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pastor steve's blog

Ron Allen, who taught me to preach at Christian Theological Seminary, told the preaching class that if he ever heard us say "Amen" at the end of a sermon he would march to the front of the room and cut our tongue out! Why? Because a sermon is the beginning of a conversation, not the end. As Gracie Allen said, and my United Church of Christ friends often remind us, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma."
A sermon is only one installment in an ongoing, multidimensional conversation between God, the scriptures, the pastor, the congregation and the surrounding culture. As pastor I have the honor and privilege of getting the conversation started by preaching a sermon. But the reflection should not end there. If a sermon ends on Sunday morning, the preacher has failed.
That's why each Monday I place yesterday's sermon on this blog page. I invite you to read it, or listen to the audio version on the "Pastor Steve's Messages" page, and then comment. Let the conversation continue through the comments section of this blog.
I hope you enjoy. I hope you are inspired, encouraged, sometimes troubled, even angered. But must important of all, I hope you join in the conversation.
Shabbat and Shalom,
Pastor Steve
Publish Date: July 15, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Conversation or Sermon?

Which would you enjoy more, being preached at, or having a thoughtful conversation with a friend? At The Circle Church we are always trying to include everyone in the circle, and make sure that everyone has a voice. Yet on Sunday mornings I have usually had the privilege of preaching while everyone else listens. 
I have concluded that this is an impoverished way of living community life together. That's why I've recently moved from preparing a full, written out text for preaching into leading a conversation. However, this means that on Monday I no longer have a full-length sermon which I can upload as my weekly blog.
And it means that if you prefer to listen to the sermon there will be some long silences. Our microphones don't pick up the lively conversations going on around the room. I apologize for not having a written text to share with you as a blog, and for the silences in the audio. But I wish you could be with us for the rich and powerful conversations which are happening at The Circle Church on Sunday mornings.


Publish Date: June 17, 2013  ::  Author: Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Radical Spirituality

Romans 8.35-39
June 9, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Romans 8.35-39

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter.”
But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.
I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

Last week I concluded by saying that we are called to be the Radical Paradise of God, practicing a radical form of community life, a radical form of spirituality, and a radical form of justice. Those are the three arms of paradise – radical community, radical spirituality, and radical justice.” For the next few months we’re going to work our way through these three arms of paradise.
We start today with radical spirituality. Polls say that almost everyone thinks they are “spiritual, but not religious,” but what does that mean? The Oxford English Dictionary says that spirituality is “regard for things of the spirit as opposed to material or worldly concerns.” Spiritual people reject this physical world and devote themselves to prayer, worship, bible study, spiritual things. Almost everyone agrees that there is a separation between this physical world, and the spiritual world.
In ancient times and still today shamans, healers, medicine men and women in hunter-gatherer tribes use drugs, chanting, smoke, other exotic rituals to enter into the “spirit world.” People sit in lotus position, or kneel, they fast, they light incense and candles, they chant, they become hermits, so that they might enter into that spiritual world and commune with the angels. In some churches people raise their arms in the air and sing and dance and shout and speak in tongues, all to enter into that spiritual world. Others bow our heads, close our eyes, fold our hands in front of us, maybe kneel. It’s just understood that to enter into the spiritual world you have practice some sort of exotic, demanding spiritual rituals or disciplines to leave this world behind.

What is radical is that Jesus rejects that separation of the spiritual from the physical. Jesus claims that there is nothing separating us from God. Nothing. This idea of two worlds – physical and spiritual – Jesus rejects the whole idea. This world of flesh and blood, it is the spirit world. This world is spiritual. We’re just too blind to see it.
The Kingdom is not somewhere else where you have to smoke peyote or meditate or chant a mantra forever to see it. It’s right here. Jesus said, “God’s world is here.” Just open your eyes! Jesus claims that the deepest levels of the spiritual world can bed found right here in the ordinariness of the physical world in which we all live. That’s why his stories, parables, illustrations where about gardening and farming and very practical, earthy activities.
At creation God formed us out of dust and breathed God’s breath into us, combining the physical and the spiritual. You wanna find God’s Spirit? Breathe. It’s in you.
At his birth he was called Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” God’s very being, in flesh and blood. Not somewhere else, not hidden. Right here, in the flesh.
One day Jesus took three disciples up on a mountain, and they saw him glow with a blinding white light, flanked by Moses and Elijah. This was not to show that Jesus is somehow unique because he is sinless. After all, Moses and Elijah are there, too, and glowing just as brightly, and we know that they were mortal, sinful men who made their share of mistakes. Jesus is showing us how the world really looks. This is how Jesus sees all of us – glowing with God-light. The sad thing is that we don’t see ourselves, and we don’t see one another as glowing with God-light. But if our eyes are open, this physical world is spiritual – it is infused with God’s presence.

We know that Jesus was a man of prayer. Spent 40 days in the desert praying, got up before daylight and slipped away to pray. He’s clearly a man of prayer, and in two weeks we’re going to begin working our way through the Lord’s Prayer slowly. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. The Lord’s Prayer, you’re going to be excited by how we break it down and dig into it’s deeper meanings.
But what’s interesting about this man of deep prayer is what he didn’t teach. Jesus never taught us how to do any exotic spiritual practices. In fact, he condemned such He told them not to put prayer tassels on the bottom of the robes to jingle when they walked. He had no use for the ritual washings and purification rights of the Pharisees. He even broke the Sabbath, the day devoted to spiritual practice. Jesus never said to bow our heads or close our eyes. In fact, I’m really not sure about that. Jesus says that the kingdom is right in front of our eyes. Maybe we ought to open our eyes wider!
Jesus didn’t talk a lot about distinctly religious, “spiritual” practices because he was too busy feeding people, healing people, teaching people, showing them who they really are. When he looked at a bleeding woman or a leper or a blind man he saw them glowing with God-light. To Jesus, that is living in the spiritual world. The spirituality of Jesus is simple, practical, grounded in the ordinary, earthy physical world in which we all live. If you can’t find God there, you’re not gonna find God by contemplating your navel.
The spirituality of the Radical Paradise of God is radical because it is embodied spirituality. By that word “embodied” I mean literally ‘in the body” spirituality. The spirituality of the Radical Paradise of God is therefore profoundly simple, straightforward, without exotic or otherworldly practices or rituals. We find God in the flesh, or we don’t find God at all. The mystic poet William Blake believed, and I believe with him, that it is really possible:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
Heaven in a wild flower.
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
Eternity in an hour.  
You’ve heard me say before that I don’t think God or the universe is much impressed by my opinion about anything. But this is where belief matters. Do we believe that there is no separation between us and God, no separation between heaven and earth, no separation between the spiritual and the physical world? If we do, then it is a simple choice, the choice to see what we say we believe. It’s simpler than it is easy, but it is a simple choice. We always see EXACTLY what we choose to see. We always see ONLY what we choose to see. It is no more or less than a choice.
You really can see the world in a grain of sand, if you choose to, and if you take the time. You really can see heaven in a wild flower, if you choose to, and if you take the time to look with love. And you really can see the face of Jesus in the person sitting across from you at lunch today. If you choose to, and if you take the time to look with love.


Publish Date: June 17, 2013  ::  Author: Steve DeFields

Radical Spirituality - The Messes We Make

Luke 15.20-24
June 16, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 15.20-24

So he got up and went to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
This is my grandson Sean. He’s a bit older now, but for at least the first five years of his life almost all the pictures we have of him look like this. Sean is, shall we say, a mess-magnet. When he was 2 years old his dad had to put a padlock on the refrigerator cause Sean would wake up in the middle of the night, escape from his crib, and eat whatever he found in the fridge. Come morning they’d find a trail of ketchup or spaghetti sauce leading back to his crib, where he’d be sound asleep, his face covered with the evidence of his sin.
We are exploring the radical spirituality of Jesus, and the key word is radical. The paradise of God is not conservative or traditional, it is a  radical way of connecting to the Spirit. And that radical spirituality begins by acknowledging the messes we make.

Traditional religion has always assumed that to be human makes us dirty. We are born in sin, so they say, and God is holy, pure. Sin is a barrier between us and God. God cannot be tainted with sin, so our sinfulness separates us from God. And spirituality is the work of finding a way past this barrier of sin, so that we can be with God.
This is why the Pharisees were always performing purification rituals. Hand washing, head washing, symbolic washing, lotta washing, to cleanse themselves of sin so that they could be touched by God.
I asked my dad once why he refused to go to church. He said, “I’m not ready. God is holy, and I have too much respect for God to come to church while I’m still drinking, still smoking, still living a sinner’s life. I’ll come to church…when I clean up my life.”
Traditional Christianity describes a courtroom scene. God is the judge. We stand accused of being sinners, and we are guilty. And while God loves us, God must follow the law, and the law says that we must die. Even God is powerless to forgive us. But Jesus is our defense attorney, and Jesus comes up with a legal technicality. He will take the penalty. So God kills his only Son. We can only stand before God if we’ve been “washed in blood.”
Frankly, I think that’s one of the strangest stories ever told. Are we really saying that there is something more powerful than God Almighty, and that greater power is a rule book? That God is unable to simply decide to set aside the technicalities and forgive us? This strange notion – it’s called the Atonement Doctrine - is rooted in this idea that we are too messy, and God cannot soil God’s self by touching us.
But there stands that father, by a gate. An open gate. You know the story. Maybe you’re living it. Rich farmer’s kid, didn’t like life on the farm so he pressured his father into cashing out his pension and giving him the money now. So he took that money and headed to Santa Cruz. Parties, booze, girls, drugs. “Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane.” Till the money ran out. Went from expensive hotels to sleeping in the bush. No money. No food. No teeth. Can’t remember what it is to feel human. Desperate, he has an idea:  I’ll tell my father, ‘I’m not worthy to be your son. Just hire me as a migrant worker.”
His father had been standing by that gate, day after endless day. An open gate. And when the boy finally came home, didn’t matter about the fleas and the lice. Didn’t matter about the odor, or the indefinable crud dripping off of him. The boy was a holy mess, but that did not matter. The father ran, he ran up to him, and grabbed him, and hugged him, and kissed his filthy face.

This is spirituality, not that we have to clean ourselves up  but that God runs up to us and hugs our holy mess. “My child was lost, and is now found.” That messes are no obstacle. That there are no obstacles separating us from God. At least not on God’s end of it. That gate was open the whole time. The father stood there, every day, waiting to wrap his arms around his son again. The son’s mistakes, his sins were never an obstacle. Sin is not an obstacle between us and God. Nothing stands between us and God. Nothing.
The movie is called Sedona. A boy got lost in the desert. After a long search the boy was found and returned to his dad. The kid said, “Are you mad at me?” The dad said, “Yes, I’m furious at you,” and then he pulled him close to his chest and started crying with relief. “I was so scared,” he whispered to the boy. “I thought I’d lost you.”

This is the wrath of God - a fierce love which holds on no matter what.

It’s not that God doesn’t get mad at us. I know that there have been many a day when Sean’s mother would like to wring his neck. But that doesn’t even begin to slow down her love for him, or her acceptance of him with his adventurous, dynamic personality. Many a day she ruins a dress by picking his messy face up and hugging her to him, even when she’s furious at him. And this is the critical, key point, that even when she’s angry with him, she’s still his mom, and she does not hesitate to get messy holding him.

It’s not that cleaning up the messes we make is not important. I’m sure that Sean is quite familiar with mom’s spit bath. And I’m sure his little cheeks are sometimes reddened by the scrubbing of the washcloth. But that comes later. The first thing the father did was hug him. Then the father gave him specific gifts that indicated that the son was fully accepted as a member of the family. The ring with the father’s seal, which conveyed the full authority of an honored son. An honored son? And the party honoring him. Accepting him.
You’d think the first thing would have been a hot bath. But it doesn’t say that.  I’m sure that will come later, but first, the hug, first the robe of the acceptance, first the ring of power. And first the party. Can you imagine the boy sitting there at the feast, still smelling like pigs, still dirty in face, crusty hair, sores all over his body?  No wonder the brother was outraged.
That’s radical! The radical spirituality of God’s paradise is a wet, sticky, messy love. Our God is not bound by some law book to condemn us to death, in fact God will move heaven and earth to bring us home, and to hell with the rules.

The older brother felt that his brother’s filth stained the whole family. It was humiliating for his father to embrace him. It was an abomination to see that filthy, smelly, lice-infected mess sitting at the head table wearing his father’s robe. You see, the radical grace of God drives some people crazy. Some people will tell you that what I’m teaching you this morning is heresy.
Spiritual life in Jesus begins with accepting the fact that life is messy.  Even when we are doing our best to keep our Sunday clothes clean, messes just seem to grow on our faces. We are all a holy mess!
(And let me tell you this – Sean is a good kid. Let no one think that Sean is some sort of disobedient, bad child. No. He’s a good kid. He’s just a mess magnet.)

The truth of it is that we are all both good kids and mess magnets. The older brother’s problem is that he does not realize that he is just as much of a mess as his brother. We are all a holy mess!

The core of the radical spiritual life is the idea that sin is not an obstacle to our relationship with God. That God embraces the messiest of us just as passionately as those of who think we are clean. That God is not soiled or stained or tainted by getting down in the mud with us and holding us close.
And that God is not bound by some rule book to condemn us. That God is God, and God is both willing, and able to forgive us for the messes we make.
That no matter who we are or where we’re at in life our Daddy stands at the gate looking for us, and holding the gate open for us.
That the prayer of the alcoholic or tweaker laying in the bush reaches God’s heart and is received even more graciously than the prayer of a middle-aged self-righteous older-brother preacher who never lets alcohol touch his lips. It is a radical, a bizarre, a scary, a wonderful thought – that that drunk guy in the bush may be just as close, or closer to God than I am.
That you and I can always come home. Always come home.



Publish Date: April 14, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

No sermon text this week

I'm sorry, but there is no sermon text this week, because I did not preach from the text, just a few notes. But listen to the audio version of today's sermon; it's under Pastor Steve's Messages. 
Pastor Steve


Publish Date: April 8, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambre


Luke 24.13-32 (Common English Bible)
April 1, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 24.3-49

On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him. He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?”
They stopped, their faces downcast. The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
He said to them, “What things?”    
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
A week has passed for us, but not for the disciples. In this story it’s still Easter, the afternoon shadows grow long, but it’s still Easter. That morning the had women started a rumor, but now the sun is low on the horizon, and if he has risen, no one has him.
Don’t know  these two disciples. Cleopas? Never heard of him. Wasn’t one of the twelve. Did you notice - angels told the women that Jesus was risen – but not the twelve. Now Jesus appears to Cleopas and someone, maybe Cleopas’ wife? I don’t know.  All I know is, neither was one of the twelve. You’d have thought he’d appear to Peter, James, John, one of the twelve, but it’s just like Jesus to appear to some people no one’s ever heard of.

I think it’s significant that in Luke’s gospel his first appearance is on the road, because according to Luke Jesus was always going somewhere. Before they called us Christians they called us “The Road.” We are by definition road warriors, on a journey toward the kingdom.
Lot of folks think the job of religion is preservation - to preserve stories, traditions and rituals from long ago so that on Christmas and Easter we can bring our children to church and let them stare at the Christians like they stare at nearly extinct animals in a zoo. “See how they used to do things in primitive times, children. Back when people believed in superstitions like Jesus and God. These people still do.”
A church near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Old fellow pointed at a battered, worn down little table in the children’s Sunday School room. “See that table,” he said. “I sat at that table when I was a child. My kids sat at that table.” Pointed at one of those old paintings of Jesus at Gethsemane, just like the one on my great-grandmother’s wall. Old man said, “I used to stare at that painting. My son did, too. I keep thinking that my great, great grandchildren will sit around that same table and look up at that same picture and learn about Jesus.” There were tears in his eyes. “But that’s not gonna happen. My children don’t bring my grandchildren to church. For years now this room sits empty. I don’t know why.” My roommate and I knew why. That room he loved so much, it just looked dingy. Tired. Worn out. There was no risen Christ in that room. Just memories. Just memories.
 Brothers and sisters, religion may look backward, but Christ looks forward. Christ comes to those who are moving forward, marching to Zion. If we aren’t growing in Christ, we are shrinking. There is no standing still. We are still on the road.

But even on the road the presence of the risen Christ might have slipped past Cleopas and his companion. When the stranger asked, “What’cha talkin’ about?” they might have been suspicious. Remember, they were still afraid the Romans. To tell a stranger they were followers of Jesus was dangerous. Safer not to talk to this strange, nosy man. But if they had done the safe thing, they would never have seen him.
I wonder how many wonderful friends I’ve missed out on because I was afraid to take a risk? There’s no adventure with risk! And there is no safe spiritual life! To be a Christian is risky. Dangerous. How many encounters with the risen Christ have you and I missed because we were afraid? The Christian life is a journey, it requires a sense of adventure.
The most significant times in my life have almost all been road trips. Going away to college at a school I hadn’t even heard of till a week before. Moving to a tiny town of 500 people in backwoods Michigan, supposedly to help alcoholics get sober, though they taught me more than I taught them. Going to seminary. That scary afternoon in the back alleys of Managua, Nicaragua. Couldn’t have a wallet, a key, not even a slip of paper in a pocket, cause the slightest bulge in a pocket and thieves would slit open the pocket and our leg with a razor, and grab whatever fell out. Those alleys were dangerous. And yet Jesus showed up among the glue-sniffing children who live in those alleys. I got an infection after hugging one of those kids, couldn’t get out of bed for two days. But I saw Jesus there in those alleys. Someday I’ll tell you more or that story, but I would be half the man, half the Christian I am if I had not gone into that alley.
The most dangerous thing you can do is play it safe. When have you grown the most spiritually?

They were not content to stay in that stifling room, going over and over the stories of the past. They were on the road, moving forward. And they were willing to take a chance on a complete stranger. Tell him their story, open up their hearts. Could have gotten them killed, but they were open to new people and new adventures.
And so this stranger begins opening up to them the scriptures. The same old scriptures, stories from long ago. But the stranger unfolded these old stories in a new way. Reinterpreted old stories in new ways so that the story of Jesus made sense. There is a continuity with the past. Tradition and stories of long ago do have meaning and power for us today. But only if we’re willing to hear them from strangers, only if we’re willing to hear these old stories reinterpreted for new circumstances.

They are moving forward, taking risks, talking to strangers. And the past is redefined for them so that it lives again, and it warms their hearts. But still, they don’t see Jesus. And it almost ended there. They get to the house. Jesus acted as if he was going on. This is where he almost slipped away from them. But they asked him to stay. Invited him in.
What if they hadn’t done that? They were the first people in Luke’s gospel to experience the presence of rise Christ only because they engaged in an act of radical hospitality. They invited a stranger into their house, to eat with them, and then spend the night. They didn’t know this guy. Might wake up the next morning with their throats slit and all the silverware missing. It was a dangerous act, a real risk, a radical hospitality.
I believe that a practice of radical hospitality lies at the core of the Christian way of life. Their hearts had been warmed by a stranger’s words, but it would have been nothing more than a pleasant interlude had they not opened up their home to him completely in radically risky hospitality.

We can’t just talk about this stuff. It only comes to life in the living of it. Hospitality lies at the core of the Christian journey. I can measure my spiritual health by how open or closed my heart is on any given day. I may look like I’m walking the Christian walk but too often I can feel in my heart a closed door, clenched, protected, unwilling to really listen, unable to muster the energy to be fully present. Going through the motions, but my heart is closed. Thank God for those moments when I awake, as if from a stupor, and look into your eyes, and see you, really see you. Hear you, even if it sometimes means hear your heart breaking.
Yesterday I was awake. I didn’t let the moment pass me by. I watched Susan’s eyes as she looked at the man she loved. I saw her joy, her gratitude, and deep in those tear-filled eyes I saw the long, hard road that brought the two of them together. Earlier Don had spoken to me, and I saw his eyes, too. Weddings will do that to you, make you stop, and see who it is that is about to walk on down the road.
Too many days I just feel overwhelmed, like I don’t have the time, don’t have the space in my heart to really stop and see you. And if I can’t really stop and see you, then I cannot stop and see the risen Christ and invite him in. They are one and the same.
I suspect it’s about prayer. Too busy to pray. And then unable to say no to the busyness and distraction and fast pace of life. Scrambling from one thing to another, that’s not a spiritual life. It takes time to develop a relationship – with one another, and with God.
I cannot be your pastor if I don’t find more time to pray. And we cannot be a church which quivers with the power of the risen Christ unless we all find more time to pray, to engage scripture, and finally, to be more present to one another. To be more present to one another requires both the solitude of prayer, and the energy to open up our hearts and hear, really hear one another’s story.  This is a spiritual practice, a rigorous way of life, and it’s not easy. But it is the Christian way.

It had been a long day. A long, hard, horrible weekend. Finally they are home. Their hand is on the doorknob. They didn’t have to invite him in. But they opened their hearts, invited a stranger in. Dangerous.

And when he broke the bread, they knew. They knew.

Ask yourself this question. When, in just a few moments, when we break the bread, will you know? Really know? Will you see him here, today?


Publish Date: April 1, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

What Are We Supposed to Believe?

Luke 24.1-12 (Common English Bible)
EASTER March 31, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 24.1-12
Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words.
When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.
But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.

Today’s reading leaves us standing by an empty tomb, thinking, “What the heck?” Not knowing what to believe. We are 21st century people. The dead don’t just walk out of the grave, do they? Except in zombie movies. And Jesus is not a zombie.
These women had watched him die, wrapped his body linen, saw the stone rolled across the tomb. And that was not their first rodeo. They’d seen death before, prepared bodies for burial before. They knew death. And he was dead. Dead as dead. Now they stand before an empty tomb, with their jaws hanging open.
A couple of guys in really bright clothing – bold, primary, Easter colors. Don’t know why. Maybe their gay? But they don’t have wings. They don’t shimmer and glow. Aside from their flamboyant wardrobe, no indication that they are supernatural beings. Just a couple of guys who claim that Jesus has risen from the dead. What are they supposed to believe? What are we supposed to believe? And if it is true…if he is really risen, what does that mean?

Don’t be afraid to doubt this story. In fact, if you don’t find resurrection a little hard to believe, you aren’t really paying attention. The bible writers know that doubt and faith are like positive and negative poles on a magnet. You can’t have one without the other. Faith, after all, isn’t the same thing as knowing for sure. Faith, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  At this moment we don’t see Jesus. We just see an empty tomb. A mystery.
The resurrection stories are all ambiguous and mysterious. The biblical resurrection stories insist that we confront our doubts. Mark’s gospel ends with an empty tomb and a rumor. . In John’s gospel Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus, not at first.  Here in Luke’s gospel no one sees Jesus till the evening. Even in the story we’ll talk about next week, about a couple of people who have a long conversation with a stranger, later they decide that he was Jesus, but they didn’t know that at the time. It’s never automatically, perfectly clear that Jesus is resurrected. In each story doubt is not at all unreasonable, and faith is a choice. Which is why I think that if you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, you probably aren’t taking it very seriously!
Because if it’s true, then what? We depend on knowing a few things for certain. Death and taxes. Gravity. TV commercials are too loud and go on for hours. Some things we can count on. But if death, if even death isn’t sure and certain, then our entire reality is thrown off balance. Resurrection, if it’s true, is pretty scary stuff. Nothing makes sense. There’s nothing we can count on. If resurrection is real, then our entire world is undone.

Which was always his agenda – to undo our world, and create a new world. A new heavens, a new earth, for the old world has passed away.

And so we stand beside these women who loved him, staring at an empty tomb, wondering what to believe. And we can’t make sense out of what we’re seeing. We’re not supposed to make sense out of it. Kinda like an Escher painting. The harder we try to understand it, the more it undoes all our assumptions.

The women go home and tell the men what they saw, and what happened. This is huge for a couple of reasons. First because they were not – at this moment –  card-carrying, baptized believers. Luke says that “they didn’t know what to believe.” Just like you and me, sometimes. But they shared what they had seen and heard, and what they hoped.

Do you realize what this means? It means that you can have doubts, you can honestly not know what to believe, and still be used by God to proclaim the Good News. Belief has been overrated. There is room in the church for skeptics. A church in Texas, on their website some of their members tell why they like this church. One of the members who gives a little testimony is an atheist. Not was, is an atheist. And they put his testimony on their website. Home page. And then the pastor says, “I don’t know what we’d do without him and his honest questions and doubts. We need him to be part of our church family.”
The disciples were not all believers, or always believers. Thomas had doubts. Simon was a political terrorist who had a lot of doubts about Jesus’ nonviolent way. These women didn’t know what to believe. But they had stood before that empty tomb and allowed their world to be undone. And that’s the story they told.
And this makes them the very first apostles. An apostle is someone who proclaims the resurrection, and that’s what these women did – even though they didn’t know what to believe. Thus they are the first apostles, the first to proclaim the Good News of Easter. In the new world which pours out of that empty tomb like blinding light, in that new world of the Resurrected Christ, women are no longer second class citizens. Women are the first to be told, AND the first to proclaim – in other words, the first to preach. Obviously, Jesus intended that women be the first leaders of the church.
But the men thought it was nonsense. Actually the Greek word used is the root of the word “delirious.”  They men thought they were delirious, seeing things. Men are stubborn, sometimes. And so even on Easter Sunday the church began ignoring the direction of Jesus.
Within a few hundred years the men had silenced the women again and regained total dominion over the church. And the result? The men very quickly sold the church out to the Roman Empire, the same people who killed Jesus!

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the men had listened to the women? I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the men had welcomed those women as equals, as leaders, as apostles?
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we ever let ourselves really be here with these women, if we learned to dwell for a while in the confusion of this moment, if we were willing to live in the mystery and challenge of having our entire world turned upside down like an Escher painting, until we don’t know what to believe.
There just might be light at the end of that tunnel.


Publish Date: March 25, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

A Collision of Parades

Luke 19.28-40/John 12.12-16
March 24, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

John 12.12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the king of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, Don’t be afraid, daughter Zion. Look! Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.
His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

Luke 19.28-40
After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’ Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said. As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “Its master needs it.”
They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road. As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”
Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”
He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”
It is Holy Week, the week which leads like pending doom to Gethsemane on Thursday, and Golgotha and a cross on Friday…and to an empty tomb on Easter Sunday. This is a big week for Christians.
It was a different Holy Week for Jesus and the disciples. They were celebrating Passover – when God freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Israel was at that time a conquered nation, subject to the merciless violence of Rome. Pontius Pilate once left the heads of 300 men on stakes at the gates of the city for an entire year. They had to walk past those heads every day. They hated Rome. At Passover they dreamed of a new liberation from this slavery. So when this wandering prophet from Galilee enters Jerusalem his very presence ignites both hope, and fear. Is he a new Moses, come to liberate us from Rome?
It may be that there were two parades in Jerusalem that day. While Jesus enters from  the east, Pontius Pilate may be entering the western gate of the city. Make no mistake, Jesus and his disciples had planned this carefully. An advance team cut down palm branches ahead of time, secured the donkey according to instructions, and pumped up the crowd.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find that they waited till they saw the long column of Pilates horses and soldiers marching so that they would arrive together. This was a well-planned political demonstration, two very different armies meeting in Jerusalem.  
You’ve seen and heard how Jesus entered the city. Now let’s see how Pilate paraded into the sacred city. Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan ask us to imagine:
…cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to his theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. -- Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days  in Jerusalem, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, p. 3.
Can you see Pilate riding at the head on a great white war stallion covered in armor, above his head he glimmer of the golden eagle high on a pole, the throbbing drum, the gleam of all those polished swords and lances which could be coated with blood within hours.
At the same time, Jesus enters on a donkey, and his entry is a witness against the power and pomp and circumstance of all other earthly kings. But this is not just about the simplicity and humility of Jesus. The donkey is a clue. To make sure we don’t miss the point John reminds us of  the prophecy of Zechariah 9.9, “Don’t be afraid, daughter Zion. Look! Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”  

Clearly Jesus intended that everyone would recognize that he was the humble king of Zechariah. But there is more to Zechariah’s prophecy. Listen to the next verse from Zechariah:
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.

He will cut off the chariots of war. He will remove warhorses from the streets of Jerusalem. He will smash bows and swords used in battle. He will speak peace to the nations. In other words, the humble  king on a donkey brings peace, not war.
Look at the contrast between these two parades. One is military to the core. But with Jesus there is not a single weapon in sight. Just poor, suffering peasants who are always the victims of political violence. It is always the innocent poor who are the victims when politics gets violent. And according to Luke, those poor peasants proclaim peace. As at the beginning of Luke’s gospel the angels sang “Peace on earth, good will to all,” again now the people sing, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” These two parades contrast the way of violence, and the way of peace.  

Jesus was, and still is, absolutely nonviolent. In fact Jesus invented of nonviolent political action. Ghandi used nonviolence to change his world. Martin Luther King used nonviolence to change his world. Egypt, for the most part, used nonviolence. South Africa. The path of nonviolent action has been proven to be extremely powerful as a political tool. And it was invented by Jesus. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, that’s not being a wimp, that’s a form of nonviolent protest against the violence of Rome. Parading into town like a king on a donkey, that’s nonviolent political action.
Jesus never once lifted a hand in anger or in violence against a living soul. Not once. And Jesus, never once, gave us permission to do so. Jesus taught one thing, and one thing only, over and over again – peace. He taught us that we can be strong without being violent. He taught us that we can stand up for ourselves and stand up for the weak and the poor and the defenseless, without being violent. Let the word ring out – Jesus is the king of nonviolence, and he never, ever condones violence.

The blasphemy of historical Christianity is that the name of Christ has so often been used for violence. How many wars have been fought in the name of Jesus? Christianity has a lot of blood on it’s hands, for a religion founded by a man who never, ever condoned violence. Couple of weeks ago a church somewhere had what they called “Second Amendment Sunday,” and in Sunday School they had the kids carve Pop-Tarts into the shape of guns. That’s blasphemy. “Put away your sword,” he told Peter. He meant what he said.
We live in perhaps the bloodiest age ever. We can listen to the atrocities of Imperial Rome and shake our heads, but look at Hiroshima! Nagasaki! Shock and awe in Iraq. Drones, death from the sky. America has more guns that people. Literally. We are one of the few civilized nations which still uses capital punishment. We spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, almost half of every tax dollar.  Turned on a TV lately? We love violence.
We’ve been killing each other for so long! When will Jesus destroy all the instruments of war and speak peace to the nations?
We spend half of our federal budget on weapons of war, but we can’t find fund a mental health system that will really treat those who are sick. We have created a society which simply cannot take rape seriously. Did you see the pity-party CNN threw for convicted rapists? Can we not understand that rape is a terrible, violent act, and it is unseemly and inappropriate for reporters to mourn the conviction of rapists? One in three women in the military are sexually assaulted. Few of the rapists are prosecuted. Had they prosecuted Jeremy Goulet for the two rapes he committed as a soldier, our two good police officers would be alive today, and so would Mr. Goulet. And maybe, if we had enough mental health treatment programs, he could have gotten the help he needed.
We’ve been killing each other for so long! When will Jesus destroy all the instruments of war and speak peace to the nations?
Kids are killing each other with guns and knives in a tragic parody of what used to be called community pride. And now instead of finding practical solutions to extreme poverty, our city is about to wage war on the poor, just for the crime of being poor. Instead of increasing the availability of treatment programs for addiction and mental illness, there is now an effort to close down the Homeless Service Center.
There is an anger growing in Santa Cruz. A mean, violent underbelly.  People are turning more and more hurtful and angry and violent, and they are hiding their rage behind the facade of good citizenship. In the name of public safety. Before it’s over, people are going to get hurt, and get hurt very badly.
Do we not remember that the reason Pilate killed Jesus was to protect public safety? As Caiaphas said it, “Better that one die than many die.” They felt that if they didn’t kill Jesus, he would get the public so rouse up that they would revolt, and then Pilate would have to send out his army to slaughter thousands of people. He killed Jesus as a matter of public safety. The same reason they locked up and killed the Jews.

Jesus will speak peace to the nations. The King of Peace will bring peace. But it’s a cooperative venture. We keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting, while the blood keeps flowing, yet it seems that Jesus is silent. We forget that we are the body of Christ, which means that we are the voice of Christ. So perhaps it is Jesus who keeps waiting and waiting. Waiting for Christians to stand up and to speak up for peace in his name. Perhaps Jesus is waiting for us, Circle Church, and for all the Christians in this city to speak peace in a time when anger is about to boil over into violence.
We need to proclaim the truth, that the way of anger and the way of violence, the way of Pontius Pilate does not protect public safety.  There are ways, there are ways to respond to the legitimate public safety needs of our community that do not involve waging war against the poor. More treatment programs for addictions and for mental health, for example. But treating everyone who is poor as if they are a criminal is just evil. And in this evil age, Christians must be the voice of Christ.
We wait for Jesus, and he waits for us to speak peace. Maybe, just maybe, we could speak peace together, Jesus and us? And maybe our voice will be heard. And maybe then there will, indeed, be peace on earth.


Publish Date: March 18, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Run for Resurrection

Philippians 3.4b-14
March 17, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Philippians 3.4b-14 (NRSV)

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
In high school one of my friends asked me to join the track team. I said, “No way. You  run around and around, but you always end up back at the same place. If I’m going to run, I want to go somewhere.” Paul uses the image of running a race. “…straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize…” This language comes right out of Olympic track and field games. It’s a picture of athlete straining to cross the finish line.
Those early Olympic athletes ran naked. No clothes to weigh them down. I don’t know ‘bout that. Lot of stuff flopping around if you ask me. Paul jettisoned everything in his life to run this race. Being the ultimate Jew was his whole identity! But he has jettisoned all that. Can you imagine? Got the Ph.D., let it go. Had a prestigious job, but I quit. Resigned from the country club. Gave all my fancy clothes to Goodwill. Nice house in a good neighborhood, almost paid off, now it’s gone. Jettison the baggage, lighten the load. Gotta run!
Specifically, Paul had let go of his religiosity: his Jewishness, his devotion to the Torah, which was his word for the bible, his membership card in the Pharisees. All those ways that he had tried to ensure that he was right with God? Let it all go. Why? So that he could run full blast, with nothing weighing him down.
One of the central, foundational tenets of Christian faith is that the world is messed up; things are just not right. And things need to be made right. That’s the finish line toward which Paul strains. Compared to that goal the stuff he gave up doesn’t matter. Paul says, “I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

Paul is racing in pursuit of the prize of righteousness, which can also be translated “justice.” Righteousness means to make things right again, to make the world right again. It’s not just about my sins or my virtues, everything needs to be made right. Paul is straining toward that place where everything is right again. I’ve told you before about my son Michael, who got into more than his fair share of trouble as a kid. But after he had been caught doing whatever he’d been doing, after the punishment I would wrap him up in daddy’s arms, and he would lay his head on my chest…and sigh.
That’s what Paul is straining for – that moment when everything has been made right again. Not just my sins, for how can my life be right if you are still suffering? How can I sigh a contented sigh while you are still weeping? This is why Paul admits that he has not yet arrived.  But he knows what the finish line looks like. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” That’s the finish line.
“I want to know Christ…” We’re not talking about book-learning, here. The word “know”, it means knowing deep in the bones,, knowing the way B.B. King knows the blues, the way Ella knew jazz. It’s knowing that way true lovers know. It’s knowing the way a momma knows the sound of her baby’s cry, or better yet, the way a baby knows the smell of her mother. The secret to making everything right again is to know Christ, from the inside out, the way a baby knows momma’s heartbeat and momma’s smell.

You don’t get to this kind of knowing through a book. You can only know Christ in this way by participating in the life of Christ, and this is more than believing. My belief, my opinion about Jesus means nothing if it doesn’t lead me to strip down, throw off all my extra weight and jump head first into the life of Christ as a participant, knowing him by living Christ’s life with him. How can 21st century people participate in the life of Christ? This knowing involves much more than simply re-reading and meditating on the life and death of Jesus. This means participating in the life of Christ by taking up our own cross, in the context of our own lives.
Paul describes the way to know Jesus in a very interesting three part sentence. Listen: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Notice the structure of this sentence.
To know Christ:
the power of his resurrection
the sharing of his sufferings
becoming like him in his death,
attain the resurrection from the dead.
Resurrection is the beginning, it is the end, and it is the force which sustains us as we enter into Christ’s sufferings. Paul insists that to really know Christ, we have to participate in the whole of his life -  we have to know suffering. Participate in suffering. Know and participate in death. To participate in the suffering and death of Christ within the context of our own lives. This is what Paul did. He wrote this letter from prison.

I think what Paul is describing in this sentence is a cycle, a rhythm, if you will, to the spiritual life. We first come to Christ because we want our life to be resurrected from the ashes.  But almost as soon as we are baptized, suffering begins. Friends don’t want to hang out with us anymore, finances get tough, health problems. Seems like every new Christian faces persecution and trials. As soon as you get your hair dry from your baptism, get on your knees, cause life is about to get complicated. Suffering is the job description of a Christian.

And death. To follow Jesus is to be asked to die to our sins, which sounds OK in theory. Till we realize that this means dying to things that matter to us. Not just obvious sins, but dying to how we want to live our lives. Don’t wanna go to seminary. Don’t wanna go to Santa Cruz. Don’t wanna stop playing music in bars. Don’t wanna completely change my political and social orientation. Don’t wanna embrace “those people.” Don’t wanna give up my TV time to read my bible. Don’t wanna, don’t wanna, don’t wanna.

I was half-way through seminary. Gonna be a pastor. Gonna have to do funerals. Don’t wanna. Don’t like death. Scares me. I prayed about this. A lot. God said to be a student chaplain at Methodist Hospital, the big trauma center when the helicopters bring people from all over the state. They put me on the heart-transplant unit, where men and women who stared death in the face every single day taught me about dying. Near the end of that semester, I had the option of viewing an autopsy. Maybe you think you know, from watching CSI or NCIS or some TV show. You don’t know. I watched it. To  my surprise, I ended up helping do an autopsy. Talk about death, front and center. Do you believe in the resurrection or not?
Three weeks later, my dad died. Three weeks after that, I preached my first sermon as the pastor of a church. That first month, I officiated at five funerals. This was not what I signed up for. But it was what I needed.

There’s a song, in the musical Godspell. I may have confused the lyric, but here’s the way I remember it: “I’ll put a pebble in my shoe/And watch me walk/I shall call the pebble death/And when we both have had enough/I’ll take him from my shoe, singing/meet your new road.”

Real transformation happens “by the renewing of your minds.”  To know Christ so intimately that we know resurrection in our bones, we have to know suffering and death, so that we can truly say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  It is only through running this race of suffering and dying - in the context of our own lives - that we can get to the place where everything is right with the world.

Janice Williams is an Japanese-American woman. During World War II she was interred in an interment camp, a concentration camp, really, till she was four. But her mother taught her to put it behind her. Forget it. Don’t talk about it. Move on. Her mother never, ever spoke of the camps. Not till she did. And when she did she went to Washington. Began telling her story to a congressional committee. In three minutes a senator told her that her time was up. But her time was not up. She had held silent for a lifetime, she would no longer be silent about suffering. Senator so and so could go to hell, she kept on reading from her prepared text. She told her story until it was done. And so her healing finally began.
Janice heard about this afterwards, and her mother’s courage broke something in Janice. Janice began speaking about the sexual abuse she had received during her childhood. This was something her mother had never wanted to hear. Be silent. Put it behind you. Move on. But sometimes you can’t move on till you’ve told the story, honored the suffering, honored the part of your soul that died. Janice and her mother finally participated, within the context of their own lives, in the suffering and death of Christ. And in doing so they both received resurrection power, and their relationship was resurrected, and they have been empowered to make a tremendous difference in the lives of countless others who have been abused and mistreated.

Like Janice, every single one of us has our own story of suffering and death, and if we would strain toward the goal of resurrected life, we must honor our own story, and tell our own story, and face our own demons. Throw everything aside. Strip down to the essentials. Face the truth. Tell the truth. Strain toward the truth, knowing that in so doing you are participating in the life of Christ. And that’s where resurrection comes from.



Publish Date: March 11, 2013  ::  Author: Steve DeFields

How Far Does Unconditional Love Go?

Luke 15.11-32 (Common English Bible)
March 10, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 15.11-32
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’
Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’
Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

We don’t actually know what the elder brother finally did. Did he hold that resentment forever? Was the family forever split?  Maybe he went off by himself, and wrote his dad a long letter.
“Dear Dad. I want you to know that I’m not angry at my brother. I’m angry at you. In my psychology classes I learned that when you give an addict money or bail them out of jail, or make excuses for them, you make it easier for them to continue down the same destructive path. That’s called enabling, and Dad, you are a classic enabler. You have enabled him all his life; that’s why he is so worthless. My brother has never learned to accept the consequences of his actions, because for him there are never any consequences.
“You taught me to be responsible. You taught me that our actions have consequences. It was from you that I learned that you reap what you sow, and if you want anything you have to work for it. Do you remember when you told me not to play on top of the barn roof? But I did, and I fell, and I broke my arm. It was from you that I learned that actions have consequences. But you didn’t teach this to my brother. His actions do not seem to have consequences. And that’s not fair. He insults you, bankrupts himself and almost bankrupts the farm…he destroyed our family, and he gets a party? Dad, everything I know about life and reality tells me that you are enabling him, and that is not healthy for you, for our family, or for him.
“It feels as if all the laws of my universe have been undone. If I drop a heavy object on my foot it will hurt – but not for my brother. He will whine to daddy, daddy will change the rules – no pain. If I jump off a cliff, I will fall to my death – but not my brother. He will whine to daddy, and daddy will reverse gravity, and my brother will fly. Dad, does hard work not really matter? Does wasting a life in sinful indulgence not really matter? Doesn’t anything I do matter? You see, Dad, I cannot come to the party because the very fact of this party invalidates everything I believe in. For I do believe in hard work and rewards, and yes, in consequences for wasting your life. Sincerely, your bewildered son.”

Now how does the father answer a letter like that?
“My Dear Son, I’m sorry that you think I’m enabling your brother.  Believe me, your brother has reaped more consequences than you and I could ever know. We were not there when he lay with the pigs. We did not experience the gnawing hunger of near starvation. We did not experience the taunts, the jeers, the insults and beatings that he had to endure, sometimes at the hand of those who he had once thought were friends. We did not experience the unraveling of all our hopes and dreams. We did not experience with him the humiliation as he walked through out little village, the taunts and jeers of the very people he grew up with, who now have no respect for him at all. I wish you had watched him trudge slowly up the road, his consequences bending him, nearly crushing him so that he could hardly walk. Filthy cuts and bruises and infected sores filled his emaciated body. If you had looked into his eyes you would know that has suffered more than we can imagine.
“You are right, actions do have consequences. When hurtful, awful words are said, those words will sit between people forever. When cigarettes ruin someone’s lungs, or alcohol destroys someone’s liver, or when needles give someone HIV or Hep-C, even God cannot make the consequences go away. When a person uses Meth and it ruins their teeth, even God cannot make new teeth grow. Life has consequences which even God cannot undo.
“Your  brother  lived as he chose, and even I cannot undo the consequences. The land I gave him is gone, the money gone. For the rest of his life when he looks out his bedroom window he will be looking at land that should have been his, now owned by another. Every day will break his heart. The laws of cause and effect are merciless, and change for no one.
“But we are a family, and the law of love governs family. In fact the law of love governs all human relationships, or at least it should. And the law of love is more powerful even than the law of cause and effect. Families are built on unconditional love and grace, and love and grace cannot be tied to consequences. In fact, when love becomes a reward for good behavior, it is no longer love. Life doles out consequences enough for our choices. We don’t need to punish one another. The job of family is to love, and accept, and forgive, always. If it were not for the forgiveness, the grace, the love which transcends all consequences, I doubt that any of us could endure what life dishes out.
“Did you know that your brother begged me to let him be a slave, but I would not hear of it. Making him a slave would have destroyed the very meaning of family. If his status as my beloved son is dependent on his behavior, then there is no real love, and there is no real family! Even though he had rejected his role as a son in order to pursue his own dream, I restored him because family is forever, no matter what! Or else the very idea of family is a lie. Neither you nor he can cease to be loved by me, because that’s who I am, and that’s who we are. You may reject my love, but I will never stop loving you, either of you.
“My hard-working, devoted eldest, I do not love you because of your loyalty and hard work. Often I’ve longed to see you take time off, have a party, hang out with friends. The fatted calf is yours, it always has been. The good life was always here for you. I’m sorry that you did not understand that. I love you simply because I love you.  That is why this party for your brother must happen, else this family ha no reality. So I hope that you will come to the party, not for your brother, not for me, but because without this party, there is nothing. Please come. With all my love, always your dad.”

Just how far does unconditional love go?

I’ve been reading about this radical church up in the Tenderloin in San Francisco where rich and sometimes famous people worship beside smelly derelicts, where male and female prostitutes and drag queens worship side by side with soccer moms and politicians.
At first glance Glide Memorial Church sounds a bit like The Circle Church. Of course we aren’t in the Tenderloin, but we have developed a reputation as a place where God’s kids who are outcast and marginalized by the rest of society can find a home. But the family God created among us has not been easy to hold together. Do you remember that our Tuesday dinner was intended to bring the entire neighborhood together, so that homeless people and nervous homeowners could meet and find common ground. Never happened. Nervous homeowners just won’t come. They are afraid. I’ve been told that most regular, middle-class people don’t want to attend here. They are afraid of us. Maybe they should be.

Another thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes those who know first-hand what it’s like to be outcast, to be unfairly blamed for all of society’s problems, to be the victims of untrue assumptions and stereotypes, sometimes those very people are surprisingly intolerant of others, gays, for example. Sometimes when we finally find a place where we are fully accepted for who we are, we’re afraid to extend that acceptance to those other different people. We’re afraid. Just how far does unconditional love go?
Some say it’s fine to reach out to addicts and alcoholics, but the point is to change them. The point is to help them get a job and a house and become regular middle-class people like us, so that eventually this church will be filled once again with well-dressed, clean, sober, safe  middle-class or upper class citizens. And if that’s where we think this is supposed to go, then when people don’t change as fast as we’d like our love and acceptance becomes strained. Do we really mean it when we say that we love you and accept you just as you are? Or is it more like, “we love and accept you just as you are for now, but you’d better get your act together or our love will turn to rejection?”

These are issues that keep me awake at night, so I wanted to know how Glide Memorial handles this dilemmas, and I’ve been reading their story. And their story has been kicking my behind like a world-class spanking. Talk about radical. Don’t know if I’m ready for this. Course, we don’t live in the Tenderloin, but still, how far can you take unconditional love? For fifty years Reverend Cecil Williams and the radical Jesus-followers at Glide Memorial Church have been straining at the borders of sanity trying to find out.
Imagine a church where sex workers, gay and straight, are answering phones, running errands during the day, then working the streets at night. There was the time when a street alcoholic was cursing the pastor and the church while sleeping on their sidewalk, so Pastor Cecil brought him into the worship service and handed him a microphone. Cause he felt that this man had no voice in society, and no matter how angry or profane, Christians ought to love him enough to listen, and honor the pain behind his incoherent rambling. That’s what love does. Love listens, really listens to the other, no matter how painful.
One of the members wrote, “It was such a relief to hear somebody speak honestly – to admit they were screwed up on drugs or so lonely they wanted to kill themselves…that we felt at last, we’re released from a lifetime of hiding…The longer they talked, the more we saw ourselves in them.”  People who interrupt the sermon are often invited to speak. Drummer man would bring a snare drum and bang on it during the sermon, so the pastor began timing his sermon so together they made it into a kind of rap.
Sound familiar? Those who’ve been around here a while will tell you that we’ve had moments like these. But here’s the difference: instead of embracing these kinds of moments, I was usually nervous, afraid to give up control. I’ve been afraid to be that radical. Still am.
One time Maya Angelou brought Oprah Winfrey to Easter sunrise service. I guess Maya is a regular. That was the day a guy strung out on drugs stumbled onto the stage trembling and shouting. Instead of having security take him away Pastor Cecil gave the microphone to him. “I’m loaded and not in good shape,’ he told the audience, shaking and swaying. “But I tell y’all this – I’m not always going to be that way. I’m not!” A year later on Easter that man, scrubbed and clean, announced to the audience that he had been sober the entire year. Maya Angelou calls it a true resurrection story.

Just how far does this unconditional love push us? This is dangerous business. You’d think people would be afraid to come to a church like that. Even the leaders of Glide will tell you that it’s not a safe place. They intend to take you out on the edge where the truth lives, and challenge you, and that is scary. But thousands do come to Glide, because they know that to attend Glide Memorial you have to leave your comfort zone. Thousands!

I’m beginning to think that our problem may not be that we’ve gone too far, but that we haven’t gone far enough. It may be that we’re just not radical enough, and that God is waiting for us to catch up with God’s vision of The Circle Church.
What the father did was the undoing of everything the elder brother knew about right and wrong. It threw the elder brother into chaos. Maybe that’s the point.
What do you do with a love so radical, so unconditional?
Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?



Publish Date: March 3, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Love Wins

Psalm 44 (excerpts from Common English Bible) & Mark 15.34 (NRSV)
March 3, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Mark 15.34
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
It wasn’t exactly 3:00. But it is the same story. The innocent cut down by evil. My God, my God, why have you abandoned us? How do you make sense of it? How do we find comfort? What will help us get past this awful feeling? We think that we will find some comfort if we can just make sense of it all, so we examine the details, retrace every step, psychoanalyze the background of the killer.
But it doesn’t help.
So we look for someone to blame. Wasn’t drugs. Wasn’t gangs. Wasn’t a homeless person. We could blame Obama. Or we could blame the Republicans. We could blame guns and the NRA. Personally I like that one. Or we could blame a broken legal system that left this guy running free. I like that one. Or we could blame a virtually nonexistent mental health treatment system. Personally I like that one a lot.
But blaming doesn’t help.
Nor does it help to know that there was nothing they could have done. Butch and Elizabeth did exactly what they’d been trained to do. There’s nothing they could have done, nothing anyone could have done different that day. It was going to happen. Knowing that doesn’t help.
Nor does it help to know that this has happened before. And even though this was an isolated incident, one awful afternoon not at all connected to the crime wave we’re in, it still feels an onslaught of violence over the last month or so. Murder, rape, robbery. One of our own robbed at the worst possible time. And now this. It does not help to know that these things happen, in all ages, even to good people in good cities. Evil exists, and sometimes those who protect us from evil pay with their lives. It’s always senseless. But it happens. Always has. It will happen again, sometime, somewhere. It doesn’t help to know that, because this is Santa Cruz. It hasn’t happened to us before.

Nor does it help to know that in the bigger picture violent crime is actually declining. That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Around the nation, and here in Santa Cruz, we have seen bloodier times than these. Truth is that we live in a good city, with what perhaps the best police force of any city our size, despite the recent crime wave.  But like Newtown, we also live in a strange age. Paula Pachiecha says  that we live in the hallway, a hallway-time between historical eras. What happened here was not about Santa Cruz, it is a symptom of an entire society under extraordinary stress and strain. People are breaking under the strain.
But long-term statistics and historical perspectives do not help.
When Christians suffer, it helps to turn to our scriptures, and often, when we are really hurting, to the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament. The Psalms of lamentation are songs to heal a broken heart, songs in which the people cry out their pain to God. The wonderful thing about these songs is that they are honest. They don’t offer cheap comfort. Our bible does not insult us by sugarcoating the pain. Today I invite you to listen to some excerpts from Psalm 44:
All this has come upon us,
    but we haven’t forgotten you
    or broken your covenant.
Our hearts haven’t turned away,
    neither have our steps strayed from your way.
But you’ve crushed us in the place where jackals live,
    covering us with deepest darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
    or spread out our hands to some strange deity,
wouldn’t God have discovered it?
    After all, God knows every secret of the heart.
No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—
    it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter.

Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord?
    Get up! Don’t reject us forever!
Why are you hiding your face,
    forgetting our suffering and oppression?
Look: we’re going down to the dust;
    our stomachs are flat on the ground!
Stand up! Help us!
    Save us for the sake of your faithful love.
It seemed to the singer that Israel was being punished, but the Psalmist cries out that they hadn’t done anything wrong! “We’re innocent,” the singer complains to God. “We didn’t do anything wrong! So why is this happening?” The writer of this painful song is not afraid to release his or her frustration and anger at God – even to blame God. It must be God’s fault. “It’s because of you that we are getting killed every day,” the Psalmist accuses God. “Wake up,” the singer yells at God. “Why are you sleeping, Lord?”
It is important to understand that there is no happy ending to this Psalm. And yet this song is in our bible. Because sometimes…some of the times which we have to live through are just awful. And it would be an insult to recite religious platitudes like a pat on the head and say, “There, now, don’t you feel better?” Because, no, we don’t feel better. That’s why the bible is honest enough to give us scriptures that don’t offer cheap comfort, but allow us to lament.
That’s the kind of God we have, a God that even allow us to blame God. Because that’s what we do when we don’t understand why. It’s insane, it’s evil, it’s irrational, there is no understanding this. So we blame God. “You’ve crushed us in the place where jackals live, covering us with deepest darkness,” the Psalmist cries out. It’s your fault, God,  “it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day...”
Even Jesus, on the cross, crucified by raw evil even worse than the insane wrath of Jeremy Goulet, even Jesus couldn’t make sense of it. And so he cries out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ That’s honest. And in times like these, honest prayer helps. Not pious religious platitudes, but the gut-wrenching honesty of real lamentation. Sometimes the best prayer is a primal scream. It helps to know that God loves us enough receive, and to honor such prayers.

It also helps to know that this is not the end of the story. As Paul said, we do not grieve as people who have no hope.  In fact when Paul wrote his triumphant eighth chapter of Romans, he quoted from the lament of Psalm 44. Now remember, Paul was writing to the church in Rome, a church always in danger. Most of the time they met in the catacombs with the dead bodies, hiding from the authorities. The folks in Rome had lost many a church member to violence - many a funeral, many a grieving widow to console. Paul would never offer superficial platitudes to a people who were suffering what the Romans were suffering. Instead, Paul quotes from the genuine, gut-wrenching lamentation of Psalm 44, and then turns this gut-wrenching lament into a cry of victory. Listen:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“More than conquerors.” Doesn’t feel that way right now, does it? At any given moment it may seem like evil is winning, till we stop and remember that while evil threw everything it had at him, Jesus walked out of that tomb. You see, the singular power of evil is death, but Christians know that death is not ultimate. We know that in the end, despite all appearances, love wins. Easter turns the agony of Psalm 44 into a victory cry. Easter turns our grief into the confident hope that evil will not triumph over love.
So we will grieve, we will lament, but we will not lose hope, because Jesus lives, and love wins.  We will be afraid, for the violence of our society is real, but we will not let fear stop us because Jesus lives, and love wins. Remember his first words to Mary on Easter morning, “Do not be afraid.” We know that we live in the hallway between Easter and the full reign of God; we know that from time to time evil will rise up and hurt us…deeply hurt us, yet we are still the Easter people and we will not be immobilized by fear, for we know that Jesus lives and love wins.

I remember Ruby Bryant. She was in her nineties. Nothing but skin and bones, and her skin so translucent that she was practically transparent – as if she was actively fading from this life into the next. But this old Kentucky woman still had a voice, and every time I’d visit her she’d say, “Preacher, I’m a tellin’ ye, there’s a comin’ a day.” She’d point her bony finger up to heaven and say it again, “I’m a tellin’ ye, there’s a comin’ a day.”
And there is. There is coming a day when our God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
Jesus lives. Love wins.



Publish Date: February 25, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The Next Right Thing

Luke 13.31-35 (Common English Bible)
February 24, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 13.31-35

At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”
I’ve often sat with people as they neared the end of their life, and more than once I’ve heard them say, “Time slipped away, I never did live the life I meant to live. I didn’t reach for greatness, and now I am out of time and without great deeds to remember.” Too often we wait too late to pursue our dreams. We get stuck in ruts of our own making, end up living Thoreaux’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Later, we tell ourselves. There’ll come a better time…later. But later never comes. As Isak Denesen noticed in his novel Out of Africa, “The days like great black oxen tread the world, and I am trampled by their passing feet.”
We get stuck, trapped into no-win situations. Day after day it seems like we have no choice but to stay in our not all that comfortable ruts. A wife being abused: “If I call the police, he’ll beat me worse. If I leave him, I won’t be able to provide for the kids. I’m trapped.”
A worker in a dead-end job: “If I complain to management they might fire me. If I quit and start my own business, I might well lose everything, and I have a family to support. I’m trapped.”
An addict: “If I keep using I’ll lose everyone I love, and die alone. But if I go to treatment, I’ll lose my drug, the one thing that gives me pleasure in this miserable life. And besides, treatment might not work. I’m trapped.”
A church: “If we keep going the way we are we’ll eventually have to close the place down for lack of attendance. But if we change then it won’t feel like our church anymore, either. Either way, we’re trapped.”

I’m amazed at how often they tried to paint Jesus into a corner where the world-as-it-is could tame him and control him. “Look,” the devil said during his temptation in the wilderness, “Either turn these stones into bread or starve to death.” They try to trap him between God’s law and Roman laws, “Should we pay taxes or not?” They try to trap him between compassion and obedience to the Ten Commandments. “Look, here’s this crippled man. Are you going to heal him on the Sabbath day?” Or “Here’s this woman caught in adultery. What are you going to do?” At the end of his life they put him in a three-way vise between the Jewish  Sanhedrin, Herod’s court, and Pilate, the Roman ruler of Jerusalem. All traps. They were sure that the only way he could survive was to compromise and tone down his teachings.
In today’s case, the Pharisees warn him, “Get away from here. Herod wants to kill you.” Are they trying to be helpful, or are they manipulating him into a trap? In Matthew the Pharisees are always bad guys, but in Luke’s gospel Jesus Pharisees are sometimes friends. Jesus often eats at the homes of Pharisees. Both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were loyal disciples, and prominent Pharisees. Jesus and the Pharisees were probably in agreement eighty percent of the time, so it may well be that these were honest, friendly Pharisees trying to keep Jesus alive.  But their intentions don’t really matter. It’s still another trap. If he stays in Galilee and keeps teaching what he teaches Herod will kill him, but If he runs from Herod he will look like a coward. And if he tones down his sermons, he’s still a coward. There’s no way he can win. It’s a trap…
Which Jesus characteristically blows right on through like it’s not even there. “Go tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”
In Israel in that time, foxes were thought of as vermin. Like weasels. Dirty, sneaky, totally without honor. This is a deep insult to Herod. Foxes were like weasels. Sharp teeth, I suppose, but really just small vermin. “Go tell that weasel…” No respect. Jesus shows no respect for Herod. And no fear.

But at the same time, Jesus does not stay in northern Israel, the territory which Herod controls. Actually Jesus has already begun the long march out of Herod’s jurisdiction, but he’s not running into hiding, he’s not running to safety. Instead he is very publicly marching to Jerusalem, marching into the heart of the powerful temple priests, marching into the heart of the Roman Empire – Jerusalem, the pit of vipers where Pontius Pilate rules as the Roman governor. Jesus is not running from Herod. Herod is a weasel, small fry, not worthy of fear. Jesus is racing into the bloody teeth of the Roman empire.  
Jesus evades this trap by upping the ante. He transcends it. He jumps right over the top of the trap, onto a higher level. This trap cannot work because Jesus is playing a much bigger game, for much higher stakes than his own life.

When we are trapped in mediocrity and there seem to be no way out, we’re thinking too small. The way out is to leap onto a higher plane. Transcend the entire reality upon which the trap depends. There’s an old saying, “Your God is too small.” Leap onto a higher, grander stage with higher, more dangerous dreams. And be willing to lose.
It’s not that the outcome is much different. Jesus still dies in the end. But Jesus doesn’t worry about that. He is totally disconnected from the outcome. His world was not determined by success or failure. When the crowds were large and he was popular Jesus was not impressed. When the crowds dwindled and turned angry, Jesus was not dismayed. He never thought about success or failure. I don’t even think Jesus knew what success would look like. Wasn’t in his vocabulary. He wasn’t stupid, he realized that God’s plan might not look like success from his point of view. He knew that things were going to get ugly in Jerusalem, the city, after all, which kills the prophets. He knew. He knew. He just didn’t care. He just didn’t worry about winning, or success, or even surviving. All that was in God’s hands. How it all turned out, was in God’s hands. And that’s why he could not be trapped.
Albert Schweitzer wrote, "This is Jesus’ great freedom, that all he does and its appointed end belong to God." He had a job to do, and nothing could stop him. “I must be on my way,” he told the Pharisees. “I don’t have time to stop for you. And it doesn’t matter how it all turns out. I only know that I have a destiny, and my destiny lies in Jerusalem. Either follow, or get out of my way.”

All the dilemmas which trap us in lives of quiet desperation, they are all forms of emotional, psychological blackmail. “If you do this, it will turn out badly, so you’d better keep your head down and live a mediocre life.” But what if we truly don’t care how it all turns out? What if we’re just not afraid to lose? What if all we care about is being faithful, doing our duty, and letting God judge the outcome later? There is an old saying, one sentence to a good life: “Do the next right thing.” That’s all we have to do. Don’t worry about how it all turns out. Just do the next right thing. Take the next step on the road to Jerusalem. What if our only dream is to do God’s will, to take the next step? What, then, can hold us back?
Because we don’t have to worry. God has our back. We know how much God loves us. Christ has shown us how much God loves us. We know that it is God’s breath which breathes in us. And we know that God is gentle and forgiving. We don’t have to be afraid to fail. We can live bold, courageous, recklessly fearless lives, because we are absolutely assured of God’s love,  no matter what. If we mess it all up, we will be forgiven.
We are loved. Totally. Absolutely. No matter what. This is the reality unveiled by the cross. So there is no reason not to leap to the highest level of life and risk it all for the sake of the dreams which God has placed in us.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   
This is what I believe. Am I crazy? If so, I don’t mind. Remember that song, from “Man of La Mancha”? Don Quixote is a skinny old failure of a man who thinks that he is a noble knight on a grand quest to restore the age of chivalry. He is delusional. He thinks a windmill is a four-armed giant, and he attacks it, and loses. He thinks a dirty, promiscuous bar maid is the beautiful, chaste Dulcinea, the woman he loves. She thinks he’s crazy. At one point she asks him what he means by his quest. That’s when he sings her this song.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star
----music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion



Publish Date: February 19, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Whate Really Matters

Luke 4.1-13 (Common English Bible)
February 17, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 4.1-13
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
    Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
    Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
    Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
    The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
    Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

 Sometimes you’ve just got to get away. Someplace quiet. Someplace where you can see the stars at night. Some place where the endless stream of words which fly through our minds are stilled and we can finally hear the one voice which matters. This is the first Sunday in Lent, and Lent is often thought of as a desert time, a time of quiet, inner reflection, preparing ourselves for the cross, and for Easter morning. Lent is forty days, not counting Sundays, forty days like the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, forty days in which we seek to in some way share in Jesus’ time in the desert.
Jesus has just been baptized. But before beginning his public ministry he is led into the wilderness. Wilderness or desert places have always been thought of as places where the veil between this world and the spiritual world thins, and it’s easier enter the realm of spirit. In the desert mirages shimmer, shadows move, the wind howls, you get delirious, hallucinate. Native Americans still go on vision-quests to commune with the spirit world, to find a spirit-guide, to learn your true name. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness on a kind of a vision-quest.
The Spirit led him to temptation. That’s disturbing. Does God tempt us? Or set us up to be tempted? Was he tempted, or was he tested? It’s the same word in Greek. The better word is test. He was tested. In college I took a couple of classes on how to design scientifically valid tests. What I learned is that good tests are not about passing or failing. A good test is designed to help us understand ourselves better. The goal of this testing was not to tempt Jesus to sin, but to prepare him for what was coming, to make him stronger. When we are tested, the goal is not to trick us into sin. The goal is to strengthen us. God does  not lead us into temptation. But God does test us, to strengthen us.
In second movie of the original Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker is led by Yoda into a cave. It’s Luke’s vision-quest. In the cave, Luke faces Darth Vader, but then Darth Vader turns out to have Luke’s own face. In that cave, as in any desert-like time of testing, the goal is to face our own deepest self. Jesus was led into the desert not to tempt him to sin, but to show him who he really is.
You don’t become a great athlete by reading about it in a book. Until you’ve spent hours and hours being tested in actual competition, in games that really matter, you’re not really an athlete. You’ve got to get in the game.
Anyone who thinks that religion is about reading your bible and praying and worshiping God is missing the point. You’ve got to get in the game. Bible study only comes to life when we get in the game, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, being tested and tried by the overwhelming struggles and hardships that so many of God’s children face every day.
Forty days. Jesus is hungry, tired, dehydrated, emaciated, alone. No sound, not a single human voice, all that time. He’s eager to get this vision quest over with and get in the game. Finally, a heavenly being comes along, or so it seems. A Spirit-Guide, in Native-American terms. Finally, the guidance he sought. Or so it seems.
Jesus is tempted by three different types of worldly power. First, power over the material world. “Turn these stones into bread.” Imagine it: to never be hungry again. And if you can feed yourself this way, then you can feed the whole world. Why not turn all stones into bread, and feed every hungry person in the world?
Best thing Clark Williamson ever said to me in seminary was to ask me a question: “Can God make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of thin air?” Be careful how you answer, because if God can make a sandwich appear out of thin air, then why are there so many starving children today?  If you have the power to turn these stones into bread, why not use that power? People are starving. Why not? God. A peanut butter sandwich. A starving child. When you figure that out, let me know.

The next temptation grows from the first: political power. Imagine what good you could do if you ruled the world. End all wars. Feed everyone. All you have to do is worship me. (Remember, Jesus doesn’t know this is the devil. It seems to him to be a heavenly being come in response to his prayers for guidance.) But Jesus does realize that absolute power absolutely corrupts. Jesus does understand that the very idea that some men and women should be more powerful than others is inherently ungodly. And that this being asking to be worshiped is not God, and God alone is to be worshiped. So he rejects the path of  power.
This is something worth remembering. Churches must engage in political action. We are called to fight for justice for the oppressed. It is our job to speak truth to power, to stand up for those on the margins of society. And that means that we must be active in the political struggles of our world. A preacher who doesn’t preach politics is not preaching from the bible. But we must never become too cozy with politicians. After delivering the benediction at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Methodist minister often called the Dean of the Civil Rights Movement, said that his job was not to be the president’s buddy or confidant. As a biblical prophet, his job was to hold the president accountable and confront him if he waivered. He would not be Obama’s lap dog. Jesus understood that political power was not the ultimate answer. We must never become too enamored of politicians or political parties. Ultimately, we don’t belong to their world.
So what about spiritual power? There was a popular belief that the Messiah would first appear standing on top of the temple. So it made perfect sense. Jesus would suddenly appear standing on the temple, and then seem to float down to the ground, carried by angels. The crowds would instantly look to Jesus as the great spiritual leader that he was.
But once again, it’s about power. All these temptations were about making Jesus more powerful, and Jesus understood that his job was not to be powerful, but rather to be deliberately powerless. Jesus has figured out who he is called to be, by what he is not called to be. The Messiah was not to be identified with power, but with vulnerability.
Or you could say that all three of these temptations are ways of becoming legitimate. If Jesus had done these things, the world would have accepted him as a legitimate ruler of the world as it is. One of the greatest temptations of all is the temptation of legitimacy. A strong argument can be made that whenever Christians become legitimate, respected members of society, we are inevitably corrupted. If we have the respect of society, then probably means that we have compromised with the world. For the way of this world is absolutely at odds with the way of the kingdom. Jesus rejected the temptation to become a legitimate member of the social, the political, and the religious power structure of his day, because his calling was to create a different world entirely.

We all want to be respected. And when we are not granted legitimacy, when we are branded as weird or branded as trouble-makers, when we are not considered to be part of the group, that hurts. I’m going to be painfully honest here. Because you are my friends, and I trust you. You know, when I was in seminary, I got good grades. Very good grades. Thought seriously about going on to get my Ph.D. But since then I’ve not chosen to pastor bigger, more established, more legitimate churches. I could have. Preached a trial sermon at a big county-seat church, across from the courthouse on the town square. Lot of lawyers, judges, powerful civic leaders went to that church. Afterwards they took Michelle and I out to dinner at a country club. All of the people sitting at tables were wealthy and white. All of the people serving the food were black. They offered me the position. I turned it down.
Instead I’ve chosen to pastor a community which identifies itself with the poorest of the poor. A community which some admire, and some treat with disdain. A community that few would call well-established or a legitimate leader. And it seems that, since I didn’t choose a more legitimate path, some people just assume that maybe I’m not that smart. “Well, Steve pastors this strange little church with an admirable homeless ministry. But he’s not a strong leader. He’s not a very sophisticated or deep thinker.” I am patted on the head, dammed with faint praise, but chosen for committees or commissions where I think I could make a contribution. I’m not really taken seriously as a pastor or Christian thinker because I don’t pastor the right kind of church. And that hurts, because I still think I have some serious things to say.
It hurts. But Christians are never effective when we are legitimate. The way of Jesus is an underground movement, deliberately without power, deliberately without legitimacy, deliberately choosing the hardest way, the most vulnerable way, the way of suffering, the way of the cross.

He could have performed three amazing miracles. But he didn’t. Instead he went back home, to Nazareth. And when he got there he preached a modest little sermon. A sermon in which he spoke up for people that his own, legitimate village considered to be outsiders. For some reason that got everyone in his home town into a rage, and they tried to kill him. And so it all began.

Then he said to some folks, “Follow me.” And surprisingly enough, they did.


Publish Date: February 11, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Love Never Ends

1 Corinthians 13
February 10, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.

 It’s called the Love Chapter, so it’s perfect for the Sunday before Valentine’s Day. A young boy in Florida once found a little snake in the backyard and started playing with it. A cut little snake, 6 or 8 inches long, bands of alternating colors up and down it’s little body. Dad came out to the backyard. “Look, Dad, ain’t he cute?” the boy said, showing his dad the snake. Father’s mouth went dry. Couldn’t breath. Because there are two snakes in Florida which look almost exactly alike. Hi son had been playing with a deadly Coral Snake, one of the most poisonous snakes in all of North America. There is no antidote.
We’ve been playing with this scripture for a long time. We hear it at weddings, we recite it like a favorite Hallmark Card. We think it’s sweet, and harmless. But if you let this passage of scripture bite you, it will kill a part of you. It will kill the part of you that holds grudges; it will kill the part of you that judges. It will kill the part of you that holds resentment and that keeps score of wrongs.

I’m not even sure that it’s even possible to live these words. If I really lived this way, you might as well hang a sign around my neck, “I’m a doormat – walk on me.” “Love puts up with all things…endures all things?” Skeptics say that this may be nice poetry, but it’s totally impractical as a way of life. Philosopher Ayn Rand, whose philosophy is the intellectual foundation of Congressman Paul Ryan, both Ron and Rand Paul, and the Tea Party, Ayn Rand said that love is actually evil. Rand believed, and the Tea Party believes that pure selfishness, intelligently applied, is a far better way of life than love. They think life works best when each person acts according to their own rational self-interest. In real life, so they say, we all seek our own advantage, whether we bother to disguise it with the veneer of love or not.
Someone once said that there’s no way to know if the way of Jesus really works, cause no one has ever really tried it. I don’t know how to love. I admit it. I want to love. I really do. But in the light of this chapter, I know that I don’t really know how to love like that.

In this letter Paul is writing to the people of Corinth, to address some conflicts they were having in their community. The people of Corinth were divided into bitter factions, each group thinking that they were more spiritually advanced than the others. One faction had the gift of tongues, sharing a secret language that only God and the most righteous could speak. Another group had the gift of prophecy. And as in every church 20% of the people give 80% of the offerings. These people have the gift of giving, and they are the ones who keep the church afloat. Each of these groups believed that they were more spiritually mature, more advanced, and ought to have higher rank and status than the others. And in their worship services they were doing more shouting at one another than worshiping God.
Paul had spent the previous chapter explaining that the church is the body of Christ, and in a living body feet are not more important than hands; ears are not more important than eyes; we need bowels just as much as we need stomachs. Now Paul starts naming names, naming each of the factions.
“If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal.” That’s the speaking in tongues faction. “If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing.” That’s the prophecy faction. “If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.” That’s the philanthropy faction.
This first paragraph bluntly reminds us all that without love it’s all nothing. Nothing. All our righteousness, all our right-doing means nothing without love.  
The next paragraph shows me what love really looks like. There are two parts. One part tells us what love is like. The other part tells us what love is not like. Love is: patient, kind, happy with the truth. Love trusts in all things. Hopes for all things. Endures all things. Love puts up with all things. Really? Is that even rational, to keep trusting, keep hoping, keep putting up with abuse and betrayal? Love never reaches the end of it’s rope and says, “That’s enough. I’ve taken all I’m going to take.” Love never goes there. Love never fails.
You know, you’ve gotta be a little crazy to be a Christian, because this is just not rational. I don’t know how to explain it or defend it because following Jesus is neither rational nor practical. Following Jesus is radical and more than a little crazy. I’m still in love with who Jesus is, and I still want to live in the world he offers, and maybe that makes me crazy, but I’m not giving up. Cause the tomb is empty and I do believe that love never fails.
Everything else about our religion eventually fails. Prophecies will fail, speaking in tongues will fail. Even the bible itself finally fails us, because finally you come to a place beyond words, a place beyond theoretical faith. Finally you come to a place where the soul, stripped of everything else, faces that Ultimate Truth which cannot be reduced to words. And when you come to that moment, all that’s left is love. And love never fails.
This is the ultimate test of our faith. We say, in general terms, that we believe in Jesus, that we have faith in God, but do we really believe that love never fails? Never? Ever? Then how can we find that kind of love?

The third paragraph takes us to that moment where all that’s left is love. Because until that moment everything we think we know is only partial. We know in part; we prophesy in part; we are little children with partial understanding, like that little boy playing with a cute snake. “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.”
The key to learning how to love lies in understanding ourselves. The knowledge we seek, the knowledge which is only partial right now, the knowledge which will free us up to love, to really love, it’s knowledge of who we really are. We are able to love in direct proportion to how well we know ourselves.
The city of Corinth was a major manufacturing center for bronze mirrors. Archaeologists have dug up many of these brass mirrors. But even the best brass mirror is still a brass mirror. Full of bubbles and imperfections, giving us a dark, discolored, distorted image of ourselves. I don’t see much of the image of God when I look into a mirror. Mostly, I see my imperfections: sins, regrets, the things I wish I’d done differently, the things I didn’t do. We see ourselves through a dark, dull brass mirror. Sin darkens the mirror of the soul, distorting the truth about ourselves, the truth revealed in Genesis, that we are stardust, we are golden, we are God’s breath, we are God’s Spirit.
We are all God’s breath in flesh. We truly are the stuff of God. Which means that we are not separate beings. I like the way Robin Myers put it yesterday at “The Subversive Jesus Seminar” – “We see through a glass darkly, living in the illusion that we are separate ‘I AM’s’ when we are all really one.”

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn teaches us to imagine a pile of garbage slowly decaying, being eaten by little bugs and then excreted and mixed until the garbage becomes, simply, soil. Then imagine a flower growing from that soil, bringing forth lovely colors and smells, a thing of beauty. Truth is the pile of garbage and the flower are one.  They are literally the same stuff. Just as you and I are literally the same stuff.
Nhat Hahn is from Vietnam, and in another teaching he imagines a young, beautiful Vietnamese virgin bride in an expensive white wedding dress, and a sickly, dirty teenage prostitute forced into sexual slavery in a brothel. Did you know that the bride’s capacity to remain virginal and pure and not be sold into prostitution is only because her father is rich. And almost inevitably in that country his wealth came, at least in part, from business ventures which likely included bars and brothels where that young prostitute is enslaved to her sad trade. The virgin bride and the prostitute are deeply, economically interconnected. The bride could not be who she is without the suffering of the prostitute. They are, in a deep sense, one. Just as you and I did not get dressed this morning without wearing clothing made by slaves. That cup of coffee you drank this morning? Unless it’s free trade it was picked by slaves.

“We see through a glass darkly, living in the illusion that we are separate ‘I AM’s’ when we are all really one.”

Gerry was a mean, hateful, angry alcoholic in the treatment center in Michigan where I was his counselor. To hear him tell it, he never, ever got out of control. He could stop anytime he wanted to. His problems were all because of someone else. I remember when Gerry’s wife brought to group therapy tape recordings she’d secretly made. We heard Gerry’s drunken voice yelling obscenities at his wife, threatening to beat her senseless. It was ugly. Hard to listen to. Gerry glared at me the whole time we played those tapes, his gaze angry and defiant. How dare we humiliate him like this. He would not be broken.
But I knew that all that anger was simply hiding shame. Because that’s how I am. I’ve seen that much in the mirror. I hide my insecurities behind anger and pride, so I knew what Gerry was really feeling behind the glare he was giving me.
We played one more tape. A tape made very late at night; he was so drunk that he had peed on himself. Too drunk to even get out of his chair. His words almost too slurred to understand, he begged his wife to go get him another bottle. “Please. I’m begging you.” Gerry was weeping. “I’m an alcoholic. I need it. I’ll die without it.” Listening to him beg was so pitiful that every single person in that room began crying. Ten auto factory workers, tough guys, you could hear the tears splatter the carpet like rain. You see, we were all looking into the mirror. I don’t know if you understand this or not, but we are all like Gerry, whether we are alcoholic or not. We are all just as lost, just as helpless. And when we really look in the mirror of our own souls that’s what we see. And seeing that breaks us wide open.
Slowly Gerry’s body slid to the floor like his bones had melted, and he began sobbing. Loud, horrible, wracking sobs, staring into the mirror of his own soul. This is what sin does to us. Through the sobs, he finally asked his wife a question. The question. “How? How can you still love me?”
She said, “Gerry, I love you because I know who you really are.” And she began to tell us about the man she fell in love with. His tenderness, his humor, his love of children and old folks, and how he used to make up silly, stupid songs just to make her laugh. She told us who Gerry really is. She became a clear mirror for him. And in her eyes, he saw once again the breath of God in himself. Gerry never drank another drop.

“We see through a glass darkly, living in the illusion that we are separate ‘I AM’s’ when we are all really one.” We are all God’s breath, we are all a part of God. And we are all a part of each other. When we look in the mirror, none of us are as pure, or as sinful as we think. We are in fact all beautiful manifestations of God.

How can you not love that?


Publish Date: February 4, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

A Word to be Heard

Jeremiah 1.4-10/Luke 4.21-30 (Common English Bible)
February 3, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Jeremiah 1.4-10

“Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I made you a prophet to the nations.”
“Ah, LORD God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
    because I’m only a child.”
The LORD responded,
    “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
        Where I send you, you must go;
        what I tell you, you must say.
Don’t be afraid of them,
    because I’m with you to rescue you,”
        declares the LORD.
Then the LORD stretched out his hand,
    touched my mouth, and said to me,
    “I’m putting my words in your mouth.
This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
    to dig up and pull down,
    to destroy and demolish,
    to build and plant.”

It really hurts to be misunderstood. Ask any child who cries out, “But you just don’t understand!” So often it feels like no one really understands. We hide who we really are from everyone because we think we are damaged goods. So we’re afraid to speak from the heart, afraid to be who we really are, there’ve been too many failures, too much regret, too many scars. “I could never do that. It’s too late. No one will understand. It’s just too late.”
God says, “Before I created you in the womb I knew you.” This is an amazing thing. All the good you’d ever do. All the bad you’d ever do. All the times you tried and failed. All the times you failed to try. All the times you laid awake and cried. All the masks you wear so no one will know how scared you are. God knows. Before you were even conceived God knew. And yet God said yes. God said yes to creating you. Don’t say,  “no one understands.” God understands. God really understands.
Jeremiah says, “I can’t be a prophet. I’m only a child. I don’t know how to speak.”  But God says, “I know exactly who you are. Before you were even conceived, I knew that there was something you were supposed to say to the world, and only you could say it.”

This message is for you, you know. God knew that you would live exactly the life you have lived. God knew that you would experience exactly the joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats which you have formed you into exactly the person you are. And through exactly those experiences God has placed in you a word which no one else but you could say.
I’ve often marveled at the many ways people are constantly trying to speak their word into the world. It’s why Facebook exists. Millions of people every day putting on Facebook cartoons and quotes, song lyrics and clever quips, and sometimes their deepest dreams. There is something they must say to the world, and they’re trying to get it out, hoping that someone will hear what’s in their heart. It’s why people wallpaper their cars with bumper stickers. It’s why people tweet their thoughts to perfect strangers. It’s why bloggers blog. It’s why artists create. It’s why singers sing, and why we love music which seems to sing our song for us. We sense that it is somehow important, not just to us, but somehow important to the world that somebody hears and understand us.
If you share that feeling, I want you to know that you’re right. It is important that you be heard. God has placed a word from God which could only emerge from the special combination of hurts and joys which make you who you are. Precisely because of who you are and where you’ve been and what you’ve been through, you are God’s voice, and it is important that your truth be heard.

In the beginning God spoke, and it was, and it was good. Day after day, God spoke the world into being. That’s what God’s word does. God’s word creates reality. And God has placed in you a unique word that only you can speak into being. As co-creators with God, we create by what we proclaim. We create the world as we proclaim our own deepest truth. The future is created by what we proclaim.

As God’s Messiah, the job of Jesus was to speak into being the kingdom of God on earth. Thirty years of living had formed him and prepared him to speak exactly that word. We know so little about his life. A little bit about his birth. Some time in Egypt, then the small village of Nazareth. Visited Jerusalem when he was twelve. That’s all we know, and that’s not much. Who were his favorite cousins, aunts, uncles? Who made him laugh? Who made him cry? Who got sick? Who died? How old was he when he attended his first funeral? Who did he play with as a kid? Laugh with? Who broke his heart when he was sixteen? We don’t know. But we know that life happened, as it always does. And that life prepared him, that life planted the Word of God in him in an extraordinary way.
After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, it only takes Luke two sentences to bring us to that sermon Jesus preached in his home town of Nazareth. This sermon was the announcement, the kick-off of his Messiah-ship, the definitive statement of what he was about. Before his mother, his family, his aunts and uncles and childhood best friend and that girl he once had a crush on, before his entire village, he spoke his word.

He chose a scripture from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” They preached sitting down in those days, so he sat down and said one sentence, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
If he’d just left it at that, it would have been a big hit. More often than not, I ramble on about a page past where I should have stopped. You get to the end and you think you need to say one more thing, and it’s that one more thing that gets you into trouble.
“Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’” He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”
When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.”
His best friend. His cousins. His first grade teacher. He finally got the courage to speak the word which had been placed in him, and they tried to kill him. No prophet is welcome in his own home town. It is as if we have this unspoken agreement to keep our deepest truth a secret. Children say what they most deeply feel, and kids laugh. Teacher says, “color between the lines.” A wife finally gets the courage to tell her husband what’s in her heart, and he says, “That’s stupid.” When we finally find the courage to speak our word, it will usually be those closest to us who tell us to shut up. Because they don’t understand.

But then again, I can sort of understand their anger. Jesus insults their conviction that they are God’s favorites. He reminds them that God miraculously fed a Gentile widow and her son during a famine while Jewish widows and children starved. And Jewish lepers died of leprosy, while God healed a Syrian soldier. He told them that Jews are not the only children God loves, and Isaiah’s prophecy is not just for them, it is also for exactly those people they don’t like. From Isaiah 61 he proclaimed freedom for all outcasts, all outsiders, for all the poor, to for all prisoners, for all those blindly following other gods, oppressed by religious and political ideas based in slavery and bondage, and it doesn’t matter to God whether you are Jewish or Gentile, or Christian or Buddhist or Agnostic. 
That’s not a word they were prepared to hear.
You know, don’t you, that Jesus knew what would happen? But he went back home and preached that sermon anyway. Must have hurt a lot, to see their angry, rage-filled eyes. People he loved. People who had changed his diaper, and wiped his runny nose, and taught him to throw a ball and ride a bike. Now trying to kill him, to silence that one special, God-given word which was the purpose of his life. Sometimes you just have to proclaim your word, your deepest truth, in your hometown, even if you know what’s going to happen. It’s still your word, and you still need to say it.
Reminds me of that You Tube video. A young soldier in Germany calls his dad. He video-taped it, because it was one of the most important days in his life. He poured his heart out to his father. Tells dad his deepest secret, and his deepest truth. With tears in his eyes he finally says the words, “Dad, I love you, but Dad, I’m gay.”
Long silence. Finally dad says, “You are dead to me.” Hangs up.
Because his word was not, “We are the special ones. We’re not like those people. God loves us. But God hates those people.” The word of Jesus Christ was, and still is, that God loves those people too, and we’re going to have to share the kingdom with them, so we’d better learn how to listen to their deepest truth. Because we all have a word to proclaim.

I loved the life we had in Edinburgh, Indiana. I loved that little church. Good friends, they were practically family to us. Sophie was born in that parsonage. It was a good life. The Indiana Region of the Disciples of Christ was debating whether it’s OK for homosexuals to be ordained pastors. Everyone in Edinburgh was opposed to it, and they just assumed I agreed with them because I hadn’t spoken about it, one way or the other. It was, I finally realized, a lie of omission which could not continue, not when I realized how many people in that church were gay, or had gay loved ones. So while several people from my church spoke out against gay pastors, I spoke in favor of the motion. And I could see the light start to go out in their eyes.
But they loved me, and I loved them, so we tried to put it being us. Till the war in Iraq. Edinburgh, you know, is a little town on the western edge of a huge National Guard Base. Every week 3,000 soldiers would fly out from that base to Iraq. But according to the word God had given me, this was not a war that Christians should be supporting. I searched my bible, I searched my heart, and I preached the word God gave me to preach, as best I understood my bible. I could see the light go out in their eyes, and it broke my heart. I have to say that they were always gracious. They didn’t try to throw me off a cliff. But the light was gone from their eyes. That’s why I’m in Santa Cruz today. God bless them, they just couldn’t hear my deepest truth.

Today God says to you, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the LORD. Then the LORD stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”
I pray that here in your hometown church we will have the grace to hear your word, whatever it is. Even if it seems strange to us. Even if we don’t agree. Especially when we disagree, I pray that we will listen to one another with grace and respect, and honor the fact that your word comes from a place deep inside you, where your most vulnerable feelings lay. We may still disagree, but let this be a safe place to speak our word. I pray that we will have the grace to hear words comfortable and words disturbing.
But whether it be a safe, or unsafe environment, “Don’t be afraid of them…declares the Lord.” Don’t be afraid, because “I’m putting my words in your mouth.”
It is the word of God for the people of God, and for this word…Thanks be to God.


Publish Date: January 27, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The Intoxication of God

Isaiah 62.1-5/John 2.1-11
January 27, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Isaiah 62.1-5 (CEB)

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
    until her righteousness shines out like a light,
    and her salvation blazes like a torch.
Nations will see your righteousness,
    all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
    which the LORD’s own mouth will determine.
You will be a splendid garland in the LORD’s hand,
    a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand.
You will no longer be called Abandoned,
    and your land will no longer be called Deserted.
Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her,
    and your land, Married.
    Because the LORD delights in you,
    your land will be cared for once again.
As a young man marries a young woman,
    so your sons will marry you.
    With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride,
    so your God will rejoice because of you.

John 2.1-11 (CEB)

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.”
Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.”
His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did. The headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine. He didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
The headwaiter called the groom and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.” This was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
People get so nervous at weddings. It’s understandable. You want it to be perfect. So much time, effort and money has gone into it – the colors, the dresses, the flowers. It’s been written out, talked out, rehearsed the night before. It is the moment of a lifetime, and it must be perfect. Of course something happens. The flower girl sneezes. The little ring bearer lays down on the floor to take a nap. Sometimes the unexpected is the best memory of the day.
Still, we are so afraid of making a mistake, of being judged, of being wrong. Bridesmaids can’t sleep without nightmares of tripping walking down the aisle. The groom is afraid he’ll drop the ring. And all the women are harshly judging the clothes, the flowers, the cake. Everyone’s looking, everyone is examining everything with a fine-tooth comb. A day which should simply be filled with joy becomes a day of fear. “Till death do us part? What if I can’t live up to it, what if I can’t be the man she deserves? What if I’m  not worthy?” A wedding is supposed to be a glad time, but often people are a bundle of nerves. In fact it is often the case that when the bride and groom finally get to the bridal suite they just collapse into bed and fall asleep. They’ve been too nervous too long to have a romantic evening.

According to John Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding, and it’s an odd setting for Jesus to reveal himself. When his mother first approaches him, it even Jesus thinks it’s the wrong time, the wrong place, but then, on reflection Jesus decided that this was the perfect time and the perfect place to reveal the true nature of God. Because if a wedding is about fear of not being good enough, fear of being judged, fear of doing something wrong, if a wedding is about fear, the wine of Christ eases our fears and gives us the freedom to embrace our humanness and celebrate life. The wine of Christ is the antidote to fear.
In those days a wedding celebration went on for days, and the groom was expected to pay for it all. What does it tell you that they were quickly running out of wine? The groom’s family was poor, didn’t have the money to provide wine for an entire village for days of partying. And so the groom was on the verge of being socially humiliated in front of his in-laws, and he knew it. He knew that there wasn’t enough wine. And he knew what his new father-in-law would say about him when they ran out. He knew how heads would shake, how the better off would sneer with contempt.
So imagine his surprise when the maitre-de praises him for bringing out a really expensive vintage. Imagine his surprise when the wine just keeps flowing and flowing. His fear of being judged turns to shock, wonder, gratitude. This is what Jesus does. The wine of Jesus drives away judgmentalism and the fear of being judged. The wine of Jesus is the glad wine of knowing that, miraculously, despite what we know about our own inadequacies, what we have to offer is not only good enough, it’s an excellent vintage.

The source of all the anxiety in a wedding is that a wedding is a community event. When you marry someone, you also marry his or her mom, dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, teachers, pastors, best friends, even rivals. A wedding reminds us all that we are a community. That’s why a village needed a wedding once in a while, to remind everyone that we’re all in this together. Weddings get everyone eating and drinking and laughing and loving, forgiving and forgetting the petty grudges which accumulate. The wine represents the glue which holds a community together.
The wine of community is a vintage largely lost in our world. One of the most troubling dynamics of our time is that people no longer join in civic groups or clubs. We travel in boxes on wheels from the box we call home to the box we call work, but there’s no community life. The institutions which once created and nurtured community life are dying – churches, clubs, civic organizations. The wine of Jesus is the sweet wine of true community, where we are mutually loved, mutually held dear, and mutually loved and accepted without harsh judgment.

And  a wedding reminds us  that family requires commitment. When the preacher says, “Do you take this man (or woman)” we don’t get to say, “Maybe. Depends. Sort of. If I’m in the mood.” Marriage is an all or nothing thing. Our society has also forgotten the meaning of commitment.  Without that moment of commitment, sealed in the crucible of public ritual, how does anyone ever know that complete release of anxiety which only comes from jumping into the water head first? I remember jumping off the gangplank of that touristy pirate ship in the Caribbean. I’d never jumped into the water from that far up before, and on the gangplank I was scared. But once I stepped off into the air, I was committed. No point in being scared anymore. So I just flew. And laughed like a kid when my head popped up out of that clear water.
There is an ecstasy which only comes in that moment of complete release, when we commit ourselves, “I do…for better or for worse…till death do us part.”
Ask yourself a question: to what are you really, no kidding, committed? Committed like you’ve stepped off the gangplank, up in the air, twenty feet above unknown waters. To what are you so committed that you are willing, and often do experience some serious sacrifice for that greater good? Jesus offers us the sweet wine of release which only comes through being fully committed, all the way, no looking back.
Remember, his commitment was not simply, “till death do us part.” No, for Jesus not even death could break his commitment to us. The language of marriage is the language of commitment. A wedding is the perfect place to reveal the true nature of God because our God is a lover.
We instinctively think of God as a King. Certainly the Hebrew scriptures hear God as an almighty, kingly voice thundering from the mountain. A king leading Israel in battle. And yes, in that little village in Galilee the people were expecting a Messiah – King to establish God’s political-military rule over Israel.
But Jesus always resisted that expectation. I think Jesus is trying to show us that God doesn’t want to be our King. God desires from us a much more intimate relationship. Our God is a God who breathed lovingly into the chaos and created the world as something beautiful, and then said, “It is good.” When human beings were created God joyfully proclaimed us to be “very good.” So good that God loved to walk through the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, just to enjoy their company. That’s the way it was until the serpent taught us to be afraid of God. That’s when the intimacy of the garden was interrupted by the fear of a powerful, punishing king. But there remains a constant thread throughout scripture which suggest that God wants a more intimate relationship with us.
Today’s scripture from Isaiah starts out talking about politics and kings, but by the end of that poem God turns from the language of nations to the language of marriage:  
…you will be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land, Married.     Because the LORD delights in you, your land will be cared for once again. As a young man marries a young woman, so your sons will marry you. With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride, so your God will rejoice because of you.
A wedding was the perfect place to reveal God’s true nature, because our God is not just a king but a bridegroom madly in love with his bride. I am convinced that Jesus worked hard to get us to let go of the notion of God-as-king. He taught us to pray to God as our Papa, not as Lord or King. Almost all of his parables were about a loving father - the vineyard owner, the prodigal son, the farmer who hired day workers and paid them all the same, you could go on and on. Jesus invites us into the arms of a God who desires a passionate intimacy with us that can best be described as a marriage.
This summer I am planning to preach on the Eros of God, or if you will, the erotic scriptures about God. The Song of Solomon, for example, but also images in Isaiah, Hosea - there are a lot of frankly erotic images in scriptures which have much to teach us about a God who is madly in love with us, a God who desires an intimacy with us so intense that it’s often described in the language of the marriage bed.  So there. Go tell people that this summer I’m going to preach a series of erotic sermons. That oughta bring ‘em in.
Now different people have different ideas about intimacy in marriage. Some people perfectly fine marriages are not all that intimate. They take their marriage vows seriously, they may spend a satisfied lifetime as spouses, but they always maintain a certain reserve – they keep an emotional distance between themselves. They don’t share souls. They are good roommates, compatible companions who share genuine affection, respect and commitment, and sexual privileges, but theirs is not the passionate, total intimacy of the best romance novels. It works for them, and that’s fine.
But this is not the marriage God wants with us. In Genesis God describes how two people become one flesh. To be married to God suggests a passion and an intimacy so intense that we become one flesh, one being. As Paul said it in Galatians,“…I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…”  We’re talking about “…the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Now that’s an erotic image, a wedding image. God desires an intimacy with us so passionate that the boundary between us just disappears – can’t tell where God begins and I end – and we are truly one.
This is the wine. This is the intoxication of God. Jesus turns the lukewarm, tasteless water of this life into a sweet, intoxicating experience of intimate love with our creator, a  passion which makes everything glow. In turning the water into wine Jesus reveals to us the heart of God, and the heart of God is a heart which would have us be glad and celebrate. The wine which flows from the heart of God would have us relax and celebrate life without fear of being judged. The wine which flows from the heart of God would have us dance and dance and dance, dance whirling circles the way Jews do at weddings, kicking our legs in the air and singing loud and off key and out of breath, intoxicated with the joy of being alive, drunk with the joy of being God’s bride. Safe in the arms of a loving community and intoxicated with that sweet release which only comes from a full commitment. This is the wine which flows from the heart of God.
It is not a cheap wine. Drink all you want, it is absolutely free. It’s on the house, and we never run out. It is a divine vintage. But it is not cheap.
The wine is his blood, poured out for you, and me. That is the price of this passionate love which will not let us go. This love which only desires to sing and dance and twirl and whirl and love us till we are breathlessly in love with God. It is not cheap, but it flows freely, in reckless abundance.
Drink, and be merry.


Publish Date: January 21, 2013  ::  Author: Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

A Dangerous Kind of Unselfishness

Psalm 19 - Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday
January 20, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

I spent a lot of teenage nights laying back on a windshield staring at the stars, contemplating the wonder of it that starry sky. Engraved on the granite walls of the observatory housing the big telescope at Butler University in Indianapolis is the King James Version of this Psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” There is a lot of good religion in staring up at the night sky.
The stars seem to move across the sky in slow, stately motion. But actually each one of those tiny points of light is actually an ongoing explosion traveling through space at unimaginable speeds. Nothing is still in that night sky. Stars are the burning embers of that great explosion which set the world in motion, and the universe is still in motion. Stars are born, stars die in supernova explosions, all in a coordinated symphony of chaos. The universe is constantly expanding, constantly unfolding the next new thing,
This Psalm uses the night sky as a meditation on God’s law, which in Hebrew is called Torah. But Torah is more than static, unchanging rules. Like the night sky, Torah is the still-unfolding story of God’s breath breathing on the waters of chaos at creation; Torah is the constant unfolding of God’s will taking shape before our very eyes.
The Torah which the songwriter of today’s scripture praises contains both the immutable laws of nature and morality which bring order to the world and the chaotic explosion of new things and unexplained mysteries which can only be apprehended in the language of art and music and poetry. Torah, the law of God, like the starry sky, is always unfolding a new thing.
A young preacher was busy feeding people, helping people who were having trouble paying their rent, visiting people in jail. But for this young preacher the Torah of God was unfolding in a new and dangerous  direction, a direction which would be explosive. It was the 1950’s, and his congregation in Atlanta, Georgia was what they called then a Negro church.
We’ve all but forgotten what the world was like then. The law of the land was written to segregate and discriminate against Negroes. Negroes couldn’t use public restrooms. Couldn’t eat lunch in a white restaurant. Had to sit at the back of the bus. Schools were segregated so that Negro schools designed only to prepare Negroes for menial, manual labor jobs. It was hard, nearly impossible for Negroes to register to vote, because of voting registration laws much like those recently passed in many states. And it was an unnatural abomination, a serious sin, and illegal for a white person and a Negro to marry.
But Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. read about how God liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; he heard the voices of old testament prophets:

•    (from Isaiah) Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…

•    (or from Amos) …because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain…you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate…Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate… let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

•    (and from the lips of Jesus) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
That young preacher sensed that it was time for a new Moses to proclaim, “Let my people go!’
Like the stars above, God’s world is created through explosions, fire, conflict and turmoil. Because the constantly unfolding Torah does not allow us to just do the easy stuff. In every generation, God’s Torah seeks to expand the universe of God’s love and morality and grace. Every generation faces the decision Martin Luther King faced. “Do we stand up, make enemies, get political? Or do we hunker down, take care of our own, and try to ride out the storm?” Dr. King would say that a church which is not engaged in political activism is not faithful to God, because God’s people are to be on the leading edge of expanding the moral and ethical universe. The Torah, like the Universe, will unfold into an ever-expanding future, with, or without us.
So the question before us is: “Where is God’s Torah of justice calling us now?” Certainly the battle against racism is not over yet. Not when our nation imprisons a higher percentage of our citizens than any other nation in the world, most of them black.
This weekend we celebrate two holidays - Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and, yesterday, Gun Appreciation Day. Can it be an accident that this weekend was chosen for Gun Appreciation Day? Don’t we all get the implication? This weekend some are celebrating the fact that James Earl Ray was able to buy the gun used to assassinate Dr. King.
No, brothers and sisters, we’re not done with racism, not yet.
We also thought we had won huge victories for women’s rights and dignity. But in Ohio today a whole bunch of young rapists are still walking free while a young girl who was gang-raped is being blamed. Women are being denied the right to birth-control and the right to say no. And millions of women are slaves to the sex trade. Literally slaves. And this is happening right here in America, as well as many other nations.
But while there are many battles still to be fought against hatred and bigotry, some would say that our church’s particular call is to the issue of homelessness. Beginning six years ago if you drove by this circle you’d see people swarming around, trimming roses, painting over graffiti, fixing doors and windows, and just hanging out. There were many moments of Godly conversation, times of tearful, powerful prayer. Great things were happening. Lives were being changed. A community was being built. Just like in the book of Acts, everyone brought what they had, and shared what they had.  It was a wild and crazy time. It was what Martin Luther King once called “a dangerous kind of unselfishness.”

And it was dangerous; not everything that happened was godly. People shot drugs in our bathrooms, smoked meth in cars and campers. Still do. Things were stolen from us. Sometimes ungodly things went on. And this troubled us, because we wanted this circle to be a safe place. Maybe it troubled us more than it should have.  

In both Galatians and 2nd Thessalonians we are cautioned not to become weary in doing good.  But we became weary in doing good. Personally I grew weary of the sheer intensity of it all. Day after day, it wrung out my soul until I began to put emotional barriers around myself. I think many of us grew weary of being lied to and manipulated. In our weariness, we became cautious. We began to retreat behind rules and regulations. We created an “us and them” church. In all honesty, I truly don’t know how we could have done anything else.
A lot of the changes we made were good. But at what cost? Lately I’ve been driving around the property, noticing what one person called a growing RV camp in our parking lot, and my heart was suspicious, and my heart was hard. It felt like we were going back to the bad old days. And then I remembered that those were not the bad old days. They were days when the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully among us, days when my heart was open, and I was glad to see the poorest, the most ragged, the most desperate coming to us, and finding safety and refuge among us, even though it was hard, and some took unfair advantage.

I thought about the year or so that Aaron and Brandyn parked their yellow van right over there. I don’t know if you know it or not, but in those first months they were still using drugs, right here on our property. One day we sat beneath the cross and talked about that, and prayed together. And that’s when things began to change for them.

Ray called me the other day. Ray-Ray? He’s been sober two years, has an income and an apartment, doing fantastic. We talked for an hour. He said, “Pastor, remember those times when I hadn’t slept all night, and I was so tired, and you bent the rules and let me just sleep in the sanctuary for a couple of hours? You treated me like a human being when I didn’t even feel like a human being. That meant so much to me, it kept me going until I was really ready to sober up.” And then he said, “I’ll always love you for that.”

Today I don’t let anybody to that anymore. And I can’t help but wonder how many Aaron's and Brandyn’s, and how many Ray-Ray’s we have failed to touch because we have grown weary in doing good, and begun to say no more often than yes. This much I do know - several of my homeless friends who have stopped coming around have told me, “It just doesn’t feel like our church anymore. We feel like outsiders again.”
I don’t like who I have become. I don’t like the attitude of suspicion with which I look at people. I don’t like it that I don’t spend enough time just hanging out, talking, praying, building relationships with people. And I don’t like feeling guilty when I do offer love and grace in Jesus’ name.

The civil rights movement was not a smooth, easy course either, you know. Black Panthers, Black Muslims and others groups did not share Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy. Bombs were planted, guns were fired, riots, entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, innocent people killed, and Dr. King was blamed. Reasonable voices urged him to slow down. Be patient. Society just can’t change that fast.
His answer was that there can be no turning back. As Dr. King wrote from a jail in Birmingham, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God…”

I don’t have specific answers; I don’t know how we can fully open our hearts again while maintaining this as a safe and sacred place. I still don’t want to see drugs being used, stuff being stolen, or neighbors afraid to let their children play on our lawn. But I also know that I don’t like feeling guilty whenever I offer grace to a soul in need. I don’t like feeling that my church and my board will chastise me for offering grace.
I’ve heard it so many times. “Pastor Steve just has too soft a heart.” As if that’s a bad thing. Some of you don’t realize how many times I say no. But I will not apologize for saying yes to people who need grace, and neither should you. Maybe I am soft-hearted, maybe I’m naïve, easily manipulate, and maybe I’m not. Doesn’t matter. I don’t do it because of that. I offer grace because that’s what Jesus tells me to do. It is, for me, not about being soft-hearted, it is about obedience to the gospel. And when doing what Jesus would do as a matter of principle and as a matter of conscience leaves me feeling guilty and uncomfortable, then something is wrong.
Circle Church, we have a divine calling. It came upon us like the day of Pentecost just six years ago. It began as a call to welcome and fully include in this family those who are homeless or live in extreme poverty. This is not an easy calling, and I don’t have all the answers. It is a dangerous kind of unselfishness. But it is our calling, and I think our calling is actually bigger than homelessness. I think God has called us to fight the fight of social class bigotry, of which homelessness is just the most visible example.
Americans don’t talk about social class. It’s almost taboo. Americans don’t want to hear that our cities are segregated into rich, middle-class, and poor neighborhoods, that we work and shop and live segregated lives, seldom meeting or interacting with people of other social or economic classes. We don’t want to hear that Americans hide behind an elaborate, well-disguised system of social class bigotry.
I keep hearing how Santa Cruz has changed. One person in a neighborhood watch meeting said, “We’re under siege from these homeless gangs of criminals!” But when I look at the facts I find that crime is down in Santa Cruz. And the number of homeless people hasn’t actually grown that much over the years. Not much has changed, at least not much that I can find and measure. Except for the price of real-estate. Homes which used to be moderately priced for a middle-class, working family are now worth a million dollars. And people who pay a million dollars for a house don’t want to share their neighborhood with poor people.
There is a growing number of people in our city who want to turn Santa Cruz into an affluent community where poor people are simply not allowed. It’s not that the affluent are under siege from wandering hordes of homeless criminals. It’s that the poor, and too often homeless citizens of Santa Cruz are under siege from the affluent, who are not willing to share this city.
Social classism is a bigotry just as evil and just as violent and just as immoral as the blatant racism of the 1950’s. And our God has called this congregation to break the silence and lead the way in confronting this evil, remembering that Jesus was poor, Jesus was often homeless, and there is nothing criminal or dangerous or immoral about being poor.
Circle Church, we are called by God to offer grace and hospitality and welcome to all – wealthy and homeless, black, white and any other color, men, women, children, aged, straight, gay, confused. But that’s just the platform from which we are called to become political activists, aggressively confronting all the bigotries of our society. Like the expanding universe above our heads, God’s Torah marches on, and we are called to lead the way in expanding the circle of God’s grace.
This is not an easy call. It has not been an easy sermon to write or preach. In fact, I worked on this sermon for almost eighteen hours, and it’s still too long. None of this is easy. Paul encourages us not to grow weary in doing good. Jesus is with us. The Spirit guides and strengthens and comforts us.
But I want to close with words which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke as he neared the end of what would be the last sermon he would ever preach in this life:
“Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through… Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”



Publish Date: January 13, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

A Long Sigh

Isaiah 43.1-7
January 13, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now, says the Lord—
the one who created you, Jacob,
    the one who formed you, Israel:
Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
    and flame won’t burn you.
I am the Lord your God,
    the holy one of Israel, your savior.
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in your place.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
    you are honored, and I love you.
    I give people in your place,
        and nations in exchange for your life.
Don’t fear,
    I am with you.
From the east I’ll bring your children;
    from the west I’ll gather you.
I’ll say to the north, “Give them back!”
    and to the south, “Don’t detain them.”
Bring my sons from far away,
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
    everyone who is called by my name
    and whom I created for my glory,
    whom I have formed and made.

This is not a scripture meant to be read curled up on a soft couch in front of cozy fire. Nor is it meant to be read on a soft pew in your own church. This scripture is meant to be read in a jail cell, or a hospital room, or some place far from home…maybe a foxhole in Afghanistan, or crouched in a bush out by Wilder Ranch. This scripture was written to a people in exile, far from home.
Israel had messed up. Over and over again God sent prophets to warn them. Stop messing ‘round with other gods. Stop mistreating the weakest and most vulnerable among you. If you don’t stop, I’ll have to correct you, and you won’t like it. But Israel kept messing up.
First they worshiped other gods. Built altars up on top of the hills, burned sacrifices, sometimes burned their own children as offerings to other gods. Because the other gods promised wealth without guilt. And that led to the second way Israel  messed up. They then mistreated the poor, the weak, the vulnerable…immigrants, those who were sick, basically anyone unable to protect themselves were being exploited for money. And the other gods encouraged it, because they were “survival of the fittest” gods who encouraged business practices that took money from the weak and gave it to the strongest and most ruthless, and called it all righteousness. The other gods worshiped strength, and power.  
But the God of Israel did not agree. Finally the day of reckoning arrived. Babylon conquered Israel in a brutal war, left valleys full of decaying bodies, and carried the best and the brightest of Israel off into slavery and exile in the land of Babylon. This was God’s punishment. They would be in exile fifty years. Kind of a time-out for bad behavior. And now their long time-out was nearing its end. They had feared that God had abandoned them forever. Didn’t know if they would ever see home again. Almost all of the generation that went into exile died in Babylon. But finally their rebellion burned itself out they were ready to be reconciled to their God.

When a relationship is broken there is a process to reconciliation, and the process cannot be rushed. There is a critical moment to the process of reconciliation. When a child is being corrected, there is usually some pain. Some raised voices, some stern words, and some specific consequences. Your grounded. Put in time-out for a while. Can’t watch TV for a week. Consequences. And consequences bring tears. But that is not the critical moment. As parents we can be tempted to think that the punishment is the most important thing, but it’s not. The punishment is important, it sets the stage, but if all you’ve done is punish a child, you haven’t taught anything yet. There is a critical moment yet to come, a critical moment when the real learning can occur.
I learned about this from my son Michael Steven. When Michael Steven was in trouble, which was often, he would cry bitter tears. Didn’t matter that he knew what the rules were, didn’t matter that he’d been warned. He had a reason for doing what he did, so being punished was just so unfair. Running off to his room crying bitter tears, face beet-red, till the crying would finally subside into the crying hiccups. And then he would get real quiet, sit on his bed thinking. Finally he would come back into the living room, and he would come up to me and just look at me.
This is the critical moment. He would come to me, his face streaked with tears, still hicupping. And he would look at me with those big blue eyes. And I would open my arms, and he would crawl into my lap, and lay his little head on my chest…and sigh, a long, sad, but contented sigh. This is the moment. Back in daddy’s arms. It’s over. I’m home. Long sigh. Parents, please get this. Without this moment, none of it matters. It’s not over, your job is not done till you hear that long, peaceful sigh.

That is the moment when today’s scripture should be read. “I have called you by name; you are mine… you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you… Don’t fear, I am with you…” Michael Steven, nothing can ever stop me from loving you. No matter how much you mess up you’re still my child. You are flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, I named you, you carry my name as your middle name. You are mine. I will always be here. My arms will always be open for you. Yes, sometimes I must punish you, that’s an act of love, too. But “I have called you by name; you are mine… you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you… never be afraid, for I will never, ever leave you…”

Sometimes parents don’t know how to get to that big, soft sigh. Some parents have been taught that love is conditional. “I’ll love you if you please me. And if you mess up, I’ll withhold my love till you earn it back.” Some parents will freeze up, remain ice-cold toward their children until the children “make it up to them.” Some parents don’t understand that you don’t earn love. Love just is. If you can earn love, then it’s not love. Its manipulation.
Watched a kid crawl up in dad’s arms once. Dad literally turned away. Said, “Not yet. No hugs yet. You haven’t earned it. You haven’t proven to me that you can obey.” That may have been the most abusive thing I think I’ve ever seen. Love cannot be earned; the very idea is ridiculous. If it can be earned, it’s not love. Forgiveness cannot be earned. If it could be earned, then it’s not forgiveness.
We’ve all messed up, haven’t we? We’re all sinners. We’re all in exile. This life is kinda like one big time-out. I was praying with a guy this week. He put his head down, tears dripping on my carpet, and he began by saying, “O God, I’ve really f****ed it up.” And then he cried out, “O God, I can’t believe I just said that to you in prayer. I’m so sorry. I’ve just messed it up so bad.”
I think that was one of the most honest prayers I’ve heard in a long time. Haven’t we all really f****ed it up? We’re all in exile. Some have been through fire and water. Under water in our mortgage, lost our home. Ravaged by the fires of addiction of the fire of emotion. Cut off from family, a long way from home. Maybe we come from homes where the only kind of love there ever was was conditional love, and we’ve messed that up, and we don’t have any hope of truly being loved, ever again.

There comes a time when we are done. Done fighting. Done trying to do it our way. Done rebelling. Comes a time when all our armor is stripped away and we are that little child, looking up at mama or papa, afraid to hope that we might be welcome in their arms again. That’s where someone in this room is at today. Maybe it’s you.

God is talking to you today. God says to you, “I have called you by name; you are mine…I am the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior…Because you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you…Don’t fear, I am with you. I will never leave you.”

I know you’ve messed up. And I know that you’re paying the price. But my arms are open. You don’t have to earn your way back. My arms are just open. “I have called you by name; you are mine…you are precious in my eyes…and I love you…Don’t be afraid…I will never leave you.”

Did you hear that? That’s the voice of God, speaking to you. I don’t think you’re hearing it. I don’t think you’re believing it. I think you need a flesh and blood version of God’s voice to whisper it in your ear. Turn to someone, be the voice of God for  them. Tell them, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Tell them, “I love you. I will never leave you.”

 Did you hear it? That was God…talking to you. You needed that. Trust me. We are so afraid to believe in unconditional love; we need to be God’s voice to one another. It’s not our job to punish. Life itself does the punishing. Sin brings it’s own consequences. Our job is not to punish. Our job is to be the voice of God whispering reconciliation. Our job is to be the lap of God, the arms of God, the voice of God whispering of a love that will never go away.
Knowing that you have a sacred calling to be the voice of God to someone today, turn to the person next to you and tell them one more time, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Tell them, “I love you. I will never leave you.”

Did you hear that? That’s God speaking, to you.

There would always come a time…if I was patient…there would always come a time when Michael would curl up in my arms, and I would wrap my arms around him and kiss his little blond hair, and he would hiccup one last time. And then there would be this long, peaceful sigh.

May this be the place. May this be the time when we can all sigh.


Publish Date: January 6, 2013  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Follow That Star!

Matthew 2.1-12 Epiphany Sunday
January 6, 2013
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel
Christmas if officially over. According to church tradition Christmas is the season beginning December 25, and Christmas doesn’t end till 12 days later, the 12 days of Christmas. So Christmas ended yesterday, and today is Epiphany Sunday.

Epiphany means a vision, or a manifestation, or the sudden appearance of something which had been hidden. Like when you’re trying to solve a puzzle and you suddenly see the pattern. Or when you suddenly recognize someone. Or you suddenly have an idea or an insight. Those are epiphany moments, when an awareness of something new breaks into our consciousness.

On Epiphany Sunday we tell the story of a time when a new star appeared in the heavens and there were some men wise enough to know that something new had entered the world, and wise enough to follow it. The star was an epiphany, but even more, their recognition of the meaning of the star was an epiphany.Let's listen to the story.
 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: “You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.
They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route. (Matthew 2.1-12)

They had no business being there, you  know. The word magi means magician or sorcerer or astrologer. They were probably astrologers from Persia. Their god was Zoroaster, sometimes called Zarathustra. They didn’t know anything about Judaism or the Jewish Messiah. They are as out of place at this stable in Bethlehem as an elephant at a mouse convention. They just don’t fit in this picture. But a star had appeared, and they just had to follow that star. That’s an epiphany.

There are two groups of wise men in this story. Not just these Persian astrologers. Herod had at his disposal the wisest and most experienced advisers in Israel. There were two groups of wise men, representing two different kinds of wisdom. But only the followers of another god saw the star. This is significant. No one in the Jewish world saw the star, but these believers in a strange God saw, and understood. So they came and worshipped, and their worship was apparently pleasing to God.
It is easy to take potshots at other religions, so sure that we have it right, and they’re all wrong. But at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry there is this major interfaith story, reminding us that God is able to speak through and to people from all religions. We don’t own God; God can speak to anyone God chooses to speak to. Two groups of wise men. But why did Zoroastrian sorcerers find Jesus when the wisest scholars of the Jewish faith were oblivious?

Maybe it was because the astrologers were open to God’s new thing. You know, astrologers follow the stars, and the stars are always moving. So maybe they were open to newness because their religion required them to study the movement of the stars as well as ancient texts, and that kept them from getting locked into static ways of thinking.  The Jewish scholars had nothing but old texts. Maybe that’s why they’d lost the ability to see God’s new thing.
A sociology professor told me that the purpose of religion is to preserve the traditions of society. Remember in “Fiddler on the Roof,” how the Jewish father Tevye sings, “Tradition”? Is that right? Religion exists to preserve tradition?
An anthropologist might disagree. An anthropologist might look to those ancient days when human beings lived in wandering tribes. Each tribe had a holy man or woman, sometimes both, to lead them spiritually. I suppose they were the earliest forms of pastors or priests. The leaders of the religious life of the tribe. These men or women were chosen because they seemed to have a connection to the spirit world -  they had visions, talked to themselves, were eccentric. Yes, they would be mentored in the tradition by an experienced elder, but their job was to travel to the spirit world, find out what the gods were saying and doing now. Their job was to be awake to the next new epiphany from the gods, telling them where to hunt for buffalo or when to head south for winter. This, some might say, is the fundamental role of a religious leader. To point to the future and find God there.
When a religion begins to find it’s meaning entirely from old texts about yesterday’s epiphanies, when there is no openness to the new thing God is doing, that religion is doomed. Perhaps the Jewish wise men could not see the star because they were imprisoned in the past. Or maybe not. Who knows.
The Jewish wise men served the king. Maybe that was their problem.  “Civic religion” it’s called.  Civic religion says that the job of religion is to maintain the status quo of society. Teach people to obey those in authority, not question their rulers, be obedient, cooperative citizens. Whenever any group of people who are being discriminated against asks for mercy, you can count on churches to trot out some sort of scriptures to justify discrimination and oppression. That’s what civic religion does.
The Jewish wise men served Herod because they worshiped power, just as we do today. We love TV shows and movies about powerful lawyers, powerful politicians, powerful businessmen. Do you realize how many people drive gas-guzzling SUV’s simply because of the ego-trip?
Power is a viciously destructive force, and it is addictive. I like football, I played football in high school. But we’ve recently learned that literally thousands of former NFL football players are suffering from exactly the same concussive head injuries as soldiers returning from war. Loss of memory, inability to think or form words, change of personality, anger, rage, headaches, depression, suicide. Multiple concussions take their toll and by the time these men are forty they are in agonizing pain, unable to think or remember names or form a coherent sentence. But we love to watch those brutal, full speed, bone crunching hits, because we are fascinated with power. I can’t watch it anymore. I can’t support it, not now, not now that I know what it’s doing to those men. As much as I love the game, I won’t watch football again until the NFL addresses this problem. Really addresses this problem. Because it is simply unacceptable to destroy the lives of these men and their families for a game.
After those magi came to Bethlehem Herod’s soldiers came and slaughtered all the baby boys under two years old. History calls it “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” They did it simply to keep Herod and his family in power.  It is almost too much to think about. Especially this year. Especially this year. I heard that one of the babies of Newtown had eleven bullets in him. It took less than two seconds to put eleven bullets in that little baby. We’ve had our own slaughter of the innocents.
What is the point of a gun that can shoot 100 bullets in 60 seconds? We won’t outlaw them because they are so much fun to shoot. They make you feel powerful. And America worships power. The bigger, the louder, the more destructive, the better.
Like us, those Jewish wise men lived in a world where power was assumed to be the highest good and the highest goal. And so they were totally unable to conceive of God choosing, wanting to be born into such powerlessness and vulnerability as a babe in a stable in Bethlehem. Just couldn’t comprehend it. God was doing a new thing, right in their backyard. But they were not wise enough to see that one coming.
Are we? Or are Christians also too addicted to power? I notice that we don’t dwell long at the manger. We jump quickly to a miracle-working, walking-on-water God. We love to hear him debating the Pharisees, verbally making mince-meat of them as if he were some sort of cosmic Don Rickles. We love scriptures like "My God shall supply all your needs," and "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me," (Philippians 4,13,19)  but we skip the part about taking up your cross and the part about the last being first and the meek inheriting the earth.
We pray full of confidence that our God is going to come to us and do powerful and mighty things to defeat our enemies. Remember that old song, "My boyfriend's back and you're gonna be sorry"? We've turned it into
Jesus is coming back and you’re gonna be sorry." He’s coming with zillions of angels, armed with cosmic assault rifles. There’s gonna be a war. Mountains will be blown away. Armageddon. Total destruction. Are you read to rumble?
I truly believe that you and I have stood in the presence of God many, many times, but we failed to recognize God’s presence, because God appeared in the form of someone weak, vulnerable, powerless. That’s how God prefers to come to us. May I humbly suggest that we are not ever going to be able to see the new thing God is doing until we give up our addiction to power, including all the advantages of a powerful, kick-ass God. Because that’s just not who Jesus is. Jesus is the God who washes our feet, not the God who kicks you-know-what.

Rest assured that God is alive. And God is doing a new thing in our midst, right now. God is doing wonderful things in our world. But God is doing these things simply, quietly, humbly, in complete innocence and vulnerability, like a babe born in a manger, in a stable, to a couple of poor kids who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Because that’s the way God is. Humble. Gentle. Quiet. It’s the power of love. It’s the power of healing.

We call them wise because they saw not just the star, they saw, they recognized god in the babe in the humble manger. That’s epiphany.

Pray. Pray for epiphany. Pray that our eyes may be opened to see the new thing God is doing. No doubt what God is doing is quiet, hidden. Pray. Pray for a star to guide us.


Publish Date: December 29, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

That Beautiful City

Rev. 21.1-6
December 29, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

We stand now on the edge of a new year. And I don’t remember ever seeing so much uncertainty about the future. Turn on the news, stare into the chasm of that fiscal cliff. Check the weather report, wondering what global warming will hit us with next. Look out my window into a city divided, afraid to walk the streets at night, despite the fact that our streets are actually safer than they’ve been in decades. Still, it’s not the town we used to know.
John’s community also lived in very uncertain times. That’s why the book of Revelation reads like a bad acid trip. Everyday life in those days was like a bad acid trip. Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed. Magnificent city, gone. Just gone. No temple. How many football fields worth of temple and it’s grounds? Gone. Just gone. Jews not allowed to set foot in Israel. Their homeland was gone. Just gone. The Roman empire becomes more and more brutal even as it crumbles from within. The original disciples, they’re all dead. Christians are being jailed or killed. No doubt about it, they were facing the end of their world. Their future was profoundly uncertain. The book of Revelation is so interesting to us today, because our times are very similar to their times. We sense that our world is ending, too.
The nation teeters on the edge of a fiscal cliff, and every citizen and every politician in Washington knows that things have to change. We can’t go on this way.
Santa Cruz swims not in the waters of the Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz swims in Heroin and Methamphetamine, and let’s not forget the most dangerous and most abused drug of all, alcohol. We can’t go on this way.
Our mental health system is almost nonexistent. Put millions of mentally ill people on the street without treatment, and then inundate those streets with guns designed for one purpose and one purpose only – mass murder – and, well, as our President said, "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change.” The world which allowed this and tolerates this must end.
There is a season for everything, Ecclesiastes tells us, but there is also a time when everything must end. The time for the world we’ve grown used to has reached it’s end. The Mayans and the book of Revelation are right – the world really is coming to an end. At least the world we know. But it’s the only world we know, so it’s hard to let it go.
Our politicians are not stupid, they know that they have to change, but day after day they remain frozen in old patterns of behavior. Paralyzed by their ideologies, paralyzed by old habits. Paralyzed by fear. Like deer in the headlights, they see the crash coming, but they are just unable to do anything.  Like partners in a failed marriage. You know this marriage is over, but you can’t find the courage to pull the plug. You hang onto the familiar to the very last.
The year 2012 is at an end. And the world we knew is at an end, as well. And we know it. We keep saying that things must change, but then we keep hanging on, afraid to let our world end, so a new world can begin.

It was to people just like us, people whose world was crashing and crumbing into ruin, that the book of Revelation offered a vision of a new world. Our scripture today is from Revelation 21.1-6:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring.”

Oh, it’s so easy to put this image off into the distant future. Make it into something that will happen someday, without our having to do anything. We’ll just wake up, and Jesus will be there in the clouds surrounded by angels, and a new city descends from the sky. We watch it happen like a TV show.
But that’s not really what the author was saying. Everything in the book of Revelation was present-tense to his first readers. Their world was ending, even as they read these words. The chaos, the collapse, the battle between good and evil, everything which they were reading about, dragons, many-headed beasts, it was all a secret code for events which were happening right then and there. And this new city, coming down from heaven, it’s not simply an escape into a distant future. John’s first readers understood that beautiful city to be a reality available to them in their lives right then. Just as Jesus offered people the opportunity to enter into and live inside of the kingdom of God right now, in Revelation we are offered the chance to live in the New Jerusalem, the holy city descended from heaven, right here, right now. It’s a new world, available to us now.

In the older churches of the ancient world, as you entered the church, as you meditated on the cross behind the altar you were surrounded with images of paradise. For instance, in the wall mosaic of St. Giovanni’s Cathedral in Italy, rivers flow from the cross through a peaceful meadow. Around the cross are scenes of serenity: doves, deer, angels, a placid lake, flowers, grass, gentle sheep. And directly below the cross, a small, golden city, a palm tree above and a peacock. Cherubs ride in boats, cherubs ride swans, swim in gentle waves, or wind-surf across them.  The message was clear – when you are in the house of God, you are in another word – Paradise.
Sometimes these images were drawn around the door to the church, making it even clearer that when you enter the Christian community, you are entering that city which comes down from heaven. Paradise, that holy city, to early Christians, it was a daily reality more real to them than the dying world of the Roman empire.
I am aware that in many ways we choose our reality. Some of us choose the reality of our favorite TV shows. Some of us choose the reality of romance novels, or mysteries. Some of us choose the reality of television shows. Some of us choose the reality of the opium dreams of Heroin, or the manic paranoia of meth. Or the numbness of beer. We choose our reality by what we choose to accept as real.

This world as we know it is no longer real to me. It’s sick. It’s dying. I choose that holy city. Like those early Christians I want that beautiful city to be my reality. I want to breath the air of paradise this coming year. I want to walk those streets, smile at those lovely people walking those golden sidewalks.
And I believe that it is possible. Right here. Right now. Might take some work. Might take some prayer. Make mean I’d have to let go of a lot of stuff about this world that I just keep hanging on to out of habit or fear or paralysis. But I believe that it is possible.
Those ancient churches, despite the fact that they were often crumbling old buildings, understood themselves to be neighborhoods in that beautiful, holy city. In the same way I want this church to be a neighborhood of that holy city in 2013. I want to see us that way. I want to live into that reality. I believe that it is possible, and I am willing to give up an awful lot to have that experience.

There is a secret to it, though. There is a secret key required to enter the city. The secret key to the city is found in verse 3. “I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” The secret key is that it is the beautiful holy city only because it is the dwelling place of God. If God is not in the city, then it is not holy or beautiful. But if God is in the city, then it is the most holy, beautiful place in the universe.
    Wherever God is, is paradise. Do you believe that? Is God in this place? Is God in your house? Are you sure you want God dwelling in your house? You know how roommates are. They’re there all the time. When you just woke up and you haven’t brushed your teeth yet, there’s your roommate sitting on your couch. When you bring your girlfriend home on a date and you have high hopes for the evening, there’s your roommate sitting on your couch. When you just want a little privacy, roommate’s pounding on the door. “Can we talk?”
We’re not talking about us going to visit God in church on Sundays like we might go visit Grandma in the old folks home. We’re talking about God dwelling with us. In our house. In our heads. In our hearts. All the time. God filling up every aspect of our lives. God in our work. God in our hobbies. God in our relationships? God in our bedroom? God even in our enemies. You can’t have an enemy once you realize that God is dwelling in that person.

God in our money. What if our every single dollar was used to for the glory of God? If God is in our money, then there is no my money and your money. Money is evil and nothing but evil, unless it is infused with God and used as an instrument of God to bless people.
God even in our less pleasant chores. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, talks about doing dishes for his community at Plum Village as an act of prayer. Feeling the warmth of the water, the soft slickness of the soap. And with every dish he washes, he imagines the person who ate from that dish, loves that person, prays a blessing on that person. God can dwell even in the act of doing dishes.

If we are willing to let God dwell in it, to invite God to indwell, fill up every inch of it, then we can build, and we can enter, and we can live our lives inside the walls of that holy city. If we are willing to enter consciously into the presence of God, and live there, in every moment. Do that, and we are in Paradise, every moment filled with light and love and glory.

My resolution is to dwell in the house of the Lord such that every day is forever.

I believe that it is possible. We can build, we can inhabit, we can be that beautiful city.


Publish Date: December 23, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Christmas Birth

Luke 2.1-7
December 23, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 2.1-7

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Mary is just two days away from giving birth. Remember all the joy and awe she felt that day when the angel visited her and told her she was going to have a baby? Well, by the third trimester all that joy and awe has given way to innumerable ways to be uncomfortable. She doesn’t walk, she waddles, with one hand holding her aching back. She can’t sleep at night. Can’t think. Can’t do anything for more than 20 minutes. Just once I want to see a picture of Mary with a bulging belly and sagging back, glowering at Joseph as if to say, “If you say one word I will rip your head off.” Because that’s the reality of it.
Birthing is our theme this Christmas Sunday, and we know that in the larger context of the New Testament it’s not just Mary who is bringing forth a new, and divine life. In Romans we are told that “…the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”  We are all giving birth to the kingdom of God. But giving birth is a messy business. Why does it have to hurt so much to give birth?
Maybe because we only value that which we suffer to obtain. Miracles have a price. My old football coach used to say, “no pain – no gain.” There must be some sort of spiritual lesson in this, something about recognizing how precious life is by how much pain it takes to bring life into the world. Michelle says that birth pangs are not like any other pain that you will ever feel. Because, so she says, because it’s pain with a purpose. It is a pain which focuses our minds on what we’re about.
Not everyone is able to give birth the way Michelle gave birth to Sophie. Not everyone wants to have a child at  home, with not even one drop of medicine. But Michelle did it like Mary, no doctors, no nurses, just an experienced midwife…and me holding her hand. I learned some amazing things from being witness to that miraculous night. I think we’d be better off if our nativity scenes showed Mary screaming in pain, sweat on her brow, veins in her neck bulging with the work of giving birth.
Because the truth is that giving birth is not supposed to be easy. Giving birth means digging down into the deep, raw, molten lava of all that it means to be flesh and blood.
Giving birth to something new in the world brings us close to the raw reality of who and what God is, because God is the Creator above all else. And so to give birth draws us into the circle of God’s creative fire, and that primordial heat contains both the greatest pain and the greatest joy imaginable. To give birth is to channel the raw power of creation. It is truly a miracle, and miracles have a price. To give birth to anything new in the world, whether it is a child, or a new idea, whether it is a song or a new business or a new way of living, anything new will have to be born with some measure of pain.

Our tendency is to tighten up, to clinch, to resist the pain. Usually pain means that we need to do something, to fix something, to take action to get out of pain. Pain hurts. Do something. We are not a society which knows how to sit with pain and simply let it be. In the old days we had no choice; we learned to endure pain. Whether it be the pain of a headache, or a sprained ankle, or a toothache, a sore back…you just learned to live with it because painkilling drugs didn’t exist.
When giving birth to a baby there were no drugs, no epidurals, no Caesarians scheduled at a time convenient to everyone. No, in those days you yelled, you screamed, you hurt, you endured, and in the end, held that little child in your arms with gratitude.

But we are modern people. We don’t know how to do pain anymore. This is why we are such an addicted society. Think about it. Every drug we take, whether alcohol or Heroin or meth, and every other type of addiction – food, sex, work or video games – it’s all an effort to escape from pain. Addiction can be defined as an attempt to avoid the pain of living. We don’t know how to live with pain. We have to take something.
Sometimes, even after we’ve stopped using drugs, we still don’t know how to be with pain. When life gets stressful we become tense, angry, our mind races, constantly rehashing all the bad stuff going on till we feel totally trapped. We become frantic with the need to do something to stop this pain. “I’ve got to fix this. I’ve got to change this situation. I’ve got to make some people do what I think they should do.” And so we become obsessive, controlling, angry, temperamental, nervous, and impossible to live with. In A.A. they call this a “Dry Drunk.” All that really means is that we haven’t learned how to simply live with the pain of life, how to live with the pain of all that we cannot control.
In my life right now I have several things, many things that I think of as problems. Sources of pain in my life. Situations which are stressful. Out of my control. Some of those things I have some power to do something about. But mostly…not. Most of them are just situations out of my control. The hardest thing in the world for me is to just sit with the pain, day after day, waiting to see what God will bring forth out of it. I want to do something, make something happen, even though my rash action usually makes things worse. It’s hard to just ride out the pain and wait to see what it will give birth to. Giving birth to something new is painful, yet I clinch up and resist the pain, and so I inhibit the birth process.

Remember, according to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are in the pain of giving birth, right now.
As a nation we are in pain. The violence of our age, the killing of those children in Connecticut. The hatred and mistrust between races, between social classes, between political parties. It feels as if something powerful is happening in America, but it is so painful. Our nation exists right now on the razor’s edge of panic because we don’t understand this pain, we don’t know what we’re giving birth to. Are we giving birth to a better future, or to a grim future. We don’t know how this kid will turn out, and that hurts.
As a community we in Santa Cruz have high values, high ideals for ourselves. Yet so often our behavior as a city fails to live up to our potential, and in that pain, we turn against one another.
As a church we groan with the pain of giving birth to a family where all are welcome and all really can feel at home across all worldly boundaries of class and personality. We are a church of great ideals and too few people. I think lately we’ve forgotten, or maybe we’ve stopped believing in our own greatness. There is the seed of something extraordinary in this church, a radical, revolutionary possibility, filled with the Spirit. We’ve tasted the potential, we’ve had glimpses of what God wants to do through us, but more than once those glimmers of greatness have slipped away, and we’re left with the pain of too much work to do and too few people, too many bills to pay and too few dollars. Dreams of a beautiful kingdom family of God crashing into the sordid reality of our own fallen nature. It hurts.
As individuals many of us face profoundly uncertain futures. Lost job. Lost marriage or partner. Lost home. Can’t find a safe place to camp anymore. Sickness, illness, injury changed everything. Just can’t go on the way I’ve been living for years. I have to change, but I don’t know how. All I can see is the pain. I don’t see a beautiful baby, a shining future coming out of this experience. I just know that it hurts. And we want to clamp down, resist the pain.

The one thing we know about Mary is that whatever God threw at her, she accepted it and moved on. “Let it be with me according to your word,” she told the angel. And in that one sentence is the greatness of Mother Mary. “Let it be with me according to your word,” even when it hurts.
When Michelle was giving birth to Sophia she didn’t clinch, didn’t clamp down, she didn’t fight the pain. She opened her mouth and screamed this huge, full-throated yell. It started really low, like a deep rumbling in the earth, and as the contraction went on her voice rose in pitch until it was like the high scream of a dragon breathing fire to melt rock. She says that she visualized every contraction as a channeling of God’s power, could feel herself opening, opening, opening to the a miracle. All I know is that it was a sound like nothing I’d ever heard. Unearthly, made your hair stand on end. It was an echo of the sound of the Big Bang. It was God howling in primordial fire at the birth of the universe.

Let this be our nativity scene. A young girl – not a mature woman. A cold barn, a stable, her ragged breath a cloud in the cold night air. She is paces back and forth, then lays on her side, rocking back and forth with the pain, then on her hands and knees, squatting, screaming, her face slick with cold sweat, steaming the night air. A woman-child giving birth to her own God. And not fighting it. Flowing with the pain, willing to fully experience the agony as well as the ecstasy of being a miracle. Letting pain open her up to God. Listen as the Holy Spirit herself interprets Mary’s primal birth roar as praise.
Until, in a rush of blood and water, a child is born. His eyes squinted shut, his skull mashed into a strange shape by his journey to us, his little voice mewing out his own birth cry of fear and confusion.

And then we hear Mary’s voice…exhausted, hoarse from her own screams, now whisper, “Glory.”


Publish Date: December 17, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The Advent Journey

The Advent Journey - Luke 9.1-6
December 16, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The theme for today’s Advent reflection is journeying. We are on a journey to Bethlehem. But the thing is, we don’t understand journeys anymore, because we know too much. We have our pre-planned itineraries. The travel agent has printed out exactly where we’re going to be, at precisely what time, and described in detail exactly what we’re going to do. GPS tell us where we are and where we’re going, so we never get off the beaten track and find that road less travelled.
Some travel extensively to cultures and societies very different than ours. But they stay in modern, western hotels, ride in air-conditioned tour buses surrounded by other American tourists, and never really touch or experience that other world. Might as well have stayed home watching travel shows on PBS.
The point of a journey is the unknown. Psychologist Erich Fromm writes, “Let your mind start a journey thru a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be...Close your eyes let your spirit start to soar, and you'll live as you've never lived before.”
I was five years old when dad packed the backseat of that Chevy up to the level of the window well, placed a board across the top. Couple of blankets and a pillow, and I lay down on that board, maybe 10 inches between my nose and the roof. And off we went, moving from Harlan, Kentucky to Jacksonville, Florida. Car broke down, took three days to get there. Now that’s a journey.
I finished working all night in Indianapolis, lay down in the back of dad’s car, and six hours later in Chattanooga, Tennessee I walked into the dormitory of a college I’d never even seen a picture of, never heard of it till the week before. Now that’s a journey.  
The entire point of a journey is to see what’s around the next bend, and if there’s no mystery and no danger, there’s no real journey. And no learning.

The spiritual life has always been a journey. God’s people are never allowed to stay still for long. Adam and Eve headed out toward the land east of Eden. Abraham responded to God’s call to live in tents till he died. His grandchildren made the journey to Egypt, and generations later, Moses led them out of Egypt. Even then they got lost in the desert for forty years. Even after the Israelites had a homeland, they lost it and were sent on a journey of exile in Babylon. Then the journey back home.
As soon as she finds out that she’s pregnant, Mary goes on a road trip to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Later, she and Joseph make that epic trip to Bethlehem, intending, I’m sure, to come right back home to Nazareth before the baby was born. Didn’t work out that way. From Bethlehem they made a surprise trip all the way to Egypt, before finally journeying home to Nazareth, years later.
Jesus leaves Nazareth on a journey to the headwaters of the Jordan River, where his cousin John was preaching. After baptism he goes on a camping trip into the wilderness. In fact, Jesus lives the rest of his life on the road without a home of his own.
And later, after the resurrection, his earliest followers did not call themselves “Christian.” That word had not been invented yet. They called themselves “The Way,” not as in “the way to do things,” but as in “the highway.” Followers of Jesus are people on a journey, the original road warriors. To follow Jesus is to be on a journey.
Listen to today’s scripture reading from Luke 9.1-6, where Jesus sends his disciples out on a journey.
“Jesus called the Twelve together and he gave them power and authority over all demons and to heal sicknesses. He sent them out to proclaim God’s kingdom and to heal the sick. He told them, “Take nothing for the journey—no walking stick, no bag, no bread, no money, not even an extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, remain there until you leave that place. Wherever they don’t welcome you, as you leave that city, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.” They departed and went through the villages proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere."

This was only the first mission trip. When the twelve came back he sent out seventy people with the same instructions.  Don’t take a walking stick, or a bag, or food or money, no extra shirt. This time they even had to go barefoot. These are strangely specific instructions. Jesus is telling them to go in the style of style of the Roman Cynic philosophers. That’s exactly how the vagabond Cynic philosophers dressed. Roman Cynics wandered from town to town, begging, and proclaiming their rejection of human society. Slept out in the open. Never bathed. Their uniform was a single shirt or tunic, usually torn, a walking stick, a bag or purse, and nothing else.
Probably the closest comparison we have in our day might be modern anarchists. Like the Cynics of old, anarchists are determined to tear society down to it’s most basic, raw survival status and then rebuild civilization on a different foundation. Like the Cynics, anarchists are prone to outrageous, sometimes violent acts to destabilize society. Their message was a total rejection of the world as it is. And to drive home that message they were often outrageous troublemakers.
Clearly Jesus was identifying his movement with these outrageous, anarchistic Cynics, in some ways. Not in every way, but in some ways. But there were differences. For instance, the Cynics were beggars, so they needed a bag or purse to hold the money they collected. Jesus’ did not allow his disciples to carry a bag because they were not to beg. Instead, his disciples went house to house, depending on the hospitality of strangers. They could not take money, they were forced to depend on the personal hospitality of strangers. Where the Cynics worked hard to offend people, the disciples were to be gracious houseguests, trusting and accepting food, shelter, hospitality from people who graciously opened their homes to them.

Imagine the difference. Instead of giving that guy at the intersection a couple of bucks, bring him home with you. Instead of giving or getting money, Jesus made it personal. Bring him into my house, eat my food, sleep in my bed, using my bathroom. It’s a way of rejecting the entire concept of yours and mine. In the kingdom of God, what’s mine is yours.

You see, the Roman Cynics really didn’t know what kind of world they wanted. Neither do modern anarchists. They only know that the world we have is broken, and we need a new world. But they don’t really have a vision of what that new world might be. But Jesus knows exactly what kind of world he is building - a world of open-hearted hospitality between strangers.
When he sent them out, Jesus gave his disciples two specific jobs to do. The first was to proclaim the good news, which is the presence of God’s kingdom. And they were to heal people. Their job was to both proclaim and then enact the reality of a new world by healing those who have been wounded by this world. They could proclaim the reality of this new world, but the kingdom of God could only be brought into reality whenever someone opened the door. That’s when the healing began. Only then could the kingdom be realized.

Theirs was not a journey to find the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was already within them. Their job was, like Johnny Appleseed, to sow kingdom seeds. It’s important to understand that there is no destination to the spiritual journey. The kingdom is the journey itself. We travel this journey through life both sowing seeds of the kingdom, and pausing to celebrate whenever the kingdom begins to be realized in flesh and blood.
They went wherever they went, proclaiming the reality of the kingdom wherever the wind blew them. But for the kingdom to be realized people had to let go of their assumptions about how the world works, assumptions like mine and yours; my house, your house; my money, your money. They had to release that entire world where we barricade ourselves behind closed doors and say that some belong inside and others belong outside. By wandering from house to house they were giving people an opportunity to enter into the kingdom. Whenever anyone opened their door God’s kingdom also opened up. But where doors remained shut the kingdom failed to materialize, and the disciples shook the dust of that town off their feet.

A young couple shows up at your door. She’s pregnant, in labor. It’s going to be a mess. Lots of soiled linens before this is over. And your house, your little bed and breakfast, it’s already full. What do you do? Did any of those innkeepers understand what was at stake?
We create, or destroy the kingdom of God every day.

The journey we are on may or may not involve physical travel. It’s really about the journey we must take from one soul to another, the journey into the vulnerability of knowing and being known. It’s the journey of risky, vulnerable relationship which enacts God’s kingdom, and heals wounded hearts. Every handshake, every hello is an opportunity to open ourselves up to another, or to remain closed to real relationship and real vulnerability. Every person is an opportunity to enact the kingdom.
But we are so defended. We hide behind our doors and windows. We hide behind our TV’s and our Facebook pages and our polite facades. We smile and nod and ask, “How are you?” but we really don’t want to know. In this society perhaps more than any other we work hard at hiding from one another.

Yet there are these people, these vagabond road warriors, the people of the highway, trying to cross that bridge from alone to real connection. They keep talking about this guy Jesus, and what it’s like to live in his world. They keep knocking on the doors to our hearts, gently, peacefully waiting to be invited in.

Because only then can the kingdom come, and the healing begin.


Publish Date: December 3, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Advent: A Season of Waiting

Romans 8.18-31
December 2, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Romans 8.18-31

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God's sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God's children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.
And it's not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn't hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience.
In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don't know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God's will.
We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified. So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

Over the next four weeks of Advent we are going to reflect on waiting, accepting, journeying, and birthing. Today’s reflection is on the subject of waiting. Because Advent is not Christmas. Advent is the season of waiting for Christmas. Used to be that we wouldn’t decorate the tree or sing Christmas carols till Christmas Eve. Of course, Moms and dads didn’t go to back to work the day after Christmas. Christmas day was just the first of twelve Christmas days of constant celebration! The twelve days of Christmas. So once Christmas began, it was worth the wait.
Maybe the Advent tradition of waiting for Christmas was better suited to a different time. In the old days waiting was what you did in winter. Wasn’t much else to do. In the morning and again in the afternoon you went out to feed the livestock, chop some firewood, but that was about it. The days were short, the nights lasted forever. Most of a winter day was spent in the cabin, in candlelight. Read your bible or maybe a seed catalogue. Whittle a stick, mend a shirt, sew a quilt, tell a story, sing a songs, pass the time while you wait for spring.
In a lot of farm families, long about September or so, there had been some celebrating after harvesting the fall crops. And so by December the family might be waiting not just for spring, but for a new baby to be born this spring.
An angel came to Mary, and then to Joseph. She’s going to have a baby. And so the waiting began. Waiting and wondering. Waiting and worrying. Waiting and hoping. Human beings do a lot of waiting. If it’s bad waiting we call it worry. If it’s good waiting we call it hope. But human beings do a lot of waiting.
•    Waiting to see if the president and congress can agree on a budget, or are we going off that fiscal cliff, and what will that mean?
•    Waiting to see if Iran is going to get a nuclear weapon.
•    Waiting for the war in Afghanistan to finally be over.
•    Waiting to see if the cease fire between Israel and Gaza will hold.
•    Waiting till I can get health insurance, and what will that cost me?
•    Waiting for the next super storm or famine or whatever global warming will send us next.
•    Waiting for a job offer.
•    Waiting for the lab results.
•    Waiting for the surgery to be rescheduled.
•    Waiting for him to propose.
•    Waiting for my Section 8 voucher.
•    Waiting to get into Janus.
•    Waiting for Grandma  to arrive.
•    Waiting for retirement.

Are we there yet? It’s not easy to wait.
We like to think of Mary as a sweet, innocent, saintly young girl. But I’ll bet you Joseph could have told some stories. Pregnant women are never entirely sweet and gentle. You have never really faced anger until you’ve faced the wrath of a woman 8 months pregnant, who is sick and tired of aching and hurting and peeing all the time and not being able to sleep, sick and tired of waiting, waiting, waiting, and she just wants this child to be born…now!
It’s not easy to wait. The seed must lie in the dark earth for some time before it springs forth. Our deepest longings, and our deepest fears, I suppose, must spend their time waiting. Germinating. But it’s not easy, the waiting.

Scripture says that the whole creation is waiting…waiting for something we can’t quite even describe, because we haven’t seen it yet. Paul writes that, “The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God's sons and daughters.” We are not yet been fully born. We are still in the process of being born. And so we are waiting, waiting like folks pacing the floor in a maternity ward while the mother screams out her labor. Waiting to see what we will be. Waiting to see how our own lives will unfold.
“We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it's not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free.”

We are waiting, pregnant to the point of bursting with the waiting, groaning to give birth to our potential. And the entire universe groans with us. Fifty-seven years old, I still wonder what I’ll be when I grow up.  I could be so much more than I am. I feel unfinished. I’m still waiting to see who I’m going to be when God is fully finished with me.

What are you waiting for this Christmas? What are the things which lie on your heart? Some may be longings, hopes, dreams as yet unfulfilled. You wait eagerly, hoping yet afraid to hope that it might come true this year.
Or maybe some of the things you await with dread. You fear the worst. Hard times. Heartbreak. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. How much worse can it get? You don’t want to know.
You have a cut out silhouette of a manger in your bulletin. I want you to spend a few moments praying about the things that you are waiting for. Perhaps the bad things, the things you fear. The gifts you hope that life does not bring you for Christmas. And the good things, the hoped for things, the deep, soul-yearning secret hopes that you hope will be realized this Christmas. You don’t have to write it down. Just pray about it. What are you waiting for? Pray it all onto that piece of paper, while we listen to what I think of as perhaps the perfect Advent song.
We live in the cosmic season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m talking about the time between thanking God for the resurrection and the full redemption and realization of what Paul called, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We have received the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we have entered into the kingdom, yet we remain unfinished, like a half-baked bread.
So we wait with hope, because we know that God is doing something with us. Something wonderful. And something awful, awful in the literal sense of the word, God is doing something full of awe with our lives. God is doing something in us which is full of wonder and awe. But it’s unfinished. We’re unfinished. There are processes going on in our lives which are yet unfinished, and so we wait. And it’s hard to wait.
You see, the point of the what Paul wrote in Romans is that we didn’t make this baby. This feeling we have inside, this feeling we’re not finished yet, that we’re supposed to be more than we are, this pregnant waiting is something that God has planted in us. There is something that we’re waiting for. There is something more coming. The whole universe feels it, the whole creation quivers and groans waiting to know how we will all turn out.
We are all Mary’s. Men as well as women. Young as well as old. Our pains, our struggles, our failures and defeats, our impatience with ourselves and our world, it’s all a part of the labor pains. Our ups and our downs, our sleepless nights of worry about whatever we worry about…all part of our labor pains. We are all Mary’s, struggling to give birth to the Christ in us. It’s so hard to wait for Christmas.
But here is the one thing we know. It’s all God’s doing. God planted this longing, this yearning, this pregnant waiting in us. And God will see it through. If God is for us, who can be against us? No matter what happens, God will take all of it, even the pain, even the struggles, even the blood and the sweat and the tears, God will take all of it, and work it, and mold it, and blend it together into a good thing, into a beautiful thing.
And one day, when we hold in our arms all that we’ve been struggling to give birth too, then we will sing carols of joy.


Publish Date: November 25, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

We Will Speak Out

Luke 4.16-21/Isaiah 1.12-17
November 25, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Luke 4.16-21

“Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Jesus is thirty years old, just been baptized. Back home in Nazareth he preaches his first sermon. The kickoff to his ministry. It does not go well. In fact they try to throw him down a cliff and stone him. His text is Isaiah 61: “[T]he Lord…has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

It begins with a proclamation. A voice in the silence. Evil depends on the silence of the world to do it’s dirty work. It is our job to break the silence. Edmund Burke famously said that “"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." What we need to understand is that silence gives permission for evil to flourish. Over and over again churches have been silent, and the results have been tragic. While the church was silent:
•    Christians slaughtered a quarter of a million Muslims in the Crusades.
•    Tens of thousands were killed in the inquisitions in medieval Europe.
•    Thousands of young women were burned at the stake or drowned.
•    Conquistadors slaughtered millions of native Americans.
•    Slavery grew into the millions in America.
•    The Ku Klux Klan invoked a reign of terror.
•    Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust in Germany.
•    Churches full of children were bombed by racists.
•    Our nation got embroiled in unjust, necessary, bloody wars.
•    America became a nation which imprisons and tortures even our own citizens, indefinitely, without a trial.

There are grave consequences for silence in the face of evil. Jesus proclaimed the truth and paid the price for it. But there is a price to pay, too, for silence. Which is why in the first chapter of Isaiah, God has some powerful words to say to religious leaders who are silent in the face of evil:
“I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good: seek justice, help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.12-17)
I have become more and more aware of a growing evil in our world which is largely being ignored or minimized. An evil against which Christianity is being typically silent, silent because talking about it makes us uncomfortable.  
I’m talking about the growing explosion of sexual violence against women all around the world. Sexual violence against women. The United Nations calls the Congo “the rape capital of the world”, because soldiers use mass rape as a tool of warfare. In the small village of Luvungi 235 women, 13 girls and 3 boys were raped, multiple times, in one day. Same thing has happens in village after village. 70% of Congolese women between 15 and 49 years old have been victims of physical or sexual violence.
In the middle-east women are forced to cover themselves totally any time they are outside. Can you imagine it, never feeling the sun on your skin? Remember Malala? Fifteen years old, on her way home from school, shot in the head. Just for wanting to learn to read.  In an Islamist controlled region of Somalia a rape victim was stoned to death for adultery.  In Pakistan a 16 year old girl who had been kidnapped and raped repeatedly for two days was then shot and killed, because the tribal elders said she had shamed her village.
But it’s not just Muslims. In Hindu Bangladesh 30% of rural women say that their first sexual experience was forced. In India little girls are forcibly married at 3 years old, given to that old man the minute they hit puberty. Almost 2 million girls under 6 years old have been killed by their parents in India – starved, killed at birth, or beaten to death. Girls are 75% more likely to die in childhood than boys.  Why? Because fathers don’t want girls, they want boys. So they just kill the girl children.. In China they constantly fish newborn baby girls out of the rivers, and out of garbage bins. Not boys. Just girls.
It’s not radical Islam, it’s the rise of fundamentalism which is at the root of this explosion of violence against women. Nation after nation which has seen a rise in fundamentalist religion has also seen a rise in violence, especially sexual violence against women. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or radically Orthodox Jew, where fundamentalism prevails, violence against women explodes.
In Peru in South America, just as in Ethiopia in Africa 70% of women report physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Worldwide one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by a man; 1 in 5 will be violently raped, while Christians remain silent. And silence is permission.

Even in the advanced, western nations, there is a growing hostility toward women. Just this week the Church of England, the British version of the Episcopal church, denied women the right be bishops.  Can anyone tell me what having a penis has to do with leadership in the church? Unless you’re so literal that you also take literally the parts of the bible that say that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth, there is no biblical reason to discriminate against women. Even in England a hostility toward women seethes under the surface of modern society.

Even in America one on five women will be raped, or barely escape rape. One in three – ONE IN THREE – will experience some form of sexual assault. And it’s getting worse every year.  Our society has deteriorated so much that US Senators publically say  that sometimes it’s God’s will that a woman be raped, and get pregnant. Normally when a rape victim is brought to the emergency room she is given the opportunity to take a “morning after pill.” All this pill does is start her menstrual period immediately. By tomorrow morning her body will flush itself out, including any impregnated egg. We’re not necessarily talking about a an abortion months later. These men, these top-tier political leaders would deny her the option of starting her menstrual period right away by simply swallowing a little pill. Because it’s God’s will.  
A drunk, off-duty policeman walks into a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona, reaches under a woman’s dress and grabs her genitals. The judge lets him off with probation. And then the judge blamed the victim. “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you.”  This happened in America, two months ago. You know what really breaks my heart? The judge was a woman. And she’s still on the bench.
Fifteen years ago or something like that our nation passed a law requiring that women get equal pay when they are doing the same work as a man. That legislation passed almost unanimously. Who would vote against it. That was then. Today the House of Representatives won’t even bring that law up for renewal. Women, so they say, don’t deserve equal pay for equal work. That’s how far our society has deteriorated into a social hatred toward women.

Santa Cruz. This is hard. Between 2008 and 2010 Santa Cruz had almost double the national average of rapes. And this is while other forms of violent crime have been dropping steadily.

I need to stop here for a little sidebar. And for a little good news. You know, people in Santa Cruz are more and more fearful of violent crime; in fact crime and public safety were the driving issues in this month’s city council election. We have media and neighborhood groups constantly telling us that our city is under an onslaught of violent crime. But the truth is that for a couple of decades now violent crime has been steadily decreasing, not increasing. Santa Cruz is safer than it’s ever been. But no one wants to believe that. You are safer in Santa Cruz than you’ve ever been.

Unless you are a woman. Because while violent crime in general has gone down in Santa Cruz, rape has doubled. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women 15-44 years old in Santa Cruz County.  We are supposed to be the most progressive, the most peace-loving, the most compassionate, the most enlightened city in America, but compared to state averages, , compared to national averages, Cruzians tolerate violence against women far more than most American cities.   

And nobody talks about it. And silence is permission.

Our daughters, our granddaughters are paying the price. Did you know that there is among teenage girls in America a growing problem with gonorrhea…of the throat. See, young girls don’t want to be thought of as sluts. Many of them actually want to preserve their virginity, or at least there reputation. But guys pressure them, you cannot imagine the pressure. So to get the guy to ease up, to be blunt, they give him a blow job. They don’t think of it as sex. They’re preserving their virginity – in the face of tremendous pressure.
They call them “rainbow parties.” Girls line up, sometimes very young girls, 13-14 year olds, on their knees. Boys stand in front of them. Each girl wearing different colored lipstick. You get it. The 21st century version of “Spin the Bottle.” Notice that it’s never the guys on their knees for this party game.
These are our daughters, our granddaughters…and our sons who are suffering, while parents and churches are silent, cause we’re afraid to use words like “blow-job.” Never thought I’d ever use such language in the holy context of preaching the gospel. My God. I can’t even believe that I’m saying this. But silence is permission, and I can stay silent no longer. We have to talk about these things with our kids. We’ve got to screw up our courage and use the words.

But don’t be shaming. Don’t add to the violence by shaming these girls. They are under tremendous pressure, just children, doing the best they can. We need to be gentle. But we need to speak, and not be afraid to speak plainly. It’s time for fathers and mothers, and grandfathers and grandmothers to let our kids know that we know what these words mean. And we know what it’s like to be bullied, to be put in a corner, to be forced into hard choices by peer pressure.
And about this business of virginity. We need to let victims of sexual violence know that when it’s forced on you, when it wasn’t your choice, then you are still a virgin. What someone does to you against your will can never take away your virginity or your purity. Never. Tell them that your preacher said so. You are still a virgin, young lady.
Well, this is hard stuff, isn’t it? But now for some good news. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. The Lord anointed Jesus “…to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners,” and this includes sexual slaves. One estimate, 175,000 slaves in America today, most of them working in the sex trade. Held under lock and key, forced to do their master’s bidding. In America.  
“…to liberate the oppressed…” That is a divine command to break the silence, to speak out for the women of the world, for the young girls of the world.
But it’s not just a command, it’s also a promise. “The Lord anointed me…” An anointing is a giving of power to change things. When we break the silence and proclaim the gospel in the context of these things then Jesus speaks through us. It is not just us who are speaking, it is the Holy Spirit which is the wind in our lungs, and we can change these things. With the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, when we break the silence and proclaim the good news that God’s favor is on the women of the world then the Holy Spirit fills us with power, the same power which cast out demons in Jesus’ day will cast out these demonic forces in our world. As long as we give silent permission for this evil to continue we’re in trouble, but when we speak out in Jesus’ name about these things then we are given power and the victims are given power, and the demons are cast away.   
But as long as we are silent God says, “I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.” Not until we begin to “seek justice, help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” When Isaiah says orphans and widows he means children, and women. Defend the children, plead for the rights of women. Speak up for children and women. Because silence is permission.
But when we join our voices with Jesus in proclaiming good news to people who are suffering, the Spirit fills our lungs and we can rock our world. Surely this is something all Christians sorts of Christians ought to be able unite and preach with one voice?

It is time that Christians rose up in mass against city councils that can spend $4 million on a basketball team but can’t find money to address the appalling sexual violence problem in Santa Cruz. A city council that can obsess about ridding our city of the so-called “homeless problem” while ignoring the fact that homeless women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group in our city.

It is time that Christians speak out boldly against blaming the victims. Instead it’s time that we started blaming those tolerate it, excuse it, encourage it, or ignore it. It is time what we spoke out and named names and said with a untied voice, “This is evil!” And I’m not talking just about the violence against women itself. I’m talking about those of us who look the other way. Those of us who are too busy, or too embarrassed. Who don’t think there’s anything we can do. That’s the evil. If there is one thing the recent election taught us, it is that everyday people, at the grass roots, people like you and me, we have power, when we choose to use it.
We can no longer afford the embarrassed silence. We can no longer beat around the bush. Our daughters and granddaughters are suffering and sick and confused, and afraid to tell us. We are called not just to speak for them, to defend them. We are called to talk to them, and listen to them.

Unless we break our silence, God will be silent in response to our worship. But when we do, when we get the courage to speak out, to proclaim God’s good news in the real contexts of life, we will find that it is God’s voice, the voice which thundered from the mountain, which speaks through us.


Publish Date: November 19, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Peace of Mind Through Thanksgiving

Philippians 4.4-9
Thanksgiving Sunday November 18, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Here’s  the secret to peace of mind in one sentence: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  
Pretty words, but real life isn’t always that easy, is it?  
You’re sick, you don’t know yet if you’re going to get better. How do you pray with thanksgiving when you don’t know yet if your prayer will be answered?
You may be laid off, unemployed, right before Christmas. How do you pray with thanksgiving when you don’t know yet if you’re going to be able to feed your family? How do you thank the cook for a perfect turkey when the bird hasn’t been cooked yet? We don’t give thanks in prayer because we know how it’s all going to turn out. We pray with thanksgiving because we trust in the goodness of God, no matter what.

I used to think that this next paragraph was kind of silly. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  
Aw, come on! Just think happy thoughts? Float around on a cloud of denial, pretend everything is wonderful, while your world falls apart? I’ve seen people destroy lives, careers, families because they floated on a cloud of denial, refusing to face the hard truths, failing to do the necessary work.
Paul was in jail, facing a death sentence, often sick, hungry, and the church was  were facing hard times. He was not in denial about any of this. In fact he was brutally frank about his struggles. Still he tells us to pray with thanksgiving, concentrating our attention on “whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. …”
He was a prisoner, a POW in North Vietnam, who spent years in solitary confinement, totally alone, except a blind rat for a cellmate. He shared his food with her and they became close friends. One day he awoke and she was gone. It was the worst day of his life. But then he said, “Do you know how much God loves me? When that blind rat became pregnant, she came back to me. She had her babies with me. And together we raised a happy family.”  

That’s not denial. That’s an affirmation that there are always reasons to be grateful. The word for this is grace. Grace is by definition a free gift, love poured out, without expecting any return. God created the world by emptying God’s very self, pouring God’s self out in a never-ending abundance of grace. From the beginning our world was filled with abundance. Abundant sunshine, abundant rain, abundant earth and water, abundant food. At the close of each day God affirmed that “It was good.” At the end of creation week “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”  Creation is teeming with grace.

Entering into the world of God’s grace requires a shift in how we think about reality, and we make that shift by practicing the mental discipline of thankfulness. Because gratitude is the only response to grace. The only response. Never respond to grace by trying to earn it. That insults the giver. Never respond to grace by trying to pay it back. That’s an even worse insult to the one who offered you grace. It’s like trying to pay the one who loves you for sex. The only proper response to grace is gratitude.

To live as a Christian is to practice the particular spiritual discipline of seeing God’s grace in everything and giving thanks. Because there is always something true, something honorable, something just, something pure, something pleasing, something commendable, something excellent and worthy of praise in every circumstance. Our job is to discover these things and say “Thank you.”

Another POW in Vietnam, standing in the prison yard, staring at the ground, afraid to look up into the faces of the guards. In the dirt on front of him a guard traces the shape of a fish in the dirt, then erases it. Three times, the shape of a fish, traced with a toe, then erased. And he realized that one of his guards was a Christian trying to say, “I’m sorry. I’ll do what I can.” From that moment on he realized that even in his tormentors there was some goodness, and he concentrated on that, and gave thanks.

It’s not naïve. It’s not denial. It seeing the truth which lies deeper than the sin. The quest of the spiritual life is to learn how to see God’s grace shining in every person and every situation and rejoice in it. We live in a world of abundant grace. There is an abundance of sunshine and rain, an abundance of love. There is an abundance of goodness in humanity. To think on these things means seeing a world of abundance rather than a world of scarcity.

The world tells us that every single relationship, at work, neighbors, friends, even marriage and family, the world says it must be reciprocal, it’s not fair unless it’s a fair trade. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. So men get together with their buddies, women get together with their friends, and they talk about each other. And her friends say, “Hey, he should help you out more around the house. You’re not getting a fair deal.” And his friends say, “Hey, she should clean up the house more. You’re not getting a fair deal.”
But to love as Christ loves means giving without even thinking about getting anything back, thanking God for the opportunity to give ourselves away in abundant grace to another human being. Because that’s what Jesus did, and that’s what Jesus still does. The prayer of a lover is not, “Lord, let her love me back.” The prayer of a lover is, Lord, give me more love to give.”

To think on these things is to think the best of people, and keep seeing the goodness in people, after their sinfulness and selfishness have burned you over and over again. To see the best in people who aren’t always at their best. To see the best in people who haven’t been at their best for years. To believe in them, anyway. And then in prayer, to thank God for them.

To think on these things requires that we face the unknown future with a sense of adventure, trusting in our tour guide. Not because we are so sure that it will turn out the way we want it to, but confident that our God will never leave us, that no matter what the challenges, we will always be surrounded in it with an abundance of Grace.

The Christian life is a practice of concentrated, disciplined mental attention. We discipline our minds to notice the grace, the goodness in life, no matter how ugly the circumstances, and when we find those glimpses of grace we pay attention to them, we acknowledge them, and give thanks. We work at the task of opening  our eyes to abundant grace. And we give thanks.

Our praise team is about to sing to us, But this time don’t stand and sing with them, just listen to Steve, Michelle and Mary sing to you about God’s good gifts. And while you listen, count your blessings. In your bulletin there is a blank piece of paper. On one side I invite you to begin a list of things you are grateful for. Just begin a list. I hope you’ll spend all week, I hope you’ll spend the rest of your life counting your blessings and listing all the good gifts which our God of Grace and given to you.
But on the other side of that blank paper I invite you to list the things that don’t seem like blessings. List the bad stuff. List the uncertain stuff, the things where you don’t yet know how it’s gonna turn out, and it might not be what you want. List the hurt, the rejection, the stuff for which you can find no reason to give thanks. No reason at all. You may list one thing. You may list a dozen. Just note the stuff you don’t know how to be grateful for.
And then, before this song is over, say “Thank you.” Say “thank you” anyway. Say “thank you” even though it’s just so wrong, and you just don’t understand. Say “thank you,” and wait, and watch. Practice the mental discipline of gratitude anyway, even when it makes no sense.
And watch the world begin to change around you.



Publish Date: November 11, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields- Gambrel

Serenity & Soul Rest

Philippians 4.4-7
November 11, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Last week we talked about peace of mind. This week the topic is serenity. I don’t know. Is serenity any different than peace of mind? To me serenity suggests something even deeper than peace of mind. I think about that phrase from Philippians about a “peace that surpasses all human understanding.”
You know it when you are in the presence of someone who has true serenity. Their serenity just wraps you up in it like a warm hug. Often the most serene among us are those who have experienced the most soul-crushing sorrow. He said, “You think you’ve seen a sunset, but you’ve never really seen a sunset. To really see the sun set you must be fully present from the beginning and watch it develop, moment by moment, color by color, over a couple of hours, without turning away even for an instant. Only when you do that can you know the true beauty of a sunset.” See, he was a paraplegic, and in the long silent hours in that chair he had learned how to cultivate serenity.
Not all, but some paraplegics, some alcoholics, some POW’s in war, some cancer sufferers, instead of remaining devastated, find a place if deep serenity. Their serenity proves that the sign in my office has it right. “Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.” Not only can we have serenity in the midst of the storm, but in a strange way our best chance of finding serenity may be found in the storms of life.

A lot of us love the  “Serenity Prayer.” A Christian theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr wrote it. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” For millions those words ring with a level of divine inspiration almost like scripture. Wouldn’t surprise me if those words don’t end up in future bibles. The 151st Psalm. A Psalm of Reinhold. Did you know that the original version was a little longer than the one we usually hear? I want to share the whole prayer with you today.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

I’ve prayed that prayer every day of my life since about 1980. But I’ve always gotten it backwards. I thought that if I could just accept the things I cannot change, then I would find serenity. But that’s not what the prayer says, is it? Listen again, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” “God grant me serenity” comes first, then acceptance. Serenity is a gift from God. . It’s grace. We don’t earn serenity by practicing acceptance. In fact, we are incapable of accepting the things we cannot change until God grants us the grace, the gift, of serenity.

So today’s scripture from Philippians can only help us prepare to receive the gift of serenity. Here is today’s scripture, from Philippians 4.4-7:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The first step is to rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Lost your job? Rejoice! Got a major illness and no insurance? Rejoice! Girlfriend broke up with you to date your best friend? “Rejoice!” Really? You know, don’t you, that this is “fake it till you make it” territory. Until the grace of serenity hits you, you’re just faking it. But go ahead and fake it.
This is not the same as those who think every awful thing that happens is god’s will.  A baby dies. “Well, it’s God’s will. God needed another angel in heaven.” How awful! A tragic car accident, a family left without a mother, “Well, it was God’s will.” Who can say that to a child? Millions of women raped as instruments of war in Rwanda, in the Congo, in the Darfur region of the Sudan, and some will say, “It must be God’s will.” Let me tell you, there’s gotta be a special place in hell for people who say that rape is ever God’s will. We live in a fallen world. Not everything that happens is God’s will. There is still work to do to realize the fullness of the kingdom of God.
Paul says to “Rejoice IN THE LORD,”  not in the circumstance. Not everything that happens in this fallen world is God’s will, but “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”   In Jesus evil has been overcome by love. The tomb is empty, Christ lives, and the new world he began will reach full maturity.
Bad stuff will happen. Rejoice in the Lord  anyway. Life will not be fair. Rejoice in the Lord anyway. There will be days when serenity is elusive, and suffering is pervasive. Rejoice in the Lord anyway. Because you know that God is good, all the time. Even on the most awful day God is still good all the time, and the kingdom will come and there will be a day when crying and suffering will be no more, and when we rejoice in the Lord on a really bad day that is what we are rejoicing about. We rejoice because no matter how bad it is, we can do all things through him who strengthens us.  Nothing can cut so deep as to reach that place where God dwells within, and that is worthy of rejoicing…in the Lord…always…anyways.

The second step is to “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Gentleness. At first glance, these two sentences don’t really seem necessary. You can skip that part about gentleness, and it still makes sense. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Doesn’t feel like anything is missing. But there is something about gentleness which is necessary to serenity. In fact, it may be the critical step.
You know about those toys that dads are supposed to assemble on Christmas Eve? Michelle doesn’t let me assemble stuff, and here’s why. If part A does not seem to fit into part B, I just force it. If the screw is too small, I just get out my drill and drill a bigger hole. If the peg is round and the hole is square, then I just jump up and down on it till it goes in anyway. That’s not gentleness. I never seem to learn that if you have to force it, you’ll probably break it.
Do you know the difference between a really woodworker, an artisan of wood, and a guy like me with power tools? A true artisan of wood never forces the wood. Goes with the grain, cuts with the strength of the wood. Surely Jesus’ earthly father Joseph taught this wisdom to Jesus. And I’m thinking right now of Dennis Young.

It’s a principle of life. If you have to force it, you’ll probably break it. So don’t force things. There is a gentleness to a real artisan, and we are called to be artisans of life. Just as a real woodworker never forces the wood, a good husband never forces a wife. A good parent never forces a child. A good boss never forces employees. Forcing things is incompatible with serenity. But if we will let our gentle side take over, then we can work with people and places and things as they really are, gently help them to find the shape that fits them, and our souls remain open to receive the grace of serenity. Gentleness is the necessary second step to prepare ourselves for the grace of serenity.
What was it that Dr. Niebuhr prayed in the second half of his prayer?
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will…

The final step is surrender. Notice how Paul said it. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Sometimes we get the idea that the more tears we shed in prayer the better. Or that the more we beg and plead the better we are at prayer. Praying all night long, pounding on the door of heaven, is that what makes a person a real prayer-warrior? Maybe. Sometimes.
I was going through an awful legal battle for custody of my kids, and it was in the hands of lawyers, lies were being spread about me, no one wanted to hear my side, and I was just about to lose my mind. Driving to work I lost it. Pulled over on this country road, and just screamed. Screamed and screamed out my frustration and rage and stark, raving terror to God. Pounded the steering wheel. Finally lost my voice and began whispering the 23rd Psalm. Don’t know why, but that day I prayed that day to a Mother- God. “Mama is my shepherd, she makes me to like down in green pastures, she leads me beside still waters…” I needed a mama’s arms.
I lifted my hands toward the roof of the car and released my precious babies into the arms of God. And a peace came over me, a peace that I cannot understand or explain. I’d been praying the serenity prayer for months. Don’t know why it came to me that day and not before. But that day, serenity came down from heaven like the dove of peace, and I am so grateful.

My serenity was not a reward for those gallons of tears. The significant part of my prayer was the surrender. The release. If we must agonize with God in prayer, the goal is not to convince God to grant us what we want. The goal is to let it go. God waited patiently till I got it all out of my system, because our God is just that patient. But the grace of serenity could not come until I lifted my precious babies up to God and released them into my God’s loving arms.

You’ve heard of that monkey with his hand in a jar? There is a banana in that jar, and the neck of the jar is just big enough to fit his hand through it, as long as his hand is open. But when he closes his fist over the banana, his closed fist won’t come back through the neck of the bottle. Only when he lets it go can he be free.

The antidote to worry is surrender. The essence of prayer is surrender. The secret to the spiritual life is surrender. When we finally release everything to God through prayer…the gift comes.
Rejoice…in the Lord, all the time. Don’t force life, cultivate gentleness. Instead of forcing things, release everything to God in prayer. And “…the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That’s a promise.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


Publish Date: November 5, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Peace of Mind - Soul Rest

Matthew 11.28-30 (New Revised Standard Version)
November 4, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We live in an age of anxiety. It didn’t begin with the election. Nor did it begin with the economic recession. Even in the good old days there were plenty of things to worry about, but as modern society has become increasingly complicated, our anxieties have multiplied. Every generation, every decade becomes more anxious; we now live in an age of extreme anxiety, and it’s killing us! Almost everyone in modern society lives with elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone in our bodies which is caused by stress, and which causes all sorts of problems – heart disease, strokes, cancers, Alzheimers, the list is endless. Stress contributes to the alarming rate of divorce. Modern epidemics of addiction, high suicide rates.
We breath an atmosphere of anxiety; we are swimming in cortisol and anxiety. Of course human society is breaking down, we’re all going to have breakdowns. It helps to take a breath. Give ourselves a break. And give our brothers and sisters a break. On the highway, in the neighborhood, in the office, in the living room, we’re all hanging on by our fingernails. We need to be kind to ourselves, and one another.

The time of Jesus was also an incredibly anxious age. The Roman Empire was crumbling. Wars, economic unpredictability, poverty, violence, a melting pot of different ethnic groups, religions, ideas - everything was changing, too fast, too fast. Perhaps that’s why the most repeated command in the New Testament is, “Do not be afraid. To Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds in the field when he was born, “Do not be afraid.” To the disciples on the stormy sea, “Fear not.” To the crowd on the mountain, “Don’t worry.” To the parents of a little girl who had died. Again on another stormy sea, “Don’t be afraid.” After the transfiguration. To the disciples at the last supper he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” To the women at the empty tomb, to Peter, in fact virtually every time he appeared after the resurrection, his first words, “Don’t be afraid.” John tells us that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,”  while Peter advises us to “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”  We are commanded, over and over again, not to be anxious. But we are.

There was such thing as anxiety in the Garden of Eden. No fear, nothing to fear, until the serpent suggested that God could not be trusted. What if God doesn’t really love us? What if God cannot be trusted? Anxiety always begins with “What if…” Those two words are the root of all anxiety, the root of all sin. What if I’m laid off from my job? What if I have a heart attack with no insurance? What if my house isn’t clean enough? What if I’m late? What if…what if…what if?  Will God take care of me if…
From those first “what if” questions come other anxiety-producing questions. Why are they driving so slow? Why does management come up with such stupid policies? Why can’t she just understand what I’m saying? Why is everyone but me stupid and incompetent? Why can’t they just do it my way?” Why questions are simply ways of fretting about that fact that I’m not in control. I can’t control other people. I don’t get to make the policies. Different people see things differently, react to things differently, prioritize things differently. They’re not going to look at the world the way I do because they are separate human beings with minds of their own. Nobody is ever going to do anything my way. I know that I’m right and if you’d just listen to me, but you won’t.
“If only…”  is just a variation of “why can’t they”, as in “If only my boss would get off my back.” It all amounts to stressing out because I am not in charge of the world, and I’m not all that certain that God’s in charge, either. What if no one is in control? It all comes back to that same “what if?”  What if the serpent’s right, and God’s not really always good? If God’s not in charge, then I have to take charge. Somebody has to run the world!
Buddhists call it “monkey-mind,” minds like frantic monkeys dashing this way and that, churning with obsessive anxiety thoughts. We think that we are thinking, but it’s  really just the monkey-mind running in frantic loops of worry and anxiety, producing cortisol, bringing us closer to dying of some stress-related illness, and we can’t hear the still small voice saying, “Peace I leave with you. My peace, I give to you.”
In your bulletin is an insert. One side of it is titled “Monkey Mind Manager.” I want you to take a few minutes and write down what are your chronic, repeating monkey-mind thoughts. What do you stress about? How do you complete those sentences?

Can you see that if you really trusted God there would be no need to worry about any of those things? Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
A yoke is a wooden beam that tied to two oxen so that together they can pull a heavy load. It’s one of his perplexing paradoxes. To those already carry a heavy burden of anxiety Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Really? Your burden is light? Jesus, your yoke seems to have the shape of a cross.
Here’s the secret to unlocking this paradox. There is no burden greater than running the universe. Ever since the garden, ever since humanity started doubting the goodness of God, we’ve been trying to be God, and that is a yoke to heavy for us. If you look at what you just wrote down, isn’t that what it is? If I don’t do this, if I don’t do that, I’ve got to keep this from happening, what if that happens…it’s all saying, “I’ve got to be God, because I cannot trust God to be God.”
Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” because his yoke is surrender. That’s what Jesus did. That’s how Jesus lived his life. Just surrendered his will to God, every day. “Not my will, but your will be done.” Jesus didn’t try to be in control, he simply trusted God with  life. And that is the secret to peace of mind. Surrender to God’s will. Even when the garden of Eden becomes the Garden of Gethsemane. Surrender. Trust. Even when they nail you to a cross. No “what if’s.” No “If only’s. ”No “why can’t they just see it my way?” No saying to ourselves, “I have to take charge, do it myself.” Just surrender control of the universe to God – even if that means a cross. Even when every fiber of my being cries out that God has abandoned me, even then, choosing to trust God, and not try to be in control of the situation.
All that stuff that you wrote down…you know it’s all sinful, don’t you? It’s all a thinly veiled mistrust of God, and that’s a sin. Are you ready to fully admit it? Every single time you or I say, “Why can’t they just…”, it’s a sin. Trying to control things which aren’t ours to control.
The other side of your bulletin insert begins with the words, “Naming the sins of anxiety.” I want you to take a moment, and summarize how you commit sins of anxiety. Your personal sins of anxiety. The things you have refused to leave in God’s hands. Confess it to God the way you would any other sin. Do it now.


The final thing we need to talk about this morning is the subject of expectations. We have these ideas about the way things are supposed to be. And we are usually disappointed. If Jesus had expected to live a simple, quiet life as a carpenter and die of old age, he would have been disappointed. If a young person growing up in our world today expects to get a job with a good company and eventually retire from that same company, or even if they expect to retire from the same profession they started out with, they will almost certainly be disappointed. If you think you’re kids are going to stay in Santa Cruz when they become adults so you can see your grandkids every day, you’re probably going to be disappointed. The world just doesn’t work that way, not anymore. More often than not, things just don’t turn out like we expected. Perhaps you’ve hard the saying, “we make plans, God laughs.”
Connected to each of those sins of anxiety are expectations. The key to finding rest for our souls is to surrender those expectations, and accept life as it actually comes, trusting always in God. Write down the expectations that you are surrendering to God.

Now the rubber meets the road. It comes down to this. Always comes down to this. Will you trust God? Or will you continue trying to be God? The world is careening out of control. Out of our control, anyway. Often it doesn’t seem as if God’s in control, either. That’s why it takes trust. That’s why it takes faith. Jesus came to show us that God is good, all the time, that God can be trusted, all the time, with everything. Even when the world has crucified us. Even then, God is good, all the time. Do you believe that?
I want you to keep that bulletin insert with you this week. Keep it close, look at it often. At the bottom you will find some words:
God is good…all the time.
Grace abounds…all the time.
I don’t have to be anxious about these things.

Pray those words often.



Publish Date: October 29, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The Breathless Ending to Mark's Gospel

Mark 15.21-16.8 (from The Message Bible)
October 21, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Over four months ago we began our study of “The Breathless Gospel of Mark.” Today we are finishing it. If you’ve been with us the entire time I hope you’ve learned a few things about how Mark has tailored his version of the story of Jesus. For one thing, we learned that Mark is in a hurry. It’s like watching a James Bond action movie rushing breathlessly toward a big finish. Jesus is a man of action, not words. When he does speak, his message is that “God’s kingdom is already here.”
We learned that Mark grouped stories of Jesus into groups with a theme, using the chiastic structure borrowed from Hebrew poetry. Usually the meaning of each chiastic group of stories is unlocked by the story in the  middle.  
We also learned that Mark doesn’t think much of the disciples. The disciples often seem clueless, and in the end they all abandon Jesus. In contrast, though, women seem to understand Jesus, and Jesus honors and empowers women. In the end it is the women who stick with him.
Finally, we learned that Jesus is in direct conflict with those priests and other religious leaders who control the money-making industry of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus proclaims that people don’t have to go through the bureaucratic institutions of organized religion; God’s love is abundant and God’s kingdom is available to anyone, without lining the pockets of the priests.
 It had been a glorious ride, full of excitement and miracles and amazing, breathtaking moments. But now it all comes crashing down. Jesus has been sentenced to die. We begin on our way from Pilate’s house to a place they called “Skull Hill.”

There was a man walking by, coming from work, Simon from Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. They made him carry Jesus’ cross. The soldiers brought Jesus to Golgotha, meaning “Skull Hill.” They offered him a mild painkiller (wine mixed with myrrh), but he wouldn’t take it. And they nailed him to the cross. They divided up his clothes and threw dice to see who would get them.

They nailed him up at nine o’clock in the morning. The charge against him—the king of the jews—was printed on a poster. Along with him, they crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: “You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you’re really God’s Son, come down from that cross!”
The high priests, along with the religion scholars, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: “He saved others—but he can’t save himself! Messiah, is he? King of Israel? Then let him climb down from that cross. We’ll all become believers then!” Even the men crucified alongside him joined in the mockery.
At noon the sky became extremely dark. The darkness lasted three hours. At three o’clock, Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard him said, “Listen, he’s calling for Elijah.” Someone ran off, soaked a sponge in sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
But Jesus, with a loud cry, gave his last breath. At that moment the Temple curtain ripped right down the middle. When the Roman captain standing guard in front of him saw that he had quit breathing, he said, “This has to be the Son of God!”
It’s hard not to get caught up in the drama of this story. The blood, the violence, the unfairness of it all! Our eyes are totally on Jesus. But if we step back and look at Mark’s version carefully we may see that Mark is very interested in what the people around him are doing. Who are these people, and what do they have to teach us?
The two bookends stories of this set of stories about his death draw our eyes to a couple of Gentiles who in different ways bear witness. At the beginning an African man passing by is asked to carry the cross for Jesus. Simon was from Cyrene, which is in the nation we now call Libya. And then, when he dies a Roman Centurion  proclaims that Jesus was indeed the son of God.
Gentiles, at the beginning and at the end of this scene, witness to the reality of what is going on here, but his own people make fun of him. The sign above his head said, “The King of the Jews.” It was meant as a joke. There is nothing more painful, in  my opinion, than being laughed at. And not a one of his disciples are there. They all abandoned him. Jesus dies alone, a clown, a joke, a laughing stock.

It is no surprise then, when he cries out, ““My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Even God seems to have turned away. Mark has gone to great lengths to draw out this theme of total abandonment. He is so very alone. And then, he died. He just died. Mark says it with stark understatement. “Jesus, with a loud cry, gave his last breath.” That’s it? After all this, he just died? Empty. Alone. Forsaken. Mark will simply not allow us to turn our eyes away from the awful loneliness of this scene. As Robert Reid summarizes it:
Jesus goes to the cross abandoned by all and understood by none. Pilate still wonders even after he’s dead. The Praetorium guards debase him. Simon the Cyrene is coerced. The soldiers at the cross are indifferent. Those passing by taunt. Temple authorities ridicule. Those crucified with him are contemptuous The darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour is punctuated only at the end by his final cry of anguish in the face of abandonment and misunderstanding. His being “delivered up”  [is into] ‘demonic darkness and God-forsakenness’…God’s nonintervention and apparent abandonment “constitutes the ultimate depth of Jesus’ suffering. With his last question left unanswered Jesus utters the cry of dereliction and dies. ( Robert Stephen Reid, Preaching Mark, St. Louis, Missouri: 1999, p. 163. Reid also quotes from Werner Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q. Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1983,  pp. 90-139.
Oh, there is one detail. “At that moment the Temple curtain ripped right down the middle.” It wasn’t just any curtain that ripped. A curtain separated the throne of God from the rest of the temple, and within that inner room supposedly the Shekinah glowed, an ethereal, supernatural light, the glory of God, a visible sign of God’s presence. No one was allowed to go into that deep, inner room except for the High Priest, and then only once a year. But now the curtain has ripped, and the throne room of God is empty. There is no longer any reason to have a temple.  

But the main thing Mark wants us to see is that Jesus died abandoned, and alone. Well, almost alone…and that almost serves as a kind of a hinge, leading us to Mark’s very strange way of treating the resurrection.

There were women watching from a distance, among them Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and Joses, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, these women followed and served him, and had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Late in the afternoon, since it was the Day of Preparation (that is, Sabbath eve), Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected member of the Jewish Council, came. He was one who lived expectantly, on the lookout for the kingdom of God. Working up his courage, he went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate questioned whether he could be dead that soon and called for the captain to verify that he was really dead. Assured by the captain, he gave Joseph the corpse.
Having already purchased a linen shroud, Joseph took him down, wrapped him in the shroud, placed him in a tomb that had been cut into the rock, and rolled a large stone across the opening. Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Joses, watched the burial.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him. Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?” Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back—it was a huge stone—and walked right in. They saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed all in white. They were completely taken aback, astonished.
He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now—on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”
They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.
And that is where the story ends. Now if you have a bible in your hand you might see another twelve verses there, describing some resurrection appearances. But whatever bible you’re using will have a footnote or something telling you that these last twelve verses do not appear in the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel. Apparently a later copyist added another twelve verses, written in a different style. Mark did not write those last twelve verses! All the manuscript evidence, all the text evidence is clear. Those last twelve verses are a forgery.
Mark deliberately wrote an enigmatic ending. Mark deliberately wrote a cliffhanger. In Mark’s gospel no one ever sees the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. The tomb is empty, but we are forced to decide what it means.
The chiastic structure of this resurrection sequence is in the form of witness, then proclamation, witness, then proclamation. The women witness the crucifixion, then Pontius Pilate officially pronounces that Jesus is dead. The women witness the empty tomb, then the young man dressed in white proclaims that Jesus is resurrected. That’s it. That’s a complete chiastic structure. There is nothing missing.  
But they are afraid to speak. Now we remember that the women watched the crucifixion happen from a distance. In the other gospels the women are at the foot of the cross, but Mark says that they watched “from a distance.” They were there, but barely. The women didn’t quite abandon him like the men did, but in the end, even the women fail him. Facing an empty tomb but not seeing him face-to-face, they are afraid to proclaim the resurrection.

And that’s it. That’s how it ends. If we take it at face value, the women tell no one, so no one ever knows that Jesus is raised. Of course, Mark knows that his readers know about the resurrection. The women must have told someone after all. But still, for some reason Mark felt he had to slap his readers in the face with this stark, disturbing ending. I suspect that Mark was deeply disappointed in the Christians for whom he wrote this story. I suspect that Mark was accusing his own community of being like those disciples – clueless cowards afraid to stand by Jesus, afraid to proclaim his resurrection boldly
The women had been the last, best hope that someone would understand Jesus. That one woman who anointed him with oil understood. The women, stayed at a distance, but at least they were there. But in the end, even the women were afraid to believe. Or maybe the women believed, but feared that no one would believe them.
Is it really possible to believe, if you are afraid to proclaim what you believe?

Somehow I have the feeling that by the time Mark sat down to write this story the church was already losing it’s nerve, and Mark was disgusted with them. And so Mark challenges them to grow a backbone.

Because you see, in the end, as Mark’s gospel tells it, there is no one proclaiming the story. The women are silent, the men are absent, and there is no one left to tell the story…no one but me and you. It’s up to us.

It’s up to us what we make of that empty tomb.

If we believe that Jesus lives then it is up to us to proclaim it. No one else will do it. The disciples have abandoned him. The women stand there stunned, mute, afraid. No one is preaching that Jesus lives.

It’s up to us.


Publish Date: October 22, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The Breathless Gospel of Mark 14-15

Mark 14.53-15.20 (from The Message Bible)
October 21, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Today’s story is about the trial of Jesus. Actually, this is a story of three trials. But it all begins with Peter.

They led Jesus to the Chief Priest, where the high priests, religious leaders, and scholars had gathered together. Peter followed at a safe distance until they got to the Chief Priest’s courtyard, where he mingled with the servants and warmed himself at the fire.

Odd place to start this section. Mark introduces Peter at this point, and then drops him. We’ll find out why in a moment.

The high priests conspiring with the Jewish Council looked high and low for evidence against Jesus by which they could sentence him to death. They found nothing. Plenty of people were willing to bring in false charges, but nothing added up, and they ended up canceling each other out. Then a few of them stood up and lied: “We heard him say, ‘I am going to tear down this Temple, built by hard labor, and in three days build another without lifting a hand.’” But even they couldn’t agree exactly. In the middle of this, the Chief Priest stood up and asked Jesus, “What do you have to say to the accusation?” Jesus was silent. He said nothing. The Chief Priest tried again, this time asking, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?”
Jesus said, “Yes, I am, and you’ll see it yourself: The Son of Man seated
At the right hand of the Mighty One, Arriving on the clouds of heaven.”
The Chief Priest lost his temper. Ripping his clothes, he yelled, “Did you hear that? After that do we need witnesses? You heard the blasphemy. Are you going to stand for it?” They condemned him, one and all. The sentence: death. Some of them started spitting at him. They blindfolded his eyes, then hit him, saying, “Who hit you? Prophesy!” The guards, punching and slapping, took him away.

Of all the charges they leveled at him, Mark singles out this one: “We heard him say, ‘I am going to tear down this Temple, built by hard labor, and in three days build another without lifting a hand.’” Did Jesus say that? In Mark’s version Jesus said that the temple would become a heap of rubble, but he didn’t say that he himself would destroy it. But according to John Jesus said pretty much what he’s accused of saying.  
Either way the real issue is the temple. This is a conflict between Galilee and Jerusalem, between peasant farmers in the north and urban, educated elite of Jerusalem, where the temple was the source of a huge tourist industry, crucial to the economy. Jesus was no threat as long as he was in Galilee, but when he came to Jerusalem and threatened the money-making machine of the temple, he had to die. That’s what this was really all about. And so the first trial condemns Jesus to die. But before the second trial, we return to Peter.

While all this was going on, Peter was down in the courtyard. One of the Chief Priest’s servant girls came in and, seeing Peter warming himself there, looked hard at him and said, “You were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”
He denied it: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He went out on the porch. A rooster crowed.
The girl spotted him and began telling the people standing around, “He’s one of them.” He denied it again. After a little while, the bystanders brought it up again. “You’ve got to be one of them. You’ve got ‘Galilean’ written all over you.”
Now Peter got really nervous and swore, “I never laid eyes on this man you’re talking about.” Just then the rooster crowed a second time. Peter remembered how Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows twice, you’ll deny me three times.” He collapsed in tears.
At the beginning I said that this was a tale of not two but three trials. At this point we realize that Peter is also on trial. Is Peter the loyal, brave disciple that he thinks he is? No. Peter discovers that he is not the man he thought he was. Peter didn’t just deny him, he denied him with a curse. In our vernacular he would have been saying something like, “Goddamit, I don’t know the man.” He denies Jesus, with a curse and so condemns himself. And so Peter is left weeping.
From the other gospels we know that eventually Peter and Jesus are reconciled. It happens after the resurrection, on a beach, over breakfast. If you remember that story, then forget it, because Mark’s gospel does not remember that story. There is, in Mark, no redemption for Peter, no reconciliation for Peter. Peter condemns himself by denying Jesus, and that’s where Peter’s story ends for Mark, with Peter laying on the cold ground, weeping uncontrollably.
Now on to the third trial.

At dawn’s first light, the high priests, with the religious leaders and scholars, arranged a conference with the entire Jewish Council. After tying Jesus securely, they took him out and presented him to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”
He answered, “If you say so.” The high priests let loose a barrage of accusations.
Pilate asked again, “Aren’t you going to answer anything? That’s quite a list of accusations.” Still, he said nothing. Pilate was impressed, really impressed.
It was a custom at the Feast to release a prisoner, anyone the people asked for. There was one prisoner called Barabbas, locked up with the insurrectionists who had committed murder during the uprising against Rome. As the crowd came up and began to present its petition for him to release a prisoner, Pilate anticipated them: “Do you want me to release the King of the Jews to you?” Pilate knew by this time that it was through sheer spite that the high priests had turned Jesus over to him. But the high priests by then had worked up the crowd to ask for the release of Barabbas. Pilate came back, “So what do I do with this man you call King of the Jews?”
They yelled, “Nail him to a cross!”
Pilate objected, “But for what crime?”
But they yelled all the louder, “Nail him to a cross!”
Pilate gave the crowd what it wanted, set Barabbas free and turned Jesus over for whipping and crucifixion.
Pilate is the Roman governor of Israel. He’s the real power. He’s the only one who can pronounce a death sentence. But Pilate doesn’t really care if some yokel from Galilee thinks he’s king of the Jews. Pilate doesn’t care if the priests and bible scholars who control the temple lose their influence over the people. Doesn’t matter to Pilate if their money-tree dries up. The only thing Pilate cares about is whether Jesus is a threat to the power of Rome, and frankly Jesus doesn’t look like a threat to anybody.
But Pilate was mistaken. Just as the British misunderstood Ghandi in India, Pilate mistook Jesus’ gentleness for weakness. Jesus had already mounted a massive revolt against the tyranny of the Roman empire. It’s just that his revolution was nonviolent. His weapon was love, and that’s a weapon Pilate could not perceive. His revolution took the form of not taking the Romans seriously. His revolution took the form of treating the mighty military might of Rome as a joke. To Jesus Rome was irrelevant. All the violence of the Roman army was powerless against the force of pure love. Worse than rebelling against the Roman empire, Jesus ignored the Roman empire.
But even though Pilate did not think Jesus was a threat to his power, he bowed to expediency. Politicians always bow to expediency. Pilate gave in to the pressure and condemned Jesus to die.

The soldiers took Jesus into the palace (called Praetorium) and called together the entire brigade. They dressed him up in purple and put a crown plaited from a thornbush on his head. Then they began their mockery: “Bravo, King of the Jews!” They banged on his head with a club, spit on him, and knelt down in mock worship. After they had had their fun, they took off the purple cape and put his own clothes back on him. Then they marched out to nail him to the cross.

So we have a tale of three trials. Jesus is tried and convicted by the Jewish Council, Peter is tried and convicted by his own betrayal, and then Jesus is tried and convicted before the Roman Pontius Pilate. Three trials. But by now we know that in Mark’s gospel things often not what they seem. In fact, in the world of Jesus things are often the exact opposite of what it looks to be.
There is a clue in that last paragraph. They crowned Jesus king – with a crown of thorns. Put a purple robe, the color of a king, on him. Even bowed to him – in mockery, but they bowed and hailed him as king. They thought they were mocking him, but we know that this is a real coronation. For Jesus this whole thing was not a trial, but a coronation. Jesus is crowned king.

So who is really on trial here? By pretending to be something he was not Peter put himself on trial and was found guilty. By arresting Jesus in the middle of the night the Jewish Council put themselves on trial and were found guilty. And when Pilate bows to pressure, he, too is tried and convicted. They thought they were judging Jesus. But in fact, they were the ones on trial.
But not just the Jewish Council, and not just the Romans. What is really on trial in here are the pillars of human society, the twin forces of organized religion and political power. Religion and politics are systems of power and greed, led by those who will do anything to hold onto power, and when their power is threatened, they will link arms to protect their power. But before Jesus their power is revealed as impotent.

Gypsies in England have  a tradition of bare-knuckle fighting. Normally these are very private, very secret fights, but a filmmaker got permission to film one fight for a documentary movie. The fighters were two old men. Grandfathers. Fat, gray, bald. I’m ashamed to admit it, it was such an awful, embarrassing thing, but I couldn’t stop watching this film. These two old guys starting wailing on each other. A bloody nose, a split lip, black eye, but within three minutes all that testosterone-driven pride was replaced by asthmatic wheezing. Within three minutes neither one of them had enough strength left to swat a fly. And so there they were, two gray old fat grandfathers, arms wrapped around one another, weakly pretending to fight. But what they were really doing was leaning on each other to keep from falling down.
That is the relationship between government and religion. Two sad, pitiful, shameful old men leaning on each other. In Jesus Christ the twin pillars of the society of this world, both religion and politics, are found guilty of failing the human race. They’re just out of gas.
But who does Peter represent? The twin pillars of society have failed, but is there a third pillar? Peter represents the reformers, the revolutionaries, the agitators who think that they have what it takes to fix everything. These days, could be the Occupy Movement. Or if you lean to the right it’d be the Tea Party. And there are still a few people, mostly here in Santa Cruz, who still believe in the Marxist Revolution. Or maybe we should be talking about some of these new Christian movements, missional, emergent, neomonastics. Crusaders in one form or another, charging into the fray from the outside, arrogantly convinced that they are going to save the world, or at least save the church.
But when the cock crows these zealots and fanatics always seem to crumble. Usually they crumble under the long years of struggle. Or in some cased they succeed. They throw out their enemies and take charge…and become exactly like the politicians and religious authorities they sought to overthrow. Either way, the third pillar, the pillar of the zealous crusaders and reformers, the third pillar also falls.

So when everyone has been tried and convicted, is there anyone left standing?
There is this one man. A mystery man. No one understands him. No one stands by him. He is all alone. Hanging there, above us all, a bloody crown on his head.
Forgiveness on his swollen and bloody lips.



Publish Date: October 15, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

The Breathless Gospel of Mark 14

Mark 14.1-52 (from The Message Bible)
October 14, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Mark’s gospel is accelerating towards it’s dramatic climax. In brief, here’s what happens: Jesus and the disciples share one last meal together and then he’s arrested. That’s the basic facts, but every writer tells the story their own way, and Mark’s story is profoundly a story of betrayal. By the time it’s over every person around him betrays him, but one.
In only two days the eight-day Festival of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread would begin. The high priests and religion scholars were looking for a way they could seize Jesus by stealth and kill him. They agreed that it should not be done during Passover Week. “We don’t want the crowds up in arms,” they said.
Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. “That’s criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year’s wages and handed out to the poor.” They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly.”
The perfume was the kind used for, among other things, burying a body. She prepares him for burial. It was so expensive that it amounted to a year’s wages. In today’s economy that’s $20,000! Do you know what our church could do with $20,000 in our Helping Hands fund? We could help so many people. And she just wastes it. Pours it on his head, and poof, $20,000 gone. Their criticism makes sense. I get it. Her extravagant gesture seems irresponsible.
Only she and Jesus understand that we live in a world of abundant grace. Most people think that we live in a world of scarcity. But God’s grace is abundant, God’s grace is infinite. The needs of the day will always be there, but the perfume of God’s grace pours down on our heads in extravagant abundance, and so there is no need to worry, no need to ever be stingy with our love.
This is a remarkable woman. She is the only one, the only one of them all, who understood Jesus. As this story progresses, keep this woman in mind, because everyone else betrays him. Every single one of the men. She’s the only one who gets it. And we don’t even know her name.
Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the cabal of high priests, determined to betray him. They couldn’t believe their ears, and promised to pay him well. He started looking for just the right moment to hand him over.
Judas was the treasurer, the one who had to come up with the money to feed everyone, to pay the bills, and to help the poor. Perhaps he was the one who complained about that woman’s wasteful extravagance with the perfume. Judas and this unnamed woman are set up as counterpoints in this story. She understands Jesus. Judas doesn’t. She is willing to face the grave with him, Judas is willing to betray him. Maybe this woman’s extravagance was the last straw for Judas. It was wasteful, inefficient, poorly thought out, impulsive, illogical. Jesus, it had become clear to Judas, was nothing more than an unrealistic idealist with too big a heart and not enough logic and discipline to be the Messiah they had been waiting for.
Somebody has to be practical. Preachers, elders, others may have big hearts and big dreams and big ideas, but the bills have to be paid, the plumbing has to be fixed. So it falls on a few of us, the practical ones, the realistic ones, to sort of save the church from itself. It’s nice for idealists and dreamers with big hearts to say that Jesus meant exactly what he said and we should “just do it.” But let’s be honest, really following Jesus is just not practical. Somebody has to save idealists and dreamers like Jesus from themselves. And so these folks, intending to save Jesus from himself, resist Jesus, resist the gospel. Resist the temptation to step out in faith and act as if we believe, we really believe in Jesus is doing among us. Cause someone has to have some common sense around here. And in the end, when he realizes why we did what we did, Jesus will be proud of us, he will thank us when we hand him those thirty pieces of silver.
On the first of the Days of Unleavened Bread, the day they prepare the Passover sacrifice, his disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations so you can eat the Passover meal?”
He directed two of his disciples, “Go into the city. A man carrying a water jug will meet you. Follow him. Ask the owner of whichever house he enters, ‘The Teacher wants to know, Where is my guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will show you a spacious second-story room, swept and ready. Prepare for us there.”
The disciples left, came to the city, found everything just as he had told them, and prepared the Passover meal. After sunset he came with the Twelve. As they were at the supper table eating, Jesus said, “I have something hard but important to say to you: One of you is going to hand me over to the conspirators, one who at this moment is eating with me.”
Stunned, they started asking, one after another, “It isn’t me, is it?”
He said, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who eats with me out of the same bowl. In one sense, it turns out that the Son of Man is entering into a way of treachery well-marked by the Scriptures—no surprises here. In another sense, the man who turns him in, turns traitor to the Son of Man—better never to have been born than do this!”
Betrayal. I said to you earlier that in the way that Mark tells this story, it is profoundly a story of betrayal. Seven times the word “betrayal” comes up in this story.
In the course of their meal, having taken and blessed the bread, he broke it and gave it to them. Then he said, “Take, this is my body.” Taking the chalice, he gave it to them, thanking God, and they all drank from it. He said, “This is my blood, God’s new covenant, Poured out for many people. I’ll not be drinking wine again until the new day when I drink it in the kingdom of God.”
They sang a hymn and then went directly to Mount Olives. Jesus told them, “You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault. There’s a Scripture that says, ‘I will strike the shepherd; The sheep will go helter-skelter.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you, leading the way to Galilee.”
Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”
Jesus said, “Don’t be so sure. Today, this very night in fact, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
He blustered in protest, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.” All the others said the same thing.
“This is my body…this is my blood.” By the time Mark was written those words had already become a formula, a ritual. Probably that story was quoted, those words recited every time the community gathered for worship, just as we do now. But we easily forget how close the theme of betrayal is to the breaking of the bread. His body is broken by betrayal. His blood is poured out alone, all his friends having betrayed him and fled. Even Peter denies him. Everyone turns their back on him.. Everyone but that unnamed woman.
They came to an area called Gethsemane. Jesus told his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him. He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony. He told them, “I feel bad enough right now to die. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”
Going a little ahead, he fell to the ground and prayed for a way out: “Papa, Father, you can—can’t you?—get me out of this. Take this cup away from me. But please, not what I want—what do you want?”
He came back and found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, you went to sleep on me? Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert, be in prayer, so you don’t enter the danger zone without even knowing it. Don’t be naive. Part of you is eager, ready for anything in God; but another part is as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”
Sleeping, at a time like this? It’s another kind of betrayal. They’re unconscious. Unaware of what’s really going on here in front of them.. Mark is suggesting that they’ve been unconscious all along. While that woman prepared his body for burial, his closest friends were asleep to the meaning of what was happening. And they are still asleep.
Mark is implying that you and I might also be asleep. We call ourselves Disciples. We think that we understand Jesus. But do we? Could we be as asleep to reality as those twelve who where, after all, his hand-picked inner circle? Could it be that we are in the midst of betraying him even as we think that we are following him?
He then went back and prayed the same prayer. Returning, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t have a plausible excuse. He came back a third time and said, “Are you going to sleep all night? No—you’ve slept long enough. Time’s up. The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let’s get going. My betrayer has arrived.”
They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open. Just couldn’t do it. The world has a way of sedating us. The world is a narcotic, it sometimes gives us opium dreams that we are in church, following Jesus, obeying Jesus, when in fact we are snoring, just when he needs us the most. This is why Mark is the most disturbing, the most radical, the most uncompromising gospel. The disciples, the very symbols Christian leadership, the cornerstones of the church, just can’t keep their eyes open. They just cannot understand who Jesus really is. They are clueless. And as we look into the sleeping faces of these disciples, we begin to realize that Mark is holding up a mirror.
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when Judas, the one out of the Twelve, showed up, and with him a gang of ruffians, sent by the high priests, religion scholars, and leaders, brandishing swords and clubs. The betrayer had worked out a signal with them: “The one I kiss, that’s the one—seize him. Make sure he doesn’t get away.” He went straight to Jesus and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.
The others then grabbed him and roughed him up. One of the men standing there unsheathed his sword, swung, and came down on the Chief Priest’s servant, lopping off the man’s ear.
Jesus said to them, “What is this, coming after me with swords and clubs as if I were a dangerous criminal? Day after day I’ve been sitting in the Temple teaching, and you never so much as lifted a hand against me. What you in fact have done is confirm the prophetic writings.” All the disciples cut and ran.
Betrayal, and with a kiss. But it’s not just Judas who betrays him. It’s not just Peter. All the disciples cut and ran. They all betrayed him. Tomorrow, as he hangs on the cross, there will be a few women weeping at the foot of the cross, but not a single one of the apostles. Maybe that woman with the perfume is there, we don’t know, we don’t know her name. Maybe. But none of the men.  Not a one.
There is, throughout the story of Jesus, this quiet, but persistent little theme about empowering women. Women are supposed to be silent, women are not allowed to learn study in the rabbinic schools, women have no rights at all and are not allowed to think for themselves. Yet in the end, at the very end, all the men betray him, and it is the women who remain by his side. There is no doubt about it. Mark is telling us something. Mark is telling us something very important.
And now we have one more story, one more little snippet of a tale. It’s an odd thing.
A young man was following along. All he had on was a bedsheet. Some of the men grabbed him but he got away, running off naked, leaving them holding the sheet.
Now that’s an odd story. There are all sorts of speculations about who the young man was, why he was wearing a bedsheet, what it means that he ran away naked. There are a few theories, but the truth is that no one knows what to make of this story. It’s just odd. And it only appears in Mark’s gospel.
Eugene Peterson said that all he was wearing was a bedsheet. That’s a modern translation. It was a linen cloth, and the only other times this word  “linen cloth” is used, it is about the cloth they wrapped around Jesus to bury him. And so this story has some sort of obvious symbolism. It’s probably got something to do with his burial and resurrection. It’s as if this young man prefigures the resurrection, when the burial cloth will be left behind.
Mark obviously included this story for a reason, and it must have been important to Mark that we understand what it is saying to us. But we don’t. Too many years, I suppose. These days all we can do is guess. We don’t know who that woman with the perfume was, and we don’t know anything about this young man.
But this much we do know. After years if trying to show them that God’s world is right here, right now, even those closest to him just don’t get it. They betray him. They abandon him. And off he goes to jail, and to the cross…alone.
This is my body. Broken. For you.



Publish Date: October 7, 2012  ::  Author: Pastor Steve DeFields-Gambrel

Mark 13 - What? When?

Mark 13.1-37 (from The Message Bible)
October 7, 2012
The Circle Church - Santa Cruz, CA
Rev. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

As he walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!”
Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”
Later, as he was sitting on Mount Olives in full view of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew got him off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?”
Jesus began, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One.’ They will deceive a lot of people.
If the Mayan prophecy is right the world will end on December 21, which is good news for me. Saves me a lot of money buying Christmas presents. Of course what some people call the end of the world others call the beginning of a new world. When one world ends, another begins, I suppose. But some people become obsessed with end-times prophecies. They worry over every earthquake, every war, every hurricane, every flood, comparing it all to biblical passages like today’s teachings from Jesus.
It may be a surprise to realize that today’s section of Mark’s gospel is the only time Jesus talks about this end of time stuff. And even then, it may not be what you think it is. The disciples ask him a specific question about when a specific event will happen, he spends some time answering them, then he drops it. Never mentions it again.
Ever find yourself talking and talking, and then you have to stop and say, “Wait. What was the question?” This is a fascinating topic, it’s easy to get so caught up in it that you forget what the question was. The disciples had asked him, “When is it going to happen?” That’s what started this teaching. But our first question should be, what is the IT that’s about to happen? We assume that Jesus is talking about he end of time.
Not exactly, at least not in the beginning. This conversation is about  the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, this entire last week of Jesus’ life is about the temple. When he entered Jerusalem the first thing he did was visit the temple. The next day he threw the moneychangers out of the temple. A day later he argued with the leaders of the temple. Today, talking about the temple, Jesus says, “There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” The disciples are not asking when Jesus will come again. At this point in the story they don’t even realize that he’s going anywhere. Jesus said that the temple would be destroyed and the disciples say, “Oh really? When?” When will the temple be destroyed. That’s the question. That’s the coming event Jesus is talking about.
The temple was the center of the organized, orthodox, institutionalized religion of their world. It was a big deal to them, then. But we know that the temple was, indeed destroyed. It happened just forty years after Jesus said these words. So how are we supposed to apply this teaching to our lives?
If the temple was the center of the organized institution of religion in their day, maybe for us it’s about the organized institution of modern Christianity. Maybe God is going to turn into rubble all of what we think of as “church” and replace it with a radically new form of community. Maybe the message for us is that all organized, institutionalized religious bureaucracies are doomed to be destroyed. This is not so much about the end of the world as it is about the end of religion. But…organized religious institutions are a major cornerstone of human society, so if religions end, then what will happen to civilization?
When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.
Now I don’t mean to be sarcastic or mean spirited about this, but to all those who read every major world event as a signs of the end I just have to ask, what part of what Jesus just said don’t you understand? “This is routine history” Jesus says, “and no sign of the end.” Jesus says, “that stuff happens all the time. It’s not a sign of anything.”
And watch out! They’re going to drag you into court. And then it will go from bad to worse, dog-eat-dog, everyone at your throat because you carry my name. You’re placed there as sentinels to truth. The Message has to be preached all across the world. When they bring you, betrayed, into court, don’t worry about what you’ll say. When the time comes, say what’s on your heart—the Holy Spirit will make his witness in and through you. It’s going to be brother killing brother, father killing child, children killing parents. There’s no telling who will hate you because of me. Stay with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.
Again, this is routine life for anyone who follows Jesus. . If we are really following Jesus then we won’t fit into modern society. If we are really following Jesus we won’t fit in to modern Christianity, either, because Christianity has pretty much sold out to the world as it is. So if we are following Jesus persecution is bound to happen. Even family and friends won’t understand or support you. They will arrest you, they’ll get lawyers and sue you, they’ll say that you are ruining the neighborhood  But it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a sign of anything. That’s just the price of following Jesus. Jesus is overthrowing all of the structures and institutions of the world as it is. Of course the world is going to fight back, but these things are not the signs that we’re looking for. But now Jesus will tell us what to look for as a sign that the end of society as we know it is at the door.
"But be ready to run for it when you see the monster of desecration set up where it should never be. You who can read, make sure you understand what I’m talking about. If you’re living in Judea at the time, run for the hills; if you’re working in the yard, don’t go back to the house to get anything; if you’re out in the field, don’t go back to get your coat. Pregnant and nursing mothers will have it especially hard. Hope and pray this won’t happen in the middle of winter.
"These are going to be hard days—nothing like it from the time God made the world right up to the present. And there’ll be nothing like it again. If he let the days of trouble run their course, nobody would make it. But because of God’s chosen people, those he personally chose, he has already intervened.
“…run for it when you see the monster of desecration set up where it should never be.” In 70 AD, about forty years after Jesus said these things, the Roman Army marched into Jerusalem, seized the temple. The Romans entered into the most holy room in the temple. The standard flag of Rome, with the image of Caesar, who was believed to be a god, was set up in the throne room of the true God. That’s when this prophecy was fulfilled. When the Romans take control of the temple, run for the hills.
When the Romans took control of the temple, they left nothing but rubble. And they slaughtered the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed these events, wrote that “The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination." But by then most of the followers of Jesus had fled the city of Jerusalem, because they had been warned about when to head for the hills. That’s what this prophecy was about, and it’s already been fulfilled.
So what does that have to do with us? What might it look like to see the monster of desecration set up where it should never be in our world, in our time? I don’t know. And I’m not going to pretend to know. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who presumes to know for sure how to interpret these kinds of sayings. These sayings are obscure for a reason. So I will not tell you that there is a particular, precise definition for our times.
However, it might be helpful to keep in mind that the Roman army was the exact opposite in every way of the kingdom of God. The Roman Army was the world as it is, cruel, competitive, violent, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer. In a very general sense, whenever I see symbols of the world as it is being set up as idols or examples or role-models in the church, that’s a fulfillment of this prophecy. Desecration, in a place where it should not be.
When I see churches teaching a theology of greed and capitalism in Jesus’ name – send for my book and I’ll show you how to pray so that God will make you rich. That’s desecration where it should not be. When I see anger and violence and worship of military power taking front and center in a Christian church service, when I see politicians being promoted in Jesus’ name for implementing policies of cruel indifference to the suffering of the elderly, the weak, the sick, the lame. When I see the flag of any earthly nation up on the podium in a church, when I see people mixing up patriotism with religious devotion, beating the drums of war as if God said to go out and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in some country nobody knows how to pronounce…when I see those things, I can’t help but think that the very symbols of the world Jesus came to overturn have been set up as idols to be worshiped in the house of God.
The signs which Jesus wants us to notice have nothing to do with big, world events – wars, earthquakes, persecution. Jesus wants us to pay careful attention to the systems of thought which permeate the church. When you see the way of life of the kingdom of God being replaced by the thinking of the world…run for the hills.   
“If anyone tries to flag you down, calling out, ‘Here’s the Messiah!’ or points, ‘There he is!’ don’t fall for it. Fake Messiahs and lying preachers are going to pop up everywhere. Their impressive credentials and dazzling performances will pull the wool over the eyes of even those who ought to know better. So watch out. I’ve given you fair warning.
There were a lot of false Messiah’s in those forty years between the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of the temple. There are always a lot of false Messiah’s. Thirty-eight years I’ve been a Christian, I’ve learned when to run for the hills. Whenever I hear about a supposedly great man of God, I start putting on my jogging suit. Whenever this supposedly great man of God has a big TV show, I start lacing up my shoes. And wherever there is teaching and preaching which on the surface seems so godly, so right, so biblical, but when I listen a little more carefully the message creates and “us and them” world, I start running for the hills.
False Messiah’s are usually characterized by this one characteristic: they make you feel good by making you feel like you are an insider. And how do you know that you are an insider? Because you’re not like “those people.” False messiahs are great at making those other people sound bad! They create a mental picture of a world where “we” the good guys, the true believers, are under attack by “those ungodly people” (whoever they are). They invite us to prove our love for God by how much we hate our enemies.
“Following those hard times, Sun will fade out, moon cloud over, Stars fall out of the sky, cosmic powers tremble. And then they’ll see the Son of Man enter in grand style, his Arrival filling the sky—no one will miss it! He’ll dispatch the angels; they will pull in the chosen from the four winds, from pole to pole.

Now we come to that end of the world stuff. Notice how we did finally get there. It’s not at all clear when we left behind the question of when the temple will be destroyed. That may be because they are not two different events. Not really. The destruction of the temple is the destruction of the world as it is. The process that begins with destroying the physical temple of the Jewish religion is still marching relentlessly toward the goal of destroying all religions, all governments, all of the structures and organizations and institutions of what we call civilization, and replacing it with what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is creating what John Lennon only imagined
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
The point of all of this strange conversation is that God is really doing something. God is doing something remarkable. God is growing a new world, right out of the fertilizer of this world. And that new world, it will come. It will come.
“Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer’s just around the corner. And so it is with you. When you see all these things, you know he is at the door.
 Don’t take this lightly. I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.     
“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”
You see, we have a decision to make. Do we really believe this stuff? Do we believe that the kingdom of God is real? Do we really believe that it’s going to take over?
There will be fires and floods, earthquakes and hurricanes and wars. There will be more and more natural disasters, and on a greater and greater scale. That’s not the end of times prophecy, that’s global warming. There will be false messiahs, who will teach greed and selfishness and indifference to suffering, standing right in front of the cross. They will desecrate the name of Jesus by teaching us to mistrust, even to hate one another in his name. And if we resist them, they will persecute us. None of that matters. The only thing that matters is to stay awake to the principles of the kingdom.
The world as it is, it’s powerful. Insidious. It has a habit of sneaking in and taking over. That’s what Jesus says to watch out for. The insidious way that the world as it is sneaks into our community and turns the kingdom of God back into the world we were trying to get away from. When that happens, run for the hills.

I think it’s been happening around here. It’s been an insidious, creeping disease, but I think the world as it is has lulled us to sleep. Instead of being the kingdom of God, we’ve become the world again. We’re thinking like the world. We’re making decisions like the world. We’re dividing ourselves into separate groups like the world. We started out as the kingdom of God, but while we were sleeping the monster of desecration, the religion of the world has become our religion, and we’ve forgotten what are the cornerstones of the kingdom of God, the cornerstones which make us powerful.
Cornerstones like compassion and grace. Cornerstones like tolerance and forgiveness. Cornerstones like trust and cooperation, Cornerstones like having a humble, servant’s heart, the heart of ones who wash one another’s feet.  Cornerstones that teach us to trust one another, believe one another, believe in the basic goodness of our brothers and sisters. Cornerstones like the distinctly Christian principle that there are no enemies, only neighbors.
No one knows the day or the hour. Stay awake. Stay awake to the heart of Christ. For the new world will come.



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