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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 22:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Truth be told, when I read this parable a couple weeks ago, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  How on earth am I going to use this in a pledge campaign?”

The simple fact of the matter is that I haven’t liked this parable very much.  I don’t like its violence – the violence perpetrated by the wedding invitees, nor the violence perpetrated by the king.  And when the parable is looked at as an allegory it easily becomes anti-Semitic.  Making light of the kind’s invitation on one hand and killing his slaves on the other can be interpreted as blaming the Jews for ignoring the prophets and for killing Jesus (even though we know that the Roman government was responsible for killing Jesus).

As I sat with my discomfort, my dislike of this parable this week, I realized that I am treating the parable too literally.  I am looking at it too closely.  I need to step back to see the bigger picture.  I had this experience on Friday, sitting too close to some prints hanging on a hospital waiting room wall.  Only later that morning when I was sitting in some chairs across the waiting room could I see the beauty of the artwork.

You may have had a similar experience with pointillism.  If you’re too close, you have no idea what you’re looking at, but if you back up, you can see the whole picture.  If I step back from the parable and think about the whole picture, I don’t get lost in the details.

Early Christians thought that Jesus was going to return to fully establish the Realm of God, the Realm that he has started to establish during his lifetime through his preaching, teaching and healing.  By the time Matthew was writing his gospel, some of the community “had begun to lose confidence in the second coming of Jesus and in the final manifestation of the Realm.”[1]  The person we call Matthew wrote his gospel to impress upon the community the importance of remaining faithful, even in the face of conflict within the community and conflict with authorities outside the community (be that with Jewish authorities or Roman authorities).

When you remember this, you can see this parable as fitting into that purpose.  “It urges people to accept the invitation to the Realm, to accept others who have accepted the invitation to the Realm, and to dress accordingly, that is, to live according to the perspectives and behaviors of the Realm of God.…  When listeners accept the invitation to become part of the community that is part of the movement to the Realm, they make a commitment to live according to the values and purposes of the Realm.  They agree to put their time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources at the service of the Realm.”[2]

The use of a wedding banquet to refer to God’s rule is not unique to the Gospel writers.  Isaiah is one who uses this image.  And it’s an appropriate image.  “Weddings in antiquity were significant social occasions.  In villages, the event could last several days and would involve generous amounts of food, considerable dancing, and other festive qualities.  The [whole] social world of the village was transformed during the time of a wedding.”[3]

And here’s why this parable works for our pledge campaign.  “The invitation to join the Realm is an invitation to turn away from using time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources to serve the values and practices of the old age, and to turn towards God and to use [those resources] … according to the values and practices of the Realm of God.”[4]  Yes, our pledge campaign is leading toward October 22, when we will ask you to make a financial commitment to support the work of the Realm of God we are carrying out through the ministries of our church.  But more than that, this pledge campaign is about “getting caught up in the movement towards the Realm, and in response committing oneself to practice the Realm.  The money for the budget is intended to help the church be a genuine community of the Realm and to make an adequate witness.”[5]

That’s the invitation of this pledge campaign.  I know that, just like in the parable, some people won’t want to come.  Some people make light of the invitation and return to whatever the modern equivalent of their farms and businesses is.  Presumably, their lives will continue in the broken way of the world.

But some will respond to the invitation, including people who think they are not good enough to be invited and are surprised to have a servant come and seek them out.  And we all know that some will respond to the invitation, but won’t invest themselves in the work of the Realm.  I’m glad to say that we don’t through them out, but I do always feel some sense of loss and sometimes even failure, when people who’ve said “yes” to the invitation don’t follow through with a Realm-transformed life.

The reality is that the pledge you choose to make during this campaign is just one piece of a Realm-transformed life.  I’ve been calling this a pledge campaign (and not a stewardship campaign) because stewardship is about much more than giving money.  Stewardship is about being part of the new social and cosmic order that is the Realm of God.  “When we commit to the church, we commit to the Realm, which is committing to the movement for a renewed world.”[6]  Stewardship is really everything you do after you say, “I believe.”

That said, stewardship definitely includes how you use your money.  And not just about how you use your money to support the church.  If you live a life-style that exceeds your income, putting you into debt, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship, and maybe you need some help with that.  I’m not exactly sure where to get that help, but I’m happy to work with you to find it.  If you try to feed a spiritual hunger by buying things, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.  If you’re so good about saving your money that you are stingy with your neighbors, yourself, and God, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.

So, part of the invitation of this pledge campaign is to ask you to look at your income (and maybe even your savings) and decide what you need to do to be even healthier about your stewardship of your money.

There are two more things in today’s gospel lesson that I want to talk about.  The first is about the violence of the king.  There are two ways this violence is cast.  The king sends his troops to destroy the murderers of his slaves.  And the king, once the party has begun, has one of the guests thrown into the outer darkness for not wearing the right attire.

Perhaps I am guilty of looking too closely at the parable right now, but because this so disturbs me, I have to comment.  I can only interpret these lines as hyperbole.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, would not burn down whole cities.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, “would not actively consign people to the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”[7]  Still, I do think that when people choose to refuse the invitation to be part of building the realm of God, they end up building walls between themselves and God.

And I do think that metaphoric dress has consequences.  When we clothe ourselves unethically, disregarding the attitudes and actions that are part of the Realm of God, we create communities of distrust, exploitation, and violence, and that eventually causes many people to weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

The final thing I want to comment on are the lines where the king sends his slaves to get other people to come to the banquet.  Let me remind you of those lines.  “Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

I’m taken by the notion that slaves rounded up everybody to come to the wedding banquet.  I think this is saying that the gospel is for everybody.  I think this is saying that we should be out inviting everybody, not just the people who are in whatever way “like us.”  We should be out inviting people who we think might, in some way, be bad – and then get over our judgmentalism.

Back in May, we adopted a strategic plan for the next two years.  The plan has two goals.  One is to start at least two new hands-on, multi-cultural, intergenerational service project each year for the next two years.  The other is to encourage the faith journeys of all members and visitors by increasing participation in church programs by 10% annually.  I think both of these goals fit in with this image of gathering up people to join in the wedding banquet that is the Realm of God.

And so I want to remind you that when you make your financial pledge to the church later this month, you are supporting this work of invitation.  “For Matthew’s [Jewish community], ministry with Gentiles and with those who do good things and bad things was a significant magnification of their ministry, but one that was essential to their identity and purpose.  To stretch is to be faithful.  To fail to stretch is to be unfaithful.”[8]

My friends, the invitation has gone out.  We have been invited to the wedding banquet and everything is prepared.  Will we come and celebrate?  Will we come ready to be part of the new social order that transforms the world?  And if we will, how will we live that out in all aspects of our lives, in all the ways we are stewards of our resources?

In other words, how will we respond to the invitation?

_______________

[1] Bruce Barkhauer, et. al., Journey to Generosity: The Way of Jesus, published by the Center for Faith and Giving in 2016 and downloaded in 2017, page 85.

[2] Ibid, 85-86.  I have replaced “talent” with “skills, gifts,” and will to that in this sermon because the word “talent” is a unit of money in scripture and it is being used here to refer to skills and gifts.

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid, 87.

[6] Ibid, 89.

[7] Ibid, 94.

[8] Ibid, 92.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 20:1-16
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Back in 2015, the CEO of a relatively small (70 or so employees) tech company in Seattle announced that he was going to change his pay and the base salary for all the employees at the company.  He was going to take a 90% pay cut and he was raising the base salary for employees to $70,000 per year.[1]  Show of hands: How many of you remember this?  At the time, I remember it being met with a variety of responses.  Some people say the CEO, Dan Price, as a working class-hero.  Other people thought he was nuts and that this would bankrupt the company.

The reason he made this move, he said, was that he had read a study that claimed people were happiest when they had an annual income of $70,000.  So, he figured, why not help his employees be happy?  One result was that the company lost some clients.  There were clients who thought that Gravity Payments would have to raise their prices to pay these increased salaries, even though Price’s salary decrease covered them.  Another result was that they gained clients, enough clients that Gravity Payments had to go on a hiring spree.[2]

I suspect the biggest immediate challenge Gravity Payments faced was the loss of two of their “rock star” employees (as one report labeled them) – and there may have been more defections in the intervening two years.  These first two employees to leave “reportedly thought it was unfair that other employees (those making less than $70,000) were getting big raises, while not necessarily contributing as much to the company’s success.”[3]  Does that remind you of any scripture you’ve heard or read lately?

I wonder if Americans are more disturbed by today’s gospel lesson than people from other cultures.  We like to think that our nation, our culture, our economy is a meritocracy, that people’s ability to earn money and climb the social, political, and economic ladder is based on their skills and hard work.  And two years ago, with over half of American households earning on the order of $54,000 or less per year,[4]  Price’s new minimum wage at his company called that notion of a meritocracy into question.  Just as an aside, it turns out that the median household income in Seattle when Price made this decision was right around $70,000.[5]  Still, this kind of generosity for the sake of happiness does challenge the notion that we live in a meritocracy.

I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples, or anyone else that might have heard this parable originally would have thought that they lived in a meritocracy.  In the Empire of Rome, the family you were born into made a huge difference in how you lived.  Nonetheless, fair is fair, and if I work all day (for 12 hours) out in the vineyards under a scorching sun and some bum works only one hour, from 5:00 to 6:00, I expect to be paid more than that bum.  12 times more, in fact.

This may be one of the reasons this parable has historically been interpreted to be about salvation and heaven.  In this interpretation, treating the parable as an allegory, “the owner of the vineyard is God; the reward for the laborers, the denarius, is salvation; the first hired are God’s first people, the Jews; the last hired, the Gentiles or recent converts.  A generous God gives to the latecomers the same free, gift of salvation that God gives to the first faithful.”[6]  This interpretation goes back at least as far as the 4th century.  And after all, the parable does start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

But remember, Matthew is writing to Jewish followers of Jesus, so when Luke and Mark would say, “The kingdom of God,” Matthew says, “The kingdom of heaven.”  In Jewish culture, one does not mention God by name.  And remember, too, that the word that gets translated here as “kingdom,” is the same word that is used to describe the Empire of Rome.  So maybe it is better to translate these gospel phrases as “the empire of God” and “the empire of Heaven.”

Jesus is saying, “You know what the empire of Rome is like.  Let me tell you about the empire of God.”

So, what was Jesus saying about the empire of God?  This is what I hear.

First thing in the morning, a landowner goes out to hire some day laborers to work in his vineyard.  This is a strange act, a countercultural act.  Typically, it would be the landowner’s steward, the manager, the person who runs the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, the one who will pay the day laborers at the end of the story, who would go to the marketplace (or the Home Depot parking lot) to hire the day laborers.  He hires some people, agreeing to pay them the going wage, a denarius, just enough for to keep a small family fed for the day.  In other words, the families of the people in the marketplace who aren’t hired probably wouldn’t eat that day.  This initial group goes off to work in the vineyard.

At 9:00, the landowner is again in the marketplace and notices that there are people, day laborers, who were not hired.  He sends them to his vineyard to work, saying that he’ll pay them what is right.  Well, some money is better than no money, so at least the family will have something to eat.  They head off to the vineyard.

At noon and at 3:00 (I have no idea why this landowner keeps going to the marketplace, but there he is again), he finds more people who have not found day work, and he sends them off to the vineyard to work, promising to pay them what is right.  At 5:00, the work day is almost over, and there are still people who haven’t found any work.  The landowner sends them to the vineyard to work for that last hour of the day.

Finally, the day is over, and it’s time to pay the workers.  For some reason (and maybe it’s just to make the storytelling work), the landowner decides that the people who were hired last should be paid first.  And the landowner has his steward, his manager pay everybody for a full day’s work, even though some of them only worked for an hour.  Like I said earlier, if I was one of the people who had worked all day, when I saw the guys who only worked one hour get a full day’s wage, I would be thinking, “Ka-ching! I’m going to get 12 days’ worth of wages for just one day’s work.”  And I’d be pretty ticked off that I only got one day’s wage, as had been previously agreed.

But I think what Jesus is saying is, in the empire of God, everyone gets enough so they and their families can eat.  When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re praying that we, all of us, those who work hard and those who only show up for the last hour, get enough to eat each day.

This notion that in the empire of God, everyone will have enough is the moral underpinning for my support of the New Poor Peoples Campaign.  50 years ago this December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington.  This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education – better lives than the ones they were living.  [The] Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to ‘dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.’”[7]

Throughout the many speeches and sermons of the last year of his life, Dr. King described both the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide and the vision of poor people coming together to transform society.  He realized that if the poor of the United States organized, if they came together in direct actions, they could awaken the conscience of the nation, “changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.  He described this force as a multi-racial ‘nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.’”[8]

Unfortunately, “the assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and Presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.  King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite.  He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War.”[9]

It has been 50 years since the first Poor People’s Campaign was being organized and the problems of poverty and the causes of poverty have not gone away.  That is why Disciples of Christ pastor and moral leader the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  I got to hear his call at General Synod this summer.[10]  Let me quote him.

“[The African American church does] not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square.  Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.

“As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation:  We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.…

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ – militarism, racism, and economic injustice – to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist.  Poor people in communities across America – black, white, brown and Native – responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.…

“The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago.  Make no mistake about it:  We face a crisis in America.  The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.  Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist[s] … in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more.  As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.…

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

“At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been.…

“Throughout America’s history – from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights – real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice.  These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes.  They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions.  Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.

“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.  We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”[11]

So now a New Poor People’s Campaign is being organized.  We are now a few months in to the launch of the Campaign.  The launch will continue through next summer and will focus on highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a 6-week period in at least 25 states and the District of Columbia during the Spring of 2018.  The Campaign will force a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and environmental devastation while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.

I have already committed to find ways to be part of this campaign.  I must do it because it is the work of the empire of God.  I invite you to join in this New Poor People’s Campaign, too.

Amen.

[1] Sam Becker, “The $70,000 Minimum Wage Experiment Reveals a Dark Truth,” CheatSheet, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/the-70000-minimum-wage-experiment-reveals-a-dark-truth.html (Posted 26 January 2017; apparently updated; accessed 23 September 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Frankel, “Here’s the average American household income: How do you compare?” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/ (posted 24 November 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[5] Gene Balk, “$80,000 median: Income gain in Seattle far outpaces other cities,” The Seattle Times, (posted 15 September 2016; accessed 23 September 2017).

[6] Lowell Grisham, “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard,” Lowell’s Sermons, http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2011/09/parable-of-laborers-in-vineyard.html (posted 17 September 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

[7] “Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68,” Poor People’s Campaign, https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/ (accessed 23 September 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I am amused that it was at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod that I hear Rev. Barber’s call to the New Poor People’s Campaign, rather than at the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly the following week.

[11] William J. Barber II, “Rev. Barber: America needs a new Poor People’s Campaign,” ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-why-america-needs-a-new-poor-peoples-campaign-dd406d515193/ (posted 15 May 2017; accessed 23 September 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 30, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love this passage from Romans.  It is one of my two favorite passages from the Epistles, the collection of letters in the New Testament.  I include it frequently in memorial services and I want it read at my memorial service (though I hope that detail isn’t needed for a long time).  I agree with Jim Wallis who says, “This remarkable and uplifting passage describes the unshakable promise of God.”[1]

Notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage.  He doesn’t say that people who follow Jesus will live a life free of hardship, conflict, and weakness.  In fact, “Paul assumes that weakness, conflict, and hardship are normal for the Christian life and, for that matter, human life.”[2]

How’s that for good news?  Congratulations, Christian, your life will have plenty of hardship.  You will face conflict (perhaps especially because of your faith).  And when you face the principalities and powers you will see how weak (at least as culture measures it) you are.

Do you see how antithetical to our culture’s general messages all of this is?  The general message of our culture is that you cannot just feel powerful, you can be powerful.  The general message of our culture is that conflict should be avoided because you can’t be happy if you’re in conflict (I sometimes call this the tyranny of ‘nice’), and happiness (not joy, but happiness) is the to be pursued.  The general message of our culture is that if you are facing hardship it’s your own darn fault; you, in some way, chose this.

Is it any wonder that the “prosperity gospel” is an American invention?  Even if you haven’t heard the term before, you know of this theology.  It’s a theology that is more steeped in American values than Christian values.  It’s a theology that tells us that the goal of the Christian life is “to get out of adversity and into security.”[3]  People who subscribe to this particularly American form of Christianity (that has become very popular in parts of Africa and South America) are pushed to believe in the God of the quick fix who will make us happy, prosperous, and protected.  It’s a theology that says that all of our uncomfortable feelings, our insecurities, and our weaknesses are bad that that we should move into strength, security, and control.[4]

This is how Wikipedia defines it:  “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel …) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.…

“The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy.  The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.  This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession.”[5]

Televangelists have embraced this theology and made it famous.  Oral Roberts was a huge proponent of this theology.  T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar are three of the more prominent contemporary preachers of this.  The whole “Prayer of Jabez” movement – if you don’t know about it, don’t worry, you can ignore it – came out of this theology.

All of this is a false gospel.

What Jesus preached was not personal prosperity.  What Jesus preached as the kin-dom of God.  And the kin-dom of God was always presented as an alternative to the kingdom of Caesar.  This kin-dom of God is subversive and infiltrates the systems that oppress, the systems that allow a small elite to be wealthy at the expense of the masses.  The kin-dom of God is how the arc of history bends toward justice.  Just look at the parables in today’s gospel reading.

The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed sown in a field.  It grows into a big old shrub and birds come and nest there.

A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast-growing, and impossible to get rid of (like darnel, the weed sown among the wheat in last week’s parable).  To say the kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed is to say that the kin-dom of God is like kudzu, that it’s like Scotch broom, that it’s like like morning glories and dandelions.  “And birds of the air?  The last place we want them is in our grain fields.  You’ve heard of scarecrows?”[6]

The kin-dom of God is like yeast that a woman mixed into three measures of flour until it was all leavened.

Have you ever heard the expression, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”?  This little aphorism actually is from the Bible.  It’s in both the letter to the Galatians and the first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul uses it in much the same way we might use the expression, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”  “Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption:  Leaven equals … corruption.”[7]

And three measures of flour?  According to Jim Douglass, that’s about 50 pounds – enough to make bread for more than a hundred people.  Oh my goodness, the leaven of God is far more corrupting than a rotten apple somewhere in a barrel.[8]

And consider the woman’s actions.  She “hides” the leaven, the corrupting leaven, in the flour.  She sneaks God’s tiny corrupting power into the giant bin of flour, transforming the whole shebang.  I like the way Douglass restates the parable:  “The reign of God is like a tiny, corrupt substance, which a shrewd woman took and hid in a huge amount of flour, until it accomplished a [massive] transformation.”[9]

The kid-dom of God is like a buried treasure that someone finds, so he goes and sells all he has so he can buy the field.  The kin-dom of God is like a merchant who finds the perfect pearl and sells all he has so he can buy it.  The kin-dom of God is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught every kind of fish.”

Here’s the thing:  The kid-dom Jesus announces turns things upside down.  Once it takes root, you can’t get rid of it and it upsets all your plans for your farm and for the rest of your life.  In the kin-dom Jesus announces, serfs are buying land, a peasant woman bakes bread for 100 and feeds them.  The kin-dom Jesus announces is rising, “and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have [so that maybe they, too, can be part of it].  The kin-dom Jesus announces is springing up faster than we can uproot it.

I hope you noticed that “the objects described [in this series of short parables] are inseparable from actions and actors:  Seed is sown by a sower, yeast is hidden by a woman, the treasure hunter and the merchant buy and sell, the fishers fish.  The kingdom is not about static symbols but about people engaged in action.”[10]

The kin-dom Jesus announces is “subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, and abundant.  It requires action and commitment and inspires extreme behavior.”[11]  It is not about your financial blessing and physical well-being.

If we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, our pets will still die, our spouses will still disappoint us from time to time, we will watch our children make bad choices or suffer and there won’t be a thing we can do about it, we will watch our parents and grandparents grow old, and we will face health crises and financial hardships at different points in our lives.  In fact, if we make the commitment to the kin-dom of God that Jesus announced, we will face more hardship than that.  The principalities and powers in their many forms will try to stop us, sometimes simply with inertia and sometimes with more overt forms of persecution.  This is especially true when we undertake the extreme action the kin-dom requires of us.

What Paul is saying in the passage from Romans is that “adversity is part of life, and especially part of the Christian life lived in conflict with the world.

“Success, according to this passage, is not the avoidance of adversity but knowing the love of God in adversity.  The promise made by the passage is not that God will remove the difficulties of life, but that God will continue to love us through them.

“Those who accept the adversities of life and find God’s love in the midst of them are those who become the wise, healed, whole, and joyful people.  Often Christians whose faith has been purified through suffering are the most joyful of all.  On the other hand, those who spend their lives in the desperate attempt to avoid hardship and pain often end up most miserable and filled with anxiety.”[12]

That said, “Suffering does not necessarily lead to spiritual maturity.  It can lead to bitterness, frustration, anger, and violence.  We all know people who have allowed their suffering to embitter them and destroy their lives.  Even social movements, in response to injustice and suffering, can become violent forces of revenge and hatred.

“But oppression and suffering can also lead to trust in the love of God.  Suffering can help us let go of everything and realize that there is no alternative but to depend on God.  Abandoning ourselves to the love of God leads to spiritual maturity and wisdom.”[13]

Paul asks, Who can separate us from the love of God?  Can trouble?  No.  Hardship?  No. Persecution?  No.  Famine?  No.  Nakedness?  No.  Danger?  No.  Sword?  No.

So, what are you afraid of?

“Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.  Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of God?  They can’t.  Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of God?  It can’t.

“Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over your children’s future?  They can’t.  Negative self-image?  It can’t.  Economic hardship, racial hatred, street crime?  They can’t.

“Rejection by loved ones, the suffering of loved ones?  They can’t.  Persecution by the authorities, going to jail?  They can’t.  The President?  He can’t.  [Congress?  They can’t.]  War?  It can’t.  Nuclear war?  Even it can’t.”[14]

That is the promise of this passage:  the unshakable promise of God.  Whether we feel it or not, whether we accept it or not, it’s there.  It’s our choice.  Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis, “The Unshakable Promise of God,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/unshakable-promise-god (accessed 25 July 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Prosperity theology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology (accessed 29 July 2017).

[6] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 25 July 2017).

[7] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption? (accessed 25 July 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dykstra, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wallis, op. cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 6:14-29 and 2 Samuel 6:12b-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Dance like nobody’s watching. I’ve heard the advice. Multiple times. And when I take the advice I feel like this:

Or I don’t take the advice because I feel like this:

The advice is meant to be reassuring. Dance like nobody’s watching – go ahead! But implied in the advice is the warning: they are watching. Unless they’re busy looking at the phones.

But this sermon isn’t about my two left feet. It’s not even about dancing, really, even though dances play a key role in both of our readings.

The words “David danced before the Lord” evoke the young king’s enthusiastic response to the holy charge to bring the ark of Yahweh home to Jerusalem. Every step along the way, King David dances his heart out. And every six steps, he offers a sacrifice. His enthusiasm must have been contagious – except, apparently for Michal, former-King Saul’s daughter and one of David’s wives. When she looked out of the window and saw the king leaping and dancing before God, the text says, “she despised him in her heart.” The text doesn’t tell us why Michal despised David, but it’s clear: our dancer, David, is the hero of this story and Michel – not so much. [1]

The gospel brings us to an encounter with another dancer, another king, and a fiery prophet who made life very uncomfortable for those who didn’t follow the law, even if they were kings. And that is the focus of today’s sermon.

In addition to baptizing people down at the River Jordan, John had made public declarations about the political powers. He had denounced King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. Apparently John’s denunciations angered Herodias more than they angered Herod. Herod had John imprisoned, but imprisoning him did not satisfy Herodias. So, when her daughter danced for the king on his birthday and he promised her whatever she wanted as a reward, Herodias coached her to ask for John’s head. That would get rid of this troublesome prophet.

Herod, it seems, did not want to have John put to death. But then he backed himself into a corner. So enthralled by his daughter’s dance, he promised her anything. And he made the promise in front of the political and social elite. Saving face became more important for Herod than anything else, so he had John put to death.

Apparently, Herod was troubled by this decision. “Even though John [had] said of Jesus, ‘He must increase and I must decrease,’ the effect of this powerful desert figure remained with the people. Many thought the young rabbi Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist. Even Herod, in guilty terror, thought so. He must have felt [this] dance had cost him too much.”[2]

There’s an object lesson here. When our egos are more important than our morals, we make bad decisions. When we busy ourselves with saving face, people can lose their heads – maybe not literally, but figuratively. I know how easy it is to get caught up by ego. I’ve got some ego stuff going on. After all, I picked a profession where I get to stand in front of people every week and they listen to me. If I get too concerned with protecting my ego, I’m going to start making choices that aren’t for the good of the church.  I suspect that each of us can think of how concern with how we appear, concerns about ego and saving face, can lead us astray.

This is, I think, a major cause of the police violence that is suddenly being exposed thanks to cellphone cameras is face. Or as Carman on Southpark would put it, people don’t “Respect my authoritah!”  And some officers are having a hard time with that. They feel like they’re losing face, and so they lash out violently.

Now, that’s where I thought I’d be going with today’s sermon back in June when I was doing my initial worship planning for July. I thought I’d be preaching to this idea that when we focus on saving face we typically end up making bad choices. But then I started reading commentaries and additional ideas that I think are important to share surfaced.

The first comes from an essay by Michaela Bruzzese. She brings us an aspect of this story that I had glossed over. She points to the role that women play in this narrative and how their actions are similar to that of other biblical scapegoats. Bruzzese points out that “though the women in this story play the most critical roles in the narrative, they are not important enough to be named. Herodias’ name is simply a derivative of her husband’s, and her daughter is not named at all. Second, in one of the most erotic episodes in the entire New Testament, female sexuality is present as a dangerous undercurrent. Though John had reprimanded Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, it is Herodias who was enraged ‘and wanted to kill him’ (Mark 6:19). Her daughter’s sexuality also has dangerous consequences: Herod is … driven out of his mind by her erotic dance and makes outlandish promises to her. The women, portrayed as taking advantage of Herod’s weak state, ‘force’ him to kill the Baptist. In this way, Herodias and her daughter play roles similar to that of Eve; they are the ‘temptresses’ who lead men astray. Like Pilate [at Jesus’ execution], Herod emerges as a reluctant executioner and the women become the scapegoats for John’s murder.”[1]

I had totally missed the misogyny in the telling of this story prior to reading Bruzzese’s essay. I had missed the powerful archetypes present in the story “that, intentionally or not, have had critical implications for the Christian community’s perception and treatment of women throughout history.”[2]

It’s important that we read scripture with a critical eye. When we fail to do so and simply accept our past interpretations as the final word a scripture might have to say to us, we may be allowing harmful stereotypes to be perpetuated. Sometimes it’s the covert messages, the implied messages that are the most dangerous. Unearthing them and naming them can help take away their power. That’s important work to do, even if it mean admitting that past interpretations were wrong or incomplete. It’s worth losing a little face for the sake of justice.

Another author I read who shook things up a bit for me is David Lose. He invited me to read Mark’s story a little more closely, and in doing so, several things stand out: This is one of the longest sustained narrative scenes in Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus does not appear in it at all, it seems to interrupt the flow of the rest of the story, and it’s told in flashback, the only time that Mark employs such a device. Because of these features, the scene is not only as suspenseful and ultimately grisly as anything on television, but it is unlike anything else in Mark’s account and seems almost out of place, …”[3]

In fact, over the years, scholars and students have questioned why Mark reports this story at all. “Later evangelists must have asked the same question, as Matthew shortens it markedly and Luke omits it altogether. The majority opinion is that it serves two key purposes in Mark: it foreshadows Jesus’ own grisly death and it serves as an interlude between Jesus’ sending of the disciples and their return some unknown number of days or weeks later.”[4]

Maybe. But for me, the story does something else. It draws a contrast between the two kinds of kingdoms available to Jesus disciples, both then and now. “Consider: Mark, tells this story as a flashback, out of its narrative sequence, which means he could have put this scene anywhere. But he puts it here, not simply between the sending and receiving of the disciples but, more specifically, just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God and when he then joins them in making that kingdom three-dimensional, tangible, and in these ways seriously imaginable.

“Herod’s Kingdom – the kingdom of the world … – is dominated by the will to power, the will to gain influence over others. This is the world where competition, fear, and envy are the coins of the realm, the world of not just late night dramas and reality television but also the evening news, where we have paraded before us the triumphs and tragedies of the day as if they are simply givens, as if there is no other way of being in the world and relating to each other.

“Which is why Mark places the story here.  Just previous to this scene Jesus sends his disciples out in utter vulnerability, dependent on the hospitality and grace of others, to bring healing and mercy with no expectation of reward or return.  And just after this scene comes a different kind of feast altogether.  Notice, in fact, that the return of the disciples only occasions about half a verse or so just after this scene. (Mark, after all, had already told us what they were up to in the scene just before this one.) Rather, what follows is instead a banquet of mercy, so markedly in contrast to the birthday bash Herod throws himself that its almost stunning. Rather than the rich and shameless, it’s the poor and outcast that flock to Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Rather than political intrigue and power plays dominating the day, it’s blessing and surprising abundance that characterize this meal.

“And that’s the choice that Mark puts before us: which kingdom do we want to live in?”[5] Or, if you insist that we have to live in the kingdoms of this world, Mark puts this choice before us: to which kingdom will we give ultimate allegiance?

“Sounds easy when I put it that way. Jesus’ kingdom, we’ve been trained to answer.  Ah, but not so fast. This is the world where vulnerability and sharing and mercy and justice and grace lead to abundant life, to be sure, but also where those very same qualities can get you killed, or least make you feel like you are vulnerable to being taken [advantage] of. And truth be told you might be. But the other truth to be told is that you can give yourself wholly and completely to the world of power and still never, ever quite feel secure. Why? Because once you’ve accepted that power – whether defined as wealth or possessions or influence or whatever – is the most important thing in life, than you are always vulnerable to those with more power. You are, mostly simply, at the center of a never-ending contest where there are no ultimate winners, only those who prevail for a time and until they are unseated by someone else.”[6]

Competition can be fun. My nephew loves soccer and part of what he loves about it is the competition. And from all accounts I’ve heard, there was some pretty entertaining competition in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. (By the way, why is it that the Women’s World Cup is called “the Women’s World Cup” and the Men’s World Cup is simply called “The World Cup”?) Competition can be fun to watch, even to engage in, “but it’s not the way I want to live my life and certainly not the way I want to conduct my relationships. Which is where Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, comes in. Because in [God’s] kingdom there are no winners or losers, just the children of God, all beloved, all welcome, all deserving of love and respect based not on their merit or accomplishments but simply because God values each and every one of us.

“Look, the kingdom Jesus proclaims can seem odd, I know, or idealistic, particularly in light of recent current events. But it’s those same stories of violence and prejudice that make me crave the kingdom of God all the more.”[7]

How about you?

[1] Michaela Bruzzese, “Between the Lines,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/between-lines (accessed 6 July 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Lose, “Pentecost 7 B: A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/07/pentecost-7-b-a-tale-of-two-kingdoms/ (posted 6 July 2015; accessed 7 July 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[1] Verna J. Dozier, “Two Kings and Two Dancers,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/two-kings-and-two-dancers (accessed 6 July 2015).

[2] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 27, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think the funniest thing about today’s gospel lesson is the final word:  “Yes.”  Jesus finishes his string of parables, his recitation of riddles, asking his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and they answer him, “Yes.”

The kin-dom of heaven is like …
… a mustard seed.
… yeast.
… a treasure hidden in a field.
… a merchant in search of pearls.
… a net thrown into the sea.

Have you understood all this?  I sure haven’t.

Every three years, this set of parables comes up in the lectionary.  Sometime toward the end of July, we read or hear these five parables – riddles, really, given how short and obtuse they are.  Some years I’m on vacation or at camp and I can avoid them.  And some years, like this year, they land in my lap, challenging me to make some sense of them.  And the more I study them, the more certain I am that I can’t be certain about their meaning (or maybe its meanings [plural]).

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

A mustard seed

Now even I, as horticultural challenged as I am, knows that a mustard seed it tiny.  Hiccup while you’re examining one and you’ll likely inhale it or blow it away.  So the kin-dom of heaven is really small and easy to miss and easily destroyed.  Except that can’t be Jesus’ point.

Ah, but the parable doesn’t just say the kin-dom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The parable says it’s like a mustard seed that a farmer plants in his field.  I suppose the farmer could like the taste of mustard, so he plants it.  Except mustard is like dandelions, or kudzu, or morning glory.  Once it’s established, it’s really hard to get rid of it.  It’s going to grow into a shrub that’s big enough for birds to nest in.  And, though I don’t know much about farming, I know you generally don’t want birds in your fields, eating your food before you can harvest.  Scarecrows have a purpose, and it’s not just to accompany Dorothy to Oz.

So, the kin-dom of heaven is something that, once it takes root, is hard to get rid of and creates a place for people you may not want to have around.  Is that Jesus’ point?

The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast, which is a little shocking in its own right.  Yeast is unclean.  According to author Jim Douglass, “In those days leaven was made by storing bread in a damp, dark place until it molded.  In Exodus leaven symbolized the unholy (Exodus 12:19).  Paul understood leaven as symbolic of the morally corrupt.  He twice cites a proverb, ‘A little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (Galatians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), whose meaning by his application is the same as our own saying, ‘One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.’  Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption: Leaven equals moral corruption.”[1]

Yeast leavening the flour

And the kin-dom of heaven is not just like yeast, but it’s like yeast that a woman (who is unclean one week a month) takes and mixes in a bunch of flour until the whole lot is leavened.  Once a woman mixes in the yeast, there’s no separating it back out.  All the flour is contaminated.  And by “a bunch of flour,” apparently we’re talking about enough flour to make bread for 100 people.[2]  One commentator says, “A modern paraphrase [of this parable] might be: ‘The kingdom of God is like a virus in a dirty needle that a junkie took and injected into a vein so the whole body was infected.’”[3]

So what do we make of this parable?  I like how Jim Douglass framed an interpretation:  “A woman, probably a poor one.  One of the oppressed.  This far cry from a king turns one’s sense of ‘kingdom’ upside-down.’

The next two parables are so similar, we’ll look at them together.  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Both of these parables have people selling all they own so they can purchase this thing of great value.  In the first case, the treasure is found by accident.  In the second case, the merchant is searching for it.  In the first case, upon finding this treasure, our guy buys the property where it’s hidden “in his joy.”  Not in his greed, but in his joy.  The kin-dom of heaven seems to have something to do with joy.  In the second case, the merchant finds the pearl and sells all he has so he can have the pearl.

It doesn’t matter how you come to the kin-dom of heaven, by accident or on purpose; once you find it, nothing else matters.  It is worth a total commitment of everything we have and everything we are.  I can’t hear these parables without thinking of the time Jesus called on a rich man to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.[4]

Our fifth parable is the most embellished of the five, containing its own interpretation.  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

That’s where the parable ends.  What follows is an interpretation, the comparing of the sorting of the fish to a sorting of the good and evil at the end of time.  The interpretation might make us think that all of these kin-dom of heaven parables are about life after death, about “heaven.”  I think we need to resist that line of thought.  Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians, and good Jews don’t call God by name.  So, while the other gospels have parables about the kin-dom of God, Matthew has kin-dom of heaven parables, thus avoiding using the word “God.”

The other parables in this set are about the here and now.  The kin-dom of heaven is unstoppable, insidious, almost infectious.  The kin-dom of heaven is transformative and subversive.  The kin-dom of heaven is of intense value right now.  Perhaps this fifth parable may have something to do with the here and now, as well as about the end of time.

The kin-dom of heaven is like a net that scoops up all types.  You may think you’re small fry, inconsequential, but the kin-dom of heaven will scoop you up, too.  And you know that fish get sorted, but do you know how this fisher is going do the sorting?  Don’t assume that the salmon and the sturgeon and the blue fin tuna are the “good” fish.  This fisher may have other ideas.

There is an offensive undercurrent to these parables.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a nut job farmer who plants a weed like mustard in his grain field.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a symbol of moral corruption:  yeast.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to both a treasure that is insanely worth giving up everything to possess and to a person who insanely gives up everything to possess it.  And Jesus says that kin-dom of heaven will scoop up everyone and it will decide who is good and who is bad.

The offense doesn’t stop there.  The English translation of the Greek, the basileia of heaven is traditionally “kingdom.”  This is because, when the Greek was translated into English, England was a kingdom.  Had it been translated during the reign of Queen Victoria, it might have been translated “Empire,” as in the British Empire.  In fact, the Greek basileia is the word used to describe Rome at the time of Jesus.  The basileia of Rome, the Empire of Rome.  Every time Jesus talks about the basileia of heaven/God, he’s setting it up in opposition to the basileia of Rome.

I believe that, in using this language and these images, Jesus is offering an alternative way of life.  He is offering a vision of hope, a possibility of life that is different than life under the Roman Empire.  For us, today, he is offering an alternative to life under militarism, corporate greed, and the various forms of oppression we have not yet overcome.

This is why I choose to translate basileia as “kin-dom.”  Are we going to identify ourselves as kin to oppression, greed, and militarism; or are we going to identify ourselves as kin to the alternative Jesus offers?

When I started really thinking about and reading about these parables early last week, the painting on your bulletin cover came to mind.  The reproduction of neither the whole picture nor of the detail really captures what I was hoping for, but let me explain.

Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

The painting, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is a prime example of pointillism.  This is a painting technique where little dots of color are applied to a canvas.  Take a close look at the canvas and all you see are the little dots.  You can’t make out any image.  But step back from the painting and you see the image.

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

This detail from the picture  is supposed to show you a small part of the painting up close.  Like I said, it didn’t work all that well, but you get the idea.

I was thinking it might help to use the same technique to look at these parables.  Any one of the parables is like a bunch of dots of paint, but you can’t see the whole picture until you step back and let them work together to paint the picture.

So, stepping back, I notice a theme running through these five parables:  hiddenness.  The mustard seed is hidden in the soil.  The yeast is hidden in the flour.  The treasure is hidden in the field.  The pearl is hidden and must be search for.  The net is hidden under the water.

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if these parables can remind us “that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are ‘signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days.…  [It is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…’”[5]

Maybe Taylor has seen the bigger picture.  Or maybe Laurel Dykstra has found it:  “Serfs are buying land, a peasant woman has baked bread for 100, the kingdom of God is rising, and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have.  The kingdom is springing up faster than we can uproot it.”[6]

Or maybe they both have seen it.

What do you see?

 

[1] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption (accessed 21 July 2014).

[2] Several sources I read make this claim, including Douglass, op. cit.

[3] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 21 July 2014).

[4] See Matthew 19:16-22 and its parallels in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-25.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor in Seeds of Heaven, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-27-2014.html (accessed 21 July 2014).

[6] Dykstra, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 11, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Scripture:  Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Jesus and I had an argument this past week.  I really didn’t want to preach about money.  I wanted to look at our readings for today and feel the blessings of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints.  I wanted to look at our readings for today and think about how we dress for action in a spiritual way.  But, darn it, Jesus keeps bringing up money.

“Sell your possessions, and give alms.…  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The context for these words is, I think, important.  Earlier in the chapter, someone in the crowd tells Jesus to tell this person’s brother to divide the family inheritance with this person.  I think we can assume this is a younger brother.  The older brother has possession of their father’s estate and is not sharing it.  Maybe the younger brother, recognizing Jesus’ propensity to take the side of the oppressed and dispossessed, figured Jesus would be an ally in the quest for a share of the estate.

But Jesus isn’t sucked in.  “Take care!” he says.  “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  And after telling a parable about the folly of focusing life on the accumulation of wealth and stuff, Jesus tells the crowd not to worry.

We’re more familiar with these lines as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, but here they are in Luke’s, too.  God cares about the ravens and the lilies of the field and even the grass in the meadow, Jesus tells us.  Certainly God cares about your welfare.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.”

These are reassuring words … until we get to what we’re supposed to do:  sell your possessions and give alms.

“Are you serious, Jesus?” I asked this week.

“Yes,” he said, “I couldn’t be more serious.”  Of all the things Jesus is serious about, the coming of God’s domination-free order is at the top of the list.

We live in a domination-based societal order and world order.  And central to all domination is economic inequality and ranking.  Jesus is serious about us being possession-free, about the whole world becoming possession-free because that is what will lead to God’s domination-free order.

But, I’ll be honest:  nothing sends terror through my gut quiet like his injunction, “Sell your possessions.”  I don’t know about you, but I equivocate.  I rationalize.  I explain.  And then I start heaping on the guilt.

Yet, I believe that Jesus is not trying to make us feel bad.  He is reminding us that it is all divine gift, not effort on our part:  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.”

The early Christians and others right up to the present have tried living this way – possession-free.  The only contemporary ones who seem to be at all successful, at least from my vantage point, are the monastics.  Whether it’s the nuns and monks in orders that are centuries old or more contemporary expressions of monasticism,[1] the thing that they have in common is supportive community.  The only way that I can conceive of a possession-free life working is when the community holds the possessions, rather than the individual.

And perhaps that’s what Jesus is calling us to:  to build a community that truly cares for each other, a common-wealth.  When I think about what it takes to do this, what it takes to move into a life that is possession-free, I am baffled.  Perhaps Abraham is a model.

To God’s invitation to believe, Abraham simply said, “Yes.”  Ignorant as to why God chose him and without proof that God would fulfill the promise of descendants, Abraham said, “Yes.”  In a moment – held sacred by Jews, Christians, and Muslims – Abraham was overcome with faith and embarked on a journey.  What stark contrast to being overcome with fear.  Perhaps when Jesus is telling us not to worry, not to be afraid, he is telling us to have faith.

The next paragraph seems a bit like a non sequitur, at least at first.  Jesus goes from telling us not to worry, to selling our possessions and giving alms, to reminding us that if we want to know where our heart really is, just look at where our treasure is – to telling us to be awake, to be ready.  When we hear this sort of language, especially when it’s connected to the metaphor of the wedding banquet, we expect to hear something about the “second coming.”  We expect the usual apocalyptic advice to stay awake and be ready, because when the Son of God returns, he’ll the taking names and kicking butt.  But, wow, Jesus does not go where I’m expecting him to go.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”  So far, this is language we are used to hearing about the “return of the Son of Man.”  Just as the slaves don’t know when the master will return from a wedding banquet – it might well be in the middle of the night – we don’t know when Jesus is going to return.  So we slaves need to be dressed for action, ready for Jesus’ return.  Because when Jesus does return, there’ll be work to do, right?

Except that’s not what happens.  The master returns and he makes the servants recline, as at a formal banquet, girds himself, and serves them a meal.  “In that time, men wore long, loose, flowing garments.  In order to work, they had to gird their robes about their waists to permit freedom of movement.”[2]  So imagine being someone listening to Jesus.  Whatever your class, you would have understood the image:  Servants and slaves waiting on the return of their master.  You would have imagined them, with their robes cinched up around their waist, ready to spring into action when their master called.  You would have imagined them waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet at who know what hour, keeping their lamps filled with oil and burning, so that they can see well enough to respond instantly should their master return in the middle of the night.   Only by living in such readiness will they be prepared to welcome him properly when he comes home and knocks at the door.

And when he does return, he tells them – his attentive slaves – to recline at the table.  And he cinches up his robes and serves them.  No master acts like this.  So, when the Son of God returns …

Except, Jesus doesn’t say anything about some future apocalypse.  Jesus is talking about where we have our faith here and now.  “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.”

Be dressed for action today.  Be ready at any moment to receive blessing, to receive grace, to be welcomed to the table.  Jesus is overturning the whole edifice of social stratification and ranking.

St. Augustine’s life did not begin in a very saintly manner.  As one writer put it, he gave “himself over to whatever pleasures presented themselves.”[3]  His mother prayed for him, at least as the legend goes, that he would give his life to the service of Christ, but Augustine persisted in his more carnal passions.  That is, until one day when he sat with a friend on a bench weeping over the state of his life.  It was at this moment that he heard a child – a boy or a girl, he says he does not know which it was – singing a song.  The sound was coming from a neighboring house.  The child was chanting over and over:  “Pick it up, read it; pick it up; read it.”  This is a translation of how Augustine described what happened next:

“Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like.  So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon.

“So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for their [sic] I had put down the apostles [sic] book.  I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell:  ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof.’  I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to.   For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”[4]

Now, there are some preachers who will point to this conversion as an object lesson about being ready for the Second Coming.  “Had Christ returned before that fateful day, Augustine would have been caught unprepared.”[5]  But I can’t help but wonder if, for Augustine, this was the moment of Christ’s return.

Perhaps it is when we let go of our own desires, when we let go of our own fears, when we let go of our agendas and possessions, that Christ returns in our lives.

There is a through line in our passage from Luke.  It moves from fear to treasure to being prepared.  I can’t help but wonder if this is what a life of faith might actually look like – or at least that it is one way of understanding what a life of faith looks like.  If we start with treasure, we are likely to put our hope in achievements, acquisitions, and assets.  But if we start with faith, if that absence “of fear precedes our fear-driven desire for possessions, purchases, and procurements, we might actually be able to imagine treasures beyond self-driven determination, self-assessed success, and self-obsessed security.”[6]  And then we can make ourselves ready to receive God’s blessings and to respond.

Jesus is calling us to be dressed for the action of Jesus’ own activity in the world.  And that action is likely to come when we least expect it or imagine seeing it.   “In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions, is not going to cut it.  Letting go of fear, letting go of treasure, and being prepared is the pattern for discipleship.  Being without fear, knowing the source of your treasure – that is, your identity, your worth – makes it possible to be prepared for and an actual participant in God’s [Commonwealth].”[7]

And I think that’s what it means to be dressed for action.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] See, for instance, “New Monasticism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Monasticism and Rob Moll, “The New Monasticism,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/september/16.38.html.

[2] Alyce M. McKenzie, “Mise en Place,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Mise-en-Place-Alyce-McKenzie-08-02-2013.html (10 August 2013).

[3] Brett Blair,  “Do Not Let Him Find You Found Sleeping,” in an email dated 6 August 2013 from sermons.com.

[4] Ibid, quoting Augustine’s Confessions.

[5] This is, in fact, what Brett Blair said.  Ibid.

[6] Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on Luke 12:32-40,” workingpreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1805 (10 August 2013).

[7] Ibid.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES USED:

Michaela Bruzzes, “Extraordinary Faith,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/extraordinary-faith?parent=41233 (10 August 2013).

Walter Wink, “The Serving Master,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/serving-master?parent=41233 (10 August 2013).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church,
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 25, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 18: 33-37 (with Matthew 25:31-40)
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Once upon a time, in a kingdom that was far, far away, there was a socio-political structure that little children could understand, even though it as not at all like the socio-political structure of their community.

As I contemplated today’s sermon, one of the things that occurred to me is that many children’s stories involve kings and queens, princesses and princes.  And little children “get” the social structure; they “get” the hierarchy.  Even though we do not live in a monarchy, even though it’s been over 235 years since these United States threw off the monarchy, little children understand a monarchical social structure.

At the daytime women’s fellowship meeting on Monday, I asked the gathering what came to mind when I said the word, “king.”  People mentioned King George VI and other real and fictitious kings.  People thought about crowns and political power.  When we dug a little deeper, someone mentioned Elvis Presley.  The kings in a deck of cards and the kings on a chessboard didn’t come to people’s minds until I brought it up.  People thought about people.

One of my favorite stories about kings comes from Denmark.  When Hitler’s forces occupied Denmark, the order came that all Jews in Denmark were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David.  Stories circulated that this was the first step in the Nazi process of Jewish extermination, so the Danes sought some way to fight back without fighting.

Rather than directly defying the order, King Christian X had every Jew wear the star.  Then he himself wore the Star of David and he told his people that he expected every loyal Dane to do the same.  The King said, “We are all Danes.  One Danish person is the same as the next.”  He wore his yellow star when going into Copenhagen every day in order to encourage his people.

It’s a wonderful story, only it never happened.  The Danes did participate in remarkable resistance to the Nazis.  During the summer of 1943, when strikes and other overt resistance activities against the Nazis resulted in the demand that the Danish government declare a state of emergency, the government refused and resigned in protest.  The Nazis declared martial law.  By the time deportation of the Jews was finally ordered, only 284 of the estimated 7,000 Jews in Copenhagen could be rounded up.  The others had been warned and had gone into hiding, then started making their way to Sweden in fishing boats and private vessels.  But the King Christian never donned a Yellow Star.[i]

We want kings and queens, political leaders of any sort to act for justice, to resist evil – to do the sorts of things King Christian X was supposed to have done.  But we know that monarchies are too frequently characterized by absolute power, material riches, and the exploitation of the weak.  It is this characterization of leadership that has Egyptians and others nervous about President Morsi’s decree in which he seems to give himself sweeping powers.  Once he starts exercising those powers, will he ever give them back?

In her book Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi says, “It is not power that corrupts but fear.  Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”[ii]

I bring all of this up because today is traditionally known as “Christ the King Sunday,” though some of us have moved away from the word “king” and call this Sunday “Reign of Christ Sunday.”  It is the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year.  We start a new liturgical year next week.  And on this day, our Gospel lesson always has something to do with the image of Jesus as king.

I am struck that this year’s Gospel lesson comes from the trial of Jesus on Good Friday.  The story is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, to his execution at the hands of the Roman government.  As the collective cultural mindset shifts from Thanksgiving to Christmas, to the coming celebration of Christ’s birth and the innocent image of the baby in the manger, we need to get a complete perspective of who Christ is before we slide into a sort of infant sentimentality.

It is an interesting exchange between Pilate and Jesus.  The writer of John’s gospel crafts a sparing match, one sharp mind against another.  Pilate, with all the pomp and power of this world, obviously is disturbed by the calm young rabbi who seems unimpressed by all the might of Rome – a power that held his life and the lives of his people in its hand.  “Are you a king?” Pilate asks.  Pilate expected a revolutionary, someone who would challenge the authority of Rome with open insurrection.  “What have you done?” Pilate demands.  Pilate expected a criminal, someone who had broken the laws.

“My kingdom is not from this world” is Jesus’ reply.  “I came to testify to the truth.”

Pilate (at least as we hear the story in John’s gospel) seems mollified by Jesus’ answers and seeks his release in the paragraph that follows our reading.  But he’s mistaken if he thinks that Jesus’ kingship is no threat to his political authority – or the political authority to any empire.  For Jesus, kingship “consists not of the hierarchy of privilege, but of right relations for all, justice and mercy, and transformative love that brings new life.”[iii]  And if that is not a threat to traditional political authority, I don’t know what is.

And is it any wonder that so many were baffled by his leadership.  Many – perhaps most – of his followers “looked to a worldly kingdom with the usual style of worldly leadership.  [But Jesus] called for a kind of leadership in which servanthood would replace lording it over others.  He shared the concerns for justice and peace, but differed greatly as to means.  When he asserted that his kingdom was not of this world, he did not mean that it was entirely individual or invisible.  Rather, he was affirming that the means were different.  Jesus does not criticize his disciples for expecting him to set up a new social order but for misunderstanding the style of action that would characterize that order.  Unlike most of us, who are tempted to take the easy and safe way in order to stay out of trouble, Jesus was probably tempted more by the Zealot option because of his common identification with the poor and the oppressed. …  The struggle in the garden revealed a continual struggle with the idea of ‘a holy war for the kingdom.’  He was tempted to eliminate the cup of suffering love and call down 10 legions of angels to join his zealot disciples in fighting for the revolutionary kingdom.  Instead, he told Peter to put up the sword.  His was another way, the way of suffering love.”[iv]

For generations, followers of Jesus have heard of the vision of this beloved community Jesus comes to establish.  They have heard the vision and they have wondered when it will come to be.

Some believe that Jesus has given us the tools to build it ourselves.  So this reign of Jesus will come when the world gets better.  And the beloved community “does emerge in unexpected modest places.  Its means are indeed inauspicious in comparison with the ways of the world.  Its growth can be hidden because of our false perspectives and priorities.  As frequently articulated, however, this view places the accent on the claim that it is our kingdom rather than God’s.  [And] it has too often ignored the depth and power of evil.”[v]

Another view is that reign of Christ will come only after things get worse.  These millennialists, pre- and post-, believe that once things get really bad, Jesus will come and, in one order or another, establish the perfect kingdom and judge the world.  “Such views often run contrary, however, to the spirit of the scriptures.  Sometimes there is such joy in discerning the evil events of our time as a clue to the imminent return of our Lord that the resulting mood lacks deep Christian compassion and concern for our … world.  Bad news is too easily translated into good news … [and this makes] Jesus’ second coming entirely inconsistent with his first advent, …”[vi]

This point of view makes the Sermon on the Mount completely inapplicable for us today because it can only be lived when Jesus comes and sets up the perfect kingdom.  This completely ignores the biblical promise that we can begin now to experience the first fruits of the kingdom, and begin to live now as if the kingdom has already come.

Rather than seeing the reign of Christ either as only coming as the world gets better or after it gets worse, I believe that the kingdom is both now and not yet.  Yes, this view is a bit more complicated.  Nonetheless, I believe it to be closer to my experience and to the message Jesus brought as recorded in the gospels.

Though we are called to begin to live in the beloved community now, we know that it takes God’s action to make to come to complete fruition.  While the beloved community is in the future, it can and does break into history now and then with amazing force.

I think of the freedom riders and other civil rights workers.  Not just the leaders and heroes, but the average people who rode busses and sat in at lunch counters.  They were often arrested and jailed.  “While in jail [they] were often treated poorly and brutally in order to break their spirits.  They were deprived of food or given lousy food.  Noise was blasted and lights were flashed all day and night to keep them from resting.  Sometimes even some of their mattresses were removed in order that all would not have a place to sleep.

“For a while it seemed to work.  Their spirits were drained and discouraged, but never broken.  It happened more than once and in more than one jail.  Eventually the jail would begin to rock and swing to sounds of gospel singing.  What began as a few weak voices would grow into a thundering and defiant chorus.  The Freedom Riders would sing of their faith and their freedom.  Sometimes they would even press their remaining mattresses out of their cells between the bars as they shouted, ‘You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls!’

“The Freedom Riders were behind bars in jail, but they were really free.”[vii]  Glimpses of the beloved community broke through, not just when civil rights legislation passed, but in the struggle itself for its passage.  On those buses, at those lunch counters, in those jails, the beloved community took root.

Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say, “Thy kingdom come on earth.”  Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are asking that the beloved community be established here among us, here on earth, even as it is established already in the presence of God.

As we draw this liturgical year to a close and prepare for the celebration of the birth of a baby, let us remember why that baby was born.  Jesus came to remind us that we are citizens first and foremost of God’s kingdom and that we are called to live in the beloved community now, even as God works toward its complete establishment.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[i] Barbara and David P Mikkelson, “A Star is Borne,” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/history/govern/denmark.asp (24 November 25, 2012).

[ii] Cited by Kate Huey in a “Sermon Seeds” email from her dated 16 November 2012.

[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Everlasting Dominion,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_031149_BProper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Steven E. Albertin, Against the Grain – Words for a Politically Incorrect Church, CSS Publishing, quoted in an email from Sermons.com, dated 19 November 2012.

Additional Sources used:

Michaela Bruzzes, “Christ the King,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_091149_BProper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

Verna J. Dozier, “A Glimpse of the King,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_941149_Bproper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

Jim Rice, “What Is Truth?” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_971149_BProper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

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