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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 31, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a dream a few weeks back.  I was teaching a high school math class and as a sample problem to told this story.  My father decided to open a pet store.  The grand opening was intensely popular.  You would not believe the lion he had coming out the front door.

I don’t think it was an angel giving me a message.  Or maybe it was – and the message is, “Don’t quite your day job.”

Matthew begins his gospel not so much humorously as ironically.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  It’s a sign that he’s the fulfillment of the messianic promise.  And yet the first to recognize him and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazers, immigrants from the east.

We’ve mushed together the birth narratives, those overtures to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We’ve tried to harmonize these two different tunes.  This is the crèche my family used when I was growing up.  It was my mother’s childhood crèche, and it may have been her mother’s childhood crèche, though I don’t know that for sure.  You’ll notice both a shepherd and kings are at this stable.  I think there used to be more shepherds.  And an angel I would put on the stable roof.  I’m sure scenes like this contribute to the harmonization of the two stories in our minds.

I love the carol “The First Noel,” though it, too, contributes to the amalgamation of the two stories.  And it’s a bit of a pity, because if we take Matthew’s story by itself, we’ll see some interesting things going on, things we miss when we read the stories together.  And even when we do manage to separate Luke’s story from Matthew’s, we need to free ourselves from the images of kings.  We have to resist the influence of Hebrew scriptures like Psalm 72’s lines about kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king and falling down before him.  We have to let go of the notion that they were kings, and the number 3, and the names and faces the magi were given in the seventh century.[1]

When we do this, when we get to a purer reading of Matthew’s story, we’ll see things like that fact that the magi’s visit comes “after Jesus was born.”  Those are the words Matthew uses in the first verse of Chapter 2.  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem …”  He might be walking by the time the magi visit.

And when the magi get to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, “they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (verses 10 and 11).  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem.

At least Botticelli comes close.  The house is broken down, but there are no shepherds or barn animals.  And it seems that the whole town has turned our when these strangers from the east show up.

And, did you notice that the magi ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  Herod asks his advisors “where the Messiah was to be born” (verses 2 and 4).  “The Messiah, for Matthew, is King of the Jews.”

But think about this:  Matthew doesn’t use the title “king” again “until Pilate judges and executes Jesus at the end of his gospel.”[2]  Matthew is doing something here, tying together Herod and Pilate.  I think he’s reminding the readers that Roman power was behind any power Herod the Great had.  And, as we’ll look at more closely next week, the desire to kill Jesus starts at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  “Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill, and Roman-appointed Pilate succeeds in killing Jesus, the messianic King of the Jews.”[3]

But I was going to say something about how this overture to Matthew’s gospel is ironic.  First, the magi, these Gentile immigrants from the east, are the first to recognize and worship Jesus.  Then there’s Herod, who knows enough to know that this news is a political threat, but who doesn’t know his Hebrew scriptures enough to know where the Messiah is to be born.  Herod must be wondering, as Will Willimon noted, “What does the future hold?  Can a baby threaten the government?  Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?”[4]

And then there are the gifts the magi bring.  We know who Jesus is, so maybe this presentation of gifts makes a little sense to us.  At least, it made a little sense in my childhood sense of the story.  These are wise men, after all, so they would know who Jesus really is.

But imagine how ridiculous, preposterous this must have sounded to the people for whom Matthew was first writing.  Star gazers from another culture and country coming to a peasant family in backwater Bethlehem and presenting expensive gifts.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh – this does not make sense!  No reaction from Jesus’ mom and dad – this does not make sense!  People with power giving gifts to people who had no power – this does not make sense!

“In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status,” Diana Butler Bass notes.  “When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations.  Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy.  In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude – in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe.  Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.”[5]

By having foreign people of stature present gifts to Jesus, an infant peasant, Matthew is turning gift-giving on its head.  “Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts – they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod, or some rival ruler.  And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached.  Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.

“This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement.”[6]  What happened in Bethlehem was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression.  Rather, what Matthew is doing is proclaiming the same sort of thing that that is on Mary’s lips in Luke’s gospel when she sings, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

In Matthew’s gospel, these rich stargazers leave their gifts with a poor family and “go away empty-handed.  No strings attached.  No more quid pro quo.  No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.”[7]

Next to Holy Week, Christmas just might be the most political time of the church year.  Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is trembling in his boots.  There’s a new king in town, only he doesn’t rule from Herod Tower.  No, this new king is living in the backwoods town of Bethlehem.  And he’s not welcomed by the political elite or the 1 percent or even by biblical scholars at the Temple, but by immigrant nonbelievers from the east.

These are the themes that play out in Matthew’s overture to his gospel.  A baby causes fear in the halls of the powerful.  An infant gathers around himself outsiders, those whom the principalities and powers would oppress.  This is the baby who will with his people start dismantling the empire stone by stone without raising an army of firing a shot.[8]

There is one more thing about this story – the angel angle.  Actually, Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that an angel is involved – only a dream.  But in other dreams in Matthew’s gospel, it is often an angel speaking through the dream.

When the magi come to Herod to inquire about the newborn king, Herod orders them to return to him once the find the child.  They don’t.  It’s almost a throwaway line:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Warned in a dream.  How I wish Matthew had fleshed out this part of the story.  I’d love to know how he would have described the dream.  Would there have been an angel with a simple message:  “Don’t go back to Herod; go home by another route”?  Would it have been more symbolic, maybe some star the magi had to interpret?  Might they have been told the reason to avoid Herod?

But Matthew doesn’t elaborate.  All we get is one line.  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

It occurs to me – and I don’t think I’ve ever read someone else interpret the story this way – that the magi were performing civil disobedience.  The king of Israel had ordered them to come back to his court to tell them what they had found.  They didn’t follow the order.  They broke the law.  They went home by another road.

And this is one of the places where I think Matthew’s story intersects with our time.  This is not a time for pacification.  This is a time for resistance.  This is a time for shaking things up.  “We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.”[9]

The entire world is facing the dangers of climate change, and the current President of the United States insists that it isn’t real, calling it “a scam” and pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.  And just this Thursday, he mocked climate science because it’s cold in the eastern United States.

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

  • The top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled since 1968 while, despite the so-called “war on poverty,” the percentage of U.S. families living in poverty has remained essentially unchanged.
  • Though ours is the richest country in the world, 30.6 million children (43 percent) live at or below twice the poverty line, which is considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and laws designed to make it harder to vote.
  • The prison population in the U.S. has grown by 5 times from 1978 to 2015, with non-white prisoner growing from 49% to 66% of those imprisoned.[10]

“Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth-century Christian martyr killed by the powers that ruled El Salvador [in 1980], once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world, in a world still ruled by Herod and Caesar.  So also [I think] we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.  But Good Friday and the descent of darkness do not have the final word – unless we let them.

“Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow him.  Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around him, he is, for Christians, Emmanuel: ‘God with us.’”[11]

This is a great time to be wise people, people willing to obey God and not human authority.



[1] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, (accessed 26 December 2017).

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 137.

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

[4] William Willimon, “Christmas: Herod in Trouble,” A Peculiar Prophet, (posted 19 December 2016; accessed 27 December 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “Why Jesus’ first Christmas gifts were truly shocking,” The Washington Post, (posted and accessed 25 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sarah Anderson, “10 Reasons to Revive the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” The Nation, (posted 4 December 2017; accessed 30 December 2017).

[11] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 243.


Some people think my preaching is “awfully political.” I think it’s awfully gospel.

I don’t say it’s wrong to mock people with disabilities because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t reject the notion that demeaning, groping, insulting, and assaulting women is “just how men are” because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t demand policy changes, even risking arrest, that address climate change because it’s political; I put my body on the line because the gospel of Jesus Christ says I must care for my neighbors, the poor, the vulnerable — the very people who will suffer the most because of climate change.

I don’t support a free press because it’s political; I support a free press because the freedom to follow Jesus is link to the freedom of speech.

I don’t speak out when religious and ethnic minorities are targeted with misinformation campaigns that have dramatically increased hate crimes against them because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

Don’t believe that the president of the United States is above the rule of law because it’s political; I believe that everyone is accountable, especially our leaders, to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t say it’s wrong to turn away desperate refugee families, including many children, from safety (a decision that is based on misinformation and fear) because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t call my Senators to oppose a healthcare bill that would likely increase the abortion rate and definitely leave my friends with special needs kids bankrupt and desperate because it’s political; I call my Senators because the gospel of Jesus Christ tells me to care for the sick.

I don’t expect the president of the United States to behave with some semblance of decorum and decency, even on Twitter, because it’s political; I expect proper behavior because the gospel of Jesus Christ expect proper behavior.

I don’t get angry when Christian leaders shrug off sexual assault, lying, racism, bullying, cruelty to the vulnerable, and unapologetic greed and self-aggrandizement because it’s political; I say it’s wrong because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

I don’t turn over tables when Christians sing hymns in honor of this administration’s ethno-nationalist agenda because it’s political; I do it because the gospel of Jesus Christ says it’s wrong.

Sure, it may look political to you, but it’s following the Gospel of Jesus Christ to me.

This post was inspired by a Facebook post by Rachel Held Evens. You can read her original post at

On November 15, Timothy Snyder (Housum Professor of History at Yale University) posted the following on Facebook. I repost it here because I think it is good advice for lovers of democracy in this and every age.

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

–Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History, Yale University,
15 November 2016.

“Since the early 2000s, Americans have said in polls that crime has increased since the previous year, despite the fact that the national crime rate is about half of what it was in 1991, the peak year. There were, on average, 20,377 murders per year during the Reagan administration. In 2014 there were 14,249 murders. In the meantime, the population has increased 35 percent, driving the per capita rate of murder way down. The perception that crime is on the increase is likely fed by the media coverage, the entertainment industry, and by political rhetoric that plays on people’s fears.”

From the “Century Marks” column in the 17 August 2016 edition of Christian Century. The column cites New York Magazine, 19 July 2016 as their source.

This fall, beware of that last thing – politicians playing on (and stoking) fears.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church,
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 25, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 18: 33-37 (with Matthew 25:31-40)
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Once upon a time, in a kingdom that was far, far away, there was a socio-political structure that little children could understand, even though it as not at all like the socio-political structure of their community.

As I contemplated today’s sermon, one of the things that occurred to me is that many children’s stories involve kings and queens, princesses and princes.  And little children “get” the social structure; they “get” the hierarchy.  Even though we do not live in a monarchy, even though it’s been over 235 years since these United States threw off the monarchy, little children understand a monarchical social structure.

At the daytime women’s fellowship meeting on Monday, I asked the gathering what came to mind when I said the word, “king.”  People mentioned King George VI and other real and fictitious kings.  People thought about crowns and political power.  When we dug a little deeper, someone mentioned Elvis Presley.  The kings in a deck of cards and the kings on a chessboard didn’t come to people’s minds until I brought it up.  People thought about people.

One of my favorite stories about kings comes from Denmark.  When Hitler’s forces occupied Denmark, the order came that all Jews in Denmark were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David.  Stories circulated that this was the first step in the Nazi process of Jewish extermination, so the Danes sought some way to fight back without fighting.

Rather than directly defying the order, King Christian X had every Jew wear the star.  Then he himself wore the Star of David and he told his people that he expected every loyal Dane to do the same.  The King said, “We are all Danes.  One Danish person is the same as the next.”  He wore his yellow star when going into Copenhagen every day in order to encourage his people.

It’s a wonderful story, only it never happened.  The Danes did participate in remarkable resistance to the Nazis.  During the summer of 1943, when strikes and other overt resistance activities against the Nazis resulted in the demand that the Danish government declare a state of emergency, the government refused and resigned in protest.  The Nazis declared martial law.  By the time deportation of the Jews was finally ordered, only 284 of the estimated 7,000 Jews in Copenhagen could be rounded up.  The others had been warned and had gone into hiding, then started making their way to Sweden in fishing boats and private vessels.  But the King Christian never donned a Yellow Star.[i]

We want kings and queens, political leaders of any sort to act for justice, to resist evil – to do the sorts of things King Christian X was supposed to have done.  But we know that monarchies are too frequently characterized by absolute power, material riches, and the exploitation of the weak.  It is this characterization of leadership that has Egyptians and others nervous about President Morsi’s decree in which he seems to give himself sweeping powers.  Once he starts exercising those powers, will he ever give them back?

In her book Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi says, “It is not power that corrupts but fear.  Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”[ii]

I bring all of this up because today is traditionally known as “Christ the King Sunday,” though some of us have moved away from the word “king” and call this Sunday “Reign of Christ Sunday.”  It is the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year.  We start a new liturgical year next week.  And on this day, our Gospel lesson always has something to do with the image of Jesus as king.

I am struck that this year’s Gospel lesson comes from the trial of Jesus on Good Friday.  The story is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, to his execution at the hands of the Roman government.  As the collective cultural mindset shifts from Thanksgiving to Christmas, to the coming celebration of Christ’s birth and the innocent image of the baby in the manger, we need to get a complete perspective of who Christ is before we slide into a sort of infant sentimentality.

It is an interesting exchange between Pilate and Jesus.  The writer of John’s gospel crafts a sparing match, one sharp mind against another.  Pilate, with all the pomp and power of this world, obviously is disturbed by the calm young rabbi who seems unimpressed by all the might of Rome – a power that held his life and the lives of his people in its hand.  “Are you a king?” Pilate asks.  Pilate expected a revolutionary, someone who would challenge the authority of Rome with open insurrection.  “What have you done?” Pilate demands.  Pilate expected a criminal, someone who had broken the laws.

“My kingdom is not from this world” is Jesus’ reply.  “I came to testify to the truth.”

Pilate (at least as we hear the story in John’s gospel) seems mollified by Jesus’ answers and seeks his release in the paragraph that follows our reading.  But he’s mistaken if he thinks that Jesus’ kingship is no threat to his political authority – or the political authority to any empire.  For Jesus, kingship “consists not of the hierarchy of privilege, but of right relations for all, justice and mercy, and transformative love that brings new life.”[iii]  And if that is not a threat to traditional political authority, I don’t know what is.

And is it any wonder that so many were baffled by his leadership.  Many – perhaps most – of his followers “looked to a worldly kingdom with the usual style of worldly leadership.  [But Jesus] called for a kind of leadership in which servanthood would replace lording it over others.  He shared the concerns for justice and peace, but differed greatly as to means.  When he asserted that his kingdom was not of this world, he did not mean that it was entirely individual or invisible.  Rather, he was affirming that the means were different.  Jesus does not criticize his disciples for expecting him to set up a new social order but for misunderstanding the style of action that would characterize that order.  Unlike most of us, who are tempted to take the easy and safe way in order to stay out of trouble, Jesus was probably tempted more by the Zealot option because of his common identification with the poor and the oppressed. …  The struggle in the garden revealed a continual struggle with the idea of ‘a holy war for the kingdom.’  He was tempted to eliminate the cup of suffering love and call down 10 legions of angels to join his zealot disciples in fighting for the revolutionary kingdom.  Instead, he told Peter to put up the sword.  His was another way, the way of suffering love.”[iv]

For generations, followers of Jesus have heard of the vision of this beloved community Jesus comes to establish.  They have heard the vision and they have wondered when it will come to be.

Some believe that Jesus has given us the tools to build it ourselves.  So this reign of Jesus will come when the world gets better.  And the beloved community “does emerge in unexpected modest places.  Its means are indeed inauspicious in comparison with the ways of the world.  Its growth can be hidden because of our false perspectives and priorities.  As frequently articulated, however, this view places the accent on the claim that it is our kingdom rather than God’s.  [And] it has too often ignored the depth and power of evil.”[v]

Another view is that reign of Christ will come only after things get worse.  These millennialists, pre- and post-, believe that once things get really bad, Jesus will come and, in one order or another, establish the perfect kingdom and judge the world.  “Such views often run contrary, however, to the spirit of the scriptures.  Sometimes there is such joy in discerning the evil events of our time as a clue to the imminent return of our Lord that the resulting mood lacks deep Christian compassion and concern for our … world.  Bad news is too easily translated into good news … [and this makes] Jesus’ second coming entirely inconsistent with his first advent, …”[vi]

This point of view makes the Sermon on the Mount completely inapplicable for us today because it can only be lived when Jesus comes and sets up the perfect kingdom.  This completely ignores the biblical promise that we can begin now to experience the first fruits of the kingdom, and begin to live now as if the kingdom has already come.

Rather than seeing the reign of Christ either as only coming as the world gets better or after it gets worse, I believe that the kingdom is both now and not yet.  Yes, this view is a bit more complicated.  Nonetheless, I believe it to be closer to my experience and to the message Jesus brought as recorded in the gospels.

Though we are called to begin to live in the beloved community now, we know that it takes God’s action to make to come to complete fruition.  While the beloved community is in the future, it can and does break into history now and then with amazing force.

I think of the freedom riders and other civil rights workers.  Not just the leaders and heroes, but the average people who rode busses and sat in at lunch counters.  They were often arrested and jailed.  “While in jail [they] were often treated poorly and brutally in order to break their spirits.  They were deprived of food or given lousy food.  Noise was blasted and lights were flashed all day and night to keep them from resting.  Sometimes even some of their mattresses were removed in order that all would not have a place to sleep.

“For a while it seemed to work.  Their spirits were drained and discouraged, but never broken.  It happened more than once and in more than one jail.  Eventually the jail would begin to rock and swing to sounds of gospel singing.  What began as a few weak voices would grow into a thundering and defiant chorus.  The Freedom Riders would sing of their faith and their freedom.  Sometimes they would even press their remaining mattresses out of their cells between the bars as they shouted, ‘You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls!’

“The Freedom Riders were behind bars in jail, but they were really free.”[vii]  Glimpses of the beloved community broke through, not just when civil rights legislation passed, but in the struggle itself for its passage.  On those buses, at those lunch counters, in those jails, the beloved community took root.

Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say, “Thy kingdom come on earth.”  Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are asking that the beloved community be established here among us, here on earth, even as it is established already in the presence of God.

As we draw this liturgical year to a close and prepare for the celebration of the birth of a baby, let us remember why that baby was born.  Jesus came to remind us that we are citizens first and foremost of God’s kingdom and that we are called to live in the beloved community now, even as God works toward its complete establishment.


[i] Barbara and David P Mikkelson, “A Star is Borne,”, (24 November 25, 2012).

[ii] Cited by Kate Huey in a “Sermon Seeds” email from her dated 16 November 2012.

[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Everlasting Dominion,” Sojourners, (24 November 2012).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Steven E. Albertin, Against the Grain – Words for a Politically Incorrect Church, CSS Publishing, quoted in an email from, dated 19 November 2012.

Additional Sources used:

Michaela Bruzzes, “Christ the King,” Sojourners, (24 November 2012).

Verna J. Dozier, “A Glimpse of the King,” Sojourners, (24 November 2012).

Jim Rice, “What Is Truth?” Sojourners, (24 November 2012).

They look like democracy, but they aren’t really democracy.  Sure, every voter gets to vote on them.  Isn’t “one person, one vote” the definition of democracy?  Not quite.  Real democracy isn’t just about the voting; it’s about the crafting.  The problem with ballot propositions is that the voters don’t get to help craft the legislation.  There’s no opportunity to amend, to “perfect” the proposition.

As a result, we get some pretty imperfect legislation to vote on.  Thus, my default position is to vote “no” unless I can be convinced that the imperfect legislation is significantly better than the alternative.

My one exception to this rule is on propositions that come from the Legislature.  It is my hope that, before they get to the ballot, our legislators have done their work of perfecting the legislation.  Yes, I wish they would just pass the legislation – that’s what we pay them to do.  But I will consider and vote on it.

That said, here is my voter’s guide for the 11 California propositions:

30 – YES!  While put on the ballot by petition signatures, the law comes from the Governor and Legislature, so it’s one I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to.  In a complex society, we need to coordinate our efforts and pool our resources to care for one another and to lift up the common good.  We coordinate our efforts in a thing called “the government” and we pool our resources with things called “taxes.”  California needs to raise taxes to meet the needs of one another and to lift up the common good.  Teachers deserve a livable wage and class sizes that are small enough that our kids and young adults get quality educations.
The taxes will be an increased income tax on couples making over half a million dollars a year (that lasts 7 years) and an increased sales tax (that lasts 4 years).  Is this the best way to raise this needed revenue?  Who knows?  I would have done it all through income tax (a more progressive way to raise revenue than sales taxes), but this is the compromise the Governor and Legislature came up with.
The big thing that’s missing is a State Constitutional amendment that would over turn the 2/3 majority needed to raise taxes.

31 – No.  I like the goals of this proposition around transparency and accountability, but it’s an example of how initiatives aren’t “perfected” before they go on the ballot.  As I read the information on the proposition, it looks to me like it will perpetuate underfunding of vital state programs. Any new state program or expansion of existing state programs what would add $25 million to the budget requires either an offsetting cut to some other program or increased revenues.  But it takes a 2/3 supermajority to increase revenues.  This means that programs will be perpetually pitted against each other.

32 – NO!  “This may be one of the most cynical ballot measures we have seen,” write California Church IMPACT.  I couldn’t agree more.  Name one corporation that withholds money from payroll to give to political campaigns.  This is clearly an attempt to disempower unions, organizations that are democratically controlled by their own members.  Corporations would continue to be able to spend money in politics out of their coffers; this does nothing to overturn or limit Citizens United.

33 – NO!  I didn’t like this last time it was on the ballot and I don’t like it now.  It is just another attempt by Mercury Insurance Chairman George Joseph to make more money by charging more for auto insurance.

34 – YES!  Killing people is wrong.  Let’s end the death penalty.  Ending the death penalty system save us $1 billion over five years – without releasing a single person from prison.  Ending the death penalty would eliminate the risk that we could execute someone who is innocent of the crime.  Vote YES on 34!

35 – NO.  From California Church IMPACT’s voter’s guide:  “Human trafficking is the most vile abuse perpetrated against men, women, and children today.  It strips them of not just their freedom but of every human resource for survival.  We know according to human rights groups that more people are enslaved now than at any other time in history.  However, this proposition not only does nothing to help victims, it amends the existing law in very dangerous ways that will strip law enforcement of some of its current directives.  Prop. 35 amends Penal Code Section 236.1, a comprehensive statute covering all manner of trafficking including domestic work and other forms of coerced and unfree labor.  Prop. 35 eradicates any aspect of human trafficking other than sex slavery, and this is a dangerous and irresponsible action.”

36 – Yes!  I don’t like “three strikes” laws to begin with.  This initiative at least brings a tiny bit of sanity to the law.  If this initiative passes, a criminal would have to commit “serious” felonies to be sentences to life imprisonment.  Far too many people in our overcrowded prisons are serving life sentences for non-violent, non-serious felonies, rather than being rehabilitated and helped to create productive lives.

37 – YES!  I want to know what’s in my food.  That’s all this initiative does.  Why are Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical and others spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat this measure?  Because they are afraid that, once we know what’s in our food, we’ll demand real food, not frankenfood, and they’ll lose money.  So they are putting commercials on TV, claiming to be looking out for the family farmer, when their real concern is their bottom line.  Yes, there’s a weakness in the law (that pesky problem with initiative legislation):  it doesn’t offer farmers a sufficient “escape clause” for when their regular crops are inadvertently cross contaminated by bee pollination, but that’s a weakness we can address down the line.

38 – No.  My plan, up until a week and a half ago, was to vote “yes” on both 30 and 38.  I wanted to make sure at least one of these measures passed.  But the problems with 38 are just too many.  (1) It restricts the revenue raised to K-12 education only; no other programs can benefit from the raised revenue.  (2) If 38 passes and 30 doesn’t (or 38 passes by a larger majority), the “trigger cuts” in the state budget will go into effect while we wait for the prop 38 money to come in; that will be a mess.  (3) 38 does nothing to address the current underfunding of Prop 98 allocations now or in the future.  This law is well meaning, I’m sure, but it’s not good law.

39 – Yes.  This is a soft “yes,” a gentle “yes,” based much more on the recommendations of others than my own analysis.  It looks like this initiative closes a tax loophole that allows multi-state businesses to avoid paying taxes in California.  In addition, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects closing this loophole will generation 40,000 additional jobs in California.
A portion of the non-educational revenue (based on prop 98 rules) generated is initially directed toward a new “Clean Energy Fund” for creating jobs and job training in clean energy and improving energy efficiency.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I think Climate Change is the most important moral issue of our day, so I like the idea of this allocation – except for the fact that I oppose budgeting by citizen initiative.  I’ll vote for 39, anyway.

40 – Yes!  The non-partisan Citizen’s Redistricting Commission is good for democracy and this initiative affirms their latest work.

Today, Fremont, California, had it’s first Occupy event – a walk and rally demonstrating Fremont In Solidarity With the Occupy Movement (FISWOM).  I was one of the organizers and these are the comments I shared at the rally:

Good morning.

I’m Jeffrey Spencer, senior pastor at Niles Discovery Church. In our traditions (the UCC & the DOC), pastors are free to speak as their consciences dictate, and so I speak today to share what my conscience has to say.

I’m a Christian, so what Jesus said matters to me.  And if you turn to Matthew 18:21-35, you’ll find a record of a story Jesus told.  Here’s summary of the story; you can check out Matthew’s version in his gospel.
A king decides to settle his accounts. He calls in a servant who has a humungous debt. There’s no way he can repay, so he begs for leniency and the king, who could have sold him and his family into slavery, but forgives the debt.
Then this forgiven servant goes out to collect some money that’s owed to him by another servant and when the second servant can’t repay this relatively speaking small debt, the forgiven servant and the second servant thrown in jail. When the king hears about how the first servant showed no mercy to the second servant, the king has the first servant thrown out into utter darkness.

Story is totally on point.
American Banks received huge bailouts that protected from collapse.
Then these banks turn around and foreclose on relatively speaking small debts.

I’m not interested in throwing the banks into the utter darkness.  I am interested in justice. That’s why I stand in solidarity with the Occupy movement.

How do we achieve that justice? Well, here are 6 things the Occupy movement is calling for that I completely support and that I think will move us toward justice:
1. An end to corporation personhood.
2. A reformed tax system that demands that those who can most afford to pay taxes pay the most.
3. Some legal accountability of those who caused the Great Recession.
4. Define any business that is deemed “to big to fail” as being a monopoly and break it up.
5. Transform from a fossil fuel, consumption based economy to a clean energy economy.
6. Strengthen Wall Street regulations.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel, there another story that Jesus tells.  It’s a story about how our lives will be judged, and it boils down to this: Our lives will be judged based on how we cared for or failed to care for those who are most in need, who are least powerful.  Let’s build a society that truly cares for those who are most in need.

Thank you.

I approach Veteran’s Day with mixed emotions.  I want to honor all who choose to serve our country, but it bothers me that the form of service we seem most ready to honor – and often the only service we honor – is military service.  This past Veteran’s Day, I saw people posting pictures and making comments claiming that the only reason our nation enjoys so many individual freedoms is because the military fights and members of the military die to protect them.  That’s easy to say but difficult to prove.  And to be honest, right now, I think the ACLU does more to protect our freedoms than does the US military.

I am also troubled by the need to honor veterans.  I think that need is very real.  We (as a country) send young men and women (and increasingly middle aged men and women) off to foreign countries to fight wars.  We ask a great deal of them and offer little in the way of compensation (particularly for enlisted personnel).  No wonder we feel a need to honor them.  But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t fight wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If we didn’t send the men and women of our military off to fight in those wars we wouldn’t need to honor them, and I would argue that those wars have done little if anything to protect our freedoms.

I say all this knowing that I chose to serve my country in ways other than serving in the military and so, I turn the rest of this blog post to Nathaniel Brooks, a World War II veteran.  What follows is a sermon he preached on Sunday, November 13, at the Unitarian Universalist church in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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November 11 was set aside to honor those who served in our nation’s wars.  The date commemorates Armistice Day when, in 1918, the guns went quiet to end WW1. I was merely five months old then but WW1 had already played an important part in my life. The war had begun in 1914 and for the next three years Americans debated whether to get into it.  At a rally opposing entry, my mother and father first met and lo, I am here. But despite the opposition, the U.S. entered the war in 1917, President Wilson calling it “the war to end wars”.

In my later childhood I came to understand that the war had been simply a contest for dominance in Europe, no more moral than a gang war; and how bloody it was – of 65 million combatants 37 million were killed or wounded. This knowledge first shaped my feelings about war, and those feelings were confirmed by subsequent wars in the 1930’s. I learned to be skeptical about declarations by governments and to question the motives of their power elites. So for some years I joined with other students to work for peace.

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor!  Two weeks later I volunteered to serve in the Army. At that point, I thought it was a necessary war and to be true to myself I should get in promptly. Along with 16 million others I served in the Armed Forces until 1946.

Now, as a veteran, a UU and an old man who has seen much, I would like to share some thoughts with you as we consider Veterans Day 2011. A bit of history – Armistice Day, whose message was primarily “promote peace so we never have war again,” was renamed as Veterans Day in 1954, a time of Cold War, and honoring military service became the central theme.

We, in the national organization, Veterans for Peace say: thanks for honoring those who served and honor them further by working to end wars.  Unfortunately the holiday is sometimes misused to glorify militarism and war. Politicians say words like “our heroes who have kept us free and safe.”  In my view none of this statement is true. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were no threat to our safety; wartimes made us less free and our soldiers are not heroes – not for lack of bravery, many are very brave, but because the task they were assigned and required to carry out is evil and ugly, not heroic. I don’t fault the soldiers, indeed I deeply care for their well-being. But I am angry with those who sent them to kill and perhaps be killed – and then employ flowery phrases to mask their guilt and entice a new crop of young people.

We have been told that American troops will return from Iraq “with their heads held high, proud of their success…” Heads held high?  Yes, they will be happy to be home and we hope they are well. Many of the soldiers who already returned have had severe and sometimes crippling injuries. It is estimated that half of them have brain injuries or are suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. They come home to find a depressed economy with few jobs available. So I say “We sent them and now we owe them the best care and support we can provide.”

Proud of their success?  In what ways did the invasion of Iraq succeed?  For no reason that can stand the light of day, that country, that people, was torn apart and heavily destroyed. Considering our most basic UU value, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”, war is the greatest obscenity and an intolerable offense to morality.

So where does one begin?  To bring change to any established way of doing things it is important to understand who benefits from the status quo and who loses by it.

So who benefits from our wars?  Clearly, the corporations that provide the war materials and services; and also multinational corporations that gain favored access to foreign markets, cheap labor and natural resources (oil for example).

On the other hand, what does it mean for our general population – the 99 percent? Sons and daughters sent to war; deaths, injuries and long-term health problems; and taxpayer costs in the trillions for wartime and after-war costs.  While some jobs are created to meet military requirements, economists say that if the same dollars were spent on peacetime needs, considerably more jobs could be created.  More importantly, while dollars spent on war are blown up or otherwise wasted, they could instead be used to improve our economy and quality of life through renewable energy, clean air and water, high-speed rail, well-equipped schools and more. Instead of such advances, war costs increase the deficit and create pressure to cut spending on social needs.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates retired in June he said we need to decide “what is the kind of role the American people – accustomed to unquestioned military dominance – want their country to play in the world”? A good question!

Do we want to continue maintaining and expanding an empire; spending as much on our military as all the other nations of the world combined; manning hundreds of bases around the world; viewing ourselves as the ultimate judge and police in international relations?

Recently we see new forms of warfare – drones, preventive assassinations, so-called “humanitarian” wars; what do we think about these?  How to deal with the lurking dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the possible militarization of Space also challenges us. In our congregation we should create opportunities to learn and talk together about such complex and urgent questions.

And very importantly, we need to talk with our youth, who are the prime target of militarists and also our best hope for new thinking and change. Help them to think about bravery, heroism, patriotism – how these qualities may be expressed in times of peace, and how they are distorted in wartime.

People ask: can we hope for a more peaceful future?  I believe we can because human beings are intelligent, and if they are not swept away with manufactured fears they will increasingly come to realize that war is not the answer – and for a real danger they will seek every reasonable course other than military conflict.

A greater readiness to challenge war emerged during the Vietnam War, when popular opposition reached unprecedented levels. For decades following, Washington spoke of “the Vietnam syndrome” as though the people’s unwillingness to start another war was an illness.

More recently, while the American public was misled, there were massive demonstrations around the world opposing an invasion of Iraq.  Today the majority of Americans want out of the current wars.

The ultimate goal of abolishing war may seem beyond reason.  Consider however, that slavery, which was part of human existence for thousands of years, was eventually declared intolerable. And while there are still occasional examples of people being enslaved, they are considered a violation – not just of international law – but of human morality. The same is true of chemical warfare and I think torture and then capital punishment will follow in this century. I may be too optimistic but as our minister might say – “So may it be!”

Here are my three favorite posts – plus my “Pic of the Week” – from my Facebook wall during the preceding week (I try to get this done each Friday).

From Thursday, November 17:
RT @billmckibben: amazed and gratified to hear that delaware fracking put on hold! extreme engagement beats extreme energy!

From Thursday, November 17:

From Friday, November 18:
I am becoming increasingly concerned about the privatization of America.
It started with reports of Blackwater providing mercenaries for the war in Iraq. More recently, I’ve been reading headlines about abuses (including sexual abuses) being perpetrated in private immigration detention centers by the staff.
Today, I started reading this report from the ACLU [about the privatization of prisons] and my anger and sadness grew. If we think it is necessary to lock people up, shouldn’t WE do it? Shouldn’t WE be running the prisons we deem are necessary? Why would we think it’s okay for a corporation to make money on this?
Oh, and then there’s this article in the Huffington Post [about how the evictions of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park is the privatization of liberty].

And here’s my Pic of the Week:

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:


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