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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 6, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Genesis 28:10-18a & Luke 10:38-42
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today, we conclude our sermon series on spiritual practices. We’ve looked at a spiritual practice that is natural for each of the four basic spiritual types. If you are someone for whom creating justice is important, service (especially if combined with reflection on that service) can further your spiritual pilgrimage. If you are someone for whom the felt sense of words is important, singing your prayers can further your spiritual pilgrimage. If you are someone for whom the meaning of words is important, creating some sort of practice of daily prayer can further your spiritual pilgrimage. If you are someone for whom feeling the Divine in stillness is important, creating a practice of meditation can further your spiritual pilgrimage.

Today, we turn to a family of spiritual practices that can be beneficial for all four spiritual types because this family of practices help transform all of life into the spiritual pilgrimage. I take the name for today’s sermon from a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, and I quote liberally from the book. If you want to see where, you can check out the manuscript once it’s online.

Girl In the Kitchen preparing food – Velazquez 1618. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660).

Our gospel lesson is one of the more familiar stories from Luke’s gospel. Jesus was visiting two sisters, Mary and Martha, and Mary was hanging out with Jesus, listening very intently to what he had to say. Martha, to quote the NRSV translation, “was distracted by her many tasks.” There’s stuff to get done, Jesus, and Mary has left it all for me to do. Tell my sister to help me out here.

If you think about these two women, you might label Mary as “the spiritual one.” In this instance, I’d say you’re right. But not because Mary was listening to what Jesus had to say. Martha’s work could have been just as spiritual a practice as Mary’s, but it failed to be because Martha was “distracted” by it.

Barbara Brown Taylor invites us to make all of life a spiritual practice.

People will travel great distances to find connection with the Divine. “The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have? How could something as common as a toothache be a door to greater life?”[1] Perhaps there is a spiritual treasure right under our feet.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a woman about religion and philosophy. I shared how the distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul are false distinctions. In fact, I would argue (with Taylor) that there is no better way to God apart from becoming more fully human, apart from real life in the real world.[2] Because there is no better way to God apart from becoming more fully human, apart from real life in the real world, Taylor suggest that we build “… altars in the world – [in the] ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”[3] And then she explores twelve practices that help us do exactly that.

She has a chapter on groundedness – the practice of walking on the earth. She writes about wilderness – the practice of getting lost; about community – the practice of encountering others; about on vocation – the practice of living with purpose; about physical labor – the practice of carrying water; about breakthrough – the practice of feeling pain; about prayer – the practice of being present to God.

I’ve planned three exercises for you to pick from if you decide to participate in the “tasting” following worship, so I’ll talk a little bit more about these three.

Reverence is the practice of paying attention. “Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said that he could not define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Reverence is like that. It is difficult to define, but you know it when you feel it.”[4]

If you have a cup of coffee at coffee hour, take a moment to look at the cup and the coffee. Think about what it took to make the cup – the resources and the people involved. Think about what it took to get the cup from the factory to your hand – the people and machinery. Think about the coffee itself – the farmers that grew the beans, the people who roasted and ground and packaged and shipped the coffee. Think about the water that was used to brew the coffee – where it came from and how it got here. Paying this type of attention is practicing reverence.

Incarnation is the practice of wearing skin. Taylor suggests that one way to practice wearing skin is to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror. We won’t be trying this at the tasting after worship. But if we believe that God really loves flesh and blood, no matter what shape it’s in …

“To hold a sleeping child in your arms can teach you more about the meaning of life than any ten books on the subject.”[5] And you can’t get much more incarnational than what Jesus did at the last supper: he washed feet and ate. And then he said, “Do this” – not ‘believe this,’ ‘do this’ – “in memory of me.”

“Do we dismiss the body’s wisdom because it does not use words? The practice of wearing skin is so obvious that almost no one engages it as spiritual practice, yet here is a place to begin: With tears, aches, moans, gooseflesh, heat. The body knows – not just the individual body, but the cathedral we make when we bend our bodies together over one as good as dead. Doing that, we act out the one thing we know for sure: it is God’s will that these bones live.”[6]

Sabbath is the practice of saying “no.” According to Meister Eckhart, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.”

If you read Genesis, you will find that the Sabbath day was set aside as a time for sacred rest before the Ten Commandments were handed down. Later, the tradition added all sorts of regulations to how to keep the Sabbath as a day of sacred rest. Yes, striking a match is making a fire and is therefore work, so don’t strike a match on the Sabbath. As extreme as I might find these rules, their real purpose is to assist me and all the faithful in saying “no.” No, I’m not going to do that on this day, because this is a day of sacred rest. If we extend the practice of saying “no” into daily life, we are living the Sabbath idea. You are making space for God.

The first spiritual practice Taylor explores in her book is vision – the practice of waking up to God. While she insists that there really is no order to these practices for creating altars in the world, I think vision was a good place to start.

The Jacob’s Dream – Marc Chagall

The scripture reading from Genesis tells the story of Jacob’s dream of angels descending and ascending a ladder between heaven and earth. “There he was, still a young man, running away from home because his whole screwy family had finally imploded. His father was dying. He and his twin brother, Esau had both wanted their father’s blessing. Jacob’s mother had colluded with him to get it, and though his scheme worked, it enraged his brother to the point that Jacob fled for his life. He and his brother were not identical twins. Esau could have squashed him like a bug. So Jacob left with little more than the clothes on his back, and when he had walked as far as he could, he looked around for a stone he could use for a pillow.”[7]

That’s where he had the dream. And in the midst of this vision of angels, “all of a sudden, God was there beside Jacob, without a single trumpet for warning, promising him safety, children, land. ‘Remember, I am with you,” God said to him. ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’

“Jacob woke while God’s breath was still stirring the air, although he saw nothing out of the ordinary around him: same wilderness, same rocks, same sand. If someone had held a mirror in front of his face, Jacob would not have seen anything different there either, except for the circles of surprise in his eyes. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place,’ he sad out loud, ‘– and I did not know it!’ Shaken by what he had seen, he could not seem to stop talking. ‘How awesome is this place!’ he went on. ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[8]

Then Jacob took his pillow stone and erected it quite literally as an altar in the world. He had, in that place at least, awoken to God.

Since the spiritual practice of vision is waking up to the presence of God and God is everywhere, the spiritual practice of vision is waking up to the reality of God everywhere. Francis of Assisi was an expert, or a natural, or both, at seeing the Holy all round him. He had vision. He had awoken to God. And he saw God in everything. And he saw everything praising God. And so we call him a saint.

How do we develop vision? “If there is a switch to flip, I have not found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did nothing to make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away, namely: 1) I can figure that I have had too much caffeine again; 2) I can remind myself that visions are not true in the same way that taxes and the evening news are true; or 3) I can return my attention to everything I need to get done today. These are only a few of the things I can do to talk myself out of living in the House of God.

“Or I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is. I can flag one more gate to heaven – one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it – where the divine traffic is heavy when I notice it and even when I do not.

I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to whatever I am due next.

“… Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. Jacob’s nowhere, about which he knew nothing, turned out to be the House of God. Even though his family had imploded, even though he had made his brother angry enough to kill him, even though he was a scoundrel from the word go – God decided to visit Jacob right where he was, though Jacob had not been right about anything so far and never would be. God gave Jacob a vision, so Jacob could see the angels going up and down from earth to heaven, going about their business in the one and only world there is.

“The vision showed Jacob something he did not know. He slept in the House of God. He woke at the gate of heaven. None of this was his doing. The only thing he did right was to see where he was and say so. Then he turned his pillow into an altar before he set off, praising the God who had come to him where he was.”[9]

May we all develop a deeper sense of vision, waking up to the presence of God. May we all create altars in the world. Amen.


[What follows is the benediction I offered at the service.]

The last practice Barbara Brown Taylor writes about in her book is benediction – the practice of pronouncing blessings. I’ve witnessed people practicing this on BART and in the coffee shop. When someone sneezes, a half dozen people will say, “Bless you.” There are so many other ways you can practice benediction.

In this moment, I invite you to receive a benediction: Blessed are you for being you. Blessed are you for sharing love in the world. And blessed are you, Lord God, for using these people to bless the earth.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), xvi.

[2] Ibid, xvii.

[3] Ibid, xix.

[4] Ibid, 20.

[5] Ibid, 43.

[6] Ibid, 51.

[7] Ibid, 2-3.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Ibid, 14-16.


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

            Hang on just a second while I make this call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me …  God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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


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