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There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God

There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/9/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11. 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

Our gospel reading this morning is about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, just days before he would be arrested and executed.

Jesus is riding on a donkey, and the people are all around him. There were massive crowds in town for Passover, and Jesus’ arrival in the city is perfectly time to cause a stir. The thousands of pilgrims are waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The crowd was hopeful that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that the king of Israel would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. As Jesus enters this city, this is a royal procession. He is the Messiah, coming king of Israel! The crowds welcome him, waving palm branches and laying them down on the ground before Jesus.

It wasn’t an accident that the crowds were waving palm branches. I know most of us grew up seeing palm branches as part of Palm Sunday, but Jesus didn’t invent palms as a religious symbol. In fact, palm branches were a very potent political symbol throughout the ancient world. Think about the wreaths and garlands that ancient athletes and rulers would wear. Think of the laurels of Olympic champions. The palm was a similar symbol for the ancients. The palm was a symbol of victory.

It was also a sign of resistance. The palm branch was a major symbol in the Macabeean revolt (167-160 BC) that freed Israel from the rule of the Seleucid Greeks. Waving palm branches was a symbol of power, resistance, and Messianic expectations. It was a big middle finger to Rome. It expressed the hope that this this Jesus of Nazareth might be the one who would finally throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor. Would Jesus finally establish the long-awaited Jewish kingdom in the mold of king David? That was the burning hope and desire of thousands of Jews that day.

Our other reading this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This passage provides us a deeper understanding of what Jesus is going through during his entry into Jerusalem. Paul talks about how Jesus rejected the way of power and domination. He writes about how Jesus was willing to be humbled and take on the form of a slave to serve others. Because of this humility and self-emptying, God highly exalts Jesus. He went as low as you can go, and God lifted him up. The one who suffered and died was given the name that is above every name. Absolute power, joy, triumph.

With Paul’s words as background, I want to take us back to the Passover crowds in Jerusalem. Hear their cheers. Feel the hope they have for Jesus. The desire to see Israel become a great nation again. To have a king, a military ruler who can end the Roman oppression and bring justice to the land. That’s what the crowds are expecting from Jesus.

But God never desired his people to have a king like the nations. God has always wanted to lead his people himself. For generations, the Hebrews wandered with God in the wilderness. He lived in a tent – no temple built by human hands could contain him. He was a mobile God. A mysterious God. A God who dwelt among his people and guided them directly.

It was only after Israel got a king that God “settled down.” It was only during the time of Solomon that God moved from the tent to the temple. And it was never clear that God was entirely willing to make that move. The God who says, “I AM what I AM,” will not be contained, immobilized, and idolized.

Before Israel had a king, the people got their marching orders directly from God. They listened to God together – when they were still in the desert, it says that Moses would speak to God at the Tent of Meeting, and everyone else in the camp would stand at the entrance to their tents and look on as Moses spoke with God. He spoke with God like one speaks to a friend.

When Israel became a monarchy, there was no more speaking among friends. Instead, one man would call the shots, according to his own judgments. One man would be exalted above all the others, and Jewish society would begin to take on the pyramid shape of the social order that God had liberated them from in Egypt.

When Israel instituted a kingship, the prophet Samuel warned them: “OK, you can do this. But this new king you’re asking for, he’s going to take your daughters for his harem and servants. He’s going to take your sons for military service, and get them killed in foreign wars. He’s going to demand huge taxes and tributes to feed his royal court. By the time this is all over, you’re going to wish you’d never asked for a king. This isn’t what I want. It’s definitely not God wants. But if you insist on going this way, he’s not going to stop you.”

Despite his warnings, Israel decided to anoint a king anyway. This was really depressing for Samuel, who know what this decision represented. But God told Samuel, “Don’t make this personal. This isn’t about you. They’re not rejecting you, Samuel. They’re rejecting me.”

To have a king is to reject God.

But when the people of Israel looked at Jesus, a king is what they wanted to see. They saw a military leader. They saw a strong man. They dreamed of a new King David, someone who would fit into this kingship model that so displeases God. They all knew the story. They knew that kingship was, at best, a compromise solution. And yet it was the best outcome they could imagine.

But Jesus isn’t the Messiah they’re looking for. Jesus isn’t a messiah at all, according to the Davidic model. If anything, he’s an anti-messiah. Rather than doing the killing, he’s going to be the one getting killed. Rather than doing the humiliating and torturing, he’s going to be the one being humiliated and tortured. Instead of being in a position of strength, he’ll be in a position of weakness. He’s not going to be the master, he’s going to be the slave – the slave of all.

Things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. We’re still looking for a king. A military messiah. A strongman who can shout orders, sit on top of the pyramid, and bring order to a hierarchical, unequal society. What was true for the Jews is true for all of us: Even in our dreams of liberation, we sow the seeds of tyranny and oppression.

We were reminded of this reality last week, when the president ordered missile strikes on another country. This was a revealing moment – not in what the president did, but in how our country reacted. We all know that American presidents wield almost godlike destructive power without any apparent checks and balances. They can drop high explosives on another country without most of us even considering it an act of war.

We know this. We know that America is the most powerful empire in human history. It’s not surprising that the president can throw his weight around and attack weaker nations with impunity. What is remarkable, is the way the American elites view this kind of violent action. As Donald Trump rained millions of dollars in high explosives on Syria, the news media and virtually the entire US political establishment praised his actions as “presidential.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle who had long been pushing for military strikes in Syria cheered the president for dropping the bombs. News outlets that are normally critical of the president lined up to endorse this new war. The New York Times praised Trump for “following his instinct.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that, with this attack on Syria, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams waxed poetic about the beauty of Tomahawk missiles. He quoted Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Those crowds waving palm branches 2,000 years ago – they were guided by the beauty of their weapons. The Romans with their legions were most definitely guided by the beauty of their weapons. By the beauty of their weapons, they nailed the prince of peace to a cross. By the beauty of their weapons, they embraced the kingship of Caesar and rejected the living presence of God. By the beauty of our weapons, America is embracing the broad way of death. By the beauty of our weapons, we will inherit the legacy of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.

The kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of this world. As followers of Jesus, we know this. Yet it’s so hard to break away from the mentality of death that grips our society. God has called us to be his people in this world. But just like the ancient Israelites, we’d rather have a king. A winner. A champion who will deliver us from suffering, even if it means forcing others to endure it.

I’ll be honest, I’m more comfortable with the way of Caesar than with the way of Jesus. Most of the time when I’m looking for salvation, I don’t want someone who’s going to be humbled. I’m not looking for someone who’s going to be put to death.

When I’m picking my leader, I want someone who’s going to triumph. I want someone who’s going to defeat my enemies. I want someone who’s going to establish a new kingdom, a new political order based on coercion and violence. Because that’s the only way I really know how to deal with human beings.

“But from the beginning it was not so.” That’s not the way God wants to deal with us. The God we serve is not a violent God – though we have often imagined him to be so. Our God is a creative intelligence. He wants to build and grow and cause life to flourish, not to break down and destroy.

The way of kingship is built on aggression, coercion, violence, and threats. It’s built on the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It’s founded on the beauty of our weapons and the arrogance of our intellect.

But God’s intention is for us to live together as one family, with one Father and Mother. God calls us to become humble servants to one another, to put the interests of others beyond our own. God calls us to lower ourselves, so that we all might be lifted up. Not by the beauty of our weapons, but by the life of the Spirit.

True greatness in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like triumph in the eyes of the world. It doesn’t look like being a billionaire. It doesn’t look like launching Tomahawk missiles on distant lands whose refugees you have denied hospitality. It doesn’t look like becoming popular with politicians and having the corporate news media singing your praises.

Greatness in the kingdom of God looks like being willing to receive suffering out of love for others. It’s being willing to lay down your own prerogatives so that others can get what they need. The kingdom of God doesn’t always feel like joy and light. Sometimes, it can seem like darkness.

We’re in the midst of that darkness this morning, together with Jesus. We’re with him as he marches into Jerusalem, marching into this city that will put him to death in the most terrible way. We also know that, because of his humility and yieldedness to the Spirit, God will exalt Jesus and give him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Jesus has the victory. It’s not a victory that the world understands. It’s a victory that comes through compassion, service, and emptiness before God. We can share in this victory. When we reject the pyramid scheme of Empire and embrace Jesus’ upside down kingdom, we experience the triumph of the resurrection.

In the midst of all the darkness this morning, I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate the victory of Jesus. Even though the world misunderstands him. Even as our nation’s leaders insist that they want a King David rather than a King Jesus. Even as Jesus marches into this city that will be his judge, jury, torturer, and executioner. Jesus is victorious.

We can participate in this victory. We can embrace his humble way of self-emptying. We can be set free by his fearless love, without regard for the consequences. Despite this world’s bombs, lies, and terror, we can be God’s bold, peaceful, and triumphant people.

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What if my Religion is just Self Help?

What if my Religion is just Self Help?

What if my Religion is just Self Help?
I came to religion for selfish reasons. I was often depressed. I felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning in life. I explored faith because I wanted to receive, not to give. I was looking for a spiritual solution to my lack of direction and purpose. I wanted a faith that would make me feel good.

I did a lot of religious exploration before I became a Christian. I engaged with philosophical movements like existentialism. I went deep with political ideologies like democratic socialism and anarchism. I even explored Buddhism, Islam, and other non-western faiths.

My motivations were very human and self-centered. I wanted a faith that would fix me, that would make me happy and fulfilled. I wanted a system that could give me the right answers and make my life easier.

If I’m honest with myself, most of my faith journey has been a path of self help. My religion was like those books that promise rapid weight loss, financial prosperity, or success in love. Everything was about what I needed, wanted, and craved.
What if my Religion is just Self Help?
Even my experience of God was a product to be sought after. Buddhist books written for westerners promised me inner peace and clarity. Quakerism offered me ecstatic, mystical experiences that took place in meetings for worship. That sense of presence and power made me feel special, purposeful, and loved. I wanted more of that.

I felt like these religious experiences were making me better. Throughout my twenties I would say, “every day is better than the last.” And it was true. The more I got into spiritual practices and religious devotion – meditation, Bible reading, worship, prayer – the more mature and grounded I felt. Other people seemed to think so, too. I had objective evidence that religion was making me a better person!

My faith was fun and gratifying. It was fantastic to feel successful. My life was filled with meaning and purpose in a way that I had never experienced before. I still had periods of darkness and struggle, but I came out of each one feeling more triumphant than before.

Until I didn’t.

My thirties have been a hard decade. I had my whole sense of mission and purpose called into question. The ministry that I’d been focusing my whole life on fell apart. It was hard to know what to do. I felt so clear about what God had called me to do. And then there was nothing left. Where was God in all this?

At the same time, my life turned upside down. After years of ministry, I started working full-time in non-church-related jobs. We also had our first child, which changed my life and outlook in ways that I never imagined. Life got busy. Full with comings and goings, work and responsibilities. I didn’t feel able to be present to God in the way I used to. I felt that emptiness again.

This new dry season is very different from the one I experienced in my teens and early twenties. This time, I’ve already committed to a religious path. I know that I want to follow Jesus. I’ve met him. I’ve seen that he is the Messiah. For me, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet I’m so burned out on religion. I’m so exhausted by church, theology, and all the human stuff that goes with being in faith community. Religion doesn’t feed me in the way it used to.

As hard as this is, I’m wondering whether this might be a good sign.

What if I’ve been mis-using religion this whole time? What if my relationship with God isn’t about making me a better person? What if it’s not about giving me purpose, identity, or comfort? What if my faith in Jesus isn’t about me at all?

Maybe these questions seem obvious to you. “Of course, Micah. What, you thought it was all about you?” In truth, I’d have to answer in the affirmative. That’s the whole narrative I’ve received about faith. It’s about self-improvement. Growing in maturity. Becoming a better man, able to help and teach others because I’ve got it together. That’s what I thought “sanctification” was all about.

But now I’m thinking there might be a different story. To put it in Paul’s language, what if I’ve been a baby drinking milk this whole time? What if God gave me what I needed in my very immature state, but it’s not the main course? What if the meat and potatoes of discipleship is less about improving myself and more about forgetting myself? Could it be that, by seeking life improvement – even by desiring to be “a better person” – I’m avoiding the real journey that Jesus wants to take me on?

What is that journey?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think it has to do with looking at Jesus rather than myself. I suspect it’s about learning to focus on the needs of those around me rather than my own dreams and desires. Even good dreams and desires. It might be that the kingdom of God isn’t about what I experience. It’s not focused on how I grow, or what I do. Instead, it’s unlocked when I lose track of myself. When I become yielded to the light of Christ. Even when that light feels like darkness.

This is a scary path. It’s frightening because I have no idea where it leads. To walk down it is to surrender my ability to steer. This is what it means to get past “self-help religion.” When I get into the strong meat of faith, the overwhelming sensation is that of being out of control.

Yet there is also the hope here. Hope that, in the midst of it all, I am loved and guided. There is a presence and power beyond my narrow understanding and selfish desires. She will direct me.

I want to trust this Spirit. I want to trust that this path will lead me through green pastures and beside still waters. Even if I’m thirsty most of the time.

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Is America Headed Towards Theocracy?

Is the United States Headed Towards Theocracy?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known that some Christians want the United States to become a theocracy. I was surrounded by this kind of Christian in middle school.

Many of them were lovely people; others were not. What they all had in common was this: They believed that America could – and should – become a “Christian nation.” They believed in a society where our leaders held the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. They had faith that “godly men” in positions of power and influence could bring about the salvation of our nation.

These friends, teachers, and classmates were part of a very powerful movement. Since the 1980s, this ideological force – the Religious Right – has gained enormous power. At the heart of this movement is the ideology of dominionism, the idea that Christian leaders should dominate all areas of society.

Dominionism identifies seven spheres in our nation’s culture: religion, government, business, the arts, education, family, and the media. To bring about the kingdom of God, each of these must be captured by godly leaders.

From my childhood experiences among the Religious Right, I know that this movement runs deep. An extensive network of preachers, politicians, congregations, and think tanks are working nonstop to transform our country into a place where godly men rule and everyone else obeys. Yet I have often underestimated how widespread and powerful this movement actually is.

This article from Salon.com – “How a Christian Movement is Growing Rapidly in the Midst of Religious Decline.” – helped remind me. It details a powerful dominionist network, rooted in the charismatic movement, that is intent on transforming American society. It differentiates itself from more traditional Christian movements in the following ways:

  • Rather than focusing on building congregations, it puts its energy into spreading beliefs and practices through conferences, ministry schools, and the media.
  • It focuses less on proselytizing non-believers and more on transforming society by placing like-minded leaders in powerful positions.
  • Rather than formally organized denominations, the movement is a network of independent leaders.

Reading this article my first thought was: “Hey, this sounds a lot like the Friends of Jesus Fellowship!” While Friends of Jesus does have a leadership core, we have a lot of freedom in how we organize ourselves. We don’t have a top-down structure. Instead, we encourage one another to explore what bold faithfulness looks like. When we take action, it is because the Holy Spirit directs us, not because a human leader ordered it.

We’re also not locked into building new congregations. Most of us attend a variety of churches – both Quaker and non-Quaker – that we did not start. We have gravitated towards building momentum through gatherings, teaching, and internet outreach.

And, like the dominionists, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship has not primarily aimed our message at non-believers. We’ve had a lot more success in energizing and encouraging folks who are already on the path.

So is Friends of Jesus a dominionist movement? No way! Here’s why:

Dominionism is obsessed with placing its leaders at the top of the pyramid. Friends of Jesus’ mission is to follow the homeless Messiah, the outcast, the forgotten one. We want to be friends of the Jesus, who became a slave and served others rather than placing himself over others.

Friends of Jesus is the complete opposite of dominionism. We’re a bottom-up community. We seek to follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying love.

The kingdom of God isn’t a domination system. It doesn’t look like our present world, except with better overlords. The way of Jesus doesn’t replace the rich, powerful people at the top with new elites. The Holy Spirit turns the whole social pyramid upside down!

It’s a huge challenge to think about what Jesus means when he says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Because this isn’t a mysterious metaphor. It’s economic, social, and political reality. The kingdom of God is about the presence of real love and justice, not the authority of human rulers. The only “dominion” in God’s new order is that of a servant, a lover, a friend.

Many Christians are chasing after political, social, and economic dominance. But we Friends of Jesus have another calling. To a more beautiful, joyful life. A life rooted in love, relationship, and reliance on God. An existence so free of anxiety that we are unafraid to lower ourselves and lift others up.

There’s room for you here. In the midst of all the confusion and hatred, come find the humble way of Jesus with us. Like any good network, we have a gathering coming up.

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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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What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong?

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.)

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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?

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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Millions Marched. What Comes Next?

Millions Marched. What Comes Next?
This Saturday I was out in the streets in solidarity with my sisters across the country. We marched together for the freedom, safety, and health of all women. We marched in the context of a nation where a vile misogynist has recently ascended to power, whose regime threatens the freedom and well-being of women (and pretty much everyone else, too!).

It was an amazing thing to see this demonstration blossom into probably the largest single day of protest in American history. It’s estimated that there were roughly 500,000 people in the streets of Washington, 750,000 in Los Angeles, and well over 100,000 in several other large cities. What is perhaps just as impressive is that there were sizeable protests in small towns, rural areas, and mid-sized cities in deeply “red” states. The women of the United States have shown that opposition to the proto-fascist Republican agenda is strong, broad-based, and in a state of mobilization. 

In the wake of this incredibly successful march, there has been some legitimate criticism. Some have pointed out that the Black Lives Matter movement protests have been just as peaceful as the Women’s March. Yet BLM participants have been subject to police harassment, intimidation, and demonization by the corporate media. When people of color march, they’re often labeled “thugs.” Sometimes it seems like only white people are permitted to have their political disagreements heard without an immediate – and often violent – rebuke from power. 

These critiques are valid, and they need to be taken seriously. White Americans like me and my family need to do better at hearing the voices of our black and brown brothers and sisters, even when those voices disturb our comfort. White folk like me have a long way to go as we seek a movement that truly embraces the leadership of our black and brown sisters and brothers. May God inspire white Americans with a spirit of repentance and reconciliation. May the Holy Spirit break down barriers that keep us from embracing the vision and leadership of people of color.

It is critical that we lament and acknowledge these racial divisions, and our shortcomings as white people in the movement for justice. At the same time, I believe it is good and appropriate to be joyful. This weekend we witnessed a powerful upswelling of hope and resistance in the face of oppression. The Women’s March was one very important step in the mobilization of a new movement for human rights, democracy, and the restoration of the Republic.

For me, and for many of us, the biggest question now is: How do we move forward? How do we build on the gains of the past week and focus our energy towards grassroots movement-building? Because we are in this for the long haul.

During the Occupy movement, many of us came to understand that our role was to plant a seed. We couldn’t predict the long-term changes that would come as a result of our public witness. We couldn’t control how others reacted. We simply made the decision to declare the truth boldly, trusting that a power greater than ourselves was at work in the world.

The fruit of Occupy is sprouting, and new seeds are being planted. Millions of people took their first steps into the movement this weekend. Organizations large and small are finding new life and strength in this important moment. Across our nation, the friends of Jesus are being drawn deeper into a path of radical discipleship that challenges the false claims of Empire and the 1%.

Here in Washington, DC, we are gathering in homes. We’re sharing food and praying together. We’re listening together for how Jesus is directing us into concrete action for justice. This weekend, in preparation for the Women’s March, some of us took part in active bystander nonviolence training. We will continue to meet together for fellowship in homes and shared spaces. We will continue to gather for prayer, teaching, and the breaking of bread. As crisis accelerates, we are being drawn closer together in discipleship to Jesus.

We have the momentum now. In the midst of challenge, we are discovering faith anew. We welcome you to join us. Whether here in DC, or in another little community of Jesus followers, join us. Experience the fellowship that Jesus is gathering. Embrace the joy that he gives us as we seek his justice, his mercy, his kingdom.

Whatever you do, don’t stop organizing. Don’t stop gathering. Don’t stop dreaming, speaking, writing. It has taken decades – and, in some ways, centuries – for our nation to reach this moment of crisis. There is no quick and easy way out. But together we can find it. Together, we can be the light.

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