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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 14:13-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I would like to change the world.  I would like to broker peace in Israel/Palestine and the Korean Peninsula.  I would like to reverse climate change.  I would like to end racism and rape culture.  I would like to end crime and to heal the brokenness that leads to crime.  I would like to feed the hungry multitudes and end hunger.  I would like to make healthcare available to everyone without fear of debt.  I would like the change the world.

I’m not going to, at least not in a big way, like one of the ways I just listed.

I look at what Jesus accomplished in just, what, 33 years, and I realize how little I’ve done.  Maybe it’s not fair to compare myself to Jesus.  You know:  the whole God thing.

William Barber, II

But look at what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished in 39 years.  Or what William Barber, II is accomplishing – and, yes, he’s younger than me.  (If you don’t know who William Barber is, don’t worry.  You will.  Just keep coming to worship, and by the end of September …)  Heck, even Barack Obama is younger than me.

The chances are that I will not ever do some great, society-changing, justice-making, peace-creating act or series of acts.  So maybe I should just give up.

Jesus fed 5,000 people – well, 5,000 men, plus the women and children who most people thought weren’t worth counting.  Not so for Jesus.  While most folk didn’t think women and children counted, Jesus did.  He made sure everyone got enough to eat.  “All ate and were satisfied,” Matthew says.

And Jesus didn’t just feed this multitude.  He did it with five loaves of bread and two fish.  How impressive is that?  Impressive enough that the story is told six times in the four gospels.  That’s right.  Two of the gospels repeat the story.  And Jesus didn’t just walk up to the wall and say,

No replicators out there in this deserted place.

It’s all pretty crazy.  I mean, we all know “that the laws of Newtonian physics aren’t suddenly flexible if you just have enough faith.  Atoms and molecules don’t just shape shift wily nilly.  It’s more reasonable to believe that things are only what they seem.  Water stays water, 5 loaves stay 5 loaves and the dead stay dead.”[1]

I suppose it’s possible that “everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they all opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors[, and] so that … is why there was enough food to go around.”[2]  Thousands of people sharing with their neighbors is pretty miraculous.  And if the only lesson you take home today is, “Be nice and share your juice box,” well, that’s a pretty good lesson.  In fact, sharing is a necessary part of God’s economy, so it’s a really good lesson.  But maybe there’s something else going on here.

Nadia Bolz Weber asks us to consider “that we [just might] have a God who can actually feed so many on so little.   A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones [of] nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing.  NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with.  Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as ‘nothing,’ ‘insignificant,’ ‘worthless’ and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.”[3]

Jesus was working on self-care when the crowd interrupted.  News of King Herod’s execution of John the baptizer reached Jesus and he decided to take a break.  He decided to go to a deserted place by himself.  I imagine he needed it.  Preaching and teaching and embodying God’s truth is dangerous business – it was then and it is now.  John died for it.  And Jesus knew he could be next.  So he went to a deserted place by himself.

But taking this personal space doesn’t last.  The crowd hears that he’s gone away and they go after him.  “Jesus responds with grace and compassion to the crowds that come, healing their sick.  As the day draws to a close, the disciples make a pragmatic suggestion:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Send them away to fend for themselves.  Jesus’ response is to make the disciples waiters of the Spirit. …

“The ‘lonely place apart’ in the end does become a place of rest, healing, and nourishment [– but] for the larger group,”[4] and not so much for Jesus and the disciples.  It isn’t until later that Jesus gets his alone time.

Like I said, the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send the crowd away was pragmatic:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Only it turned out they were wrong.  “Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot [that God likes to work with nothing], but also that they forgot that they too were hungry.  They defaulted to ‘what do I have’ rather than ‘what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?’  The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand.  It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd.  How often do we forget this ourselves?”[5]

I know I forget it.  I get so caught up in the hunger I see around me that I think I have to solve it.  So I look at what I have at my disposal to feed them, and I keep coming up short.  I’m short on compassion, or will, or time, or skill.  “And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is.  A few loaves?  A couple fish?  It’s never enough.”[6]

Chances are I’m not the only one who’s worry about coming up short, who’s afraid of being found out.  “That sense of ourselves comes from the same economy of scarcity that makes us fret over how to stretch bread and fish, our selves, and our love.  In the face of such want, and of our own failings and limitations, it seems utterly foolhardy to trust in God’s abundant gifts, laid out before us and coursing through our veins.  Yet this is the presumption God commends us to embody.  While we run around readying ourselves – accruing the right skills, the right personality, the right spirituality – God is busy calling us as we are now …”[7]

God doesn’t ask if we can do big things.  God asks if we’ll live faithfully.  Here’s the thing – and I know this; I just don’t always get this.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves me totally apart from any work I do.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves you totally apart from any work you do.  That’s not to say that the work you do isn’t important to God.  It is important.  It’s just not necessary for God to love you.

What is necessary – at least I think it’s necessary – is remembering this, especially if the work you’re involved in is important, transformative, kin-dom building work.  That’s right.  I think that the deeper your work is in building the kin-dom of God, the more you need to know that you are loved by God whether you do that work or not.  When Jesus looks out through you and asks, “Where are these hungry people going to get food?” he’s “including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread.”[8]

“When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus – my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm.  That’s our guy.  The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, … the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.”[9]

And that’s why, when it comes to size matters, the size of what you’re doing really isn’t important.  What’s important is the size of the love we put into what we’re doing.  And when there are days when all you can do today is sit on the ground and let someone pass you the bread and fish, do that.  Do that with great love.

Yes, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”  So they do what they can with who they are and what they have – and Jesus makes the magic happen.  Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon the Feeding of the 5,000,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/ (posted 25 July 2015; accessed 1 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, though I did some grammatical corrections. (Some of her emphases have been changed – bolds, italics, etc.)

[4] Julie Polter, “Servants of Boundy,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/servants-bounty (accessed 1 August 2017).

[5] Weber, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Take and Eat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/take-and-eat (accessed 1 August 2017).

[8] Weber, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 28, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 2:22-40
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“When [the shepherds] saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

When we hear these verses from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, we think we’ve heard the end of the Christmas story. I hear them and imagine my grandfather closing the book he’s been reading out of. It’s a sweet ending to a sweet story. Except it’s not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning of the beginning of the story.

In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph get the baby born, and then there’s more to do. They have obligations as good Jews. When he’s seven days old, they need to have the baby circumcised. And there is the obligation to offer a sacrifice in place of the first-born son. And there is a purification obligation. So Mary, Joseph, and their newborn go to Jerusalem, to the Temple. Like thousands of other families that year, Mary and Joseph present their child at the Temple, they offer sacrifices, and they go through purification rituals. But this is no ordinary family, and their kid is no ordinary baby.

I imagine that Simeon and Anna have come over to see all of the babies brought to the Temple. Temple regulars were probably used to these two elderly people oo-ing and ah-ing over babies, but never seeming to be fully satisfied with what they see. But this time, something is different. This time, when they look at the baby, they know that they are in a kairos moment, they are at a turning point. Everything is changing.

Simeon offers his blessing of the child and a caution to the mother; and then offers a prayer of thanksgiving that he has lived to see this moment of change, of transformation. And Anna, the first to tell the good news of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, starts telling the people who have been waiting for the redemption of Israel all about the child.

We, too, are at a kairos moment, a moment of change. This is our final Sunday as a worshiping community at 255 H Street. Everything is changing for our faith community today. So, it is a time to offer our thanks and our blessing.

In your bulletin, you will find a postcard with a picture of this building on it and you will find a 3×5 card. Here’s the invitation.

I invite you to write a note of thanksgiving on the postcard. Your note of thanksgiving can be addressed to God or to the building. The idea is to write down some words of thanksgiving for how this facility has served you and your faith journey. I encourage you to put this postcard into the offering plate at the offering. My hope is that we will create a new time capsule in the coming year and that we can include these offerings of thanks in that time capsule.

I invite you to write up to six words on the 3×5 card. The limit of 6 words comes from that challenge that was supposedly made to Hemingway: tell us a story in six words. Hemingway’s response was a story of hope and loss and sadness: “For sale: children’s shoe, never worn.” Rather than telling a story in six words, I’m inviting you to write up to six words of blessing – blessing this facility as we leave it, blessing our community in this time of transition.

In four minutes, we will have a time of sharing. Some of you will decide to share your six words. So let’s take five minutes to write a note of thanks on the postcards and/or 6 words of blessing on the 3×5 cards.

 

If you feel moved to share your 6 words of blessing, I invite you to come forward. You will likely feel an urge to expound on your 6 words. Resist that urge. Resisting that urge will allow more people to join in the sharing. Let the six words you chose stand on their own as your blessing.

For almost a year now, I have had an (almost) daily practice of ending my day with a prayer of thanksgiving. There’s nothing new here. Christians (and people of other religions) have a long history of offering prayers of thanks, often as part of a review of the day just ending. What is different about my practice is that I post my prayers on Facebook wall with a privacy setting that allows anyone to see them.

It started out as an exercise as I prepared a workshop on Facebook and Spiritual Practice that I led last October for Christian Educators (largely UCC, Episcopal, and Presbyterian). I wondered how my prayer life would change as a result of this practice. I wondered how my relationship with God would shift as a result of this practice. I realized that I would be putting these prayers out there in public and I didn’t know how that would impact this prayer practice.

My early prayers are quite specific. They are laundry lists of thanksgivings. “Thank you God for this particular thing, for that particular experience, for this particular relationship.”  I assumed that no one would be interested in these prayers because they were about my day, my experiences, my relationships. I was wrong.

There are two primary ways to interact with posts on Facebook:  clicking the “like” button and leaving a comment. I was surprised as my prayers collected “likes” and comments. When I missed a night (which happens), I would wake to messages asking me why I didn’t post a prayer. People commented that they were using the prayers as part of their morning spiritual practices. I was stunned. And I am thankful.

I have noticed that the writing of my prayers has shifted. While I still reflect on specific experiences and gifts and relationships, I find I am writing in more general terms (at least most of the time). I find that I am now writing for myself and God (it’s a prayer, after all, so it’s about me offering my thanks to God), and that I’m hoping that my reasons for giving thanks are connecting with reasons others have for giving thanks.

I have also noticed that knowing that there are people (and maybe it’s just a handful, but there are people) out there looking forward to reading my prayers, I feel a little more accountable for offering the prayer. I continue to hold steady with the practice in part because I know it isn’t just for me.

An impact of this prayer practice has been, I think, a little more compassion in my heart and a little more satisfaction in my day. I also feel a little more aware (most days) of the presence of God.

I bring this up for two reason. One reason is simply to share a prayer practice that I am finding helpful in my journey. The other is because of a theme I find myself turning to repeatedly. Not just when I sit to write my evening prayer of thanksgiving, but all through the day, I find myself giving thanks for the amazing commitment and leadership of so many people at Niles Discovery Church.

Especially impressive to me has been the work of our Construction Team, so let me sing their praise for a moment. Over the past couple months, they have and to deal with a General Contractor quitting and a break-in on two of the three containers at the construction site. Most construction projects facing a General Contractor quitting would simply shut down. Our project has continued. Our Construction Team has managed to keep work going, getting the new roofs completed, windows installed (see page 2), a fire hydrant installed, and the list goes on. They have dealt with insurance companies and container companies and the police. They have actually done some of the work for the project itself (ask Marilyn Singer about her intimate knowledge of black paint).

Thank you God for all the leaders and committed members of Niles Discovery Church!  Thank you especially for the Construction Team!  Amen!

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 17, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Isaiah 65:17-25
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have lived a blessed life.  I was raised by loving parents in a fairly functional family.  My siblings and I all got along – and continue to get along.  The big crises were typical teenager induced troubles and a period when my father was unemployed – which lasted maybe nine months.  I was in junior high when my father was unemployed.  I asked him early in that period how my parents would pay the mortgage and he told me that they had paid ahead over the years so I didn’t need to worry – so I didn’t.

As an adult, I got into good school and graduated without crippling debts.  I got jobs and only faced unemployment once – and it only lasted for six months.  And, thanks to a generous aunt and uncle, I didn’t worry about paying my mortgage during that time either.

I share all this because I believe that our life experiences influence how we interpret scripture and, until very recently, I don’t think I really, fully understood the two defining experiences of Judaism that are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  I don’t think I’ve really understood, at a feeling level, the Exodus and the Exile.

As a rule, I think Christians have a better sense of the Exodus than of the Exile.  After all, there’s a book in the Bible called “Exodus,” and Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy all tell the story, too – though from different points of view and with different agendas.  Thanks to Hollywood, many of us have images of Charlton Heston carrying stone tablets imprinted on our consciousness.

The basics of the story are clear enough:  Moses demands of Pharaoh that he “Let my people go.”  After a bunch of arguing and a bunch of plagues, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.  And the Hebrews wander in the wilderness for forty years before they finally settle in what they saw as their “Promised Land.”

The Exile is a little less clear.  In fact, anything that happened after King Solomon is less clear for most Christians.  So here’s a really quick, overly simplistic overview.

The Hebrews settled (or conquered) the “Promised Land.”  They were a confederation of tribes ruled by Judges (thus the book of Judges).  Eventually, they became a kingdom under King Saul, then David, then Solomon.  The 12 tribes were united and really flourished under David and Solomon, but then the confederation fell into two kingdoms:  the 10 northern tribes (known as Israel), and the 2 southern tribes (known as Judah).  In 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel and they become the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  Then, in the 580s BCE, after the Assyrian Empire fell, the Babylonian Empire defeated Judah, sending the elites (and maybe more) into exile in Babylon.

Now, I’ve known this history – yes, I have to look up the dates each time I talk about it – but I’ve known this history since college.  And I’ve understood intellectually how important these experiences (or at least the stories of the experiences) were for the formation of the Jewish identity.

The stories of the Exodus formed the Hebrews into a covenant community.  They were community be virtue of their covenant with each other, and they were community by virtue of their covenant with God and God’s covenant with them.  Incidentally, this understanding of being a covenant community is core to the understanding of what it means to be church in the Disciples of Christ tradition and in the United Church of Christ tradition.

During the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple was destroyed.  Hebrews left behind and especially Hebrews separated from Jerusalem by exile had to figure out how to keep their identity without access to the Temple.  What emerged was the synagogue and the rabbi.  This was a new way of living in covenant with each other and with God, and it’s fair to say that the Hebrew identity became a Jewish identity with this emergence.

So, I knew all this stuff up here in my head, but I am developing a new emotional understanding of these stories, too.

Biblical scholars believe that our second lesson[1] comes from a time after the return from the Babylonian Exile.  The Persians defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and Judah.  But the Jerusalem they returned to was not the city of its former glory.  Think, instead of Detroit after the collapse of the U.S. auto industry – the loss of population, the rise in crime, and the decay of infrastructure and institutions.  If these words came from perhaps two generations after the return from exile (as some Biblical scholars suggest[2]), we can imagine a prophet Isaiah, walking through the rubble of the city.  “Much of the city was still in ruin, including homes and markets, and many people continued to suffer the effects of oppression and dislocation.  Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day.”[3]

And in the midst of all this, his voice rings out, carrying words from God:  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; … be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.…  They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”

These are words of hope in what most would see as a desperate situation.  And they are words that reveal God’s building plan.  This new earth that God is creating brings a relationship with humanity so close that “Before they call, I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hearken to them,” and so peaceful that “The wolf and the lamb shall graze alike, and the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Isaiah 65:24-25).[4]

But how do you hear these words?  Do they fill you with hope or anxiety?  For those of us who have not experienced exile (do you see why I spoke about how blessed my life has been?), these words can be anxiety producing.  As historian and theologian Diana Butler Bass tweeted yesterday, “[The] Bible promises new things, not the comfort of old things.”  (Then she hash tagged it nomorenostalgiaincchurch.)

And I’ll tell you, moving outside the comfort of familiar things is anxiety producing – for me, at least.  Okay, God, you say you’re creating new heavens and a new earth.  And I believe Jesus was and is a vital part of that building plan.  But I gotta tell you, change is hard.  The only person who wants change, as far as I can tell, is an infant with a wet diaper.

Yet we, as a church, are in the midst of change.  In fact, we are in the midst of a major change.  And I’ve noticed over the past four weeks anxiety levels in our church have risen.  No wonder, really.  Four weeks ago, the congregation voted to authorize the Cabinet to approve a sale agreement for this building.  And there was some talk about the offers we had already received.  And in the past four weeks, the Construction Team has pursued one of these offers to the point of presenting it to the Cabinet with a recommendation that it be approved at tomorrow night’s meeting.  And we haven’t even broken ground on the 36600 Niles Blvd. site.

What will happen?  Where will we live?  How will we be church if we sell this building before the next one’s ready to be occupied?

I don’t think it’s just me that has these questions or this anxiety.  Yet, here we are, seeming to be stepping voluntarily into a year of exile.  And there are some among us who are experiencing anticipatory grief at the coming loss of ownership this property and the sense of identity that comes with that.

I’m grateful we have the Biblical stories of the Exodus and the Exile to hold us as we experience this anxiety and grief.

Information can help reduce anxiety – so I’ll share some.  But recognize that information alone isn’t going to relieve all the anxiety.  Nor will information ease the anticipatory grief.

That in mind, here are some of the basics of the offer.  It’s a cash offer, which is nice because we don’t have to worry about financing.  The Construction Team and our realtor say that amount of the offer is about as good as we’re going to get.  If all the contingencies that come with any offer are satisfied, we would close sometime in February.  The agreement includes that we can lease back the church building each Sunday morning and the sanctuary each Thursday night, plus the two pastors’ offices and the storage closet in the office as our own.  The outer office would be the purchaser’s space, but in a sense a shared reception area.  The lease back agreement goes through December 2014 (about the time we hope construction will be completed at 36600) and the cost is $1 per month plus our share of utilities, yard care, cleaning, and such.

So, worship, Sunday School, and coffee hour – the heart of our life together as a congregation – will continue pretty much as we have known them.  The choir will continue pretty much as we have known it.  Setting up for worship and cleaning up after worship will have some additional tasks associated with them, and we won’t be able to use the facility during the rest of the week without making a special arrangement with the new owner.

So, how we are church together the rest of the week will shift.  Pastor Brenda and I anticipate that we will be sharing an office and maybe we’ll start having office hours in coffee shops from time to time.  Those are all details that we will live into and we will work hard to communicate through the newsletter.

But none of this information fully answers the question about how we will be church together during this in between time.  What about all the stuff we do that’s not on Sunday mornings?

Well, I think there is an opportunity for us in not being owners of the facility where we worship for a year.  We have an opportunity to spend a year getting to know each other better and tending to our spiritual growth.  Because we won’t have the open opportunity to gather at the church for programs whenever we feel like it, we can gather in small groups in each other’s homes for fellowship, study, and spiritual support and accountability.  Some of these groups might include one of your pastors, but some won’t.  We will care for one another, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  This is my hope for the coming year.

This is supposed to be my annual money sermon.  This is supposed to be the sermon where I ask you to take a look at your financial situation and your giving.  Traditionally, I’d invite you to tend to your sharing so it really furthers your spiritual journey.  I’d ask you to make sure the percentage of your income that you give away, and especially the percentage you give to the church, impacts your lifestyle enough to make the sharing a spiritual practice.  And then I’d invite you to make a pledge, to fill out a pledge form and to bring it next week so all our pledges can be dedicated together.  All of that is good, important even.

But given the changes our congregation is going to go through this year, I have one question for you:  Do you trust God to guide our community in this year of transition?

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”

If you trust God to guide us, then I invite you to make as big a financial commitment as you can so we won’t just be building a future together, but we will be participants in God’s building plan.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Isaiah 65:17-25.

[2] See, for instance, Kate Huey, “Infinite Possibilities/A World Filled with Love,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/infinite-possibilitiesa.html (16 November 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Lions and Wolves and Lambs (oh, my!),” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/lions-and-wolves-and-lambs-oh-my (16 November 2013).

 A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont,
on Sunday, September 30, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:38-41 and James 5:13-20
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            We walked back down the dirt road we’d driven up to get to the cabin, but before we got to the base of the hill, we turned right and went up an old logging road, long since abandoned.  It wasn’t long before we came to a large meadow, if that’s the right word for an open space covered with low, wild blueberry bushes.  We cut across, no longer on any trail, until we were back into the woods, then we turned left and started uphill again.

            I was probably 7 or 8 years old and it seemed like we had already hike far, but we were maybe a third of the way to the top of Mount William (there really is a Mount William; my made-up home town that I sometimes preach about is named for it).  When we finally got to the top, I felt like we had really accomplished something.  I don’t know if my father could see it in my eyes or if he felt like we had really accomplished something, too.  For whatever his reasons, he told me and my older siblings to collect rocks to build a cairn.

“What’s a cairn?” I asked.

“A pile of rocks,” my dad explained.

So we piled up the rocks, chunks of granite ranging in size from my small fist to rocks my brother and I had to carry together, on the spot that my father reckoned was the highest point on Mount William, a memorial to our adventure in the wilderness and our accomplishment.

Ever since this experience, cairns have been important to me.  I know they can be found around the globe.[1]  They are found on almost every sort of terrain – on mountains (like the one my family built) to moors to barren deserts and tundra to waterways and sea cliffs.  They can vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills.  They can be a loose, conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures to elaborate feats of engineering.  They can be painted or otherwise decorated, or left in their natural state.

Cairns are used for many purposes and have significance in many cultures.  Some are used to mark a site or a path.  They can mark physical boundaries.  They can have ceremonial or religious purposes.  They can be burial sites.  They can mark events.  In Genesis, there are instances when the patriarchs build stone altars and monuments to mark experiences and to act as witnesses.

Last weekend, we showed the movie “The Way.”  The basic plot line is that Tom, “an irascible American doctor,”[2] comes to France to pick up the body of his son who died in a freak accident as he began walking the “Way of Saint James,” the path of an ancient Christian pilgrimage from the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where tradition says the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.  Rather than immediately return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to take the journey.  What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him.

Early in the movie, when Tom decides to take the journey, he is handed a rock by the police captain who has helped him deal with the French bureaucracy after his son’s death.  The police captain tells Tom that he will know what to do with the rock when he gets to a certain place along The Way.  I knew in that moment that I would be seeing a cairn and I looked forward to seeing how this character would react to adding his stone to a pile made by other pilgrims over the centuries.

Reactions to experiences can tell us a lot about personalities.  The disciples have an interesting reaction to someone who offers help.  Immediately before the incident we heard read today, the disciples failed to heal a boy with epilepsy.  Then the disciples argue over who is the greatest among them – especially amusing since we just found out they were failures.  Then we get to today’s episode:  the disciple John complains to Jesus about someone being successful in a healing.  “Jesus, he was healing someone in your name, but we told him to stop because he’s not one of us, he’s not part of our group.”

What tone of voice do you hear in Jesus’ response?  Maybe there’s exasperation:  “Geez, you guys.  So he was helping someone in my name.  Like after he’s successful in helping someone in my name he’s going to turn around and bad mouth me.”  Then he says something that runs counter to conventional wisdom:  “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

We’ve heard presidents tell us the opposite:  If you’re not our ally, you’re our enemy.  Whoever isn’t for us is against us.  It sometimes seems like the common air we breathe teaches us to treat everyone with suspicion until they prove themselves to be trustworthy.  But here, Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

I suppose having a desire to limit the work of God to our hands, our church, or our faith is nothing new.  But Jesus rejects egoism and territorialism from the very beginning.  We need to remember that God’s prophets will not always speak our language, pray our prayers, or look like us.

Jews recognize that God has worked in a group of non-Jews, a group they call “Righteous Gentiles.”  These are people who defended Jews during the European holocaust.  Elie Wiesel once said of them, “Most who cared were simple people who didn’t even know what they were doing was courageous.…  They did it because it was the [human] thing to do.  And I felt then, woe to our society if to be human becomes an heroic act.”[3]

Jesus understood how much it takes to be a full human being.  He saw the need to affirm what was “good” outside his band of disciples and to cut out what was “bad” inside it.  The advice we hear in the Epistle of James echoes with this idea in its call for us to confession our sin to one another and to pray for each other.

When I started thinking about today’s sermon some six weeks ago, I thought I would be talking about how it is important for us, a congregation of Progressive Christians, to recognize that Christians who are not progressive can still be doing the work of Jesus.  And I thought I’d talk about how we need to recognize that the work of Jesus, the work of loving our neighbors as ourselves, is sometimes being carried out by non-Christians as well.

“The number and variety of communities that work in Jesus’ name reveals that there are infinite ways to live and proclaim the good news.  Diversity in itself is not a problem, as Jesus explains – the danger arises when any one of those communities professes to be the only true church and exclusive bearer of salvation.”[4]

But as I’ve sat with this scripture over the past week, I realized that there is a lesson here for me that is much closer to home, a lesson that has to do with the great transition we are going through with the completing of the formation of Niles Discovery Church.

Katelyn was a 16-year-old who teenage years weren’t going so well.  In addition to the typical angst of being a teenager, she had problems with her stay-at-home father and her high-powered, professional, accomplished mother.  She had made some poor choices in her personal and academic lives.  Things weren’t going as well as her parents thought they should be, and in all honesty, I agreed with them.  She seemed to me to be a bit depressed and certainly needed a fresh start.

She had made it through the yearlong Confirmation Class and it was time to make decisions about baptisms and confirmation.  I thought she might appreciate the symbolism of baptism – being dunked under the water, being buried with Christ, and rising to new life, a fresh start, the past washed clean.  She thoroughly rejected that idea.  She said she didn’t want to wash away her past because her past made her who she was.

What she didn’t understand, and what I failed to explain, is that a fresh start need not be a rejection of the past.  It is possible to have a new beginning even as we carry our past into that new thing.  If we divorce ourselves completely from our pasts, we will fail.  Divided, we will fall.

As we unite together as Niles Discovery Church, as we embrace this communal fresh start, we do so as people who come from our pasts.  I realize that’s obvious, but I think I need to say it.  We come together as people who have walked our journeys, who have had our experiences on “the way.”  For many of us, important parts of those journeys have been as part of First Christian Church of Fremont and as part of Niles Congregational Church.  For others, there have been other communities of faith – some that aren’t Christian – that have formed us.

At the beginning of worship, you were each given a stone.  You may have figured out that I am going to invite us to build a cairn here, today.  My thought is that your stone can represent a faith community that has been an important part of your journey, that has helped form you and helped you get to this moment in the journey.  Some of you may want to write something on your stone – a symbol or a word – to somehow mark it, and there are baskets of Sharpies in each room so you can do that.  I’ve asked Jenny to play a little music so we have time to consider what community our rock represents and to write on it if we wish to.

Then, Judy will begin our communion liturgy.  Because we are receiving communion by intinction, we will be coming forward.  I realize it may cause a bit of a traffic jam, but I invite you to bring your rock with you and for us to build our cairn on the Erikson Table in the Guild Room.

It will stand there for a while.  People who are not here today will be able to add to it over the coming weeks.  And at some point, it will move over to 36600 Niles Blvd. – either to be come the foundation on which the foundation of our addition is built, or as a cairn in the memorial garden, or in some other way.

Let this cairn mark who we are as we more fully become Niles Discovery Church.


ENDNOTES

[1] “Cairn,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairn (30 September 2012).

[2] About the film, The Way, http://www.theway-themovie.com/film.php (30 September 2012).

[3] Quoted in Peter B. Prince, “For … or Against,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_970949_BProper21&week=B_Proper_21 (30 September 2012).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Divided We Fall,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_090949_BProper21&week=B_Proper_21 (30 September 2012).

Here are my three favorite posts from my Facebook wall during the preceding week (I try to get this done each Friday).

1.  Once again, Global Warming and Climate Change topped the content of my posts on Facebook last week. 

I began the week wishing I could be in DC to participate in the Keystone XL Pipeline protest that surrounded the White House, with a link to photos of the event.  Then on Thursday, I started celebrating the Obama Administration’s decision to delay the decision on the pipeline by at least a year.  I encouraged people to write to the Whitehouse to say “thank you” and to sign this petition calling on the administration to simply say “no” or to really start over in examining the pros and cons of the pipeline.  The petition reads:

Delaying or rerouting the Keystone XL does not solve the problem. Reject this project now. If you will not, then direct the State Department to start over clean with an evaluation conducted by a truly independent contractor, that takes into account the global warming impacts of this pipeline, and that is free from the influence of lobbyists.

I also posted a link to this article on the impact, degree by degree, of global warming on our climates and living situation.  It’s pretty scary!
And there was the link to this article on how we know that human beings are causing global warming.

2.  There were bunches of posts about “Mission: 1,” a nation-wide effort by the United Church of Christ to address hunger and hunger justice.

3.  And then there’s my favorite picture of the week:

On Monday, October 24, I’ll be going to San Francisco to be part of the “Interfaith Clergy Action in Solidarity with Occupy Wall St. SF.”  I go because I believe that the values that undergird the Occupy movement are essentially Christian values.

UCC pastor Anthony Robinson recently wrote:

I was listening the other day to an Occupy Seattle protester make her case. Her argument ran like this: “When the banks were in trouble and might have failed, they were bailed out – bailed out by the government, the taxpayers, all of us. But then the banks turned around and kept on foreclosing on people, taking their homes. And the banks are sitting on money instead of investing it to create jobs. We helped them, but they aren’t helping us.”

I thought to myself, “Where have I heard that before?” I scrolled back over the gospel lessons for the last couple weeks and recalled this one, “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” a story told by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Grab your Bible and read Matthew 18:21-35.  You’ll read about a servant who is forgiven a humungous debt by the king.  Then this forgiven servant goes and has another servant thrown in jail for failing to repay a relatively speaking small debt.  When the king hears about who the first servant showed no mercy to the second servant, the king has the first servant thrown out into utter darkness.

Tony goes on, writing:

Not only is the point clear, but it’s precisely the same one that the Occupy Seattle protester was making.  The banks, owing a ton, got help.  But they haven’t passed it on.  Instead, they’ve foreclosed on homeowners, returned to the practice of paying themselves huge salaries and big bonuses, all the while hoarding their growing capital on the sidelines.  What gives?

What gives, indeed?!

As I pointed out in my sermon last Sunday, Christians are called to stand with “the least of these.”  We are called to side with the powerless and in our culture (as was the case in Jesus’ culture), possessing money means one possess power.  Luckily, in our culture the powerless can agitate without fear of crucifixion.  And so they are agitating.

In 2007, the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches adopted “A Social Creed for the 21st Century” that could read as a platform for Christian participation in the Occupy America movement.  It read, in part:

In the love incarnate in Jesus, despite the world’s sufferings and evils, we honor the deep connections within our human family and seek to awaken a new spirit of community, by working for:

  1. Abatement of hunger and poverty, and enactment of policies benefiting the most vulnerable.
  2. High quality public education for all and universal, affordable and accessible healthcare.
  3. An effective program of social security during sickness, disability and old age.
  4. Tax and budget policies that reduce disparities between rich and poor, strengthen democracy, and provide greater opportunity for everyone within the common good.
  5. Just immigration policies that protect family unity, safeguard workers’ rights, require employer accountability, and foster international cooperation.
  6. Sustainable communities marked by affordable housing, access to good jobs, and public safety.
  7. Public service as a high vocation, with real limits on the power of private interests in politics.

A month ago, I posted a quote from Elizabeth Warren, a former assistant to President Obama.  It’s worth repeating here:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for.…

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless – keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

I’m going to San Francisco to remember the social contract we should be living by.

I’m going to San Francisco to stand with those who are reminding us of the Christian values of compassion, justice, and love.

I’ve decided to post my three favorite posts from my Facebook wall during the preceding week each Friday (well, I’ll try to get it done on Friday).  Here’s “Last week on Facebook.”

There was lots on my wall last week, and limiting myself to three items is hard.  I’m picking three videos.

From Tuesday, October 11:

From Wednesday, October 12:
I found this 7 minute video disturbing … and I needed to be disturbed.

From Wednesday, October 12:
President Obama and President Reagan on the same page? WOW!


First, Advocate – become a committed advocate for solving the climate crisis.
Be ready to speak up any time the issue comes up.  Lovingly confront doubt that the crisis is real.  This is as important for addressing the climate crisis as confronting racist comments is to confronting racism.  Use social media to spread the word by posting links to events and videos and articles, and encourage your friends to repost them.

Second, Choose – deepen your commitment to make better consumer choices that reduce energy use and your impact on the environment.
Remember the four Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot – and in that order.  If a whole bunch of us do a whole lot of little things it will add up to a real difference.  Beware of green-washing as you go about doing this.

Third, Join – join an organization that working on the issue.
There are several organizations that are organizing to address the climate crisis national and internationally.  One of my favorites if 350.org, which is organizing the Moving Planet day of action on September 24.  You might also check out The Alliance for Climate Protection, the Climate Reality Project, and Greenpeace.  Add your favorite organization in the comments section.

Four, Watchdog – contact news media when they put out claptrap on climate.
Let them know you’re fed up with their stubborn and cowardly resistance to reporting the facts of this issue.  Stay on them, stay on them, stay on them.

Five, Lobby – don’t give up on the political system.
Even though it’s rigged to support special interests, the more pressure citizens put on politicians and (especially) candidates, the more likely they are to pay attention and do something.  FDR is famous for telling a civil rights leader who was pressing him for change that he agreed about the need for greater equality.  Then FDR said, “Now go out and make me do it.”

My Facebook friend Jonathan Dregni posted the following as a note on his Facebook page.  He said he stole it from Ben Hall, who stole it from Bobby Barnes (whoever they are).  I did a Google search for it and found it (or a version of it) posted all over the place, so I don’t know who deserves credit for the original, but I like it and so I’m going to post it here, too.  Enjoy.

———————-

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

That’s right, they didn’t have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, soda pop bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.

But they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks.

But she’s right. They didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they washed the baby’s diapers because they didn’t have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.

But that old lady is right; they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn’t have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, they didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she’s right, they didn’t have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But they didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But then … they didn’t have the green thing back then.

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