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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 4:1-20 and Mark 4:21-34
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Who is Jesus to you?
If I call myself a Christian, I am saying that I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ, namely Jesus. So my answer to the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” will impact how I live my life as a Christian. If you don’t mind me answering, at least to start, in the negative, I would say that I am becoming less and less convinced that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah. After his death and resurrection, the early church clearly came to see him as the Messiah, but prior to that, I’m leaning toward Jesus not thinking of himself as the Messiah. And if he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah, I suspect he wasn’t as eschatologically focused as the gospels make him out to be. In other words, I don’t think Jesus was as concerned about death and the afterlife and the end of time and the final judgment as he is often portrayed as being. Jesus was much more concerned about this world and this life.
Jesus showed that concern in several ways. He was a spirit person, someone who was experientially aware of the reality and presence of God. He showed his concern for this world in his mediation of the sacred to others. He was a healer. I talked about this last week, and all I’ll add today is that he showed his concern for this world by transforming the lives of people around him. He was a social prophet, “similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel. As such, he criticized the elites (economic, political, and religious) of his time, was an advocate for an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.” We will touch on this today and next week. He “was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church.” This also will be explored, at least a bit, this week and next. And he was a teacher – the primary subject of today’s sermon.
I suppose that all of these descriptions of Jesus overlap or intersect. One of the ways he showed he was a spirit person was by healing people. I don’t think you can separate his social prophecy from his becoming a movement founder. He taught through his healings. “By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatized God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life. By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped.… And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social, or personal.”
In synagogue gatherings and on hillsides, he gave talks about things theological. At a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up and in public places when his critiques tried to catch him with tricky questions, he found teachable moments. His guerrilla-theater demonstrations (like on Palm Sunday) and his acts of civil disobedience (like chasing money changers from the Temple), provided learning opportunities for people who were paying attention. “Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.”
And then there were his parables.
Perhaps it is time for a quiz. What is greater than God and more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it you’ll die? (Answer: Nothing.) How about this one: You threw away the outside and cooked the inside. Then you ate the outside and threw away the inside. What did you eat? (Answer: An ear of corn.)
John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the primary ways to understand or interpret some of the parables attributed to Jesus in the gospels is to see them as riddles. He says that when a parable is a riddle narrative, “not only the general story itself, but even its multiple parts each and all point elsewhere. Such riddle parables are also called allegories.”
That is certainly how Mark treats the parable of the sower. We heard this in our first lesson from Mark. Jesus tells the story about a farmer who goes to sow some seed and the seed falls in six different kinds of soil. We usually only notice that there are four kinds of soil – the path, the rocky, the thorny, and the good – but the good really comes in three kinds – soil that produces a thirty-fold crop, soil that produces a sixty-fold crop, and soil that produces a one-hundred-fold crop. Still, we see a silly farmer, casting seed where even the horticulturally-challenged know it won’t produce anything.
But, of course, the parable isn’t about horticulture and it isn’t about a sower. The parable, as Mark understands it, is a riddle, an allegory.
Another way to understand and interpret some of the parables of Jesus is to see them as example parables. Example parables are stories that invite us to go and do (or, in some cases, don’t do) likewise. Aesop’s fables fall into this category.
You might remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel. King David spies this sexy woman taking a bath and decides he wants her for himself. To do this, he has to get rid of her husband, Uriah, one of his generals. So David sends Uriah on a suicide mission and he is killed. God is none too pleased with this and sends the prophet Nathan to David to set him straight. Would you like that job? Go and tell the king, who had one of his generals killed, that God is not pleased? Nathan does this by telling an example parable.
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)
Crossan says, “Although a ruler should always be apprehensive at the approach of a prophet, David walks right into Nathan’s parabolic trap:”
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:5-7a)
Yes, it’s sad that Nathan completely misses how the system promotes the objectification and possession of women, but his story is still a great example of an example parable.
Crossan has also identified a third way to understand and interpret Jesus’ parables. He says that Jesus’ parables were challenge parables, at least originally, though they were changed into example parables and riddle parables by the gospel authors. Challenge parables challenge “us to think, to discuss, to argue, and to decide about meaning.” They challenge us, the hearers, “to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways. They invite [us] their hearers to ponder ‘whatever is taken totally for granted in our world’.”
While I haven’t delved very deeply into Crossan’s work on parables (yet), I think he is on to something. I imagine that maybe half of Jesus’ parables include the phrase “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” – and this kingdom totally challenges what is taken for granted in our world. We heard this today in our second reading. “The Kingdom, something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like ‘a grain of mustard seed.’ Moreover, mustard was a weed, thus, the Kingdom is like a weed. [In another parable,] The Kingdom is compared to something impure: it is like a woman (associated with impurity) putting leaven (which was impure) into flour.” And on they go, overturning conventional wisdom.
“[F]or Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It was at hand, or within reach, today. To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realized that kingdoms were the dominant social, political, and economic reality of Jesus’ day. Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, and civilization all resonate in that one word: kingdom.”
Brian McLaren writes, “The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom. They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments. The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution. And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion. It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.
“Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations, and parables. But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.
“By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best and only option. He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies. He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation. It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering. In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s nonviolent noncompliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be. He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.”
When Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the “Beloved Community,” I think he was talking about the kingdom of God. The King Center explains it this way: “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
As lofty and utopian as this may sound, when King talked about the Beloved Community, he wasn’t talking about something found only in the great beyond. He was talking about something attainable, something that is at hand. “The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”
We have seen in the past few weeks how our nation has moved away from the Beloved Community. Most recently, the ban on refugees and immigrants and visitors from a handful of nations that are Muslim-majority is an example. People with valid visas and green-cards are being detained at the border. This is empire action that is completely contrary to the values of the Beloved Community, contrary to the values of the kingdom of God. And that is why people have taken to the sidewalks and airport terminals – to help our country move in the direction of the Beloved Community, not away.
We still need Jesus the teacher. We need to pay attention to his actions and his words. We need to follow him toward the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the way of living and being in community that challenges the most basic values of the powers that be.
As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect …
… on anything from the scripture readings or sermon that caught your attention; or
… on the memory of one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant; or
… how you might translate or reinterpret the term “kingdom of God;” or
… how the “kingdom of God” is coming in your life, your family, your community.
 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins, 1994). 30.
 Ibid, 102.
 These two riddles are from Mike Page, “Classic Riddles 1-100,” Savage Legend, https://savagelegend.com/misc-resources/classic-riddles-1-100/ (accessed 28 January 2017).
 John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 18.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 47.
 Greg Carey, “Crossan on Parables and Gospels,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/dont-fear-this-book-cross_b_1417435.html (posted 16 April 2012; accessed 28 January 2017).
 Borg, op. cit., 80.
 McLaren, op. cit., page 103.
 Ibid, 103-104.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 22:1-5 and Psalm 126
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’ve been wondering this week, if I were a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where would I find hope?
If I were a Palestinian, raised by parents in a refugee camp, now raising my children in the same refugee camp, where would I find hope?
If I were a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who, like the generations before me, was trapped in a cycle of poverty, where would I find hope?
If I was a member of parliament in the Solomon Islands who has watched several small islands disappear because of erosion and rising sea levels, who has watched villages literally washed to sea as tropical storms increase in strength because of climate change – where would I find hope?
If I were an African-American bus driver in St. Louis who sees how my nation has created a new Jim Crow by building a cradle to prison pipeline that siphons black children, especially black boys, out of the schools and into the prisons, labeling them as “convicts” so they can’t get a job when they’re released, so the end up trying to get by only to be arrested again – where would I find hope?
If I were a Christian living in Rome during the reigns of Emperors Nero or Domitian, emperors who had essentially made me illegal by demanding I worship them as gods, something that would violate the very core of my being and faith – where would I find hope?
I can imagine those early followers of Jesus thinking something like this: “Jesus has been gone now for decades. The world doesn’t seem to be getting better. If anything, with a mad dictator in Rome, it’s getting worse. Maybe Jesus was wrong … maybe it’s time for us to forget about this ‘[…] love your enemies’ business. Maybe we need to take matters into our own hands and strap on a sword to fight for our future. Or maybe we should just eat, drink, make a buck, and be merry, because tomorrow we might all be dead.”
This is the context in which Revelation was written. I know there are plenty of Christians who think Revelation is some sort of coded book that, if properly decoded, will reveal exactly how God will bring the world and history to an end. But it’s not. Yes, it is sort of in code, but it’s not about the end of history or the world. Revelation was written to bring the Spirit of Hope to an oppressed but faithful people. “It addressed the crisis at hand. Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world. Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world. Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world.… Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ – a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency – will triumph.”
While Revelation is typically classified as apocalyptic literature (which literally means writing that unveils or reveals), I see Revelation primarily as an example of literature of the oppressed. Sometime literature of the oppressed needs to be coded. To remain silent to the present injustice would be an act of complicity, of cooperation with the injustice. But to speak up in some situations can get you killed (or at least disappeared).
Revelation is this type of literature. “Instead of saying ‘The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,’ which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated. Instead of saying, ‘The religious establishment is corrupt,’ it tells a story about a whore. Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that collapsed in failure.”
Brian McLaren points out, “People who read Revelation without understanding the context tend to miss some telling details. For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword. Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels. But they miss the fact that he carries the sword in his mouth, not his hand. Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. His … words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors. In addition, we notice his robe is blood-stained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love. In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Revelation is a source of hope, a vehicle for the Spirit of Hope to come upon these oppressed, first century Christians. This understanding of Revelation is what got me wondering where I would find hope if I were a Syrian refugee, or a Palestinian parent, or an Oglala Lakota, or a Solomon Island parliamentarian, or an African-American bus driver. I know I wouldn’t find hope in a rifle or a rocket launcher or a riot. So where would I find hope?
Maybe in the faces of some children playing soccer. Maybe I would find hope in the news that Christian denominations in the United States were standing up for my human rights. Maybe I would find hope in watching my children learn our history and culture and keep our language alive. Maybe I would find hope in accounts of people around the globe taking to the streets to demand climate action. Or maybe I would find hope in something as simple and beautiful as poetry.
Last Sunday, I asked by Facebook friends to tell me, “What gives you hope in times of distress?” Before I share some of their responses, maybe you’d like to think about your answer. What gives you hope in times of distress?
Here are some of the responses from a few of my Facebook friends:
- Stories of people who have survived worse and become happy. My having survived worse. Being loved just the way I am no matter what. Belief that love will outlast and best all the worsts. Seeing and creating something beautiful helps too,… Being able to laugh, be heard, and get the tears out also help.
- Remembering friends who turned terrible circumstances into growth.… Seeing the refugee team at the Olympics, knowing the adversity they faced as they left the circumstances in their homelands and found life in new countries. Experiencing the presence of God in my life, in me and in others when I least expect it. Knowing I am loved and I can love with abandon.
- Trusting that even in the midst of crises of any kind, we are all carried by a loving God, even if we don’t know it at the time.…
- Watching toddlers as they learn new things and get excited.
- Helping others, recognizing that I have the power to improve people’s situations, even if it’s just about feeling good for a brief moment.
- I remind myself that other people have survived worse things. I sing to myself. I practice a positive message and say it aloud as often as I can. I call my best friend and moan, secure in the knowledge that it will go no further. I pray for help.
- [Remembering that] God IS good, even when I can’t see it – and eventually, love (always) wins.
- Looking out at the stars and remembering that both God and the universe are bigger than our folly.
- The love of my cat.
- Seeing my grandsons … be kind to other kids.
- Instances where people have offered kindness and assistance to others when they themselves have little to give.
- I have a few people who I can rely on for support. I don’t always expect answers or solutions. Sometimes just saying something out loud helps me work things out.
- Perspective also helps.
Today’s scripture reading comes from “a beautiful visionary scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is as relevant today as it was in the first century.… It pictures a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth. This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere. It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within. Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures if offers and bring the treasures they can offer. From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness. Along its banks grows the Tree of Life. All of this, of course, evokes God’s own words in Revelation: ‘Behold! I’m making all things new!’”
Central to this image is this idea: “God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t [and isn’t] waiting passively for a future that had already been determined. Faithfulness meant [and means] participating with God in God’s unfolding story.… God [is] descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.
“What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now. True aliveness is available now.” The Spirit of Hope is among us here and now.
As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when an invitation changed your life; or
… how you are (or aren’t) listening to contemporary examples of “literature of the oppressed;” or
… the image of creation inviting God, and God inviting creation, through the powerful word, “Hope.”
 “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Re-Member, http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx (accessed 13 August 2016).
 Reuters, “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (posted 10 May 2016; accessed 13 August 2016). See also, Tierney Smith, “Solomon Islans town first in Pacific to relocate because of climate change,” tck tck tck, http://tcktcktck.org/2014/08/solomon-islands-town-first-pacific-relocate-climate-change/ (posted 19 August 2014; accessed 13 August 2016).
 The “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund to describe the fact that “1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.” Learn more about this problem and ways you can be involved in addressing it at http://www.childrensdefense.org/campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/
 Ibid, 256, emphasis added.
 “Disinvestment from Israel,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinvestment_from_Israel (accessed 13 August 2016).
 McLaren, op.cit., 257.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 24, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20 and Acts 4:1-22
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Martin Luther gets the credit for writing the lyrics to our opening hymn. He also gets credit for the tune, though some the tune was one sung at local bars, and originally had much less pomp and a lot more swing.
Some people have an immediate negative reaction to the hymn. They don’t like all the language about evil.
“For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe,
with craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.”
Oh, we are doomed by the craft and power of the great adversary.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear for God has willed the truth to triumph through us.
The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them;
their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure,
one little word shall fell them.”
That word, we learn in verse 4, is Christ.
The world Luther describes in this hymn is one in which a great struggle is taking place between the forces of evil and the forces of good. “Pish posh,” some say. “The world is the world and these notions of spirits is poppycock.” And I joined them for a time, until I got to reading Walter Wink.
Walter Wink’s seminal work is, I think, his trilogy of books on power. Heavy reading – a little heavier than I was willing to do. Then, in 1998, he wrote The Powers that Be, an accessible distillation of this previous work about power. This is from the introduction.
“All of us deal with the Powers That Be. They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families. But the Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. These Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful. We could do nothing without them. Who wants to do without timely mail delivery or well-maintained roads? But the Powers are also the source of unmitigated evils.
“A corporation routinely dumps known carcinogens into a river that is the source of drinking water for towns downstream. Another industry attempts to hook children into addiction to cigarettes despite evidence that a third of them will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses. A dictator wages war against his own citizens in order to maintain his grasp on power. A contractor pays off a building inspector so he can violate code and put up a shoddy and possibly unsafe structure. A power plant exposes its employees to radioactive poisoning; the employee who attempts to document these safety infractions is forced off the road by another car and dies. All her documents are missing.
“Welcome to the world of the Powers.”
The powers that be can promote goodness or evil. As Wink pointed out, when the powers make sure everyone in a community has access to emergency medical services, the powers are working for good. When, in an effort to save the municipality money (which a first glance is a good thing), the powers allow the water system in Flint, Michigan, to be and remain poisoned, the powers are working for evil.
The powers, Wink points out, “are not merely the people in power or the institutions they staff. Managers are, in fact, more or less interchangeable. Most people in managerial positions would tend to make the same sorts of moves. A great many of their decisions are being made for them by the logic of the market, the pressures of competition, and/or the cost of workers. Executives can be more humane. But a company owner who decides to raise salaries and benefits will soon face challenges from competitors who pay less. Greater forces are at work – unseen Powers – that shape the present and dictate the future.”
Traditional Christian religious imagery personifies these powers as angels and demons fluttering about in the sky. But we don’t need to embrace that literalism to embrace the reality of the spiritual forces that are at work, impinging on and in some cases determining our lives. Instead, we can acknowledge that spiritual forces are real, though not embodied in spiritual beings fluttering about in the sky. “The Powers That Be are not, then, simply people and their institutions …; they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures. If we want to change those systems, we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well.”
But how? How do we change the systems?
Our natural responses to being confronted by evil are reflexive: fight or flight. Flight changes nothing. Can fight change things?
“Unjust systems,” Wink writes, “perpetuate themselves by means of institutionalized violence. For example, racial segregation in the southeastern United States was supported by Jim Crow laws, state and local police, the court and penal systems, and extralegal acts of terrorism – all sustained, passively or actively, by the vast majority of white citizens. Blacks who ‘stepped out of line’ were savagely exterminated. Against such monolithic Powers it was and is tempting to use violence in response. But we have repeatedly seen how those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those who they oppose. How, then, can we overcome evil without doing evil – and becoming evil ourselves?”
Fight or flight are only two options. Jesus offers a third way that is both practical and spiritual, the way of nonviolence.
Last week, I talked about how we are invited to be co-conspirators with the Holy Spirit to bring blessings to the world. Sometimes this means confronting the powers that be. Sometimes this means confronting the evil in the world, and not just the cruel behavior of individuals, but the evil of systems that oppress and even kill.
The big challenge for me is making sure I don’t become what I’m opposing. It’s so easy to convince myself “that evil is over there among them, and only moral rightness is here among us. In this accusatory state of mind, focused so exclusively on the faults of [my] counterparts, [I] become utterly blind to [my] own deteriorating innocence and disintegrating morality.”
It is so easy to think that the evil must be destroyed; that’s what the “fight” response tells us; it is what the myth of redemptive violence tells us. Following Jesus’ third way is not easy. Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, not to destroy them. The goal is not the destruction of our enemies, but their transformation.
I don’t know how Paul figured this out, but he did. Brian McLaren wrote, “[Paul] kept reminding the disciples that they … were struggling against invisible systems and structures of evil that possess and control flesh-and-blood people. The real enemies back then and now are invisible realities like racism, greed, fear, ambition, nationalism, religious supremacy, and the like – forces that capture decent people and pull their strings as if they were puppets to make them do terrible things.” Listen again to what Paul told the Ephesians:
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
This is the armor of the nonviolent activist. This is the armor of Jesus’ third way. The power we, as disciples of Jesus, are supposed to embrace and use is Spirit Power. This is not the power of this world. This is not the power of military might. This is not the power of being ‘over’ another. This is the power that brings God’s truth and love, the only real power that can save.
Listen to McLaren again: “Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or value systems judge and accuse, the Holy Spirit inspires compassion and understanding. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or movements drive people toward harming others, the Holy Spirit leads us to boldly and compassionately stand up for those being harmed. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or ideologies spread propaganda and misinformation, the Holy Spirit boldly speaks the simply truth. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or mind-sets spread theft, death, and destruction, God’s Holy Spirit spreads true aliveness.”
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what this looks like. Well, let me share a story. “In the spring of 1939, 47-year-old Paul Grüninger was a middle-level police official in St. Gallen, a picturesque Swiss town near the Austrian border. The son of middle-class parents who ran a local cigar shop and a mediocre student who enjoyed the soccer field more than his studies, Grüninger became an unprepossessing man of quiet conventionality. After dutifully serving time in the Swiss army in World War I, he obtained a teaching diploma, settled into a position at an elementary school, attended church on Sundays and married Alice Federer, a fellow teacher.
“To please both his mother and Alice, Grüninger applied for a better-paying position in the police department, a job that involved mainly filling out reports and arranging security details for occasional visiting dignitaries. Or so it seemed.
“In April 1939, Grüninger found his way to work blocked by a uniformed officer who told him: ‘Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises.’ An investigation had revealed that Grüninger was secretly altering the documents of Jews fleeing Austria for the safety of Switzerland. ‘Non-Aryan’ refugees were not allowed to cross the border after August 19, 1938, but all it took was a few strokes of Grüninger’s pen to predate the passport and perhaps save a life, a small action but one of great personal risk.
“Grüninger was dismissed from his position, ordered to turn in his uniform and subjected to criminal charges. The authorities spread false rumors that Grüninger had demanded sexual favors from those he aided. Disgraced as a law breaker and shunned by his neighbors, Grüninger peddled raincoats and animal feed until he died in poverty in 1972.”
That’s what following Jesus’ third way looks like.
And it looks like the Israeli soldier who refuses to serve if deployed to the occupied territories. And it looks like the Wall Street whistleblower who can’t find a job anymore in finance. And it looks like the Serb who kept identifying his Croat neighbors with Serbian names to keep them from getting swept up and killed during the Yugoslav Wars.
“As we walk this road together, we are being prepared and strengthened for struggle. We’re learning to cut the strings of ‘unholy spirits’ that have been our puppet masters in the past. We’re learning to be filled, led, and guided, not by a spirit of fear but by the Holy Spirit instead … a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind to face with courage whatever crises may come.”
Now, as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or
… a time where you suffered in some way for standing up for what was right, or when someone else paid a price for standing up for you, or
… the idea that racism, revenge, religious supremacy, tribalism, political partisanship, fear, or economic greed can “possess” people, or
… your life as a tree in a storm: imagine deep roots, a strong trunk, and flexible branches, and after holding this image for a few moments, ask God for the strength to stand bold and strong against whatever adversity may come.
 “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 1-2.
 Ibid, 2-3.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 7.
 Ephesians 6:11-17, NRSV.
 McLaren, op. cit.
 Thomas G. Long, “Faith Matters: Small acts of courage,” Christian Century (2 May 2012): 47.
 Susan Gardner, “Book discussion: Eyal Press’ ‘Beautiful Souls’ … and whether Edward Snowden is one of them,” Daily Kos, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/6/16/1215736/-Book-discussion-Eyal-Press-Beautiful-Souls-and-whether-Edward-Snowden-is-one-of-them (posted 16 June 2013; accessed 23 July 2016).
 McLaren, op. cit.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philemon 1:8-19 and Hebrews 13:1-8
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It’s been a difficult couple weeks for my soul. I expect the same is true for many of you. In addition to the triumphs and tragedies of our personal lives, there has been so much violence in the news:
- a particularly brutal attack in Bangladesh;
- car bombs in Baghdad;
- 2 police shootings that were caught on tape (and at least 29 others that did not make the national news);
- 5 police officers killed in Dallas (and at least five others who were killed by guns or cars that did not make the national news);
- this morning there are stories of police officers shot and killed in Baton Rogue;
- a truck driving through a crowd celebrating in Nice, France.
In an act of self-care, I decided not to watch the videos of the police shootings in Baton Rogue and Falcon Heights. And, in my efforts to protect my soul from this heart-rending news, I may have missed other attacks and violence that took place in the first two weeks of this month.
Yesterday, I posted this picture on the church’s Facebook page. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was a staunch anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested and eventually connected with an attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was 39 when he was executed by the Nazis.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I agree with Bonhoeffer. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. But what to say and how to act – that’s not always clear. Here’s what I wrote with the picture:
It’s not always easy to figure out how to speak out against evil. How do we speak out against the evil of the murders in Nice, France, on Thursday and not participate in evil ourselves?
The traps are too easy. As a nation, we could speak out with our own violence through our military. As a church, we could easily lump together all people from one ethnicity or religion and blame them all for the actions of a few or of one. We could write a post on Facebook, but does that really speak God’s truth to evil?
While there are no simple answers, the call is clear. We cannot remain silent when we are aware of evil.
This call, to speak and to act, is part of our call as followers of Jesus. We are called to join the Spirit Conspiracy to bring blessings to others. “Conspire” literally means “to breathe with,” which I find interesting, since the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the Greek word for breath. Another way to think about this call is that we are called to get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life.
And there are plenty of areas of our lives, plenty of circles of influence where, if we get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life, we will bring blessings to others. Consider these circles of influence.
There’s your family. No one is in a better position than you to bring blessing to your family – your spouse, your kids, your siblings, your parents – than you. There are others who are in an equal position to you, but there’s on one in a better position than you. “When Jesus wanted to confront religious hypocrisy in his day, he pointed out the way hypocrites served their religion at the expense of their families.” Paul wrote about family relationships in ways that probably brought more blessing than the social norms, as sexist as those writings seems to us today. My point is that it’s not just the Spirit calling us to conspire to bring blessing to our families; there are biblical calls, too.
Then there are our economic choices that are a circle of influence. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing through our economic choices. If you’re an employer, you can offer a wage that brings a blessing. If you’re a consumer, you can make purchase choices in ways that bring blessings – are the people all along the supply chain paid justly? Is the environment protected or damaged by this product and its manufacture?
Likewise, our neighborhoods can be blessed by our conspiring with the Spirit. As we address the sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods. As we extend hospitality, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods.
“The Spirit is looking for conspirators who are interested in plotting goodness in their communities. ‘What would our community look like if God’s dreams for it were coming true?’ we [can] ask. The answer gives us a vision to work toward.”
Likewise, we can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to vulnerable people, the people who are typically forgotten or ignored. The biblical mandate is to care for widows and orphans, for immigrants, prisoners, the sick, and the poor. We can easily add to that list: the homeless, the under-educated, the unemployed, the underpaid, refugees, and more.
And if conspiring with the Spirit to bring blessing to these circles of influence isn’t challenging enough for you, I’ve got another: your critiques, opponents, and enemies. Imagine what the election season would be like if the candidates and their supporters conspired with the Spirit to bring a blessing to their opponents. That’s probably a pipedream, but we – you and I – could start. And not just when it comes to politics. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who annoy us (and the people we annoy). We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who don’t understand us and who we don’t understand, to people who try our patience and whose patience we try.
“Rather than write them off as unimportant and unwanted, we need to rediscover them as some of the most important people we know. If we ignore them, our growth in the Spirit will be stunted. If we let the Spirit guide us in what we say to their faces and behind their backs, we will become more Christ-like.”
White House photographer Pete Souza has taken something close to two million photographs of President Obama, since Obama took office. Each year he posts 75 to 100 that he thinks are the best of the year. Several people have sifted through the photos claiming that these 16 are Souza’s favorites. He denies the claim. Still, from those annual postings, people have gathered what they think are a good sampling of them.
One such collection includes photos that are humorous, photos that are cute, and photos that are poignant. One photo from early in Obama’s presidency shows him fist-bumping one of the White House custodians. They are in a hallway, moving from one meeting to another. Aids accompany the President. And the President pauses to acknowledge a staff worker who cleans floors and toilets and empties the trash.
What we say or fail to say can make a difference in someone else’s life. We can use our words as part of our conspiracy with the Spirit to being blessings, or we can wound. In the letter of James, the author says that if your life were a ship, your words would be its rudder. A fist-bump here, and “thank you” there can make a difference in steering us in the Spirit’s direction. As McLaren puts it, “If you’re a part of the Spirit’s conspiracy, you can be God’s secret agent of blessing to anyone in any of these circles.”
There’s one circle of influence that I haven’t mentioned: work. I did this because in the book we’re using for this yearlong sermon series, Brian McLaren uses the letter to Philemon as an example here. McLaren points out that Paul used the opportunity of Onesimus running away to him to urge slave owners to treat their slaves better. My problem is that Paul appealed to his love for Onesimus rather than to Onesimus’ own personhood. My problem is that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.
Yes, Paul moves the needle. Yes, Paul suggests that owners should treat their slaves with respect and kindness. Yes, Paul urges slaves to work with pride and dignity. But he fails to condemn slavery.
There’s probably a lesson here for our contemporary workplaces. We should treat each other with respect and kindness. We should treat each other fairly, and bosses should pay their employees a just wage. But the issue at hand for Onesimus was whether Paul was going to send him back to slavery or order Philemon to end Onesimus’ slavery. And Paul failed to get his breathing fully in sync with the Breath of Life.
McLaren begins the chapter that is the fodder for next week’s sermon by saying, “Sooner or later, everyone should be arrested and imprisoned for a good cause. Or if not arrested and imprisoned, put in a position of suffering and sacrifice. Or if not that, at least be criticized or inconvenienced a little. Because if we’re co-conspirators with the Spirit of God to bring blessing to our world, sooner or later it’s going to cost us something and get us in trouble.”
Sometimes this mission is pretty easy to fulfill. Sometimes a fist-bump in the hallway will make the difference. Sometimes it’s hard and it will get us in trouble. Sometimes we’re faced with great evil, and the way to speak out, the way to act is not clear, and so we will struggle to conspire with the Spirit. Sometimes, like Paul, we will act and not go as far as we should. Sometimes, like Bonhoeffer, we will be asked to pay a great price.
Still, the mission is before us: “to be a secret agent of God’s commonwealth, conspiring with others [and the Holy Spirit] behind the scenes to plot goodness and foment kindness wherever you may be.”
As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on:
- Anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention.
- A time when you felt the Spirit guided you to go above and beyond your normal way of responding to a situation.
- A time when the words you chose steered you either toward or away from the Spirit’s guidance.
- Or imagine a walk through your typical day, from waking to going to bed – and imagine yourself as a portal of blessing in each circle of influence you move in and out of in that day.
 “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/ (updated regularly, The Washington Post tracks police shootings in the United States; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last update was for a police shooting on 13 July 2016).
 “The White House’s Pete Souza Has Shot Nearly 2M Photos of Obama, Here are 55 of His Favorites,” Twisted Sifter, http://twistedsifter.com/2016/07/pete-souza-white-house-photog-favorite-obama-photos/ (posted 7 July 2016; accessed 16 July 2016).