Archive for May 2020

Which Parts of the Bible Do You Wish Weren’t There?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/24/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jude 17-25. 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 are parts of the Bible I like more than others. Parts that make me feel joyful, like John’s stories about Jesus following the resurrection. Parts that make me feel challenged and inspired, like Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Places like the first few chapters of Genesis that give me the grand sweep, the big picture.

I’ve also run into parts of the Bible that I like a lot less. The genocide of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua. The endless wars of Kings and Chronicles. Those places in Paul’s letters that – let’s be honest – sound really misogynistic.

There are parts of the Bible that I wish weren’t there.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for making his own determinations about what parts of scripture were good and which could be excluded. He actually took the time to cut out all the pieces of the Bible that he liked with a razor blade, and paste all those pieces together into a book that he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson excluded all of the supernatural miracles, Jesus’ resurrection – anything that offended his modernist sensibilities.

Martin Luther wasn’t as extreme as Jefferson, but this heavyweight of the Reformation had his favorites, too. He famously hated the book of James, calling it “an epistle of straw.” He also wanted to take out the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. Fortunately, he didn’t have his way on this one, though Protestants did exclude some books that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches still include. You may have heard of them; they’re referred to as the Apocrypha.

Anyway, I can sympathize with Jefferson and Luther, and everyone else who has ever thought, “that book really shouldn’t be in there…” There are many parts of the Bible that I have a tough time with, and the epistle of Jude, which includes this morning’s reading, is one of them.

Ever since I first read the New Testament as an adult, I’ve always hated Jude. Don’t get me wrong, Jude is an amazing letter from a literary perspective. It is some of the most hardcore, death-metal writing that we have in the canon. In fact, some of you may be familiar with the song Wandering Star by Portishead, which includes lines from this epistle. It’s a dark, dark song.

I never liked Jude, because it has always seemed to me one of the most judgmental pieces of writing in the whole Bible. Jude is amazingly harsh on people who he sees threatening his community. Jude is a shepherd who will do anything to protect his flock from mortal enemies within.

This week, my mind was drawn back to Jude, and I gave it yet another read. I expected to dislike it just as intensely as I always have.

And I was surprised. Surprised to find that the words of that old meanie Jude didn’t seem so absurdly cruel anymore. On the contrary, this letter feels deeply relevant to this moment that we are passing through as a people.

With cultural and political warfare ratcheting up to a seemingly endless intensity. With a plague devastating our nation and our world – and with even that being clutched as a weapon in the ongoing culture wars. With these culture wars being gleefully embraced, above all, by the church in America, Jude’s letter feels very fresh to me right now.

The epistle of Jude is a snapshot of a church under siege. A church that has been undermined from within by people who call themselves Christians but don’t bear the fruit of God’s love. Jude’s church is at risk of being captured by people who hold to the outward forms of Christianity, but are actually leading the whole community towards destruction.

In this short letter, Jude lays out the threat, very clearly – in very intense language that has always set me back on my heels. He warns us of people who bear the name “brother” and “sister” who are in fact intruders in the kingdom of God – people who “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

But Jude does not stop with presenting the threat; he also gives counsel on how to handle it when the body of Christ is threatened by what the early Quaker community would have called, “disorderly walking.”

I don’t have to tell you: There is a lot of disorderly walking going on in our nation and our world today. There are so many of our fellow Christians who are more committed to political expediency than to the love of God, care for the poor, and fidelity to the humble way of Jesus. The temptation to grasp the sword of civil authority is so great that it threatens to drown out the way of the cross. Which is the way Jesus embraced and calls us into. The way of Jesus is one of laying down our lives for others, choosing to die rather than to kill.

The church of Jesus Christ in the United States of America – far from embracing the cross – is instead being torn apart by our addiction to power and control. We’re being ripped asunder by our competing allegiances to political parties that care nothing for the love, life and power of God’s kingdom – only for their own short-term advantage.

Red States and Blue States. Pro-life versus pro-choice. Mask-wearers vs mask-resisters. These are the ridiculous, self-defeating binaries that we, the body of Christ in America, have allowed ourselves to be lured into. We have allowed the politics and power games of this nation to worm their way into our hearts, to take the place of God in our assemblies. The tribal politics of this empire have replaced our identity as children of God themselves as our primary allegiance.

When Jude wrote his epistle, he was responding to heresy. Heresy is a fancy church word that mostly makes me think of the Spanish Inquisition. (Which, as we all know, no one ever expects!). But heresy isn’t anything fancy. It’s simple. It’s when we deliberately turn away from the truth of God to embrace a hollow falsehood. It’s the abandonment of the substance for shadows, trading reality for a delusion. Jude’s letter responds to this kind of collective delusion.

Our situation as a church today is very similar. Just like Jude, we are staring down a debilitating heresy – a falsehood that has the potential to tear the church apart, to nullify our impact and ability to show Jesus’ love to the world around us.

It’s a heresy of hatred. It’s the false doctrine of us-versus-them. It’s the spirit of false identity, that makes us identify more with colors or accents or slogans than we do with our shared kinship in the family of God and Jesus.

How do we respond when our fellow Christians are acting in ways that are hurtful, harmful, even evil? The first step, of course, is to stop playing these games. Stop treating human beings as the enemy. Refuse to invest our energy and identity into the tribes by which they divide us.

Once we’re reasonably confident that we have stepped back from the culture wars and the political crusades that demand our absolute loyalty, then we can become like Jude. Fierce mama bears who are ready to protect our community from the spread of this modern-day heresy of hatred and distrust.

Jude gives us some ideas about how we can be effective mama bears, just like him:

First of all: Pray. Spend time alone and together, waiting on the Lord. Immerse yourselves in the Holy Spirit. Wait for God’s guidance. Don’t listen to the loud and hateful voices on the news or on social media. Go within. Hear the word of life that God has spoken into your spirit. Be filled with that word. “Keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”

If we’re doing that. If we’re being faithful in this basic, challenging act of continual prayer and spiritual grounding, then there are things we can do for others, too.

Jude lays out what I see as three concentric circles of care, concern, and action:

First, he says to “have mercy on [those] who are wavering.” I think that’s probably most of us in this community. Right? Me, certainly. I’m wavering. You’re wavering. We’re struggling under the strain of the way this world is right now. It’s a tough time to be alive!

So have mercy on yourself. Take care that you don’t get too deep into the chaos of this current order that is passing away. Be gentle with yourself, and stay grounded in prayer.

Have mercy on the brothers and sisters who are together with you in this gathering. Have mercy with your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Have mercy on those who are struggling to stay on the path and bear the strain that we are all feeling right now. Show those around you that you love them and God loves them.

The next concentric circle that Jude lays out are those who we are to save “by snatching them out of the fire.” These are the people who are doing more than wavering. You know that they have love in their hearts, but you can see them giving themselves over to the dark side.

Maybe it’s a bitter cynicism that is hardening into despair. It could be that they are making life choices that put themselves or others in danger. Maybe it’s a pattern of racist, sexist, or homophobic comments. It could be all sorts of things, but the bottom line is that we see a person, who we know has the love of God in their hearts, giving themselves over to hatred and despair.

These people need more than mercy. They need a nudge. They need a helping hand and encouragement. Depending on your relationship with them, they might also need to be challenged. When your otherwise good-hearted uncle makes that crazy racist remark, are you the person to call them back to the love that Jesus has for every single person? When a friend says that they just don’t care anymore, that they see no reason to go on, will you be the one to pull them back from the brink?

Sometimes we need more than mercy. Sometimes the house is on fire, and we need someone to rescue us – or at least call the fire department! Sometimes this need might even make someone look like an enemy, if they do or say things that are offensive or harmful. But could it be that God has placed you in a position to snatch this person out of the fire and bring them back into the loving arms of God?

The last concentric circle is the saddest, and I think it’s the reason that I disliked Jude so much for so long. Because Jude says, basically, there are some people you just can’t help. Some people are so far gone, that the best thing you can do is to avoid them, lest they pull you down into the muck with them.

I think of the common wisdom about helping a drowning person. If you’re not careful and don’t know how to handle the situation, they will pull you down with them, and you’ll both end up dead. This is Jude’s logic. With people who are truly drowning, who have fully given themselves over to the dark side and are now agents of evil, the only way to have mercy is to stay away.

I think we’ve all run into people like this. Maybe we’ve been those people at certain times in our lives. No amount of kindness or assistance was going to help us. We had to make our own way out of the mess, and helpful do-gooders were liable to make things even worse for us!

Who are those people in your life right now? If you’re lucky, maybe it’s just people on social media. People who are so full of delusion, hatred, and venom, that the only helpful thing to do is to block or unfollow them.

Sometimes, we have to trust God to watch over the people that we can’t care for. And there is some comfort in knowing that God will do exactly that. If God doesn’t open a way for us to be helpful to someone else, he will use other people and other situations to throw them a lifeline. But in the end, each person must decide whether or not we will take the helping hand that is offered.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m grateful for the epistle of Jude. Because Jude knew what it meant to live in a time of deep division and cultural fracturing within the church. He knew what it meant to watch people who called themselves Christians lining up on various sides in a culture war. And he is able to counsel us on how to conduct ourselves so that we can bring the most light, love, and healing to this community and the world around us.

Jude is also a reminder that we are in this struggle for the long haul. The Christian community has been wrestling with debilitating falsehood, hatred, and bad behavior for thousands of years. This has all happened before, and it will happen again. The question for us gathered here, in the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-twenty, is: Will we patiently endure in love and mercy?

Will we be loyal friends, caring for one another in our time of psychological stress and material need? Will we be the fierce mama bears – shepherds like Jude – who care for the flock and ward off dangerous intruders? Will we ground ourselves in the love of God, holding out a lifeline to a drowning world?

God, grant us the courage to love one another – even when that love looks like closing a door rather than opening it. Fill us with love enough to snatch your beloved children out of the fire, even when it burns our hands. Give us the presence of your Holy Spirit, to bind us together as a community of mercy for those who are wavering. That we may all see your face and be remade in the image of your son, Jesus. Amen.

The Way Forward Has Always Been Hidden In Plain Sight

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/10/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 14:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Our reading this morning is one of the most famous parts of the Bible. It’s a passage that carries a lot of historical and cultural baggage, on a lot of different levels.

A big part of this has to do with the way this text has been spiritualized and weaponized. It’s been turned into a discourse on heaven and hell – and who’s going where. It’s been used by preachers who wanted to coerce us into agreeing to certain statements of belief, to define the terms of who belongs to the club, and who doesn’t.

This text has often been used to serve the interests of those who wanted to point us to some transcendent, immaterial, other-worldly afterlife – rather than the flesh-and-blood battles that we are facing in our own life. It’s been used to bamboozle us.

It’s a dangerous passage. It’s dangerous, because it’s been weaponized. But above all, it’s dangerous because we think we already know what it’s about. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve stopped listening.

This morning, I want to invite us to encounter this text again with our full attention, leaving behind what we think we know.

Because in this passage Jesus tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

In the age of Covid. In the age of falling empires and rising oligarchies, I want to know, why on earth shouldn’t I be worried? What does Jesus know that I don’t?

Jesus says we don’t have to be afraid, because he is preparing a place for us.

“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

“I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

This is wedding language. In Jesus’ time, it was common for extended families to live together in a single compound. And so when a man wanted to marry a woman, he would go back to his father’s house to build an extension onto the compound, so that he and his fiancée would have a place to live. Then, he would go and bring her back to live with him as his wife.

So Jesus says we don’t need to be troubled, because he loves us like a young man loves his bride. He is preparing a place for us in God’s extended family. He has promised himself to us. To you. To me. He has promised to make us part of God’s household.

Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him. God dwells in Jesus and works through him. Jesus is the way – he lives God’s life by walking it. He is the truth, and you can see it in his whole being. He is the life – abundant, joyous, and unafraid even in the face of terrible threats.

Jesus is going to make a place for us. A place to stand in, as part of his Father’s household. Jesus dwells in the Father, and the Father lives in him. We can see God’s action through the acts of Jesus.

And here’s the kicker: We will do greater things.

Let me repeat that, because so much of the Bible sounds like wild heresy when you just read it: We will do greater things than Jesus. That’s what Jesus himself has promised us.

We will do greater works than these, because Jesus is going to the Father. Jesus will do whatever we ask in his name – in his way, truth, and life – so that God can be glorified in his children.

That’s why Jesus says, even in times like these, do not let your hearts be troubled. He has made us brothers and sisters, siblings of Jesus and children of God. He has sent us the Comforter who will lead us into all truth – to do even greater things. To manifest the kingdom. To live lives that demonstrate the presence of God on earth.

This world says, “Show us God. Prove that God exists!” They say, “We want to see signs and wonders. We want to see miracles.” But here’s what Jesus says: We are the miracle. We are the body of Christ. By the grace of God, by his undeserved love and mercy, that is what we are.

Are we in the Father and the Father in us? Do we dwell in his love, his power, his presence? Then whoever has seen us has seen the Father.

We are here, not to convince with words, but to make the character and presence of God visible in our daily lives.

By God’s grace, we are here to say to this world, “Do you still not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Have you experienced this? Have you encountered God in the life and actions of another person?

I remember one time, years ago, when I was traveling and had a long layover in a Texas airport. My flight had been delayed. You probably know how that feels. I just wanted to be home, and I was worn out and in a bad mood.

And so as I’m waiting around, for hours, in this airport, I go to get some coffee from a Starbucks there in the terminal. And the man who hands me my coffee utterly surprises me.

I felt seen by this man. It’s hard to describe. I was operating in this robot space – take order, pay money, wait for coffee – and he just broke through it with a living presence.

My heart was closed up and my eyes were dead, but the barista saw me. He encountered me as a human personality, a fellow life, more than just another order to be filled. I had entered into the moment prepared for a transaction, and somehow he made it a relationship.

Even now, I have a tough time describing what this felt like. But I was so taken aback by it, that after I got my coffee I retreated to the edge of the shop and just watched the barista for maybe ten minutes. I watched him serving other customers and interacting with them in the same way he had with me.

I could feel the life radiating off of him. He was full of life, and it was overflowing onto those he served. He was fully present, filled with love, and giving complete attention to the people in front of him. For anyone who has ever spent much time in an airport, you can imagine how strange this felt.

I have no idea who this man was. I don’t know if he considered himself a Christian. But when I looked at him, I could see the Father. I could see the Way.

This is what Jesus teaches us here, in our reading this morning: Don’t pretend that God is some abstract, distant being, totally uninvolved in this world. Look at Jesus, and you will know who God is. The children of light reflect the light of God. Like Jesus, we dwell in the Father, and the Father dwells in us. We do the works of God. And that is proof enough.

In the words of George Fox, our calling is to:

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

The witness of God in me blessed the barista at the airport Starbucks. Can you remember a time when the witness of God in you answered the presence of God in another person?

The great revelation of the Quaker tradition, and that of original Christianity, is this: The keys of the kingdom are hidden in plain sight. God has come to earth and dwells among people. The new Jerusalem is descending, and we are the walls, and the gates, and the streets. We are drinking from the river. We are being healed with the leaves from the Tree of Life. We are bathing in the light of God, never to walk in darkness again.

That sounds pretty good to me. I want to get there. What do I need to do to experience that kind of life and power?

Here’s what Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Not ideas about him. Not rules to be adhered to. Not a tradition to be cherished. Not an identity to be built around him. But Jesus himself. He is the way. Dwelling in him, as he dwells in the Father. Doing the works of the Father – and even greater works – as he leads us.

The religions of this world – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, scientism, capitalism, Marxism – all the religions of this world want to sell us on a way. An ism. An abstract set of principles and rules and answers that will get us where we want to go. The religions of this world are about providing us with a human-constructed way for us to walk. And we eat it up, because ideological systems make us feel safe.

But Jesus doesn’t offer us a system. He doesn’t offer us a new set of commandments carved into stone. He offers us himself in marriage. Covenantal union with Jesus.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s me. Know me. Love me. Follow me. Stay with me. Imitate me. Dwell in me, as I dwell in the Father.

Jesus is the way. Relationship with him, marriage to Jesus and adoption into the family of God – that’s our religion. Not rules. Not rituals. Not reason. Not money. Not being nice people. Him. It’s him.

All we need is you, Lord. All we need is you.

Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and pray.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. … I go to prepare a place for you.”