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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 18:15-30 and Luke 18:35–19:9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the things that biblical scholarship has embraced quite fully is the idea that one needs to understand the cultural context in which a scripture was written if one is going to fully understand what a scripture might mean for that time which, in turn, gives us some sense of what it might mean for today. So, one needs to understand the cultural context of Roman occupied Judea about 2,000 years ago if one is going to understand what the gospel writers meant and what Jesus was all about. And I think knowing what the gospel writers mean and what Jesus was all about is pretty important to this community, Niles Discovery Church, since we are a community of Jesus-followers. So, let’s spend a little while reflecting on Jesus’ cultural context.

The world into which Jesus was born and grew up was what Marcus Borg and other scholars call “an imperial form of a preindustrial agricultural domination system. This was the most common type of society from the development of agriculture … until the industrial revolution of a few centuries ago. The piling up of adjectives – imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system – may be inelegant and even discouraging, but each illuminates a central feature of Jesus’s world.”[1]

Let’s start in the middle and work our way out. By “agricultural,” we mean it was an agrarian culture. Food wasn’t simply hunted and gathered; it was cultivated. Being “preindustrial,” the fuel source for work – agricultural and otherwise – was human or animal muscle.

Now we get to the interesting words: imperial domination system. Domination systems are characterized by four primary features. “First, these societies were politically oppressive. They were ruled by a few, typically by a monarchy and aristocracy and their associates. With their extended families, the ruling elites (as they are commonly called) were usually about 1 to 2 percent of the population.… Ordinary people had no voice or power in the shaping of society.

“Second, these societies were economically oppressive. The wealthy and powerful acquired a high percentage of the society’s annual production of wealth, typically from half to two-thirds [of the wealth].…

“Third, these societies were religiously oppressive. According to religion as developed by the elites, rulers ruled by divine right, and the social order and its laws reflected the will of God. Rulers maintained that they did not set it up this way – God did. Of course, religion sometimes became the source of protest against such claims. But in all premodern societies known to us the wealthy and powerful used religion to legitimate their place in the social order.

“Fourth, these societies were marked by armed conflict, by organized violence. Elites could increase their wealth and power only by increasing agricultural production from their own people or by acquiring land and its agricultural production from another society. The ruling elites thus needed armies, whether to increase their own holdings or to defend their holdings against others. Wars were common. They were not fought for nationalistic reasons … but were initiated by ruling elites for the sake of acquiring wealth from the agricultural lands of neighboring societies.”[2]

The result of these commonalities of domination systems was that they ended up having two classes. Yes, there were distinctions within the two classes, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but there were just two classes. In that world, “there was no ‘middle class’ in our sense of a bulge in the middle. Rather, there was a very small class at the very top, no significant middle, and the vast majority of the population (around 90 percent) at the bottom.”[3]

The divisions between these two classes were political – there were the rulers and the ruled – and economic – there were the wealthy, their retainers (government and religious officials, military officers and bureaucrats, managers and stewards, scribes and servants, and urban merchants who sold to them – about 5 percent of the population), and the peasant class.

The typical way to depict this social structure is with a pyramid. Here’s one I found on the web. The problem with this depiction is that it suggests that there was a middle class of sorts. I think an old oilcan is a much better graphic. The elites and their retainers make up the long neck of the oilcan, and the base holds the peasant class This group was “mostly agricultural workers; some owned small parcels of land and others were tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or day laborers. It also included other manual workers such as fishermen, construction workers, artisans, miners, and low ranking servants. At the very bottom were the radically marginalized: the homeless, beggars, the lame and blind, the unclean and untouchable,”[4] and slaves.

Tiberius was Caesar, he was at the top. His local rulers – Pilate, governor of Judea; Herod Antipas, “king” of Galilee; Philip, ruling the area north and east of Galilee – were all beholden to the top of the oilcan. They had power only as long as their patron allowed them to have power. Thus, though the brothers Herod and Philip were Jews, they were first and foremost collaborators with the Roman Empire.

slide36Jesus and his family were part of the peasant class. If Joseph was a carpenter, he would have been a laborer who, if he got work today, would have money to buy food today. If he didn’t get work, his family went hungry. That’s the world Jesus grew up in. That’s the world in which Jesus heard the Hebrew Prophets read. That’s the world in which the story of the Exodus was told. That’s the world that shaped him.

90 percent of the population were like Jesus, at least in this regard. 90 percent. I think it’s fair to call them the multitudes.

In his parables and actions, Jesus “constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management – the stewards, tax collectors, and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.”[5]

Jesus addressed the social realities of his day by constantly turning the oilcan over. Through his actions and words, he lifted up a vision of what could be. He called this vision “the kingdom of God.” While this may have come from his experience in an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system, it also seems to have come from his compassion. Matthew describes Jesus looking at the multitudes and then write this: “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

We see this attitude in our readings today. First, there’s an exchange about children. No adult male would waste his time with children, at least not children who were not his own. His disciples thought that their important teacher has important things to do, so they sent the children away. But Jesus rebuked them, saying that the kingdom of God belongs to them. To them. To children. In the hierarchy of the peasant class, children were pretty darn low. But Jesus turns the oil can upside down.

Luke juxtaposes this interchange about the children with an encounter with “a certain ruler.” This is someone from somewhere along the long, narrow neck of the oilcan. He wants eternal life, the life that is full, the life of the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. Become like them. Become part of the multitude and turn the oilcan upside down.

How hard it is to let go of power, be it economic or political or religious. The ruler really didn’t like Jesus’ suggestion of what to do. “It is easier,” Jesus says, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Society would tell you that Jesus didn’t have time for a blind beggar. After all, someone who is disabled and a beggar is way down there with the children – maybe even lower. But Jesus says, “Bring him to me,” and gives him vision. And the oilcan is turned over.

And Luke again juxtaposes this story with an encounter of someone who is rich. Zacchaeus was a Roman collaborator (for he collected taxes), so that put him right around the connection of the narrow neck of the oilcan to the main body of the can. He was curious about who this Jesus was that people were all excited about. Jesus goes to his home (how upsetting that must have been to the multitudes) to share a meal. Zacchaeus says he is giving away half his possessions to the poor. Half his possessions. And, he says, if I’ve been a cheat (something tax collectors were notorious for being), that he would pay back four times what he cheated.

This is a story of someone there at the bottom of the neck stepping away from power and joining the multitudes. Jesus characterizes this as “salvation coming to this house.”

Those four examples come from just one chapter in one gospel. The gospels are full of such stories, of Jesus siding with the multitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) The Catholics have a term for this phenomenon. They call it God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Latin American liberation theologians (mostly Catholic, but some Protestants, too) noticed “a trend throughout biblical texts, where there is a demonstrable preference given to powerless individuals who live on the margins of society.”[6] God, they concluded, must side with the poor whenever there’s a question. That’s certainly what I see Jesus doing.

So what does that mean for us? To quote Catholic canon law, “The Christian faithful are … obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.”[7] If God takes the side of the poor, then we who call ourselves Christians have an obligation, first and foremost, to care for the poor and vulnerable.

Which brings us to today. We are two weeks into the Trump presidency. Speaking only for myself here, I have seen actions he has taken – formal, like Executive Orders, and informal, like insulting comments at the National Prayer Breakfast – that have upset me and in some cases caused me to fear for our constitutional democracy. Some of the analysis I’ve read has added to this anxiety. And so has my reading of the Bible.

I planned today’s readings and topic a year ago. As I’ve prepared for this sermon, I’ve read some scholarly work comparing the Roman imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system with the United States, including sections of Richard Horsley’s 2003 book, Jesus and Empire. He finds many parallels between the first century Roman Empire and the United States of America. If I may quote him.

“Both in the period of settlement and in the Revolutionary War, the colonists and rebels understood themselves as a biblical people, the new Israel achieving liberation from political and religious tyranny and establishing a new democratic covenant. In the excitement of independence, however, political leaders reached for a more grandiose sense of what they were about. The new nation was a new Rome, practicing republican virtue. They soon pretended, however, that building an empire would not corrupt that virtue. … Despite the hesitation of some, the American Republic like the Roman Republic proceeded to build an empire, practicing the same brutality against the people it conquered.”[8]

In drawing parallels between the Roman Empire and the American Empire, Horsley points to our engagement in armed conflict, from the conquest of the land through the near genocide of the Native people, to the conquest of half of Mexico in war, to the seizing of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, to our undeclared war in Vietnam, to the killings by U.S. trained death squads in Latin America.

He points to our political oppression – not so much at home (at least not yet), but like the Roman Empire, in other territories, squashing political freedom in other countries like Guatemala and Iran under President Eisenhower and Chile under President Nixon. His book was published before our overthrow of the government in Iraq.

And he points to our economic oppression wielded internationally through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He notices that we consume 75 percent of the world resources while we have only 4.4 percent of the world’s population.

The only thing missing from Borg’s list of hallmarks of an imperial preindustrial agricultural domination system is religious oppression, and with President Trump’s attempted ban on some Muslim immigrants and refugees and the fact that one of his chief advisors has a record as an anti-Semite, we may have that fourth hallmark now.

I don’t know what we should do politically about this situation – I’m not a political scientist. I am, however, a theologian. And I can tell you where Jesus would be. Jesus would be with the multitudes. And I can tell you what God’s preference is. God has a preferential option for the poor. And maybe those realities can inform what we, a Christian community, should be doing.

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 you felt like one of the multitude, or like one of the elites; or
… the idea of Jesus having a “preferential option for the poor”; or
… the image of some group of people you normally turn away from and repeat these words silently:  “They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

[1] Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 79.

[2] Ibid, 81-82.

[3] Ibid, 83.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 23, page 106. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Kira Dault, “”What is the preferential option for the poor?” U.S. Catholic: Faith in Real Life, http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201501/what-preferential-option-poor-29649 (posted January 2015; accessed 1 February 2017).

[7] Quoted in Ibid.

[8] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) [Kindle version], loc 1888-1893. Retrieved from amazon.com.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 4:1-20 and Mark 4:21-34
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Who is Jesus to you?

If I call myself a Christian, I am saying that I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ, namely Jesus.  So my answer to the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” will impact how I live my life as a Christian.  If you don’t mind me answering, at least to start, in the negative, I would say that I am becoming less and less convinced that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah.  After his death and resurrection, the early church clearly came to see him as the Messiah, but prior to that, I’m leaning toward Jesus not thinking of himself as the Messiah.  And if he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah, I suspect he wasn’t as eschatologically focused as the gospels make him out to be.  In other words, I don’t think Jesus was as concerned about death and the afterlife and the end of time and the final judgment as he is often portrayed as being.  Jesus was much more concerned about this world and this life.

Jesus showed that concern in several ways.  He was a spirit person, someone who was experientially aware of the reality and presence of God.  He showed his concern for this world in his mediation of the sacred to others.  He was a healer.  I talked about this last week, and all I’ll add today is that he showed his concern for this world by transforming the lives of people around him.  He was a social prophet, “similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel.  As such, he criticized the elites (economic, political, and religious) of his time, was an advocate for an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.”[1]  We will touch on this today and next week.  He “was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church.”[2]  This also will be explored, at least a bit, this week and next.  And he was a teacher – the primary subject of today’s sermon.

Icon of “Christ the Teacher”

I suppose that all of these descriptions of Jesus overlap or intersect.  One of the ways he showed he was a spirit person was by healing people.  I don’t think you can separate his social prophecy from his becoming a movement founder.  He taught through his healings.  “By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatized God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life.  By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped.…  And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social, or personal.”[3]

In synagogue gatherings and on hillsides, he gave talks about things theological.  At a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up and in public places when his critiques tried to catch him with tricky questions, he found teachable moments.  His guerrilla-theater demonstrations (like on Palm Sunday) and his acts of civil disobedience (like chasing money changers from the Temple), provided learning opportunities for people who were paying attention.  “Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.”[4]

And then there were his parables.

Perhaps it is time for a quiz.  What is greater than God and more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it you’ll die?  (Answer:  Nothing.)  How about this one:  You threw away the outside and cooked the inside.  Then you ate the outside and threw away the inside.  What did you eat?  (Answer:  An ear of corn.)[5]

John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the primary ways to understand or interpret some of the parables attributed to Jesus in the gospels is to see them as riddles.  He says that when a parable is a riddle narrative, “not only the general story itself, but even its multiple parts each and all point elsewhere.  Such riddle parables are also called allegories.”[6]

That is certainly how Mark treats the parable of the sower.  We heard this in our first lesson from Mark.  Jesus tells the story about a farmer who goes to sow some seed and the seed falls in six different kinds of soil.  We usually only notice that there are four kinds of soil – the path, the rocky, the thorny, and the good – but the good really comes in three kinds – soil that produces a thirty-fold crop, soil that produces a sixty-fold crop, and soil that produces a one-hundred-fold crop.  Still, we see a silly farmer, casting seed where even the horticulturally-challenged know it won’t produce anything.

But, of course, the parable isn’t about horticulture and it isn’t about a sower.  The parable, as Mark understands it, is a riddle, an allegory.

Another way to understand and interpret some of the parables of Jesus is to see them as example parables.  Example parables are stories that invite us to go and do (or, in some cases, don’t do) likewise.  Aesop’s fables fall into this category.

You might remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel.  King David spies this sexy woman taking a bath and decides he wants her for himself.  To do this, he has to get rid of her husband, Uriah, one of his generals.  So David sends Uriah on a suicide mission and he is killed.  God is none too pleased with this and sends the prophet Nathan to David to set him straight.  Would you like that job?  Go and tell the king, who had one of his generals killed, that God is not pleased?  Nathan does this by telling an example parable.

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.  He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Crossan says, “Although a ruler should always be apprehensive at the approach of a prophet, David walks right into Nathan’s parabolic trap:”[7]

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man.  He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”  (2 Samuel 12:5-7a)

Yes, it’s sad that Nathan completely misses how the system promotes the objectification and possession of women, but his story is still a great example of an example parable.

Crossan has also identified a third way to understand and interpret Jesus’ parables.  He says that Jesus’ parables were challenge parables, at least originally, though they were changed into example parables and riddle parables by the gospel authors.  Challenge parables challenge “us to think, to discuss, to argue, and to decide about meaning.”[8]  They challenge us, the hearers, “to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways.  They invite [us] their hearers to ponder ‘whatever is taken totally for granted in our world’.”[9]

While I haven’t delved very deeply into Crossan’s work on parables (yet), I think he is on to something.  I imagine that maybe half of Jesus’ parables include the phrase “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” – and this kingdom totally challenges what is taken for granted in our world.  We heard this today in our second reading.  “The Kingdom, something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like ‘a grain of mustard seed.’  Moreover, mustard was a weed, thus, the Kingdom is like a weed.  [In another parable,] The Kingdom is compared to something impure:  it is like a woman (associated with impurity) putting leaven (which was impure) into flour.”[10]  And on they go, overturning conventional wisdom.

“[F]or Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now.  It was at hand, or within reach, today.  To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realized that kingdoms were the dominant social, political, and economic reality of Jesus’ day.  Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, and civilization all resonate in that one word:  kingdom.”[11]

Brian McLaren writes, “The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom.  They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments.  The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution.  And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion.  It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.

“Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations, and parables.  But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.

“By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best and only option.  He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies.  He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest.  It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation.  It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering.  In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s nonviolent noncompliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be.  He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.”[12]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the “Beloved Community,” I think he was talking about the kingdom of God.  The King Center explains it this way:  “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.  Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.  In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power.  Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”[13]

As lofty and utopian as this may sound, when King talked about the Beloved Community, he wasn’t talking about something found only in the great beyond.  He was talking about something attainable, something that is at hand.  “The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”[14]

More than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump’s order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Jan. 28, 2017

We have seen in the past few weeks how our nation has moved away from the Beloved Community.  Most recently, the ban on refugees and immigrants and visitors from a handful of nations that are Muslim-majority is an example.  People with valid visas and green-cards are being detained at the border.  This is empire action that is completely contrary to the values of the Beloved Community, contrary to the values of the kingdom of God.  And that is why people have taken to the sidewalks and airport terminals – to help our country move in the direction of the Beloved Community, not away.

We still need Jesus the teacher.  We need to pay attention to his actions and his words.  We need to follow him toward the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the way of living and being in community that challenges the most basic values of the powers that be.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect …
… on anything from the scripture readings or sermon that caught your attention; or
… on the memory of one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant; or
… how you might translate or reinterpret the term “kingdom of God;” or
… how the “kingdom of God” is coming in your life, your family, your community.

[1] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins, 1994). 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 22, page 101. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] These two riddles are from Mike Page, “Classic Riddles 1-100,” Savage Legend, https://savagelegend.com/misc-resources/classic-riddles-1-100/ (accessed 28 January 2017).

[6] John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, (New York:  HarperCollins, 2012), 18.

[7] Ibid, 35.

[8] Ibid, 47.

[9] Greg Carey, “Crossan on Parables and Gospels,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/dont-fear-this-book-cross_b_1417435.html (posted 16 April 2012; accessed 28 January 2017).

[10] Borg, op. cit., 80.

[11] McLaren, op. cit., page 103.

[12] Ibid, 103-104.

[13] “The King Philosophy,” The King Center, http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4 (accessed 28 January 2017).

[14] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 11, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and Matthew 5:38-47
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Whatever happened to the overture?

I suspect there are enough theatre nerds in this congregation (I count myself among them – obviously) that I can’t be the only one who’s wondered this. The musical theatre overture has, for the most part, disappeared. And it’s been fading away for a long time. According to a National Public Radio story from eight years ago, one reason the overture has pretty much disappeared is money. Tighter budgets have led to smaller orchestras, which means simpler orchestrations, which means no overture.[1] An article in The New York Times from ten years ago says the demise of the overture goes back now 40 years. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.

“Who could forget the great overture to ‘A Chorus Line’? First there’s that infectious hop-step vamp from the song ‘One.’ Then come some of the show’s most familiar melodies: ‘I Hope I Get It,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘What I Did for Love.’ Finally the orchestra swings back for a rousing half-chorus of ‘One’ that would make even gouty musical-theater-phobes want to leap to their feet with excitement.

“Oh, wait – ‘A Chorus Line’ doesn’t have an overture.…

“Back in 1975, a month before the original production’s debut, Marvin Hamlisch did write a ‘Chorus Line’ overture like the one described. But the director, Michael Bennett, and the show’s other creators decided not to include it, fearing it would destroy the illusion that the audience was watching an actual audition as the lights went up.…

“Thanks in part to ‘A Chorus Line,’ the Broadway orchestra and the Broadway overture would rarely emerge from that obscurity again.”[2]

No, I haven’t lost my mind, and, yes, I do remember that this is a sermon. I just want to remind you of what an overture is – or was. The overture, typically several minutes long, was “made up of melodies heard later in the show and [was] played by an orchestra before the curtain [went] up.”[3] It introduced musical themes to the audience, acting “like a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter.”[4]

And that’s exactly what Matthew is doing in the first two chapters of his gospel, the chapters where Matthew talks about Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is an idea that is new to me, introduced by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas. Luke does it, too, with his birth and childhood narrative, also the first two chapters of his gospel. Both authors introduce the themes that will play out in the rest of their gospels.

The big theme we hear in Matthew’s overture is that Jesus is the new Moses. It’s here in our first lesson. Just as Moses was born under an evil ruler, the Pharaoh, Jesus is born under the evil King Herod. Just as Moses needed to escape the slaughter of Jewish newborns, Jesus needs to escape the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.[5]

Crossan and Borg go on to suggest that the number five is important. There are in this overture, five dreams move the story along and five prophetic fulfillments are cited. This calls to mind the Torah, they say, because it is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also called “the books of Moses.” And like the five books of Moses, the main body of Matthew’s gospel is easily divided into five sections:

  • the Law discourse (the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reinterprets the law Moses received – on a mountain);
  • the missionary discourse;
  • the parable discourse;
  • the community discourse; and
  • the eschatological discourse.[6]

Borg and Crossan point to other ways this overture introduces the theme that Jesus is the new Moses, but I don’t want to get lost in the weeds (or bulrushes) digging into these. Instead, I want to you hear this general idea:

The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke – their overtures – are important not because any of it happened historically (and aside from Mary being pregnant and giving birth, is likely that little else in the story happened historically). No, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are important because they tell us where the story is going.

And where does Matthew tell us where the story is going? Just in the reading we heard today, we hear both that non-Jews will seek Jesus and that wise ones will seek him. We hear that Jesus will be the new Davidic king (a subtheme in the overture lifted up elsewhere). We hear that the principalities and powers will find Jesus threatening and will seek to kill him. We hear that God has an escape plan for Jesus, that death won’t have the final word.

Do you see one reason why it’s important to keep Herod in Christmas? The overture doesn’t work without him.

Of course it’s not the only reason to keep Herod in Christmas. Any first or second century Jew would know what a despot Herod the Great was. Yes, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, an important sign of Jewish identity. But he was a puppet king, dependent on the Roman empire for his status. “Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labor for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons.”[7]

You can see why it was not a far-fetched storyline to have Herod kill all the infant and toddler boys in Bethlehem in Matthew’s overture. There are some important questions that are raised by having Herod in this story. We know how Herod managed power and dealt with threats. How will we? We know how Herod used violence to get his way. Will we?

“Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power.

“The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.”[8]

Brian McLaren points out, “All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grand children. Most of the [uniformed] casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”[9]

By keeping Herod in Christmas, we are forced to grapple with what we believe about God. “Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?”[10]

Our second lesson answers these question – but in a whole new way. From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus holds up the ethic of love as the real fulfillment of the law. And this love needs to be deep, deep enough to turn your enemies into friends. When faced with oppression, the typical responses are fight or flight. “An eye for an eye” is a call to meet violence with violence. The other response is to let the violence crush you.

Jesus offers a third way: meet violence with non-violent activism. Because someone would only strike you with their right hand, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, they’ve backhanded you. Doing that means they are treating you as an inferior. By offering your left cheek, you are saying, “If you want to hit me, you’ll have to hit me as your equal.” If someone sues you for your only possession, the clothes off your back, give them your underwear, too. If they reduce you to being naked, they have lost face. The only person who would force you to go a mile would be a Roman soldier. They were known for forcing locals to carry their packs and were restricted to only forcing that for one mile. By insisting that you go two miles, you’ll get the occupying soldier in trouble.

There is a third way, Jesus says, to fight for the dignity of the oppressed without becoming an oppressor.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus,” McLaren says, “is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with the vulnerable … in defiance of the [oppressors] who see [the vulnerable] as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation with the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.

“Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season, we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long a children pay the price, and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.

“… In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and come near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness [of the story] of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.”[11]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture readings that caught your interest; or
… a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness; or
… the idea that Matthew’s birth narrative is an “overture” to his gospel; or
… to hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and power-hungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby—then observe what happens in your heart and offer a prayer of response.

[1] Jeff Lunden, “Broadway’s Best Musical Revival: The Overture?” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91480130 (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).

[2] Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/theater/01gree.html (posted 1 October 2006; accessed 8 December 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lunden, op. cit.

[5] Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 41-42.

[6] Ibid, 42-46.

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 16, page 71. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 72-73.

[10] Ibid, 73.

[11] Ibid, 73-74.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Borg

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

Phyllis Tickle

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

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

Betty H

Betty Harris

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

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

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

Brad Ellis

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

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

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

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


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

[1] See “Lazarus,” American Catholic, http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1232.

[2] David Lose, “All Saints’ Sunday B: Look Twice,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/all-saints-sunday-b-look-twice/ (posted and accessed 26 October 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 8, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Every year, we come to this story.  Every year, 50 days after Easter, we read from Acts 2 and we hear the story of the birth of the church.

The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapter of Acts tells us about the disciples having palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he was dead.  They had experiences that were so concrete it was like he was physically present, even though they were locked away in rooms.  They had experiences that were so profound they were sure they were getting directions from him even though they knew the Roman government had killed him.

But then those experiences we call “resurrection experiences” stopped.  The sense of the presence of Jesus was no longer like he was physically present to them.  It was as if he had disappeared into the presence of God and since, given the cosmology of that time, God was in the heavens and the heavens are “up,” they talked about Jesus ascending into the heavens.

Last week, Pastor Brenda preached about what happened after this “ascension.”  She told us about how the disciples discerned a mission, a purpose.  They discerned that Jesus was calling them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]  The line from Pastor Brenda’s sermon that stuck with me all week is that, after discerning this calling, the disciples (and I’m not just talking about the 12; this was a sizable group of men and women) formed a community, not a committee.  They devoted themselves to praying together and they selected an additional leader, someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, and the community formed.

It was on one of those days, on Pentecost, the Jewish festival of new harvest, when this new community was gathered together in their upper room, praying together, that God acted.  The Holy Spirit blew through the community and they started sharing the good news.  Apparently they were speaking loudly enough that people outside, people from all around the Mediterranean world, could hear them – and not only hear them, but understand them.

“On a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise,… these Jewish ‘ignorant, backwater folks’ (a stereotype conveyed by the term ‘Galileans,’ but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.”[2]

“According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind.”[3]  You’ll remember that the story of the Tower of Babel tells about the people taking advantage of all speaking one language and trying to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to the heavens, to the thrown of God.  God dealt with this hubris by confusing the languages of the people, thus making communication impossible and scattering the people throughout the earth.  Pentecost reverses this, making people from across the earth understand each other.

Bringing back together the broken and divided community of the Tri-Cities is a big part of our vision for our church.  We proclaim that we are united – united – in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  We are and are becoming a place of healing and wholeness for all God’s people, reaching in and reaching out with the gifts that we have to make manifest the radically inclusive love and extravagant welcome of God.  We do this in many ways – to name a few, we do it by creating a place of spiritual nurture in our worship service; by nurturing the faith journey of our children and adults; by creating a center for worship and mission (where it can take place and out of which it can take place); and by bringing the church to our members who can no longer come to church themselves.

That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Focusing on just a handful of the ministries of our church and letting them represent all the ministries of the church, we are showing how, together we build the house of God.  When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought about how the Spirit is alive in our church.  Our ministries do show how the Spirit is blowing through our congregation, empowering our ability to live out the good news.  And as I thought more about the scripture reading, I realized the church is also alive in the Spirit.  It really is a both/and thing.  The Spirit empowers our ability to minister and our ministry is alive in the Spirit.  The importance of the story isn’t only, “Wow! Look at what the Spirit is doing in that church!”  It is also, “Wow! Look at what that church is doing in the Spirit!”

When the disciples gathered in the safety of the upper room, the Spirit came and the story moved forward.  Once again, God reignited the work of God’s people, gathering in God’s people in love and blessing.  In the mystery of fire and wind, language and understanding, the fearful disciples were converted to the work that God has always been doing:  loving, gathering and uniting, forgiving and raising up.  “The community gathered in that room could articulate every kind of reason not to go – lacking the right words or training or free time or money.  Yet they [were] suddenly and miraculously inspired, despite themselves, to act just like Jesus.  The Spirit embodied in Jesus now fill[ed] their bodies – the body of Christ.

“Today, our shifting cultural landscape creates fear about our future.  We might not be gathered in an upper room, but there is a lot of fear in [sanctuaries and social halls of the churches].  We wonder if our towers and our treasured belief[s] will survive the winds of this century.”[4]  We can let our fear keep us sheltered away or we can let the Spirit continue to blow through our lives and continue to find new ways to gather in God’s people in love and blessing.

We say that Pentecost is the church’s birthday, but it’s not the founding of an institution.  It’s the inauguration of a movement of people “who speak blessing and take back curses.”[5]

I read about “a Pentecost children’s sermon in which the pastor asked the children how many candles should be on the church’s birthday cake.  Eventually, one kid guessed the year – but she added that ‘you can’t blow out that many candles.’”[6]  Think about that.  “You can’t blow out that many candles.”  Whenever I fear about the future of the church, I remind myself that it is God’s church, that the Spirit is empowering the church and human beings can’t blow it out.

“Again and again, God promises to set us on fire with a promise that cannot be extinguished.  From the pinnacle of Pentecost, we hear that God is already at work filling the whole creation with blessing.…  If we’re [lucky and if we allow ourselves to be not too] careful, it’s going to carry us away, too – to the ends of the earth, or at least out the door and into the wideness of creation.”[7]

Amen.

__________________

[1] Acts 1:8

[2]  Matthew L. Skinner in New Proclamation Year B 2006, cited by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-8-2014.html (5 June 2014).

[3] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, cited by Huey, ibid.

[4] Bradley E. Schmeling, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 28 May 2014, p 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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