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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Questions for Reflection:

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


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

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page,, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

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

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

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


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost, June 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 3:1-12 and Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As I’ve contemplated flame this week, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to fire.  I like to light a candle to mark a time as sacred.  I have gotten lost in the single flame of a candle.  And who doesn’t like the candles on a birthday cake, even if there needs to be almost two-thousand of them?  But still, my thoughts kept drifting from flame to fire.

Twice in my life, fires in woodstoves have kept me warm in otherwise very cold conditions.  One winter when I was living in western Washington, there was a windstorm that brought down many branches and trees.  The branches and trees took down electrical lines.  And because I lived in a ruralish area, it took a full week before power was restored.  My furnace was a heat pump, so I moved into the family room of my home where there was a woodstove in the fireplace.  I dragged the mattress from the guest bed down there and made a little nest for myself.  And each night, I lit a fire, warmed up the room, then turned down the flow of air into the stove to keep the fire burning slowly through the night.

The other time happened when I was staying in my father’s cabin in New Hampshire during the first week of September.  Labor Day weekend, the temperature plummeted, as it can do in New Hampshire.  It got so cold I woke up in the middle of the night.  I got a fire going in the woodstove in the cabin and about an hour or two later the little cabin had warmed enough that I could get back to sleep.

When I think about fire, I think of it contained in a woodstove or a fireplace or a campfire.  I think of it warming me and comforting me and stilling my spirit.  I think of seasoned maple and pine logs snapping and popping as they burn.  The closest thing to a destructive fire I’ve experienced was a chimney fire I had that I didn’t find out about until I contemplated switching insurance companies and the new company insisted on a building inspection.  It had burned hot enough to crack the terracotta flue liner, but briefly enough I never knew it happened.

That’s fire’s paradox, isn’t it?  On one hand, fire gives warmth and light, and it lets us cook and read late into the night.  And on the other hand, fire destroys and consumes.  It devours whole towns, annihilates whole cities.  “Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire is a threat to both.”[1]

The big challenge that cold night in the cabin was that I had to get out from under the pile of blankets to get a fire going.  Well, that was the first challenge.  The second challenge was that I needed more wood than was inside and I needed kindling.  So I had to go outside for those.  The third challenge was that my father and step-mother had recycled the newspaper, so I had to scrounge for something to light with the matches that would light the kindling that would light the logs.  The challenge the next day was getting things in the wood stove cool enough that I was comfortable leaving the cabin for a paddle around the lake.

“We could say the same of life with God – we cannot always summon a sense of God’s presence, even when we do the things we were taught in Sunday school would work; in other seasons, God roars into our lives in ways we wish we could avoid, tamp down, put out entirely.”[2]  It takes the match to get the newspaper burning, and it take the burning newspaper to light the kindling, and it takes the burning kindling to ignite the log.  It is the rare person who can burn for God without some external source of heat.  I know I didn’t get there on my own.  My mother and Sunday School teachers and friends helped lay the fire and ignite the newspaper.

And once the fires going, it takes tending.  I know I’ve built plenty of fires that were much more smoke than flame.  And I’ve tended fires that got burning so hot and fast that they consumed the fuel in no time at all.  And I’ve tended fires that weren’t sufficiently fed or that got too spread out and then cooled off and went out.  And so it is in my friendship with Jesus.  My zeal might burn too fast, or it might cool down and flicker out.  Either way, the flame is extinguished.  Sure, there are habits, practices, I can engage in to tend this fire, to keep the flame of God’s presence near.  Still, sometimes the flames leap and dance, not because of anything I did.  Sometimes the flames die, despite everything I did.[3]

“God appears as flame again and again in scripture.  God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush, and then, centuries later, at the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples as flame.  Those two episodes might be the most familiar flames in scripture, but there are many other instances of God drawing near to people as or in fire:  God’s presence as a ‘flaming torch’ in the covenant [making] of Genesis 15; the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness [into freedom]; and God’s glory is ‘like a consuming fire’ on Sinai.…

“What might all these flames mean for our friendship with God?

“Often, in scripture, especially in the prophets, fire seems to stand principally for God’s anger, God’s jealousy.”[4]  But even there, it is not just the consuming fire, the destructive fire.  Even God’s anger and God’s jealousy need not be a conflagration.  According the Malachi, God is like a refiner’s fire, that burns off the impurities leaving only the precious metal.  Sometimes fire’s destructiveness is also regenerative.  “Fires can clear weaker trees from a forest and therefore allow the healthier, larger trees to flourish.  Soil nourished by burned vegetation becomes more nutritious for the trees the remain.  And some trees require fire to survive,”[5] like the lodgepole pine and several other conifers.

“Could the Bible’s fiery imagery suggest that God’s destruction is regenerative?  That God destroys not me but my sin, my hardness of heart, my fear, precisely so that I might be renewed? …

“Maybe, if God is fire, we are a grove of ponderosa pines.  Without the heat and burn of God’s flame, our pinecones would remain closed tight around the seeds that are needed for our thriving and growth and new life.”[6]

The rabbis note that it takes some time – five minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes – for a bush to burn.  But the miracle, they say, is not that the bush wasn’t consumed as it burned.  The miracle is the Moses paid attention, that he paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed.  “Only after God saw that Moses had stood still long enough to notice the bush in its unconsuming fire did God call out to him.…  Attentiveness, apparently, was the key attribute God needed for his chief prophet, deliverer, and friend.  God needed a prophet and friend who could stop and stay still and look with focus and concentration; God needed a prophet and friend who could really see.  God could have called to Moses in the form of a fellow shepherd, or in the form of a rock, or in the form of a breeze.  Instead, God arrested the attention of Moses as a flame.”[7]

This doesn’t surprise me.  As I said, I can get lost in the flame of a candle.  I can sit in silence as a fire crackles and hisses and flames curl around the logs.  At one point this week, I thought about playing the yule log during this sermon.  I thought it might be funny, and calming, and maybe even comforting.  I decided it would also be too distracting.  Like me, too many of you would just get lost in the flames.

But maybe that’s why the burning bush worked as a way to call to Moses.  “Fire captivates.  To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”[8]

I suppose one invitation form the story of the burning bush is the invitation to notice how busy our lives are, to notice how hard it is to notice.  “We are all so distracted, rushing so hurriedly through the day that we barely notice our friends or ourselves,”[9] let alone God.  We get distracted, sending text messages, checking Facebook, worrying about children.

But this isn’t the only lesson.  God wants to hold our gaze.  “The God who wants to fix our attention and say, Here, look here, look at Me, don’t look away – that God is a lover.  That’s what lovers do, after all.  They gaze at each other utterly not distracted, utterly focused in their longing and their delight.”[10]

In her book, Wearing God, the book we’ve used as the basis of this sermon series, Lauren Winner tells a story[11] that is, unfortunately, too long, to simply read to you.  The story centers around two basins.  One basin is the basin she and her friend Isaac take every year on Maundy Thursday to what she says is “a small, ineffectual protest at an immigration detention center in Cary, North Carolina.  Every year, a stalwart band of Holy Week pilgrims gathers in a grocery parking lot in Cary, and … [they] process to the immigration detention center and set up two chairs.  One chair is occupied by whoever is having her feet washed, and the other chair is left empty, as a reminder of the people who are absent from us – from our families and our churches – because of current immigration law.”

On one particular Maundy Thursday, Winner’s thoughts wander to another basin, a basin carried my Nhat Chi Mai to a Buddhist temple in Saigon on May 16, 1967.  “Her friends assumed she was there for the traditional washing of the Buddha, but her basin was full of gasoline, not water.  Nhat Chi Mai poured the gasoline over herself and lit herself on fire.  She sat in the lotus position while she burned, and she prayed, and she died.”  She had written to the U.S. government, “I pray that the flame that is consuming my body will burn away all ambition and hatred which have been pushing many of us into Hell of the soul and creating so much suffering among human beings.  I pray that the human race will be able to inherit Buddha’s Compassion, Jesus’ love, and the legacy of man’s humaneness.”

Reflecting on the differences in their basins – Nhat’s held gasoline; Winner’s holds water – Winner writes, “It is a venerated thing in the Christian tradition to imitate Christ even to the point of death,…  I wonder what kind of faith one would have to have – in the resurrection, in the resurrected body, in setting your treasure by in heaven – in order to burn yourself to death in protest.  I am not alone in not knowing what to think:  even Buddhists and Christians in Vietnam in the 1960s did not know what to think about self-immolation.  Was this truly a nonviolent protest?  Was it worship or suicide?”

“There’s a relationship that I can’t quite pin down between Nhat Chi Mai’s body and the burning bush.  Here body’s being consumed and the bush’s refusal to be consumed – both command attention.

“It is not just attention to the truth about ourselves that God’s flame can direct.  God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world.…  Before you can act, first you have to see.”  In a way, it can be argued that prayer is not productive.  Prayer does not get God to change an immigration policy or to stop a war.  It is not a means to an end.  And yet, I know that my own halting history of prayer, that engaging various forms of prayer is forming me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God’s world.

As we move into a short time of reflection, I have a few questions for you to consider as we conclude this sermon series:
What sustains your spiritual fire?
How is God’s fire regenerative in your spiritual life?
How is God captivating your attention?
What situation in your life or in the world is God calling your attention to?

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 206.

[2] Ibid, 208.

[3] Ibid, 208-209.

[4] Ibid, 209-210.

[5] Ibid, 210.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 214-215.

[8] Ibid, 215.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 221-225.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 28, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Exodus 17:1-7
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I began the sermon by reading the poem “Fracking Exodus,” by Maren Tirabassi.  This poem has been posted, with her permission, on my blog at

I think most of you know that I was in New York City last Sunday and participated in the People’s Climate March.  About 400,000 of us were there:  Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, faith communities, celebrities and commoners, people still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, scientists, activists, artists, youth groups and elementary school classes – it was truly a cross-section of the United States, plus a few people from around the globe.

400,000 people.  If we got the entire population of Fremont to take to the streets twice, we’d have only slightly more people.

Before the march began, we gathered along Central Park West, 30 blocks of people.  I was at 81st Street.  The March started on time at 11:30.  There were so many people there that it was around 2:00 when we up at 81st started moving and at least another half-hour before we crossed the starting line at 59th.  There were so many people there that we stretched out over 4 miles along Manhattan’s streets and avenues.  There were so many people there, and because I had a ticket to the interfaith service, I was unable to complete the March.  I had to leave at 5:00 to get uptown to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

400,000 people taking to the streets to make a statement about the importance of political leaders acting on climate change.  The good news is that some leaders heard us.  President Obama said on Tuesday, addressing the United Nations, “The alarm bells keep ringing.  Our citizens keep marching.  We cannot pretend we do not hear them.”[1]

The only question left is, “Will these leaders take real action to insure that 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves remain underground?”  This is necessary if global temperatures are not going to increase more than two degrees Celsius (and we’ve already increased almost one degree Celsius).  That two degree red line is important because more than that will cause significant climate change.  The warmer the shift the greater the climate change and at some point the changes will be so drastic we won’t be able to grow the grain necessary to sustain civilization as we’ve known it.

I went to New York because I like to eat and I want my niece and nephew to be able to eat, and they won’t be able to eat in their old age if we don’t act now.  I went to New York because 50 % of the world’s species are threatened with extinction this century if we don’t act now.[2]  I went to New York because there are still two million people homeless after the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan,[3] and they are but a foretaste of the homelessness that climate change will cause if we don’t act now.  I went to New York because of California’s drought and wildfires, and they are but a foretaste of the droughts and fires that climate change will cause if we don’t act now.  I went to New York as an act of loving my neighbor as myself.

I came back from New York and looked at my brown lawn and thought about the desert and today’s scripture readings.  The story of the Exodus is one of liberation and transformation – and of hardship.  The Hebrews had lived as slaves for generations in Egypt.  Then God called a leader, a man with a stutter named Moses, to speak truth to power, to confront the political leadership of his day.  Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.  And after arguing and what today we might call civil disobedience, thought classically it’s called plagues, Pharaoh relented.  And God led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea into the desert and freedom.

Freedom!  Except there isn’t much food to eat and water to drink in the desert.  In chapter 16, just before today’s reading, we read about how God gifted the hungry Hebrews with manna and quail.  In today’s reading, the issue is water.  That’s what made me think about the drought.

We aren’t the only area suffering from drought.  This week I read on the NBC News website, “After a season of record-breaking drought across China, groundwater levels have hit historic lows this year in northeast and central parts of China where hundreds of millions of people live.  Reservoirs grew so dry in agricultural Henan province that the city of Pingdingshan closed car washes and extracted water from puddles.  But this is no one-time emergency.  Farmers and water-hungry industries have been wrestling with a long-term water crisis that has dried up more than half the country’s 50,000 significant rivers and left hundreds of cities facing what the government classifies as a ‘serious scarcity’ of water.”[4]

And I read on a British newspaper’s website, “South America’s largest city is nine months into an unprecedented drought, with no end in sight.  The water shortage is already squeezing businesses in Sao Paulo and threatens to further undermine the stalled economy in Brazil, until recently one of the world’s fastest-growing.  The drought is also pushing up pollution levels and raising serious concerns about how Brazil will function in changing climate conditions.  Residents … have been on rationed water for months – although, with an election just weeks away, city officials refuse to use that term.”[5]

The Hebrews are not the only ones crying out to their leaders, “Give us water to drink.”

Our scripture reading is from beginning of the larger Exodus wanderings story.  The Hebrews are going to spend 40 years in the wilderness, two or three generations.  A colleague notes, “The slaves thought their liberation from Egypt would immediately plop them down in the Promised Land.  But God’s first freedom act was deliverance into the severe and harsh wilderness.  Perhaps only in the land of hopelessness could God hope to see a people let Pharaoh go and embrace the God of life.  Wilderness provides the necessary time to rid oneself of having someone other than God name and define you.”[6]

God is working transformation in the wilderness.  Watching God divide the Red Sea wasn’t enough to change these people.  Harvesting God’s gift of manna wasn’t enough to change these people.  When faced with a lack of water, they saw their own annihilation.  Was this a sign that they had been abandoned by God?

Yet there is something faithful in the people’s complaints.  Yes, they question if God is with them, but they never question the existence of God.  “In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they’re hoping to ‘mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self.  These questions arise not in an act of unfaith, but out of deep confidence that the God of the core testimony, when active in power and fidelity, can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.’  In a sense, then, even complaining to God in frustration and fear expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what one trusts to be true about God.”[7]

And in another commentary, Brueggemann constructs a powerful analogy between these stories in the Bible and the way our television commercials typically work.  “In the biblical narrative of faith, there’s a problem presented, a need voiced, and then God provides a happy resolution.  ‘The derivative TV use of this structure falsely substitutes for God “the product.”  The problem may be loneliness, stress, or bad odor.  When the “product” is used, life is powerfully transformed to one of companionship, calmness, popularity, peace, joy, and well-being.’  The trouble is that it just isn’t true …  Whatever the products deliver, they can’t provide what a faithful God provides, our lives ‘moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from blindness to sight, from leprosy to cleanness, from poverty to well-being, and in the end, from death to life.’  We can turn only to God, Brueggemann says:  ‘There are no other miracle workers.’”[8]

There are plenty of things happening around the globe and right here in our homes that raise our anxiety levels.  Here at home, you or a loved one may be facing a crisis of one sort or another.  I can look around the sanctuary and name mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, who are facing health crises.  I can look around this sanctuary and name families who are facing financial crises.  Heck, just raising kids and launching them into the world can be anxiety producing.  Perhaps there are times when you wonder, “Is God among us or not?”

And if you’re not facing a personal crisis, all you need to do it turn on the news.  The Ebola epidemic continues to threaten people in Western Africa, perhaps as many as a million in some of the worst-case scenarios.[9]  ISIL has managed to draw the world into war and politicians are certainly raising anxieties about it in an effort to garner votes.  And, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and yours truly, more threatening than either of them is the climate crisis.[10]  Perhaps when you think about any of these threats you wonder, “Is God among us or not?”

The Hebrews, facing the threat of not having access to water, cried out and demanded that their leaders do something.  Moses, led by God, took some of the elders and found a solution to the threat.  It took his acting faithfully, trusting that God was, in fact, with him and a solution was found.

The climate crisis may make us feel like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Yet, I believe we can solve the climate crisis.  I won’t be easy, but it’s not too late.  If we act faithfully on real solutions, God will be with us and we will discover that we’ve been between a rock and a wet place all along.


[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the U.N. Climate Change Summit,” The Whitehouse, (posted 23 September 2014; accessed 24 September 2014).

[2] Vice President Al Gore said this at the Interfaith Service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 21 September 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Drought Worsens China’s Long-Term Water Crisis,” NBC News, (posted 24 September 2014, accessed 25 September 2014).

[5] Stephanie Nolen, “Unprecedented drought puts Sao Paulo water supply at risk,” The Globe and Mail, (posted and accessed 26 September 2014).

[6] Nancy Hasting Sehested, “True Freedom,” Sojourners, (accessed 25 September 2014).  Nancy was pastor of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, when her article was first published in Sojourners.

[7] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (accessed 25 September 2014).

[8] Ibid, quoting Brueggemann’s commentary of Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible.

[9] I heard this number spoken on a program that aired on KQED-FM on Friday or Saturday; I don’t remember which program or which date.

[10] “Mr. Kerry said he intended to keep a focus on climate change throughout the week, despite the pressure of other crises, including the insurgent terrorists in Iraq and The Ebola outbreak in Africa. ‘The grave threat that climate change poses warrants a prominent position on that list,’ he told reporters. ‘Those are immediate. But this has even greater, longer-term consequences that can cost hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars, and lives, and the security of the world.’”  Lisa W. Foderaro, “Taking a Call for Climate Change to the Streets,” New York Times, (posted 21 September 2014; accessed 22 September 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael

There are three groups in Raphael’s “The Transfiguration.”[1]  At the top of the painting is the mountaintop group.  We see Jesus in super-clean white, floating above it all, above the fray in the lower half of the painting.  Floating with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  I’m not sure which is which, but I think Moses is on the left because he seems to be carrying heavy, large stone tablets.  And we see the three disciples, Peter, James, and John, on the ground in fear.

On the lower left, we see a group of men.  Two are pointing up at Jesus, pointing up at what’s happening on the mountaintop.  Given the book in the lower left corner and the fact that the group is all men and there are nine of them (9 in this group plus the 3 on the mountaintop equals 12) and where they are pointing, I assume they are the disciples.  But pay attention to where they are also looking.  They’re looking at the third group, on the lower right.

This third group is people, ordinary people.  And the people are pointing toward the boy.  In fact, the disciples aren’t just looking at this third group.  They’re looking at the boy in the group.  And there’s something that’s not quite right about the boy.  It’s as if the man in green has brought the boy to the disciples.  “Him, here – he needs your attention.”  And the disciples are pointing to the action on the mountaintop, as if to say that up there is where the people’s attention needs to be.

Drama up on the mountain.  Drama down below in the valley.  In the background, is the sun rising or setting?  Is this the beginning or the end?

In the scriptures, mountains are often the places where people most vividly experience the presence of God.  It was on Mt. Sinai that Moses spoke with God.  It was there he received the 10 Commandments, given to help the people of Israel live in freedom.

The prophet Elijah also journeyed to Mt. Sinai when he was discouraged and afraid for his life.  There, God spoke to him, giving him encouragement and direction for the tasks that lay ahead.

For Moses and Elijah, the mountain-top experience of intense communion with God was an event with a purpose:  to equip them to be leaders of God’s people in the valley, in the ordinary places of life, down here where the presence of God is usually less vivid.  For them, the mountain was the place where God gave instruction and encouragement, and then sent them back into the world.

The geographic imagery of the mountain as the place of communion with God is understandable.  On top of a mountain, heaven seems closer and the cares and concerns of the world seem farther away.  The mountain offers a place of quiet and peace, of sanctuary, of escape.  There, one cannot help but realize the vastness of the universe, and stand in awe of its Creator.  There, it seems as if the world stops spinning, and time stands still.

While the gospels don’t explain his motivation, I have long thought that what drove Jesus to the mountain was the realization that his earthly ministry was nearing and end.  The time had come to set his face toward Jerusalem – there to suffer and die.

Six days earlier, he had told his disciples about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem.  And he told them, challenged them, warned them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The Gospel of Matthew does not tell us what happened during those six days between Jesus’ announcement about his suffering and the trip up the mountain.  But I can imagine the disciples, confused and frightened, bombarding Jesus with questions and proposing alternatives to the way of suffering and death.  And, when every alternative was rejected by Jesus, I imagine a dark silence falling upon the group as each disciple and Jesus himself wrestled with their private doubts and fears.

And perhaps that is why Jesus went up the mountain.  Perhaps it was those private doubts and fears.  Perhaps it was a need to pray in a place that felt closer to God than down in the valley, down here.  He took Peter, James, and John with him.  And on this mountain, something extraordinary occurred.  Right there before the disciples’ eyes, Jesus was transfigured!  He face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

You see, when people experience real communion with God, a transformation takes place – a transformation that is visible in their faces and evident in their lives.  How and why this happens remains a mystery, but what happens is clear.  Close communion with God empties one of oneself, in a sense, and fills one with the glory of God.

As Jesus’ transformation took place, two other figures appeared in glory – Moses and Elijah.  Men who represent the law and the prophets, who had known close communion with God in their mountain-top experiences appeared.  And they spoke with Jesus.  Whatever they said, it is clear that, for Jesus, this mountain was like theirs – a momentary respite, rather than a permanent escape from the world.

Peter wanted to make it something more permanent:  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  One can almost hear the thoughts behind Peter’s suggestion:  At last, an alternative to the way of suffering and death!  Here we can capture the moment, commemorate the glory!  People will come, away from the cares of the world, and see and know the true majesty of Jesus.  Surely this, and not the cross, is the full revelation of Jesus as the Son of God.

But God rejected Peter’s plan.  A voice in a cloud said simply, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well please; listen to him.”  When the disciple’s heard this voice, they fell to the ground in fear, realizing they were in the presence of God.  But Jesus came and touched them, healing their fear and raising them again, as if from death itself.  And when they looked around, they saw no one on the mountain except Jesus.  The moment of glory had past.  The mountain top experience was over.  And they made their way down into the valley once again.  After all, there’s a boy waiting down there and he needs Jesus’ healing.

And apparently it was enough.  Apparently it was what Jesus needed.  And I guess it was enough for the Peter, James, and John, too.  For Jesus did go to Jerusalem and his disciples went with him.

It is as if that holy moment on the mountain, that deep communion with God, was a foretaste of what was to come.  It is as if, in that moment, Jesus knew in his whole body that death was not the final word.  He knew that if he went to Jerusalem and confronted the principalities and powers with the truth, they would kill him.  But there, on that mountain, he also knew – not just in his head, but in his heart and bones – what the resurrection meant.  “Tell no one about the vision,” he told his disciples, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

On that mountain, Jesus got a sense of the future.  Then he came down to the valley, down here, and picked up his cross so he could get to that future.  Raphael’s painting demonstrates the tension between the call of the mountaintop and the call of the valley.  We are called both to the deep reassuring experiences of the presence of God and to the needs of the world.

But do we really want the mountaintop experiences?  I mean really want them?  I suspect the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  Yes, because we desire communion with God.  No, because we know, “Holy ground is not safe.  It is full of mystery and magic and power.  We aren’t in control … on the mountain.”[2]

Annie Dillard describes how dangerous it can be to experience the full mountaintop communion:  “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[3]

If there is one constant in life, it’s change.  How much more exciting if the change is God drawing us to where we can never return.  And how much more scary and dangerous.  After all, we’ll be asked to take up our crosses and follow.

For some in our community, some elements of the changes we are experiencing are painful, even cross-like.  Yet, I am convinced that the changes are the result of hanging with God.  Yes, the hanging with God may have looked more like the way Jacob did it at Jabbok than the way Jesus did it on the mount of the transfiguration.  It may have resembled more of a wrestling match than a moment of awe and glory.  But I am convinced it is the result of hanging with God.

It is important for us to remember that, as we move through and into these changes, we need to keep returning to God.  Hanging with God will empower and ground us, help us to hold steady and remain faithful.

Sociologist Daniel Chambliss did a three-year empirical study of excellent swimmers.  He found beyond natural differences in ability, the one thing that made the winning difference was commitment to “those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life.”[4]  He calls this “the mundanity of excellence.”

Commitment to the little things is crucial to the religious life as well.  We don’t often think in those terms.  We are more likely to focus on the importance of the mountaintop experiences – dramatic conversions, overwhelming encounters with God, powerful moments of prayer.  We search for peak experiences and fear that some people have talent for religious life, a talent that we are somehow missing.  But the truth is, in our life of faith, our task is to come down from the mountain and transform the holy moment into a holy mission of daily commitment.

Faithfulness down here consists of tending to the mundane activities of faith until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life:  praying and doing laundry; offering signs of mercy and signs of justice; listening to one another and studying the scriptures; journaling at home and sharing the Lord’s supper in worship.  The major difference between many of the saintly figures of the church and us is not their “natural talent” or disposition.  Rather, it is the way their habits, disciplines, and practices prepared them, in gracious openness to God’s work, to live extraordinarily faithful lives.

This is a good time, as we enter Lent, to start our practice sessions of tending to the average, daily hanging with God.  May we each put extra care into the ordinary activities of faith, so that we may become extra-ordinarily faithful.


[2] Anthony B. Robinson, “Have You Been to the Mountain?” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional email dated 10 February 2013.

[3] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

[4] Daniel Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), 85, available at


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