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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 12, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Galatians 3:23-39 and Daniel 1:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
“Despite bitter cold, wind, rain and hail,” the PBS Newshour reports, “hundreds of members of Native American tribes and supporters from around the country turned out Friday to march on the White House, in an effort to turn the momentum of the Standing Rock protests [against the building of a oil pipeline through and near reservation land] into a more sustained movement for native rights.
“The march and a rally in Lafayette Square across from the White House came after four days of protest, prayer and lobbying on Capitol Hill, where Native communities called for the protection of natural resources and demanded the new administration honor treaties with indigenous peoples.”
Five and a quarter centuries after the Doctrine of Discovery emboldened Europeans to come to the Americas and claim them, five and a quarter centuries after the people living on America’s soil were first enslaved or killed with the blessing of the church, the descendants of those first nations are still fighting for their rights and their sovereignty.
If you’re wondering how it is possible that the Doctrine of Discovery is still active in our society, the answer is easy: It’s in our cultural DNA. Let me explain what I mean.
Last week, I talked about how the church is responsible for creating the Doctrine of Discovery and blessing the colonial expansion of Christian nations, which of course meant European countries. Thanks to the Doctrine, by the 1600s, Spain had established colonies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and what is now Florida. Likewise, the Portuguese had established a foothold in South American.
England had gained military power and started establishing colonies in North America. The Doctrine of Discovery gave the justification for the English to do this. Back in 1497, just a few years after Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, a English-financed explorer planted the English flag in what is now Newfoundland, so they felt they could claim they had “discovered” the land. In 1607, they founded Jamestown, and in 1621 the Plymouth colony was established by English Pilgrims.
In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims set out to establish their utopia, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown that would have repercussions for the next four hundred years. The ship carried Africans, but they were not passengers. They were the cargo. While they may have been the first slaves brought to an English colony as cargo, they were hardly the first slave brought from Africa to the Americas. “By 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves.”
The African slave trade was justified the same way the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement or murder of the native peoples living there was justified: the Doctrine of Discovery. Successive Popes had said that European kings should “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue … all Saracens and Pagans and all enemies of Christ … to reduce their persons in perpetual slavery … and to take away all of their possessions and property” (to quote the 1452 Papal Bull Dum Diversas). Historian Howard Zinn notes, “By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.”
A century and a half after the English started establishing colonies in North America and importing Africans to work as slaves, the colonists decided it was time to break ties with the king. And so they fought a war and managed to win, declaring their independence with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, when they said “all men,” they didn’t mean all people. They meant all property-owning, white, males.
Although this new nation was founded on freedom from tyranny, the idea that white people and Christians had certain divine rights was nevertheless ingrained in our nation’s cultural DNA and quite literally into our policies. As someone raised in New England and whose family goes back to the Mayflower, I like to think of myself as coming from a people who opposed the evils of slavery. But New Englanders profited directly and indirectly from the slave trade and the three-fifths compromise in our constitution was pushed by the Yankees. They didn’t want Blacks counted as people when it came to deciding how many Representatives southern states received. And nobody wanted the Indians counted. Thus, it was compromised that the population of the states would be set by “adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years [that is, indentured servants], and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” Well, the only other people who were left were slaves of African ancestry.
Another way this supremacy of the white people because part of our policies and cultural DNA was through the court. The 1823 Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh is a key example. While the decision is often framed as “private citizens could not purchase lands from Native Americans,” what it really said is that Indians really didn’t own the property in the first place. The decision “begins with a lengthy discussion of history of the European discovery of the Americas and the legal foundations of the American Colonies. In particular, [the decision] focuses on the manner in which each European power acquired land from the indigenous occupants. Synthesizing the law of nations, [it] traces the outlines of the ‘discovery doctrine’ – namely, that a European power gains radical title (also known as sovereignty) to the land it discovers. As a corollary, the discovering power gains the exclusive right to extinguish the ‘right of occupancy’ of the indigenous occupants, which otherwise survived the assumption of sovereignty.”
Then the decision says that when the United States “declared independence from Great Britain, the United States government inherited the British right of preemption over Native American lands. The legal result is that the only Native American conveyances of land which can create valid title are sales of land to the federal government.” The decision literally calls the Native peoples “heathens” in justifying this decision.
For Native Americans, this decision foreshadowed the Trail of Tears and almost two hundred years of forced removals, violence, and broken treaties. The very things the Standing Rock Sioux were protesting this weekend are a direct legacy of these attitudes and this decision.
In 1845, the political leader and prominent editor named John L. O’Sullivan gave the Doctrine of Discovery a uniquely American flavor when he coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to defend U.S. expansion and claims of new territory to the west. It furthered the sense among U.S. citizens of an inevitable or natural right to expand the nation and to spread “freedom and democracy” (though only to those deemed capable of self-government, which certainly did not include Blacks or Native Americans). Of course, Johnson v. M’Intosh gave the legal cover for simply taking the land from the inhabitants as our nation pushed west.
Our denominations are not immune from the racism of the Doctrine of Discovery and the United States’ spin on it, Manifest Destiny. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was complicit in white American exceptionalism. The denomination’s founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, were 19th century men. As white, free, land-owning, educated, males, they acquired great privilege. There is little wonder they adopted, most likely without any conscious thought, the American power construct.
Campbell was an immigrant from Scotland. Immigrants choose to live in a land different from their birth, and Campbell had a deep desire for his chosen nation to be the best. Fully adopting the social concept of manifest destiny, adding a touch of Protestant superiority, mixing in some white superiority, and Campbell developed a social construct for Disciples. Writing “The Destiny of Our Country” in the August 1852 edition of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell pronounced, “In our countries [sic] destiny is involved the destiny of Protestantism, and in its destiny the destiny of all the nations of the world. God has given, in awful charge, to Protestant England and Protestant America – the Anglo-Saxon race – the fortunes, not of Christendom only, but of all the world.”
As the issue of slavery took on a greater and greater importance in the United States, Campbell wrote, “Much as I may sympathize with a black man, I love the white man more,” thus endorsing a church system that places white folk first and theologically supported Aquinas’ argument of soul layering (which I talked about last week), placing the white soul a notch higher than the soul of a person of color.
After the Civil War, during the initial months of his administration, President Ulysses S. Grant decided he needed to address the so-called “Indian Problem.” Disciples pastor David Bell points out, “five years earlier the United States had ended a war to ensure only one nation would occupy the land from sea to shining sea. However, once the Civil War was over, the reality that years of treaty making between the U.S. and American Tribes had created multiple independent Indian nations across the American landscape confronted the Grant administration. The question before the Grant administration was how to eliminate the Indian nations – thus the Grant Peace policy.
“To eliminate Tribal sovereignty and nationhood the U.S. had to first ‘abrogate’ existing treaties. A rider on the March 3, 1871 Indian appropriation bill made it a reality that, ‘no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty’ [U.S. Statutes at Large, 16:566]. This radical congressional action of dismantling Tribal identity and structure changed the U.S. government’s opinion of American Tribes from that of sovereign nations to that of designated ‘wards.’”
Now that Native Americans were considered wards, the United States initiated a program to do away with Indian identity. In 1870, Congress passed an appropriation for Indian education. This allowed the government to recruit a wide variety of Christian denominations to establish Indian mission school with the goal of converting and civilizing the Indians. Attendance at these mission schools was made mandatory on many reservations for all native children aged six through sixteen. I’m not sure if the Disciples of Christ actually ran such a school on the Yakama Reservation in Washington, but I do know that the DOC has had a mission on the reservation since about this time, a mission that still functions today.
The good news is that how the mission functions has changed in many ways since it was founded. Just this year, they have supported the call for Native rights at the Standing Rock demonstrations and at Oak Flats, and they will be working with the Inter-Tribal coalition of the Diné, Ute Mountain, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute to bring awareness and support for the Bears Ears National Monument. The Yakama Christian Mission has gone from a tool of white supremacy to a vehicle of protection of “the North American Landscape and her Indigenous People.”
The United Church of Christ is also complicit in white supremacy. The Congregationalists (one of the predecessor denominations of the UCC) sent missionaries out into the world – that is, out to the heathens who just happened to be non-whites – to bring them Christianity and civilization. One of the places they went was Hawaii. The Congregationalist missionaries and perhaps moreso their children were complicit in the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani.
As the UCC said in their 1993 apology to the Hawaiian people, “Some of these [missionary] men and women … sometimes confused the ways of the West with the ways of the Christ. Assumptions of cultural and racial superiority and alien economic understanding led some of them and those who followed them to discount or undervalue the strengths of the mature society they encountered. Therefore, the rich indigenous values of na Kanaka Maoli, their language, their spirituality, and their regard for the land, were denigrated. The resulting social, political, and economic implications of these harmful attitudes contributed to the suffering of na Kanaka Maoli in that time and into the present.” The United Church of Christ’s apology came with some money for restitution, too.
Apologies and restitution are a start. Changing behavior to demonstrate a new attitude is a start. But what else can we as a church do to overcome how deeply ingrained racism is not just in our society, but in the churches as well?
If we really believe what Paul wrote to the Galatians, that distinctions of ethnicity and distinctions of economic and societal status and even distinctions of gender do not matter, for we are all one in Christ, then we need to do our best to remove racism from our cultural DNA.
The culture that Daniel and his friends were forced into wanted them to violate their consciences. The Babylonians wanted them to do things that went against their values, but they held fast and made a way of conscience when one might of thought there could be no way. My hope is that we can do the same – that we will hold fast to our values of equality and community even when the culture around us continues to allow white supremacy to function.
Last year, the General Board of the Disciples of Christ received a report from the “Racist Language Audit Task Force.” The report goes through the official documents of the denomination – the bylaws (called the “Design”), the standing rules for meetings, denominational policies, and other such documents – and makes specific recommendations of how these documents can be changed to be less racist. In essence, they made recommendations for how the General Ministries of the DOC can work to remove some of the racism from the denomination’s DNA.
As you know, during this sermon series, I am making a suggestion of a possible action we as a congregation or we as individuals can take to respond to some aspect of racism. My suggestion for this week is that we create our own Racist Language Audit Task Force to recommend how our bylaws, policies, and meeting rules (and even our Strategic Plan, if it’s needed) could be less racist.
That’s one concrete example of something we can do to be less racist. I want to offer one more concrete example of something some other people did. I’m not sure how we can apply it to our congregation, but it is a story that gives me hope.
About five weeks ago, a Native American man told Diana Butler Bass a story about something that had happened at the Standing Rock protests in the preceding months. She wrote about this story: “At the height of the prayer protest, there was also great violence. At one point, a white man stood up and called out, ‘Everyone here who is white, come to the front! We will form a shield that the security forces must shoot us first!’ And they did so. All the white folks who had gathered at Standing Rock surrounded all the native people, all holding hands, and stood between the water protectors and the guns.
“The native man told me this story with tears in his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘terrible things are happening. But never in my life – never in the history of my tribe – did white people stand between us and the bullets. Terrible things are happening. And beautiful, brave things as well.’”
May we all find beautiful, brave things to do. Amen.
 Elizabeth Flock and Iman Smith, “Strengthened by Standing Rock, Native Americans march on D.C. What’s next for the movement?” PBS Newshour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/strengthened-standing-rock-native-americans-march-d-c-whats-next-movement/ (posted and accessed 10 March 2017).
 Howard Zinn, “Drawing the Color Line,” History Is a Weapon, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncolorline.html (accessed 10 March 2017).
 The Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 2.
 Alexander Campbell, quoted by David B. Bell, “Disciples Unified Destiny,” Landscape Mending, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 20 July 2011; accessed 10 March 2017).
 David B. Bell, “An 1870 Faith Based Initiative,” Landscape Mending, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 20 July 2011; accessed 10 March 2017). Verb tenses changed to fit the past tense voice of the sermon.
 Diana Butler Bass, in a Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154589452273500 on 11 February 2017 (accessed most recently on 10 March 2017).
If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.
I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”
I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.
While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.
Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.
Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.
To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.
And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.
As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:
For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.
The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.
When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.
Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.
Today, members of my congregation and several other United Church of Christ congregations in Fremont, California, gathered in Fremont’s Central Park to pick up trash. This is part of the UCC’s “Mission 4/1 Earth” project. Being the pastor of one of the participating churches, I couldn’t get away right after worship, get changed, and get to the marshalling point – so I arrived late and missed the orientation. But I figured that picking up trash wouldn’t be too hard to figure out on my own.
Because I was not with the group, I ended up doing most of my hour of picking up trash by myself. I had a plastic bag from a loaf of bread as my trash bag, which caused a bit of a commotion with I got to an area by Lake Elizabeth that was inhabited by a bunch of some fowl I can’t identify (maybe you can?). Amazingly, they saw the bag and assumed that it was filled with stale bread, because I turned around to see a bunch of them following me. It was not the greeting I expected.
I noticed two other things. One was that about two-thirds to three-quarters of the items I picked up were cigarette butts. It amazes me that people still think it’s okay to just toss their cigarette butts onto the grass. The other thing I noticed was that after just an hour of bending over to pick up trash, my back and hips were aching. It made me very appreciative of the people who do stoop labor to harvest food for me to eat.
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, September 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Deuteronomy 34:1-6 and Mark 7:24-30
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I can’t help but wonder how Moses felt there on Mount Nebo, looking over the Promised Land. I wonder how he felt knowing that he had led his people through a desert, through the wilderness, right to the door of the land that they believed was supposed to be theirs, knowing that they were about to enter it, but he would not be.
I imagine him, there on the mountaintop, looking over the Promised Land, chatting with God, learning that he was going to die. Had discussions with God become old hat for Moses? I suppose I’d be filled with awe to have God saying to me, “Look over there and over there. Look all the way to the sea. Yep, that’s the land I’ve set aside for you. Pretty cool, huh? Oh, by the way, you know that part about you not being able to enter that land? I meant it.” Well, I’d be filled with awe right up to that last part, then I’d probably be pretty ticked with God.
Moses had one heck of a roller coaster of a life: Born into slavery at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male infants were to be killed when they were born; hidden in the bull rushes, only to be “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into Pharaoh’s house to be raised as her son; committed homicide when he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled the country to escape prosecution; got married and while tending sheep, had an encounter with a burning bush; called into a special mission and returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves; led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, transforming the people from a collection of freed slaves into a community of faith, a people of covenant; led the people right up to the border of what was going to become their new land. And then God tells him, “Sorry, but you’re not going in. You’re going to die instead.”
Jewish Midrash is filled with stories about Moses and God having a discussion about all this. One goes like this.
God: “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”
Moses: “But you killed all the first born in Egypt!”
God: “Do you resemble me? I cause people to die and I also revive them.”
I love the image of Moses arguing with God.
But I can’t read this passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of his speeches, perhaps the second most famous of his speeches has been called his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech. King delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (the Church of God in Christ headquarter) in Memphis, Tennessee.
Most of his speech was about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike. King talked about the workers and their strike. He talked about racial justice and civil right. He talked about the power of boycotts and nonviolent protest. And he finished his speech by talking about himself.
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”
The next day, King was assassinated.
Here we are, on the edge of something new. This is not as momentous as the Hebrews entering the Promised Land. This is not as earth-shaking as the assassination of one of American’s prophets. But we are here, just on this side of finalizing a merger we’ve been exploring and considering for seven years.
There have been times when these seven years have seemed like a long time to me. I’ve felt, at times, like we’ve been going in circles, not making progress. There have even been times when I’ve wondered if it was worth the effort. But most often, I’ve watched relationships grow and trust build and vision take hold and hope blossom.
Pardon me for being redundant, but there is something very special about the work we’ve done and this promised land we are about to enter. All the literature I’ve been able to find about congregational mergers has been about mergers undertaken as a matter of congregational survival. Neither Niles Congregational Church nor First Christian Church needed to merge into a new church. But each congregation discerned that we could do more for the realm of God together then we could do separately, so we decided to merge and form Niles Discovery Church.
We decided to create a church that would be known for its extravagant welcome. We decided to create a church that is united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions. And so we’re creating a church where we follow the path and teachings of Jesus to draw us closer to God, even as we acknowledge that other paths work for other people; where inclusivity means welcoming conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and those of all classes and abilities; where we know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe, and where we find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes; where we strive for peace and justice among all people; where we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our earth; and where we commit to each other and to God that we will continue on a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
I believe that this vision we have for our church is a biblical image. One of the things that’s striking about our Gospel lesson today is the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. We squirm a bit when Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, tells a desperate mother that she and her little girl are like “dogs.” “Our discomfort – with Jesus’ humanity and his perspective as a faithful Jew – trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end.” But Kate Huey suggests that this story might be an expression of one of the challenges the early church faced: do we allow pagans (non-Jews) to be part of the church?
She points out, “Just before Jesus leaves on this little break from the crowds, he has shocked the religious authorities by declaring all foods clean and by focusing instead on what lives in our hearts. Now, whether he wants to or not, he encounters a tenacious, determined mother in search of healing for her little girl, a woman who will not be turned away from the table of God’s grace, even if all she gets is the crumbs that fell to the floor. She uses her wits in a culture that values riddles for figuring things out, and she wins both the argument and the healing she has requested of this teacher from another religion and another land. Borders are crossed, hearts are opened, and so is the Christian mission, as Gentiles (and women) embrace the good news of the gospel. Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declares all people ‘clean,’ acceptable, included at the table.”
Take in this moment. Be aware of this day. Right now, we are on this side of the border, and in a few moments we will take the votes that are necessary to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s so we will become a fully merged church, a new church for a new day, Niles Discovery Church, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exception.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 1585.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm (8 September 2012).
 Based on the 8 Affirmations of ProgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/8-points-flyer-2011-version/ (8 September 2012).
 Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ, commenting on this Gospel lesson, emailed 31 August 2012.
Here are my three favorite posts from my Facebook wall during the preceding week (I try to get this done each Friday).
I began the week wishing I could be in DC to participate in the Keystone XL Pipeline protest that surrounded the White House, with a link to photos of the event. Then on Thursday, I started celebrating the Obama Administration’s decision to delay the decision on the pipeline by at least a year. I encouraged people to write to the Whitehouse to say “thank you” and to sign this petition calling on the administration to simply say “no” or to really start over in examining the pros and cons of the pipeline. The petition reads:
Delaying or rerouting the Keystone XL does not solve the problem. Reject this project now. If you will not, then direct the State Department to start over clean with an evaluation conducted by a truly independent contractor, that takes into account the global warming impacts of this pipeline, and that is free from the influence of lobbyists.
I also posted a link to this article on the impact, degree by degree, of global warming on our climates and living situation. It’s pretty scary!
And there was the link to this article on how we know that human beings are causing global warming.
2. There were bunches of posts about “Mission: 1,” a nation-wide effort by the United Church of Christ to address hunger and hunger justice.
When I was in college, President Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration as a response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. Many of us were concerned that it wouldn’t be long before a draft was started and we would be sent to war. The English department of my college offered a January session writing class for those of us who considered ourselves to be conscientious objectors. We would have discussions and writing assignments to get us to explore our beliefs more deeply and to help us craft a paper that we could use to explain our conscientious objections to draft boards.
The first assignment was to write a paper about whether or not we thought it was moral to start the draft back up. I argued that it was not. The second assignment was to write a paper answering the question, “If a draft is reinstated, should it include women as well as men.” My paper was very short. My paper was very short:
In my previous paper, I explained why we should not have a draft. We should not have a draft of men. We should not have a draft of women. We should not have a draft of men and women.
These days, the debate is about gay and lesbian people in the military.
The Rev. John F. Gundlach, a United Church of Christ minister who retired after 23 years as an active-duty naval chaplain, recently wrote in Stars and Stripes about ending the military’s “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that bars gays and lesbians from openly serving. His focus was more on the role of chaplains should DADT end then on the policy decision itself, though he supports ending DADT.
His concluding paragraph says:
This current struggle will, indeed, test the mettle of the services and their Chaplain Corps. The real question here is whether justice will be done, and whether chaplains will be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.
Facebook friends have posted the link to this article and one even emailed me the link. They are universally proud that a military chaplain (even retired) is standing up against DADT and against the chaplains who are falsely claiming that ending DADT will violate the religious freedom of chaplains who are homophobic.
The truth is, almost all of my friends – LGBT and heterosexual – oppose DADT. They think LGBT people should be allowed to serve openly and honorably in the military services of our country. I respect them and I appreciate their standing up for LGBT equality. And I disagree with them.
Imagine with me that DADT was expanded, instead of abolished. Imagine what would happen if DADT included heterosexuals. What if no one was allowed to serve in the military … imagine what would happen then.
No military at all.
Back in college, I was right. It is wrong to draft men, women, or men & women. It is wrong because war is not an answer to our fears and vulnerabilities and the purpose of the military is to fight wars. The only thing that can protect us from our fears is the perfect love of God.
So, I question the existence of our military as it is presently constituted. There may be a need for an international police force that can intervene when necessary as police (rather than as an invading army), for instance when genocides are taking place (like in Darfur), but we cannot simultaneously prepare for war and create peace.
Yesterday (August 22), I worshipped with the Olympia Friends Meeting, a group of Quakers in Washington. Every gathering of Quakers is called a “Meeting” (or so it seems). Quakers have regional Quarterly Meetings, and monthly Meetings for Business, and each week a Meeting for Worship. In fact, this congregation isn’t even called a “Congregation;” it’s called a “Meeting.”
The Meeting for Worship was very different from worship services I have experienced in my tradition, the United Church of Christ. In the UCC, we have a very active worship services that are filled with words and singing. Quaker Meeting for Worship is filled with silence (at least this Meeting for Worship was filled with silence – I learned that there are also Meetings with worship that is “programmed” and Meetings with worship that is filled with music).
We gathered around 10:00 – some came earlier; some were “late,” but that didn’t seem to matter. The worship space consisted of about 70 chairs in rows around the center of the room, facing each other. There were probably 30 people there when I arrived just a couple minutes before 10:00, all sitting quietly. Some had their eyes closed; some were looking around. I took a seat in the third row, which was also the back row, and quieted myself.
No one said, “Okay, everybody, we’re worshiping now.” People just entered the space to worship and held the quietness. It wasn’t long before my eyes were shut in prayer. I wasn’t praying anything in particular; I was just practicing being in the presence of God. About 20 minutes later (I’m guessing; I didn’t have a watch with me), I heard a wrestling and opened my eyes. The six youth who were in the worship space got up quietly with the Sunday School teachers for their class. I shut my eyes and re-centered myself.
Some time later (I have no idea when) a man stood up and shared very briefly about an encounter he had had with a neighbor and how it moved him to, again, deeply appreciate being a Friend (Quakers are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends). A moment later, another man shared, though I could not hear him. And the community settled back into the quiet.
Eventually the youth returned from their class and it wasn’t long until a man sitting a few seats down from me announced that he was calling the worship to a close. He then invited everyone to introduce herself/himself, to make any announcements, or to share anything that was “left over” (I think those were his words) from worship.
As we went around the room, people shared the typical church announcements and some made comments about what was going on for them. I was fascinated by how what the man shared resonated for many people (it was nice to hear why he was so grateful to be a Friend, but otherwise it wasn’t very interesting to me). One person made a comment, something like, “I had this thought, but it didn’t rise to the level of a message.” An interesting distinction, I said to myself, between a ‘thought’ and a ‘message.’ A thought, it seems, is for yourself; a message is for the community and is to be shared aloud.
After everyone had introduced himself/herself, we were invited back into some silence, and then we all briefly held hands.
You will notice in this description that there was no pastor present. This Meeting doesn’t have a pastor (it’s my understanding that most Meetings, at least most non-programmed meetings, do not have pastors). Instead, everyone in the congregation is a minister, and people minister to each other.
Quakers are known for their strong peace stand, often being activists for non-violence and almost universally being conscientious objectors during a draft. I am struck by the contrast between these people sitting together in silence on Sunday and these same people standing vocally for peace and justice on the capital steps during the week. I can’t help but wonder if that weekly practice of silence and listening gives them the strength to be vocal in ways that challenge societies status quo in favor of what Jesus called the Empire of God.*
Quakers are also known for their consensus decision-making style. This is a difficult process, consensus decision-making. It requires everyone to listen carefully to each other and I’m sure the practice of listening for the Spirit of God with each other each week is extremely helpful in making this possible. In fact, I was a little inaccurate at the beginning of this essay. The Olympia Friends Meeting does not have a monthly Meeting for Business. They have a monthly Meeting for Worship for Business. They do their business in the context of worship.
I think the UCC could learn something here. What if we were to see our business meetings as acts of worship? What if the central focus of our business was the praise and glorification of God? Would that change how we decide things? Would that change how we listen to each other in the deciding?
My congregation is in the process of deciding if they will merge with a neighboring Disciples of Christ congregation. It is my fervent hope that they will make this major business decision worshipfully.
*Jesus actually called it something else because he didn’t speak English. The traditional translation is the Kingdom of God, but I prefer the Empire of God because he was contrasting it with the Empire of Rome.