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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 11, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The Gospel lesson we just heard is traditionally called “the Great Commission,” but I noticed this week that the commission is just one of the three important things in this passage.  Three things, and they are all interrelated.

First, there is the wonderful line about doubt.  The resurrection has happened.  The disciples have experienced the presence of Jesus even though he’d been killed.  Matthew has the disciples gather on a mountain top, a location of holy events throughout the Bible.  They see Jesus and they worship him; “but, Matthew says, “some doubted.”

How glorious is that?!  There they are in the very presence of the resurrected Christ, and some of them doubt.

Doubt is part of the life of a disciple.  Doubt is normal and as much a part of the life of a disciple as trust is.  In fact, the famous theological Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.…  Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  16th century reformer John Calvin said, “Surely … we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”  Madeleine L’Engle said, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.…  Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”  And, perhaps my favorite quote about doubt comes from Frederick Buechner:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”[1]

Getting back to the scripture lesson, there they are on the mountain top, worshipping Jesus, and some of them doubting, and Jesus gives them a job to do.  This “great commission” is the second thing in this passage.  “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells them.  This is one of several passages used by the church through the ages to inform their sense of mission.

Now, I suspect I am not the only one here who has some resistance to a call to go into all the world to make and baptize disciples.  It sounds too – what? – too aggressively Christian, maybe?  It sounds too much like going out to save souls.  But when I can get past that knee-jerk reaction, I can hear an invitation – for me to go extend the invitation, within and beyond the community of Jesus-followers, to a deeper and deeper life of discipleship.  Figuring out what it looks like to love God and neighbor in any given situation is not always easy to do, and I need people who are on the journey to help me figure that stuff out.  That’s what the line about “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” means to me.  I need to come together in prayer and worship, in study and fellowship and service to figure out how to best obey the most basic thing that Jesus taught:  That the law and the prophets can be summed up in these two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s one of the reasons it is important to pause and say thank you to all the people who make our coming together on Sunday mornings possible and meaningful.

And then there’s the third thing:  a promise.  Jesus comes to his disciples despite – or maybe even because of – their doubt.  And he commissions them to keep going deeper into their own discipleship even as they invite others to discipleship with them.  And he finishes with a promise:  “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.

“Notice Jesus’ language:  it’s not just future tense.  Christ is with us.  Even now.  Even here.  Even amid our struggles at home or at work or at our congregations or in the world.  Christ is with us.   Encouraging us, comforting us, working with us, guiding us, granting us the grace and courage necessary to be the people of God in the world right now.”[2]

“The very last thing Matthew records of everything Jesus said and did is a promise:  ‘And I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  Right here, right now, and forever.”[3]

This sermon started out as being for our high school graduates and I was going to focus on doubt, because doubts are such a normal part of the faith journey, especially for young adults.  It became something for us all.  We all experience doubts in the midst of our faith, and we can use those doubts to encourage our journeys.  We are all called to mission, often in different forms, for we are different people, often in different forms at different stages of our lives, for we are evolving people.  And we all are recipients of Jesus’ promise, that he is with us, present tense, to the end of time.

“Go ahead and doubt,” Jesus says.  “I’ve got work for you to do anyway.  And don’t sweat it because I’m still around.”

Amen.

[1] These quotes taken from Tim Suttle, “Ten Great Quotes About Doubt & the Christian Experience,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2016/04/ten-great-quotes-about-doubt-the-christian-experience.html (posted 25 April 2016; accessed 7 June 2017).

[2] David Lose, “Trinity Sunday A: ‘The Great Promise,’” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/ (posted and accessed 7 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 28, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:1-21
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a kid, my two favorite TV shows were “The Wild, Wild West” and “Mission: Impossible.”  While the shows are set in very different periods, I’ve noticed some similarities.  Both shows involved secret missions.  In both shows, the team had to work together to fulfill their mission.  Both shows had gadgets and disguises that were used by the team.  In both shows, it was really clear who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys” were.  And in both shows, if they weren’t trying to make the world better, they were at least trying to make sure the world didn’t get any worse.

Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a call to a mission.  Maybe not so secret, but spectacular nonetheless.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to turn the world around.  You won’t be able to conform to the norms of our society to do it.  The old laws don’t go far enough.  Monitoring your behavior isn’t enough.  You need to check your attitudes and feelings.  You’re going to have to love even your enemies.

Easier said than done, Jesus.  Yeah, I want to change the world for the better, but how do I do it?

Start, Jesus says, on the inside.  “If you want to change the world on the outside, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world.  Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur ‘openly.’”[1]

Jesus offers three spiritual practices than can change the world by changing us first.  The traditional term is, ‘spiritual disciplines,’ and for them to be effective, we do need to be disciplined in doing them.  I prefer, however, the term, ‘spiritual practices.’

A music teacher I knew years ago had a pad of paper he used to write assignments on.  It said at the top, “Practice makes perfect,” but “perfect” was crossed out and “better” was written over it.  Practice makes better.  Another one I like is, “Practice makes habit.”  That’s why Jesus emphasizes the importance of how we practice almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  And the thing that he says in common with these three practices is to make them part of your secret life.

Jesus spend less time on the almsgiving and the fasting then on the praying, so I’m going to start with them.  “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  It’s an aphorism that gets quoted often enough, though I wonder how many people who use it know that it refers to giving money away.

Give money away without any show, Jesus says.  Don’t even let your other hand know you’re going it.  I confess that I don’t follow this advice.  Not only does my left hand know, so does the IRS.  And I keep records in case I ever get audited.  I suppose my giving would be purer if I gave and let it go.  It might even help make a deeper change in me if I gave and let it go.  But Jesus didn’t have to deal with the U.S. tax code, so I’m going to cut myself a little slack.

dittybagsWhen I think about giving and letting go, I need to say something about what happened earlier this month.  Without a whole lot of promotion, our congregation gathered up $911 for our Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments offering.  This is money that we gathered up and sent off to SAVE – and then we let go of it.  We let SAVE use it for whatever it is that they feel they need it for.  And with even less promotion than that cash offering, people made, distributed, filled, and collected ditty bags for women leaving violence and finding shelter with SAVE.  We had around 50 of them – a car-full.

Have I just violated Jesus’ instructions on this practice, since you now know what we did?  Maybe.  Yet what would change you more:  knowing what the total collection of cash and ditty bags was; or letting you contribute and then never knowing what we did collectively?

One thing I am convinced of is that giving changes us.  I’ve experienced it in my own life.  I’ve found it opens me to deeper and deeper trust.  I’ve found it opens me to deeper and deeper gratitude.  And I’ve found that it opens me to deeper and deeper generosity.

On the other hand, I have very little experience with fasting.  I understand the concept:  Abstaining from food can help build trust and help shift our hungers.  Fasting done not just as self-denial, but has spiritual practice can move our hunger to God.  “More than my body desires food, I desire you, Lord!  More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be full of you!  More than my tongues desire sweetness or salt, my soul desires your goodness.”[2]

Jesus’ point, as it was with almsgiving, is that when we do it in secret, fasting really, truly focuses us on God.  “If we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness.  It’s only in secret, in the presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to aliveness.”[3]

The biggest portion of this lesson focuses on prayer.  Again, Jesus says we should offer our prayers in secret.  In a few minutes, we will join together in prayer.  Does this violate Jesus’ instruction to practice prayer in private?  Or have we practiced long enough that we’re ready to go public?  Or, when the community does it, is it a different kind of prayer?

I find it interesting that Jesus tells us to pray in private and then uses plural pronouns in his sample prayer:  Our father, give us, forgive us as we forgive, lead us.

Many of you know that one of my spiritual practices is to write an evening prayer of thanksgiving.  It is part of my review of my day and a way of reflecting on the gifts in my life and the presence of God in my life.  This practice has caused me to shift what I see as gifts in my life, and through that, it has caused me to shift what I value.  My practice has been to post these prayers on Facebook.  That is about as not alone by myself in my room as I can get.  Does this violate Jesus’ instruction to practice prayer in private?  I know that practice of offering the prayers of thanksgiving – whether I write them in a paper journal or write them on Facebook – has immense value for me.  And I’ve heard from a few Facebook friends that the practice of posting the prayers has value for them, too.

The thing that makes this portion of the lesson longer than the others is that Jesus does include this specific example of how to pray.  There are lots of ways to unpack this sample prayer.  Brian McLaren sees it as having four movements.

First we orient ourselves toward God.

“Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire.  We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign.

“Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our social and spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.

“Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world into which we will soon reenter.  We ask to be guided away from the trials and temptations that could ruin us, and we ask to be liberated from evil.”[4]

This fourth movement takes us back to where I began, to our mission:  to change the world.  The sample prayer Jesus teaches prepares us to come out of our private rooms where we practice these spiritual practices, to engage in and with the world.  And that, perhaps, is where an answer to my questions about not following Jesus’ instructions about almsgiving and prayer might be found.  If the goal of these practices is to focus on and change our insides to prepare us to change what’s outside, then the secrecy matters only as much as not being secret gets in the way of our own transformation.

It’s hard to tell if Matthew meant the next section to be a conclusion to this section on spiritual practices or the beginning of the next section (which we’ll turn to next week).  Maybe it belongs in both places, but I’m definitely hearing it as a conclusion to the section on spiritual practices.

After Jesus tells us that the way to get ready to change the world is to change ourselves through spiritual practices, he turns to wealth.  “Just as we can practice giving, prayer, and fasting for social enhancement or [for] spiritual benefit, we can build our lives around public, external, financial wealth or [around] a higher kind of ‘secret’ wealth.  Jesus calls this higher wealth ‘treasure in heaven.’  Not only is this hidden wealth more secure, it also recenters our lives on God’s presence, and that brings a shift to our whole value system so that we see everything differently.  When we see and measure everything in life in terms of money, all of life falls into a kind of dismal shadow.  When we seek to be rich in generosity and kindness instead, life is full of light.

“Some people shame the poor, as if the only reason poor people are poor is that they’re lazy or stupid.  Some shame the rich, as if the only reason they’re rich is that they’re selfish and greedy.  Jesus doesn’t shame anyone, but calls everyone to a higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition.  And that ambition begins, not with how we want to appear in public, but with who we want to be in secret.”[5]

So, here’s the invitation to being your engagement with this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hold the phrase “treasures in heaven” in silence in God’s presence, and notice how your heart responds.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 136.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 138-139.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Change.

If there’s one word that sums up this past year for me, for us, I think it’s “change.” And it’s not just the change that’s obvious – our change of worship location. Society is changing. The church universal is changing. And in response, our life as a congregation must continue changing.

I’ve talked before about two big changes in society that have big impacts on us – the end of Christendom and the shift to a post-modern worldview. Let me offer you this review.

Emperor Constantine

Christendom began to take shape when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. This was a big policy shift on for the Empire, which until then had alternated between persecuting Christians and the church, and simply hoping they would go away. It was, arguably, an even bigger change for the church itself. Imagine going from being on the “outs” socially to suddenly being at the center of the in-group! Imagine being a political non-entity for years and waking up one day to find you are a U.S. Senator!

As Christendom developed, church and state were increasingly allied, and Christianity and culture interwoven. During the reign of Charlemagne (around 800), the now “Holy Roman Empire” (Western Europe) was divided into parishes, geographical areas within earshot of the church bells. Each parish had a parish church and a parish priest. People were members of the church because they were born and lived there. The “mission field” lay far away, beyond the borders of the empire.

In the “new world” of North America, Christendom was both different and similar to its European version. It was different because the new nation was founded on, among other things, the separation of church and state. But while Christianity in North America was not a legally established religion, it was culturally established. And not just Christianity, but Protestant Christianity. The Protestant Church enjoyed cultural support and sanction.

For example, when I was a child, the stores were not open on Sunday and no children’s sporting event would ever be scheduled on a Sunday morning. This was a subtle but powerful form of support for the Christian churches and their day of worship. But by the time I was a teenager, things had started to change in North American culture. Our society became increasingly pluralistic (many religions) and diverse (many cultures and languages), and as a result, became increasingly secular (nonreligious). Protestant Christianity’s cultural privilege started to wane.

Ours is no longer so clearly a culturally Christian society. There are vestiges. Union City, Newark, and Fremont schools are all still connecting the spring break schedule to the Protestant celebration of Easter. But the idea that mainline Protestant churches are the religious center society is disappearing.

The current members of the Supreme Court

Consider, for instance, the fact that for its first 180 years, justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were always male, always white, and almost always Protestant. Only five Catholics severed prior to 1950s.[i] The first Jew wasn’t appointed until 1916 and only three Jews served prior to 1950s.[ii] Today, the number of Protestants on the Supreme Court of the U.S. is exactly zero.

What we are seeing is the end of American Christendom. This is not the same as the end of Christianity. Indeed, it may be a new beginning! Because the culture is no longer nominally Christian, and the church is no longer allied with dominant powers and the cultural status quo, there is not only change, but also opportunity.

In many ways, the church in North America today may have more in common with the early church of the first four centuries, the church before Constantine set the Christendom ball rolling. Once again, the church has the opportunity to be what Jesus called it to be, “salt for the earth” and “leaven (yeast) for the loaf.”

This is a major shift. In Christendom, the church’s purpose is chiefly offering programs for its members, doing some local charity work, and leaving mission to “missionaries” serving far away. In this changing society, each congregation is a “mission outpost.” We can no longer think of the church as “for ourselves” and mission as “for others.” The “for ourselves” and “for others” way of thinking is a false and unhelpful dichotomy. The church belongs to God and is God’s people being and doing God’s mission in every aspect of its life, whether worship or teaching, forming small groups or ministries of service in the community and in the world!

The other societal change I’ve talked about before is the shift from modernity to post-modernity. It is equally, perhaps even more powerful and important than the end of Christendom. It is also much harder to explain. I will try.

We can think of three historic worldviews eras. The pre-modern world was the world before the Renaissance. It is the pre-scientific world. The modern world begins probably sometime in the 1500s with the Renaissance (and, interestingly, the Reformation) – or at least the seeds of modernity are sown at that time. In the next century, Isaac Newton is thinking about gravity and other scientific concepts. Certainly by then we’ve entered the modern age. The modern worldview has been ending for the past century or so, and with its ending, the post-modern worldview is emerging.

In the pre-modern world, there was no distinction between the physical world and the metaphysical world. The modern world started to recognize a difference between the physical and the metaphysical. Mainline Protestantism did a pretty good job of making Christianity fit into a modern understanding of the world. Thus, scientific explanations are forced upon the miracles of Jesus, or we insist that the stories about the miracles are purely metaphorical. (Parenthetically, I’d point out that fundamentalism, theological conservatism, and much of Catholicism, pretty much circled the wagons against modernity.)

The desire to see things from multiple points of view is an element of much cubist art. It is called “modern art,” but I think it is really post-modern art. For instance, in “Tete D’une Femme Lisant,” Pablo Picasso the front of his subject and his subject in profile simultaneously.

An aspect of the post-modern worldview is the invitation to look at things from multiple points of view. Experience becomes important. Each individual’s experience and interpretation of that experience is important. Rather than explaining away a miracle, perhaps a scripture reveals how the people of Jesus’ day experienced and interpreted that event. One person’s experience and interpretation of it, the community’s experience and interpretation of it, even Jesus’ experience and interpretation of it are all equally valid.

“Modernity [has] held that reason and rational thought are the primary human faculties and the keys to gaining control over life and ridding the world of pernicious superstitions (which is the way many moderns saw religion). By contrast, post-moderns tend to think we’ve drunk too heavily at the wells of reason. They are open to intuition, emotional intelligence, embodied knowledge and mystery. Where moderns wanted their preachers to explain [or explain away] mystery, post-moderns want to experience mystery.”[iii]

“Moderns … were very big on objectivity and the idea that we observers could step outside our own time, social conditioning, and biases to see things ‘objectively.’ On this count too, post-moderns are doubters. ‘Everybody is coming from somewhere,’ say post-moderns. ‘What you call “objective truth,” we call the interests of the powerful and privileged.’”[iv]

Why does this matter? On one level the answer is easy: there’s a huge change in cultural sensibility from modern to post-modern. Many of our churches worked well for moderns, but do not work as well for post-moderns. What’s missing is spiritual connection and experience, the experience of the sacred, transcendent Other. Understanding this makes it much easier to understand the growing interest in “spirituality” over the past thirty or forty years and why people who identify themselves as “Spiritual but not religious” is one of the fastest growing segments of our population. Moderns wanted their preachers to explain mystery; post-moderns want to experience mystery. Isn’t it sad that people feel that church is not the best place to pursue their “spiritual” interests?

In the midst of these societal changes, the church is also in the midst of its semi-millennial rummage sale. You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[v] This is how Tickle explains it:

“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of that chaos, something new emerged: Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents.

About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created.

About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches.

And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.

The first of these church rummage sales that Phyllis Tickle talks about happens around the year 500, at the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, there was another big shake up in the world of religion 500 years earlier, around the year 30, when the disciples of Jesus experienced the resurrection. They didn’t know what to make of their experiences at first.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, c. 1601–1602

The wonderful story of Thomas doubting the accounts of his friends is an example of a pre-modern explanation that can be quite difficult for the modern mind to accept. Caravaggio’s painting based on the story that’s on your bulletin covers, painted at the dawn of the modernity, treats the story quite literally, almost scientifically. My post-modern view wants neither to take this story literally nor to assume it’s simply metaphor. I want to hear it as this gospel writer’s truth. Yet, when I apply it to my life, my experience, I find myself connecting to it symbolically.

Notice how John tells us these disciples recognized Christ in their midst: By his wounds.[vi] Might that be a clue for me about where I should look for the resurrected Christ in my midst? In the wounded? Perhaps when I reach out and touch the wounded, I will realize that I am in the presence of the resurrected one. Perhaps when I work to repair inequalities, to build community, to end oppression, to heal the wounds of exclusion, I will be doing the work of the resurrected church.

This seems to be what those first disciples figured out. In the reading from Acts, we hear a report about the new community that grew out of these resurrection experiences. Talk about change. No one claimed ownership of any property, for everything they owned was held in common. The author of Acts says that those who owned property sold it and pooled the proceeds in the common treasury. I’ve got to say that in an agrarian culture, selling your property seems like a silly idea to me. Having land means having food. But that’s what we’re told happened.

I’m struck by two things in this story. First, when they gave money, they didn’t give their pocket change; they gave their everything. Second, I think there’s a mistranslation. Verses 33 and 34 are typically translated, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. [period, new sentence] There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” The Greek, however, has the word “for” right between what is translated as two sentences. The “for” has been left out. When I look at my interlinear Greek text, it looks to me like a better translation would say, “ … and great grace was upon them all for there was not a needy person among them …”[vii] What does that say about reaching out to the wounded to find the resurrected Christ?

Drawn together in one heart and soul by the power of the Spirit, these first disciples created this counter cultural community of compassion. Imagine what would happen if we let the love of God overflow in our hearts, if we truly yielded to God and lived in the full, unhindered presence of the Spirit.[viii] I know I resist. I know my fear gets in my way.[ix] But, oh, if I could just trust a little more deeply. Imagine how that would change my world.

Change. That’s the word I said sums up this year for me. And not just pocket change.

During this year, we have experienced the major change of location – twice. Now we’re settling into this new place and we have the challenge of how to be good stewards of it. And we have the challenge of how to be the church in this changing society, right in the midst of the church’s semi-millennial rummage sale.

The changes for our church are not over. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus was all about change. Jesus was all about transformation.

Let’s discovery what God has in store for us next.

Amen.

[i] Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States, (22 May 2010).

[ii] List of Jewish United States Supreme Court justices, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_United_States_Supreme_Court_justices, (22 May 2010).

[iii] Anthony Robinson, It’s a Whole New World!, http://www.ucc.org/vitality/ready-set-grow/know-community-culture/its-a-whole-new-world.html, (22 May 2010).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2008/08/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 24 January 2015).

[vi] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Touching the Word,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/touching-word (accessed 6 April 2015).

[vii] Jason Byassee, “Can God Breathe?” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/can-god-breathe (accessed 6 April 2015).

[viii] Michaela Bruzzese, “‘Reach Out’,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/reach-out (accessed 6 April 2015).

[ix] Clark H. Pinnock, “The Acts Connection,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/acts-connection (accessed 6 April 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

OurFather_white_part2Welcome to part 2 of our five-part sermon series focusing on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we focused on identity. Today, we focus on purpose. This theme comes out of the line, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Though this line is directed to God and could be heard and said as a request for God to act, I hear it as a call to action. It is a statement of desire – for the establishment of the realm of justice and peace and enough and love here on earth. If I thought it was all up to God to make happen, I’d pray for it differently: “Establish your kin-dom here and now” (and maybe I’d add “please”). But as a statement of hope and desire, I hear it calling me to action, to be about the work of establishing that kin-dom.

There are plenty of scriptures one could look to to help understand one’s purpose. We heard two today and I can think of plenty more. There’s Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission we heard last week. There’s the passage from Isaiah that Luke tells us Jesus read when he first preached. There’s the hymn Luke tells us Mary sang during her pregnancy. There’s a passage from Matthew called “the Great Commission.” There’s a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the Great Commandments. And that’s a list I came up with in a matter of minutes, so I’m sure there are more. But let’s take a few minutes to look at a few that I just mentioned. We’ll start with the scriptures we heard today.

Our Micah reading is the beginning of the summation of the book. In the previous five chapters, Micah has been prophesying the destruction of Judah and Samaria as a punishment for the really lousy job the leaders have been doing. They have been unjust. They have followed false prophets. It’s a real mess. Micah also offers a word of hope, that a righteous remnant will survive and, one day, Jerusalem will be restored.

Micah 6 starts off with a summons – a legal summons to court. God, the prosecutor and judge, is going to make a case against the people. But when God starts talking, God doesn’t accuse; God pleads with the people: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?” Then God goes on to list all the ways God has saved the people, from the Exodus on up to today. God is not likely to get a conviction. But that isn’t what God is after.

The people respond: “With what shall I come before Yahweh and bow myself before God on high?” And they list all these offerings – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, their firstborn children – they could bring.

And Micah reminds them of what God really wants. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There’s the beginnings of a mission statement. There’s a foundation for a purpose in life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about the challenges and hopes of living as disciples of Jesus. He writes about having confidence in his walk with Jesus, knowing that he will (as we all will) eventually “appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” That is his motivation to persuade people to follow Jesus. And we get to today’s reading, where Paul says that being “in Christ” makes one a “new creation.” I hear this as transformation, that following Jesus changes who we are.

Paul would say that the change (at least that part of the change) is that we are reconciled with God. In fact, Paul says reconciliation was the big thing God was doing in Christ. And he goes on to say that this ministry of reconciliation is now ours. And that is another way for Christians to understand their purpose.

Micah says that our purpose is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Paul says our purpose is about bringing people into right relationship with God (with some part of that being a concern about the life that’s after this one). So, is our purpose more concerned about this world or the next one? Maybe we should look at what Jesus had to say. Let’s look at two passages from the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew 22, Jesus is questioned by a lawyer. What’s the greatest commandment? Matthew presents this questioning as a orthodoxy test. For some reason, the questioners think Jesus won’t tow the party line. Jesus answers by reciting the beginning of the Shema, the prayer Jews say at the beginning and end of each day. Love God, he tells them, with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Then Jesus says there’s a second commandment that is also important: to love your neighbor as yourself.

There are plenty of Christians who hear in this Great Commandment their purpose: to help people grow in their love of God, neighbor, and self.

Just six chapters later, but after some very important events, Matthew quotes Jesus saying something else that some Christians look to to find their purpose. The important things that happen between Matthew 22 and 28 are an arrest, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. So, chapter 28 is the end of Matthew’s gospel, and, in fact, this is how Matthew ends that final chapter. The resurrected Christ is speaking to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This is called the Great Commission, and plenty of Christians hear a mandate to recruit, to make disciples, to get people to change whatever it is that they believe and start believing in Jesus.

Great Commandment Christians and Great Commission Christians see their purpose very differently. Just as Micah seems more interested in the here and now than Paul, Great Commandment Christians are more interested in the here and now than Great Commission Christians. This can cause real rifts.

The church where I did my internship went through a split in the months before I got there. The split was over power, as church conflicts almost always are. The groups that were in competition for power aligned themselves into groups that I would now recognize as the Commission Camp and the Commandment Camp. And when one group grabbed leadership and power, the other group left. What I find ironic in all this is that neither groups took seriously the mission of the church that Paul identifies, the ministry of reconciliation.

I realize that all of this has been very theoretical – biblical, yes, but theoretical – and you might be wondering, “So what?” Consider this.

When I was a kid, an advertising campaign focused (if you’ll pardon the pun) on capturing your life’s “Kodak moments.” Some of you will remember it. After all, “Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It commanded an 89 percent market share of photographic film sales in the United States.”[1] In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. What happened?

On the surface, one could say that Kodak was a “casualty in the wake of digital photography – a technology that Kodak invented. That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975. He later said, ‘But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, “That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it.”’ And the company entered into decades of agonizing decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing digital revolution.”[2] In other words, they didn’t keep pace with changing culture, particularly the digital revolution.

Kodak also feared losing what they had. They had this huge market share in the film market and they were afraid that if digital worked, they’d lose their lucrative film sales. Oops. Others pursued digital photography and Kodak lost their film business anyway.

I think the real issue was that Kodak lost track of their mission. They lost track of their purpose. Kodak thought they were in the film business. They weren’t. Maybe they were in the imaging business. But I think more accurately, they were in the memory keeping business. That’s what their “Kodak moment” campaign was all about. They told people not to miss capturing their important memories.

The exact same thing can happen to a congregation and to an individual Christian. Ben Guess, an Executive Minister in the United Church of Christ, shared a story this week about a church he once served. A member wanted to enlist the whole congregation in selling pre-paid phone cards in order to raise money for the church. Ben describes how it would work this way:

“A certain percentage of each card sold would come back to the church. ‘Ten percent,’ implying a tithe, so the whole transaction would be very ‘biblical.’ Another percentage, of course, would go to her, and to me and others, too, if we would get in on the ground floor. She was just sure this pyramiding scheme would provide the church with all the cash it would ever need and, on top of that, we would all be getting very rich.

“To her great dismay, I told her I was not interested. Because, apart from the fuzzy math and the serious ethical considerations – not to mention the obvious IRS investigation she would be inviting upon us – it was also a complete distraction from the core mission of the church,… Anything that takes our attention wholesale away from that focus is a hindrance, not a help, to the church and its people.”[3]

Now, I skipped over part of a sentence in Ben’s email. Ben says what he thinks the core mission of the church is. I skipped it because, as Ben goes on to say, “Sometimes collectively as the church, not just in our personal lives, we need to stop and clarify the purpose behind what we’re doing.”[4] I just think this work should be done free from preconceived notions of what the answer is.

The work is important because it keeps us focused. Ben offers an interesting comparison: “Just as distracted driving can lead us into a ditch, or much worse, distracted discipleship can lead us into dangerous territory, too. We can become so busy and preoccupied with saving the institution of the church that what it’s supposed to be about becomes almost impossible for us, much less outsiders, to distinguish. It’s why the prayer of the church has always been ‘Give us ears to hear, and eyes to see,’ because without that clarity in mission – why, and for what purpose we exist – sure enough, we will find ourselves listening for and looking after the wrong things.”[5]

We, as a community, are about to make a shift. In two weeks (provided there aren’t any unforeseen roadblocks), we will begin our life together in a new facility. I know there is a shorthand that gets used to refer to these sorts of buildings. They get called “the church” even though they’re only a building. The church, as we know, is the people, the gathered community. The building cannot carry out the mission of the church; only the people can do that. So I’ve been toying around with other words for the building. My old New England Congregationalist roots want to call it “the Meeting House.”[6] Lately, however, I’ve been enjoying calling it our “worship and mission center.”

While the building can’t carry out the church’s mission, it is the facility out of which we will do the church’s mission. So it’s important for us to consider what that mission is. In the most general terms, are we a Great Commission or a Great Commandment church? I don’t think it will take us long to determine that. And once we know that, how specifically are we going to carry out that mission?

That’s our homework as a community.

I mentioned last week that you get individual homework assignments with this sermon series, too. Here’s your assignment – in three parts:

  1. Identify a scripture you look to to help you understand your purpose.
  2. Make a list of ways you are carrying out your purpose.
  3. Engage in some practice this week to help you reflect on and more deeply understand your purpose.

Undertaking this assignment will, I think, help you feel like you are living more authentically as a disciple of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] Thom Schultz, “The Church’s Frightful Kodak Moment,” Holy Soup, http://holysoup.com/2014/01/15/the-churchs-frightful-kodak-moment/ (posted 15 January 2014; accessed most recently on 28 February 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Bennett Guess, “Give It Up, Church,” Stillspeaking Weekly email from the United Church of Christ (dated 25 February 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In colonial Massachusetts, each town had a Meeting House in the center of town. On Sundays, it was where the church met. And it was where civic assemblies were held – Town Meeting for governance or other gatherings. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_meeting_house for more information.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 16, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:9-13, Isaiah 52:7-10, and Matthew 16:13-16
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I want to add one more scripture lesson today.  Matthew 16:13-16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Who would you say Jesus is?  I suppose most of us would check off the box that says, “The Christ.”  Probably the box that says, “Son of the Living God.”  But what else would you say?

I have this theory that says, if you say you’re a follower of Jesus, your sense of who Jesus is will impact how you do that following.  I think that makes sense.  If I thought of Jesus as a dogcatcher and I claimed to be a follower of him, I would probably spend time, energy, and money catching dogs.

Anglican theologian N.T. Wright claims – I think with validity – that one way of understanding who Jesus thought he was, is to look at the prayer he taught his disciples.  “The more I have studied Jesus in his historical setting,” Wright wrote, “the more it has become clear to me that this prayer sums up fully and accurately, albeit in a very condensed fashion, the way in which he read and responded to the signs of the times, the way in which he understood his own vocation and mission and invited his followers to share it.  This prayer, then, serves as a lens through which to see Jesus himself, and to discover something of what he was about.”[2]

So, that’s what I want to do this morning – look at this prayer we called “the Lord’s Prayer” to help us better understand how Jesus saw himself and his vocation.  And, if you don’t mind (or even if you do, I suppose), I’ll approach it line by line.

            Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.

The first occurrence in the Hebrew Scriptures that refers to God as a parent comes when God directs Moses to appear before Pharaoh.  God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh:  “Thus says the Lord:  Israel is my firstborn son.  I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’  But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son” (Ex 4:22-23).  God is referred to as a parent by God, with the parenthood implied because Israel is called God’s child.

The Exodus story is the defining story of Hebrew identity.  It had to have shaped how Jesus saw himself and his vocation.  Calling God ‘Father’ echoes back to this story.  Calling God ‘Father’ holds on to the hope of liberty that is the core of the Exodus story.  In calling God ‘Father,’ Jesus was understanding his vocation to be like Moses’, to be one of liberation.  When Jesus tells his disciples to call God ‘Father,’ he is telling them to get ready for the new Exodus.

We, too, need to learn what it means to call God ‘Father.’  It’s going to shake things up.  You can’t predict what God’s going to do next.  That’s why calling God ‘Father’ is a great act of faith, of holy boldness, of risk.

It’s not just saying, “Hi, dad.”  Calling God ‘Father’ is signing on for the kin-dom of God.  Which brings us to the next line.

            Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I mentioned last week that this line is a radical prayer.  Let’s start with the word King James’ crew translated as “kingdom.”  The Greek word is the same word used to describe Rome and the Roman occupation.  In reference to Rome, we use the word “empire.”

Imagine being a Jew in occupied Palestine – occupied by Rome, being subjugated by the Roman Empire.  And then Jesus calls for God’s empire to be established on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus saw his job, his vocation, to be the establishing of God’s empire, and that means overthrowing the principalities and powers of this world.

I know Pastor Brenda will get into this more deeply in the coming weeks.  For today, let me simply say that this line of the prayer points to Jesus’ understanding of his vocation as being part of God’s continuing work of liberation, first witnessed in the Exodus story.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” he was asking them, asking us to pray that he succeeds.

And, I think, praying this line is an RSVP to the invitation that we join with Jesus in this work.  Think of it like this:  “Jesus is the medical genius who discovered penicillin; we are doctors, ourselves being cured by this medicine, now applying it to those who need it.  Jesus is the musical genius who wrote the greatest oratorio of all time; we are the musicians, captivated by his composition ourselves, who now perform it before a world full of musak and cacophony.”[3]  We can only pray this prayer if we are prepared to become kin-dom bearers, healed healers, players in the divine orchestra.

            Give us this day our daily bread.

One of the images that comes up for me when I pray this line of the Lord’s Prayer is of Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan.  “Hungry?” the tempter asks.  “Turn these stones into bread.”  Another image is of Jesus having dinner with a collection of people that, for one reason or another, raised the eyebrows of one judgmental group or another.  And I start thinking about all the parables that include food – wedding banquets and parties for prodigals.

Jesus’ eating and drinking, and his stories about eating and drinking, were signs of what we just prayed for.  “Thy kingdom come,” we prayed.  And there’s Jesus eating with people from all walks of life and telling stories of the “undeserving” being welcomed.  Jesus knew that a sign of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven would be when everyone has enough and no one has too much.  The picture goes back to the land flowing with milk and honey, the Psalmist imagining God preparing a table were friends and enemies can dine together, and Isaiah’s vision of God making a feast for all peoples.

Jesus understood his vocation to be the ushering in of the kin-dom of God.  As partners with Jesus in this vocation, we pray for and work for a world where no one is hungry and no one needs to worry about where tomorrow’s food will come from.  And so, when we gather around the communion table, we are enacting our prayer by welcoming everyone and making sure there’s enough for everyone.

            Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

One of the ways Jesus got into trouble was by announcing God’s forgiveness.  A man with paralysis is brought to him and Jesus says that his sins are forgiven.  “Only God can forgive sin,” the scandalized religious elites pronounce.  So Jesus heals the paralysis as a sign of the forgiveness this man has received.  Jesus’ “healings, parties, stories and symbols all said:  the forgiveness of sins is happening right under your noses.”[4]

As much as any other line in this prayer, when we pray this line we are breathing in what Jesus is doing and are becoming alive with this vocation.  This forgiveness business is the ministry of reconciliation.  This forgiveness business is the ministry of healing broken relationships and bringing shalom – peace and justice – to the world.

One of my favorite lines in a worship bulletin says, at the time of the Lord’s Prayer, “Debtors will wait for trespassers and sinners to catch up.”[5]  Debts and trespassing are property terms, so I hear hints of the Jubilee in this prayer.

The Jubilee year was supposed to come around every 50 years.  It was a year when all debts were forgiven.  Mortgages and personal loans were forgiven.  Indentured servants were freed.  Property was returned to the tribes to whom it was originally given.  The Jubilee is about making sure everyone has enough and no one has too much.

We pray this prayer to capture Jesus’ vision and enter his vocation of reconciliation, freedom, and justice.

            Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

This line leads me back to the desert with Jesus.  There, he faced temptations, and I believe those temptations were directly related to him coming to understand his vocation.  Would he be about satisfying his own desires or would he be about something deeper?  Would he be about fame and celebrity or would he be about something deeper?  Would he be about political power or would he be about something deeper?

Jesus concluded that he would be about something deeper.  “As Albert Schweitzer once put it, Jesus was called to throw himself on the wheel of world history so that, even though it crushed him, it might start to turn in the opposite direction.”[6]

Jesus shares this prayer with his disciples knowing what it’s like to struggle with temptation, knowing how important it is to be clear about and to stay faithful to one’s vocation.  That’s one of the gifts of this prayer.  It gives us a view of Jesus’ life and how he understood it, of Jesus’ vocation and how he understood it.  And, as we pray it, we start making that vocation our own.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[1] Primary source for this sermon:  N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996).

[2] N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 2.

[3] Ibid, 30.

[4] Ibid, 53.

[5] I don’t remember where I first read this line; it was long ago.

[6] Ibid, 69; Wright does not directly quote Schweitzer.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 27, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 4:14-21
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Tim Hansel tells[1] the story of a guest preacher who came to a rather large church.  This preacher began his sermon, “There are three points to my sermon.”  Most people yawned at the point.  Three points; ho hum; how many times have we heard that before.  He went on.   “My first point is this.  Today, almost 16,000 children will die from hunger-related causes.”[2]  The reaction through the congregation was about the same; they’d heard that sort of statement many times before, too.

Then he said, “My second point …”  Everybody sat up.  Only 10 seconds into the sermon and he was already on his second point.  “My second point is that most of you don’t give a damn!”

He paused again as gasps and rumblings flowed across the congregation.

“And my third point is that the real tragedy among Christians today is that many of you are now more concerned that I said ‘damn’ than you are that I said that 16,000 children will die today because of hunger.”

Then he sat down.

I start today’s sermon with this story to avoid what I was considering saying:  Since Jesus’ sermon was only one sentence in today’s gospel lesson, mine will only be one sentence as well.  And then I thought I’d sit down.

I think the guest preacher’s five-sentence sermon is a bit more effective.

I’ve found myself amused by some of the things commentators have said about today’s reading.  Some have commented on Jesus sermon appearing to be only one sentence.  Only one sentence is recorded by Luke, but it was probably longer.  Luke says, “Jesus began to stay to them …”  We can assume he had more to say.

Some have called this his “first” sermon.  It’s not.  Luke says that Jesus has been teaching in synagogues throughout the Galilee, so we can assume he’s preached before.  In fact, he’s preached well enough that he’s developed a pretty good reputation.

The comment that gets me the most is the one that tries to brush off the political significance of the section of the prophet Isaiah Jesus read.  They say that Jesus is proclaiming release to the spiritually captive and recovery of sight to the spiritually blind.  Sorry, but no.  Isaiah is saying something significantly more concrete.  But I’ll get to that in a bit.

The verses immediately preceding today’s gospel lesson are about Jesus in the wilderness.  At the end of Chapter 3, Jesus is baptized, and full of the Holy Spirit, he goes out in the desert where he faces a series of temptations.  One way of understanding what’s going on in the wilderness is that Jesus is wrestling with the implications of words he heard from God:  “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  And by the time he returns from the wilderness to Galilee, he’s found his answer and he starts teaching in the synagogues.

Then he comes back to Nazareth, to his childhood congregation, the one in which he was raised, where everyone knows him and he knows all of them.  “Small town” hardly begins to describe Nazareth, since the entire village was maybe two to four hundred people.  We’re talking about a small town – so small that the place where Jesus’ childhood neighbors gathered with him on this Sabbath, may not have been an actual building but a “gathering” of faithful Jewish people.

Jesus comes up to read.  He’s handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.  He finds a particular passage.  He reads the passage we know as Isaiah 61:1-2, and he sits down.  Sitting down was the position for teaching, so we know that Jesus was going to offer an interpretation or explanation of the scripture he just read.  It’s not unlike our practice today of following scripture with a sermon.

I can’t help but wonder about the one sentence of Jesus’ sermon that Luke records:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Did he read the Isaiah passage and have an epiphany?  Did he remember as he read it, as Isaiah’s words came out of his own mouth, that God’s Spirit was indeed on him – just as it was after his baptism and just as it was as he went into the wilderness to figure things out.  Did he come, in that moment, to realize that the Spirit of God was empowering him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind?

Or did he go hunting for this passage because this was his stump speech, what he’d been teaching all around Galilee, the words that were giving him his reputation?

Or had he been saving this passage for his hometown congregation, sharing this revelation with the people he knew so well the way a candidate returns to her hometown to announce her candidacy for some elected office?

We don’t know which of these Luke is trying to tell us happened.  What we do know – and perhaps as much by intuition as by scriptural exegesis – that we’re listening to an important teaching.  This is an inaugural addresses that is outlining the plan for the days ahead.

Last Monday, we heard another inaugural address.  I read through it a few times, looking for the kernel, the central message President Obama was going for.  I think it is these words:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.  For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.  Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.   Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

“That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.”[3]

With these words, President Obama called us to the ideals and ideas that bind together American and set for a political agenda.  Jesus does the same thing in his reading from Isaiah and his short sermon.  The heart of the message and the big picture, even a strategic plan, are all there.

In his inaugural address, Jesus lays down the main themes of his entire ministry in an elegant and powerful continuity with his Jewish prophetic ancestors.  One commentator wrote, “Jesus sings Isaiah’s song of good news for the poor, in the key of his mother Mary of Nazareth,”[4] a poetic description that is fitting for a reading from the Gospel of Luke which starts with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

Jesus’ inaugural address does have a political undercurrent to it.  Jesus isn’t just appointed by God to bring good news to the poor, the oppressed, and the blind.  He is appointed, at a time when his country is occupied by a foreign army, when money and power are being concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Most scholars agree that Isaiah and Jesus are making reference to the Jubilee year.  According to Leviticus (chapters 25 and 27 have the details), every fiftieth year is supposed to be a Jubilee year.  The practice – or at least the vision of the practice – is of restoring, every fifty years, the land and possessions to people who had lost them.  Debts were supposed to be forgiven and ancestral land was to be returned to the clan to whom it was given when the Hebrews first settled the Promised Land.

Now, this may sound offensive to our capitalist ears.  But remember, the Hebrews had wandered a long time before making their way into the Promised Land.  When they arrived, they understood that the land wasn’t really theirs.  It was God’s and they lived on it as God’s guests, as God’s stewards.

As significant as what Jesus chose to read is what Jesus omitted.  Jesus dropped Isaiah’s line about “the day of vengeance of our God.”  “N.T. Wright suggests that this omission would have offended those first-century Jews who understandably hungered for God’s vengeance on a whole host of enemies and oppressors – a wholly human longing, it seems.  So it wasn’t his eloquence, Wright says, that ‘astonished’ the people who came to hear him that day, but his ‘speaking about God’s grace – grace for everybody, including the nations – instead of grace for Israel and fierce judgment for everyone else.’  Wright sees Jesus drawing on ‘the larger picture in Isaiah … of Israel being called to be the light of the nations,’ and presenting a Messiah who ‘has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them.’”[5]  If we kept reading, we’d spend more time on the crowd’s violent reaction, but Wright finds reason for their response in today’s passage.

This jubilee that Jesus is announcing and establishing is much more inclusive and grace-filled than was expected.

“Jubilee is a wonderful acknowledgement of, and response to, the way we humans get things all out of whack, and before you know it, somebody has way too much, and others not nearly enough.  Jubilee is the vision that makes things right again, God’s way of restoring, Richard Swanson writes, ‘the original balance and connectedness’ among the people.  While scholars debate whether Jubilee was ever actually practiced, it still ‘may have functioned as a critical fulcrum to allow a critique of what was seen as an unjust society,’ Swanson writes.  It became a vision of what Swanson has often described as ‘the right-side-uping of the creation that Jews demand of God at the culmination of all things.’  Jesus isn’t coming back home to preach a new message that offends ancient traditions, like some sort of trouble-making radical enamored of ‘current thinking’ that he learned out there, in the wider world – quite the opposite, in fact:  ‘Jesus has just rung a bell that echoes back to the first entry into the land,’ Swanson writes.”[6]

This is hard stuff for us to hear with our capitalist ears.  At the heart of the gospel, the good news that Jesus brings, is a demand about our attitude toward possessions.  The Jubilee doesn’t just protect the poor from their two greatest threats:  the loss of land and the loss of freedom.  It challenges the very notion of private ownership rights with its affirmation that God owns the land and that God’s economy supersedes human economies.[7]

But that is a core component of Jesus’ mission statement.  And this reading from Isaiah is Jesus’ mission statement.  This scripture has made me think about our church’s mission statement.

You can read our official mission statement in your bulletins, but I was wondering, what might be our scriptural mission statement.  If we were going to open the scriptures and turn to a page to read a passage to announce our understanding of who we are and how we are to live to fulfill God’s mission in the world, what passage would we read?

Would we turn to the prophet Micah and read the eighth verse of the sixth chapter?  “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Would we turn to Matthew 25:40?  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Would we turn to Mark 12:29-31?  “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Would we turn to Amos 5:24?  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Would we turn to Romans 8:38-39?  “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Perhaps we’d turn to something else.  I don’t have an answer to my question.  So, I’ll conclude my sermon with the question unanswered and invite you to think about how you would answer it.

Jesus chose Isaiah 61:1-2 as his mission statement.  What would we choose as ours?


ENDNOTES

[1] Tim Hansel, in Holy Sweat, as cited by James T. Garrett in “God’s Gift,” quoted in an email from sermons.com, dated 22 January 2013.  I changed the number of people starving in the story for current accuracy.

[2] Bread for the World, http://www.bread.org/hunger/global/ (26 January 2013).

[4] Kim Beckmann, Feasting on the Word, quoted in “Sermon Seeds” on the United Church of Christ’s website, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-24-2010.html (23 January 2010).

[5] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-27-2013.html (20 January 2013).

[6] Quoting “Sermon Seeds,” op cit., which in turn quotes Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke (23 January 2010).

[7] Ann M. Svennungsen, New Proclamation 2007, quoted and cited in “Sermon Seeds,” op cit. (23 January 2010).

Here are my three favorite posts from my Facebook wall during the preceding week (I try to get this done each Friday).

1.  Once again, Global Warming and Climate Change topped the content of my posts on Facebook last week. 

I began the week wishing I could be in DC to participate in the Keystone XL Pipeline protest that surrounded the White House, with a link to photos of the event.  Then on Thursday, I started celebrating the Obama Administration’s decision to delay the decision on the pipeline by at least a year.  I encouraged people to write to the Whitehouse to say “thank you” and to sign this petition calling on the administration to simply say “no” or to really start over in examining the pros and cons of the pipeline.  The petition reads:

Delaying or rerouting the Keystone XL does not solve the problem. Reject this project now. If you will not, then direct the State Department to start over clean with an evaluation conducted by a truly independent contractor, that takes into account the global warming impacts of this pipeline, and that is free from the influence of lobbyists.

I also posted a link to this article on the impact, degree by degree, of global warming on our climates and living situation.  It’s pretty scary!
And there was the link to this article on how we know that human beings are causing global warming.

2.  There were bunches of posts about “Mission: 1,” a nation-wide effort by the United Church of Christ to address hunger and hunger justice.

3.  And then there’s my favorite picture of the week:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that we are put here as God’s transfiguration.  Through us God intends to transfigure hate into love, injustice into justice, poverty into wealth, grief into joy, death into life.

The discussions my congregation and First Christian Church of Fremont have been engaged in for over two years now about the possibility of merger began for two reasons, one practical and one missional.  The practical reasons still exist:  Niles Congregational Church has a poorly designed worship space; First Christian Church still has a small membership.  Perhaps merging two neighboring congregations from denominations that already do a lot in cooperation makes practical sense.

The missional reason also still exists – and it is the more important reason for this consideration.  Perhaps merging two neighboring congregations from denominations that already do a lot in cooperation makes sense missionally.

I’ve now used the word “missional” twice and “missionally” once and so you’re probably wondering what the heck I mean by these words.  A missional church is one that has its sense of purpose in an understanding that God has a mission and desires the church to participate it in.  God’s mission is formally referred to as missio Dei.

This is an old understanding.  Paul talked about God’s mission in 2 Corinthians:  “God was in Christ reconciling the world” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  But Paul doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to say that God has invited us, the church, to take part in that mission (the rest of verse 19).

Somewhere along the way, we lost track of this notion and started assuming that the church has a mission on its own.  However, missio Dei tells us this is a mistaken notion.  “Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.  God is a missionary God.  ‘It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.’ [Jurgen Moltmann]  There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.”  (You can read more on Wikipedia.)

So, the missional reason for considering merging is that, perhaps, by merging we would be better empowered to participate in God’s mission.  If we discern that we really can do more of God’s mission in the Tri-Cities by merging, then we should merge.

So, what is God’s mission in the world?  I agree with Archbishop Tutu.  God’s mission is nothing less than transformation:  hate into love, injustice into justice, poverty into wealth, grief into joy, death into life.  God’s mission is to change lives – your life, my life, our neighbors’ lives, everyone’s life.

And everything the church does should be about participating with God in that mission.  Our worship should be about changing lives and empowering our participation with God in the mission of changing lives.  Our participation in service programs should be about changing lives.  Our planning about facilities should be about how are facilities can help God fulfill the mission of changing lives.  Our prayers should be about allowing God to change our lives.

For many Christians, this notion of God changing lives has a lot to do with after-life insurance.  Many Christians believe that God wants to change lives so these lives will spend eternity in “heaven.”  As Progressive Christians, I see salvation as having very real “here and now” importance.  Hell is a very real experience for people (and other parts of God’s creation) on this earth in this moment.  God’s mission of transforming lives and life is (at least in part) to save people from hell here and now.  The church exists as a group that lives for each other in such a way that those things that tend to make life miserable can be overcome with love and inclusion and the fullness of life as God would have it.

Being a missional church is nothing less than helping God change lives – your life, my life, our neighbors’ lives – here and now so that all may experience life in all its fullness.

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