A Shift in the Season: One Congregation’s Story

Essay by Rev. Gretta Vosper on 7 December 2017 4 Comments

So here we are, well into Advent, and well into the annual grating of teeth that takes place whenever we are exposed to saccharine Christmas music purring or prancing from over-decorated storefronts and selling everything from the tiniest stocking stuffer to cars. And here we are, back to those lectionary passages that bond themselves to church doctrine that gives many a church leader hives. Or indigestion. The stress of the “high holy days” seeps in. Cue the reverential organ while we light the candles on the Advent wreath - Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Blocking the commercial clatter from our Sunday morning services, we reverently steer our congregations toward the well-worn path that leads past the overbooked inn to a lowly stable and the nativity of our Lord.

Please login with your account to read this essay.


Sir, with all due respect, you shared well concerning how Jesus did not die because of sins. Please share your views on the reason or why Jesus died.


Dear Charles,

I do not know the actual reason that Jesus was killed. The Bible gives us some hints when you remove some of the theology that was added over the next two hundred years in its development. It is difficult for people living in modern society to imagine the conditions the Jewish people were living under Roman rule. Most of the Jews had suffered terrible treatment by the Roman soldiers and the Romans in general. And if you lived in Galilee, a distance in those days, it could be even more difficult.  The Galileans lived in a hilly area, full of big boulders and caves. The men were known to be excellent “street fighters” who would create a fracas near the city and get the soldiers to follow then into the hills and then attempt to slaughter as many of them as they could, hiding behind the boulders and in the caves. But they paid a price for these activities. Galileans were particularly hated or feared by the Roman soldiers, and as a result were treated accordingly.  

Also it is important to understand that when Jesus went into Jerusalem, it was during the Passover Holy day. This is was and is a very important celebration of the Jews escaping Egyptians slavery. Every year, for decades, this was one of the most turbulent times in the region. Most of the Jews were trying to eke out a living farming what land they still had and paying taxes to the Romans. Many of them had to give up owning their land and essentially becoming tenant farmers to the Empire because, in part at least, they could not pay their taxes. And here they were supposedly celebrating being freed, no longer slaves to the Egyptians but they knew they were slaves again. During these holidays, Rome would send an additional 10,000 soldiers to surround the city and they were instructed to kill anyone who did not seem like they were following orders.  Do not kid yourself. There were no courts, no judges, and no leniency for the Jews, if they tangled with a Roman soldier.  

And finally, it is clear that the act of crucifixion was used as an intimidating tool by the Romans, as it was by the Syrians rulers before them. There were five entrances into the city that could be quickly closed off. However, the Romans would pick a spot near any of the gates for the crucifixion. They would normally let the bodies hang there for days, waiting for the men or women to die and then for the birds to eat the flesh. It is estimated that in most cases, it took days for the “criminals” to die. Death by crucifixion was, by Roman law, supposed to be reserved for those who had done a serious crime but one of the most serious crimes was insurrection, defying Roman rule. These crucifixions were done in such a way that anyone going into Jerusalem would have to pass one of those crosses. There were literally thousands of men, women and even children killed in this manner. Sadly, crucifixion was not unusual and it had been that way for hundreds of years.  

Jesus chose to walk into the city on this high intensity day. Did the Romans assume his being there was reason enough? Did the Romans kill him because he supposedly claimed to be the King of the Jews? Did they arrest and kill him because he would not bend his knee to the Roman rule? Was it the fracas in the Temple with coin changers? Was he part of a plot or suspected of being part of a plot to defy the Emperor? Was he just caught up in a raid of trouble makers from Galilee?  

I cannot tell you but I assure you if there is any truth in our Gospels, Jesus gave them plenty of reasons to be put to death. But I prefer to believe that he was not an intentional martyr but one who believed his own words, “Do not be afraid.” He risked his life on behalf of others and lost his own life. He spoke truth and loved people he tried to save. We should all live that way.

I hope this helps you understand better. If you would like more details I would recommend Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs, by Richard A. Horsley with John Hanson. Trinity Press, International. 1999

~ Fred C. Plumer


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Making Much of What Cannot Matter Much to God

SpongI ask my readers’ indulgence this week as I roam over some of the terrain of my own ministry. My reminiscence revolves around a simple phrase: “when we would make much of that which cannot matter much to God.” These words have echoed in my mind for at least 50 years. I associated them primarily with one of my genuine heroes, a man named John Eldridge Hines, who served as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1964 to 1973. In my opinion John Hines was the greatest Christian leader my church produced during the entire 20th century. He used these words to open almost all of his sermons. I had heard it from him so many times that I simply assumed that he had coined the phrase. A thousand times during my career as a bishop as I watched the Christian Church in operation, ‘making much of that which cannot matter much to God,” has been the phrase that immediately pops into my mind.

Recently I gave a series of lectures at Christ Church in Dayton, Ohio, and met there the Rev. Gordon Price, the rector emeritus of this very impressive congregation. Gordon Price is 88 years old. He has been retired for 22 years but he is still vital, alive and his mind is as clear as a bell. He is one of those quintessential Episcopalians whose memory spans not just his own life, but through him the past seems to flow into the present. He knew personally those heroes of church life on whose shoulders the 20th century stood. This familiar phrase happened to come up at dinner and in that conversation, I attributed the words to John Hines. “I don’t think that is correct,” Gordon said immediately. “I believe Will Scarlett is the one who wrote those words.” Now non-Episcopalians might think themselves back in the world of Robin Hood, but Will Scarlett was also the name of the Episcopal bishop of Missouri in the early part of the 20th century. He was a mighty force in America as a confidant of Franklin D. Roosevelt, from the time of his bout with polio in the 1920’s until he presided over the president’s funeral in 1944. He was also a powerful exponent of what came to be called ‘the social gospel,’ and as such developed a close friendship with the influential liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who shaped mainline theology in America, as did no other figure during the decades of the depression and World War II. Will Scarlett had even offered the position of Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis to the non-Episcopalian, Protestant Niebuhr, a dramatically controversial if exciting step at that time. Niebuhr declined but later, with his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, German born theologian Paul Tillich and Old Testament scholar James Muilenberg all working under the deanship of Henry Pitt Van Dusen, he helped to turn Union Seminary in New York into the Mecca of theological institutions in the western world. Attributing this oft-quoted line to Bishop Scarlett made sense to me for he was John Hines’ mentor, role model and close friend. John indeed served under Bishop Scarlett’s direction early in his career when he was rector of Trinity Church in Hannibal, Missouri, the town Mark Twain made famous by using it as the setting for his popular novels about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. If John Hines had gotten this prayer from Will Scarlett, it was an authentic line.

However, Gordon Price was too careful a historian of oral church lore to lean only on memory and supposition so when he went home that evening he researched this line. The source turned out to be neither Hines nor Scarlett but Willard L. Sperry, the dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who was a contemporary and friend of Will Scarlett.

When he presented me the next day with a complete text of the Sperry prayer, fully documented, I was delighted. It was like finding an old friend to discover the true source of a quotation that had meant so much to me for so long. I share with my readers the context in which this single, provocative line was born:

“Give to us, O Lord, A right discernment between that which comes first in our faith and that which follows after. And when we would make much of that which cannot matter much to thee, recall us to the heart of our Christian profession, Jesus our Lord. Amen.

I began to think anew about what those words might mean if contemporary Church life could be viewed through their lens. Sometimes the message of the Church is so inanely petty. I think of the recent dispute between a particular Catholic family whose child has an allergic reaction to wheat. This family asked their priest if their daughter might receive a communion wafer made with rice flour instead of wheat so that she could continue to receive the Sacrament. Instead of simply granting this request in a pastorally sensitive way, the pastor sent the decision up the hierarchical chain of command to the Vatican itself. From on high the ruling came down that “wheat was required for the Sacrament to be valid.” It seems that Jesus used bread made of wheat. Rice flour, presumably, cannot be the bearer of the ‘body of Christ!’ The Vatican was making much of that which cannot matter much to God.

How much, do you suppose, does God get excited by proper liturgy and how God’s people worship? Yet in the history of Christianity no battles have been more emotional and drained more energy than liturgical battles. Look at the way worshipers have responded when prayer books or worship manuals have been altered or revised. Some people were quite sure that God could not be worshiped apart from the Latin language when the reformation embraced the vernacular in the 16th century and when the Roman Catholics finally gave up the Latin Mass in the 20th century. Tiny groups of Episcopalians still gather in protest worship services around the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Many Anglicans in England stand ready to defend to their deaths the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer. Inside both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism people abandoned their congregations and even their faith, in some cases, in protest over these changes. The Latin Mass is still quietly celebrated in known places in America, England, France and Italy with faithful, if aging, constituencies gathered. They claim that God must always be addressed “in the original language” of our faith. That is like the elderly lady, who is supposed to have said to the young pastor when he read the lessons in church from a modern version of the Bible, “Son, if King James’ English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for you.” Is this not making much of that which cannot matter much to God?

Look next at the battles that Christians have fought over denominational loyalties and those strange claims made by various groups to be “the only true church.” What divides Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in the immigrant population of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand today is not some great theological principle or truth but rather which country in Europe shaped our various ancestors. Episcopalians or Anglicans came originally out of an English heritage. Lutherans tend to be descended from those who migrated from Germany or Northern Europe and Scandinavia, Presbyterians generally are descendents of people from Scotland and Roman Catholics normally reflect the heritage of Ireland, Italy and Southern Europe. Jesus did not know there was an England, a Scandinavia, a Scotland, an Ireland or an Italy. But disciples of Jesus have far too often acted as if these tribal distinctions are the essence of the gospel. As Dean Sperry suggested, we have “made much of that which cannot matter much to God.” On and on we could go. Dean Sperry’s words call us to judge institutional Christian life by a very different standard from the one churches so often use. Why do we not ask, “Does this contentious issue have any ultimate significance? Does this debate serve the cause of Christ?” Do most of the things that churn our life in the Church today, from the ecumenical movement to the uninformed hostility toward gay and lesbian people not fall into the category of minor importance?

Why can we not admit that no person and no church has the competence to define God? No one can tell another person who God is or what God is. That is simply not within the human capacity. All any of us can ever do is to tell another how we believe we have experienced the holy, the divine. Even then we need to face the fact that we might be delusional, for too many people seem to think they experience a God of division and violence.

This also means that no church can claim that its leader is infallible or that its Bible is inerrant. No religious tradition can claim that it has cornered the market on salvation so that its adherents can say, “No one comes to the Father” but through our religious system. No one can brand those whose opinions are contrary to the traditional content of one’s faith as heretical, since nobody possesses the true faith. There is no such thing as that which the Epistle of Jude sought to establish, namely, “a faith once delivered to the saints.” Every religious war is an aberration within the human consciousness. Every heretic burned at the stake was nothing other than an act of murder. Every fundamentalism is based on idolatrous claims as its adherents identify their tiny understanding of truth with the truth of God. Every religious fanatic and every religious terrorist is finally someone who covers evil with piety.

The marching orders for Christian disciples seem to be recorded in the words of Jesus when he was said to have defined his purpose. Jesus did not come to make us religious, moral or orthodox, he came to give us abundant life. That is the entire purpose of religion everywhere unless we are those who insist on “making much of that which cannot matter much to God.”

Thanks, Gordon Price, for helping me identify Willard L. Sperry as the source of the words that I have quoted for years and that I believe must be the standard by which Christianity will live in the future.

— John Shelby Spong
Originally published October 20, 2004




4 thoughts on “A Shift in the Season: One Congregation’s Story

Leave a Reply