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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.


[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.



A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, CA
on Sunday, October 27, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 18:9-14
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of you know who Gregory Peck was.  For those who don’t, Gregory Peck he was a famous Hollywood actor in the 1950s and 60s, though his career spanned several decades.  I will probably always think of him in his roll of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Now, I find it funny that I need to tell some of you who Gregory Peck was because of this little story[1] I want to tell about him.

Once upon a time, the famous actor Gregory Peck was standing in line with a friend, waiting for a table in a crowded Los Angeles restaurant.  They had been waiting for some time, the diners seeming to take their time as they enjoyed their meal.  New tables weren’t opening up very fast and it seemed as if the line wasn’t moving.  Still quite far back in the line, Peck’s friend became impatient, and said to Peck, “Why don’t you tell the maître d’ who you are?”

Gregory Peck responded with great wisdom.  “No,” he said, “if you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

I had a nasty case of writer’s block this week when it came to this sermon.  I wondered what the heck was going on and, finally, it came to me:  I’ve been afraid that I will come across all Pharisaic.  I mean, here’s a guy who’s got is spiritual life together.  He fasts twice a week.  He tithes.  He goes to the Temple to pray.  And he’s really good at passing judgment on other people.  I would be talking about this passage and this passage lends itself to “good example, bad example” so easily.  In my desire to be not like the Pharisee (I thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee), I become just like him!  So, would you pray with and for me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

Out of context, we might fail to realize that this parable is about prayer (among other things).  The big difference between an allegory and a parable is that an allegory makes a point and a parable is a story that is multi-layered and has much to reveal.  So, when I say that this parable is about prayer, that’s only one of the things that this parable is about.

Luke sets another parable just before this one.  The first one is about being about the persistent widow who keeps bugging a judge for justice (Luke 18:1-8).  Here we have a Pharisee and a tax collector going to the Temple to pray.  Jesus uses the least likely examples as teaching aids.

First he uses a widow – someone from the bottom of society, someone without power or voice – as an example.  In this passage, we get a Pharisee – someone looked upon with reverence by Jewish society – and a tax collector – one of the most despicable people in Jewish society.  It seems as if God is living right inside the Pharisee.  “His prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his works and his own goodness.  He has it all figured out, and things add up rather nicely for him.  Perhaps he comes out looking better than even God does!  It helps to have the tax-collector nearby for stark contrast, because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works.  To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is.  Actually, there isn’t much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.”[2]

But Jesus doesn’t use the paragon of religious fervor as our example.  He turns to the tax collector who “pours out his heart and buries himself so deeply into the voicing of his deepest anguish, his most profound awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he apparently never notices the Pharisee, let alone compares himself to him.  [The tax collector] flings himself on the mercies of God and depends on God to do something remarkable in his life.  There are so many reversals in the Gospel of Luke that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this hated collaborator goes home justified while the observant religious type doesn’t.”[3]

“In our contemporary society there is a strong temptation to ‘use’ the spiritual life as a way to the experience of inner harmony and peace.  Often it seems that self-fulfillment, self-realization, and self-attainment are the ultimate goals of the spiritual journey.”[4]  And they may be for some spiritual traditions.  But I don’t think they are for Christians.  For the Christian, praying takes courage, courage to go all in on the lifelong struggle to unmask illusions.

I am, too often, tempted to pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like that fundamentalist, judgmental pastor over there at that other church.”  But that’s an illusion.  I am just like that fundamentalist, judgmental pastor, and real prayer will unmask that illusion.  Henri Nouwen says, “The greatest illusion of all is … that a lifelong asceticism, filled with prayer, contemplation, fasting, and charity, can give us a claim on inner peace, comforting light, and a secure sense of God’s presence.  It is this illusion that can lead us to spiritual pride and destroy all that we set out to gain.”[5]

This is one of those spiritual paradoxes that seem to come up again and again in Christian life.  We can be like the Pharisee and fall into a limited prayer, a prayer that seeks to maintain the status quo, hoping that by being disciplined in that practice we will find inner peace.  But all that level of prayer does is leave us in a state of illusion.  Only when we pray like the tax collector do we realize how disturbing the love of God can be.

“If we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God’s goodness we make room for God to work in our lives.  That is much closer to righteousness than all the good works we can manage.  Charles Cousar writes, ‘Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.’  Honesty flows from openness:  an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.  For Luke’s audience, learning to be Christian years after Jesus died, ‘Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians.’ Prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is:  merciful and loving and just.”[6]

One of the oldest non-Biblical prayers in Christianity is known as “the Jesus prayer.”  Not to be confused with the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus prayer dates from the early 7th century and probably as early as the 5th century.[7]  The prayer has four phrases:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.
Traditionally, it is repeated, mantra-like, with the first two phrases spoken (silently) on the inhalation and the second two phrases on the exhalation.  Sometimes it is shortened, even down to just two words:  Jesus, mercy.

When I hear the tax collector’s prayer, this ancient prayer that probably came from the desert fathers comes to mind.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” the tax collector prayed.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer can help create the openness that is needed for real transformation.  As I tried to think of a contemporary version, my favorite bumper sticker prayer came to mind:  “God help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

I know there is resistance among some of us to the use of the word “sin.”  If it was been used against us to whip us into shape by our parents and/or our childhood church, it’s a word that carries so much judgment and induces so much shame.  To the other extreme, because of how the word has been co-opted by society at large, the word has lost its meaning, becoming a “contemporary brand name for ice cream.  And high-end chocolate truffles.  And lingerie in which the color red predominates.”[8]  “Sin” ends up referring to the pleasurable consumption of something, including sex.

But neither of those is sin.  Sin is not a threat to keep us in line and to induce shame.  Nor is sin a pleasurable naughtiness.  Sin is simply the human propensity of screw thing up by what we do or what we fail to do.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, someone with the propensity to screw things up.

One of my other favorite prayers goes something like this:
Thank you God for this day.  And thank you that, so far, I have managed to get through it without saying a bad word or having a mean thought about anyone.  But I’m about to get out of bed …
I love that this prayer acknowledges our propensity to screw things up.

This parable begins with a journey.  The Pharisee and the tax collector go up to the Temple.  While the Temple was a real place, it is also a symbol.  It represents the dwelling place of God.  The spiritual journey is a journey deeper into the dwelling place of God.

The problem is that the Pharisee thinks he knows exactly where and how and who God is.  So he offers a prayer, a prayer to keep things the same.  He is not seeking transformation.  He certainly isn’t expecting any.  And so his prayer piously, reassuringly reviews the status quo.  The nasty tax collector in the corner even has his place as a foil, to add to spiritual contentment by furnishing a contrasting example of what it is to be in the wrong.  The Pharisee has met all spiritual requirements and things are fine just the way they are.

The tax collector, on the other hand, has no spiritual assets, but comes to the Temple needing transformation.  God can change his state through the power and grace of mercy.  And that yearning for transformation is the faith that God recognizes, and so the tax collector is changed by forgiveness.

The Pharisee, wedded to the status quo of his own success, has unknowingly divorced himself from God

“The life of faith is lived in a state of awakened desire.  In this state of arousal, prayer and worship bring a deep sense of homecoming and belonging.  Our actual apartments and houses can go a long way to satisfying this need for home, but never the whole way.  Faith recognizes a homesickness for God.  Only pilgrimage can lead us to that ultimate home in God.  In this awakened state there is no need for strategies of denial and avoidance.  Life is fraught with inevitable sufferings and losses.  These can be integrated into the life of faith when we experience it as a pilgrimage”[9] to our true home.



[1] Based on a story shared in an email from dated 22 October 2013.

[2] Kate Huey, “Just Worship/No Distance Too Great,” United Church of Christ, (26 October 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “The Hell of Mercy,” Sojourners, (15 October 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Huey, op. cit.

[7] “Jesus Prayer,” Wikipedia, (26 October 2013).

[8] Francis Spufford, “What Sin REALLY Is (The Human Propensity to F**k Things Up),” Huffington Post, (posted 25 October 2013; downloaded 26 October 2013).

[9] Martin L. Smith, “Pilgrimage to Our True Home,” Sojourners, (15 October 2013).


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