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What Is the Life of the Spirit?

What Is the Life of the Spirit?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 & John 3:1-17 You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on Soundcloud

Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks of a mystery that can only be described in parables and metaphor. We heard a lot of these last month as we went through the Sermon on the Mount together. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We’re the light of the world. A city on a hill. A lamp that lights up the whole house.

Jesus’ central message is about what he calls the “reign” or the “kingdom” or the “empire” of God. He describes this hidden empire as a treasure buried in a field. It’s a pearl of great price. A seed being sown. Yeast causing bread to rise. A tiny mustard seed growing into “the greatest of shrubs.”

What is this leaven Jesus is talking about? What is the light he says shines in us? What is the pearl of great price, that we should be ready to sell everything we have to acquire it? What is Jesus pointing to when he speaks to us in these mysterious terms?

In our scripture readings this morning, I believe we’re pointed towards an answer. Early on in the Gospel of John, Jesus has a middle-of-the-night encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a well-respected religious leader among the Jews. He’s an elder of the people. A teacher. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which makes him one of the most powerful religious judges in the entire Jewish world. This is a man who knows God’s law backwards and forwards, and teaches it to others.

And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers. Despite all his wisdom and experience, Nicodemus can sense that Jesus has something unique to offer. Jesus’ teaching goes beyond anything in Nicodemus’ experience. Nicodemus just can’t look away.

When Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ house in the middle of the night, he tells Jesus that he’s a fan. He believes that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Anyone who can perform the signs that Jesus has must be on God’s side. Nicodemus wants to learn more.

Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus in the way I would expect. I would have thought that maybe Jesus would tell Nicodemus to quit flattering him. Or maybe he’d push back on Nicodemus’ idea that signs and wonders can prove God’s presence. To be honest, I kind of expect Jesus to be tough on old Nicodemus. After all, he’s probably visiting in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want to be seen associating with this rabble rouser, Jesus. Why all the secrecy?

Here’s the most interesting part of this dialogue for me: When Nicodemus speaks, Jesus seems to hear a question. Now, looking at the text, Nicodemus hasn’t actually asked a question yet. He’s just getting started, letting Jesus know that he respects his ministry. But Jesus understands that Nicodemus didn’t come out to visit him at two in the morning just to pay his respects. Nicodemus wants to know what lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He wants to discover the mystery.

Sensing this, Jesus dispenses with the pleasantries. He hears Nicodemus’ silent question. And he tells Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

This throws Nicodemus for a loop. What is Jesus talking about, being born from above? Nicodemus came out to get some straight answers from Jesus, but here he is, still talking in metaphors. And a ridiculous metaphor at that! “What?” says Nicodemus. “You want me to climb back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”

If Nicodemus expected Jesus to cut it out with the metaphors at this point, he must have been disappointed. Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question with even more mysterious language: Nobody can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Jesus says, “You can’t just be born of flesh and blood. You’ve got to be born of the Spirit, too. That’s what you came looking for, Nicodemus. That’s my secret.”

Our other reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And at first glance, it doesn’t seem immediately related to this mid-night episode between Jesus and Nicodemus. Paul spends a lot of time talking about the story of Abraham, and what it says about the relationship of faith and the law. Is following all the rules enough to bring us into right relationship with God? Paul says no.

If following the law can’t produce righteousness, what will? What was it that allowed Abraham to have such an amazing relationship with God? Paul insists that is purely through faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham trusted God, and in response God drew him into right relationship.

The whole story of God is built on faith like this. When we are able to trust God, when we give our lives over to him, he draws us into relationship with him. He makes us holy. He calls us sons and daughters.

Through faith, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars. The Jewish people had always interpreted this to mean that Abraham’s biological descendents – particularly the Jewish people – would be blessed with a special relationship with God. If you shared Abraham’s DNA, you had a share in the kingdom of God.

The Jesus movement brought a radical new interpretation to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul writes about this interpretation in his letters, and Jesus points to it at various times during his ministry. Jesus and Paul and the disciple community all tell us that the true children of Abraham are not those who are biologically related to Abraham; it’s those who share the faith of Abraham.

Can you trace your geneology back to Abraham? Good. So could Paul, and all of the Twelve Apostles. But that’s not enough to qualify a person for the kingdom of God. After all, the religious leaders who persecuted and murdered Jesus – the Pharisees and the Saduccees – were also biologically related to Abraham. They could claim him as father. And yet their lives were alienated from the faith of Abraham. They trusted their Abrahamic DNA. They trusted the laws and ordinances that Moses and the elders had passed down to them. But they did not trust God.

God showed up in their midst. Jesus was standing before them, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. But the best and brightest of Abraham’s biological children were unmoved. They preferred ancient rituals, legalistic rules, and holier-than-thou games to the fiery presence of God in the burning bush.

Clearly, though, not all of the religious teachers were so hard-hearted. Nicodemus didn’t come out to see Jesus in order to undermine or refute him. Nicodemus was part of the “frozen chosen” of the Jewish religious establishment. Yet despite all that heavy tradition and social obligation, he was able to sense something in Jesus. Something alive, active, and powerful. Something fresh and new. Something that made all of Nicodemus’ religious titles and authority seem worthless by comparison.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus wasn’t concerned with how pure Nicodemus’ ancestry was. All that DNA tracing is according the flesh. It’s essential – life is impossible without our biological natures. But it’s also insufficient. Without the life of the Spirit, a purely “biological life” is without meaning or purpose.

My wife, Faith, and I have an ongoing debate. I believe that animals, and all living things, have spirits. She thinks that only humans have what you might call a “soul.” Me? I see the spirit of life everywhere. Animals breathe. Plants breathe. Some living things are more complex than others, but we all have a spiritual dimension, a life that goes beyond mere survival.

Still, I can also see things from Faith’s perspective. Take our dog, Austin, for example. He spends most of his time acting out of compulsion. He is a biological being running on autopilot. For Austin, most of life is about when he can eat, when he can drink, when he can go outside and relieve himself. It’s about warmth, and comfort, and safety. It’s about who will be kind to him, and who he should stay away from.

But every once in a while, I see something deeper come out. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Austin experience joy. We were back in Kansas, visiting my family, and we all decided to go on a nature hike. At a certain point in our walk, we crested a ridge, and we discovered an open field with a large group of geese.

When the geese saw us, they all started to take off. They rushed into the air, leaving us behind. This was a good move on their part. We learned that day that Austin is a bird dog. He was in a state of total alertness. He was ready to chase those geese down.

That was the first time we had ever seen Austin smile. Austin came from an abusive background. Before that moment, he was really a very somber dog. But when he saw those geese, he was fully present. There was no fear in him. He had found himself.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I saw the Spirit-born part of Austin that day. It’s that animating presence that transcends our compulsive biological impulses. It’s this Spirit that gives us the capacity to be more than mere animals. The Spirit of life makes joy possible. It makes faith possible.

Jesus says that this Spirit is like the wind. It blows where it will, and we can’t control it. This was a major discovery of the early church. Jesus teaches us that God is perfectly capable of raising up children of Abraham from the stones, if necessary. Paul writes that we are all Abraham’s children when we share the faith of Abraham. This faith, this joy, this kingdom, comes from the Spirit.

This is why Jesus says that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” God loves all of us so much. And he has power to make us children of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but through the power of the Spirit.

Through the faith of Abraham, God empowers us to transcend our biological compulsions. Just like Austin the dog, we can discover joy in moments of unity with our world and our God. We can be freed from lives that revolve around reflexive tasks, unspoken anxiety, and the struggle to survive. We can be truly free.

We can only see this kingdom when we are born from above. When we receive that gift of spiritual life and awareness that makes all of our biological life worth living. When we discover the purpose that we were created for. To show love to others. To speak the truth. To become agents of beauty.

In this Spirit, this power, this kingdom, we encounter the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

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Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Do You Think You'll Age Like Wine?
Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

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What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 36 & Matthew 6:19-34

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on SoundCloud!

Good morning.

I’m going to start with the heresy and work back to the gospel this morning. Because reading on the sermon on the mount reminds me of what a tough time I have with the Bible. The Bible, for me, is pretty uneven in terms of how it impacts me. So this morning I want to talk a little bit about three broad categories of scripture and how they impact my life.

The Bible has a lot of rough parts to it. There are the parts that make me uncomfortable because they don’t seem to reflect the character of the God I know. I’m thinking of the genocide passages in Joshua and Chronicles, for example. Or the parts of the New Testament where Paul seems to be getting pretty negative towards women. These sections of the Bible are difficult for me. As a Christian, I want to trust the text, but some of these texts seem to run against the grain of what I know from the life of Jesus, the great cloud of witnesses, and my own lived experience with the Holy Spirit.

So there’s this other category of scripture, that hits me in a different way. One way of naming it might be the “warm fuzzy scriptures.” Now, we all have our own warm fuzzy scriptures – they’re not all the same for different people. A great example might be 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul writes about love. This passage is so beautiful and moving that it’s commonly read at weddings, even though Paul is speaking about God’s agape love, rather than human romantic love. Another scripture that comes to mind is John’s first letter, in which he writes about the tangible reality of God’s light and love.

With these passages, and many others, I’m ready to shout “Amen!” They affirm who I know God to be, and they encourage me to more fully live into the radically open, deeply loving presence of the Holy Spirit.

There are some parts of the Bible that don’t fit into either one of these categories. It’s a kind of scripture that I find deeply disturbing. It’s not like those uncomfortable passages from Joshua or Paul’s letters, that I can simply dismiss or bracket as not meaningful for me.

When I read about God ordering the destruction of whole cities in the Old Testament, or when I find passages where Paul seems to deny women equal dignity before God, I feel a basic wrongness with these writings. They don’t line up with who I know God to be.

But then there are passages like the ones we’ve heard this morning. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are truly startling. I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t worry. Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” I know that Jesus’ words are true, but I can’t quite accept the teaching. Something within me resists.

With scriptures in this third category, like the ones we’ve heard this morning, any resistance, any dissonance, any sense of wrongness that I feel is rooted in myself. It’s not a problem with the text. It’s not a problem with Jesus. It’s a problem with me. I’m drawn to the teachings of Jesus. I can feel their truthfulness. Yet I hesitate to fully embrace his teaching. It seems impossible. I’m afraid that if I were to follow him completely, it would destroy my life.

So I’m caught in this strange place. Not brave enough to fully embrace Jesus’ teaching, but also unable to walk away. This feeling reminds me of what the first disciples experienced. There was a time when Jesus said some really crazy things and many of his friends were abandoning him. And Jesus asked the twelve, “You don’t want to leave me too, do you?” Peter responded this way: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

That’s my feeling when I encounter Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t really like what he’s saying. His teaching threatens my whole way of life, and part of me would rather run away. I’m tempted to avoid this wild-eyed teacher who wants to turn my whole world upside down.

But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. His words simultaneously disrupt my life and heal me. I can’t escape his message. Even if I were to flee across the sea like Jonah, I know that his words would find me. They’d swallow me up like the fish and spit me onto the dry land, and I’d have to go to Nineveh anyway.

Jesus has the words of eternal life. We heard in our psalm this morning, “With you is the fountain of life. In your light we see light.” Through the words that Jesus speaks to us this morning, he is en-light-ening me. He’s shining light into places that I’d rather not see. His light shows me places I’d rather not go. He’s calling me.

Jesus is inviting us into a life free from worry and fear. Casting aside all the wealth, status, and possessions that we spend our lives accumulating. Jesus calls us into a life that refuses to defend itself. Right now we’re trapped in a death spiral of anxiety, consumerism, and self-defense. But Jesus illuminates a whole different path we can walk.

Jesus reveals a way of joyful abandon, one in which we can live freely and simply. Like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to burden ourselves with guilt and worry. We can abandon the fiction of self-sufficiency. That’s what it means to accept the bounty and goodness of our Creator.

This whole Sermon on the Mount pushes me really hard. From chapter 5 to chapter 7, Jesus is laying down a heaping mess of truth. No one can hear his words from start to finish, take them seriously, and not be moved to repentance and action.

In the passages we’ve heard this morning, I think Jesus’ message is for the most part very clear. He tells us that we’re going to have to make a choice between God and wealth. We can’t serve both of them. We’re going to have to pick sides. Will we seek after God and the web of loving relationships that he wants to establish? Or will we choose the way of clutching anxiety that accompanies our obsession with wealth, possessions, and status?

We cling to these things because they provide us with an illusion of control. An illusion that, somehow, we can cheat death altogether.

There’s a movie I really love. I’ve watched it many times. I’m willing to admit it’s a Tom Cruise movie. It’s called Vanilla Sky. Have any of you seen it?

In Vanilla Sky, the main character, played by Tom Cruise, is a man who has everything. He’s ridiculously wealthy. He’s powerful. He can have any woman he wants. As much as any human being can, he lives with the illusion of complete control and freedom. Yet, as we come to find out, he’s a deeply unhappy person.

Cruise’s character lives in an illusion of youthful immortality. In the opening scene of the film, he finds a gray hair and plucks it out. He refuses to grow old. He will not acknowledge his own mortality. Later in the movie, during a moment of introspection, he says: “Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man who would live forever?”

Despite all his power, wealth, and fame, Tom Cruise’s character is living a lie. He can’t see what’s right in front of him. He’s living in darkness, and he doesn’t even realize it.

That’s the part of our scripture reading today that is really intriguing to me. Jesus’ clear commands about what our relationship to wealth needs to be – I get it. It’s incredibly challenging and I don’t live up to it, but I get it. I understand, at least conceptually, how the life of freedom Jesus promises us can work. When we let go of our need to be in charge, be in control – when we become simply flowers in the field of God – things change. The world opens up. We don’t have to hold onto our anxiety and dread anymore. We can live in joy.

But Jesus also talks about the light and darkness. And these words of Jesus have always struck me as enigmatic. Not just challenging, not merely convicting, but mysterious. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

So. The eye is the lamp of the body. If it’s healthy, we’re full of light. But if not, the whole body is full of darkness. And if the light within us is darkness, how great is that darkness!

This takes me back to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. This man is trapped. He’s living in a miserable, isolated, narcissistic fantasy world. The light within him is darkness. He is so deeply invested in his own illusions – his power games and toys – that he’s lost track of what reality consists of. For him, darkness really is light. How great that darkness!

And I wonder about myself. I like to think I’ve got a solid grip on reality. I want to imagine that what I value really is worthy of my time and energy. That my relationships are real and meaningful. That my love and care for others is genuine. But what if the light in me is darkness? What if my eye is unhealthy. What if I’ve become so used to my deformed condition that now darkness looks like light to me, and real light is a terror?

How great the darkness!

I’m in need of a regular reality check. That’s probably the biggest reason I keep coming back to the Bible, to this community, to our Christian tradition. My own perceptions of the world are so subjective. I need a regular dose of reality to make sure that the light in me isn’t actually darkness.

Each one of us alone is in real danger of developing unhealthy eyes and losing track of what’s true and important in our lives. As a community gathered by the Holy Spirit around the person of Jesus, we have a better chance of keeping our eyes open and alive to the light of God. When we gather together. When we hold one another accountable. When we read the Bible together and weigh what’s being said. When we come closer to Jesus together.

For with him is the fountain of life. In his light we see light.

So I want to leave us with a few queries, a few spiritual questions to consider:

What are the ways that we hold one another accountable as a community? How do we encourage one another to have healthy eyes, so that the whole body is full of light? What does it mean for us to live into the radical, fearless, joyful life that Jesus offers us? And what will it cost us?

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If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up with Trump?
When I first became a Quaker, I assumed that the Friends tradition endorsed my existing liberal, secular worldview. I believed that all human beings were basically good. All of us want to do the right thing, after all. We just need resources, love, and support to grow in a healthy direction.

The more I learned about the theological underpinnings of the original Quaker movement, however, the more uncomfortable I became. It seems that, when George Fox spoke of “that of God in everyone,” he wasn’t referring to a divine spark innate to each person. He was speaking of the imprisoned presence of God within the heart of a depraved humanity.

Depravity. It turns out that the early Quaker movement had a lot more in common with Calvinist Puritanism than it did with modern theological liberalism. Rather than viewing humanity as basically good, but in need of a little bit of TLC, the early Quakers taught that humanity is fundamentally selfish, broken, and in active rebellion against God’s love.

The place where Quakers parted ways with the Puritan doctrine of “total depravity” wasn’t the “depravity” part. Quakers took issue with the idea of “total.” For George Fox and the fiery preachers of the early movement, it was axiomatic that humanity is lost in darkness and separated from God. It’s obvious that human beings often choose our own selfish desires over love for others. Anyone who is paying attention knows there is something terribly wrong with us.

What set Quaker teaching apart was its emphasis on the inward Light of Christ. Quakers preached the saving power of God, present in/with the Creation. This loving presence can redeem even the most wicked and hateful person. Calvinists argued that God sovereignly redeems only some people, and predestines the rest to damnation. Quakers insisted that all people receive an actionable offer of salvation through the indwelling presence of Jesus in their lives.

Why does all this matter? Why am I dredging up centuries-old theological debates, using language that is, at best, opaque to many readers?

Strange as it may seem, I believe that the concept of depravity is vital to the experience of the church in the West today. Much of the progressive Christian community – along with our liberal secular counterparts – has held to teachings about human beings that are just plain wrong.

Just as I once believed that human beings were “basically good” and that we just needed a little extra support to reach our potential, much of the western church has imagined that human thriving was just a matter of technique. With enough education, technology, and economic justice, we could achieve the kingdom of God. The moral arc of the universe would bend its way towards justice.

This faith must now be irrevocably shattered. Many of us closed our eyes to the violent injustice of the United States under the Obama administration. Almost all of us fought less urgently for justice than we feel compelled to now, in the wake of the 2016 election. With the rise of a proto-fascist, white supremacist regime, it’s harder than ever to maintain the fiction of a “basically good” humanity that just needs a little bit of encouragement.

It’s time to reclaim a recognition of human brokenness, sin, and separation from God. We can’t ignore it any longer. It is manifestly evident that we are not what we ought to be. Neither technological prowess nor economic gains seem likely to alter that equation any time soon. Something is wrong here, and we must look deeper than ever before if we are to come to terms with it.

Self-examination is in order. It would be easy to take the idea of human sin and selfishness and merely apply it to others. There is a temptation to take all of our fear, fury, and disappointment and project it onto those who supported Donald Trump in his bid for the presidency. It would be all too easy to scapegoat them, allowing them to absorb all of our culpability.

But a recognition of human depravity is no cheap trick we can use to absolve ourselves of guilt. Any attempt to turn ourselves into heroes and others into villains would be a lie. If we are to live in the truth, we must begin with the devastating realization: You and I are ourselves depraved. We are liars, self-seeking, potential murderers. We are dishonest with ourselves and others.

None of us is exempt from the reality of human depravity. You and I engage in the very same kind of tribalism that we recognize in others. Most of us were quite willing to overlook the sins of the Obama administration. We have been complicit in the war machine and surveillance state that Mr. Obama helped to perpetuate. In the same way, most of Trump’s supporters are prepared to ignore the dishonesty, violence, and outright narcissism of their chosen leader.

I am not better than Trump’s supporters. It may be that the policies and philosophies that I advocate would have a better effect on the world if enacted. But my fundamental motivations for advocating them are not so different from the motivations of my enemies.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is in no way an excuse or apology for the truly evil regime that is now in power in the United States. God judges wickedness, and this is almost certainly the most wicked administration in living memory.

But just because Trump and his supporters are wicked does not mean that you and I are righteous. The will to power is strong, and we’re all seeking our own ways to be on top. Even under the guise of being meek, caring, pious, and Christ-like – we’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. All of us.

So where do we go from here? How do we emerge from this pit of depravity and engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it were?

When I first became a Quaker, I thought we were an optimistic faith tradition. But I’ve come to realize that there’s a big difference between optimism and hope. We can no longer indulge in the cheap optimism that tells us that we’re good people and everything is going to be alright. Our need for hope has never been greater. As friends of Jesus, we are called to live in the hope of redemption. As lost and depraved as we are, there is a life, power, and presence among us that can restore us. Heal us. Bring peace where now there is only struggle.

This peaceable kingdom is real. We are called to it, and with divine assistance we can inhabit it together. But we can only enter this kingdom once we have shed the illusion of our own goodness, piety, and self-sufficiency. There will be no “good people” in this kingdom – only repentant sons and daughters who have come home once again, having squandered our inheritance. The kingdom of God is gentle, a place of thanksgiving and joyful tears.

I want to join you there. To do that, I need to recognize my own brokenness. I need to acknowledge all the ways I’ve prioritized myself over others, all the ways I have been dishonest in pursuit of my own desires and objectives. I want to meet you in the kingdom where the last is first, and the first last. Even if that means that I end up being at the end of the line.

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This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (1/15/17), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 40:1-12 & John 1:29-42

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on Soundcloud

Welcome to the wilderness.

The wilderness beyond the Jordan river is where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s where the Hebrew people wandered for forty years after their escape from Egypt. In this same wilderness, Elijah heard the still, small voice of God.

The wilderness is a place free of human habitation and interference. It’s far away from the noise, busyness, and worries of everyday life. It’s a space in which the cultivated concerns of civilization – wealth, power, politics, and honor – fall away.

When human beings venture out into these wild places, we’re stripped down. We’re left with the more basic questions of life. We enter into a realm of raw survival and sense experience. We ask ourselves: “What will I eat and drink? What lies ahead, beyond that ridge? How will I defend myself against wild animals?” Life becomes very real, very challenging, and very simple.

You might think that this journey into a life of such basic thoughts of food, shelter, and warmth would be a brute existence. After a few days in the wilderness, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were transformed into thoughtless animals, concerned only with the next meal. And that is indeed one possible outcome of the wilderness journey. Yet paradoxically, throughout the history of God’s people, we’ve repeatedly seen the opposite. The Holy Spirit draws us out into the desert to experience the most transcendent, majestic, and holy things in the midst of the struggle to survive.

For us here who live in the heart of civilization, our highly cultivated lives have become a distraction. The machinery of civilization, the mighty works of human beings, are enough to consume all of our attention. Presidents and pontiffs, roads and sewer systems, rent to pay and jobs to get done. Our lives are very busy, very full of important matters that demand our attention. There’s very little room for the holy silence of the desert. Little attention for the howling animals of the forest. Our eyes have become so fixated on the glowing screen that we’re incapable of perceiving the burning bush.

We like think that we’re in control. That’s what life in civilization is all about. We’ve come to believe that we can direct the flow of history. That we are the authors of the story, rather than minor characters carried along by the plot written by Another. With all our science and industry, we can fly to the moon, shape the human genome, and finally, just maybe, brew the perfect cup of coffee. The dream and driving myth of civilization is that we can fix the world. We can make everything work correctly. We just have to put our minds to it.

The wilderness isn’t interested in what we put our minds to. It doesn’t really care about how smart we are, or how hard we work. The wilderness is a place of waiting. It’s a place to listen. It’s a parallel dimension in which human beings are still utterly dependent on the forces of nature. When we’re in the wilderness, we belong to this world – not vice versa. We become desert creatures.

John the Baptist was a desert creature. He was a man drawn into the wilderness by God. He was emptied out by it. He was a young man, an ambitious man – full of drive, dreams, and passion. God called him into a wilderness life, into a journey that stripped away every ambition but one: To preach the message.

The message that God gave John wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t the basis for a mass organization that could throw out the Romans, purify the Temple, or even reform the Pharisee’s brand of Judaism. John’s message was a wilderness message, a message that was fundamentally incomprehensible to those who still lived in civilization. John’s message wasn’t about the power of good people to change the world. It wasn’t about incremental progress through human effort. John’s message was simply and solely about the power of God to intervene in history and establish his direct rule.

John’s message was simple, but no one understood it – probably not even his own disciples. Everyone expected God to come out of the wilderness and enter into the history of civilization. To become a civilized God. For almost everyone, the hope of Messiah was that God would establish a great king on the throne, in the line of David. To establish a political dynasty that was like all the other kingdoms of the earth – but better.

But John knew that God couldn’t be domesticated. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the wilderness. He can’t be contained in temple, a government, or a throne. Despite all our efforts to create a place for God in the midst of our civilization, God was never interested in that. The God of John the Baptist didn’t come to reside in cities and high towers. Instead, he brought his people out of the bondage of civilization and into the wilderness. With the coming of the Messiah, God would go a step further. He would bring the wilderness into the midst of the city.

When Jesus came out to the edge of the wilderness, John and his disciples were baptizing people in the Jordan river. The baptizers were practicing the ancient Jewish purification rite of mikveh – a ritual washing with water for purification. For John’s people, immersion in water signified repentance and preparation for the coming of God’s reign.

But even as they prepared themselves in this way, John was always clear: This outward cleansing with water was just a shadow of what the Messiah would bring. John baptized with water, but Jesus was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. John baptized for preparation and repentance. Jesus would bring about the healing and transformation of the whole cosmos.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what John said when he took his first look at Jesus down by the banks of the Jordan. The Holy Spirit had come down and rested on Jesus, and in that instant John knew that his ministry was complete. His own eyes had seen the promised savior.

John’s ministry was never about himself. He was always focused beyond himself, on the Messiah. There were lots of people who wanted to make John the Messiah, but John was crystal clear from the very beginning. He was just a messenger. When the people pressed him to identify himself – maybe he was the reappearance of Elijah? – John identified himself with the words of Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. That’s who John was. That’s who we are. That’s our job, too.

Have any of you ever watched Battlestar Galactica? The new one, not the 1970s version. It’s an amazing show. I won’t go into all the details right now, but for those of you who have seen it, there’s a phrase that is repeated over and over through the four seasons of the show: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

Well, it’s happening again. We’re being called again into this wilderness journey. We are being invited to become desert creatures. Like John, we are called to become voices in the wilderness, crying out and making straight the way of the Lord.

The people of God have been called into the wilderness many times. We were called out into the Sinai when Moses led us out of Egypt. We went out to see the wild man John the Baptist, out beyond the Jordan. We returned again to the wilderness, when the church became the official religion of the Empire and it seemed like the only authentic faith was to be found in the desert. As the followers of the risen and living Jesus, we return to the wilderness again and again as he calls us.

Moving out into the wilderness is always a challenge. It pushes us out of our comfort zone spiritually, psychologically, and physically. The wilderness journey is one of loss and grief. We’re forced to let go of the life we thought we knew, the world we believed existed. We must face the reality of our own complicity with evil – and what it will cost us to turn towards the light.

And as if all of that weren’t enough – as if it weren’t sufficiently challenging to embrace our grief, face our shadow, and suffer the loss of comfort and stability – we’re asked to do more. Like John, we are challenged to acknowledge, freely and immediately, that we are not the Messiah. We are not the Messiah. We are not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s one savior, and he’s not us.

Of course, you knew that, right? So did I – intellectually. But if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that most of the time I act as if everything depended on me. I’ve spent most of my life under the delusion that my life could drive history. Both popular culture and religion have encouraged this in me. “Make a difference! Let your life speak! Be the change you wish to see! You are somebody!”

I’ve been told my whole life that I have personal responsibility for the way that history turns out. Since I was a little boy, it’s been implied that I’m supposed to be the hero of the story, the person driving the plot to a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m not that person, if I’m not the protagonist of history, then I’ve basically failed as a human being.

So for me, it’s a revolutionary thing to truly understand and accept that I have found the Messiah. Because if I’ve found him, he’s not me. If I’ve found the ultimate Protagonist of history, that means that I’m out of a job. I’m stripped of the illusion that my life, my effort, my intelligence, my faith, is the most important thing I can offer humanity and the universe. When I find the Messiah, I learn that the most important thing I can do is to be human, love boldly, and accept the reality that I flow in history – I don’t direct it.

This has always been hard for me. It’s even harder now that I see history flowing in such a dark direction. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether maybe these days we’re living are actually an alternate timeline – and maybe I could fix it by going back in time and changing some tiny thing. There we go again – control!

It’s hard to let go of control when the stream we’re caught up in seems so odious, so opposite to that moral arc that we’ve been taught history is bending towards. It’s hard to embrace a savior who is not us, when we want more than anything to take matters into our own hands and influence the course of history. It’s hard to admit that we’re so small, so weak, so marginal to the flow of events in our generation.

But maybe this turn of events in the cultural, political, economic, and environmental state of our country is the only thing that could have woken us up. Maybe we needed this to hit rock bottom, to realize that trying to be in control of history is just too painful. More than ever before in living memory, our country really needs a savior. And it sure as heck isn’t me.

So what do we do in times like these? When our culture seems so dark, and it’s clearer than ever that we can’t solve the many injustices and pathologies of our nation? What is our role to play as friends of Jesus?

Our reading from Psalm 40 gives us a good example to live by. It says, “I waited patiently upon the LORD, he stooped to me and heard my cry.” There are two pieces here, right? The psalmist “waited patiently upon the Lord” – repentance – and God “stooped to me and heard my cry” – redemption.

This is the pattern we see in John’s life and ministry, too. John and his followers waited patiently upon the Lord. They waited out in the wilderness, out beyond the Jordan. They waited patiently as the thick darkness of Roman occupation suffocated their nation. They waited patiently while the collaborators – military and civil authorities – got rich off of the exploitation of their people. They waited patiently in poverty and humility, knowing that they were not the Messiah, but that God would send one. They waited patiently upon the Lord.

Our minds resist the way of John, the way of the wilderness. They insist that we need to fight, that we have a responsibility to overcome the darkness and restore justice to our community. This temptation is seductive, because it’s partially true. We do have a responsibility to work for justice in our society. We do have a role to play in the struggle to birth the reign of God into the world. John and his followers weren’t irrelevant to the affairs of the world. There’s a reason John was murdered by Herod. In a broken world, obedience to God always challenges the status quo. John was a desert creature, and the world could not comprehend him. And that’s why he had to die.

We are called to be desert creatures in the midst of this city. We are followers of Jesus. That means we stand in the prophetic heritage of John the Baptist. It’s a powerful heritage, one that brings down Empires and changes the course of history. But if we’re to stay sane, healthy, and centered in the Spirit – if we’re to overcome the world just like Jesus did – we have to stay grounded in that wilderness mindset. We have to remember who we belong to. And who the Lord of history is.

The power of the Holy Spirit that is at work in us has the power to change the world. We have a responsibility to be faithful in the struggle, to make ourselves proactively available for God’s work in the world. But we can’t make it happen. The Author of history will be its perfecter. We are called to be friends of Jesus, who lend a hand as we’re led by him.

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Two of my favorite biblical books are the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes and the New Testament Book of Revelation. Strange choices, I’ll admit. You’d be hard pressed to find two writers with a more profoundly different view of history, and humanity’s role to play in it.

Ecclesiastes basically views all of life as cyclical, repetitive, and ultimately futile – even boring! We humans are born, grow up, work, struggle, and die. We bring nothing into the world and taking nothing with us. All our efforts are just chasing after wind – building sand castles that are inevitably destroyed by the incoming tide of history. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

Revelation, on the other hand, envisions a cosmos that is on a collision course with an apocalyptic unveiling. God’s sovereign rule is breaking into history, and the end of the story is at hand. For Revelation, nothing about this life is remotely futile or boring. We are in a life-and-death struggle as the last chapter of human history is revealed. What could be more exciting or important?

Somehow, these two visions co-exist as integral parts of the Christian canon. Both are embraced by billions as authentic expressions of God’s story. Each one reveals something profound about our world and our Creator.

But can they both be true? How can history be both cyclical and linear? How can life be an endless cycle of birth and death, while at the same time heading towards culmination in a final revealing, release, and restoration?

I find this same confusing paradox in my own life. Much of the time, I feel as though I’m spinning my wheels. Despite my best efforts, very little changes – at least, not the way I expect. Yet, over time, life does develop and grow. The person I am today would both shock and amaze the young man I was in college. I have been transformed, almost to the point of being unrecognizable to those who knew me as a young person.

And yet, in many ways I am fundamentally the same individual I was fifteen years ago. My heart hasn’t changed. I’m still made of the same basic elements, even as life experience, circumstance, and personal choices have shaped me in so many ways – for better and for worse. My life has both a cyclical and a linear aspect. Some things never change, even as I grow and develop on a determined trajectory.

My heart has known this for a long time, even if my head is still catching up. I’m reminded of the writings of Albert Camus, who used the Myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the tragic/heroic state of human beings in the world. Sisyphus is condemned to push a huge boulder up a hill forever, always losing control just before reaching the peak. After watching the boulder tumble down to the bottom of the hill, Sisyphus walks down into the valley to do it all over again.

For the Greeks, who originally told this story, this was a vision of hell. The utter futility of Sisyphus’ actions – both heroically linear (with a goal of getting the boulder over the hill) and tragically cyclical (each time it rolled back down the slope)  – combined to deliver a terrible punishment from the gods on an arrogant humanity.

For Camus, though, the myth of Sisyphus was a vision of human freedom. It is precisely in the midst of the incomprehensible cycle of history that we find fulfillment – not by successfully pushing the boulder over the summit, but through finding joy in the labor itself. Living in hope of a linear, “end-of-history” fulfillment, we are empowered to embrace the hills and valleys of the apparently futile cycles of Ecclesiastes.

I believe that this aspect of Camus’ philosophy captures something vital in the biblical tradition, strangely reconciling the quasi-nihilism of Ecclesiastes and the apparent triumphalism of Revelation. This philosophy is, in fact, the polar opposite of the totalitarian visions of the 20th century, in that it invites us to embrace life on its own terms, rather than as a means to a greater end. The gospel of Jesus is that we may have life, and have it abundantly. No more, no less.

This abundant life is not conditional. It does not depend on human progress, historical development, or an end-of-history event occurring in our lifetimes. It cannot be discouraged by suffering or loss or historical failure. No matter how many times the boulder rolls down the hill, there is life and power available to us to keep pushing, keep living, keep loving.

In times such as these, when the liberal illusion of “progress” has been so dramatically punctured, this is good news. On days like today, when I wonder whether my life “amounts to anything,” this is good news. The joy that sneaks up on me, and is always available to each one of us, will keep me moving back up the hill. Not out of fear, nor because I have no other choice, but because there is joy in the labor itself.

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Being human is hard, and getting harder. The decision to remain human consists of hundreds of tiny choices every day. Do I put relationships first, or is it more important to complete tasks? Am I more interested in flesh-and-blood human beings, or do I prefer to deal with abstractions?

These may all sound like nebulous questions designed for an intro philosophy course in college. But for me, I’m finding that this distinction – between being people-centered or idea-centered, relationship-focused or task-focused – lies at the core of what it means to be and remain human in my daily life.

Human nature has been under siege for centuries. In industrial societies, most new wealth was created by mechanizing the power of human labor. Humans were organized into cogs in the vast industrial gearwork. We trained our reflexes to mimic those of industrial machinery. Human bodies are tamed and domesticated to serve the needs of the machine.

In 21st-century America, the mechanization of labor-intensive work – such as in retail, restaurants, and manufacturing – is practically complete. We have learned to behave like machines, achieving high efficiency at performing repetitive tasks, and even social interactions. This benefits the bottom line, producing more goods, services, and products.

But capitalism is never satisfied. By its nature, the machine must always continue to grow. In an age where the human body has been almost completely dominated by the need for domesticated efficiency, capitalism naturally seeks new outlets for its expansion.

No longer content to control our bodies, post-industrial capitalism is now busily domesticating our minds.

Let me give you a very small, perhaps silly example. This morning as I sat down to compose this blog post, I had to make a decision about a title. I knew that certain titles would be more psychologically effective than others. There are formulae for writing titles that help ensure that articles get read. If I follow them, I can expect a greater audience for my writing.

But it doesn’t stop there. The title of an article is linked to its content. If I had chosen to title this piece, “4 Reasons You’re Already Post-Human,” I would have been required to write my whole piece as a bulleted listicle. As a matter of fact, there are formulae for how blog posts should be written, too. Even now, I have a WordPress plugin warning me that my readability “needs improvement.” Any writing that can’t be easily scanned and digested without thought, any phrasing or nuance that might slow the reader down, is likely to reduce engagement, clicks, sharing.

Thus I am cajoled and pressured to mechanize my writing, my thinking – and yours.

This is how we end up with a vapid internet, saturated with fake news, celebrity gossip, and top-ten lists. It’s this mechanization of thought that threatens to transform us into unreflective cogs in an vast intellectual machine that exists to deepen profits rather than stimulate human flourishing.

Our post-industrial society is training us to be cogs rather than creators, objects rather than subjects. I notice this tendency throughout my everyday life. I’ve chosen it, as I’ve bought into the cult of personal efficiency. I keep all my tasks in an electronic to-do list. My life is managed by Google Calendar. I regularly clear my email inbox. I get things done.

Yet, there is a growing emptiness in the midst of all this efficiency. I have become so good at controlling the details and tasks of my life – so why do I feel lost and breathless? Somehow, I’ve been convinced to program myself like a machine. I myself set the timers, checklists, and goals. But the effect is the same. Each day I find myself leaping through hoops with little thought as to why. My life becomes so full, it’s mostly just stimulus and response.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ultimate goal of totalitarianism is to see every human being completely stripped of personal will and creativity. The ideal totalitarian society would consist of men and women who marched along through their daily routines, without spontaneity or joy – simply responding to commands from beyond themselves, drooling like Pavlov’s dog.

This description of total domination does not yet describe the world we live in. But it’s too close for my own comfort. I am astounded at how, even in the midst of a relatively free society, I have allowed myself to be conditioned to treat life as a series of tasks to perform. I’ve come to regard myself as an instrument for accomplishing things beyond me, rather than simply embracing myself as a unique creation of God, valuable and worthwhile in my own right.

The present social and political crisis in my country provides yet another temptation. It would be easy to tell myself that now, because we are in a time of emergency, I must place all my focus on accomplishing effective resistance to an evil regime. Yet it is precisely the growing danger of totalitarian government that has convinced me that I must root out the seeds of totalitarian thinking and behavior in my own life. How can I resist tyranny if I insist on being a tyrant to myself?

As odd as it may sound, even to me, now is a time for beauty. Now is a moment to acknowledge my own life’s joy and intrinsic value, fully apart from any work I might perform. With idolatrous and tyrannical movements on the rise, it has never been more important to bear witness to the fact that this whole life is a gift. We don’t make it, we don’t earn it, we can’t justify it with our labor. This unexpected divine grace is the foundation of all faith, and a stern rebuke to the ideologies and regimes that would domesticate our lives and mechanize our spirits.

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