Blog Banner

Archive for Inspiration

The Real Meaning of Christmas: We Can Be Like Jesus

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Galatians 3:23-4:7. 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 celebrating this morning that Jesus Christ was born. We’re celebrating the Word made flesh. We’re celebrating the eternal, uncreated Word of God, who existed from the beginning and is God. We’re celebrating that the one through whom all things in the universe were made became flesh and dwelt among us. The creator of the universe, the most powerful, majestic entity we can’t possibly imagine, became a little baby boy.

God has become one of us. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not a Hallmark card – it’s a revolution: The Word has become flesh, in the ultimate act of love and solidarity with humankind. 

So this morning, we are celebrating his presence with us. His incarnation as a little baby, who grew into a boy, then a young man, and finally our teacher, healer, prophet, and crucified king. The savior of the world.

This season of Christmas is a special invitation for us to pay attention. To remember that God has in fact shown up, definitively – not only in our hearts, but in human history. The life of Jesus is the definitive in-breaking of God’s life and power into our world.

In our scripture reading this morning, the apostle Paul speaks to us about what a massive breakthrough the incarnation is. He compares it to children coming of age and becoming adults. Before the advent of Jesus, Paul says, “we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” 

We were like minor children, who were not ready to think for ourselves, or take any real responsibility. We were babes in the woods, and to keep us safe and on track, God gave us the law.

Paul describes the law as a “disciplinarian” – we might say a “babysitter” – who bound and guarded us as children until we were grown enough to come into our inheritance.

Jesus is that inheritance. As Paul says:

…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

The fullness of time has come, and now we are children of God. Children of God. What makes us think we can dare to claim that relationship with God? Who are we to think that we can participate in divine sonship with Jesus? It is because, as Paul writes, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!”

This grace does not come from us. It’s not a matter of our own righteousness. It’s not any goodness inherent to us, or anything we have accomplished by ourselves. It is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus. It is his incarnation, the Word made flesh, who has opened the door for us to become sons and daughters of God. 

In the shocking words of the early church theologian Athanasius, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

Can you believe that? Can you even wrap your head around that? Let me know if you can, because it is really hard for me!

Jesus is the only begotten son of God. He is the Alpha and the Omega. He was in the beginning, and there was no time that he was not alive and participating in the life of God. And this son, this Word of God, this man Jesus who gives us life from the Father and shows us who God is: We can be like him?

That’s what Paul says. That’s the witness of scripture and the teaching of the pre-Nicene doctors of the Church. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ: In this world, we are like Jesus.

As Paul says, now that Christ has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the disciplinarian. There’s no babysitter anymore. We are no longer under the law, because Christ has brought us to maturity. We have become grown men and women in Christ Jesus, and we share in the sonship and daughtership. As Paul writes, “You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God.”

What kind of ridiculous love is this? It doesn’t make any sense. Who are we that God should stoop down to lift us up in this way?

This is big stuff. Honestly, it’s scary. I’m not surprised that most Christians shy away from the full implications of this message. The message that Jesus has opened the way for us to become sons and daughters, heirs to the promises of God. Participating in the divine nature. Made one with God, brothers and sisters with Jesus, standing together with him in the glory of his Father.

It’s a lot to digest. And it raises the question: Are we walking worthy of the grace that has been extended to us? Is it true that, in the words of the apostle John, “in this world, we are like Jesus”?

In this world, are we like Jesus? Do we bear his stamp and imprint? Does his life flow through us, and touch others as he touches the world? 

I guess I understand why most of us Christians would prefer the babysitter. We would prefer to be unaccountable minor children in our father’s household rather than sons and daughters. Because unaccountable children, children who are told what to do, and where to go, and how to learn – that seems about right-sized to me. Stepping out onto the same playing field as Jesus? That feels way above my pay grade.

But the fact is, God has called us to be heirs. He has given us the power to be co-heirs with Jesus, sons and daughters of the promise. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” 

Through Jesus, God has become our Father, too.

So where does that leave us?

Some of you may know that Robbie, Chuck, and I are in a Life Transformation Group together. And as a part of that group, we answer a set of accountability questions each week. The first of these questions is this: “Have you been a testimony this week to the greatness of Jesus Christ with both your words and actions?”

And pretty much every week, we say, “no.” That seems too big for us. It seems like too big of a stretch to say, “Yes, I lived up to the character of Jesus this week.”

And on the one hand, this is just being realistic. This is humility. This is realizing that each of us has fallen short this week, and Jesus never will. So saying, “Oh yeah, I was totally a reflection of Christ’s face this week,” feels a little ridiculous.

But the truth is, we are called to the ridiculous. The cloud of witnesses that we trust call us to something much more radiant and powerful than what Paul calls the “elemental spirits of the world” – the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are commonplace in this world, but which are alienated from God. We are called to the ridiculous, improbable life of holiness and participation in the divine nature.

Paul says that we are heirs along with Jesus. The apostle John says that “in this world, we are like Jesus.” And Athanasius, along with similar statements by many other early church teachers, says that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

So we have got to live in that tension, as friends of Jesus and children of God: 

On the one hand, we are not worthy. We mess up. We can’t live up to God’s intention for us on our own. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness and transformation. 

And yet at the same time, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” and “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

We are living in this tension of our own utter inability to live up to the calling of the law and the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus, and the witness of the early church. We just can’t do it. We’re not strong enough.

Yet God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts. God has given us the power to become sons and daughters of God, according to the promise.

What does it look like for us to receive this promise, to receive the power and presence of Jesus to transform our lives – not because we are able, but because he is?

When I was a kid, it was a really common taunt to say, “that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.” And this morning I have been thinking about that taunt, and how it sounds coming from the mouth of God.

Because for so many of us, the Christian story has often sounded like a threat. It’s been a story of ridiculous, unfair expectations – a story of a God who sets us up to fail and then punishes us severely when we do. It’s a story where we have to pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps, and become the holy people that God calls us to. We have to do all the right things, or else.

But the gospel isn’t a threat, it’s a promise. 

The kingdom of God is not a meritocracy. It’s not about redeeming ourselves through our own effort. The gospel is not something that is done by us, but rather it is what God has promised to do in us and through us.

The promise of God is that we are being given the Spirit of Jesus, who cries, “Abba! Father!” Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. If we abide in him, we can bear the fruit of God’s love. In the face of all the threats that this world throws at us, God has promised us victory and transformation – a new and bottomless life as his sons and daughters.

“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Clothe yourself with him. Invite his spirit to fill and surround you. And we will discover that:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Learning to Love Our Greatest Enemy: Death

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/25/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 12:22-34, and 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. 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

I remember back in March, when the pandemic was first getting serious here in California and we all began to lock down. Started working remotely. No more in-person gatherings at church. Trips to the grocery store became a major excursion and involved a lot of waiting in line. Lots of us were wondering if supply chains would break down. We stored up food, just in case.

For me, this was a moment of reflection. On life. On death. On how easily things could all fall apart. I couldn’t take anything for granted. There was a disease out there that could kill me or anyone I loved, any time. Death felt very close. Life was fragile.

As the pandemic has worn on, we’ve adapted. Life goes on. We wear our masks to the grocery store. Remote work becomes the norm for some of us, and others of us learn to take precautions at our in-person workplaces. And as this sense of normality returns, the raw urgency of the moment begins to fade. The routine returns.

For me, that routine has meant that it’s harder, once again, to feel the cold breath of death on my shoulder. It’s easier to pretend that this life stretches on forever, that this day exists as a means to an end: to be rushed through, optimized, leveraged for maximum profit. It’s easy to forget myself, to lose track of the reality that this moment is all we have. Death could come at any time.

Death is always close. And death is no respecter of persons. Babies can die. Children can die. Young people can die. The healthy can die. We are all just one heartbeat away from eternity. Whatever that looks like. We don’t know what it means yet, but we’ll be finding out soon.

Death gets a bad rap in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures we learn that death came into the world through the Fall, the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Death is a natural outgrowth of sin – our choice to turn away from God and become our own masters. From this perspective, death and hardship are not natural; they are of human making.

The heart of the gospel is that Christ has come to liberate us from both sin and death. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

So in the view of the Christian church, death is an enemy. Death is the result of sin, and will be abolished when sin is put away. Death is not something to be welcomed, it is an evil to be defeated.

And in many ways, this is true. Death is an evil, because death brings the destruction of life, the destruction of the human personality. Death is the extinguishing of God’s creation, which God meant to be unending and overflowing, full of abundant life, just like God is.

Death came about because of our choice to turn away from God, to seek our own wisdom, and attempt to become little gods ourselves. Death exists because we insisted on having it all, regardless of the consequences, regardless of reality! Death is the consequence. It’s the imposition of reality on our delusions of grandeur and self-worship. Death is an evil that we are forced to endure, but wish we didn’t have to.

And yet, in the context of our own experience of being lost and sinful creatures, death presents itself as a strange sort of friend. Death is an enemy, yes – but perhaps just the sort of enemy we needed. God knew we needed an enemy like death, if we were ever to come home; if we were ever to see the foolishness of our ways and turn back to God.

Death is an enemy who can instruct us, if we will listen.

In CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, he paints a picture of the afterlife, both heaven and hell, but he spends a lot of his time describing hell. And rightfully so, because unfortunately hell is something that we can understand a lot better than heaven. We’ve spent the greater part of our lives experiencing it.

CS Lewis describes hell as a place without boundaries, without limits. In hell, if you want a brand new mansion with eighteen bedrooms, a golf course, and an olympic swimming pool, you just have to wish for it. The world of hell is infinite, and you can go anywhere and have anything. Hell is a realm of ultimate wish fulfillment. 

Not what you expected, huh?

At first glance, this sounds nothing like hell. It sounds more like heaven. To have anything we want, whenever we want, however we want it, forever? Wouldn’t that be great? CS Lewis aims to convince us that it would not.

According to Lewis, hell is a place of ultimate suburban sprawl. Hell expands infinitely. Because, since everyone has everything they could ever want or imagine, no one needs anyone else. Every time a person has a disagreement with someone else, or some aspect of their life isn’t “just so,” they can immediately escape. They imagine a new house, a thousand miles away – and poof, they’re gone.

Hell is a place without limits. It’s a place where we are God. And becoming gods, we find that we are demons, fit only to torture ourselves and others. And especially ourselves.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus gives one of his greatest and most challenging commandments: “Do not worry!” Everyone is running around, concerned about making sure they have enough to eat, and drink, and wear. But we easily forget about the most important thing: the kingdom of God, the power and presence of Jesus in his resurrection. 

We forget that this very moment, right now, is bathed in the radiance of eternity. We forget that this is a sacred time, a holy place – not just a means to an end. We imagine that we are waiting for a better day to arrive, a better moment, a better place – but this is all that there is, and it is enough!

Jesus says to us:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Do not be afraid, little flock of Berkeley Friends Church. Give it all away. Feel the cold breath of death on your shoulder. The angel of death is coming to take away everything that seems so important. You can’t take any of it with you. 

The kingdom of God is not a light at the end of the tunnel, far in the future. It is not a commonwealth to build or a paradise to inherit some day. This moment is everything. In the midst of all the stress, struggle, and evil of this present time, this day is shot through with rays of glory. God’s presence dwells with you now. Let tomorrow worry about itself. 

We’ve got no guarantees. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we know that God loves us, and that we need one another. As long as we are living in the kingdom of God, and not CS Lewis’ vision of hell, we need one another. We need God’s presence. And that is enough.

This is the appointed time. This is the hour of Christ’s coming.

I do not mean this metaphorically. Jesus is here, resurrected. Jesus is present to teach and guide us. Now is the time to take hold of that resurrection, to come together as friends of Jesus. Because God knows what tomorrow brings. 

As the apostle Paul writes in our scripture reading this morning:

“…brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. Elections and plagues and causes and heartbreak, they are passing away. Death is passing away, too. Because God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, not only to die for us, but to live for us. He is here. He is speaking. Listen to him!

One of the things that Jesus is teaching us is that we have to love our enemies. We have to love those who are destroying our planet and harming the innocent. Jesus calls us to be like God, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Loving unconditionally. 

And if we have to love those folks, maybe that means we have to love death, too. After all, death is our enemy. Death is the horror that has haunted us as long as people have been people, ever since we chose to turn away from God and follow our own will. We have to love our enemies. 

We have to love everyone, especially our enemies, because we can only see the world clearly when we look at it through the eyes of love. And we need to see this enemy. Death has a lot to teach us about the moment we live in. Death provides clues about how we are to live in this present world, and what it might mean to be participants in the reign of God.

It’s like Jesus says: Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies of the field. They live without fear, provided for by God. They live in love, and they don’t fear death. We can be like them. We don’t have to be afraid.

Death dominates our lives when we seek to avoid it. We deny death psychologically, refusing to remain conscious of our own finitude. We deny death with our actions, doing everything we can to protect ourselves. For our ancestors in the garden, that first took the form of covering their nakedness. 

These days, we seek to protect ourselves in much more sophisticated ways. Health insurance, 401ks, standing armies, and nuclear arsenals. The kingdoms of this world are built on fear and rooted in denial of death.

Jesus invites us out of this hell world. Jesus reassures us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As the apostle Paul reminds us, the appointed time has grown short. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Now is the time to live without reference to this fearful society we inhabit. He urges us to practice non-attachment to the ways and priorities of this human empire we live in, because “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Perfect love casts out all fear, and total dependence on God makes us utterly free with regard to the rules and anxieties of this world. 

Berkeley Friends Church – little flock – let go of your fear. Let your light shine on friends and enemies alike, even death! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

A Quaker Testimony Against Netflix?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/11/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Exodus 32:1-14. 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 are living in a golden age of TV. I’m old enough to remember back when you actually had to turn the television on at a particular time if you wanted to catch your favorite show. And if you missed it, you’d have to wait until it was on reruns.

Now, everything is at your fingertips. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney+ – everything streaming, on-demand, immediate.

And it’s so good. Let’s be real. There’s more good TV coming out every year or two right now than came out in whole decades in the age of traditional TV.

We are living in a golden age of TV, and I’m loving it. Especially during this pandemic. I’m probably spending an average of an hour or two a night streaming a show or a movie. After work is done and the kids are off to bed, it’s such a relief to just turn my mind off, lay back on the couch and watch some of the best entertainment the world has ever seen.

Entertainment is the name of the game. It’s not just TV and movies. Social media, of course, is an extremely potent and addictive form of entertainment. How many of us have found ourselves scrolling through your social media feed, liking and sharing things, flitting from post to post, only to wake up an hour later, astonished at the time that has just disappeared?

Entertainment. That’s where it’s at. Video games. When I was a kid in the mid to late nineties, the best video games were things like Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo and Sim City 2000 on PC. Those games were amazing, and consumed countless hours of my childhood. But they look like digital chicken scratch by comparison with the depth and quality and sheer number of digital titles we have access to today.

Video games today are deeply immersive. Some of them feel like being inside a movie. Others are social, and become like a second job for many of the players. It’s easy to spend twenty hours a week in the game world, and many of us spend far, far more than that. Especially now, in an age of economic desperation, chronic unemployment and under-employment, millions of people are getting their sense of place, their sense of accomplishment and status, from massive multiplayer online video games.

Entertainment. It’s amazing. It’s so good. We love it, right? Who doesn’t have their favorite delivery system? Who among us can live without the sweet release of digital entertainment?

Certainly not me.

Have any of you read the book or watched the movie Ready Player One? It’s set in the near-future, in 2045, where the earth is a sprawling wasteland of ecological destruction and growing poverty, while the super-rich gate themselves away in fortified enclaves.

In this world of climate destruction, massive income inequality, and loss of any meaningful government beyond profit motives of corporations, most regular people spend their lives plugged into virtual reality. The real world is a total nightmare, so billions of people – everyone who can possibly afford to – escapes to a better world, inside a digital fantasy land called the OASIS.

I remember when I first read the book shortly after it came out, back in 2011, the author’s vision seemed a little far-fetched. Certainly on the wacky side of the possible.

Doesn’t sound too implausible now, does it? Sounds downright prophetic to me.

Our society is falling apart – politically, economically, ecologically – and billions of us spend our leisure time plugged into various modes of electronic entertainment, engaged with ersatz worlds that are easier, more beautiful, and more satisfying than the real world we inhabit.

When was the last time you felt sustained boredom? Not just for a minute, but for hours, or even days?

I remember boredom. I remember it vividly. It was one of the primary experiences of my childhood. I was bored all the time. I was constantly looking for some outlet, some way to engage my frustrated imagination and express myself. To discover, to explore the world around me. To make sense of it all and gain a sense of mastery over my environment.

I read tons of fiction and non-fiction. I sketched. I made music. I wrote poetry. I tried to write a novel at the age of 12. (It was awful.) I got politically engaged and worked to get a socialist candidate for president on the ballot in Kansas. I yearned. It hurt.

I haven’t been bored in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I endured boredom for an entire hour, much less a day. Always at my fingertips are streaming entertainment, social media, an endless series of pithy articles to read, immersive video games to play.

The moment the itch of boredom sets in on me, I can reach for my phone. My laptop. The TV remote. The OASIS is at my beck and call. I don’t have to endure this world we live in, with its slow progress and frustrations. Out here, I am so weak and small, but in the OASIS, in the digital world, I can be whoever I want. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t have to wait. I can have it all now.

When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, he was gone for forty days and forty nights. That is to say, he was away for a really long time.

Moses was the leader of the Hebrews. He was their prophet. He was the messenger from God who told them what they needed to do and where they should go. It was Moses who spoke on their behalf to Pharaoh. It was Moses who led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But now Moses was gone. Not just for a day or two, but for a long time – more than a month. People started getting nervous. People’s minds started to wander. People got bored.

So they went to Aaron, the man that Moses had left in charge while he was away. And they said to Aaron:

“Hey, Aaron: Moses has been away for a really long time. We’re not sure where he’s off to, but that storm has been raging on top of the mountain since before he left. Maybe he fell off a cliff. Maybe God struck him with lightning Zeus-style. Maybe he ran away. We don’t know. But bottom line is, we’ve got to do something.

We’re aimless. We don’t have a sense of direction anymore. We’re bored. So we’ve got an idea. Since we don’t have Moses to follow anymore, why don’t we make some images of gods to lead us forward. They can show us the way, just like Moses did. If Moses can mediate God to us, maybe some beautiful images can do the same.

We know the Caananites have Baal, the bull god. That seems to be working out pretty well for them. Maybe you can make us a bull, too. Bulls are a sign of strength, and we need some strength right now, if we are going to make it through the wilderness.

So make us some gods, Aaron, to show us how to follow the LORD. Moses is gone, and we’re bored. Give us something to do!”

Now, you would expect Aaron, as Mose’s right-hand man, to put up some sort of objection. But to our surprise, he immediately goes along with the demands of the people. He tells them to gather up all their valuables made out of gold, all the petty wealth they had brought with them out of Egypt. Aaron fashions it into a golden calf. A bull. A sign of power and strength.

And Aaron unveiled the golden calf to the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And he built an altar for the calf – a site where the people could come and worship – and he declared that the next day would be a festival to the LORD.

I find this really interesting. Because most of us, when we think of the story of the golden calf, we imagine that this was a complete abandonment of God by the Hebrews in the desert. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Aaron made the calf, and set it up at a site for worship, but then announced a festival to the LORD, the same LORD that Moses had gone to meet up on Mount Sinai.

It seems that the calf wasn’t really meant to be a replacement for God, it was meant to be a replacement for Moses.

The calf was more exciting than Moses. It was present while he was absent. It offered them a chance to perform tasks and religious ritual. The calf relieved anxiety and boredom. It told them that everything would be OK, and it gave them agency to be able to improve their situation without having to wait for Moses endlessly in the wilderness.

And so it says that the people, “rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” And it seems the the word that is translated here as “to play” or “to revel” has a sexual connotation. It is very likely that this is referring to sexual orgies, which were quite common in Canaanite religious practice in those days.

Who says worship can’t be fun? Am I right?

This is really interesting. Because this means that Aaron and the people thought they could worship God while ignoring God’s plan. They thought they could create a world of their own choosing, a world that was more psychologically safe for them, a world of bulls and strength, a world of wealth and fertility and sexualized religious rites. A world where they could make God in their own image.

And we can relate to this, can’t we? Because we, too, like to be entertained. We, too, believe that we can follow the God of Moses and Jesus while also conforming ourselves to the practices of the culture around us. We think we are Christians, followers of Jesus, inheritors of the promise, lovers of God. But where is the evidence in how we spend our time?

If I were to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I would say I spend probably two to three times more time watching streaming TV than I do reading the Bible and participating in worship. If I were to count all of the entertainment activities that I engage in – TV, social media, games, entertainment masquerading as “news” – the ratio would be much worse.

Are you in the same boat as me? Am I an outlier? Are the rest of you spending more time in prayer and Bible study than you are in entertainment? If that’s the case, then praise God, and pray for me!

But I don’t think so. I think most of us are a lot like the Hebrews in the wilderness. We’re in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory. We’ve been forced out of the familiarity of Egypt: America-as-usual. We’re looking for anything to hold onto. 

In these circumstances, we are very susceptible to the lure of the Canaanite culture around us. The golden bull of Wall Street. The orgies of Netflix and Facebook. Pouring our wealth and attention into frivolous things rather than the service of God and neighbor. “These are your gods, O Israel.”

We are a lot like the Hebrews. We think that we can embrace both God and the calf. Both the way of Jesus and the culture that surrounds us. We think that we can walk that line. We say, with the little girl from the El Paso hard and soft taco commercial, Por qué no los dos? Why not have both?

Why not?

Moses is here this morning to tell us that we cannot hide behind our entertainments any longer. The LORD is here this morning to say that we have to choose between the illusions of this world and the reality that God sees. We are called to embrace the discomfort and boredom that comes from living in the wilderness with God. Because that’s what it means to live as finite creatures in the real world.

George Fox is here with us this morning, too. The early Quakers had something to say about entertainment and distraction. 

A lot of us today are familiar with the Peace Testimony, and the values of simplicity, equality, integrity, stewardship, community, and so on. But the old Quakers had a lot more testimonies than these, and they weren’t general principles. They got very specific. 

One of these testimonies was their testimony against vain and worldly amusements. Early Quakers would not attend plays. They would not gamble. They would not participate in sporting events. They most definitely would not have watched Netflix.

Now, that’s not to say that we all need to stop watching any TV, or playing any games, or participating in any sports. The early Quakers weren’t right about everything. And you’ve probably noticed that this sermon is full of movie references. There is room in God’s world for creativity, art, theater, and fun.

But we can’t allow these things to distract us from the truth. We must not fall into the trap that the surrounding culture has laid for us, to draw us into entertainment as an alternative reality to be immersed in. 

God gave us creativity so that we could engage more fully with the cosmos that God has made, so that we could become co-creators with him. Unfortunately, this society that we live in has twisted our God-given creativity, using it to construct a false reality that numbs our hearts and blinds us to the truth.

God is calling us to turn away from the systems of entertainment that this world uses to keep us pacified. The rulers of this world have created a whole system of entertainment to keep us disconnected and powerless. They’ve forged a new sort of golden calf to provide us with false comfort, to keep us plugged into the Matrix and ignorant of the Desert of the Real.

Whether we like it or not, we do live in that desert. The golden trinkets of vain and worldly amusements have no power to deliver, only to distract and diminish.

This morning, we stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. We’re waiting to hear God’s word together. And even now, the temptation to distraction is with us. Our hands itch for our telephones, and all our false gods.

What would it mean for us to wait on Moses to come back down the mountain? What would it look like for us to reject the false idols of passive entertainment? What would it look like to turn away from syncretism and compromise with the surrounding culture; the voice that insists that we can follow God while also participating in the false worships of this world?

The good news is, we are not alone in this wilderness. If we will look up from our false gods for a moment. If we put away the screens. If we will turn off the stream of easy wins, dopamine hits, and fantasies, we will see real people – our brothers and sisters in Israel – standing here with us. We will see life as it really is, and say together with God who created it: “This is good.”

You Don’t Have to Be Afraid, But There’s Just One Catch

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 John 4:7-21. 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

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Beautiful, right? Beautiful.

But also potentially meaningless. An empty little inspirational quote to be mounted on our refrigerator, maybe. If we don’t know what John means by “love.”

What is love?

Is the love of God the same kind of love that I mean when I say, “I love green tea,” or “I love my friends from college,” or, “I love my mom”? What kind of love are we talking about here?

We mean a lot of things when we use the word “love.” It’s confusing. John knew that, so in our reading this morning, he gets specific. He says:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Wow. So this is the kind of love John is talking about. Not our love, but the love of God who chose to love us, even when we were his enemies. The love of God who sent his only son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

This love of God isn’t about a warm and fuzzy feeling. It isn’t about liking someone because of a characteristic they have, or because they are useful to us. It’s not about being attracted to someone else for anything they are or have done.

The love of God is love for enemies. It’s love for the very people who hate us and are prepared to kill us.

The love of God is a choice, not a feeling. 

From Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, we learn that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is true in physical science, and it is often true in human relationships, too. If I push you, you push me back. If you love me, I love you in return. That’s natural.

The love of God is nothing like that. God is the unmoved mover. His love is objective. It simply is; it’s not a reaction to anything. God’s love is a choice, completely independent of anything we have ever thought, felt, or done. 

God’s love is sovereign. Just as God created the cosmos through the word of his mouth, he has also shown his love to us by the word in his son, Jesus of Nazareth.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t earn this. But somehow, God loves us. He chooses us. He calls us. He redeems us from this mess we’re in. That is what it means that God is love.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

We’ve received this love from God, and if we stand in it, if we allow it to live in us, God will abide in us. God is alive in us when we choose to love.

For those of you who are Star Wars geeks like me, you may remember the scene from the Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker meets the Emperor. And the Emperor is taunting Luke, trying to convert him to evil. And he says to Luke. “Let the hate flow through you. … Your hate has made you powerful.”

God is the exact opposite of the Emperor. God says to us, “Reject all hatred. Instead, abide in my love. Let my love flow through you. My love will make you powerful, even though it looks like weakness to the world. Jesus suffered and died for love, yet I vindicated him through the resurrection. Let my love flow through you, and I will vindicate you.”

Dwelling in Jesus’ resurrection, death has no mastery over us. We have “boldness on the day of judgment, because as [Jesus] is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”

We have boldness on the day of judgment, because love is the judgment. Love is the judge. Love is the measure of all things, and we have seen and known the character of God’s love in the face of his son Jesus Christ.

Perfect love casts out all fear. 

If we dwell in love. If we ground our lives in the love that raised Jesus from the dead. If we add our contingent ‘yes’ to the sovereign ‘yes’ of God. Perfect love casts out all fear. 

It frees us to see the world as it really is, and to love it as God does.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God’s love is not a feeling. It’s not subjective. It is bedrock reality. God’s love is how things really are.

God’s love – the love we see in Jesus laying down his life for us – this love is the truth. This is how God interacts with the world. It is the force that binds the cosmos together. The love of Jesus is how God’s creation exists. Everything else is an illusion.

You were conceived in love. So were Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. So was the person you most despise in the world. We were all conceived in love. That is how God sees us. 

God. So. Loves. The world. 

He loves us like a mom and dad love their little toddler who has fallen asleep in their car seat after a really nasty roadtrip tantrum. He loves us because he chose us. He loves us because love is who he is.

God calls us to love like that, too. Not because it’s who we are. Not because we love others by nature, much less our enemies. But we are called and empowered to love one another because God first loved us. John says:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sister also.

We can’t love God without loving one another. We can’t love God without loving our enemies. Just like Jesus loved us when we were busy nailing him to the cross. 

We have to love those who hate us. We have to love those who are threatening our friends and family, and destroying our world. We have to love them, because God first loved us.

Is that hard for you? It is for me.

Even in the best of times, we live in a rough and complicated world. Humans fight over control and status and resources. We hurt one another. We band together in our little tribes and cliques for protection. 

So it’s easy to hate other people. It’s totally natural. And when there are people who threaten us and those we care about, this hate is even reasonable.

These days, it feels like there are more people to be afraid of than usual. Our world is literally on fire, and at any given moment it can feel like at least half the country is our enemy.

This isn’t an accident. We are being intentionally primed to hate one another. By pundits on the news. Ads and posts on social media. Government leaders and celebrities. Neighbors who don’t wear their masks (Or maybe, you know, do that nose-sticking-out thing – don’t you hate that?). Even friends and family members are easy to hate when we disagree with them on important issues.

In this context, John has news for us.

First, here’s the bad news: 

If we hate other people, we can’t possibly love God.

But there is good news, too: 

Because of what God has done for us in Jesus, we have the power to be conduits for God’s love. 

We can choose to love each and every person who crosses our path. Not because we are so spiritually attuned or loving or generous, but because God first loved us while we still hated him. Living in his resurrection life, we can find the boldness to love even those who are hurting us, our country, and our planet.

What would it feel like to dwell in faith, hope, and love, and to feel the hatred and fear fall away?

How would this love transform our lives? How might our world change – what impossible things would become possible – if we loved one another?

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Is It Too Late for Berkeley Friends Church?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 12:1-9 and Hebrews 11:8-12. 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

A couple of years ago, Faith and I were living in Washington, DC. We had a pretty good life there. We both had work we enjoyed. Our kids had school and childcare that met their needs. We loved our home and had some good friends. We felt comfortable.

We were at rest in our lives, but we were uneasy in our spirits. As well as things were going for us, we felt a yearning for more. More life. More spirit. More of God’s presence leading us, guiding us, flowing through our words and actions.

Even when everything rational told us that we should feel full, something gnawed at us, telling us we were empty. Our feet were firmly planted, but we could sense that God was calling us to take another step.

So when Dorothy Kakimoto reached out to us, asking us if we were open to exploring coming to serve as pastors at Berkeley Friends Church, we were ready to have that conversation with you. And as it became clear that God was clearing a path for us to join you here in California, we were prepared to embrace that invitation.

It would have been easy to resist that call, to turn away from the opening. There was a temptation to choose the easy, safe path – to continue doing the things that were mostly working and hope for the best. But we could sense that, in the words of Frank Herbert, “that path leads ever down into stagnation.” We could be safe, or we could be faithful; we had to choose.

In our readings this morning, we hear about Sarah and Abraham – back when they were still called Sarai and Abram. They had a choice to make. On the one hand, they had their safe, stable, predictable life in Haran. That’s where their family was, where they had gained their wealth and security. But they heard God calling them to set out on an adventure.

God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Go from everything that you’ve ever known. Go from those things that make you safe and comfortable, into a place you’ve never seen. Go, because you can trust me. Go, and I will be with you. I will bless you in every way. Go, and all the families of the earth will be blessed, too.

That’s a big leap of faith for anyone. But especially for Abraham and Sarah. Because they were very old, and they had no children. As far as they could see, their family had no future. They thought they were the end of the line. Yet they could hear the call of the Spirit of God. They felt the hunger for more. They could sense that there was a great adventure that they were being invited into.

God told Abraham and Sarah to go, and they went. They went out of the land where they had lived their whole lives, into a new place. The Lord showed them where their descendents would someday live – not as a wandering family, but as a great nation. 

And here’s an interesting part. They got to pitch their tent in the promised land. They got to drink from the rivers and eat from the fruit trees of Canaan. And while they camped in this land, God promised them that it would someday be a homeland for their family.

But then God called them to keep moving. It says that, after building an altar to God in the land he had promised, Abraham moved on. First to the east, and then south towards the Negeb. Abraham and Sarah had taken the big risk, and they had seen the promised land. But now they had to keep moving, because the promise was not only for them, but for all their descendents, for the next generation and on, and on.

I see this story in my own life. I see how God has called our family to uproot and travel to a land we don’t know, so that we will be blessed, and others will be blessed through us. I know that we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but we are on the path. We are living the adventure, with God leading us day by day.

We had something good in Washington, DC. We got to pitch our tent there, and we ate some of that promised-land fruit. But God wasn’t done with us. We had to keep moving, to cooperate with the grander, more beautiful vision that God has for us. 

If we wanted to be faithful, we couldn’t cling to our own comfort; we couldn’t accept just getting by. We had to let go of our own personal experience of the promised land so that we could become a blessing to the world. Because the promised land is not just for us; God wants to invite the whole world. God is giving us a hope and a future beyond our own little family as we know it today. God is expanding the circle, blessing all the families of the earth.

Can you see yourself in this story? Can you see Berkeley Friends Church? How are we, as a community, like Abraham and Sarah? Can we hear God calling us to a new adventure, a risky path of going where God calls us and discovering the promised land where God will lead us? Could God use Berkeley Friends Church to bless all the families of the earth, just like Abraham and Sarah?

I believe so. Because we’re a lot like Abraham and Sarah. As a community, we’re wealthy. We’re successful. We’re comfortable. We’re old. And, let’s admit it: we’re afraid that maybe we don’t have a future.

Abraham and Sarah thought that their family would die with them. That they would have no children to carry on their story. They were living their lives in a defensive crouch, waiting for the end.

So it must have come as a big shock when they discovered God calling them into a new adventure. At the age of 75, God was telling them, “Go! Try something new! Take a big risk, and I will walk with you. I will bless you. I will give you life, a hope and a future.”

Where did they find the courage to do this? What vision did they see that energized them to set on this long journey – a journey that still to this day is not over? 

The author of the Book of Hebrews says that Abraham and Sarah perceived something that no one else around them could. They experienced a hope that, at the time, must have seemed totally unrealistic. But on the basis of faith, they acted. They took the big leap and found that the God who spoke to them was trustworthy. 

God filled Abraham and Sarah with a powerful vision. He gave them eyes to see the future glory of God’s kingdom. A chain of events that God would use them to set in motion. A family history that would culminate in the savior of the world, Jesus Christ. 

And so in this hope, they set out on their great adventure. Hebrews says that they “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” They knew that they would not personally reach the end of the story, but by faith they knew how the story ended.

Even more than Abraham and Sarah, we know how this story ends. We know that the Lord Jesus has sat down at the right hand of the Father. We know that, in spite of all the terrible shakings we are witnessing right now, that the God we worship created the entire cosmos, and he sees ahead to the end. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

This is the reality that Abraham and Sarah experienced, leaving their home in Haran thousands of years ago, back when the Middle East was still the Fertile Crescent. This is the faith, hope, and love that gave them the courage to risk abandoning everything they knew – even in their old age – to embrace the great adventure that the Spirit whispered in their hearts.

Do you hear that whisper? What is the adventure that the Spirit is beckoning us to discover together? What are the risks that we must take, the safety that we must abandon, to be reborn in our descendants and become a blessing to our city, our nation, our cosmos?

You are not an accident. We are not an accident. It’s not random coincidence that we’ve been drawn together at this point in history. God has called us to be Berkeley Friends Church, to be this particular community in Jesus Christ. The Spirit has called each one of us here. God has a purpose for us, and he is ready to guide us together.

2020 is a time of shaking, the likes of which we’ve never experienced. In times like these, it’s natural to want to retreat to the beforetimes. It can be tempting to say, “Oh, boy – I’ll sure be glad when this is all over. When the pandemic ends, we get a vaccine, and we can all go back to the way things were before. Lord, take me back to 2019!”

There’s no going back to 2019. Things will never be like they were before. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s a good thing. We knew in 2019 that our community needed a change. We knew that God was calling us to something deeper. We had that hunger that Abraham and Sarah experienced, that deep desire for more of God, more of his life and power and spirit in our lives. We wanted more, and we knew the status quo couldn’t get us where we wanted to go.

Well, good news: The status quo is gone. 2020 has swept all of that away. We are in brand-new, uncharted territory. We don’t know what comes next. All we do know is that we serve a God who sends us out. We serve a God who invites us into the risky path of vulnerability, discovery, and adventure.

We stand with Abraham and Sarah on the border of Haran, looking out at the road ahead. We stand with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee as he calls our name. We stand with the apostles, as the Holy Spirit fills the whole house and joins us into one body, one community. Together with all the saints, we “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Do you hear that voice? Do you hear the call? Do you feel the hope breaking through the fear? Are you ready for the adventure?

The years to come will not be like those that came before. Our community will change in ways we can’t even imagine right now. This is a good thing. We are blessed – and God will make us a blessing to the world.

Let go of your fear. We don’t have to die without descendants. God has given us a future. The future will be different. We will have to change. But God will care for us. Open yourself to the adventure. God wants to bless us and make us as numerous as the stars.

Say “yes” when God says “go.” Say “yes” to God’s adventure. Say “yes” to the stretching and struggle and upheaval that stands before us. Because we will pitch our tents in the promised land and eat from the fruit trees there. We will set up our altar and give praise to God in the land where he is leading us. We will journey onward, led by the Spirit and trusting in Jesus to prepare a place for us. There is a home for us, and many are yet to be gathered.

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)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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.

There Are No Heroes in the Kingdom of God

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

Jesus is like that. Surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not who Jesus is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you love him?

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

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

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

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

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

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

Do you love Jesus? Feed his sheep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let go. Let God. “Feed my sheep.”