Archive for June 2020

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)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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.