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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.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Revelation 22:1-5 and Psalm 126
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

zaatari-refugee-ca_3397466k

An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013. From “The Telegraph.”

I’ve been wondering this week, if I were a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where would I find hope?

If I were a Palestinian, raised by parents in a refugee camp, now raising my children in the same refugee camp, where would I find hope?

If I were a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who, like the generations before me, was trapped in a cycle of poverty,[1] where would I find hope?

If I was a member of parliament in the Solomon Islands who has watched several small islands disappear because of erosion and rising sea levels, who has watched villages literally washed to sea as tropical storms increase in strength because of climate change[2] – where would I find hope?

If I were an African-American bus driver in St. Louis who sees how my nation has created a new Jim Crow by building a cradle to prison pipeline[3] that siphons black children, especially black boys, out of the schools and into the prisons, labeling them as “convicts” so they can’t get a job when they’re released, so the end up trying to get by only to be arrested again – where would I find hope?

If I were a Christian living in Rome during the reigns of Emperors Nero or Domitian, emperors who had essentially made me illegal by demanding I worship them as gods, something that would violate the very core of my being and faith – where would I find hope?

I can imagine those early followers of Jesus thinking something like this:  “Jesus has been gone now for decades.  The world doesn’t seem to be getting better.  If anything, with a mad dictator in Rome, it’s getting worse.  Maybe Jesus was wrong … maybe it’s time for us to forget about this ‘[…] love your enemies’ business.  Maybe we need to take matters into our own hands and strap on a sword to fight for our future.  Or maybe we should just eat, drink, make a buck, and be merry, because tomorrow we might all be dead.”[4]

This is the context in which Revelation was written.  I know there are plenty of Christians who think Revelation is some sort of coded book that, if properly decoded, will reveal exactly how God will bring the world and history to an end.  But it’s not.  Yes, it is sort of in code, but it’s not about the end of history or the world.  Revelation was written to bring the Spirit of Hope to an oppressed but faithful people.  “It addressed the crisis at hand.  Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world.…  Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ – a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency – will triumph.”[5]

While Revelation is typically classified as apocalyptic literature (which literally means writing that unveils or reveals), I see Revelation primarily as an example of literature of the oppressed.  Sometime literature of the oppressed needs to be coded.  To remain silent to the present injustice would be an act of complicity, of cooperation with the injustice.  But to speak up in some situations can get you killed (or at least disappeared).

Revelation is this type of literature.  “Instead of saying ‘The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,’ which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated.  Instead of saying, ‘The religious establishment is corrupt,’ it tells a story about a whore.  Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that collapsed in failure.”[6]

Brian McLaren points out, “People who read Revelation without understanding the context tend to miss some telling details.  For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword.  Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels.  But they miss the fact that he carries the sword in his mouth, not his hand.  Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  His … words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors.  In addition, we notice his robe is blood-stained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love.  In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”[7]

Revelation is a source of hope, a vehicle for the Spirit of Hope to come upon these oppressed, first century Christians.  This understanding of Revelation is what got me wondering where I would find hope if I were a Syrian refugee, or a Palestinian parent, or an Oglala Lakota, or a Solomon Island parliamentarian, or an African-American bus driver.  I know I wouldn’t find hope in a rifle or a rocket launcher or a riot.  So where would I find hope?

Maybe in the faces of some children playing soccer.  Maybe I would find hope in the news that Christian denominations in the United States were standing up for my human rights.[8]  Maybe I would find hope in watching my children learn our history and culture and keep our language alive.  Maybe I would find hope in accounts of people around the globe taking to the streets to demand climate action.  Or maybe I would find hope in something as simple and beautiful as poetry.

Last Sunday, I asked by Facebook friends to tell me, “What gives you hope in times of distress?”  Before I share some of their responses, maybe you’d like to think about your answer.  What gives you hope in times of distress?

Here are some of the responses from a few of my Facebook friends:

  • Stories of people who have survived worse and become happy. My having survived worse.  Being loved just the way I am no matter what.  Belief that love will outlast and best all the worsts.  Seeing and creating something beautiful helps too,…  Being able to laugh, be heard, and get the tears out also help.
  • Remembering friends who turned terrible circumstances into growth.… Seeing the refugee team at the Olympics, knowing the adversity they faced as they left the circumstances in their homelands and found life in new countries.  Experiencing the presence of God in my life, in me and in others when I least expect it.  Knowing I am loved and I can love with abandon.
  • Trusting that even in the midst of crises of any kind, we are all carried by a loving God, even if we don’t know it at the time.…
  • Watching toddlers as they learn new things and get excited.
  • Helping others, recognizing that I have the power to improve people’s situations, even if it’s just about feeling good for a brief moment.
  • I remind myself that other people have survived worse things. I sing to myself.  I practice a positive message and say it aloud as often as I can.  I call my best friend and moan, secure in the knowledge that it will go no further.  I pray for help.
  • [Remembering that] God IS good, even when I can’t see it – and eventually, love (always) wins.
  • Looking out at the stars and remembering that both God and the universe are bigger than our folly.
  • The love of my cat.
  • Seeing my grandsons … be kind to other kids.
  • Instances where people have offered kindness and assistance to others when they themselves have little to give.
  • I have a few people who I can rely on for support. I don’t always expect answers or solutions.  Sometimes just saying something out loud helps me work things out.
  • Perspective also helps.

Today’s scripture reading comes from “a beautiful visionary scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is as relevant today as it was in the first century.…  It pictures a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth.  This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere.  It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within.  Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures if offers and bring the treasures they can offer.  From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness.  Along its banks grows the Tree of Life.  All of this, of course, evokes God’s own words in Revelation:  ‘Behold! I’m making all things new!’”[9]

Central to this image is this idea:  “God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven.  It has always been about God descending to dwell among us.  Faithfulness wasn’t [and isn’t] waiting passively for a future that had already been determined.  Faithfulness meant [and means] participating with God in God’s unfolding story.…  God [is] descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.

“What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today.  Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now.  The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now.  True aliveness is available now.”[10]  The Spirit of Hope is among us here and now.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything in the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when an invitation changed your life; or

… how you are (or aren’t) listening to contemporary examples of “literature of the oppressed;” or

… the image of creation inviting God, and God inviting creation, through the powerful word, “Hope.”

[1] “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Re-Member, http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx (accessed 13 August 2016).

[2] Reuters, “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (posted 10 May 2016; accessed 13 August 2016).  See also, Tierney Smith, “Solomon Islans town first in Pacific to relocate because of climate change,” tck tck tck, http://tcktcktck.org/2014/08/solomon-islands-town-first-pacific-relocate-climate-change/ (posted 19 August 2014; accessed 13 August 2016).

[3] The “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund to describe the fact that “1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.”  Learn more about this problem and ways you can be involved in addressing it at http://www.childrensdefense.org/campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/

[4] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 51, page 255. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 256, emphasis added.

[8] “Disinvestment from Israel,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinvestment_from_Israel (accessed 13 August 2016).

[9] McLaren, op.cit., 257.

[10] Ibid.

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