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The Way Forward Has Always Been Hidden In Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Easter in the Shadow of Death

A lantern next to a tombstone

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 20:1-18 and Romans 6:3-5. 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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Quakers have historically been skeptical of the liturgical calendar. The early Quaker movement made a point of throwing off as many of the dead forms of the liturgical state church as they could.

This made sense at the time. The establishment church used the outward form of godliness to justify violence and economic injustice. It propped up an oppressive monarchy. It stole from the poor via tithes. It oversaw the progressive concentration of land and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

So Quakers ditched the trappings of the Church of England. That included the bread and wine that the priests used to spiritually dominate and materially exploit the people. It included a water baptism that was used as a gate-keeping device – rituals used to threaten dissenters with damnation if they did not obey their earthly masters.

In the context of 1650s England, I think the early Quakers mostly got it right. The mainstream church had abandoned the clear teachings of Jesus. Even worse, they stood at the door, preventing others from entering into the kingdom. They denied the presence and power of the resurrection, pointing people to the dead letter and a landed institution rather than to the living presence and lordship of Jesus.

A lot has changed in the last 370 years. We no longer live under a monarchy. Our nation has no state church, and the power of formal religious hierarchies is at the lowest ebb in all of Western history. There is no tithe that we must pay or face a visit from the police. Every individual is radically free to worship – or not – however they choose.

As individual autonomy has expanded and the power of the institutional church has waned, Quakers have changed dramatically, including in our relationship to the liturgical calendar.

For most of our history, Quakers did not celebrate any holidays at all, including Christmas. Now, practically everyone does. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been developing for generations. For the last one hundred and fifty years or so, those of us in the orthodox Quaker tradition have become increasingly comfortable with many parts of the liturgical church heritage.

Today, Berkeley Friends Church celebrates Easter. We join with the rest of the global Christian family in remembering and celebrating the action that God has taken in Jesus. We testify together, in the words of the apostle Peter, that: “[Jesus was] crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

Jesus is risen from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He reigns forever and ever. He is here with us now, in his resurrection power.

This is the good news of the gospel. It is the good news of the Quaker tradition. This is the reality that men and women have struggled and died to proclaim over the last two thousand years. It is a gospel worth dying for, and a truth worth living into.

This Jesus whom we crucified, God has raised up. And all of us are witnesses. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is literally, immediately, tangibly present with us. He calls us by name.

This is why we celebrate Easter.

But I have to admit, I’m resonating this morning with the traditional Quaker skepticism of set days and times and seasons. Because despite the fact that the day called Easter falls on this date in the year 2020, I’m having a tough time feeling it.

The last forty days (not counting Sundays) has been the season of Lent. Lent is a time of reflection, repentance, fasting, and preparation as we look towards Easter. It’s a time to renounce all the distractions and fixations that have accumulated in our lives, and to return to a simple, sober awareness of God and his love – and the enormous need that the world has for that love.

This has been the darkest season of Lent I’ve ever experienced. A global pandemic is tearing through our human community. A series of primary elections and political battles have left me feeling drained, demoralized, and hopeless. The shattering of our country – politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually – feels almost total.

So this Friday, on the day we remember the death and burial of Jesus, it made sense. Remembering Jesus’ suffering on the cross felt alive and relevant to me. It feels like the whole world is in the shadow of the cross right now.

Easter is harder for me.

Today we celebrate the most essential witness of the Christian faith, the truth that brings us all together and defines our community: Jesus is alive. God has raised him from the dead. In an act of definitive liberation and healing, God has vindicated Jesus and given him a new life, a new body, a new way of being present in the world.

The resurrection is the gospel. It is God’s victory announcement over the powers of this world – over the sin and death that until now seemed inescapable, unconquerable. In Jesus, God has the victory, forever and ever.

But getting to the resurrection is a process. Because death is still a reality. We still live in a fallen world. If we had any doubt about that, Coronavirus, rising authoritarianism, abuses of men, women, and children at our nation’s border, and so many other desolations confirm it: We are not out of the woods yet.

And so simply jumping to Easter – simply saying, “Yay! Jesus is alive! Everything is OK! Hallelujah!” – there’s a falseness in that. A premature jump to Easter can be a form of denial, a form of emotional suppression, pushing down all the blackness and horror, rather than giving ourselves the space to grieve and process. This isn’t just psychologically unhealthy – it’s also not consistent with what we read in the scriptures.

I like the gospel of John, and I think that John’s account is at its best in its telling of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And one of the strengths of John’s account is that he does not rush through the resurrection. He tells the story of disciples working through their devastation, their disappointment, their grief. He tells the very human story of how Jesus’ friends have to engage with Good Friday and Holy Saturday before they can get to Easter Sunday.

For John, the Easter story begins “while it was still dark.” It begins with the distraught disciple, Mary Magdalene, discovering that the tomb is empty. It begins with two of the men disciples rushing to the grave and finding only burial cloths. It begins with the confusion and tears of Mary, as she waits beside the tomb, even after the other disciples have given up in confusion and gone back home.

This Easter, I’m having an easier time relating to the early morning disciples. The disciples who still didn’t know about the resurrection. The disciples who had lost everything, and couldn’t stop weeping.

I’m feeling close to Mary, who had lost her best friend. All she had left was Jesus’ body, and now even that had been taken from her. There was nothing left but weeping and pleading.

Mary is really the heart of this story. She’s the original apostle, the one who brought the good news to the Twelve. The other disciples ran off, but she stayed. She was present with her anguish. She didn’t try to escape.

And what’s especially interesting to me this morning is that Mary doesn’t immediately recognize the resurrection when she sees it. John says that she bent over into the tomb – she puts herself halfway into the grave – and she sees the angels sitting inside. But she’s so distraught, tears blurring her vision, that she doesn’t realize that the beings inside the tomb are angels.

Then she turns around and Jesus is standing there. But she’s so upset, and Jesus must look different than she expected, so she doesn’t realize who she’s seeing. She thinks he’s the gardener! And she begs him to give her Jesus’ body so that she can take it away.

“Woman, why are you weeping?”

Why are you weeping?

Why am I weeping? What is the body that I am clinging to? What is the corpse that I desperately want possession of? What is the attachment so great that it gets in the way of seeing Jesus in his resurrection?

When Jesus says Mary’s name, she knows instantly who is standing in front of her: Teacher!

And again, Mary wants to take hold of Jesus. But Jesus won’t let her touch him. “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

It seems cruel, doesn’t it? Just moments ago, Mary would have been content just to have Jesus’ dead body, and now the living Jesus won’t even hug her.

“Don’t hold on to me. Go back and preach the message. Because everything has changed. I am ascending to the Father.”

This is not the resurrection of Hallmark cards and opiate religion. This is not a feel-good moment. Even in the joy and glory of the resurrection, there is pain. There is loss. Things have changed. Jesus is alive, but he’s alive in a new way.

I want to be like Mary. I want to be a disciple who stays behind and remains present with the suffering. I want to be someone who doesn’t flee from the pain. I want to be a disciple who waits at the foot of the cross and holds vigil at the tomb. Because that’s what love looks like. And that’s where transformation happens.

But I’m also seeing that even a faithful friend like Mary can be confused. And it makes me wonder what I’m confused about right now. What am I not seeing? Who are the angels that I don’t recognize? Where is Christ in this horrible situation? Will I recognize him when he says my name?

It’s important for me to remember that Easter began while it was still dark. I don’t have to feel good. I don’t have to have worked through my grief. I don’t need to believe that things are going to be OK to wait beside the tomb. To wait on Jesus, even in the darkness. I’m discovering that mourning is a necessary part of Easter.

Because Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me. I haven’t ascended yet.” Jesus tells us that things have fundamentally changed. We can’t go back to the way things were before. And that’s hard. Because part of me wants to go back. To the familiar. To the comfortable. Even if it wasn’t that great.

The new is scary, and that means the resurrection is scary, too.

Paul confirms this in his letter to the Romans. All of us who have immersed into Christ Jesus have been immersed into his death. We have been buried with him by immersion into death, so that just as Jesus is raised by God from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life.

Like Mary, we have to bend down into the tomb if we want to see the angels. We have to wait and weep beside the grave if we want to see Jesus. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

In the words of William Penn: “No cross, no crown.” And as Francis’ favorite book – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – says: “Uh-oh! A cave! A narrow gloomy cave. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it!” We’ve got to go through the darkness before we can see the light. We have to experience the desolation and grief before we can be healed. There’s no shortcut.

So let’s be like Mary. Let’s be fully present with the heartache of our broken world. Because there are angels watching over us in this predawn darkness.

And the dawn is coming. God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father forever and ever. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is doing a new thing. He has become a new thing. And he will make us a new thing. A new creation. A new Jerusalem. An earth restored.

That is the promise. And the angels are already here. We may not recognize them yet, but the first fruits of the kingdom are already present in this dark time. The Comforter has come – the Holy Ghost from heaven, the Father’s promise given. So spread the tidings round, wherever we are found – the Comforter has come!

Jesus Christ is risen indeed!

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

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

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John the Baptist was a wild man. He was a prophet – a person who spoke the words of God. He was living in the wilderness and baptizing people in the river Jordan. They were immersed in water as a sign of their desire to follow God and love other people.

Jesus came to John, to be baptized with water.

And John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. Because John recognized Jesus as the promised messiah. God’s chosen one. The one who would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. It didn’t seem appropriate. He knew that he wasn’t even worthy to tie up Jesus’ shoe laces. He said, “You don’t need this water, Jesus. I need you to baptize me. Give me that baptism of spirit and fire.”

And Jesus agrees with John. He is the promised savior. He’s the one who will baptize with the spirit and fire. But Jesus still wants John to dip him in the Jordan river. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

I’ve been thinking about what that means. What is it about being immersed in water by John – participating in the ritual of his community – what is it about that action that “fulfills all righteousness”?

John the Baptist is a very important guy. The gospel of Matthew keeps circling back to him. In Matthew 11, Jesus says explicitly that John is Elijah. John is the prophet who is to come. Just like Moses represents the whole Jewish law, Elijah represents the prophetic tradition. And John is Elijah.

So this community John’s got going is the embodiment of the prophetic tradition. And Jesus, by receiving John’s water baptism, identifies himself with this community. He submits himself to it. He embraces it as his own.

This is confusing for John. He knows who Jesus is. He says to Jesus, “Who am I to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!” But Jesus says, “I want you to baptize me, because God is validating your message. You are a faithful servant of God, and you have prepared the way for my ministry. I embrace you, just as your work has created space for what God is doing in me.”

So they do it. John and Jesus go down into the river Jordan. John dips Jesus into the cold waters. And when Jesus comes back up and takes a breath, he’s breathing more than air. He’s breathing in the Spirit of God. They see the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, and lands on Jesus. They hear a voice that says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, based on what just happened here, what would you assume comes next?

Me personally, I would assume that the next chapter of this story would be Jesus joining John’s community. Maybe taking it over, as John steps out of the way and Jesus becomes the head honcho. Maybe Jesus baptizes John, and then takes up the prophetic mantle out in the wilderness. I’d figure that John would become a disciple of Jesus.

But that’s not what happens. John doesn’t become one of the Twelve Apostles, and Jesus doesn’t join John’s community. John has his own separate ministry and disciples up until his death.

Jesus doesn’t stay with John by the Jordan. Instead, he goes out into the wilderness on his own, and then heads back to Galilee – the region where he grew up. He starts his own ministry, gathers his own disciples, stakes out his own geographical territory.

Jesus clearly loves and respects John. But he leaves and does something different. Why?

In Matthew 9, John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him. They say, “Why are you doing things differently from John? We know we’re on the same side here, so why don’t you follow the same rules we follow and conduct your ministry in the same way that John does?”

Jesus’ answer to this is: “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. If you do, the old wineskins will burst and you’ll lose both the skins and the wine. New wine has to be put into fresh wine skins.”

That’s why Jesus had to leave. That’s why Jesus didn’t simply join John’s community and take over John’s ministry. John was the greatest prophet of the old order, but God was doing something new.

The whole prophetic tradition and community pointed to Jesus. John’s ministry paved the way for the Messiah. But now that he had arrived on the scene, Jesus had been called by the Holy Spirit to do something new.

In spite of all the love and respect he had for John – in spite of the fact that his own ministry would have been impossible without John’s faithfulness – God was doing a new thing in Jesus. He couldn’t be boxed in by the past.

Is God doing a new thing now?

What does it mean that the Spirit has been poured out on each and every one of us? What does it mean that we are being baptized into the same Spirit that Jesus encountered during his baptism in the Jordan? Is God doing a new thing?

The early Quakers thought so. George Fox, speaking to a church like ours in 1652, asked:

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?

Is God doing a new thing? Is the Spirit descending again today? Is the new wine being poured out into our hearts?

We say, the Bible says this, and Quakers say that – but what can we say? Are we children of light? Are we walking in the light? And what we say, does it come inwardly from God?

What does it look like to love our tradition, to respect our spiritual ancestors, to submit ourselves to the church that has taught us so much – and yet to have the freedom to do a new thing when God calls us?

What is the new thing? Are you a child of light? Do you walk in the light? What you speak, is it inwardly from God? Have you received the new baptism, that comes from Jesus?

Is God doing a new thing in you?

Christmas Isn’t a ‘Hallmark Moment’ – It’s a Revolution

Image of A Forest Road from Above

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/23/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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It’s been a really crazy week or two. This time, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s intense. Like a lot of us, I’ve been rushing to wrap up things at work before things shut down. Faith and I both have been trying to get all our ducks in a row before the baby comes, too.

The light is getting dimmer and shorter. It affects my mood. It’s been hard to get out of bed sometimes. I just want to hibernate. And to top it all off, our whole family has been sick with this cough. 

I’ve felt really out of control. Scattered. Walking through a haze of fever and coughing, trying to accomplish all my tasks, I’ve felt helpless. Like, “please, just let this year end. Let me get some sleep and I’ll come back and clean up all these messes in the New Year.”

I hate feeling like this. I hate the way all these external factors – the time of year, the light, illness – how all these things seem to govern my life just as much, or more, than my own choices.

I like to think that my choices matter. I like to feel like my decisions are the decisive factor in my life. I want to believe that if I make good choices, if I act wisely, then things will turn out the way I planned.

But that’s not the truth. That’s not the way life is. I’m not in charge. I’m not – in the words of the poet William Ernest Henley – I’m not “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” I’m not the protagonist of this story.

It’s the week of Christmas. It’s a time when we remember the birth of Jesus – God’s definitive and ultimate act of being present in love, grace, and judgment. It’s the moment when God intervenes in human history so urgently, so personally, that he becomes one of us. The Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us. 

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

God-With-Us.

In our scripture reading this morning, for some reason I can’t stop thinking about Joseph. The text leaves no doubt that he was a good man. A kind man. A righteous man. But he was a man, and I have to suspect that he liked to feel in control, just like I do.

He must have feared the feeling of being cut loose, unmoored, having all illusion torn from his hands. He must have been horrified to be shown how utterly powerless he was to direct the course of events of his life.

It says that Joseph was engaged to Mary. They were arranged to be married. But before the time arrives for them to come together, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Now, it says in the scripture that Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit.” But Joseph doesn’t know this off the bat.

What’s Joseph to think? Engaged to a girl. Not married to the girl. And the girl is pregnant!

There’s a lot that could be said here, but Matthew doesn’t go into too much detail. He just says that Joseph is a righteous man. He’s unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph plans to dismiss her privately. 

In other words, it’s over. Joseph is a good guy and all, but he’s not marrying this girl who obviously cheated on him and has the baby to prove it. 

And let’s be real, Joseph was probably really upset. We don’t know what his relationship was like with Mary when they were engaged, but it must have been totally humiliating to find out his fiancée was pregnant, and definitely not by him!

So Joseph’s life is shattered, basically. Everything he thought he knew just went out the window. But after an ugly cry or two, he eventually falls asleep, and he has a dream. He sees an angel, who tells him that the baby Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. This is God’s will! She didn’t cheat on Joseph at all! The angel says, “Go ahead and marry her, Joe – this is God’s child we’re dealing with. Mary is going to give birth to the messiah!”

And so Joseph does as the angel instructs him. He’s a righteous man. He goes ahead and takes Mary as his wife, knowing that she’s going to give birth to a child he had nothing to do with.

I don’t like feeling out of control. How much more out-of-control does it get than to see a vision of an angel telling you that your fiancée’s unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and will be the promised messiah who will save the nation?

Joseph was a human being. He had hopes and dreams. He had expectations. And I’m sure not a one of them involved playing step-dad to the son of God.

And yet here he was. God was short-circuiting his life, and he had to respond. He had to surrender the future that he had imagined for himself and for Mary. For his family. 

Joseph made the choice to welcome the unexpected. He made room for the potentially disastrous action of God in his life. And we know it cost him a lot.

Choosing to become step-father to Jesus, Joseph suffered humiliation. We don’t know what ended up happening to Joseph, he’s not mentioned again after Jesus turns twelve. But we do know that by the time Jesus is doing his ministry, people are referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” Not the son of Joseph. Just Mary.

That’s a tough one. I wonder if Joseph felt like he was surrendering his legacy, his future, his family, to make room for God. 

Do you think Joseph ever got angry at God? Did he ever wish things had been different? That his life had turned out the way he had imagined? Did he bear any resentment?

God gave Joseph a hard path. Joseph’s service to God was one that echoed many of the main themes of Jesus’ own ministry – sacrifice of self for the sake of loving others; obedience to the will of God rather than self-will; public humiliation; and being misunderstood and rejected, even by those closest to him.

Joseph was a strong man. He was a brave man. He was a fitting match for Mary, who would endure so much for the sake of the truth. Together as a family, they bore the burden of Jesus’ ministry. They raised Jesus, cared for him. And ultimately they had to stand by as Jesus turned away and pursued his own obedience to God.

The way of the cross is death to the self-will. It’s the end of the beautiful future we imagine for ourselves and our families. The way of Jesus, the way of Joseph, the way of the prophets is one of self-emptying, releasing control, and pouring out our lives for others. The way of the cross is surrendering our dreams so that the dream of God has room to manifest.

What does it look like for us to imitate Joseph? What are the ways you are being called to lay aside your need for control? Where are the scary places God is asking you to go? Who are the unexpected people that God is asking you to care for and love?

When we see that little baby Jesus lying in a manger, it’s beautiful. The precious little baby God incarnate. We’re tempted to become sentimental. To turn Christmas into a Hallmark moment. But Joseph is there to remind us that even here, even at the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, sacrifice is already present. 

The Word has become flesh and dwells among us. But if we are to hear him, we must become silent. If we are to make space for him, we have to get out of the way. 

We must become like Joseph, who overcame his own desire for control, legacy, a future of his own making. We must become like Mary, who made space within herself for God to dwell. We must become like Jesus, who completely surrendered himself to the movement of the Holy Spirit, saying “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”

Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 13:14-16 and Acts 11:19-30. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

The last time I preached, it was on Acts chapter four. We heard about how the apostles faced persecution at the hands of the religious authorities, but instead of being cowed and terrified, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with boldness. They preached the word of God without fear.

We heard about how the newborn church in Jerusalem abandoned the strict “mine” and “thine” of private property. They held all things in common. People who had lands and possessions, they sold them and shared. People who had nothing received what they needed. We heard about a man named Barnabas – whose name means “son of encouragement.” He was one of the first to sell a field that he owned and hand over the proceeds to the church, so that no one would go hungry.

In our reading this morning, Barnabas shows up again. And once again, we hear about violent persecution. We hear the struggle of the church, and its mission to preach the word of God with boldness.

A lot has happened between chapter four and chapter eleven. Miracles of all kinds. And perhaps the greatest miracle of all – Peter has a series of encounters with the Holy Spirit and with a Roman soldier named Cornelius. These experiences convince him that the kingdom of God is for all people – Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.

Now after Stephen was killed, a great persecution broke out that scattered the church throughout Judea and Samaria, but it didn’t stop there. The scattered friends of Jesus made their way all the way up to Phoenicia, which is what we think of today as Lebanon. And from there some of the disciples traveled to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean sea. And from there, others went to Antioch, in the southern part of modern-day Turkey. And wherever they went, they preached the word of God and the good news about Jesus, and new communities of disciples formed in these places.

But in Phoenicia and Cyprus, it says that the disciples only spoke to their fellow Jews. They went to the synagogues and preached the word of the kingdom, but they didn’t mix with the uncircumcised Gentiles. They were Jews, and they kept to their own kind.

Something changed in Antioch. As the disciples went along, the Holy Spirit raised up new believers, to carry on the missionary outreach. It was Jews from Jerusalem who took the word of God to Phoenicia and Cyprus. But by the time the disciples got to Antioch, at least some of the them were from Cyprus and Cyrene. These disciples were not interested in limiting the gospel to Jews. “They began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. [And] the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

When the church in Jerusalem heard about the great outpouring of God’s spirit taking place up in Antioch, it confirmed everything that God had been showing them through Peter and Philip and others – God had opened the kingdom to those who had formerly been excluded.

So the church in Jerusalem sent good old, trustworthy Barnabas up to Antioch to get a grip on the situation. And when Barnabas arrived, he did what a son of encouragement does – it says “he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” And it says that “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”

Now Barnabas gets excited, and he runs off to Tarsus to get Saul. And he and Saul spend a whole year together in Antioch, preaching and teaching – encouraging the new church that is emerging in this great city of the north.

And after Saul and Barnabas had been laboring there for about a year, some prophets came down from Jerusalem. One of them predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. And so the believers in Antioch took up a collection. They pooled their resources so that they could send relief to the church in Jerusalem, who the prophet foretold would bear the brunt of this coming famine.

This must have taken a lot of guts. Because the prophet didn’t say “there will be a severe famine in Jerusalem.” He said “the whole world.” That means there’s a famine coming to Antioch, too. Is this really the best time to be sending your money out to people you’ve never even met?

But this is the transformation that has taken place in the lives of the brothers and sisters, this new family of God that is emerging in the months and years following Jesus’ resurrection. Before, these people would have been disconnected – perhaps even enemies, because some were Jews and others were Greeks. But now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they have become more than friends – they have become one flesh, one body, one family. They support one another because the distinction between “us” and “them” has broken down. There’s no longer any separation.

They’re a body. Just like my stomach doesn’t withhold calories from my arms and legs, the church in Antioch doesn’t withhold their wealth from the poor and persecuted church in Jerusalem. They’ve become a family. In a family you don’t keep separate accounts; you hold everything in common. And that’s how the church is. They’re in it together. Profoundly. They’ve abandoned private wealth and security in favor of what Jesus called “treasure in heaven” and a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit. Perfect love has cast out fear, and the selfish human nature has been overcome by the resurrection.

All of this is possible because of the way God gathers his people. On the day of Pentecost. At the home of Cornelius, the Roman soldier. In the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit falls on us as in the beginning, gathering us into a new body, a new people, a new creation.

When Jesus was arrested and crucified, the disciples were scattered. But through the resurrection, God gathered them in Jerusalem. And the church was born, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thousands come to faith.

Then the disciples were scattered again, by the violent persecution that comes as a result of the church’s bold and faithful preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. Things got rough. Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. And it says that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” It was a bad time to be a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem.

This is a pattern throughout the book of Acts: The action of the Holy Spirit draws people together to become a body in Christ Jesus. This new life as God’s family results in boldness and non-conformity to the evil ways of the world around them. And this boldness causes a violent reaction from the people who are in charge, scattering God’s people to take the message even further.

The scattering part isn’t fun or glamorous. I doubt that any of the brothers and sisters at that time were saying to themselves, “look at the good thing God is doing by scattering us out of Jerusalem!” And yet, even though perhaps they couldn’t see it, God was turning the horror of their circumstances into the seeds of a new movement.

Gathered in Jerusalem, scattered to Samaria. Gathered in Samaria, scattered to Phoenicia. Gathered in Phoenicia, scattered to Cyprus. Gathered in Cyprus, scattered to Antioch. And on, and on, and on, in a network of relationships that we can’t even track.

Gathered at Firbank Fell, the Quaker movement was scattered like wildfire throughout the north of England, and quickly to the south. Scattered by persecution, the movement was spread to the Americas and the continent of Europe. God scattered them across the world – to preach the word of God to the Pope in Rome and the Sultan in Turkey. Scattered to listen to the inward voice of Jesus together with the Native Americans. The movement was scattered, and God gathered.

So what about us? Are we gathered?

Our community has been scattered. Our presence here in Berkeley, California is the result of many scatterings: Westward migrations. A series of Quaker schisms. And countless personal journeys that circled this meetinghouse on a map for each one of us.

Berkeley Friends Church is scattered. We’re an isolated congregation with our nearest sister churches hundreds of miles away. We’re a community scattered among the nations, a people seeking to follow Jesus in the midst of one of the most secular cities in the United States.

We were scattered for a purpose. We are here for a reason. Why? What is that reason?

When the first disciples were scattered to Samaria and Cyprus and Antioch, they were faithful in sharing the good news of Jesus. God used them to gather communities in the Holy Spirit, to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth.

When early Quaker ministers like James Nayler, Francis Howgill, and Edward Burrough, were scattered to London, they preached and taught. They held public meetings where they directed thousands to the voice of their inward teacher, Jesus. When they obeyed the voice of this teacher, they found brothers and sisters they never knew they had. They found themselves part of a new creation, the body of Christ. They were gathered by the Holy Spirit.

And us? When we were scattered to the East Bay, when you and I were called here, to gather as the church in Berkeley in the early 21st century… We what? What will be our story?

Why has God scattered us here? Who are the women, men, and children who need to hear the word of God here in our time and place? Who are the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers that we will discover? When will we be filled by the Holy Spirit and released from the fear that holds us back from complete obedience?

You are here for a reason. God has scattered us here for a purpose. What is it? And what price must we pay to receive it?

As we enter a time of waiting worship, I’d like to invite us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we might be filled. That we might be gathered. That all fear would be stripped away. That we would be left with nothing but love and knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry it out.

It May Already Be Too Late To Avert Climate Disaster. Where is God?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/23/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42. You can listen to the audio (beginning with the scripture readings; the sermon begins at 7:08). Or, keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

These past few weeks, there have been some realities that I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind. Unpleasant things that I wish weren’t true, that maybe I don’t even want to know about. But they’re real, and I bear some responsibility for them.

Recently, I’ve been painfully aware of the reality of the advanced stage that the climate crisis has arrived to. I’ve been grappling with a growing realization that we as a civilization have almost certainly already careened over the edge of the cliff that we have been speeding towards since before I was born.

There was a time when it was still possible to avert the consequences of global warming, to undo the damage that had been done and chart a better course. There was a time when we could turn it all around and make better choices as a species.

That time is probably past.

I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing we can do to address the climate crisis that we find ourselves living in. I’m not preaching despair – quite the opposite. But in the past few weeks I’ve allowed myself to acknowledge that we are no longer living in the period of time where the climate crisis can be avoided. It’s already here. And it’s going to get worse.

There’s just no getting around that. No matter how much responsibility we take in the present moment. No matter how heroic our efforts, we as a civilization have already set in motion a chain reaction that is wrecking havoc on the planetary community of life – humans, plants, and animals together.

It’s not clear how bad things have to get. It’s not certain how much of a difference we can make by changing our way of life as a species. But things are already, today, in 2019, very bad for the uncountable species that are being driven out of existence. The situation is already dire for millions of people who have been reduced to desperation and death by the consequences of our actions and inaction. This crisis is happening now. As a society, we have sailed off the cliff, and it’s not clear how far we will fall and where we will land.

So I have been processing this. I’ve been sitting with it. The end of our planet as we know it. The extinction of uncountable plants and animals species. The destruction of ecosystems and the transformation of our beautiful planet into a place that may be practically unrecognizable.

I’ve been sitting with this unfolding reality, and my sense of loss is immense. Rather than denying the reality of the situation, I’m allowing myself to grieve. Death is traumatic, and the world we’ve known is dying.

So I’ve been seeing this. Just seeing it. Not trying to run from it, or even rush to fix it. I’ve just been witnessing this unfolding tragedy. The reality of all this loss – loss that we’ve already experienced, and loss that is to come.

And in this process of bearing witness – as I’m just letting the reality of our situation sink in – I’m seeing the transformation of my country in a new light. I’m seeing the construction of concentration camps on the US/Mexico border. I’m seeing the large-scale detention of men, women, and children in conditions that are almost unimaginable. I’m seeing the suffering of families fleeing poverty, violence, and corruption in their countries of origin, only to fall into the hands of a regime who is prepared to torture them to send a message.

And it just hits me. This is all of one piece. These are climate refugees. The waves of immigration to Europe we’ve seen in the last decade. The caravans from Honduras. The desperate situation on our southern border and the willingness of our government to treat our brothers and sisters – little children – as if they were animals. We’re already seeing the birth pangs of the societal breakdown that’s coming.

It’s coming. The Day of the Lord is at hand.

As far as we can tell, the prophet Amos was the guy who invented that phrase. The Day of the Lord. And since the time of Amos, other prophets like Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Joel, and many others, have picked up on this theme.

Throughout the prophetic tradition, “the Day of the Lord” is a multivalent phrase. It’s not simple. You can take it a number of different ways. Depending on your perspective, the Day of the Lord might be something you look forward to. It might be good news. A time when God pours out blessings on his people. It’s the moment when God sets everything right and finally establishes his kingdom of peace, justice, and love.

That sounds pretty good.

But there’s another side to the Day of the Lord. And it’s this other side that Amos focuses on – spends almost his entire book talking about it.

Amos has an extremely gloomy view of the Day of the Lord. For Amos, the Day of the Lord is not good news for Israel. Because Israel has broken the covenant. Israel has chased after the false gods of wealth, nationalism, and state power. Israel has broken the covenant, and so in the prophecy of Amos, the Day of the Lord is a day of reckoning for Israel.

We all think we want justice. But God help us if we truly get it. Do we really want justice? Do we really want to be repaid according to our deeds? Israel of the 700s BC might think they do. They might think they’re doing grand, and God loves them very much. But Amos is here to deliver some very bad news. He says:

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,    

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

Whoa. Why is God so angry? Why would God abandon his people to slaughter like this?  How could God forsake the temple in Jerusalem, where his name dwells?

The reason for Israel’s destruction according to Amos is pretty straightforward: Economic injustice. The Day of the Lord is coming for those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” It’s coming for the rich, who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” – for wealth profiteers who game the market to their advantage while the poor can barely eat.

The Day of the Lord is coming for a society that enjoys wealth the likes of which the world has never known, but which concentrates almost all of that wealth at the top. A society in which three men possess more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. A nation in which little children are locked in cages, babies are taken from their parents, and hundreds of people are kept for days in standing-room-only cells – all for the “crime” of seeking refuge in the land of the Statue of Liberty.

The Day of the Lord is coming.

One thing that Amos says about that Day really stands out. Because it’s a little different from what we hear from some of the other prophets. Take Joel for example. For Joel, the Day of the Lord, in addition to being a day of great fury and judgment by God, will also be a day when the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. A day when God is fully present to all his children.

The Day of the Lord according to Amos – according to the prophet who coined the term, “Day of the Lord” – is a lot darker. Here’s what he says that day is going to be like for the people of Israel:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,

when I will send a famine on the land;

not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,     

but of hearing the words of the Lord.

They shall wander from sea to sea,     

and from north to east;

they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,     

but they shall not find it.

Wow. So, really, it’s the opposite of Joel’s vision, isn’t it? For Amos, probably the greatest terror of the Day of the Lord is the fact that the presence of God will depart entirely from Israel. God will hide his face. No amount of begging or pleading can change the consequences that are on the way. The verdict has come down.

So, like I said, I’ve been sitting with the high probability that the verdict has already come down for our nation. That God has issued judgment over us for the way we have desecrated the earth and trampled the lives of the poor. For the seas choked with plastic and the homeless encampments scattered throughout a city filled with millionaires and billionaires.

God is not blind to the torture of mothers and babies and fathers and teens and old people at the border. God does not turn his face away from the cries of our southern brothers and sisters seeking refuge from violence and poverty. Jesus wept for Lazarus, and you can be sure he’s weeping for those dying of thirst in the Sonoran desert. The Day of the Lord is coming.

And I have to ask: Has God turned his face away from us? Is our nation so irredeemably lost that God has given up on us, and committed to our destruction? Does God say to us, like he said to Amos:

The end has come upon my people [America];     

I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the [churches] shall become wailings in that day,”

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,     

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

God forbid! Lord, have mercy. Holy Spirit, don’t turn your face away from us. We need you more than ever.

Still, we have to consider the damage that has already been done, and the damage that we continue to participate in as citizens and consumers in this death machine. Given our behavior, we should not presume that God owes us anything.

I’m glad that Amos is not the only voice we’re hearing this morning. We have two other readings, and I think they help round out the reality of our situation as the church in the new Rome in the midst of the climate crisis. The first reading is from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. The second is a very memorable episode from the gospel of Luke, when Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha.

Let’s start with Colossians. I want to look for a moment at Paul’s description of who Jesus is – because it’s beautiful. In this passage, Paul says that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The word “image” here is the Greek eikon, where we get the English word “icon.” An icon isn’t just a picture of something, it’s a manifestation. Jesus is a complete and faithful manifestation of God. If we know Jesus, we know God. Jesus lacks nothing; “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

Not only is Jesus a complete and faithful manifestation of God, he’s also the source of the entire creation. Through Jesus, God created everything. There’s not a single thing – whether in the heavenly realms or in the material world – that wasn’t created through Jesus and for Jesus. Everything that exists hangs together – coheres – in him. He is the A to the Z, the beginning, the middle, and the end.

As if that weren’t enough, Jesus wasn’t only central to the creation of the cosmos. He is also the key player in redeeming the cosmos from the effects of sin. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

So, as Christians, we’ve been reconciled in Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus is not merely a past-tense savior who died on a cross so that we could live. He is risen. He is alive. He is present within us when we gather in his name. He is ready to guide us and lead us.

Because he is here with us, within us, among us, we can become full participants in his ministry of reconciliation. This is the mystery that Paul proclaims to the Colossians, and it is the mystery that lies at the heart of the gospel that we preach here in this community: Christ in you, the hope of glory.

So that’s the flip side. That might be the flip side to the words of the prophet Amos. The Day of the Lord will be darkness, gloom, and death. It is a day of judgment and dread, when all the hidden things are laid bare and exposed. But it is also a day of light, a day in which the presence of Jesus Christ is uncovered and he comes to teach us himself. Amidst the horror, there is hope. Amidst the judgment, there is the ministry of reconciliation, the presence of infinite love in the face of our friend and teacher Jesus.

Which brings us to Mary and Martha.

Probably most of us have heard this story a few times. This is one of those sort of “preacher’s pet” passages that has probably done way more than its fair share of sermon duty over the centuries. And that makes sense, because it’s such a good story.

Jesus goes to the house of Martha, and she welcomes Jesus and his compatriots in. And while Jesus is there, Martha is running around the house, providing hospitality, making sure there’s plenty of wine, and hummus, and whatever else the disciples need while during their stay.

Meanwhile, Martha has a sister, Mary. And Mary is not helping out. Martha has the (reasonable) expectation that her sister will help her with all of the hospitality work that goes into providing for Jesus and his entourage. But instead, Mary just plops down in front of Jesus and starts acting like one of the disciples. She sits there, listening to Jesus as he teaches, while Martha does all the hard work of making the trains run on time.

And so Martha complains to Jesus. She says, “do you see the way my sister is just sitting there, while I’m doing all the work to keep this party going? Tell her to get up and lend a hand!”

Jesus’ response is as simple as it is challenging. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

So, when Amos was preaching to Israel about how God was going to bring about their utter ruin and destruction, you might imagine that he was speaking to people who didn’t take religion very seriously. Probably too busy exploiting the poor and speculating on wheat futures to spend much time at the temple.

But what we see from Amos’ writings seems to point to exactly the opposite. The people of Israel in this time were extremely religious. At one point, God speaks through Amos, saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”

Imagine that. God saying, “I hate all your worship and hymn-singing. I hate your prayers and your Bible studies. I hate your after-worship potlucks, and your committee meetings.”

Why? Because all these things are meaningless without the practice of justice. No amount of service to the Lord can make up for a failure to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,     

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The people of ancient Israel thought they were doing what was expected of them. They performed the feasts commanded by the law, and they carried out the sacrifices that were required of them in the temple. But the testimony of Amos is that no amount of worship will make up for a life of injustice. And the testimony of Jesus to Mary and Martha is that no amount of busyness and productivity – not even in the service of good, important things – can make up for the life of listening and obedience.

It’s easy to get so busy doing things for God that we fail to listen and be taught by the living presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s so easy to worship an idea that we have about Jesus while failing to submit our lives to him and follow him as disciples.

No wonder that, when the Day of the Lord comes, Amos says that we’ll search in vain for the words of God. Many of us have spent so much time assuming we know what God wants, even in a time of extreme crisis we may fail to hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

The Day of the Lord is near. The climate crisis is happening. Our government is building concentration camps for the refugees. We stand potentially on the brink of war with Iran. Our future is very uncertain.

The Day of the Lord is near. Are we awake? Are we listening? Are we seated at the feet of Jesus, learning from him and obeying his voice? Or are we scurrying around the kitchen, trying to keep things orderly and under control?

In times like these, part of the good news of Jesus is that we don’t have to give into despair. Because we’re not in charge of solving the world’s problems.

In Jesus, God has already won the victory over sin, fear, and death. Through his resurrection, Jesus is present to guide us into the action we need to take. Not our own efforts, but Christ in us, the hope of glory.

That’s the gospel we proclaim. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid to face the world as it really is – no matter how dark our situation might be. Because we are not alone. In Jesus all things in heaven and on earth hold together. He is our peace. He is our leader. He is the Day of the Lord, and we can trust him.

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It Was Wind And Fire, Like A Tornado Hitting The House

What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/19/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text – and the first minute or so of the sermon is not recorded.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus says to his disciples over the Passover meal:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.

What does it mean for us to love one another? How can we love one another with the same love that Jesus loves us? A love that is bestowed, gifted, given freely and not earned. A love so powerful that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, while we still hated him and everything he stands for.

What does it mean to demonstrate that kind of love to one another?

In our reading from John this morning, Jesus says, “love one another.” He’s specifically telling the disciples how to treat each other – their fellow friends and followers of Jesus. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The love of Jesus is expressed in a special way among his disciples. It’s expressed in a special way among those who commit themselves to walking together in the way of his kingdom. It’s that communion love. It’s the love poured out in the Passover wine. It’s the body of faith, broken in the unleavened bread of the covenant.

It’s through this love, through this communion shared by the followers of Jesus, that those outside the fellowship will know that Jesus is here in our midst. A lot of people think that communion consists of performing certain rituals or consuming a special kind of food. But the communion of Jesus is the love of brothers and sisters in the empire of God.

His love is the wine that we drink as we sit across the table from one another. It’s the bread we break as we commit our lives to serving one another – the brothers and sisters that Jesus died for. It’s the water that washes the feet and leaves the whole body clean.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is how Jesus is glorified in the world. This is how human beings can know God. When they see how we love one another. When they see through our loving kindness for each other that Jesus Christ is risen indeed.

There’s this idea present in John, the idea of the redemptive community. It’s through the love of the Jesus fellowship, the church, that God’s kingdom can be known and experienced in the world. The church is a sort of new Israel. The kingdom of Israel existed as a nation of people following God in the ancient world. Now, in Jesus, the community of God – the church – has become the site of God’s saving work in the world.

It’s from this holy relationship, the communion of the saints, the love of the disciples, that God’s presence in the world is known. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we as the church have become the tabernacle of God. The place where God’s presence dwells in the world.

Just as the world saw the holiness of God in the set-apartness and peculiar obedience of of Israel, God is now showing his face through this community. Jesus becomes visible – he’s glorified as we love one another and obey Jesus’ call. The world sees him when we do his work of righteousness, peace, and justice in the world.

But who is this new Israel? Who counts as a member of this community of believers, this assembly, this church? Who are the people that Jesus calls us to live in communion with? Who are the friends of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world, the new tabernacle of God?

In the early years of the Jesus movement, it seems like pretty much everyone assumed that only Jews were qualified to be part of this new thing God is doing. After all, Jesus was a Jew. All of the early disciples were Jews. As far as we know, everyone who experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost were Jews.

The Jews were God’s holy people, everybody knew that. The disciples assumed that Jesus was specifically the Jewish Messiah. That didn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world. This helps explain why, in the Book of Acts, we read that in the very first days of the church, the Jesus movement was mostly limited to the Jewish community. It says in Acts 2 that the Christians in Jerusalem met in small groups in homes, and also worshipped at the Temple. That’s Jewish worship, with Jesus as the Messiah.

But even in these early days, the script begins to strain a little bit. There’s some doubt as to whether the good news of Jesus is just for the Jews, or whether others might be welcomed into the fellowship. As the church in Jerusalem begins to grow and gain a foothold, it comes under intense persecution by the local religious authorities. Some Christians, like Stephen, are even killed for their faith.

This persecution causes the church to be scattered out from Jerusalem, into neighboring regions. And Acts tells us that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.” The people in Samaria were really digging this whole Jesus movement, so after a while a couple of the apostles – Peter and John – came down to see what was going on. And after doing an evangelistic preaching tour in Samaria, they returned to Jerusalem to let everyone there know what had happened.

So as we know, the Samaritans weren’t proper Jews. According to mainstream Jews, they were theologically deviant and had a really problematic history. Mainline Jews looked down on them and viewed them as unclean. We hear a lot about this in the gospels when Jesus encounters Samaritans and even tells a story about a good Samaritan.

So anyway, it’s a little weird, but it turns out that these heretics out in the boonies of Samaria are receiving the word of God with great eagerness. This is quite unexpected. And, depending on who you talked to, maybe a little scandalous.

In that same chapter of Acts, we also get the story of how Philip – who apparently was an amazingly gifted evangelist – has an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Now, this is a person who is doubly rejected under the terms of the old Mosaic law. Because not only is he an uncircumcised Gentile, he’s a eunuch. He’s got no testicles. He’s ritually unclean and could never worship God properly according to an orthodox interpretation of the Torah.

And yet, just as in Samaria, Philip finds in this person a hunger, a readiness to receive the word of God. And the Holy Spirit is present, blessing and welcoming this brother into the fellowship, into the communion of the saints.

So even before our reading from Acts today, we’re already getting hints that maybe the kingdom of God is something more expansive, more universal, than the early disciples had ever imagined. Maybe circumcised Jews aren’t the only ones who can find healing, love, and power in Jesus. Maybe the circle of communion love is wider than the bounds of orthodoxy that the religious establishment has always assumed is essential.

This question, this challenge, this controversy, continues to the present day. As Christians, as human beings, we are always confronted with the question of “who is in and who is out?” Who really counts? Who are my friends? Who is my neighbor?

On the one hand, for those of us who have studied the Bible, these questions are relatively easy to answer. We might simply say, “everyone!” Every person is loved and valued by God. All people are worthy of respect, care, and love.

This is the truth. It’s what Jesus teaches us, and the Holy Spirit confirms it.

But the kind of belonging that our passages this morning are talking about are a little different from this generalized love of God. It’s a little different from the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God, and worthy of respect and compassion.

I believe I am called to love all people as Jesus first loved me. But I love my wife in a particular way. I am called to respect people of all faiths and no faith, but I have a special responsibility to the brothers and sisters at Berkeley Friends Church. God loved the whole world, but he formed a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants.

There is a kind of love that is unique and targeted. There is a love that is personal and direct. It is this kind of love that God showed for Israel, choosing them from among all the nations to be his special possession. It is through this very particular love for Israel that God fulfilled his promise to bless the whole world.

In the same way, Jesus chose particular men and women to be his followers. He chose the Twelve. He chose the one hundred and twenty. He chose Mary. He chose Paul. There is a love that is general, but God also shows us a love that is utterly specific and personal.

This is the love that Jesus shows us in the church. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is this personal, particular, covenantal love of God for the church, of the church for Jesus, and of each of us for one another, that glorifies Jesus and transmits his blessing to the world.

It is this fellowship – believe it or not, it is us, the very people gathered in this space today – who are the tabernacle of God. We are God’s tent. The Holy Spirit lives in us. God chose us specifically! Isn’t that amazing?

And by this everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: if we have love for one another.

This is the way God’s love becomes visible in the world. This is the pillar of smoke and fire that will guide this broken, aching world through the wilderness and into the promised land of God.

That’s enormous. The work that God is doing in us can’t be understated. This little fellowship here, along with countless other bands of Jesus followers throughout the world – we are the locus of God’s action in the world. We are salt and light. We are the catalyst. We are the body in which the Holy Spirit breathes.

In our reading from Acts this morning, Peter recounts to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem what he saw in Joppa. How he had a vision from God, declaring the unclean things to be clean. How the centurion Cornelius – an uncircumcised Gentile and all his household – received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jewish believers did.

And Peter’s first instinct was to question it. To say, “no, no, no, Holy Spirit! You can’t do this. These people are unclean Gentiles. You can’t come to live in them. That’s against the Bible!”

But then Peter remembers a source of authority even more important than the Bible – the Lord Jesus himself. He says, “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Who am I that I could hinder God?

The people of God are the living tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. The people of God are the yeast that leavens the whole loaf. The people of God are the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, filling the earth with the light of God’s glory. When we love one another, just as Jesus first loved us.

There’s a tendency – always present among humans – to exclude some types of people. We create our organizations, our movements, our churches, by defining an in-group and an out-group. We decide, based on our own criteria, who belongs.

But the amazing thing that we see throughout the Bible – and throughout the history of God’s dealings with humanity – is that we don’t get to pick who is in and who is out. God is in control. Peter didn’t admit Cornelius and the Gentile believers into the family of Jesus – the Holy Spirit did that! The Holy Spirit was the one who touched the hearts of the people of Samaria, causing many of them to become followers of the Way. The Holy Spirit intervened in the life of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, bringing salvation to a person who – according to the letter of the law – must always be an outcast.

The story of the church is not one of keeping people out – it is one of God letting the most unexpected of people in. Jesus picked some very unlikely people to be his first disciples. Jesus picked Saul, who was a notorious persecutor of the church, to be one of his chief apostles to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit chose the Roman soldier Cornelius, and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit chose you and me, unworthy as we are.

Jesus speaks to us the words he spoke to the leper in the first chapter of Mark, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Be made clean. Be my friend. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. Love one another.

The tough thing about religion, is that we tend to be obsessed with what has already happened. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in God’s past actions that we fail to see what God is doing right in front of us.

But as we hear in our reading from John’s Apocalypse, God says, “See, I am making all things new.” God is doing something unique and creative. The Holy Spirit is choosing people that we never expected. Jesus is standing at a door knocking, and anyone who answers his call, he will come in and eat with them. Hear the word of the Lord to us this morning:

It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

It is done. The holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem is descending. The tabernacle of God is among mortals! He will dwell with us, and we will be his people.

But we must obey his commandments. Love one another.

Just as Jesus has loved us, we should also love one another. Eat the bread and drink the wine at a table with all sorts of people you never thought you’d love. Break bread with those you were taught to hate. Wash the feet of those you were taught were unworthy to join the fellowship. Because the Holy Spirit has chosen them. And who are we to hinder God?

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