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“Go Ahead, Throw Your Love Away” – Or Why Love is Greater Than Ideology

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/23/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 14:3-9. 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

This morning’s scripture reading provides a glimpse into Jesus’ world right before everything falls apart. A moment of peace before the storm. This is right before the beginning of Passover. A couple of days before the last supper. Before Jesus’ desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before his trial and crucifixion.

In this tender, pregnant moment, Jesus is at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Bethany was a place of safety and refuge for Jesus. It was his home base. This is where his truest friends lived. After his tumultuous visit to Jerusalem, with the cleansing of the Temple and public debates with the priests and scribes and Pharisees, Jesus retreats to Bethany to be with people who truly knew him and loved him.

It says that Jesus was staying at the house of Simon the leper. This location underscores the upside-down nature of Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom he proclaims. Jesus and his disciples made forays into the realm of the wealthy, the powerful, the respectable – but their true home was in the desolate places, on the margins, in the homes of those who the world judged to be unworthy, unclean.

And it says that they were seated together at the table, enjoying a moment of peace and friendship, when a woman entered the house, bringing with her an alabaster jar. This woman moved boldly. She did not ask permission. She touched Jesus, and poured expensive perfumed oil over Jesus’ head.

Some of the disciples seated around the table reacted immediately, with hostility. “What are you doing? Who do you think you are? Why are you wasting this precious ointment, which could have been sold for nearly a year’s wages? What you just poured on Jesus’ head could have been better used to feed the hungry and clothe the poor!”

These disciples had a point. This woman had just squandered wealth in an outrageous fashion. Wouldn’t it have been more loving – and more in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching – to sell the costly ointment and give the money to the poor?

How many of us, if we were there, might have responded in the same way? “We need to be fiscally responsible. We can’t just be burning money like this. We need to steward our resources wisely.”

We might have been surprised, along with the disciples, to find that Jesus didn’t share our point of view. Quite the opposite. Jesus said, 

“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Jesus understood that the disciples were not basing their objection to the woman’s action in real agape love for other people. It was about power. It was about control. It was about establishing themselves as an in-crowd – people who followed the rules and obeyed the commandments of Jesus. 

Jesus had said, “sell what you have and give the money to the poor,” so now those were the rules. The apostles sought to follow this new law of Jesus to the letter, and through their obedience to it, they hoped to become masters of the law. Like the scribes and Pharisees, their instinct was to turn God’s word into a legal code to be parsed. They saw the law of God as a source of social cohesion and power.

So when they rebuked the woman, it wasn’t about love; it was about control. It was about putting the woman in her place. This woman who dared to get close to Jesus, to touch him, to get into this intimate space with Jesus that his core disciples thought was only for them.

Jesus sees the insecurity and gate-keeping of the disciples. He sees how they are already beginning to turn his teaching into just another law to be parsed and bounded by human tradition. He looks around at his disciples, and he doesn’t see love for enemies and the child-like trust that he has been teaching. He sees the will-to-power of the men closest to him. He sees that they are already becoming like the priests and religious leaders who are about to kill Jesus.

If the disciples fail to learn this lesson – that God’s kingdom is not a law but a relationship of love with Jesus – they will end up building a new religion on top of Jesus’ words. They will construct a religion just as soul-destroying as the power politics of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees in Jerusalem.

But there is reason for hope. Because not all of the disciples are so blind. This woman, despite being outside of Jesus’ inner circle – or perhaps because she is – has found the way into the kingdom, the narrow way that leads to life.

Jesus saw to the heart of the woman’s action. He perceived the prophetic spirit that has guided her act of service. This act of anointing is a sign from God. The word “Christ,” after all, literally means “the anointed one.” Anointing with oil is a seal of messiahship. Jesus had already been anointed with water and the Holy Spirit at the river Jordan. Now he was being anointed with oil for burial. This anointing prepared him for his coronation on the cross.

Based on their reaction to the prophetic action of the woman, it seems that many of Jesus’ closest friends had lost sight of what Jesus was truly here to do. The kingdom of God had become an abstract idea for them, because human beings had become abstract for them, too. 

For some of the disciples, “the poor” had become an idea. An ideology. Love for the poor and the marginalized had become a theory rather than a relationship with real flesh and blood. In the famous words of Charlie Brown, they had come to say, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”

Because humanity, as an abstract concept, is a cause that one can build a whole power structure around. But people – actual human beings – are messy, and they get in the way of our ambitions.

The woman with her alabaster jar was messy like that. She broke into what the apostles assumed was their special space with Jesus. She interrupted. This woman disciple may or may not have had any grand vision of humanity, but she loved Jesus. She responded to the Spirit that told her to pour that precious ointment on Jesus’ head, regardless of the cost. The woman discovered holy immoderation, the foolishness of God that abandons obedience to the rules in order to be faithful to incarnate love.

This woman is never identified by name. She is simply “a woman.” And I don’t believe this is an accident. Theologian Ched Myers suggests that the woman here “represents the female paradigm, which in Mark embodies both ‘service’ and an ability to ‘endure’ the cross…” as well as care for the body of Jesus.

The apostles still don’t seem to understand where this story is leading. Mere days before Jesus’ execution, they still believe that Jesus is going to lead them to triumph against the authorities in Jerusalem and Rome. The men don’t seem to get it, but the woman does. In the midst of much theorizing and jockeying for power, she demonstrates her flesh-and-blood solidarity with Jesus, giving everything she has with no hope of return.

And Jesus says: Look. That’s love. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

How often are we as modern day disciples of Jesus just like the apostles in this story? How often do we make a new law out of Christianity, or Quakerism? It’s so easy to turn our faith in Jesus into a source of identity, a framework for justifying ourselves in our own eyes, and a justification for exercising power over others.

For most of human history, in most times and places, that’s been religion’s primary purpose: Identity, psychological security, and control. Knowing who we are, what our place is, and whether we are “ok” or not.

That’s natural. That’s what humans tend to do. But that’s not the faith of Jesus.

Jesus invites us into the faith of the woman. The faith that abandons everything to show love to real people. Not abstractions. Not categories. Not ideologies. But real flesh and blood. People we know and touch and pour out our lives for.

As Christians – and particularly as Christians in the Quaker tradition, with a strong emphasis on social justice as central to the gospel – we are at great risk of turning social justice into an ideology in the same way that the apostles did in this story. Especially now, in this age of social media, cable news, and constant bombardment by corporate and political advertising, we are in danger of loving humanity but hating people when they get in the way of our program.

But there is another way of seeing. There is an alternative to the prison of ideological thinking. We can receive Christ’s call to social justice by embracing the way of the woman, pouring out everything for the love of the real, flesh-and-blood people around us. We can release our hunger for victory and self-justification, and pour out our lives for love. 

Just like Jesus did.

Even In Our Grief, The Kingdom of God is Here

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/28/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Revelation 4, 12:7-12. 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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The week after George Floyd was murdered, I heard a lot of people saying things like, “this week has been a long month.” This resonated with me. That week was a long month, and this year has been a long decade – and we’re only half way through!

Remember January? That world we lived in seems like another time and place. Back then, we could go to work and school, and go to the grocery store without wearing a mask. We could go to playgrounds and parks. We could travel. We could go to church in person, at the meeting house, and eat delicious snacks together at fellowship hour.

Back then, we could imagine, we could hope that our political process might bring us some economic justice. We could dream that the status quo might be able to maneuver to address the civilization-ending threat of the ecological crisis. Back then, many of us white people could comfort ourselves with illusions about the state of racism, criminal justice, and policing in our country. We could tell ourselves that the problem was Trump, and that once he left office America could go back to being a pluralistic, post-racist society. Just like we wanted to imagine it was under the Obama administration.

This year has been a long decade. It’s been a season of plagues – immunological, economic, ecological, and cultural. In the last four months, we here in the United States have watched our already very fragile civil society shattering. We here in California have become part of the Western States Pact – a grouping of US states that have been coordinating a response to the pandemic in the absence of any meaningful federal leadership.

We’ve seen armed men take to statehouses. We’ve seen nationwide protests, and a police response that is nothing short of criminal gangsterism. We’ve seen our national institutions stretched to the breaking point, and – in the case of the police – losing their moral authority altogether.

This year, this decade, this century, has shattered so many of our illusions. We wanted to believe we were good people. We wanted to believe that we belonged to a society that – despite having problems and room to grow – was fundamentally just.

But war broke out in heaven.

War broke out in heaven. In the realm of the spirit, in the realm of how-things-really-are, we have entered into struggle. The dragon, that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world, has been thrown down. He has been defeated, and his angels have been thrown down with him. There is no longer any place for them in the heavenly realms.

We are in a spiritual warfare now. We can see this war. We see it in our streets and in the halls of power. Sometimes we even see it in our families and our friendships. It feels like the world is being ripped apart by this war that started in the heavenlies and has spilled out into our lives on earth.

The writer of the Book of Revelation knew this struggle intimately. The apostle John lived in a world dominated by violence and brutality, an empire in which the followers of Jesus were routinely threatened, mistreated, and even murdered. He lived in an empire that nailed Jesus to the cross, and did not hesitate to do the same to his disciples.

John wrote his Apocalypse in the midst of this struggle. John was incarcerated and exiled on the island of Patmos for his faith. And he was one of the lucky ones – for as far as we know he was probably the only one of the twelve apostles to die from old age, rather than as a martyr. Still, John was having a hard time. Not only was he being persecuted, he had lost all his best friends, and was being forced to watch the continued suffering of his precious brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yet in the midst of all this pain – even as John watched the community of Jesus followers being brutalized by authorities throughout the Roman Empire – he wrote the Book of Revelation as a message of hope. It’s a message of reassurance, that – in the words of George Fox – “the power of the Lord is over all.”

The Book of Revelation has a pretty bad reputation these days. It’s known by many as a book of wild-eyed prophecies about the “end times,” and how God will cause cataclysm across the whole world before he brings history to an end. It’s been used by fanatics and cultists to justify all kinds of horror. And in recent decades, mainstream charlatans and false prophets like the authors of the Left Behind series, have used John’s Apocalypse as a basis to deny the goodness of the world God created, and sell Christians around the world on a vision of heaven that involves the destruction of the earth.

This anti-earth vision is exactly the opposite of the truth. The truth is that “God so loves the world [that is, the created order, the whole cosmos] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God created this world we live in. God loves it. And God is determined to redeem it. This is God’s will, and he has the power to accomplish it.

This is the underlying message of the whole Book of Revelation. No matter what you’ve heard about it. No matter what some obnoxious Christian or some angry skeptic has told you, the Book of Revelation is about God’s unstoppable love. It’s a message that we need to hear today, as we face an empire even greater than Rome – as we face a social, economic, and ecological threat that is even more global than the one seen by John’s generation.

In the fourth chapter of his Apocalypse, John describes a vision of what God looks like. Enthroned in heaven. Surrounded by elders who praise him and strange beasts who sing his glory. This is the God of the burning bush and the tent of meeting. This is the God of Elijah and Jesus. This is God almighty, the everlasting and unshakable. He is worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because he created all things. Everything that exists has come into existence through his will.

And yet, things aren’t right. Everything’s all messed up right now. We humans have lost our way, and we’ve brought down the whole creation with us. How could this have happened? How did we fall so far? How did we go from being God’s image-bearers, to becoming the violators and destroyers of God’s good creation?

John tells us that we got here through the war that broke out in heaven. The war that the dragon and his angels fought against God. They sought to break everything that God had made. To destroy all authority, goodness, humility, and love. They fought against God and his angels, and so they were thrown down to the earth.

That’s where our struggle is taking place. Here on earth.

Just to be clear, this is all metaphor, and the apostle John surely understood it as such. The Book of Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic literature, which uses wild imagery – beasts and dragons, bowls and vials, strange creatures and angels – all of which symbolize deeper spiritual reality. We have to take these texts seriously, but they were never intended to be taken literally.

To understand John’s Apocalypse, you have to know something about how people in the first-century Roman Empire viewed the world. The ancient worldview was rooted in a view of the cosmos that was essentially three-layered – you had the heavenly realms, the earth where we live, and the underworld, where dead things went.

The heavenlies was where the real action was. It was the really-real, the behind-the-scenes look into what is truly occurring in our world. If any of you ever studied Plato in school, you’ll remember that he taught that everything in our world is essentially an imperfect copy of the perfect forms found in the heavenly realms. The ancient world thought in these terms, and the Book of Revelation takes this worldview as a starting point.

So when John takes us on this tour of what is happening in heaven, he’s not necessarily doing a literal and systematic cosmology. Rather, he’s using powerful imagery, coming from the world of forms – the heavenlies – to show us what is really happening in our world of flesh and blood.

It’s in this light, as an expression of the really-real, that we should hear the words of the loud voice from heaven in the fourth chapter of Revelation. That voice says this:

Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”

Now has come the salvation and the power. Now has come the kingdom of our God. Now has come the authority of his Messiah. It’s all happening now. Despite all the confusion and suffering and death, despite all the claims of the rulers of this world, who want us to believe that they are in charge. Now has come the kingdom of our God.

The enemy of our souls – that old serpent – the corrupter of the just society that we long for – he has been thrown down. Defeated. The power of evil, hatred, and death has been conquered in the heavenlies, in the world of the forms, the truest of the true. This is what’s real.

The battle still rages here on earth. But through our faith in God, we know how this story ends. Still, we’re going to have to go through the full process of redemption before we can claim the ultimate victory that Jesus won through his life, death, and resurrection.

As things stood for the early church, and as they stand now, we are seeing the consequences of the war that has taken place in the heavenly realms. It’s bad. “The devil has come down to [us] with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.” People are hurting. Dying. It’s right for us to ask where God is in all this.

John has a response to our shared cry of grief. His message to us is that God is on his throne. That now has come the salvation and the power, the authority of God’s Messiah.

John calls us to remember and trust that God is utterly powerful, supremely in control. As followers of Jesus, we can see what the people of this world cannot perceive: that the battle in the heavenlies – in the realm of the really real – is already won. The struggle that we face here on earth is just an echo of what has already taken place through God’s action in Jesus Christ. We have already conquered through the blood of the Lamb who was slain.

This is the perspective that the author of the Book of Revelation wants to ground us in. John’s Apocalypse is all about seeing through a world that is falling to pieces. It’s about seeing through this time of crisis, destruction, and horror, to perceive the spiritual reality that lies underneath. It’s about recognizing the role we have to play, as peaceable and fearless followers of the Lamb, in consummating this final struggle for the liberation of the whole cosmos.

John reminds us that our role in this struggle will necessarily involve suffering. The war against the dragon and his angels is playing out on earth now, and he loves violence. But our ancient enemy can’t stand against the blood of God’s suffering servants. The spiritual forces of darkness are defeated by our willingness to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and to die for our friends.

This is the good news: That despite all the horror, violence, and hatred we see around us. Despite all the chaos, God is in control. He always has been. His victory was never in question. But as followers of Jesus, we have a part to play in bringing God’s vision of mercy and justice to fullness on earth.

God loves us. He is beautiful. He is the truth. And he sits unshakeable on his emerald-rainbow throne. “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

God’s love is all-powerful. Nothing can separate us from it. God’s creativity is unstoppable, and we can participate in it. Trusting in God’s utter faithfulness and power, we can find the courage to walk in the vulnerable way of Jesus. Not fearing. Not living in denial or whistling in the dark. But carrying a candle lit by the Spirit, buoyed up by the confidence that our Father is the Light.

Jesus Wasn’t Nice. We Can’t Be Either

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/14/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 11:37-54. 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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Good morning, nice people.

I like nice people. I like people who make me feel welcome, heard, respected. I like people who are polite. People who show courtesy. They might even be nice enough to laugh at my jokes. That would be nice.

It’s nice to be nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. He was courageous and compassionate. He was loving and strong. But nice? Not really.

In our reading this morning, Jesus gets invited to the house of a local religious leader. A pious man. A wealthy man. A man well-respected in the community. The kind of man who would host a visiting Rabbi in his home.

Jesus isn’t nice to this man at all. In fact, he is downright rude to his host.

It all starts with not washing his hands before dinner.

Now, in our culture, we understand hand-washing as a hygienic practice. It’s about avoiding the spread of disease. And now in the age of COVID, it’s more important than ever that we practice hand-washing. To wash our hands regularly is an act of compassion, both for ourselves and the people around us.

But to understand our reading this morning, we need to lay aside our culture’s relationship with hand-washing, and step into the ancient near-Eastern culture that Jesus and his countrymen inhabited. This was a pre-scientific culture. They didn’t know about germs. So why did the Pharisees consider it so important to wash hands before dinner? Why was it so offensive that Jesus didn’t do it?

For us, washing hands is more of a public health concern than a matter of politeness. But I think that there are aspects of our culture that feel closer to the ancient near-Eastern practice of hand-washing. It’s a practice tied to ideas of inside and outside, clean and unclean, common and sacred. It’s about marking boundaries and showing respect.

When we moved to California last year, we noticed that there are lots of little cultural differences between Washington, DC and the Bay Area. One of the things we noticed was that many folks out here have the tradition of removing shoes before entering the house. It’s a nice way to keep the inside of the house clean, and it symbolizes a movement from the rough and tumble of the outside world to the protected, inside world of the home. Since moving here, our family has also adopted this practice. It feels nice.

So now I’m imagining that Jesus comes to visit our family for a dinner party. When he comes in, he knows that it’s expected for him to remove his shoes at the entryway. To wear his dusty shoes into our house, to possibly get dirt and mud on our carpet – that’d be a little gross. And honestly, it would be disrespectful of us as his hosts.

That’s exactly what Jesus does to the prominent local leader who has invited him to dinner. It says that “the Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not wash first before dinner.” The word “wash” here is the same Greek word for “baptize” – it was a ritual washing that pious Jews practiced before eating. It marked the boundary between the dirt and grime – the uncleanness – of the outside world and the protected – clean – space of the home.

By not washing his hands, Jesus was ritually defiling this man’s home and dinner table! Kind of like refusing to take off your shoes in the home of a family where it’s expected to leave shoes at the door. He was tracking mud onto this man’s carpet.

Why would Jesus do this? Certainly it’s worth the effort to be polite to your host, isn’t it? Why would Jesus choose to give offense in this way?

We know from other stories that Jesus knew how to negotiate social situations in ways that were courteous. He both received and provided hospitality all the time. Think of the woman at the well, or the way Jesus fed his disciples with fish on the beach after the resurrection.

Jesus was socially aware. He was perfectly capable of being courteous and following the rules of hospitality if it was appropriate to the situation. So why did Jesus decide that now was a time to be inappropriate?

It seems clear from the reading that Jesus did not violate the rules of cleanliness by accident, or because he was just feeling cranky that day. Jesus broke what was ultimately a minor social custom in order to make a larger point about the character of the social order his host was participating in.

“Woe to you Pharisees!” he said. “You follow all the little rules. You wash your hands before dinner. You even tithe from your spice rack, to make sure you’re not doing anything improper. But your hearts are full of arrogance and hatred! You are unmarked graves that people walk over without realizing it!”

And when one of the other guests at the dinner – a religious scholar – pointed out, “Hey Jesus, chill out – you’re not being very nice,” Jesus doubled down: “Woe to you, too, bro! Your legalistic religion loads people with burdens that you aren’t willing to bear yourself. Sucks to be you! You build monuments to the prophets, but it’s your ancestors who killed them.

What’s more, you still live in the spirit of your ancestors – the spirit of violence, and oppression, and resistance to the truth. You enforce to the small rules while violating the most important commandments of God. You religious scholars are supposed to be making the knowledge of God available to everyone, but you’ve not only refused to receive this knowledge for yourself, you’re preventing others from going there.”

Jesus really is not very nice here. He can’t be. Because these are such nice people, such courteous, rule-abiding people, that nothing but the unvarnished, offensive truth can break through the pleasantries. These are such respectable folks, they’ve convinced themselves that their hatred and arrogance is holy. In their deception of those around them, they’ve deceived themselves most of all.

And it gets me to wondering: How would Jesus speak to us? How would he address my friends and family if we had him over for dinner? Would he charge us with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world? Would he charge us with the blood of the prophets that is being shed even now in June of 2020?

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those people who hear and proclaim the words of God. They are people who speak the truth, even when it results in a violent response from the powerful.

And the truth usually does elicit that kind of response. We’ve been seeing it in streets across America. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the thoroughfares of our cities to proclaim that black lives matter. They’ve broken the little rules of traffic ordinances. They’ve tracked mud into our house to get our attention. They’ve been very impolite, very loud. Because they had to be.

Politeness and propriety has failed to get the attention of the wealthy and white populations of this country that routinely benefit from police violence. The niceness of white moderates has cost countless lives. We can’t afford to be nice anymore.

We need to hear that violence and murder by the police is a daily occurrence that can no longer be tolerated. We must see the blood of the prophets, shed on the roads and on the sidewalks. We must witness the blood of the prophets who are being shot with rubber bullets, choked with chemical agents, and beaten with batons.

We must witness these things and ask ourselves: Who are we with?

Are we with the Pharisees, who follow all the little rules of niceness and cleanliness, while the prophets are being murdered? Are we the religious scholars who preach a gospel of rules and purity, while not living up to the deeper spirit of our creed? Are we those who celebrate and share quotations from Martin Luther King, while embodying the moderate white liberalism that undermined his ministry at every turn?

Following the example of Jesus, we must learn that sometimes propriety and niceness is a form of structural violence. The gospel of Jesus Christ will not be confined by the contours of propriety and good order. The kingdom of God will not be televised, and it will not take off its shoes at the front door.

It is not enough for us to be “good”, “respectable” people. We are called to be the prophets, the apostles, sent by God to deliver the good news of liberation and reconciliation that this bleeding world so desperately needs. And like all prophets, we may be called to suffer in this proclamation. Like our chief prophet, Jesus, we may be called to bleed for our convictions.

What would that look like? What does it feel like to be so liberated from complacency, hedged bets, conflict avoidance, and respectability, that we completely engage in God’s prophetic work of transformation?

We’ve gotten very good at cleaning the outside of the cup. But how often are we still full of greed and wickedness inside? How often are we submissive to the authorities of this world rather than to the kingdom of our God?

What would it mean for us to do as Jesus commands and “give for alms those things that are within”? What is within us? What is the darkness within us that must be redeemed? What must we surrender? How will our lives and community be transformed when God makes everything – even disruption and conflict – clean for us?

This morning, Jesus issues us a challenge: Will we be unmarked graves, or will we face down the power of death? Will we cower in fear while the blood of the prophets is shed in broad daylight, or will we risk the life and power that comes from Jesus? Will we be voices crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”

That would be nice.

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.

All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejoice, O daughter Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus has set his face like flint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It breaks his heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/11/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, & Mark 12:38-44. 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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It can be hard to believe, in times like these. Hard to believe in a God that allows a world of migrant caravans, smoke-filled skies, climate-fueled natural disasters, and a rising movement of authoritarian nationalism. It can be hard to believe in a Christianity that so often sides with the wealthy, the powerful, the violent and the arrogant. Based on what we see on the national and world stage, it can be a challenge to believe that human beings are capable of anything beyond self-interest, self-preservation, and self-deception.

There’s this spiritual weight that has fallen over us as a people. We feel the temptation to despair. Despair tells us, “things won’t get better – they’ll always get worse. People don’t change, what’s the point in trying?” As human beings, we don’t lose hope because life is hard; we lose hope because life seems to have lost all sense of possibility, all long-term meaning and legacy.

It was this kind of lurking despair that Elijah found when he encountered the widow in Zarephath. The land was dying. The food was almost gone. No one and nothing could save her or her child. It hadn’t rained in the whole region for years. The famine was severe. What more could be done? Maybe it was just time to give up and die.

When Elijah showed up a the gates of Zarephath, he found this widow doing the only thing she could do: gathering sticks to start a fire, to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. And as she stands there, gathering kindling to prepare the last of the food available to her family, a stranger appears. Begging for food. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”

I don’t know what the widow thought when Elijah approached her, asking for bread. I don’t know, because it doesn’t say in the text. But I know what I would be thinking if I were in her place. “Bring you a morsel of bread? Bring you a morsel of bread? My family is getting ready to starve to death, and you want me to give you food, stranger? Go sell crazy somewhere else – we’re all stocked up here!”

The widow is kinder than I might have been. Maybe because she’s afraid. She says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” That sounds familiar. Have you ever done that? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I know I have. “Sorry, man – I don’t have any cash on me.” Technically true, but really a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to help.”

And why should she, right? Why should she want to help? Generosity flows out of hope, and hope seems in very short supply these days. The widow tells the stranger, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare [the remaining food] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“That we may eat it, and die.” Things are getting real in Zarephath.

But then Elijah makes a promise – an outrageous promise: Give me some food, and God will take care of you and your son. He says:

“Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

Can you believe this guy? “Don’t worry lady – go make me some food right away. If you do, God is going to make your handful of grain and final drops of oil last for years!” Would you believe a stranger telling you this kind of stuff?

The text is very sparse on details. It doesn’t give us much insight into the widow’s emotional reactions to this whole conversation. It just says that she did what Elijah asked, and that God made good on Elijah’s promise. The prophet stayed with them for many days, and the three of them had enough to eat. The jar of meal never ran out, and the jug of oil never ran dry.

The widow at Zarephath trusted in Elijah and his God, and that leap of faith – that leap of utter desperation – paid off. Elijah truly was a holy man, and God was faithful.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about some other “holy men.” In Mark 12, the important holy men of Jerusalem are demanding to know by what authority Jesus has disrupted the holy precincts of the temple by chasing out the money changers. In response, Jesus tells a parable, comparing the religious leaders to murderous thieves. They try to trip him up with questions about paying taxes, and the nature of the resurrection, and debates about the identity of the messiah.

At the end of all this, Jesus warns his listeners to watch out for these self-serving religious leaders, who live at the center of power in Jerusalem:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Elijah ate what a widow had to offer, receiving her food as an offering to God. And as a sign of God’s favor, God miraculously multiplied the meal and oil, saving the lives of the widow and her son. We see echoes of this story in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. When we offer up what we have to God, there is enough to go around.

The religion of the temple in Jesus’ time was of an entirely different character from the prophetic faith of Elijah. The widow’s gift to Elijah was a leap of faith, but tithes to the temple were a tax imposed by a wealthy elite. Elijah lived on the margins, fleeing the wrath of a corrupt king; the temple was the very seat of power.

In the traditional Jewish cosmology, the temple was the holiest place in the holiest land on earth. The story of Elijah and the widow takes place in the least holy place possible – among the gentiles in Sidon. The temple was home to the best and brightest; Zarephath was full of unclean outsiders who had nothing left and were preparing to die. The rulers of the temple demand religious devotion and economic sacrifice, but Elijah comes begging and offering good news to the poor.

The second part of our reading from Mark is the famous “widow’s mite” story. It says that Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched people putting money in. Lots of rich people came by and donated large sums. And then finally a poor widow came and put in a couple of copper coins – practically nothing. And Jesus says to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The most common reading of this passage is to interpret Jesus as praising the widow for her faith. While the other, wealthy, donors all gave out of their abundance, the widow gave in a self-sacrificial way. Through her willingness to surrender everything for her faith in the temple, she demonstrates the kind of risk-taking that Jesus wants to see in his disciples.

There’s a beauty in this interpretation, and I think it can be a legitimate way of thinking about the text on a certain level. But when we look at the context of this passage in the Gospel of Mark, when we look at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and all the struggles and debates that this action unleashed, the story of the widow’s offering starts looking less like a model of faithfulness and more like an example of economic oppression.

Superficially, it would seem that the widow’s gift at the temple has a lot in common with the widow’s gift to Elijah at Zarephath. In both cases, a marginalized, impoverished woman living on the edge gives everything that she has to live on. They both give it to holy men who claim to have a higher purpose for asking for the resources they need to live. But the holy men of the temple do not possess the same character as Elijah.

The widow at Zarephath took a leap of faith to feed a prophet on the run, a prophet being hunted by an abusive and unfaithful king in Israel. The widow at Jerusalem gave away everything she had to live on to satisfy the demands of an abusive and unfaithful temple system – men who “devour widows’ houses, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” The faith of Elijah relieves poverty and famine, but the temple’s tithing system exacerbates it.

Where do we find ourselves in these scriptures? Do we live in the faith of Elijah? The faith of the margins? The prophetic faith that stands with the poor, the widow, the hungry? Or have we been seduced by the spectacle and violence of the temple?

The religion of the temple is still very much alive in our world today. It is the faith of Wall Street, the faith of the Pentagon. The faith of Silicon Valley. It’s the prosperity gospel that tells us we all get what we have earned – that the rich deserve to run the show, and the poor deserve to eat their last meal and die. This kind of religion centers the people and institutions that already have a lot, and says they should be given more. This is the kind of faith that devours widow’s homes and for the sake of appearances says long prayers.

Jesus and Elijah offer us an alternative this way of empire. They stand in the prophetic tradition. The way of the wilderness, the revelation of the burning bush. Theirs is the way of utter dependence on God, the way of the cross. It’s a way of liberation. To walk with Jesus is to hear the voice of God calling to us on the tattered edge of empire, commanding us to say to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” The prophetic faith of Jesus turns its back on the center, the holy, the important, the wise, in order to embrace those who are rejected and despised by the world.

In days like these, when the skies are filled with smoke and refugees stream northward seeking refuge and safety – in times when political power seems bankrupt of moral authority – we are tempted to despair, to gather sticks so that we can cook our food and die.

In our hunger for a faith that can speak to our distress, Jesus and Elijah present us with two different paths we can choose. Will we put our faith in the God of Moses – who challenges oppressive structures and liberates his people from slavery? Will we walk in the faith of Jesus, who surrendered everything – his life, honor, and dignity – to open the door to healing and reconciliation?

Or will we pick the way of the temple? Will we be like the scribes, riding high on our own sense of moral authority? Will we place burdens on the poor and the marginalized that they cannot bear? Will we side with the economic and political system that is choking our planet and tearing families apart? Will we allow our hopelessness to congeal into cynicism? Will we seek personal advantage in a time of societal breakdown?

As followers of Jesus, we don’t have to guess about which path we are called to. Our God is the holy one of the wilderness. He stands with the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed, the migrant caravans and the child laborers who make our clothing and electronics.

Our God dwells with those who our economic system is crushing. On the cross, Jesus bears the suffering of the weeping parents and hungry children. In his resurrection power, he invites us into the ministry of reconciliation, turning away from the glitz and glamor of celebrity and power and toward the daily needs of those who have been cast away by our society.

Will we heed this call? Will we become like the prophet Elijah, approaching the widow at Zarephath for food, offering good news to the poor?

The prophet does not command obedience through their own wealth and power. Elijah did not come to Zarephath as someone superior and worthy of respect. He came as a homeless beggar. Like Jesus and the early disciples, he carried nothing with him but the clothes on his back and the good news of God’s salvation. Liberation for the poor, and justice for the oppressed.

In these times of darkness, when we are tempted to despair, Jesus and Elijah offer us a way forward. A way of life and peace. A way of releasing our fear and embracing trust in God. By serving those most in need – by embracing our place as humble beggars in the house of God – we can find our way through this time of drought and famine. Together with the unexpected friends that God will reveal to us, we might even find hope.

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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, & Mark 6:14-29. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

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