You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘youth’ category.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 8:2-11 and Luke 24:1-11
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have long considered the passage we heard from John 8 to be a pretty good argument against the death penalty.  The law says that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Jesus stops the crowd from carrying out that penalty.  It seems pretty clear that Jesus is anti-death penalty.

At least in the case of adultery.

When only one of the party is brought to justice.

And that last statement is an important one for this sermon series.  The crowd is only seeking to punish the woman, as if the adultery is her fault.  She was caught in the act, they say.  That means the other party was there.  Why aren’t they hauling the man away to be killed, too?  It’s as if the guy gets a pass.

For generations, we’ve been letting men get away with sexual harassment and sexual assault.  We’ve been slut-shaming the women and giving the men a pass.  In my studying for this sermon series, I’ve learned some of the reasons why people sexually harass.

According to John Pryor, a psychologist at Illinois State University, there are three personality factors that increase the likelihood that a man will be a sexual harasser:  a lack of empathy, a belief in traditional gender roles, and a tendency toward authoritarianism.  In his research, Pryor found that when men with these personality traits are in an environment or system that suggests they can get away with it, they will do it.[1]

Add to this information the results of more recent studies showing that power makes people impulsive, less worried about social conventions, and less concerned about the effect of ones actions on others.  Other studies show that powerful people become more focused on themselves, are more likely to objectify others, and are more likely to overestimate how much others like them.  Sometimes powerful people will think that there are sexual signals coming from subordinates that simply aren’t there.[2]

Why men are much more likely to sexually harass than women is not completely clear.  “It’s not like women are somehow immune from dark personality traits,” psychologist Louise Fitzgerald said, “but we know from gender research that men are more aggressive, more socialized to seek sex and believe they have a right to it.”[3]

I do not think this greater aggression is simply biological.  It is not, as Andrew Sullivan proposed in a column for New York magazine,[4] simply a matter of testosterone.  There is something about the ways we raise boys that makes the men they grow into more aggressive than women, particularly more sexually aggressive.  One of the dangerous ways we do this is by doing what happened in the story from John’s gospel.  We give the men a pass.

Consider these three things we tell boys and girls that gives boys a pass.

  • Boys will be boys.
  • He does that because he likes you.
  • It’s just locker room talk.

Perhaps a little more strongly than the other two phrases (though I think all three do this), saying, “Boys will be boys,” teaches that there is only one way to be a boy, and that way is to be violent, rough, and tumble.  It implies that boys are biologically wired to be violent and that they should be excused from the consequences of that behavior.  It turns out, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot, that there is very little difference between the brains of girls and boys.[5]  When our culture buys into the idea that maleness is to be equated with violence, we excuse behaviors that hurt others physically or emotionally.

The junior high boy snaps the bra strap of the junior high girl in the hallway.  When the girl informs a teacher, the teacher says the boy did it because “he likes you and doesn’t know another way to tell you.”  It gets said again and again.  I am guilty of saying it – not at the junior high level, but with elementary kids.  When we say it, we are reinforcing that idea that boys are incapable of expressing themselves through any means other than violence.

“When we dismiss boys’ aggression as evidence of affection,… we sell all children short.  To girls, the message is, ‘That violent act to which you did not consent means that he feels love for you.’  And the message to boys is, ‘When you feel an emotion, you should express it through violence.’”[6]

Consider what those messages do.  They imply “that it’s strange for boys to have feelings of love that are disconnected from feelings of violence [or power over another].…  When we tell our boys it’s normal to show that they like someone by hurting them, we don’t just excuse toxic masculinity – we encourage it.  We are effectively not teaching our children what safe and consensual relationships look like at the moments when they are just starting to come of age sexually.”[7]

Likewise, we give boys and men a pass when we excuse their stories of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”  We’re essentially saying “boys will be boys,” but in an advanced way.  We are saying not only that it is okay, but that it is appropriate, that it is expected for boys and men to perform their masculinity and their sexuality in aggressive ways.  And that is toxic for all of us.

Aziz Ansari

About three weeks ago, a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari was published online.[8]  They met, exchanged phone numbers, exchanged text messages, and then went out on a date.  The date ended in Ansari’s apartment and became very sexual very quickly – from kissing to undressing to Ansari saying he was going to go grab a condom, all in a matter minutes.  “Grace [the woman’s pseudonym] voiced her hesitation explicitly.  ‘I said something like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”’  She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him.  She did, but not for long.”[9]  The date ended, and she left – very upset.  For her, this was a #MeToo moment.

There was a lot of push back about this article – a lot.  The woman was not an employee of Ansari, so there were no workplace dynamics in the situation.  “Her repeated objections and pleas that they ‘slow down’ were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex.  Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.  “Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.”[10]

This question is, I think, the other side of the enculturation issue I just scratched the surface of about male sexual aggression.  And I’ll tell you, I don’t know all the possible reasons.  But I found a very informative article online that opened my eyes, titled “The female price of male pleasure.”  I hope you will read it; click here.

It’s thesis is this:  “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time.  And to ignore their discomfort.”[11]  Loofbourow, the author of the article, starts with this little factoid:  According to a study published on the National Institutes of Health website, 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.[12]  She goes on to explore how and why women and men have entirely different understandings of what makes sexual intercourse “bad sex.”

She notes that there are five times as many clinical trials studying men’s sexual pleasure as there are studies into the severe physical pain some women experience during sex.  Why?  “Because,” she concludes, “we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.”

She writes about women who continue having sexual intercourse even though it is painful.  She writes about women being taught to expect the first time they have sexual intercourse to be painful – and if the first time, why not the second time?  And then there’s the discomfort the fashion industry pushes on women, largely for the sexual gratification of men.

One of the reasons women don’t just leave when a social encounter turns uncomfortable sexually is that they are taught that uncomfortable is the norm.  This is probably also a reason that some women don’t realize that the uncomfortable situation they just had – in the workplace or at school or at church or at the sports club – was sexual harassment.  And even if they do recognize it as such, it may be a reason they don’t bother reporting it.

There are two other reasons I can think of that people (of all genders) don’t report sexual harassment and sexual assaults.  The first is that they don’t think they’re going to be believed.  It’s what happened to the women in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, and they weren’t even reporting an assault.  The women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid after the crucifixion to give it a proper preparation.  But when they get there, the body is gone and they have an angelic visitation.  When they report what happened to the men who were followers of Jesus, they are not believed.  The men don’t believe them.

The other reason I can think of that people don’t report sexual harassment and sexual violence is that they worry that their reporting will be met with more violence.  You may remember the recent special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.  One of the candidates, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct in the weeks leading up to the election.  This is what happened to home of Tina Moore, one of the accusers.[13]

The fire is being investigated as an arson.  The fear that reporting will be met with more violence is reasonable.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to touch on in this sermon:  What do we do about all this?  I’ll go into this in much more detail next week.  This week, I want to say there are at least three basic things we can do when we see harassment, or even assault, taking place:

  • We can disrupt the situation. This needs to be done in a way that is as safe as possible.  You may want some support from another when you do this.  I’ll offer some examples of how this can be done next week.
  • We can confront the harasser. This doesn’t have to be done in the moment and it isn’t appropriate in all situations.  But when it’s appropriate there are ways to do this.  More next week.
  • And we can ask the target of the harassment how we can help. This might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in the with target of harassment and offer to help – like offering to go with them to Human Resources if the harassment takes place at work.

The other thing that’s important to do when someone discloses harassment or abuse.  Believe them.  Telling someone, “I believe you,” can give them the support they need to get the help they need to get the healing they deserve.  We can do a better job than the male disciples did on Easter morning.

Amen.

_______________

[1] William Wan, “What makes some men sexual harassers? …” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/12/20/what-makes-some-men-sexual-harassers-science-tries-to-explain-the-harvey-weinsteins-of-the-world/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/01/sullivan-metoo-must-choose-between-reality-and-ideology.html

[5] Colleen Clemens, “Say No to ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’” Teaching Tolerance, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/say-no-to-boys-will-be-boys (posted 17 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Katie Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” babe.net, https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355 (posted 14 January 2018 [as best I can tell]; accessed 3 February 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lili Loofbourow, “The female price of male pleasure,” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/749978/female-price-male-pleasure (posted 25 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25648245

[13] M.L. Nestel, “Over $150,000 raised after Roy Moore accuser’s home burns down in suspicious fire,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/100000-raised-roy-moore-accusers-home-burns-suspicious/story?id=52192189 (posted 7 January 2018; accessed 3 January 2018).

Advertisements

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_5at1ahrqj80sckskwcoc4ssc0_640

[Updated: 3 Sept. 2o17]

In the final days of August, the self-titled “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” released their “Nashville Statement,” reiterating their belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, condemning lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and denying the reality of gender variance beyond the male/female binary. This “manifesto” is composed of 14 beliefs, rejects the idea that otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree on gay, lesbian and transgender issues. The leaders refer to this mentality as “moral indifference.”

Author, historian, and theologian Diana Butler Bass tweeted a thread on some history behind the Nashville Statement. I encourage you to read the whole thing. She points out that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was stated in 1987 by men in response to the formation of two women’s organizations within Evangelical Christianity that embraced to one degree or another equality. She tweets, “For the last 30 years, feminism and LBGT issues have roiled in evangelical circles w/o [without] a clear consensus on theology. But opposition to one has generally resulted in opposition to the other.  For the biblical hermeneutic [the lens through which one views scripture when doing theology] behind both is the same.” This biblical hermeneutic that sees women and LGBTQ+ people as second class has become the predominant one within Evangelical Christianity.

I have read some very strongly worded renunciations of the “Nashville Statement. I particularly like John Pavlovitz’s somewhat snarky “translation” of the Nashville Statement in which he removes “the sanctified verbiage.”

One comment really struck me was posted on Facebook by Travis Ables and quoted by my Facebook friend Mike Morrell. It says in part, “Fascinating that in the time we’re living in, evangelical theologians chose to double down on bigotry in a statement no one was asking for. They could have addressed Trumpism, racism, and fascism. They could have shelved their agenda and released a call to action for victims of natural disasters. They could have issued a soul-searching plea to reexamine the idolatry of nationalism in the white church. They could have issued anathemas against the apostate religious leaders who still stand in support of the president after Charlottesville. In fact, addressing these issues would have been the only way to say something with any integrity or meaning, a chance to show that the church might still give a damn about the agonies our country is going through.”

The simple fact of the matter is that the Nashville Statement is bad theology. As Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie M. Townes put it, “The Nashville Statement skips past the depth of God’s expansive love and cloaks itself in an arrogant and fearful Christianity that insists that this is the will of God. Not true. Not prophetic. Not biblical.” If you’re interested in a deconstruction of the Nashville Statement pointing out it’s bad theology, I refer you to this post by Chuck McKnight.

In response, several groups have issued statements with better theology and that lift up God’s radically inclusive love. Christians United has issued a statement using the same format at the “Nashville Statement” of affirmations and denials that I have signed. While I’m not fully comfortable with the traditional notion of the “fallenness of humanity,” that seems a minor quibble when statements such as this need vast numbers of Christians signing them. The Disciples LGBTQ+ Alliance also supports the Christians United statement.

Another statement I’ve signed is the “Connecticut Statement.” It uses the same format and I am much more comfortable with its theology.

So, what can you do? Well, if you’re a Christian, here are just a couple options:

  • Sign the United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming Coalition’s petition, “The ‘Nashville Statement’ Is an Affront to Our Values as Christians.”
  • Sign onto the Christians United statement.
  • Sign onto the Connecticut Statement.
  • And most importantly, post something in your social media networks that shows your support as a Christian of LGBTQ+ people. Do this regularly.

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.

Categories

Jeff’s Twitter Feed

Archives

Blog Stats

  • 26,976 hits
Advertisements