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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 3, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 9:14-27 and John 20:24-29
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into this week’s sermon, I’d like you to take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts to the questions on the insert in your announcement folders.  You don’t need full answers for the questions on page 1.  Just give yourself a few words to help you remember what your initial reaction to the question is.  One page 2, try to write a complete sentence (or two) for each question – but limit yourself to 15 words or fewer.  Later in the sermon, I’m hoping that a few of you will share your answers to the questions on page 2.  That’s why I’m asking you to really focus your answers.  If you’re sharing an announcement folder, Cathy and Bob have extra copies of the insert.

[[These are the questions on the insert; you might want to take a moment to answer them before continuing to read this sermon:

  • Why did you start going to church as an adult?
  • Why did you start coming to Niles Discovery Church (or one of the predecessor churches)?
  • If you are officially a member of Niles Discovery Church, why did you join? If you’re not officially a member of Nile Discovery Church, why not?
  • Limiting yourself to 15 words or fewer, what does it mean to you to be a member of a church?
  • Limiting yourself to 15 words or fewer, why is it important to you to be part of this church?]]

In last week’s sermon, I contended that a church – and I was (and am) talking about a Christian church – is a community of people who are connected to God and God’s purposes; who are following (or are seeking to follow) Jesus; who are in covenant with each other and with God as we seek to live a life grounded in love; and who desire to be in a deepening relationship with God as revealed in Jesus.  This sermon is a look at what it means to join such a community.

Let me start by saying that joining a church is very different from joining a gym.  When you join a gym, you are not establishing a covenant with the other gym members.  As Lillian Daniels has pointed out, “At the gym you’re signing up to receive certain services, to use the equipment and to receive advice from experts, all as part of a financial transaction.”[1]

It’s different at a church.  You’re not on the receiving end of a contract when you join a church.  You’re in a giving/receiving covenant.  You promise to do more than show up and use the facilities.

What that something more looks like may change through the seasons of your life, but there’s always that something more.  Perhaps in one season, you’ll concentrate on holding other people in prayer and love.  Perhaps you will make a contribution to the community by volunteering in one ministry now, and in a few years find that a different ministry matches better with your gifts and time as they have evolved.  In one season of your life you may be able to contribute financially only a tiny amount, if any at all.  In another season, you may be one of the bigger givers in the church.

Joining a church is not only about you getting spiritually fit.  It’s about being part of that community that is connected to God and God’s purposes by following Jesus.  It’s about being in covenant with the others in the community and with God as we seek to live lives more deeply grounded in love and as our relationship with God, made known to us in Jesus, deepens.

There are also some practical, institutional reasons to join the church.  Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ have “congregational polity.”  That means that in both of our denominations there is no hierarchy.  Each congregation governs their own affairs.  After worship today, we will have our Annual Budget Meeting.  The annual budget is something we created and we can modify as a community and that we are responsible for once we adopt it.  So, becoming a member of the church means, under our polity, when your join the church, we get to vote on these types of matters.  And, I think, that’s honestly one of the reasons DOC and UCC congregations have membership.

When you are baptized a Roman Catholic, you are a member of the church – but it’s a member of the whole church, not a particular parish.  Unless a local priest gives the people in that parish the say, they really don’t have much say in how things are run.  In congregational polity, the members get the say, so we need to define who a member is.  One can look at church membership purely from this practical point of view.

I’d rather look at it from a covenantal point of view.  We aren’t members merely for the sake of the church’s business.  When we become members, we covenant with each other and become mutually accountable to each other.  That’s why someone doesn’t just fill out a membership form and drop it off at the front desk to become a member.  Joining the congregation is a mutual thing.  We join with each other.  Every time someone joins the church, all the existing members join with that person, and the covenant is renewed.  And every time someone joins the church (or leaves the church, for that matter), the church changes.

Because God is a part of every covenant, joining a church, being a member of a church is, in my opinion, a God thing.  That’s why I picked these scriptures for today.  They are stories about commitment, about relationship, about love.

Immediately preceding our first lesson, Jesus, Peter, James, and John are up on a mountain and have a deeply spiritual experience.  They encounter the Divine so intimately that they hear the voice of God.  They come down from this mountaintop experience and find the other disciples trying and failing to treat a child with epilepsy.  In an exasperated tone, Jesus tells the father to bring the child to him.  Jesus gets a medical history as the child goes into a seizure.  After the father gives the history and explains how horrible this has been for the child and for the family, the father says (as rendered in The Message), “If you can do anything, do it.”

“If?” Jesus responds.  “There is no ‘ifs’ among believers.”

“Then I believe,” the father says.  “Help me with my doubts.”  This rendering shows some of the limits of The Message.  The New Revised Standard Version more accurately translates the father’s response:  “I believe; help my unbelief.”

If you’ve heard me preach for any length of time, you know that Marcus Borg is one of my favorite theologians and biblical scholars.  Pastor Brenda and I referred to his work explain the difference between a contemporary understanding of “belief” and a relational understanding of “faith.”  He has also written about the roots of the word “believe.”

The idea that having the right beliefs is what defines whether or not someone is a Christian may be widespread, but it’s relatively recent.  A recent “distortion,” Borg says.  He explains:

Marcus Borg

“It began with the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1600s and continues today.  Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed.  Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by what they believed.

“So also the Enlightenment heightened the emphasis on believing.  Characterized by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing, the Enlightenment called into question many conventional Christian ideas:  the earth as the center of the universe, creation as having happened in six days and not all that long ago, a world-wide flood that killed every land creature even more recently, and more generally that miraculous supernatural interventions sometimes occur.

“With those notions challenged, the response in much of Western Christianity was to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary.  This was the birth of modern biblical literalism with its emphasis on the literal-factuality of biblical narratives:  from creation through the exodus from Egypt to the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus.  Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian became believing the right things now for the sake of heaven later.

“Of course, the language of ‘believing’ has been part of Christianity from the first century onward.  But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs.  It meant something like the English word ‘beloving.’  To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus.  Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness.  Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.”[2]

With this understanding of “believe,” to think of this word to mean, “I give my heart to,” think again about the father’s declaration to Jesus.  “I believe; help my unbelief” becomes “I give you my heart; help me let go of whatever way I’m holding it back.”  “I give you my heart; help me fully let go.”  This understanding of “believe” is a relational understanding.  It is much closer to the understanding of faith we’ve talked about in the past three sermons.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio, 1601-1602)

Likewise, the story of Thomas’ declaration when he experiences the resurrected Jesus could be seen as a statement of belief or of belove.  Some interpret it to be a statement of belief, of mental ascent.  Citing Thomas’ declaration to Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” Catholic apologist Trent Horn says, “This is one of the most powerful and direct evidences for the doctrine of the deity of Christ, or the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man.”[3]  Horn understands the declaration to be about Jesus.

I hear the drama of the story.  I hear it as a statement of beloving.  I hear is at a statement to Jesus.  Having missed the appearance of the resurrected Jesus the week before, Thomas experiences it and is overwhelmed.  His declaration is one of the heart, more than the head.

And this understanding encourages us to hear the final verse of the reading differently.  “Have you given me your heart because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet give me their hearts.”

I think that becoming a member of the church is, in part, and act of beloving.  When we enter into that covenantal relationship with each other and with God, it’s not an act of having the right beliefs.  It’s an act of committing to journey together, in community, following the way of Jesus.  That’s what I think.

At the beginning of the sermon, I asked you to contemplate some questions.  Perhaps some of you would share your responses.  Maybe four of you would share what it means to you to be a member of a church.


And maybe four more of you would share why it’s important to you to be a member of this church.


Rather than take a few more minutes of quiet contemplation, I invite you to add two more questions to your question sheet and to think about them in the days ahead:

  • Looking at your answers to the other questions, did you say (or imply) anything about God, Jesus, the Spirit?
  • What does the presence or absence of “God talk” in your answers say to you?


[1] Lillian Daniels, “So You’re Thinking About Joining a Church,” a brochure published by the United Church of Christ.

[2] Marcus Borg, “What Is a Christian?” Patheos, (posted 5 November 2013; accessed 2 February 2019).

[3] Trent Horn, “Did Thomas Think Jesus Was God?” Catholic Answers, (posted 2 May 2014; accessed 2 February 2019).


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 20, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Faith, as Pastor Brenda pointed out in her sermon[1] last week, is central to Christianity, and it’s important to remember that “faith” and “belief” are different concepts.  Belief is intellectual.  Faith is relational.  While belief can be a component of faith, but it is not all that faith is.  Faith is not only or merely that to which we give our mental assent.

Faith orients us.  It defines how we approach the world, how we relate to creation.  To have faith in the one Jesus called “Abba” is to see creation as loving and hope-filled.

Related to this is the aspect of faith that can be labeled “trust” or even “radical trust.”  As Marcus Borg put it, “[R]adical trust [in God] is what can free us from that self-preoccupation and anxiety that mars our lives and confines our lives. It frees us for that self-forgetfulness of faith, for that willingness to live our lives in a way that is spent in the name of a larger vision, that willingness to spend and be spent.”[2]  Faith as trust allows us to die so we might live; it allows us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Faith is also about fidelity.  Are we faithful in our relationship with God?  Do we trust God to be faithful in relationship with us?

Pastor Brenda reminded us of the ecumenical convergence of understanding baptism that includes these overlapping and complementary understandings:

  • Baptism is the cleansing, washing, or forgiveness of sin. This is what John the Baptist preached at the River Jordan and what Peter preached at Pentecost.  This can be interpreted as getting afterlife insurance, or as a time of choosing a new direction in life, repentance, a metanoia, a changing of direction.  I choose the second of these, which is connected to the next understanding.
  • Baptism is a new birth or regeneration. This understanding in echoed in John 3, when Jesus talks about being “born from above” and “born again” in some word play with Nicodemus, and in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 5, when he says that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  This talk of being “in Christ” is related to the next understanding.
  • Baptism is a union with Christ in his death and resurrection. This is especially symbolized in immersion baptism, when a person is buried in the water (and if left there, will die), and then rises to this new life we just talked about.
  • Baptism is a reception of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit came upon and claimed Jesus at his baptism, the church says that the Holy Spirit comes upon and claims each one of us at our baptism.  One of the gifts that comes from the Holy Spirit is the gift to rise to new life with Christ.  The Holy Spirit also unites us into one body, the next understanding of baptism.
  • Baptism is incorporation into the church. In baptism, we are not only united with Christ, we are united with each other.  We become part of the one body (to use Paul’s image), the universal church.

Phyllis Tickle

Finally, Pastor Brenda talked about Phyllis Tickle’s rummage sale theory.  Every 500ish years, a new movement in the church emerges that decides to get rid of old things that are getting in the way.  Tickle said that one of the things that spurs this is a question of authority.[3]  I don’t know if she every pointed to this as part of her theory, but around the year 0, within Judaism, there was a new group that emerged that claimed that Jesus had authority.  About 500 years later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and the power vacuum that created, there was another question of where authority lay as Europe drifted into its Dark Ages.  Around 1000ish, in the Great Schism, the question was about the authority of the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope).  Around 1500ish, in the Great Reformation, reformers on the continent claimed that scripture was the correct authority.  And around 2000ish – we’re right in the middle of it.

Pastor Brenda noted that two of the major shifts in the primary understandings of baptism happened right around two of these rummage sales, and that (assuming we are in the midst of a rummage sale) another shift in our primary understanding of baptism could be coming.  The first of these was the shift to seeing baptism as afterlife insurance, and thus the need to baptize babies – which became normative around 500ish.  The second was the reemergence of believer’s baptism as part of the Great Reformation in the 1500s.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, the two denominations that we are officially a part of, come from the same part of the Christian tree – the Protestant part – though they come from different branches.  In the 1500s, there were two breakings-away from the Roman Catholic Church, one centered in Germany and Switzerland, and one centered in England.  They are both categorized as part of the Great Reformation.  However, I think the real reformation in England was delayed.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, Oliver Cromwell (l-r)

You’re probably at least a little familiar with some of the main characters involved in the Reformation in mainland Europe.  Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, sought to get his church back on track and ended up getting kicked out and starting the Lutheran churches.  Once Luther questioned the authority of the Pope, lots of other people did, too.  Huldrych Zwingli brought his twist to the Reformation in Zurich.  A little later, John Calvin, put his twist on the Reformation movement in Geneva.  Calvin influenced John Knox, who brought Calvinism to Scotland (and started Presbyterianism there).

Meanwhile, in England, Henry VIII, broke with the Roman Catholic Church, establishing the Anglican Church.  He didn’t do a major makeover of Catholicism (as was happening in Germany and Switzerland and spreading across Europe), as much as he changed the name.  Essentially, he replaced the Pope with himself, creating the English Catholic Church (as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church).  Of course, that wasn’t the official name and it’s an overstatement, but it’s good enough for today.

I don’t think the true reformation of Christianity in England happened until the Puritans and Pilgrims came along.  They were the ones who called for radical shifting.  The Pilgrims wanted to leave England to found their theocratic utopia in the Americas.  The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England.  Congregationalism came out of those two traditions.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) comes out of Presbyterianism – which came from John Knox, who was influenced so heavily by John Calvin.  The Christian Church movement was also influenced by the Baptists.

The United Church of Christ is the merging together of four major (and several minor) streams in the first half of the 20th century.  Those major streams have their headwaters on different Protestant mountains.  The German Evangelicals in American stream is primarily fed by Luther’s Reformation.  The German Reformed Church in American is primarily fed by Zwingli’s Reformation.  As I mentioned, the Congregationalist Church in American came from the Puritan/Pilgrim Reformation.  And (believe it or not) it’s the Baptist Reformation that Pastor Brenda mentioned last week that fed the fourth stream called “the Christian Church” (a similar movement that happened simultaneously to the development of the Christian Church movement out of which the Disciples of Christ comes, though in different geographic locations).

Given this diversity, you might think that there has to be a huge diversity of understandings of baptism within the United Church of Christ, let alone between the UCC and the Disciples of Christ.  Surprisingly, there isn’t.  The biggest differences have to do with how much:  how much faith and how much water.  I’ll unpack that in a moment

First, let’s go back to the ecumenical understandings of baptism.  There’s one more understanding I want to add to this list.  It wasn’t on Pastor Brenda’s list last week because there isn’t an ecumenical convergence on this understanding.  Though perhaps many or even most denominations would have this understanding, there hasn’t been ecumenical discussion about it.

This sixth understanding sees baptism as the great equalizer.  We heard about this in our Epistle lesson today.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The church in Galatia was debating if Jesus-followers needed to keep all the Hebraic laws.

Paul says that in baptism, we lose the identities we had that divide us into groups.  When we “put on Christ,” when we are “clothed with Christ,” the divisions of Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female disappear and we become one in Christ.  In baptism we are incorporated into the church.  And, because baptism is the great equalizer, the distinctions that separate us in the rest of the world disappear in church.

This is echoed our reading from Acts.  An outsider’s outsider – he’s black, he’s a convert to Judaism (or maybe only a spiritual seeker), he works for a foreign government, and he’s a eunuch (and therefore within Judaism officially seen as not whole) – and none of these is a reason to withhold baptism.  For we are all equally one in Christ.

All six of these understandings of baptism are held by both denominations, though perhaps one understanding being of more importance than another within a different region or congregation – which isn’t surprising given the theological spectrum within both denominations.  For instance, progressive congregations might deemphasize the idea of baptism being a cleaning of sin and emphasize baptism as being a great equalizer.

As I said, the big difference has to do with how much:  how much faith and how much water.  Because three of the four streams that largely made up the United Church of Christ came out of Protestant traditions that continued to practice infant baptism as normative, most congregations in the UCC have continued to practice infant baptism.  In these churches, baptism does not require any faith on the part of the baptized.  And from a practical point of view – we’re talking about infants here – immersion isn’t practiced.  So, how much?  No faith and not much water.

Disciples congregations and congregations in the UCC that came out of the UCC’s Christian Church stream practice believer’s baptism, and typically by full immersion.    In other words, they require some faith and generally want to use lots of water.

We’ll look more deeply at this point of divergence on February 17 when we talk about the baptismal liturgy, because while these are theological issues, they play themselves out liturgically.  For now let me say this.  Because I do not believe there is any need for baptismal afterlife insurance, there is no need to baptize infants.  And so, when it comes to understanding baptism, we should assume that believer’s baptism is normative.

In other words, we should expect some faith if we’re going to baptize someone.  (And remember the beginning of this sermon.  Expecting faith is not the same as expecting belief.  Expecting faith is about expecting the person to be in relationship with God, and in particular God as revealed by Jesus.)  We should also use some water, but, as I said, we’ll talk more about that on February 17.

That’s what the church should expect of someone seeking baptism.  But what can a person expect of the church?   We are, I suspect, in the midst of another rummage sale.  We are in the midst of what Tickle labeled “The Great Emergence.”  Is a new understanding of baptism coming with it?  Maybe.

In the early church, baptism was seen as a sort of matriculation.  When someone was baptized, they started their journey as a follower of Jesus.  This is what happened with the Ethiopian eunuch.  Eventually, it became a marking point along the journey.  People might study and practice the way of Jesus for years before taking the plunge (literally and figuratively) of the commitment of baptism.  Then baptism became the antidote to original sin.  And then, for at least some of the church, it became again a matriculation into a journey of discipleship that invites people into a new life free from past sin, that invites them into union with Jesus and to receive the Holy Spirit, that incorporates them into the faith and family of Jesus, and that makes them equal with all Jesus’ disciples.

If something new is coming, I don’t know what it is.  I can’t help but wonder if, as Christianity loses sway in American culture (which I think it a good thing), baptism might regain that radical nature and commitment it once implied.  I can’t help but wonder if choosing to be a Christian, if choosing to follow Jesus will become such an atypical choice that choosing baptism will become a sign of a deeper commitment than it seems to be now.

This leads me to a few questions for your contemplation:

  • What does it mean to you to be a follower of Jesus?
  • If baptism isn’t the sacrament of the church that incorporates you into the faith and family of Jesus, what is?
  • Can one be a follower of Jesus and not be baptized?
  • If you are baptized, what does your baptism mean to you?


[1] Brenda Loreman, “A Historical and Ecumenical Look at Baptism,” Niles Discovery Church, (preached at Niles Discovery Church on 13 January 2019; accessed 19 January 2019).

[2] Marcus Borg, “What is Faith?” a sermon preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis Tennessee on 16 March 2001, (accessed 19 Jan 2019).

[3] She mentioned this in a talk I heard her give years ago.  Though I don’t remember where I was (or she, she Skyped in) and when this was, that particular idea stuck with me.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?


[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from

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

[6] Kira Dault, “”What is the preferential option for the poor?” U.S. Catholic: Faith in Real Life, (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

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

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] These two riddles are from Mike Page, “Classic Riddles 1-100,” Savage Legend, (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, (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, (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, (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).

[2] Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, (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

[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,

[2] David Lose, “All Saints’ Sunday B: Look Twice,” … in the Meantime, (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]



[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, (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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