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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 25, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:3-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A colleague was collecting some recommendations yesterday on Facebook.  I’m not sure how he’s going to use the data he collects, but he asked, “Which Bible passages would you want your children to memorize?”  Being someone who is adept at having opinions, I shared my list.  Then I looked at what other had posted.  There were lots of good suggestions, but I had to laugh when someone posted Matthew 10:35-36.  “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Today’s gospel lesson has one of the more challenging passages attributed to Jesus.  These words grate against the image of Jesus so many of us hold.  Brian McLaren says, “Many people have been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus.  He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit.  He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi.  Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

“The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures.”[1]  The real Jesus is defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative.

That’s the Jesus we hear in this gospel lesson.  The passage comes in the midst of an almost chapter-long address by Jesus in which he gives his twelve disciples instructions as he sends them out to carry on his work.  Kathryn Matthews notes that “Matthew writes for a community that claims a relationship, a kinship, with these apostles, who gave up everything to follow Jesus.  This little community of early Christians listens for how God is sending them in their own turn, a generation or so later, and they’re undoubtedly wrestling with how much they may have to give up, too, and what the risks are that they will run.

“Perhaps they’ve already paid a price for being disciples of this Jesus, especially if their family ties have been strained or broken by their new faith commitment.  Family ties were even more important in that time and culture than they are today, if we can imagine such a thing.  And broken relationships meant more than hard feelings and spoiled family functions and fights over inheritances:  they could be a matter of life and death in a culture where family identity and connections protected you from the many dangers in life.

“Matthew makes Jesus sound as if he’s sending his apostles out on a secret, dangerous mission.”[2]  And we’re not just talking about the early Christian martyrs who gave up their lives – literally, dramatically, violently – for the gospel.  We’re talking about “those lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures, including even the stability of the family itself.”[3]

The bold challenge here is that Jesus didn’t just call the disciples to reject consumerism, or racism, or any other ism you can think of.  You and I want to give up those things, as challenging as doing so may be.  Now, Jesus called them to be ready to give up their families.  “Jesus gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew, the claim of family love,” Fred Craddock wrote.  “Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society.”[4]  And in so doing, it seems to me that Jesus touched on the most basic, most heart-connected part of human life.

Even deeper, even more important, even more powerful than our love for family is the love of God, and needs to be our love for God.  I know that people work hard to build families.  Even those who are lucky enough to be born into families that are filled with love, building and maintaining a family takes energy.  And on this Pride Sunday, I can’t help but think of members of the LGBTQ+ community who have had to build and maintain families from scratch because they experienced rejection from their birth families.  And still, Jesus calls – even requires – that we love him above all other loves, no matter the cost to us, including those very families we have worked so hard to build and maintain.

It is so easy to domesticate the gospel, to declaw it as if it were a pet cat we didn’t want shredding the upholstery on the sofa.  “[W]e can too easily conflate the good news with good citizenship, good behavior or maybe simply not causing trouble, or just following orders.”[5]  But think about where this leads.

In one of her published sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it.…  There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself.”[6]  Except, of course, that’s not true.  Taylor reminds us, “The gospel is not a table knife but a sword.  It can set free and it can divide.  The gospel is not pablum.  It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties…”[7]

I’ve tried to think of more contemporary examples of what I’m talking about.  If I get too contemporary, I’ll be accused of being partisan, so let me go back a few decades.  Think about the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.  It’s pretty clear to me now which side Jesus was on, but back then there were plenty of Christian families – at least there were plenty of white Christian families – that were divided when it came to choosing which side to stand with.  From the Montgomery bus boycott to the march to Selma, the gospel divided families as some people heard it’s call to struggle for justice.

And think of the Vietnam War.  I know there were families that were divided when some people heard the gospel calling them to oppose the war, to march against the war, to even commit illegal acts in their efforts to stop the war.

It’s a strange choice of words for Jesus, I think:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  Unless he was being ironic or he’s using hyperbole.  Swords, after all, would be used to protect families, not to divide them.

Retired Catholic Archbishop Hunthausen says, “When Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of heaven, he gave no maps or blueprints.  He told us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to sell what we have, to feed the poor, and to follow him all the way to the cross.  He promised that we would share his life and his death, and after that his new life; he promised that God would provide for those who seek the kingdom first.  He promised the resurrection, but only after the crucifixion.…

“Jesus calls us to take risks, to make difficult choices.  This is our cross, the point where we can die a little to self and be reborn in the Spirit’s life of compassion.

“I believe that we can all find the actions to which we are called by meditating on Jesus’ teachings and then by beginning to live them.  Those teachings point us toward a commitment to a life of nonviolence, a way of living that comes from the very heart of the gospel and has Jesus as its model.”[8]  The disciplined life of nonviolence is not simple, and it brings its own kind of suffering – a suffering that comes out of love.  And it brings its own kind of death, a death of ego, so that we can rise to life in Christ.

There is a difference between non-violence (with a hyphen) and nonviolence (without a hyphen).  Non-violence (with a hyphen) is simply the absence of violence.  Bystanders can be non-violent (with a hyphen) and still do nothing about injustice and violence.  But nonviolence (without a hyphen) seeks a positive peace, a peace filled with restoration of relationships, the creation of just social systems that serve the needs of the whole population, and the constructive resolution of conflict in reconciliation.[9]

This means that a life of nonviolence will seek out the justice.  It will confront systems of oppression.  It will work to transform negative peace into positive peace.

Consider this:  Martin Luther King was arrested somewhere around 30 times for his nonviolent protests against systems of racism.  About half of those arrests for the crime of – you guessed it – disturbing the peace.

And that’s what he was doing.  He was disturbing the negative peace so that it could be transformed into a positive peace.

As followers of Jesus, we cannot avoid the call of the cross.  This is how Hunthausen explains it:  “Jesus’ first call in the gospel is to love God and one’s neighbor.  But when he gives flesh to that commandment by the more specific call to the cross, and by his own death, I am afraid that like most of you I prefer to think in abstract terms, not in the specific context in which our Lord lived and died.  And yet a life of nonviolence is ‘taking up the cross,’ ‘losing one’s life’ for the truth of the gospel, for that love of God in which we are all one.”[10]

Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, “Beyond Fire and Brimstone,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/beyond-fire-and-brimstone (accessed 20 June 2017).

[2] Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds June 25, 2017,” Samuel, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_25_2017 (accessed 21 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A, quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[5] Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Values,” Gospel Medicine, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), 16.

[7] Ibid, 18.

[8] Raymond Hunthausen, “The Undiscovered Secret of the Nuclear Age,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/undiscovered-secret-nuclear-age?parent=50801#PTWproper7A (accessed 20 June 2017).

[9] See, for instance, http://www.irenees.net/bdf_fiche-notions-186_en.html.

[10] Hunthausen, op. cit.

A Facebook friend shared this “conversation” written by one of his friends.  It has made me pause to think and pray as I consider the atrocities being perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

Bloke: Jesus, what the hell is up with those ISIS terrorists?
Jesus: I hear ya. It’s a terrible thing. So much suffering. And fear. Fear seems the biggest part.
Bloke: What should we do with them?
Jesus: Love them.
Bloke: Whoa. Hold on, Jesus – love them? They’ll cut your head off. Kill your whole family. They want to destroy everything we hold dear.
Jesus: Well, in that case, you really must love them.
Bloke: How can you say that! You can’t be serious. Do you want us killed?
Jesus: No – I want you loved. And them too. As you love me- love them. And everyone else while you’re at it.
Bloke: That’s impossible. I can’t love them. I won’t love them.
Jesus: No. You can love them. And if you love me, you’ll love them too. Do you love me, Bloke?
Bloke: Of course I do, Jesus. But it seems like you don’t love me if you ask me to love them. They hate and despise me, us, all we are and all we stand for.
Jesus: All “we” stand for, Bloke? I stand for love. What say you?
Bloke: I stand for my country and my family and my God – which means, you. I stand for you, Jesus.
Jesus: Good, then love them Bloke. It’s easy to love them that love you- I need you to love them that hate you.
Bloke: Do you want me to get killed, allow my family to be killed – the collapse of western civilization and Christian life?
Jesus: I want you to love, Bloke.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 7, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Luke 1:46b-55
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s reading from Isaiah has inspired lots of art, none perhaps as famous “The Peaceable Kingdom” by the American artist from the early 19th century, Edward Hicks. That might be because Hicks painted 61 versions of inspired by these verses.[1] It is not surprising that a Quaker would embrace these verses as an inspiration for his painting. The Quakers are an historic peace church, a church that views all war as immoral and that one cannot follow Christ and fight in a war at the same time.

I find it interesting that in at least a few of his versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” Quakers and Native Americans are in the background meeting peacefully, maybe even agreeing to a treaty establishing peaceful relationships between them. In the foreground of the paintings you find the animals (including children) listed in the verses from Isaiah 11, hanging out together.

If you look at the list of animals and which animals are listed next to each other, you’ll find predator next to prey. The wolf and the lamb will live together. The leopard and the baby goat will sleep with each other. The calf and the cattle fattened up to get ready for slaughter and the lion will hang out together, and a little child shall lead them. Remember, lions once ranged from what is now South Africa to Greece and Morocco to India, so they were a real threat to farmers’ herds and even to children.[2] And speaking of children, Isaiah adds that infants and toddlers will play with poisonous snakes and not be hurt. And, though Isaiah doesn’t mention humans, it seems that everyone is becoming a vegetarian – the cow and the bear shall graze and the lion shall eat straw like an ox (never mind that oxen eat hay, not straw).

As I contemplated what it would take for this actually to be possible, my first thought was about power and fear. The predator would have to give up being a predator. The predator would have to give up the power the predator has over the prey. And the prey would have to give up being afraid of the predator. Then my scientific mind kicked in and I thought about the evolution that the meat-eaters would have to go through so they could be nourished on a vegetarian diet. But if you’ll set aside my scientific meandering and stick to the poetry of the text, you’ll see that overcoming fear and giving up of power is a pretty important step to fulfilling the hope within this text.

Our Gospel lesson for today is Mary’s song. It is the culmination of Luke’s story about Mary’s pregnancy. The angel appears to her, she finds out she’s pregnant, she goes off to see her cousin who is also surprisingly pregnant, and she bursts into song. Before we get into the song, let’s go back to the beginning of the story. The angel appears and, after he offers a perplexing greeting, he tells her, “Do not be afraid.”

Have you noticed how prevalent fear is in our culture? All you need do it turn on the news (and I think cable news networks are the most guilty of this) and you’re bombarded with reasons to be afraid. The three primary tools of advertising are lies, fantasy, and fear, with fear being an important tool used to hook parents to buy stuff for their kids. The use of fear doesn’t stop with advertising.

Peter Block has noted, “The marketing of fear is not just for profit; it also holds a political agenda. Fear justifies the retributive agenda, fundamentalist in the extreme, that has been on the rise for some time. The retributive agenda believes that a just and civil society is one that gives priority to restraints, consequences, and control, and underlines the importance of rules. It gets packaged as spiritual values, family values, the American way, love it or leave it, all under the umbrella of law and order. It helps build the incarceration industry and the protection industry, it creates a platform so that those in power can expand their power, and it discounts the rehabilitation industry. Fear forms the basis of our recent foreign policy and drives much of our legislation. Fear also fuels the allure of suburban life and is a subtle but clear argument against diversity and inclusion.”[3]

We’ve seen exactly what Block writes about on the streets of cities across the United States these past few weeks. We’ve seen how fear has been used to manipulate us into prejudiced feelings and assumptions. We’ve seen how fear has been used to try to rally political support for one cause or another. Do you remember how panicked the airways were about Ebola right before the election and how, as soon as the election was over, headlines about the crisis disappeared?

If we can get past fear, if we can get past the ways fear controls us, we will be substantially freer and we will be a step closer to the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes.

When Mary bursts into song, she proclaims some amazing things that God is doing: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

A power shift is occurring, Mary proclaims. When the predators no longer hunt the prey, when the powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up, we are a step closer to the Peaceable Kingdom. Is it any wonder that, when the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, they come to shepherds and not to the elites?

Isaiah says how this power shift will occur. The shoot that shall come forth from the stump of Jesse – remember, Jesse is the father of King David, so Isaiah is talking about a descendant of King David. And this shoot “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

Today, our criminal justice system is really a criminal punishment system. Even if it ran ideally, it would be a criminal fairness system – all people who committed the same crime would be treated equally, “fairly.” But equality is a far cry from justice.

You may remember a sermon Pastor Brenda preached a few months ago. The cover of the bulletin had two pictures of three kids of differing heights standing on boxes to look over a fence to watch a ball game. In the picture on the left, each kid is standing on a box. That’s equality – each kid has a box. But even standing on a box, the shortest kid can’t see of the top of the fence. The other kids can, but the shortest kid can’t.

In the right picture, it seems that the tallest kid’s box has been given to the shortest kid. The tallest kid is still tall enough to see over the fence, the middle kid can see over the fence standing on one box, and the shortest kid could see over the fence standing on two boxes. That’s not equal: the short kid got two boxes and the tall kid didn’t get any. It’s not equal, but it is what justice looks like.

Only when we move away from fear and power over and create a court system that seeks restorative justice for all will we have real justice.

I read story[4] online about almost two weeks ago about a lesson a high school teacher taught. He had his students, sitting at their desk in their neat rows, each take a piece of scrap paper and crumple it up. He placed a recycle bin under the whiteboard and told the kids that the assignment was to throw their wads of paper into the can from their seats. The kids in the back immediately called out, “Unfair!” The kids in the front row, especially the kids in the center of the front row, had a privileged position for this assignment. Interestingly, none of the kids in the front row objected to the unfairness of the assignment. And not only was it unfair, it was unjust because some of the kids were great at beanbag tossing and other couldn’t hit the side of a barn.

Of course, that was the whole point of the assignment. My point, so far in this sermon, is that we’ve got a ways to go before the work of the shoot from the stump of Jesse is complete, that we have a lot of work to do before the visions of Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom and Mary’s song of justice are fulfilled.

This is true, but it’s not the whole story. It turns out that we’re actually on the way. The 20th century was the least violent century in human history and we are learning that nonviolence is actually more effective than violence.

I realize those two statements are hard to believe. The 20th century included two world wars, so how could it possibly have been less violent than other centuries? There’s a British woman who attends the Bible study I lead each month at Alma Via (or whatever it’s being called these days). Her mother grew up in Kent and she told me at our last Bible study that every household on the street where her mother grew up lost a son or a father in World War I. Every household. How could the 20th century possibly be the least violent in human history?

Well, according to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, it is.[5] Looking at the percentage of population that dies violently, Pinker says that we have come from 15% of the population in the pre-state area (before agriculture and the city) to less than 1%. His research documents five shifts that have led to this decline, interesting reading but more detailed than you need for this sermon. If you’re interested in reading the details, I’ll include a link in the manuscript I post online.[6]

When Professor Pinker looked at violence in the first decade of this century, he found, “documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) … is [at] an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point. Even if we multiplied that rate to account for unrecorded deaths and the victims of war-caused disease and famine, it would not exceed 1%.”[7]

Pinker also notes the import impact of nonviolent direct action at reducing violence in general and violent deaths in particular due to lynchings, pogroms, violence against women, and homophobia. He adds, “In recent decades, the movement for children’s rights has significantly reduced rates of spanking, bullying, paddling in schools, and physical and sexual abuse.”[8]

And, as I said a moment ago, it turns out that nonviolence movements are more successful than violent movements. Erica Chenoweth, an Associate Professor at the University of Denver, and Maria Stephan, a strategic planner in the U. S. State Department, found that “nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as violent resistance, even in the face of brutal regime repression.”[9]

They examined 323 social change campaigns that had 1000 people or more in them from around the world between the years 1900 and 2006, and those were their results. They also found “that countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent.”[10] They suggest that nonviolence works better than violence because it gets a broader and larger base of support and because when violence is met with repression, the repression gets some support because the violence it’s repressing is, well, violent. If you want more details, you can watch her TEDx talk here; it’s worth the 12 minutes.

For their research, Chenoweth and Stephan purposefully set aside the question of which method of resistance is right or wrong morally and assessed, instead, which was the superior strategic choice. Since it’s my job, I’ll bring morality back into the discussion. I’m really glad to find out that nonviolent movements are twice as likely to be successful than violent one because even if the data showed the opposite conclusion, nonviolence would still be the moral choice for change. Nonviolence requires discipline and courage. Without moving past fear, nonviolence is not possible. Interesting that one of the hallmarks of the Peaceable Kingdom is a necessary element of building it.

So, that’s what this sermon is about. God’s intention for us is a peaceable kin-dom. Establishing it requires those who are marginalized to give up their fear. Establishing it requires those who have power over others to relinquish it. Establishing it requires us to let go of “fairness” as our sense of what is right and to embrace a justice that restores wholeness. The good news is that we are on our way.

Amen.

[1] “Edward Hicks,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hicks (accessed 6 December 2014).

[2] “Lion,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion (accessed 6 December 2014).

[3] Peter Block, Community, p 38; quoted by Diana Butler Bass on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/d.butler.bass/posts/10152883835729496 (posted and accessed 5 December 2014).

[4] Modified from Nathan W. Pyle, “This Teacher Taught His Class a Powerful Lesson About Privilege,” BuzzFeed, http://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/this-teacher-taught-his-class-a-powerful-lesson-about-privil (posted 21 November 2014; accessed 25 November 2014).

[5] Steven Pinker, “Violence vanquished,” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180 (posted 24 September 2011; accessed 6 December 2014).

[6] See previous note.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Erica Chenoweth, “Why civil resistance trumps violent uprisings,” CNN, http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/19/why-civil-resistance-trumps-violent-uprisings/ (posted 21 September 2012; accessed 1 December 2014).
Chenoweth has an interesting TEDx talk on this work that you can see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w.

[10] Ibid.

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