Archive for 2020

You Don’t Have to Be Afraid, But There’s Just One Catch

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 John 4:7-21. 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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God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Beautiful, right? Beautiful.

But also potentially meaningless. An empty little inspirational quote to be mounted on our refrigerator, maybe. If we don’t know what John means by “love.”

What is love?

Is the love of God the same kind of love that I mean when I say, “I love green tea,” or “I love my friends from college,” or, “I love my mom”? What kind of love are we talking about here?

We mean a lot of things when we use the word “love.” It’s confusing. John knew that, so in our reading this morning, he gets specific. He says:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Wow. So this is the kind of love John is talking about. Not our love, but the love of God who chose to love us, even when we were his enemies. The love of God who sent his only son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

This love of God isn’t about a warm and fuzzy feeling. It isn’t about liking someone because of a characteristic they have, or because they are useful to us. It’s not about being attracted to someone else for anything they are or have done.

The love of God is love for enemies. It’s love for the very people who hate us and are prepared to kill us.

The love of God is a choice, not a feeling. 

From Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, we learn that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is true in physical science, and it is often true in human relationships, too. If I push you, you push me back. If you love me, I love you in return. That’s natural.

The love of God is nothing like that. God is the unmoved mover. His love is objective. It simply is; it’s not a reaction to anything. God’s love is a choice, completely independent of anything we have ever thought, felt, or done. 

God’s love is sovereign. Just as God created the cosmos through the word of his mouth, he has also shown his love to us by the word in his son, Jesus of Nazareth.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t earn this. But somehow, God loves us. He chooses us. He calls us. He redeems us from this mess we’re in. That is what it means that God is love.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

We’ve received this love from God, and if we stand in it, if we allow it to live in us, God will abide in us. God is alive in us when we choose to love.

For those of you who are Star Wars geeks like me, you may remember the scene from the Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker meets the Emperor. And the Emperor is taunting Luke, trying to convert him to evil. And he says to Luke. “Let the hate flow through you. … Your hate has made you powerful.”

God is the exact opposite of the Emperor. God says to us, “Reject all hatred. Instead, abide in my love. Let my love flow through you. My love will make you powerful, even though it looks like weakness to the world. Jesus suffered and died for love, yet I vindicated him through the resurrection. Let my love flow through you, and I will vindicate you.”

Dwelling in Jesus’ resurrection, death has no mastery over us. We have “boldness on the day of judgment, because as [Jesus] is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”

We have boldness on the day of judgment, because love is the judgment. Love is the judge. Love is the measure of all things, and we have seen and known the character of God’s love in the face of his son Jesus Christ.

Perfect love casts out all fear. 

If we dwell in love. If we ground our lives in the love that raised Jesus from the dead. If we add our contingent ‘yes’ to the sovereign ‘yes’ of God. Perfect love casts out all fear. 

It frees us to see the world as it really is, and to love it as God does.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God’s love is not a feeling. It’s not subjective. It is bedrock reality. God’s love is how things really are.

God’s love – the love we see in Jesus laying down his life for us – this love is the truth. This is how God interacts with the world. It is the force that binds the cosmos together. The love of Jesus is how God’s creation exists. Everything else is an illusion.

You were conceived in love. So were Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. So was the person you most despise in the world. We were all conceived in love. That is how God sees us. 

God. So. Loves. The world. 

He loves us like a mom and dad love their little toddler who has fallen asleep in their car seat after a really nasty roadtrip tantrum. He loves us because he chose us. He loves us because love is who he is.

God calls us to love like that, too. Not because it’s who we are. Not because we love others by nature, much less our enemies. But we are called and empowered to love one another because God first loved us. John says:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sister also.

We can’t love God without loving one another. We can’t love God without loving our enemies. Just like Jesus loved us when we were busy nailing him to the cross. 

We have to love those who hate us. We have to love those who are threatening our friends and family, and destroying our world. We have to love them, because God first loved us.

Is that hard for you? It is for me.

Even in the best of times, we live in a rough and complicated world. Humans fight over control and status and resources. We hurt one another. We band together in our little tribes and cliques for protection. 

So it’s easy to hate other people. It’s totally natural. And when there are people who threaten us and those we care about, this hate is even reasonable.

These days, it feels like there are more people to be afraid of than usual. Our world is literally on fire, and at any given moment it can feel like at least half the country is our enemy.

This isn’t an accident. We are being intentionally primed to hate one another. By pundits on the news. Ads and posts on social media. Government leaders and celebrities. Neighbors who don’t wear their masks (Or maybe, you know, do that nose-sticking-out thing – don’t you hate that?). Even friends and family members are easy to hate when we disagree with them on important issues.

In this context, John has news for us.

First, here’s the bad news: 

If we hate other people, we can’t possibly love God.

But there is good news, too: 

Because of what God has done for us in Jesus, we have the power to be conduits for God’s love. 

We can choose to love each and every person who crosses our path. Not because we are so spiritually attuned or loving or generous, but because God first loved us while we still hated him. Living in his resurrection life, we can find the boldness to love even those who are hurting us, our country, and our planet.

What would it feel like to dwell in faith, hope, and love, and to feel the hatred and fear fall away?

How would this love transform our lives? How might our world change – what impossible things would become possible – if we loved one another?

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

The Bread is Enough

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/13/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 8:14-21. 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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These past few weeks I’ve been reading and re-reading the gospel of Mark in my Life Transformation Group with Robbie and Chuck. Each time I read through any passage of scripture – in this case the gospel of Mark – I always encounter something new and different in the text. It’s always fresh; God is always speaking to us through scripture in new ways. 

This last time reading through the Gospel of Mark, I noticed a critical moment in the story. A key scene where the world turns.

You could argue that many different parts of Mark are sort of the critical moment, the fulcrum that the whole text hinges on. Maybe you’d argue that it’s the part in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and disciples keep falling asleep. You could argue that a pivotal moment in Mark is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the healing of Bartimaeus. Maybe it’s Jesus’ healing of the man with a withered hand in the synagogue in chapter three, when the Pharisees turn totally against Jesus and decide to destroy him.

The transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the scripture. And so of course is the crucifixion and the empty tomb. But reading through the story this time, I realized that, for Mark and for Jesus, one of the most important moments in this story is one that I – to be honest – have always sort of skimmed over and not paid a lot of attention to. It’s a story that hasn’t quite fit into my worldview. Maybe it hasn’t fit into yours, either.

It turns out that for Jesus, one of the key moments of revelation – one of the key ways to understand what Jesus is about – is when he feeds the five thousand and the four thousand. When he multiplies the loaves and fishes and provides for people who were out in the wilderness and had nothing to eat.

In our reading this morning, we hear about Jesus and his disciples immediately after Jesus had fed the four thousand. They’re in the boat. And as they’re traveling along on the water, the disciples start worrying. Because they realize that on their way into the boat they didn’t think to stop and get any bread. So they’re talking amongst themselves saying, “Oh gosh! We didn’t stop by the grocery store before we left. What are we gonna eat on this boat voyage across the sea of Galilee? We’re gonna be hungry.” 

But there’s something more important than hunger, even. Because you know, Jesus’ disciples being disciples, they probably knew how to fast. They probably knew how to go without food for a day or two. So even more important than “what are we gonna eat” is: “Isn’t Jesus gonna be disappointed in us for not thinking to pick up bread, to pick up food from the supermarket before we left town?” 

And so Jesus, well, it’s a small boat. I don’t think it’s a big boat. So Jesus notices that the disciples are whispering to one another and discussing things in low tones. And it’s a little bit tense.

And so Jesus asked them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Why are you worried about this?” He says, “Do you not still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember when I broke the bread for the five thousand? When I did that we had five loaves and we fed five thousand people! And how much did we have in leftovers?”

“Twelve baskets,” the disciples said. 

“And when we broke seven loaves for four thousand people just a couple days ago, how many basketfuls of leftovers were there?” 

The disciples answered, “Seven.” 

And Jesus said, “Do you still not understand? Do you still not see what I’m about? Do you still not see that the God who is here present with you is the same God who fed your fathers and your mothers in the desert of Sinai? Who fed you in the wilderness with manna from heaven? Who gave you so much meat when you asked for it that it came out of your noses and you got sick of it!”

“Do you still not perceive, do you still not understand what you’re dealing with here? You don’t need to be worrying about bread.”

“You don’t need to be worrying about how we’re gonna get by. The God you serve – my father – is the God of manna. He is the God who provides for his children.”

So you’re worried about bread. We’re worried about bread. I’m worried about bread. I’m worried about how we’re gonna get by. Maybe not in terms of the bare necessities. Many of us are lucky enough to not be worrying about where our next meal is coming from. But we’re nervous, too. We’re nervous that there’s not gonna be enough.

We’re worried that this country that we live in, that our communities are not going to have what they need. That this church maybe isn’t going to make it. We’re afraid that, “Well, maybe we won’t grow. Maybe the church is going to have to close someday. Maybe we’re not going to make it. Maybe our society has become so secular that it doesn’t have any use for the gospel anymore.”

Maybe, maybe we’re done for. Maybe we forgot the bread.

Where are we going to get that bread of life from?

It’s interesting, because Jesus is actually the one who starts the conversation. The disciples hadn’t even remembered that they forgot and the bread, right? They didn’t even realize they didn’t have bread until Jesus said something to them – until Jesus used a bread metaphor. He said, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” Right? 

Because right before they got on the boat, Jesus had been debating with the Pharisees. The Pharisees had been demanding that Jesus give them a sign from heaven, to prove that he was indeed the Messiah. That he was the one who God had sent to lead Israel. And Jesus, when the Pharisees asked him for a sign, for a demonstration of power and wonder, Jesus said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” And that’s when Jesus left and got on the boat. And the disciples forgot the bread. 

And it’s interesting. Because, Jesus had just performed an enormous sign, right? He just fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread, and had seven baskets of leftovers afterwards. So Jesus had just performed an enormous sign that modern people like us find hard to believe nowadays. Hard to believe that this could even have happened. 

Now there are different theories about how it might have happened according to the laws of physics, including that Jesus sharing what he had, and the disciples sharing what they had, encouraged everyone else to share and that’s why there was enough. Maybe. It’s this miraculous thing that, even today, we have a tough time making sense of.

And yet when the Pharisees come to him and say, “Give us a sign, rabbi! We want to believe you’re the Messiah, if you just show us some thunder and lightning. Show us some fire and smoke. In the Torah it says that God showed our forefathers and foremothers a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide us through wilderness. Can you just show us a pillar of fire please? We want to know that it’s really you.”

And Jesus says: “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly, I tell you no sign will be given to it.” 

He shut them down.

And this is a consistent theme. Throughout the Gospels – and specifically in the Gospel of Mark – when people come to Jesus to test him, when people come to Jesus asking for a sign, he turns them down. He will not perform for them.

And yet Jesus is performing miracles all the time. He’s healing people. He’s feeding people. He’s changing people’s lives. He’s casting out demons. He’s changing hearts and minds. He’s turning people towards God.

So why would this be? Why would Jesus be so full of miracles and yet refuse to perform signs for those who questioned him, who want to test him?

“Do you still not understand?”

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Are your heart’s hardened?”

When Jesus performs miracles in the gospel of Mark, it’s consistent that a necessary requisite for these miracles – for these signs of healing and presence and power from God – a necessary requisite is faith. It says that when Jesus went back to his hometown in Nazareth, people took offense at him, because he was just one of the old boys from town. He had grown up there. Everybody knew his parents. They knew his mom and his brothers and sisters. And they were like, “Who is this guy that he is doing all these mighty works of power?”

“Who does he think he is?”

And it says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there. It says offhandedly – “yeah, you know, he just, he healed a few people. But nothing too big, you know.” Which, for me, if I saw someone heal a few people, to me that would be pretty big. But for Jesus, he just healed a few people – just a few – because their unbelief was so great. Because there was such a distrust of him. A desire to test him and desire to judge him.

Mark says he was unable to perform many wonders there. It doesn’t say he chose not to; it says he couldn’t perform many great works there. Just a few healings. Because of their unbelief.

And then you look at the places where people are healed. Where miracles do occur. You look at the crowds who had been with him for days out in the wilderness and they had nothing to eat. They believed in him, they trusted him, they were following him, they wanted to be with Jesus.

And so when the disciples say, “Look Jesus, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, you should send these people home or to the surrounding villages to get some food.” Jesus says, “Look, it’s far away. People are gonna faint. People aren’t gonna make it to the surrounding villages. You give them something to eat.”

You give them something to eat. We are gonna provide for these folks. 

“Well all we have is a few loaves.”

Do you not yet understand? The loaves are enough. The loaves are enough for those who trust in Jesus. For those who trust in God.

The loaves are enough. For the man with a withered hand. Who Jesus met in the synagogue that day and healed him even though it was the Sabbath. 

The loaves are enough. For the woman with chronic bleeding that excluded her from religious life and made her a pariah. Who touched Jesus, trusting that if she could just touch him, if she could just touch the hem of his garment, she would be healed from the bleeding that had kept her on the outside. Kept her isolated and alone and impoverished for twelve years.

The bread was enough.

So as we are gathered here as disciples of Jesus. As friends of Jesus. As his people. As we’re gathered together in this time of global and national crisis. Of economic and political and health uncertainty. The bread is enough.

We have Jesus here in the boat with us. Jesus is the bread of life.

He’s broken for us. He’s multiplied for us.

If we will believe. If we will trust him.

If we will stop. Worrying. About how bad things look. And remember how big God is. How much bigger God is than our circumstance. How much more loving and beautiful God is than our fearful imagination.

The bread is enough.

Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember? What God has already done for you? For us? Don’t you remember the ways that God has already brought you through?

I need to be reminded. I need to remember how many times I felt like I couldn’t go any farther. I felt like I was hopeless. And there was no way to get where I wanted to go or to be the person I wanted to be.

But the bread was enough. Jesus was enough. Trusting him was enough. 

More than enough. There were baskets and baskets of leftovers. There was enough for me and plenty to share. There was grace and life and resources overflowing.

When we’re scared. When we’re angry. And when we trust ourselves and our own wisdom more than God. It’s tempting to want to test God. In our hearts, in our minds, to say to God: “Send me a sign, Lord. I don’t really trust you. So if you’re going to convince me, I need you to send me a sign. I need you to make it clear. I need you to make it unambiguous. I need you to prove it to me.”

And to those frightened, self-assured, apparently wise people who challenged Jesus in this way. Jesus said, “No. I’m not giving you a sign. I’m not proving anything to you.”

Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever been praying and asking God to prove it to you? Have you ever said, “God just do this thing for me! Just show me and I’ll believe.”

And it feels like heaven is empty. And faith is a lie.

But the bread is enough.

If rather than seeking to test Jesus. Seeking to prove God. To remove ambiguity. To reassure ourselves and feel safe and secure and smart.

If we’ll trust Jesus.

Without surefire proof. Without mathematical certainty. If we’ll trust him. If we’ll love him. If we’ll humble ourselves and be his friends. If we’ll let go of our worry, and know that we follow the God who fed the people of Israel in the desert. The God who raised Jesus from the dead. The God who created the whole universe. We’ll know that the bread is enough. 

And we will be healed. We will be fed. In all the ways that are important. And there will be basketfuls of leftovers for us to share with the hungry. Those who are still seeking. Those who are still thirsty. We will have leftovers to lay before them. 

Joy. Peace. An abundant life. A testimony of how God has worked in our lives. And a willingness to work for others.

So watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod. The puffed up pride that says, “God, why don’t you prove it to me?”

Because Jesus has exposed that that kind of pride – it masquerades as strength, but it’s weakness.

It’s weakness. It’s fear. It’s smallness. It’s ignorance.

It’s a refusal to let go and to trust the only one who is worthy of absolute trust.

As we know from the ending of the story. The ending of the gospels, the story of the book of Acts. The story of our Quaker ancestors. We know that though God will take care of us and the bread is enough, it doesn’t always mean that things will go the way we want them to.

It doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. It doesn’t mean we won’t die.

But it does mean that we get to participate in the resurrection.

We get to participate in a life beyond these present troubles. And it’s that life that empowers us. To live fully – and joyfully – even in the midst of this situation.

The bread is enough.

“Go Ahead, Throw Your Love Away” – Or Why Love is Greater Than Ideology

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/23/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 14:3-9. 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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This morning’s scripture reading provides a glimpse into Jesus’ world right before everything falls apart. A moment of peace before the storm. This is right before the beginning of Passover. A couple of days before the last supper. Before Jesus’ desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before his trial and crucifixion.

In this tender, pregnant moment, Jesus is at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Bethany was a place of safety and refuge for Jesus. It was his home base. This is where his truest friends lived. After his tumultuous visit to Jerusalem, with the cleansing of the Temple and public debates with the priests and scribes and Pharisees, Jesus retreats to Bethany to be with people who truly knew him and loved him.

It says that Jesus was staying at the house of Simon the leper. This location underscores the upside-down nature of Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom he proclaims. Jesus and his disciples made forays into the realm of the wealthy, the powerful, the respectable – but their true home was in the desolate places, on the margins, in the homes of those who the world judged to be unworthy, unclean.

And it says that they were seated together at the table, enjoying a moment of peace and friendship, when a woman entered the house, bringing with her an alabaster jar. This woman moved boldly. She did not ask permission. She touched Jesus, and poured expensive perfumed oil over Jesus’ head.

Some of the disciples seated around the table reacted immediately, with hostility. “What are you doing? Who do you think you are? Why are you wasting this precious ointment, which could have been sold for nearly a year’s wages? What you just poured on Jesus’ head could have been better used to feed the hungry and clothe the poor!”

These disciples had a point. This woman had just squandered wealth in an outrageous fashion. Wouldn’t it have been more loving – and more in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching – to sell the costly ointment and give the money to the poor?

How many of us, if we were there, might have responded in the same way? “We need to be fiscally responsible. We can’t just be burning money like this. We need to steward our resources wisely.”

We might have been surprised, along with the disciples, to find that Jesus didn’t share our point of view. Quite the opposite. Jesus said, 

“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Jesus understood that the disciples were not basing their objection to the woman’s action in real agape love for other people. It was about power. It was about control. It was about establishing themselves as an in-crowd – people who followed the rules and obeyed the commandments of Jesus. 

Jesus had said, “sell what you have and give the money to the poor,” so now those were the rules. The apostles sought to follow this new law of Jesus to the letter, and through their obedience to it, they hoped to become masters of the law. Like the scribes and Pharisees, their instinct was to turn God’s word into a legal code to be parsed. They saw the law of God as a source of social cohesion and power.

So when they rebuked the woman, it wasn’t about love; it was about control. It was about putting the woman in her place. This woman who dared to get close to Jesus, to touch him, to get into this intimate space with Jesus that his core disciples thought was only for them.

Jesus sees the insecurity and gate-keeping of the disciples. He sees how they are already beginning to turn his teaching into just another law to be parsed and bounded by human tradition. He looks around at his disciples, and he doesn’t see love for enemies and the child-like trust that he has been teaching. He sees the will-to-power of the men closest to him. He sees that they are already becoming like the priests and religious leaders who are about to kill Jesus.

If the disciples fail to learn this lesson – that God’s kingdom is not a law but a relationship of love with Jesus – they will end up building a new religion on top of Jesus’ words. They will construct a religion just as soul-destroying as the power politics of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees in Jerusalem.

But there is reason for hope. Because not all of the disciples are so blind. This woman, despite being outside of Jesus’ inner circle – or perhaps because she is – has found the way into the kingdom, the narrow way that leads to life.

Jesus saw to the heart of the woman’s action. He perceived the prophetic spirit that has guided her act of service. This act of anointing is a sign from God. The word “Christ,” after all, literally means “the anointed one.” Anointing with oil is a seal of messiahship. Jesus had already been anointed with water and the Holy Spirit at the river Jordan. Now he was being anointed with oil for burial. This anointing prepared him for his coronation on the cross.

Based on their reaction to the prophetic action of the woman, it seems that many of Jesus’ closest friends had lost sight of what Jesus was truly here to do. The kingdom of God had become an abstract idea for them, because human beings had become abstract for them, too. 

For some of the disciples, “the poor” had become an idea. An ideology. Love for the poor and the marginalized had become a theory rather than a relationship with real flesh and blood. In the famous words of Charlie Brown, they had come to say, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”

Because humanity, as an abstract concept, is a cause that one can build a whole power structure around. But people – actual human beings – are messy, and they get in the way of our ambitions.

The woman with her alabaster jar was messy like that. She broke into what the apostles assumed was their special space with Jesus. She interrupted. This woman disciple may or may not have had any grand vision of humanity, but she loved Jesus. She responded to the Spirit that told her to pour that precious ointment on Jesus’ head, regardless of the cost. The woman discovered holy immoderation, the foolishness of God that abandons obedience to the rules in order to be faithful to incarnate love.

This woman is never identified by name. She is simply “a woman.” And I don’t believe this is an accident. Theologian Ched Myers suggests that the woman here “represents the female paradigm, which in Mark embodies both ‘service’ and an ability to ‘endure’ the cross…” as well as care for the body of Jesus.

The apostles still don’t seem to understand where this story is leading. Mere days before Jesus’ execution, they still believe that Jesus is going to lead them to triumph against the authorities in Jerusalem and Rome. The men don’t seem to get it, but the woman does. In the midst of much theorizing and jockeying for power, she demonstrates her flesh-and-blood solidarity with Jesus, giving everything she has with no hope of return.

And Jesus says: Look. That’s love. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

How often are we as modern day disciples of Jesus just like the apostles in this story? How often do we make a new law out of Christianity, or Quakerism? It’s so easy to turn our faith in Jesus into a source of identity, a framework for justifying ourselves in our own eyes, and a justification for exercising power over others.

For most of human history, in most times and places, that’s been religion’s primary purpose: Identity, psychological security, and control. Knowing who we are, what our place is, and whether we are “ok” or not.

That’s natural. That’s what humans tend to do. But that’s not the faith of Jesus.

Jesus invites us into the faith of the woman. The faith that abandons everything to show love to real people. Not abstractions. Not categories. Not ideologies. But real flesh and blood. People we know and touch and pour out our lives for.

As Christians – and particularly as Christians in the Quaker tradition, with a strong emphasis on social justice as central to the gospel – we are at great risk of turning social justice into an ideology in the same way that the apostles did in this story. Especially now, in this age of social media, cable news, and constant bombardment by corporate and political advertising, we are in danger of loving humanity but hating people when they get in the way of our program.

But there is another way of seeing. There is an alternative to the prison of ideological thinking. We can receive Christ’s call to social justice by embracing the way of the woman, pouring out everything for the love of the real, flesh-and-blood people around us. We can release our hunger for victory and self-justification, and pour out our lives for love. 

Just like Jesus did.

Why Are We Afraid to Make Disciples?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/26/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 28:16-20. 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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Have you ever been in a secret relationship? Have you ever had a boyfriend or a girlfriend who you couldn’t take home to mama? Has there ever been someone in your life that you kept secret from your friends, because you were scared of what people might say?

We’re humans. We have relationships like these. Happens every day. We claim that we love another person. We say they’re our friend, or our lover. We say that we care about them. But we don’t want to face what it would mean to us, socially, if our relationship were out in the open.

Why would anybody want to be in a relationship like that? If you’re so ashamed of this person, if you’re so worried about your reputation, why would you be hanging around with them in the first place? Either your love for them is a lie, or the fact that you’re hiding your relationship is a betrayal. Either way, it’s time to quit with the games and make an honest choice.

Have you ever kept your relationship with God a secret? Have you ever been in a conversation with someone in your family, or a friend, or a coworker, and you stopped yourself from talking about your faith? Maybe you just changed the subject. Or you “translated” the truth of your heart to sanitize it for a secular environment. Have you ever hidden your faith like that? Have you ever been ashamed of God?

I know I have. Living in wealthy, sophisticated, urban areas of the United States – for a decade in Washington, DC, and now in the Bay Area – I’ve definitely let that sleeping dog lie. If I was going to talk about the most important things in life – truth, justice, integrity – there have definitely been times when I code switched. I’ve left God out of it. I’ve made my point without revealing the true source of my convictions.

Sometimes it feels like I’m cheating on God. It reminds me of that song from the late Nineties, by Destiny’s Child: “Say My Name.” Some of you might remember it.

Say my name, say my name
If no one is around you, say, “Baby I love you”
If you ain’t runnin’ game
Say my name, say my name
You acting kind of shady, ain’t callin’ me baby
Why the sudden change?

Why the sudden change? Why do we hide our relationship with God? Why do we pretend to be so nice? Why do we act like we’re good people? Why do we pretend that our core motivation is some generic, American sense of love? Why don’t we confess that it’s the power and Spirit of Jesus that has set us free? Why don’t we acknowledge that it’s his love coursing through our lives, compelling us to action?

Why the sudden change? Why won’t we say his name? Who are we cheating on Jesus with?

It’s easy to say that we love God. It’s convenient to say that our mission as Christians is to practice the Great Commandment – “love God and love people” – which both the Book of Deuteronomy and Jesus himself command us to do. We are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But this is not just any love. This is the love of Jesus Christ. And we have to say his name. Because this world thinks it knows what love is. It thinks that love is being nice and appropriate. It thinks that love is giving to charity, and caring for your spouse and kids. It thinks love is what we see on TV. It thinks that love is a feeling. It thinks love is safe.

But the love that we know is dangerous. We worship the God who revealed true love in the broken body of Jesus on the cross. The love that we have experienced, the incarnate love that we worship, is love for enemies. Laying down our lives so that the whole world can be redeemed. This is the love that God promised to Abraham and Sarah, through which all the families of the world will be blessed.

How is the world to know about this startling, self-sacrificing love of God? How are we to receive this love when we are blinded and confused by the false, selfish love of this world? For thousands of years, the church has looked to the words of Jesus that we heard this morning. This passage that the church has traditionally called the Great Commission.

These were Jesus’ instructions to his original disciples. Here, Jesus lays out what God’s love looks like when put into practice. And what did he say? He said:

Go.

Go and make disciples of all nations.

Go and immerse them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Go and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Go, and remember: I am with you always. Even to the end of the age.

And let’s notice what he didn’t say. What didn’t Jesus include in his commission to the Twelve? Jesus didn’t say “go and make propaganda.” He didn’t say, “go and convince people you’re right.” He said, “go and make disciples.” Disciples to whom? To Jesus. Not to us. To Jesus.

He said to teach them. Teach what? To know and obey Jesus. Who? Not Peter, not Paul, not me, not you. Jesus.

The Great Commission is not about replicating our opinions. This is not about building a religious empire or gaining superiority over other people. What Jesus has called us to do is to bring other people to learn from him. To come to him. To be transformed by him. To become a brother and sister to us in Jesus. Because he loves us, and we must learn to love the whole world like Jesus does.

Jesus says that we are to baptize others – to immerse them. Into what? Into our denomination? Our ideology? Our ego? No. We are to immerse our lives and the lives of those we meet into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That we may be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one.

We are to teach others to follow Jesus. Not us, but the living and resurrected Jesus. The foundation and cornerstone of our faith is that he is here, alive, ready to teach his people himself. And just as Jesus has invited us, we are to invite others. He calls us to join him in that teaching ministry.

What Jesus is saying here is that, if we want to practice the Great Commandment – to love God and love people – we must practice the Great Commission. We must share the victory announcement of the Kingdom of God. We must share the joy and peace and love we have found in Jesus. 

We have to say his name.

Why is this so hard? Because it is, right? It’s hard to talk to people about Jesus. It feels so personal, so intimate. It’s hard to talk about how much he means to us. Sometimes it’s even hard to talk about our relationship with Jesus with people here in this church. It’s even more challenging to share these things with people in our workplace, or in our family, or folks we are just getting to know.

Why does it feel like a burden to share the cornerstone of our lives, the reason for our hope and faith? Maybe we’re afraid others will judge us. I’ve felt that, have you? 

Sometimes, I worry that people will think less of me. Maybe if I talk about Jesus with a coworker, it would be inappropriate. They might think I’m a religious fanatic – or maybe just annoying. I know I don’t want to risk that kind of shame. I don’t want to feel vulnerable like that. I bet you don’t either.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tempted to justify my fear by telling myself that I really am obeying Jesus in my own way. I tell myself, “Well, maybe I’m not talking explicitly about the details of my faith with others – sure, I’m not telling them about my relationship with Jesus – but I’m showing my faith through the way that I live. I’m loving God, and loving people. And that’s what really matters, right? I’ll go ahead and follow the Great Commandment, and I’ll let others do the whole Great Commission thing.”

I get this. Because, at first glance, the Great Commandment seems selfless. It’s unquestionably selfless and pure to love God and love people, right? Not even an anti-religious person could really argue with that one! But the Great Commission, that’s a little different. It seems kind of ideological. And so many religious groups have used it as a proof text for why they need to be standing on street corners and BART stations, going door to door to try to get other people to accept their ideology. Right? The way it’s often been used and interpreted, the Great Commission can seem pretty salesy. 

But if we’re truly practicing the Great Commission, it’s just as ego-free as the Great Commandment. Because the Great Commission is about love. It’s about sharing God’s message with others, so that each person we meet has an opportunity to experience the love, and forgiveness, and power that we have received through Jesus Christ. 

We can’t love others if we won’t teach them to follow Jesus. We can’t love others if we don’t share the good news that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death; that he’s risen from the dead and here to teach his people himself. 

We can’t love God if we aren’t willing to be seen with him in public. We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves if we won’t share the message of salvation that means so much to our own lives. We have to say his name.

This is a heavy lift in our culture. At least in the circles I run in, it can feel like there’s an unspoken agreement that we should leave religion at the door. Religion is a private matter, like sex. It’s fine if you want to do it, but please keep it to yourself.

So it makes sense that those of us gathered together as Berkeley Friends Church are not so different from the first disciples. We’re scared of what Jesus is asking us. It says, “they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some of us are doubting right now. And all of us, each and every one of us, has doubted at some point or another. Probably at many points along the way, am I right?

Jesus wasn’t concerned with the doubting. He didn’t stop and chastise the disciples who doubted. Jesus didn’t have time for shame. He kept bringing the disciples back to the cruciform love of God. He kept sharing his commandments: Love God. Love one another. Love your friends. Love your enemies.

Go and make disciples of all nations – even the Romans, who nailed me to a cross. Go and make disciples. Teach them to follow the way of love that I have taught you. Immerse them into the life that I have given you. Go, and make disciples.

We could never do this on our own. It would be impossible to overcome the flow of our culture and swim against the current if all of this were just a nice idea. But the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. We are empowered to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and love our neighbors as ourselves. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Because Jesus is with us always. Always. Even until the end of the age.

What does it look like for us to be faithful to Jesus’ Great Commission? What does it mean for us to be sent and to go? 

How are we making disciples of all nations – all people regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, or language, or national origin, or any other facet of their identity? 

What are we doing to bless the people that God has placed in our lives, immersing them into the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

How are we being called to teach the spiritually tender people that God has connected us with. How are we teaching them to obey the risen and living Jesus?

The ways we share the victory announcement of the kingdom will vary depending on each person, each situation. We rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us. But if we are to continue in love, if we are to embrace this life-transforming relationship that we have with Jesus, we have to say his name.

Is It Too Late for Berkeley Friends Church?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 12:1-9 and Hebrews 11:8-12. 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

A couple of years ago, Faith and I were living in Washington, DC. We had a pretty good life there. We both had work we enjoyed. Our kids had school and childcare that met their needs. We loved our home and had some good friends. We felt comfortable.

We were at rest in our lives, but we were uneasy in our spirits. As well as things were going for us, we felt a yearning for more. More life. More spirit. More of God’s presence leading us, guiding us, flowing through our words and actions.

Even when everything rational told us that we should feel full, something gnawed at us, telling us we were empty. Our feet were firmly planted, but we could sense that God was calling us to take another step.

So when Dorothy Kakimoto reached out to us, asking us if we were open to exploring coming to serve as pastors at Berkeley Friends Church, we were ready to have that conversation with you. And as it became clear that God was clearing a path for us to join you here in California, we were prepared to embrace that invitation.

It would have been easy to resist that call, to turn away from the opening. There was a temptation to choose the easy, safe path – to continue doing the things that were mostly working and hope for the best. But we could sense that, in the words of Frank Herbert, “that path leads ever down into stagnation.” We could be safe, or we could be faithful; we had to choose.

In our readings this morning, we hear about Sarah and Abraham – back when they were still called Sarai and Abram. They had a choice to make. On the one hand, they had their safe, stable, predictable life in Haran. That’s where their family was, where they had gained their wealth and security. But they heard God calling them to set out on an adventure.

God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Go from everything that you’ve ever known. Go from those things that make you safe and comfortable, into a place you’ve never seen. Go, because you can trust me. Go, and I will be with you. I will bless you in every way. Go, and all the families of the earth will be blessed, too.

That’s a big leap of faith for anyone. But especially for Abraham and Sarah. Because they were very old, and they had no children. As far as they could see, their family had no future. They thought they were the end of the line. Yet they could hear the call of the Spirit of God. They felt the hunger for more. They could sense that there was a great adventure that they were being invited into.

God told Abraham and Sarah to go, and they went. They went out of the land where they had lived their whole lives, into a new place. The Lord showed them where their descendents would someday live – not as a wandering family, but as a great nation. 

And here’s an interesting part. They got to pitch their tent in the promised land. They got to drink from the rivers and eat from the fruit trees of Canaan. And while they camped in this land, God promised them that it would someday be a homeland for their family.

But then God called them to keep moving. It says that, after building an altar to God in the land he had promised, Abraham moved on. First to the east, and then south towards the Negeb. Abraham and Sarah had taken the big risk, and they had seen the promised land. But now they had to keep moving, because the promise was not only for them, but for all their descendents, for the next generation and on, and on.

I see this story in my own life. I see how God has called our family to uproot and travel to a land we don’t know, so that we will be blessed, and others will be blessed through us. I know that we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but we are on the path. We are living the adventure, with God leading us day by day.

We had something good in Washington, DC. We got to pitch our tent there, and we ate some of that promised-land fruit. But God wasn’t done with us. We had to keep moving, to cooperate with the grander, more beautiful vision that God has for us. 

If we wanted to be faithful, we couldn’t cling to our own comfort; we couldn’t accept just getting by. We had to let go of our own personal experience of the promised land so that we could become a blessing to the world. Because the promised land is not just for us; God wants to invite the whole world. God is giving us a hope and a future beyond our own little family as we know it today. God is expanding the circle, blessing all the families of the earth.

Can you see yourself in this story? Can you see Berkeley Friends Church? How are we, as a community, like Abraham and Sarah? Can we hear God calling us to a new adventure, a risky path of going where God calls us and discovering the promised land where God will lead us? Could God use Berkeley Friends Church to bless all the families of the earth, just like Abraham and Sarah?

I believe so. Because we’re a lot like Abraham and Sarah. As a community, we’re wealthy. We’re successful. We’re comfortable. We’re old. And, let’s admit it: we’re afraid that maybe we don’t have a future.

Abraham and Sarah thought that their family would die with them. That they would have no children to carry on their story. They were living their lives in a defensive crouch, waiting for the end.

So it must have come as a big shock when they discovered God calling them into a new adventure. At the age of 75, God was telling them, “Go! Try something new! Take a big risk, and I will walk with you. I will bless you. I will give you life, a hope and a future.”

Where did they find the courage to do this? What vision did they see that energized them to set on this long journey – a journey that still to this day is not over? 

The author of the Book of Hebrews says that Abraham and Sarah perceived something that no one else around them could. They experienced a hope that, at the time, must have seemed totally unrealistic. But on the basis of faith, they acted. They took the big leap and found that the God who spoke to them was trustworthy. 

God filled Abraham and Sarah with a powerful vision. He gave them eyes to see the future glory of God’s kingdom. A chain of events that God would use them to set in motion. A family history that would culminate in the savior of the world, Jesus Christ. 

And so in this hope, they set out on their great adventure. Hebrews says that they “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” They knew that they would not personally reach the end of the story, but by faith they knew how the story ended.

Even more than Abraham and Sarah, we know how this story ends. We know that the Lord Jesus has sat down at the right hand of the Father. We know that, in spite of all the terrible shakings we are witnessing right now, that the God we worship created the entire cosmos, and he sees ahead to the end. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

This is the reality that Abraham and Sarah experienced, leaving their home in Haran thousands of years ago, back when the Middle East was still the Fertile Crescent. This is the faith, hope, and love that gave them the courage to risk abandoning everything they knew – even in their old age – to embrace the great adventure that the Spirit whispered in their hearts.

Do you hear that whisper? What is the adventure that the Spirit is beckoning us to discover together? What are the risks that we must take, the safety that we must abandon, to be reborn in our descendants and become a blessing to our city, our nation, our cosmos?

You are not an accident. We are not an accident. It’s not random coincidence that we’ve been drawn together at this point in history. God has called us to be Berkeley Friends Church, to be this particular community in Jesus Christ. The Spirit has called each one of us here. God has a purpose for us, and he is ready to guide us together.

2020 is a time of shaking, the likes of which we’ve never experienced. In times like these, it’s natural to want to retreat to the beforetimes. It can be tempting to say, “Oh, boy – I’ll sure be glad when this is all over. When the pandemic ends, we get a vaccine, and we can all go back to the way things were before. Lord, take me back to 2019!”

There’s no going back to 2019. Things will never be like they were before. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s a good thing. We knew in 2019 that our community needed a change. We knew that God was calling us to something deeper. We had that hunger that Abraham and Sarah experienced, that deep desire for more of God, more of his life and power and spirit in our lives. We wanted more, and we knew the status quo couldn’t get us where we wanted to go.

Well, good news: The status quo is gone. 2020 has swept all of that away. We are in brand-new, uncharted territory. We don’t know what comes next. All we do know is that we serve a God who sends us out. We serve a God who invites us into the risky path of vulnerability, discovery, and adventure.

We stand with Abraham and Sarah on the border of Haran, looking out at the road ahead. We stand with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee as he calls our name. We stand with the apostles, as the Holy Spirit fills the whole house and joins us into one body, one community. Together with all the saints, we “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Do you hear that voice? Do you hear the call? Do you feel the hope breaking through the fear? Are you ready for the adventure?

The years to come will not be like those that came before. Our community will change in ways we can’t even imagine right now. This is a good thing. We are blessed – and God will make us a blessing to the world.

Let go of your fear. We don’t have to die without descendants. God has given us a future. The future will be different. We will have to change. But God will care for us. Open yourself to the adventure. God wants to bless us and make us as numerous as the stars.

Say “yes” when God says “go.” Say “yes” to God’s adventure. Say “yes” to the stretching and struggle and upheaval that stands before us. Because we will pitch our tents in the promised land and eat from the fruit trees there. We will set up our altar and give praise to God in the land where he is leading us. We will journey onward, led by the Spirit and trusting in Jesus to prepare a place for us. There is a home for us, and many are yet to be gathered.

Even In Our Grief, The Kingdom of God is Here

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/28/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Revelation 4, 12:7-12. 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

The week after George Floyd was murdered, I heard a lot of people saying things like, “this week has been a long month.” This resonated with me. That week was a long month, and this year has been a long decade – and we’re only half way through!

Remember January? That world we lived in seems like another time and place. Back then, we could go to work and school, and go to the grocery store without wearing a mask. We could go to playgrounds and parks. We could travel. We could go to church in person, at the meeting house, and eat delicious snacks together at fellowship hour.

Back then, we could imagine, we could hope that our political process might bring us some economic justice. We could dream that the status quo might be able to maneuver to address the civilization-ending threat of the ecological crisis. Back then, many of us white people could comfort ourselves with illusions about the state of racism, criminal justice, and policing in our country. We could tell ourselves that the problem was Trump, and that once he left office America could go back to being a pluralistic, post-racist society. Just like we wanted to imagine it was under the Obama administration.

This year has been a long decade. It’s been a season of plagues – immunological, economic, ecological, and cultural. In the last four months, we here in the United States have watched our already very fragile civil society shattering. We here in California have become part of the Western States Pact – a grouping of US states that have been coordinating a response to the pandemic in the absence of any meaningful federal leadership.

We’ve seen armed men take to statehouses. We’ve seen nationwide protests, and a police response that is nothing short of criminal gangsterism. We’ve seen our national institutions stretched to the breaking point, and – in the case of the police – losing their moral authority altogether.

This year, this decade, this century, has shattered so many of our illusions. We wanted to believe we were good people. We wanted to believe that we belonged to a society that – despite having problems and room to grow – was fundamentally just.

But war broke out in heaven.

War broke out in heaven. In the realm of the spirit, in the realm of how-things-really-are, we have entered into struggle. The dragon, that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world, has been thrown down. He has been defeated, and his angels have been thrown down with him. There is no longer any place for them in the heavenly realms.

We are in a spiritual warfare now. We can see this war. We see it in our streets and in the halls of power. Sometimes we even see it in our families and our friendships. It feels like the world is being ripped apart by this war that started in the heavenlies and has spilled out into our lives on earth.

The writer of the Book of Revelation knew this struggle intimately. The apostle John lived in a world dominated by violence and brutality, an empire in which the followers of Jesus were routinely threatened, mistreated, and even murdered. He lived in an empire that nailed Jesus to the cross, and did not hesitate to do the same to his disciples.

John wrote his Apocalypse in the midst of this struggle. John was incarcerated and exiled on the island of Patmos for his faith. And he was one of the lucky ones – for as far as we know he was probably the only one of the twelve apostles to die from old age, rather than as a martyr. Still, John was having a hard time. Not only was he being persecuted, he had lost all his best friends, and was being forced to watch the continued suffering of his precious brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yet in the midst of all this pain – even as John watched the community of Jesus followers being brutalized by authorities throughout the Roman Empire – he wrote the Book of Revelation as a message of hope. It’s a message of reassurance, that – in the words of George Fox – “the power of the Lord is over all.”

The Book of Revelation has a pretty bad reputation these days. It’s known by many as a book of wild-eyed prophecies about the “end times,” and how God will cause cataclysm across the whole world before he brings history to an end. It’s been used by fanatics and cultists to justify all kinds of horror. And in recent decades, mainstream charlatans and false prophets like the authors of the Left Behind series, have used John’s Apocalypse as a basis to deny the goodness of the world God created, and sell Christians around the world on a vision of heaven that involves the destruction of the earth.

This anti-earth vision is exactly the opposite of the truth. The truth is that “God so loves the world [that is, the created order, the whole cosmos] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God created this world we live in. God loves it. And God is determined to redeem it. This is God’s will, and he has the power to accomplish it.

This is the underlying message of the whole Book of Revelation. No matter what you’ve heard about it. No matter what some obnoxious Christian or some angry skeptic has told you, the Book of Revelation is about God’s unstoppable love. It’s a message that we need to hear today, as we face an empire even greater than Rome – as we face a social, economic, and ecological threat that is even more global than the one seen by John’s generation.

In the fourth chapter of his Apocalypse, John describes a vision of what God looks like. Enthroned in heaven. Surrounded by elders who praise him and strange beasts who sing his glory. This is the God of the burning bush and the tent of meeting. This is the God of Elijah and Jesus. This is God almighty, the everlasting and unshakable. He is worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because he created all things. Everything that exists has come into existence through his will.

And yet, things aren’t right. Everything’s all messed up right now. We humans have lost our way, and we’ve brought down the whole creation with us. How could this have happened? How did we fall so far? How did we go from being God’s image-bearers, to becoming the violators and destroyers of God’s good creation?

John tells us that we got here through the war that broke out in heaven. The war that the dragon and his angels fought against God. They sought to break everything that God had made. To destroy all authority, goodness, humility, and love. They fought against God and his angels, and so they were thrown down to the earth.

That’s where our struggle is taking place. Here on earth.

Just to be clear, this is all metaphor, and the apostle John surely understood it as such. The Book of Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic literature, which uses wild imagery – beasts and dragons, bowls and vials, strange creatures and angels – all of which symbolize deeper spiritual reality. We have to take these texts seriously, but they were never intended to be taken literally.

To understand John’s Apocalypse, you have to know something about how people in the first-century Roman Empire viewed the world. The ancient worldview was rooted in a view of the cosmos that was essentially three-layered – you had the heavenly realms, the earth where we live, and the underworld, where dead things went.

The heavenlies was where the real action was. It was the really-real, the behind-the-scenes look into what is truly occurring in our world. If any of you ever studied Plato in school, you’ll remember that he taught that everything in our world is essentially an imperfect copy of the perfect forms found in the heavenly realms. The ancient world thought in these terms, and the Book of Revelation takes this worldview as a starting point.

So when John takes us on this tour of what is happening in heaven, he’s not necessarily doing a literal and systematic cosmology. Rather, he’s using powerful imagery, coming from the world of forms – the heavenlies – to show us what is really happening in our world of flesh and blood.

It’s in this light, as an expression of the really-real, that we should hear the words of the loud voice from heaven in the fourth chapter of Revelation. That voice says this:

Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”

Now has come the salvation and the power. Now has come the kingdom of our God. Now has come the authority of his Messiah. It’s all happening now. Despite all the confusion and suffering and death, despite all the claims of the rulers of this world, who want us to believe that they are in charge. Now has come the kingdom of our God.

The enemy of our souls – that old serpent – the corrupter of the just society that we long for – he has been thrown down. Defeated. The power of evil, hatred, and death has been conquered in the heavenlies, in the world of the forms, the truest of the true. This is what’s real.

The battle still rages here on earth. But through our faith in God, we know how this story ends. Still, we’re going to have to go through the full process of redemption before we can claim the ultimate victory that Jesus won through his life, death, and resurrection.

As things stood for the early church, and as they stand now, we are seeing the consequences of the war that has taken place in the heavenly realms. It’s bad. “The devil has come down to [us] with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.” People are hurting. Dying. It’s right for us to ask where God is in all this.

John has a response to our shared cry of grief. His message to us is that God is on his throne. That now has come the salvation and the power, the authority of God’s Messiah.

John calls us to remember and trust that God is utterly powerful, supremely in control. As followers of Jesus, we can see what the people of this world cannot perceive: that the battle in the heavenlies – in the realm of the really real – is already won. The struggle that we face here on earth is just an echo of what has already taken place through God’s action in Jesus Christ. We have already conquered through the blood of the Lamb who was slain.

This is the perspective that the author of the Book of Revelation wants to ground us in. John’s Apocalypse is all about seeing through a world that is falling to pieces. It’s about seeing through this time of crisis, destruction, and horror, to perceive the spiritual reality that lies underneath. It’s about recognizing the role we have to play, as peaceable and fearless followers of the Lamb, in consummating this final struggle for the liberation of the whole cosmos.

John reminds us that our role in this struggle will necessarily involve suffering. The war against the dragon and his angels is playing out on earth now, and he loves violence. But our ancient enemy can’t stand against the blood of God’s suffering servants. The spiritual forces of darkness are defeated by our willingness to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and to die for our friends.

This is the good news: That despite all the horror, violence, and hatred we see around us. Despite all the chaos, God is in control. He always has been. His victory was never in question. But as followers of Jesus, we have a part to play in bringing God’s vision of mercy and justice to fullness on earth.

God loves us. He is beautiful. He is the truth. And he sits unshakeable on his emerald-rainbow throne. “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

God’s love is all-powerful. Nothing can separate us from it. God’s creativity is unstoppable, and we can participate in it. Trusting in God’s utter faithfulness and power, we can find the courage to walk in the vulnerable way of Jesus. Not fearing. Not living in denial or whistling in the dark. But carrying a candle lit by the Spirit, buoyed up by the confidence that our Father is the Light.

Jesus Wasn’t Nice. We Can’t Be Either

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/14/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 11:37-54. 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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Good morning, nice people.

I like nice people. I like people who make me feel welcome, heard, respected. I like people who are polite. People who show courtesy. They might even be nice enough to laugh at my jokes. That would be nice.

It’s nice to be nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. He was courageous and compassionate. He was loving and strong. But nice? Not really.

In our reading this morning, Jesus gets invited to the house of a local religious leader. A pious man. A wealthy man. A man well-respected in the community. The kind of man who would host a visiting Rabbi in his home.

Jesus isn’t nice to this man at all. In fact, he is downright rude to his host.

It all starts with not washing his hands before dinner.

Now, in our culture, we understand hand-washing as a hygienic practice. It’s about avoiding the spread of disease. And now in the age of COVID, it’s more important than ever that we practice hand-washing. To wash our hands regularly is an act of compassion, both for ourselves and the people around us.

But to understand our reading this morning, we need to lay aside our culture’s relationship with hand-washing, and step into the ancient near-Eastern culture that Jesus and his countrymen inhabited. This was a pre-scientific culture. They didn’t know about germs. So why did the Pharisees consider it so important to wash hands before dinner? Why was it so offensive that Jesus didn’t do it?

For us, washing hands is more of a public health concern than a matter of politeness. But I think that there are aspects of our culture that feel closer to the ancient near-Eastern practice of hand-washing. It’s a practice tied to ideas of inside and outside, clean and unclean, common and sacred. It’s about marking boundaries and showing respect.

When we moved to California last year, we noticed that there are lots of little cultural differences between Washington, DC and the Bay Area. One of the things we noticed was that many folks out here have the tradition of removing shoes before entering the house. It’s a nice way to keep the inside of the house clean, and it symbolizes a movement from the rough and tumble of the outside world to the protected, inside world of the home. Since moving here, our family has also adopted this practice. It feels nice.

So now I’m imagining that Jesus comes to visit our family for a dinner party. When he comes in, he knows that it’s expected for him to remove his shoes at the entryway. To wear his dusty shoes into our house, to possibly get dirt and mud on our carpet – that’d be a little gross. And honestly, it would be disrespectful of us as his hosts.

That’s exactly what Jesus does to the prominent local leader who has invited him to dinner. It says that “the Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not wash first before dinner.” The word “wash” here is the same Greek word for “baptize” – it was a ritual washing that pious Jews practiced before eating. It marked the boundary between the dirt and grime – the uncleanness – of the outside world and the protected – clean – space of the home.

By not washing his hands, Jesus was ritually defiling this man’s home and dinner table! Kind of like refusing to take off your shoes in the home of a family where it’s expected to leave shoes at the door. He was tracking mud onto this man’s carpet.

Why would Jesus do this? Certainly it’s worth the effort to be polite to your host, isn’t it? Why would Jesus choose to give offense in this way?

We know from other stories that Jesus knew how to negotiate social situations in ways that were courteous. He both received and provided hospitality all the time. Think of the woman at the well, or the way Jesus fed his disciples with fish on the beach after the resurrection.

Jesus was socially aware. He was perfectly capable of being courteous and following the rules of hospitality if it was appropriate to the situation. So why did Jesus decide that now was a time to be inappropriate?

It seems clear from the reading that Jesus did not violate the rules of cleanliness by accident, or because he was just feeling cranky that day. Jesus broke what was ultimately a minor social custom in order to make a larger point about the character of the social order his host was participating in.

“Woe to you Pharisees!” he said. “You follow all the little rules. You wash your hands before dinner. You even tithe from your spice rack, to make sure you’re not doing anything improper. But your hearts are full of arrogance and hatred! You are unmarked graves that people walk over without realizing it!”

And when one of the other guests at the dinner – a religious scholar – pointed out, “Hey Jesus, chill out – you’re not being very nice,” Jesus doubled down: “Woe to you, too, bro! Your legalistic religion loads people with burdens that you aren’t willing to bear yourself. Sucks to be you! You build monuments to the prophets, but it’s your ancestors who killed them.

What’s more, you still live in the spirit of your ancestors – the spirit of violence, and oppression, and resistance to the truth. You enforce to the small rules while violating the most important commandments of God. You religious scholars are supposed to be making the knowledge of God available to everyone, but you’ve not only refused to receive this knowledge for yourself, you’re preventing others from going there.”

Jesus really is not very nice here. He can’t be. Because these are such nice people, such courteous, rule-abiding people, that nothing but the unvarnished, offensive truth can break through the pleasantries. These are such respectable folks, they’ve convinced themselves that their hatred and arrogance is holy. In their deception of those around them, they’ve deceived themselves most of all.

And it gets me to wondering: How would Jesus speak to us? How would he address my friends and family if we had him over for dinner? Would he charge us with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world? Would he charge us with the blood of the prophets that is being shed even now in June of 2020?

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those people who hear and proclaim the words of God. They are people who speak the truth, even when it results in a violent response from the powerful.

And the truth usually does elicit that kind of response. We’ve been seeing it in streets across America. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the thoroughfares of our cities to proclaim that black lives matter. They’ve broken the little rules of traffic ordinances. They’ve tracked mud into our house to get our attention. They’ve been very impolite, very loud. Because they had to be.

Politeness and propriety has failed to get the attention of the wealthy and white populations of this country that routinely benefit from police violence. The niceness of white moderates has cost countless lives. We can’t afford to be nice anymore.

We need to hear that violence and murder by the police is a daily occurrence that can no longer be tolerated. We must see the blood of the prophets, shed on the roads and on the sidewalks. We must witness the blood of the prophets who are being shot with rubber bullets, choked with chemical agents, and beaten with batons.

We must witness these things and ask ourselves: Who are we with?

Are we with the Pharisees, who follow all the little rules of niceness and cleanliness, while the prophets are being murdered? Are we the religious scholars who preach a gospel of rules and purity, while not living up to the deeper spirit of our creed? Are we those who celebrate and share quotations from Martin Luther King, while embodying the moderate white liberalism that undermined his ministry at every turn?

Following the example of Jesus, we must learn that sometimes propriety and niceness is a form of structural violence. The gospel of Jesus Christ will not be confined by the contours of propriety and good order. The kingdom of God will not be televised, and it will not take off its shoes at the front door.

It is not enough for us to be “good”, “respectable” people. We are called to be the prophets, the apostles, sent by God to deliver the good news of liberation and reconciliation that this bleeding world so desperately needs. And like all prophets, we may be called to suffer in this proclamation. Like our chief prophet, Jesus, we may be called to bleed for our convictions.

What would that look like? What does it feel like to be so liberated from complacency, hedged bets, conflict avoidance, and respectability, that we completely engage in God’s prophetic work of transformation?

We’ve gotten very good at cleaning the outside of the cup. But how often are we still full of greed and wickedness inside? How often are we submissive to the authorities of this world rather than to the kingdom of our God?

What would it mean for us to do as Jesus commands and “give for alms those things that are within”? What is within us? What is the darkness within us that must be redeemed? What must we surrender? How will our lives and community be transformed when God makes everything – even disruption and conflict – clean for us?

This morning, Jesus issues us a challenge: Will we be unmarked graves, or will we face down the power of death? Will we cower in fear while the blood of the prophets is shed in broad daylight, or will we risk the life and power that comes from Jesus? Will we be voices crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”

That would be nice.