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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 25, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:3-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A colleague was collecting some recommendations yesterday on Facebook.  I’m not sure how he’s going to use the data he collects, but he asked, “Which Bible passages would you want your children to memorize?”  Being someone who is adept at having opinions, I shared my list.  Then I looked at what other had posted.  There were lots of good suggestions, but I had to laugh when someone posted Matthew 10:35-36.  “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Today’s gospel lesson has one of the more challenging passages attributed to Jesus.  These words grate against the image of Jesus so many of us hold.  Brian McLaren says, “Many people have been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus.  He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit.  He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi.  Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

“The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures.”[1]  The real Jesus is defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative.

That’s the Jesus we hear in this gospel lesson.  The passage comes in the midst of an almost chapter-long address by Jesus in which he gives his twelve disciples instructions as he sends them out to carry on his work.  Kathryn Matthews notes that “Matthew writes for a community that claims a relationship, a kinship, with these apostles, who gave up everything to follow Jesus.  This little community of early Christians listens for how God is sending them in their own turn, a generation or so later, and they’re undoubtedly wrestling with how much they may have to give up, too, and what the risks are that they will run.

“Perhaps they’ve already paid a price for being disciples of this Jesus, especially if their family ties have been strained or broken by their new faith commitment.  Family ties were even more important in that time and culture than they are today, if we can imagine such a thing.  And broken relationships meant more than hard feelings and spoiled family functions and fights over inheritances:  they could be a matter of life and death in a culture where family identity and connections protected you from the many dangers in life.

“Matthew makes Jesus sound as if he’s sending his apostles out on a secret, dangerous mission.”[2]  And we’re not just talking about the early Christian martyrs who gave up their lives – literally, dramatically, violently – for the gospel.  We’re talking about “those lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures, including even the stability of the family itself.”[3]

The bold challenge here is that Jesus didn’t just call the disciples to reject consumerism, or racism, or any other ism you can think of.  You and I want to give up those things, as challenging as doing so may be.  Now, Jesus called them to be ready to give up their families.  “Jesus gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew, the claim of family love,” Fred Craddock wrote.  “Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society.”[4]  And in so doing, it seems to me that Jesus touched on the most basic, most heart-connected part of human life.

Even deeper, even more important, even more powerful than our love for family is the love of God, and needs to be our love for God.  I know that people work hard to build families.  Even those who are lucky enough to be born into families that are filled with love, building and maintaining a family takes energy.  And on this Pride Sunday, I can’t help but think of members of the LGBTQ+ community who have had to build and maintain families from scratch because they experienced rejection from their birth families.  And still, Jesus calls – even requires – that we love him above all other loves, no matter the cost to us, including those very families we have worked so hard to build and maintain.

It is so easy to domesticate the gospel, to declaw it as if it were a pet cat we didn’t want shredding the upholstery on the sofa.  “[W]e can too easily conflate the good news with good citizenship, good behavior or maybe simply not causing trouble, or just following orders.”[5]  But think about where this leads.

In one of her published sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it.…  There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself.”[6]  Except, of course, that’s not true.  Taylor reminds us, “The gospel is not a table knife but a sword.  It can set free and it can divide.  The gospel is not pablum.  It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties…”[7]

I’ve tried to think of more contemporary examples of what I’m talking about.  If I get too contemporary, I’ll be accused of being partisan, so let me go back a few decades.  Think about the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.  It’s pretty clear to me now which side Jesus was on, but back then there were plenty of Christian families – at least there were plenty of white Christian families – that were divided when it came to choosing which side to stand with.  From the Montgomery bus boycott to the march to Selma, the gospel divided families as some people heard it’s call to struggle for justice.

And think of the Vietnam War.  I know there were families that were divided when some people heard the gospel calling them to oppose the war, to march against the war, to even commit illegal acts in their efforts to stop the war.

It’s a strange choice of words for Jesus, I think:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  Unless he was being ironic or he’s using hyperbole.  Swords, after all, would be used to protect families, not to divide them.

Retired Catholic Archbishop Hunthausen says, “When Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of heaven, he gave no maps or blueprints.  He told us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to sell what we have, to feed the poor, and to follow him all the way to the cross.  He promised that we would share his life and his death, and after that his new life; he promised that God would provide for those who seek the kingdom first.  He promised the resurrection, but only after the crucifixion.…

“Jesus calls us to take risks, to make difficult choices.  This is our cross, the point where we can die a little to self and be reborn in the Spirit’s life of compassion.

“I believe that we can all find the actions to which we are called by meditating on Jesus’ teachings and then by beginning to live them.  Those teachings point us toward a commitment to a life of nonviolence, a way of living that comes from the very heart of the gospel and has Jesus as its model.”[8]  The disciplined life of nonviolence is not simple, and it brings its own kind of suffering – a suffering that comes out of love.  And it brings its own kind of death, a death of ego, so that we can rise to life in Christ.

There is a difference between non-violence (with a hyphen) and nonviolence (without a hyphen).  Non-violence (with a hyphen) is simply the absence of violence.  Bystanders can be non-violent (with a hyphen) and still do nothing about injustice and violence.  But nonviolence (without a hyphen) seeks a positive peace, a peace filled with restoration of relationships, the creation of just social systems that serve the needs of the whole population, and the constructive resolution of conflict in reconciliation.[9]

This means that a life of nonviolence will seek out the justice.  It will confront systems of oppression.  It will work to transform negative peace into positive peace.

Consider this:  Martin Luther King was arrested somewhere around 30 times for his nonviolent protests against systems of racism.  About half of those arrests for the crime of – you guessed it – disturbing the peace.

And that’s what he was doing.  He was disturbing the negative peace so that it could be transformed into a positive peace.

As followers of Jesus, we cannot avoid the call of the cross.  This is how Hunthausen explains it:  “Jesus’ first call in the gospel is to love God and one’s neighbor.  But when he gives flesh to that commandment by the more specific call to the cross, and by his own death, I am afraid that like most of you I prefer to think in abstract terms, not in the specific context in which our Lord lived and died.  And yet a life of nonviolence is ‘taking up the cross,’ ‘losing one’s life’ for the truth of the gospel, for that love of God in which we are all one.”[10]

Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, “Beyond Fire and Brimstone,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/beyond-fire-and-brimstone (accessed 20 June 2017).

[2] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds June 25, 2017,” Samuel, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_25_2017 (accessed 21 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A, quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[5] Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Values,” Gospel Medicine, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 16.

[7] Ibid, 18.

[8] Raymond Hunthausen, “The Undiscovered Secret of the Nuclear Age,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/undiscovered-secret-nuclear-age?parent=50801#PTWproper7A (accessed 20 June 2017).

[9] See, for instance, http://www.irenees.net/bdf_fiche-notions-186_en.html.

[10] Hunthausen, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 13, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: James 3:1-6 and Mark 8:27-38
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

President Jimmy Carter and his mother, Miss Lillian Carter

There is a story I remember from when Jimmy Carter was first running for president. This is almost 40 years ago, so I have no idea if I have the facts correct, but this is how I remember the story. Miss Lillian, Jimmy’s mother, was scheduled to be interviewed by a network reporter, I think it might have been Connie Chung (and I’ll pretend that it was). So Connie showed up a Miss Lillian’s home, and Miss Lillian opened the door and welcomed Connie saying something like, “Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.”

Now, someone had claimed that someone had never lied – I think it was that Jimmy claimed that his mother had never lied, or that Miss Lillian claimed that Jimmy had never lied. In any event, Connie asked Miss Lillian if that was true. Was it true that whoever it was had never lied? “It’s true,” Miss Lillian replied. “Well, maybe a little white lie every now and again.”

Thinking that a lie is a lie, Connie challenged Miss Lillian: “A little white lie? What is that?”

“Well, do you remember when you arrived and I told you, ‘I’m so glad you’re here’?”

During my vacation I had the opportunity to do some reading and to listen to some audiobooks and I drove to and from Washington. One of the books was The Four Agreements. I have friends who say it is a powerful book, one that I should read, so I put it on my list. (Have any of your read it?) Claiming to base his writing in ancient Toltec wisdom, the author has identified “four agreements” that, if adopted, will reframe our view of the world and lead us to a life of joy and personal freedom.

The first of these four agreements is, “Be Impeccable with your Word.” This is a call to speak with integrity, to say only what you mean. To adopt this agreement is to avoid using our words to speak against ourselves or to gossip about others, to use the power of our words in the direction of truth and love.

This agreement says that Miss Lillian’s “little white lies” are a problem. But I can’t imagine how the interview would have gone if she had greeted the reporter with, “Well, I don’t want to do this, but I’m told it will help my son, so you might as well come in.” And I can’t help but think of the ending of the movie Mr. Holmes (spoiler alert) where the great fictional detective, who had based his career on facts and logic and deductive reasoning, learns the value of lying to help someone’s emotional wounds heal.

I can’t help wondering, is lying ever good? I certainly don’t want political leaders lying to me. But isn’t a lie sometimes the less painful route? Or does a lie, no matter how well meaning, create a falsehood that ultimately is hurtful simply because it is a falsehood?

“In a sense, social constructivists are correct about words creating reality,” writes John A. Johnson in Psychology Today. “We act on what we tell ourselves is real. Albert Ellis [the American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy] encouraged us to screen our self-talk for negative, irrational chatter. So, what kinds of words to you use when you describe reality? Do you lie and say hurtful and poisonous things about yourself and others? Not healthy! To be impeccable with your word is to be truthful and to say things that have a positive influence on yourself and others.”[1]

This seems to me to be where the author of the letter we call “James” seems to be going. “We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely.” The author of this epistle is saying that when we have control over our words, we won’t lead ourselves astray.

The Rim Fire, 2013

The author uses another analogy: the rudder on a ship. The rudder does not need to be very large (and often is no bigger than an oar) to steer a ship. In like manner, our tongues steer our bodies. And then a third analogy, one we know all to well in California this summer: “a small flame can set a whole forest on fire.” Carelessness with campfires can start wildfires. Carelessness with our words can set lives ablaze.

The author focuses on the potential negative consequences of our words, but I hear in this reading the potential positive consequences of our words. Just as a large ship can be steered by a small rudder toward the sandbar, it can also be steered away into the deep waters. A life need not be set ablaze with the flames of hell by our words. It can be set ablaze with compassion and service and justice and love.

In our gospel lesson, Peter’s words start to steer him toward deep waters, and then they get him in trouble. “The geographic setting of this passage is very significant.”[2] Jesus and his disciples are in the villages near Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a town built by the occupying Roman Empire and became an administrative capital for the political powers.[3] Here, in the shadow of Roman power, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say he is. They reply that people say he is one of the prophets (apparently a prophet come back to life).

Then he asks them who they say he is. Peter says that he is “the anointed,” which in Greek is “the Christ.” This is the first time that any human voice has called Jesus the Christ in Mark’s gospel. Peter’s words are profound and seem to be leading him to something deep.

Jesus shares what it means to be the Christ: the religious and political elites will reject him and kill him. Peter will have not of it and, as the Common English Bible translates the Greek, “scolds” Jesus – and his words steer him toward the sandbar. Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

Jesuit theologian Carlos Bravo points out, “‘Jesus remonstrates [Peter] in the harshest words he ever uses against anyone,’ and in doing so, demonstrates that ‘Peter’s proposal is a temptation for him.’ Bravo’s observation suggests that Jesus still struggles profoundly with the consequences of his choices; by confirming his unwavering commitment to the God of mercy, whose love and loyalty to the poor is good news to the outcast but threatens those in power, Jesus also confirms his violent fate at the hands of the church and the state.”[4]

“Only through this path can he show that God’s love for us is real and triumphant over death. Over and over Jesus must explain kingdom values, as opposed to human values that prioritize power, status, and exclusivity. He must insist that the mission is not to be served, but to serve; not to be first, but to be last.”[5]

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me,” Jesus said. “Miguel D’Escoto of Nicaragua once observed, ‘I don’t think we Christians have understood what carrying the cross means: the path of baptism. We are not carrying the cross when we are poor or sick, or suffering small everyday things. They are all part of life. The cross comes when we try to change things. That is how it came for Jesus.’”[6]

I think D’Escoto is right, that the cross comes when we try to change things – and not just when we try to change big things out there, political things. The cross can come when we try to change things in here, inside our being. My friend Thom Longino says, “For me, [taking up our cross] is not about being seen in the public square, suffering the slings and arrows for our faith. Rather, it means we all have ongoing, shadow work to do. Spirituality is about looking at ourselves honestly, to be aware of where the outflowing of love and mercy is blocked in ourselves. Taking up our cross daily means a daily, personal inventory of where we need to grow in our various relationships: with self, others, and God.”[7] Perhaps another way to put that is to be completely honest with ourselves, to be impeccable with our words.

For me, it’s both/and. For me, taking up the cross is about changing things out there and in here. For me, taking up the cross is about making a difference. And James says that we can make a difference. Our words make a difference because our words lead us to actions. They can lead us to actions that set a forest ablaze or actions that set a heart ablaze. The difference between the two fires is whether our words lead us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Amen.

[1] John A. Johnson, PhD, “Agreeing with The Four Agreements,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cui-bono/201012/agreeing-the-four-agreements (posted 29 December 2010; accessed 12 September 2015).

[2] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds September 13, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_13_2015 (accessed 12 September 2015).

[3] “Caesarea Philippi,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi (accessed 12 September 2015).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “An Upside-Down Reign,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/upside-down-reign (accessed 11 August 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter B. Price, “Getting it Straight,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/getting-it-straight (accessed 11 August 2015).

[7] Thom Longino, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/junkersophia, dated 8 September 2015, 3:20 p.m.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 8:34-36 and Matthew 6:24-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I told her that I wished there was some way for me to make her pain go away, that I wished there was a magical way I could make her problems disappear. “Oh, we all have our crosses to bear,” she said. “No,” I thought. “We all have problems and pains in our lives, but they are not our crosses. At least not the way Jesus meant it when he says, ‘Take up your cross.’” I didn’t say it aloud; it wasn’t the moment for a theological discussion. But this is.

It may sound like a command – take up your cross – but it’s really an invitation. We don’t have to do it. We have the choice.

It reminds me of a conversation I read about once. A man was part of a Christian group that was adopting a life of simplicity in order to live in solidarity with the poor. A poor woman said to him that there was nothing holy about being poor if you didn’t have a choice.

There was nothing holy about the Romans torturing people in Jesus’ day and there’s nothing holy about a government – ours or any other – or any group of thugs torturing people today. Choosing to take up a cross is very different from having a cross thrust upon you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” There’s a letting go of something here in order to pick something else up. And this denying of oneself is the letting go – and I think it means the letting go of ego.

Here again, one has to have enough of an ego that there’s one there to let go of. A person living in an abusive situation needs to have enough of an ego to stop it – to move out, to refuse to tolerate it – and live with that strength long enough to have it established before he or she can lay it down.

Denying oneself and taking up the cross is about choosing obedience to God’s way and God’s will. We’ll get back to this idea in a minute. Let’s turn now to the Matthew reading.

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. I’ve never been a slave and I live in a culture were slavery is technically illegal. I acknowledge that slavery exists still, even right here in the United States. We call it human trafficking now, but it’s the same thing, just packaged differently. One way it’s packaged differently is that contemporary slavery is kept under wraps, kept hidden away. Because I’m not exposed to slavery, I have to use my imagination to really understand what Jesus is saying.

Household authority was very established in Jesus day. There was a definite pecking order and the final authority was the man of the house. If you were a slave, you might be ordered about by the woman of the house, but those orders couldn’t contradict an order given by the man of the house. You had one master. If you had two masters of equal authority, whose orders are you supposed to follow? Jesus’ point here is that if you’re going to let God be the master of your life, you can’t let something else be.

It’s interesting that of all the potential masters Jesus could have picked, he picks wealth. “You can’t serve God and wealth,” he says. I tried to think of other masters we might choose to serve. I came up pretty dry. The only two additional masters I could come up with are fame and power.

We do love our celebrities and I suspect there are people who will do whatever is necessary to be seen as a celebrity, to serve fame. The master I understand better is power. We call the work of politicians “public service,” and I’m sure there are people who go into politics for the sake of public service. There are plenty of others who go into it for the power. And it’s not the only place where people serve power.

Consider the Koch brothers. David and Charles Koch have a combined net worth of about $86 billion (with a “b”) according the Forbes’ real-time net worth website this morning.[1] That makes them tied for position 6 of the richest people in the world. The two big differences between the Koch brothers and Bill Gates (#1 in the world with a net worth that is nearly the combined wealth of the Kochs) – at least as far as I can see – is that Gates is using his wealth to make the lives of people around the world better. For instance, Gates’ foundation is trying to eradicate polio and malaria around the globe and has agriculture projects running in developing countries.

Meanwhile, in addition to their charitable donations that probably add up to the hundreds of millions each year, the Koch brothers have announced they plan to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections.[2] Why do they plan to spend that much money? Either they’re serving the master named “Power” or they are trying to influence the political process in the service of the master named “Wealth.”

We don’t need to have Gates’ net worth, or even the Kochs’, to serve wealth. All we need to do is to choose to let it be our master. And Jesus points to why we may choose to let wealth be our master: worry. No one wants to be kept up all night worrying about – well, whatever it is that you worry about. So we start serving a master that we think will conquer our fears.

At Women’s Fellowship this past Monday, I asked what we worry about. I wrote a few notes, but I didn’t capture all their answers. I remember them talking about their children and grandchildren – worrying about how their lives are going and how they will unfold. Other worries include: being good enough, security, not being able to keep my mouth shut, being needy, being embarrassed, growing old alone. Someone wondered if the day laborers who hang out at the Home Depot worry about getting their daily bread. Several people mentioned how worry disrupts sleep patterns.

We have all these worries. How do we respond? One participant noted that she might accumulate stuff in an effort to stave off her worry. Perhaps it is a symptom of serving wealth. Or perhaps Stuff can become another master we choose to serve. Another wondered if the stuff she saves is treasure or trash.

“Worry is the interest we pay on borrowed trouble,” Bessie Troyer once said. Not that any of you know who Bessie Troyer was. She was a little old lady (and I use that label with affection) at the first church I served. Coming of age during the depression, she had no interest in paying interest on anything. She was a cash and carry kind of lady. And she figured that the things she worried about were almost always borrowed – typically borrowed from the future. Whether it was the grandkids possibly getting in a car accident or her possibly needing to give up driving, those things were off in the future (if they were going to happen at all). So why borrow those troubles from the future only to pay interest on them now?

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” Jesus says. Right after telling us we can’t serve God and wealth, he says not to worry about material things.

I’ve got a question about this glass. I could ask you if it’s half full or half empty. And maybe that would give you some insight into how much you worry. What I want to ask you is, how much do you think it weighs?

I put it on a letter scale this morning and it came in right around 12 ounces. But when it comes to holding it, the weight really becomes cumulative. The longer I hold it the heavier it seems to become. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for a minute, I’m fine. If I hold it out here at arm’s length for an hour, my arm’s going to be screaming. And if I held it out here all day, I’d probably end up causing paralysis and doing some damage to my body. The mass of the glass doesn’t change, but it sure becomes heavier.

Our worries are like that. The longer we hold on to them, the heavier they become and the more damage they do. They can even paralyze us. Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says. Put the glass down.

One of the really cool insights from that Bible study, for me at least, was the difference between stewing and striving. I worry about climate change. I don’t think that’s news to anybody. Now, I can stew about climate change. I can wring my hands about how access to water and food will be disrupted with climates changing. I can be anxious about the coming famines. I can stress about the coming mass migrations of peoples, and even wars because climate change.

Or I can do something. I can strive. I can act to combat climate change in my personal habits. I can send letters to the politicians. I can attend demonstrations. I can work on getting institutions I’m connected to to divest from fossil fuels. I can even put my body on the line and face arrest in acts of civil disobedience. There are things I can do.

I can stew about climate change, or I can strive to address the problem.

Don’t worry, Jesus says, but strive first for the kin-dom of God and God’s righteousness.

M.K. Gandhi

At some point in his life, Gandhi identified what he called “the seven deadly social sins.” You know about the classical seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Those are sins we individually commit. And they get in the way of striving for the kin-dom of God. There are corporate sins that get in the way, too. Here’s Gandhi’s list:[3]

  • Politics without principle
  • Wealth without work
  • Commerce without morality
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Education without character
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice

I am struck by how many of these connect to what I’m talking about. Politics without principle is another way of talking about serving power. Wealth without work and commerce without morality are other ways of talk about serving wealth. Pleasure – maybe that’s another master we can choose to serve, and if we seek pleasure without conscience, surely we are serving it and not God. Worship without sacrifice …

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I started today’s sermon by talking about externally imposed suffering not being the same as taking up the cross. That doesn’t mean that when we take up the cross we won’t suffer. We will. When we lay aside our egos and take up the cross, we are taking up sacrifice. Striving for the kin-dom of God requires sacrifice, and we may suffer for the sacrifice. What that sacrifice will look like will vary from person to person, but we will need to sacrifice.

And this is where today’s sermon theme comes in. Denying ourselves and picking up our cross gives us freedom and peace. On the surface that makes no sense. Taking up the cross, choosing to serve God sounds like it would require giving up freedom and letting go of the goal of peace in our lives. But denying ourselves and picking up our cross does paradoxically give us freedom and peace – freedom from the worries of the world, freedom from the pursuit of wealth, freedom from the lure of temptation, freedom for the pursuit of the kin-dom of God.

This is the last sermon in this Lenten series and we’ve been giving you assignments each week. Here’s this week’s assignment.

  • Identify one (at least one) worry and put it down.
  • Identify one way (maybe in relation to that worry) that you can strive for the kin-dom of God, and start striving.

Yes, this striving will likely entail sacrifice. I am convinced that in that sacrifice we will find freedom and peace.

Amen.

[1] See http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/ for Forbes’ list of world billioinaires.

[2] Nicholas Confessore, “Koch Brothers’ Budget for $889 Million for 2016 is on Par With Both Political Parties’ Spending,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/politics/kochs-plan-to-spend-900-million-on-2016-campaign.html?_r=0 (posted 26 January 2015; accessed 22 March 2015).

[3] I have seen this list in several places. This version is from an advertisement for a poster in Sojourners magazine. You can find the list on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Social_Sins. It is interesting to note that here, they are in a different order and rather than “education without character,” they list “knowledge without character.”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 26, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  1 Corinthans 1:10-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I went to see Starstruck Theatre’s[1] production of “Peter Pan” on Thursday.  It was an impressive performance – which is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Starstruck.  And as I watched the show, I thought to myself, “Yeah, this is going into my sermon on Sunday.”

I suspect you know the basic storyline of “Peter Pan.”  If you don’t, I apologize in advance for this spoiler.  Peter is a boy who refuses to grow up and, thanks to fairy dust, is able to fly.  He has a tendency to fly from Never-Neverland to England to peep into windows to see how children with real mothers live.  One day, he meets the Darling children, teaches them to fly, and takes them to Never-Neverland, where they join the Lost Boys and Wendy Darling ends up pretending to be their mother.

Now, on the Island of Never-Neverland, there are some fairies (including Tinkerbell), the Lost Boys (led by Peter Pan), the pirates (led by Captain Hook), and an Indian tribe (led by Tiger Lily).  The Lost Boys, the Pirates, and the Indians are all in conflict with each other, but the Lost Boys and the Indians form an alliance when Peter saves Tiger Lily and Tiger Lily saves Peter.  Now the conflict is two-sided, and the Pirates end up defeating the Indians and then capturing the boys (including the Darlings).  There’s a battle and, thanks to the intervention of the crocodile, Hook jumps overboard and Peter throws some dynamite after him (at least in this production).

Ka-boom.  The end.

Except it’s not, because the Darlings go home with many of the Lost Boys who are adopted into the Darling family.  Peter, who refused to grow up, doesn’t go.  And he doesn’t come to visit Wendy, like he had promised.  So Wendy grows up and Peter doesn’t.  Then Peter finally does return and teaches Wendy’s daughter to fly, and we assume to go off to Never-Neverland where the story of the conflict between the Lost Boys, the Indians, and the Pirates will be repeated.

The psychology of the story is pretty messed up.  There seem to be Oedipal issues, issues about growing up, etc.  Those aren’t the issues that interest me today.  What interested me is how the story utilizes the myth of redemptive violence without even thinking about it.

What is the myth of redemptive violence?  I’m glad you asked.  The myth of redemptive violence is, quite simply, the belief that violence saves.  According to Walter Wink, the “Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world.  It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.”[2]

I would argue that the myth of redemptive accumulation is the other dominant religion in our society.  This is the myth that the accumulation of stuff, especially wealth, saves.  But certainly the two are the primary, operative myths in our culture.

Look at how pervasive the myth of redemptive violence is.  How is the conflict in Never-Neverland solved?  Violence.  Except the solution is only temporary.  That’s what make the myth of redemptive violence so enticing.  In the short term, violence might actually protect, so it appears to save.  But it doesn’t.  Peter Pan and Wendy’s daughter return Never-Neverland and the cycle of violence is repeated.

The Popeye cartoons are based solely on the myth of redemptive violence.  “In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend.  When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands.  At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth.  Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved.  The format never varies.  Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters.  They never sit down and discuss their differences.  Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummellings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.”[3]

It is not only in children’s literature that the myth of redemptive violence holds sway.  Consider how easily our nation goes to war.  But the invasion of Granada didn’t save us from communism.  The invasion of Panama didn’t save us from the ravages of drug addiction.  The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t ended terrorism.

Think about the pressure President Obama was under to invade Syria.  And in many ways he is still under that pressure.  Why?  Because people believe that violence will save us.

It is important to point out that the myth of redemptive violence isn’t new.  Walter Wink has traced it back to the Babylonian creation stories that are over 3,200 years old.[4]  There in the stories of Apsu, Tiamat, and Marduk, the myth of redemptive violence is holding sway.  And in Jesus’ time, the myth was equally a part of the Roman psyche.

The myth of redemptive violence is so strong that it has led Christianity to misinterpret the meaning of the crucifixion.  It is a common human instinct to try to make meaning out of senseless events.  A child develops a cancer and dies.  It is a meaningless event.  It doesn’t mean anything; it’s just tragic.  The actions of the child and the child’s parents, family, and friends leading up to the death mean something, but the death itself is meaningless.

A rabbi is executed by the state.  The death itself doesn’t mean anything; it’s just tragic.  The actions leading up to the death by the rabbi, the government, the rabbi’s friends, and society at large (and, I would add, the actions of God before and after the death) have meaning, but the execution itself is meaningless.  Unless you look at the death through the myth of redemptive violence.  The myth of redemptive violence says that violence can save us, so violence of the execution must have salvific meaning.  Surely the rabbi’s blood being spilt saves us, the myth says.

So, by the third century, we get Origen explaining the meaning of the rabbi’s death – it’s a ransom payment to Satan to free humanity from the bondage of inherited sin.[5]  And by the 11th century, we get Anselm explaining the meaning of the rabbi’s death – it’s the payment of a debt to God owed by people for their sinfulness.[6]  So it’s a punishment meted out upon a substitute that brings us into rightrelationship with God – penal substitutionary atonement.

But let’s go back to the early church.  In the gospel of Mark – the first of the gospels to be written, probably some 30 years after the crucifixion – Jesus speaks of the cross and ties it to the meaning of discipleship:  “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Think for a moment what the cross meant for those who were listening to Jesus and for those who were hearing Mark’s gospel.  “Ched Myers puts it this way: ‘The cross in Mark’s day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility.  It had only one meaning:  that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters.’  Myers goes on: ‘The cross was a common sight in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark’s time; in this recruiting call, the disciple is invited to reckon with the consequences facing those who dare to challenge the hegemony [the domination and control] of imperial Rome.’

“With this ominous invitation, the cost of discipleship got much, much bigger.  Embracing Jesus means embracing that cross.  Mark doesn’t say it, but I suspect that after these words, the crowds around Jesus got smaller.”[7]

Paul takes up the theme of the cross in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in the passage we heard today:  “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Taking up the cross and following Jesus not only entails great cost, it is also viewed by the world as an utterly foolish thing to do.  Yet it is where the power of God lies.

Think for a moment about Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a man who understood the falsehood of the myth of redemptive violence.  Violence was not going to and is not going to save our nation from the sin of racism.  So, as a disciple of Jesus, he took up is cross and dared to challenge the hegemony of racism nonviolently.  Utter foolishness.  Except it worked.  We made great progress, until racist thought that they could save racism by killing King.  But violence doesn’t save, and anti-racism work continues.

“If I’m honest with myself – perhaps if we are all honest with ourselves – there are ways in which we, each in our own way, resist the foolishness of the cross.  The cross, Paul says, seems like foolishness to the part of us that is attached to the world, the part of us that is perishing.  The cross is God’s foolishness and is wiser than our wisdom.  The cross is God’s weakness and is stronger than our strength.  Yet to the part of us that [has been indoctrinated] with the assumptions and values of our culture, the cross doesn’t make sense.  Rarely do we choose to be foolish or weak.

“Will Willimon has asked some good questions about this foolishness of the cross.  What kind of sense does it make to worship a God who, instead of rescuing us out of trouble, rescues us by entering into the trouble with us?  A God who, instead of helping us to avoid pain, heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain with us?  A God who, instead of fixing things for us, addresses them by becoming weak with us in our weakness?

“But this is the [foolish power] of the cross.  All of us know pain and grief and disappointment in our lives.  Our human wisdom wants a God who will heal us and make us feel better.  The foolishness of the cross is a God who enters into our pain and bears our pain with us.  To the part of us that is human and perishing, this is incomprehensible and we want something more.  But to the part of us that is [human and] being saved, it is the very power of God.

“And even more foolishly, this very same God expects us to do the same with each other: to enter into each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us.  To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live, but to those who embrace the cross, who take up their cross and follow Jesus, and who are ready to lose their lives to save their lives, it is the only way to live.  It is the power of God within us.

“Each of us bears the responsibility, daily, of taking the cross more and more upon our selves, losing ourselves and finding ourselves in the process.

“If we want to take Jesus seriously, if we want to go deeper in our discipleship, we must follow in the way of God’s [foolish power.]  That’s where God calls us to be.

“As Frederick Buechner writes: ‘In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool.  And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.’”[8]


ENDNOTES

[1] Starstruck is a community children’s theatre in Fremont.  http://www.starstrucktheatre.org

[2] Walter Wink, “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence,” Ekklesia, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml (posted 21 May 2012, accessed 22 January 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ransom_theory_of_atonement for much more detail about this.

[6] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution for a bunch more about this.

[7] Joe Roos, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/foolishness-cross (accessed 19 January 2014).

[8] Ibid.  Yeah, I know it’s a long quote, but when you find something that’s written well and makes the point you want to make, why not just use it.  I did modify it a bit [in brackets] to replace a word so it would be more understandable and to make it echo the sermon title [replacing “foolishness” with “foolish power”].

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 16, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 8:27-38
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            “Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself!”  I have no memory of ever saying this, but my mother delighted in telling me – especially when I was a teenager wanting to do things my own way – about often echoing this refrain when I was a preschooler.  “Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself!”

I was, without a doubt, an American.  Ralph Waldo Emerson had beautiful things to say about life and nature and contemplation.  But his most famous essay was on “Self-Reliance,” an ode to individualism and the sanctity of self-sufficiency.  The value of self-reliance is a deep part of the American ethos  “Rugged individualism is seen as heroic, as though the goal in life is to become some combination of Paul Bunion, the unsinkable Molly Brown, and the Marlboro man.”[1]

American Christianity – at least some streams of American Christianity – has assisted in establishing this value as part of our collective unconscious.  Look at the title many in Christianity give Jesus:  “Personal Lord and Savior.”  It’s like you’ll find him on your contact list between Personal Assistant and Personal Trainer.[2]

But that’s not the Jesus we meet in our gospel lesson today.  Today we meet a Jesus who says:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.  And if you try to save your life you’ll lose it, but lose it for the sake of the gospel and you’ll save it.

Jesus comes to this pronouncement after an interesting exchange with his disciples.  First Jesus asks them who the people say that he is.  Then he asks them who they say that he is.  Peter – and I sometimes wonder if he got that name, the Rock, because of his firmness or because of his stubbornness – says that Jesus is the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ).  The only problem is, Peter (and I think we can safely assume the rest of the disciples) don’t understand what that means.

Jesus says that the Messiah (that Jesus) will face suffering, rejection, and ultimately death.  “Only through this path can he show that God’s love for us is real and triumphant over death.   Over and over Jesus must explain kingdom values, as opposed to human values that prioritize power, status, and exclusivity.   He must insist that the mission is not to be served, but to serve; not to be first, but to be last.”[3]

And the disciples just don’t get it.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  That’s not possible, Jesus.  We know what the Messiah is supposed to be.  The Messiah is supposed to restore the political autonomy and prominence of Israel.  The Messiah isn’t supposed to be killed.

Jesus rebukes Peter right back.  Jesuit theologian Carlos Bravo notes that in this moment, Jesus uses the harshest words he ever uses against anyone.  Bravo says that this demonstrates that “Peter’s proposal is a temptation for him.”[4]  Jesus has to choose what direction he’s going to go and he has to come to terms with the consequences of that choice.  “[B]y confirming his unwavering commitment to the God of mercy, whose love and loyalty to the poor is good news to the outcast but threatens those in power, Jesus also confirms his violent fate at the hands of the church and the state.”[5]

Jesus tries to explain to his disciples what this mean for them, what they will need to do to complete the work he will only be able to begin before he is cut down by the principalities and powers.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Imagine being part of Mark’s community and hearing this story.  Some scholarship suggests that Mark’s gospel was written “in the midst of a civil war, after the first unsuccessful Roman siege of liberated Jerusalem and before the last that destroyed the temple.   It was a confusing time of revolutionary, or messianic, restorationist fever.  Conflicting allegiances competed for the community.

“Who, they were being asked in utterly concrete terms, is Jesus Christ?  And what is the form of discipleship for us here and now?  The gospel of Mark is the document that addresses both question and crisis.”[6]

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Remember, “[t]he cross in Mark’s day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility.   It had only one meaning:  that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters.…  The cross was a common sight in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark’s time; in this recruiting call [offered by Jesus], the disciple is invited to reckon with the consequences facing those who dare to challenge the [supreme domination] of imperial Rome.”[7]

Mark’s community was wrestling with the question, “What does it mean to be followers of Jesus in such a time as this?”  This is a question that Christians have to deal with in every age.  This is the question drove a minority of Christians in Germany in the 1930s to write a sign “The Barmen Declaration,” a document that called for resistance against the theological claims of the Nazi state.  Almost immediately after Hitler came to power, the pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement became a force in the church.  At Barmen, the emerging ‘Confessing Church’ adopted this declaration, expressly repudiating the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God’s revelation.  The signers took up their crosses – for every last one of them, was pursued by the Nazis and subsequently exiled or imprisoned or executed.[8]

This is the question that moved church leaders in the United States to stand up for racial justice in the midst of Jim Crow.  They took up their crosses – and many were imprisoned and some were murdered.

This is the question that moved church leaders like Allan Boesak and Desmond Tutu to confront the principalities and powers of apartheid South Africa and demand justice and freedom.  They took up their crosses and suffered through years of oppression.

Friends, the call to deny ourselves and to lose our lives that we might gain them is the challenge of discipleship.  It is a nasty job description that has been abused and perverted.  We’ve all heard the claims:  “If you want to be a follower of Jesus you must deny your Queerness, pick up your cross of heterosexuality and follow him.  Or deny your dignity and pick up your cross of continued domestic abuse and follow him.  Or deny your experience and pick up your cross of trusting religious authorities to tell you what to believe.”[9]  That’s all garbage.

But perhaps there is in this nasty job description a call to deny our false-selves.  “Denying the self that wants to see itself as separate from God and others.  Deny the self that believes that spirituality is a suffering avoidance program.  Deny the self that does not feel worthy of God’s love.  Deny the self that thinks it is more worthy of God’s love than its enemy is.  Deny the self that thinks it can ‘do it itself.’  Deny the self that is turned in on the self.”[10]  Deny the self that is afraid.  Deny the self that wants to stay in the comfort zone, even though the magic happens out there.  Deny the self that denies the power of God’s love.

Of course Peter told Jesus that Jesus had it all wrong.  Of course Peter thought the Messiah he was expecting was the Messiah God would send.  Peter had not yet experienced Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  “Without experiencing how at the cross God can gather up all of humanity’s violence and abusive power and even gather up Peter’s own denial of Jesus into God’s own self and then respond with nothing but love and forgiveness … without experiencing the resurrection after what Peter saw as the complete loss of hope — Well, without having experienced all of this, he couldn’t know it just by being told it will happen.”[11]

But we’ve experienced Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  We have experienced how God takes the messes of our own making and makes something new in you and in me and in our lives – something you or I never would have chosen out of a catalog or created by ourselves.  It may be a small piece of wisdom, or an unexpected friendship, or yet another opportunity to be forgiven or to forgive.[12]

But that’s how God works out the resurrection, right here, right now.  Instead of rescuing us out of trouble, God rescues us by entering into the trouble with us.  Instead of helping us to avoid pain, God heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain with us.  Instead of fixing things for us, God addresses them by becoming weak with us in our weakness.[13]

This is the foolishness of the cross.  “And even more foolishly, this very same God expects us to do the same with each other:  to enter into each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us.  To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live, but to those who embrace the cross, who take up their cross and follow Jesus, and who are ready to lose their lives to save their lives, it is the only way to live.  It is the power of God within us.

“Each of us bears the responsibility, daily, of taking the cross more and more upon our selves, losing ourselves and finding ourselves in the process.

“If we want to take Jesus seriously, if we want to go deeper in our discipleship, we must follow in the way of God’s foolishness.  That’s where God calls us to be.

“As Frederick Buechner writes:  ‘In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool.   And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.’”[14]

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Madia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Losing Your Life and How Jesus Isn’t Your Magical Puppy,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=bl_120315_Bolz_Weber_Losing_your_life&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michaela Bruzzese, “An Upside-Down Reign,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_090949_BProper19&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).

[4] Carlos Bravo, Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, cited by Bruzzese.

[5] Bruzzese.

[6] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “A Confessing Church in America?” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj8908&article=890821&mode=sermon_prep&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).

[7] Ched Myers, quoted by Joe Roos, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0708&article=070822&mode=sermon_prep&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).  Ched actually uses the term “hegemony” where I’ve inserted “supreme domination.”

[8] You can read more about “The Barmen Declaration” at http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/barmen-declaration.html.

[9] Bolz-Weber, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Attributed to Will Willimon by Joe Roos, op. cit.

[14] Joe Roos, op. cit.

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