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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 11:32-44 and Isaiah 25:6-9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Four days.  Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days by the time Jesus shows up.  If only he had come earlier, before Lazarus died, when he was sick.  He could have saved him.  But, no; he was delayed.  No wonder Mary comes to Jesus weeping.  It is not just that Lazarus is dead.  It is that she feels let down by the one who she knew was a healer.

Jesus, too, begins to weep.  People assume it is because of Lazarus’ death.  Jesus must have loved him deeply, and now he weeps.  I always thought it was Mary’s grief that moved Jesus to tears.  He sees Mary weep and he cries with her.  That’s how I experience God.  God doesn’t protect us from the losses and pains of life.  Instead, God cries with us.  God feels our pain with us.

The people think Jesus is weeping because of his own loss.  “Where have you laid him?” he asks.  “Come, we’ll show you,” and they take him to a cave with a stone rolled in front of it.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus direct them.  Martha, Lazarus’ sister, tries to stop him:  “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Or as the King James Version translates it, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”

Jesus convinces them to roll away the stone, and he prays, and then he calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And the dead man hobbles out because he is still bound in the burial cloths.  And Jesus commands the crowd to unbind him and let him go.

This may seem like a strange reading for All Saints’ Day.  I don’t recall anyone every suggesting I pray to St. Lazarus.  In fact, I didn’t even know he was considered a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church until I looked it up.[1]  And as far as I can tell, in the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints, he’s not the patron saint of anybody or anything (though my research is hardly exhaustive).  So why this reading?

Well, to start with, because today is a day that lifts before us the stark reality of our mortality.  Today, we celebrate all those who have died – not expired, or passed away, or who we have lost (like a favorite glove) – but rather those who have died … in faith.[2]  Later, at the communion table, we will name those from our congregation who have died in the past year.  We will pause to remember them and others who have died as we celebrate the body of Christ.

We will celebrate those who have died, but the liturgical color is not the black of Good Friday and mourning.  Today the liturgical colors are white and gold, the colors of Easter.  “After all, we gather to worship the One who was given power over death; the One, as [we heard in our Gospel lesson], who raised Lazarus to life; the One who’s own death and resurrection, in fact, gives witness to the trustworthiness of the promise made in the first … reading that God will one day bring to an end the reign of death, cause mourning and suffering to cease, and wipe every tear from our eyes.”[3]

Today, we don’t just remember those who have died.  We remember that they and we are united with Christ.  We acknowledge that reality every time we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.  In baptism, we are buried with Jesus into death so that, just as Jesus was raised to life, we might walk in newness of life – to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:3-4).  “And this means at least two things for us …  First, death no longer terrifies us.  Promised a share of Christ’s resurrection, we can look even death in the eye and not blink.  For this reason, while we mourn the death of our loved ones, … we also celebrate their triumph, their victory, as they now rest from their labors and live with Christ in glory.

“Second, and perhaps more importantly, life no longer terrifies us either.  … Our whole life is now sanctified – that is, made holy and given a purpose – through God’s promise to be with us and for us and to use us and all of our gifts to God’s own glory.

“Here, in fact, we perceive the true significance of the name of this day – All Saints’ Day – far more clearly.  Saints are not only those persons in the Bible or Church history who did great things.  Nor are Saints only those who died for the faith.  Saints are not even only those who are of such great moral courage, kindness or discipline that they set examples for the rest of us.  Rather, saints are also – and especially – all those who have been baptized into Christ.”[4]

“And if you have any doubt of this, take the time to read … Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth.  … In these letters, Paul at many points scolds the Corinthians for their lack of faith, for their poor stewardship, for their shoddy treatment of one another, for their divisive one-ups-manship, and for their offensive moral behavior.  Nevertheless, when addressing this poor excuse for a Christian congregation, he refers to them regularly as ‘Saints.’  Well, now, c’mon:  If this is true for the Corinthians, then so also is it true for us.”[5]

Now I don’t say this to put pressure on you.  I’m not calling you a saint to make you feel like you have to be perfect.  In fact, I want to be clear that you don’t have to be perfect.  I’m just saying that if you call yourself a Christian, I get to call you a saint.  You are a holy one, set aside by God for the fullness of life.

And, at the same time, I want to acknowledge that there is the additional cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints who have formed us.  And this is where All Saints’ Day and our pledge campaign’s theme intersect.  Last week, Pastor Brenda focused on the first word in this year’s pledge campaign:  welcome.  Today, we focus on the second word:  grow.  And the growth that I think most connects to All Saints’ Day is our growth as disciples of Jesus.  These are the saints I want to turn to now.

Marcus Borg

This past year, several of my saints, several people who helped me grow in faith, died.  Now it happens that two of these saints have reputations far beyond my own life and I am hardly the only one whose growth as a person of faith was touched by them.  Marcus Borg was a professor and author who changed my whole approach to confirmation class with a single lecture.  His book, The Heart of Christianity, has become a touchstone of organized thought about being a Christian for me and will be seen as a classic to help thinking, rational people understand how they can be Christians without checking the brains at the door.

Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle – aside from having one of the coolest names in theology – opened up to me the goodness in change, even radical change, in the church through her lectures and through her book, The Great Emergence.

Two other much less famous saints – at least they’re saints for me – who also died this year.  Dena Hokom modeled for me the importance of the ongoing wrestling match of faith.  She kept thinking and pondering and questioning her faith right up to the end, and while at times that made her feel less faithful (questions and doubts have a way of doing that), I believe it was an act of faithfulness to participate in that wrestling.

Betty H

Betty Harris

Betty Harris was my aunt.  She was a singer who encouraged my singing.  She loved classical music, which was almost always sacred music.  And she encouraged me (probably to her own surprise) to let the music teach me and form me.

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

And I have to mention my mom.  This summer, I passed the date where she’s been dead for more than half of my life.  Yet her impact on my spiritual journey lives on in so many ways.  She modeled giving; she taught the importance of community; she modeled listening and pastoral care (not that she would have ever called what she did ‘pastoral care’).  She was a woman of compassion.  And despite my troublesome adolescence, I never questioned her love for me.

Brad Ellis

And the saints for me are not just those who have died.  For instance, Brad Ellis.  You may recognize him as the character “Brad” from the TV series Glee.  For me, he’s a friend from high school and church youth group.  When I told him a few years ago about the role he played in my spiritual development during our high school years, he told me, “I may simply have been the rock you tripped over.”  Well, whatever.  He’s on my list of saints.

And then, quite recently, this year in fact, another more famous person helped me grow and I now include him in my roll call of saints:  Bishop John Shelby Spong.  Spong has helped me re-embrace the Gospel of John in his book The Fourth Gospel.  His thesis is that none of the Gospel of John is history.  It is a story told to teach theology, or better yet to teach discipleship.  Many of the characters are completely symbolic, and he puts Lazarus on this list.  “[Lazarus] is a mythological character, a symbol of those who see, of those who respond and of those who are transformed.  He is the archetype of the Jesus movement.  He represents the ones who are born of the spirit, the ones who are able to taste and experience, to share in the new life that Jesus came to bring.  He is the ‘Lazarus’ who has passed from death into life.  The one who knows that to be in Christ is to have the life of God flow through him as the life of the vine flows through the branches.”[6]

And with this understanding of Lazarus, that he is the archetype of a disciple of Jesus, I can think of no better reading for All Saints’ Day.

There is one other saint I want to mention:  Mister Rogers.  In 1999, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.  In his acceptance speech, which was given to an audience who were largely people involved in the television industry, he invited his listeners to think about what they do.  I’ll let him finish up the sermon.

(The portion of this video screened was from the 7:47 mark, to the 10:43.O)

[1] See “Lazarus,” American Catholic,

[2] David Lose, “All Saints’ Sunday B: Look Twice,” … in the Meantime, (posted and accessed 26 October 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 251.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 2, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: I Corinthians 3:1-9
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of them are in their 40s now – if they’re still alive. When I think of them, which I do from time to time, I still see them as the teenagers they were when I knew them.

I remember a few by name. More of them, I remember by their stories. Mostly I remember them as a feeling or a face in a crowd.

During my third and fourth years of seminary, I worked as a chaplain at the Juvenile Hall in Contra Costa County. The work was intense and occasionally scary. Most of the time, though, the intensity was more about working with teenagers in crisis. What was important was listening, caring, even loving them.

Often I would only see a kid one time – between his or her arrest and being sent back home or off to a group home. A few I saw over several weeks. Some came for repeated visits. Mostly, I saw them, talked with them, listened to them for a moment in the midst of their chaotic lives.

This scripture from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth brought them back to mind this week. A big reason is the metaphor Paul uses in the reading. It was a metaphor I frequently used to understand my work. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Planting seeds – that’s how I saw my work. The kids would come and go; I would have a moment with them. I hoped that my attention, my caring, my presence might plant a seed of faith, of trust in God, that might eventually take root and grow. But I’ve never known if what I did made any difference beyond that moment I was him or her.

As I thought about this scripture as a reading for All Saints and Souls Sunday, I’ve come to realize there is another reason I still carry these kids with me. Yes, I carry them because I wonder how they’re doing, if they’re still alive, if my ministry made any difference.

And I carry them because they made a difference in my growth. Part of that difference is a matter of timing. I was in seminary trying to figure out how to be a pastor, so they helped me grow because we were thrust together in the midst of that discernment.

And part of it is that they offered me something I could not find on my own: stories of experiences that were foreign to me; an understanding that I could not fix another’s problems; a clarity of the importance of letting things go; a realization of how important those great commandments that I preached about last week really are.

This rag-tag bunch of sinners are Apollos to me. They watered seeds planted by others. They are part of my personal roll call of saints, of the people who accompanied me on my journey, helping me grow.

“The Corinthian believers were a diverse group.”[1] They were diverse in religious and cultural background being both Jews and Gentiles. They were diverse socio-economically, being slaves, freed persons, and members of the upper classes (pretty radical given the hierarchical stratification of Greco-Roman society). Variety of social classes, genders, religious and ethnic identities, places of origin, levels of education, and spiritual giftedness all contributed to their diversity. And that diversity contributed to their conflict.

“At the very beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that there are serious divisions among them. These fractures seem to run along multiple lines.”[2] We heard about one of the divisions in today’s reading. Different, even competing groups within the church, each claimed loyalty to a different leader. “Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) have all apparently influenced this church, and the different factions understand their leadership as antagonist and mutually exclusive.”[3]

We hear about another division based on social class later in the letter when Paul writes about discriminatory practices at the Lord’s supper, a behavior Paul attacks. We also hear about conflict based on differing positions about how they should relate to the larger culture. Paul addresses their conflict and factionalism by employing four primary metaphors that reveal how he envisions the church and why divisions are inappropriate within it.[4]

He uses kinship, calling the community “a family” with God as the head of the clan. He uses the human body, reminding us that just as each part of the body has different gifts, so too different people in the church have different gifts. He uses the metaphor of the church as God’s building or temple, with Jesus as the foundation and many other building on this foundation. And he uses the metaphor we heard today: agriculture. Paul planted; Apollos watered; God gave the growth.

The point that Paul is making with these metaphors is that the church is a community of interdependence. God accomplishes growth in the individual through the mess we call community.[5] That’s why it’s a problem when I say I belong person A, setting myself in opposition to person B and the people who say they belong to her. When I say I belong to person A, I end up rejecting person B and her faction. I end up rejecting person B’s gifts and the gifts of those in her camp. That means I end up rejecting the ways person B and her camp can help me with my growth.

Paul doesn’t come out and say it, but he implies that imperfect people are a gift. He says we really need each other, and since we’re all imperfect, he implies that we really need imperfect people. Imperfect people are a gift.

This is great news for me as an imperfect person – it means God can use me to help with your growth. It is tough news for me as a judgmental person – it means God can and even wants to use people I don’t like to help with my growth. To get a little specific here, it just so happens that there’s this big group of Christians that I really don’t want to have much to do with – evangelical fundamentalists. What Paul is saying to me is that God wants to use evangelical fundamentalists for my growth. I’ve been hurt enough by members of this group that I’d really rather God didn’t use them. Do you see the challenge here? I have to open myself up to the gifts of evangelical fundamentalists if God’s going to grow me fully.

It is much easier for me to open myself up to people who I can recognize as having watering seeds planted in me in the past, than to contemplate opening myself up to people who bug me. It’s much easier to look backward, and this too can be instructive.

We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, scripture tells us. That’s right, the church had the cloud long before Google, iCloud, or Dropbox. We have the people who have gone before whose stories we hear in scripture. We have the people who have gone before whose names we don’t know who kept the faith alive during times of trouble and hardship. We have the people who have gone before, our personal roll call of saints.

Historically, the church has, from time to time, recognized different people as having been particularly faithful and as having been exemplars of faithfulness. These people have been officially recognized as saints. After the Reformation, the Protestant Church (except for the Anglicans) has been reluctant to recognize certain people as saints. But we all can point to unrecognized exemplars of the faith, people who let God’s light shine through them in such a way that you get a picture of who God is.

My personal roll call of saints includes my mother and father, a collection of Sunday School teachers and a handful of pastors, a High School English teacher and a junior high science teacher, a bunch of friends, a number of professors, and (as I mentioned earlier) a collection of juvenile delinquents. Not one of these people was perfect. Yet all of these helped me grow as a Christian. Perhaps in seeing the surprising resources God has used for my growth, I can open myself up to new surprises.

“United in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.” That’s the motto of Niles Discovery Church. I think it’s a great motto for us because it gets at our core sense of mission. This year’s pledge campaign is focusing on three words that represent that mission: welcome, grow, and serve. The “God’s love” and “no exceptions” in our motto point to the “welcome” part of our mission that I spoke about last week.

IMG_1057The “journey” in our motto points to the “grow” part of our mission. We recognize that faith is a journey. As Anne Lamott put it, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”[6] God’s desire is for us to grow – to grow in our trust, to grow in our love, to grow in our faithfulness, to grow in our discipleship. God does not leave us where we are, if we’re willing to go on the journey.

It is really easy to get caught up in the third verb of our pledge campaign: serve. It’s easy to get caught up in serving because it is vital and it is good. Yet serving with being grounded spiritually leads to burnout and hopelessness. So it is vital that we pay equal attention to growing.

So I have two questions for you: How has Niles Discovery Church helped you grow? and How are you are you engaging in our mission of growing followers of Jesus?

I ask the first of these two questions because looking backward may help you look forward. Recognizing how your church has helped you grow may make it easier to identify ways your church can continue to help you grow. Some ways may be pretty obvious. I know there are people in our church who find participating in the Adult Sunday School nurtures their growth, and I doubt anyone is surprised by that. Other ways may not be so obvious. It may only be in reflecting that you’ll realize how serving as a liturgist, for instance, or singing in the choir, or attending worship regularly has helped you to grow in your faith. You get the idea.

Think about how your church has helped you to grow, but don’t stop there. Think about how you will connect with the church’s mission so you will continue to grow. And if you have an idea for some way the church could help you and other grow, let me know.

And I have one more request: As you consider in the coming couple weeks what sort of financial pledge you’re going to make for 2015, think about how that giving is supporting our mission to grow followers of Jesus.


[1] Katrina Poetker, “Letters from the Ancient World,” Sojourners, (posted 14 February 2013; accessed 27 October 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This analysis is also from Poetker, ibid.

[5] I owe much of this analysis to Jim Douglass, “Is My Anger Innocent?” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.ner/preaching-the-word/my-anger-innocent (accessed 27 October 2014).

[6] Quoted on a meme that’s floating around Facebook.


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