Archive for October 2020

Learning to Love Our Greatest Enemy: Death

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/25/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 12:22-34, and 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I remember back in March, when the pandemic was first getting serious here in California and we all began to lock down. Started working remotely. No more in-person gatherings at church. Trips to the grocery store became a major excursion and involved a lot of waiting in line. Lots of us were wondering if supply chains would break down. We stored up food, just in case.

For me, this was a moment of reflection. On life. On death. On how easily things could all fall apart. I couldn’t take anything for granted. There was a disease out there that could kill me or anyone I loved, any time. Death felt very close. Life was fragile.

As the pandemic has worn on, we’ve adapted. Life goes on. We wear our masks to the grocery store. Remote work becomes the norm for some of us, and others of us learn to take precautions at our in-person workplaces. And as this sense of normality returns, the raw urgency of the moment begins to fade. The routine returns.

For me, that routine has meant that it’s harder, once again, to feel the cold breath of death on my shoulder. It’s easier to pretend that this life stretches on forever, that this day exists as a means to an end: to be rushed through, optimized, leveraged for maximum profit. It’s easy to forget myself, to lose track of the reality that this moment is all we have. Death could come at any time.

Death is always close. And death is no respecter of persons. Babies can die. Children can die. Young people can die. The healthy can die. We are all just one heartbeat away from eternity. Whatever that looks like. We don’t know what it means yet, but we’ll be finding out soon.

Death gets a bad rap in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures we learn that death came into the world through the Fall, the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Death is a natural outgrowth of sin – our choice to turn away from God and become our own masters. From this perspective, death and hardship are not natural; they are of human making.

The heart of the gospel is that Christ has come to liberate us from both sin and death. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

So in the view of the Christian church, death is an enemy. Death is the result of sin, and will be abolished when sin is put away. Death is not something to be welcomed, it is an evil to be defeated.

And in many ways, this is true. Death is an evil, because death brings the destruction of life, the destruction of the human personality. Death is the extinguishing of God’s creation, which God meant to be unending and overflowing, full of abundant life, just like God is.

Death came about because of our choice to turn away from God, to seek our own wisdom, and attempt to become little gods ourselves. Death exists because we insisted on having it all, regardless of the consequences, regardless of reality! Death is the consequence. It’s the imposition of reality on our delusions of grandeur and self-worship. Death is an evil that we are forced to endure, but wish we didn’t have to.

And yet, in the context of our own experience of being lost and sinful creatures, death presents itself as a strange sort of friend. Death is an enemy, yes – but perhaps just the sort of enemy we needed. God knew we needed an enemy like death, if we were ever to come home; if we were ever to see the foolishness of our ways and turn back to God.

Death is an enemy who can instruct us, if we will listen.

In CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, he paints a picture of the afterlife, both heaven and hell, but he spends a lot of his time describing hell. And rightfully so, because unfortunately hell is something that we can understand a lot better than heaven. We’ve spent the greater part of our lives experiencing it.

CS Lewis describes hell as a place without boundaries, without limits. In hell, if you want a brand new mansion with eighteen bedrooms, a golf course, and an olympic swimming pool, you just have to wish for it. The world of hell is infinite, and you can go anywhere and have anything. Hell is a realm of ultimate wish fulfillment. 

Not what you expected, huh?

At first glance, this sounds nothing like hell. It sounds more like heaven. To have anything we want, whenever we want, however we want it, forever? Wouldn’t that be great? CS Lewis aims to convince us that it would not.

According to Lewis, hell is a place of ultimate suburban sprawl. Hell expands infinitely. Because, since everyone has everything they could ever want or imagine, no one needs anyone else. Every time a person has a disagreement with someone else, or some aspect of their life isn’t “just so,” they can immediately escape. They imagine a new house, a thousand miles away – and poof, they’re gone.

Hell is a place without limits. It’s a place where we are God. And becoming gods, we find that we are demons, fit only to torture ourselves and others. And especially ourselves.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus gives one of his greatest and most challenging commandments: “Do not worry!” Everyone is running around, concerned about making sure they have enough to eat, and drink, and wear. But we easily forget about the most important thing: the kingdom of God, the power and presence of Jesus in his resurrection. 

We forget that this very moment, right now, is bathed in the radiance of eternity. We forget that this is a sacred time, a holy place – not just a means to an end. We imagine that we are waiting for a better day to arrive, a better moment, a better place – but this is all that there is, and it is enough!

Jesus says to us:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Do not be afraid, little flock of Berkeley Friends Church. Give it all away. Feel the cold breath of death on your shoulder. The angel of death is coming to take away everything that seems so important. You can’t take any of it with you. 

The kingdom of God is not a light at the end of the tunnel, far in the future. It is not a commonwealth to build or a paradise to inherit some day. This moment is everything. In the midst of all the stress, struggle, and evil of this present time, this day is shot through with rays of glory. God’s presence dwells with you now. Let tomorrow worry about itself. 

We’ve got no guarantees. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we know that God loves us, and that we need one another. As long as we are living in the kingdom of God, and not CS Lewis’ vision of hell, we need one another. We need God’s presence. And that is enough.

This is the appointed time. This is the hour of Christ’s coming.

I do not mean this metaphorically. Jesus is here, resurrected. Jesus is present to teach and guide us. Now is the time to take hold of that resurrection, to come together as friends of Jesus. Because God knows what tomorrow brings. 

As the apostle Paul writes in our scripture reading this morning:

“…brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. Elections and plagues and causes and heartbreak, they are passing away. Death is passing away, too. Because God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, not only to die for us, but to live for us. He is here. He is speaking. Listen to him!

One of the things that Jesus is teaching us is that we have to love our enemies. We have to love those who are destroying our planet and harming the innocent. Jesus calls us to be like God, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Loving unconditionally. 

And if we have to love those folks, maybe that means we have to love death, too. After all, death is our enemy. Death is the horror that has haunted us as long as people have been people, ever since we chose to turn away from God and follow our own will. We have to love our enemies. 

We have to love everyone, especially our enemies, because we can only see the world clearly when we look at it through the eyes of love. And we need to see this enemy. Death has a lot to teach us about the moment we live in. Death provides clues about how we are to live in this present world, and what it might mean to be participants in the reign of God.

It’s like Jesus says: Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies of the field. They live without fear, provided for by God. They live in love, and they don’t fear death. We can be like them. We don’t have to be afraid.

Death dominates our lives when we seek to avoid it. We deny death psychologically, refusing to remain conscious of our own finitude. We deny death with our actions, doing everything we can to protect ourselves. For our ancestors in the garden, that first took the form of covering their nakedness. 

These days, we seek to protect ourselves in much more sophisticated ways. Health insurance, 401ks, standing armies, and nuclear arsenals. The kingdoms of this world are built on fear and rooted in denial of death.

Jesus invites us out of this hell world. Jesus reassures us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As the apostle Paul reminds us, the appointed time has grown short. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Now is the time to live without reference to this fearful society we inhabit. He urges us to practice non-attachment to the ways and priorities of this human empire we live in, because “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Perfect love casts out all fear, and total dependence on God makes us utterly free with regard to the rules and anxieties of this world. 

Berkeley Friends Church – little flock – let go of your fear. Let your light shine on friends and enemies alike, even death! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

A Quaker Testimony Against Netflix?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/11/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Exodus 32:1-14. 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

We are living in a golden age of TV. I’m old enough to remember back when you actually had to turn the television on at a particular time if you wanted to catch your favorite show. And if you missed it, you’d have to wait until it was on reruns.

Now, everything is at your fingertips. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney+ – everything streaming, on-demand, immediate.

And it’s so good. Let’s be real. There’s more good TV coming out every year or two right now than came out in whole decades in the age of traditional TV.

We are living in a golden age of TV, and I’m loving it. Especially during this pandemic. I’m probably spending an average of an hour or two a night streaming a show or a movie. After work is done and the kids are off to bed, it’s such a relief to just turn my mind off, lay back on the couch and watch some of the best entertainment the world has ever seen.

Entertainment is the name of the game. It’s not just TV and movies. Social media, of course, is an extremely potent and addictive form of entertainment. How many of us have found ourselves scrolling through your social media feed, liking and sharing things, flitting from post to post, only to wake up an hour later, astonished at the time that has just disappeared?

Entertainment. That’s where it’s at. Video games. When I was a kid in the mid to late nineties, the best video games were things like Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo and Sim City 2000 on PC. Those games were amazing, and consumed countless hours of my childhood. But they look like digital chicken scratch by comparison with the depth and quality and sheer number of digital titles we have access to today.

Video games today are deeply immersive. Some of them feel like being inside a movie. Others are social, and become like a second job for many of the players. It’s easy to spend twenty hours a week in the game world, and many of us spend far, far more than that. Especially now, in an age of economic desperation, chronic unemployment and under-employment, millions of people are getting their sense of place, their sense of accomplishment and status, from massive multiplayer online video games.

Entertainment. It’s amazing. It’s so good. We love it, right? Who doesn’t have their favorite delivery system? Who among us can live without the sweet release of digital entertainment?

Certainly not me.

Have any of you read the book or watched the movie Ready Player One? It’s set in the near-future, in 2045, where the earth is a sprawling wasteland of ecological destruction and growing poverty, while the super-rich gate themselves away in fortified enclaves.

In this world of climate destruction, massive income inequality, and loss of any meaningful government beyond profit motives of corporations, most regular people spend their lives plugged into virtual reality. The real world is a total nightmare, so billions of people – everyone who can possibly afford to – escapes to a better world, inside a digital fantasy land called the OASIS.

I remember when I first read the book shortly after it came out, back in 2011, the author’s vision seemed a little far-fetched. Certainly on the wacky side of the possible.

Doesn’t sound too implausible now, does it? Sounds downright prophetic to me.

Our society is falling apart – politically, economically, ecologically – and billions of us spend our leisure time plugged into various modes of electronic entertainment, engaged with ersatz worlds that are easier, more beautiful, and more satisfying than the real world we inhabit.

When was the last time you felt sustained boredom? Not just for a minute, but for hours, or even days?

I remember boredom. I remember it vividly. It was one of the primary experiences of my childhood. I was bored all the time. I was constantly looking for some outlet, some way to engage my frustrated imagination and express myself. To discover, to explore the world around me. To make sense of it all and gain a sense of mastery over my environment.

I read tons of fiction and non-fiction. I sketched. I made music. I wrote poetry. I tried to write a novel at the age of 12. (It was awful.) I got politically engaged and worked to get a socialist candidate for president on the ballot in Kansas. I yearned. It hurt.

I haven’t been bored in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I endured boredom for an entire hour, much less a day. Always at my fingertips are streaming entertainment, social media, an endless series of pithy articles to read, immersive video games to play.

The moment the itch of boredom sets in on me, I can reach for my phone. My laptop. The TV remote. The OASIS is at my beck and call. I don’t have to endure this world we live in, with its slow progress and frustrations. Out here, I am so weak and small, but in the OASIS, in the digital world, I can be whoever I want. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t have to wait. I can have it all now.

When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, he was gone for forty days and forty nights. That is to say, he was away for a really long time.

Moses was the leader of the Hebrews. He was their prophet. He was the messenger from God who told them what they needed to do and where they should go. It was Moses who spoke on their behalf to Pharaoh. It was Moses who led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But now Moses was gone. Not just for a day or two, but for a long time – more than a month. People started getting nervous. People’s minds started to wander. People got bored.

So they went to Aaron, the man that Moses had left in charge while he was away. And they said to Aaron:

“Hey, Aaron: Moses has been away for a really long time. We’re not sure where he’s off to, but that storm has been raging on top of the mountain since before he left. Maybe he fell off a cliff. Maybe God struck him with lightning Zeus-style. Maybe he ran away. We don’t know. But bottom line is, we’ve got to do something.

We’re aimless. We don’t have a sense of direction anymore. We’re bored. So we’ve got an idea. Since we don’t have Moses to follow anymore, why don’t we make some images of gods to lead us forward. They can show us the way, just like Moses did. If Moses can mediate God to us, maybe some beautiful images can do the same.

We know the Caananites have Baal, the bull god. That seems to be working out pretty well for them. Maybe you can make us a bull, too. Bulls are a sign of strength, and we need some strength right now, if we are going to make it through the wilderness.

So make us some gods, Aaron, to show us how to follow the LORD. Moses is gone, and we’re bored. Give us something to do!”

Now, you would expect Aaron, as Mose’s right-hand man, to put up some sort of objection. But to our surprise, he immediately goes along with the demands of the people. He tells them to gather up all their valuables made out of gold, all the petty wealth they had brought with them out of Egypt. Aaron fashions it into a golden calf. A bull. A sign of power and strength.

And Aaron unveiled the golden calf to the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And he built an altar for the calf – a site where the people could come and worship – and he declared that the next day would be a festival to the LORD.

I find this really interesting. Because most of us, when we think of the story of the golden calf, we imagine that this was a complete abandonment of God by the Hebrews in the desert. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Aaron made the calf, and set it up at a site for worship, but then announced a festival to the LORD, the same LORD that Moses had gone to meet up on Mount Sinai.

It seems that the calf wasn’t really meant to be a replacement for God, it was meant to be a replacement for Moses.

The calf was more exciting than Moses. It was present while he was absent. It offered them a chance to perform tasks and religious ritual. The calf relieved anxiety and boredom. It told them that everything would be OK, and it gave them agency to be able to improve their situation without having to wait for Moses endlessly in the wilderness.

And so it says that the people, “rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” And it seems the the word that is translated here as “to play” or “to revel” has a sexual connotation. It is very likely that this is referring to sexual orgies, which were quite common in Canaanite religious practice in those days.

Who says worship can’t be fun? Am I right?

This is really interesting. Because this means that Aaron and the people thought they could worship God while ignoring God’s plan. They thought they could create a world of their own choosing, a world that was more psychologically safe for them, a world of bulls and strength, a world of wealth and fertility and sexualized religious rites. A world where they could make God in their own image.

And we can relate to this, can’t we? Because we, too, like to be entertained. We, too, believe that we can follow the God of Moses and Jesus while also conforming ourselves to the practices of the culture around us. We think we are Christians, followers of Jesus, inheritors of the promise, lovers of God. But where is the evidence in how we spend our time?

If I were to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I would say I spend probably two to three times more time watching streaming TV than I do reading the Bible and participating in worship. If I were to count all of the entertainment activities that I engage in – TV, social media, games, entertainment masquerading as “news” – the ratio would be much worse.

Are you in the same boat as me? Am I an outlier? Are the rest of you spending more time in prayer and Bible study than you are in entertainment? If that’s the case, then praise God, and pray for me!

But I don’t think so. I think most of us are a lot like the Hebrews in the wilderness. We’re in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory. We’ve been forced out of the familiarity of Egypt: America-as-usual. We’re looking for anything to hold onto. 

In these circumstances, we are very susceptible to the lure of the Canaanite culture around us. The golden bull of Wall Street. The orgies of Netflix and Facebook. Pouring our wealth and attention into frivolous things rather than the service of God and neighbor. “These are your gods, O Israel.”

We are a lot like the Hebrews. We think that we can embrace both God and the calf. Both the way of Jesus and the culture that surrounds us. We think that we can walk that line. We say, with the little girl from the El Paso hard and soft taco commercial, Por qué no los dos? Why not have both?

Why not?

Moses is here this morning to tell us that we cannot hide behind our entertainments any longer. The LORD is here this morning to say that we have to choose between the illusions of this world and the reality that God sees. We are called to embrace the discomfort and boredom that comes from living in the wilderness with God. Because that’s what it means to live as finite creatures in the real world.

George Fox is here with us this morning, too. The early Quakers had something to say about entertainment and distraction. 

A lot of us today are familiar with the Peace Testimony, and the values of simplicity, equality, integrity, stewardship, community, and so on. But the old Quakers had a lot more testimonies than these, and they weren’t general principles. They got very specific. 

One of these testimonies was their testimony against vain and worldly amusements. Early Quakers would not attend plays. They would not gamble. They would not participate in sporting events. They most definitely would not have watched Netflix.

Now, that’s not to say that we all need to stop watching any TV, or playing any games, or participating in any sports. The early Quakers weren’t right about everything. And you’ve probably noticed that this sermon is full of movie references. There is room in God’s world for creativity, art, theater, and fun.

But we can’t allow these things to distract us from the truth. We must not fall into the trap that the surrounding culture has laid for us, to draw us into entertainment as an alternative reality to be immersed in. 

God gave us creativity so that we could engage more fully with the cosmos that God has made, so that we could become co-creators with him. Unfortunately, this society that we live in has twisted our God-given creativity, using it to construct a false reality that numbs our hearts and blinds us to the truth.

God is calling us to turn away from the systems of entertainment that this world uses to keep us pacified. The rulers of this world have created a whole system of entertainment to keep us disconnected and powerless. They’ve forged a new sort of golden calf to provide us with false comfort, to keep us plugged into the Matrix and ignorant of the Desert of the Real.

Whether we like it or not, we do live in that desert. The golden trinkets of vain and worldly amusements have no power to deliver, only to distract and diminish.

This morning, we stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. We’re waiting to hear God’s word together. And even now, the temptation to distraction is with us. Our hands itch for our telephones, and all our false gods.

What would it mean for us to wait on Moses to come back down the mountain? What would it look like for us to reject the false idols of passive entertainment? What would it look like to turn away from syncretism and compromise with the surrounding culture; the voice that insists that we can follow God while also participating in the false worships of this world?

The good news is, we are not alone in this wilderness. If we will look up from our false gods for a moment. If we put away the screens. If we will turn off the stream of easy wins, dopamine hits, and fantasies, we will see real people – our brothers and sisters in Israel – standing here with us. We will see life as it really is, and say together with God who created it: “This is good.”