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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 7, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 2:12-17 and Isaiah 11:1-7
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of the time when I’m in San Francisco, my sense of smell is about warnings.  “Watch where you’re stepping,” my nose tells me.  I smelled that message a couple time this week walking between Davies Symphony Hall and the Civic Center BART station.

But on the preceding weekend, the message was very different.  I was at Lake Merritt, participating in the walk around the lake that served as the closing to the Climate Change rally that was held there.  I was in the group that was walking around the lake clockwise, and somehow ended up at the head of the group – long legs, maybe.  Halfway around the lake, we met up with the counterclockwise group that was led by a group that is reclaiming an Aztec spirituality, a spirituality that honors the earth.  When our groups met, the group of neo-Aztecs offered a prayer ritual that invoked the six directions – east, west, south, north, up, and down – with dancing, chanting, drumming, and burning incense.

Though allergies have hit me hard this spring, the incense did not aggravate them (the way sometimes perfumes do).  If fact, the incense cut through the stuffedness of my nose.  And the message my sense of smell sent me was not a warning.  It was an invitation, an invitation to prayer.  I joined with this group in recognizing the sacredness of the earth, our environment that is simultaneously the dwelling place of God and that dwells in God.  And I thanked God for all those around the globe who are working to mitigate the impacts of climate change – for the sake of humanity and for the sake of all living creatures.

If you were to rank the five sense, I suspect most of you would put sight and hearing on the top of the list, probably in that order.  In other words, smell would not be, I would guess, at the top of your list.  I’m not sure if such a ranking is universal or a product of our culture.  I notice that we have developed equipment to help correct deficiencies for sight and hearing:  glasses and surgeries for vision limitations; hearing aids and Cochlear implants for hearing limitations.  We’ve build devised to augment sight and hearing:  microscopes and telescopes to see the minute and the far away; infrared goggles that “translate” light waves we can’t see into wavelengths we can see; stethoscopes to listen to hearts and lungs and bowels; hydrophones to listen to listen underwater.

I can’t think of any devise we’ve created to augment smell – or taste or touch.  One of you might know of something, and you can tell me about it at our Annual Meeting.  My point is that we seem to value sight and hearing more than smell, touch, and taste.

In the Bible, sight and sound are especially important in relation to God.  God appears as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night for the Hebrews who are escaping slavery in Egypt to see and follow.  God speaks to Jesus at his baptism and to some of the disciples at the transfiguration – and they hear God.  Likewise, God hears the cries of the enslaved and see the suffering of people.

The God of the Bible also smells – “in both senses of the term:  God emits a fragrance, but more centrally in biblical texts, God inhales aromas and perceives scent.  Specifically, God perceives the smell of sacrifices – this is mentioned some forty times in the Hebrew Bible.”[1]

It starts with Noah, who after the flood, burns an offering, “‘And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor,’ [we read in Genesis,] God pledged to never again destroy the earth.  In addition to smelling Noah’s ‘burnt offering,’ God also smells incense offerings: over and over in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we read of incense.…

“Human beings, in an effort to get God’s attention or communicate with God, burned fragrant incense, and God found the incense to be a ‘soothing smell’ and accepted the sacrifice.

“This language has grabbed my attention and will not let go.  Most of the time, the sacrificial system of the Bible feels alien to me; praying with words has, for my entire life, been the main thing I do to interact with God, and it is hard for me to wrap my head around the logic of sacrifices.  But the language of God’s accepting a soothing smell makes a certain sense to me – after all, I have experience with being soothed by scent.”[2]  There is nothing like the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven to make me feel like I’m ‘home’ no matter where I am.  And the smell of garlic assures me that scrumptious food is on the way.

Our reading from Isaiah doesn’t seem to have anything to do with smell, but if we take a closer look at the Hebrew we see that it does.  This is what Isaiah 11:3 looks like in Hebrew.

The verse is translated, “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear,” in the New Revised Standard Version.  Most other English translations say something about delighting or enjoying the fear (as in awe) of the Lord.  But the literal meaning of the first word in the Hebrew (and early English translations kept this literal meaning) has to do with smell.  So, a more literal translation might be, “And by his smelling in awe of the Lord, and not by [what] his eyes see, will [the Messiah] judge, and not by [what] his ears hear, will he decide.”[3]  A more vernacular way of putting it might be, “When the Messiah comes, this descendant of King David will sniff out the truth and not be deceived, so that the people who typically don’t get justice will finally get it.”

Abraham ibn Ezra, one of the most distinguished Jewish commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages, said of this verse, “The ear is sometimes deceived in hearing sounds, which are only imaginary; the eye, too, sees things in motion, which in reality are at rest; the sense of smell alone is not deceived.”[4]  And the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin said, “We ought to attend, first of all, to the metaphor in the verb smell, which means that Christ will be so shrewd that he will not need to learn from what he hears, or from what he sees; for by smelling alone he will perceive what would otherwise be unknown.”[5]

Perhaps smell is the most honest of our senses.

Paul, interestingly, uses smell as a metaphor for Jesus and for Christian discipleship.  I hadn’t noticed it until I read about it in the book that has inspired this sermon series.  Lauren Winner notes, “In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’  After the cross, after the resurrection and ascension, Jesus still emits a smell, and we, it seems, are it.  But while Jesus emits a distinct scent, that scent doesn’t smell the same to all people – or, alternately, the same scent doesn’t smell the same to the same person all the time.  Those who are turned toward God will find the smell of Jesus-in-us delightful; those who are turned away will find it noxious.

“On one level, Paul seems to be saying, simply, that the baptized are agents of Jesus – we carry information about God with us everywhere we go.  Paul could have, perhaps, written, ‘We are the light of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,’ or ‘Our voices are the voice of Christ among those who are saved and those who are perishing.’  But smell is an apt metaphor for Paul to use, precisely because smell can convey the presence of something that is far away.  I smell bread baking the minute I walk through the front door, even though the source – the load in the oven – is in the kitchen;  the smell tells me the loaf is there somewhere.  So, too, the Source of whatever goodness the baptized do and are is [at least, not obviously present] – but the goodness insists that the Source is there somewhere.”[6]

This portrait of God as one who smells and emits smells “may appear to be just a bit of quirky anthropomorphism, but it is in fact a ritual shorthand for God’s intimate and close connection with us.

“To describe God as one who smells – as one who enjoyed the smell of all that incense – is to imply something about God’s emotional life.  It turns out that, of all our sensory perceptions, smell is the most directly connected to the seat of our emotions.  As cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains, ‘The neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate.  The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions of the brain could possibly be.’  Both smell and emotion are located within the limbic system.  The amygdala – ‘the brain’s locus of emotion,’ without which we can neither remember nor express emotion – becomes activated when we perceive a scent.  ‘No other sensory system has this kind of privilege and direct access to the part of the brain that controls our emotions.’”[7]

Winner writes, “Scents can help calm people when they are separated.  Psychologists call this ‘olfactory comfort.’  This is why women sometimes sleep in their beloved’s clothing when the beloved is away.  Smelling someone’s scent can infuse you, the smeller, with a sense of security.  (Having observed that a child feeling intense separation anxiety was reassured by a garment with his mother’s smell, a nurse in Minnesota invented a soft shirt that could be easily converted into a blanket.  The idea is that mom would wear the shirt next to her skin for a few hours before heading off to work or out on a date, and baby, now wrapped in her scent, will be less hysterical when she steps out the door.)  Mothers whose children have left for college report going into their old bedrooms, closing the door, and inhaling the smell as a way of feeling close to their absent kids.”[8]

As I read Winner’s words, the closing scene from the movie Brokeback Mountain came to mind.  Actually, two scenes that I had mixed together in my memory into one, came to mind.  They’re the final two scenes of the movie.  The movie came out long enough ago that I should set up the video of the second to last scene, the one that’s important to this sermon.  The movie is about two young men, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.  They meet when they get jobs as back-country sheep herders on Brokeback Mountain.  The strangers become friends and eventually become lovers.  Unable to deal with their feelings for each other, they part ways at the end of the summer.  Years go by, and they each settle down, Ennis in Wyoming with his wife and two girls, and Jack in Texas with his wife and son.  Still longing for each other, they meet back up, for periodic “fishing trips.”

Tragedy strikes when Jack dies – in an accident or a gay bashing, it’s not clear which.  Ennis finds out about the death from Jack’s wife and is directed to go to Jack’s parents to get Jack’s ashes to scatter them on Brokeback Mountain.  Jack’s mother invites Ennis to go up to Jack’s childhood bedroom.

“Absence, it seems, haunts smell.  The profound work smell does on and for us presumes absence.  People separated by time and space – the baby longing for his mother, the mother pining for the children who have left her empty nest – are reconnected through smell.  Smell keeps us close to one another in our absence.”[9]

I can’t help but wonder, when we wander away from God, “is this what our absence feels like to God?  Is our absence, our being far off and ignoring God, our remaining at a distance, our remaining so far away – is this absence not philosophical and abstract, but grievously real and present to God?  Is God undone by grief?  Is that the context in which God receives the scent of our prayers?”[10]

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 67.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] Ibid, 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 77-79.

[7] Ibid, 69-71.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 82.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-28 and Isaiah 42:1-9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Brian McLaren calls Jesus’ visit with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi a fieldtrip.[1] I think that’s an interesting framing (it reinforces the idea of Jesus as a teacher) and, if nothing else, it lifts up the importance of the location.

And the location is important. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of their base in Galilee. The location has a long history as a place of worship. Canaanites worshiped the god Baal there. Later, the Greek god Pan was worshiped there. Eventually, the Romans replaced the Greeks and around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was part of the region the Romans had Herod the Great controlling.

When Herod the Great died, the area he ruled was divided among his surviving sons to rule. This area north and east of the Jordan was placed by the Roman emperor under Philip’s control. He changed the name of the town to Caesarea Philippi – the first part of the name honoring his patron, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor; the second part of the name honoring himself (can you say, “ego issues”?). The second part of the name actually did serve a practical purpose. There was another community called Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, so calling this community Caesarea Philippi did distinguish it. But, yeah, ego issues.

Imagine what it would have been like for a rabbi to take a group of Jews to this Caesar-ville.[2] You walk the streets and are reminded, simply by the location, that a foreign army occupies your country. You walk the streets and you are reminded that you are not free. It might be like a Native American teacher taking a group to Wounded Knee or a Japanese teacher taking a class to Hiroshima.

There in the middle of a place where many gods have been worshiped over the centuries, there in the middle of the latest Caesar-ville, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This vignette takes place in Mark and Luke as well, only the question is a little different. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people (or the crowds) say that I am?” In Matthew, the question is, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” So there’s a reason Matthew uses “Son of Man.”

In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus uses “Son of Man,” he is almost using it as a first person pronoun, so at one level Jesus is essentially asking the same question as in Mark and Luke. But that’s not the only way Matthew uses “Son of Man.” There is a strong association of “Son of Man” in Matthew’s gospel with “the Son of Man” being the judge at the end of time and of “the Son of Man” having a kingdom.[3]

So, here we are in Caesar-ville, and Jesus is asking who the people say the final judge is. His disciples’ answers express some of the theology of the day. Maybe the Son of Man was a prophet of old. Maybe the Son of Man was John the Baptist (who has been killed by this point in Matthew’s narrative).

As I read Matthew’s version of the exchange, I feel like Jesus knows the answer he going to get to his next question. “But who do you say that I am?” The obvious answer is, “the Son of Man,” the one who will judge the nations at the end of time, the one who has the alternative kingdom. I don’t get that feeling in Mark’s and Luke’s versions, but here in Matthew’s version Jesus’ second question feels almost like a leading question.

Peter offers the answer: “You are the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ), the Son of the living God.” Not just the Son of Man, mind you, but the Son of the living God. To our ears, this sounds like a theological claim, but given the setting, it is as much a political statement as it is a theological statement. In Greek, Christ, in Hebrew, Messiah – it means “the one anointed as liberating king.”[4]

“To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’

“Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods,’ but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and live God.”[5]

Here’s what McLaren says about Jesus response to Peter’s confession. “[Jesus] speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centers of evil.’ Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically-charged setting.”[6]

Most (maybe even all) Jews who thought God would send the Messiah during the Roman occupation assumed the Messiah to be a liberating king by being the leader of an army – an army that would prevail against the powers that oppressed them. This is the Messiah Peter was expecting. And if Jesus truly was the Messiah, then the one thing he cannot be is defeated. He will conquer and capture the enemies. He must torture and kill the enemies. But that’s not what Jesus says will happen.

Yes, he’s going to travel south to Jerusalem, the seat of power. But he’s not going with an army and he’s not going to wage a war. He is going to be conquered, captured, tortured, and killed by the very agents of oppression that the Messiah is supposed to save them from. And then be raised.

But Peter doesn’t seem to hear that last part. He takes Jesus aside. That’s not the way the story is supposed to go. “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.” “Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, Satanic, the opposite of God’s plan.”[7]

Since the beginning, Jesus has taught a different way, a third way to over come the principalities and powers. If you’re not a part of the Adult Sunday School class, I encourage you to join. And if you can’t join, I encourage you to read the book they are reading and discussing anyway. They are about halfway through The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink, and in it Wink speaks directly to today’s gospel lesson.

“The Domination System,” he says, “grows out of the fundamental belief that violence must be used to overcome violence.”[8] Thus, the Domination System is stuck in a cycle of violence. As a program to overcome the Domination System, the kin-dom of God must overcome this cycle of violence, so that is what Jesus did. That is why Jesus said that he is going to Jerusalem and why he would be killed. The cross laid bare the domination system and refused to play its game of cycling violence.

“When the Powers That Be [that’s Wink’s term for the principalities and powers of oppression] catch the merest whiff of God’s new order, they automatically mobilize all their might to crush it. Even before the full fury of the Powers was unleashed on Jesus, he apparently predicted the outcome of the confrontation [as we heard in today’s scripture lesson]. The Powers are so immense, and the opposition so weak, that every attempt at fundamental change seems doomed to failure. Merely winning does not satisfy the Powers; they must win big, in order to demoralize opposition before it can gain momentum. Gratuitous violence, mocking derision, and intimidating brutality in the means of execution typify the Power – all this is standard, unexceptional. Jesus died just like all the others who challenged the world-dominating Power.

“Something went awry in Jesus’ case, however. The Powers scourged him with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy. They mocked him with a robe and a crown of thorns, spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed, ridiculing him with the ironic ovation, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ – not knowing how their acclamation would echo down the centuries. They stripped him naked and crucified him in humiliation, all unaware that this very act had stripped the Powers of the last covering that disguised the towering wrongness of the whole way of life that their violence defended. They nailed him to the cross, not realizing that with each hammer’s blow they were nailing up, for the whole world to see, the affidavit by which the Domination System would be condemned.”[9]

We heard our invitation to participate in this work in our gospel lesson. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Wink interprets this for us: “One does not become free from the Powers by defeating them in a frontal attack. Rather, one dies to their control … [W]e are liberated, not by striking back at what enslaves us – for even striking back reveals that we are still controlled by violence – but by a willingness to die rather than submit to its command.…

“We must die to such things as racism, false patriotism, greed, and homophobia. We must, in short, die to the Domination System in order to live authentically.”[10]

What Wink is saying is just as paradoxical as what Jesus said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But, as Wink points out, “Dying to the Power is not, finally, a way of saving our souls, but of making ourselves expendable in the divine effort to rein in the recalcitrant Powers. When Jesus said, ‘Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it’ (Luke 17:33), he drew a line in the sand and asked if we would step across – step out of one entire world, where violence is always the ultimate solution, into another world, where the spiral of violence is finally broken by those willing to absorb its impact with their own flesh. That approach to living is nonviolence, Jesus’ ‘third way.’”[11]

Jesus’ third way is intensely powerful.[12] It is a way that is alternative to both the way of remaining victim and the way of participating in the cycle of violence. It is a way that both refused to submit to evil and to oppose evil on its own terms. It is a way that is both assertive and nonviolent. It is the way of the kin-dom of God.

I’ve spoken of it before, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would like to share an example of how it is at work today.

smt1Erdem Gunduz was called “the standing man of Turkey.” His story goes back to June of 2013. The Turkish government had cleared Taksim Square after weeks of clashes with the police. That “might have seemed like the end of it for many protesters, until [this] lone man decided to take a stand, literally, against the government. For more than six hours [one] Monday night, Erdem Gunduz stood motionless in Taksim Square, passively ignoring any prodding or harassment from police and people passing by.”[13] He stood alone for hours, and then other people began to join him, silently staring toward the cultural center. By midnight, several hundred people had joined Gunduz’s protest.

smt3“As word of the standing man spread across the Internet, Turks adopted the hashtag #duranadam, which means ‘standing man’ in Turkish. Before long, people in other parts of Turkey began their own standing protests in solidarity with the man.”[14]

The Standing Man of Turkey and those who followed his lead did not stop the domination system in their country. But they found a way to resist it, to refuse both to be victims of it and to be participants in its violence. They found Jesus’ third way.

When theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass looks at what is going on in this nation and in other countries (especially in western Europe), she see troubling evidence of the domination system at work. She says that there are many causes, including economic anxiety, racism, generalized fear, misogyny, etc. “But,” she says, “this has been primarily motivated by a idolatrous vision of God – one that believes God is a white-skinned, gendered Judge, Father, and King who sits on a throne in heaven. They want that God to punish their enemies, heretics, and evildoers, and bless them, His faithful people, with material prosperity and power – and to return everything to their imagined vision of Eden.

“It isn’t that complicated. There was deep appeal to a myth, the primary myth at the center of European Christianity.

“Through time, this myth was rejected by many – mystics, saints, and seers – but was perpetrated by a church of the rich and powerful. We are living in that story still. A story where the empire of wealth uses a convenient God to enslave the many; and where a sacred resistance grows to protest on behalf of truly God – the One who is Compassion, Who is Love.

“Jesus hates that we have used him in service to a myth of power. For he came and still cries out against this idolatry.”[15]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong; or
… what it means for you to take up your cross and follow Jesus in your life and in the midst of current events; or
… this: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 25, page 116. Retrieved from

[2] This is also McLaren’s term.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 2009) s.v. “Son of Man,” 345.

[4] McLaren, op. cit., 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 117-118.

[7] Ibid, 118.

[8] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 91.

[9] Ibid, 82-83.

[10] Ibid, 93-95.

[11] Ibid. 97.

[12] See Chapter 5 of The Powers That Be for a full explanation of Jesus’ third way.

[13] Andy Carvin, “The ‘Standing Man’ Of Turkey: Act Of Quiet Protest Goes Viral,” The Two Way, (posted 18 June 2013; accessed 16 February 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post on 7 February 2017 (accessed 18 February 2017). I have changed what she had as ALL CAPS to italics.

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

[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

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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Acts 2:41-17 and 1 Corinthians 14:26-31
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Michael Kinnamon

I got to hear Michael Kinnamon preach a little over a week ago, at the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church of Northern California Nevada. Michael is probably best known in Disciples of Christ circles as the nominee who didn’t get elected and as a leader in the ecumenical movement. It’s a little surprising for me to realize that it was 25 years ago, but it was 25 years ago when Michael was nominated to serve as General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ.

The biennial General Assembly was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that year, an area of the country where the density of DOC congregations is much higher than it is here in Northern California. Because each congregation can send delegates to General Assemblies, it was possible for the opposition to Michael’s nomination to bus in delegates from area churches to vote against him, and his election fell short by 87 votes.[1] The opposition to him serving as General Minister and President was a reaction to his belief that the Bible doesn’t forbid the ordination of gay and lesbian people.

Michael went on to teach at several seminaries across the United States. He served as the General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, the leading ecumenical organization of mainline Protestants looking at potential reunification of Protestantism in the USA in the 80s and 90s. He had leadership positions in the World Council of Churches. And he was elected the General Secretary (the leader) of the National Council of Churches in the USA in 2007.[2]

Michael’s sermon from a week ago focused on the Annual Gathering’s theme: discerning what is next in the life of the Region. One of Michael’s points was that our memories define us, that is, that our sense of who we are is grounded in our memories.

Desmond Tutu

He pointed out that our memories are not always factually accurate, but it is the memory as we remember it that defines us, not what actually happened. He offered a wonderful example of this. His daughter, who is an African-American, understands herself to be a worker for justice and that this identity comes from the early childhood experience of meeting Desmond Tutu at a General Assembly. Michael knows that she was in the children’s program at the General Assembly when Tutu spoke, and they she couldn’t have met him. Nonetheless, her memory of meeting him is an important part of defining who she is. There is no point, Michael said, in correcting her memory to make it factually accurate (and hopefully she won’t read this sermon online). Her memory as she remembers it defines who she is.

The same is true for the church. Our memories define us. It might be memories of the recent past. For instance, I remember the many people who pitched in a few years ago to help a family in our congregation and that memory helps define this congregation as “compassionate” for me. It might be memories of a half-century ago of an adult who made a special effort to welcome children, giving us an identity as a safe and welcoming place for kids. Or it could be an ancient memory, passed down to us in stories – even in the stories we call scripture. And I want to turn to those memories now.

During this time of Easter, we’ve been looking at the uprising that began with the resurrection. I’ve talked about some of the hallmarks of that uprising. A couple weeks ago, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a fellowship of scared, scarred, doubting people. Last week, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a collection of learning teachers who make mistakes and keep on striving to faithfully follow Jesus. Today, we turn to how this uprising is marked by worship.

One of the things that is peculiar about this uprising that started with the resurrection is how we gather. Our reading from Acts is the end of the Pentecost story. I won’t go into much background on that because we will return to that story in a month. For now, you need to know that this is Luke’s telling of how the church started – the Holy Spirit blowing through a gathering of disciples, empowering them to share the story. Peter takes the lead in speaking to a crowd that gathers and people respond. 3,000 people, Luke claims, responded by being baptized. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s factually accurate; it’s the memory that defines us. Once they became part of the community, one change in their lives was that they became devoted to learning, the breaking of bread, and prayer. In other words, they became devoted to worship, for these are three of the four elements of worship in the early church, four elements of worship that continue today.

Historians have pieced together some of what worship in the early life of the church was like. Much of this description I’ll give you today is based on a summary written by Brian McLaren.[3]

The community of Jesus-followers gathered frequently. They called their little communities ecclesia, borrowing the term from the Roman Empire. For the Romans, an ecclesia was an exclusive gathering of local citizens where they discussed the affairs of the Empire of Rome. For the early Jesus-followers, an ecclesia was for common people, and they discussed the affairs of the Empire of God. The ecclesia of Jesus-followers were held in all kinds of places – in homes, in public buildings, in outdoor settings, even in catacombs. They were held whenever possible, but at first mostly at night because nearly everyone who come then, even slaves. It appears that the initial gatherings happened any day of the week, though remembering that the resurrection happened on a Sunday drew some groups to gather on that day.

There were four main functions or parts to the worship service. Worship began with teaching, usually teaching from the original disciples. This might be the disciples themselves or a letter from one of them. Through these teachings, people could learn about what Jesus taught, what he said, stories about his life and death and resurrection, the parables he told, the character he embodied. In this way, people who never met Jesus could think of themselves as followers of Jesus, walking the road he walked.

It seems that it was in this first element of worship that the ecclesia in Corinth was having problems. We don’t have the letter from the Corinthians to Paul, but we can interpret what it might have said based on his response. There seems to have been some quarreling about how worship should go. Some people must have thought that too many people were speaking in tongues. Maybe there weren’t any interpreters of the tongues, so speaking in tongues added nothing to the worship experience of the rest of the community. “Let all things be done for building up,” Paul writes to them.

If there are people who have a prophecy to share, some word that they believe is coming from God, they should share it – and it is the responsibility of the rest of the community to weigh what they share. I think he’s saying that we need to give prophecy a sniff test to see if it smells funky. And take your turns, Paul says. It sounds like it may have been a bit of a contest of holiness at times.

The next element of worship was prayer. [4] In at least some communities, prayers were offered while the community was standing. The content of the prayers is largely lost, but I can’t help but wonder if those early Christians found what I have found: that “it is far better to share our worries with God than to be filled with anxiety about things that are out of our control.”[5] I wonder if they prayed for boldness and wisdom to share God’s love beyond their community. I suspect they brought needs and sorrows of others before God, joining their compassion with God’s greater compassion. And I suspect they offered their thanksgivings and praise.

If they prayed the prayer we call “the Lord’s Prayer,” then we know they were praying for justice and peace. We also know that they would be praying prayers of confession, opening themselves to reconciliation with God and each other. Perhaps they were bold and faithful enough to pray for their enemies, as Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus taught.

2DC81B7ACFA24E14A5BEA31617BC8F49.ashxThe third element of worship was the meal around the table. In the early church, it appears to have been a full meal. According to Paul Bradshaw, the pattern of this meal mirrored “the common custom followed at all Jewish formal meals.”[6] This seven-fold shape began with the head of household taking bread in his (and it would have been a “he” at that time) hands, offering a blessing, breaking the bread, sharing it with all present; and at the end of the meal, taking a cup of wine in his hands, offering a blessing, and sharing it with all around the table. Bradshaw points out that this is the description of the Last Supper in several New Testament texts, which means that Jesus wasn’t instituting a new ritual, but reinterpreting an old one, giving it new meaning.[7]

The meals around which the Last Supper was remembered were also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are fed and none are hungry. The thing that was different about this feast was that all divisions fell away. All were welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, city-born and country-born. Everyone was treated as an equal, a shockingly anti-social act. Imagine someone from the merchant class treating a slave as an equal.

By the middle of the second century, it appears that the main meal disappeared from at least some of the Christian worshiping communities and the meal was simplified to the bread and cup.[8]

Though the agape feast (as it was called by some) ended, the radical nature of the Eucharist remained. All were still welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek. And this radical equality and inclusion was just as shocking to the social order as it had always been.

The fourth element of worship in the early church was an offering. This is how Justin Martyr describes this portion of the service: “And the wealthy who so desire give what they wish, as each chooses; and what is collected is deposited with the president [of that ecclesia]. He helps orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in need, and those in prison, and strangers sojourning among us; in a word, he takes care of all whose who are in need.”[9]

The wealth gap in the United States today is troubling, but it is nothing compared to the wealth gap that existed in the Roman Empire. Then, most people (who weren’t slaves) had subsistence lives, growing barely or not quite enough to feed their families, or working for only enough to feed themselves and their families on those days when they were lucky enough to find work. Anyone with any expendable money would have been considered wealthy, and they supported, through the church, those who were in need.

Our memories define us.

I started this sermon by saying that our memories define us. The disciples’ memories of their experiences of Jesus – before the crucifixion and after the resurrection – defined who they were. The memories of coming together to worship defined who the early church was. We are inheritors of those memories. We still gather for teaching, prayer, communion, and offering. This peculiar action is part of who we are and it is a mark of the uprising that began with Jesus. We are a people of the table where all are welcome – and all means ALL.

During the communion hymn today, we will be moving to the fellowship hall and we will gather around the tables there. It won’t quite be like the earliest celebrations of communion, which bookended the meal. We will celebrate communion and then move into our potluck lunch. When we get to that part of the worship service, we may discover that there are not enough chairs for everyone, so if you can stand around a table, I encourage you to stand and allow those who need to sit to sit. I know that not everyone will be able to stay for the lunch and the Day of Discovery program that follows, but I hope most of you will. And now, I’ll stop getting to far ahead of myself. I’ll return to the sermon.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about anything in today’s sermon that struck you, or to simply reflect on a time in your life when your heart was full of worship.
Consider how do you respond to (and how are you fed by) the four ancient functions of gathered worship – teaching, prayer, the meal, and offering.
Choose one word that points to an attribute of God (glory, wisdom, justice, kindness, power, grace, etc.).  Hold that word in your heart and mind, and in silence worship God.  Then choose another word and hold it together with the first word in silent worship.  Then add a third, and so on.

[1] Times Wire Services, “Disciples of Christ Name Interim Leader …” Los Angeles Times, (posted 2 November 1991; accessed 16 April 2016).
[2] “NCC Biography: Michael Kinnamon,” National Council of Churches, (accessed 16 April 2016).
[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 36. Retrieved from
[4] I am basing this on a quote by Justin Martyr [a second century Christian apologist] describing worship in his day (mid-second century) found in Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 41. Brian McLaren says that prayer came after communion, and it may have been some for some communities or for the earliest Christian communities – or he may have based his order on the order of things in the reading from Acts. Nonetheless, I will go with the more scholarly work for determining the order of things in early Christian worship.
You can learn some basics about Justin Martyr at
[5] McLaren, op. cit.
[6] Paul Bradshaw, 40.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 41-42.
[9] Justin Martyr, quoted by Bradshaw, 41.

The Uprising of Discipleship
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 21:1-19
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Religion is not a lottery, though some may believe otherwise. If our faith was only a question of picking the winning number to earn us an exclusive afterlife of luxury, then we would miss the whole point. Spiritual life is defined by service, not by salvation. We are called to practice justice, exercise compassion, give generously to help others. That is the hard work of living by faith. We do all of this without demand of a reward for love is its own reward. Heaven is not a winning ticket separating winners and losers but a promise we all inherit when we put service before self.”[1]

            This quote from Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston has lingered with me since he posted it at the beginning of the month on Facebook. And it informs today’s sermon.

Today is the third Sunday of Easter. We are in the season of resurrection. Just as Christmas lasts for 12 days, Easter lasts for 50 days. Today’s scripture lesson is an epilogue to John’s gospel. Most people think that John’s gospel ended with what we call chapter 20 and that chapter 21 was added sometime later. But that tidbit of text criticism is neither here nor there as far as today’s sermon is concerned. Today, we look at the bulk of chapter 21 as one more story from the texts we call “scripture,” one more story that talks about the uprising that began on Easter.

The disciples have had a series of experiences of the palpable presence of Jesus even though he was killed. First Mary of Magdala had an experience in the cemetery where Jesus’ body had been buried. Then Jesus showed up in a locked room with the disciples. And again a week later, he showed up in a room with the disciples, even though the door was shut.

It is now sometime later and the disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee. Peter announces that he’s going fishing. John doesn’t share what Peter’s motivation was. I’ve always read into the story that Peter, impulsive fellow that he was, felt like he had to do something. Jesus was dead, but he wasn’t. But he wasn’t around all the time like he used to be. And here we are back in Galilee and we’re hanging out together because, well, what else are we going to do. And suddenly Peter announces his going fishing. So what are the rest of us going to do? We go with him.

Peter in a fishing boat makes me think of when Jesus called Peter. Peter and his brother Andrew were on the Sea of Galilee (or as John calls it here, the Sea of Tiberius), and Jesus came by and called them, “Come follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” Only that’s not in John; that’s in the synoptic gospels. John doesn’t tell us how Peter put food on the table, just that his brother Andrew called Peter to come check out Jesus because Andrew thought Jesus just might be the Messiah. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if John’s community knew the synoptic story of Peter’s call.

This is a story in John’s gospel, and we’re not at the beginning of the story of Jesus ministry. We’re at the other end of the story, sometime after the resurrection. Peter declares to the other disciples that he’s going fishing, and a bunch of the other disciples went with him. And they were out all night and caught nothing. At daybreak, a stranger shows up on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They cast their nets and there are so many fish the net should break.

One of the disciples declares, “It’s the Lord.” On hearing this, Peter puts on some clothes and jump in the water to swim to shore. Which seems backwards to me – putting on clothing and jumping in the water. Walter Wink points out that this story has the feeling of a farce in its deliberate playfulness: “no fish, too many fish; non-recognition, recognition; Peter swimming fully clothed; the entire fish-count, in unison; Jesus as short-order cook.”[2]

And I have to agree – especially about the fish thing. Why 153 fish? Why that exact number? Theologians and biblical commentators have debated through the ages. “St. Jerome imagined it was the total number of fish species in the world, signifying the church’s worldwide mission. But first century people already knew more than that many fish.”[3] St. Augustine does some impressively convoluted math (that I don’t get) to force the number into making some symbolic sense.[4]

I like the chutzpah of one commentary who suggested the number may have been picked because that is the number of fish that were in the net. The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes this is a factual story rather than a theological story, and like the rest of John, the truth of the stories are in their theology, not their facts.

For an explanation, I like Wink’s idea that it’s all part of the farce. You see, things shift as soon as everybody’s ashore and gather around Jesus. Jesus serves them breakfast, bread and fish. Just like with the multitude on the hillside months earlier, Jesus serves his followers bread and fish. It’s an Easter communion scene.

And then Jesus pulls Peter aside. Jesus takes aside the man who was so upset that the only thing he could think to do was to go fishing. Jesus takes aside the man who promised he would never desert Jesus and within hours had denied even knowing him – three times. Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him this question three times. And three times, Peter declares his love for Jesus. Perhaps the symmetry is purposeful. Perhaps with each question, Peter is working out his guilt and finding forgiveness and reconciliation.

But John was written in Greek and the Greeks have several words that we translate as “love” in English, and two of them are used here. “Peter, do you agapas (the highest, self-giving love, agape) me?
Peter: ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I philo (to have friendship, affection for) you.’
Jesus: ‘Feed my lambs.’
A second time Jesus asks: Do you agapas me?
‘Yes Lord; you know that I philo you.’
‘Tend my sheep.’
A third time Jesus asks, Do you phileis me?
Peter, grieved that this third time Jesus had adopted his word, replies, ‘You know everything; you know that I philo you.’
‘Feed my sheep.’”[5]

Even without the response of “Feed my sheep,” it’s clear that there’s something going on with the use of these two words we translate “love.” Is there something about the call to love and follow Jesus without reservation, to love him unconditionally? Is there some acknowledgement of our inability to love without condition and Jesus’ accepting us all the same? Is there something being said about our inability to truly, fully reciprocate God’s love for us? I think, perhaps, yes.

With the response of “Feed my sheep,” I also hear the reassurance that we, like Peter, are called to act in response to Jesus’ love for us, even if imperfectly. The text continues with Jesus speaking to Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

Jesus has been telling Peter to care for the community: Feed my sheep. And, “in case he doesn’t understand what this entails, Jesus assures him that the kingdom requires total servanthood.… Though the first half of his life was spent planning, controlling, and going wherever he wished, discipleship means that ‘someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’

“Though the text claims that this was meant to foreshadow the way in which Peter would die, it actually says much more about the way Peter would live his life in Jesus: in full obedience to the gospel.”[6] Is it any wonder that the last thing Jesus says to Peter in John’s gospel are the same words that, according to Mark’s gospel, were the first said by Jesus to Peter?

Follow me.

These words are a literal call to discipleship. A disciple is “a follower, a student, an apprentice, one who learns by imitating a master.”[7]

On Easter Sunday, I said that the resurrection was much more about what happens to us than about what happened to Jesus. Maybe the resurrection is about getting a first-class ticket to eternity, but if it is, that’s not what’s important. Easter is the inauguration of an uprising. One mark of this uprising is fellowship, a fellowship of scarred and scared and doubting people – I talked about that last week. Another mark of this uprising is discipleship. The people that are part of this uprising are disciples of Jesus, the one who, on the day before his execution, knelt at his disciples’ feet and washed them. And then he told them that he had a commandment for them: Love one another.

This is the one Peter was called to follow. And how does he follow? How is he a disciple? By feeding Jesus’ flock.

That’s why I quoted Bishop Charleston at the beginning of the sermon. “Spiritual life is defined by service, not by salvation. We are called to practice justice, exercise compassion, give generously to help others. That is the hard work of living by faith.” That is the hard work of discipleship.

Like Peter, if we want to be part of this uprising, we are called to follow Jesus. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect – just look at Peter with his philia-love of Jesus. “But it does mean we are growing and learning, always humble and willing to get up again after we fall, always moving forward on the road we are walking.”[8]

It’s a strange position to be in, being part of the flock that Peter is called to feed and being called like Peter to feed the flock. But that’s what we’re called to be as part of this uprising. We are disciples who are learning even as we are teaching new disciples. Yes, we will make mistakes. Yes, some of our efforts will prove fruitless. And when that happens, Jesus will come by and encourage us to give it one more try, maybe a little differently this time, casting our nets on the other side of the boat.

As we move into our time of reflection, I invite you to meditate on anything in the sermon to strikes you, or to consider one or more of these questions:

  • Hold the image of tired fishers at daybreak, being told to cast their nets one more time. What does this image say to your life right now?
  • How have you been drawn toward discipleship by another person?
  • How do you relate to the story of Peter with its dramatic ups and downs?
[1] Steven Charleston, in a Facebook post dated 1 April 2016,
[2] Walter Wink, “Resurrection Flashes,” Sojourners, (accessed 6 April 2016).
[3] Jason Byasse, “Death, Upended,” Sojourners, (accessed 6 April 2016).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Wink, op. cit.
[6] Michaela Bruzzese, “Surrender to Life,” Sojourners, (accessed 6 April 2016).
[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 179.
[8] Ibid.



A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 17:6-19 and Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I realize that mine is not your average Facebook feed, so I suspect this didn’t happen so much for those of you on Facebook as it did for me, but, oh my, the last few days of the week my feed was peppered with posts about the latest Pew Research study about “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”[1] The big news from the study is this: the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian is down sharply – almost 8 percentage points – while the percentage of the population that identifies as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” was way up.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

The population of the United States still identifies significantly Christian – about 7 in 10 people. But as a percentage of the population, Christians went down almost 8 percentage points between 2007 and 2014. Mainline Christians (that’s us) dropped from 18.1% of the population to 14.7% of the population. The “nones” grew from 16.1% to 22.8%, a growth of a whopping 6.7 percentage points. So people on my strangely rarified Facebook feed were posting links to blogs contemplating how to interpret these numbers.

One theme I heard repeatedly was about loss of market share. Really. Market share. The emotional content behind these comments fell either into grief or panic – or maybe a little of both. Our numbers are falling. What do we do?!

The issue of falling numbers is also in the scripture readings assigned for today, the seventh Sunday of Easter in year B of the lectionary. I am amused.

The reading from John takes place on Maundy Thursday. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and given them a new commandment: to love one another. He has launched into a three-chapter long discourse and now he turns to God and we overhear his prayer. This is all happening because he is about to be arrested, pushed through a mockery of a trial and executed by the government for sedition. The community of disciples is about to experience the loss of their leader, the one who called them together.

John wrote his gospel for a community in the midst of loss. Most biblical scholars believe that John’s community had been kicked out of the synagogue. While being a Jew was hardly having a place of prestige in the Roman Empire, at least it meant having a place, a home. But John’s community had been kicked out, cast off, excommunicated – no longer part of the bigger whole. They had experiences a drastic loss of numbers.

The reading from Acts takes place after the Ascension and before Pentecost. The disciples watched the resurrected Christ ascend into the heavens. As moderns and post-moderns, that pre-modern cosmology (of Jesus ascending into heaven) can be a little hard to digest, and rather than chase down that rabbit hole, let’s just acknowledge that they are experiencing loss. Their palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he had been killed had abated. And their numbers were down. There were two empty places at the table. Jesus no longer sat in his seat – a seat that no other could fill. And Judas no longer sat in his seat. Peter decided they had to do something about the loss and they selected Matthias to fill Judas’ empty chair. Ah, Matthias. You know what else Matthias is famous for, right? Nothing. He is mentioned here in Acts 1, and then never again in the Bible.

The writer of Acts doesn’t explain Peter’s motivation. It just says that Peter concluded that Judas’ empty chair needed to be filled. Maybe he just felt he had to do something about their declining numbers. I don’t know.

I know that many of the posts about the Pew Research report concluded that the church has to do something about it’s declining numbers. But one noteworthy response had a different conclusion. Stephen Mattson points out that in 1948, 91% of Americans identified as Christian (69% Protestant and 22% Catholic). And, he points out, that in 1948, “Segregation was still widely practiced and racism was everywhere. It would still be another five years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and six years before Brown v. Board of Education.”[2]

He goes on: “The Cold War had begun and the Red Scare was sweeping the nation, inspiring fear, anger, and trepidation. People, organizations, and institutions who voiced dissent, criticism, and non-conformist views were portrayed as traitors – wrongfully persecuted due to widespread panic and political fanaticism.

“Women were the victims of inequitable social, professional, and religious practices and expectations. Largely excluded from leadership positions, receiving unfair wages, and forced into specific gender roles, a largely ‘Christian’ culture refused to empower women and maintained an unhealthy ‘status quo.’”[3]

In 1948, we may have been over 90% Christian, but we sure didn’t act it.

And we didn’t act it in 1965 when the percentage of Christians in the United States was up to 93%.[4] We may have made some progress on equal rights, but the Watts riots showed us we had a long way to go. We were becoming more deeply involved in a war in Vietnam. The drug revolution and the “free love” movement were about to take off.

Mattson’s conclusion is that maybe we’re finally getting a more accurate accounting of Christians in the United States. I’d like to think that the 70.6% of the population that claims to be Christian might actually start following Jesus.

But following Jesus isn’t easy. That’s the conclusion that I get reading this portion of the “High Priestly Prayer” (as it’s called) in John’s gospel.

Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

I don’t know if I find that prayer comforting or a warning – or maybe both. I let these words of Jesus wash over me. I know they are rooted in love and that is comforting. But they also say that the world will hate me as it hated Jesus.

Scholars agree that the Greek kosmos, translated as “world,” isn’t the universe or the planet. It is the “world” of human social existence alienated, estranged from God. “Walter Wink has suggested ‘system’ as a translation for this special meaning, as in, ‘My kingdom is not of this system,’ or, as in the present case, ‘The world system has hated them because they are not of the system, even as I am not.’”[5]

Mount Katahdin

Being in the world but not of the system – that is the knife edge we Christians are called to walk. The picture[6] on the cover of your bulletins is of Mount Katahdin. It is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking trail that goes from Georgia to Maine. Katahdin actually has two peaks – and you can’t see either in the picture. The trail ends in a loop that goes up one side to the first peak and then across the ridge you see in the picture to the other peak.

The knife edge between the peaks of Mount Katahdin.

I say ridge, but it’s really a knife edge.[7] This is what it looks like to hike it.[8] I know there are other trails along knife edges, but I know this one. I hiked it was I was 11 or 12.

Hiking the knife edge.

The thing about knife edges is that you need to be careful. It’s a treacherous fall in either direction.

And so it is with our discipleship. We need to walk in the world but not be of the system. The problem is that many of us are beneficiaries of the system.

I know that I have benefited in one way or another by the system. It provides me with security, often by supporting injustice and oppression beyond my sight (and I don’t go looking). I allow myself to be ignorant. And so perhaps I should remind myself of the African proverb: When an elephant puts its foot on the tail of a mouse, the mouse will not appreciate my neutrality![9] I need to climb back up on the knife edge and join Jesus in his ministry of truth and love.

Jim Wallis points out that despite all the expectation of conflict in this prayer, “it is not a prayer of despair, bitterness, or pessimism. Rather it is a prayer of deepest love, filled with hope and joy. Jesus yearns for his disciples to know and be sustained by the same love that binds him together with his Father. The very love and glory which he has received from God he now wants to share with his disciples and his desire is ‘that they may have my joy within them in full measure’”[10] – or as the NRSV translates the line from the prayer, “so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

True hope and joy are found in the community of the knife-edge-walkers. Jesus offers this prayer so “that they may all be one,” the scripture motto adopted by the United Church of Christ when it was founded in 1957. Walking the knife edge means walking in a way that is not of the system yet is still in the world – just as Jesus was in the world – “to confront the system with the love and truth it does not want to know.

“The offense of the gospel lies in its discontinuity with the world. That is also the hope of the gospel. It has always been so. The hope is in our continuity with Christ and, therefore, our discontinuity with the world.

“The power of the Christian life is joy and hope in the face of discontinuity. The churches have never accepted this easily.  Endless theologies have been constructed to ease the discontinuity, to reduce the conflict, to find some accommodation between Christ and the world, to affirm the world on its own terms, to find our hope in the world after all and to secure a more comfortable place in it.

“The placing of false hope in the world and its power to save itself has always been and continues to be the great threat to the church.

“What the church must always seek is the gracefulness of a life lived in discontinuity. It is the gracefulness of living an ordinary and normal life in Christ, which is so extraordinary and abnormal in the world. Partaking of the richness of that life, one which the world regards as a scandal, is the source of our joy.”[11]

And so, we walk on the knife edge.


[1] Pew Research, “American’s Changing Religions Landscape,” Pew Research, (posted 12 May 2015; accessed 16 May 2015).

[2] Stephen Mattson, “The Rise and Fall of American Christianity,” Sojourners, (posted and accessed 15 May 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “A Prayer Upon Us All,” Sojourners, (accessed 12 May 2015).

[6] You can see the picture we used at

[7] I showed this picture on our projection system at this point:

[8] And then I showed this picture:

[9] Peter B. Price, “Walk on the Knife Edge,” Sojourners, (accessed 12 May 2015).

[10] Jim Wallis, “True Hope and False Hope,” Sojourners, (accessed 12 May 2015).

[11] Ibid.

In my sermon today, I said that I if Jesus really meant that stuff about loving our enemies and praying for the people who persecute us, war is not the appropriate Christian response to ISIL.  What, then, shall we do?

Here are a few concrete suggestions for those of us who are Christians in the USA, and then some thoughts about what our government can do.

We can pray for peace.  If we really believe in the power of prayer, if we believe that prayer changes things, we can pray for it.  We can pray for it in our own lives.  We can pray for it in our communities.  We can pray for it in the world.

Get together to pray for peace.  Sometimes it is nice to get together to pray for peace.  Arrange a prayer vigil.  Invite your friends.  Figure out how to make the vigil an interfaith event.

We can love our enemies.  This isn’t easy for me (and probably not for you, either).  One way to do this is to pause at the end of the day and review the day.  You can ask yourself not only what reasons you have to give thanks, but also when were you angry.  Looking at when you were angry, do that anger turn someone into an “enemy”?  If so, what can you do to help change your heart from antagonism and anger to love and peace?  The more practice we have turning to love and peace, the easer it will become.  Eventually, it should become second nature.

We can support the refugees.  You can go to the Niles Discovery Church’s donation page and pick the OGHS/Week of Compassion special offering and make a donation.  OGHS (One Great Hour of Sharing) and Week of Compassion are the companion special offerings of our denominations, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), respectively.  Here is a story about the needs; the staff of both offerings stand ready to respond.

We can call upon our government to take these actions.

Things the United States can do

  • Call upon the United Nations Security Council to take immediate protective actions for the vulnerable people in Iraq.
  • Accept Iraqi refugees into our country.
  • Build international pressure on ISIL to end their atrocities.
  • Provide support for schools, hospitals and clinics, nourishment, and clean water.  This is the Romans 12:20-21 defense: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
  • If we were to get really daring, we could create a peace force of vast numbers of people trained in nonviolence to move in and stand between aggressors and victims.  Many of these Peace Force members would likely be killed, at least at first, but none of them would be asked to kill.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 18, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Scripture:  Luke 12:49-56 and Isaiah 5:1-7
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of my favorite places on earth is high in the northern Cascade Mountains.  Holden Village was originally a copper mine and the village that sprang up around it.[1]  The mine was opened in 1938 and for 19 years copper ore was dug out from deep inside the mountain.  It was milled and separated and concentrated.  A slurry of the concentrated ore was trucked down the over ten miles of treacherous dirt road switchbacks to barges, where it was taken down Lake Chelan for further processing.  The tailings (the portion of the slurry that wasn’t useful) were pumped to several spots on the valley floor and, over the years, large piles of the tailings grew.

The mine was closed in 1957, leaving behind a deep shaft that filled with water, the tailings, and the old mill that eventually collapsed, along with the dormitories, the houses, the recreation hall, and the dining hall that made up the Village.  In 1960, the property was gifted to the Lutheran Bible Institute and, within a few years, it was transformed into a retreat center.  For over 50 years now, Holden Village has offered hospitality and spiritual growth and transformation to people who take the trip up Lake Chelan and then the ten-plus miles up the switchback filled dirt road in an old school bus to the village.  Only small groups brave the cold and deep (sometimes very deep) snow of a northern Cascades winter.  Most of the volunteers and guests come for part or all of the summer.

Except this year.

For 50 years, the water has drained from the flooded mine, carrying various metals and toxins down into Railroad Creek.  For 50 years, rain fell onto and drained through the tailings.  Snow has melted through the tailings.  And that water has carried various metals and toxins downstream to Lake Chelan.

This summer, Holden Village is filled – but not with guests.  This summer, the Village bustles with men and women executing several major construction projects.  The company that bought the company that bought the company that ran the mine has returned in partnership with the EPA, US Forest Service, and Holden Village to do long-delayed remediation.  The old mill will be demolished, a water treatment center will be built, and the leaching from the tailings and mine will be stemmed.  The Holden staff remains on site doing deferred maintenance on Village buildings and reclaiming the wood from trees felled in the construction projects.  But they’ve been impacted by these changes.

The days are still punctuated by morning and evening prayer, but few if any of the 150 to 200 construction workers participate.  Meals are still served in the dining hall, but the fare has changed dramatically from low on the food chain, simple dining to three meat-filled entrée options at dinner and a Coke machine.  None of the typical programming of study and reflection is taking place.  “It is tempting to see the remediation workers coming into the Village as temporary or invaders,” writes co-executive director Chuck Carpenter.[2]

In our gospel lesson for today, “Jesus announces that it is ‘crunch time.’  It’s time to decide, to take sides at some risk, to be with Jesus or against him.  He chides his listeners for their inability to notice that in his very person the world comes to a dangerous moment to decide for or against God’s rule.  Jesus calls his listeners beyond their casual conversation about the weather to face the grand drama of the world being played out before their eyes.”[3]

The picture Jesus paints is hardly a comforting one.  “I have come to bring fire,” Jesus said.  “How I wish it were already kindled!”  Or as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, “How I wish it were blazing already!”

“The fire he refers to here is not, strictly speaking, the Holy Spirit (although Luke certainly uses that image for the Spirit in Acts 2:3).  The context suggests that he’s referring to the fire of purification, of inspiration, and of judgment.  John the Baptist had promised that Jesus would ‘baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,’ that he would ‘gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Luke 3:16-17).

“To bring the fire, though, there is a ‘baptism” Jesus must still receive (Luke 12:50).  Jesus knows that he is to be immersed (baptizein) in suffering … and that this is not mere fate or an accident, but necessary for the fulfillment of his destiny.  ‘What stress I am under,’ he says, ‘until it is completed’ – the Greek word translated ‘stress’ (or more commonly, ‘distress’) means to be totally dominated by a thought.  In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples that he will be completely focused on this until it is finally accomplished – even knowing the cup of which he is about to drink, nothing can divert him from his proper end.

“The fulfillment of his mission, however, does not lead to peace, but to division.  As one translation puts it, ‘I came to make people choose sides.’”[4]  No wonder the old union song, “Which Side Are You On,” had been drifting in and out of my consciousness all week.

We might be tempted to postpone this fire Jesus came to bring until the afterlife.  We might hope that Jesus is talking about the fires of purgatory or hell.  But that’s only a dodge.  Jesus comes to cast fire on earth.  As soon as possible.

That’s why Jesus is heading to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus is on his way to confront the principalities and powers.  And it’s never pretty when the powers that be are confronted.  “Jerusalem could no more face what Jesus brought than we [can].  It is far easier to destroy the messenger of our darkness than to face it in ourselves and our social system.”[5]  Jesus was dealing with a huge, collective, inert, vindictive mass of embedded selfishness that permeated society.  Much like he is today.

“Jesus comes, not as a mediator, but as a stone of stumbling, a creator of dissension.”[6]  It can happen quite simply.  Any time we objectify someone, any time we strip another human being of his or her humanity, we are buying into the status quo.  The status quo tells the Holden Village staff to see the remediation workers coming into Holden Village as temporary or invaders, to make them objects.

But Jesus trips up the status quo.  Jesus says we are to separate ourselves from that point of view.  “Do you see that person as your brother, as your sister?” he asks us.

One of the ironic things about that question is that if we answer it “yes,” we can end up losing our blood brothers and sisters.  The dissension starts, Jesus seems to be saying in the family.  A family of five will be divided 3 against 2.  Parent and child will be divided against each other.  Women, you think your mothers-in-law are difficult now?  Just you wait.

But maybe that’s appropriate.  While family structures and systems have changed since Jesus’ day, they are still the breeding grounds of domination and male supremacy, gender traps and hierarchies.  No wonder Jesus says the upset will start there, or at least it should.

We hear echoes of this cry in our reading from Isaiah.  “God looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!  For justice, by hark, the outcry!”  The call is for repentance.  And remember, repentance isn’t about beating yourself up for doing bad things.  Repentance isn’t about feeling shame.  Repentance is about making a new choice, picking a new direction.  And that will often shake things up.

Maybe that’s why “we do not often dwell on this passionate and seemingly divisive side of Jesus; it is usually overlooked or downplayed since it doesn’t match the docile image often attributed to him.  But Jesus is perfectly clear in these readings and others:  The gospel is divisive, and many people have much to lose from its realization.  Insisting upon kingdom ideals such as justice for the outcast was no more popular then than it is now.  For this reason, the anger and passion evidenced by Jesus is vital to our own ability to identify, renounce, and work for justice in all that we do.”[7]

The story’s told of a sociology professor who for years began his course on “The Family” by reading to his class a letter, from a parent, written to a government official.  “In the letter the parent complains that his son, once obedient and well-motivated, has become involved with some weird new religious cult.  The father complains that the cult has taken over the boy’s life, has forced him to forsake all of his old friends, and has turned him against his family.”[8]

After reading the letter, the professor asked the class. “What do you think the father is talking about in this letter?”  Almost without exception, the classes immediately assumed that the subject of the letter is a child mixed up some cult.  Dating this story to the 70s, the “cult” was typically identified is “the Moonies.”  After the class put out all of the possible conclusions they can think of, the professor told them that the letter was written by a third century father to the Roman governor of his province, complaining about this weird religious group called “The Christians.”[9]

The gospel of Jesus Christ is divisive.  It is offensive.  It calls for a reordering of society and priorities.

Jesus complains to the crowds that they know how to forecast the weather, but they don’t know how to “interpret the present time.”  It is not straightforward what Jesus means by “interpreting the present time,” but given the context, I can reach only one conclusion:  Jesus is talking about seeing what is going on.  Jesus is talking about opening their eye – and us opening our eyes – to the realities, the anti-kin-dom of God realities of the present time.

You see the clouds rising in the west and you know it’s going to rain.  And when the south wind blows, you know it’s going to be a scorcher.  But you don’t see what is just as plainly before you.

Worldwide, about 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations.  That is one person every three and a half seconds.[10]

As of early yesterday evening, the official death toll in the most recent rounds of violence in Egypt is well over 600, and the violence is not stopping.[11]  And that is just one of many countries where violence continues unabated.

There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today – even though slavery is illegal everywhere.[12]

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached 400ppm and global average temperatures are up over 1oF.  And both continue to rise.

If we know how to interpret the present time, we will respond to these crises and others by taking action.  That action will offend and scandalize those who are committed to the status quo and domestic security in a familiar world.   Families especially will try to deter us and reclaim us.

My friends, faithfulness to Christ will involve cutting through the ties that would bind us to conventional values.[13]  But nobody every said discipleship was easy.


[1] For more information about the history of Holden Village, see and,_Washington.

[2] Chuck Carpenter, “Conform or Be Transformed,” Holden Village Voice (Summer 2013): 1.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Which Side Are You On?” Sojourners, (30 July 2013).

[4] Jim Rice, “Choosing Sides,” Sojourners, (30 July 2013).

[5] Walter Wink, “Baptism by Fire,” Sojourners, (30 July 2013).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michaela Bruzzese, “‘Hark!  The Outcry’,” Sojourners, (30 July 2013).

[8] William H. Beljean, Jr., “An Interesting Letter,” quoted in an email from, dated 13 August 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Hunger and World Poverty,”, (17 August 2013).

[11] Cyril Dixon, “Egypt death toll hits 638 as Britain seeks UN meeting,” Express, (17 August 2013).

[12] “The Statistics on Human Trafficking,” For Such As These, (17 August 2013).

[13] Martin L. Smith, “Christ the Arsonist,” Sojourners, (30 July 2013).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 20, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 2:1-11 and Isaiah 62:1-5
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I’m not sure how to verify this, but I’ve been told[1] that Years ago when Johnny Carson was the host of “The Tonight Show” he interviewed an eight year old boy.  Apparently, this kid was asked to appear because he had rescued two friends who had somehow gotten into trouble in a mine outside his hometown in West Virginia.  As Johnny interviewed the boy, it became apparent to him and the audience that the boy was a Christian.  So Johnny asked him if he attended Sunday school.   When the boy said he did Johnny inquired, “What are you learning in Sunday school?”

“Last week, our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.”  The audience roared – I wonder if the author of the gospel of John got a laugh when he first told the story.  Johnny tried to keep a straight face.

Then Johnny asked, “What did you learn from that story?

The boy squirmed in his chair.  It was apparent he hadn’t thought about this.  But then you could watch the insight come to him as his face lit up.  “If you’re going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!”

Of course, when you’re eight years old, you hear all stories very concretely.  Eight-year-olds hear our gospel lesson and they see the events unfolding in their imagination.  They see a feast, lots of guest, maybe lots of noise.  They see Jesus’ mother telling him they’ve run out of wine.  Perhaps they’ll hear their own mother saying something like, “The kitchen trash can is overflowing,” or “Your room is a mess.”  Perhaps they’ll smile when they hear Jesus talk back to his mother:  “So what?”

Then they will see Mary go to the servants and tell them to do whatever Jesus says.  Jesus tells the servants to fill the stone jars with water, which they do.  Then, at Jesus’ direction, they draw some water out and give it to the steward, the headwaiter, who tastes it and realizes it’s a fine vintage, the best that’s been served since the banquet began.  To an eight-year-old, the story is just about what happened.

I approach this miracle, or as John calls it this “sign,” like I approach most miracles – with a modern mind.  In other words, I’m skeptical about what supposedly happened.  Did Jesus really turn water into wine?  Sure, he does it all the time – but typically it takes a lot longer.  First the rains have to come so the grapes can grow.  Then the grapes have to be harvested and fermented.  It usually take a year or more.  This story?  He does it in minutes.

Can I tell you a secret?  I don’t think it matters if Jesus turned water into wine.  I find much more fruit in looking for metaphors in these stories than I do in looking for historicity.  And this story is rich.

In the gospel of John, most of the characters exhibiting faith and discipleship go unnamed.  I think this is more starkly noticeable in Mark’s gospel, but notice some unnamed memorable figures from John:  the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, the so-called “beloved disciple.”  By their anonymity, the story allows them to be models for us, the readers and hearer of the gospel, inviting us into the story.

In this story, Mary isn’t called “Mary.”  She’s referred to simply as Jesus’ mother.  In fact, Jesus’ mother is never named in the gospel of John.  She is referred to as the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus, and if finally elevated to status of mother of disciples (19:27).

In this, Jesus’ first public action, she initiates a sequence of events that announce the dawning of the messianic age.  The setting is Cana in Galilee, an obscure town far from Jerusalem.   Jesus’ mother’s concern is that the wine has given out.  She remarks on this simply and declaratively.   Jesus’ response is strange.  It sounds a little like he’s talking back to me.  “What has this to do with you and me, woman?  My hour has not yet come.”

“My hour has not yet come.”  We’ll hear that phrase again in John’s gospel.  In chapter 7, when he escapes arrest, we’re told that it’s because his hour hadn’t come.  We hear the refrain, that the hour is coming, again and again.  Then, finally, just before his arrest while he is in prayer, Jesus says that the hour has come.  The moment of final confrontation with the principalities and powers and the final revelation of God’s glory comes.

His hour is introduced here amidst a wedding running short of wine.  “Alert readers will pay attention as the hours unfold.  At the well with the Samaritan woman in John 4, it is the sixth hour, halfway through the 12-hour day.  When the royal official’s son is healed at the end of chapter 4, it is the seventh hour.  Time is passing; night, when no one can work (9:4), is approaching.  When Jesus and the disciples reach the tomb of Lazarus, with death and murder in the air (chapter 11), Jesus insists that the 12 hours have not yet expired; there is still work to do.  But when the final passover arrives in chapter 13, the narrator tells us that ‘his hour had come.’ …  Here in Cana of Galilee, the hour has not come, but Jesus acts anyway, in what the narrator calls ‘the beginning of his signs.’”[2]

The text tells us that the jars Jesus orders to be filled with water were required by the purification rules of the Judeans.  These are big, heavy stone jars.  They hold 20 to 30 gallons.  I have no idea how they managed to get filled without the headwaiter noticing that something was going on.  But I also notice that they had to be filled.  Why were they empty?  Had all the water been used by the guests to purify themselves as the wedding celebrations began?  Had that ritual been abandoned by this family?

Regardless, Jesus seems to be repurposing them.  It’s as if the purification jars had run out of the power to cause celebration!  And I think it’s interesting that the headwaiter didn’t know the source of the extraordinary wine, but, the story tells us, the ‘servants’ knew.  Already, the lines are drawn between those who are prevented by their status from seeing the ‘source’ of Jesus’ power and those whose lowliness makes it easy to see the truth.

As a Christian, I see the stone jars and think of baptism.  Their purpose was to hold water for purification rituals.  We Christians have a water purification ritual – baptism.  And that got me thinking about the waters of baptism and the wine of communion.  What if the waters of baptism are changed into the wine of communion in us?  Then, the blood of Christ courses through our veins.

Transformation is the big theme in this story.  We hear it echoed in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Isaiah speaks about the transformation of Jerusalem and God’s people who are beset by misery and discouragement.  Israel and Jerusalem, it is anticipated, will exhibit glory with a new name and a new life.  The transformation is from “forsaken” and “desolate,” to “my delight is in her” and “married.”

“The poet uses the imagery of an abandoned woman who in ancient patriarchal society was an object of shame and contempt.  Jerusalem in exile was an object of contempt.  Now God, cast as husband, marries her and offers new life.”  The point is clear enough; the city is given new life by the transforming power of God.[3]

In the gospel lesson, the big transformation is the water into wine thing – except, of course, it’s not.

The story begins “On the third day …”  We know what happens on the third day.  This is a resurrection story.  This is a story about new life.  To be a disciple is to assume resurrection.   To be a disciple is to be open to the transforming power of God that brings new life.

“Knowing that Jesus has defeated death and its cohorts, evil and suffering, we can enter the struggle for life and kingdom ideals – justice, peace, love – without reservation and despite the fact that we may never see them fulfilled.  The resurrection theme enables us – indeed, compels us – to enter the struggle anyway, knowing that life has already won.”[4]  By participating in this new life, we are radically transformed.

The story takes place at a wedding, a communal celebration where two people choose to commit to one another.  Like marriage, discipleship is not a command, but a choice.  “Because we can say no, saying yes is a joyful occasion!  But be warned – a commitment to discipleship may seem as senseless and radical as believing in the resurrection, especially in a world that doesn’t think much of commitments, or have the time and patience for gospel ideals like welcoming the stranger and solidarity with the outcast.  Believing in such suspect ideas takes strength and seriousness, faith and fidelity.”[5]  By choosing to make this radical commitment, we are radically transformed.

This is Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, so this story about radical transformation seems especially appropriate.  Kings life was given in an attempt to radically transform our society.  He started with seeking to transform the scourge of racism.  Then he expanded his efforts to include the transformation of the scourge of poverty.  And finally, seeing the sins of racism, poverty, and militarism tied together, he sought to transform the scourge of war.

At his death in 1968, when he was calling with urgency for an end to poverty in our nation, there were 25.4 million poor Americans including 11 million poor children.  Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion.

Today, child poverty is up 46%, general poverty is up 82%, while the GDP is up some 300%.  The gross domestic product is up three times, and still, somehow the number of poor people keeps rising.  Twenty million of our neighbors are living in extreme poverty including 7.3 million children.  Disgracefully children are the poorest age group in America and the younger they are the poorer they are.  One in four preschool children is poor.  More than one in three Black children and the same proportion of Latino children are poor.  Children have suffered most since the recession began.[6]

The radical transformation Jesus promises his disciples isn’t just so we can have a new life grounded in radical commitment.  We are promised radical transformation so we can be about the work of transforming the world.

God has already gifted us with water.  John invites us to become, at the hands of Christ, the finest wine.  Amen.


[1] From an email of sermon illustrations mailed by (20 January 2013).  No author attribution given.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Radical Transformations,” Sojourners, (15 January 2013).

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Qualities of Discipleship,” Sojourners, (15 January 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marian Wright Edelman, “How We Can Truly Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,” Children’s Defense Fund, (18 January 2013).

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]



[1] Madia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Losing Your Life and How Jesus Isn’t Your Magical Puppy,” Sojourners, (15 September 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michaela Bruzzese, “An Upside-Down Reign,” Sojourners, (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, (15 September 2012).

[7] Ched Myers, quoted by Joe Roos, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Sojourners, (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

[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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