Archive for November 2019

The Bible Says Jesus Is King – But What If We Don’t Want One?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 23:33-43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6. 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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Jesus is king. He’s the messiah. He’s the rightful heir to the throne of David. He’s the fulfillment of the promise. He is the king of Israel, the king of all the nations, the king of the universe.

Jesus is king. He is sovereign. He answers to no human authority. All things are subject to him. In him, all things hang together. He is Lord.

Does this make you uncomfortable? Does all of this hierarchical, patriarchal language make you cringe a little bit? Does all this talk of kingship run against your modern American sensibilities? After all, this country fought a revolution so that we wouldn’t have to bow down to kings anymore!

In a country where we say we believe in democracy and equal rights for all, what do we do with this talk of kings and lords and power and sovereignty? We’ve seen all the ways that unaccountable power can run amok. Why on earth would we want to think of God in terms of being the ultimate, absolute monarch?

Jeremiah would agree. He had seen quite enough of the kings and lords and rulers of Israel. Men who abused their position for their own selfish interest. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Through Jeremiah, God denounces the kings of this world. The way the lords of this world live as parasites off of the people they claim to shepherd.

To these false shepherds, these petty kings, God says: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” The day is coming.

Jesus stood in the tradition of Jeremiah in his analysis of power. He saw the same abuse of power, the vampiric sucking of the rich elites who consume the lives of working people. His friends. His family. The desperate thousands who came to him for relief.

Jesus lived in a land ruled by an illegitimate petty dictator. A strongman propped up by the violent domination of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew what a false shepherd was. He saw Herod murder his friend and mentor, John the Baptist. He watched as the Temple elite sought to kill him, and finally delivered him up to the Roman authorities for execution. Jesus knew what the false shepherds, the petty kings of this world, are capable of when their power is threatened.

Jesus was so threatening to these false shepherds, that they nailed him to a cross. Crucifixion, a dread punishment reserved for insurrectionists. Once they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Jesus knew the evil that the false shepherds were capable of. Jesus knew the horror that kings bring. Jesus knew that his father never wanted Israel to have a human king in the first place.

Jesus remembered the days of Samuel, before Israel had a king. God was king. The people were ruled directly by him, guided by the prophets who spoke the words of God. God’s plan for Israel was that he would rule them directly. No strong men; no presidents, princes, or billionaires. God wanted to teach Israel a totally different way of living as a society. A way without human domination and top-down hierarchies.

But the people demanded a king. They wanted to be “strong,” like the peoples around them. They wanted a warlord to go before them and fight their battles. They wanted empire. They wanted to be mighty, not the vulnerable people of the God of the Tent. And so God gave them a king: Saul, who would begin a long line of greed, violence, vanity, and imperial ambitions. A lineage of horror that would ultimately culminate in the Babylonian captivity. When given the option, that’s what we picked.

God is the good shepherd, but we didn’t want that. We couldn’t wrap our minds around the great mystery and power that is God. We preferred to shrink our rulers down to size. We chose to abandon God’s rule and to submit ourselves to the false shepherds that feed off of us to fuel their own ambitions.

So if this talk of kings and lords makes you uncomfortable, you’re right. There are a lot of good reasons to be skeptical of kings. Not just back then. Not just in ancient Israel, or even in the days of Rome, but today. We have good reason to be skeptical of top-down, hierarchical leadership. Right? We’ve seen the results.

In Syria and Yemen. Burma and Western China. In Flint, Michigan and along the route of the disastrous Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. We’ve seen what the princes of this world – presidents and princes, senators and billionaires – are capable of.

Most tragically, we’ve seen the results of the Christian church chasing after violent, coercive, hierarchical power. We’ve seen how the church, just like Israel, has often chosen human kings to lead us rather than submitting ourselves to God’s presence and power.

The church’s prostitution to power started, some would argue, when we picked cooperation with the Emperor Constantine rather than continuing to be a suffering church of outsiders. Things got worse as we moved into the middle ages. The church became fully fused with state power. Popes shepherded the kings of Europe and launched so-called holy wars of aggression against Muslims, Jews, and even fellow Christians.

The crusades never really stopped. Even today, most Christians support endless war in the Middle East, and around the globe – anywhere that the kings of this world choose to send us. Much of the Christian community has put its faith in the power of empires and armies, presidents and premiers – in the kingdoms of this world rather than in the direct leadership of Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we don’t want Jesus to be our king. We don’t want him, because Jesus doesn’t offer us the violence and domination that we’ve come to expect from our rulers. He doesn’t beat up the bad guys. He doesn’t save us from suffering. In fact, he calls us to join him in the path of the cross. He calls us to love our enemies. He shows us a way of surrender, loss of control, and downward mobility.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is king. This is good news precisely because Jesus is nothing like the kings of this world.

They promise us glory, he is revealed in failure. They promise us security, his throne is the cross. The kings of this world – presidents and congressmen and billionaires – they promise us a boot stomping on the face of our enemies, forever. Jesus calls us into an endless life of love that encompasses even those who hate us.

What does it mean for us to live in the kingdom of Jesus? What does it mean for us to join the failed insurrectionist hanging on the cross by Jesus’ side – because that is, of course what we are: failed insurrectionists who chose to follow the false rulers of this world rather than our faithful Lord Jesus. Will we join the failed insurrectionist nailed to the cross beside Jesus? Will we say together with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

God foretold the coming of Jesus through the prophet Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

Jesus is king. He is the righteous branch of David that Jeremiah foretold. He is a king for all the nations, a ruler who will execute justice and righteousness. A king who is close to us, present with us, not unfamiliar with our struggle and suffering. A king who has endured everything to show his love for us, and who invites us into his mission of love and cosmic redemption.

Jesus is king. Praise him. Honor him. Obey him. Recognize that he is here in our midst. Open your eyes to see that he is still being crucified by the false shepherds. The spirit of Herod and Pilate and Caesar is alive, and crushing the life of our people.

But the spirit of Jesus is more powerful, more enduring, more life-filled. He is the ocean of light and love that flows over this ocean of darkness. He is our peace. He is our hope – the only ruler worth obeying.

Jesus is alive and present in his resurrection power. Jesus has triumphed over the powers of darkness, hatred, and death. Jesus is our present and living king.

Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

Hate Your Boss? There’s An Alternative

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and Acts 16:11-40. 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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There’s a saying that I’ve heard many times, and it’s true: People don’t quit a job, they quit a boss. There’s nothing worse than a lousy manager. Well, maybe there’s one thing that’s worse than a bad manager: Multiple bad managers.

Have you ever been in that situation? Where in a work situation you were answering to multiple people? Each one of them with their own priorities and perspectives. Their own ideas about how you should best do your job. Maybe even conflicting with one another in the instructions they give you?

It reminds me of that scene from Office Space, the classic movie from the late 90s. The main character is being interviewed by consultants, and he tells them: “I have eight different bosses right now. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation – is not to be hassled – that and not being fired. But you know, Bob, that’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

Sound familiar?

Well the good news of the kingdom of God is that we have just one boss. That’s what freedom means. It means being free to serve only one boss, one Lord. It means not being tossed to and fro by the opinions, objections, and hangups of all the many people in our lives who’d like to tell us what to do. It means submitting ourselves to God, accepting the judgment of God, and being liberated from the judgment of everyone else.

We see that in our reading this morning, when Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “I’m free with respect to all.” Nobody tells Paul what to do. Nobody but the Holy Spirit. Because he is a slave of God, he is freed from all human masters.

That’s what the gospel is. It’s freedom. It’s peace. It’s knowing where we belong and who we need to obey. It’s having a perfect boss, better than any human leader, who guides us not out of a desire for control or domination, but out of love. We worship a God who leads us from a place of knowledge, compassion, and creativity. This is a leader we can trust.

So the children are free. We’re free to follow God and disregard the vain fashions of this world. We’re liberated from the domination of money. We’re released from this world’s addiction to coercive power. We’re free when we dwell in the abundance and life-giving power of Jesus.

Our readings this morning are helpful. They’re clarifying. And when we think about freedom, we need some clarification. We need some clarification, because America has a very different conception of freedom from the liberty that we find in the gospel. The freedom of the American Dream is wholly distinct from the freedom that we find in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection. The liberty of the kingdom of God is rooted in love, using our freedom to build up the lives of others and share the blessings of God’s abundance.

That’s what we read in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” He says, I became what the Jews needed me to be, so that they could hear and accept the message. And when I spoke to Gentiles, I adapted myself to their way of life. I changed. I humbled myself so that I could speak and demonstrate the gospel in ways that would touch their hearts and enliven their minds.

To the hipsters I became like a hipster. To the parents with small children, I became like a dad. To the surfers, I learned how to shred. To the tech bros, I learned jargon. To the Quakers I spoke calmly and slowly. “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

From the Christian perspective, freedom is not an end unto itself. It is a means. Our freedom is a tool, a privilege to be spent in the service of others. We have only one boss, one leader, one Lord, and this gives us enormous freedom. We were given this freedom for a reason. Not for self-indulgence, but to comfort and heal, to convict and proclaim the good news of God’s love. God is healing our wounds so that we can become healers.

For the world around us, for those who are pursuing the American Dream, freedom is about “me.” Freedom is about what I want, when I want it, as much as I want. Freedom is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It’s about having things on my terms, and not letting anyone tell me what to do. It’s about becoming an army of one. Answerable to no one.

The freedom of the gospel is the opposite of this self-centered fantasy. The good news is Jesus, the crucified, homeless messiah. It’s a story that centers “the least of these” – the people that our society doesn’t value, doesn’t want to see, and often tries to dispose of.

Those are the people that Jesus went to, when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. These are the folks that Paul was reaching out to when he met Lydia, a non-Jewish worshiper of God, who was gathered with other women at a prayer meeting outside the city gate. Women. Unorthodox, Gentile believers in God. The unclean. The enemy. That’s who God loves.

It’s this kind of enemy-love that Paul and Silas showed when they stayed put in their jail cells after the earthquake. They could have run. Maybe we think they should have run – after all, they were clearly being freed by God through a miraculous earthquake, a very strange earthquake that not only opened up all the doors of the jail, but even released them from their chains!

But Paul and Silas were free men. They were free citizens of the kingdom of God. They were free from the reflexive self-preservation that enslaves most of us. They saw past their own need to get out of that jail cell, realizing that the Holy Spirit had opened a bridge into the heart of their jailer. A man who would be killed if he let his prisoners escape. Paul and Silas were free enough to say, “Wait, jailer! Don’t kill yourself! We are still here!”

In this situation, most of us would probably say that the “least of these” in this situation were Paul and Silas. They’re the ones locked up for doing nothing wrong. In this story, we would see the apostles as the oppressed and the prison guard as the oppressor.

But Paul and Silas had been given eyes to see that it was the jailer who was truly in chains. The prison worker was trapped in a life of servitude to the rulers of this world. So when the earthquake came, it was a prophetic earthquake. It revealed that which was already true. Paul and Silas were free after all, and it was the jailer who was on the knife’s edge.

And they truly were free! It turns out that Paul and Silas didn’t even have to be in jail in the first place. They were Roman citizens. They were not subject to the beating and imprisonment without trial that they were being subjected to. You’d think that they would have mentioned their status when they first got in trouble. But for some reason they didn’t. Perhaps it was a prophetic silence, just like that of Jesus when he stood before Pontius Pilate. Perhaps they could sense that, though they were free to avoid persecution, God was going to do something important with their suffering. As Paul would write to the Corinthian church – they became weak so that they might win the weak.

The kingdom of God is a life of victory. It’s a life of power. It’s a life of connection and community. Because we have one boss, one God, one father. There’s only one voice we answer to. It’s the voice of love.

The voice of love calls us to surrender the freedom that this world offers. The freedom to be separate. The freedom to avoid discomfort. The freedom to stay safe while others suffer.

Are we living in the freedom of Jesus? Are we living in the liberty that Paul and Silas experienced? Do we have just one boss – the powerful spirit of love who liberates us from the fear of this world?

Are we living in the freedom of the kingdom? Power that allows us to become weak. Strength that permits us to become vulnerable. Compassion that draws us to the margins. Vision to see that our enemies need God’s love more than our revenge. Do we live in that kingdom?

Are we ready to fire our bosses? All the rules and systems that this world lays on us, to keep us in line as compliant producers and consumers? Are we ready to fire our eight bosses and submit ourselves to one Lord, our holy center, the living presence of God? Do we want to be liberated from what this world calls freedom – the selfish rat-race of consumerism and domination? Will we embrace the cross of Jesus, finding as he did that true freedom lies in being poured out as an offering for others?