Archive for May 2018

God’s Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?

God's Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/20/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church in Berkeley, California. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Pentecost Sunday. It’s a big day. The birthday of the church. The day when we remember how the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came and moved across the face of the waters once again, transforming confusion and mourning into rejoicing, power, and boldness. This is a day that reminds us that the resurrection is real. The kingdom of God has come near, and Christ is come to teach his people himself.

We need this life that comes from God. We need the Spirit to breathe in us, transforming our dry bones and making us a people of praise, of love, of justice. The Christian life is impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who lives in us and reminds us of everything that Jesus has taught us. This is the Spirit that, as Jesus promised, leads us into all truth.

The triumph and salvation of Pentecost is foreshadowed the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel, that God would soon redeem his people Israel out of the land of Babylon and return them to Jerusalem. God promised to rebuild the fallen city and make Israel a holy nation once again. By the power of the Spirit, Israel would become a nation that displayed the character of God – love, mercy, and justice.

The fact of the resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is greater than the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s greater than the rebuilding of the Temple and the law of Moses observed. At Pentecost, we get a glimpse into some of the “even greater things” that Jesus promised we would do in his name and by his Spirit.

2,000 year ago, in the streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, we witness the loving action of God to redeem the whole world – starting with the children of Israel and extending to all the peoples of the earth. God would leave no one behind this time. Those who had been lost in spiritual darkness, outside the household of faith, are welcomed in. People of every tongue, race, and tribe. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Clean and unclean.

Many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. The arrival of the Holy Spirit comes as a surprise to those who thought that the kingdom of God was only for them, those who thought they could control the word of God, and draw human boundaries around God’s grace. All our religious bigotry and fearful self-protection is challenged by God’s universal love and inconvenient grace.

Pentecost is a day of royal power. It is about the establishment of a kingdom. Our king is the broken and crucified one, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, he has conquered the powers of darkness and death. He has overcome hatred and fear. He has established a whole new social reality.

This isn’t some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky promise. The kingdom of God isn’t merely about going heaven after we die. On the day of Pentecost, we discover heaven for ourselves. It’s a physical reality. It’s about life in community and our shared journey with Jesus. The kingdom of God shapes us and transforms our whole existence. The kingdom of God makes us inconvenient to the powers and principalities that govern our world.

God’s empire stands in stark contrast to the rule of Caesar and Herod. The mainstream culture of the ancient world was one of domination and submission, patron and client, honor and shame. But through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God revealed another way. A new community. A culture based on love, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. A world where the mighty are brought low and the humble are raised up. On the day of Pentecost, the spirit of love is revealed to be lord of all, and the crucified one reigns as king.

A new world, new community, new culture – the reign of God. I get excited just thinking about it. Yet, like so many parts of the Bible, the day of Pentecost is often taken out of context, proof-texted, and turned into a mandate for triumphalist ideologies that see the gospel as just another way of exercising control over the people and cultures of the world. Along with a few other passages – like the Great Commission, for example – Pentecost is often used to fuel a vision that is primarily about church growth, organizational replication, and success in the eyes of the world.

I’ve been down this path. I have been deceived by the idol of success.

My wife, Faith, and I met planning the Young Adult Friends gathering held at Earlham School of Religion in the spring of 2008. She was living out in Washington, DC, at the time – working at the William Penn House. I was a student at ESR, in my second year as a Master of Divinity student. The planning committee asked the two of us to serve as co-clerks. They told us that by appointing us clerks, they hoped that I would speak less and Faith would speak more.

I think we did a pretty good job as co-clerks. But, you know, good clerking requires a lot of planning, prayer, and deliberation. And well, those clerking calls just started getting longer and longer, and more focused on personal matters rather than strictly business. We hit it off. By that summer, we were formally “seeing” each other, and over Christmas we got engaged.

After Faith and I got married in September of 2009, I moved out East to live with her in DC. I had recently started working for Earlham School of Religion doing outreach to young adults, but location was flexible.

When I got to DC, I was on fire for the gospel. I had only become a Christian a few years before, coming out of a profound experience of God’s presence at the World Gathering of Young Friends in England. Wherever I went, I was seeking ways for God to use me in sharing the good news, building up the church. During seminary, I had traveled widely among Friends, and so when I arrived in DC I continued that pattern, visiting a number of meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I got to know Friends in the DC area better, I became very aware of the fact that there was no local Friends meeting that was corporately Christian. That is to say, there were individual Christian Quakers in the area, but there was no organized group that could say that their shared mission was to follow Jesus.

This was a problem for Faith and me. As much as she and I loved Quakers, it was important for us to be part of a clearly Christian community, and there really wasn’t one available to us in the existing DC Quaker scene. So, in my mind, we had a choice: We could either attend a non-Quaker church, or we could try to start a new Quaker meeting, one rooted in a desire to follow the risen Jesus.

Faith and I talked it over, and we decided to start holding meeting for worship in the William Penn House, where we were living. As we were looking around in the Quaker world for models of how to start a new meeting, the common wisdom seemed to be that the way to do such a thing was just to start holding worship, invite people, and see who showed up. So that’s what we did. We had a Field of Dreams mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”

And, you know, things went really well for a while. We started small, but soon we had a solid group showing up – reading the scriptures together, singing, and practicing waiting worship. Our gatherings were small, but God’s power was there. It’s amazing to think back on how consistently God showed up. The Holy Spirit was present, teaching us and strengthening us to become more fully disciples of Jesus.

But planting a new Quaker church is harder than Faith and I ever imagined. Holding worship was relatively easy, but establishing a new community that could sustain itself over the long term was another story. Over the course of the five years that Capitol Hill Friends was meeting, our attendance varied quite a bit – between two and twenty, but probably averaging more like half a dozen. Yet the core of committed people, the folks who took a personal responsibility for the meeting, never expanded beyond Faith, me, and one other person.

Now, I was only working part-time for Quaker institutions during this time, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my energy to writing, outreach, and pastoral care of people who attended the group. I did everything I knew how to encourage our attenders, build community, and invite all of us to go deeper. Yet, despite the powerful worship, despite the transformation that we could see happening in people’s lives as a result of our fellowship, people rarely stuck with the group for longer than six months. They came, they had a powerful experience of God, and then they left.

We went through several of these cycles – gathering a core group of attenders, nurturing them, inviting them into the mission of growing a new meeting, and then watching attendance drop off. It was really demoralizing, and it was hard not to take it personally. Eventually, Faith and I decided that we needed to take a break. We stopped holding regular worship at our house, and eventually started attending a local Church of the Brethren congregation where we’ve found opportunities for ministry.

How does all of this relate to Pentecost? Well, you see, as an ambitious, fired-up young follower of Jesus, I looked to Pentecost as one of the key texts that told me what a “successful,” faithful church should look like. I read about the Holy Spirit coming with obvious displays of power, an effect so intense that the neighbors all assumed that people at the prayer meeting were drunk! Peter is preaching to masses of people in the streets of Jerusalem, exhorting them to repent and turn to Jesus. Thousands of people are brought into the way of Jesus on a single day.

Vitality. Conviction. Spiritual power. Numerical growth. These are some of the marks of the New Testament church that I learned from Acts 2. And in the context of my own failure to gather even a small community that could cohere without my constant encouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder – what am I doing wrong? Where am I being unfaithful? Why isn’t God blessing my work, the work that I truly believed that God had called me and prepared me to do?

I still feel sad about how things went – or didn’t go – with Capitol Hill Friends. I wish there were a Quaker church in Washington, DC, and I don’t know why there isn’t. But even in this failure, there have been blessings. Our ministry during those years had a big impact – some of which we are aware of, and much of which we will probably never know. And it had a big impact on me. I’ve gotten to know God in ways I never expected – and, frankly, never wanted to learn. But I needed to learn. I needed to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in the midst of failure, to trust Jesus like he trusted his Father.

That’s the perspective I was often missing in my church-planting ministry with Capitol Hill Friends. I was so focused on the success of this new Quaker community that I didn’t want to see the whole picture of the early church. The glory of Pentecost was only possible in the context of failure. The joy of the resurrection is impossible without the suffering and loss of the cross. And, as we see very soon as we continue reading the Book of Acts, the health and growth of the church is only possible through the “failure” of the apostles’ vision of what the Christian community ought to be.

One of my mistakes was reading Pentecost as a story about how the church ought to be, rather than a story about who God is. The transforming power of Pentecost is not an outcome to be achieved. It’s not a reward for good behavior or hard work. The coming of the Spirit happens amid failure, pain, and loss. Like the disciples experienced on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus often appears to us in our confusion and mourning. He is present with us because we need him, not because we are doing well.

Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones speaks directly into this experience. Ezekiel encounters God in the context of national failure, the humiliation of exile, and the longing for restoration. Ezekiel has no power to restore the fortunes of his people, but in the midst of his sorrow, the Spirit of God comes to him.

What’s interesting here is the interplay between God and Ezekiel. It’s the same as that between God and Peter. God is the life and power. God gives the Spirit. But God also asks for our cooperation. Just like Peter, who preached before huge crowds and kindled the faith of thousands, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy in the presence of the Spirit. It is through the act of prophesy that the dry bones come to life, filled with the breath of God.

This was the heart of the early Quaker movement, too. The first Quakers knew the importance of prophesy. The word of God is alive and active. It wants to be spoken and enacted in our lives. To speak the words of the Spirit is to cooperate with the healing and transforming power of God. To speak truth into the world, especially out of a position of weakness and risk, is to walk in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth in love, right up until they nailed him to a cross.

Our failures along the way are painful, but they don’t have to dismay us. If we aren’t as big or successful as we think a Pentecost church ought to be. We shouldn’t be shocked if our ideas, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, don’t carry much weight in the debates of this age. We shouldn’t lose heart if our trust in God looks like foolishness and failure in the eyes of the world. We don’t need to be discouraged, because we know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We have seen how the light of Jesus breaks into this world through the cracks of failure.

The challenge of failure never ends. As we read in scripture, and experience in our own lives, God is continually breaking through our false strength in order to reveal the true life and power of the Spirit. Pentecost isn’t the end of the story. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter and the early church are continuously challenged in their beliefs about who belongs in the church. The Jewish disciples are shocked to realize that that God is welcoming all nations into the body of Christ. For people like Peter, who had scrupulously observed the law of Moses from his youth, this must have felt like a great failure, the loss of a certainty he had held precious.

For us here today, we face a similar challenge. God has changed the playbook once again. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our rapidly shifting culture. Those of us who are faithful to the letter of the law – like Peter was – may have a tough time keeping up. The growth of God’s kingdom may feel like failure to us.

Fortunately, we are not left without a witness. The scriptures are full of stories about what it looks like to follow God even in the midst of radical, uncomfortable change. The Spirit is present with us, guiding us into all truth, even in times of challenge and confusion. The story of the church did not end with the writing of the scriptures. It didn’t end with the early Quakers. Jesus is alive. He’s here to teach us and lead us. Are we listening?

Like the people of ancient Israel, we look at our weakness and are tempted to despair: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God responds with the spirit of Pentecost. He says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

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How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

How Can I Know When I've Seen A Miracle?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/6/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.

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