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Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 13:14-16 and Acts 11:19-30. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

The last time I preached, it was on Acts chapter four. We heard about how the apostles faced persecution at the hands of the religious authorities, but instead of being cowed and terrified, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with boldness. They preached the word of God without fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about us? Are we gathered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/22/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 4:23-35. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Perfect love casts out all fear. There is no fear in love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header image of people walking in the city

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

Father, hallowed be your name.

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

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

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

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

Your kingdom come.

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

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

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

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

Give us each day our daily bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give us each day our daily bread.

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

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

Your kingdom come

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

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But God…”

“What, Abraham?”

“How about forty?”

“Oh for… OK, fine. Forty.”

“Can I get thirty?”

“Thirty.”

“Twenty?”

“Twenty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father, hallowed be your name.

You are different and special, God.

Your kingdom come.

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

Give us each day our daily bread.

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

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

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

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

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

Do not bring us to the time of trial.

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

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

For, as Paul writes:

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

Your kingdom come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

That time is probably past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds pretty good.

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

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

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

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by.

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

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,    

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

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

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

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

The Day of the Lord is coming.

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

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

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,

when I will send a famine on the land;

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

but of hearing the words of the Lord.

They shall wander from sea to sea,     

and from north to east;

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

but they shall not find it.

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

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

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

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

The end has come upon my people [America];     

I will never again pass them by.

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

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,     

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to Mary and Martha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,     

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It Was Wind And Fire, Like A Tornado Hitting The House

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/9/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 2:1-24, 32-33, 37-47. 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

Today is Pentecost Sunday. The birthday of the church. Today we remember the explosive arrival of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first generation of friends of Jesus. This was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be present with us always, even to the end of the age. He’s here with us, now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And now we are empowered to do even greater things.

On the day of Pentecost, we return to the beginning. We remember the words of John the Baptist, whose preaching paved the way for Jesus’ ministry. We remember his words to those who traveled out to see John beyond the river Jordan, hoping that he might be the one to deliver them from darkness. But John was clear: He wasn’t the messiah. Luke says that,

John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

On that day of Pentecost almost two thousand years ago, Jesus fulfilled John’s prophetic promise. He baptized Peter and the Eleven. He baptized the one hundred and twenty followers of Jesus who were gathered together in one place to celebrate the festival. He baptized them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

It was quite a scene. It says that, when the day of Pentecost had come, they were gathered together in one place. And suddenly there was a sound, like the rush of a violent wind. It filled the whole house like the sound of a tornado. And tongues of fire appeared and touched the head of each person gathered. And it says that all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

This was wild. So wild, in fact, that the neighbors couldn’t help but notice. Jerusalem was overflowing with visitors at that time. Devout Jews from across the ancient world who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in the holy city. And in these close quarters, it’s hard not to notice these hundred and twenty people having a really loud prayer meeting early in the morning.

But the noise isn’t the crazy part. What’s really surprising is the words that are coming out of the disciples mouths. The people around them hear them speak in their own native languages. Again, these folks are from everywhere – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – they heard the disciples speaking in their own languages about God’s deeds of power. It says that everyone in the neighborhood was amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Some people thought the friends of Jesus were a bunch of drunken revelers. But Peter addressed the crowd, to tell them what was really going on.

But before I get to what Peter said, let me tell you just a little bit about the day of Pentecost in the Jewish tradition.

Pentecost is also known as the Festival of Weeks, because in Leviticus Moses commanded the people to count seven weeks from the day after Passover. After the seven weeks were up, the people were commanded to present an offering of new grain to the Lord. So, everyone was coming to Jerusalem for the festival – to celebrate the new harvest and present grain offerings at the temple, as the law of Moses commanded.

So when Peter emerges to speak to the crowds gathered outside, he announces that the ultimate harvest has finally arrived – not one of grain, but of God’s power. The harvest is here, says Peter – the day of the Lord. It’s just like the prophet Joel foretold. God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even slaves – both men and women – will have the Spirit poured out upon them.

The heavenly powers will be shaken as God’s promised kingdom finally arrives in power and glory. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The Day of the Lord is upon us. This day of divine justice and power is coming through Jesus, the crucified savior. Peter says:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you 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.

God raised Jesus up. We are witnesses to this. Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God, and he’s received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who has poured out this Spirit on us – the Spirit whose power you now see at work in us.

And it says that, when the crowds heard Peter’s words, “they were cut to the heart.” They cried out to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Here’s Peter’s answer: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you into the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

We’ve come full circle. In Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist is made complete. Jesus is baptizing his people with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” This is the final message of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Come out of her, my people. Reject the ways of human empire and human religion. Surrender yourselves to the spirit, power, and baptism that Jesus now offers you. Embrace the Day of the Lord. It’s the only real thing. The empires of this world are about to be swept away.

It says that those who welcomed this message were baptized – about three thousand people that day accepted the good news and became followers of Jesus. Their lives were transformed immediately. They turned away from the life of empire and found themselves suddenly a part of a new community, an organic fellowship, under the reign of God. It says:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

OK, that’s a lot. So let’s take a second to recap here. The first generation of the church:

  • Devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
  • Lived in a state of awe and experienced miracles.
  • Were together and had all things in common.
  • Sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to everyone according to their needs.
  • Met regularly in the Temple for worship and broke bread “from house to house.”
  • Ate their food with glad and generous hearts.
  • Had the good will of all the people.
  • And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Does that sound familiar? When’s the last time you were part of a community like that? When’s the last time your life bore even half of the marks of the early church? Heck, when’s the last time you met Christians living in this way?

Why is our modern experience of church so dramatically different from what we find described in the Book of Acts?

And it’s not just the Book of Acts. The movement that we see happening in Acts 2 is the fruit of seeds planted by Jesus during his three years of ministry with the Twelve and his other early disciples. The day of Pentecost was a moment of transformation, not in character but in scale, clarity, and power.

The day of Pentecost was the moment when the church leveled up. It scaled. Rather than depending on Jesus to be physically present to teach and lead a small group of core disciples, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh. This Spirit made Jesus’ presence available to everyone. Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ – no longer bounded by human limitations – is present to teach his people himself – all of us.

And so, we see that the whole story of God is of one piece. The life of joy, justice, mercy, and power experienced by the early church was not a radical departure from the community that Jesus formed before the resurrection. When Jesus was gathering his disciples and doing ministry in Galilee, they bore the same marks of God’s presence.

What are these marks? What do we look like when we’re being gathered by the presence of Jesus? Looking at the testimony of scripture – especially the gospels and Acts, the community of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit, has certain characteristics. When we are fully integrated into the family of God, we are…

  • Being taught by the Holy Spirit, by scripture, and by those in the community whom the Holy Spirit has given gifting and authority to teach.
  • Breaking bread together – sharing our lives organically, on a daily basis.
  • Practicing radical hospitality, sharing, and economic justice – giving up everything to follow Jesus and redistributing our wealth to meet the needs of everyone.
  • Speaking the words and message of God to the people around us – even when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient.
  • Inviting others into a life of discipleship to Jesus. Offering healing, life, and power from the Holy Spirit.
  • Expecting God to show up in the everyday. Trusting God to be miraculous. Standing in awe and witnessing beauty.

Does that sound like us? Do we bear these marks of the church?

The Bible, the New Testament, the Gospels and the Book of Acts. These are challenging documents. Our story challenges us to move beyond the respectable religion that remains within the limits of the status quo. The presence of the Holy Spirit within us and among us is calling. Inviting. Yearning. Will we respond?

Will we be like those who heard Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem. Will we allow ourselves to be “cut to the heart” by this message of salvation and transformation? Will we humble ourselves to ask, “sisters and brothers – what should we do?”

What should we do?

Will we repent, and be baptized, every one of us, into the name of Jesus Christ, so that our sins may be forgiven? Will we save ourselves from this corrupt generation – choosing to serve love rather than self-interest?

Will we choose to follow Jesus rather than clinging to coercive power? 

Will we invest our treasure in heaven – giving to those who have needs right now – rather than hoarding our wealth in the financial systems of this world? 

Will we welcome the message, devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and the breaking of bread?

Will we become a living community in Jesus – a fellowship where day by day the Lord adds to our numbers those who are being saved?

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All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/14/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Isaiah 50:4-9a and Luke 19:28-40. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Jesus is the king of Israel. The king that Zechariah foretold when he said:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus arrives at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Just to the east of the city, near Bethphage and Bethany. After a long journey of preaching, teaching, healing, and struggle, Jesus stands at the edge of the holy city. The city of David. The house of the Lord, the temple.

Jesus has come to the heart of all political and religious power in Israel. He has come to challenge the rulers and powers directly. He’s announcing a new kingdom, the reign of God on earth foretold by the prophets and promised by God.

Jesus announces his arrival in the holy city with a prophetic sign. He instructs his disciples to fetch him a young colt, the foal of a donkey. And on this colt that has never been ridden, Jesus makes his way over the Mount of Olives, into the city.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

There was a large crowd traveling with Jesus. Not just the twelve disciples, but hundreds of people. Maybe thousands, it doesn’t say.

This crowd is on fire. They’re rejoicing, just like Zechariah said they should. Luke says that “the whole multitude began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They all say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Rejoice, O daughter Jerusalem.

As usual, it says that the Pharisees object. They demand that Jesus rebuke his disciples. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Stop rejoicing. Stop saying, “king Jesus.” Stop declaring the glory of God in his messiah, the prince of peace.

But it’s far too late for that. This revolution that has been brewing for three years is finally coming to a head. Jesus is on the move. His followers are taking off their coats and throwing them on the ground in front of him, so that his donkey doesn’t have to touch the dirt. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.

No, Pharisees. No, Jesus tells these nay-sayers, “You just go ahead and try to calm this crowd down. There’s no shutting them up. We’re past the point of no return now. We’ve got to follow this thing through to the end. The kingdom of God has drawn near. The king has returned to claim his throne. To establish his reign. To reward his faithful servants and judge those who are in rebellion against God.

This crowd can’t settle down. If they were silent, the rocks and trees and birds and fish would cry out and say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So the crowds are rejoicing. They’re going wild. They’re so ready for the revolution. They’re chomping at the bit for the changes that the son of David is going to bring. The disciples can’t wait.

Jesus isn’t going wild, though. It’s hard to say exactly what Jesus is thinking or feeling. The text doesn’t provide a lot of detail. But I can’t help imagining him as a calm and pensive. Maybe even a little grim.

Jesus is the eye of the storm. He is the center around which this whole drama is swirling. The future is racing towards him, and Jesus knows what is coming. Confrontation with the powers-that-be. Betrayal. Imprisonment. Public shaming, torture, and death. Jesus hasn’t even entered Jerusalem yet, but he can already see the cross waiting for him.

Earlier in Luke, back in chapter nine, it says that “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning, the servant-messiah says, “I have set my face like flint.” In preparing for this sermon, I’ve thought a lot about what this phrase means. It feels critically important. “I have set my face like flint.”

What is flint like? Flint is hard. Flint is resolute. Flint sparks fire. Flint is immovable, and yet has a sense of direction. Flint is the will of God, unwavering in the face of human cruelty. Flint is the patient endurance of the saints. Flint is the face of Jesus, riding on that donkey, in the midst of shouting, singing, jubilant disciples. Flint is seeing a wild party all around you, and knowing that you’re marching straight towards the cross.

Jesus has set his face like flint.

Imagine Jesus, riding that colt down the dusty road toward Jerusalem. Imagine him cresting the Mount of Olives. Imagine as he takes in the majesty of the holy city, the splendor of the Temple Mount. Imagine as he sets his face like flint, preparing himself for the struggle he is about to endure.

Imagine the words of the prophet Isaiah in the heart of Jesus:

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

The one who vindicates Jesus is near. The king has returned. He’s at the gates of the city. He is coming with power.

But Jesus already knows that the people won’t be able to see it. We don’t expect a king like him, a king of peace. We don’t know what to make of a king who is triumphant and victorious, but who is also humble and comes riding on a donkey. A king who created the cosmos with a word, and yet was born as a helpless human baby.

The crowds don’t understand a king like Jesus, but the wealthy and powerful are actively antagonistic to him. They know a threat when they see one. They know that this Jesus is here to upend their entire economic, political, and religious system. For the rich and powerful, stability and order is the name of the game. Always. For the priests and kings and Roman governors, Jesus and his movement represent only chaos.

Jesus knows this, but he moves forward anyway. He has set his face like flint. He is bound and determined. He will not back down. He has seen the evil of the city, and it breaks his heart.

It breaks his heart.

It says that when Jesus crests the hill, when he finally sees the city of Jerusalem in all its beauty, Jesus breaks down and weeps. And through his tears, Jesus says to the holy city below, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

The king of peace has arrived, but the city of David has rejected God’s anointed. It has rejected the reign of justice, mercy, and love. It has rejected the humility that makes for peace. On this day of visitation, the words of the prophet Malachi are fulfilled:

…the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when Jesus arrives on the edge of the city? Who can stand when he comes proclaiming the kingdom? Can we?

Jesus loves the city. Jesus weeps for Jerusalem. Yet this doesn’t keep him from speaking the truth about the city, and the judgment that has come upon it. Jesus has set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. He has set his face against the lies and the abuse of power. He has set his face against the economic injustice – the plundering of widows and orphans – that has become normal in the city of David.

Jesus loves us. He loves our city, and all the people, plants, and animals in it. Jesus weeps for us. But he will not hold back in telling the truth about God’s justice. God’s judgment on unrighteousness. The consequences of selfishness and economic injustice, the worship of money and addiction to power. The kingdom of God is at hand, and who can endure the day of its coming? Who can stand when the Lord whom we seek suddenly comes to his temple?

Do we recognize the day of our own visitation? Do we hear Jesus, standing on the Berkeley Hills, overlooking our city? Can we hear him weeping?

He has set his face like flint. Against the greed. Against the evictions. Against the poverty and squalor. Against the worship of wealth and technique. Jesus has set his face against an economic, cultural, and political order that crucifies him again, every day, in the bodies of the poor, the homeless, the migrant, and the countless families who are barely making it month to month.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

As friends of Jesus, we join our voices with those of the first disciples who walked with him into Jerusalem. Glory!

But like those first disciples, perhaps we don’t yet fully understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Perhaps we are still the swirling of the storm around him. We’re not always steady. We’re not always firmly established on the rock.

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Rejoice, O daughter Zion! Behold, your king comes to you.

He’s a king of peace. He’s a king who loves us, who wants the best for each one of us. And he weeps over us, what we’ve done to this world and to one another. He weeps over what will become of us if we continue in our blindness and rebellion.

Jesus is the rock. He is the cornerstone, a firm foundation. And he is a king of justice. All that does not gather with him is swept away.

Are we gathering with him? Are we taking refuge under the shadow of his wing? Are we embracing his reign of peace? Do we weep with him? Do we embrace his cross?

Our answer to these questions is time-sensitive. Our day of visitation will not last forever. Will we join with Jesus in the way of the cross? Will we align our lives with the needs of the poor and marginalized? Will we recognize today the things that make for peace? Will we choose to walk with Jesus, building our lives on the rock – or will we be swept away in the storm?

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This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; & Luke 5:1-11. 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

If Isaiah were with us today, we might think he was a little nuts. This is a man who at one point walked barefoot and naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years as a sign against Egypt and Ethiopia. He used his own children as prophetic signs, naming his three sons: “A remnant shall return,” “God is with us,” and “Spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Can you imagine the teasing in middle school?

For all his apparently crazy behavior, Isaiah was not a fringe character. He was a major figure – a sort of celebrity –  in the kingdom of Judah for decades. He outlived several kings, and had criticisms for all of them. He had audacity, social standing, and a total lack of a self-preservation instinct that allowed him to pick public fights with the top leadership of Judah.

He had one other thing. The most critical thing. This was the alpha and omega of his ministry: Isaiah had an experience of God. A living relationship with the creator of the cosmos.

That sounds lovely, right? What a beautiful thing – a personal relationship with God. That’s what we all want, right? That’s what every Christian church in town is offering, isn’t it? A personal relationship with God.

Well, it’s not so warm and fuzzy for Isaiah. Isaiah doesn’t have his heart strangely warmed. He doesn’t feel an ineffable sense of oneness with the cosmos or the warm embrace of comforting love.

The beginning of Isaiah’s ministry is a moment of terror. It’s an encounter with the unknown and unknowable God – the Holy One of Israel. This is a God that is so different from us that no one can see him and live. A God who is so terrifyingly awesome that his presence can’t be contained in any building, any nation, any ideology. This is the God that Isaiah meets in 742 BC – the year that king Uzziah died.

In our reading from Isaiah 6 this morning, he writes:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;  the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

We don’t even know what these creatures really looked like. I think a lot of people imagine that the seraphim look like conventional statuary angels – you know, buff, beautiful men with big white wings, who look like they spend all their time in heaven lifting weights. But most of the imagery we have in the Bible about heavenly beings is far more alien, far more frightening. 

The commentaries I’ve read suggest that it’s likely that these seraphim were snake-like, maybe an amalgam of several different kinds of animal. The word “seraph” means “one who burns.” Maybe the angels were on fire. Whatever they were, these heavenly creatures were just as fearsome, just as utterly different from human beings as the God who created them. 

In Isaiah’s vision, the boundary between heaven and earth had been utterly shattered, and all the scary things that human beings should never see were pouring into his reality. It says that the whole building shook with the power of the heavenly creatures’ voices. The hem of God’s robe filled the temple, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s like a rock concert from hell – oh wait, heaven!

Heaven and hell are both within the human heart. They can coexist in one moment. In this startling, mind-blowing vision, Isaiah comes face to face with that which is totally other and transcendent. The utterly unknowable. The Holy One of Israel.

How would you respond to this? What would your reaction be? What are we to do in the face of the unspeakable holiness, power, and majesty of God?

Well we know what Isaiah did. He nearly fell into despair. Here he was, standing in the light of God, and all he could see was darkness. The smoke of God’s glory covered him. It was choking him.

Standing in the presence of God, Isaiah became aware of his own distance from God. His wickedness. His rebellion against the love and power of God.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah had an encounter with the glory of God, and all he could see was the way that he and his fellow countrymen fell short of that glory. What a horrifying thing to see. Especially because of who Isaiah was, an upstanding member of Jerusalem’s priestly elite. Even at twenty years old, Isaiah was already in many ways a holy man. A holy man among the holy people of the holy city of David.

But when he came into the presence of God, all that human pretense fell away. Awareness of his own sin, and the sin of his holy people, overwhelmed him.

But before Isaiah could become totally lost in the despair of his own darkness, one of the seraphim took a live coal from the altar. Holding it with a pair of tongs, it flew over to Isaiah and touched the burning coal to his lips.

Ouch!

And the seraph said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Isaiah was free. Free from sin. Free from the desolate darkness that he had experienced upon entering into the presence of God. He was clean. Holy. Welcomed into the presence of a mystery and power so awesome that he could barely stand to be in the presence of the hem of his garment.

This freedom is an unconditional gift. Isaiah cries out in his distress, and God sends the seraph to cleanse and heal him. To liberate him from his sin. To make him the kind of person who can stand in the presence of the heavenly beings and speak the words of God to his people.

And then Isaiah hears the voice of God call out, from beyond the temple, somewhere up in the heavenly realm, speaking to the great council of heavenly beings: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”

And immediately, Isaiah cries out again from the floor of the temple: “Here I am! Send me!”

Such boldness. Such reckless readiness to be the emissary of the Most High. This was unthinkable just moments before. But now the seraph has touched the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. His guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. He is ready to be a servant of God. A prophet. A man who speaks the words of God to his people.

What are those words? What is the message?

Turns out, it’s not good.

Go and say to this people:  
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; 
keep looking, but do not understand.’  
Make the mind of this people dull, 
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,  
so that they may not look with their eyes, 
and listen with their ears,  
and comprehend with their minds, 
and turn and be healed.

Isaiah thought he was out of the woods, but now he’s back in the darkness. He’s passed through God’s purifying fire. But the recipients of his prophetic message have not experienced that transformation. Isaiah has changed, but his people haven’t.

“How long, O Lord?” Isaiah cries out. How long until all the people of Jerusalem will see with the same eyes and hear with listening ears? How long until God sends a hot coal for every set of lips?

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,  
and houses without people, 
and the land is utterly desolate;  
until the Lord sends everyone far away, 
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.  
Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,  
like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”

Whoa. This sounds really, really bad. There’s a purification coming, and it’s going to make that hot coal from the seraph taste like nice cup of cocoa. God says the land of Judah is going to be smashed – laid waste, until not even a tenth of the people are left. 

And Isaiah says, “The holy seed is its stump.” There will be a remnant. Out of all this horror and destruction, there will be a purified community that will emerge, ready to speak the truth and live God’s mercy and justice. But this transformation will only come about through a horrifying process of national purgation.

That’s so intense. Right? I mean, what do you even say to that? Your people will be saved, but only after they’re mostly annihilated. You will see the glory of the Lord, but Jerusalem will be burned to the ground first. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple – but not one stone will be left on stone.

Which brings us to Jesus. Jesus was engaged in ministry during a time that was, in some ways, quite similar to that of Isaiah. Both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ ministry began in a period of relative peace and prosperity. A time when the people of Israel imagined that things were just going to keep getting better. More freedom, greater wealth, and independence were on the way!

But what the people didn’t know, didn’t want to know or understand, was that God was not pleased with the status quo. God didn’t approve of the selfish, faithless rulers of Isaiah’s time, or the self-serving hypocrites who reigned in the Jerusalem of Jesus. A time of purification was coming. The temple would be overthrown. Foreign powers would conquer Jerusalem. All of this had happened before, and would happen again.

This is the context for Jesus’ first encounter with Peter, James, and John, on the Sea of Galilee. The old order is falling away. They don’t know it yet, but God has pronounced judgment over the corrupt rulers and authorities in Jerusalem. Terrible purification is coming, but a remnant will be saved.

Now it says that Jesus is teaching by the sea, and the crowds are so intense that he asks a fisherman named Simon to let him jump in his boat and preach from there. Simon agrees, and so there Jesus is, preaching from this fishing boat, sitting out in the water. I mean, I can relate to this. Sometimes I have to go to great lengths to avoid being mobbed by crowds when I’m preaching.

Anyway. When Jesus is done with his teaching, he says, “Hey, Simon – why don’t you put out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish?”

Simon and his crew had just got done pulling an all-nighter. In fact, when Jesus got into their boat, they had been cleaning off their nets and preparing to put them away. They spent the whole night looking for fish, but didn’t catch anything. And here was Jesus, saying, “hey, guys, why don’t you try to catch some fish?”

Now, if I were Simon in this situation, I can imagine feeling a little upset. I’ve already done this Jesus guy a favor by letting him preach from my boat. I’m tired. I’ve been up all night. I still haven’t finished cleaning my nets, and all I want to do is go home and get some sleep. 

But even though Simon might be justified at getting upset with Jesus, he doesn’t. He says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

You’ll never guess what happens next! Oh, well, I guess you will, since we just read the scripture earlier. They pull in so much fish that the nets are starting to break. They catch so much fish, that they have to call over to the other boat in their little flotilla, to get their help in pulling in their catch. They land so much fish, that the two boats are completely full, to the point that there is some concern that both boats might go under due to the weight!

This is when Simon has his Isaiah moment. Simon is standing in the temple, and the hem of the Lord’s robe is filling the space. The room is full of smoke. The seraphim are flying and crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” The whole earth is proclaiming the glory of God. The sea and its fish declare the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

And Simon has the same response that Isaiah did. It says that he fell down at Jesus’ feet and cried out: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

In the presence of Jesus, Simon saw his darkness more clearly than ever. In the presence of glory, Simon could not escape his unworthiness. In the presence of divine mystery and power, Simon fell to his knees in awe and fear.

But Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people.”

And it says that they brought their boats to shore. They left everything. They followed him.

Jesus came with good news. Before this passage we read this morning, Jesus was healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching the people, and transforming lives. After this encounter with Simon and his friends, Jesus keeps healing and teaching and proclaiming the reign of God.

Jesus came with good news, but it’s not good news for everyone. It’s not good news for those who are rich. For those who are in the center of power. For those who think they are in control. It’s not good news for the people of Jerusalem who will rise up in rebellion against Rome, and who will be crushed when the Roman legions arrive. The good news of God’s empire is a terror to those who lean on the world’s vision of success – governments, and armies, and central banks, and power politics.

But for those who are being saved, the gospel is the power of God. It is the hot coal touching the lips. The gospel cleanses from sin and transforms blindness into true sight. It’s a grace that upends lives and gathers community around the love and power of God.

In their encounters with God, both Isaiah and Simon first had to face the darkness. In the light of God’s presence, they saw their own darkness – all the ways in which they had turned away from the source of life to worship their own wills, their own judgments. 

Yet both Simon and Isaiah also discovered that sin is not just an individual problem. In the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Righteousness and sinfulness are not merely questions of personal morality. We live in a social reality that shapes our sense of right and wrong, that governs our imagination and sense of the possible. To a great degree, we are sick because we are part of a sickened humanity. We are blind as part of a society that has forgotten how to see. We hate what we’ve been taught to hate, and fear what we’ve been taught to fear.

Isaiah and Simon knew that sin is not an individual problem. And yet they chose to take personal responsibility for it. They accepted an invitation to become vessels of God’s word in the world – to become prophets of the living God, the Holy One of Israel.

Sin is not an individual problem, but the prophets choose to take personal responsibility. The prophets act as a bridge between the irrevocable holiness and set-apartness of God, and the lost state of the human family. The prophets take responsibility, not only for their own sin, but for the sin of their brothers and sisters. The prophets surrender themselves to God, and God gives them the strength to live as part of a truly counter-cultural community. A community that lives in the reign of God, now, even in the midst of a society that is actively in rebellion against God.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be such a community – a prophetic community. We are called to stand in the presence of the seraphim, to have our lips cleansed with the burning coal. We are called to hear from God the hard truths about our society, and to speak this message to a world that does not want to hear it.

Like the first disciples of Jesus, we are called to gather together into community that embodies the way of God in a world that rejects him. This may mean that we look a little weird. If we’re like Isaiah and are called to walk naked and barefoot for three years as a sign, we might look really weird!

But whatever the call, wherever this road ultimately takes us, we are invited into the prophetic ministry of Isaiah and Simon, of John and Jesus. We are invited into a path in which God makes us fearless. Fearing God, we can have no fear of any human being. No ruler or authority can intimidate those who have stood in the presence of the Almighty and received absolution from the seraphim. Standing in the presence of Jesus, we are called to be indomitable in the face of men.

Let’s stand in that presence, together. Let’s fall to our knees before Jesus. Let’s kiss the coal as it touches our lips. And dedicate our lives to speaking the truth boldly, loving our neighbors fully, and offering up our lives for the formation of the remnant community that God is gathering together even now.

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