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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 11, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 2 Corinthians 9:1-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I created this graphic for a sermon some 13 months ago.  It is an attempt to describe the population distribution of the Roman Empire socio-economically.  You can see in the picture that those with power and wealth were quite small in number and that there really isn’t much of what we would think of today as a middle class.  There was the very small upper class and the very large lower class.

I suspect you don’t spend as much time pondering these sort of things, but I’ve wondered how it is that the very small upper class could possibly stay in power when there were so many people who had neither wealth nor power.  Why didn’t they just rise up and overthrow the elites?  The answer appears to be the Patronage System.

According to John Dominic Crossan, what kept the society from completely breaking apart were “multiple ligatures of patronage and clientage.  Those without power could be clients to the patrons above them, and those patrons might even be themselves clients to others far more powerful still.”[1]

The patronage system didn’t just grease the wheels of politics and the economy.  In a patronage system, “influence was a moral duty: the emperor’s needed it, the moralists praised it, and countless inscriptions publicly proclaimed it.”[2]  Clients had a moral duty to give their patrons their obeisance and patrons had a moral duty to provide that which was necessary to live for their clients.  Of course, patrons wouldn’t give their clients much more than the bear minimum, or they might start to climb that narrow pipe and positions could be reversed.  And given the importance of shame and honor in the society, a patron just couldn’t be shamed by that.

You can see how the patronage system really isn’t separable from the rest of the Imperial economy.  While the rich because rich through systems of injustice (especially the accumulation of land) that I’ve talked about in previous sermons in this series, the have-nots tolerated, or at least didn’t see how to overturn, the injustice because patronage system demanded their participation.

The patronage system as oil for the Imperial economy is, I think, the biggest difference between the Imperial economy and contemporary capitalism.  While the size of the middle class has expanded and contracted over time, it exists as part of contemporary capitalism.  Yes, the adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” carries plenty of truth to it in contemporary capitalism, and the old boys’ network is alive and well with plenty of mutual back-scratching today, classical patronage does not hold the power it once did.  Even the ultra-wealthy – the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gateses, David and Charles Kochs, Oprah Winfreys, and George Soroses of American capitalism – may have disproportionate influence in our society, they don’t control things at the level the ultra-wealthy did in the Roman Empire.

In her upcoming book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass writes about the patronage system:  “The emperor or king gave his subjects the ‘gifts’ of protection and provision.  In return, subjects offered loyalty, homage, service, tithes, and taxes.  If you failed to return the ruler’s favor – such as not paying a tribute or refusing to send your son to serve in the army – you were branded an ‘ingrate.’  Ingratitude was disloyalty and sometimes treason, crimes punishable by denial of favor, reduction in rank, seizure of property, enslavement, prison, exile, or death.  Most pre-capitalist societies practiced this quid pro quo sort of gratitude, with its complex of gifts given, debts incurred, and favors owed.  In it limited benefits flowed down from privileged benefactors to regular people; and most of the wealth flowed up from subject beneficiaries in the form of ‘gratitude’ to those at the top.  Gratitude was not a feeling.  It was the law.”[3]

When I was on Study Leave in November, I heard a wonderful lecture by Bass where she talked about how the patronage system has played itself out in Christian theology.  The pre-modern view of the cosmos mirrored the oil can diagram of the social structure.  The cosmic map was of “a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, here we feared we might go after death.  The church,” Bass explained, “mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below.”[4]

This is the image of that God up in heaven, at least as painted by a European.  The great patron looks down on us clients down below.  The priests (patronage brokers of a sort) send our prayers up in the holy elevator to God and God sends down commandments for us to obey.  It is our duty to obey and to offer our thanksgivings to God.  And just like in the economic and political spheres of life, in the spiritual sphere we are obliged to offer our obeisance to our spiritual patrons – to the priests, to the bishops, and ultimately to God.

If God brings us to freedom from slavery, if God brings us to freedom from the Imperial economy of scarcity, greed, and never-ending work, to a Sabbath economy of abundance, self-restraint, and Sabbath rest, how did we get this Imperial theology?  If Jesus was a Jubilee practitioner who came to proclaim God’s Sabbath economy and to restore its freedom, how did the church lose sight of it?  Though I like to blame Paul for all kinds of problems, I don’t think we can blame Paul for this.

As Ched Myers puts it, “Footprints of the Jubilee tradition can be found throughout Paul’s pastoral correspondence.  The Corinthian epistles provide a wonderful example of how Paul’s practice reflected a fundamental concern for social justice, resistance to Roman norms … and desire to demonstrate faith commitment by wealth-sharing.

“Corinth in Paul’s time was characterized by a culture of ‘new wealth.’  It had been sacked by the Romans, then rebuilt a century later and repopulated with immigrants, entrepreneurs, military veterans and freed slaves.  Located along key trading routes, it was prosperous, ambitious, and competitive – and marked by huge disparities between its ‘nouveau’ elite and its laboring and slave classes.”[5]

We can interpret from what he says in his letters to the church in Corinth that he was criticised by some Corinthians for “his disinterest in matters of social status, rhetorical style, and public performance. …

“Against … prestige-oriented Christianity Paul pits his own commitment to costly discipleship (2 Cor 4:8-11).  He contrasts himself with ‘hucksters of the Word of God’ (2 Cor 2:17) and those who ‘pride themselves on position’ (2 Cor 5:12), defending his apostolic credentials in terms of marginalization rather than status, of suffering rather than self-advancement, and … of grace rather than merit.”[6]

Myers points out, “Under the patronage ethos it was expected that Paul would support his pastoral ministry in Corinth either by professional religious begging or by positioning himself as an ‘in-house philosopher’ sponsored by a wealthy patron.  Paul, however, steadfastly (and in the eyes of many Corinthians, unreasonably) refused to become a client of the rich.  Instead, he insisted on supporting himself through a trade (1 Cor 9; see 1 Thes 2:9).  This stance offended members of the aristocracy and lowered Paul’s prestige in their eyes because he worked for his funds.”[7]

It’s pretty clear that Paul was pushing against the social stratification of Corinth.  He expected their relationships to reflect the new, revolutionary social structure of equality.  He is regularly outraged by their reproduction of the divisions of the wider culture.  We see this reflected quite clearly in the community’s celebration of communion and Paul’s reactions to it.

Paul’s discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols was not just about diet and conscience.  Only the affluent could afford meat, so those scandalized were probably the poor in the church.  “Meanwhile, some aristocratic Christians were interpreting Paul’s ‘gospel of freedom’ as license to continue participating in the Roman Temple feasts.  These public gatherings were crucial to legitimizing patronage … and [the] consolidation of economic-political solidarity among upper classes.”[8]

The dining habits at these public gatherings was very stratified, with those of higher social, political, and economic status (those are almost synonymous) eating with the host in the dining room, while the rabble ate elsewhere.  That practice was brought into the church when they celebrated communion, with the rich eating their fill before the poor members of the community even showed up.  We heard in our reading from 1 Corinthians how that infuriated Paul.  “He calls [this practice] a ‘profanation’ of the body of Christ, and even speculates whether such abominations might lead to illness and death.”[9]  “If you must eat this way, go home,” he tells them.

In the wider society, what one eats and with whom identifies one’s social status, and Paul will have none of that at the communion table.  “For Paul, the church was to model an alternative society where there was no patronage, no hierarchy, no rich and poor.”[10]  In other words, Paul embraced Sabbath economics and insisted that it be lived out around the Table.

He also lobbied for a Sabbath economics to be lived out around the offering plate.  In many of his letters, he writes about his efforts to collect money for the economically disadvantaged Christians in Jerusalem.  Our writing from 2 Corinthians is part of his plea to the Corinthians about his project.  And here, he appeals directly to the scriptural tradition of Sabbath economics.

Paul does not demand that the Corinthian church participate in the collection.  To do so would undermine the freedom of the Sabbath economy.  “So he employs instead a variety of rhetorical strategies to persuade, some of which are almost amusing.  First Paul points to the generosity of other communities, hoping either to shame the Corinthians or to inspire them to friendly competition (8:1-7).  Then he points to Christ’s example of ‘class defection’ (8:9). …

“Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will interpret his appeal to share wealth according to the expectations and conventions of patronage.  But the obligatory and dependent nature of the patronage relationship was precisely what Paul wished to avoid.  He was asking for Christian justice and solidarity, not charity or patronage (see 2 Cor 9:5-7).  For this reason, he refers to the project ten times in 2 Corinthians 8-9 as the work of ‘grace’ (Gk charis).  Paul, the great apostle of ‘grace alone,’ here makes it clear that this is not just a theological concept.  [Grace] must include practices of economic sharing.”[11]

“By understanding Christ’s life and death as a ‘Jubilee-event’ Paul invites us onto a path of grace which seeks constantly to redistribute power, prestige and resources ‘as a matter of equality.’  Not only does Paul set a personal example by refusing Corinthian patronage and insisting that the church there do the same, he also invites these Gentile Christians to practice international economic solidarity with a minority that was widely despised in the Hellenistic world:  Palestinian Jews.”[12]

Myers concludes his reflections on Paul and Sabbath economics with these thoughts:  “Today, the crushing burden of indebtedness and profound inequality imprisons more and more people in First and Third Worlds alike.  If our North American churches are to advocate for redistributive justice for the poor, we, like the first century Corinthians, will have to cease mirroring the dominant culture of the global capitalism, with its empty promises of upward mobility and trickle-down justice.  We must turn toward the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, which is central not only to the Hebrew Bible and the Jesus-tradition, but to Paul’s pastoral strategy as well.  The apostle insisted that only disciplines of redistribution can overturn our calcified traditions and structures of charity, class entitlement, and meritocracy.”[13]

To that I would add this more personal and spiritual note.  If we do what Myers suggests, if we 21st century Christians adopt a Sabbath economic practice, we will have a spiritual awakening about God.  We will realize how limiting this image of God-in-the-sky is.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was not talking about what happens after we’ve ridden the cosmic elevator into the heavens after we die.  When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he was talking about God’s political and social vision for humanity, a vision that includes a Sabbath economy and that continues to stand in stark contrast to political and social visions that dominate and oppress.  “Jesus’ own prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come. They will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10), seeks to align earthly ethics with the divine order of God’s dwelling.”[14]  And because for Jesus the kingdom of God is here, at hand, come near, God must be here, at hand, come near.  Heaven and God are “here-and-now, not there-and-then.”[15]  Amen.

_______________

[1] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 96.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The quote is from Diana Butler Bass’ forthcoming book, Grateful, posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10156156300209496 (8 March 2018).

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 4.

[5] Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 53.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 58-59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

[14] Bass, Grounded, op. cit., 119.

[15] Ibid, 120.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 31, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a dream a few weeks back.  I was teaching a high school math class and as a sample problem to told this story.  My father decided to open a pet store.  The grand opening was intensely popular.  You would not believe the lion he had coming out the front door.

I don’t think it was an angel giving me a message.  Or maybe it was – and the message is, “Don’t quite your day job.”

Matthew begins his gospel not so much humorously as ironically.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  It’s a sign that he’s the fulfillment of the messianic promise.  And yet the first to recognize him and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazers, immigrants from the east.

We’ve mushed together the birth narratives, those overtures to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We’ve tried to harmonize these two different tunes.  This is the crèche my family used when I was growing up.  It was my mother’s childhood crèche, and it may have been her mother’s childhood crèche, though I don’t know that for sure.  You’ll notice both a shepherd and kings are at this stable.  I think there used to be more shepherds.  And an angel I would put on the stable roof.  I’m sure scenes like this contribute to the harmonization of the two stories in our minds.

I love the carol “The First Noel,” though it, too, contributes to the amalgamation of the two stories.  And it’s a bit of a pity, because if we take Matthew’s story by itself, we’ll see some interesting things going on, things we miss when we read the stories together.  And even when we do manage to separate Luke’s story from Matthew’s, we need to free ourselves from the images of kings.  We have to resist the influence of Hebrew scriptures like Psalm 72’s lines about kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king and falling down before him.  We have to let go of the notion that they were kings, and the number 3, and the names and faces the magi were given in the seventh century.[1]

When we do this, when we get to a purer reading of Matthew’s story, we’ll see things like that fact that the magi’s visit comes “after Jesus was born.”  Those are the words Matthew uses in the first verse of Chapter 2.  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem …”  He might be walking by the time the magi visit.

And when the magi get to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, “they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (verses 10 and 11).  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem.

At least Botticelli comes close.  The house is broken down, but there are no shepherds or barn animals.  And it seems that the whole town has turned our when these strangers from the east show up.

And, did you notice that the magi ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  Herod asks his advisors “where the Messiah was to be born” (verses 2 and 4).  “The Messiah, for Matthew, is King of the Jews.”

But think about this:  Matthew doesn’t use the title “king” again “until Pilate judges and executes Jesus at the end of his gospel.”[2]  Matthew is doing something here, tying together Herod and Pilate.  I think he’s reminding the readers that Roman power was behind any power Herod the Great had.  And, as we’ll look at more closely next week, the desire to kill Jesus starts at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  “Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill, and Roman-appointed Pilate succeeds in killing Jesus, the messianic King of the Jews.”[3]

But I was going to say something about how this overture to Matthew’s gospel is ironic.  First, the magi, these Gentile immigrants from the east, are the first to recognize and worship Jesus.  Then there’s Herod, who knows enough to know that this news is a political threat, but who doesn’t know his Hebrew scriptures enough to know where the Messiah is to be born.  Herod must be wondering, as Will Willimon noted, “What does the future hold?  Can a baby threaten the government?  Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?”[4]

And then there are the gifts the magi bring.  We know who Jesus is, so maybe this presentation of gifts makes a little sense to us.  At least, it made a little sense in my childhood sense of the story.  These are wise men, after all, so they would know who Jesus really is.

But imagine how ridiculous, preposterous this must have sounded to the people for whom Matthew was first writing.  Star gazers from another culture and country coming to a peasant family in backwater Bethlehem and presenting expensive gifts.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh – this does not make sense!  No reaction from Jesus’ mom and dad – this does not make sense!  People with power giving gifts to people who had no power – this does not make sense!

“In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status,” Diana Butler Bass notes.  “When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations.  Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy.  In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude – in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe.  Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.”[5]

By having foreign people of stature present gifts to Jesus, an infant peasant, Matthew is turning gift-giving on its head.  “Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts – they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod, or some rival ruler.  And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached.  Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.

“This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement.”[6]  What happened in Bethlehem was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression.  Rather, what Matthew is doing is proclaiming the same sort of thing that that is on Mary’s lips in Luke’s gospel when she sings, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

In Matthew’s gospel, these rich stargazers leave their gifts with a poor family and “go away empty-handed.  No strings attached.  No more quid pro quo.  No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.”[7]

Next to Holy Week, Christmas just might be the most political time of the church year.  Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is trembling in his boots.  There’s a new king in town, only he doesn’t rule from Herod Tower.  No, this new king is living in the backwoods town of Bethlehem.  And he’s not welcomed by the political elite or the 1 percent or even by biblical scholars at the Temple, but by immigrant nonbelievers from the east.

These are the themes that play out in Matthew’s overture to his gospel.  A baby causes fear in the halls of the powerful.  An infant gathers around himself outsiders, those whom the principalities and powers would oppress.  This is the baby who will with his people start dismantling the empire stone by stone without raising an army of firing a shot.[8]

There is one more thing about this story – the angel angle.  Actually, Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that an angel is involved – only a dream.  But in other dreams in Matthew’s gospel, it is often an angel speaking through the dream.

When the magi come to Herod to inquire about the newborn king, Herod orders them to return to him once the find the child.  They don’t.  It’s almost a throwaway line:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Warned in a dream.  How I wish Matthew had fleshed out this part of the story.  I’d love to know how he would have described the dream.  Would there have been an angel with a simple message:  “Don’t go back to Herod; go home by another route”?  Would it have been more symbolic, maybe some star the magi had to interpret?  Might they have been told the reason to avoid Herod?

But Matthew doesn’t elaborate.  All we get is one line.  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

It occurs to me – and I don’t think I’ve ever read someone else interpret the story this way – that the magi were performing civil disobedience.  The king of Israel had ordered them to come back to his court to tell them what they had found.  They didn’t follow the order.  They broke the law.  They went home by another road.

And this is one of the places where I think Matthew’s story intersects with our time.  This is not a time for pacification.  This is a time for resistance.  This is a time for shaking things up.  “We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.”[9]

The entire world is facing the dangers of climate change, and the current President of the United States insists that it isn’t real, calling it “a scam” and pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.  And just this Thursday, he mocked climate science because it’s cold in the eastern United States.

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

  • The top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled since 1968 while, despite the so-called “war on poverty,” the percentage of U.S. families living in poverty has remained essentially unchanged.
  • Though ours is the richest country in the world, 30.6 million children (43 percent) live at or below twice the poverty line, which is considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and laws designed to make it harder to vote.
  • The prison population in the U.S. has grown by 5 times from 1978 to 2015, with non-white prisoner growing from 49% to 66% of those imprisoned.[10]

“Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth-century Christian martyr killed by the powers that ruled El Salvador [in 1980], once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world, in a world still ruled by Herod and Caesar.  So also [I think] we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.  But Good Friday and the descent of darkness do not have the final word – unless we let them.

“Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow him.  Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around him, he is, for Christians, Emmanuel: ‘God with us.’”[11]

This is a great time to be wise people, people willing to obey God and not human authority.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (accessed 26 December 2017).

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 137.

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

[4] William Willimon, “Christmas: Herod in Trouble,” A Peculiar Prophet, https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/christmas-herod-in-trouble/ (posted 19 December 2016; accessed 27 December 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “Why Jesus’ first Christmas gifts were truly shocking,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/25/why-jesus-first-christmas-gifts-were-truly-shocking/?utm_term=.a0e26c852f23 (posted and accessed 25 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sarah Anderson, “10 Reasons to Revive the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/10-reasons-to-revive-the-1968-poor-peoples-campaign/ (posted 4 December 2017; accessed 30 December 2017).

[11] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 243.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 14:13-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I would like to change the world.  I would like to broker peace in Israel/Palestine and the Korean Peninsula.  I would like to reverse climate change.  I would like to end racism and rape culture.  I would like to end crime and to heal the brokenness that leads to crime.  I would like to feed the hungry multitudes and end hunger.  I would like to make healthcare available to everyone without fear of debt.  I would like the change the world.

I’m not going to, at least not in a big way, like one of the ways I just listed.

I look at what Jesus accomplished in just, what, 33 years, and I realize how little I’ve done.  Maybe it’s not fair to compare myself to Jesus.  You know:  the whole God thing.

William Barber, II

But look at what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished in 39 years.  Or what William Barber, II is accomplishing – and, yes, he’s younger than me.  (If you don’t know who William Barber is, don’t worry.  You will.  Just keep coming to worship, and by the end of September …)  Heck, even Barack Obama is younger than me.

The chances are that I will not ever do some great, society-changing, justice-making, peace-creating act or series of acts.  So maybe I should just give up.

Jesus fed 5,000 people – well, 5,000 men, plus the women and children who most people thought weren’t worth counting.  Not so for Jesus.  While most folk didn’t think women and children counted, Jesus did.  He made sure everyone got enough to eat.  “All ate and were satisfied,” Matthew says.

And Jesus didn’t just feed this multitude.  He did it with five loaves of bread and two fish.  How impressive is that?  Impressive enough that the story is told six times in the four gospels.  That’s right.  Two of the gospels repeat the story.  And Jesus didn’t just walk up to the wall and say,

No replicators out there in this deserted place.

It’s all pretty crazy.  I mean, we all know “that the laws of Newtonian physics aren’t suddenly flexible if you just have enough faith.  Atoms and molecules don’t just shape shift wily nilly.  It’s more reasonable to believe that things are only what they seem.  Water stays water, 5 loaves stay 5 loaves and the dead stay dead.”[1]

I suppose it’s possible that “everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they all opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors[, and] so that … is why there was enough food to go around.”[2]  Thousands of people sharing with their neighbors is pretty miraculous.  And if the only lesson you take home today is, “Be nice and share your juice box,” well, that’s a pretty good lesson.  In fact, sharing is a necessary part of God’s economy, so it’s a really good lesson.  But maybe there’s something else going on here.

Nadia Bolz Weber asks us to consider “that we [just might] have a God who can actually feed so many on so little.   A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones [of] nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing.  NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with.  Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as ‘nothing,’ ‘insignificant,’ ‘worthless’ and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.”[3]

Jesus was working on self-care when the crowd interrupted.  News of King Herod’s execution of John the baptizer reached Jesus and he decided to take a break.  He decided to go to a deserted place by himself.  I imagine he needed it.  Preaching and teaching and embodying God’s truth is dangerous business – it was then and it is now.  John died for it.  And Jesus knew he could be next.  So he went to a deserted place by himself.

But taking this personal space doesn’t last.  The crowd hears that he’s gone away and they go after him.  “Jesus responds with grace and compassion to the crowds that come, healing their sick.  As the day draws to a close, the disciples make a pragmatic suggestion:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Send them away to fend for themselves.  Jesus’ response is to make the disciples waiters of the Spirit. …

“The ‘lonely place apart’ in the end does become a place of rest, healing, and nourishment [– but] for the larger group,”[4] and not so much for Jesus and the disciples.  It isn’t until later that Jesus gets his alone time.

Like I said, the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send the crowd away was pragmatic:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Only it turned out they were wrong.  “Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot [that God likes to work with nothing], but also that they forgot that they too were hungry.  They defaulted to ‘what do I have’ rather than ‘what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?’  The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand.  It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd.  How often do we forget this ourselves?”[5]

I know I forget it.  I get so caught up in the hunger I see around me that I think I have to solve it.  So I look at what I have at my disposal to feed them, and I keep coming up short.  I’m short on compassion, or will, or time, or skill.  “And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is.  A few loaves?  A couple fish?  It’s never enough.”[6]

Chances are I’m not the only one who’s worry about coming up short, who’s afraid of being found out.  “That sense of ourselves comes from the same economy of scarcity that makes us fret over how to stretch bread and fish, our selves, and our love.  In the face of such want, and of our own failings and limitations, it seems utterly foolhardy to trust in God’s abundant gifts, laid out before us and coursing through our veins.  Yet this is the presumption God commends us to embody.  While we run around readying ourselves – accruing the right skills, the right personality, the right spirituality – God is busy calling us as we are now …”[7]

God doesn’t ask if we can do big things.  God asks if we’ll live faithfully.  Here’s the thing – and I know this; I just don’t always get this.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves me totally apart from any work I do.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves you totally apart from any work you do.  That’s not to say that the work you do isn’t important to God.  It is important.  It’s just not necessary for God to love you.

What is necessary – at least I think it’s necessary – is remembering this, especially if the work you’re involved in is important, transformative, kin-dom building work.  That’s right.  I think that the deeper your work is in building the kin-dom of God, the more you need to know that you are loved by God whether you do that work or not.  When Jesus looks out through you and asks, “Where are these hungry people going to get food?” he’s “including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread.”[8]

“When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus – my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm.  That’s our guy.  The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, … the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.”[9]

And that’s why, when it comes to size matters, the size of what you’re doing really isn’t important.  What’s important is the size of the love we put into what we’re doing.  And when there are days when all you can do today is sit on the ground and let someone pass you the bread and fish, do that.  Do that with great love.

Yes, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”  So they do what they can with who they are and what they have – and Jesus makes the magic happen.  Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon the Feeding of the 5,000,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/ (posted 25 July 2015; accessed 1 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, though I did some grammatical corrections. (Some of her emphases have been changed – bolds, italics, etc.)

[4] Julie Polter, “Servants of Boundy,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/servants-bounty (accessed 1 August 2017).

[5] Weber, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Take and Eat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/take-and-eat (accessed 1 August 2017).

[8] Weber, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 23, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Genesis 28:10-19
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We had a red brick walkway that led to the front door of the house I grew up in.  It had been laid decades before I was born and had a few small dips and humps in it, but very little space between the bricks.  And yet, somehow, grass managed to grow between the bricks for about a third of the walk.  Getting sent out to weed the walk always seemed like punishment.  It was boring and there was no shade and the grass hung on tenaciously.  Half the time the stalk of the grass would break, rather than the root, and only on the rarest of occasions was it possible to actually pull out the full grass, root and all.  I suspect I got to weed the front walk because the one time my mother asked me to weed the garden I pulled up the daffodils that had been growing there for years.

The memory of pulling up the daffodils came flooding back as I studied today’s gospel lesson.  It is so easy for the untrained gardener to destroy what is wanted in an effort to extract what is not.  I like the definition of a weed that says, a weed is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it.  I also like the advice, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything.  What grows back is weeds.”[1]  This approach to gardening works for me.  Maybe it’s obvious that the characters in the parable I most identify with are the slaves who ask if they should rip out the weeds.

In Matthew’s narrative, this parable comes right after another parable, one that is probably a little more familiar, that is also about seeds.  In that parable, a planter goes scattering seed and the seed falls in four different kinds of soil – on a path; on rocky, shallow soil; on weed-infested soil; and on good soil – and only the seed that fell on the good soil produced grain.  Then Matthew has Jesus explain the meaning of the parable to the disciples.  And right after explaining the parable of the four soils, Matthew has Jesus tell the parable we heard today.  And then a couple short parables, almost aphorisms.  And then Matthew has Jesus explaining today’s parable.

Most biblical scholars think that the explanations are from the early church, not Jesus.  I actually find it reassuring that Matthew includes his explanation (he includes one for the parable of the four soils, too).  I think these parables are pretty obtuse by themselves and the fact that Matthew’s early church community created these explanations is reassuring because it means the early church found them obtuse as well and needing an explanation.  But that’s not too surprising.

Parables are, as David Lose put it, “suggestive, evocative, sometimes disconcerting, offering glimpses into the kingdom of God, but not explanations or definitions.”[2]  Accepting only one explanation of a parable does it a disservice, in my opinion.  So, while they may have captured a meaning of the parable for them in their day, I want to set aside their explanation and see what we can harvest from the parable today.

The first thing that I notice is that farmer is not a sharecropper.  He is rich enough to own slaves, so he probably owns the land as well.  This might not make him part of the 1 percent, but he is part of the top 10 percent.  So, like me, the people listening to Jesus would have identified with the slaves – but for different reasons.  They would have identified with the slaves because 90 percent of the population was peasant class – farm laborers, sharecroppers, day laborers, fishers, miners, construction workers, servants, slaves, the disabled, and the untouchables.[3]

If they identify with the slaves, might they have been rooting (if you’ll pardon the expression) for the weeds?  Having more agricultural sense than I have, could their suggestion to rip up the weeds be subversive, knowing full well that doing so would ruin the crop as well?  So, I’m left wondering, what if the kin-dom of God is like the weeds or the one who sowed the weeds – subversive and undermining the domination system?

Laurel Dykstra says that the weeds sown in this parable are a specific species: darnel.  “Darnel looks very much like wheat when it is immature,” she writes; “its roots intertwine with those of the wheat and its toxic grains are loosely attached to the stem.  The problem of what to do with an infested field does not have a simple solution – pull up the shoots and you pull up the wheat; wait until the harvest and you poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop with falling seeds.

“For the landless peasants who were Jesus’ audience, the economic loss represented by a contaminated field could mean the death of a child to malnutrition.  To the wealthy landowner in this story, it means loss of profit.  A rich man who imagines that simple bad luck must be the work of some enemy, and who stands to lose only income, might not have been a sympathetic character to peasants.  For him the kingdom of God is a noxious weed.

“The kingdom parables ‘put before us,’ in stark relief, the conditions of life under empire.  The rich risk their profit, the poor their lives and the lives of their children.  The few live in luxury sustained by enmity, scarcity, profit, and accumulation, and they are supported by the labor of those who struggle with poverty and constant vulnerability.”[4]

Another way to look at the parable is to ask, “When have I felt that way?”  I doubt the experience of the servants is foreign to you; it certainly isn’t for me.  I’ve been frustrated when things have gone the way I thought they would.  I’ve thought I’d prepared the soil and planted good seeds (metaphorically speaking) for some plan I have, and then something goes awry.  I want to correct it, like the slaves, to make it right – even if that means risking damage to something important.  It feels like life has ganged up on me, as if some enemy has done this.

I bet you’ve felt the same way at least at some point in your life.  “When the cancer returns, when the job goes away, when the relationship ends, when depression sets in, when addiction robs a loved one (or ourselves) of life, when a congregation is divided, when a loved one’s life is cut short, when war forces thousands to flee as refugees, when the world turns its back on people in need.  At these times, the sense that this world is not what God intended can be almost unbearable, and you don’t have to believe in a red-suited devil with a pointy tail and pitchfork to name the reality of sin, brokenness, and evil in the world.  … [T]he temptation to use this parable to explain evil probably won’t turn out that well.  But can we at least acknowledge [the reality of evil]?

“And, having acknowledged it, can we then also acknowledge that this is not God’s design or desire?

“I have witnessed time and again how difficult it is for many of us to avoid the temptation to explain evil – quite ironically! – by assigning it to some greater plan God supposedly has for us.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s part of God’s plan,’ someone says to another after tragedy.  Or, ‘Don’t worry, God never gives us more than we can handle’ [as if such hardship is something from God].  Or, ‘God’s purpose for this will reveal itself in time.’  All of these words of supposed comfort end up assigning God responsibility for tragedy and brokenness …

“I think one of the things this parable suggests is that God does not will evil for us, not in any way, shape, or form.  That our tragedies are not part of God’s plan.  That God never, ever wants us to suffer.  Rather, according to Paul, ‘God works for the good in all things” for those God loves.’”[5]

“Are there ways to find ‘healing’ amid devastation?  Yes.  Can one be ‘transformed’ by the hell life thrusts upon them?  Absolutely.  [In fact, I believe it is God’s desire that we find healing and transformation when tragedy happens.]  But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve.”[6]  So, rather than these platitudes that end up blaming God for tragedy, we can sit with our friends when the weeds are growing in their crops and simply be, giving them the space to grieve.

It’s important to remember that we don’t all grieve in the same way.  In fact, we don’t necessarily grieve in the same way as we respond to different tragedies.  Different weeds need different ways of dealing with them.  According to Todd Weir who learned cutting weeds at age 13 in Iowa, “A cockle burr had shallow but widespread roots and had to be pulled out to get all the roots.  If you hacked it off at the ground level with a hoe it would be back in a week.  A milkweed had a very long tap root that could not be pulled out.  If you did try to pull it up, three separate sprouts would be back in a week.  Milkweeds had to be hacked off with a hoe and would ‘bleed’ and die as the sap ran out.  If you didn’t handle the weeds right, hours of backbreaking work in the sun would be completely wasted.”[7]

On the other hand, sometimes you can’t tell the weed from the crop.  Or maybe you can tell the difference, but it’s impossible to eradicate the weeds without destroying the crop – as the parable suggests.  “Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.”[8]

If this parable makes you ask, “Am I wheat or weed?” let me tell you the answer.  You’re both.  We all are.  And our church is both wheat and weeds.  We may think we know who’s who, as if one could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify them.  Ooooo.  Weed sticker.  You need to sit in the back on the left.  Wheat?  Up front, on the right, please.[9]

Luckily, God is not only just.  God is also merciful.  So, while we are both wheat and weed, when the final sorting comes, we will be transformed into a bumper crop.

I was walking home from church one day last week when I noticed a blackberry.  I kept walking, maybe a couple steps, when I decided to go back and take a closer look at its beauty, hanging there right next to the sidewalk.  I thought about eating it, but decided instead to just enjoy its berriness.  And I took this picture.

There’s a poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that includes these lines:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.[10]

I didn’t take off my shoes, but I marveled at the berry’s majesty.  And that night, reflecting on the day, I wondered who would end up communing with God, feasting on the berry’s goodness.  Would some child skipping by pluck its juiciness and feast?  Would some lucky bird or squirrel dine?  Would the berry just revel in its own berriness and eventually go to seed?

On the west side of the mountains in Washington State, blackberries are typically considered a weed.  The climate is, it seems, perfect for them, and if you disturb the ground, they will grow.  And you will spend the rest of your days trying to get rid of them.

Still, they produce these berries…

As I reflect on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I have one more thought:  In addition to everything else the parable might mean, might it not just be an invitation to notice both the wheat and the weeds, the farmer and the slaves, and see in them both an invitation to an awareness of the presence of God?

Like Jacob at Bethel, as I walked home from church that day, God was there and I didn’t know it – until I stopped and noticed the blackberry.

Amen.

[1] From a sermon illustration that was provided in an email dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[2] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/07/pentecost-7-a-on-the-question-of-evil/ (posted and accessed 20 July 2017).

[3] See Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 83.

[4] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Seeds and Weeds,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/seeds-and-weeds (accessed 18 July 2017).

[5] Lose, op. cit.

[6] Tim Lawrence, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” The Adversity Within, http://www.timjlawrence.com/blog/2015/10/19/everything-doesnt-happen-for-a-reason (posted 20 October 2015; accessed 15 July 2017).

[7] Todd Weir, “Wheat and Tares,” from the emailed dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[8] Robert Farrar Capon, quoted by James C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: July 23, 2017,” MinistryMatters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8303/weekly-preaching-july-23-2017 (posted 19 July 2017; accessed 22 July 2017).

[9] Howell, Ibid.

[10] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “86. From ‘Aurora Leigh’,” Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html (accessed 22 July 2017).

I’ve had a blog post churning inside me since people took to the sidewalks and street of Berkeley to shut down a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California.

I wondered (before the protests) if the best response would have been to ignore him. If he came to a lecture hall and there was no audience, no newspaper reporter, no TV cameras, that would be the cruelest cut of all. But, a student group invited him so he was going to have some audience. And the things he typically says at these kinds of events are hate-filled (and sexist and Islamophobic and racist [and probably homophobic]) and allowing that kind of speech to go unchallenged can be dangerous, for that kind of speech insights violence. So something had to be done.

The students who wanted the event cancelled were not attempting to violate his freedom of speech. He would still have the right to speak, just as you and I have the right to speak. But you’re right to speak does not give you the right so say hateful, hurtful things on my Facebook timeline or in my living room or on my campus home. Go speak somewhere else, Milo, just not here.

So the students who didn’t want his hate-filled words spoken on their campus organized to stop them. I am proud of their purpose and I am proud of their success. I am sorry their protests ended up including property damage. I don’t think it needed to in order to be successful and, in fact I think it hurt the long-term effectiveness of the progressive agenda of equality and inclusion (the very things Milo opposes).

A colleague and friend points out that the black bloc tacticians are not the only ones we need to be condemning. I have heard nothing about the role of the campus college Republicans in all this. She says, “That seems really important to me,” and I agree with her. She goes on, “They invited someone they know incites violence towards women and people of color …” Are them culpable for what happened, too?

There needs to be engagement between the left and the right. We need to talk to one another and truly listen. But we can’t have these conversations as if real people aren’t being hurt. They are. Let’s talk about real people, not just you and me.

There also needs to be better training in nonviolence. And that training has to include how to respond to black bloc infiltrators (and other agents/provocateurs). I spoke with a former State Department employee a few weeks ago, someone who is now an academic expert on Russia. She warned that the danger is not only from anarchists who utilize black bloc tactics. She warned that the extreme right may take a page out of Russia’s playbook on the Crimea. Russia paid a woman and helped her move from one city to another to get interviewed on local TV, appearing to be a local little old lady, to say how horrible things were and how Russia was needed. The academic suggested that white nationalists could end up paying some people wearing Democratic Party-identifiable t-shirt to beat someone up (say someone who is African-American) and either hope that someone catches it on their cell phone or pay someone else to catch it on their cell phone and give it to local media (I’m so glad I was there to catch this) in an effort to discredit the Democratic Party.

Another friend described one such strategy to deal with people who would wield property damage as a tactic in what would otherwise be a peaceful protest. “… tell everyone to rapidly grab their neighbor protesters and put themselves physically between the black bloc idiots and whatever they want to destroy. Other protesters recruit help for you, fast, and message the protest leaders so they can respond. Once you have 3-5x more people than the local concentration of black bloc, you perform a ‘show of force’ — almost but not quite encircling the troublemakers, leaving only 1 exit. That is the direction you want them to go. And weirdly, it almost always works.”

Working for justice is a moral duty. We need to learn how to do it effectively.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.

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I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?

I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author[1] includes this advice:

  • Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.

This author also suggests:

  • Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
  • Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
  • Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
  • Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
  • Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
  • Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”

It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.

Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”[2]

As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.

While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year,[3] that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.

The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking.[4] It will take action.

And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.

So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”[5]

Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”[6]

I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently.[7] This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.

And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.

Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year,[8] but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.

If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,”[9] it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.

Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.

Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.

I did not do so well with these three resolutions.

But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.

And here he is in context.

Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.

He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.[10]

I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.

I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.

[1] Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[2] Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[3] On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.

[4] Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).

[5] Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).

[6] Camacho, op. cit.

[7] “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[8] Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “August Landmesser,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Landmesser (accessed 30 December 2016).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 31, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and Psalm 98
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘judgment’?

I did a Google image search on the word ‘judgment’ and the first big swath of images were of gavels.  There were a few scales, the scales we associate with the legal system.  I had to dig down a ways to get to an image that had to with anything else – like decision-making.  The sense of ‘judgment’ in the American zeitgeist connects to the criminal justice system.

And that connection links the word ‘judgment’ to condemnation and punishment.  That’s not too surprising when you consider that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 724 people locked up per 100,000 people in the general population.  That’s a rate that is five times the world median.[1]  So it’s not surprising that we associate ‘judgment’ with condemnation and punishment when you look at how our jails and prisons function, especially compared to prisons in another country.

Did you notice that quick clip of someone at a TED Talk?  He mentioned a difference sort of approach to prisons – from condemnation and punishment, to restorative justice.  Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime.  It seeks to restore (thus, its name) balance, harmony, and well-being.[2]

While I’d love for you all to think about criminal justice reform and maybe even work for it, that’s not the subject of today’s sermon.  I bring this up to prime the pump.  The focus on today’s sermon is on God’s judgment.  Which brings me to some other images.

“The Last Judgment”

Classical paintings of the final judgment are filled with images of condemnation and punishment.  This is “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo.  It is the altarpiece behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.  “While traditional medieval last judgments showed figures dressed according to their social positions, Michelangelo created a new standard.  His groundbreaking concept of the event shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank.  The artist portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned by showing the saved ascending on the left and the damned descending on the right.”[3]  Condemnation and punishment.

I’m not sure how this view of God became so predominant in Christian theology.  It probably has something to do with the co-opting of Christianity by Empire, and the primary image of God moving from Jesus’ metaphor of “Father” to something more like Caesar.  Certainly literal interpretations of Matthew 25 influenced things.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,…  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”[4]  And, the passage goes on to also talk about eternal punishment.

The tough part comes when we realizes that we are all goats, that we have all failed to notice Jesus in his distressing disguise, at least some of the time.  What hope do we have?

Our hope, I think is two-fold.  First, we don’t always miss Jesus, so we’re not just goats – we’re good goats.  Second, God’s judgment isn’t punitive.  God’s judgment is restorative.

Brian McLaren says that “in biblical times, good judges did more than condemn or punish.  They worked to set things right, to restore balance, harmony, and well-being.  Their justice was restorative, not just punitive.  The final goal of judgment was to curtail or convert all that was evil so that good would be free to fun wild.”[5]  And he says that this is God’s form of judgment, too – a judgment that sets things right.

This sense of God’s judgment undergirds Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous hope, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[6]  This is actually a paraphrase of comment by the early 19th century transcendentalist Theodore Parker predicting the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause:  “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[7]

As a Christian, my hope is that all in me that has not yet been put right in my lifetime will be put right by God in the life to come.  I do not see it being put right by the torture of hellfire and brimstone.  Yes, I now there have been plenty of Christian preachers who warn of tortures to come if we don’t find holiness in this life, but I don’t think that’s how God works.  In fact, I think that’s a misinterpretation of God’s use of fire in judgment.

In the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the image of fire as the tool God uses to burn away shoddy construction.  The foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ, he says, and it’s up to us to build on that foundation.  We can use quality items to build our lives, or we can use substandard items.  God’s judgment will burn away the substandard items, saving only us and that from our lives that is good

McLaren expands on this metaphor:  “So if some of us have constructed our lives like a shoddy builder, using worthless building materials, there won’t be much of our life’s story left.  We will experience the purification of judgment as loss, regret, remorse.  We thought we were pretty smart, powerful, superior, or successful, but the purifying fire will surprise us with the bitter truth.  In contrast, others of us who thought ourselves nothing special will be surprised in a positive way.  Thousands of deeds of kindness that we had long forgotten will have been remembered by God, and we will feel the reward of God saying, ‘Welcome into my joy!’”[8]

As wonderful as this hope is, you all know that I think how faith is lived now in this life is more important than the hope faith provides for the next life.  This fire, God’s fire of restorative judgment, can also work in our lives now.  When we open ourselves to the flames of the Spirit of holiness now, the shoddy building materials can be burnt away now.

Sometimes, I think this refining fire comes in the form of trials and difficulties.  We all experience them, and sometimes they can feel like a punishment for some wrongdoing.  But that’s not what they are.  They are consequences of the choices we and others make.  Some of these experiences, let’s be clear, can be horrendous.  When someone suffers child abuse or spousal abuse, that is the consequence of choices someone else has made.  It is certainly not a punishment from God and it is not the victim’s fault.  And I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would ever use such experiences to draw us deeper into holiness.  I suspect, more likely, that the Spirit simply wants to heal the wounds – physical, emotional, and spiritual – that abuse causes.

But other trials and difficulties – those the Spirit of Holiness will use, if we allow it, as a refining fire to burn away the dross in our lives.  “So, … delay is like a fire that burns away our impatience.  Annoyances are like flames that burn away our selfishness.  The demands of duty are like degrees of heat that burn away our laziness.  The unkind words and deeds of others are like a furnace in which our character is tempered, until we learn to bless, not curse, in response.”[9]

Here’s the thing.  “If we believe in judgment – in God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear.  We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world.  If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice, and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just, and peaceable now.  If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward the light each day in this life.”[10]

restorative justice 2You’ve probably seen the first two frames of this cartoon before.  The left frame is typically labeled “Equality”; the middle is labeled either “Equity” or “Justice.”  Take a look at this version that adds a third frame.[11]  In the left frame, it is assumed that everyone will benefit from the same supports, but, obviously, they don’t.  In the middle frame, each person is given different supports to make it possible for all of them to see the game.  In the right frame, all three can see the game, not because of supports, but because the systemic barrier that caused the inequality in the first place has been removed.  This is what restorative justice looks like.

This is what the Spirit of Holiness does in our lives – our lives as individuals and our life together as community – when its refining fires burn away the straw and the dross.  Opening ourselves to the Spirit of Holiness that sets things right again typically means opening ourselves to some painful experiences.  The restorative fires of God’s judgment can be painful.  “Like a mother in childbirth, groaning with pain and anticipation, the Spirit groans within us.  She will not rest until all is made whole, and all is made holey, and all is made well.”[12]

Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scriptures that captured your attention; or
… a time when what seemed impossible became possible and then actual for you; or
… the idea that life’s troubles are like a refining or purifying fire; or
… the image of a refiner’s fire. As you picture that image of heat and purification, ask yourself what areas of your life are being purified these days. Hold these areas up to God.

[1] “World Prison Populations,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm (probably posted in 2011; accessed 30 July 2016).  See also http://www.idcr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/WPPL-9-22.pdf

[2] Learn more about restorative justice at websites like http://restorativejustice.org and http://rjoyoakland.org/restorative-justice/.

[3]The Last Judgment (Michelangelo),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_(Michelangelo) (accessed 30 July 2016).

[4] Matthew 25:31-32, 34-36, NRSV.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 49. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967.

[7] “Theodore Parker,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Parker (accessed 30 July 2016).

[8] McLaren, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The cartoon is taken from “Equity and Inclusion Lens Handbook,” a Resource for Community Agencies created (as best I can tell) by the City for All Women Initiative of Ottawa, Canada, 2015. It can be found at http://www.cawi-ivtf.org/sites/default/files/publications/ei_lens_community-agencies-jan-2016-en-print.pdf (accessed 30 July 2016).

[12] McLaren, op. cit.

Exxon knew.

“Here’s the story so far. We have the chief legal representatives of the eighth and 16th largest economies on Earth (California and New York) probing the biggest fossil fuel company on Earth (ExxonMobil), while both Democratic presidential candidates are demanding that the federal Department of Justice join the investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history. And that’s just the beginning. As bad as Exxon has been in the past, what it’s doing now — entirely legally — is helping push the planet over the edge and into the biggest crisis in the entire span of the human story.”

That’s how Bill McKibben starts a lengthy, comprehensive, and very important essay on the fact that Exxon knew all about climate change and the role burning fossil fuels plays in causing it back in 1977, that they spent money lying to the public about climate change, and they are now being investigates for fraud. I encourage you to read it.

Then I hope you will take action. If you live outside the United States, please ask the appropriate governmental agency to investigate Exxon. If you live in the United States, please sign this petition to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an investigation of Exxon, then contact your State’s attorney general to call for an investigation in your state.  And if you live in New York or California, contact your state’s Treasurer to point out the fact that maybe your state should divest from a company that it is criminally investigating.

The United States imprisons more of its own people than any other country in the world.  While the U.S. comprises 5% of the total global population; it alone accounts for a staggering 25% of the world’s prison population.   Indeed, more than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, while more than 5 million additional persons are under the supervision of its justice system, either on probation or on parole. All totaled, there are over 7 million people currently subject to the U.S. criminal justice system.[1]

Moreover, the U.S. prison population is far from representative of the nation’s population as a whole. For instance, while African American males comprise only 6% of the U.S. population, they make up 40% of those in prison or jail. African American males have a 32% chance of serving time at some point in their lives, while white males have only a 6% chance.

Accompanying these one million incarcerated African American males are 283,000 Hispanics, whose own numbers represent a 219% increase in the last ten years. Hispanic males have a 17% chance of serving time at some point in their lives as compared to 6% of white males, as noted above.

Prisons and jails have become America’s “new asylums.” The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold.  Most of the individuals who are mentally ill in prisons and jails would have been treated in the state psychiatric hospitals in the years before the deinstitutionalization movement led to the closing of the hospitals, a trend that continues even today.  Nationwide, people with mental health conditions constitute 64% of the jail population.[2]

Besides these shocking statistics, low income persons and young people are especially vulnerable to becoming entrapped in our prisons and jails. The conclusion is clear that the criminal justice system in this country constitutes a calamitous racial, health, and economic injustice.

As people of faith, we are called to dismantle systems that violate human and civil rights. This resolution is intended to mobilize members of the United Church of Christ to join the burgeoning movement of faith and community organizations to halt the rapidly growing trend of mass incarceration in this country and thereby dismantle the new caste system it has created.

There’s a great video about this on The Atlantic‘s website:
http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/404890/prison-inherited-trait/

[1]U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Census Bureau.

[2]U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Prisoners 2006.

A wonderful person and member of my church, Delya Stoltz is a paramedic who works in a community ambulance service responding to 911 phone calls.  On December 6, following days of demonstrations against police violence in Berkeley and Oakland (major cities north of Fremont), she decided to put fingers to keyboard and composed and posted the following musings on Facebook.

I asked her for permission to post these thoughts here so that a wider audience could consider her opinions and her experience.  I don’t necessarily agree everything here, but I have read about neither similar thoughts nor similar experiences online elsewhere, so I want to share them to be included in other things you read about this moment in our history.

– Jeff Spencer

MY THOUGHTS ON LAW ENFORCEMENT STRIFE (shaped by my employment as a 911 medic):

Delya Stoltz at work.

Delya Stoltz at work.

This short essay is some stuff that has been rattling in my head during every charged post that I didn’t reply to recently (for fear of saying things in a manner that would engender more conflict). I’m really lucky that my Friends’ List runs from extremes at both ends of the political spectrum. It’s usually my Conservative friends that ‘challenge’ me the most. (Or would that be ‘harass’?  ) And while I do tend to be at the Liberal end of most political divides, a good portion of my online social contacts are quite a bit ‘left’ of where even I land. Overall, these wonderful and spirited people (from all sides) that often disagree with me can make my computer log-ins ‘interesting’ and sometimes improve my understanding of the world.

In my right-ward leaning chums, I have noticed the tendency to underestimate the continued difficulty of being dark-complected, poor, or just ‘different’ in America. Simply because we are legally equal, doesn’t mean that everyday citizens get a fair shake in the practice of reality. And there are some groups that still do not enjoy equal legal privileges. As a white hetero-normative appearing person who speaks in a manner local to the area in which I live, I will not even try to understand the daily trials that many others encounter during activities that are experienced as routine to me.

One thing that I’ve noticed among some of the left-ward leaning is that police officers are increasingly a ‘them’ group that are, at times, unfairly generalized. I’m not an apologist for overly aggressive police officers, and I’m not saying that there aren’t departments with a toxic culture. We all know that there are bad officers, and we also know that there are good officers who make mistakes. I do admit that the results of irresponsible policing exact much higher tolls than poor job performance in other fields. Most professions do not hold the actual power to end a life based on the perception of a situation, or a workplace mistake.

With all of that said, there is a good chance that I am still wandering around and posting on your FB feed because of responsible and ethical police work. It’s not necessarily one particular incident that I am thinking of, but over nine years of rendering 911 services to compromised people in unsafe environments. The number of methamphetamine addled encounters are far too many to count, as are the gang members, angry relatives, aggressive psychiatric patients, and crime suspects. It’s not that I’ve ever been at gun point and had an officer bravely jump in and save the day, as in a movie. What it is like is my unit being ‘cleared’ into a situation after it’s been stabilized by law. I’ve had to retreat from a 911 call (that was not dispatched with police based on its initial characterization by the reporting party) and wait until it was safe to reenter. And I’ve also been escorted into unsafe environments by law enforcement. As an example, I can tell you from experience that going late at night to a shooting inside a large rodeo event with a single rural Sheriff is an intimidating experience. Imagine being screamed at with pejorative terms as you are pulling a bloody person from a pick-up truck bed, because your care was not delivered quickly enough to suit the tastes of the angry and drunk family members. For every one police officer who drew when he or she shouldn’t have, there are so many more like that sheriff, who deescalated the upset family and helped lift the bloody person through the intoxicated crowd and into my ambulance.

I hope that everybody remembers that there is no true ‘THEM.’ Everybody is somebody else’s son or daughter. Whether your uniform is blue and sports a badge, whether you are some form of more tan than pale, or whether you carry an accent in the place that you live or travel to; you deserve to be judged on the merits of your own deeds.

I would also ask you to consider that when you or your friends make really valid concerns clear in protest settings, that infrastructure be protected. And infrastructure includes streets and freeways. Impeding their usage is a dangerous thing to do. Roads are the passageways that deliver ambulances and fire trucks as well as cop cars and ordinary people. Regardless of how you feel about police cruisers and the officers that they contain, they can assist in the delivery of those of us who can help an asthmatic child, put out a fire, or help at a vehicle accident. My friends who work in dispatch had to reroute ambulances performing transfers on the night that the Interstate 580 was shut down for a while. There is a children’s hospital and a trauma center in Oakland. I don’t know that anybody was kept from either facility, but such an occurrence could be a consequence of protests that close important roadways. Dispatchers are a notoriously quick thinking group, so I am sure that all went well. It just had the potential to not go well.

It’s just that I have a family of first responders that I hate to hear derided. They are male and female, they are of all different orientations and colors. The vast majority of them want to protect you, and would do so at the potential cost of their own lives.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Delya Stoltz; used by permission.

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