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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward Has Always Been Hidden In Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Are No Heroes in the Kingdom of God

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

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

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

Jesus is like that. Surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not who Jesus is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you love him?

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

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

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

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

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

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

Do you love Jesus? Feed his sheep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let go. Let God. “Feed my sheep.”

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

Face of a large, dark fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”