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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 11, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The Gospel lesson we just heard is traditionally called “the Great Commission,” but I noticed this week that the commission is just one of the three important things in this passage.  Three things, and they are all interrelated.

First, there is the wonderful line about doubt.  The resurrection has happened.  The disciples have experienced the presence of Jesus even though he’d been killed.  Matthew has the disciples gather on a mountain top, a location of holy events throughout the Bible.  They see Jesus and they worship him; “but, Matthew says, “some doubted.”

How glorious is that?!  There they are in the very presence of the resurrected Christ, and some of them doubt.

Doubt is part of the life of a disciple.  Doubt is normal and as much a part of the life of a disciple as trust is.  In fact, the famous theological Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.…  Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  16th century reformer John Calvin said, “Surely … we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”  Madeleine L’Engle said, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.…  Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”  And, perhaps my favorite quote about doubt comes from Frederick Buechner:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”[1]

Getting back to the scripture lesson, there they are on the mountain top, worshipping Jesus, and some of them doubting, and Jesus gives them a job to do.  This “great commission” is the second thing in this passage.  “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells them.  This is one of several passages used by the church through the ages to inform their sense of mission.

Now, I suspect I am not the only one here who has some resistance to a call to go into all the world to make and baptize disciples.  It sounds too – what? – too aggressively Christian, maybe?  It sounds too much like going out to save souls.  But when I can get past that knee-jerk reaction, I can hear an invitation – for me to go extend the invitation, within and beyond the community of Jesus-followers, to a deeper and deeper life of discipleship.  Figuring out what it looks like to love God and neighbor in any given situation is not always easy to do, and I need people who are on the journey to help me figure that stuff out.  That’s what the line about “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” means to me.  I need to come together in prayer and worship, in study and fellowship and service to figure out how to best obey the most basic thing that Jesus taught:  That the law and the prophets can be summed up in these two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s one of the reasons it is important to pause and say thank you to all the people who make our coming together on Sunday mornings possible and meaningful.

And then there’s the third thing:  a promise.  Jesus comes to his disciples despite – or maybe even because of – their doubt.  And he commissions them to keep going deeper into their own discipleship even as they invite others to discipleship with them.  And he finishes with a promise:  “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.

“Notice Jesus’ language:  it’s not just future tense.  Christ is with us.  Even now.  Even here.  Even amid our struggles at home or at work or at our congregations or in the world.  Christ is with us.   Encouraging us, comforting us, working with us, guiding us, granting us the grace and courage necessary to be the people of God in the world right now.”[2]

“The very last thing Matthew records of everything Jesus said and did is a promise:  ‘And I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  Right here, right now, and forever.”[3]

This sermon started out as being for our high school graduates and I was going to focus on doubt, because doubts are such a normal part of the faith journey, especially for young adults.  It became something for us all.  We all experience doubts in the midst of our faith, and we can use those doubts to encourage our journeys.  We are all called to mission, often in different forms, for we are different people, often in different forms at different stages of our lives, for we are evolving people.  And we all are recipients of Jesus’ promise, that he is with us, present tense, to the end of time.

“Go ahead and doubt,” Jesus says.  “I’ve got work for you to do anyway.  And don’t sweat it because I’m still around.”

Amen.

[1] These quotes taken from Tim Suttle, “Ten Great Quotes About Doubt & the Christian Experience,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2016/04/ten-great-quotes-about-doubt-the-christian-experience.html (posted 25 April 2016; accessed 7 June 2017).

[2] David Lose, “Trinity Sunday A: ‘The Great Promise,’” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/ (posted and accessed 7 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 20, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:30-37
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I assume all of you heard the news about the 14-year-old who was arrested at his Irving, Texas, high school this week.[1]  I want to take you on a journey, a retracing of my experience of this news as it unfolded because I think it is germane to my sermon topic today.

Ahmed Mohamed being arrested. Photo from NBC

For me, the news broke in my Facebook feed.  A 14-year-old boy was arrested in Texas when an electronic clock he made as a project for his engineering class was mistaken for a bomb.  I thought some disparaging thoughts about Texas and scrolled on to the next post.  After all, schools have a responsibility to keep students safe, and if one student did something that threatened or even seemed to threaten the others, the school administration needed to react.

More posts showed up in my Facebook feed when I checked it throughout the day, so I clicked on one.  The first thing I noticed was the kid’s name:  Ahmed Mohamed.  I wondered if the level of suspicion would have been as high if the boy was named Paul Christianson.

And I started wondering about the school staff.  How could they possibly mistake a clock for a bomb?  Had the kid made any threats? No.  Had he ever claimed it was anything but a clock? No.  Did it look like there were explosives? No, it was built in a pencil case.  Why on earth did they call the police and why on earth did the police arrest the kid?

Photo of pencil box in which Ahmed built his clock, released by police.

I was relieved when I started seeing the reactions of people outside Irving, Texas.  My favorite response was from the President, posted on Twitter almost immediately after the story broke:  “Cool clock, Ahmed.  Want to bring it to the White House?  We should inspire more kids like you to like science.  It’s what makes America great.”[2]  Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to visit Facebook and said that he wanted to meet the kid.  The chair of theoretical physics at MIT (Ahmed’s dream school) invited him to come visit (and to visit Harvard) saying that she knows Ahmed likes the hands-on stuff, but the theory of physics can be interesting, too.  And, under the heading of “Get arrested and get cool swag,” Microsoft’s CEO sent Ahmed a care package.[3]

Care package from Microsoft CEO. Photo from Microsoft News

Still, there was part of me that thought, “This was a really stupid mistake on the part of the school and the police, but they do have a responsibility to protect the students.”  And then I read a Facebook post[4] that changed my mind.  This post pointed out that they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when you think that there’s a bomb.  They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a suspicious package.  They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do if you think he has a bomb.  They put him and the clock in an office, they waited with him for the police to arrive, they put Ahmed and the clock in a police car, and when they got to the police station, they took pictures of it.  They never thought he had a bomb.

At first, I thought the issue was fear – fear of the object, maybe even fear of the object because a Muslim kid built it.  Now I’m inclined to think that the issue is fear – fear that a brown-skinned, Muslim kid could excel, could be creative, might achieve.

Fear makes us do stupid things.

Yes, sometimes fear is helpful.  Over the eons, our fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening situations probably kept Homo sapiens from extinction.  And in some situations, the fear response is still very helpful because it keeps us safe.  But fear can be a conditioned response based on nothing threatening.  Many of the things we fear we learned to fear.  We weren’t afraid of them until experience or culture taught us to be afraid.  And those learned fears often lead to prejudices.  And those prejudices lead to injustices.  Fear can move us to do stupid things.

Or as David Lose puts it, “Fear has this way of leading you to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing your vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities.  Which is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when you are afraid.”[5]

“This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith.  Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid.  And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom.  Fear does that.  It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.”[6]

Mark contrasts faith and fear in other places in his gospel.  After he stills the storm that terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  As he revives Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36).

“Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives [us] to despair.”[7]

So, here’s a question for you:  What are you afraid of?

I would actually like you to reflect on this question.  Jot down your answers on a corner of your copy of the bulletin.  Push past the phobia answers (for me, that’s snakes; an easy but not instructive answer).  Push past, look inside and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?”

As I sat with this question this week, these are the answers I came up with:  Perhaps because I keep seeing articles about the astronomical costs for housing in San Francisco that is driving up housing costs throughout the Bay Area, I’m afraid I may not have enough savings to retire.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s a fear.  But what are you really afraid of, Jeff?”  And I looked deeper inside discovered that I’m afraid of being rejected or shamed; and I’m afraid of anger – my own anger and anger in other people.

I share these fears not because I expect any of you to fix them (or me).  That’s not your job.  They are my fears.  I share them because I think this is a safe space where I can be real.  I share them because I trust you to hear them.  I share them to encourage you to look inside yourself to discover what you really fear.  And I share them because, as Mark is pointing out, there is a relationship between fear and faith.

Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation faith.  And by faith, I don’t mean giving our intellectual assent to some proposition – as if believing the right things about God somehow inoculates us from fear.  Rather, I mean faith “as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.

“Note what follows the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ probing question that only exposes the depth of their anxiety:  Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.

“These are small things when you think about it.  Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger.  But they are available to each and all of us every single day.  And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”[8]

I began thinking that the Irving high school over-reaction to Ahmed’s clock was understandable.  We want our schools to be a safe space for our children.  The over-reaction may have exposed how unsafe the schools are – not because of the students, but because of the unnamed, unconscious fears of the adults.

Our lesson from Mark suggests ways to make those school and our churches and every place safer spaces for everyone:  When we make the small gestures of caring, of compassion, of welcome, of honesty,  and when we receive those gestures with gratitude and trust.

Amen.

[1] Bill Chappell, “Texas High School Student Shows Off Homemade Clock, Gets Handcuffed,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/16/440820557/high-school-student-shows-off-homemade-clock-gets-handcuffed (posted 16 September 2015, accessed 19 September 2015).

[2] Barack Obama, Twitter, https://twitter.com/POTUS/status/644193755814342656 (posted and accessed 16 September 2015).

[3] Mehedi Hassan, “Ahmed Mohamed gets Surface Pro 3, and more goodies from Microsoft CEO,” Microsoft News, http://microsoft-news.com/ahmed-mohamed-gets-surface-pro-3-and-more-goodies-from-microsoft-ceo/ (posted and accessed 19 September 2015).

[4] I have since seen this post attributed to several people, so I don’t know who wrote it originally.

[5] David Lose, “Pentecost 17B: Faith & Fear,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-17-b-faith-fear/ (posted and accessed 14 September 2015).

[6] Ibid, emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 7, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This sermon title was nabbed from this children's book I remember from my childhood.

This sermon title was nabbed from this children’s book I remember from my childhood.

One of the more amazing moments in American history, in my opinion anyway, was the Founders’ decision not to have a king. These European men who had lived as subjects of King George decided that all men are created equal, that so no one of them should be set up as sovereign over the others. Of course, by “all,” they meant all white male property owners, not all people. But still, the decision to found a nation without a monarch was an impressive choice, one that went against the conventional wisdom of the day. Well, not all the conventional wisdom of the day. There were Native American nations that were much more democratic then monarchic, but choosing democracy over monarchy certainly went against the conventional European wisdom of the day.

This is a stark contrast to our reading from 1 Samuel.

It’s important to remember the political history that gets us to this point, at least the way the Hebrew Scriptures tell it. They started off as a horde of people whose primary political identity was “freed slaves.” Once they conquered and occupied the territory they thought was promised to them by God, they lived as a confederation of tribes ruled by “judges.” One of the judges was Samuel. Samuel was a judge who had influence throughout the confederation of tribes. He, it turns out, was the last of the great judges. He ends up playing an important transitional role because he becomes the first prophet of the time of the prophets.

At this point in the story, he thought his sons would inherit his role as the leading Judge in the confederation. But they were no good, so this confederation really couldn’t rely on them. And, given the geo-politics, this confederation felt it needed to become a nation to defend itself. They looked at the other powerful nations around them and they had kings. So the leaders went to Samuel and told him that they need him to appoint a king.

The only problem was that, as far as God was concerned, they already had a king: God. That’s one of the important themes in this story. God was their sovereign. God had been their sovereign since leading them out of slavery. By insisting that Samuel appoint a king for them, the Hebrews were rejecting God as their sovereign.

“We want to be just like every other nation, so give us a king.” God and Samuel saw the dangers. Kings will draft your children and send them off to war. Kings will accumulate wealth for themselves at your expense. Kings will tax you excessively to pay off their cronies and make their wars possible. You’re not going to like it.

And did you hear that line? The king “will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.” One-tenth. A tithe. Kings will take what belongs to God.

But the people insisted and a king was selected. As fate would have it, the selection fell on a man named Saul. And, sure enough, Saul went to war almost immediately. And he worked to consolidate his power threatening executions. In other words, Samuel’s warning was right on target.

I think it’s important to look at the Hebrews’ motivation that spurred them to demand an earthly king. They were anxious about their security. They had mega-countries on either side – Egypt to the south; Assyria to the northeast. They looked at these mega-countries and trembled. And they asked themselves, what have these mega-countries got that we don’t. The answer was a king. It made sense. Kings offer security – or they seem to. Kings are tangible. God, on the other hand, it intangible and wants to be a blessing to all nations, not just ours. So, the logical solution to our security anxieties: give us a king.

It seems to me that this reaction is not restricted to years gone by. Look at our reaction to the acts of terror committed on September 11, 2001. Our nation, that was purposely founded without a king, adopted laws that gave the President some kingly powers. Not only was the size of surveillance state increased, but the President was essentially giving the power to declare war. Not only did our Presidents (plural) move us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but into war in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia as well via the use of drones. Why hasn’t the Congress taken back these kingly powers? The same reason the Hebrews asked for a king of their own: fear.

But the issue for today’s sermon isn’t American politics per se. The issue here is faith. “Give us a king,” the Hebrews demanded of Samuel. Give us someone who is corruptible. Give us someone who will offer us a false sense of security. Give us someone who will make us forget that our hope and our security lies with God and God alone.

A cry went up from Mainline American Protestantism a few weeks ago when the Pew Research report on the state of religion in the United States was released.[1] Woe to us, for we have lost a 3.4% share of the American population. Woe to us, for we are now only 14.7% of the American population. Woe to us! And some are responding by looking at the mega-churches that surround us. Why can’t we be like them? What have they got that we don’t?

I heard a story this past week[2] from a pastor who once served a church as a youth pastor. The mega-church down the street had a huge youth group. Why can’t we have a huge youth group? Why can’t we be just like everyone else? Well, it turns out that the mega-church down the street had a contest: The youth group member who brought the most friends was awarded an iPod. (This was a while ago, when iPods were the latest thing.) Yeah, we could do that. And it would create a big youth group. But would it have been faithful? Wow! We’ve got the biggest bribery youth group in town.

That’s the dilemma the Hebrews faced. A king might be effective (for a time, anyway), but was it faithful? Remember, faith is not primarily about what you believe. Faith is about fidelity and trust and the way you view the world. Asking for a king, demanding a king – what did that say about their faith in God?

The question for the Hebrews wasn’t (or at least it shouldn’t have been) “Who will lead us?” but “How will we follow God and walk with God?” We have the same question before us. As a congregation, how will we follow God and walk with God? As individuals, how will each one of us follow God and walk with God? Our task is always one of listening for God’s vision for us.

There is no one answer that fits all. There is no one vision that is for each one of us or for each congregation. And as times change and circumstances change, God’s vision for us may change, too.

One key component of this is understanding who you are, and who we are. I know I sometimes want to be just like everyone else. I want to fit in. And I suspect the same is true for congregations. We want to be just like everyone else, we want to fit in, not to stand out. Other times we may want to be just like “them,” the “successful” ones – with success typically meaning “large attendance.” But is that God’s vision for us?

There are plenty of gimmicks we can try to grow our church, but if it’s a gimmick, I suspect it won’t be very faithful. What will grow a church is the church giving itself away.

I got an email a while back trying to sell me a pledge campaign. I didn’t bite, but I did like the central metaphor for the campaign – if it were applied to evangelism. The metaphor is a call to move from soupspoons to ladles. My soupspoon is for feeding me. If my evangelism is about filling my soupspoon, it’s about what I’m going to get out of it. My ladle is for filling bowls. If my evangelism is about filling my ladle, it’s about what I’m going to give away to fill someone else’s bowl. And I think that we are generally called to fill other’s bowls, not our own.

Pastor Brenda is going to take a group to a workshop on evangelism in September. The workshop will teach some approaches to ladle evangelism through interpersonal outreach. Emphasis will be on learning, working, practicing, and increasing confidence. Time will be spent on concerns about Interpersonal Outreach, learning how to talk about our church and faith in an authentic but respectful way, and role-playing until you can invite with ease. If you think you might want to go, talk to her.

Whether you go to the workshop or not, it is important to pay attention to what’s motivating you to invite people to church in the first place. If it’s anxiety about the Assyrians to the north and the Egyptians to the south, take a breath. Decisions based in fear are seldom if ever faithful decisions. Decisions grounding in faith – in trust and fidelity – are going to work much better.

Bob Dylan tells us, we’re gonna serve somebody.[3] Remember that all the options other than God – whether money, prestige, or (as popular an idol in the Bible as it is now) national military might – offer false promises of happiness or security. As God pointed out in the Exodus, Pharaoh’s army is all wet.  Samuel warned the Hebrews that the security offered by a king would be short-lived. But God – that’s where our real help come from. And when we glorify God, we remind ourselves and each other, over a crowded field of idolatrous contenders, of that fact.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] See http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.

[2] This was a story told by one of the people on the Pulpit Fiction podcast available at http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/118-proper-5b-june-7-2015.

[3] This conclusion is based on Elizabeth Palmberg’s article, “God’s Glory – It’s Epic,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gods-glory-its-epic (accessed 2 June 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 27, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:19-31
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve got a scar on my left knee that’s about an inch and a half long.  When I was 10, it stuck out and looked like a worm had attached itself to my leg, especially after I’d been swimming long enough to get cold (the scar would turn an interesting shade of purple).  I remember exactly how I got it.  I was at day camp the summer I was 7, and I was running from one activity to another—camp was so much fun I just had to get to the next activity—when I tripped and sliced my knee open.  I probably should have been shipped off to a doctor for a half dozen stitches, but I was having too much fun at camp to miss any of it, and the cut was deep enough it didn’t hurt.  “Just put a band-aid on it,” I insisted and I was off to the next activity.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the grass where I tripped and feel its texture.  I can still see the look of the wound as it was washed out.  I can still feel the excitement I felt at being at camp.

I suspect each of you has a scar story.  Somewhere on your body there’s a scar that if you look at it or touch it will take you back to the incident that caused the wound.  Some, maybe even most of your stories are not as happy as mine.

I read a story this week about a woman who had massive matching scars on her knees.  “Several years ago she scooped up her toddler son from the swimming pool and began to walk towards a lounge chair.  As she stepped onto the tiled patio, her foot slipped on the wet, slick surface.  She was also seven months pregnant, and it was one of those moments where you feel like you’re moving in slow motion but there’s nothing you can do to stop the fall.  Within a split second, she knew her momentum was toppling her forward, and she could either face-plant and land on top of both her son and her unborn child, or she could fall on her knees.

“… She chose to fall on her knees directly onto the unforgiving concrete.  Her knees immediately burst open and blood went everywhere.  She ended up needing stitches, which resulted in [the] scars, but her son and unborn child were both unscathed.”[1]  This woman’s story seems closer to the scar story we heard in today’s gospel lesson than mine.  Hers involves pain and sacrifice … and life.

So let’s do a show of hands.  Is there anyone here who thinks they can name all 12 disciples?  You’ll notice I didn’t raise my hand.  You may be surprised to learn that if we had Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John here, John wouldn’t have raised his hand—his gospel only names seven of the twelve (though he identifies two others without their names and simple as “sons of Zebedee”).  One of the disciples John names is Nathanael—not named by the other gospel writers.  There are discrepancies between the lists from the synoptic gospels, and even within.  For instance, Mark identifies the tax collector that Jesus calls as “Levi,” but later when Mark lists the disciples, he lists Matthew.  Go figure.

One conclusion I’ve reached as a result of this is that the number 12 is much more symbolic than specific.

If I were to ask you to write down the first word that comes into your mind when I mention a disciple’s name, in many cases you’d leave the paper blank.  For instance, Thaddeus or Bartholomew or Philip.  In other cases, we would probably produce a bunch of difference responses.  For instance, Peter.  We might get rock, heaven, dense, passionate, impulsive, dedicated, human, denier, impetuous, pumpkin eater, homey, larger than life, emotional, intense, forceful, good-hearted, slow-witted.  And in a couple cases, I suspect there would be a convergence around one word.  For instance, Judas.  I suspect that most of you would write down “betrayer.”  Or Thomas.  I suspect most of you would write down “doubter.”

Poor Thomas.  Always associated with doubt.  This is the guy who, in John’s gospel when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, a decision that the other disciples think it will lead to certain death for all of them, declares, “Let us all go with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!” (John 11:16)  “Courageous Thomas” might be a more appropriate moniker than “Doubting Thomas.”  And given how today’s reading ends, perhaps “Confessing Thomas” works, too.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Thomas is known best of all as the doubter and I find it interesting that just one week after all the partying, one week after the grand celebrations of the resurrection, the church turns to the subject of doubt.  In fact, I find it reassuring that the church turns to the subject of doubt.  The resurrection is really the most unlikely of events.

When told that the others have seen the Lord, Thomas logically assumed the other disciples are speaking nonsense.  “What kind of super-humanity do we expect from Thomas?  To trust that life overcomes death, when he is still reeling from his loss?  He’s learned to trust the power of death, whose stench lingers on the empty crosses and sick bodies who beg along the road to Jerusalem.  Now, with the death of his teacher and friend, the fragile hope he had started entertaining has snapped in two, and he has committed himself to never suffer such foolishness again.”[2]

Jesus can’t be resurrected.  And when the resurrected Christ shows up again, this time with Thomas there, Jesus honors Thomas’ need and invites Thomas to reach into his wounds, to touch him.  Touch played a vital part in Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus touched the untouchables—the lepers, the blind, the unwhole and impure.  And he let other’s touch him—a woman who has been hemorrhaging for years, a woman who has a reputation who anoints him.  And here, Jesus invites Thomas, “Touch me and see.  No ghost has flesh and bones like this.”[3]

Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1602-03.

The scripture isn’t clear if Thomas touched or not.  The renaissance painter Caravaggio seemed to think Thomas did.  Perhaps the invitation was enough and Thomas didn’t need to actually stick his fingering into the wounds after all.  In any event, Thomas found in that moment the mystical union of life and death, sorrow and joy that we call “the resurrection.”[4]

Just as Jesus honored Thomas’ doubts, I believe Jesus honors our doubts.   But that may be because “doubt is essential to faith,” as author Lesley Hazelton has said.  “… Abolish all doubt and what is left is not faith but absolute, heartless conviction.  You’re certain that you possess the Truth [with a capital T].…  This certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a … pride in being so very right—in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.”[5]

Doubt is a part of us we need to cherish.  “We have this idea that doubt is somehow imperfect, that there is something wrong with doubt.  It is this desire for certainty that I see is so dangerous, this desire for perfectibility.  Let’s just let go of perfection.  Let’s just accept that we’re human.  We’re imperfect.  That’s what makes us interesting.  That’s what makes the world interesting.”[6]

Think about what it was like for those Jesus followers when John wrote his gospel.  It was not only not best of times, in most ways it was some of the worst of times.  Doubt must have filled their hearts.  “They doubted that Roman persecution would ever end.  They doubted that tensions would ever cease between the church and the synagogue.  Racial and religious divisions among them left the church doubting their unified identity in Christ.

“The first eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were long-ago dead.  Jesus’ return was long overdue.  For these deeply doubting believers, hearing John’s gospel story of Thomas was to hear their story.”[7]

Thomas listened to the disciples’ tall tales of seeing the resurrected Jesus.  But why should he believe it just because he heard the story?  Why should the early Christians believe any of this resurrection stuff just because they heard the story?

Thomas was lucky.  Jesus showed up again and give him the chance to see the evidence with his own eyes.  Seeing is believing, I’ve been told.  His response changes his moniker from “doubting Thomas” to “confessing Thomas.”  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.  Given what things were like when John wrote his gospel it’s no surprise that John tells us Jesus replied, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I would say that even more important than coming to believe is coming to have faith.  There’s a difference between faith and belief, between faith and conviction.  Faith is much more about relationship that belief is.  Faith is about trust and trustworthiness and fidelity.  Belief is about mental assent.  Faith is about the whole being; belief is about the head only.[8]

Hazelton, who describes herself as an agnostic Jew, puts it this way:  Faith and conviction are in two separate spheres.  “The people I know of deepest faith are not convinced.  They have faith despite their doubt, in fact because of their doubts.  It’s a dance, and they’re very, very aware of this and it goes beyond ‘belief in.’  They know that this is not rational and yet they commitment themselves.  And it’s that act of commitment, that existential act of commitment that I so admire.”[9]

The sermon title for today really should be “Faith While Doubts Bloom,” not what’s printed in your bulletins, because that’s what the story of “doubting Thomas” is about for me.

I like the way Lauren Winner put it:  “Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt, or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.  And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone.  I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander.  And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”[10]

May our eyes always be open to the holy interruptions of our gaze.  And may our faith grow as our doubts bloom.  Amen.

 

[1] Christi O. Brown, “”The Greatest Scar Story,” Scars of Hope, quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 21 April 2014.

[2] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Wounds that Reveal Life,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/wounds-reveal-life (accessed 25 April 2014).

[3] Rose Marie Berger, “The Sense of Touch,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/sense-touch (accessed 25 April 2014).

[4] Verhulst, op. cit.

[5]Lesley Hazelton’s TED Talk, “The doubt essential to faith,” http://www.ted.com/talks/lesley_hazleton_the_doubt_essential_to_faith (accessed 26 April 2014).

[6]Lesley Hazelton, TED Radio Hour, originally broadcast 18 April 2014, listened to online at http://www.npr.org/2013/11/18/245949211/believers-and-doubters?showDate=2014-04-18 on 26 April 2014.

[7] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “A Shelter of Doubt,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/shelter-doubt (accessed 25 April 2014).

[8] This point of view is influenced very heavily by Marcus Borg.  See, for instance, his chapter “Faith” in The Heart of Christianity.

[9]Lesley Hazelton on the TED Radio Hour, op. cit.

[10] Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, quoted in a email from Brenda Loreman, dated 23 April 2014.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 20:1-18
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Earlier this week, an older couple received a phone call from their son who lives far away.[1]  The son said he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to come for a visit over spring break after all.  “The grandkids say hello,” he said.  The couple assured him that they understood, but when they hung up the phone they didn’t dare look at each other.

Earlier this week, a woman was called into her supervisor’s office to hear that times are hard for the company and they had to let her go.  “So sorry,” the supervisor said.  She cleaned out her desk, packed away her hopes for getting ahead, and wondered what she would tell her kids.

Earlier this week, someone received terrible news from a physician.

Earlier this week, someone heard the words, “I don’t love you any more.”

Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified.  And the darkness is overwhelming.  It seems as if it is all over.  That is the natural thing to assume.

It sure seemed like it was all over to the disciples.[2]  By some political maneuvering, they’d managed to prevent the soldiers from feeding his broken body to the wild dogs.  With pain filled faces they took him down from the cross, maybe they washed him, but they probably didn’t have time to anoint the body before they wrapped him in a shroud, and laid him in a borrowed tomb.  It was a better fate than being fed to the dogs.  But not by much.

The One who’d told them he had no place to lay his head, was still far away from home.  When his flesh had decayed, would his bones be gathered to those of his ancestors?  Over the coming generations, would anyone remember him?  I imagine that all that day and the next, a stillness hung over his disciples.  Occasionally, the stillness was broken by the fear filled sobbing of his disciples … and the glad cries of those who had sought his life.

Then, something happened, something that is so hard to explain, perhaps the only way to explain it is with stories.  Matthew tells the story this way.

In the last moments before the sun rose on the third day, there came a noise.  At first the soldiers who guarded the tomb listened to it in amazement.  Then they covered their ears and fell to the ground in terror.  For angel voices, the ones who sang a wondrous pianissimo of beauty over the stable of Bethlehem, burst into a fortissimo of sheer, raw, unadulterated power.  Blinding light sprang forth, not from the sun, but from the rocks themselves as the earth heaved and pushed the stone away.  And in a roar never before heard on earth, the bonds of death were shattered forever.

Death became a joke in that moment.  It can no longer win.  Evil can no longer win.  Darkness can no longer defeat light.  Seemingly powerless love has triumphed over loveless power.  And for all eternity the angels’ song rings through the heavens and in the hearts of those who open them to hear.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection is not only the greatest day of the church year; it is also the only one that is set by the moon.[3]  Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.  As complicated as that sounds, it makes ancient sense, since it means (at least in the northern hemisphere, where this dating scheme was created) Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.

Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life.  Sap rises in dormant trees, spring peepers start their peeping, and trumpet lilies spill their sweet smell on the air – causing people like me to reach for the Zyrtec.  The connection is a happy one, guaranteed to renew our faith in the creative power of God.

But it is also a misleading one, because spring is entirely natural.  Buy a daffodil bulb in the winter and it looks like nothing in your hands – a small onion, maybe, with its thin skin and scraggy roots.  If you have had any experience with bulbs, however that does not worry you.  You know that all you have to do it wait.  Come springtime it will escape the earth and explode with color, a yellow butterfly of a blossom shedding its cocoon.  As miraculous as it is, it is completely natural.

Resurrection, on the other hand, is entirely unnatural.  When a human being goes into the ground, that is that.  You don’t wait around for the person to reappear so you can pick up where you left off – not this side of the grave, anyway.  You say good-bye.  You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them.

That is all Mary Magdalene was doing that morning – paying her respects, going to his tomb to convince herself it was all true, John tells us as he tries to explain what happened.  It was still dark, but even from a distance she knew something was wrong.  She could smell damp earth, cold rock from inside.  Someone had moved the stone!

The conclusion was obvious.  Afraid he would become a saint, afraid his tomb would become a shrine, someone had taken him away – God knew where.  To a steep cliff?  To the town dump?  Allowed his body to be fed to the dogs?

His body was all she had left and now it too was gone.  So she ran and brought two of the others back with her, but once they had satisfied themselves that what she said was true, they left her there weeping.  If they tried to lead her away, she refused them.  She was like an abandoned pup who had lost her master, staying rooted to the last place he had been, without the least idea of what to do next.

Even angels could not soften her resolve.  They were there when she worked up her nerve to look inside the tomb, sitting where the body had lain.  “Why are you weeping?” they asked her.

“They have taken away my lord,” she answered them, “and I do not know where they have laid him.”  It never occurred to her they might be the culprits, apparently, but it was not as if she were thinking clearly.

She was operating on automatic pilot, so that when she left the tomb she bumped into the gardener without even seeing him.  His only value to her was that he might know the answer to her question.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  What did she think she would do – have the gardener lay the body over her shoulders, or pick it up all by herself?

It was not a reasonable request, but the gardener did not seem to mind.  Perhaps he was even a bit amused.  “Mary,” he said to her, and she turned to stare at him.

“Rabbouni!” she cried out.  “My Teacher!”

“Do not hold on to me,” he cautioned her, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  What peculiar thing for him to say since there is no evidence she was holding on to him in any way.  Unless it was by what she called him – my Teacher, the old name she used to call him.  Maybe he could hear it in her voice, how she wanted him back the way he was so they could go back to the way they were, back to the old life where everything was familiar and not frightening like it was now.

“Rabbouni!” she called him, but that was his Friday name, and here it was Sunday – an entirely new day in an entirely new life.  He was not on his way back to her and the others.  He was on his way to God, and he was taking the whole world with him.  This may be why all the other gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us not to be afraid – because new life is frightening.  It is unnatural.

To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future, to seek a corpse and find the risen Lord – none of this is natural.

Death is natural.  Loss is natural.  Grief is natural.  The good news is this:  the story does not end with death and loss and grief.  Our stories, our lives are changed by this highly unnatural truth:  those stones have been rolled away.  By the light of this day, God has planted a seed of life in us that cannot be killed, and if we can remember that then there is nothing we cannot do.  We can move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world.

The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him.  He has asked us please not to do that, because he knows that, all things considered, we would rather keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going.  Better we should let him hold on to us, perhaps.  Better we should let him take us into the white-hot presence of God, who is not behind us but ahead of us, every step of the way.

Amen


ENDNOTES
[1] Adapted from Craig Barnes, “Savior at Large,” published in the March 13-20, 2002, edition of The Christian Century, quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 26 March 2013.

[2] This next section of the sermon (through Matthew’s telling of the Easter story) is adapted from an email Frank Fisher sent to Sermonshop_Sermons on Ecunet on April 11, 2004.

[3] The rest of this sermon is almost a direct quote from a sermon “The Unnatural Truth” by Barbara Brown Taylor, printed in one of her books, Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 109-112.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 2, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:38-55
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Hang on just a second while I make this call.

Hello.  God?  Yeah.  Gabe here.  Look, I’ve been all over Nazareth looking for this girl “Mary.”  Do have any idea how many Marys there are in Nazareth?  You do?  Yeah, I suppose you would know.

Look, this is getting pretty repetitive.  I find a girl named Mary.  I tell her, “Greetings favored one, God is with you,” and she looks at me like I’ve got drool dripping form the corner of my mouth or some spinach stuck in my teeth.  I explain that you want her to get pregnant so that she can give birth to a son who will inherit the throne of David and do really cool stuff, and before I can get to the part about her cousin who’s been barren into her old age being pregnant, too, I’m getting chased out of the house with a broom or worse.  None – I mean NONE – of these girls is interested.

I haven’t what?  I haven’t been to the right Mary yet.  Do you really think there is a Mary in this town who’s going to say, “Yes”?  I mean these other girls have been SO negative on the idea.  Maybe you need to switch strategies.

Okay, okay, I’ll try the next one on the list.  Okay.  Bye-bye.

I try to imagine the story of Mary, much of which we heard read today, from Mary’s point of view, too.  What do you say when an angel visits you?  I imagine it must be a little disturbing.  There she was, minding her own business, making some bread or doing some household chores, when she felt this presence.  I wonder how she would have described it.  I imagine seeing an angel as being like seeing light and hope and peace and joy all at once.  I imagine it would be wonderful and scary and a little overwhelming.  Okay, a lot overwhelming.

This angel speaks:  “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Favored one?  What does that mean?  “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t think of a pick elephant.  I don’t imagine that helped.

And then the angel goes into this whole bit about having a son by the Holy Spirit of God.  What would you say?  This could get messy pretty quickly.  Sex outside of marriage was seen as a no-no.  No being a virgin at marriage was seen as a no-no.  If all this happens, Mary could be dragged away and stoned to death.  Convincing Joseph that the baby isn’t his but is his – I see guests for a future episode of the Jerry Springer show.

What does Mary say?  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  I think the most miraculous part of this story is Mary’s “Yes.”

We are invited to identify with Mary in her pregnancy, experiencing her unborn child kicking in her womb.  By claiming her story, by claiming the birth story, we name ourselves people of possibilities.

“When we don’t want to even pick up this morning’s newspaper, when confronted with yet another death toll, when angry with our fellow citizens – we claim that there still exists a possibility for understanding, a possibility for peace and reconciliation, a possibility that today, or maybe tomorrow, good news will triumph, change will happen.

“When we see some of this darkness, violence, and apathy inside of ourselves and do battle with our responsibilities in this world – we claim that a possibility still exists for renewal, for light to enter into ourselves, a possibility that we can actually show love to others.  There exists a possibility all around us and within each of us for incarnation to occur.  The mystery and the glory of incarnation … are that we will always confront it in the region of the unexpected.”[1]

Listen to the words of Mary’s song.  Listen to her sing of her hope in what God is doing in her “yes.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me …  God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Maybe all of this really could happen.  “Maybe people will be healed.  Maybe the poor will be fed.  Maybe all will be treated and loved as equals.  Maybe peace will reign and wars will cease. …  Maybe Word will become flesh.  Maybe God will become human, just like us. …  Maybe the dead will rise again.  Maybe the old will become new. …  Maybe God will be revealed in the beggar, the prostitute, or even the politician we wrote off years ago.”[2]

And I don’t want the sinless Mary.  I don’t want the Mary, meek and mild.  I want the Mary of the magnificat.  I want the Mary who raises a scandal with her pregnancy, who has a past, who has problems, who could have said “no” to God and had the chutzpa to say “yes.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”[3]

That’s why it doesn’t matter if the Mary story ever happened.  What’s important is how the Mary story touches us, how it stirs us, what it moves us to do.  Will we, with our scandals and pasts and problem have the chutzpa to say “yes” to God’s call and “yes” to God’s vision?

I believe that God is at work in you and me in much the same way that God was at work in Mary.  Not that God is knocking any of us up, but that God is inviting us to carry in our bodies the blessing of God for the world.  Having the faith and vision Mary had means allowing yourself to trust how God is at work in our lives.  Mary knew about the radical social upheaval that was about to be ushered in, thanks to her faith and her vision.

“You couldn’t get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty.”[4]  And that’s what the story tells us Mary was.  A poor, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine chosen by God to bear the gift for which the world longed.

“God’s promises had already become truth in her flesh.  The poor were already being exalted. …

“At the news, she went ‘with haste’ to see her cousin Elizabeth.  It was a natural response.  When afraid, go see a friend who will listen and make it all feel a little less lonely and overwhelming.

“… Mary, still trembling with the news of what was to be fulfilled in her, ran to the elderly Elizabeth and embraced her.  At Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s womb came to life, and the child ‘leaped for joy’ within her!

“The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and hope, flowed forth in this setting.  And two miraculously pregnant women basked in the secret of the quiet revolution that was to be accomplished through them.  Two women incarnated the truth that, with God, nothing is impossible.

“I like to imagine what their days together were like.  They must have been filled with shared secrets, laughter, a few tears, and dreams of a future unlike any they had conceived before.  They watched their wombs swell, felt their sons growing within, probably rubbed each other’s aching backs and sore feet at the end of the day.

“Elizabeth, in her experience and wisdom, had much to share with her younger cousin.  She understood the requirements of faith and the challenges of marriage.  She knew that some would point with scorn at Mary, pregnant before her wedding, just as some had spoken of her own barrenness with reproach.  She knew how to live proudly despite the whispers behind her back, and how to be grateful to God no matter what the circumstances.  She understood what it meant to be a vessel of God’s will. …

“Together they nurtured a revolution.  The tables began turning.   The thrones began crumbling.”[5]

Though I must admit that I feel like I’ve been left out of this revolution.  The lofty are brought down and the outcasts are lifted up, but what about the middle class?  Where are we in this revolution?

I think we are to sing Mary’s song and do some soul-searching to figure out where we fit in the cosmic order of God’s reign.  For instance, do we rely on God to fill us with good things?  All too often, I know that I rely on myself to fill my physical and spiritual belly with junk food.  I’ve perpetuate this bad habit of stuffing myself on commercial Christmas crap instead of figuring out a deeper place in God’s reign that moves me away from materialism and into trust.  And in singing Mary’s song, we can embrace her faith and her vision.[6]

There’s an old Slavic fable.  Once upon a time, God decided to make Godself visible to two humans – one king and the other a simple peasant.  God sent an angel to each of them with the message:  “God has condescended to reveal the Lord to you in whatever form you wish.  In what form do you want the Lord to appear?”

Seated pompously on his throne and surrounded by his awestruck subjects – not to mention basking in the glory of having been addressed in public by no lesser a personage than an Angel of God – the king proclaimed (in all his majestic pomp):  “How else would I wish to see the Lord, except in his full majesty and power?  Show the Lord to us in the full glory and majesty which is the Lord’s alone!”

And with that, there appeared a bolt of lightning that instantly incinerated the king, his throne, and the entire Court.  And there remained only the Might of God, who had appeared exactly as the King had specified.  Except that now there was none left to see.

Then the angel appeared to a peasant, who of course knew nothing of what had happened to the King.  The angel gave him the very same message as he had the king.  “God has condescended to manifest the Lord to you in whatever manner you wish.  How do you wish to see the Lord?”

The peasant scratched his head a while, and puzzled for a good while longer.  He was a simple man, but an honest and honorable one.  Finally, after long and obviously painful thought, the peasant said:  “Change me so that I can see the Lord in those things with which I am familiar.  Let me see the Lord in the earth I plow, the water I drink, and the food I eat.  Let me see the presence of the Lord in the faces of my family, my friends, and my neighbors, and – if God wishes it, and thinks it good for myself and for others – why, let me see the Lord even in my own reflection.”

And God granted the peasant’s wish.[7]

Perhaps, if we embrace Mary’s faith and vision as our own, God will grant the peasant’s wish for us as well.  Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Andrew J. Hoeksema, “Speaking of Maybe,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0512&article=051222&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Advent_2 (1 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] at least according to a quote someone posted on Facebook.

[4] Joyce Hollyday, “Vacant Thrones,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_941249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Becoming Mary’s Servants,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_061249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

[7] I don’t remember the source of this folktale.  I probably collected it years ago when an ecumenical electronic bulletin board, a precursor to the Internet called “Ecunet,” existed.

Additional sources used:
Martin L. Smith, “A Body Prepared for Me,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_121249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).
Madia Bolz-Weber, “There’s Just Something About Mary: The Power of Yes,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=bl_111220_Bolz_Weber_Theres_Just&week=C_Christmas_1 (1 December 2012).
Richard Rohr, OFM, “Matter and Spirit,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_791249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 34:1-6 and Mark 7:24-30
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I can’t help but wonder how Moses felt there on Mount Nebo, looking over the Promised Land.  I wonder how he felt knowing that he had led his people through a desert, through the wilderness, right to the door of the land that they believed was supposed to be theirs, knowing that they were about to enter it, but he would not be.

I imagine him, there on the mountaintop, looking over the Promised Land, chatting with God, learning that he was going to die.  Had discussions with God become old hat for Moses?  I suppose I’d be filled with awe to have God saying to me, “Look over there and over there.  Look all the way to the sea.  Yep, that’s the land I’ve set aside for you.  Pretty cool, huh?  Oh, by the way, you know that part about you not being able to enter that land?  I meant it.”  Well, I’d be filled with awe right up to that last part, then I’d probably be pretty ticked with God.

Moses had one heck of a roller coaster of a life:  Born into slavery at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male infants were to be killed when they were born; hidden in the bull rushes, only to be “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into Pharaoh’s house to be raised as her son; committed homicide when he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled the country to escape prosecution; got married and while tending sheep, had an encounter with a burning bush; called into a special mission and returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves; led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, transforming the people from a collection of freed slaves into a community of faith, a people of covenant; led the people right up to the border of what was going to become their new land.  And then God tells him, “Sorry, but you’re not going in.  You’re going to die instead.”

Jewish Midrash is filled with stories about Moses and God having a discussion about all this.  One goes like this.[1]
God:  “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”
Moses:  “But you killed all the first born in Egypt!”
God:  “Do you resemble me?  I cause people to die and I also revive them.”
I love the image of Moses arguing with God.

But I can’t read this passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.  One of his speeches, perhaps the second most famous of his speeches has been called his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech.  King delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (the Church of God in Christ headquarter) in Memphis, Tennessee.

Most of his speech was about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike.  King talked about the workers and their strike.  He talked about racial justice and civil right.  He talked about the power of boycotts and nonviolent protest.  And he finished his speech by talking about himself.

“And then I got to Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t really matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live  a long life; longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”[2]

The next day, King was assassinated.

Here we are, on the edge of something new.  This is not as momentous as the Hebrews entering the Promised Land.  This is not as earth-shaking as the assassination of one of American’s prophets.  But we are here, just on this side of finalizing a merger we’ve been exploring and considering for seven years.

There have been times when these seven years have seemed like a long time to me.  I’ve felt, at times, like we’ve been going in circles, not making progress.  There have even been times when I’ve wondered if it was worth the effort.  But most often, I’ve watched relationships grow and trust build and vision take hold and hope blossom.

Pardon me for being redundant, but there is something very special about the work we’ve done and this promised land we are about to enter.  All the literature I’ve been able to find about congregational mergers has been about mergers undertaken as a matter of congregational survival.  Neither Niles Congregational Church nor First Christian Church needed to merge into a new church.  But each congregation discerned that we could do more for the realm of God together then we could do separately, so we decided to merge and form Niles Discovery Church.

We decided to create a church that would be known for its extravagant welcome.  We decided to create a church that is united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  And so we’re creating a church[3] where we follow the path and teachings of Jesus to draw us closer to God, even as we acknowledge that other paths work for other people; where inclusivity means welcoming conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and those of all classes and abilities; where we know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe, and where we find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes; where we strive for peace and justice among all people; where we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our earth; and where we commit to each other and to God that we will continue on a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

I believe that this vision we have for our church is a biblical image.  One of the things that’s striking about our Gospel lesson today is the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.  We squirm a bit when Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, tells a desperate mother that she and her little girl are like “dogs.”  “Our discomfort – with Jesus’ humanity and his perspective as a faithful Jew – trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end.”[4]  But Kate Huey suggests that this story might be an expression of one of the challenges the early church faced:  do we allow pagans (non-Jews) to be part of the church?

She points out, “Just before Jesus leaves on this little break from the crowds, he has shocked the religious authorities by declaring all foods clean and by focusing instead on what lives in our hearts.  Now, whether he wants to or not, he encounters a tenacious, determined mother in search of healing for her little girl, a woman who will not be turned away from the table of God’s grace, even if all she gets is the crumbs that fell to the floor.  She uses her wits in a culture that values riddles for figuring things out, and she wins both the argument and the healing she has requested of this teacher from another religion and another land.  Borders are crossed, hearts are opened, and so is the Christian mission, as Gentiles (and women) embrace the good news of the gospel.  Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declares all people ‘clean,’ acceptable, included at the table.”[5]

Take in this moment.  Be aware of this day.  Right now, we are on this side of the border, and in a few moments we will take the votes that are necessary to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s so we will become a fully merged church, a new church for a new day, Niles Discovery Church, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exception.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 1585.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm (8 September 2012).

[3] Based on the 8 Affirmations of ProgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/8-points-flyer-2011-version/ (8 September 2012).

[4] Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ, commenting on this Gospel lesson, emailed 31 August 2012.

[5] Ibid.

Today on On the Media, an NPR program, there was a story about the falsified British “study” that linked childhood immunizations and autism.  The story is timely because this week the British Medical Journal completed an extensive investigation into this “study” and concluded that the study WAS A FRAUD.  And yet, after a decade of no convincing evidence of a link, the panic remains and vaccination rates are down.  Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, explained why it’s so hard to dislodge misinformation and fear.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence supporting a link between childhood immunizations and the onset of autism, immunization rates are down.  And that has life and death consequences.  In 2010, there were 10 children in California who died of whooping cough, a disease against which children and adults can get immunized.  None of these children were immunized.  A couple years ago, there was a measles outbreak in California that cost millions of dollars to contain.

In the radio program, Mnookin points to the different impact a mother who honestly believes her child’s autism was caused by a childhood vaccine has, as opposed to a new caster (or Oprah Winfrey) reading a statement from the Centers for Disease Control (a “faceless bureaucracy”).

Two things in the radio program really caught my attention.

The first is the notion of “balanced” news/media presentations on a given subject.  In an effort to seem “fair and balanced,” news media present “both sides” of the case – doctors who have scientific studies that show there is no link between vaccinations and autism on one side and parents who believe there is a link even though they have no evidence on the other side.  This is simply bad journalism.  But we see it all the time.  For instance, even though something like 98% of scientists who have studied the data agree that humans are causing global warming, the news media include “the other side,” someone representing the remaining 2% of scientists who are in the pockets of big oil and coal.

The second thing that caught my attention was this exchange that takes place about seven and a half minutes into the story:

Interviewer:  [The bigger issue is] the willingness of human beings to accept as truth what there is no evidence for.  There seems to be some human impulse to explain complicated or painful or unknowable things in easy terms that snuggly fit into some preconceived world view.…

Mnookin:  … It even goes beyond people being willing to believe things for which there isn’t evidence.  It’s people willing to believe things … for which there is evidence against it.

This immediately got me thinking about religious faith.  Do people believe in God simply out of an impulse to explain our complicated world?

I believe in God.  Why?  What evidence do I have that God is real?  Well, I don’t have any scientific evidence.  I have personal experiences when I have felt connected to something transcendent, something bigger than myself, something loving and pure and whole.  I call these events experiences of God.  But they are internal experiences, experiences that are real to me but that were not (as far as I know) measurable or reproducible.  So, as a person of faith, I’m okay with people accepting as truth things for which there is no supporting scientific evidence.

I’d like to point out that I also have no scientific evidence against the existence of God, either.  If such evidence existed, then I’d say that belief in God is a problem, because I agree with Mnookin – there is a problem with people believing as truth things that evidence suggests are simply not true.

Mnookin goes on to say:  One thing you see going on now is it’s much, much easier for people to construct their information intake in a way that insures that they don’t receive any views that contradict what they already think …

Perhaps even more dangerous than people believing things that scientific evidence shows are not true is people so constructing their information intake that they don’t even hear differing view.

If you have a differing view, I encourage you to leave a comment.  And I encourage you to listen to this story.

When I was in college, President Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration as a response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan.  Many of us were concerned that it wouldn’t be long before a draft was started and we would be sent to war.  The English department of my college offered a January session writing class for those of us who considered ourselves to be conscientious objectors.  We would have discussions and writing assignments to get us to explore our beliefs more deeply and to help us craft a paper that we could use to explain our conscientious objections to draft boards.

The first assignment was to write a paper about whether or not we thought it was moral to start the draft back up.  I argued that it was not.  The second assignment was to write a paper answering the question, “If a draft is reinstated, should it include women as well as men.”  My paper was very short.  My paper was very short:

In my previous paper, I explained why we should not have a draft.  We should not have a draft of men.  We should not have a draft of women.  We should not have a draft of men and women.

These days, the debate is about gay and lesbian people in the military.

The Rev. John F. Gundlach, a United Church of Christ minister who retired after 23 years as an active-duty naval chaplain, recently wrote in Stars and Stripes about ending the military’s “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that bars gays and lesbians from openly serving.  His focus was more on the role of chaplains should DADT end then on the policy decision itself, though he supports ending DADT.

His concluding paragraph says:

This current struggle will, indeed, test the mettle of the services and their Chaplain Corps. The real question here is whether justice will be done, and whether chaplains will be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.

Facebook friends have posted the link to this article and one even emailed me the link.  They are universally proud that a military chaplain (even retired) is standing up against DADT and against the chaplains who are falsely claiming that ending DADT will violate the religious freedom of chaplains who are homophobic.

The truth is, almost all of my friends – LGBT and heterosexual – oppose DADT.  They think LGBT people should be allowed to serve openly and honorably in the military services of our country.  I respect them and I appreciate their standing up for LGBT equality.  And I disagree with them.

Imagine with me that DADT was expanded, instead of abolished.  Imagine what would happen if DADT included heterosexuals.  What if no one was allowed to serve in the military … imagine what would happen then.

No military at all.

Back in college, I was right.  It is wrong to draft men, women, or men & women.  It is wrong because war is not an answer to our fears and vulnerabilities and the purpose of the military is to fight wars.  The only thing that can protect us from our fears is the perfect love of God.

So, I question the existence of our military as it is presently constituted.  There may be a need for an international police force that can intervene when necessary as police (rather than as an invading army), for instance when genocides are taking place (like in Darfur), but we cannot simultaneously prepare for war and create peace.

            It’s clear we have a problem, and I think the problem mostly a health insurance problem.  45 million Americans have no health insurance.  Our current system wastes $450 billion each year on redundant administrative costs.[i]  The current system excludes people with pre-existing medical conditions and limited economic resources.  The current health insurance system is broken.

            A college friend, Lois Quam, used to work in the health insurance industry.  She was an executive at UnitedHealth, leaving the industry two years ago; she’s no longer required to spouting the company line, but she is an expert in the field and knows how the current (broken) system works.

            In a recent interview,[ii] she noted that as recently as a few decades ago, tying health insurance to employment made some sense.  People worked with one employer for their careers.  That’s not true anymore.  Now people change employers often and have several different careers in a lifetime.  The current health insurance system is broken.

            As health insurance premiums skyrocket, employers offer less and less coverage.  Too often, employees end up under insured and the unemployed end up uninsured.  The current health insurance system is broken.

            Yet, isn’t access to basic health care a fundamental human right that should be available to everyone regardless of their economic resources?  Shouldn’t everyone have access to health care regardless of their ability to pay?  Our current broken system has created an underclass, relegating the poor and underemployed to a second-class status that receives second-class care.

            “When wealthy and middle-class people have to rely on the same health system as the poor, as they do throughout Europe,” writes Gary Dorrien, “they use their political power to make sure[iii] it’s a decent system.”

            The best way to make the wealthy and the poor part of the same health care system is to give everyone the same health insurance.  In other words, the best way to insure equality in health care is with a single-payer health insurance system.

            But a nation-wide single-payer program is not going to be part of what comes out of the current efforts to reform our health insurance system.  The insurance companies are too powerful and politically aggressive to allow themselves to lose their market share and their profit margins.

            The best we can hope for this year is a public Medicare-like option that competes with private plans.  According to Dorrien, “this reform would save only 15 percent of the $350 billion insurance overhead costs that converting to single-payer would achieve.”[iv]  But already the insurance industry has geared up to prevent a public option because they don’t want to compete with one.

            Even Lois Quam, the former insurance executive, recognized the need for a public option:  “I was with a woman in Becker County last week who talked about how important MinnesotaCare has been to her family.  And I hear from people, age 61, 62, 63, who really wish they were 65 and they could get into Medicare.  The very reason Medicare was created in the ’60s, of course, was that the private health insurance market wasn’t offering affordable coverage to seniors.  So I think a public plan makes a lot of sense, and I would like to see that as a part of eventual health-care reform.”[v]

            “There is not a religiously mandated or God-ordained system of health care or insurance,” writes Jim Wallis.  “Luke might have been a physician, but he never commented on whether computerizing medical records should be a national priority.  You won’t find in the Bible policy conclusions about health-care savings accounts, personal versus employer-provided insurance, single payer public systems, or private insurance plans.”[vi]

            However, Wallis[vii] points out, as we debate a reform to our health insurance and health care system, we need to keep three things in mind: 

            (1) We must speak the truth.  “What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform by half-truths and misinformation.”

            (2) We must make sure everyone has access to health insurance.  “Seeing your child sick is a horrible feeling; seeing your child sick and not having the resources to do something about it is a societal sin.”

            And (3) we must control costs, making health insurance and health care affordable.  “An estimated 60 percent of bankruptcies this year will be due to medical bills.  Of those declaring bankruptcy as a result of medical bills, 75 percent have health insurance.  The extreme cost of medical care stems from varied sources.  Some comes from malpractice lawsuits, some from insurance companies with high overhead and entire divisions of employees hired to find ways to deny benefits.  Some people who thought they were insured have found out that their benefits were terminated retroactively because the insurer decided there was a pre-existing condition.  In the end, some are paying too much for care and others are making too much in the current system.”

            People of faith must engage the debate – civilly, respectfully, thoughtfully.  We must engage the system and speak up for our values – the values of humanity, of life, and of justice.  Please join me.

Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey S. Spencer


[i] Gary Dorrien, “Health care fix,” The Christian Century, July 14, 2009, page 12.

[ii] Casey Selix, Former UnitedHealth exec Lois Quam supports public option (dated August 13, 2009) http://www.minnpost.com/stories/2009/08/13/10847/former_unitedhealth_exec_lois_quam_supports_public_option (15 August 2009).

[iii] Dorrien, op cit.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Selix, op cit.

[vi] Jim Wallis, Hearts & Minds: Three Moral Issues of Health Care, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0909&article=three-moral-issues-of-health-care (15 August 2009).

[vii] Ibid.

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