Bessie’s usual “Hello stranger!”  But Bessie just stared at him sadly.  “It’s meatloaf tonight,” she said, as though that would be the last thing anyone would want.

“That’s fine,” Frank said, and then, “is something the matter, Bessie?”

“Bessie’s all worried about them Russians,” Ewell explained between sips of coffee.

“They’re Armenians,” Bessie said to him, and then to Frank, “I was just watching the news.  It’s over 20,000 dead now and about half a million people with no place to sleep.  And it’s cold there!”[3]

“It ain’t like a New Hampshire winter,” Ames said.  “It was 8 below in my barn this morning.”

“It’s cold enough,” Bessie insisted.  “I saw this old woman on TV last night.  They showed her hands.  She was kinda holding them tight like this” – Bessie clutched her hands together – “and she didn’t have any gloves.  She was just holding onto herself and shivering.  It killed me.  I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that poor old woman.”

Frank thought Bessie was going to burst into tears, but she pulled herself together enough to get a huge steaming plate of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and beans, with three hot rolls on the side.  She knew how Frank loved her rolls.

Just then, he felt a blast of cold air on his back.  Everyone turned to look at the door.  A man was standing there – a stranger.  There was several days’ growth of stubble on his face.  He had on worn jeans and a flimsy baseball jacket and no hat or gloves.  He was not from Mount William, or Bessie would have recognized him.

“Take a seat,” Bessie said.  She only called people she knew ‘stranger.’  “Be right with you.”  Before Frank could ask for ketchup, she was back to the Armenians.  “And those children.  Did you see those poor kids in the hospital with their legs all crushed?  One little boy couldn’t even remember who he was.  The doctor didn’t know if his parents were dead or alive.”

Frank opened his mouth during a pause to ask for the ketchup, but by then she had turned to the stranger.  “Now, what can I do for you?” she asked.

He was still standing in front of the door as though he couldn’t remember what he’d come in for.  “Coffee,” he muttered at last.  “To go.”

“People who got though the earthquake are just freezing to death from the cold,” Bessie went on as she filled a large Styrofoam cup from the coffee pot.

The man looked puzzled.  “Armenians,” Frank said.  “She’s all upset about the Armenians.  There was a big earthquake over there.  A lot of people died.”

“And the rest are likely to,” Bessie said with a huge sigh.  “Right at Christmas.  I can’t get over those poor children.  Cream and sugar?”

“Yeah,” the man said.  “Both.  Double.”

Bessie pushed on the lid.  “That’ll be 63 cents,” she said as the man handed her a dollar bill.  “This mason jar here is for the Armenians,” she said, pointing to it.  “I’m taking donation – if you’d like to put in your change …”

The man took the change she held out and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans.  “How far to Concord from here?” he asked.

“Usually about a half-hour,” Frank said, “but the road are really bad, so maybe an hour and a half or two.”

“Ah, they’ll plow soon,” Ewell said.

“I need gas,” the man said.

“Well, that might be a problem.  The Triangle Store is closed for the night and the next gas is in Concord,” said Ames.

The man shrugged, turned, and another blast of cold air was felt by all.

“Friendly fellow,” Ames said.

“Not too worried about your Russians, either,” Ewell teased.

“Armenians.”  Bessie looked sadder than every.

When he was ready to go, Frank stuffed his change into the jar even though he’d given her one of the twenties his parents had left him.  When he got back home, the first thing he did was hang out the “No Vacancy” sign.  He wasn’t likely to get any visitors on a night like this, but he wasn’t taking any chances.  He had the evening all planned.  First a roaring fire, then a large bottle of Pepsi and big bag of potato chips, and then start in on the pile of videos.

He had no sooner popped the first tape into the machine and settled back to watch when the doorbell rang … and rang … and rang.  There was nothing to do but go answer.  He put on the chain and opened the door a crack.  “Sorry, no vacancy,” he said, and then he saw the stranger from the Chowder House.

“How about if I stay in the garage?” he asked.  “Like you said, the roads are terrible and it’s freezing out here in the car.”

“Sorry, no vacancy.  You’ll have to try somewhere else.”

“Look I’m just asking to stay in your garage, so I don’t freeze to death.  You’d let a stray dog into the garage, wouldn’t you, on a night like this?”

Frank hesitated.  The man smiled – one of those shifty-eyed smiles that immediately makes you distrust someone.  “Just think of me as one of them Armenians,” he said.

He was right.  Fake smile or not, he would freeze to death in his car on a night like that.  “Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll have to move the truck out to make room for your car.”  He closed the front door and carefully locked it before going out into the garage through the kitchen.  He backed out the truck and a ten-year-old Chevy with rusted sides drove into the garage.  Frank got an old blankets out of the cargo area, locked the truck, and hurried into the garage.

“Here’s a blanket in case,” he yelled as he set it on the garage floor, pushed the button to close the garage door, and went back into the kitchen.  He tried to stop thinking about the man in the car in the garage as he settled back down by the fire and the TV.  “I’m sure not gonna let him inside,” Frank thought to himself.  “People get robbed and beaten up for that kind of stupidity – murdered, even.”  Frank turned up the volume of the movie to try to drown out the thoughts.

He didn’t know how long the knocking had been going on when he finally heard it.  “Yeah?” he yelled through the door to the garage.

“Daddy said, could I use the bathroom?”

A child’s voice.  It startled Frank and he opened the door.  Sure enough, there stood a dirty, skinny, red-faced kid.  “Daddy said you’d let me use the bathroom.”

Frank opened the door wider and let him in.  What was he supposed to do?  Tell the kids to go out in the snow.  Sheesh.  He shut the door behind the boy and led him to the downstairs powder room.  “Don’t use the towels,” he warned.

He waited outside the bathroom for what seemed like ten minutes.  What in the world was the kid up to?  Finally, he came out, walking tall and straight-backed like a little prince.  He didn’t say a word, not even thank you.

“You’re welcome,” Frank said loudly as he let the boy back into the garage.

Frank sat down on a kitchen chair.  The guy hadn’t said anything about any kid.  He was thinking about calling the police or child welfare or somebody when there was another, softer knock at the door.

This time, he just opened it.  “You’ve been to the bathroom already,” he stated to say when he saw it was a different kid – a stringy haired girl with a runny nose rubbed raw.  “Where did you come from?” he asked.

She whispered something.

“What?”

Again he heard the word “bathroom,” so he shut the door and pointed her to the powder room.  He didn’t even bother to warn her about the fancy guest towels. Somehow, he knew it was going to be a long night.

Before the girl had left the bathroom, there was another knock at the door.  This time there was a woman standing there, holding a baby in a filthy rag of a blanket.  Frank couldn’t believe it.  This was like one of those circus acts where people just keep coming out of a car.  “Would you warm it?” she asked.  Frank looked down; she was handing him a baby bottle half filled with frozen milk.

“You’d better do it,” he said.  He got out a saucepan, filled it with water, and turned on the burner.  “The kid – the little girl’s in the bathroom,” he said, nodding in the direction.  He waited, as patiently as he could, for the woman to test the milk on her wrist and shove the bottle into the baby’s mouth, and for the little girl to finish wiping her grubby little hands on all four of the embroidered Irish linen guest towels.

“Now,” he said, “I’m very sorry, but you’re going to have to go.”

“It’s cold out there,” the little girl whined as he gently urged her out the door.

“I know,” he said grimly, going out with her to the rusty Chevy.  The man was sitting behind the wheel with all the windows rolled up.  Frank went to the driver’s side and tapped, but the man didn’t roll the window down.  He looked straight ahead.  Frank banged louder.  “You’re going to have to go.  This isn’t going to work.  You didn’t tell me you had kids with you.”

The man turned slowly and opened the window a crack.  He gave Frank a look – it was the most sarcastic expression Frank had ever seen.  “Just pretend we’re some of them Armenians,” he said and rolled with window up again.

Frank stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do next.  It was so quiet he could hear the soft sounds of the baby drinking its milk.  The little girl was watching from the other side of the Chevy with big scared eyes.  The woman hadn’t moved.  She was till standing in the doorway, the baby cradled in her arms, a dark silhouette against the light streaming from the bright kitchen.  “All is bright ’round yon Virgin Mother and Child.”

A shiver went through Frank.

An unheated barn was no place for a baby.  And then he heard himself:  “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.”  No room in the inn, not for two thousand lousy years.

“Look, why don’t you come into the house.  It’s freezing out here.”

The man smiled grimly.  “Thinking about the Armenians, huh?”

“No,” said Frank, “I was actually thinking about someone else.”

Frank led them into the living room to the fire.  He turned off the TV and went to call Bessie.  He knew he needed help and he was sure she would come.  He’d just tell her he had a houseful of Armenians.

That’s the news from Mount William, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.
[1] Katherine Paterson, “No Room in the Inn,” A Midnight Clear, (New York: Minna Murra, Inc, 1995), 68-82.

[2] Steve Sarles, Facebook status update, https://www.facebook.com/steve.sarles/posts/10205196950825559 (posted and accessed 24 December 2015).

[3] On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak.  Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless.  http://welcome.warnercnr.colostate.edu/avprojects/98proj/world_volc/web_docs/armenia.html (22 December 2007).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 4, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:2-16
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a young teenager, my father’s sister decided to get married.  She’d been married, had a child, and was divorced before I was born.[1]  So I only knew my aunt as a single mother.  I also started reading the Bible and trying to understand what is meant as a young teenager, and I started with the gospels, and I started with Mark (because it’s the shortest).  This means that I read today’s gospel lesson at about the same time my divorced aunt decided to marry her boyfriend.

I was concerned.  I’m not sure if I was more concerned about how Jesus would view my aunt or how the addition of an uncle and his family would impact my family’s celebration of Christmas – but I was concerned.

I was confronted by this scripture reading again about a quarter of a century ago, which seems much too long ago, so let’s just say it was 24 years ago.  I was serving a church in Spokane and was part of an ecumenical lectionary study group:  three episcopal priests, a Disciples of Christ pastor, a Presbyterian pastor or two, me, maybe someone else.

Today’s gospel lesson came up in the lectionary.  It was paired with Genesis 2:18-24, the section of the second creation story where the woman is created from the rib of the man.  It included the sentence Jesus quotes about the two becoming one flesh.  The Psalm was 128, which includes these lines:  “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.  You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.  Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.”[2]

The others in the Bible study started talking about the lessons as I considered the risk of saying out loud what was going on in my heart.  I wasn’t out to very many people in Spokane, but I decided to risk coming out to these colleagues.  I told them that as a gay man, I found these scriptures difficult to hear because they didn’t just ignore my reality, they denied my reality.

Afghan MSF medical personnel treat civilians injured following an offensive against Taliban militants by Afghan and coalition forces at the MSF hospital in Kunduz. Photo from NBC website.

And here we are, 24 years later, with this gospel lesson again.  It’s paired with different readings in the lectionary now, but the reading itself hasn’t changed.  And it feels as if it has little to do with the fact that today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, World Communion Sunday, and the first day of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  And it feels like it has little to do with the fact that during the past week there was yet another mass shooting, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, or that yesterday, a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Afghanistan was bombed by my country, killing 19 people – 12 staff working for the international aid organization and seven patients, including three children – and that a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan labeled the deaths and destruction as “collateral damage.”[3]

Not only does it feel like it has nothing to do with these events, it’s a disturbing passage.  In all honesty, passages like this make me want to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s knife and just remove it from the Bible.

And that’s actually one of the reasons I decided to preach on it.  When I find myself angered by or resistant to some scripture, I take it as a sign that I should do some wrestling with is.  So I’ve been wrestling with the scripture.  And I think, maybe, the scripture is winning.

One of the commentaries I looked at points out, “the prohibition of divorce appears in many early texts of the followers of Jesus … and may derive from Jesus himself.  Some interpreters argue that it was introduced to protect women from being abandoned without support, but there is nothing [overt] in any of these texts to suggest this [is the point Jesus is making].  Further, the Qumran sect also prohibited divorce with the same scriptural argument as here:  marriage was ordained at creation.…  Among his followers the prohibition of divorce might have addressed the situation of those who were separating for celibacy [and was an argument against that practice[4]].…  Biblical law allowed only men to initiate divorce (Deut. 24:1-4), but in this period Jewish women, in accordance with Roman law, also initiated divorces…”[5]  In other words, it’s hard to unpack the social context in which this passage was written.

And as I’ve wrestled with it, I realize that I hear it very personally.  I hear it personally because of my aunt’s marriage when I was a teen and because of how erased it made me feel as a young adult.  And I suspect most of us hear it personally.  The end of reading and hearing it so personally is that is that we end up “feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable.  Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.”[6]

But what if he didn’t.

David Lose is of help here.  “Note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene:  ‘Some Pharisees came and to test him, said “Is it lawful …”’  Did you catch that?  This isn’t a casual – or even intense, for that matter – conversation about love, marriage, and divorce.  It’s a test.  Moreover, it’s not even a test about divorce, but about the law.  There were, you see, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce.  Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances.  And with this question/test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him.

“And Jesus is having none of it.  He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life.  Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.”[7]

Now, these Pharisees who are testing Jesus probably don’t care about Roman law.  They are testing him about Mosaic law.  And the fact of the matter is that under Mosaic law, only men could file for divorce and, because of the extreme patriarchal nature of the society, divorce left women pretty much without anything – no status, no reputation, no economic security.  Men, Jesus is saying, can’t just cast their wives aside – even though it’s legal.  In fact, the law is meant to protect the vulnerable and the hurting, and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.[8]

The Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, to trap him, about the specifics of a law, and Jesus pushes past pedantic arguments.  Jesus talks about the purpose of the law.  And in doing so, he talks about the kind of community we will be.  Jesus is “inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that is, founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable.”[9]

Another reason I think that Jesus as Mark presents him really isn’t focusing on divorce, but on community, is because of the next bit in the lesson, the part about the children.  These days, most Bibles get printed like this.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the gospel lesson from Logos Bible software.

You have the scripture translated into English, and the editors have added section headings and they may have decided to put the words attributed to Jesus in red ink to set them off from the other words.  Good translations will also have footnotes to point out when the translation is iffy.

The original looked more like this.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Screen shot of the Gospel passage from The Greek New Testament SBL edition using Logos Bible software.

Not only is it in Greek, you’ll notice that the section headings are missing.  That’s because the authors didn’t include them.  For the authors, the writing was one whole.  Even what you see here has editorial additions.  The originals didn’t even have chapter and verse numbers.  The oldest manuscripts don’t even have punctuation and capitalization is completely inconsistent.

For our ears, the narrative in Mark seems to shift.  Jesus was talking about divorce and now he’s talking about children.  No wonder editors put in a new section heading.  But Mark didn’t have the section headings.  There’s a reason the admonition about including children comes right after the test about the law.  Jesus’ reaction to the two situations is essentially the same.

“Let’s recall the context:  Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest.  Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable.  In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honoring Jesus.  Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away.  And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

“This whole passage, I think, is about community.  But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek.  It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent.  Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk.  It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.  This is what the church was originally about – a place for all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who came to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them.”[10]

broken peopleMaybe this quote should have been on the cover of our bulletin today:  “God uses broken people like you and me to rescue broken people like you and me.”[11]

“Part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need … [T]o be broken is, in fact, to be human.  And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves.  Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.”[12]

When Mark quotes Jesus about divorce, these words are based in the values that embrace us despite – maybe even because of – our brokenness.  These are Jesus’ family values.  And in the light of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and in the light of World Communion Sunday, and in the shadow of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, and in the shadow of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, I need to be reminded of Jesus’ family values:  that we are a family of broken people rescuing broken people.

And there are plenty of broken people who need us.

Amen.

[1] The divorce may actually have been after I was born, but I have no memory of every meeting her first husband.

[2] Psalm 128:1-4, NRSV.

[3] Scott Newman and Emma Bowman, “Kunduz Airstrike Reportedly Kills 19 At Doctors Without Borders Hospital,” National Public Radio: The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/03/445435361/after-u-s-airstrike-3-dead-at-doctors-without-borders-hospital (posted and updated 3 October 2015; accessed 3 October 2015).

[4] Though, I would point out that there is nothing overt in any of this text to suggest this is the point Jesus (or rather Mark) is making.

[5] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80-81.

[6] David Lose, “Pentecost 19 B: Communities of the Broken and Blessed,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-19-b-communities-of-the-broken-and-blessed/ (posted and accessed on 28 September 2015).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Eddie Cortes is a pastor; he blogs at http://eddiecortes.com.

[12] David Lose, op. cit., spelling error corrected.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 20, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:30-37
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I assume all of you heard the news about the 14-year-old who was arrested at his Irving, Texas, high school this week.[1]  I want to take you on a journey, a retracing of my experience of this news as it unfolded because I think it is germane to my sermon topic today.

Ahmed Mohamed being arrested. Photo from NBC

For me, the news broke in my Facebook feed.  A 14-year-old boy was arrested in Texas when an electronic clock he made as a project for his engineering class was mistaken for a bomb.  I thought some disparaging thoughts about Texas and scrolled on to the next post.  After all, schools have a responsibility to keep students safe, and if one student did something that threatened or even seemed to threaten the others, the school administration needed to react.

More posts showed up in my Facebook feed when I checked it throughout the day, so I clicked on one.  The first thing I noticed was the kid’s name:  Ahmed Mohamed.  I wondered if the level of suspicion would have been as high if the boy was named Paul Christianson.

And I started wondering about the school staff.  How could they possibly mistake a clock for a bomb?  Had the kid made any threats? No.  Had he ever claimed it was anything but a clock? No.  Did it look like there were explosives? No, it was built in a pencil case.  Why on earth did they call the police and why on earth did the police arrest the kid?

Photo of pencil box in which Ahmed built his clock, released by police.

I was relieved when I started seeing the reactions of people outside Irving, Texas.  My favorite response was from the President, posted on Twitter almost immediately after the story broke:  “Cool clock, Ahmed.  Want to bring it to the White House?  We should inspire more kids like you to like science.  It’s what makes America great.”[2]  Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to visit Facebook and said that he wanted to meet the kid.  The chair of theoretical physics at MIT (Ahmed’s dream school) invited him to come visit (and to visit Harvard) saying that she knows Ahmed likes the hands-on stuff, but the theory of physics can be interesting, too.  And, under the heading of “Get arrested and get cool swag,” Microsoft’s CEO sent Ahmed a care package.[3]

Care package from Microsoft CEO. Photo from Microsoft News

Still, there was part of me that thought, “This was a really stupid mistake on the part of the school and the police, but they do have a responsibility to protect the students.”  And then I read a Facebook post[4] that changed my mind.  This post pointed out that they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when you think that there’s a bomb.  They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a suspicious package.  They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do if you think he has a bomb.  They put him and the clock in an office, they waited with him for the police to arrive, they put Ahmed and the clock in a police car, and when they got to the police station, they took pictures of it.  They never thought he had a bomb.

At first, I thought the issue was fear – fear of the object, maybe even fear of the object because a Muslim kid built it.  Now I’m inclined to think that the issue is fear – fear that a brown-skinned, Muslim kid could excel, could be creative, might achieve.

Fear makes us do stupid things.

Yes, sometimes fear is helpful.  Over the eons, our fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening situations probably kept Homo sapiens from extinction.  And in some situations, the fear response is still very helpful because it keeps us safe.  But fear can be a conditioned response based on nothing threatening.  Many of the things we fear we learned to fear.  We weren’t afraid of them until experience or culture taught us to be afraid.  And those learned fears often lead to prejudices.  And those prejudices lead to injustices.  Fear can move us to do stupid things.

Or as David Lose puts it, “Fear has this way of leading you to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing your vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities.  Which is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when you are afraid.”[5]

“This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith.  Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid.  And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom.  Fear does that.  It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.”[6]

Mark contrasts faith and fear in other places in his gospel.  After he stills the storm that terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  As he revives Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36).

“Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives [us] to despair.”[7]

So, here’s a question for you:  What are you afraid of?

I would actually like you to reflect on this question.  Jot down your answers on a corner of your copy of the bulletin.  Push past the phobia answers (for me, that’s snakes; an easy but not instructive answer).  Push past, look inside and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?”

As I sat with this question this week, these are the answers I came up with:  Perhaps because I keep seeing articles about the astronomical costs for housing in San Francisco that is driving up housing costs throughout the Bay Area, I’m afraid I may not have enough savings to retire.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s a fear.  But what are you really afraid of, Jeff?”  And I looked deeper inside discovered that I’m afraid of being rejected or shamed; and I’m afraid of anger – my own anger and anger in other people.

I share these fears not because I expect any of you to fix them (or me).  That’s not your job.  They are my fears.  I share them because I think this is a safe space where I can be real.  I share them because I trust you to hear them.  I share them to encourage you to look inside yourself to discover what you really fear.  And I share them because, as Mark is pointing out, there is a relationship between fear and faith.

Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation faith.  And by faith, I don’t mean giving our intellectual assent to some proposition – as if believing the right things about God somehow inoculates us from fear.  Rather, I mean faith “as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.

“Note what follows the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ probing question that only exposes the depth of their anxiety:  Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.

“These are small things when you think about it.  Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger.  But they are available to each and all of us every single day.  And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”[8]

I began thinking that the Irving high school over-reaction to Ahmed’s clock was understandable.  We want our schools to be a safe space for our children.  The over-reaction may have exposed how unsafe the schools are – not because of the students, but because of the unnamed, unconscious fears of the adults.

Our lesson from Mark suggests ways to make those school and our churches and every place safer spaces for everyone:  When we make the small gestures of caring, of compassion, of welcome, of honesty,  and when we receive those gestures with gratitude and trust.

Amen.

[1] Bill Chappell, “Texas High School Student Shows Off Homemade Clock, Gets Handcuffed,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/16/440820557/high-school-student-shows-off-homemade-clock-gets-handcuffed (posted 16 September 2015, accessed 19 September 2015).

[2] Barack Obama, Twitter, https://twitter.com/POTUS/status/644193755814342656 (posted and accessed 16 September 2015).

[3] Mehedi Hassan, “Ahmed Mohamed gets Surface Pro 3, and more goodies from Microsoft CEO,” Microsoft News, http://microsoft-news.com/ahmed-mohamed-gets-surface-pro-3-and-more-goodies-from-microsoft-ceo/ (posted and accessed 19 September 2015).

[4] I have since seen this post attributed to several people, so I don’t know who wrote it originally.

[5] David Lose, “Pentecost 17B: Faith & Fear,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-17-b-faith-fear/ (posted and accessed 14 September 2015).

[6] Ibid, emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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