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A sermon[1]preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 8, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 43:1-7 and Romans 14:7-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Sermon

If we’re lucky, we have people in our lives who are love songs.  I mean more than having people in our lives who love us.  I mean having people who, when you think about them or are with them, you feel like you’re being serenaded with a love song.  I mean people who love you so much that sometimes your love leaks out of your eyes when you just look at them.  Do you know what you mean?

One of my wishes is that every child experiences their parents that way.  I imagine it beginning in each child’s infancy.  I imagine a parent holding their infant child in their arms and looking down at the child’s face and singing them to sleep.  That might not even be the first time a parent is a love song to a child, but it one of the earliest.  In that look and in that music is the depth of love I’m talking about.

I know that there are parents who are not love songs for their children, but my wish is that it was so.  If we’re lucky, our parents are love songs.  And if we’re lucky, we have other people in our lives who are love songs, too – or instead of, if our parents didn’t manage to be love songs.

I know I have people in my life who are love songs.  One of my friends comes to mind.  She may be coming to mind especially because cancer is threatening her life and so I am more keenly aware of the music I will lose if cancer ends her life too quickly. I hope you have people in our life who are love songs.  I also hope that you are a love song so someone else (and hopefully to more than one person) in your life.

Maybe God is a love song in your life.  Maybe you can imagine God holding you and singing to you in your infancy.  And maybe you can imagine God looking on you with a love that vibrates the universe.

Maybe that’s too hard to do.  Sometimes it can be hard to accept our own loveableness.  Joyce Rupp suggests that the cup can be a teacher of our own loveableness.  “Think of the cup as a symbol of our unique self,” she writes.  “Many coffee and tea cups have a special shape and size, a ‘personality,’ so to speak, just as each human person does.  Like a cup, our physical, psychological, and spiritual shape is unique to each of us.  We cannot take someone else’s body, or spirituality, or personality and make it our own any more than a cup can change its color and shape to match each person who drinks from it.  [But that’s okay.]  The cup is a good container no matter who uses it.  It is of value itself.”[2]

It’s not always easy to see our own value.  I know I have a habit of comparing myself to others – I wish I could preach like that person; I wish I had that vocal tone in my singing; I wish I was as spiritual grounded as that person.  I have found that the more I accept myself as loved by God and the more I accept myself as gifted in my own ways, the more I can accept my own spiritual path.  And the more I can accept my own spiritual path, the more authentically I can sing God’s love song.  And the more I authentically sing God’s love song, the more I can be a love song for others

Even if you don’t typically feel awe or gratitude or compassion when you think of yourself, try to believe it today.  Imagine God holding you and singing a love song to you. Ask God to help you to see yourself as a song of love, a cup of goodness, bringing life to others.[3]

Breath Prayer

Hold your cup in your hands and shut your eyes.  Breathing in pray, “I am …” and breathing out pray, “… a love song.

Reflection

Notice the cup in your hands – its style, shape, color, size, texture.  Imagine yourself as a cup held in God’s hands.  Accept your uniqueness and your goodness.  Thank God for creating you as you are.

Sharing

I invite you to share in your triads, using this prompt as a starting place and sharing whatever else you choose to:  “When I think about God loving me unconditionally as I am, I …”

Scriptural Affirmation

I have called you by name, you are mine …  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Prayer of Affirmation

Thank you, Divine Creator, for the person I am. I am a cup of life.  I have love and goodness within me.  Help me to hear your music in my soul.  Let me not doubt my value or question my worth.  Help me to know and accept who I am.  I am yours.  Amen.

_______________

[1]This sermon is the first of six based on “Week I” of Joyce Rupp’s The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997). While I and Pastor Brenda will bring our own thoughts to this work, the bulk of the design of the sermon and time of reflection is based on Rupp’s work, and we are grateful for it.

[2]Joyce Rupp, The Cup of Our Life (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 25-26.

[3]Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 21:15-19 and Luke 24:13-24
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the questions Jesus asked as recorded in the Gospels.  We started with the first question recorded:  “What are you looking for?”  Jesus asked it of some people who would become his disciples.  Today, we come to the resurrection.

If I was the resurrected Christ and I was appearing to my disciples, I think I would probably say, “Ta-dah!”  I suppose giving them a blessing would be high on my priority list.  Jesus does offer a blessing in two of John’s and one of Luke’s resurrection stories, but not in any of the others.

I might think, “Here’s my chance to give them one more lesson in theology,” or “Here’s one last chance to offer a word of reassurance.”  Or maybe I’d think, “I should really, really clearly explain what this resurrection thing is and what it is all about, because they’re going to have a hard time understanding it.”

I don’t think asking questions would be high on my priority list.  But I skimmed through the resurrection stories in the gospels and sure enough, the resurrected Christ asks a bunch of questions.  And some of them are fairly common place question.  Like the question straight out of a 1980s sitcom Jesus asks the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

That’s the first thing the resurrected Christ says to the disciples when he encounters them on the road.  “What are you talking about?”

Martin Copenhaver points out how inappropriate another of resurrected Christ’s question is.  This takes place in John’s gospel, just before the reading we heard from that gospel.  “The risen Jesus stands on the beach watching some of his disciples fishing from a boat.  He asks, ‘Have you caught anything to eat?’  [Copenhaver is quoting from the Common English Bible.]  It is a question fishermen are used to hearing, particularly from those who have no experience with fishing.  No fisherman I know would ask the question that way.  It’s just not done.  Phrasing the question that way implies that success is up to the fisherman, which is particularly annoying when the answer is no, as it is in this case.  So the preferred way to ask that question among fishermen is, ‘Any luck?’  But Jesus is a landlubber.”[1]

Or maybe it’s just that the resurrected Christ is obsessed with food.  Not only does he ask the disciples about catching food in John’s gospel, he asks about food in Luke’s gospel, too.  “Do you have anything to eat?”[2]  Coperhaven again:  “That doesn’t sound like the question of a risen Lord.  It sounds more like the question of a teenager arriving home from school:  ‘Hey, I’m starving.  What’s there to eat?’

“Jesus’ disciples respond to his question in the only suitable way:  they give him something to eat, a broiled fish, and he eats it.

“… Apparently, this rising from the dead business really works up an appetite.  Who knew?”[3]

One interpretation of this hungry Resurrected One story is that “Eating in front of his disciples is a way to demonstrate that he is real.  He’s not a ghost.  Ghosts don’t eat.  It’s a way of making clear that Jesus isn’t a figment of his disciples’ imaginations.  The resurrection is not merely a psychological experience in the minds of his followers.  It is Jesus, in the midst of them again, in a way that was previously unknown and as unimaginable to them as it is to us.”[4]

This interpretation makes sense to me, and I think the whole food and the resurrected Christ is much broader and deeper.  When the Emmaus road story moves to food, we remember the communion table.  And when we hear about a hungry resurrected Christ, we remember the hungry people in our city and around the globe.

And then there’s the breakfast on the beach.  Like in Luke’s gospel, the resurrected Christ eats some broiled fish.  Only this time, he’s the chef – or at least that’s how the story sounds to me.  Told by Jesus to cast their nets on the other side of the boat after Jesus had established that they hadn’t caught anything to eat, the disciples come ashore with a net filled with fish.  They find Jesus, a fire, and fish cooking, and Jesus inviting them to breakfast.

When breakfast is winding down, Jesus turns to Peter to talk with him.  “Simon son of John …” – it’s Peter’s formal name.  It reminds me of when my mother called me “Jeffrey” I knew she meant business (and if it was “Jeffrey Sawyer Spencer,” I knew I was in trouble.)

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  It’s not clear what the word ‘these’ is referring to.  I’ve generally heard it to refer to everything else in life, though sometimes I think maybe it’s referring to the life he knew before he knew Jesus, the fishing life.  Simon son of John, do you love me more than you love your old way of life?  But maybe the ‘these’ refers to the other disciples.  Simon son of John, do you love me more than you love your fellow disciples?  Or even, Simon son of John, do you love me more than the other disciples love me?  Maybe it means all of this all at once.

Simon son of John, do you love me?

Is there a question a person can ask that leaves them more vulnerable than that one?  Do you love?

Coperhaven says that “it is disquieting to hear this question from Jesus.  It seems like an unwelcome role reversal.  After all, isn’t it Jesus’ job to love us?  In spite of our stumbling and our bumbling, even in the face of our fickle faith, Jesus is supposed to love us.  Isn’t that the essence of the good news? ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’

“When Jesus asks to be loved, it suggests a vulnerability that I’m not sure I want Jesus to have.  It does not make Jesus sound emotionally needy, exactly, but it does imply that he has emotional needs.  To suggest that Jesus might want love suggests that he might be very much like you or me, because we all want to be loved.  Which, of course, is just the point.  Jesus is like us, vulnerable to the hurts of life, even now, after he is raised.”[5]

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter.

“Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” Peter replies.

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus tells him.

And then it happens a second time.

And then it happens a third time.  It’s like Jesus just won’t let the question go.  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And this third time, Peter’s feelings are hurt.  The gospel writer doesn’t tell us why Peter’s feelings are hurt, but I think Peter interprets this third asking of the question to be an expression of Jesus’ doubts about Peter’s devotion.  “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus doesn’t tend to repeat his questions, so why is he repeating this one?  Is Peter right, that Jesus doubt’s Peter’s devotion?  It could be as simple as being a case of literary symmetry.  In John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter sort of followed at a distance.  He was hanging around Temple while Jesus was inside facing the charges being brought against him.  Three times, Peter is asked if he’s a disciple of Jesus and three times Peter denies knowing Jesus.  And here, three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Perhaps the resurrected Christ is giving Peter three chances to declare his devotion to redeem the three denials.

Perhaps the resurrected Christ knows Peter better than Peter knows himself.  Perhaps Peter needs to be asked three times so that he can hear himself declare his love of Jesus.  Perhaps it was Peter who needed to hear the answers.

But there’s something else happening in the Greek, the language that John’s gospel was written in.  The Greeks have several words for love.  Two of the words are agape and phileoAgape love is the love that comes without conditions, the love that does not ask anything in return, the love that is self-giving and sacrificial.  It is kind of love we associate with Jesus.  It is the kind of love we disciples of Jesus seek to embody, though I think we seldom achieve it.

Phileo love is a sibling love, the love of a deep friendship, a warm and generous love, but not completely unconditional.  It is a kind of love that is more within our grasp.  “The first two times Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ he is using the word agape.  And both times when Peter responds, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you,’ he is using the word phileo.  In other words, Jesus asks Peter if he loves in with the kind of unconditional love associated with agape, but Peter is not able to respond in those terms.  Peter may not be capable of agape yet, but he is able to love Jesus like a brother, like a true friend.

“Recognizing Peter’s limitations, Jesus asks the question a third time, but in a different way.  The third time, when Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ he is using the word phileo.  And this time, Peter is able to respond in kind: ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love (phileo) you.’  In other words, the third time around, Jesus asks the question at Peter’s level.  Peter may not yet be capable of agape, of unconditional love, but he is capable of phileo, of loving Jesus like a brother and friend.  So that is what Jesus asks of him.”[6]

Coperhaven, who has been leading us over these past few weeks as we’ve looked at Jesus as the questioner, points out that “there are three questions that Jesus repeats in the gospels.”[7]  Scattered through John’s gospel, Jesus asks, “What (or who) are you looking for?”  Repeated in three of the Gospels, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And here in John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly asks Peter, “Do you love me?”

“Those three questions, read together, capture so much about what it means to encounter Jesus. …

“‘What are you looking for?’ is a question for those who yearn for God knows what (quite literally) and end up concluding that what they are yearning for is God.

“‘What do you want me to do for you?’ is the question asked by a Lord who acts more like a servant, eager to tend to our needs.

“‘Do you love me?’ is the question asked by someone who wants to be in relationship with you and is willing to become completely vulnerable in order to do so.

“If you want to grasp what a Christ life entails, repeat often these three questions and hold them close.”[8]

Amen.

[1] Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 120.

[2] Luke 24:41.

[3] Copenhaver, op. cit., 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 125-126.

[6] Ibid, 127-128.

[7] Ibid, 128.

[8] Ibid.

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.

Scientists have concluded that the emotional responses to terrorism are out of proportion to the actual risk. After 9/11 about 30 percent of the population thought they themselves would personally experience terrorism with[in] a year. Women tend to respond to terrorism with fear, men with anger. Anger reduces the ability to respond to perceived threats rationally and leads people to take greater risks in response to perceived threats.

from “Century Marks,” Christian Century, 20 January 2016 edition, page 8.
citing NPR, 22 December 2015, as their source for this information

You’ve probably seen statistics about how inaccurate this perceived threat really is. Assuming this refers to 30% of the U.S. population, we should be more afraid of toddlers than terrorists. In the US in 2015, more people were shot and killed by toddlers than by terrorists. However, what I find really interesting about this little article is the response to the perceived threat (as unfounded as it may be): fear and anger.

In my experience, fear and anger often walk hand-in-hand within the individual. One may seem bigger or stronger at any given time, but when one is there the other probably is, too. I suspect the gender difference noted has more to do with enculturalization than anything else: culture teaches us that it’s okay for woman to be afraid but not angry; that it’s okay for men to be angry but not afraid.

But what if we were to choose to respond to perceived threats (no matter how realistic they are) with love? What if we were to follow Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies? Even if our love doesn’t change those who we find threatening, it would change us. For the better.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, Month 21, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 15:11-32 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In 2003, the chorus I was singing with went on tour in New Zealand and Australia.  We really only got to see a little bit of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – but I went to New Zealand early, did some traveling on my own, visited museums, and felt got to see much of the country.  I felt like I really began to understand its history and cultures.  Humans didn’t come to the islands we now call New Zealand until the late 1200s.  That’s not even a thousand years ago.  Europeans didn’t arrive until the 1600s.  The first settlers were eastern Polynesians, people who over the centuries had migrated across the ocean from Taiwan, island-hopping to the east and south.[1]

When I think about those Polynesian explorers, I’m stunned.  They stood on the water’s edge or maybe even on the highest point of the island they were on and looked out at the vast nothingness and decided to get into canoes and head out into the unknown, trusting that they would find a place to land.  No GPS to guide them.  No satellite images to assure them that out there in that direction there’s another island.  And still they stepped out (or rather paddled out) into the unknown, boldly going where no one had gone before, little canoes bobbing on the vast ocean of the unknown.

earthrise - NASA; public domainApollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon.  On December 24, 1968, mission commander Frank Borman and astronaut William Anders looked out the window and noticed the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.  Anders scrambled to get the camera with the color film and took this picture.[2]  “We came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet,” Bill Anders said.[3]

A year later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.”  Looking up at earth from Tranquility Base, the earth was so small that Armstrong noted that he could blot it out with his thumb.  He was asked later if this made him feel big.  “No,” he replied, “it made me feel really, really small.”[4]

I can’t help it, but when I contemplate these sorts of things I end up wondering where it’s all going and what it all means.  Are we human beings merely an infestation on one planet orbiting one average star of the one hundred billion of stars swirling in one galaxy among 225 billions of galaxies in the vast universe?

At some level, we are very small.  At some level, we are inconsequential.  And at some point, perhaps in eight billion years or so, our sun will turn into a red dwarf and this planet will be incinerated.[5]  The chances of human civilization existing at that point are pretty slim.  An asteroid or a comet crashing into the earth would end human civilization – and that certainly could happen in the next eight billion years.  We could end human civilization ourselves with nuclear weapons or biological warfare.  More likely, we will cripple human civilization to the point of collapse through climate change.  And there is, as activists like to remind us, no planet B.

At some point, our species will die out and there will be no one left to remember that any of this ever existed.  And, as Brian McLaren says, “If this prediction is the whole truth, our unremembered lives and their illusory meaning will be reduced to nothing, gone forever – utterly, absolutely, infinitely gone.”[6]

The good news – at least if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the prediction isn’t the whole truth.  The good news – if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the end is not infinite nothingness.  There is God in the end.  Almost like a fairytale, where the princess and the prince marry and live happily ever after, the Bible keeps pointing to a great feast, to a wedding banquet when “humanity welcomes God into its heart.”[7]

Our gospel lesson is an example of how our scriptures point to this ending.  In the parable from Luke, “human history can be seen [in] the story …  The family experiences conflict.  The rebellious younger son runs away and for a while forgets his true identity.  The dutiful older son stays home but also forgets his true identity.  The younger son reaches a crisis and comes home.  He is welcomed by the father, which then creates a crisis for the older son.  Of course, the story isn’t only about the identity crises of the sons.  It also reveals the true identity of the father, whose heart goes out to both brothers, who graciously love them even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other.  The story ends with a celebration – a welcome-home party, a reunion.”[8]

But, did you notice that the story’s ending is not fully resolved?  We know what the father does in the end:  he throws a banquet fit for a wedding.  We know what the younger brother does:  he accepts his father’s welcome, forgiveness, and love.  But we don’t know what the older brother does.  Will he “remain outside, nursing his petty resentments?  Or will he come inside to join the Big Celebration and rediscover his true identity?”[9]

When I was younger, I found myself identifying most with the younger son.  I understood the desire to strike out on one’s own, to embrace that freedom, to seek adventure.  And I understood how easy it is to make bad choices, to ashame ones parents, to feel along and lost, to forget who and whose I really am.

Now, I find myself identifying much more with the older son.  I understand the call of duty and responsibility.  I’ve experienced that sense of working hard and feeling like I wasn’t getting the acknowledgement I deserve (or at least that I think I deserve).  I’ve even felt something like the older son’s – what? jealousy?

Most important, though, is the sense of God that this story presents:  that deep longing for all to come, for all to enjoy the feast, for all to discover or rediscover their true identity in God’s family.[10]

This points to the purpose of giving your pastors sabbaticals.  In addition to acknowledging our hard work, you are creating space for us to enjoy the feast and to rediscover and deepen our true identity in God’s family.  Why wait until we’re dead to enjoy the banquet?  Why not feast now?

So, tomorrow I’m going to disappear for three months.  Not only will I disappear from this building, but I’ll disappear from Facebook (I feel the need to rest from that medium, too).  I’ll spend time with family, and while I don’t expect my father to kill a fatted calf when we get together, I do expect him to eat some of his birthday cake.  I’ll spend some time in nature, allowing the beauty of creation fill me with awe – and I’ll bring back pictures.  I’ll read some books that have been on my reading list for months (or even years) and catch up on a four-inch high pile of journals that I haven’t kept up with.  I’ll spend some time in intentional community that is grounded in a rhythm of prayer.  And I’ll, as our special music suggested, just breathe.[11]

In my head, I believe that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  But sometimes I need to stop and let my heart fall into that truth.  Sometimes I need to stop and renew my soul.  And that’s really what I most want to accomplish on this sabbatical.

I hope to follow the flow of the parable of the Prodigal.  The parable of the Prodigal flows toward reconciliation.  God’s love is not found in right belief or doctrine.  God’s love is found in love.  “If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, [then] the great, big, beautiful, wonderful, holy, mysterious, reconciling heart of God waits to be discovered and experienced,”[12] again and again and again.

“Human speculation – whether religious or scientific – does the best it can, like a little boat that ventures out on the surface of a deep, deep ocean, under the dome of a fathomless sky.  Our eyes cannot see beyond the rim.  Our ears cannot hear the music beneath the silence.  Our hearts cannot imagine the meaning above us, below us, around us, within us.  But the Spirit blows like wind.  And so this mystery humbles us even as it dignifies us.  This mystery impresses us with our smallness even as it inspires us with our ultimate value.  This mystery dislodges us from lesser attachments so we sail on in hope.  This mystery dares us to believe that the big love of God is big enough to swallow all death and overflow with aliveness for us all.

“‘Do not fear,’ the Spirit whispers.  ‘All shall be well.’  That is why we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy.”[13]

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught you attention or imagination; or
… a moment in your life when everything came together and, for at least a moment, “all was well”; or
… the image of the end as a great homecoming celebration, or a great marriage banquet; or
… the image of being in a small boat, buoyed up by depths that you cannot fathom, feeling what it means to be upheld by mystery, letting God’s peace surround you.

[1] “Māori people,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māori_people#History (accessed 18 August 2016).

[2] “Earthrise,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise (accessed 20 August 2016).

[3] Robert Poole, “For teh Apollo astronauts, a small world,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/19/opinion/oe-poole19 (posted 19 July 2009; accessed 20 August 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 52, page 259. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 260.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Two in the congregation sang Jonny Diaz’s “Breathe.” You can listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnjeMwxFuBA.

[12] Ibid, 261.

[13] Ibid, 262.

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.

“Although Jesus is called teacher in the Gospel of Mark, that Gospel includes little of the teaching of Jesus. His parables confound his listeners rather than leading to greater understanding. Jesus’ teaching in Mark is performative, says Brian Blount; Jesus taught by the way he lived. He doesn’t teacher love as a concept, he acts it out by touching lepers and allowing diseased people to touch him, engaging women as equals, associating with the marginalized, and breaking laws that don’t promote human well-being. If we want to teach the reign of God as Jesus taught it, then we need to craft a curriculum that does more than inform.”  ~ Christian Century, 8 June 2016 edition, page 9, citing the April edition of Interpretation.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 12, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 22:34-40 and James 3:13-18
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We woke up this morning to the news that a gunman killed 50 and injured 52 or 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. First, I want to say that we are far from knowing all the facts. In the days, weeks, even months ahead, we will get more information, some of which will contradict the information we have now. It is far, far, far, too early to label this act or to interpret motives or to draw conclusions. Now is the time to grieve and to pray for the victims and the first responders and the hospital staffs who are treating the wounded as we speak. Now is the time to pray for the police who need to make official notifications to the families of the 50 who died. Now is the time to pray for those families.

I went to bed last night with a sermon manuscript sitting on my desk that has moments of lightness, moments of humor. I hope no one will be offended if I preach it as I wrote it this week. There is no intent to minimize the depth of this tragedy. Rather, this tragedy invites us, in the context of today’s sermon, to ask if the perpetrator of the shooting knew how to love himself.

The question is asked in the singular. A lawyer in Matthew, a scribe in Mark, asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. Not what are the greatest commandments, plural. Which is the greatest commandment, singular.

Jesus answers the question in the plural. The greatest commandment is to love God with your whole being. The second is like it, Jesus says: Love your neighbor as yourself.

For Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor are never far from each other. And if we are to love each other as we love ourselves, we need to figure out what a healthy self-love looks like. Perhaps, with the help of the Spirit, we can discern not only a healthy form of self-love, but one that is holy, too.

Think back to the story in Genesis that we often refer to as “the fall.” There’s a whole lot going on in this story – much, much more than I’m going to mention today. The thing from the story that I want to lift up today is that there are really two sins committed in the story.

The first sin is a sort of narcissism. Adam and Eve decide that they should be able to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that the limits and the rules don’t apply to them. They are so full of themselves, they think they are so much bigger than they really are, that they eat what they shouldn’t. After they eat, they realize that they are naked and feel ashamed about it. So they go into hiding. This is the second sin, the sin of shame, of thinking they are smaller than they really are.

Being too full of themselves and being too empty of themselves: these are the two sins in this ancient story. A healthy and holy self-love is somewhere in between.

Self-denial, the ignoring of one’s own needs, is certainly not self-love. I think ignoring ones own wants is also not self-love. I know that God has been cast as a divine killjoy. God has been cast as the holy judge, “sitting in heaven with a sourpuss glare, eyes roaming to and fro across the Earth to find anyone who is having fun – especially sexual fun – and stop[ping] it immediately!”[1]

I don’t know if it’s more silly or sad that we’ve done that to God. “Pleasure, of course, was originally the Creator’s idea. By giving us taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch, God was making possible an amazing array of pleasures: from eating to sex, from music to sport, from painting to gardening, from dance to travel. Human pleasure is a good and beautiful creation, mirroring, it would seem, a great capacity for enjoyment that exists in God. We are told that God takes pleasure in creation and in us, something all parents, teachers, and artists understand in relation to their children, students, and works of art. So again and again in the Bible, we are reminded that our Creator has given us all things to enjoy richly, and that in God’s presence is fullness of joy. The Creator is definitely pro-pleasure.”[2]

We should not feel ashamed for enjoying experiences and aspects of life simply because we are enjoying them. God is not a divine killjoy

On the other hand, just because something is enjoyable doesn’t make it advisable. We need to have some boundaries, and not just for the sake of others. We need them for ourselves. Think about the big pleasures in life – food, drink, sex, owning, winning, resting, playing, working. It is possible to become addicted to all of these or to find too much of a sense of identity or purpose in all of these.

So, it’s not surprising, that there are plenty of rules and warming about pleasures in the Bible. “When we indulge in pleasures without self-examination or self-control, great pleasure can quickly lead to great pain,”[3] as any recovering addict (or any family member of an addict) can tell you.

Our faith tradition has handed down guidelines and rules to help us from falling into the demands of “what I want, when I want it, as much as I want.” The rules are a great help – as a starting place.

If our faith doesn’t mature, then the rules are helpful. The rules tell us right from wrong, legal from illegal. If our faith matures, we get a new emphasis in our faith: wisdom. Instead of asking “is this right or wrong?” we start asking: “Will this help or hinder me in reaching my higher goals?” “Where will this lead in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term?” “What unintended consequences might happen?” “Who might be hurt by this?” “Are there better alternatives?” “Is this the best time?” “Should I seek counsel before moving forward?”[4]

Brian McLaren points out, “Wisdom helps us see how a hasty purchase of a desired indulgence can lead to the long-term pressure of debt.” Wisdom reminds us that a one-night sexual liaison can lead to lasting consequences for both parties and their families, be that spouses, children, parents, others – and possibly for generations to come. Wisdom knows that a business short-cut can cost us our reputation and possibly long-term business viability for the sake of short-term financial gains. “Wisdom guides us to see beyond life’s immediate pleasures to potential consequences that are less obvious and less pleasant.”[5]

But wisdom doesn’t just say, “No,” or even “Not now.” “Wisdom also helps us see how excessively denying ourselves pleasure can [also] become unwise.” Parents who deny themselves time to care for their relationship for the sake of the children can put their relationship in jeopardy. Wisdom reminds the work-a-holic like me to stop and do something fun, something renewing, even something frivolous to avoid burn-out that can lead to resenting work.[6]

Wisdom teaches practices of self-care, sometime stepping on the brakes and sometimes stepping on the accelerator. “We all need wisdom to know our limits and keep our balance, to know when to say yes and when to say ‘That’s enough’ or ‘That’s unwise’ or ‘This isn’t the right time.’ We need wisdom to know when to ask for help – from a friend or professional – when we are in over our heads. We need wisdom to monitor the difference between legitimate desires and dangerous temptations. We even need wisdom to keep different kinds of pleasure in a healthy and sustainable balance.”[7]

The wisdom I’m talking about really isn’t all that lofty – at least at its beginning. Even young children can find some degree of wisdom and embrace it. There’s a famous experiment that was first performed at Stanford University in the 1960s and 70s about delaying gratification. It’s been reproduced a number of times.[8]

Embracing the wisdom to learn self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-care, is a great step. But it’s not the final step. “Rules are good, wisdom is better, and love is best of all.”[9]

God wants you to be able to look at yourself with the same love that God has when God looks at you. This is not always easy. We can block our view of ourselves with our shame. We can distort our view of ourselves with self-absorption, self-centeredness, and selfishness. Or we can engage in Spirit-guided self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-giving, and learn to really love ourselves.

June is Gay Pride month and I can testify to how important this month, and especially Gay Pride festivals and parades, can be. I went to my first Gay Pride Parade three decades ago. It was the San Francisco Pride Parade, so it was a big event. I plunged right in. The power of the parade for me was being in a place where being gay was the norm. I had spent the previous half of my life feeling like I was weird, abnormal, broken. I had spent the previous half of my life feeling ashamed of my being. That parade had a healing impact on my life. It was one day of celebration that told me that I wasn’t broken, that I wasn’t weird. It was a day of celebration that told me that I was normal and that I was loveable. It chipped away at the walls I had erected against loving myself. And I can tell you, God didn’t want me treating my neighbor the way I was treating myself.

God isn’t a divine killjoy. God wants each one of us to love ourselves the way God love us. “If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of … love of self that is good, right, wise, and necessary. And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: To journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love. There we find God. There we find our neighbor. And there we find ourselves.”[10]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you
to reflect on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or
to reflect on a time when a rule, a wise saying, or a mentor helped you in some way; or
to reflect on how you respond to the idea that if we love ourselves, we will practice self-examination, self-control, self-development, self-care, and self-giving rather than self-indulgence; or
to imagine those who love you most – parents, spouse, friends, children, God – are standing with you as they see and love you.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 44. Retrieved from amazon.com.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] These questions are slightly modified from McLaren, ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] The experiment itself was actually much more involved than just examining how children deal with delayed gratification. The psychologist, Walter Mischel, also looked at the children in the initial test later in the lives and found that those who were able to wait longer for the preferred, bigger rewards (who were able to delay gratification) tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures. Learn more at “Stanford marshmallow experiment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment
[9] McLaren, op. cit.
[10] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 5, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A week and a half ago, we held once of our every-four-months “Deepening Membership” gatherings. The subject of this gathering was “service,” and to get us going, I asked the people to share a story of a time they were involved in some act of service where they felt especially connected to God. Everyone (well, everyone except me) shared a story that included some element of connecting with other people, typically a person in need, sometimes with others offering service.

There is something about the experience of connecting with another person in the context of service that moves us beyond ourselves and into what a friend of mine call “The Big Love,” her preferred name for God. When we are connecting with our neighbor, we are connecting with God. When we love our neighbor, not just with mind and heart, but with hands and feet and voice, we are loving God.

This is the challenge Jesus makes to the lawyer who seemed to be looking for a loophole. “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus answers with the story we call “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” And in the telling, Jesus reminds us that loving our neighbor may require that we cross socially-dictated boundaries. This is an over-simplification, but basically, Jews at the time of Jesus generally viewed Samaritans with a special contempt. While the Romans were viewed with contempt because they were the occupying, oppressive force, Samaritans were viewed with contempt because they claimed to worship Yahweh, the Jewish God, but not at the Temple in Jerusalem, and not guided by the same group of prophets. They were seen not just as pagans, but as perverters of the faith.

In the story Jesus tells, Jewish leaders ignore their fellow Jew, robbed and beaten at the side of the road. It was a perverter of the faith who came to the Jew’s aid. Even Samaritans, outsiders, people you look on with contempt, are your neighbors.

For millennia, from before the advent of agriculture, human cultures have taught that same is safe and different is dangerous. Brian McLaren says, “That belief probably served our ancestors well at certain points in our history. Their survival often depended on maintaining trust in ‘our’ tribe and fear of other tribes. That’s why they used paint, feathers, clothing, language, and even religion as markers, so everyone would know who was same and safe and us and who was different and dangerous and them.

“Driven by that belief, our ancestors spread out around the world, each tribe staking out its own territory, each guarding its borders from invasion by others, each trying to expand its territory whenever possible, each driving others farther and farther away. No wonder our history is written in blood: wars, conquests, invasions, occupations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. The winners take all, and the losers, if they aren’t killed and enslaved, escape to begin again somewhere else.

“Eventually, because the earth is a sphere, our dispersing tribes had to come full circle and encounter one another again. That is our challenge today. We must find a way to live together on a crowded planet. We have to graduate from thinking in terms of ‘our kind versus their kind’ to thinking in terms of ‘humankind.’ We must turn from the ways of our ancestors and stop trying to kill off, subjugate, or fend off everyone we judge different and dangerous. We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation.”[1]

McLaren goes on to say, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays.   But it means all our human tribes – nations, religions, cultures, parties – need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life. True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why our societies running it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. Not inferiority, but equality. Not resentment, but reconciliation. Not isolation, but connection. Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.”[2]

What that looks like isn’t always clear. Most of you know that we have a young man – he goes by the name Lucky – who is making camp in our memorial garden. We have connected him with an Abode Services social worker and we’ve set some rules that he’s supposed to live by:

  • His tent is supposed to be down and packed away by 9:00 a.m., and not set back up until 7:00 p.m.
  • He’s supposed to keep the area clean.
  • He’s not to be in the building unless Pastor Brenda or I are here.
  • When he has coffee or eats something, he has to clean his dishes.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: Is this the clean personal and social fuel of openness, of service, of equality, of reconciliation, of connection, of hospitality? Is this loving our neighbor? I’m not sure. I hope that in this case it is. But I realize it might not be.

Back in November, United Church of Christ pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi wrote a poem she titled, “The Good Syrian.”[3]

So the American is beaten up
in the parking lot, mugged,
at the Mall of New Hampshire,
and a Christian comes by
and doesn’t stop for a moment
because it is Black Friday
and there is shopping.

Then a politician comes by.
It is primary season
and both the Democrats
and Republicans
are thick on the ground
in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth,
but the politician doesn’t stop
because his handlers
tell him it’s not a photo-op.
And finally a Syrian comes by
one of those who is –
as the poem tells it heartbreak –
on our streets
because home is like the
mouth of a shark.

And the Syrian is Muslim
and the Syrian is kind.
And the American
does not want him
for a neighbor.
But God put him there
in the answer
to questions about love.

Today is Faith Formation Sunday. We took a moment earlier in the service to thank our Sunday School Teachers and we took a moment to mark the important milestone in the life of one of our youth – his graduating from High School this month – recognizing that secular education plays an important role in the forming of faith. I said that one way to look at why the church exists is this: the equipping of people to be disciples of Jesus.

McLaren says, “[Churches] at their best are Spirit-schools of love, engaging everyone, from little children to great-grandparents, in the lifelong learning. In the school of the Spirit, everyone majors in love.”[4]

[Please watch from 5:57 to the end.  This video is the trailer for a educational series; you can learn more about it here.]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention;
or a time when someone affirmed one of your unique gifts or abilities or when you appreciated the unique gifts or abilities of another;
or a time when someone came to your aid and acted as a neighbor to you, or a time when you acted as a neighbor to another;
or meditate in silence, simply holding the term “neighbor” before God. Open yourself to the depths of meaning in this beautiful term.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 43. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maren Tirabassi, “Parable of the Good Syrian,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/maren.tirabassi/posts/968297036567313 (posted 27 November 2015; accessed 4 June 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

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