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Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 13:14-16 and Acts 11:19-30. 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 last time I preached, it was on Acts chapter four. We heard about how the apostles faced persecution at the hands of the religious authorities, but instead of being cowed and terrified, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with boldness. They preached the word of God without fear.

We heard about how the newborn church in Jerusalem abandoned the strict “mine” and “thine” of private property. They held all things in common. People who had lands and possessions, they sold them and shared. People who had nothing received what they needed. We heard about a man named Barnabas – whose name means “son of encouragement.” He was one of the first to sell a field that he owned and hand over the proceeds to the church, so that no one would go hungry.

In our reading this morning, Barnabas shows up again. And once again, we hear about violent persecution. We hear the struggle of the church, and its mission to preach the word of God with boldness.

A lot has happened between chapter four and chapter eleven. Miracles of all kinds. And perhaps the greatest miracle of all – Peter has a series of encounters with the Holy Spirit and with a Roman soldier named Cornelius. These experiences convince him that the kingdom of God is for all people – Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.

Now after Stephen was killed, a great persecution broke out that scattered the church throughout Judea and Samaria, but it didn’t stop there. The scattered friends of Jesus made their way all the way up to Phoenicia, which is what we think of today as Lebanon. And from there some of the disciples traveled to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean sea. And from there, others went to Antioch, in the southern part of modern-day Turkey. And wherever they went, they preached the word of God and the good news about Jesus, and new communities of disciples formed in these places.

But in Phoenicia and Cyprus, it says that the disciples only spoke to their fellow Jews. They went to the synagogues and preached the word of the kingdom, but they didn’t mix with the uncircumcised Gentiles. They were Jews, and they kept to their own kind.

Something changed in Antioch. As the disciples went along, the Holy Spirit raised up new believers, to carry on the missionary outreach. It was Jews from Jerusalem who took the word of God to Phoenicia and Cyprus. But by the time the disciples got to Antioch, at least some of the them were from Cyprus and Cyrene. These disciples were not interested in limiting the gospel to Jews. “They began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. [And] the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

When the church in Jerusalem heard about the great outpouring of God’s spirit taking place up in Antioch, it confirmed everything that God had been showing them through Peter and Philip and others – God had opened the kingdom to those who had formally been excluded.

So the church in Jerusalem sent good old, trustworthy Barnabas up to Antioch to get a grip on the situation. And when Barnabas arrived, he did what a son of encouragement does – it says “he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” And it says that “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”

Now Barnabas gets excited, and he runs off to Tarsus to get Saul. And he and Saul spend a whole year together in Antioch, preaching and teaching – encouraging the new church that is emerging in this great city of the north.

And after Saul and Barnabas had been laboring there for about a year, some prophets came down from Jerusalem. One of them predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. And so the believers in Antioch took up a collection. They pooled their resources so that they could send relief to the church in Jerusalem, who the prophet foretold would bear the brunt of this coming famine.

This must have taken a lot of guts. Because the prophet didn’t say “there will be a severe famine in Jerusalem.” He said “the whole world.” That means there’s a famine coming to Antioch, too. Is this really the best time to be sending your money out to people you’ve never even met?

But this is the transformation that has taken place in the lives of the brothers and sisters, this new family of God that is emerging in the months and years following Jesus’ resurrection. Before, these people would have been disconnected – perhaps even enemies, because some were Jews and others were Greeks. But now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they have become more than friends – they have become one flesh, one body, one family. They support one another because the distinction between “us” and “them” has broken down. There’s no longer any separation.

They’re a body. Just like my stomach doesn’t withhold calories from my arms and legs, the church in Antioch doesn’t withhold their wealth from the poor and persecuted church in Jerusalem. They’ve become a family. In a family you don’t keep separate accounts; you hold everything in common. And that’s how the church is. They’re in it together. Profoundly. They’ve abandoned private wealth and security in favor of what Jesus called “treasure in heaven” and a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit. Perfect love has cast out fear, and the selfish human nature has been overcome by the resurrection.

All of this is possible because of the way God gathers his people. On the day of Pentecost. At the home of Cornelius, the Roman soldier. In the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit falls on us as in the beginning, gathering us into a new body, a new people, a new creation.

When Jesus was arrested and crucified, the disciples were scattered. But through the resurrection, God gathered them in Jerusalem. And the church was born, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thousands come to faith.

Then the disciples were scattered again, by the violent persecution that comes as a result of the church’s bold and faithful preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. Things got rough. Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. And it says that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” It was a bad time to be a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem.

This is a pattern throughout the book of Acts: The action of the Holy Spirit draws people together to become a body in Christ Jesus. This new life as God’s family results in boldness and non-conformity to the evil ways of the world around them. And this boldness causes a violent reaction from the people who are in charge, scattering God’s people to take the message even further.

The scattering part isn’t fun or glamorous. I doubt that any of the brothers and sisters at that time were saying to themselves, “look at the good thing God is doing by scattering us out of Jerusalem!” And yet, even though perhaps they couldn’t see it, God was turning the horror of their circumstances into the seeds of a new movement.

Gathered in Jerusalem, scattered to Samaria. Gathered in Samaria, scattered to Phoenicia. Gathered in Phoenicia, scattered to Cyprus. Gathered in Cyprus, scattered to Antioch. And on, and on, and on, in a network of relationships that we can’t even track.

Gathered at Firbank Fell, the Quaker movement was scattered like wildfire throughout the north of England, and quickly to the south. Scattered by persecution, the movement was spread to the Americas and the continent of Europe. God scattered them across the world – to preach the word of God to the Pope in Rome and the Sultan in Turkey. Scattered to listen to the inward voice of Jesus together with the Native Americans. The movement was scattered, and God gathered.

So what about us? Are we gathered?

Our community has been scattered. Our presence here in Berkeley, California is the result of many scatterings: Westward migrations. A series of Quaker schisms. And countless personal journeys that circled this meetinghouse on a map for each one of us.

Berkeley Friends Church is scattered. We’re an isolated congregation with our nearest sister churches hundreds of miles away. We’re a community scattered among the nations, a people seeking to follow Jesus in the midst of one of the most secular cities in the United States.

We were scattered for a purpose. We are here for a reason. Why? What is that reason?

When the first disciples were scattered to Samaria and Cyprus and Antioch, they were faithful in sharing the good news of Jesus. God used them to gather communities in the Holy Spirit, to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth.

When early Quaker ministers like James Nayler, Francis Howgill, and Edward Burrough, were scattered to London, they preached and taught. They held public meetings where they directed thousands to the voice of their inward teacher, Jesus. When they obeyed the voice of this teacher, they found brothers and sisters they never knew they had. They found themselves part of a new creation, the body of Christ. They were gathered by the Holy Spirit.

And us? When we were scattered to the East Bay, when you and I were called here, to gather as the church in Berkeley in the early 21st century… We what? What will be our story?

Why has God scattered us here? Who are the women, men, and children who need to hear the word of God here in our time and place? Who are the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers that we will discover? When will we be filled by the Holy Spirit and released from the fear that holds us back from complete obedience?

You are here for a reason. God has scattered us here for a purpose. What is it? And what price must we pay to receive it?

As we enter a time of waiting worship, I’d like to invite us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we might be filled. That we might be gathered. That all fear would be stripped away. That we would be left with nothing but love and knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry it out.

Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear – And Fills Us With Boldness

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/22/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 4:23-35. 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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Perfect love casts out all fear. There is no fear in love.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be present with us. We are freed from our self-consciousness, the awareness of our own nakedness that we picked up after the Fall. We’re liberated from the need to hide from ourselves, from others, from God.

The presence of the Holy Spirit drives out all fear of people. Fear of our bosses at work. Fear of what our friends, family, and co-workers think of us. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of giving up our sense of control over our own lives: Money. Career. Religion. Identity.

The Holy Spirit liberates us from all these things. Perfect love casts out all fear.

And that’s a good thing. It’s a critical thing. Because the life that God is calling us to is terrifying as long as we are living in the mindset of this world. Middle class consumerism. The endless quest for security and status. The desire to be a real adult. Affluent. Self-sufficient. Autonomous.

It’s a good thing that the Holy Spirit frees us from all fear. Because the kingdom of God has no space for successful, autonomous adults. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Little children are special, because they haven’t learned to be truly afraid yet. They haven’t developed the kind of ego that comes with growing up. They haven’t absorbed the lesson that this world teaches us: that we have to be self-supporting, independent, in control. Little kids know they aren’t in control, even if they hate it sometimes. They rely on us adults for everything.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be with us. It means we can rely on our heavenly Father. We can trust God to be a mother to us. We can let go of our fear, because our God is the “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them.” Despite all appearances. Despite the threats, and shaming, and violence that our society shows to those who refuse to conform, we know that our God is the lord and sovereign of history. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we know in our bones that “he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

In our reading from Luke this morning, we get a window into what life was like in the first days of the Christian community in Jerusalem. This is in the days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. After the gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were busy preaching the word of God to a growing community of disciples.

It says that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit filled them with love and cast out their fear. They preached the good news of Jesus and his kingdom in public – on the streets, and even in the Temple itself. They performed miracles. They healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits, just like Jesus did.

It says that the apostles drew so much attention to themselves that the authorities started going after them in the same way they went after Jesus. They hauled the apostles in front of religious tribunals. The religious leaders demanded that they cease speaking, healing, and teaching in the name of Jesus.

Most people would have been afraid. I mean, you saw what they did to the last guy that talked this way: They handed him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross! But the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they weren’t afraid of human authorities, no matter how dangerous.

So when the high priest and the religious leaders demanded that the disciples keep quiet about Jesus, Peter and John answered this way: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Despite their defiance, the religious leaders were afraid of the crowds. The crowds had seen the signs and wonders that the apostles were performing, and believed. So they let them go.

And when all the brothers and sisters heard what had happened. When they heard that Peter and John had stood up to the authorities and walked away with their lives, they praised God. They said, “Look at this, y’all: We live in a city where we’ve got guys like Herod and Pilate, who were quite happy to murder Jesus. We see their threats. But thanks to you, God, we’re not afraid of them. We know who is really in control of history. We trust you, no matter what happens.”

They were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had filled them with love and power. The Spirit cast out all fear. All that the disciples asked God for was boldness. To preach the good news of Jesus. To share the victory announcement of God’s kingdom. To heal the sick, raise the dead, set the oppressed free, and proclaim good news to the poor. “Grant us to speak your word with all boldness, God.”

And it says that when the brothers and sisters had finished praying together, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

Freed from fear by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the word of God with boldness. And the very earth was shaken.

Other things were shaken. Social structures. Hierarchies between men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek. All the old assumptions were rattled. Everything they thought they knew was leveled in the light of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit broke down the feeling of separateness among the disciples. They truly became one body, a spiritual unity in Jesus. They had become something greater than merely a collection of the individuals. They had become the church, the family of God.

This had radical economic implications. When you’re a family, the strictness of private property breaks down. We think less about what’s mine and what’s yours. We think more about what each of us can give, and how to meet the needs of each person.

With this outpouring of boldness from the Holy Spirit, we see the emergence of this spiritual family among the believers in Jerusalem. It says that all of the believers, “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions. … Everything they owned was held in common.”

In the early days of the church, there were no poor Christians. That’s because there were no rich Christians, either. Everyone who had possessions brought what they had and shared with everyone else, as they had need.

The first disciples in Jerusalem could do this, because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Their fear had been cast out. They were filled with boldness, not only to share the good news of the kingdom, but to dwell in it. They had become citizens of the kingdom of God. Whenever that citizenship conflicted with their loyalty to biological family, to religious identity, to governments – whenever those institutions told them that they had to live in fear, they chose instead to live in the kingdom of God. They chose to walk in the fearless way of Jesus.

Do we want that? Do we want to experience the love and boldness and power of the apostles?

Just before his famous vision on Pendle Hill in the 1650s, early Quaker minister George Fox writes in his Journal,

“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman would shake all the country in their profession for ten miles around.”

George Fox had read the Book of Acts a few times. He knew that the presence of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by power. By boldness. By a conviction that transforms lives. He saw that if even one person is fully gripped by that life and power, it has the potential to transform the lives of thousands – to shake all the country for ten miles around.

Do we want that? Do we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we want to be so audacious, so full of the Holy Spirit and fire, that we shake the whole East Bay?

Do we want to be so overwhelmed by the love and fearless power of God that our neighbors, our co-workers, and our government can’t help but take notice? Are we ready to have our fear cast out? Are we prepared to become a family in Jesus, to surrender control and truly become one body in him?

Do we want to be set ablaze with the fire of God? Do we aspire to become more like the apostolic church that we read about in the Book of Acts and in the writings of early Friends? Or is our spiritual condition better described by this poem from Wilbur Rees:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Do we want three dollars worth of God, or do we want the kingdom?

And if we do, how do we need to change – both as individuals and as a church community? What do we need to let go, so that our hands are free and ready to heal? Where do we need to be so that our lives can be vessels for the signs and wonders of God’s kingdom?

God showed George Fox that if even one man or woman were raised up in the same power that the prophets and apostles were in, their presence would shake the countryside for ten miles around. Are you ready to be that one? Are we ready to be those ones? 

Are we ready to claim our citizenship in the kingdom of God? To preach the word with boldness? To live as God’s little children – without fear, without shame, and without regret?

Are You Thirsty? Come to the Fountain

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/1/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14. 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

I’m an ambitious person. I love the feeling of accomplishing big tasks. I like my work to be impressive. And I like getting things done fast.

I want to feel strong. Self-sufficient. I want to feel like I control my own life. I want to make my own choices, and not have anyone telling me what to do.
So our scripture readings this morning speak to me. They speak to my condition. They challenge me, in my ambition, my independence, my pride.

In all of these passages – The words of God through Jeremiah. The instructions from the last chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. The words of Jesus passed along to us from the apostle Luke – In all of these passages, I hear God saying to us, his people: Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to get ahead. Don’t depend on your own efforts. Surrender, and acknowledge that I am God. I am in control.

It turns out that the good news of Jesus – the good news of the God of the Old Testament and the New – is not that we are going to be successful. It’s that God’s power is unlimited.

It’s not that we’re going to do great things for God, it’s that God can do great things in us.

The gospel of the kingdom is not that we ourselves will be strong, but that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In the quotidian. The daily. The unnoticed. In the patient endurance of ordinary men and women, who make the daily decision to walk in the way of God’s love and justice.

This is the message that God is trying to get across to his people through the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke God’s words to Israel in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. God’s message through Jeremiah is, “Why have you abandoned me and gone off to chase after your own way? How can you imagine that all these false gods – all your projects, all your designs, all the things you worship instead of me – what made you think that they would fulfill you?”

By abandoning God, by rejecting his leadership, by going their own way and seeking to be independent, the people of Israel were destroying the good things that God had done for them. God says,

I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.

The people of Israel have abandoned the kingdom of God. They’ve chosen injustice and empire. They’ve chosen to worship false gods and exploit the poor and vulnerable. And on top of all this, they’re discovering that they’re more desperate and out-of-control than ever. They never seem to stop eating, but they’re always hungry.

All the ways that Israel has sought to impose its own system of control. The foreign alliances and trade deals. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The exaltation of the king in Jerusalem. The running after foreign gods who seemed more exotic and powerful than the God of Exodus – none of these things have satisfied. The people of Israel are thirstier than ever before.

God says:

But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

The people of Israel thought they were trading up. Getting more power, more wealth, more control. They thought they would do better for themselves than God ever could. They would guarantee their own prosperity.

But that’s not how it turned out. The wages of self-will are ruin. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The people of Israel got ambitious. They got independent-minded. They got arrogant. And all it got them was Jerusalem laid waste, the temple destroyed, and seventy years in captivity far from home.

Fast forward six hundred years to the ministry of Jesus. Luke tells us about a time that Jesus was eating in the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath. And after breaking the rules by healing a man on the day of rest, Jesus tells a parable about a dinner party.

If you’re invited to a wedding, and it comes time to eat dinner, Jesus advises against rushing to sit down at the head table. Because it might happen that the bride and groom have a close friend who they want to be seated in the place of honor. How embarrassing would it be to have your hosts ask – in front of everybody – you to move to another table, so that someone more important can take your place!

Instead, Jesus says, you’ll do better to sit way in the back, far from the action. Take the least important seat. Because if you do that, maybe you’ll have to squint to see the bride and groom. But if you’re really someone so important, your hosts will come and find you. They’ll invite you to move to a place of greater prominence. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

But what if you’re the one throwing the party? What if you’re the bride or the groom? Jesus has some words about that, too. Again, don’t be so full of yourselves!

The normal thing to do when you’re throwing a party is to invite all your friends. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can invite people who you don’t know super well, but who are important in one way or another. They’re well-connected, or rich, or charming, or have some other outstanding trait that makes them worth inviting. These are people who can pay you back in the future.

Jesus’ advice for throwing a party is the total opposite. He says:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

I don’t know about you, but I want to do big things and go places. I want to run in important circles and be recognized. But Jesus says, spend your time with those who can’t do anything for you, and you will be blessed. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Recognize that God is in control. Drop your attempts to control other people. Stop trying to provide your own status and security. In the kingdom of God, real security comes through total dependence on God.

I love the Letter to the Hebrews. I love how ferverous the preacher is. He gets so into it. I mean, just listen to these lines from chapter 12, the part of the letter that comes right before the section we read aloud this morning:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!

Does that get to you? Can you hear the preacher getting so intense, speaking to us about the ineffable glory of God – his power, his majesty, his righteousness? The author of Hebrews invites us to imagine ourselves as we truly are when we assemble in the name of Jesus – we are come to Mount Zion… to innumerable angels in festal gathering. Wow!

The author of Hebrews is all about the big picture. He’s all about the glory and power that has been unleashed in the heavenly realms thanks to the ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. There are parts of Hebrews that are riotous in their exuberance and passion. The preacher invites us to ascend into the heavenlies and walk into the holy-of-holies with Jesus.

So I think it’s so important that before the letter ends, Hebrews brings us back to earth and calls us to practical application. We have seen the majesty and the glory. We’ve seen the innumerable angels in festal gathering – so what does that mean for us, mere mortals that we are?

Here’s some of the advice we get:

Keep loving one another.

  • Show hospitality to strangers.
  • Visit those in prison, and those who are being tortured. (And we know lots of people are in prison and being tortured right now.)
  • Honor marriage and practice your sexuality in ways that glorify God and bring honor to Jesus.
  • Keep your lives free of the love of money. Be content with what you have, because God will always care for you.
  • Respect and imitate your leaders, those who have taught you in the way of Jesus.
  • Praise God. Honor him with your words and your actions.
  • Share with others. This is the sacrifice that most pleases God.

This is challenging advice. These aren’t easy things to do, especially not consistently, as a community. But these aren’t wild instructions, either. The author of Hebrews doesn’t tell us to solve climate change – though undoubtedly we need to be part of that struggle. He doesn’t tell us to restore good governance to our nation – though that’s so important. The letter to the Hebrews doesn’t conclude by giving us any grand mission.

Instead, it sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? Love one another. Help those who are in trouble and need a place to stay. Don’t be ruled by money or sex or jealousy, but honor God with your lives.

These aren’t instructions that ambitious, independent people like me want to hear. It’s not about instant gratification or quick success. It’s not about victory at all – not in the way the world understands it. It’s about what the apostle John calls “the patient endurance of the saints.”

It’s a faith like that crabgrass you can’t get rid of, even with roundup. The grass that keeps coming back until the concrete of the sidewalk breaks down. It’s that daily faithfulness that often goes unnoticed. Not flashy, but over the course of years, and decades, and centuries, it has the power to break down empires.

“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”

Not big things. Nothing spectacular. But faithfulness. Little by little. Every day. Becoming channels of God’s love for those around us. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Let go of those broken cisterns that you’ve built for yourselves. All the ways that you seek to be in control, independent of God and other people. Surrender. Acknowledge your own need of God, your daily dependence on his life, power, and spirit. Come to the fountain of living water.

Related Posts:

The Sabbath Isn’t About Religion – It’s About Liberation

The Kingdom Is Yours – Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

The Sabbath Isn’t About Religion – It’s About Liberation

Seeds blowing off a dandelion

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/25/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Jesus was in the synagogue, teaching. And just then, a woman appeared. A woman who had suffered from a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was deformed and hunched. Unable to stand up straight.

When Jesus saw her, he called her over – called her right to the front, where he was teaching. And he said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he laid hands on her, and immediately the woman stood up straight. And she began praising God.

Eighteen years, she had been waiting for this. Eighteen years of pain and disability. Eighteen years of wondering why God allowed her to be afflicted in this way. Eighteen years of believing that she would never be freed from this oppressive spirit.

But even as the woman was still speaking her praises, glorifying God in the presence of everyone there in the synagogue, the pastor had something to say.

The pastor had something to say. Because this woman’s healing didn’t happen in the right way. This act of liberation didn’t take place according to the rules. This blessing that Jesus performed, this laying on of hands and the healing that followed – in the mind of the pastor of this synagogue, that was work. And this was the sabbath, a day on which no work is to be performed.

So the pastor had something to say. But he didn’t say it to Jesus. He didn’t directly confront the man who had got him so upset, so indignant. No, it says that he turned to the crowd, and kept saying to them, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Didn’t you get the memo, brothers and sisters? This is not ‘Nam – there are rules. You don’t just come to the synagogue any day you please, asking for God to heal you. The sabbath is for rest, not for being healed. The sabbath is for worship, not for liberation. The sabbath is for the teaching of the law, not for practicing it!

It’s just like the Torah says, in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter five. You might have heard of it. The Ten Commandments? Where God says: 

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.

This is a day of rest!, says the pastor to his flock. Obey the word of God! Follow the rules, just like Moses taught you! Come some other day to be healed, not on the sabbath. Everything in good order!

But Jesus was not having it. This pastor may not have wanted to speak directly to Jesus, but Jesus was just fine confronting him in his own synagogue. And this is one of those places in the Bible where, I do believe it’s fair to say, Jesus was angry. He says: 

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

If your livestock deserve to be watered on the sabbath day, surely it’s OK for God to do a little healing. A little blessing. A little liberating of those who are in bondage, under the weight of satan’s yoke. Isn’t it?

Because you see, Jesus remembered the whole passage. Jesus remembered the whole text from the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus remembered the next verse, where it says:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Remember that you were in bondage in the land of Egypt. Remember that the Lord your God brought you out from there with his mighty hand. Remember what God has done for you, how he has healed you and set you free.

And therefore.

Therefore. Because he has set you free. Because he has liberated you from Satan’s yoke. Because he has delivered you from physical and spiritual affliction. Therefore.

Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

God has commanded you to keep the sabbath day as a day of rest, so that everyone may experience that liberation. Your sons and your daughters. Your male and female slaves. The resident aliens living among you. Even for the livestock! God has liberated you from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. He has liberated you from bondage to violence, greed, and empire. Therefore, let all experience that rest and peace, that freedom and wholeness that comes from God our liberator.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning, we hear a little bit of this “therefore.” We hear from Isaiah what the God of Abraham considers to be true religion. We hear about the fast, the sabbath that the Lord requires. What is it? “To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” The Lord God of Israel says:

If you remove the yoke from among you. If you feed the hungry. If you heal the afflicted. If you cease to speak evil and stop pointing fingers at your neighbor. If you loose the bonds of injustice and release the prisoners from their chains. If you turn your eyes away from yourself and see the needs of others, the Lord will guide you continually. He will satisfy your needs. He will restore you and heal the city where you live. He will make you whole.

This is the sabbath of Isaiah, the sabbath of the Lord God of Israel. He says:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day… If you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs… I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This is the sabbath of Isaiah, the sabbath of Jesus – when we turn from ourselves, from our own pursuits and personal interests, and seek instead the good of those around us. The good of the weakest, the poorest, the most marginal. When we look to the needs of others, when we love our neighbors as ourselves – that is the sabbath of God. There’s no condemnation on this sabbath, only healing.

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the sabbath day?

The sabbath day is a day of Exodus. The day of rest is a day of liberation. From overwork. From anxiety. From trauma. From oppression. It’s liberation from the bondage of our own self-centeredness. It’s the freedom the comes when we become channels of God’s love for others. We’re set free. So free that we forget our sins – and so does God.

And when Jesus said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

We should rejoice, too. Because we need this liberation. We need to be freed from the kind of religion that is more about our own righteousness than about God’s power. We need to be released from the crippling spirit of fear and self-centeredness. The anxiety that keeps us from looking outward with love and compassion to the people around us.

We need God to heal us from a worldview where we worry ourselves to death about keeping score and feeling pure. By receiving the word of Jesus, of Isaiah, of Moses, God invites us to live in peace with those around us. To engage the world with love.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

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The Kingdom Is Yours – Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

The Kingdom Is Yours - Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/11/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40. 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 like to think of myself as being a fearless person. Someone brave. A person who charts my own course and doesn’t let anything or anyone dominate me.

But that’s not true. The truth is, I’m deeply afraid. I’m frightened by the state of our country – where authoritarianism is gaining strength in our government and white nationalist terrorism is on the rise. I’m frightened by the condition of our planet, which is being transformed by climate change, plastic-clogged oceans, and the destruction of vital bioregions, like the Amazon rainforest.

I’m frightened by a society that seems to have no use for God – a culture where life is cheapened and human beings are viewed as producers and consumers rather than as children of God. A land full of non-religious people who worship at the altar of science and progress on the one hand, and deeply religious people who don’t seem to have any interest in loving their neighbors or following Jesus in any meaningful way. These things disturb and frighten me.

I also get scared in all the usual ways. I worry about whether my job will be stable. About whether my co-workers like me. About whether I’m being a good pastor, and if I’m being faithful to what God is calling me to. I want to be liked. I want to be respected. I want to contribute and have my contribution appreciated.

I worry about money. A lot. It’s hard, living in this society, not to relate to money as the all-important thing. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. It’s what pays the bills. Its presence or absence in my bank account is the difference between living in a house and living on the street. So even though our family has more than enough right now, I still worry. Because I don’t know what might happen tomorrow.

Like I said, I prefer to think of myself as a brave person. But I’m obviously not. Fear permeates so many facets of my life, my thought, the ways I interact with the people around me.

So I need this scripture this morning. I need to hear Jesus when he says to me, to all of us gathered here as his disciples, he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Do not be afraid. Our Father has been pleased to give us the kingdom.

What is a kingdom? It’s a relationship of authority. To be part of a kingdom means to have a king, a sovereign, someone in charge. In our case, as followers of Jesus, that sovereign is God. The one who created the universe. The Father who loves as his own children.

We don’t need to be afraid, because our Father is the king. Our Father is in control. Our Father is trustworthy. He created the universe. He sustains it. And he is qualified to keep his promises.

Do not be afraid. Our Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

But just like any gift, this kingdom that is being given to us requires a response. You can’t receive a gift without reaching out your hands to take hold of it. So what does it look like to do that, what does Jesus tell us we need to do to receive this gift of the kingdom?

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Oh, is that all? OK, no biggie… Wait.

What’s Jesus saying here? Why in the world would accepting the kingdom of God mean selling our possessions and giving to the poor? That’s terrifying. That’s crazy. Why would God ask us to make ourselves so vulnerable?

When Jesus says, do not be afraid, this is what he means. Do not be afraid of the world and its power. Do not be afraid of surrendering your money. Do not be afraid of what this world threatens you with, the fear that keeps you from stepping out of line.

Do not be afraid, little flock. Put your full trust in God. Throw all your eggs into one basked – God’s kingdom. Renounce your anxiety about the economic systems and social hierarchy of this world. Free your mind, and become sons and daughters of God. Become citizens of the kingdom.

Religious people like us often like to imagine that we can have it both ways. That we can be a part of God’s kingdom while still playing by the rules of the kingdoms of this world. That we can keep a foot in both camps – enjoying our heavenly reward, while also getting what’s ours according to the imperial economy.

That’s what Isaiah was dealing with during his ministry, just before the Babylonians smashed Jerusalem and carried Israel off into captivity. The people of Israel thought they were doing what God required of them. They performed all the sacrifices, and then some. Isaiah says that the people of Israel were “trampling” the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing in so many whole burnt offerings that the priests could barely manage it. The Israelites had gotten very good at the religion business.

Of course God loves us!, said the rulers of Israel. Of course he approves of our society. Just look at how many bulls and goats we’ve sacrificed on the altar! Listen to all the songs of worship we’re performing! Look at how many people have come to pay homage to the God of Israel!

But, Isaiah says, God isn’t impressed. Israel thought they could have it both ways, paying a tithe to God while propping up an economy that abused the poor, the weak, the widow, the fatherless. God’s not interested in this kind of prayer and praise, divorced from justice and compassion. He says,

Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations —

I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I hide my eyes from you;

even when you offer many prayers,

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Isaiah speaks to a people who thought they could have it both ways. They showed up to the Temple and performed all of their religious obligations. But then they returned home and nothing changed. The violence, the fraud, the selfishness. Isaiah spoke to a people who came to visit the kingdom of God, but maintained their citizenship in the kingdoms of this world.

Like Isaiah before him, Jesus is here to announce that there is no dual citizenship in the kingdom of God. There can’t be any compromise with the values and economies of this world. We have to choose. And choosing means a hard break. It means selling our possessions and giving to the poor. It means surrendering our fear of this world and allowing our only fear to be that of failing to live as children of God.

If that message scares you as much as it scares me, we’re still in chains. If the idea of surrendering the safety and security that our economic system and political system offers us, if that’s intimidating to you, it means we still haven’t quite turned in our passports to get a new citizenship in the kingdom of God.

But if we are ready to take that step. If we are willing to become a community that truly abandons everything to walk with Jesus. If we become the faithful servants who are up and awake when the master comes home at four in the morning, there is an amazing reward waiting for us. The gift of the kingdom is peace, love, and unshakable security. As the author of Hebrews says, it is a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

We have a choice to make, and the price is steep in the terms that this world understands. But the reward for choosing to become citizens of the kingdom of God is commensurate with the price we pay.

Here’s what Jesus says about how the Father will treat those who wait for him. He says, 

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.

Did you catch it? When I read through this parable the first several times, I kept missing it. The real surprise and joy of this passage. Reading it through once, twice, three times – I thought that the passage said that the servants who were waiting up for the master would dress themselves to serve. I assumed that the master, when he showed up in the middle of the night, coming back from a wedding party – I assumed that the servants would wait on him.

But that’s not what the text says. When the kingdom of God comes, the master will dress himself up to serve, while the servants recline at table.

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. Leaders become servants. The weak are lifted up. And Jesus – the ultimate leader – endures the cross so that we can join him at the wedding feast.

The kingdom of God isn’t just about surrendering our wealth; we give up our status, too. Following in the way of Jesus, we become servants, just like he is.

This is the way of liberation. This is freedom from fear. This is adoption as sons and daughters of God, the kingdom that Jesus promises.

Do you want that? Do you want to be truly free from fear? To become a child of God? What does it look like for us to walk that path together?

One thing is for sure: We can’t wait. Time is of the essence. Because we don’t know when the master will arrive. In the words of Jesus,

…Understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Are we ready? When the master comes, will he find us awake? If not, what needs to change in our life together so that we will be prepared?

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When the Angels Come to America, Will They Find Ten Righteous People?

Header image of people walking in the city

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/28/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 18:20-32, Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13. You can listen to the audio (beginning with the scripture readings; the sermon begins at 6:30). Or, keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

As Jesus was praying in a certain place, his disciples approached him, and asked him: Lord, teach to pray, just like John taught his disciples. Jesus’ response, according to Luke, was extremely simple and straightforward. It started like this:

Father, hallowed be your name.

God is so far beyond anything we know or can understand. The God of Jesus, the God of Moses, the God of Abraham. The God of the desert. The God who said, “let there be light!” and the Big Bang happened. The God who hovered over the waters at the beginning of time. Let his name be holy.

Let his name be holy. His face, his character, his inward being – God is holy, set apart. God is different from us, unique. God is different from us in kind, not merely degree. God is not like the gods of the ancient world. He is not Zeus or Baal or Hera or Asherah. The God of Jesus is not a bigger, stronger, wiser human being. This is the God of the Big Bang and the garden, the God of Mount Sinai and the Tent of Meeting – this God is wholly and utterly other.

Let his name be holy. Let him be set apart, one-of-a-kind. Let us recognize that we are creatures and he is creator. Let us appreciate the profound difference between us and him. And let us realize that this difference is not a source of alienation, but rather a source of joy. Give thanks that God is not like us.

God is set apart, holy, different from us. Our creator is not blinded with our ways of seeing the world. He is not ensnared in our selfishness. And that’s why he can liberate us from the darkness we find ourselves in.

Your kingdom come.

That liberation, Jesus calls a kingdom. An empire. A reign, a rule, a tangible relationship of obedience that knits our lives together in the most holy, awesome, and powerful love of God.

Jesus says: This is my father’s world, and his reign is coming. Pray for it to come, and soon. Pray for the joy, justice, and liberty that the kingdom of God will bring. Pray for the transformation of our world to look like God intends. Pray for peace. Pray for love. 

Pray for the kingdom of God, that it would quickly overcome the counterfeit kingdoms of this world. Human hierarchies and economies. Petty personal ambitions and towering corporations. Nuclear armed nation-states and oppressive religious authorities.

Your kingdom come, Father God. Your kingdom come, humble Lord Jesus. Your kingdom come, Spirit of God, descending on the world as in the beginning.

Give us each day our daily bread

We. Are. Helpless. We breathe because God gives us breath. We see because God said, “let there be light!” We eat because the Spirit hovered over the waters and called forth all the living things in the sea, on the earth, and in the air.

Just like every living thing, we depend on God for the basic nutrients we need to get through a single day. Those of us who live in this agricultural, industrial, and high-technological civilization easily fool ourselves into imagining that we are in control. We believe that we make our own way in this cosmos. That we are lords of the earth. But we are wrong. We are like hungry, half-blind, infant children crying out for mother’s milk.

Give us each day our daily bread, God. Feed us. We’re helpless without your love.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Whoa now. Whoa now. “Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us.” I don’t know about you, but I was a lot more comfortable with this prayer Jesus is teaching us, back when I could limit it to the ways I should be thinking about God and relating to God. But what’s this about people? What’s this about forgiving everyone who owes me? 

That’s not how our economy works! I can’t just go around forgiving everyone’s debts. I need to get paid! I need to eat! My family needs to eat! How are we going to get by without demanding that our debtors pay what they owe us?

Give us each day our daily bread.

Oh right. God provides. God is the source. He is the giver of every gift. He is powerful, and loving, and in control. But we have to surrender. Because we’re not in charge.

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Your kingdom come

This is the only way, the only way this is going to happen. God’s kingdom has to come. His way has to be lived out here, now, right here in late capitalist North America. Because I can’t do this otherwise. I can’t forgive those who are indebted to me if the kingdom isn’t going to come. I can’t surrender my security and safety in the money economy, if I don’t know that there’s another economy I can take part in. I need God’s kingdom. I need this kingdom to come if I’m going to pray this way.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

That’s what this all sounds like. Trial. Testing. Challenge. Renouncing the world that is right in front of our eyes, in favor of a new world being born. A world of waving trees, moving with the breath of God. A world of teeming oceans and flying birds. A world of clean water flowing from the city of God. A world of economies powered by love, neighborhoods filled with peace, and streets flowing with justice.

It feels like a time of trial now. It feels like we’ve come to a time of trial. A time when we will be tested. And, if I’m honest with myself, most days I feel like I’m failing the exam. I’m not living up to the measure of the character of Jesus.

So I pray: Don’t bring me to the time of trial, God. I’m not ready. Have mercy on me, I’m not like Jesus yet. Help me to get there, Lord. But don’t bring me to the time of trial. I’m not sure I’ll survive it.

In our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis, we hear about God’s visit to Abraham. It says that Abraham “saw three men standing near him,” and he knew it was the Lord.

And so the visitors ate with Abraham and Sarah. They accepted the couple’s hospitality, and they delivered some very unexpected news. Then the three visitors got up to leave. But before they took off, God decided to share with Abraham what he was about to do, and where the angels were headed. 

God was going to destroy the city of Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah – two allied cities situated on the Jordan River plain. God was on his way to check Sodom out for himself, and if it was really as bad as he had heard, he was going to level the place.

Sodom and Gomorrah were full of greed and injustice, arrogance and violence. God said to Abraham, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

So it’s the time of trial for Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s time to put these cities to the test and find out if they’re really as wicked as everyone in the region says they are. 

But then an interesting thing happens. Abraham intervenes with God, pleading for leniency with these cities. It says that Abraham came near to God and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”

Fair enough, says God. If I can find fifty righteous people, I will spare the city for their sake.

Presumably God is about to take off at this point, but Abraham keeps it up. “What about forty-five, Lord? Surely you wouldn’t destroy the city just because five righteous people were missing.”

And God’s like, “OK, sure. Forty five it is.”

“But God…”

“What, Abraham?”

“How about forty?”

“Oh for… OK, fine. Forty.”

“Can I get thirty?”

“Thirty.”

“Twenty?”

“Twenty.”

At this point Abraham is really pushing his luck, but he risks annoying God, for the sake of the few righteous people that might be in Sodom and Gomorrah. “Oh, God, don’t be angry at me for this, but… What about ten? Would you spare the city for ten righteous people?”

And it says that God answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And then the Lord went on his way.

Wild, right? What a negotiator! Abraham haggled God all the way down to ten people. There would just have to be ten decent, upright folks in all of Sodom, and they would pass the test.

Lord, do not bring us to the time of trial.

As I suspect that y’all know already, Sodom did not pass the test. When the heavenly visitors showed up in town, they accepted the hospitality of apparently the only righteous man in all of Sodom – Lot. But in the middle of the night, all the other men of the city came and demanded that the guests be surrendered, to be publicly humiliated, abused, and sexually assaulted. Only through the divine powers of the guests were Lot and his family able to escape. And once they did, the whole plain went up in flames. Sodom and Gomorrah had failed the test.

Lord, do not bring us to the time of trial.

Sodom and Gomorrah are legendary for their wickedness, and for their failure to meet the time of trial. And it’s tempting to imagine that these cities were a special case, an amazingly wicked group of people, very different from you and me. Very different from our city, our nation.

But are we? Are we a people of justice? Are we a city of righteousness? Are we a place where God’s kingdom is felt and experienced, where the hungry are fed, the lonely loved, and the stranger welcomed? Who are the righteous men and women of our society? Are there enough of them to deliver us from the time of trial?

Let’s review the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples:

Father, hallowed be your name.

You are different and special, God.

Your kingdom come.

We need you to change us, God. Make us like Jesus.

Give us each day our daily bread.

We depend on you, Holy Spirit, every day. Feed us and guide us.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Liberate us from our selfishness and addiction to the money economy, God. Teach us to love others like you love us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul writes, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Do not bring us to the time of trial.

Root us in you, God. Grow us into maturity. Make us like Jesus. Create in us clean hearts, oh God, and renew a right spirit within us.

Make us salt and light. Make us the righteous ones that ward off the time of trial from our city, our nation, our planet.

For, as Paul writes:

…when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave all of our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

Your kingdom come.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Transform our lives. Forgive our sins. Use us as a catalyst of liberation, to free those around us from debt, accusation, and fear. Do not bring us to the time of trial, and in your mercy use us to turn away the time of trial for the city where we live.

Sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we could make any difference at all in this world so filled with darkness right now. So I leave you with the words of Jesus, who has faced all this darkness and more, and who lives and reigns forever and ever:

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

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It May Already Be Too Late To Avert Climate Disaster. Where is God?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/23/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42. You can listen to the audio (beginning with the scripture readings; the sermon begins at 7:08). Or, keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

These past few weeks, there have been some realities that I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind. Unpleasant things that I wish weren’t true, that maybe I don’t even want to know about. But they’re real, and I bear some responsibility for them.

Recently, I’ve been painfully aware of the reality of the advanced stage that the climate crisis has arrived to. I’ve been grappling with a growing realization that we as a civilization have almost certainly already careened over the edge of the cliff that we have been speeding towards since before I was born.

There was a time when it was still possible to avert the consequences of global warming, to undo the damage that had been done and chart a better course. There was a time when we could turn it all around and make better choices as a species.

That time is probably past.

I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing we can do to address the climate crisis that we find ourselves living in. I’m not preaching despair – quite the opposite. But in the past few weeks I’ve allowed myself to acknowledge that we are no longer living in the period of time where the climate crisis can be avoided. It’s already here. And it’s going to get worse.

There’s just no getting around that. No matter how much responsibility we take in the present moment. No matter how heroic our efforts, we as a civilization have already set in motion a chain reaction that is wrecking havoc on the planetary community of life – humans, plants, and animals together.

It’s not clear how bad things have to get. It’s not certain how much of a difference we can make by changing our way of life as a species. But things are already, today, in 2019, very bad for the uncountable species that are being driven out of existence. The situation is already dire for millions of people who have been reduced to desperation and death by the consequences of our actions and inaction. This crisis is happening now. As a society, we have sailed off the cliff, and it’s not clear how far we will fall and where we will land.

So I have been processing this. I’ve been sitting with it. The end of our planet as we know it. The extinction of uncountable plants and animals species. The destruction of ecosystems and the transformation of our beautiful planet into a place that may be practically unrecognizable.

I’ve been sitting with this unfolding reality, and my sense of loss is immense. Rather than denying the reality of the situation, I’m allowing myself to grieve. Death is traumatic, and the world we’ve known is dying.

So I’ve been seeing this. Just seeing it. Not trying to run from it, or even rush to fix it. I’ve just been witnessing this unfolding tragedy. The reality of all this loss – loss that we’ve already experienced, and loss that is to come.

And in this process of bearing witness – as I’m just letting the reality of our situation sink in – I’m seeing the transformation of my country in a new light. I’m seeing the construction of concentration camps on the US/Mexico border. I’m seeing the large-scale detention of men, women, and children in conditions that are almost unimaginable. I’m seeing the suffering of families fleeing poverty, violence, and corruption in their countries of origin, only to fall into the hands of a regime who is prepared to torture them to send a message.

And it just hits me. This is all of one piece. These are climate refugees. The waves of immigration to Europe we’ve seen in the last decade. The caravans from Honduras. The desperate situation on our southern border and the willingness of our government to treat our brothers and sisters – little children – as if they were animals. We’re already seeing the birth pangs of the societal breakdown that’s coming.

It’s coming. The Day of the Lord is at hand.

As far as we can tell, the prophet Amos was the guy who invented that phrase. The Day of the Lord. And since the time of Amos, other prophets like Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Joel, and many others, have picked up on this theme.

Throughout the prophetic tradition, “the Day of the Lord” is a multivalent phrase. It’s not simple. You can take it a number of different ways. Depending on your perspective, the Day of the Lord might be something you look forward to. It might be good news. A time when God pours out blessings on his people. It’s the moment when God sets everything right and finally establishes his kingdom of peace, justice, and love.

That sounds pretty good.

But there’s another side to the Day of the Lord. And it’s this other side that Amos focuses on – spends almost his entire book talking about it.

Amos has an extremely gloomy view of the Day of the Lord. For Amos, the Day of the Lord is not good news for Israel. Because Israel has broken the covenant. Israel has chased after the false gods of wealth, nationalism, and state power. Israel has broken the covenant, and so in the prophecy of Amos, the Day of the Lord is a day of reckoning for Israel.

We all think we want justice. But God help us if we truly get it. Do we really want justice? Do we really want to be repaid according to our deeds? Israel of the 700s BC might think they do. They might think they’re doing grand, and God loves them very much. But Amos is here to deliver some very bad news. He says:

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,    

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

Whoa. Why is God so angry? Why would God abandon his people to slaughter like this?  How could God forsake the temple in Jerusalem, where his name dwells?

The reason for Israel’s destruction according to Amos is pretty straightforward: Economic injustice. The Day of the Lord is coming for those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” It’s coming for the rich, who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” – for wealth profiteers who game the market to their advantage while the poor can barely eat.

The Day of the Lord is coming for a society that enjoys wealth the likes of which the world has never known, but which concentrates almost all of that wealth at the top. A society in which three men possess more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. A nation in which little children are locked in cages, babies are taken from their parents, and hundreds of people are kept for days in standing-room-only cells – all for the “crime” of seeking refuge in the land of the Statue of Liberty.

The Day of the Lord is coming.

One thing that Amos says about that Day really stands out. Because it’s a little different from what we hear from some of the other prophets. Take Joel for example. For Joel, the Day of the Lord, in addition to being a day of great fury and judgment by God, will also be a day when the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. A day when God is fully present to all his children.

The Day of the Lord according to Amos – according to the prophet who coined the term, “Day of the Lord” – is a lot darker. Here’s what he says that day is going to be like for the people of Israel:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,

when I will send a famine on the land;

not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,     

but of hearing the words of the Lord.

They shall wander from sea to sea,     

and from north to east;

they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,     

but they shall not find it.

Wow. So, really, it’s the opposite of Joel’s vision, isn’t it? For Amos, probably the greatest terror of the Day of the Lord is the fact that the presence of God will depart entirely from Israel. God will hide his face. No amount of begging or pleading can change the consequences that are on the way. The verdict has come down.

So, like I said, I’ve been sitting with the high probability that the verdict has already come down for our nation. That God has issued judgment over us for the way we have desecrated the earth and trampled the lives of the poor. For the seas choked with plastic and the homeless encampments scattered throughout a city filled with millionaires and billionaires.

God is not blind to the torture of mothers and babies and fathers and teens and old people at the border. God does not turn his face away from the cries of our southern brothers and sisters seeking refuge from violence and poverty. Jesus wept for Lazarus, and you can be sure he’s weeping for those dying of thirst in the Sonoran desert. The Day of the Lord is coming.

And I have to ask: Has God turned his face away from us? Is our nation so irredeemably lost that God has given up on us, and committed to our destruction? Does God say to us, like he said to Amos:

The end has come upon my people [America];     

I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the [churches] shall become wailings in that day,”

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,     

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

God forbid! Lord, have mercy. Holy Spirit, don’t turn your face away from us. We need you more than ever.

Still, we have to consider the damage that has already been done, and the damage that we continue to participate in as citizens and consumers in this death machine. Given our behavior, we should not presume that God owes us anything.

I’m glad that Amos is not the only voice we’re hearing this morning. We have two other readings, and I think they help round out the reality of our situation as the church in the new Rome in the midst of the climate crisis. The first reading is from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. The second is a very memorable episode from the gospel of Luke, when Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha.

Let’s start with Colossians. I want to look for a moment at Paul’s description of who Jesus is – because it’s beautiful. In this passage, Paul says that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The word “image” here is the Greek eikon, where we get the English word “icon.” An icon isn’t just a picture of something, it’s a manifestation. Jesus is a complete and faithful manifestation of God. If we know Jesus, we know God. Jesus lacks nothing; “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

Not only is Jesus a complete and faithful manifestation of God, he’s also the source of the entire creation. Through Jesus, God created everything. There’s not a single thing – whether in the heavenly realms or in the material world – that wasn’t created through Jesus and for Jesus. Everything that exists hangs together – coheres – in him. He is the A to the Z, the beginning, the middle, and the end.

As if that weren’t enough, Jesus wasn’t only central to the creation of the cosmos. He is also the key player in redeeming the cosmos from the effects of sin. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

So, as Christians, we’ve been reconciled in Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus is not merely a past-tense savior who died on a cross so that we could live. He is risen. He is alive. He is present within us when we gather in his name. He is ready to guide us and lead us.

Because he is here with us, within us, among us, we can become full participants in his ministry of reconciliation. This is the mystery that Paul proclaims to the Colossians, and it is the mystery that lies at the heart of the gospel that we preach here in this community: Christ in you, the hope of glory.

So that’s the flip side. That might be the flip side to the words of the prophet Amos. The Day of the Lord will be darkness, gloom, and death. It is a day of judgment and dread, when all the hidden things are laid bare and exposed. But it is also a day of light, a day in which the presence of Jesus Christ is uncovered and he comes to teach us himself. Amidst the horror, there is hope. Amidst the judgment, there is the ministry of reconciliation, the presence of infinite love in the face of our friend and teacher Jesus.

Which brings us to Mary and Martha.

Probably most of us have heard this story a few times. This is one of those sort of “preacher’s pet” passages that has probably done way more than its fair share of sermon duty over the centuries. And that makes sense, because it’s such a good story.

Jesus goes to the house of Martha, and she welcomes Jesus and his compatriots in. And while Jesus is there, Martha is running around the house, providing hospitality, making sure there’s plenty of wine, and hummus, and whatever else the disciples need while during their stay.

Meanwhile, Martha has a sister, Mary. And Mary is not helping out. Martha has the (reasonable) expectation that her sister will help her with all of the hospitality work that goes into providing for Jesus and his entourage. But instead, Mary just plops down in front of Jesus and starts acting like one of the disciples. She sits there, listening to Jesus as he teaches, while Martha does all the hard work of making the trains run on time.

And so Martha complains to Jesus. She says, “do you see the way my sister is just sitting there, while I’m doing all the work to keep this party going? Tell her to get up and lend a hand!”

Jesus’ response is as simple as it is challenging. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

So, when Amos was preaching to Israel about how God was going to bring about their utter ruin and destruction, you might imagine that he was speaking to people who didn’t take religion very seriously. Probably too busy exploiting the poor and speculating on wheat futures to spend much time at the temple.

But what we see from Amos’ writings seems to point to exactly the opposite. The people of Israel in this time were extremely religious. At one point, God speaks through Amos, saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”

Imagine that. God saying, “I hate all your worship and hymn-singing. I hate your prayers and your Bible studies. I hate your after-worship potlucks, and your committee meetings.”

Why? Because all these things are meaningless without the practice of justice. No amount of service to the Lord can make up for a failure to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,     

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The people of ancient Israel thought they were doing what was expected of them. They performed the feasts commanded by the law, and they carried out the sacrifices that were required of them in the temple. But the testimony of Amos is that no amount of worship will make up for a life of injustice. And the testimony of Jesus to Mary and Martha is that no amount of busyness and productivity – not even in the service of good, important things – can make up for the life of listening and obedience.

It’s easy to get so busy doing things for God that we fail to listen and be taught by the living presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s so easy to worship an idea that we have about Jesus while failing to submit our lives to him and follow him as disciples.

No wonder that, when the Day of the Lord comes, Amos says that we’ll search in vain for the words of God. Many of us have spent so much time assuming we know what God wants, even in a time of extreme crisis we may fail to hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

The Day of the Lord is near. The climate crisis is happening. Our government is building concentration camps for the refugees. We stand potentially on the brink of war with Iran. Our future is very uncertain.

The Day of the Lord is near. Are we awake? Are we listening? Are we seated at the feet of Jesus, learning from him and obeying his voice? Or are we scurrying around the kitchen, trying to keep things orderly and under control?

In times like these, part of the good news of Jesus is that we don’t have to give into despair. Because we’re not in charge of solving the world’s problems.

In Jesus, God has already won the victory over sin, fear, and death. Through his resurrection, Jesus is present to guide us into the action we need to take. Not our own efforts, but Christ in us, the hope of glory.

That’s the gospel we proclaim. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid to face the world as it really is – no matter how dark our situation might be. Because we are not alone. In Jesus all things in heaven and on earth hold together. He is our peace. He is our leader. He is the Day of the Lord, and we can trust him.

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