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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-28 and Isaiah 42:1-9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Brian McLaren calls Jesus’ visit with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi a fieldtrip.[1] I think that’s an interesting framing (it reinforces the idea of Jesus as a teacher) and, if nothing else, it lifts up the importance of the location.

And the location is important. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of their base in Galilee. The location has a long history as a place of worship. Canaanites worshiped the god Baal there. Later, the Greek god Pan was worshiped there. Eventually, the Romans replaced the Greeks and around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was part of the region the Romans had Herod the Great controlling.

When Herod the Great died, the area he ruled was divided among his surviving sons to rule. This area north and east of the Jordan was placed by the Roman emperor under Philip’s control. He changed the name of the town to Caesarea Philippi – the first part of the name honoring his patron, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor; the second part of the name honoring himself (can you say, “ego issues”?). The second part of the name actually did serve a practical purpose. There was another community called Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, so calling this community Caesarea Philippi did distinguish it. But, yeah, ego issues.

Imagine what it would have been like for a rabbi to take a group of Jews to this Caesar-ville.[2] You walk the streets and are reminded, simply by the location, that a foreign army occupies your country. You walk the streets and you are reminded that you are not free. It might be like a Native American teacher taking a group to Wounded Knee or a Japanese teacher taking a class to Hiroshima.

There in the middle of a place where many gods have been worshiped over the centuries, there in the middle of the latest Caesar-ville, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This vignette takes place in Mark and Luke as well, only the question is a little different. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people (or the crowds) say that I am?” In Matthew, the question is, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” So there’s a reason Matthew uses “Son of Man.”

In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus uses “Son of Man,” he is almost using it as a first person pronoun, so at one level Jesus is essentially asking the same question as in Mark and Luke. But that’s not the only way Matthew uses “Son of Man.” There is a strong association of “Son of Man” in Matthew’s gospel with “the Son of Man” being the judge at the end of time and of “the Son of Man” having a kingdom.[3]

So, here we are in Caesar-ville, and Jesus is asking who the people say the final judge is. His disciples’ answers express some of the theology of the day. Maybe the Son of Man was a prophet of old. Maybe the Son of Man was John the Baptist (who has been killed by this point in Matthew’s narrative).

As I read Matthew’s version of the exchange, I feel like Jesus knows the answer he going to get to his next question. “But who do you say that I am?” The obvious answer is, “the Son of Man,” the one who will judge the nations at the end of time, the one who has the alternative kingdom. I don’t get that feeling in Mark’s and Luke’s versions, but here in Matthew’s version Jesus’ second question feels almost like a leading question.

Peter offers the answer: “You are the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ), the Son of the living God.” Not just the Son of Man, mind you, but the Son of the living God. To our ears, this sounds like a theological claim, but given the setting, it is as much a political statement as it is a theological statement. In Greek, Christ, in Hebrew, Messiah – it means “the one anointed as liberating king.”[4]

“To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’

“Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods,’ but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and live God.”[5]

Here’s what McLaren says about Jesus response to Peter’s confession. “[Jesus] speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centers of evil.’ Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically-charged setting.”[6]

Most (maybe even all) Jews who thought God would send the Messiah during the Roman occupation assumed the Messiah to be a liberating king by being the leader of an army – an army that would prevail against the powers that oppressed them. This is the Messiah Peter was expecting. And if Jesus truly was the Messiah, then the one thing he cannot be is defeated. He will conquer and capture the enemies. He must torture and kill the enemies. But that’s not what Jesus says will happen.

Yes, he’s going to travel south to Jerusalem, the seat of power. But he’s not going with an army and he’s not going to wage a war. He is going to be conquered, captured, tortured, and killed by the very agents of oppression that the Messiah is supposed to save them from. And then be raised.

But Peter doesn’t seem to hear that last part. He takes Jesus aside. That’s not the way the story is supposed to go. “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.” “Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, Satanic, the opposite of God’s plan.”[7]

Since the beginning, Jesus has taught a different way, a third way to over come the principalities and powers. If you’re not a part of the Adult Sunday School class, I encourage you to join. And if you can’t join, I encourage you to read the book they are reading and discussing anyway. They are about halfway through The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink, and in it Wink speaks directly to today’s gospel lesson.

“The Domination System,” he says, “grows out of the fundamental belief that violence must be used to overcome violence.”[8] Thus, the Domination System is stuck in a cycle of violence. As a program to overcome the Domination System, the kin-dom of God must overcome this cycle of violence, so that is what Jesus did. That is why Jesus said that he is going to Jerusalem and why he would be killed. The cross laid bare the domination system and refused to play its game of cycling violence.

“When the Powers That Be [that’s Wink’s term for the principalities and powers of oppression] catch the merest whiff of God’s new order, they automatically mobilize all their might to crush it. Even before the full fury of the Powers was unleashed on Jesus, he apparently predicted the outcome of the confrontation [as we heard in today’s scripture lesson]. The Powers are so immense, and the opposition so weak, that every attempt at fundamental change seems doomed to failure. Merely winning does not satisfy the Powers; they must win big, in order to demoralize opposition before it can gain momentum. Gratuitous violence, mocking derision, and intimidating brutality in the means of execution typify the Power – all this is standard, unexceptional. Jesus died just like all the others who challenged the world-dominating Power.

“Something went awry in Jesus’ case, however. The Powers scourged him with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy. They mocked him with a robe and a crown of thorns, spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed, ridiculing him with the ironic ovation, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ – not knowing how their acclamation would echo down the centuries. They stripped him naked and crucified him in humiliation, all unaware that this very act had stripped the Powers of the last covering that disguised the towering wrongness of the whole way of life that their violence defended. They nailed him to the cross, not realizing that with each hammer’s blow they were nailing up, for the whole world to see, the affidavit by which the Domination System would be condemned.”[9]

We heard our invitation to participate in this work in our gospel lesson. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Wink interprets this for us: “One does not become free from the Powers by defeating them in a frontal attack. Rather, one dies to their control … [W]e are liberated, not by striking back at what enslaves us – for even striking back reveals that we are still controlled by violence – but by a willingness to die rather than submit to its command.…

“We must die to such things as racism, false patriotism, greed, and homophobia. We must, in short, die to the Domination System in order to live authentically.”[10]

What Wink is saying is just as paradoxical as what Jesus said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But, as Wink points out, “Dying to the Power is not, finally, a way of saving our souls, but of making ourselves expendable in the divine effort to rein in the recalcitrant Powers. When Jesus said, ‘Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it’ (Luke 17:33), he drew a line in the sand and asked if we would step across – step out of one entire world, where violence is always the ultimate solution, into another world, where the spiral of violence is finally broken by those willing to absorb its impact with their own flesh. That approach to living is nonviolence, Jesus’ ‘third way.’”[11]

Jesus’ third way is intensely powerful.[12] It is a way that is alternative to both the way of remaining victim and the way of participating in the cycle of violence. It is a way that both refused to submit to evil and to oppose evil on its own terms. It is a way that is both assertive and nonviolent. It is the way of the kin-dom of God.

I’ve spoken of it before, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would like to share an example of how it is at work today.

smt1Erdem Gunduz was called “the standing man of Turkey.” His story goes back to June of 2013. The Turkish government had cleared Taksim Square after weeks of clashes with the police. That “might have seemed like the end of it for many protesters, until [this] lone man decided to take a stand, literally, against the government. For more than six hours [one] Monday night, Erdem Gunduz stood motionless in Taksim Square, passively ignoring any prodding or harassment from police and people passing by.”[13] He stood alone for hours, and then other people began to join him, silently staring toward the cultural center. By midnight, several hundred people had joined Gunduz’s protest.

smt3“As word of the standing man spread across the Internet, Turks adopted the hashtag #duranadam, which means ‘standing man’ in Turkish. Before long, people in other parts of Turkey began their own standing protests in solidarity with the man.”[14]

The Standing Man of Turkey and those who followed his lead did not stop the domination system in their country. But they found a way to resist it, to refuse both to be victims of it and to be participants in its violence. They found Jesus’ third way.

When theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass looks at what is going on in this nation and in other countries (especially in western Europe), she see troubling evidence of the domination system at work. She says that there are many causes, including economic anxiety, racism, generalized fear, misogyny, etc. “But,” she says, “this has been primarily motivated by a idolatrous vision of God – one that believes God is a white-skinned, gendered Judge, Father, and King who sits on a throne in heaven. They want that God to punish their enemies, heretics, and evildoers, and bless them, His faithful people, with material prosperity and power – and to return everything to their imagined vision of Eden.

“It isn’t that complicated. There was deep appeal to a myth, the primary myth at the center of European Christianity.

“Through time, this myth was rejected by many – mystics, saints, and seers – but was perpetrated by a church of the rich and powerful. We are living in that story still. A story where the empire of wealth uses a convenient God to enslave the many; and where a sacred resistance grows to protest on behalf of truly God – the One who is Compassion, Who is Love.

“Jesus hates that we have used him in service to a myth of power. For he came and still cries out against this idolatry.”[15]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong; or
… what it means for you to take up your cross and follow Jesus in your life and in the midst of current events; or
… this: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 25, page 116. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] This is also McLaren’s term.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 2009) s.v. “Son of Man,” 345.

[4] McLaren, op. cit., 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 117-118.

[7] Ibid, 118.

[8] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 91.

[9] Ibid, 82-83.

[10] Ibid, 93-95.

[11] Ibid. 97.

[12] See Chapter 5 of The Powers That Be for a full explanation of Jesus’ third way.

[13] Andy Carvin, “The ‘Standing Man’ Of Turkey: Act Of Quiet Protest Goes Viral,” The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/06/18/193183899/the-standing-man-of-turkey-act-of-quiet-protest-goes-viral (posted 18 June 2013; accessed 16 February 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post on 7 February 2017 https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154577500398500 (accessed 18 February 2017). I have changed what she had as ALL CAPS to italics.

I don’t know if this is still happening, but a year ago there was a restaurant in the coastal city of Netanya that, in an effort to combat Israeli/Palestinian violence, offered a 50% discount to Jewish and Arab customers who sat together.

“If there’s anything that can bring together these people, it’s hummus,” the restaurant manager said.

“Nearly all mass murderers are men – 98 percent by one count. Gender is the most common feature among mass murderers, not race, religion, nationality, political persuasion, or history of mental illness. Toxic masculinity, when faced with disappointment, can turn to hostility and violence toward others. Collecting and using guns is a way for men with grievances to show their dominance over others. While women tent to blame themselves for failure, men tend to project their failures onto others.”

From the “Century Marks” column in the 17 August 2016 edition of Christian Century. The column cites Atlantic, 16 June 2016 as their source.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philemon 1:8-19 and Hebrews 13:1-8
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a difficult couple weeks for my soul. I expect the same is true for many of you. In addition to the triumphs and tragedies of our personal lives, there has been so much violence in the news:

  • a particularly brutal attack in Bangladesh;
  • car bombs in Baghdad;
  • 2 police shootings that were caught on tape (and at least 29 others that did not make the national news[1]);
  • 5 police officers killed in Dallas (and at least five others who were killed by guns or cars that did not make the national news[2]);
  • this morning there are stories of police officers shot and killed in Baton Rogue;
  • a truck driving through a crowd celebrating in Nice, France.

In an act of self-care, I decided not to watch the videos of the police shootings in Baton Rogue and Falcon Heights. And, in my efforts to protect my soul from this heart-rending news, I may have missed other attacks and violence that took place in the first two weeks of this month.

13697064_1140713779283174_8897850904786793655_nYesterday, I posted this picture on the church’s Facebook page. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was a staunch anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested and eventually connected with an attempt to assassinate Hitler. He was 39 when he was executed by the Nazis.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I agree with Bonhoeffer. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. But what to say and how to act – that’s not always clear. Here’s what I wrote with the picture:

It’s not always easy to figure out how to speak out against evil. How do we speak out against the evil of the murders in Nice, France, on Thursday and not participate in evil ourselves?
The traps are too easy. As a nation, we could speak out with our own violence through our military. As a church, we could easily lump together all people from one ethnicity or religion and blame them all for the actions of a few or of one. We could write a post on Facebook, but does that really speak God’s truth to evil?
While there are no simple answers, the call is clear. We cannot remain silent when we are aware of evil.

This call, to speak and to act, is part of our call as followers of Jesus. We are called to join the Spirit Conspiracy to bring blessings to others. “Conspire” literally means “to breathe with,” which I find interesting, since the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the Greek word for breath. Another way to think about this call is that we are called to get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life.

And there are plenty of areas of our lives, plenty of circles of influence where, if we get our breathing in sync with the Breath of Life, we will bring blessings to others. Consider these circles of influence.

There’s your family. No one is in a better position than you to bring blessing to your family – your spouse, your kids, your siblings, your parents – than you. There are others who are in an equal position to you, but there’s on one in a better position than you. “When Jesus wanted to confront religious hypocrisy in his day, he pointed out the way hypocrites served their religion at the expense of their families.”[3] Paul wrote about family relationships in ways that probably brought more blessing than the social norms, as sexist as those writings seems to us today. My point is that it’s not just the Spirit calling us to conspire to bring blessing to our families; there are biblical calls, too.

Then there are our economic choices that are a circle of influence. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing through our economic choices. If you’re an employer, you can offer a wage that brings a blessing. If you’re a consumer, you can make purchase choices in ways that bring blessings – are the people all along the supply chain paid justly? Is the environment protected or damaged by this product and its manufacture?

Likewise, our neighborhoods can be blessed by our conspiring with the Spirit. As we address the sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods. As we extend hospitality, we bring a blessing to our neighborhoods.

“The Spirit is looking for conspirators who are interested in plotting goodness in their communities. ‘What would our community look like if God’s dreams for it were coming true?’ we [can] ask. The answer gives us a vision to work toward.”[4]

Likewise, we can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to vulnerable people, the people who are typically forgotten or ignored. The biblical mandate is to care for widows and orphans, for immigrants, prisoners, the sick, and the poor. We can easily add to that list: the homeless, the under-educated, the unemployed, the underpaid, refugees, and more.

And if conspiring with the Spirit to bring blessing to these circles of influence isn’t challenging enough for you, I’ve got another: your critiques, opponents, and enemies. Imagine what the election season would be like if the candidates and their supporters conspired with the Spirit to bring a blessing to their opponents. That’s probably a pipedream, but we – you and I – could start. And not just when it comes to politics. We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who annoy us (and the people we annoy). We can conspire with the Spirit to bring a blessing to people who don’t understand us and who we don’t understand, to people who try our patience and whose patience we try.

“Rather than write them off as unimportant and unwanted, we need to rediscover them as some of the most important people we know. If we ignore them, our growth in the Spirit will be stunted. If we let the Spirit guide us in what we say to their faces and behind their backs, we will become more Christ-like.”[5]

White House photographer Pete Souza has taken something close to two million photographs of President Obama, since Obama took office. Each year he posts 75 to 100 that he thinks are the best of the year. Several people have sifted through the photos claiming that these 16 are Souza’s favorites. He denies the claim. Still, from those annual postings, people have gathered what they think are a good sampling of them.

pete-souza-white-house-obama-favorites-4One such collection[6] includes photos that are humorous, photos that are cute, and photos that are poignant. One photo from early in Obama’s presidency shows him fist-bumping one of the White House custodians. They are in a hallway, moving from one meeting to another. Aids accompany the President. And the President pauses to acknowledge a staff worker who cleans floors and toilets and empties the trash.

What we say or fail to say can make a difference in someone else’s life. We can use our words as part of our conspiracy with the Spirit to being blessings, or we can wound. In the letter of James, the author says that if your life were a ship, your words would be its rudder. A fist-bump here, and “thank you” there can make a difference in steering us in the Spirit’s direction. As McLaren puts it, “If you’re a part of the Spirit’s conspiracy, you can be God’s secret agent of blessing to anyone in any of these circles.”[7]

There’s one circle of influence that I haven’t mentioned: work. I did this because in the book we’re using for this yearlong sermon series, Brian McLaren uses the letter to Philemon as an example here. McLaren points out that Paul used the opportunity of Onesimus running away to him to urge slave owners to treat their slaves better. My problem is that Paul appealed to his love for Onesimus rather than to Onesimus’ own personhood. My problem is that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.

Yes, Paul moves the needle. Yes, Paul suggests that owners should treat their slaves with respect and kindness. Yes, Paul urges slaves to work with pride and dignity. But he fails to condemn slavery.

There’s probably a lesson here for our contemporary workplaces. We should treat each other with respect and kindness. We should treat each other fairly, and bosses should pay their employees a just wage. But the issue at hand for Onesimus was whether Paul was going to send him back to slavery or order Philemon to end Onesimus’ slavery. And Paul failed to get his breathing fully in sync with the Breath of Life.

McLaren begins the chapter that is the fodder for next week’s sermon by saying, “Sooner or later, everyone should be arrested and imprisoned for a good cause. Or if not arrested and imprisoned, put in a position of suffering and sacrifice. Or if not that, at least be criticized or inconvenienced a little. Because if we’re co-conspirators with the Spirit of God to bring blessing to our world, sooner or later it’s going to cost us something and get us in trouble.”[8]

Sometimes this mission is pretty easy to fulfill. Sometimes a fist-bump in the hallway will make the difference. Sometimes it’s hard and it will get us in trouble. Sometimes we’re faced with great evil, and the way to speak out, the way to act is not clear, and so we will struggle to conspire with the Spirit. Sometimes, like Paul, we will act and not go as far as we should. Sometimes, like Bonhoeffer, we will be asked to pay a great price.

Still, the mission is before us: “to be a secret agent of God’s commonwealth, conspiring with others [and the Holy Spirit] behind the scenes to plot goodness and foment kindness wherever you may be.”[9]

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on:

  • Anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention.
  • A time when you felt the Spirit guided you to go above and beyond your normal way of responding to a situation.
  • A time when the words you chose steered you either toward or away from the Spirit’s guidance.
  • Or imagine a walk through your typical day, from waking to going to bed – and imagine yourself as a portal of blessing in each circle of influence you move in and out of in that day.

[1] “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/ (updated regularly, The Washington Post tracks police shootings in the United States; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last update was for a police shooting on 13 July 2016).

[2] “Honoring Officers Killed in 2016,” Officer Down Memorial Page, https://www.odmp.org/search/year (updated regularly; accessed 16 July 2016, when the last officer death noted was on 12 July 2016).

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The White House’s Pete Souza Has Shot Nearly 2M Photos of Obama, Here are 55 of His Favorites,” Twisted Sifter, http://twistedsifter.com/2016/07/pete-souza-white-house-photog-favorite-obama-photos/ (posted 7 July 2016; accessed 16 July 2016).

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 48. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[9] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 47. Retrieved from amazon.com.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a noisy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day, and in the days preceding, if one really wants noise, one needs to go to a grocery store.  But this Thanksgiving was noisy, mostly with the sounds of snowplows and chain saws and Public Service line trucks beeping as they backed up in the great challenge of restoring power to most of the town.

Over a foot of wet snow fell on Wednesday, bringing down tree limbs and power lines.  Most of Mount William was in the dark all of Wednesday night and well into Thursday.  Anna and Bruce Renee had planned to do Thanksgiving dinner at their home, but with no power for the oven, cooking was a bit of a challenge, so they carted the turkey and fixings and their three teenage kids to Anna’s parents’ apartment in the retirement community that they moved into nine years ago.  It was the first time the smells of roasting turkey filled the small apartment, a smell Sylvia Spengler, Anna’s mom, had missed for all of those nine years.

Feeling like she was coming to the rescue filled Sylvia with a giddiness that continued right up until the moment she looked into the little galley kitchen in her apartment and saw what cleanup would entail.  Suddenly she remembered one of the reasons she and Bill had moved into the retirement community.

The Renees were not the only family that had to make emergency Thanksgiving dinner plans.  While few Thanksgiving gatherings went off as they had been planned weeks earlier, just about everyone thinks it was a great Thanksgiving.  There’s something about a manageable crisis to draw people together, and that’s really what most families want on Thanksgiving: to draw their loved ones together.  Well, that and some really yummy food.

It wasn’t a quiet week for Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, either.  His disquiet was more internal than external.  He had had some vacation in August and he decided to do something quite out of character for him.  He decided to go to Ferguson, Missouri.  There were so many conflicting stories about the death of Michael Brown – accusations and counter accusations.  And there was so much anger.  And there was so much violence – both the attention getting rioting of a small contingent of the protestors (interesting how the New England news media ignored the peaceful protests) and the militarized police response.  And underneath it all was the putrid stench of racism.  He needed to bear witness to the need for an open and fair examination of the facts of this case.  He needed to challenge the power of racism in our culture.  And he needed to confront his own complicity in the racism that permeates our society.  So he used some of his previously-schedule vacation and went to Ferguson.

His summer experiences came flooding back when the announcement was made that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.  All week long, the news continued and Rev. Friend found himself processing it.  He wondered how he would react if his church building were to be burned to the ground the way the Brown family’s church was this week.  Far from the centers of violence, one can’t help but wonder who is really responsible for this arson.[2]  Earlier in the week, he had read something that challenged his attitude toward Darren Wilson.  He had forgotten the emotional and spiritual cost Darren Wilson was paying, not because of the scrutiny his actions on August 9th were garnering, but because he had shot and killed another human being.  What moral injury was he suffering?  Rev. Friend found a surprising compassion growing inside him.

While several of his colleagues read – devoured – the various documents and reports from and about the grand jury,[3] Rev. Friend couldn’t go there.  He didn’t want to second guess the grand jury’s decision.  He didn’t want to get into the finger pointing and the blame game that seemed to surround him.  Instead, he needed to reflect on and process his memories of his days in Ferguson.

He remembered walking with a group of clergy, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  As they finished the verse, “We are not afraid,” he realized it was a lie.  He was afraid.

He knew that this group would encounter the police at some point in the evening, but nothing prepared him for the sheer number of police officers.  The clergy had gathered at dinnertime in the parking lot of a grocery store miles from the protest site.  Nonetheless, by the time there were four clergy gathered, there were four squad cars in the parking lot and they were told to leave.

They drove to a high school, parked their cars, and began walking to the county prosecutor’s office to present a letter with their demands, including an expedited grand jury process run by someone other than county prosecutor Bob McCullough.  Although they were far from the site of Michael Brown’s death, the route was guarded by scores of heavily armed officers.  Squad cars drove slowly beside them, and there were SWAT teams and barricades.

They were not being guarded in the sense of being protected.  They were being guarded against, as if this group of clergy were an extreme threat.  A skinny white man from New Hampshire, Rev. Friend had never experienced being policed in his way.  It was unnerving.  Could a couple hundred clergy walking together really pose such a threat?

When they got to the country prosecutor’s office, the prayed together and delivered their list of demands.  It was a single sheet of paper, wilted in the humid heat, but the officer acted as if it might explode and hesitated to even take hold of it.

Earlier, they had gathered in a church that was a sort of home base for the protesters.  One folding table held a jumble of first-aid supplies.  The other held makeshift gear:  bottles of water, spray bottles with solution for washing tear gas out of eyes, paper masks, and swim goggles for eye protection.

The leaders were a group of twenty-somethings thoughtfully engaging in the disciples of nonviolent protest.  They wanted this group of clergy to know what they would encounter on the march.  There were important rules to learn:  no sudden movements; if you carry a water bottle, hold it high so the police officers can see what it is; if you take tear gas equipment (a mask or goggles), don’t let it be seen until it is needed, or you will be targeted.  This group of twenty-somethings were being so protective of these middle-aged newbies.  One of the twenty-somethings asked a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Friend was pretty sure her name was Shannon, if she had a group to walk with; he didn’t want her to go out alone.  They didn’t want any of them going out alone.

And then – it seemed so strange to Rev. Friend at the time – this group of young protesters prepared to face hundreds of heavily armed officers by reciting poetry.  “These leaders are the fiercest hope I have ever seen,” Rev. Friend thought.  He was amazed by it, humbled by it.  And he found himself feeling very protective of these young men and women who embodied it.

The clergy were divided into teams with a trained organizer for each team.  They memorized each other’s names, agreed to be responsible for one another, and wrote an emergency phone number on their skin in purple Sharpie.  The captain of Rev. Friend’s team asked them what level of danger and violence the were willing to face.  “Will you leave when the tear gas starts?” he asked the group.

“Why would we willingly walk into tear gas?” Shannon, the Presbyterian minister asked.

“To get the young people out,” he responded.  “They will keep going, so some of us go back in to pull them out.”

Rev. Friend tried to get his mind wrapped around the response.  He didn’t think he could stay if the tear gas started.  His noble motives aside, this was getting scary and this was the first time he had ever done anything like this.

When they reached the protest area, the street was closed to traffic and the parking lots were filled with media people and hundreds of police officers.  They were allowed to protest as long as they stayed on the sidewalk, kept moving, and did nothing that could be interpreted as aggression.  At one point a kindly police officer gave them a minute before asking them to move along.  “If I make an exception for you,” he said, “I have to make an exception for everybody.”  The clear implication was that he would let them stop if he could.  Rev. Friend was torn between enjoying this favor and realizing that it was this very distinction that he was there to protest.  Did the group seem harmless because of their clergy collars or because some of them were white?

As the night wore on, Rev. Friend’s fear deepened.  Every night so far, the police had responded with tear gas, or flash grenades, or rubber bullets.  “What will it be tonight?” he wondered.  They passed one person who appeared to be intoxicated and another who appeared to living with a metal illness.  All the marchers he could see were peaceful, but it was clear to him that it would only take one wrong move to set off the officers.

At one point, as the night wore on, a young black man came by and asked, “Are you a group?  Can I walk with you?”  This was the moment, as Rev. Friend recalled, where it all came into focus.  He wanted to tell this young black man, “No.”  He didn’t want this young black man with his red t-shirt pulled up over his head, effectively masking him, to walk with him and his fellow clergy.  Perhaps the shirt thing – he’d seen other protesters doing it – was makeshift protection against the tear gas, but Rev. Friend didn’t want this young man to march next to him because he feared his presence might spark a violence response.

Then the young man turned and Rev. Friend saw on his torso a phone number scrawled in purple Sharpie.  He was one of the young people from the church, one of the young leaders that Rev. Friend had been so eager to protect.  He had gone from hoping that his clergy collar would protect this young man to not wanting him near because he didn’t want the protection of his clergy collar and white skin and graying hair to be disrupted by his presence.  Hope in the church had turned to fear on the street so quickly.

Hope is always frightening.  It opens us to disappointment.  Hope is frightening in another way for those of us who are privileged in the current state of affairs.  “I want a better world,” Rev. Friend thought as he remembered his days in Ferguson, “but I am afraid to give up the security I have in this one.  Hope threatens me, even in its abundant promise.  I guess for me, part of the challenge is not to fear hope itself.”

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] This sermon is based (often quoting directly or changing the quote from first person to third person) almost entirely on a reflection by Shannon Craigo-Snell, titled, “Fear and Hope in Ferguson: Marching into danger,” published in the 1 October 2014 edition of Christian Century (pages 10-11).

[2] Wesley Lowry, “The Brown family’s pastor tries to make sense of the fire that gutted his church,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-brown-familys-pastor-tries-to-make-sense-of-fire-that-gutted-his-church/2014/11/28/15520f3e-7711-11e4-a755-e32227229e7b_story.html (posted 28 November 2014; accessed 29 November 2014).

[3] If you’re interested in reading some of the documents, you might want to check out http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision.

I’ve decided to post my three favorite posts from my Facebook wall during the preceding week each Friday (well, I’ll try to get it done on Friday).  Here’s “Last week on Facebook.”

There was lots on my wall last week, and limiting myself to three items is hard.  I’m picking three videos.

From Tuesday, October 11:

From Wednesday, October 12:
I found this 7 minute video disturbing … and I needed to be disturbed.

From Wednesday, October 12:
President Obama and President Reagan on the same page? WOW!


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————

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

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