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Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?
Ten years ago, I lived as part of a “new monastic” community in Richmond, Indiana. It was a community steeped in prayer. We prayed together three or four times a day, using a liturgy based out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

As a Quaker, the Episcopal liturgy was a very different experience from the style of worship and prayer that I had been exposed to. Quakerism taught me that prayer should be spontaneous, “Spirit-led.” Anything I did should be rooted in a palpable sense of God’s guidance in that moment.

But as part of the Renaissance House community, I discovered that there is real power in a set liturgy. I prayed the same words, every day, in community, for months. I got to the point where I could speak through the prayers without really thinking about it. I memorized the words, and they became a part of me.

This was very different from the extemporaneous prayer and silent worship I was taught to seek in the Quaker tradition. Still, it was very effective and compelling in its own way. In the brief time that I practiced it, I found the liturgy molding me. I felt invited into a space of prayer and devotion to God in a way I had never experienced before.

I’ve recently begun praying the liturgy again. Using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a template and guide, I’ve put together my own prayer book. I’m experimenting, tweaking the liturgy, finding what works best for me. I’m using the liturgy four times a day – at waking, midday, evening, and before bed. The prayers includes psalms, prayers, music, creeds, and responsive readings.

The Quaker tradition has taught me to be skeptical of rote prayers. Empty words, spoken without conviction or understanding are dangerous. Rather than fostering devotion, such compulsive religious habits get in the way of relationship with God.

But at this time in my life, I’m finding the liturgy to be a welcome aid in my desire to seek after God, to live in his presence. Especially now, as I inhabit the life of a husband, father, and full-time tradesman. I am re-discovering the power of liturgy to shape my life and open a space for prayer. The liturgy serves as a default, a routine that I can rest in while I seek deeper inspiration. If I don’t feel particularly inspired today, this week, or this month – I can keep praying anyway.

I’m amazed by how often God shows up in the liturgy. Sometimes when I’m simply reading through the prayers, joy bubbles up within me. The liturgy allows for silence, or freestyle intercessory prayer and thanksgiving. I find myself opening up to God in ways that I simply wouldn’t have without the default script of the liturgy.

At this stage in my life, I’m far busier than I would like to be. In this context, the liturgy is amazing. It holds open space in my life where prayer is automatic, regardless of how tired I am or how uninspired I’m feeling. It provides opportunities each day to stand before God. If I’m not feeling enthusiastic, I can examine myself and ask why not. Or I can just accept it. I can thank God for the grace he gives me to keep praying, in season and out of season. The liturgy helps me show up for relationship with God, regardless of my subjective feelings.

To my Quaker friends, this may all sound crazy. Maybe even heretical. But for me, at this point in my journey, it’s the power of God. Thanks be to God.

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How My Faith Blew Up and I Learned to be Human Again

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?
This past weekend, I was up in New York City visiting an old friend and mentor, David McReynolds. Back in 2000, I did my teenage best to support him in his campaign for president. I’ve always seen David as an example of courageous thought and action, coupled with a gentleness that is often lost among activists.

On Saturday, I met David at his apartment in lower Manhattan. We drank seltzer water and he introduced me to his cat, Shaman. Then, we went out for a late lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. A nice afternoon.

Shortly before I left to catch my train, our conversation touched briefly on Quakers. David said something that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days. If he were going to convert, David said, he would more likely become a Roman Catholic than a Quaker. His reason for this? Your average Catholic tends to have a deep sense of human sinfulness and each person’s need for Jesus and the Church. There’s a built-in humility there. We Quakers tend to be pretty satisfied with ourselves.

There might have been a time in my life when this observation would have rubbed me the wrong way. But coming from David, who identifies as an Atheist, it resonated.

David is quick to add that not all Catholics are burdened by guilt, and he’s known Quakers who lived saintly lives. Still, I think he’s onto something here. I’ve recently been re-engaging with the liturgical and monastic Christian traditions. I’ve been impressed with the degree to which a sense of personal unworthiness and repentance is at the heart of monastic practice.

At the same time, I’ve felt convicted about how much confidence I have had in my own ability to know and follow God. In retrospect, I have often been confused, frightened, self-centered, and adrift. These days, I’m more skeptical about my own ability to know the will of God with a great deal of certainty. This puts me at odds with much of the Quaker community. Modern-day Quakers tend to view following God as a fairly straightforward process, and human nature as basically good.

To be clear, I am not saying that the root of Quaker tradition views human beings this way. Early Quakers were skeptical of humanity’s ability to do the right thing. Rather than viewing people as naturally good, they relied on the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit to correct and guide us. The bulk of Quakers throughout history viewed humanity as basically lost – if not depraved.

But there’s a gap between what the tradition has been and what the community now believes, in practice, today. In my experience, most of us Quakers – myself included – have a tendency to be pretty proud of ourselves. We’re proud that we have affirmed women in ministry for three and a half centuries. We’re proud that we renounced slavery a century earlier than the United States did. We’re proud of the work that our ancestors did in the civil rights and the peace movements. We think we’re pretty special. The world could learn a thing or two from us.

The issue is clouded because, as a matter of fact, Quakers have had an outsized impact on American history and culture. The Quaker community has been unique and important. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, this history of spiritual leadership has congealed into something far less attractive. We’ve developed a certain spiritual pride – a sense that we know better than those around us. We’ve come to believe that we’re good people.

The problem with this is, we’re not. I’m certainly not. The Quaker tradition is beautiful in many ways, silly in others. But in no way has it produced a community of perfect people. Quakers today are no better – or worse – than our Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or Atheist neighbors. We may still be a peculiar people, but we are not a special people. Our human nature is as fallen and in need of God’s grace as anyone else’s.

To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.

I’m grateful for the faithfulness of past generations of Quakers. But I’m also convinced that it’s spiritually damaging for me to continue claiming their work as my own. I’m not a special person. I’ve not risen above my need for a savior. I am a poor sinner, at least as much in need of God’s grace as anyone else.

There are dangers here. It’s possible to embrace sin, seeing it as reality rather than a barrier that God can overcome. Many Christian groups have fallen into this trap. But the delusion that I and many other Quakers have fallen into is also problematic. The idea that sin is already defeated, or doesn’t even exist. The myth of “nice people like us.” At this point in my life, it seems safer to err on the side of over-questioning my own experience and motivations. Assuming the goodness of my thoughts and actions is dangerous.

My conversation with David was a reminder. The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful. People can see right through the false piety of Quaker self-satisfaction. But the humility of the God-yielded sinner is magnetic, even for those who are not yet ready to believe.

This dying world doesn’t need perfect people. It needs broken people who are able to confess their own thirst for living water. And invite others to join them in seeking it.

Related Posts:

The Harvest Is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

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Did God Really Ask Abraham to Sacrifice His Own Child?

Did God Really Ask Abraham to Kill His Own Child?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/2/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 22:1-14 & Romans 6:12-23. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

This is a tough passage to preach on. It’s one of the most iconic stories of the Bible – the time that Abraham and Isaac went up to that mountain, and Abraham only thought only one of them was coming back.

God told Abraham to take his son up to the mountain top. He told Abraham to take wood, and fire. He told him to kill Isaac and burn his body as an offering. This was the command of the Lord, and it’s clear that Abraham would have gone through with it.

If you google “Isaac and Abraham sacrifice” and do an image search, there’s no shortage of paintings and drawings. Renaissance art is full of paintings depicting this scene, the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to take the life of his son, only to have God intervene.

Some of this art is better than others. The best of these images focus on the drama unfolding between Abraham and his son. Isaac, laid out on the pyre. Abraham, holding the knife and gripping his son by the back of the neck. There must have been a struggle.

Our text this morning leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s not very detailed, and you can read it a lot of different ways. It’s possible to read this story and imagine Isaac as innocently confused, but obedient. His father told him to lay down on the wood, so he did. His father pulled out the knife to take his life, and Isaac accepted it. Abraham, for his part, conducted himself with simple obedience and calm. He didn’t start crying, he didn’t lose control. He didn’t shout or lay hands on Isaac. He just obeyed the command of God, and so did his son.

But I know that’s a lie. Or, at least, I hope it is. Because if that were true, if Abraham was psychologically prepared to murder his son with no displays of emotional conflict, that would make him something less than human. And Isaac – what young man, what human being accepts a violent death at the hands of a loved one without a struggle? Without horror? Without desperate cries for mercy and tears of disbelief?

There are images that present Isaac and Abraham as dutiful pawns in God’s strange chess game. In these paintings, the two of them are placid, serene, looking only to God.

I know that these images must be false. I can feel it in my bones. When I look at these peaceful depictions of this violent event, there’s no soul, no humanity. Abraham becomes a monster, and Isaac a bovine creature with no real human spark. Lost is the Abraham who argued with God over the fate of Sodom. He convinced God to spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous people. Couldn’t he be bothered to argue for the life of his own child?

And not just any child. The heir of the promise. This was the child that God had promised Abraham for decades. The miraculous boy who was born when his parents were far beyond the age of child-bearing. Isaac was the living proof of God’s faithfulness – his intention to make Abraham into a great nation, to make his offspring as numerous as the stars. Isaac was the tangible substance of God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah.

But more important than any of this, Isaac was Abraham’s little boy. He wasn’t just a means to an end. He was a real person, a child. And Abraham loved him.

I think of my son, George. I think of what it would mean to me if I thought God was asking me to kill my son and burn his body. Forget the promise. Forget great nations and offspring as numerous as the stars. This is my son, whom I love. I’d rather die than do to George what God told Abraham to do to Isaac.

What kind of psychopath says “yes” to a request like that? But more importantly, what kind of God would ever make such a request?

And for what? To test Abraham’s faith? To be sure that he was really committed? What kind of friend would test a relationship like that, much less the most high God, creator of the universe?

There’s a long tradition of not taking this story literally. And that’s good. Because honestly, it’s just too horrifying. Who could worship a God like that?

So this morning, I want to continue in that tradition. I want to invite us to experience this story as an allegory, as a narrative that opens up a moral dimension to us that is simply not accessible through anything less than a shocking but true story.

None of this diminishes the horror of the story. What God asks of Abraham is unfathomable. But in this ancient horror, we are also given a mirror into our own spiritual condition. We can find ourselves in the experience of Abraham, and that of Isaac. We can recognize in them our own challenges, our doubts and fears. The existential dread that stalks us.

When I heard this story, I’m forced to ask myself: What does it mean to sacrifice my Isaac? Because again, for the purposes of this allegory, Isaac is not merely a beloved child. He is the instrument of God’s promise. He represents everything that Abraham understands about who God is and how he is in relationship with God. Isaac is the most fundamentally important thing in Abraham’s life. Without Isaac, Abraham has nothing to hold onto, nothing to assure him that God really cares for him and has a plan for him.

So for God to demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac – well, it just doesn’t compute. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. How can God ask Abraham to end the very life that demonstrates their relationship? It’s as if a husband said to his wife, “if you really love me, you’ll throw away your wedding ring and move to another city.” This request doesn’t make any sense.

But the incomprehensibility of God’s request is exactly what makes it so important. When God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, he’s essentially asking Abraham this: “Do you trust me enough to let go of everything in this world that connects us? Do you love me more than my gifts, more than my promises, more than my presence in your life?”

That’s pretty deep. Because to be honest, most of the time, I want God for his gifts. I want him for his presence and power in my life. I want him because he helps give my life meaning and purpose, a sense of perspective beyond myself.

But that’s not what God wants. The kind of relationship that God desires with you and me doesn’t hinge on reasons or benefits, outcomes or external validation. The relationship that God is seek with you and me is one that stands beyond all incentives or proofs. It’s the relationship that Jesus demonstrated when he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The story of Abraham and Isaac has often been taken as an analogy for Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, in submission to God’s will. In this view, God is often seen as represented by Abraham – the sacrificer – while Jesus is represented by Isaac, the sacrificed. But this is a backwards view of things. During his struggle in Gethsemane, his torture by the religious and imperial authorities, and his death on the cross, Jesus found himself in the position of Abraham. Like Abraham, he was forced to abandon everything in this world that gave him assurance of God’s love. Jesus had to accept absolute risk.

On the cross, Jesus sacrificed the “Isaac” of his earthly ministry. He experienced terrible grief and failure. He experienced the absence of God, the loss of the promise. In that moment, all of his work was for nothing. It all ended on that nihilistic cross of suffering and shame.

In his Letter to a Young Activist, Thomas Merton writes about this journey into loss and unmooring, which is essential to the path of Christian discipleship. He speaks about how we often use our God-given work “to protect [ourselves] against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of [the] work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

We’ve heard a terrible story this morning. It’s a story of a father’s love for his child – his hope, his future – being overcome by his greater desire to be in relationship with God. It’s a story of cutting loss and heartbreak. It’s a story about how each one of us must move beyond assurances and guarantees if we want to experience the full depth of relationship with God.

This is a story about Abraham seeking a truer, more authentic faith. Beyond pleading and promises. Beyond rewards. Abraham gives himself to God unconditionally – even if it means the loss of everything else, including his ideas about God.

Our scripture this morning is an invitation to self-examination. What are the ways that we have turned our faith in God into a transaction, rather than full submission? Do we love the gifts God gives us more than we love God himself? What are we being called to surrender, so that we can be more fully embraced by God?

What does it mean to be like Jesus, who let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom?

Related Posts:

The Harvest is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

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The Harvest Is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

The Harvest Is Plentiful - Why Are the Workers So Few?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/18/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 9:35-10:8. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

This morning, I want to tell you a story about Stephen Grellet. Stephen Grellet was a French-born Quaker minister, one of the best-known Quakers of the early 1800s. He traveled extensively and preached to thousands.

One day, as he was in prayer, he felt that God was calling him to take a long journey into the American backwoods, to preach to the woodcutters. Wood cutting was an isolated profession, like working on an offshore oil rig today. And Grellet heard God’s voice speaking to him, “Go back there and preach to those lonely men.” Filled with compassion and a sense of the Spirit’s guidance, Grellet left his family to visit the backwoods.

Grellet felt drawn to a specific spot in this backcountry. It was a place he had visited before, and he felt certain that God was calling him there again. He felt a flood of peace and assurance when he arrived at the woodcutter camp. But as he looked around, he soon realized that the camp was totally devoid of human presence. It had been abandoned days ago. The woodcutters had moved into the forest and might not be back for weeks.

Grellet considered that, perhaps he was mistaken. Maybe he was at the wrong location. But a voice within him said, “no, this is exactly where you are supposed to be.” He prayed silently, asking God for guidance. The response was: “Give your message. It is not yours, but mine.”

In this abandoned encampment, there was one large wooden hut that stood out. Grellet stepped inside and made his way to the back of the structure. He turned around facing the entrance and began to preach. He preached as if the place were packed with hundreds of people. He spoke about how the love of God is the greatest thing in the world. He spoke about how sin builds a wall between human beings and God, but that this wall is thrown down in Jesus Christ. He spoke about how the love of God triumphs over all.

After preaching his message, Grellet was exhausted. He drank some water from a nearby stream, ate a bit of bread he carried in his pocket, and then began the long journey back home. He never saw any woodcutters. Yet he felt peace in his spirit. He felt certain that he had been faithful in what God had given him to do.

Years later and a continent away, Stephen Grellet is crossing London Bridge, wearing his distinctive Quaker outfit and broad-brimmed hat. All of a sudden, someone grabs him by the arm and says, “There you are! I’ve found you at last!”

Grellet is surprised, and probably a little nervous to have this gruff stranger grabbing him and making accusations. “I think you must have the wrong person, friend.”

“Absolutely not!” said the stranger. “I’ve been looking for you across the globe, and I’m not mistaken. You’re the man from the woods!”

It turns out that Stephen Grellet wasn’t entirely alone that day when he visited the woodcutters’ encampment.

The man standing before him tells him about how he returned to the empty encampment, looking for a tool he had left behind. As he was retrieving it, he heard Grellet’s voice booming from the wooden hut at the center of the camp. As Grellet spoke, the lone woodcutter watched through the cracks in the walls. And he found that the gospel message shone through the cracks in his heart.

By the time Stephen Grellet left the camp, this man’s life had been changed forever. After hearing Grellet’s message, he felt miserable, convicted of the sin that was separating him from the love of God. But eventually he got a hold of a Bible and began discovering the way of Jesus.

At first, the other woodcutters made fun of him, but the man’s faith was infectious. “It’s share and share alike in the forest,” said the former woodcutter standing in front of Grellet on London Bridge. “I told the men all about the gospel, just like you. I gave them no peace till everyone was brought home to God. Three of them went out to preach to other districts. At least a thousand have been brought home to the good shepherd by that sermon of yours which you preached to nobody.”

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to teach, heal, and preach the good news of the kingdom of God throughout the villages of Israel. As he prepares them for their journey, he says “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Who are the laborers, and what is the harvest?

Jesus and his little community of disciples were very small. They lived on the margins of society. Yet the crowds flocked to them, eager to hear the good news of the kingdom. Like a mustard seed growing into the greatest of shrubs, or a little bit of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, God used these handful of disciples to have an astonishing impact on the world.

God’s story is one of continuing surprise. It’s a story that goes back to Abraham and Sarah, who were in their eighties and still childless. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, but here they were, still without children at an age where child bearing wasn’t just a long shot – it was physically impossible!

But God had promised it. Multiple times. God insisted that not only would Abraham’s descendants be as numerous as the stars, but that he would make a covenant with Abraham’s son through Sarah. Sarah, who realistically hasn’t been able to bear children for several decades at this point.

One day, Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre, around Hebron. He’s sitting there at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He’s probably about ready to take a nap. But then, he looks up and sees three men standing before him.

Now, for those of us reading today, it’s a little ambiguous who these men are, exactly. But as the text goes on, it seems that two of these men are angels, and the third is the Lord himself. Whatever the specifics, Abraham seems to know who has come to visit him. He immediately bows down to the ground and asks the men to accept his hospitality. They agree, and Abraham rushes back into the tent to tell Sarah to make pancakes and cook up a goat for their guests.

A little while later, the visitors are sitting under a tree, eating their food. They ask Abraham, “Where’s your wife, Sarah?” When Abraham says that she’s in the tent, one of the men says: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Now it isn’t proper in ancient near-eastern culture for Sarah to hang outside with the men, but she was very interested in this conversation. So she is hiding just behind the entrance to the tent, listening to everything that was happening. And when Sarah hears the visitor say that she will soon have a son, she laughs to herself.

And the LORD says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Count on it. It’s going to happen just like I said. When I return, Sarah will have a son.”

Now I guess at this point, the jig is up and Sarah comes out of the tent. She says, “I didn’t laugh!” But the visitor says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

This is one of my favorite lines of Scripture. What a weird story! And it feels so true to me, about how God is. God knows us, God understands us, even when we’d prefer he didn’t. And God accepts us, even when we can’t quite believe him. Sarah sees the whole situation as ridiculous, and she’s right. It doesn’t make any sense. But God responds by insisting, “I will make something amazing out of this ridiculous situation. And you will know that I did it, precisely because it is impossible.”

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I think back to Stephen Grellet, with his apparently pointless sermon to an empty wooden hut out in the backwoods. I remember the twelve disciples – a band of misfits, living on the margins – the last people you’d expect to change the world. I think of Abraham and Sarah, people who should have been great-grandparents but who instead are expecting an infant child.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. When I’ve read these words of Jesus before, I always thought that Jesus was complaining about the lack of laborers. But what if the shortage of laborers isn’t a bug in God’s program? What if it’s an intentional feature?

Throughout God’s story, he has always used the most unlikely people in the most ridiculous ways. He chose a barren couple to be the parents of many nations. He picked a wimpy kid to be the king of Israel. He selected a family from the backwoods of Galilee to give birth to the Messiah. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And maybe that’s the way God likes it!

I think of Gideon’s army, which God whittled down to just 300 men. In the eyes of common sense, they had no chance at all. But through God’s power, they were able to defeat the enemy.

I think of Stephen Grellet, who listened to God, even when it was ridiculous. By preaching to an empty room, he turned a thousand lives to God.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. What does it mean for us, as a tiny congregation amidst the great city, to be faithful? How can we endure in the unlikely – even ridiculous – work that God is calling us to? What does it mean to claim the hope of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and the disciples, Stephen Grellet and the man whose life he changed forever? What does it mean to be the few laborers, steadfast even when we can’t perceive the harvest?

As God said to the prophet Samuel, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; human beings look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Holy Spirit, speak to our hearts. Show us how to be faithful to your guidance, your mission, your love – even when we can’t help but laugh.

Related Posts:

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How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

Where was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?

Where was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/4/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21, & 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Before the light. Before the day and the night. Before the teeming life in the sea and on the dry land. Before anything we could see or imagine, the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

There’s a long tradition of Christian thought that imagines that the Holy Spirit was somehow not present, not a tangible reality in the world, until after the resurrection of Jesus. To be fair to all those Christian thinkers, there are some passages in Scripture that point to this idea. In chapter seven of John’s gospel account, he writes that Jesus taught his followers “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

I’m not quite sure what John meant when he said that at that time there “was no Spirit.” But I have to be sure he didn’t mean that the Spirit didn’t yet exist. Because we know that the Spirit of God has existed since before time began. This Spirit, this breath, was what hovered over the waters at creation. It’s this breath that God breathed into Adam when he gave life to our species. This breath was present with Moses in the wilderness and with Elijah up on the high mountain when he heard the still, small voice of God.

We know from our readings this morning that the Spirit of God did not somehow come into being after the resurrection of Jesus. She’s been with us all along. But scripture does teach us that our relationship with the Spirit of God has changed over time. It hasn’t always been the same.

In the beginning, at the time of our creation, we were children of God in the garden. We stood innocent and simple-minded before God. We didn’t have the knowledge of good and evil. The presence and breath of God was always with us, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Back in those first days, the spirit, breath, and presence of God wasn’t something we even thought about consciously. It was just reality. To live as a human being was to be immersed in God’s presence, awake to his life.

But as we all know, things changed. We got into deep conversation with that very reasonable, very convincing snake. He told us that we could be like God.

We could be like God. It was such a perfect lie – such a characteristic lie of the Devil, wasn’t it? Because of course, we were already like God. That’s how God made us. We were created in the image of God. We were filled with every good thing. We lived in unity with our creator. We reflected his beauty and love. The only thing denied to us was separation from God.

And that’s the great irony. The serpent sold us the thing we already had: The life of the Spirit. The living presence of God, hovering over the waters of our lives. We grabbed that fruit with both hands, only to realize too late that to grasp at God – to try to control God – is an act of separation from God.

So from that time onward, our relationship with God changed. We experienced separation for the first time. Our breaths were no longer his breath. The Spirit of God became something distinct, apart, distant from us. In our shame we turned away. We made clothes to hide our nakedness, to hide ourselves from the radiance that we had once experienced as totally normal.

Many years passed. Thousands of years. So long that human beings had almost completely forgotten our original connection and unity with the Creator. We forgot that our breath used to share the same character as God’s breath. That he breathed in us and gave us life as children of God.

By the time Moses came around, the Hebrew people had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. The Hebrews had forgotten everything. Like the rest of humanity, they were spiritual amnesiacs. And this is what I think that John must have meant when he said that in the days before Jesus’ resurrection “as yet there was no Spirit.” For all practical purposes, that was true. The Hebrews, the Egyptians, all the people of the world had so thoroughly forgotten who God was, forgotten what it felt like to live in unity with the Creator, that it was as if the Spirit did not even exist.

Moses had forgotten, too. It took a dramatic intervention in the form of a burning bush to get Moses to wake up to who and whose he really was.

For a while, this kind of revelation was just limited to Moses. The Spirit of God hovered over Moses. Moses spoke to Aaron, and Aaron spoke to the people. It was always three degrees of separation. When Moses went up on the mountain to talk to God, he didn’t have to convince anyone to let him go up there alone. The people begged him to leave them behind. “Hey, Moses, why don’t you go up there and talk with God in the storm cloud? We’re just gonna stay down here and try not to get struck by lightening!”

For years, Moses was the only one to talk to God. Moses was the only one experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit.

But the Spirit wouldn’t stay constrained to being in relationship with just one man. As cool as Moses was – as stylish as his wild-man beard might have been – the Spirit was gonna hover. She was gonna keep hovering wherever she wanted to hover.

And so, as we read in our Scripture this morning from the Book of Numbers, it’s not too long before the Spirit starts to break out from her relationship with Moses and starts involving more people. Moses is tired, and God knows that no one person is meant to carry the burden of God’s message all alone. And so Moses called together seventy elders of the people and laid hands on them, so that they would receive a share of the Spirit, too. And it says the Spirit rested on them, and they prophesied.

But there were a couple of guys who missed the meeting. I guess they missed the memo or something, because they didn’t know up for the ceremony. But the Spirit didn’t seem to care at all. After all, the Spirit hovers wherever she wants to hover. So while the other sixty-eight elders were up at the tent revival, getting their Holy Spirit on, Eldad and Medad started hollering and breaking out in prophecy in the middle of the camp!

Now Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, saw that Eldad and Medad were speaking out of turn. They were running around, exciting everyone, and drawing a lot of attention to themselves as they praised God in the Spirit. So Joshua ran back to the Tent of Meeting and told Moses: “Eldad and Medad are running around prophesying. You’ve gotta stop them!”

Moses couldn’t believe what Joshua was saying. How could it possibly be a bad thing for more people to receive the Spirit of God? “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asked Joshua. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

So throughout the Old Testament we see this pattern. Human beings try to corral God into specific times and places and rituals. We try to confine him to a tent, a temple, a holy-of-holies. We say that he can only show up in certain ways and to certain people. Can the high priest talk to God? Maybe. Can an ordinary person? No way. God is too holy to touch the sinfulness of ordinary human life. Let’s leave this one to the professionals.

But the Spirit isn’t afraid to touch the creation. Throughout the Old Testament, God chooses all sorts of people to breathe his Spirit onto. Some of them are the people you’d expect – kings and priests. Others – like Amos, Micah, and Elijah – not so much. God shows up in ways and people that are unexpected.

The prophet Joel foretold something even more spectacular. For so long, the Spirit of God had only appeared to some people, some of the time. But there was a day coming, said Joel, when God would pour out his presence on everyone. Just like in the old days, the Spirit of God would hover over the whole of the creation, leaving nobody beyond the reach of God’s love.

Today, we celebrate the day of Pentecost. As Christians, we remember one specific Pentecost more than 2,000 years ago. It was a day when the Holy Spirit came with such power and universality that the early followers of Jesus said: “This is the fulfillment of Joel’s promise. God has poured out his Spirit on everyone!”

On that day of Pentecost, after Jesus had been raised from the dead and ascended into the sky, all of the disciples were gathered together in one place. And the breath of God started to hover like she hadn’t hovered in a very, very long time.

It says, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The prophecy of Joel began to be fulfilled that day, as God created the church of Jesus Christ. Through his breath of life, thousands of people were knit together into a new creation, a new community, a people who walked together with God in the garden. In the midst of this fallen world, the New Jerusalem had appeared.

As followers of Jesus today, this is a reality that we are invited into. When we gather in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit hovers over us. The breath of God covers us, comforts us, and leads us with boldness and power. The same Spirit that created the cosmos is at work in us, revealing a new creation that heals the ancient separation.

It’s significant that the apostle Paul speaks about the life of our community in terms of the movement of the Spirit. Our faith in Jesus is made possible by the Holy Spirit. And it’s through the Spirit, dwelling within and among us, that we are able to manifest God’s love to those around us.

This happens in many ways. There are many manifestations of the Spirit’s presence, and none of us has all of them. But each manifestation – whether it be wisdom or knowledge or faith or healing or prophecy or miracles or discernment or tongues or interpretation of tongues – all manifestations of the Spirit are given to us for the common good. The Spirit is still creating – guiding and empowering us to heal the world.

We are so blessed. We live in the age of the Spirit, in a time where the Spirit of God is once again hovering over the waters. She’s hovering over our lives as we seek to follow Jesus together. She’s present in our midst as we gather here, in our homes, or in any other moment when we need to be knit together in God’s love.

It’s easy to miss it. It’s tempting to think that the Holy Spirit is only showing up in the most spectacular, high-energy moments. I’ve often doubted the Spirit’s presence when there weren’t tongues of fire and obvious miracles. But I’m reminded that throughout Scripture and throughout history that the breath of God shows up in many different ways. As a whisper, as a rushing wind, as encouragement, as sudden revelation. The breath of God blows where she will.

Let’s welcome her this morning. Holy Spirit, come.

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The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy
One of the most cherished beliefs in mainstream American culture is the idea that anyone can make it to the top, if they work hard enough. No matter your circumstances, you too can be healthy, happy, and whole, if only you put your mind to it.

This idea permeates pop culture, politics, and business. From Oprah Winfrey to Mark Zuckerberg, the leaders of our culture tell us that the only limit to our success is our own imagination and grit. It’s almost impossible to go a day without being exposed to a commercial message reminding us that we’re not good enough, strong enough, healthy enough – but that we can be, if we keep pushing ourselves.

American mythology is one of upward mobility. All our lives, we’ve been sold the idea that the best and brightest can have it all. And if you and I don’t have it all, well – we must not be the best and brightest. We must not deserve it. At least not yet.

This myth of American meritocracy is a tempting one, because it seems to be full of hope. Greatness is within our grasp, if we’re willing to push ourselves. Any shortcomings we experience can be explained by our lack of talent and tenacity. Our lack of merit. If our lives don’t measure up to what we were promised, we have only ourselves to blame.

Meritocracy is a powerful ideology. It directs the lives of millions, including many who consider themselves followers of Jesus. Yet Jesus never taught anything resembling meritocracy. Quite the opposite. The life and ministry of Jesus teaches us a way of downward mobility.

Through his cross, Jesus demonstrates a God who releases power, control, and security in order to show love and forgiveness. As a poor carpenter and itinerant prophet, Jesus denies the supremacy of wealth and human influence. And through his association with the outcast and despised – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “unclean” people of his day – Jesus reveals an upside down kingdom.

The way of Jesus is the furthest thing from the meritocratic myth of corporate America. It’s a community of God that upsets all expectations of our status-seeking, results-driven society. It’s a Spirit whose power is felt on the margins of society, whose love permeates those who have lost everything. The way of Jesus is not a road to glory in any human sense. It is a path marked by humility, brokenness, and shared suffering with the poor. In this kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Through his parables, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this kingdom might look like for us. In one of these stories, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who goes out early in the morning to Home Depot, to hire workers for a renovation project. There are men standing around in the parking lot, waiting for work, and the homeowner agrees to pay them a decent day’s wage. They jump in the back of the homeowner’s pickup truck.

Around noon, the homeowner realizes he could use some more help, so he heads back to Home Depot and finds other laborers standing around in the parking lot. He hires them, too.

Finally, late in the day, the homeowner returns to Home Depot. There are still some men there in the parking lot. They haven’t been hired by anyone, so they’ve just been standing around all day. “Come with me,” says the homeowner. “Work for me the rest of the day, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.” The laborers don’t have anything else to do, so they agree.

It’s getting to be dinnertime, and the sun will be setting soon. The homeowner calls the workers together and gets ready to pay them. He pulls out his wallet and begins to pay each laborer, starting with those who showed up last. To everyone’s surprise, the homeowner pays the first workers a full day’s wage, as if they had spent all day hauling bags of concrete and installing drywall.

Seeing this, the rest of the workers get excited. If the homeowner is paying a full day’s wage to these men who only worked for an hour, surely the rest of the workers would be paid more! But the homeowner pays each laborer the same wage.

By the time the last laborer is paid, those who had showed up earliest begin to complain. “Listen here, mister. How are you going to pay us the same as those guys who showed up just an hour ago? You’re acting like they worked as hard as we did. We slaved away all day in the sun!”

The homeowner just shakes his head. “Come on, friend. I’m not doing any wrong by you. We agreed on a fair day’s wage, didn’t we? Are you really going to complain if I am generous with those who showed up late? It’s my money to spend as I choose, isn’t it?”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The reign of God isn’t about being productive, or smart, or strong, or worthy. It’s not about knowing the right people or being clever. The way of Jesus is one of radical equality, even for those who we think don’t deserve it. Why? Because God says so. It’s his world we’re living in. Doesn’t he have the right to be generous?

We all need God’s generosity. The myth of meritocracy imagines that somehow each of us can earn our daily bread. But Jesus teaches us that no one can earn grace. None of us, not the richest magnate nor the homeless man on the street can say, “I built this. I make it, I keep it, it’s mine.” The whole earth is the Lord’s; our very lives belong to him. We own nothing, we earn nothing. In the kingdom of God, all that is left to us is gratitude. 

This can be scary, but also liberating. When we realize that we can’t earn anything, we awaken to the reality that we don’t have to. Our lives don’t have to be justified by the myth of productivity. We were created by a loving God who will care for us, just like the birds of the air and the grass of the field. Bad things can still happen. Birds do die, and grass withers. But no longer must we carry the burden of earning our keep. We can’t. God doesn’t expect it, and we only stress ourselves out trying.

What does it look like to shake off the shackles of meritocracy and embrace the radical grace of God? What would it mean to share in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus? Especially for those of us who have been working all day for our wages, what does it look like for us to embrace God’s abundant generosity for everyone, including ourselves?

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Is Jesus the Only Way to God?

Is Jesus the Only Way to God?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/14/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Peter 2:2-10 & John 14:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I love our gospel reading this morning. I think that the reason I love it so much because I used to despise it. As a skeptical young person growing up in Kansas, this passage from John was one of the Scriptures most often used as a weapon by Bible-thumping Christians. It was a proof text, used over and over again to demonstrate that Jesus is the only way to heaven. It’s used to imply that anyone who doesn’t hold the right beliefs about Jesus is headed straight to hell.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s an powerful statement. It’s a phase that has been used so many times to bludgeon people who are seeking, skeptical, and hurting. Those who have doubts. Those who have questions. Those whose experience of the world makes it hard to believe that a loving God would arbitrarily sentence billions of people to unending torment based on something as trivial as whether those people have said a particular prayer or accepted a narrowly defined set of doctrines about Jesus.

“No one comes to the Father except through me.” From the mouths of self-righteous Christians, these words of Jesus sound like a threat. “No one comes to the Father except through me. Don’t even try it. Angry Jesus will stop you.”

For those of us gathered here in this community, we know and bear witness to the fact that this kind of bullying doesn’t represent the character of Jesus. The Jesus we know is the one who came not to condemn the world, but to save it. The Jesus of our experience is a man who was willing to lay aside everything, even his own life, to pour out the unlimited love of God on people who hated him.

That’s very different from the Jesus of the fundamentalists. It’s a different kind of God, one who is more concerned with mercy, transformation, and wholeness than with being right. This is the kind of God we meet in Jesus. He challenges the violence of the mighty and the self-righteousness of religious people. He shows shocking love and forgiveness to those whom the world judges as outcasts and sinners.

As we heard in our scripture reading this morning from first Peter, Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected. He was rejected, despised, and discarded by the builders. But he has become the chief cornerstone, the key that unlocks the cosmos. The greatest minds and most powerful rulers considered him to be worthless, but God has revealed him to be essential. Jesus is this “living stone… rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”

Are we to believe that Jesus has come to present us with capricious threats and ultimatums? He is the rejected cornerstone, nailed to a cross by all the best and brightest. Is he here to threaten those who don’t meet the religious tests of modern day Pharisees?

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Anyone who repeats these words as a threat is no friend of Jesus. To interpret these words as a message of condemnation makes Jesus into a Pontius Pilate rather than a liberator. It turns him into a tyrant and a torturer rather than a savior worth abandoning everything for.

Jesus brings us good news of the kingdom. Jesus brings us freedom from slavery and fear. Jesus comes so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

So how are we to understand these words of Jesus? If they’re not a threat, what does it mean when Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him?

In order to understand most anything in the Bible, it’s important to zoom out a little bit. Context matters. If Jesus were saying these words while sitting on his heavenly throne, reigning in judgment – like he is depicted in Matthew 25 – that would impact their meaning. So what is the situation here, when Jesus says there’s no way to God but through him?

It turns out, these words of Jesus are part of a love song. Really! Let’s take a look at what Jesus was saying to the disciples right leading up to this.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Back in Jesus’ time, there was a proper way to go about getting married. When a man asked a woman to marry him, if she and her family agreed, they would announce the engagement. But before they actually got married, the husband-to-be had some preparation to do. In ancient Palestine, it wasn’t like today, where newly married couples are generally expected to move into their own residence. In Jesus’ day, families were much more tight-knit. The whole family lived together. So when a woman married a man, she literally joined her husband’s extended family.

In order to make room for the new couple, it was typical for the husband-to-be to go home and build an addition onto his parents’ house. Once the construction was complete, he could go back to wherever his fiancee was and marry her. The room was prepared. They had a place to live together, under the same roof with the man’s whole extended family.

So let’s hear the words of Jesus again: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Jesus is proposing to the disciples! Now, some people might say this is kind of creepy – proposing marriage to twelve people at once. And if he was, in fact, proposing to all the people of the world – well, that would make Jesus the greatest polygamist of all time.

But once you get past the weird, “Jesus is my boyfriend” aspect of this scene, it’s actually kind of amazing. Jesus isn’t standing in judgment. He’s inviting us into an intimate relationship with him. He’s proposing that we come to live with him, as part of his Father’s household, together with the whole family of God. Jesus is singing his love song.

Have you ever played that game? You know, the one where you start flipping through the radio and try to guess in the first two seconds of a song whether it’s a pop ballad, or a praise song? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve listened to the radio lately – but have you noticed how similar praise music and love songs are? A lot of times I have to wait until I hear the words “baby baby” before I can tell the difference.

But seriously, I think this points to something important. What if our relationship with God is less like a test to be passed and more like a romance to participate in? What if following Jesus is less about having the right answers, and more about giving ourselves over to a relationship and a community bigger than ourselves?

Jesus tells the disciples that he’s leaving to go prepare a place for each of them in his Father’s house. Then he tells the disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas, who we know is the skeptic of the group, objects. “We have no idea where you’re going! How are we supposed to find the way?”

And that’s when Jesus says it: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Like most religious people, Thomas was being very task-oriented in his faith. He wanted a method, a map, a set of rules and steps that would get him where he was going. But in response to his demand for a roadmap, Jesus points him to relationship. “Look at me, Thomas. Look at me. I am the way. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. You don’t need to keep looking. Rest in my love.”

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” All this time you’ve been looking for a system, or a set of rituals, or a test to pass that will give you connection to God. But you’ve been missing the reality who is standing right in front of you. Look into my eyes, Thomas. You haven’t really seen me yet. If you can finally see me for who I am, you’ll know the Father.

There’s a singularity in Jesus. Like his Father, Jesus is who he is. There’s no substituting for him. There’s nothing that can replace a real relationship with him. No one comes to the Father except through a genuine relationship with Jesus. We can’t just speak the right words, or have the right beliefs. We’ve got to look into his eyes. We have to experience his love. We have to see him, really see him, if we want to see the Father.

Now, I want to do something that is maybe a little silly. You remember how I said that I often have a tough time telling the difference between love songs and worship music? Well, a good example of this is the song “Only You,” by The Platters. This song came out in 1955, and it was hugely popular. It was played on jukeboxes everywhere. I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Right now, I want to invite you to hear this song again, in a fresh way. Let’s hear it as a love song to Jesus, as a reflection of the kind of passionate, personal, intimate love that he expresses for each of us in our reading this morning.

Only you can make all this world seem right
Only you can make the darkness bright
Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do
And fill my heart with love for only you

Only you can make all this change in me
For it’s true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do
You’re my dream come true, my one and only you

Only you…

Amen.

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