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Even In Our Grief, The Kingdom of God is Here

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/28/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Revelation 4, 12:7-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But war broke out in heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Wasn’t Nice. We Can’t Be Either

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/14/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 11:37-54. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Good morning, nice people.

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

It’s nice to be nice.

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

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

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

It all starts with not washing his hands before dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be nice.

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/24/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jude 17-25. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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There are parts of the Bible I like more than others. Parts that make me feel joyful, like John’s stories about Jesus following the resurrection. Parts that make me feel challenged and inspired, like Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Places like the first few chapters of Genesis that give me the grand sweep, the big picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward Has Always Been Hidden In Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Are No Heroes in the Kingdom of God

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/26/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 21:15-19. 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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C.S. Lewis, the influential 20th century Christian author wrote:

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”

Jesus is like that. Surprising.

I never would have imagined the God of Genesis, who weeps over human evil and regrets creating us. I never would have conceived of that same God loving us so much that he himself became human in order to liberate us. I never could have imagined that the creator of the universe would suffer, bleed, and die for us – living a life of total solidarity with the desperate, the poor, the homeless, the outcast.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe the things we believe.

What I mean to say is, it’s possible to intellectually assent to an idea without fully processing it. It’s possible to say, “God is love” while hating the people around us. It’s completely normal to worship a crucified savior, crushed under the bootheel of empire, while seeing no problem with those systems of violence and domination that operate in our world today.

It’s easy to practice the outward forms of religion. It’s harder to get to the substance.

So often, our religion is like food that we have chewed but not swallowed. We get a taste of it, and think that’s enough. The taste lingers in our mouths, but we never get the nutrients. We never get changed. We never get to grow in the ways that truly receiving that spiritual food would give us.

George Orwell, in his book 1984, introduced the idea of doublethink – the idea that it is possible to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time and see no contradiction. The practice of doublethink is foundational to the operation of totalitarian states. It is also essential to the practice of human religion.

Doublethink is the key to a well-adjusted life as a Christian in American society.

As Christians, we must believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and sends us the Holy Spirit. As Americans, we must believe that only those things that are repeatable, testable, and scientifically quantifiable carry any weight.

As Christians, we must believe that love is more powerful than violence; that the Holy Spirit is more real than money; and that we have no king but Jesus. As Americans, we must embrace the selfish, atomistic, and utilitarian logic of capitalism – a logic that reduces all interactions to inputs and outputs, bosses and employees, dollars and cents.

And most of the time, we hold these contradictions in our heads pretty well. We go to church and celebrate the kingdom of God. And then we go out, and operate according to the logic and morality of the world that killed Jesus. We mold our Christianity to fit the worldview of the society around us.

Because really challenging that worldview is the kind of thing that could make you lose your job. It could threaten friendships. And, in some places, might even cost you your life.

So much of what passes for Christianity has always been a convenient blend of pious words and ritual that never lead us to action. Never lead us to the kingdom. Never challenge the fundamental structures of the fallen world around us.

Communities are established and sustained by stories. And just as there are many stories that hold together the Christian faith, there are also stories that undergird and legitimize America, and empire in general.

One of the most important of these stories is that of the heroic individual. The idea that you – you personally – can make a difference. You can be the protagonist. What you do can shape the whole course of history. With enough grit, determination, and courage, you too can be a Moses, an Alexander, a Churchill, a Martin Luther King Jr. You can be a Great Man. (And, in the last few decades, perhaps even a Great Woman.)

This myth is powerful. Because it’s all about you. And you like you. (It’s OK – I like me, too.) And why shouldn’t you be the hero? Why shouldn’t you make a difference? Why shouldn’t you be the first person who, despite all odds, gets to live forever?

This myth of the heroic individual has infected my own Christianity. Because I was a heroic individualist before I was a Christian. And when I started to follow Jesus, I interpreted the whole story through that lens, without even realizing it. I centered myself in the story. I imagined myself as the hero. I thought the gospel was about me, myself, and I.

But that’s not who Jesus is.

The amazing, surprising thing about Jesus, is that his life completely explodes the idea of the heroic individual. In John 5, Jesus presents himself as the ultimate anti-hero. He says: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”

Jesus doesn’t do anything on his own. Jesus does not make himself the center of the story – he is here so that we can see the Father.

Let me repeat that again, because it’s so surprising that it might even sound heretical: Jesus does not ever place himself in the center. He doesn’t make himself the star of the show. He never makes himself the hero. He always points to the Father.

Jesus submits himself so completely to his Father’s will that he is pushed to the absolute bottom of the pit. He becomes a slave to everyone. He dies for you. He dies for me. He dies to preach the good news to those who are trapped in hell. He dies to save the very people who killed him. He dies for the Romans. He dies for the Pharisees. He dies for Judas.

In our reading this morning from John, we get a glimpse into Jesus’ great humility. We get to listen into an intimate conversation between the resurrected Jesus and the disciples, having breakfast together on the beach. We hear Jesus asking his disciple Peter: “Do you love me?”

If you love me, you will feed my sheep. If you love me, you will care for your brothers and sisters. If you love me, you will tend the flock.

We follow Jesus when we love one another. We follow Jesus when we act as shepherds to one another. We are his friends when we do what he commands us. And that is to love one another. To lay down our lives for one another. To become servants to others.

Do you love him?

Do I love him? Then I’ve got to give up trying to be the hero. I’ve got to surrender this narrative that centers myself. I’ve got to become the shepherd. The servant. The forgotten and hidden helper. I have to be ready to die, to become lost so that others can be saved.

That’s not something I would have guessed. That’s not what I signed up for when I became a Christian. That’s not what I thought I was getting into.

And that’s one reason I know it’s true. Because I didn’t make this up. God did. And Jesus shows me. He’s here to teach us. He’s sitting beside the breakfast fire with us – breaking the bread and cooking the fish. He’s asking us:

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

We are the tyranny of evil men – but we’ve got to learn to be the shepherds.

If we’re going to follow Jesus. If we’re going to be like him. We have to drop the hero game and become servants.

Do you love Jesus? Feed his sheep.

Bring good news to the poor. Free those who are in prison. Care for those who are locked away, without human connection. Give sight to the blind. Love your neighbor as yourself.

We are his friends if we do what he commands us: That we love one another.

It may not be easy, but it’s not complicated. We don’t need an advanced degree or seminary training to understand what Jesus asks of us. Love one another.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe the things that we believe.

We’ve got to forget ourselves. Forget our need to be the hero, and turn our attention to the humans around us – each and every one of whom needs God’s love.

We can be vessels for that love. Feed those sheep. Care for the brothers and sisters. Bring a cup of cold water. Offer the words that bring connection and healing.

Stop trying to be the protagonist. Do nothing except that which the Father shows you. And God will lift you up, just like Jesus.

“Do you love me?” Then stop practicing doublethink. Stop trying to reconcile the myths of capitalism and empire with the way of the cross. Stop trying to be the hero when you’re called to be the shepherd.

Let go. Let God. “Feed my sheep.”

Celebrating Easter in the Shadow of Death

A lantern next to a tombstone

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 20:1-18 and Romans 6:3-5. 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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Quakers have historically been skeptical of the liturgical calendar. The early Quaker movement made a point of throwing off as many of the dead forms of the liturgical state church as they could.

This made sense at the time. The establishment church used the outward form of godliness to justify violence and economic injustice. It propped up an oppressive monarchy. It stole from the poor via tithes. It oversaw the progressive concentration of land and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

So Quakers ditched the trappings of the Church of England. That included the bread and wine that the priests used to spiritually dominate and materially exploit the people. It included a water baptism that was used as a gate-keeping device – rituals used to threaten dissenters with damnation if they did not obey their earthly masters.

In the context of 1650s England, I think the early Quakers mostly got it right. The mainstream church had abandoned the clear teachings of Jesus. Even worse, they stood at the door, preventing others from entering into the kingdom. They denied the presence and power of the resurrection, pointing people to the dead letter and a landed institution rather than to the living presence and lordship of Jesus.

A lot has changed in the last 370 years. We no longer live under a monarchy. Our nation has no state church, and the power of formal religious hierarchies is at the lowest ebb in all of Western history. There is no tithe that we must pay or face a visit from the police. Every individual is radically free to worship – or not – however they choose.

As individual autonomy has expanded and the power of the institutional church has waned, Quakers have changed dramatically, including in our relationship to the liturgical calendar.

For most of our history, Quakers did not celebrate any holidays at all, including Christmas. Now, practically everyone does. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been developing for generations. For the last one hundred and fifty years or so, those of us in the orthodox Quaker tradition have become increasingly comfortable with many parts of the liturgical church heritage.

Today, Berkeley Friends Church celebrates Easter. We join with the rest of the global Christian family in remembering and celebrating the action that God has taken in Jesus. We testify together, in the words of the apostle Peter, that: “[Jesus was] crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

Jesus is risen from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He reigns forever and ever. He is here with us now, in his resurrection power.

This is the good news of the gospel. It is the good news of the Quaker tradition. This is the reality that men and women have struggled and died to proclaim over the last two thousand years. It is a gospel worth dying for, and a truth worth living into.

This Jesus whom we crucified, God has raised up. And all of us are witnesses. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is literally, immediately, tangibly present with us. He calls us by name.

This is why we celebrate Easter.

But I have to admit, I’m resonating this morning with the traditional Quaker skepticism of set days and times and seasons. Because despite the fact that the day called Easter falls on this date in the year 2020, I’m having a tough time feeling it.

The last forty days (not counting Sundays) has been the season of Lent. Lent is a time of reflection, repentance, fasting, and preparation as we look towards Easter. It’s a time to renounce all the distractions and fixations that have accumulated in our lives, and to return to a simple, sober awareness of God and his love – and the enormous need that the world has for that love.

This has been the darkest season of Lent I’ve ever experienced. A global pandemic is tearing through our human community. A series of primary elections and political battles have left me feeling drained, demoralized, and hopeless. The shattering of our country – politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually – feels almost total.

So this Friday, on the day we remember the death and burial of Jesus, it made sense. Remembering Jesus’ suffering on the cross felt alive and relevant to me. It feels like the whole world is in the shadow of the cross right now.

Easter is harder for me.

Today we celebrate the most essential witness of the Christian faith, the truth that brings us all together and defines our community: Jesus is alive. God has raised him from the dead. In an act of definitive liberation and healing, God has vindicated Jesus and given him a new life, a new body, a new way of being present in the world.

The resurrection is the gospel. It is God’s victory announcement over the powers of this world – over the sin and death that until now seemed inescapable, unconquerable. In Jesus, God has the victory, forever and ever.

But getting to the resurrection is a process. Because death is still a reality. We still live in a fallen world. If we had any doubt about that, Coronavirus, rising authoritarianism, abuses of men, women, and children at our nation’s border, and so many other desolations confirm it: We are not out of the woods yet.

And so simply jumping to Easter – simply saying, “Yay! Jesus is alive! Everything is OK! Hallelujah!” – there’s a falseness in that. A premature jump to Easter can be a form of denial, a form of emotional suppression, pushing down all the blackness and horror, rather than giving ourselves the space to grieve and process. This isn’t just psychologically unhealthy – it’s also not consistent with what we read in the scriptures.

I like the gospel of John, and I think that John’s account is at its best in its telling of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And one of the strengths of John’s account is that he does not rush through the resurrection. He tells the story of disciples working through their devastation, their disappointment, their grief. He tells the very human story of how Jesus’ friends have to engage with Good Friday and Holy Saturday before they can get to Easter Sunday.

For John, the Easter story begins “while it was still dark.” It begins with the distraught disciple, Mary Magdalene, discovering that the tomb is empty. It begins with two of the men disciples rushing to the grave and finding only burial cloths. It begins with the confusion and tears of Mary, as she waits beside the tomb, even after the other disciples have given up in confusion and gone back home.

This Easter, I’m having an easier time relating to the early morning disciples. The disciples who still didn’t know about the resurrection. The disciples who had lost everything, and couldn’t stop weeping.

I’m feeling close to Mary, who had lost her best friend. All she had left was Jesus’ body, and now even that had been taken from her. There was nothing left but weeping and pleading.

Mary is really the heart of this story. She’s the original apostle, the one who brought the good news to the Twelve. The other disciples ran off, but she stayed. She was present with her anguish. She didn’t try to escape.

And what’s especially interesting to me this morning is that Mary doesn’t immediately recognize the resurrection when she sees it. John says that she bent over into the tomb – she puts herself halfway into the grave – and she sees the angels sitting inside. But she’s so distraught, tears blurring her vision, that she doesn’t realize that the beings inside the tomb are angels.

Then she turns around and Jesus is standing there. But she’s so upset, and Jesus must look different than she expected, so she doesn’t realize who she’s seeing. She thinks he’s the gardener! And she begs him to give her Jesus’ body so that she can take it away.

“Woman, why are you weeping?”

Why are you weeping?

Why am I weeping? What is the body that I am clinging to? What is the corpse that I desperately want possession of? What is the attachment so great that it gets in the way of seeing Jesus in his resurrection?

When Jesus says Mary’s name, she knows instantly who is standing in front of her: Teacher!

And again, Mary wants to take hold of Jesus. But Jesus won’t let her touch him. “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

It seems cruel, doesn’t it? Just moments ago, Mary would have been content just to have Jesus’ dead body, and now the living Jesus won’t even hug her.

“Don’t hold on to me. Go back and preach the message. Because everything has changed. I am ascending to the Father.”

This is not the resurrection of Hallmark cards and opiate religion. This is not a feel-good moment. Even in the joy and glory of the resurrection, there is pain. There is loss. Things have changed. Jesus is alive, but he’s alive in a new way.

I want to be like Mary. I want to be a disciple who stays behind and remains present with the suffering. I want to be someone who doesn’t flee from the pain. I want to be a disciple who waits at the foot of the cross and holds vigil at the tomb. Because that’s what love looks like. And that’s where transformation happens.

But I’m also seeing that even a faithful friend like Mary can be confused. And it makes me wonder what I’m confused about right now. What am I not seeing? Who are the angels that I don’t recognize? Where is Christ in this horrible situation? Will I recognize him when he says my name?

It’s important for me to remember that Easter began while it was still dark. I don’t have to feel good. I don’t have to have worked through my grief. I don’t need to believe that things are going to be OK to wait beside the tomb. To wait on Jesus, even in the darkness. I’m discovering that mourning is a necessary part of Easter.

Because Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me. I haven’t ascended yet.” Jesus tells us that things have fundamentally changed. We can’t go back to the way things were before. And that’s hard. Because part of me wants to go back. To the familiar. To the comfortable. Even if it wasn’t that great.

The new is scary, and that means the resurrection is scary, too.

Paul confirms this in his letter to the Romans. All of us who have immersed into Christ Jesus have been immersed into his death. We have been buried with him by immersion into death, so that just as Jesus is raised by God from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life.

Like Mary, we have to bend down into the tomb if we want to see the angels. We have to wait and weep beside the grave if we want to see Jesus. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

In the words of William Penn: “No cross, no crown.” And as Francis’ favorite book – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – says: “Uh-oh! A cave! A narrow gloomy cave. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it!” We’ve got to go through the darkness before we can see the light. We have to experience the desolation and grief before we can be healed. There’s no shortcut.

So let’s be like Mary. Let’s be fully present with the heartache of our broken world. Because there are angels watching over us in this predawn darkness.

And the dawn is coming. God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father forever and ever. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is doing a new thing. He has become a new thing. And he will make us a new thing. A new creation. A new Jerusalem. An earth restored.

That is the promise. And the angels are already here. We may not recognize them yet, but the first fruits of the kingdom are already present in this dark time. The Comforter has come – the Holy Ghost from heaven, the Father’s promise given. So spread the tidings round, wherever we are found – the Comforter has come!

Jesus Christ is risen indeed!

With Coronavirus – We’re All in the Belly of the Fish Now

Face of a large, dark fish

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/22/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Jonah 2. 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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We’re in the belly of the fish now. We’re deep down at the bottom of the ocean, where there is no light to see.

We’re in a place of waiting. Waiting on God. Waiting on people. Waiting to see what the course of this virus will be.

We’re waiting to see who will live and who will die. Who we will see again, and who we have embraced for the last time.

We’re waiting to see what kind of people we will be. Will we be those who hoard, or those who share? Those who hope, or those who panic? Those who protect, or those who expose? Those who love, or those who judge and blame?

This moment is one that reveals character. When the heat gets turned up, how do we respond to crisis?

The prophet Jonah was tested, too. God commanded him to go on what must have felt like a suicide mission. To go preach a word of judgment to the Assyrians, the biggest, baddest, most dangerous empire the world had ever known up until that point. God said, “Jonah, go and let those Assyrians know that they are in big trouble for all the terrible things they’re doing.” And Jonah says, “actually, I think I’m gonna take a boat ride to the ends of the earth in the opposite direction!”

God wasn’t willing to take “no” for an answer, though. And so we end up with this situation where a big storm swamps the boat he is riding on. Jonah is thrown overboard, into the raging waters – right into the mouth of a great fish. God sends a fish to swallow Jonah and keep him alive, under the sea, for three days and three nights.

Assuming it’s possible to live in the belly of a fish – assuming you had enough space and air to avoid suffocation – what would it be like to spend three days in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea?

It would be dark. It would be cold. It would be lonely. It would be an experience that tears you away from everything you’ve ever known. It would leave nothing but silence and expectation. It would be like you were already dead and buried. Nothing to do but wait. Contemplate. Pray.

So Jonah’s prayer is coming from the most intense place possible. Right on the borderline between life and death. His prayer reads like one of the psalms. It’s a real, whole-wheat prayer. It’s got all the roughage and fiber you need for good spiritual digestion. Written at 20,000 leagues under the sea, Jonah’s prayer has depth.

Jonah’s prayer is simultaneously one of thanksgiving and lament. Life is hard right now, and Jonah doesn’t sugar coat that. His prayer begins with a declaration of distress. “I cried out of the depths to you, God! Out of the pit of death!” Yet in the same breath, he continues, “and you heard my voice.”

We are in distress – and God hears our voice. We are in the pit, unable to escape – and God takes our hand.

The waters have closed over us. The deep surrounds us. Weeds are wrapped around our heads at the roots of the mountains. The land is closing up over us, burying us; we’re goners.

And yet, God is bringing us up out of the pit. God is raising us up from the dead. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Can you say that with me right now? Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

We are in this thing very deep. There’s a chance that not all of us will make it through this year. That’s a sinking feeling.

We’re descending into the tomb. We’re sinking into the depths of the earth. And yet our God is lifting us up from the pit. God is walking with us, no matter what happens – even into the depths of death. He walks with us through it all!

Just like Jonah, Jesus suffered and spent three days in the heart of the earth. Jesus went far deeper into the depths than even Jonah, and God raised him up. God delivered Jesus from the depths of the pit and vindicated him.

That is God’s promise to us, too. We will be raised with Jesus.

As the apostle Paul testifies in his letter to the Romans:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with him. We face the waves and the depths and the weeds wrapped around our heads. We endure all these things, but we are not alone.

We know that God is with us. We know that he is trustworthy. We know that just as he raised our brother Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us. We don’t have to be afraid!

We don’t have to be afraid, but we are called to respond. When the fish spit him out upon the dry land, Jonah didn’t run away again. He knew he had to go to Nineveh. He had to do the scary thing. The faithful thing. The course of action that ran contrary to his desires, but which was his calling from God.

What is that thing for you? We’re living in a moment that reveals character. Who will we choose to be? Will we be the hands that help? Will we carry the good news to people who are in despair? Will we feed the hungry and comfort those in prison – even those who at present feel imprisoned in their own homes? Will we be the healing presence of Christ to others, even as we ourselves face the possibility of death?

When Jonah was in that dark, cold fish belly, he didn’t know whether he was going to make it. Three days is a long, long time when you don’t know whether you’ll survive.

Fortunately for us, our homes are much more comfortable than Jonah’s fish-hotel. But on the other hand, we’ve got a lot longer than three days to contemplate this situation. We’re going to be in the belly of the Coronavirus for quite some time. This unprecedented global crisis calls for faithful endurance.

One the several advantages that we have over Jonah, is that we are in the belly of this beast together. We may be socially distanced, but we are not alone. I hope that we as a community will take this crisis as a chance to go really deep. It’s an opportunity to evaluate what it is God is calling us to. Because we could die. And that means anything is possible.

Do you know what I mean? Do you feel that?

These last few weeks, my whole mindset has started to shift. There were lots of things that felt super-important: Work. Personal projects. Money. Elections. My ideas about myself, how others judged me. I was spending a lot of time thinking about how to “win at life.”

In the face of this global crisis, so many of these concerns have faded into the background. It’s not that they’ve gone away, but they’re relativized now. They matter, but they don’t have priority.

So some things are moving to the back burner. And other things are moving to the front. Being present with my kids. That’s really big. I’m a little bit like Jonah in that I don’t really have a choice! Schools are not in session, and I’m spending a lot more time with George and Francis these days. And suddenly that seems way more important than how much I’m exceeding expectations at my job, or whether you think my sermons are awesome. I want to be there for my kids.

This crisis is encouraging me to extend outside of myself. I’m volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry, which I’ve never felt able to do before, because it happens during the work day. And even in the midst of all the shock and horror, I’m finding myself really grateful for this opportunity. It’s so powerful to help make food available to those who are hungry in our community. Especially in times like these when we are all feeling anxious, to some degree, about where our next meal is coming from.

I feel so blessed to be your pastor in this historic moment. More than ever before, I’m how important the shepherding role that Faith and I share with Ministry & Counsel is. We’re working to care for the people in this community in the midst of an unprecedented situation. I believe that this experience is going to make our community stronger, and better able to show God’s love to others.

But right now, I know that we’re anxious. We need to be reminded of the strength of God’s power that we stand in. We need to be reminded of the power of the resurrection that is ours as children of God. We need to know that we are all held in God’s hand, that he is mighty and reigning over history. He is the good shepherd who will seek us out when we are lost. Even in the depths of the sea.

If there’s only one thing that you take away from worship this morning, I want it to be this: God is with us in this crisis. We are not alone. We are a community in Jesus, and we will leave no one behind. You are cared for. You are valued. You are loved.

We’re all going through a tough time right now. But the good news is that we don’t have to face it alone. We have the resources to make it as a community.

God sent the fish for Jonah. He sent the angels for Jesus. He is sending this church for you.

We are in a very dark season right now. This is the deepest, darkest Lent that we have ever known. We are in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. We are praying that this bitter cup might pass from us. We are shedding tears of blood. And we know that this is just the beginning. Crucifixion is coming. The tomb awaits.

But after the tomb is Easter. No matter how deep the darkness, the dawn is unstoppable. We will see it together.