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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 11, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Scripture: Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Jesus and I had an argument this past week. I really didn’t want to preach about money. I wanted to look at our readings for today and feel the blessings of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints. I wanted to look at our readings for today and think about how we dress for action in a spiritual way. But, darn it, Jesus keeps bringing up money.
“Sell your possessions, and give alms.… Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The context for these words is, I think, important. Earlier in the chapter, someone in the crowd tells Jesus to tell this person’s brother to divide the family inheritance with this person. I think we can assume this is a younger brother. The older brother has possession of their father’s estate and is not sharing it. Maybe the younger brother, recognizing Jesus’ propensity to take the side of the oppressed and dispossessed, figured Jesus would be an ally in the quest for a share of the estate.
But Jesus isn’t sucked in. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And after telling a parable about the folly of focusing life on the accumulation of wealth and stuff, Jesus tells the crowd not to worry.
We’re more familiar with these lines as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, but here they are in Luke’s, too. God cares about the ravens and the lilies of the field and even the grass in the meadow, Jesus tells us. Certainly God cares about your welfare. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.”
These are reassuring words … until we get to what we’re supposed to do: sell your possessions and give alms.
“Are you serious, Jesus?” I asked this week.
“Yes,” he said, “I couldn’t be more serious.” Of all the things Jesus is serious about, the coming of God’s domination-free order is at the top of the list.
We live in a domination-based societal order and world order. And central to all domination is economic inequality and ranking. Jesus is serious about us being possession-free, about the whole world becoming possession-free because that is what will lead to God’s domination-free order.
But, I’ll be honest: nothing sends terror through my gut quiet like his injunction, “Sell your possessions.” I don’t know about you, but I equivocate. I rationalize. I explain. And then I start heaping on the guilt.
Yet, I believe that Jesus is not trying to make us feel bad. He is reminding us that it is all divine gift, not effort on our part: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.”
The early Christians and others right up to the present have tried living this way – possession-free. The only contemporary ones who seem to be at all successful, at least from my vantage point, are the monastics. Whether it’s the nuns and monks in orders that are centuries old or more contemporary expressions of monasticism, the thing that they have in common is supportive community. The only way that I can conceive of a possession-free life working is when the community holds the possessions, rather than the individual.
And perhaps that’s what Jesus is calling us to: to build a community that truly cares for each other, a common-wealth. When I think about what it takes to do this, what it takes to move into a life that is possession-free, I am baffled. Perhaps Abraham is a model.
To God’s invitation to believe, Abraham simply said, “Yes.” Ignorant as to why God chose him and without proof that God would fulfill the promise of descendants, Abraham said, “Yes.” In a moment – held sacred by Jews, Christians, and Muslims – Abraham was overcome with faith and embarked on a journey. What stark contrast to being overcome with fear. Perhaps when Jesus is telling us not to worry, not to be afraid, he is telling us to have faith.
The next paragraph seems a bit like a non sequitur, at least at first. Jesus goes from telling us not to worry, to selling our possessions and giving alms, to reminding us that if we want to know where our heart really is, just look at where our treasure is – to telling us to be awake, to be ready. When we hear this sort of language, especially when it’s connected to the metaphor of the wedding banquet, we expect to hear something about the “second coming.” We expect the usual apocalyptic advice to stay awake and be ready, because when the Son of God returns, he’ll the taking names and kicking butt. But, wow, Jesus does not go where I’m expecting him to go.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” So far, this is language we are used to hearing about the “return of the Son of Man.” Just as the slaves don’t know when the master will return from a wedding banquet – it might well be in the middle of the night – we don’t know when Jesus is going to return. So we slaves need to be dressed for action, ready for Jesus’ return. Because when Jesus does return, there’ll be work to do, right?
Except that’s not what happens. The master returns and he makes the servants recline, as at a formal banquet, girds himself, and serves them a meal. “In that time, men wore long, loose, flowing garments. In order to work, they had to gird their robes about their waists to permit freedom of movement.” So imagine being someone listening to Jesus. Whatever your class, you would have understood the image: Servants and slaves waiting on the return of their master. You would have imagined them, with their robes cinched up around their waist, ready to spring into action when their master called. You would have imagined them waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet at who know what hour, keeping their lamps filled with oil and burning, so that they can see well enough to respond instantly should their master return in the middle of the night. Only by living in such readiness will they be prepared to welcome him properly when he comes home and knocks at the door.
And when he does return, he tells them – his attentive slaves – to recline at the table. And he cinches up his robes and serves them. No master acts like this. So, when the Son of God returns …
Except, Jesus doesn’t say anything about some future apocalypse. Jesus is talking about where we have our faith here and now. “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.”
Be dressed for action today. Be ready at any moment to receive blessing, to receive grace, to be welcomed to the table. Jesus is overturning the whole edifice of social stratification and ranking.
St. Augustine’s life did not begin in a very saintly manner. As one writer put it, he gave “himself over to whatever pleasures presented themselves.” His mother prayed for him, at least as the legend goes, that he would give his life to the service of Christ, but Augustine persisted in his more carnal passions. That is, until one day when he sat with a friend on a bench weeping over the state of his life. It was at this moment that he heard a child – a boy or a girl, he says he does not know which it was – singing a song. The sound was coming from a neighboring house. The child was chanting over and over: “Pick it up, read it; pick it up; read it.” This is a translation of how Augustine described what happened next:
“Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon.
“So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for their [sic] I had put down the apostles [sic] book. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof.’ I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”
Now, there are some preachers who will point to this conversion as an object lesson about being ready for the Second Coming. “Had Christ returned before that fateful day, Augustine would have been caught unprepared.” But I can’t help but wonder if, for Augustine, this was the moment of Christ’s return.
Perhaps it is when we let go of our own desires, when we let go of our own fears, when we let go of our agendas and possessions, that Christ returns in our lives.
There is a through line in our passage from Luke. It moves from fear to treasure to being prepared. I can’t help but wonder if this is what a life of faith might actually look like – or at least that it is one way of understanding what a life of faith looks like. If we start with treasure, we are likely to put our hope in achievements, acquisitions, and assets. But if we start with faith, if that absence “of fear precedes our fear-driven desire for possessions, purchases, and procurements, we might actually be able to imagine treasures beyond self-driven determination, self-assessed success, and self-obsessed security.” And then we can make ourselves ready to receive God’s blessings and to respond.
Jesus is calling us to be dressed for the action of Jesus’ own activity in the world. And that action is likely to come when we least expect it or imagine seeing it. “In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions, is not going to cut it. Letting go of fear, letting go of treasure, and being prepared is the pattern for discipleship. Being without fear, knowing the source of your treasure – that is, your identity, your worth – makes it possible to be prepared for and an actual participant in God’s [Commonwealth].”
And I think that’s what it means to be dressed for action.
 See, for instance, “New Monasticism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Monasticism and Rob Moll, “The New Monasticism,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/september/16.38.html.
 Alyce M. McKenzie, “Mise en Place,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Mise-en-Place-Alyce-McKenzie-08-02-2013.html (10 August 2013).
 Brett Blair, “Do Not Let Him Find You Found Sleeping,” in an email dated 6 August 2013 from sermons.com.
 Ibid, quoting Augustine’s Confessions.
 This is, in fact, what Brett Blair said. Ibid.
 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on Luke 12:32-40,” workingpreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1805 (10 August 2013).
ADDITIONAL SOURCES USED:
Michaela Bruzzes, “Extraordinary Faith,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/extraordinary-faith?parent=41233 (10 August 2013).
Walter Wink, “The Serving Master,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/serving-master?parent=41233 (10 August 2013).
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 – 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.
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.” 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.
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.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 20, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 2:1-11 and Isaiah 62:1-5
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’m not sure how to verify this, but I’ve been told that Years ago when Johnny Carson was the host of “The Tonight Show” he interviewed an eight year old boy. Apparently, this kid was asked to appear because he had rescued two friends who had somehow gotten into trouble in a mine outside his hometown in West Virginia. As Johnny interviewed the boy, it became apparent to him and the audience that the boy was a Christian. So Johnny asked him if he attended Sunday school. When the boy said he did Johnny inquired, “What are you learning in Sunday school?”
“Last week, our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.” The audience roared – I wonder if the author of the gospel of John got a laugh when he first told the story. Johnny tried to keep a straight face.
Then Johnny asked, “What did you learn from that story?
The boy squirmed in his chair. It was apparent he hadn’t thought about this. But then you could watch the insight come to him as his face lit up. “If you’re going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!”
Of course, when you’re eight years old, you hear all stories very concretely. Eight-year-olds hear our gospel lesson and they see the events unfolding in their imagination. They see a feast, lots of guest, maybe lots of noise. They see Jesus’ mother telling him they’ve run out of wine. Perhaps they’ll hear their own mother saying something like, “The kitchen trash can is overflowing,” or “Your room is a mess.” Perhaps they’ll smile when they hear Jesus talk back to his mother: “So what?”
Then they will see Mary go to the servants and tell them to do whatever Jesus says. Jesus tells the servants to fill the stone jars with water, which they do. Then, at Jesus’ direction, they draw some water out and give it to the steward, the headwaiter, who tastes it and realizes it’s a fine vintage, the best that’s been served since the banquet began. To an eight-year-old, the story is just about what happened.
I approach this miracle, or as John calls it this “sign,” like I approach most miracles – with a modern mind. In other words, I’m skeptical about what supposedly happened. Did Jesus really turn water into wine? Sure, he does it all the time – but typically it takes a lot longer. First the rains have to come so the grapes can grow. Then the grapes have to be harvested and fermented. It usually take a year or more. This story? He does it in minutes.
Can I tell you a secret? I don’t think it matters if Jesus turned water into wine. I find much more fruit in looking for metaphors in these stories than I do in looking for historicity. And this story is rich.
In the gospel of John, most of the characters exhibiting faith and discipleship go unnamed. I think this is more starkly noticeable in Mark’s gospel, but notice some unnamed memorable figures from John: the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, the so-called “beloved disciple.” By their anonymity, the story allows them to be models for us, the readers and hearer of the gospel, inviting us into the story.
In this story, Mary isn’t called “Mary.” She’s referred to simply as Jesus’ mother. In fact, Jesus’ mother is never named in the gospel of John. She is referred to as the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus, and if finally elevated to status of mother of disciples (19:27).
In this, Jesus’ first public action, she initiates a sequence of events that announce the dawning of the messianic age. The setting is Cana in Galilee, an obscure town far from Jerusalem. Jesus’ mother’s concern is that the wine has given out. She remarks on this simply and declaratively. Jesus’ response is strange. It sounds a little like he’s talking back to me. “What has this to do with you and me, woman? My hour has not yet come.”
“My hour has not yet come.” We’ll hear that phrase again in John’s gospel. In chapter 7, when he escapes arrest, we’re told that it’s because his hour hadn’t come. We hear the refrain, that the hour is coming, again and again. Then, finally, just before his arrest while he is in prayer, Jesus says that the hour has come. The moment of final confrontation with the principalities and powers and the final revelation of God’s glory comes.
His hour is introduced here amidst a wedding running short of wine. “Alert readers will pay attention as the hours unfold. At the well with the Samaritan woman in John 4, it is the sixth hour, halfway through the 12-hour day. When the royal official’s son is healed at the end of chapter 4, it is the seventh hour. Time is passing; night, when no one can work (9:4), is approaching. When Jesus and the disciples reach the tomb of Lazarus, with death and murder in the air (chapter 11), Jesus insists that the 12 hours have not yet expired; there is still work to do. But when the final passover arrives in chapter 13, the narrator tells us that ‘his hour had come.’ … Here in Cana of Galilee, the hour has not come, but Jesus acts anyway, in what the narrator calls ‘the beginning of his signs.’”
The text tells us that the jars Jesus orders to be filled with water were required by the purification rules of the Judeans. These are big, heavy stone jars. They hold 20 to 30 gallons. I have no idea how they managed to get filled without the headwaiter noticing that something was going on. But I also notice that they had to be filled. Why were they empty? Had all the water been used by the guests to purify themselves as the wedding celebrations began? Had that ritual been abandoned by this family?
Regardless, Jesus seems to be repurposing them. It’s as if the purification jars had run out of the power to cause celebration! And I think it’s interesting that the headwaiter didn’t know the source of the extraordinary wine, but, the story tells us, the ‘servants’ knew. Already, the lines are drawn between those who are prevented by their status from seeing the ‘source’ of Jesus’ power and those whose lowliness makes it easy to see the truth.
As a Christian, I see the stone jars and think of baptism. Their purpose was to hold water for purification rituals. We Christians have a water purification ritual – baptism. And that got me thinking about the waters of baptism and the wine of communion. What if the waters of baptism are changed into the wine of communion in us? Then, the blood of Christ courses through our veins.
Transformation is the big theme in this story. We hear it echoed in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah speaks about the transformation of Jerusalem and God’s people who are beset by misery and discouragement. Israel and Jerusalem, it is anticipated, will exhibit glory with a new name and a new life. The transformation is from “forsaken” and “desolate,” to “my delight is in her” and “married.”
“The poet uses the imagery of an abandoned woman who in ancient patriarchal society was an object of shame and contempt. Jerusalem in exile was an object of contempt. Now God, cast as husband, marries her and offers new life.” The point is clear enough; the city is given new life by the transforming power of God.
In the gospel lesson, the big transformation is the water into wine thing – except, of course, it’s not.
The story begins “On the third day …” We know what happens on the third day. This is a resurrection story. This is a story about new life. To be a disciple is to assume resurrection. To be a disciple is to be open to the transforming power of God that brings new life.
“Knowing that Jesus has defeated death and its cohorts, evil and suffering, we can enter the struggle for life and kingdom ideals – justice, peace, love – without reservation and despite the fact that we may never see them fulfilled. The resurrection theme enables us – indeed, compels us – to enter the struggle anyway, knowing that life has already won.” By participating in this new life, we are radically transformed.
The story takes place at a wedding, a communal celebration where two people choose to commit to one another. Like marriage, discipleship is not a command, but a choice. “Because we can say no, saying yes is a joyful occasion! But be warned – a commitment to discipleship may seem as senseless and radical as believing in the resurrection, especially in a world that doesn’t think much of commitments, or have the time and patience for gospel ideals like welcoming the stranger and solidarity with the outcast. Believing in such suspect ideas takes strength and seriousness, faith and fidelity.” By choosing to make this radical commitment, we are radically transformed.
This is Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, so this story about radical transformation seems especially appropriate. Kings life was given in an attempt to radically transform our society. He started with seeking to transform the scourge of racism. Then he expanded his efforts to include the transformation of the scourge of poverty. And finally, seeing the sins of racism, poverty, and militarism tied together, he sought to transform the scourge of war.
At his death in 1968, when he was calling with urgency for an end to poverty in our nation, there were 25.4 million poor Americans including 11 million poor children. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion.
Today, child poverty is up 46%, general poverty is up 82%, while the GDP is up some 300%. The gross domestic product is up three times, and still, somehow the number of poor people keeps rising. Twenty million of our neighbors are living in extreme poverty including 7.3 million children. Disgracefully children are the poorest age group in America and the younger they are the poorer they are. One in four preschool children is poor. More than one in three Black children and the same proportion of Latino children are poor. Children have suffered most since the recession began.
The radical transformation Jesus promises his disciples isn’t just so we can have a new life grounded in radical commitment. We are promised radical transformation so we can be about the work of transforming the world.
God has already gifted us with water. John invites us to become, at the hands of Christ, the finest wine. Amen.
 From an email of sermon illustrations mailed by sermons.com (20 January 2013). No author attribution given.
 Wes Howard-Brook, “In the Beginning Was the Word,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj9301&article=930110&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Epiphany_2#PTWepiphany2C (15 January 2013).
 Walter Brueggemann, “Radical Transformations,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_100149_CEpiphany2&week=C_Epiphany_2 (15 January 2013).
 Michaela Bruzzese, “Qualities of Discipleship,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_010149_CEpiphany2&week=C_Epiphany_2 (15 January 2013).
 Marian Wright Edelman, “How We Can Truly Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,” Children’s Defense Fund, http://www.childrensdefense.org/newsroom/child-watch-columns/child-watch-documents/how-can-we-truly-honor-dr-king.html#comment (18 January 2013).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 13, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 and Acts 8:14-17
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Have you ever noticed that people tend to get into the water one of two ways? Whether it’s the swimming pool or the swimming hole, people either plunge right in or they dip in a toe, then a foot, then the leg, and slowly lower themselves into the water. I have an memory from my childhood of my father diving into the lake, rolling onto his back as he surfaced so he could look at us on shore, and saying, “Brisk!” before anyone could ask, “How’s the water?”
One of the things I noticed as I studied our scriptures this week is that in Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus, we don’t see him in the water. In Luke’s version, John is preaching and answering questions, and then we cut to Jesus praying: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying …” Apparently, at some point, Jesus got baptized, we assume by John, but we don’t get to hear about it. We don’t get a chance to ask Jesus, “How’s the water?”
It’s as if Luke assumes we’d assume that Jesus was there in the Jordan with everyone else, there in the wilderness, there in the margins of society, removed from the centers of power. He gets wet like everyone else, but then he starts praying. And as he prays, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove flying down from heaven. And he hears a voice coming from heaven.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, angels come from heaven to deliver messages. Zachariah gets a visit. Mary gets a visit. The shepherds get a visit. But this is a voice directly from heaven. We assume it’s God’s voice and this assumption is confirmed when we’re told what the voice says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s gospel isn’t about the water; it’s about what happens out of the water.
There is other stuff going on here. Right after we hear that God has called Jesus “Son,” claiming Jesus as part of divinity, Luke goes into the very human genealogy of Jesus. I assume Luke is making a point about how you can’t put Jesus in a box. Yes, he’s the son of God, but he’s also the son of Mary and Joseph. Yes, he’s the son of Mary, but he’s also the son of God.
There’s other stuff going on here, but central to Luke’s understanding of baptism is not the ritual of the water. Central to Luke’s understanding of baptism is the action of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is praying, absorbed in the ancient spiritual practice, when heaven opens, he looks up Jacob’s ladder, a cosmic wormhole opens. It’s a pillar of fire. It’s the eye of the storm. It’s a holy moment of divine activity. And the Holy Spirit slams into him.
“In this event Jesus accepts a role with reference to God and to humankind.”[i] We will get into what he understood this role to mean in a couple weeks. Today, let’s stay in this moment. Let’s stay with Luke, looking at what God is doing here.
We hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus in our reading about an early baptism of the life of the church. In our reading from Acts – also authored by Luke – the candidates were convinced of the news of God in Christ, so they are baptized in his name. The apostles apparently think this is pretty cool, because Peter and John go to these new believers. Now this is a bit of a stretch because these new believer were Samaritans and there was that Jewish-Samaritan animosity that Jesus liked to use in his story telling. But when they get to Samaria, Peter and John discover that these new believers haven’t received the gift of the Holy Spirit. So they pray over these newest members of the movement, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed.
Luke separates the ritual of baptism from the action of God. It’s as if Luke is saying to me, “Jeff, you can get them as wet as your want, but it’s the action of God that really matters.”
We shouldn’t be surprised by this separation. Luke tells us that John realized that what he was doing and what God was doing were different things. He’ll baptize you with water as a symbol of your desire to repent. But only Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Listen to the first two verses of the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned for today. Isaiah 43:1-2:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
In Isaiah, the waters threaten to overwhelm us and the fires threaten to consume us. In Luke, water initiates us and fire refines us and makes us ready to truly serve God and one another.
It’s like the story of the egg, the carrots, and the coffee.[ii] A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.
Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.
After a while, she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me, what you see?”
“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied.
Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma. The daughter then asked, “What does it mean, mother?”
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity … boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting, but after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile, its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.
“Which are you?” she asked her daughter. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”
Baptism doesn’t protect us from the hardships of life. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t give us a “get out of hardships free” card. “At baptism we proclaim our desire to walk with God. When we receive the Holy Spirit, God responds, assuring us that our primary identity has already been decided: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1). Luke confirms this most clearly with Jesus’ own baptism. Jesus’ step toward God is reciprocated with God’s acknowledgement of Jesus: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[iii]
I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the years. Yes, most of them were mine. In all honestly, I only remember a few of them – including the ones I preached. One that I remember was preached as the consecration of an Episcopal bishop I was attending to help represent the ecumenical community about two decades ago.
The event was one of pomp and circumstance as only the Episcopalians can do. This was a big deal. Becoming a bishop in the Episcopal Church is a big deal. From a liturgical point of view, consecrating a bishop is a rare event. Ordinations of priests happen with some regularity. Baptisms are a dime a dozen.
The bishop who preached at the service made a point of this. To illustrate the point, he spoke about the certificates that you get at each occasion. At baptism, a card is issued with the baptized’s name. At ordination, a certificate is issued – suitable for framing, but it’s the size of a piece of standard paper. At a bishop’s consecration, a grand certificate is issued that embossed and ornate and big and substantial.
And then he said that we have it backwards. Of these three liturgical events, the important one is the baptism. Yes, we pray for the Holy Spirit to act in all three of these events, but the event that claims us, that makes us know who we are and whose we are is not the consecration or the ordination. It’s the baptism.
Studying these scriptures has made me think about how the Holy Spirit has been at work in my life. I was an infant when I was baptized, so I don’t remember it. I believe the Holy Spirit came and whispered in my ear that I, too, am a beloved child of God, just as I believe that Holy Spirit whispers this good news to everyone who is baptized. But I have no memory of that experience. Likewise, I don’t remember any heaven-rending epiphany at my confirmation. The hoard of us (there were four or five dozen in my confirmation class) stood before the congregation, answered some questions, and received certificates. And as much as I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit doing something at my ordination, mostly what I felt was hands pressing on me as prayers were recited.
My deep Holy Spirit experiences have happened outside the confines of those liturgical moments. You could have filmed what seemed to be the action at those rituals, but the real action took place at other times. In many ways, baptism is an out of water experience.
My baptism was happening when I received a Bible during worship in fourth grade – a moment of connection to God that sill rests with me. My baptism was happening when I heard a scripture read and I left the sanctuary and was one the road with Jesus, only to be disappointed with how the reading ended. My baptism was happening again when I heard my call to ordained ministry.
Earlier this week, representatives from three of the five congregations associated with the United Church of Christ in Fremont met to do some initial brainstorming for UCC-wide mission effort that will start on April 1. “Mission 4/1 Earth” will focus us for 50 days on caring for the earth. We will have opportunities to contribution toward the national goals of: 1 million earth care hours; 100,000 trees planted; and 100,000 advocacy letters written. Some of this work we will do on our own and some of it will be done in community. All of it will be an opportunity to live out our baptisms, and if we’re open to it, the Holy Spirit just might use it to keep your baptism happening.
You see, ultimately, baptism isn’t about sin and forgiveness and getting some good after-life insurance. Baptism is about claiming and being claimed, about accepting who we are and whose we are … and about how that changes how we live.
As holy a moment as baptism is, the importance of baptism is what happens after we’re baptized. It’s an out of water experience.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Fearless Submission,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_100149_CEpiphany1&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).
[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Receiving the Spirit,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_040149_CEpiphany1&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES USED
Jim Rice, “‘You Are My Beloved,’” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_980149_CEpiphany1&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).
Ched Myers, “Baptism’s True Claim,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=Soj0607&article=060722&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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.
 Martin L. Smith, “Wiser Than We Think,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_130149_CEpiphany&week=C_Epiphany (31 December 2012), quoting Golden Legend, “a popular medieval compendium of lore about the church’s feast days.”
 Email from Kate Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, dated 28 December 2012.
 Email from Quinn G. Caldwell, “Kneel,” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional from the United Church of Christ, dated 6 January 2012.
OTHER RESOURCE USED:
Nancy Hasting Sehested, “The Flickering Light of Epiphany,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_930149_AEpiphany&week=C_Epiphany (31 December 2012).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
Perhaps, if we embrace Mary’s faith and vision as our own, God will grant the peasant’s wish for us as well. Amen.
 Andrew J. Hoeksema, “Speaking of Maybe,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0512&article=051222&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Advent_2 (1 December 2012).
 at least according to a quote someone posted on Facebook.
 Joyce Hollyday, “Vacant Thrones,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_941249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).
 Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Becoming Mary’s Servants,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_061249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).
 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, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_121249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).
Madia Bolz-Weber, “There’s Just Something About Mary: The Power of Yes,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=bl_111220_Bolz_Weber_Theres_Just&week=C_Christmas_1 (1 December 2012).
Richard Rohr, OFM, “Matter and Spirit,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_791249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 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.
Fundamentalist Christian darling Rob Bell made a bit of a splash when his book Love Wins came out this past spring – and fundamentalist Christians were none too pleased with him. The center the controversy was the contention held by many Christians (fundamentalist and not) that only Christians escape Hell when this life is over – that and the question, is Bell espousing Universalism (the belief that all humans are saved through Jesus Christ)?
I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how to answer the question (though the Mars Hill website contends Bell is not espousing Universalism). However, the whole issue of fundamentalism and hell got me thinking.
The whole notion that there is an eternal divide between those who are saved and those who are not, leads to “us/them” thinking. As long as any religion argues (rightly or wrongly) that some (read: “we”) are saved and some (read: “they”) are condemned, the supposed eternal dividing line is going to be imported to this world. And when people embrace dividing lines, they subconsciously embrace the emotional foundation to self-justifying violence.
I am a Universalist. I focus much more on John 3:17 than on John 3:16. I focus on God sending Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world, but that whole world would be saved. I realize, too, that embracing this belief I am embracing an emotional foundation that makes violence harder.