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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.

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

Sunset on the Estuary near Alameda, California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/1/20, at Whittier First Friends Church, near Los Angeles. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Ephesians 6:10-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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The most challenging message to preach right now is hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and having done everything, to stand firm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:13-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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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?

Can You Separate the Wheat from the Chaff?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/8/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:1-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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We’re in the time now that the world calls Christmas. This whole stretch between Thanksgiving and the 25th of December, this is what secular, Western European consumer culture thinks of as “the Christmas season” – or, if you like, “the holiday season.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 23:33-43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Jesus is king. He’s the messiah. He’s the rightful heir to the throne of David. He’s the fulfillment of the promise. He is the king of Israel, the king of all the nations, the king of the universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God foretold the coming of Jesus through the prophet Jeremiah:

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

Hate Your Boss? There’s An Alternative

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and Acts 16:11-40. 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’s a saying that I’ve heard many times, and it’s true: People don’t quit a job, they quit a boss. There’s nothing worse than a lousy manager. Well, maybe there’s one thing that’s worse than a bad manager: Multiple bad managers.

Have you ever been in that situation? Where in a work situation you were answering to multiple people? Each one of them with their own priorities and perspectives. Their own ideas about how you should best do your job. Maybe even conflicting with one another in the instructions they give you?

It reminds me of that scene from Office Space, the classic movie from the late 90s. The main character is being interviewed by consultants, and he tells them: “I have eight different bosses right now. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation – is not to be hassled – that and not being fired. But you know, Bob, that’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

Sound familiar?

Well the good news of the kingdom of God is that we have just one boss. That’s what freedom means. It means being free to serve only one boss, one Lord. It means not being tossed to and fro by the opinions, objections, and hangups of all the many people in our lives who’d like to tell us what to do. It means submitting ourselves to God, accepting the judgment of God, and being liberated from the judgment of everyone else.

We see that in our reading this morning, when Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “I’m free with respect to all.” Nobody tells Paul what to do. Nobody but the Holy Spirit. Because he is a slave of God, he is freed from all human masters.

That’s what the gospel is. It’s freedom. It’s peace. It’s knowing where we belong and who we need to obey. It’s having a perfect boss, better than any human leader, who guides us not out of a desire for control or domination, but out of love. We worship a God who leads us from a place of knowledge, compassion, and creativity. This is a leader we can trust.

So the children are free. We’re free to follow God and disregard the vain fashions of this world. We’re liberated from the domination of money. We’re released from this world’s addiction to coercive power. We’re free when we dwell in the abundance and life-giving power of Jesus.

Our readings this morning are helpful. They’re clarifying. And when we think about freedom, we need some clarification. We need some clarification, because America has a very different conception of freedom from the liberty that we find in the gospel. The freedom of the American Dream is wholly distinct from the freedom that we find in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection. The liberty of the kingdom of God is rooted in love, using our freedom to build up the lives of others and share the blessings of God’s abundance.

That’s what we read in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” He says, I became what the Jews needed me to be, so that they could hear and accept the message. And when I spoke to Gentiles, I adapted myself to their way of life. I changed. I humbled myself so that I could speak and demonstrate the gospel in ways that would touch their hearts and enliven their minds.

To the hipsters I became like a hipster. To the parents with small children, I became like a dad. To the surfers, I learned how to shred. To the tech bros, I learned jargon. To the Quakers I spoke calmly and slowly. “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

From the Christian perspective, freedom is not an end unto itself. It is a means. Our freedom is a tool, a privilege to be spent in the service of others. We have only one boss, one leader, one Lord, and this gives us enormous freedom. We were given this freedom for a reason. Not for self-indulgence, but to comfort and heal, to convict and proclaim the good news of God’s love. God is healing our wounds so that we can become healers.

For the world around us, for those who are pursuing the American Dream, freedom is about “me.” Freedom is about what I want, when I want it, as much as I want. Freedom is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It’s about having things on my terms, and not letting anyone tell me what to do. It’s about becoming an army of one. Answerable to no one.

The freedom of the gospel is the opposite of this self-centered fantasy. The good news is Jesus, the crucified, homeless messiah. It’s a story that centers “the least of these” – the people that our society doesn’t value, doesn’t want to see, and often tries to dispose of.

Those are the people that Jesus went to, when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. These are the folks that Paul was reaching out to when he met Lydia, a non-Jewish worshiper of God, who was gathered with other women at a prayer meeting outside the city gate. Women. Unorthodox, Gentile believers in God. The unclean. The enemy. That’s who God loves.

It’s this kind of enemy-love that Paul and Silas showed when they stayed put in their jail cells after the earthquake. They could have run. Maybe we think they should have run – after all, they were clearly being freed by God through a miraculous earthquake, a very strange earthquake that not only opened up all the doors of the jail, but even released them from their chains!

But Paul and Silas were free men. They were free citizens of the kingdom of God. They were free from the reflexive self-preservation that enslaves most of us. They saw past their own need to get out of that jail cell, realizing that the Holy Spirit had opened a bridge into the heart of their jailer. A man who would be killed if he let his prisoners escape. Paul and Silas were free enough to say, “Wait, jailer! Don’t kill yourself! We are still here!”

In this situation, most of us would probably say that the “least of these” in this situation were Paul and Silas. They’re the ones locked up for doing nothing wrong. In this story, we would see the apostles as the oppressed and the prison guard as the oppressor.

But Paul and Silas had been given eyes to see that it was the jailer who was truly in chains. The prison worker was trapped in a life of servitude to the rulers of this world. So when the earthquake came, it was a prophetic earthquake. It revealed that which was already true. Paul and Silas were free after all, and it was the jailer who was on the knife’s edge.

And they truly were free! It turns out that Paul and Silas didn’t even have to be in jail in the first place. They were Roman citizens. They were not subject to the beating and imprisonment without trial that they were being subjected to. You’d think that they would have mentioned their status when they first got in trouble. But for some reason they didn’t. Perhaps it was a prophetic silence, just like that of Jesus when he stood before Pontius Pilate. Perhaps they could sense that, though they were free to avoid persecution, God was going to do something important with their suffering. As Paul would write to the Corinthian church – they became weak so that they might win the weak.

The kingdom of God is a life of victory. It’s a life of power. It’s a life of connection and community. Because we have one boss, one God, one father. There’s only one voice we answer to. It’s the voice of love.

The voice of love calls us to surrender the freedom that this world offers. The freedom to be separate. The freedom to avoid discomfort. The freedom to stay safe while others suffer.

Are we living in the freedom of Jesus? Are we living in the liberty that Paul and Silas experienced? Do we have just one boss – the powerful spirit of love who liberates us from the fear of this world?

Are we living in the freedom of the kingdom? Power that allows us to become weak. Strength that permits us to become vulnerable. Compassion that draws us to the margins. Vision to see that our enemies need God’s love more than our revenge. Do we live in that kingdom?

Are we ready to fire our bosses? All the rules and systems that this world lays on us, to keep us in line as compliant producers and consumers? Are we ready to fire our eight bosses and submit ourselves to one Lord, our holy center, the living presence of God? Do we want to be liberated from what this world calls freedom – the selfish rat-race of consumerism and domination? Will we embrace the cross of Jesus, finding as he did that true freedom lies in being poured out as an offering for others?