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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 15, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 4:1-30 and Luke 5:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Maybe I should begin with a confession – that this sermon title is perhaps a bit of false advertising. When someone invites me on an adventure, I expect it to have some excitement and to end with a sense of “that was fun.” I’m not sure that’s where I’m going.

The second thing I should do to start with is to show you a little video clip. I know I showed this two weeks ago, but the difference between knowing your why and picking your appropriate what is going to be important in this sermon.

When you know your why, your what has more impact because you’re walking in or toward your purpose.

Our scripture readings cover a lot of territory. Last week we heard Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus. Today, we pick up right after that. Though not as immediate as in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, Jesus’ response to being baptized is to go off by himself into the wilderness to pray. Jesus fasts, a prayer form that some find very helpful. After his fasting has gone on for quite some time, instead of having a deep communion with God, Jesus has an encounter with the personification of temptation and rationalization.

I think what’s happening here is this: At his baptism Jesus experienced some clarity of his call. His why became clear. Let the people know that the liberating love you know and that they should love in that same way. What wasn’t clear yet was his what. This is certainly one way of looking at these temptations.

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by magic. Wow the people by turning stones into bread. Fill their bellies and they’ll follow you. And you can have whatever you want in the process. “Public influence and private indulgence – if you just use your miraculous powers to acquire whatever you desire!”[1]

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by gaining political power. Bow down and worship evil and you’ll get all the kingdoms of the world. On this path, “self-seeking power, not self-giving love, reigns supreme.”[2]

And then there’s this one: Following your why won’t kill you. Go ahead and jump of the top of the Temple. The fall won’t kill you. God won’t let that happen to his beloved child. That notion that fulfilling your why may cost your life? Forget it.

Jesus comes out of the desert not just with clarity of his why but also of his what, at least some of the whats he’ll not use. “He will not use his power for personal comfort and pleasure. He will refuse unscrupulous means to achieve just and peaceful ends. He will not reach for spectacle over substance.… [He won’t be] driven by a human lust for pleasure, power, or prestige.”[3]

He will be empowered by the Spirit, and he will be willing to pay the ultimate price. And if we want to join the adventure … are we willing to let the Spirit empower us, and are we willing to pay the ultimate price?

Following his desert experience, Jesus goes to his hometown, and on the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue. “There is a time in the synagogue gathering where men can read a passage of Scripture and offer a comment upon it. So on this day, Jesus stands and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll until he comes to the passage that speaks of the Spirit anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.”[4]

That’s exactly what he experienced in his baptism. That’s a wonderful summation of his why. That’s his mission statement. And he says so. Jesus sits down – “a teacher’s customary posture in those days. He offers his amazing commentary – notable for its brevity and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in you hearing.’”[5]

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-6-17-42-amHow’s that for an inaugural address? I checked something out this morning. Jesus’ inaugural address could have been tweeted – with room to spare.

“Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone, or Sri Lanka. In an interview on BBC or Al Jazeera he [or she] says, ‘Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! It’s time for CEOs to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous raises to all their lower-paid employees! It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories, and armies to turn in their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swing sets, and garden tools. It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say “someday” or “tomorrow.” The time is today!’”[6]

Who would listen to that? I think such a prophet would be ignored by the vast majority of people, especially by people in power. The only people I can think of who would listen would be people who know the pain of oppression and violence. Only people who would hear hope in these words would listen. Anyone who would hear these words threatening their power and prestige would ignore this prophet or try to make the prophet seem like a crackpot.

Jesus hometown crowd is impressed that their hometown boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. “But Jesus won’t let them simply be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from Scriptures, one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. God bypassed many needy people of our religion and nation, Jesus says, to help those foreigners, those Gentiles, those outsiders. You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.”[7] Jesus is telling them that this good news that has been fulfilled in their hearing isn’t just for them. It’s for all humanity.

The only sense I can make of what happens next is that Jesus’ hometown synagogue feels betrayed. How could the promise God made through the prophet Isaiah to the Jews be for everyone? The crowd quickly flips from proud to furious. They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they try to push Jesus over the edge of a cliff. They might as well be trying to push him off the roof of the Temple.

If Jesus didn’t have the clarity of his why, everything would have fallen apart just as it began. If Jesus hadn’t wrestled with some of the whats, seeing which ones would go against the very character of his why, he might have taken his calling in an unfruitful direction. He needed his time in the wilderness “to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as he did, [if we dare to join the adventure,] we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.”[8]

“Jesus managed to avoid execution that day. But he knew it wouldn’t be his last brush with hostile opposition.”[9] He continued his preaching and healing. And soon he began inviting select individuals to become his followers.

In our second lesson, we heard about his calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John to be his first followers. If you’re a fan of the gospel of John, you’ll hear echoes of John resurrection story that takes place at the lake and involves a significant fishing success. But it’s the final words of the passage that most interest me: “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left everything and followed him.

“As with aspiring musicians who are invited to become the students of a master-musician, this was a momentous decision for them. To become disciples of a rabbi meant entering a rigorous program of transformation, learning a new way of life, a new set of values, a new set of skills. It meant leaving behind the comforts of home and facing a new set of dangers on the road. Once they were thoroughly apprenticed as disciples, they would be sent out as apostles to spread the rabbi’s controversial and challenging message everywhere. One [does] not say yes to discipleship lightly.”[10]

bonhoefferI am currently reading one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books, The Cost of Discipleship, considered by many to be his most important book. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, a theologian, an anti-Nazi dissident, and a key founding member of the Confessing Church – a movement to keep the church separate from the Nazi party and faithful to Jesus. The Cost of Discipleship was published in 1937, during the rise of the Nazi party, and in some ways may have served as Bonhoeffer’s time in the desert as he prepared for what his ministry became under Nazism. Let me share just one quote from this book, all of which is appropriate at this point in the sermon. And please excuse the non-inclusive language of this 1930’s German, recognizing that when he says “man,” he means “person,” and the pronoun “he” for this person should really be “he or she.”

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.… The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake.”[11]

It occurs to me that “the world Christian is more familiar to us today than the word disciple. These days, Christian often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus of a cliff than it does to his true followers. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the power and challenge of that earlier, more primary word disciple. The word disciple occurs over 250 times in the New Testament, in contract to the word Christian, which occurs only three time. Maybe those statistics are trying to tell us something.”[12]

The adventure Jesus invites us to join is one that involves leaving everything behind. It is an adventure that begins with dying. And then it moves to discerning Jesus’ good news for today and working to make it real.

As we move into a time of quite, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when you went through some hardship or temptation that prepared you for a later opportunity; or

… the dangers of being captivated by the support of your loyal fans and being intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics; or

… the image of Jesus standing near you at your work, calling your name, and saying these two words to you, “Follow me.”

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 20, page 92. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship [Kindle version], location 1279-1286. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[12] McLaren, op. cit., 94.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 6, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I don’t think I’ve every preached on Zechariah before. If I have, it must not have been a memorable sermon, because I don’t remember it. He is almost a throwaway character, appearing only in the Luke’s gospel and only here in the first chapter. And the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are pretty much just about setting the stage for the real story.

Prelude and foreshadowing, is seems to me, is what Luke is doing in these two chapters. We love the stories he tells in these chapters. We love the story of the birth of the baptizer and, of course, Jesus. We love the story of the adolescent Jesus (the only canonical gospel to include one). But these stories just set the stage. It’s in chapter 3 that we get to the meaty stuff, to the important stuff. In chapter 3, we get to the ministry of Jesus.

Prelude and foreshadowing. “Let me tell you how it started,” Luke seems to say. John and Jesus – those two were special (and Jesus was more special). Heck, even their births were special. You remember Abraham and Sarah, the parents of Judaism, right? They were old and childless and still God said they would parent a great nation. And despite their advanced years, God gave them Isaac. You remember Samuel, the great prophet who anointed our first king? His mother was barren until, through a miracle from God, she gave birth to her son.

It’s like that with John and Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful, but they had no children. Then, despite their advance years, God gave them a child whom they named John. And Jesus, his mother was a virgin – you can’t get more special than that!

Even though it’s just prelude and foreshadowing, Luke gives the story of these births dimension and complexity. Zechariah was a priest in the Temple. This means, when it was his turn, he got to literally get close to God. From time to time, he would go further into the Temple than ordinary folk were allowed to go. “Further in” meant “closer to God,” quite literally, because the inner sanctum of the Temple was where God resided. And if that’s not enough to convince you how special Zechariah was, Luke flat out tells us: Zechariah and Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

cappella_tornabuoni_10_annuncio_dellangelo_a_zaccaria

Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One day it was Zechariah’s turn to offer incense within “the sanctuary of the Lord.” When he got there, he was met by an angel. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. Your prayers have been heard. You’re going to have a son. Name him John.”

Zechariah said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The angel, Gabriel, said, “You call that dumb. I’ll show you dumb.” And Zechariah was suddenly dumb, unable to speak. Yeah my paraphrase pun only works in English, but that’s what Luke tells us happened. Zechariah couldn’t speak, and Elizabeth became pregnant.

Zechariah’s journey to silence happens because of his doubts. Gabriel tells Zechariah that God is acting in his life. God has heard your prayers and is giving you a son. God is giving you a special son. Your son will help people turn – metanoia, repent. People will turn to God. Zechariah doubts that is possible, and he is struck mute.

Nine months. For nine months, Zechariah could not speak. That’s long enough for Gabriel to visit a girl named Mary. That’s long enough for a pregnant Mary to visit a pregnant Elizabeth. That’s long enough for Elizabeth to move from pregnancy to birth, for their son to be born.

The child is born. It’s time for the circumcision and for their son to be named. But Zechariah can’t speak. He can’t tell people what his son’s name will be. So Elizabeth speaks up. “He will be called John,” she says.

It is only when Zechariah confirms this choice (in writing), it is only when he carries out his instructions from Gabriel, that he journeys from silence and can speak again. And when his mouth opens again, Zechariah sings. The Benedictus, his song has been called. It is a song of praise. It thanks God for God’s faithfulness. And it tells of the baby’s calling. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

His song ends with these lines: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like our feet are walking the way of peace lately. Just in the past month, I have felt inundated by the news of mass shootings. First in Paris, then at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and then just days ago, the shootings in San Bernardino and Redlands. And I know that all the while there are wars raging in Syria and Iraq, and there is no peace in Israel/Palestine.

Today, we lit the Advent Candle of Peace, proclaiming our hope for peace, but it sure feels like we are walking in the opposite direction.

california-shootings_phil-ap-676x450

A first responder attends to a victim of the San Bernardino shootings.

Was it cold-hearted of me that, when the news of the San Bernardino shootings broke, I metaphorically plugged by ears and started saying, “la-la-la-la-la-la”? Maybe. Probably. I didn’t want to hear about it. I didn’t want to know about more carnage. I didn’t want to have to engage the heartache and my own anger over the shooting and what seems to me to be our unwillingness to do something to stop it. To be honest, I didn’t even want to pray about it.

In my denial and avoidance, I journeyed to a useless silence. If I were to pray, what would I say?

God, I can’t imagine the fear and pain and anguish these people are experiencing tonight. I can’t imagine. And I don’t want to imagine, because if I imagine, I’m afraid that my heart will break.
Comfort them God, because I can’t. Let them know that they are not alone.
And comfort me, God. Comfort me because I am angry. Comfort me because I am sick and tired of the carnage we perpetrate on each other. I’m sick and tired of the warring madness.

But when I pray prayers like that, I know how God responds. “I’m glad you’re sick and tired of the warring madness, Jeff. Maybe when you’re sick and tired of it enough you’ll do something about it.” And I don’t want to hear God tell me that. So I journey into silence.

The news cycled quickly. Did you notice how the layers of stories kept getting added? First there was the story about what was happening. Then there was the story about how people were responding. And then there was the story about how people were responding to the responses.

Maura Judkis of The Washington Post covered this third layer on Thursday like this:

“It used to be that ‘thoughts and prayers’ was the least controversial thing a politician could tweet – the bereavement equivalent of a baby-kissing photo-op. But on Wednesday, two shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., attacked a social services center, killing 14. And then a mob of frustrated Twitter users attacked that phrase.

“You would think that ‘thoughts and prayers’ would be impossible to misconstrue. Its sentiment covers a broad base, reaching the religious and agnostics alike. It’s perfectly beige.

“Except.

“‘Your “thoughts” should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your “prayers” should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again,’ tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represents another town on America’s map of tragedies: Newtown, Conn. ‘God isn’t fixing this,’ blared the front-page headline of the New York Daily News. ThinkProgress’s Igor Volsky tweeted out the amount that thoughts-and-prayers-bearing politicians have received in donations from the National Rifle Association. Some pointed out the difference between tweets by Democratic presidential candidates, which were oriented toward gun control, vs. those of Republican candidates, which expressed prayerful sympathy for the victims. Conservatives accused liberals of mocking their faith. The Atlantic called it ‘prayer-shaming.’”[1]

As much as I object to the shaming of anyone who prays, I have some sympathy for the people angered by the “thoughts and prayers” tweets coming from politicians. I have sympathy for them because I don’t understand how anyone who honestly come to God in prayer about something like this and not be moved to act. But, as columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “We’re not even trying.”

Kristof lists a numbers of approaches and policies that we should consider to reduce the number of gun deaths in our nation (estimated to be about 30,000 this year[2]). And then he acknowledges, “It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.”[3]

I find myself wondering what happened to Zechariah during those nine months of silence. I know that Luke is telling a story, that these things didn’t happen. I also know that the story is true. I know that when we journey to silence, we can hear in a way that we can’t when we’re talking. I also know that there is a time for silence and a time to speak.

So I wonder what Zechariah heard in his nine months of silence. What did he hear? What did he learn? All Luke tells us is that when Zechariah journeyed from his silence, he broke out into a prophetic song of hope and peace.

Theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”[4]

Attachment-1

This is a time to speak. This is a time to act. It is time for us to sing songs of hope and peace. It is time for us to move the mountain that is our government and to demand change. There are policies that need to be implemented. There are laws that need to be changed. And, unfortunately, there is a Constitution that needs to be amended.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does give an individual right to own firearms. So it needs to be amended, and retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens has the five words that would do the trick: “when serving in the Militia.” Add these words so the Second Amendment reads (as originally intended), “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”[5]

There’s always a danger in getting specific like that in a sermon. There are, no doubt, people here who think that we shouldn’t amend the Constitution, so if you find yourself starting to form an argument against that specific strategy, consider this option, for tonight. Come join me on the Niles Town Plaza at 5:30 with a candle. Maybe we can find the common ground. Surely we can agree that it is time to stand up.

No community of any political or religious persuasion can endure if that madness is allowed to continue. The time to be counted has come. Now, let us journey to silence so that we might hear more clearly what we should say when we journey from silence.

Amen.

[1] Maura Judkis, “They send thought and prayers. Why was that considered a bad thing?” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/they-sent-thoughts-and-prayers-why-was-that-considered-a-bad-thing/2015/12/03/e096fb94-99e5-11e5-8917-653b65c809eb_story.html (posted 3 December 2015; accessed 4 December 2015).

[2] Jim Wallis, “Pray. Yes. But Then Act.” In an email from Sojourners (sojo.net), dated 3 December 2015.

[3] Nicolas Kristof, “On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/opinion/on-guns-were-not-even-trying.html (posted 2 December 2015; accessed 5 December 2015).

[4] See http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/12-essential-bonhoeffer-quotes and many other places.

[5] John Paul Stevens, “The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-five-extra-words-that-can-fix-the-second-amendment/2014/04/11/f8a19578-b8fa-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html (posted 11 April 2014; accessed 3 December 2015).
It is important to note two things about this suggestion:
(1) Ending every individual’s right to bear arms would not make it illegal to own a gun; it would make gun ownership a privilege rather than a right (like driving a car), and therefore subject to regulation (like driving a car).
(2) The term “Militia” has a specific historic meaning. The Militia was a state army, typically drawn from the citizenry. Just because a group of people pull call themselves a “militia” does not make them “the Militia.” For more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_defense_force

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