Blog Banner

Archive for Discipleship – Page 2

There Are No Heroes in the Kingdom of God

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/26/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 21:15-19. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

C.S. Lewis, the influential 20th century Christian author wrote:

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

Jesus is like that. Surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not who Jesus is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you love him?

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

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

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

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

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

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

Do you love Jesus? Feed his sheep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let go. Let God. “Feed my sheep.”

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

Face of a large, dark fish

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/22/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Jonah 2. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

We’re in the belly of the fish now. We’re deep down at the bottom of the ocean, where there is no light to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.”

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 formerly 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?