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“Joining a religious group may do more to offer ‘sustained happiness’ than other forms of social participation. Researchers in the Netherlands, analyzing 9,000 Europeans over age 50, looked at four areas: volunteering or working for a charity; taking educational courses; participating in a religious organization; and participating in political organizations. Taking part in a religious organization was the only one of the four that resulted in sustained happiness. The researchers were’t able to conclude whether the benefits came from the religious organizations themselves or from faith.”

From the “Century Marks” column of Christian Century, 16 September 2015 edition, page 8.

Another possibility could be that happier people are more likely join religious organizations, but maybe if you’d like to be happier, you could give a religious organization a try.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 9, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:13-16
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Last week the hashtag #EvolutionDebate was trending on Twitter.  What that means is that a whole bunch of people were posting 140 character statements about a debate that was taking place between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, a creationist and founder of the Creationist Museum.  The debate took place at the Creationist Museum and lasted for two and a half hours.  It was streamed on the Internet and had somewhere around half a million viewers.[1]  A recording is available on YouTube that, as of last night, had 1,150,000 views.  “There hasn’t been this much attention focused on a single discussion of evolution since the Scopes monkey trial,” one commentator mused.[2]

I’m not one of those million views.  I didn’t watch it live and I haven’t spent the two and a half hours to watch the recording.  I suspect there are plenty of creationists who haven’t watched it either.  We are probably quite certain of our points of view and don’t think we will hear anything that will get us to change those views.  I believe that humans evolved along side other species; creationists believe humans were created by God as a complete species and have changed very little since then.

I think the debate was worthwhile, though.  It was a golden opportunity to address questions of science and education at length, moving beyond the demands of television that normally reduce complex debates to sound bites.  According to response to the debate that I’ve read, “Nye told his audience – most of whom, he knew, were online, not there in that lion’s den – that he was happy to be proved wrong, that there were boundaries to knowledge and that science is humble in the face of mystery.  None of us can yet prove what preceded the Big Bang, or explain why consciousness exists.  And that’s exactly why we need science education, so some curious child watching this debate can go out and push back the boundaries of knowledge a little further.”[3]

If Nye’s arguments “engaged one school board member [in Kentucky, a state where Creationism is taught alongside evolution], or in Texas, or Tennessee; if it told one curious child that she wasn’t wrong or alone in asking questions of religious dogma, then the debate will have been worth it.”[4]

As a religious person, I want science – the science that Nye represented – taught in our public schools’ science classes.  And, as a religious person who understands and embraces the importance of science, I was a little baffled by how science and religion became enemies.  Enter Karen Armstrong, scholar and author on comparative religion.[5]

Prior to the enlightenment, there was a general resistance to attempting to define God.  There was (and is) a very strong Jewish tradition that resists even naming God.  When Moses asks for God’s name at the burning bush, God essentially says, “Never you mind.  I am who/what I am.”  And in Genesis, when Jacob wrestles with a being Jabbok, this being won’t disclose its name.  The being blesses Jacob, but won’t share a name.  We can be blessed by God, but we cannot define God, even by so much as a name.

Sir Isaac Newton

During the 17th century, scientists claimed they had found a definitive, scientific proof for the existence of God.  Newton thought that the intricacies of the solar system were proof of God.  This God was omniscient, omnipotent, and (as Newton said) “very well versed in mechanics and geometry.”[6]  So God became a “scientific fact, a scientific hypothesis, a scientific explanation.”[7]

Earlier theologian claimed that you couldn’t prove that God existed because our minds can only deal with material beings and limited beings, and not with infinity itself.  But with the Enlightenment came this idea that everything real, including God, can be proven scientifically.  Newton’s and Decartes’ physics wouldn’t work without God to get things going, thus they became a proof for God.

Later, other scientists found natural explanations for the universe.  Then Darwin came along and found a natural explanation for life itself.  “And,” to quote Armstrong, “that wouldn’t have mattered a jot had not the theologians and the churchmen fallen in love and become intoxicated with Newton’s proof.”[8]  Science had achieved so much, fostered so much explanation of the physical world in this period “that myth became discredited and people thought that science was the only way, the most reliable way to reach God.  And they lost the older habits of thought which had been very reticent about saying what God was.”[9]

The real antagonism developed in response to this modernist embrace of science as the most reliable way to reach God.[10]  While some theologies came to look at the world and scripture and God through the lens of science, other theologies backlashed.  The birth of fundamentalism can be traced to this reaction.  As science seemed to contradict what the Bible said, people felt they either had to reject the science or the Bible.  Fundamentalist chose to reject the science.

Of course, this is a false dichotomy.  The choice is not between either science or literalism.  There is another options that embraces both science and religion.

One additional option is modernist.  Some people, in Newtonian fashion, understand God to be that which makes the rest of scientific explanations work.  This is the God who caused the Big Bang.  This is the God what is the uniform explanation for both quantum mechanics and planetary mechanics.  Except that maybe M-theory explains uniformly the miniature and the large.

That’s the problem with a God who resides in the gaps in the natural order that science can’t yet explain.  With each new scientific explanation, God has an ever decreasing place to reside.

Another option is the way that we post-enlightenment, post-modern Christians can embrace science and religion.  Yes, this way may upsets some pre-modern sensibilities of not defining God, but I think that’s okay.  This option involves letting go of views of God as a force of nature.  Instead, God is about willing and leading and loving.  God is, in this sense, more personal than the God of the scientific gaps.

Think about time.  When you are a kid at it’s 2:30 and school is getting out at 3:00, that half hour is exactly 30 minutes long.  Except that it isn’t.  There’s time on the clock and time that you’re experiencing.  There’s chronos and kairos.

Or consider the question, “Why is the kettle boiling?”  The scientist might explain that when methane oxidizes it gives of heat.  When it oxidizes rapidly (we usually call that burning), under a kettle with water in it, that heat transfers to the bottom of the kettle, “which in turn causes the water molecules to move more rapidly within the kettle, whereby the increasingly rapid motion of the molecules eventually becomes sufficient to push the vapor pressure of the water higher than the atmospheric pressure – and the water boils.”[11]

This is a perfectly legitimate and scientifically complete explanation.  We don’t have to appeal to anything supernatural to explain that process.  But that’s not the only explanation.  Another perfectly accurate explanation is simply, “The kettle is boiling because I want a cup of tea.”

“This second kind of explanation is what we might call a personal explanation.  It appeals to a different sort of reality – the reality of persons – and provides an explanation in terms more appropriate to that reality.”[12]

If, in addition to whatever else God is, God is a personal being, then it is perfectly legitimate to explore a personal aspect of reality in theological terms, while also engaging in an exploration of the scientific aspects of reality in a scientific manner.

“Science may well be comprehensive within its domain.  When speaking as scientists we need not appeal to supernatural intervention to make our equations work.  But theology should persuade us that there are limits to that domain.  Natural explanation does not exhaust reality.  Chemists might give an exhaustive analysis of the elements and properties of an oil painting, or acoustic engineers might comprehensively describe the action of sound waves in a symphony hall.  But if those descriptions were all that were given, we’d be missing the central point of art and music.

“So too with explaining the origin of the universe.  Is the Big Bang as far back as we can go with a scientific explanation?  Maybe, maybe not.  I see no reason to take a definitive stand on that question.  If scientists can figure out ways to push their explanation back further, Christians can remain committed to the claim that they will not have explained all of reality.  Scientists may give a more comprehensive account of one aspect of reality, but if Christians are right, there is another aspect to reality.  Indeed, the central point of reality is a personal being who loves and sustains the world and who cannot be exhaustively described by science any more than art or music or love can be.”[13]

At this point I expect someone must be wondering what this has to do with today’s gospel lesson, what this has to do with being salt and light.  Jesus’ call to be salt and light is much more than the point I am making today.  But it at least includes the point I’m making.

One of the problems with the Nye/Ham creation debate is that it planted the false suggestion that Ham speaks for the majority of Creationists.  Worse yet, in reinforced the false assumption that Creationists speak for the majority of the Christians.  That’s patently false.  Even the Vatican declared evolution valid decades ago.  Yet the cultural assumption remains, reinforced by vocal Christians who reject science, that all Christians reject science.

One of the ways we can salt the debate is to stand up for science as Christians.  One of the ways our light can shine is when we show that we are both scientific and faithful.

One of the things that I love about this church is how embracing we are of questions.  Maybe that’s a trait we adopted from the scientists.  Scientists are constantly questioning their assumptions and their conclusions, tweaking experiments to see if results are consistent, seeking to prove themselves wrong to expand their understandings of the physical world.  We, too, are regularly questioning our assumptions and beliefs, adjusting our understandings, and new spiritual and interpersonal experiences lead us to deeper and deeper relationship with God.

That is a flavor of Christianity the world needs.  That is a light that will enlighten the world.  So don’t lose your saltiness and let your light shine.


[1] Chris Taylor, “Yes, the Creation Debate Was Worthwhile,” Mashable, (5 February 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karen Armstrong was a guest on “To the Best of Our Knowledge” on National Public Radio on 15 December 2013.  I heard the original broadcast and listened to the archive online at to transcribe the quotes included in this sermon.  The radio segment offers much more.

[6] Karen Armstrong quoting Sir. Isaac Newton, I assume from her memory rather than notes, but it’s a memorable enough quote I’d bet she nailed it.

[7] Armstrong, ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This paragraph and the next were not in my original manuscript, the one that I used when I preached this sermon.  I added it Sunday afternoon.

[11] J.B. Stump, “Cosmic question,” Christian Century, 26 December 2013, pp. 20-23.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 24, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 2 Corinthians 12:12-27
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Today’s sermon is going to be different from how I usually preach.  You’ll notice that our liturgist didn’t read the second lesson (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).  That’s because I’m going to be reading it as part of the sermon.  And you’ll notice that the lesson has been printed on an insert to your bulletin.  That’s so you can read along as we go.  So, let’s get started.

17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.


Actually, I find a little bit of good news for us in this verse.  The Church has always had problems.  Here’s the church in Corinth, a church planted by Paul, and he has to write to them to tell them that they are not following his instructions correctly.  They are an imperfect human institution.

It is quite common for me to hear from non-churched folk complaints about the church – that it’s full of hypocrites, that it’s concerned about power and prestige, that it’s scam and all they want is your money.  Well, of course it’s fully of hypocrites – it’s full of people.  Of course it’s an imperfect institution – it’s a human institution.  But it’s also our best chance of finding the realm of God that I know of.

Apparently, the church in Corinth was really blowing it.

18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.  

Two thoughts here:  I love Paul’s comment, “to some extent I believe it.”  It’s as if Paul already knows that you don’t believe all of the church gossip you hear.  There may be a grain of truth behind it, but you can’t swallow it whole.

And this passage also invites us to some self-examination about divisions in our own community.  I suppose every church has divisions to some extent.  I don’t think it matters what church hierarchy one has.  If the priest or bishop has full power to decide everything, there will be people in the congregation who grumble about his (and it will almost certainly be “his”) decisions.  If the congregation is completely autonomous and makes all it’s own decisions, people will have differences of opinions about the decisions.

This makes me think of a man named Bob, a member of a congregation I used to serve, who was very vocal at every congregational meeting.  He would argue for whatever position it was that he supported, and then a vote would be taken, and then Bob (God bless him) would support whatever decision got made – even if it was one that he vehemently disagreed with.  He would not let being on the losing side of a vote cause divisions for him in the church.

But, as we’ll see in a moment, the divisions Paul’s talking about here are not divisions of opinion.

19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.

I think this sarcastic.  I don’t think Paul literally meant, “Factions are great because they show who the ‘real’ Christians are.”

Earlier in the letter, we read that there were factions in the church.  People had been taking up sides.  One of the chief divisions seems to have been about leadership.  Who should we follow?  Who is preaching the true Word?

Here, the factions are about something else.

20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.

This suggests that Paul thought the primary reason for the church to come together is for the Lord’s supper.  What would you say our primary reason for coming together is?  Since we don’t celebrate the Lord’s supper every week, that can’t be the reason.  Yet, I think one of the reasons we come together is to be fed.

I think I’ll just let that question hang there:  What is our primary reason for coming together?  And I’ll add another:  If Paul thought the primary reason for the church to gather each week was to celebrate the Lord’s supper, does that impact your feelings and thoughts about the frequency of our celebration of the Lord’s supper?

Apparently in Corinth, when the church gathered, it looked as if they were gathering for the Lord’s supper.  A table was present.  Food was present.  But there were problems with how the celebrated.

21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  22 What!  Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?  Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?  What should I say to you?  Should I commend you?  In this matter I do not commend you!

Now we’re seeing what the factions are.  The Corinthians eat a supper – it appears that this could have been a full meal[1] – but there’s something about what’s going on that makes what happens not the Supper of the Lord.

They’re going ahead and eating on their own.  Individualism at best, greed at worst, has turned the meal into something that it’s not supposed to be.  At best, it’s become an act of personal, private piety.  At worst, it’s become an opportunity for gluttony.  Some end up hungry; some end up drunk.

Those who end up hungry are probably from the lower classes – peasants, laborers, and slaves.  They may come late, after they have put in a full day’s work.  They may not even be able to afford an evening meal and were relying on the church for dinner that day.  Those who end up drunk are probably the leisure class who can come early and drink all day, who don’t need the food shared at the table because they have plenty at home.  There is a distinct possibility that these two socio-economic groups were eating in separate rooms.[2]

To correct the situation, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the tradition of the supper.

23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The tradition has its roots in the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified.  When we celebrate communion, we’re returning to Christ’s table.  Jesus is the host and we are his guests.

And while it may be uncomfortable to contemplate, the shadow of sacrifice surrounds the meal, along with an air of unfathomable love.  “Jesus’ sacrificial death through crucifixion is the great and scandalous mystery of Christian faith.  The word ‘sacrifice’ has become synonymous with suffering and with substitution of one life for another.”[3]  I fully reject the notion that Jesus’ sacrifice was a substitute for some punishment we deserve.

There are many other ways of getting a sense of this ‘scandalous mystery’ – that would easily take another sermon.  For now, let me offer one.  The Latin phrase, sacrum facere literally means “to make sacred.”  Jesus’ death makes human life sacred in the face of violence and injustice.  This is Jesus’ proclamation at the Passover table that became his last supper with his disciples.[4]

So, then, how are we supposed to come to this meal?  How are we enter into the scandalous mystery and joyous feast?

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.

I believe what Paul means by an “unworthy manner” is to participate in the meal in a way that allows there to be divisions in the community.  The divisions Paul refers to at the beginning of the reading are not divisions of opinion.  They are divisions of class and status and community.  So, Paul says,

28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.

This is the crux of Paul’s point for this divided community of believers.  They need to discern the body when they partake of the Lord’s supper.  And if we keep reading this letter, we get to what Paul means by ‘the body.’

Our first reading is from the next chapter of the letter – a familiar passage where Paul describes the church community as a body, in fact as the body.  “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27).

When we gather around the table, Paul challenges us to discern the body.  Some may interpret this to mean that we need to recognize the body in the elements of the Eucharist – in the bread.  And while that may be an important aspect of communion (tune in two weeks), it is not what Paul is talking about this week.  Paul is asking us to recognize that the church itself is the body of Christ, and that participation in the unity of the community belongs to the essence of the Supper.

When we allow there to be disunity at the table, Paul says that we bring down judgment on ourselves.

30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  34 If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.  About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.”  We have this tradition of inviting the kids back from Sunday School to participate in communion.  And there are times when I’ve found myself at the table, waiting for them to return.  This is a good thing, a scriptural thing.  We should wait until we are all together, until the body is whole, for only then will the communion-ity be discernable.

There are times when the children in our churches preach a sermon – without even trying.  I remember a story Christina told about Maddie when Maddie was quite young.  They were in a church that did not serve communion to children.  Everyone was invited forward to the communion rail, but the children received a blessing from the pastor, not the communion elements.  When Maddie received here blessing but not the elements, she said to her mother in a not-too-subtle four-year-old voice, “What about me?”  In her own way, Maddie had discerned that the body was not whole without her inclusion.

If you’re looking for some concrete lessons from today’s reading, here are four:  Communion is central to the life of the church.  Communion is supposed to unify the community, to break down barriers and distinctions.  The table belongs to Christ; it is he who invites and establishes the appropriate conduct.  Our task is to discern the Body of Christ as we share the meal.

One very important aspect of communion is the community.  So as we come to the communion table today, may we discern the body in our community.  Amen.

[1] William Baird, 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), 47.

[2] Jane Anne Ferguson, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 2010), 269.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas draws to a close today.  The 12 days of Christmas are over.  Today is Epiphany, and tomorrow we return to Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar.  Today is the day that many people put away their Christmas decorations for another year.  Tinsel and ornaments are packed away.  The crèche is packed up.  I’ll be packing away my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree today.  Keeping it authentic, it has only one ornament:  a red ball.

I know most Christmas Trees are filled with ornaments, and most have something special at the top.  Generally speaking families that do Christmas Trees can be divided into two groups:  the star people and the angel people.  Just a quick show of hand – How many star people do we have here?  How many angel people?  I come from a star family, so this sermon may be a bit biased.

I grew up in a big, old Colonial house back East.  The living room had 10-foot ceilings, so we would get a big tree each year.  Decorating it was a process with certain step.  Get it into the stand, standing straight in the bay window of the living room.  Secure it from tipping over with strings tied to the window frames (we had a pet cat).  Put on the lights – small white lights that didn’t blink (my mother insisted).  Put on the string tinsel – not “icicles” (my mother insisted).  Put on the candles (yes, we lit candles on the tree on Christmas Eve).  Put on the ornaments.

Now, we kids could put the ornaments on just about anywhere we wanted to – so long as they wouldn’t get singed by a candle – with two exceptions.  There was a brass star that my father always hung at the top of the tree, and directly below the star was a painted wooden ornament of a stable with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  Because these two ornaments were so tied together in my childhood mind, I never understood why anyone would ever put anything other than a star at the top of the tree.

It literally wasn’t until this week, when I was thinking about the differences between Matthew’s birth narrative and Luke’s birth narrative, that I realized what the angel was all about.  In Luke’s gospel, there is no star.  Yes, the “glory of the Lord” shines about an angel, but there’s no star.  Just angels.  They come to the major players to tell them about God’s plan:  Zachariah (John the Baptist’s father) gets a personal visit at the Temple; Mary gets a personal visit from Gabriel himself (itself? Is it appropriate to use gendered pronouns with angels?).  And an angel (along with the heavenly host) shows up to the Jewish riff-raff (the shepherds) to announce the birth of Jesus.  But there isn’t any star.

The star shows up in Matthew’s gospel.  The magi, watching the sky, see it as a sign and follow it to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.

If you’re like the shepherds and have sought a sign from God, if you remember the prophesies and have been seeking a savior, if you approach Christmas with deep anticipation, an angel is probably the appropriate ornament for the top of your Christmas Tree.

And if you’re like the magi and are searching, if you’re still unsure, still filled with questions, if you’re on a quest to find out about this mystery and message from God wrapped up in human flesh, a star is probably the appropriate ornament for the top of your Christmas Tree.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into Christmas decorations.

As I said, today is Epiphany.  The word ‘epiphany’ means ‘manifestation.’  Today is a day of realizing that the God’s light and love were made manifest in the baby who slept in a Bethlehem.  Today is a day of realizing that God’s love isn’t just for us – it is for everyone.  Luke says that Jesus is “A light for revelation to the Gentile” (Luke 2:32) – not just for the Jews, but for non-Jews as well.  Matthew tells us this in story, of foreigners coming to pay homage.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about these magi.  Matthew tells us there was more than one of them – “wise men” is plural so we know there were at least two.  Matthew tells us that they watched the night sky and interpreted their observations as having meaning – they saw a star rising in a certain part of the sky and interpreted it to mean that a new King of the Jews had been born.  And I think we can infer that they were important – important enough to come and pay homage to a new-born king.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much – just enough to whet our interest.  No wonder all kinds of traditions sprang up over the centuries about the magi.  According to Episcopal priest Martin Smith, medieval interpretations created at least six distinct meanings for the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the magi.  The carol, “We Three Kings,” is based on one of these.

Another – I like this one – comes from St. Bernard.  This tradition says that the magi offered “gold for to relieve [Mary’s] poverty, incense against the stench of the stable and evil air, myrrh for to comfort the tender members of the child and to put away vermin.”[1]

This is a beautiful interpretation.  “The Son of God appears as a poor child at risk in just those ways that millions of children are today.  The Magi’s gifts are not exotic luxuries, but practical relief aid.  Mary and Joseph need financial help.  A cramped peasant’s house, with animals crowded on the other side of the manger that divides the single room, stinks of their excrement.  The baby has a rash because the manger is crawling with fleas.  The wise men are wise enough to offer money, fumigation, and medication.”[2]

But this isn’t all that Matthew is doing with this story.  Matthew has these wise foreigners start by coming to Jerusalem to pay homage to the new-born king.  Of course they would come to Jerusalem.  I mean, where else would the new king be born other than in the capital city?  But that’s not where Jesus is born.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem and this does two things:  It connects Jesus to King David, giving him legitimacy in his claim to the title “king”; and it sets Jesus up separate from the centers of political and religious power, suggesting that Jesus is creating a new order.

And Matthew adds a layer (or two) of additional insult.  “These strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, and they’ve come a long way to ‘submit’ to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  In doing so, they’re poking their finger in the eye of Rome and its puppets.  At the same time, they’re coming from ‘the East,’ [historically] the same direction from which Israel’s enemies approached to conquer and plunder.

‘The East,’ then, is full of portent for the earliest hearers of Matthew’s Gospel.  The ‘wise’ men are strangely naive in approaching an evil king with news of a new king, but perhaps it takes a profoundly trusting soul to follow a star to a far-off land.  Herod’s reaction is the panic-driven response of the powerful to even the smallest threat to their security.  What is more important for us is the reaction of the wise men to their encounter with Jesus:  generosity, and awe-filled worship, just as Isaiah had pictured the wealth of the nations being brought to Jerusalem by gentiles praising the One true God.”[3]

We Americans are quite good a listing all the people we won’t kneel before.  We don’t kneel for crowned heads.  We don’t bend for terrorists.  And in both our denominational traditions, we’re quite clear that we don’t kneel to bishops.  “By and large, we are a straight-backed, lock-kneed people.

“Here is the way the … wise men were like us:  they refused to kneel to Herod’s crowned head.  [And] here is the way we ought to be like the … wise men:  they knew which things were not worth their homage, and which things should drive them straight to their knees.

“There’s not much in the world that ought to be able to make you kneel.  But this ought to:  a deity with no place to lay his head, a savior who knelt before you to wash your feet, a God who could have remained above it all, but stooped, bent, even groveled to get as close to you as possible, and then paid a price for it.”[4]

This story of the magi is rich with meaning.  And on this day of Epiphany, on this day we celebrate God’s love and light being manifest in Jesus, this story calls to us.  It is, I think, an invitation to be like the magi.  And I suggest that there are three ways we can do this.

First, we can seek the star.  Like the magi, we need to be aware and on the lookout for signs of God being at work in the world and in our lives.  I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy a telescope – unless you want to get into astronomy.  I’m suggesting that we can all engage in the spiritual practice of awareness.  We can seek the star.

Second, we need to follow the star.  When we see a sign of God working out the salvation of the world, we might be called to drop what we’re doing.  If that happens, we need to drop what we’re doing and follow that sign.  We need to pack appropriately, too; it’s nice if the gifts we bring make a difference.  And we may have to stop for directions on the way; we shouldn’t be afraid of doing that.  We need to follow the star.

Third, we can be a star ourselves.  On Epiphany, our persistent call to be “the light of the world” in response to God’s gift begins to sound.  Perhaps we should start like the magi and pay due homage.

Want to practice this?  Sometime today, get down on your knees, open your arms out to your sides, and bow your head.  Or if you’re feeling especially brave, try touching your forehead to the floor.  If your body can’t do these things, assume whatever posture speaks to you of humility and reverence.[5]  See what that feels like.

I think that when we get our egos sufficiently out of the way, God will start to use us as stars, as signs of God’s work in the world.  Seek, follow, and be the star.



[1] Martin L. Smith, “Wiser Than We Think,” Sojourners, (31 December 2012), quoting Golden Legend, “a popular medieval compendium of lore about the church’s feast days.”

[2] Smith.

[3] Email from Kate Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, dated 28 December 2012.

[4] Email from Quinn G. Caldwell, “Kneel,” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional from the United Church of Christ, dated 6 January 2012.


Nancy Hasting Sehested, “The Flickering Light of Epiphany,” Sojourners, (31 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 2, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:38-55
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Hang on just a second while I make this call.

Hello.  God?  Yeah.  Gabe here.  Look, I’ve been all over Nazareth looking for this girl “Mary.”  Do have any idea how many Marys there are in Nazareth?  You do?  Yeah, I suppose you would know.

Look, this is getting pretty repetitive.  I find a girl named Mary.  I tell her, “Greetings favored one, God is with you,” and she looks at me like I’ve got drool dripping form the corner of my mouth or some spinach stuck in my teeth.  I explain that you want her to get pregnant so that she can give birth to a son who will inherit the throne of David and do really cool stuff, and before I can get to the part about her cousin who’s been barren into her old age being pregnant, too, I’m getting chased out of the house with a broom or worse.  None – I mean NONE – of these girls is interested.

I haven’t what?  I haven’t been to the right Mary yet.  Do you really think there is a Mary in this town who’s going to say, “Yes”?  I mean these other girls have been SO negative on the idea.  Maybe you need to switch strategies.

Okay, okay, I’ll try the next one on the list.  Okay.  Bye-bye.

I try to imagine the story of Mary, much of which we heard read today, from Mary’s point of view, too.  What do you say when an angel visits you?  I imagine it must be a little disturbing.  There she was, minding her own business, making some bread or doing some household chores, when she felt this presence.  I wonder how she would have described it.  I imagine seeing an angel as being like seeing light and hope and peace and joy all at once.  I imagine it would be wonderful and scary and a little overwhelming.  Okay, a lot overwhelming.

This angel speaks:  “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Favored one?  What does that mean?  “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t think of a pick elephant.  I don’t imagine that helped.

And then the angel goes into this whole bit about having a son by the Holy Spirit of God.  What would you say?  This could get messy pretty quickly.  Sex outside of marriage was seen as a no-no.  No being a virgin at marriage was seen as a no-no.  If all this happens, Mary could be dragged away and stoned to death.  Convincing Joseph that the baby isn’t his but is his – I see guests for a future episode of the Jerry Springer show.

What does Mary say?  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  I think the most miraculous part of this story is Mary’s “Yes.”

We are invited to identify with Mary in her pregnancy, experiencing her unborn child kicking in her womb.  By claiming her story, by claiming the birth story, we name ourselves people of possibilities.

“When we don’t want to even pick up this morning’s newspaper, when confronted with yet another death toll, when angry with our fellow citizens – we claim that there still exists a possibility for understanding, a possibility for peace and reconciliation, a possibility that today, or maybe tomorrow, good news will triumph, change will happen.

“When we see some of this darkness, violence, and apathy inside of ourselves and do battle with our responsibilities in this world – we claim that a possibility still exists for renewal, for light to enter into ourselves, a possibility that we can actually show love to others.  There exists a possibility all around us and within each of us for incarnation to occur.  The mystery and the glory of incarnation … are that we will always confront it in the region of the unexpected.”[1]

Listen to the words of Mary’s song.  Listen to her sing of her hope in what God is doing in her “yes.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me …  God has shown strength with his arm; 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.”

Maybe all of this really could happen.  “Maybe people will be healed.  Maybe the poor will be fed.  Maybe all will be treated and loved as equals.  Maybe peace will reign and wars will cease. …  Maybe Word will become flesh.  Maybe God will become human, just like us. …  Maybe the dead will rise again.  Maybe the old will become new. …  Maybe God will be revealed in the beggar, the prostitute, or even the politician we wrote off years ago.”[2]

And I don’t want the sinless Mary.  I don’t want the Mary, meek and mild.  I want the Mary of the magnificat.  I want the Mary who raises a scandal with her pregnancy, who has a past, who has problems, who could have said “no” to God and had the chutzpa to say “yes.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”[3]

That’s why it doesn’t matter if the Mary story ever happened.  What’s important is how the Mary story touches us, how it stirs us, what it moves us to do.  Will we, with our scandals and pasts and problem have the chutzpa to say “yes” to God’s call and “yes” to God’s vision?

I believe that God is at work in you and me in much the same way that God was at work in Mary.  Not that God is knocking any of us up, but that God is inviting us to carry in our bodies the blessing of God for the world.  Having the faith and vision Mary had means allowing yourself to trust how God is at work in our lives.  Mary knew about the radical social upheaval that was about to be ushered in, thanks to her faith and her vision.

“You couldn’t get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty.”[4]  And that’s what the story tells us Mary was.  A poor, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine chosen by God to bear the gift for which the world longed.

“God’s promises had already become truth in her flesh.  The poor were already being exalted. …

“At the news, she went ‘with haste’ to see her cousin Elizabeth.  It was a natural response.  When afraid, go see a friend who will listen and make it all feel a little less lonely and overwhelming.

“… Mary, still trembling with the news of what was to be fulfilled in her, ran to the elderly Elizabeth and embraced her.  At Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s womb came to life, and the child ‘leaped for joy’ within her!

“The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and hope, flowed forth in this setting.  And two miraculously pregnant women basked in the secret of the quiet revolution that was to be accomplished through them.  Two women incarnated the truth that, with God, nothing is impossible.

“I like to imagine what their days together were like.  They must have been filled with shared secrets, laughter, a few tears, and dreams of a future unlike any they had conceived before.  They watched their wombs swell, felt their sons growing within, probably rubbed each other’s aching backs and sore feet at the end of the day.

“Elizabeth, in her experience and wisdom, had much to share with her younger cousin.  She understood the requirements of faith and the challenges of marriage.  She knew that some would point with scorn at Mary, pregnant before her wedding, just as some had spoken of her own barrenness with reproach.  She knew how to live proudly despite the whispers behind her back, and how to be grateful to God no matter what the circumstances.  She understood what it meant to be a vessel of God’s will. …

“Together they nurtured a revolution.  The tables began turning.   The thrones began crumbling.”[5]

Though I must admit that I feel like I’ve been left out of this revolution.  The lofty are brought down and the outcasts are lifted up, but what about the middle class?  Where are we in this revolution?

I think we are to sing Mary’s song and do some soul-searching to figure out where we fit in the cosmic order of God’s reign.  For instance, do we rely on God to fill us with good things?  All too often, I know that I rely on myself to fill my physical and spiritual belly with junk food.  I’ve perpetuate this bad habit of stuffing myself on commercial Christmas crap instead of figuring out a deeper place in God’s reign that moves me away from materialism and into trust.  And in singing Mary’s song, we can embrace her faith and her vision.[6]

There’s an old Slavic fable.  Once upon a time, God decided to make Godself visible to two humans – one king and the other a simple peasant.  God sent an angel to each of them with the message:  “God has condescended to reveal the Lord to you in whatever form you wish.  In what form do you want the Lord to appear?”

Seated pompously on his throne and surrounded by his awestruck subjects – not to mention basking in the glory of having been addressed in public by no lesser a personage than an Angel of God – the king proclaimed (in all his majestic pomp):  “How else would I wish to see the Lord, except in his full majesty and power?  Show the Lord to us in the full glory and majesty which is the Lord’s alone!”

And with that, there appeared a bolt of lightning that instantly incinerated the king, his throne, and the entire Court.  And there remained only the Might of God, who had appeared exactly as the King had specified.  Except that now there was none left to see.

Then the angel appeared to a peasant, who of course knew nothing of what had happened to the King.  The angel gave him the very same message as he had the king.  “God has condescended to manifest the Lord to you in whatever manner you wish.  How do you wish to see the Lord?”

The peasant scratched his head a while, and puzzled for a good while longer.  He was a simple man, but an honest and honorable one.  Finally, after long and obviously painful thought, the peasant said:  “Change me so that I can see the Lord in those things with which I am familiar.  Let me see the Lord in the earth I plow, the water I drink, and the food I eat.  Let me see the presence of the Lord in the faces of my family, my friends, and my neighbors, and – if God wishes it, and thinks it good for myself and for others – why, let me see the Lord even in my own reflection.”

And God granted the peasant’s wish.[7]

Perhaps, if we embrace Mary’s faith and vision as our own, God will grant the peasant’s wish for us as well.  Amen.


[1] Andrew J. Hoeksema, “Speaking of Maybe,” Sojourners, (1 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] at least according to a quote someone posted on Facebook.

[4] Joyce Hollyday, “Vacant Thrones,” Sojourners, (1 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Becoming Mary’s Servants,” Sojourners, (1 December 2012).

[7] I don’t remember the source of this folktale.  I probably collected it years ago when an ecumenical electronic bulletin board, a precursor to the Internet called “Ecunet,” existed.

Additional sources used:
Martin L. Smith, “A Body Prepared for Me,” Sojourners, (1 December 2012).
Madia Bolz-Weber, “There’s Just Something About Mary: The Power of Yes,” Sojourners, (1 December 2012).
Richard Rohr, OFM, “Matter and Spirit,” Sojourners, (1 December 2012).

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).

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer on November 19, 2012, at the Tri-City Interfaith Council’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, held a St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Fremont, California.  Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I feel a rather large degree of ownership of the holiday we call “Thanksgiving.”  Yes, I know it’s a national holiday and that America is not the only country that has a Thanksgiving holiday, but I have a deep, personal connection to Thanksgiving.  My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (I think that’s the right number of “greats”) was part of that group of people we teach our children about who supposedly celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

John Alden, my great-great-great … grandfather, was one of the roughly 130 people who came to the Americas on a pilgrimage aboard ship called the Mayflower to establish a new British colony.  These Pilgrims had a charter to establish their community in northern Virginia, but storms sent their boat off course and they ended up making landfall in what is now called Massachusetts.

There are lots of legends about this group of Pilgrims – like the legend that my great-great-great-great- … grandfather was the first to set foot on Plymouth Rock.[1]

Or the legend that their first winter was so harsh, they had only five kernels of corn per person each day to eat.    We do know that many of their party died of malnutrition and disease.

The next spring, they got to planting.  While they had limited success with wheat and barley, their corn crop proved very successful, thanks to Squanto who taught them how to plant corn in mounds, using fish as a fertilizer.[2]

                That autumn, Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, his wife, and 90 men made the two day journey to visit the Pilgrim settlers (including my great-great- … grandfather, John Alden).  Their arrival coincided with the Pilgrim’s harvest feast and the colonist invited the Wampanoag to join them.[3]

                Years later, these Pilgrims became Congregationalists, and the Congregationalists eventually became a part of the United Church of Christ.  And the United Church of Christ is the Christian denomination I grew-up in and was ordained in.  So, between my great-great-great- … grandfather and my faith tradition, I feel a sense of ownership of this holiday.

However, it wasn’t until years later that this first Pilgrim harvest feast was looked at as the first “Thanksgiving” in the history of the United States.  You see, it took a long time to get from that feast to our present annual holiday.[4]  Along the way, certain days were declared to be national days for giving thanks.

  • In 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving after the American Revolution victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
  • Twelve years later, George Washington proclaimed another national day of thanksgiving in honor of the ratification of the Constitution.
  • Washington requested that the Congress make it an annual event; they declined.

It wasn’t until near the end of a Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of Thanksgiving – and it took another 40 years, into the early 1900s, before the tradition really caught on.  You see, Lincoln’s official Thanksgiving was sanctioned in order to bolster the Union’s morale and many Southerners saw the new holiday as an attempt to impose Northern customs on their conquered land.

History is never quite as clean as we would like it to be.

We like to think that those first Pilgrims came seeking religious freedom, but that’s not quite accurate.  They came to establish a colony where they would be free to worship God as they thought appropriate, but they had no interest in welcoming people who had other ideas of how to worship God.

We’ve come a long way as a nation with regard to freedom of religion from those days in the early 1600s.  While my Christian denomination descended from those close-minded Pilgrims, we are not nearly so close-minded any more.

I subscribe to a point of view that was articulated quite well by Professor Marcus Borg:  “Religious pluralism is a fact of life in North America, and in the world.  To absolutize one’s own religion as the only way means that one sees all of the other religious traditions of the world as wrong, and dialogue, genuine dialogue, becomes impossible.  Conversion can be the only goal.

“I affirm, along with many others, that the major enduring religions of the world are all valid and legitimate. …  To be Christian means to find the decisive revelation of God in Jesus.  To be Muslim means to find the decisive revelation of God in the Koran.  To be Jewish means to find the decisive revelation of God in the Torah, and so forth. …  [So,] To be Christian [or Sikh, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Baha’i or earth-based, or Unitarian] in this kind of context means to be deeply committed to one’s own tradition, even as one recognizes the validity of other traditions.”[5]

So I strive to be a good Christian even as I hope you strive to be a good Jew or Muslim or Sikh or Baha’i or whatever your religious tradition calls you to be.  And wouldn’t it be nice if we could all embrace our own religious traditions while recognizing the validity of other traditions.  Sadly, we’re not there yet.  We know that in the past few months, there have been tragic attacks against people of faith because of their faith.  A Mosque torched in Joplin, Missouri, in August.  And in August, a gunman killing 6 people and himself at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  It took two years for the Islamic Center of Murphreesboro, Tennessee to open its doors because neighbors didn’t want to have a Mosque in the neighborhood.  And just last week, in Norcoss, Georgia, vandalism occurred at the Gurdwara, cars in the parking lot were damaged and religious bigotry is the suspected motivation.  We have so much more work still to do here in this land of freedom.  We have so much more work still to do here in the United States of America.

I firmly believe that, whether we’re talking about religious zealotry here in the United States or if we’re talking about zealotry around the world, this kind of hate and fear will not be overcome by legal demands or military might.  Fundamentalist of any religious tradition actually flourish when faced with aggressive, forceful campaigns against them.  Nor is the way to undermine fundamentalism to use increased secularism.  Trying to remove religion from the public square is equally viewed as an attack by fundamentalists.  The way to undermine fundamentalism is with better religion, a genuine faith tradition that is alive and well in most of the world’s religions.  What we are doing here, tonight – being together and praying together – is the best antidote to bad religion.  The more we can find common ground with one another, the less ground religious zealots will have.

One place where I believe we can find that common ground is in the spiritual practice of giving thanks.  We have so many reason to be thankful.  Think about the reasons you have to be thankful.

The legend says that during that first winter in America, my great-great-great- … grandfather and the other Pilgrims were rationed to five kernels of corn a day.  I invite you to pause for a moment and think of five reasons you have to be thankful tonight.  Think of one reason for each finger on one hand.


With a show of hand, how many of you included your family as one of the reasons you are thankful?

How many of you included something about having your basic necessities taken care of, something about having food to eat or clothing to wear or shelter at night?

How many of you included something about freedom on your list?

Look at how much common ground we have.  Look at how our gratitude helps us see our common humanity.  Look at how our gratitude unites us.

Most people are baffled by what we’re doing here today.  Some are concerned that members of their faith tradition would dare to gather in one room under one roof with people of other religious traditions to pray.  They fear corruption and contamination.  Others are stunned that there are people of any religious conviction who will gather with people of other religious traditions in worship.  They assume that all people of faith are so exclusive in their approach that there aren’t any who would do what we are doing.

And still, here we are.  Here we are, gathered in one room, under on roof, offering God our thanks, and finding a gratitude unites us.  And for me, that is one more reason I give thanks.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[2] The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,, Plymouth Hall Museum (17 November 2007).

[3] The First Thanksgiving,, Scholastic (17 November 2007).

[4] The following facts/timeline is from “All The More Reason To Give Thanks,” quoted without attribution in an email from, dated 13 November 2007.

[5] Marcus Borg, quoted on, (18 November 2012).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, August 19, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 5:13-16
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            When Bessie Troyer broke her hip, I don’t know what hurt more – the actual break itself or the thought that it might mean she’d have to give up delivering meal-on-wheels.  Bessie was in her 80s when I was her pastor.  That was long enough ago that being over 80 seemed very far away.  She lived alone in an apartment, and her independence was very important to her.  But it wasn’t just being independent that was important to her, it was using her independence that was important.  And so she regularly delivered meal-on-wheels, which meant she often delivered meals to people who were a decade or more younger than she.  She would laugh with me about that and it became a form of proof of her independence.

            Then she broke her hip and she wondered, was she going to be able to drive?  And if she was about to still drive, would she be able to continue delivering meals-on-wheels?

I left that church before these questions were answered.  What I knew was that, at some point, Bessie would have to give up delivering meals-on-wheels.  And I knew that when that time came, her ministry would not be over.

Paul tells the church in Rome “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God.  Eugene Peterson translates the verse this way:  “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you:  Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God].”[i]

So how do we take our ordinary lives and place them before God as an offering?  Start, Paul says, by embracing the gifts God gives you and use them as part of the community of faith to continue Christ’s ministry.

Paul goes on to list several of these gifts (seven of them, if you’re counting).  This is not an exhaustive list.  In the first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offers us two other lists of spiritual gifts – in the same chapter of the letter – and these lists don’t match.  And in Ephesians we get another list.

These four lists have some overlap, but there is something unique about each one.  Combined, they create a list of eighteen gifts God bestows through the grace of the Holy Spirit:  Encouragement, teaching, pastoring, prophecy, giving, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discernment, tongues, interpretation, apostleship, assisting, leadership, and evangelism.

I find it interesting that only one gift ends up on all four lists from these three epistles:  prophecy.  I don’t know if this means that prophecy was the most important spiritual gift, or that prophecy was simply the gift most on Paul’s mind, or that prophecy was the most frequently present (or frequently missing) gift from these communities of faith.  I don’t know what it means, but it did get me thinking about prophecy as a spiritual gift.

Remember, prophecy is not sooth-saying.  Being a prophet doesn’t mean you should get a 900 number and tell people their fortunes.  A prophet is someone who speaks God’s truth to power.  That’s what made Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., prophets – they spoke God’s truth about oppression to power.  That’s what makes Bill McKibben a prophet – he speaks God’s truth about climate change to power.  And I hold out hope that someone will utilize the spiritual gift of prophecy during one of the Presidential Debates and speak truth to the power that will be standing on that stage and make both Obama and Romney reflect on some aspect of God’s truth they’ve been ignoring.

I said before that none of Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts is exhaustive.  Even combined, I don’t think they create an exhaustive list.  For instance, organization isn’t on the list, and I think that organizing systems and organizing people requires this spiritual gift.  But let’s stick to this combined list for now.

Patricia D. Brown has organized these gifts into three categories:  gifts of word, gifts of deed, and gifts of sign.  While she recognizes that it’s not always clear-cut as to which of her categories to put each gift, this categorization can be helpful in identifying which gifts we’ve been given and how we use them.

Consider evangelism.  This gift of sharing the good news need not be expressed only in word.  It could be expressed in action, expressed in deed.  But by examining the things we say and the things we do, we might be able to identify if we possess and utilize this gift.

Or consider healing.  You might know you possess this gift, but you could be under-utilizing it.  You might know you express this gift of healing in deed – say through nursing, but what about expressing this gift as a sign that points to God?  Are you being aware of how God is working through your skills, through this gift?  Do you acknowledge through prayer that God is at work through this gift, allowing this gift to be a sign that points to God?

Likewise, one gift may impact another gift.  Bill McKibben wouldn’t have much truth to prophetically speak to power about climate change without knowledge (another spiritual gift) about the science of climate change.

Brown suggests another tool for identifying what gifts we’ve been given.  She suggests we think about the roles we have; the work or tasks we do; the talents we express; and the abilities we possess.

So, a high school junior who is a great listener (a talent) and who participates in a homework club (a task) might look at that talent and that task and realize he has the gift of teaching.  And a high school junior who is a great listener (a talent) and who is president of the school’s gay/straight alliance (a role) might look at that talent and that role and realize she has the gift of healing.

You get the idea of how looking at our roles, tasks, talents, and abilities can help us identify our spiritual gifts.  And I could go on like this, but I think I’m getting into the territory of a gifts assessment workshop.  That’s something we could do if there’s interest, but let’s get back to the sermon.

My sermon today really has two points.  The first is that God gives each of us spiritual gifts.  You have particular gifts that are different from mine because you are a unique child of God.  And you are called to be a steward of these gifts.

Our call to be stewards of the gifts God gives us is multi-purposed.  Being a good steward of God’s gifts brings you joy.  “As you use and live within the gifts of God, you have a sense of doing what you were created to do and of being who you were created to be.  You affirm your best self …  You find satisfaction and happiness as you do particular things well.  You act on your values and beliefs.  You see your deepest longings and hopes fulfilled as you use your gifts effectively to achieve realistic goals.”[ii]

Not only that, but being a steward of God’s gifts helps bring you into fuller life.  “As you use your gifts, you begin to understand that reaching your potential is more important than reaching the goal or goals you have set. …  As you discern and use your gifts, you enter an exciting experience of self-discovery.  You find new opportunities to use the full potential of your life.”[iii]

And being a good steward of God’s gifts empowers the church to fulfill God’s mission in the world.  When our gifts are combined, the body of Christ becomes more able-bodied, the community becomes more whole.  And through that wholeness, the world is made more whole.

My other point is that the gifts we have shift over our lifetimes.  Even as a working adult, our gifts change.  Life experiences help us grow and help new gifts to take root in us.

I think back to the gifts I had when I was first ordained.  I had gifts that made me a good chaplain for at least some of the kids in the Juvenile Hall where I worked, but I didn’t have the gifts to be the senior pastor of a church like ours.  Now (I hope this doesn’t sound prideful), I think I do.

When we are born, God doesn’t say, “Here.  Here are your gifts.  Make sure they last a lifetime.”  God says, “Here’s what you need now.”  And as we grow, God gives us new gifts.  And as we journey, God gives us additional gifts.  And as our abilities change – whether that means they increase or decrease – God give us additional gifts.

One of the things I love about our logo is the road that winds its way up over the hills into some new adventure beyond our ability to see.  It is, in some ways, a call to trust that God will give us what we need for that journey, and a call to trust that God will give us what we need for when we get to whatever it is that lies ahead beyond our horizon.

We are called to be stewards of shifting gifts.  When Bessie couldn’t hop out of her car to deliver meals any more, it didn’t mean that she had to give up exercising her spiritual gifts.  Perhaps it meant finding other ways to exercise the gift of assisting.  Perhaps it meant that God was replacing the gift of assisting with the gift of giving or discernment or faith.  Like all of us, Bessie was called to be a steward of her shifting gifts.

Jesus tells us that we are salt and we shouldn’t lose our saltiness.  Jesus tells us that we are light for the world and we shouldn’t hide that light.  Be a steward of your spiritual gifts – your shifting gifts – that your light may shine, that you may flavor life, that Christ’s body may be more complete.


[i] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Romans 12:1a.

[ii] Patricia D. Brown, SpiritGifts (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996), 82.

[iii] Ibid, 83.

“Two U.S. citizens were arrested at a New York airport as they tried to leave the country to join an Islamic terrorist group in Somalia and plot attacks against American troops abroad, authorities said Sunday.”

So begins an article in the Los Angeles Times, dated June 7, 2010.  The story goes on to talk about the two men, US citizens in their early 20s.  The paragraph that caught my attention says:

It was unclear how they became radicalized, authorities said. But according to a 17-page criminal complaint, they periodically listened to Anwar Awlaki, a U.S.-born, Yemen-based Islamic cleric who preaches jihad and is suspected of inspiring the accused Ft. Hood shooter and the failed Christmas Day airline plot.

As I read about Anwar Awlaki, I thought about Christian clerics who preach hatred toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people – and the violence that results from that religious rhetoric.  I debated yesterday whether or not to blog on this, and decided not to.  Then, today, I was pointed to this story in the Seattle Times.

“[A] brutal assault in the boys’ locker room is raising questions about the climate for gay students at the school [Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie] and whether administrators are doing enough to respond to bullying.”

The administrators need to do more.  They need to do more to respond to the bullying.  And they need to do more to prevent bullying!  Bullying has roots.  Yes, some of it comes from the adolescent anxieties about “differentness.”  But it needs societal support; it needs a degree of cultural acceptance to flourish.

In the case of the violence at Mount Si High School, the radical religious rhetoric of the Rev. Ken Hutcherson has been on important way bullies have found a sufficient degree of cultural acceptance to justify their actions.  As you’ll read in the Seattle Times article, Hutcherson led a major anti-gay protest at Mount Si High School in 2008 and has had it daughter monitor the Gay-Straight Alliance club at the high school.

I used to live in Carnation, Washington, just down the valley from Snoqualmie.  I had youth from my church who attended Mount Si High School and adults who worked there in that school district.  I feel a personal connection to this story and am deeply disturbed by the events it describes.

And I am convinced that the religious rhetoric of Ken Hutcherson contributed to this violence.  I would like to find a way to hold him accountable for actions that does not violate his First Amendment rights.


Update:  According to an article in the Snoqualmie Valley Record, a local newspaper, “Snoqualmie police investigated the beating, and the 16-year-old suspect was charged with second-degree assault in King County Juvenile Court. A trial is planned for late June.”


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