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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/news_charlottesville_state_of_emergency_ends_unite_the_right_rally_08122017 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-charlottesville-white-nationalists-rally-20170812-story.html (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/car-hits-crowd-protesters-white-nationalist-rally-virginia/story (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10154669492056496 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/recognizing-gods-presence-0 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8345/how-god-answers-the-worst-prayer-in-the-bible (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble?parent=51401 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-10-a-something-more/ (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 6, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 6:19–7:12
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I was on the train by myself. That was fine. I’m used to riding on trains by myself. It was when I realized that I was on the wrong train that my anxiety started to rise. The fact that I was in France and I don’t speak French was certainly a contributing factor. “Please, God, may the conductor speak English.” And God answered my prayer: No.

Luckily, the conductor was compassionate. He wrote something on a piece of paper, and said something with some hand gestures that I guessed meant I was supposed to get off the train when we got to a town with the name on the paper. For the next twelve hours (it was probably only 30 or 40 minutes – maybe only 20) I watched the electronic ticker ahead of me on the ceiling of the train car, looking for the word the conductor had written on the paper.

Finally, I saw it. I got off the train, found a timetable, figured out when a train to Geneva would come, and finally started to relax. As I sat on the platform, waiting for the train that would actually take me to Switzerland, I started kicking myself right in the ego for being so stupid that I got on the wrong train.

By the time I got to Geneva, all I had lost was a long layover that I had hoped to spend with a cousin, but who had cancelled the day before. I even made the train I had planned to get to Zurich, and then a connection to Wettingen, where a different cousin didn’t meet me because he thought I was going to meet him in Baden – but that’s another story.

In today’s section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts by asking us to consider where our hearts are, to think about what we value. In a society that values wealth and power, Jesus suggests our values should be focused elsewhere. Treasures on earth or treasures in heaven? You can’t serve God and wealth. It’s one or the other. That’s why, Jesus says, I tell you not to worry about material things. Material things are not what is important. Worry won’t add to your life. Strive first for the kin-dom of God. Tomorrow with bring it’s own troubles. Be present here, now, in this moment, not worrying about some possible future.

There are lots of reasons to be anxious. One typical reason we get anxious is that we worry about things that are beyond our control. There I was, on the wrong train and there was nothing I could do about it. I hear this from parents – worried about their children and feeling powerless to do anything about their futures and the choices they make. Except, of course, they helped their children become the people they are. And they ignore the fact that they are still their parents and can provide some level of safety net. Instead, they may try to manipulate, control, or disempower their kids, thus undermining the parenting they have done for years.

I bet you know of someone, perhaps yourself, who feared so much that they would lose the person they loved that they started clinging and grasping and smothering – and actually ended up driving the person away.

I’m not talking about anxiety disorders. Those are real medical issues that have to do with brain wiring and chemistry. I’m talking about situational anxieties.

When you have this kind of anxiety, you are experiencing a trust deficit. Whether it is a lack of trust in yourself (like I had on the train in France) or a lack of trust in another (like a parent with a child) or a lack of trust in God, when you are anxious about your life, you don’t experience your life – you only experience your anxiety.

Do you remember what happened while I was waiting for the correct train to Geneva? I started taking it out on myself. This is pretty typical. All too often, “anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy.”[1]

We see this wholesale every four years during the presidential campaign. Whether it’s the immigrants or the Wall Street banks, the candidates tell us to deal with our anxieties – whatever they are actually about – by identifying an enemy to blame. Aaron Sorken summed this up really well in the 1995 film, The American President. The widowed President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) is facing reelection, and his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, is coming after him by attacking his girlfriend, Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Rumson paints Wade as a threat to America. In the movie’s climax, the President interrupts a press conference to defend himself and his girlfriend from Rumson’s attacks. There’s one little clip I want to play from the speech he gives to the press (the important part starts at 2:14 and runs to 2:37).[2]

Of course, what the movie doesn’t show is that the President’s reelection campaign will end up doing the essentially same thing – sometime after the credit roll. This isn’t surprising – both that they don’t show this in the movie and that it will inevitable happen. This is what almost all advertising does. To get us to buy stuff – be it political candidates or stuff we don’t need – advertising uses fantasies and lies, and most of all, fear.

“Here’s a gizmo you need to get for your toddler so they won’t be stupid.” My sister once told me how effective this advertising tool, fear, is on her – especially as a mom, especially when her kids were little.

As I said earlier, fear typically leads us to judgment. As President Shepherd said, it’s all about “Making you afraid of it and telling you who to blame for it.”[3] This is done by creating and judging a “them” of evil, untrustworthy semi-people and an “us” of good, trustworthy fully-people.

There’s that word, “trust,” again. When we create and judge an untrustworthy “them,” we get a feedback loop. The untrustworthiness leads to more anxiety, which leads to more judgment, which leads to more anxiety … Trust is an antidote to this, especially trusting God in the midst of what our anxiety tells us is a dangerous world.

Jesus offers an additional antidote to judgmentalism. Just as focusing on the kin-dom of God helps release our fears, self-examination can release our judgmentalism. “Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus[ing] on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.”[4]

We posted a few memes about this on our Facebook page this past week:

Quoting the Dali Lama, one says (complete with spelling error), “What is love? Love is the absence of judgement.”[5]

Another says, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently from you.”[6]

12805960_1054510974570122_7904256972084190311_nAnd the one that was posted yesterday, which seems to resonate with lots of people, says, “When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”[7]

“Put simply, if we want to experience nonjudgmental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions, we will do unto all others – with no exceptions, as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realization that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgment-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.

“Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realize how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his [or her] mom or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or a snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call our for help?”[8]

So, here’s my point – my three points, really:

Our anxieties are more dangerous to us than whatever it is that we’re anxious about.

Our habit of condemning is more dangerous to us than what we condemn in others.

And our misery is unnecessary because each of us is truly, truly love.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. And I invite you to savor the feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 141.
[2] See the clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSQmHWOrNQk. The part that’s important starts at about 2:14 and runs to 2:39.
[3] Ibid.
[4] McLaren, op. cit., 142.
[5] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510424570177/?type=3&size=960%2C594&fbid=1054510424570177
[6] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054511171236769/?type=3&size=400%2C560&fbid=1054511171236769
[7] Quoting Ram Dass, https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510974570122/?type=3&size=600%2C900&fbid=1054510974570122
[8] McLaren, op. cit., 142-143.

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