Archive for September 2019

Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear – And Fills Us With Boldness

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/22/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 4:23-35. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Perfect love casts out all fear. There is no fear in love.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be present with us. We are freed from our self-consciousness, the awareness of our own nakedness that we picked up after the Fall. We’re liberated from the need to hide from ourselves, from others, from God.

The presence of the Holy Spirit drives out all fear of people. Fear of our bosses at work. Fear of what our friends, family, and co-workers think of us. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of giving up our sense of control over our own lives: Money. Career. Religion. Identity.

The Holy Spirit liberates us from all these things. Perfect love casts out all fear.

And that’s a good thing. It’s a critical thing. Because the life that God is calling us to is terrifying as long as we are living in the mindset of this world. Middle class consumerism. The endless quest for security and status. The desire to be a real adult. Affluent. Self-sufficient. Autonomous.

It’s a good thing that the Holy Spirit frees us from all fear. Because the kingdom of God has no space for successful, autonomous adults. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Little children are special, because they haven’t learned to be truly afraid yet. They haven’t developed the kind of ego that comes with growing up. They haven’t absorbed the lesson that this world teaches us: that we have to be self-supporting, independent, in control. Little kids know they aren’t in control, even if they hate it sometimes. They rely on us adults for everything.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be with us. It means we can rely on our heavenly Father. We can trust God to be a mother to us. We can let go of our fear, because our God is the “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them.” Despite all appearances. Despite the threats, and shaming, and violence that our society shows to those who refuse to conform, we know that our God is the lord and sovereign of history. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we know in our bones that “he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

In our reading from Luke this morning, we get a window into what life was like in the first days of the Christian community in Jerusalem. This is in the days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. After the gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were busy preaching the word of God to a growing community of disciples.

It says that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit filled them with love and cast out their fear. They preached the good news of Jesus and his kingdom in public – on the streets, and even in the Temple itself. They performed miracles. They healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits, just like Jesus did.

It says that the apostles drew so much attention to themselves that the authorities started going after them in the same way they went after Jesus. They hauled the apostles in front of religious tribunals. The religious leaders demanded that they cease speaking, healing, and teaching in the name of Jesus.

Most people would have been afraid. I mean, you saw what they did to the last guy that talked this way: They handed him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross! But the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they weren’t afraid of human authorities, no matter how dangerous.

So when the high priest and the religious leaders demanded that the disciples keep quiet about Jesus, Peter and John answered this way: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Despite their defiance, the religious leaders were afraid of the crowds. The crowds had seen the signs and wonders that the apostles were performing, and believed. So they let them go.

And when all the brothers and sisters heard what had happened. When they heard that Peter and John had stood up to the authorities and walked away with their lives, they praised God. They said, “Look at this, y’all: We live in a city where we’ve got guys like Herod and Pilate, who were quite happy to murder Jesus. We see their threats. But thanks to you, God, we’re not afraid of them. We know who is really in control of history. We trust you, no matter what happens.”

They were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had filled them with love and power. The Spirit cast out all fear. All that the disciples asked God for was boldness. To preach the good news of Jesus. To share the victory announcement of God’s kingdom. To heal the sick, raise the dead, set the oppressed free, and proclaim good news to the poor. “Grant us to speak your word with all boldness, God.”

And it says that when the brothers and sisters had finished praying together, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

Freed from fear by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the word of God with boldness. And the very earth was shaken.

Other things were shaken. Social structures. Hierarchies between men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek. All the old assumptions were rattled. Everything they thought they knew was leveled in the light of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit broke down the feeling of separateness among the disciples. They truly became one body, a spiritual unity in Jesus. They had become something greater than merely a collection of the individuals. They had become the church, the family of God.

This had radical economic implications. When you’re a family, the strictness of private property breaks down. We think less about what’s mine and what’s yours. We think more about what each of us can give, and how to meet the needs of each person.

With this outpouring of boldness from the Holy Spirit, we see the emergence of this spiritual family among the believers in Jerusalem. It says that all of the believers, “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions. … Everything they owned was held in common.”

In the early days of the church, there were no poor Christians. That’s because there were no rich Christians, either. Everyone who had possessions brought what they had and shared with everyone else, as they had need.

The first disciples in Jerusalem could do this, because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Their fear had been cast out. They were filled with boldness, not only to share the good news of the kingdom, but to dwell in it. They had become citizens of the kingdom of God. Whenever that citizenship conflicted with their loyalty to biological family, to religious identity, to governments – whenever those institutions told them that they had to live in fear, they chose instead to live in the kingdom of God. They chose to walk in the fearless way of Jesus.

Do we want that? Do we want to experience the love and boldness and power of the apostles?

Just before his famous vision on Pendle Hill in the 1650s, early Quaker minister George Fox writes in his Journal,

“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman would shake all the country in their profession for ten miles around.”

George Fox had read the Book of Acts a few times. He knew that the presence of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by power. By boldness. By a conviction that transforms lives. He saw that if even one person is fully gripped by that life and power, it has the potential to transform the lives of thousands – to shake all the country for ten miles around.

Do we want that? Do we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we want to be so audacious, so full of the Holy Spirit and fire, that we shake the whole East Bay?

Do we want to be so overwhelmed by the love and fearless power of God that our neighbors, our co-workers, and our government can’t help but take notice? Are we ready to have our fear cast out? Are we prepared to become a family in Jesus, to surrender control and truly become one body in him?

Do we want to be set ablaze with the fire of God? Do we aspire to become more like the apostolic church that we read about in the Book of Acts and in the writings of early Friends? Or is our spiritual condition better described by this poem from Wilbur Rees:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Do we want three dollars worth of God, or do we want the kingdom?

And if we do, how do we need to change – both as individuals and as a church community? What do we need to let go, so that our hands are free and ready to heal? Where do we need to be so that our lives can be vessels for the signs and wonders of God’s kingdom?

God showed George Fox that if even one man or woman were raised up in the same power that the prophets and apostles were in, their presence would shake the countryside for ten miles around. Are you ready to be that one? Are we ready to be those ones? 

Are we ready to claim our citizenship in the kingdom of God? To preach the word with boldness? To live as God’s little children – without fear, without shame, and without regret?

Are You Thirsty? Come to the Fountain

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/1/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I’m an ambitious person. I love the feeling of accomplishing big tasks. I like my work to be impressive. And I like getting things done fast.

I want to feel strong. Self-sufficient. I want to feel like I control my own life. I want to make my own choices, and not have anyone telling me what to do.
So our scripture readings this morning speak to me. They speak to my condition. They challenge me, in my ambition, my independence, my pride.

In all of these passages – The words of God through Jeremiah. The instructions from the last chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. The words of Jesus passed along to us from the apostle Luke – In all of these passages, I hear God saying to us, his people: Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to get ahead. Don’t depend on your own efforts. Surrender, and acknowledge that I am God. I am in control.

It turns out that the good news of Jesus – the good news of the God of the Old Testament and the New – is not that we are going to be successful. It’s that God’s power is unlimited.

It’s not that we’re going to do great things for God, it’s that God can do great things in us.

The gospel of the kingdom is not that we ourselves will be strong, but that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In the quotidian. The daily. The unnoticed. In the patient endurance of ordinary men and women, who make the daily decision to walk in the way of God’s love and justice.

This is the message that God is trying to get across to his people through the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke God’s words to Israel in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. God’s message through Jeremiah is, “Why have you abandoned me and gone off to chase after your own way? How can you imagine that all these false gods – all your projects, all your designs, all the things you worship instead of me – what made you think that they would fulfill you?”

By abandoning God, by rejecting his leadership, by going their own way and seeking to be independent, the people of Israel were destroying the good things that God had done for them. God says,

I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.

The people of Israel have abandoned the kingdom of God. They’ve chosen injustice and empire. They’ve chosen to worship false gods and exploit the poor and vulnerable. And on top of all this, they’re discovering that they’re more desperate and out-of-control than ever. They never seem to stop eating, but they’re always hungry.

All the ways that Israel has sought to impose its own system of control. The foreign alliances and trade deals. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The exaltation of the king in Jerusalem. The running after foreign gods who seemed more exotic and powerful than the God of Exodus – none of these things have satisfied. The people of Israel are thirstier than ever before.

God says:

But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

The people of Israel thought they were trading up. Getting more power, more wealth, more control. They thought they would do better for themselves than God ever could. They would guarantee their own prosperity.

But that’s not how it turned out. The wages of self-will are ruin. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The people of Israel got ambitious. They got independent-minded. They got arrogant. And all it got them was Jerusalem laid waste, the temple destroyed, and seventy years in captivity far from home.

Fast forward six hundred years to the ministry of Jesus. Luke tells us about a time that Jesus was eating in the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath. And after breaking the rules by healing a man on the day of rest, Jesus tells a parable about a dinner party.

If you’re invited to a wedding, and it comes time to eat dinner, Jesus advises against rushing to sit down at the head table. Because it might happen that the bride and groom have a close friend who they want to be seated in the place of honor. How embarrassing would it be to have your hosts ask – in front of everybody – you to move to another table, so that someone more important can take your place!

Instead, Jesus says, you’ll do better to sit way in the back, far from the action. Take the least important seat. Because if you do that, maybe you’ll have to squint to see the bride and groom. But if you’re really someone so important, your hosts will come and find you. They’ll invite you to move to a place of greater prominence. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

But what if you’re the one throwing the party? What if you’re the bride or the groom? Jesus has some words about that, too. Again, don’t be so full of yourselves!

The normal thing to do when you’re throwing a party is to invite all your friends. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can invite people who you don’t know super well, but who are important in one way or another. They’re well-connected, or rich, or charming, or have some other outstanding trait that makes them worth inviting. These are people who can pay you back in the future.

Jesus’ advice for throwing a party is the total opposite. He says:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

I don’t know about you, but I want to do big things and go places. I want to run in important circles and be recognized. But Jesus says, spend your time with those who can’t do anything for you, and you will be blessed. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Recognize that God is in control. Drop your attempts to control other people. Stop trying to provide your own status and security. In the kingdom of God, real security comes through total dependence on God.

I love the Letter to the Hebrews. I love how ferverous the preacher is. He gets so into it. I mean, just listen to these lines from chapter 12, the part of the letter that comes right before the section we read aloud this morning:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!

Does that get to you? Can you hear the preacher getting so intense, speaking to us about the ineffable glory of God – his power, his majesty, his righteousness? The author of Hebrews invites us to imagine ourselves as we truly are when we assemble in the name of Jesus – we are come to Mount Zion… to innumerable angels in festal gathering. Wow!

The author of Hebrews is all about the big picture. He’s all about the glory and power that has been unleashed in the heavenly realms thanks to the ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. There are parts of Hebrews that are riotous in their exuberance and passion. The preacher invites us to ascend into the heavenlies and walk into the holy-of-holies with Jesus.

So I think it’s so important that before the letter ends, Hebrews brings us back to earth and calls us to practical application. We have seen the majesty and the glory. We’ve seen the innumerable angels in festal gathering – so what does that mean for us, mere mortals that we are?

Here’s some of the advice we get:

Keep loving one another.

  • Show hospitality to strangers.
  • Visit those in prison, and those who are being tortured. (And we know lots of people are in prison and being tortured right now.)
  • Honor marriage and practice your sexuality in ways that glorify God and bring honor to Jesus.
  • Keep your lives free of the love of money. Be content with what you have, because God will always care for you.
  • Respect and imitate your leaders, those who have taught you in the way of Jesus.
  • Praise God. Honor him with your words and your actions.
  • Share with others. This is the sacrifice that most pleases God.

This is challenging advice. These aren’t easy things to do, especially not consistently, as a community. But these aren’t wild instructions, either. The author of Hebrews doesn’t tell us to solve climate change – though undoubtedly we need to be part of that struggle. He doesn’t tell us to restore good governance to our nation – though that’s so important. The letter to the Hebrews doesn’t conclude by giving us any grand mission.

Instead, it sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? Love one another. Help those who are in trouble and need a place to stay. Don’t be ruled by money or sex or jealousy, but honor God with your lives.

These aren’t instructions that ambitious, independent people like me want to hear. It’s not about instant gratification or quick success. It’s not about victory at all – not in the way the world understands it. It’s about what the apostle John calls “the patient endurance of the saints.”

It’s a faith like that crabgrass you can’t get rid of, even with roundup. The grass that keeps coming back until the concrete of the sidewalk breaks down. It’s that daily faithfulness that often goes unnoticed. Not flashy, but over the course of years, and decades, and centuries, it has the power to break down empires.

“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”

Not big things. Nothing spectacular. But faithfulness. Little by little. Every day. Becoming channels of God’s love for those around us. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Let go of those broken cisterns that you’ve built for yourselves. All the ways that you seek to be in control, independent of God and other people. Surrender. Acknowledge your own need of God, your daily dependence on his life, power, and spirit. Come to the fountain of living water.

Related Posts:

The Sabbath Isn’t About Religion – It’s About Liberation

The Kingdom Is Yours – Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?