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These Are The Weeks When Decades Happen – How Will You Respond?

Sunset on the Estuary near Alameda, California

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” ― Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Lenin is not a person I would normally look to for an example, but this quote fits.

Things are moving fast. The San Francisco Bay Area is on a shelter-in-place regime until further notice. In Kansas, they’ve closed schools until the fall. More Italians have already died from COVID-19 than the number who died in the 9/11 terror attacks. The markets are reeling. Nearly one in five American households have lost work due to the outbreak. We’re looking at a global recession.

Yesterday at the Berkeley Food Pantry, I was struck by how well they are handling this crisis, despite having to change their entire process for distributing food. Before, they could allow individuals to pick out their own items, food is now delivered in pre-assembled packages. (This avoids spreading the virus.) Despite all this change, the pantry is operating with great efficiency and care for our neighbors.

Folks visiting the Berkeley Food Pantry are just like any of us going to the grocery store right now. We’re anxious. We’re not sure what’s happening. There’s fear that maybe the food will run out. That was the vibe yesterday, but I was impressed to see the way Aram Antaramian, the Pantry’s manager, handled the situation. He was both reassuring and firm. COVID-19 has changed the rules, and we’re all adapting. Nevertheless, we are committed to feeding everyone.

I had worried about that. With all the panic-buying happening at regular grocery stores, would there be nothing left over for the Pantry? At least for now, that fear is not materializing. If anything, there was more food than we could distribute. It reminded me of the loaves and fishes that Jesus blessed and shared. Despite the fragility of our economy and supply chains, there is still great abundance available to us if we will release fear and continue to share.

Things are moving fast. As I spent time working alongside other volunteers at the Pantry, I grew even more certain that now is the time to push for fundamental changes to how our society operates. Just as the Berkeley Food Pantry must adapt to meet the needs of hungry people in this post-COVID reality, we must demand change across entire economies and governments.

Now is the time for big, bold action. Now is the time to mount a full court press for a Green New Deal, Medicare For All, worker control of the economy, and guaranteed income for everyone.

This is something that Lenin understood. It’s something that many in the Republican Party seem to grasp. This is what all people of good will need to understand and act on right now:

In times like these, those who are ready seize power.

Now is not the time to retreat and allow ourselves to be made spectators. This is a moment of action. A moment for great imagination and bold steps. We are in a window of time where massive change is possible.

These are the weeks where decades happen. We must not cede this moment to those who would crush the poor and choke out the last gasps of democracy. In this present darkness, we must be the light.

Now is the time to enact everything we believe. On the grassroots level. At the workplace. In our families. In government. Now is the favored time. We must seize it.

The presence of Jesus can be expressed in our lives and actions. Through our service to the poor and vulnerable. We witness to a new way of living. We present a challenge to the manic domination and bottomless hunger that characterizes late capitalism.

Let us hear the call of the Spirit in this moment. Let all who are thirsty come to the water of life – to find strength to build. A new world of love, peace, solidarity.

For me, right now, I think that will involve continuing to volunteer at the Berkeley Food Pantry. Taking care of our kids. Maintaining social distance to slow the spread of the virus. Caring for Berkeley Friends Church as we experiment with a distributed, digital format.

It’s about staying awake. It’s about being prepared to act when the day of maximum effort arrives. Not being caught flat-footed by the crisis, but being like the wise bridesmaids who had oil in their lamps when the bridegroom arrived. He is arriving now. This is a unique moment in history. Let us be among those who are ready to seize it.

I’d love to hear about how you are seizing this moment. What’s feeling most alive and important to you right now? What’s the hardest? What support do you need to stay awake, alert, and hopeful even as we walk through the darkness together?

San Francisco Bay Area Shut Down – How Will Quakers Respond?

Line of people standing outside Trader Joe's in Alameda, CA

I knew that the grocery stores would be a zoo this weekend, so I didn’t even think about going. But Monday is our regular day to buy groceries for our family of five. So I bit the bullet and drove down to Trader Joe’s in Alameda (near Oakland).

What I saw when I got there freaked me out a little bit. It looked like a scene from Black Friday: A line of 100-150 people stretching from the front door of the supermarket.

I almost turned around. I wasn’t ready to deal with chaos. I wasn’t prepared for desperate clawing at boxes of Cheerios and rolls of toilet paper. But I already had momentum; I found my feet carrying me into the back of the line.

I’m glad I stayed. It turns out, the store was opening an hour later than normal – hence the line. A Trader Joe’s worker came down the line and explained their system to us. They would allow us into the store in increments. This would prevent crowding – which is exactly what you don’t want in a pandemic.

About 20-30 minutes after the store opened, I was inside. And I was shocked at what I found: The most pleasant grocery shopping experience I can remember. Everyone was kind and courteous. It was far less crowded than usual. It seemed that everyone got what they needed.

I’m grateful for the workers and managers at our local Trader Joe’s. They didn’t only care for my stomach, they shepherded my soul. They reminded me that, with good leadership and a little bit of faith, we can pull together. Everyone can get what they need. We can care for one another, even when we’re anxious and uncertain.

Cultivating this sense care is going to be even more important in the weeks and months ahead. This afternoon, our local government announced a “shelter in place” order. This order requires residents to avoid all non-essential activities outside the home. It’s a good decision, one that will slow the spread of the virus. Yet seeing the order in print is disquieting.

How long will this last? How many will die? Where is God in this? What am I called to do, to serve those who are most vulnerable? How will I show Christ’s love to the poor, working-class, elderly, and immunocompromised – people who are least prepared to weather this storm?

I’m tempted to say, “I have a spouse and three kids at home. My responsibility is to them. I’ll hunker down, and let the world take care of itself.” And I wouldn’t be wrong.

But that’s not what I saw at Trader Joe’s today. Those workers cared for me and all the other hungry people, even though I’m sure many of them were afraid. They cared for us, and I want to care for others who are hungry.

I saw the face of Jesus at the supermarket. It reminded me that I live to serve others, not to protect myself. My individual life is nothing. I am part of a greater whole – God’s marvelous creation. I am a member of a web, a fabric, a living body of human and non-human life. It is in this greater life that my individual life finds both survival and meaning.

How about you? Have you seen God in this crisis? Have you felt the Spirit’s presence, even in the midst of anxiety and confusion? Have you seen the love of Jesus in the face of a neighbor, a friend, a worker?

What’s your next step? What is your special contribution to this patchwork community of life we all inhabit? Who will you encourage? Who will you feed? What will you build? Who will you protect?

For many of us, maintaining social distance and praying for those around us may be precisely what God is calling us to now. A phone call or a text to those who have no one to talk to can mean the difference between misery and comfort.

For others, performing our normal duties (as doctors, researchers, engineers, front-line service workers, and many more) will be a way we can contribute to the greater good. For households like ours, caring for children will be a major ministry.

One way that I want to serve others in the coming week is by volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry. Many Pantry volunteers are elderly folks. They should stay home and avoid exposure to the virus. For a younger person with better chances of survival, one way I can help out is to take their place on the front lines.

Our neighbors need to eat, and so many don’t have any backup. They don’t have any stockpile or buffer against hunger. They rely on the food pantry for daily bread. We can be the hands and feet of God with them.

I invite you to comment below (or to email me) about what you are experiencing in this time of great upheaval. We’ve never seen anything like this. Staying calm and grounded is itself an enormous achievement.

How is the Spirit faring with thee? What is the ministry – no matter how apparently small or simple – that you feel God calling you to. How will you show God’s love in this panicked world?

Never Tell Me the Odds – Finding Hope in an Age of Empire

Image of C-3PO and Han Solo from The Empire Strikes Back

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/1/20, at Whittier First Friends Church, near Los Angeles. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Ephesians 6:10-13. 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 most challenging message to preach right now is hope.

Because things aren’t going well. The world around us is dark and darkening. I don’t need to tell you about it, you know. You’ve seen it.

We need hope. And that’s different from optimism. Optimism is a stubborn insistence, in spite of all evidence, that things are going to turn out well.

In times like these, optimism amounts to little more than denial. It’s a refusal to see the pain of the world. It’s willful blindness to the spread of violence, hatred, and death. In times like these, for people like us, optimism is far too often a retreat into comfort. It’s the instinct to cocoon, to bury our hearts in privilege and wealth; telling ourselves the lie that “it won’t happen to us.”

No, today we don’t have any business being optimistic.

But hope. Hope is the the heart of the gospel. It is the promise of the cross and the content of the resurrection.

And as we know from Princess Leia in Star Wars: rebellions are built on hope.

In some sense, that’s what the whole Christian religion is about. An improbable rebellion against the overwhelming forces of darkness, violence, and empire. Against a domination system that would rather destroy planets rather than surrender power and release control.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the victory announcement of God’s revolution. The return of the true king. The restoration of the Galactic Republic. A thousand generations of order, peace, and justice.

In our scripture reading this morning, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear a dispatch from the front lines in this cosmic battle. It’s a message not of optimism, but hope. A message that calls us to courage in the midst of great challenges. A message to a people who stand in front of the machinery of war, who stand in front of the modern armor of the 21st century state and say, “you shall not pass.” Faced with the armor of violence and death, we put on the armor of Christ’s light.

Paul is exhorting us to hope this morning, not because we are strong, but because in our weakness we have access to a power that topples empires and raises up the poor. We have hope, not because we are bigger than the rulers and authorities that trample the needy and threaten to destroy us, but because we have put on the armor of God.

This is the power of love. The power of nonviolent, non-cooperation with evil. The power that says, in the words of Obi Wan Kenobi: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

This is the power that Paul speaks about, when he says we do not struggle against flesh and blood – our fight isn’t with people! We are never to hate, or hurt people! Our struggle is with the cosmic powers of this present darkness; the animating spirit behind the gulags and the jail cells; the evil genius behind the hydrogen bomb and the Trident missile.

Our struggle is not with men and women, not with Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong Un. Our struggle is with the systems of oppression that keep us all in bondage. When the kingdom is come in fullness, when every eye sees Jesus and every knee has bowed, we will all be free. That is our faith. That is our hope.

Our hope is in the liberation of all living beings, the whole cosmos. This is the content of our faith, the promise of the resurrection. Healing. Restoration. Hope.

But not optimism. Because as Paul reminds us, the struggle is real. Our fight may not be with flesh and blood, but flesh and blood is suffering. The struggle is real, and the revolution will not be spiritualized.

Something that strikes me in Paul’s words to the Ephesians is that he tells us to put on the whole armor of God, to dwell completely in God’s power, relying on God. And Paul knew that his words could be misunderstood. He knew that the folks in Ephesus might think Paul was saying that we could “spiritually” stand in God’s power, and wait on God to do everything for us. He knew that many of us would want to sidestep our responsibility.

So Paul specifically says, in verse 13, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

…and having done everything, to stand firm.

The gospel is not that God will solve our problems for us, without any effort on our part. The gospel is that God is inviting us to partake fully in the ministry of Jesus – including both crucifixion and resurrection. The good news is that Jesus Christ will be made visible in our own bodies. If we put on the whole armor of God, his power, and stand firm. We can be transformed, and we can transform the world around us.

I want to take us back to Princess Leia for a minute. Back to hope. Because rebellions are built on hope. And as Paul reminds us, we are in a rebellion of sorts. As followers of Jesus, we are called into what the early Quakers referred to as The Lamb’s War.

We are in a spiritual warfare with the power behind the throne. We are at war – not with people, but with the demonic animating forces, the systems of injustice behind the CIA, the Pentagon, Wall Street, a global empire that claims to work for the benefit all while crushing black and brown bodies and silencing the poor and the refugee.

We’re in a spiritual warfare, and that’s why hope is so important. It’s hope that gives us courage and perspective. Hope of the resurrection. Hope of the kingdom. Hope of a community of love and justice, where even the most evil people – including us! – can be redeemed.

You’d think hope would be a pretty easy sell these days. Couldn’t we all use some hope? But I’ve found it’s actually the hardest message to accept. Because hope is challenging. Hope means being fully present with the reality of the crisis we’re facing.

We’re living in a time of despair. Despair is the weapon that the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness use to keep us in our place. Despair is that suffocating blanket held over our faces, saying “there’s nothing you can do; you’re powerless; give up.”

The powers and principalities of this age smother us with despair, and they present us with three false responses. As far as the powers are concerned, any of these three responses will do. They’re all good. They all keep us in line, disempowered, and shackled to the narrative that the rulers have created for us.

The alternatives to hope are escapism, idolatry, and hatred. And each one is appealing, because they don’t ask us to change our lives. They don’t demand that we challenge the system. They may not get us where we want to go, but at least we don’t have to pick a fight with the schoolyard bully. Escapism, idolatry, and hatred are the paths of least resistance.

But they are paths that lead to destruction. That’s why God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, to rise from the dead and walk beside us forever. Because in Jesus we discover that there is a fourth option. Instead of escapism, idolatry, or despair, we can choose hope.

Hope is a hard path, but it is one that leads to authentic joy. The hope of Jesus provides us with a clear response to each of the false answers that the kingdoms of this world offer us.

Escapism offers us opiates to dull our senses and flee from reality, but the hope of Jesus gives us light to see in this darkness. We may not like what we see. It’s going to be painful to see the world as it really is. But it’s real. We don’t have to waste our lives chasing after shadows.

Idolatry offers us the consolation of false gods – consumerism, nationalism, political saviors, ideology. But the hope of Jesus reveals the one true God who created all the principalities and powers and judges them according to their deeds. In Jesus, God relativizes all the gods of this world. The truth of the gospel puts everything into perspective. This doesn’t make the struggle easy – but it does make it possible.

In the face of this world’s violence and hatred, the hope of Jesus offers us a path of unwavering love. This hope chooses to receive suffering rather than inflicting it. The way of hope works to redeem and transform our enemies.

As a droid named C-3PO once said in The Empire Strikes Back, “the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are approximately 3,720 to 1.” Our country, our communities, this church – we’re navigating an asteroid field the likes of which we’ve never seen. And our odds aren’t good. But Friend Han Solo speaks my mind when he says: “Never tell me the odds.”



Never tell me the odds. Because I’m not optimistic. Objectively speaking, I think the odds are terrible. But in spite of that, I believe we have reason for hope. The power and spirit of God is available to us. To guide us. Transform us. To make us like Jesus, taking part in both his cross and his resurrection.

Never tell me the odds, because we worship the God who created this asteroid field. God knows the way, even if we can’t see it quite yet.

Never tell me the odds, because hope isn’t about running the numbers, it’s about trusting our leader. Jesus knows what he is doing.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

The days are feeling pretty evil lately. Will we stand firm, obeying as the Spirit leads us? Will we have the courage to engage in the struggle with the rulers and powers that seem so mighty? Will we be able to say, “we have done everything – everything you asked of us, God”?

We can. We must. The future of our planet depends on it. But if we are going to stand firm, we must put on the whole armor of God. We must embrace the hope that empowers us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and work tirelessly for justice – even when it may cost us everything.

God is Doing a New Thing. What Can You Say?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:13-17. 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

John the Baptist was a wild man. He was a prophet – a person who spoke the words of God. He was living in the wilderness and baptizing people in the river Jordan. They were immersed in water as a sign of their desire to follow God and love other people.

Jesus came to John, to be baptized with water.

And John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. Because John recognized Jesus as the promised messiah. God’s chosen one. The one who would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. It didn’t seem appropriate. He knew that he wasn’t even worthy to tie up Jesus’ shoe laces. He said, “You don’t need this water, Jesus. I need you to baptize me. Give me that baptism of spirit and fire.”

And Jesus agrees with John. He is the promised savior. He’s the one who will baptize with the spirit and fire. But Jesus still wants John to dip him in the Jordan river. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

I’ve been thinking about what that means. What is it about being immersed in water by John – participating in the ritual of his community – what is it about that action that “fulfills all righteousness”?

John the Baptist is a very important guy. The gospel of Matthew keeps circling back to him. In Matthew 11, Jesus says explicitly that John is Elijah. John is the prophet who is to come. Just like Moses represents the whole Jewish law, Elijah represents the prophetic tradition. And John is Elijah.

So this community John’s got going is the embodiment of the prophetic tradition. And Jesus, by receiving John’s water baptism, identifies himself with this community. He submits himself to it. He embraces it as his own.

This is confusing for John. He knows who Jesus is. He says to Jesus, “Who am I to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!” But Jesus says, “I want you to baptize me, because God is validating your message. You are a faithful servant of God, and you have prepared the way for my ministry. I embrace you, just as your work has created space for what God is doing in me.”

So they do it. John and Jesus go down into the river Jordan. John dips Jesus into the cold waters. And when Jesus comes back up and takes a breath, he’s breathing more than air. He’s breathing in the Spirit of God. They see the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, and lands on Jesus. They hear a voice that says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, based on what just happened here, what would you assume comes next?

Me personally, I would assume that the next chapter of this story would be Jesus joining John’s community. Maybe taking it over, as John steps out of the way and Jesus becomes the head honcho. Maybe Jesus baptizes John, and then takes up the prophetic mantle out in the wilderness. I’d figure that John would become a disciple of Jesus.

But that’s not what happens. John doesn’t become one of the Twelve Apostles, and Jesus doesn’t join John’s community. John has his own separate ministry and disciples up until his death.

Jesus doesn’t stay with John by the Jordan. Instead, he goes out into the wilderness on his own, and then heads back to Galilee – the region where he grew up. He starts his own ministry, gathers his own disciples, stakes out his own geographical territory.

Jesus clearly loves and respects John. But he leaves and does something different. Why?

In Matthew 9, John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him. They say, “Why are you doing things differently from John? We know we’re on the same side here, so why don’t you follow the same rules we follow and conduct your ministry in the same way that John does?”

Jesus’ answer to this is: “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. If you do, the old wineskins will burst and you’ll lose both the skins and the wine. New wine has to be put into fresh wine skins.”

That’s why Jesus had to leave. That’s why Jesus didn’t simply join John’s community and take over John’s ministry. John was the greatest prophet of the old order, but God was doing something new.

The whole prophetic tradition and community pointed to Jesus. John’s ministry paved the way for the Messiah. But now that he had arrived on the scene, Jesus had been called by the Holy Spirit to do something new.

In spite of all the love and respect he had for John – in spite of the fact that his own ministry would have been impossible without John’s faithfulness – God was doing a new thing in Jesus. He couldn’t be boxed in by the past.

Is God doing a new thing now?

What does it mean that the Spirit has been poured out on each and every one of us? What does it mean that we are being baptized into the same Spirit that Jesus encountered during his baptism in the Jordan? Is God doing a new thing?

The early Quakers thought so. George Fox, speaking to a church like ours in 1652, asked:

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?

Is God doing a new thing? Is the Spirit descending again today? Is the new wine being poured out into our hearts?

We say, the Bible says this, and Quakers say that – but what can we say? Are we children of light? Are we walking in the light? And what we say, does it come inwardly from God?

What does it look like to love our tradition, to respect our spiritual ancestors, to submit ourselves to the church that has taught us so much – and yet to have the freedom to do a new thing when God calls us?

What is the new thing? Are you a child of light? Do you walk in the light? What you speak, is it inwardly from God? Have you received the new baptism, that comes from Jesus?

Is God doing a new thing in you?

Christmas Isn’t a ‘Hallmark Moment’ – It’s a Revolution

Image of A Forest Road from Above

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/23/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25. 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

It’s been a really crazy week or two. This time, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s intense. Like a lot of us, I’ve been rushing to wrap up things at work before things shut down. Faith and I both have been trying to get all our ducks in a row before the baby comes, too.

The light is getting dimmer and shorter. It affects my mood. It’s been hard to get out of bed sometimes. I just want to hibernate. And to top it all off, our whole family has been sick with this cough. 

I’ve felt really out of control. Scattered. Walking through a haze of fever and coughing, trying to accomplish all my tasks, I’ve felt helpless. Like, “please, just let this year end. Let me get some sleep and I’ll come back and clean up all these messes in the New Year.”

I hate feeling like this. I hate the way all these external factors – the time of year, the light, illness – how all these things seem to govern my life just as much, or more, than my own choices.

I like to think that my choices matter. I like to feel like my decisions are the decisive factor in my life. I want to believe that if I make good choices, if I act wisely, then things will turn out the way I planned.

But that’s not the truth. That’s not the way life is. I’m not in charge. I’m not – in the words of the poet William Ernest Henley – I’m not “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” I’m not the protagonist of this story.

It’s the week of Christmas. It’s a time when we remember the birth of Jesus – God’s definitive and ultimate act of being present in love, grace, and judgment. It’s the moment when God intervenes in human history so urgently, so personally, that he becomes one of us. The Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us. 

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

God-With-Us.

In our scripture reading this morning, for some reason I can’t stop thinking about Joseph. The text leaves no doubt that he was a good man. A kind man. A righteous man. But he was a man, and I have to suspect that he liked to feel in control, just like I do.

He must have feared the feeling of being cut loose, unmoored, having all illusion torn from his hands. He must have been horrified to be shown how utterly powerless he was to direct the course of events of his life.

It says that Joseph was engaged to Mary. They were arranged to be married. But before the time arrives for them to come together, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Now, it says in the scripture that Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit.” But Joseph doesn’t know this off the bat.

What’s Joseph to think? Engaged to a girl. Not married to the girl. And the girl is pregnant!

There’s a lot that could be said here, but Matthew doesn’t go into too much detail. He just says that Joseph is a righteous man. He’s unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph plans to dismiss her privately. 

In other words, it’s over. Joseph is a good guy and all, but he’s not marrying this girl who obviously cheated on him and has the baby to prove it. 

And let’s be real, Joseph was probably really upset. We don’t know what his relationship was like with Mary when they were engaged, but it must have been totally humiliating to find out his fiancée was pregnant, and definitely not by him!

So Joseph’s life is shattered, basically. Everything he thought he knew just went out the window. But after an ugly cry or two, he eventually falls asleep, and he has a dream. He sees an angel, who tells him that the baby Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. This is God’s will! She didn’t cheat on Joseph at all! The angel says, “Go ahead and marry her, Joe – this is God’s child we’re dealing with. Mary is going to give birth to the messiah!”

And so Joseph does as the angel instructs him. He’s a righteous man. He goes ahead and takes Mary as his wife, knowing that she’s going to give birth to a child he had nothing to do with.

I don’t like feeling out of control. How much more out-of-control does it get than to see a vision of an angel telling you that your fiancée’s unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and will be the promised messiah who will save the nation?

Joseph was a human being. He had hopes and dreams. He had expectations. And I’m sure not a one of them involved playing step-dad to the son of God.

And yet here he was. God was short-circuiting his life, and he had to respond. He had to surrender the future that he had imagined for himself and for Mary. For his family. 

Joseph made the choice to welcome the unexpected. He made room for the potentially disastrous action of God in his life. And we know it cost him a lot.

Choosing to become step-father to Jesus, Joseph suffered humiliation. We don’t know what ended up happening to Joseph, he’s not mentioned again after Jesus turns twelve. But we do know that by the time Jesus is doing his ministry, people are referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” Not the son of Joseph. Just Mary.

That’s a tough one. I wonder if Joseph felt like he was surrendering his legacy, his future, his family, to make room for God. 

Do you think Joseph ever got angry at God? Did he ever wish things had been different? That his life had turned out the way he had imagined? Did he bear any resentment?

God gave Joseph a hard path. Joseph’s service to God was one that echoed many of the main themes of Jesus’ own ministry – sacrifice of self for the sake of loving others; obedience to the will of God rather than self-will; public humiliation; and being misunderstood and rejected, even by those closest to him.

Joseph was a strong man. He was a brave man. He was a fitting match for Mary, who would endure so much for the sake of the truth. Together as a family, they bore the burden of Jesus’ ministry. They raised Jesus, cared for him. And ultimately they had to stand by as Jesus turned away and pursued his own obedience to God.

The way of the cross is death to the self-will. It’s the end of the beautiful future we imagine for ourselves and our families. The way of Jesus, the way of Joseph, the way of the prophets is one of self-emptying, releasing control, and pouring out our lives for others. The way of the cross is surrendering our dreams so that the dream of God has room to manifest.

What does it look like for us to imitate Joseph? What are the ways you are being called to lay aside your need for control? Where are the scary places God is asking you to go? Who are the unexpected people that God is asking you to care for and love?

When we see that little baby Jesus lying in a manger, it’s beautiful. The precious little baby God incarnate. We’re tempted to become sentimental. To turn Christmas into a Hallmark moment. But Joseph is there to remind us that even here, even at the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, sacrifice is already present. 

The Word has become flesh and dwells among us. But if we are to hear him, we must become silent. If we are to make space for him, we have to get out of the way. 

We must become like Joseph, who overcame his own desire for control, legacy, a future of his own making. We must become like Mary, who made space within herself for God to dwell. We must become like Jesus, who completely surrendered himself to the movement of the Holy Spirit, saying “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”

Can You Separate the Wheat from the Chaff?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/8/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:1-12. 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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We’re in the time now that the world calls Christmas. This whole stretch between Thanksgiving and the 25th of December, this is what secular, Western European consumer culture thinks of as “the Christmas season” – or, if you like, “the holiday season.”

And that’s all fine and good for playing jingle bells and selling us more stuff on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and “I-Ate-Too-Much Tuesday,” or whatever other retail-oriented holy day they try to lay on us next. This “holiday season” is just fine and dandy for a culture that has turned our father’s house into a den of thieves.

But for us as the church, we are nowhere near Christmastime yet. We have not arrived at the birth of the Christ-child. Instead, we’ve now entered into the season of Advent. Advent is a time when we are waiting. We’re in anticipation. Expectation. It’s a time of reflection and repentance, a time to examine ourselves as individuals and as a community. It’s a time to be called deeper into a life of discipleship, a life that more fully reflects God’s love and justice.

In short, this is the season of John. John the Baptist, the wild man who left a life of privilege in Jerusalem and dedicated himself to prayer, fasting, and prophetic teaching in the wilderness of Judea.

We are in the season of baptism. Immersion. A time of cleansing from our old ways of thinking – a radical reorientation into the path of Jesus. It’s a time to confess our sin, change our attitudes, and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child, the light of God within us.

In those days, before Jesus had left his family and his work as a carpenter to become an itinerant preacher, John’s ministry was already in full-swing. People were coming out to him from across Judea and Jerusalem, to hear his fiery message of repentance and redemption. To hear the message about the coming messiah. To prepare themselves for the reckoning that was coming upon Israel, and indeed the whole world.

The people who came out to hear John were receiving the message with joy. They were being baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. They were preparing themselves for the one who would come to redeem Israel.

Now it’s interesting, because it seems like just about everybody was coming out to hear John preach. Rich and poor, young and old, socially conscious and socially awkward. Everybody wanted a piece of this guy.

But John wasn’t happy to see everybody. Some of the people who came out, John questioned their motivations and intentions. Just like Jesus, John had some very harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadduccees who came out to visit him beside the Jordan.

“You snakes in the grass! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John could see that the uptown religious people – the Pharisees – weren’t there to change their lives in the radical way required by the kingdom of heaven. Maybe they thought they could come and practice one more ritual that would make them even more holy. Maybe they heard John was a lively and entertaining preacher. They were there for incremental self-help, not for the full-bodied transformation that God offers.

And the Sadducees – why were they there at all? Their place was in the Temple, with the important people and all the money. The Sadducees, the ultimate hedge fund managers of their day – maybe they were curious about what John was up to. After all, he used to be one of them. 

John came from luxury and power, the top of the Temple hierarchy. His father was a high priest, a son of Aaron. John could have had everything, but he threw it all away to go preach along dusty roads to the poor and unclean. The Sadducees as a class represented everything John rejected – form without substance, wealth without conscience, and spiritual adultery with violent political power.

What did John have to say to these spiritual tourists and gawkers? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

The Pharisees thought that they could fulfill the law of God by following every jot and tittle of the law, keeping themselves clean and pure. The Sadducees thought that they owned the law. They were gatekeepers of the Temple, the performers of animal sacrifice. They saw themselves as the custodians of God’s dwelling place on earth. Who could be more important?

Both groups saw themselves as children of Abraham. Heirs of the promise, God’s promise to bless and prosper forever.

But John’s message to all of them is: “Don’t think your ancestry will save you. Don’t think your spiritual lineage will justify you. Don’t think your religious observances will spare you from the wrath that is coming on Jerusalem and Judea. This story doesn’t depend on you.”

Because the insider religious crowd and people will lots of wealth and political power – we like to think that we’re doing things for God. “Isn’t God just so lucky to have us? What would he do without us?”

John tells us exactly what he will do. He’ll raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

If we think that we’re doing things for God, we’ve got it all wrong. God does not depend on us. God does not need us. He loves us, he longs for us, but he does not need us in any pragmatic or instrumental sense. God’s plans do not hinge on our action or inaction.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying our actions don’t matter. But they matter a whole lot more to us than they do to God. God’s gonna figure it out. God’s got the whole world in his hands. This is the God who created the entire universe out of nothing. He’s got it on lock, don’t trip.

What’s at stake here is not God’s kingdom. God’s making it happen. Period.

What is at stake is the part we’re going to play in this whole unfolding drama of history. Are we going to join up, go to basic training, and do what it takes to become trustworthy soldiers in the Lamb’s War? Or will we keep on serving ourselves, mistreating our neighbors, and bowing to the power of money and Empire?

We already know how this story ends. We know that the kingdom of God has come near and will be fulfilled. We know that love wins.

But when this victory comes, when God reigns triumphant and all things are made new – will we be a part of that story? Will we be part of that newness? Will we hear our master’s voice saying to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”?

That was the question, that was the message that John had for everyone who came out to see him: Now is the time. Time to make a choice. Time to decide what our life is going to be about.

It’s time to prepare ourselves, because the baptism of spirit and fire is coming. Jesus is going to sort things out. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary. But he’ll burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.

You know, I’ll admit that I had to look up what a winnowing fork is. Because this is not something I run into in my daily life as a 21st-century city-dweller. But it turns out that a winnowing fork is sort of like a rake, and you use it by throwing whole heads of grain up into the air. 

And the idea is that when the wheat goes up in the air, the inner part of the wheat – the heavy grain – will fall to the ground, where it can be collected. The light, chaffy parts – all that stuff that surrounded and protected the wheat, but which is now dead and useless – all that stuff will just blow away. No need to even bother with it anymore.

Where is the chaff in us? What are the parts of our lives that seemed important, that felt like they lent us protection but are in fact holding us back from following God and loving our neighbors with our whole hearts? Where are all the dead places that are ready to be blown away by the breath of God?

Where is the wheat in us? Here in this community. In your heart. Where’s the wheat? What does it look like for that wheat to be gathered? To be planted, watered, and nurtured? To grow and bear fruit worthy of repentance? What does it look to live our lives as true children of Abraham, children of the promise?

God doesn’t need us, but he will plant us so that we can bear fruit. God doesn’t rely on us, but he loves us and desires to welcome us into his kingdom. That kingdom has come near. Now is the time to prepare ourselves to receive it.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

The Bible Says Jesus Is King – But What If We Don’t Want One?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 23:33-43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6. 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 is king. He’s the messiah. He’s the rightful heir to the throne of David. He’s the fulfillment of the promise. He is the king of Israel, the king of all the nations, the king of the universe.

Jesus is king. He is sovereign. He answers to no human authority. All things are subject to him. In him, all things hang together. He is Lord.

Does this make you uncomfortable? Does all of this hierarchical, patriarchal language make you cringe a little bit? Does all this talk of kingship run against your modern American sensibilities? After all, this country fought a revolution so that we wouldn’t have to bow down to kings anymore!

In a country where we say we believe in democracy and equal rights for all, what do we do with this talk of kings and lords and power and sovereignty? We’ve seen all the ways that unaccountable power can run amok. Why on earth would we want to think of God in terms of being the ultimate, absolute monarch?

Jeremiah would agree. He had seen quite enough of the kings and lords and rulers of Israel. Men who abused their position for their own selfish interest. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Through Jeremiah, God denounces the kings of this world. The way the lords of this world live as parasites off of the people they claim to shepherd.

To these false shepherds, these petty kings, God says: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” The day is coming.

Jesus stood in the tradition of Jeremiah in his analysis of power. He saw the same abuse of power, the vampiric sucking of the rich elites who consume the lives of working people. His friends. His family. The desperate thousands who came to him for relief.

Jesus lived in a land ruled by an illegitimate petty dictator. A strongman propped up by the violent domination of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew what a false shepherd was. He saw Herod murder his friend and mentor, John the Baptist. He watched as the Temple elite sought to kill him, and finally delivered him up to the Roman authorities for execution. Jesus knew what the false shepherds, the petty kings of this world, are capable of when their power is threatened.

Jesus was so threatening to these false shepherds, that they nailed him to a cross. Crucifixion, a dread punishment reserved for insurrectionists. Once they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Jesus knew the evil that the false shepherds were capable of. Jesus knew the horror that kings bring. Jesus knew that his father never wanted Israel to have a human king in the first place.

Jesus remembered the days of Samuel, before Israel had a king. God was king. The people were ruled directly by him, guided by the prophets who spoke the words of God. God’s plan for Israel was that he would rule them directly. No strong men; no presidents, princes, or billionaires. God wanted to teach Israel a totally different way of living as a society. A way without human domination and top-down hierarchies.

But the people demanded a king. They wanted to be “strong,” like the peoples around them. They wanted a warlord to go before them and fight their battles. They wanted empire. They wanted to be mighty, not the vulnerable people of the God of the Tent. And so God gave them a king: Saul, who would begin a long line of greed, violence, vanity, and imperial ambitions. A lineage of horror that would ultimately culminate in the Babylonian captivity. When given the option, that’s what we picked.

God is the good shepherd, but we didn’t want that. We couldn’t wrap our minds around the great mystery and power that is God. We preferred to shrink our rulers down to size. We chose to abandon God’s rule and to submit ourselves to the false shepherds that feed off of us to fuel their own ambitions.

So if this talk of kings and lords makes you uncomfortable, you’re right. There are a lot of good reasons to be skeptical of kings. Not just back then. Not just in ancient Israel, or even in the days of Rome, but today. We have good reason to be skeptical of top-down, hierarchical leadership. Right? We’ve seen the results.

In Syria and Yemen. Burma and Western China. In Flint, Michigan and along the route of the disastrous Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. We’ve seen what the princes of this world – presidents and princes, senators and billionaires – are capable of.

Most tragically, we’ve seen the results of the Christian church chasing after violent, coercive, hierarchical power. We’ve seen how the church, just like Israel, has often chosen human kings to lead us rather than submitting ourselves to God’s presence and power.

The church’s prostitution to power started, some would argue, when we picked cooperation with the Emperor Constantine rather than continuing to be a suffering church of outsiders. Things got worse as we moved into the middle ages. The church became fully fused with state power. Popes shepherded the kings of Europe and launched so-called holy wars of aggression against Muslims, Jews, and even fellow Christians.

The crusades never really stopped. Even today, most Christians support endless war in the Middle East, and around the globe – anywhere that the kings of this world choose to send us. Much of the Christian community has put its faith in the power of empires and armies, presidents and premiers – in the kingdoms of this world rather than in the direct leadership of Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we don’t want Jesus to be our king. We don’t want him, because Jesus doesn’t offer us the violence and domination that we’ve come to expect from our rulers. He doesn’t beat up the bad guys. He doesn’t save us from suffering. In fact, he calls us to join him in the path of the cross. He calls us to love our enemies. He shows us a way of surrender, loss of control, and downward mobility.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is king. This is good news precisely because Jesus is nothing like the kings of this world.

They promise us glory, he is revealed in failure. They promise us security, his throne is the cross. The kings of this world – presidents and congressmen and billionaires – they promise us a boot stomping on the face of our enemies, forever. Jesus calls us into an endless life of love that encompasses even those who hate us.

What does it mean for us to live in the kingdom of Jesus? What does it mean for us to join the failed insurrectionist hanging on the cross by Jesus’ side – because that is, of course what we are: failed insurrectionists who chose to follow the false rulers of this world rather than our faithful Lord Jesus. Will we join the failed insurrectionist nailed to the cross beside Jesus? Will we say together with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

God foretold the coming of Jesus through the prophet Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

Jesus is king. He is the righteous branch of David that Jeremiah foretold. He is a king for all the nations, a ruler who will execute justice and righteousness. A king who is close to us, present with us, not unfamiliar with our struggle and suffering. A king who has endured everything to show his love for us, and who invites us into his mission of love and cosmic redemption.

Jesus is king. Praise him. Honor him. Obey him. Recognize that he is here in our midst. Open your eyes to see that he is still being crucified by the false shepherds. The spirit of Herod and Pilate and Caesar is alive, and crushing the life of our people.

But the spirit of Jesus is more powerful, more enduring, more life-filled. He is the ocean of light and love that flows over this ocean of darkness. He is our peace. He is our hope – the only ruler worth obeying.

Jesus is alive and present in his resurrection power. Jesus has triumphed over the powers of darkness, hatred, and death. Jesus is our present and living king.

Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.