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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 20, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
On this Sunday, we celebrated Pastor Jeff’s 30th anniversary of ordained ministry.
Scriptures:  Psalm 46 and Luke 15:11-32
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a hymn written by Martin Luther about 500 years ago.  He wrote the lyrics in German, of course, so we sang a translation.  The original music was probably a pop song in his day, a tune he might have picked up in a tavern being sung by the crowds, a tune he repurposed for his hymn.  The original tune swung a bit more and wasn’t so squared off to sound so pomp and circumstance-y.  Still, it’s a good hymn, one that I’ve liked since I was a teenager, one that was in the running for my ordination service thirty years ago.

Martin Luther

It’s based on, rather freely, on Psalm 46.  I don’t know my Luther well enough to know why he liked this Psalm and decided to write a hymn based on it.  I do know why I like this Psalm.

Just this week, I read two different ways of analyzing the Psalm based on its form.  I won’t take you down the road of the first of these, though this is the kind of stuff theology nerds like me geek out on.  This analysis points to two points (and yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence).  The first point is the song’s refrain, that God is our refuge – the song starts with and concludes with this, and it is an anchor point in middle of the song.  The second point, the central points of the song’s two sections (as this particular analysis divides the song):  God is in the midst of the city; it will not be moved; and  be still and know that I am God.  I would summarize these two points as, “God is God and you’re not.”

The second form analysis of the Psalm sees three stanzas, each three verses long.  The first stanza “juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar.”[1]  Rolf Jacobson says, “The image of ‘earth’ shaking and ‘sea’ roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order.  This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience.  The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature.  Thus, the ‘law’ that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator.”[2]

I disagree with his assessment that creation is in a “fallen condition.”  Yes, earthquakes and floods and tsunamis happen.  Yes, disease and disability strike not just humans, but other species as well.  Yes, we are all going to die.  But I don’t see these as signs of any “fallen condition” of creation.  Rather, I see them as part of the ongoing creative energy of the universe.  This stanza’s point is that because God is a present help in trouble, even natural disaster, we do not need to be engulfed with existential angst.

Stanza two moves from nature being in an uproar to the nations being in an uproar.  I’m not reading the political into the Psalm.  The Psalm itself gets political.  I don’t know what the political threat to Israel was when this Psalm was written – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – and it doesn’t really matter now.  What’s important now is the witness of the Psalm – that when the nations are in an uproar, when kingdoms totter, God is still God.  And the sun will come up tomorrow.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Stanza three points to the power and purpose of God – and our response.  God is working out the kin-dom in our midst.  God is making wars to cease, breaking the bow and shattering the spear.  And our response – to be still.  Be still and know that God is God (and that you and I and principalities and powers of our age are not God).  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Phyllis Tickle

I’ve preached before about how I think we are in the midst of a great church rummage sale (and, no, I’m not talking about the flea market happening next weekend).  Though she points to the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer for the genesis of the idea, Phyllis Tickle articulated the theory most clearly for me – “that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”[3]  There really wasn’t a church for the first rummage sale, 2,000 years ago.  Tickle called it “The Great Transformation” and it took place when a man was recognized by his disciples as “Emmanuel, God With Us.”  Five hundred years later, the Roman Empire collapsed and the church entered an era of preservation with the advent of the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories.  Five hundred years later, the church split in “The Great Schism,” creating the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Five hundred years after that, “The Great Reformation” shook up the church once again.  And five hundred years after that … is today.

Tickle said that in each of these times, the church was wrestling with one key question:  What is authoritative?  And in each of these great rummage sales, a new authority emerges.  Obviously, for The Great Transformation, Jesus was the new authority.  I couldn’t find my copy of her book The Great Emergence this week, and I don’t remember what the new authority was that emerged from the second rummage sale, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with monasticism.  At the Great Schism, the new authority was the bishop of Rome, or the Pope, as he’s typically known.  At the Great Reformation, the new authority was scripture.

Tickle thought that the Spirit is likely going to be the new authority in whatever this new church that’s emerging will turn out to be.  I wonder if it might be Nature.  Or some combination of Spirit and Nature.

In any event, I had no idea that I would be pastoring in the midst of a rummage sale when I answered the call to become an ordained minister.  When God’s call got through (I realize in retrospect that God had been calling my whole life, but there was too much static on the line) in 1982, we were just beginning to experience the end of Christendom.  I had no idea it was happening.  I grew up in a time when the default assumption in American society was “Christian.”  In fact, the default assumption was “Mainline Protestant.”  Yes, there were Catholics and Jews around, but the default assumption was Mainline Protestant.  All the members of the Supreme Court were either Mainline Protestants or Jews.  All the Presidents except for Kennedy were Protestants, and almost all of them Mainline Protestants.  School vacation schedules considered the church calendar as they were being designed.

And all that has disappeared during my time in ordained ministry.  This shift, along with the explosive growth of computer technology and post-modernity taking root, have contributed energy to the great church rummage sale we’re experiencing now.  And one of the reasons I’m really glad to be fulfilling my call to ordained ministry here at Niles Discovery Church is that you are a church that is willing to try new things.

If you look at each of the great rummage sales the church has had in the past 2,000 years, while something new always emerged from it, whatever used to be also remained – though smaller, often healthier because new things made the old thing into some self-examination.  I don’t know if Niles Discovery Church will emerge as part of whatever the new things is or if we will be part of the stronger, smaller, faithful continuation of Progressive Christianity.  But I do know that we will be faithful as we seek to fulfill our call as part of the body of Christ.

“30 Years and Counting,” I titled this sermon.  Perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but it you’d permit a bit of self-indulgence.  This is the fifth ministry setting I’ve had in those thirty years.  The first three were completed in under ten years.  Short ministries or long, I always learned things in each setting.

Working as a chaplain at the juvenile hall, I learned about the urgency of now and the difference I could make in a moment.  I also learned that I have to be willing to let go of long-term results.  I could plant seeds, but I would never know if they would produce fruit.  I typically didn’t even know if they would take root.  So I learned to be faithful to my calling and to leave the results to God.

At the church in Spokane where I served as Associate Pastor and then Interim Pastor, I learned how important congregational buy-in is on projects.  The bigger the project, the more important getting this buy-in is.  And that typically means slowing down so people can catch up to the leaders.

I learned about the importance of integrity when I served the church in Richland, Washington, as an Interim Pastor.

And at the church in Carnation, Washington, where I served as pastor for a decade, I learned that my leadership doesn’t matter if I’m leading in a direction the church doesn’t want to go.  I also learned how important it is for the members of a church to nurture their friendships and to create a safe space for each other.

And here in Fremont, where I’ve served for a dozen years (at Niles Congregational Church and at Niles Discovery Church, as the first merged into the second), I’ve learned how important it is for a church and a pastor to be willing to risk in order to stay faithful.  That’s where I think we’re going in the years ahead.  I think we’re going to keep stepping into risky ministries in order to stay faithful.

I picked the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be read at my ordination because it answers a profound question.  What must we do to live in the kin-dom of God?  Love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.  It really is that simple.  And it really is that risky.

Loving that radically will mean crossing boundaries – like the Samaritan crossed when he saved a Jew.  Loving that radically will mean inviting people we don’t know (like an innkeeper, say) to help us heal the brokenness in the world.  Loving that radically will mean handing over what we have to others so that all might experience wholeness and justice.

bell hooks once said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.  The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”[4]

I think that is why Jesus calls us to love, to take the risks of love.  For loving builds the kin-dom of God.  And here’s a bit of good news.  We can take those risks – though the mountains should shake in the heart of the sea, though the nations are in an uproar – we can take the risks to love.  For the Lord of hosts is with us.  God is in the midst of the city.

Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1110 (accesses 19 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2008/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 19 August 2017).

[4] bell hooks, quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155129096928500 (posted and accessed 26 July 2017).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Change.

If there’s one word that sums up this past year for me, for us, I think it’s “change.” And it’s not just the change that’s obvious – our change of worship location. Society is changing. The church universal is changing. And in response, our life as a congregation must continue changing.

I’ve talked before about two big changes in society that have big impacts on us – the end of Christendom and the shift to a post-modern worldview. Let me offer you this review.

Emperor Constantine

Christendom began to take shape when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. This was a big policy shift on for the Empire, which until then had alternated between persecuting Christians and the church, and simply hoping they would go away. It was, arguably, an even bigger change for the church itself. Imagine going from being on the “outs” socially to suddenly being at the center of the in-group! Imagine being a political non-entity for years and waking up one day to find you are a U.S. Senator!

As Christendom developed, church and state were increasingly allied, and Christianity and culture interwoven. During the reign of Charlemagne (around 800), the now “Holy Roman Empire” (Western Europe) was divided into parishes, geographical areas within earshot of the church bells. Each parish had a parish church and a parish priest. People were members of the church because they were born and lived there. The “mission field” lay far away, beyond the borders of the empire.

In the “new world” of North America, Christendom was both different and similar to its European version. It was different because the new nation was founded on, among other things, the separation of church and state. But while Christianity in North America was not a legally established religion, it was culturally established. And not just Christianity, but Protestant Christianity. The Protestant Church enjoyed cultural support and sanction.

For example, when I was a child, the stores were not open on Sunday and no children’s sporting event would ever be scheduled on a Sunday morning. This was a subtle but powerful form of support for the Christian churches and their day of worship. But by the time I was a teenager, things had started to change in North American culture. Our society became increasingly pluralistic (many religions) and diverse (many cultures and languages), and as a result, became increasingly secular (nonreligious). Protestant Christianity’s cultural privilege started to wane.

Ours is no longer so clearly a culturally Christian society. There are vestiges. Union City, Newark, and Fremont schools are all still connecting the spring break schedule to the Protestant celebration of Easter. But the idea that mainline Protestant churches are the religious center society is disappearing.

The current members of the Supreme Court

Consider, for instance, the fact that for its first 180 years, justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were always male, always white, and almost always Protestant. Only five Catholics severed prior to 1950s.[i] The first Jew wasn’t appointed until 1916 and only three Jews served prior to 1950s.[ii] Today, the number of Protestants on the Supreme Court of the U.S. is exactly zero.

What we are seeing is the end of American Christendom. This is not the same as the end of Christianity. Indeed, it may be a new beginning! Because the culture is no longer nominally Christian, and the church is no longer allied with dominant powers and the cultural status quo, there is not only change, but also opportunity.

In many ways, the church in North America today may have more in common with the early church of the first four centuries, the church before Constantine set the Christendom ball rolling. Once again, the church has the opportunity to be what Jesus called it to be, “salt for the earth” and “leaven (yeast) for the loaf.”

This is a major shift. In Christendom, the church’s purpose is chiefly offering programs for its members, doing some local charity work, and leaving mission to “missionaries” serving far away. In this changing society, each congregation is a “mission outpost.” We can no longer think of the church as “for ourselves” and mission as “for others.” The “for ourselves” and “for others” way of thinking is a false and unhelpful dichotomy. The church belongs to God and is God’s people being and doing God’s mission in every aspect of its life, whether worship or teaching, forming small groups or ministries of service in the community and in the world!

The other societal change I’ve talked about before is the shift from modernity to post-modernity. It is equally, perhaps even more powerful and important than the end of Christendom. It is also much harder to explain. I will try.

We can think of three historic worldviews eras. The pre-modern world was the world before the Renaissance. It is the pre-scientific world. The modern world begins probably sometime in the 1500s with the Renaissance (and, interestingly, the Reformation) – or at least the seeds of modernity are sown at that time. In the next century, Isaac Newton is thinking about gravity and other scientific concepts. Certainly by then we’ve entered the modern age. The modern worldview has been ending for the past century or so, and with its ending, the post-modern worldview is emerging.

In the pre-modern world, there was no distinction between the physical world and the metaphysical world. The modern world started to recognize a difference between the physical and the metaphysical. Mainline Protestantism did a pretty good job of making Christianity fit into a modern understanding of the world. Thus, scientific explanations are forced upon the miracles of Jesus, or we insist that the stories about the miracles are purely metaphorical. (Parenthetically, I’d point out that fundamentalism, theological conservatism, and much of Catholicism, pretty much circled the wagons against modernity.)

The desire to see things from multiple points of view is an element of much cubist art. It is called “modern art,” but I think it is really post-modern art. For instance, in “Tete D’une Femme Lisant,” Pablo Picasso the front of his subject and his subject in profile simultaneously.

An aspect of the post-modern worldview is the invitation to look at things from multiple points of view. Experience becomes important. Each individual’s experience and interpretation of that experience is important. Rather than explaining away a miracle, perhaps a scripture reveals how the people of Jesus’ day experienced and interpreted that event. One person’s experience and interpretation of it, the community’s experience and interpretation of it, even Jesus’ experience and interpretation of it are all equally valid.

“Modernity [has] held that reason and rational thought are the primary human faculties and the keys to gaining control over life and ridding the world of pernicious superstitions (which is the way many moderns saw religion). By contrast, post-moderns tend to think we’ve drunk too heavily at the wells of reason. They are open to intuition, emotional intelligence, embodied knowledge and mystery. Where moderns wanted their preachers to explain [or explain away] mystery, post-moderns want to experience mystery.”[iii]

“Moderns … were very big on objectivity and the idea that we observers could step outside our own time, social conditioning, and biases to see things ‘objectively.’ On this count too, post-moderns are doubters. ‘Everybody is coming from somewhere,’ say post-moderns. ‘What you call “objective truth,” we call the interests of the powerful and privileged.’”[iv]

Why does this matter? On one level the answer is easy: there’s a huge change in cultural sensibility from modern to post-modern. Many of our churches worked well for moderns, but do not work as well for post-moderns. What’s missing is spiritual connection and experience, the experience of the sacred, transcendent Other. Understanding this makes it much easier to understand the growing interest in “spirituality” over the past thirty or forty years and why people who identify themselves as “Spiritual but not religious” is one of the fastest growing segments of our population. Moderns wanted their preachers to explain mystery; post-moderns want to experience mystery. Isn’t it sad that people feel that church is not the best place to pursue their “spiritual” interests?

In the midst of these societal changes, the church is also in the midst of its semi-millennial rummage sale. You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[v] This is how Tickle explains it:

“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of that chaos, something new emerged: Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents.

About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created.

About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches.

And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.

The first of these church rummage sales that Phyllis Tickle talks about happens around the year 500, at the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, there was another big shake up in the world of religion 500 years earlier, around the year 30, when the disciples of Jesus experienced the resurrection. They didn’t know what to make of their experiences at first.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, c. 1601–1602

The wonderful story of Thomas doubting the accounts of his friends is an example of a pre-modern explanation that can be quite difficult for the modern mind to accept. Caravaggio’s painting based on the story that’s on your bulletin covers, painted at the dawn of the modernity, treats the story quite literally, almost scientifically. My post-modern view wants neither to take this story literally nor to assume it’s simply metaphor. I want to hear it as this gospel writer’s truth. Yet, when I apply it to my life, my experience, I find myself connecting to it symbolically.

Notice how John tells us these disciples recognized Christ in their midst: By his wounds.[vi] Might that be a clue for me about where I should look for the resurrected Christ in my midst? In the wounded? Perhaps when I reach out and touch the wounded, I will realize that I am in the presence of the resurrected one. Perhaps when I work to repair inequalities, to build community, to end oppression, to heal the wounds of exclusion, I will be doing the work of the resurrected church.

This seems to be what those first disciples figured out. In the reading from Acts, we hear a report about the new community that grew out of these resurrection experiences. Talk about change. No one claimed ownership of any property, for everything they owned was held in common. The author of Acts says that those who owned property sold it and pooled the proceeds in the common treasury. I’ve got to say that in an agrarian culture, selling your property seems like a silly idea to me. Having land means having food. But that’s what we’re told happened.

I’m struck by two things in this story. First, when they gave money, they didn’t give their pocket change; they gave their everything. Second, I think there’s a mistranslation. Verses 33 and 34 are typically translated, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. [period, new sentence] There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” The Greek, however, has the word “for” right between what is translated as two sentences. The “for” has been left out. When I look at my interlinear Greek text, it looks to me like a better translation would say, “ … and great grace was upon them all for there was not a needy person among them …”[vii] What does that say about reaching out to the wounded to find the resurrected Christ?

Drawn together in one heart and soul by the power of the Spirit, these first disciples created this counter cultural community of compassion. Imagine what would happen if we let the love of God overflow in our hearts, if we truly yielded to God and lived in the full, unhindered presence of the Spirit.[viii] I know I resist. I know my fear gets in my way.[ix] But, oh, if I could just trust a little more deeply. Imagine how that would change my world.

Change. That’s the word I said sums up this year for me. And not just pocket change.

During this year, we have experienced the major change of location – twice. Now we’re settling into this new place and we have the challenge of how to be good stewards of it. And we have the challenge of how to be the church in this changing society, right in the midst of the church’s semi-millennial rummage sale.

The changes for our church are not over. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus was all about change. Jesus was all about transformation.

Let’s discovery what God has in store for us next.

Amen.

[i] Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States, (22 May 2010).

[ii] List of Jewish United States Supreme Court justices, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_United_States_Supreme_Court_justices, (22 May 2010).

[iii] Anthony Robinson, It’s a Whole New World!, http://www.ucc.org/vitality/ready-set-grow/know-community-culture/its-a-whole-new-world.html, (22 May 2010).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2008/08/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 24 January 2015).

[vi] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Touching the Word,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/touching-word (accessed 6 April 2015).

[vii] Jason Byassee, “Can God Breathe?” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/can-god-breathe (accessed 6 April 2015).

[viii] Michaela Bruzzese, “‘Reach Out’,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/reach-out (accessed 6 April 2015).

[ix] Clark H. Pinnock, “The Acts Connection,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/acts-connection (accessed 6 April 2015).

I was reading an article* about Muslims in America, post-9/11, when I had a realization:  the end of Christendom is a Christian value.

In June and July, I preached a four-part sermon series on how the social/cultural environment in North American has changed and the challenges those changes pose to the church.  The first change I spoke about was the end of Christendom.

There was a time in North America when Christianity and culture were interwoven and there was a Christian-assumption in our culture.  Christians (especially mainline Protestants) enjoyed social privilege and the culture made space for the exercise of religion.  Now we live in a Post-Christendom age, an age that is markedly more secular and diverse.  In fact, here on the west coast, we are so past Christendom that being part of a church is now counter-cultural.  One of the ways our society has become more diverse is by the inclusion of Muslims in the increasingly diverse religious spectrum in America.

It was as I read these two paragraphs that I reached my conclusion:

But what has happened since 9/11 is also important.  There has not been the level of communal violence as in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in countries like India, Nigeria or even Northern Ireland.  There hasn’t been the street violence such as that between Protestants and Catholics that rocked U.S. cities in the 1850s,  There has not been anything close to the detention policies that incarcerated thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  Instead, calls for tolerance, understanding and pluralism from political leaders in both parties have been common….  While immigration has been a hot political issue, there has not been a blanket crackdown on Muslims or on Middle Eastern immigrants.

Indeed, my own assessment … is that 9/11 and the backlash against Muslims that followed will be a historical bump-in-the-road toward the incorporation of Muslims – like Catholics and Jews before them – into the American religious and social mosaic.

(The article goes on to acknowledge post-9/11 government policies permitting detentions, deportations, and interrogations that have left many Muslims feeling vulnerable.)

As I read these paragraphs, I thought about the voice of mainline Protestants, especially over the past three for four generations.  Mainline Protestants have, for the most part, stood up for civil rights.  We have been much of the strength supporting ecumenical cooperation.  We have stood against anti-Semitism.  And post-9/11, mainline Protestant voices were among the first and loudest to call for tolerance, understanding, and pluralism.

In other words, we have worked hard to support the diversity that is a hallmark of the end of Christendom.

Supporting the end of Christendom has meant supporting the end of privilege and power that came with Christendom, privilege and power from which we have benefited.  But then, that’s a Christian thing to do.  After all, Jesus said, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:26-27)

I only wonder what took us so long.

* Rhys H. Williams, “Muslim in America,” The Christian Century, June 15, 2010, p. 32.

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