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Learning to Love Our Greatest Enemy: Death

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/25/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 12:22-34, and 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I remember back in March, when the pandemic was first getting serious here in California and we all began to lock down. Started working remotely. No more in-person gatherings at church. Trips to the grocery store became a major excursion and involved a lot of waiting in line. Lots of us were wondering if supply chains would break down. We stored up food, just in case.

For me, this was a moment of reflection. On life. On death. On how easily things could all fall apart. I couldn’t take anything for granted. There was a disease out there that could kill me or anyone I loved, any time. Death felt very close. Life was fragile.

As the pandemic has worn on, we’ve adapted. Life goes on. We wear our masks to the grocery store. Remote work becomes the norm for some of us, and others of us learn to take precautions at our in-person workplaces. And as this sense of normality returns, the raw urgency of the moment begins to fade. The routine returns.

For me, that routine has meant that it’s harder, once again, to feel the cold breath of death on my shoulder. It’s easier to pretend that this life stretches on forever, that this day exists as a means to an end: to be rushed through, optimized, leveraged for maximum profit. It’s easy to forget myself, to lose track of the reality that this moment is all we have. Death could come at any time.

Death is always close. And death is no respecter of persons. Babies can die. Children can die. Young people can die. The healthy can die. We are all just one heartbeat away from eternity. Whatever that looks like. We don’t know what it means yet, but we’ll be finding out soon.

Death gets a bad rap in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures we learn that death came into the world through the Fall, the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Death is a natural outgrowth of sin – our choice to turn away from God and become our own masters. From this perspective, death and hardship are not natural; they are of human making.

The heart of the gospel is that Christ has come to liberate us from both sin and death. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

So in the view of the Christian church, death is an enemy. Death is the result of sin, and will be abolished when sin is put away. Death is not something to be welcomed, it is an evil to be defeated.

And in many ways, this is true. Death is an evil, because death brings the destruction of life, the destruction of the human personality. Death is the extinguishing of God’s creation, which God meant to be unending and overflowing, full of abundant life, just like God is.

Death came about because of our choice to turn away from God, to seek our own wisdom, and attempt to become little gods ourselves. Death exists because we insisted on having it all, regardless of the consequences, regardless of reality! Death is the consequence. It’s the imposition of reality on our delusions of grandeur and self-worship. Death is an evil that we are forced to endure, but wish we didn’t have to.

And yet, in the context of our own experience of being lost and sinful creatures, death presents itself as a strange sort of friend. Death is an enemy, yes – but perhaps just the sort of enemy we needed. God knew we needed an enemy like death, if we were ever to come home; if we were ever to see the foolishness of our ways and turn back to God.

Death is an enemy who can instruct us, if we will listen.

In CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, he paints a picture of the afterlife, both heaven and hell, but he spends a lot of his time describing hell. And rightfully so, because unfortunately hell is something that we can understand a lot better than heaven. We’ve spent the greater part of our lives experiencing it.

CS Lewis describes hell as a place without boundaries, without limits. In hell, if you want a brand new mansion with eighteen bedrooms, a golf course, and an olympic swimming pool, you just have to wish for it. The world of hell is infinite, and you can go anywhere and have anything. Hell is a realm of ultimate wish fulfillment. 

Not what you expected, huh?

At first glance, this sounds nothing like hell. It sounds more like heaven. To have anything we want, whenever we want, however we want it, forever? Wouldn’t that be great? CS Lewis aims to convince us that it would not.

According to Lewis, hell is a place of ultimate suburban sprawl. Hell expands infinitely. Because, since everyone has everything they could ever want or imagine, no one needs anyone else. Every time a person has a disagreement with someone else, or some aspect of their life isn’t “just so,” they can immediately escape. They imagine a new house, a thousand miles away – and poof, they’re gone.

Hell is a place without limits. It’s a place where we are God. And becoming gods, we find that we are demons, fit only to torture ourselves and others. And especially ourselves.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus gives one of his greatest and most challenging commandments: “Do not worry!” Everyone is running around, concerned about making sure they have enough to eat, and drink, and wear. But we easily forget about the most important thing: the kingdom of God, the power and presence of Jesus in his resurrection. 

We forget that this very moment, right now, is bathed in the radiance of eternity. We forget that this is a sacred time, a holy place – not just a means to an end. We imagine that we are waiting for a better day to arrive, a better moment, a better place – but this is all that there is, and it is enough!

Jesus says to us:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Do not be afraid, little flock of Berkeley Friends Church. Give it all away. Feel the cold breath of death on your shoulder. The angel of death is coming to take away everything that seems so important. You can’t take any of it with you. 

The kingdom of God is not a light at the end of the tunnel, far in the future. It is not a commonwealth to build or a paradise to inherit some day. This moment is everything. In the midst of all the stress, struggle, and evil of this present time, this day is shot through with rays of glory. God’s presence dwells with you now. Let tomorrow worry about itself. 

We’ve got no guarantees. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we know that God loves us, and that we need one another. As long as we are living in the kingdom of God, and not CS Lewis’ vision of hell, we need one another. We need God’s presence. And that is enough.

This is the appointed time. This is the hour of Christ’s coming.

I do not mean this metaphorically. Jesus is here, resurrected. Jesus is present to teach and guide us. Now is the time to take hold of that resurrection, to come together as friends of Jesus. Because God knows what tomorrow brings. 

As the apostle Paul writes in our scripture reading this morning:

“…brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. Elections and plagues and causes and heartbreak, they are passing away. Death is passing away, too. Because God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, not only to die for us, but to live for us. He is here. He is speaking. Listen to him!

One of the things that Jesus is teaching us is that we have to love our enemies. We have to love those who are destroying our planet and harming the innocent. Jesus calls us to be like God, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Loving unconditionally. 

And if we have to love those folks, maybe that means we have to love death, too. After all, death is our enemy. Death is the horror that has haunted us as long as people have been people, ever since we chose to turn away from God and follow our own will. We have to love our enemies. 

We have to love everyone, especially our enemies, because we can only see the world clearly when we look at it through the eyes of love. And we need to see this enemy. Death has a lot to teach us about the moment we live in. Death provides clues about how we are to live in this present world, and what it might mean to be participants in the reign of God.

It’s like Jesus says: Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies of the field. They live without fear, provided for by God. They live in love, and they don’t fear death. We can be like them. We don’t have to be afraid.

Death dominates our lives when we seek to avoid it. We deny death psychologically, refusing to remain conscious of our own finitude. We deny death with our actions, doing everything we can to protect ourselves. For our ancestors in the garden, that first took the form of covering their nakedness. 

These days, we seek to protect ourselves in much more sophisticated ways. Health insurance, 401ks, standing armies, and nuclear arsenals. The kingdoms of this world are built on fear and rooted in denial of death.

Jesus invites us out of this hell world. Jesus reassures us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As the apostle Paul reminds us, the appointed time has grown short. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Now is the time to live without reference to this fearful society we inhabit. He urges us to practice non-attachment to the ways and priorities of this human empire we live in, because “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Perfect love casts out all fear, and total dependence on God makes us utterly free with regard to the rules and anxieties of this world. 

Berkeley Friends Church – little flock – let go of your fear. Let your light shine on friends and enemies alike, even death! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

A Quaker Testimony Against Netflix?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/11/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Exodus 32:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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We are living in a golden age of TV. I’m old enough to remember back when you actually had to turn the television on at a particular time if you wanted to catch your favorite show. And if you missed it, you’d have to wait until it was on reruns.

Now, everything is at your fingertips. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney+ – everything streaming, on-demand, immediate.

And it’s so good. Let’s be real. There’s more good TV coming out every year or two right now than came out in whole decades in the age of traditional TV.

We are living in a golden age of TV, and I’m loving it. Especially during this pandemic. I’m probably spending an average of an hour or two a night streaming a show or a movie. After work is done and the kids are off to bed, it’s such a relief to just turn my mind off, lay back on the couch and watch some of the best entertainment the world has ever seen.

Entertainment is the name of the game. It’s not just TV and movies. Social media, of course, is an extremely potent and addictive form of entertainment. How many of us have found ourselves scrolling through your social media feed, liking and sharing things, flitting from post to post, only to wake up an hour later, astonished at the time that has just disappeared?

Entertainment. That’s where it’s at. Video games. When I was a kid in the mid to late nineties, the best video games were things like Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo and Sim City 2000 on PC. Those games were amazing, and consumed countless hours of my childhood. But they look like digital chicken scratch by comparison with the depth and quality and sheer number of digital titles we have access to today.

Video games today are deeply immersive. Some of them feel like being inside a movie. Others are social, and become like a second job for many of the players. It’s easy to spend twenty hours a week in the game world, and many of us spend far, far more than that. Especially now, in an age of economic desperation, chronic unemployment and under-employment, millions of people are getting their sense of place, their sense of accomplishment and status, from massive multiplayer online video games.

Entertainment. It’s amazing. It’s so good. We love it, right? Who doesn’t have their favorite delivery system? Who among us can live without the sweet release of digital entertainment?

Certainly not me.

Have any of you read the book or watched the movie Ready Player One? It’s set in the near-future, in 2045, where the earth is a sprawling wasteland of ecological destruction and growing poverty, while the super-rich gate themselves away in fortified enclaves.

In this world of climate destruction, massive income inequality, and loss of any meaningful government beyond profit motives of corporations, most regular people spend their lives plugged into virtual reality. The real world is a total nightmare, so billions of people – everyone who can possibly afford to – escapes to a better world, inside a digital fantasy land called the OASIS.

I remember when I first read the book shortly after it came out, back in 2011, the author’s vision seemed a little far-fetched. Certainly on the wacky side of the possible.

Doesn’t sound too implausible now, does it? Sounds downright prophetic to me.

Our society is falling apart – politically, economically, ecologically – and billions of us spend our leisure time plugged into various modes of electronic entertainment, engaged with ersatz worlds that are easier, more beautiful, and more satisfying than the real world we inhabit.

When was the last time you felt sustained boredom? Not just for a minute, but for hours, or even days?

I remember boredom. I remember it vividly. It was one of the primary experiences of my childhood. I was bored all the time. I was constantly looking for some outlet, some way to engage my frustrated imagination and express myself. To discover, to explore the world around me. To make sense of it all and gain a sense of mastery over my environment.

I read tons of fiction and non-fiction. I sketched. I made music. I wrote poetry. I tried to write a novel at the age of 12. (It was awful.) I got politically engaged and worked to get a socialist candidate for president on the ballot in Kansas. I yearned. It hurt.

I haven’t been bored in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I endured boredom for an entire hour, much less a day. Always at my fingertips are streaming entertainment, social media, an endless series of pithy articles to read, immersive video games to play.

The moment the itch of boredom sets in on me, I can reach for my phone. My laptop. The TV remote. The OASIS is at my beck and call. I don’t have to endure this world we live in, with its slow progress and frustrations. Out here, I am so weak and small, but in the OASIS, in the digital world, I can be whoever I want. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t have to wait. I can have it all now.

When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, he was gone for forty days and forty nights. That is to say, he was away for a really long time.

Moses was the leader of the Hebrews. He was their prophet. He was the messenger from God who told them what they needed to do and where they should go. It was Moses who spoke on their behalf to Pharaoh. It was Moses who led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But now Moses was gone. Not just for a day or two, but for a long time – more than a month. People started getting nervous. People’s minds started to wander. People got bored.

So they went to Aaron, the man that Moses had left in charge while he was away. And they said to Aaron:

“Hey, Aaron: Moses has been away for a really long time. We’re not sure where he’s off to, but that storm has been raging on top of the mountain since before he left. Maybe he fell off a cliff. Maybe God struck him with lightning Zeus-style. Maybe he ran away. We don’t know. But bottom line is, we’ve got to do something.

We’re aimless. We don’t have a sense of direction anymore. We’re bored. So we’ve got an idea. Since we don’t have Moses to follow anymore, why don’t we make some images of gods to lead us forward. They can show us the way, just like Moses did. If Moses can mediate God to us, maybe some beautiful images can do the same.

We know the Caananites have Baal, the bull god. That seems to be working out pretty well for them. Maybe you can make us a bull, too. Bulls are a sign of strength, and we need some strength right now, if we are going to make it through the wilderness.

So make us some gods, Aaron, to show us how to follow the LORD. Moses is gone, and we’re bored. Give us something to do!”

Now, you would expect Aaron, as Mose’s right-hand man, to put up some sort of objection. But to our surprise, he immediately goes along with the demands of the people. He tells them to gather up all their valuables made out of gold, all the petty wealth they had brought with them out of Egypt. Aaron fashions it into a golden calf. A bull. A sign of power and strength.

And Aaron unveiled the golden calf to the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And he built an altar for the calf – a site where the people could come and worship – and he declared that the next day would be a festival to the LORD.

I find this really interesting. Because most of us, when we think of the story of the golden calf, we imagine that this was a complete abandonment of God by the Hebrews in the desert. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Aaron made the calf, and set it up at a site for worship, but then announced a festival to the LORD, the same LORD that Moses had gone to meet up on Mount Sinai.

It seems that the calf wasn’t really meant to be a replacement for God, it was meant to be a replacement for Moses.

The calf was more exciting than Moses. It was present while he was absent. It offered them a chance to perform tasks and religious ritual. The calf relieved anxiety and boredom. It told them that everything would be OK, and it gave them agency to be able to improve their situation without having to wait for Moses endlessly in the wilderness.

And so it says that the people, “rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” And it seems the the word that is translated here as “to play” or “to revel” has a sexual connotation. It is very likely that this is referring to sexual orgies, which were quite common in Canaanite religious practice in those days.

Who says worship can’t be fun? Am I right?

This is really interesting. Because this means that Aaron and the people thought they could worship God while ignoring God’s plan. They thought they could create a world of their own choosing, a world that was more psychologically safe for them, a world of bulls and strength, a world of wealth and fertility and sexualized religious rites. A world where they could make God in their own image.

And we can relate to this, can’t we? Because we, too, like to be entertained. We, too, believe that we can follow the God of Moses and Jesus while also conforming ourselves to the practices of the culture around us. We think we are Christians, followers of Jesus, inheritors of the promise, lovers of God. But where is the evidence in how we spend our time?

If I were to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I would say I spend probably two to three times more time watching streaming TV than I do reading the Bible and participating in worship. If I were to count all of the entertainment activities that I engage in – TV, social media, games, entertainment masquerading as “news” – the ratio would be much worse.

Are you in the same boat as me? Am I an outlier? Are the rest of you spending more time in prayer and Bible study than you are in entertainment? If that’s the case, then praise God, and pray for me!

But I don’t think so. I think most of us are a lot like the Hebrews in the wilderness. We’re in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory. We’ve been forced out of the familiarity of Egypt: America-as-usual. We’re looking for anything to hold onto. 

In these circumstances, we are very susceptible to the lure of the Canaanite culture around us. The golden bull of Wall Street. The orgies of Netflix and Facebook. Pouring our wealth and attention into frivolous things rather than the service of God and neighbor. “These are your gods, O Israel.”

We are a lot like the Hebrews. We think that we can embrace both God and the calf. Both the way of Jesus and the culture that surrounds us. We think that we can walk that line. We say, with the little girl from the El Paso hard and soft taco commercial, Por qué no los dos? Why not have both?

Why not?

Moses is here this morning to tell us that we cannot hide behind our entertainments any longer. The LORD is here this morning to say that we have to choose between the illusions of this world and the reality that God sees. We are called to embrace the discomfort and boredom that comes from living in the wilderness with God. Because that’s what it means to live as finite creatures in the real world.

George Fox is here with us this morning, too. The early Quakers had something to say about entertainment and distraction. 

A lot of us today are familiar with the Peace Testimony, and the values of simplicity, equality, integrity, stewardship, community, and so on. But the old Quakers had a lot more testimonies than these, and they weren’t general principles. They got very specific. 

One of these testimonies was their testimony against vain and worldly amusements. Early Quakers would not attend plays. They would not gamble. They would not participate in sporting events. They most definitely would not have watched Netflix.

Now, that’s not to say that we all need to stop watching any TV, or playing any games, or participating in any sports. The early Quakers weren’t right about everything. And you’ve probably noticed that this sermon is full of movie references. There is room in God’s world for creativity, art, theater, and fun.

But we can’t allow these things to distract us from the truth. We must not fall into the trap that the surrounding culture has laid for us, to draw us into entertainment as an alternative reality to be immersed in. 

God gave us creativity so that we could engage more fully with the cosmos that God has made, so that we could become co-creators with him. Unfortunately, this society that we live in has twisted our God-given creativity, using it to construct a false reality that numbs our hearts and blinds us to the truth.

God is calling us to turn away from the systems of entertainment that this world uses to keep us pacified. The rulers of this world have created a whole system of entertainment to keep us disconnected and powerless. They’ve forged a new sort of golden calf to provide us with false comfort, to keep us plugged into the Matrix and ignorant of the Desert of the Real.

Whether we like it or not, we do live in that desert. The golden trinkets of vain and worldly amusements have no power to deliver, only to distract and diminish.

This morning, we stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. We’re waiting to hear God’s word together. And even now, the temptation to distraction is with us. Our hands itch for our telephones, and all our false gods.

What would it mean for us to wait on Moses to come back down the mountain? What would it look like for us to reject the false idols of passive entertainment? What would it look like to turn away from syncretism and compromise with the surrounding culture; the voice that insists that we can follow God while also participating in the false worships of this world?

The good news is, we are not alone in this wilderness. If we will look up from our false gods for a moment. If we put away the screens. If we will turn off the stream of easy wins, dopamine hits, and fantasies, we will see real people – our brothers and sisters in Israel – standing here with us. We will see life as it really is, and say together with God who created it: “This is good.”

You Don’t Have to Be Afraid, But There’s Just One Catch

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 John 4:7-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Beautiful, right? Beautiful.

But also potentially meaningless. An empty little inspirational quote to be mounted on our refrigerator, maybe. If we don’t know what John means by “love.”

What is love?

Is the love of God the same kind of love that I mean when I say, “I love green tea,” or “I love my friends from college,” or, “I love my mom”? What kind of love are we talking about here?

We mean a lot of things when we use the word “love.” It’s confusing. John knew that, so in our reading this morning, he gets specific. He says:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Wow. So this is the kind of love John is talking about. Not our love, but the love of God who chose to love us, even when we were his enemies. The love of God who sent his only son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

This love of God isn’t about a warm and fuzzy feeling. It isn’t about liking someone because of a characteristic they have, or because they are useful to us. It’s not about being attracted to someone else for anything they are or have done.

The love of God is love for enemies. It’s love for the very people who hate us and are prepared to kill us.

The love of God is a choice, not a feeling. 

From Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, we learn that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is true in physical science, and it is often true in human relationships, too. If I push you, you push me back. If you love me, I love you in return. That’s natural.

The love of God is nothing like that. God is the unmoved mover. His love is objective. It simply is; it’s not a reaction to anything. God’s love is a choice, completely independent of anything we have ever thought, felt, or done. 

God’s love is sovereign. Just as God created the cosmos through the word of his mouth, he has also shown his love to us by the word in his son, Jesus of Nazareth.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t earn this. But somehow, God loves us. He chooses us. He calls us. He redeems us from this mess we’re in. That is what it means that God is love.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

We’ve received this love from God, and if we stand in it, if we allow it to live in us, God will abide in us. God is alive in us when we choose to love.

For those of you who are Star Wars geeks like me, you may remember the scene from the Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker meets the Emperor. And the Emperor is taunting Luke, trying to convert him to evil. And he says to Luke. “Let the hate flow through you. … Your hate has made you powerful.”

God is the exact opposite of the Emperor. God says to us, “Reject all hatred. Instead, abide in my love. Let my love flow through you. My love will make you powerful, even though it looks like weakness to the world. Jesus suffered and died for love, yet I vindicated him through the resurrection. Let my love flow through you, and I will vindicate you.”

Dwelling in Jesus’ resurrection, death has no mastery over us. We have “boldness on the day of judgment, because as [Jesus] is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”

We have boldness on the day of judgment, because love is the judgment. Love is the judge. Love is the measure of all things, and we have seen and known the character of God’s love in the face of his son Jesus Christ.

Perfect love casts out all fear. 

If we dwell in love. If we ground our lives in the love that raised Jesus from the dead. If we add our contingent ‘yes’ to the sovereign ‘yes’ of God. Perfect love casts out all fear. 

It frees us to see the world as it really is, and to love it as God does.

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’s love is not a feeling. It’s not subjective. It is bedrock reality. God’s love is how things really are.

God’s love – the love we see in Jesus laying down his life for us – this love is the truth. This is how God interacts with the world. It is the force that binds the cosmos together. The love of Jesus is how God’s creation exists. Everything else is an illusion.

You were conceived in love. So were Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. So was the person you most despise in the world. We were all conceived in love. That is how God sees us. 

God. So. Loves. The world. 

He loves us like a mom and dad love their little toddler who has fallen asleep in their car seat after a really nasty roadtrip tantrum. He loves us because he chose us. He loves us because love is who he is.

God calls us to love like that, too. Not because it’s who we are. Not because we love others by nature, much less our enemies. But we are called and empowered to love one another because God first loved us. John says:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sister also.

We can’t love God without loving one another. We can’t love God without loving our enemies. Just like Jesus loved us when we were busy nailing him to the cross. 

We have to love those who hate us. We have to love those who are threatening our friends and family, and destroying our world. We have to love them, because God first loved us.

Is that hard for you? It is for me.

Even in the best of times, we live in a rough and complicated world. Humans fight over control and status and resources. We hurt one another. We band together in our little tribes and cliques for protection. 

So it’s easy to hate other people. It’s totally natural. And when there are people who threaten us and those we care about, this hate is even reasonable.

These days, it feels like there are more people to be afraid of than usual. Our world is literally on fire, and at any given moment it can feel like at least half the country is our enemy.

This isn’t an accident. We are being intentionally primed to hate one another. By pundits on the news. Ads and posts on social media. Government leaders and celebrities. Neighbors who don’t wear their masks (Or maybe, you know, do that nose-sticking-out thing – don’t you hate that?). Even friends and family members are easy to hate when we disagree with them on important issues.

In this context, John has news for us.

First, here’s the bad news: 

If we hate other people, we can’t possibly love God.

But there is good news, too: 

Because of what God has done for us in Jesus, we have the power to be conduits for God’s love. 

We can choose to love each and every person who crosses our path. Not because we are so spiritually attuned or loving or generous, but because God first loved us while we still hated him. Living in his resurrection life, we can find the boldness to love even those who are hurting us, our country, and our planet.

What would it feel like to dwell in faith, hope, and love, and to feel the hatred and fear fall away?

How would this love transform our lives? How might our world change – what impossible things would become possible – if we loved one another?

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

The Bread is Enough

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/13/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 8:14-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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These past few weeks I’ve been reading and re-reading the gospel of Mark in my Life Transformation Group with Robbie and Chuck. Each time I read through any passage of scripture – in this case the gospel of Mark – I always encounter something new and different in the text. It’s always fresh; God is always speaking to us through scripture in new ways. 

This last time reading through the Gospel of Mark, I noticed a critical moment in the story. A key scene where the world turns.

You could argue that many different parts of Mark are sort of the critical moment, the fulcrum that the whole text hinges on. Maybe you’d argue that it’s the part in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and disciples keep falling asleep. You could argue that a pivotal moment in Mark is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the healing of Bartimaeus. Maybe it’s Jesus’ healing of the man with a withered hand in the synagogue in chapter three, when the Pharisees turn totally against Jesus and decide to destroy him.

The transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the scripture. And so of course is the crucifixion and the empty tomb. But reading through the story this time, I realized that, for Mark and for Jesus, one of the most important moments in this story is one that I – to be honest – have always sort of skimmed over and not paid a lot of attention to. It’s a story that hasn’t quite fit into my worldview. Maybe it hasn’t fit into yours, either.

It turns out that for Jesus, one of the key moments of revelation – one of the key ways to understand what Jesus is about – is when he feeds the five thousand and the four thousand. When he multiplies the loaves and fishes and provides for people who were out in the wilderness and had nothing to eat.

In our reading this morning, we hear about Jesus and his disciples immediately after Jesus had fed the four thousand. They’re in the boat. And as they’re traveling along on the water, the disciples start worrying. Because they realize that on their way into the boat they didn’t think to stop and get any bread. So they’re talking amongst themselves saying, “Oh gosh! We didn’t stop by the grocery store before we left. What are we gonna eat on this boat voyage across the sea of Galilee? We’re gonna be hungry.” 

But there’s something more important than hunger, even. Because you know, Jesus’ disciples being disciples, they probably knew how to fast. They probably knew how to go without food for a day or two. So even more important than “what are we gonna eat” is: “Isn’t Jesus gonna be disappointed in us for not thinking to pick up bread, to pick up food from the supermarket before we left town?” 

And so Jesus, well, it’s a small boat. I don’t think it’s a big boat. So Jesus notices that the disciples are whispering to one another and discussing things in low tones. And it’s a little bit tense.

And so Jesus asked them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Why are you worried about this?” He says, “Do you not still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember when I broke the bread for the five thousand? When I did that we had five loaves and we fed five thousand people! And how much did we have in leftovers?”

“Twelve baskets,” the disciples said. 

“And when we broke seven loaves for four thousand people just a couple days ago, how many basketfuls of leftovers were there?” 

The disciples answered, “Seven.” 

And Jesus said, “Do you still not understand? Do you still not see what I’m about? Do you still not see that the God who is here present with you is the same God who fed your fathers and your mothers in the desert of Sinai? Who fed you in the wilderness with manna from heaven? Who gave you so much meat when you asked for it that it came out of your noses and you got sick of it!”

“Do you still not perceive, do you still not understand what you’re dealing with here? You don’t need to be worrying about bread.”

“You don’t need to be worrying about how we’re gonna get by. The God you serve – my father – is the God of manna. He is the God who provides for his children.”

So you’re worried about bread. We’re worried about bread. I’m worried about bread. I’m worried about how we’re gonna get by. Maybe not in terms of the bare necessities. Many of us are lucky enough to not be worrying about where our next meal is coming from. But we’re nervous, too. We’re nervous that there’s not gonna be enough.

We’re worried that this country that we live in, that our communities are not going to have what they need. That this church maybe isn’t going to make it. We’re afraid that, “Well, maybe we won’t grow. Maybe the church is going to have to close someday. Maybe we’re not going to make it. Maybe our society has become so secular that it doesn’t have any use for the gospel anymore.”

Maybe, maybe we’re done for. Maybe we forgot the bread.

Where are we going to get that bread of life from?

It’s interesting, because Jesus is actually the one who starts the conversation. The disciples hadn’t even remembered that they forgot and the bread, right? They didn’t even realize they didn’t have bread until Jesus said something to them – until Jesus used a bread metaphor. He said, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” Right? 

Because right before they got on the boat, Jesus had been debating with the Pharisees. The Pharisees had been demanding that Jesus give them a sign from heaven, to prove that he was indeed the Messiah. That he was the one who God had sent to lead Israel. And Jesus, when the Pharisees asked him for a sign, for a demonstration of power and wonder, Jesus said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” And that’s when Jesus left and got on the boat. And the disciples forgot the bread. 

And it’s interesting. Because, Jesus had just performed an enormous sign, right? He just fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread, and had seven baskets of leftovers afterwards. So Jesus had just performed an enormous sign that modern people like us find hard to believe nowadays. Hard to believe that this could even have happened. 

Now there are different theories about how it might have happened according to the laws of physics, including that Jesus sharing what he had, and the disciples sharing what they had, encouraged everyone else to share and that’s why there was enough. Maybe. It’s this miraculous thing that, even today, we have a tough time making sense of.

And yet when the Pharisees come to him and say, “Give us a sign, rabbi! We want to believe you’re the Messiah, if you just show us some thunder and lightning. Show us some fire and smoke. In the Torah it says that God showed our forefathers and foremothers a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide us through wilderness. Can you just show us a pillar of fire please? We want to know that it’s really you.”

And Jesus says: “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly, I tell you no sign will be given to it.” 

He shut them down.

And this is a consistent theme. Throughout the Gospels – and specifically in the Gospel of Mark – when people come to Jesus to test him, when people come to Jesus asking for a sign, he turns them down. He will not perform for them.

And yet Jesus is performing miracles all the time. He’s healing people. He’s feeding people. He’s changing people’s lives. He’s casting out demons. He’s changing hearts and minds. He’s turning people towards God.

So why would this be? Why would Jesus be so full of miracles and yet refuse to perform signs for those who questioned him, who want to test him?

“Do you still not understand?”

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Are your heart’s hardened?”

When Jesus performs miracles in the gospel of Mark, it’s consistent that a necessary requisite for these miracles – for these signs of healing and presence and power from God – a necessary requisite is faith. It says that when Jesus went back to his hometown in Nazareth, people took offense at him, because he was just one of the old boys from town. He had grown up there. Everybody knew his parents. They knew his mom and his brothers and sisters. And they were like, “Who is this guy that he is doing all these mighty works of power?”

“Who does he think he is?”

And it says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there. It says offhandedly – “yeah, you know, he just, he healed a few people. But nothing too big, you know.” Which, for me, if I saw someone heal a few people, to me that would be pretty big. But for Jesus, he just healed a few people – just a few – because their unbelief was so great. Because there was such a distrust of him. A desire to test him and desire to judge him.

Mark says he was unable to perform many wonders there. It doesn’t say he chose not to; it says he couldn’t perform many great works there. Just a few healings. Because of their unbelief.

And then you look at the places where people are healed. Where miracles do occur. You look at the crowds who had been with him for days out in the wilderness and they had nothing to eat. They believed in him, they trusted him, they were following him, they wanted to be with Jesus.

And so when the disciples say, “Look Jesus, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, you should send these people home or to the surrounding villages to get some food.” Jesus says, “Look, it’s far away. People are gonna faint. People aren’t gonna make it to the surrounding villages. You give them something to eat.”

You give them something to eat. We are gonna provide for these folks. 

“Well all we have is a few loaves.”

Do you not yet understand? The loaves are enough. The loaves are enough for those who trust in Jesus. For those who trust in God.

The loaves are enough. For the man with a withered hand. Who Jesus met in the synagogue that day and healed him even though it was the Sabbath. 

The loaves are enough. For the woman with chronic bleeding that excluded her from religious life and made her a pariah. Who touched Jesus, trusting that if she could just touch him, if she could just touch the hem of his garment, she would be healed from the bleeding that had kept her on the outside. Kept her isolated and alone and impoverished for twelve years.

The bread was enough.

So as we are gathered here as disciples of Jesus. As friends of Jesus. As his people. As we’re gathered together in this time of global and national crisis. Of economic and political and health uncertainty. The bread is enough.

We have Jesus here in the boat with us. Jesus is the bread of life.

He’s broken for us. He’s multiplied for us.

If we will believe. If we will trust him.

If we will stop. Worrying. About how bad things look. And remember how big God is. How much bigger God is than our circumstance. How much more loving and beautiful God is than our fearful imagination.

The bread is enough.

Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember? What God has already done for you? For us? Don’t you remember the ways that God has already brought you through?

I need to be reminded. I need to remember how many times I felt like I couldn’t go any farther. I felt like I was hopeless. And there was no way to get where I wanted to go or to be the person I wanted to be.

But the bread was enough. Jesus was enough. Trusting him was enough. 

More than enough. There were baskets and baskets of leftovers. There was enough for me and plenty to share. There was grace and life and resources overflowing.

When we’re scared. When we’re angry. And when we trust ourselves and our own wisdom more than God. It’s tempting to want to test God. In our hearts, in our minds, to say to God: “Send me a sign, Lord. I don’t really trust you. So if you’re going to convince me, I need you to send me a sign. I need you to make it clear. I need you to make it unambiguous. I need you to prove it to me.”

And to those frightened, self-assured, apparently wise people who challenged Jesus in this way. Jesus said, “No. I’m not giving you a sign. I’m not proving anything to you.”

Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever been praying and asking God to prove it to you? Have you ever said, “God just do this thing for me! Just show me and I’ll believe.”

And it feels like heaven is empty. And faith is a lie.

But the bread is enough.

If rather than seeking to test Jesus. Seeking to prove God. To remove ambiguity. To reassure ourselves and feel safe and secure and smart.

If we’ll trust Jesus.

Without surefire proof. Without mathematical certainty. If we’ll trust him. If we’ll love him. If we’ll humble ourselves and be his friends. If we’ll let go of our worry, and know that we follow the God who fed the people of Israel in the desert. The God who raised Jesus from the dead. The God who created the whole universe. We’ll know that the bread is enough. 

And we will be healed. We will be fed. In all the ways that are important. And there will be basketfuls of leftovers for us to share with the hungry. Those who are still seeking. Those who are still thirsty. We will have leftovers to lay before them. 

Joy. Peace. An abundant life. A testimony of how God has worked in our lives. And a willingness to work for others.

So watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod. The puffed up pride that says, “God, why don’t you prove it to me?”

Because Jesus has exposed that that kind of pride – it masquerades as strength, but it’s weakness.

It’s weakness. It’s fear. It’s smallness. It’s ignorance.

It’s a refusal to let go and to trust the only one who is worthy of absolute trust.

As we know from the ending of the story. The ending of the gospels, the story of the book of Acts. The story of our Quaker ancestors. We know that though God will take care of us and the bread is enough, it doesn’t always mean that things will go the way we want them to.

It doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. It doesn’t mean we won’t die.

But it does mean that we get to participate in the resurrection.

We get to participate in a life beyond these present troubles. And it’s that life that empowers us. To live fully – and joyfully – even in the midst of this situation.

The bread is enough.

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/23/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 14:3-9. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like Jesus did.

Why Are We Afraid to Make Disciples?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/26/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 28:16-20. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Have you ever been in a secret relationship? Have you ever had a boyfriend or a girlfriend who you couldn’t take home to mama? Has there ever been someone in your life that you kept secret from your friends, because you were scared of what people might say?

We’re humans. We have relationships like these. Happens every day. We claim that we love another person. We say they’re our friend, or our lover. We say that we care about them. But we don’t want to face what it would mean to us, socially, if our relationship were out in the open.

Why would anybody want to be in a relationship like that? If you’re so ashamed of this person, if you’re so worried about your reputation, why would you be hanging around with them in the first place? Either your love for them is a lie, or the fact that you’re hiding your relationship is a betrayal. Either way, it’s time to quit with the games and make an honest choice.

Have you ever kept your relationship with God a secret? Have you ever been in a conversation with someone in your family, or a friend, or a coworker, and you stopped yourself from talking about your faith? Maybe you just changed the subject. Or you “translated” the truth of your heart to sanitize it for a secular environment. Have you ever hidden your faith like that? Have you ever been ashamed of God?

I know I have. Living in wealthy, sophisticated, urban areas of the United States – for a decade in Washington, DC, and now in the Bay Area – I’ve definitely let that sleeping dog lie. If I was going to talk about the most important things in life – truth, justice, integrity – there have definitely been times when I code switched. I’ve left God out of it. I’ve made my point without revealing the true source of my convictions.

Sometimes it feels like I’m cheating on God. It reminds me of that song from the late Nineties, by Destiny’s Child: “Say My Name.” Some of you might remember it.

Say my name, say my name
If no one is around you, say, “Baby I love you”
If you ain’t runnin’ game
Say my name, say my name
You acting kind of shady, ain’t callin’ me baby
Why the sudden change?

Why the sudden change? Why do we hide our relationship with God? Why do we pretend to be so nice? Why do we act like we’re good people? Why do we pretend that our core motivation is some generic, American sense of love? Why don’t we confess that it’s the power and Spirit of Jesus that has set us free? Why don’t we acknowledge that it’s his love coursing through our lives, compelling us to action?

Why the sudden change? Why won’t we say his name? Who are we cheating on Jesus with?

It’s easy to say that we love God. It’s convenient to say that our mission as Christians is to practice the Great Commandment – “love God and love people” – which both the Book of Deuteronomy and Jesus himself command us to do. We are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But this is not just any love. This is the love of Jesus Christ. And we have to say his name. Because this world thinks it knows what love is. It thinks that love is being nice and appropriate. It thinks that love is giving to charity, and caring for your spouse and kids. It thinks love is what we see on TV. It thinks that love is a feeling. It thinks love is safe.

But the love that we know is dangerous. We worship the God who revealed true love in the broken body of Jesus on the cross. The love that we have experienced, the incarnate love that we worship, is love for enemies. Laying down our lives so that the whole world can be redeemed. This is the love that God promised to Abraham and Sarah, through which all the families of the world will be blessed.

How is the world to know about this startling, self-sacrificing love of God? How are we to receive this love when we are blinded and confused by the false, selfish love of this world? For thousands of years, the church has looked to the words of Jesus that we heard this morning. This passage that the church has traditionally called the Great Commission.

These were Jesus’ instructions to his original disciples. Here, Jesus lays out what God’s love looks like when put into practice. And what did he say? He said:

Go.

Go and make disciples of all nations.

Go and immerse them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Go and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Go, and remember: I am with you always. Even to the end of the age.

And let’s notice what he didn’t say. What didn’t Jesus include in his commission to the Twelve? Jesus didn’t say “go and make propaganda.” He didn’t say, “go and convince people you’re right.” He said, “go and make disciples.” Disciples to whom? To Jesus. Not to us. To Jesus.

He said to teach them. Teach what? To know and obey Jesus. Who? Not Peter, not Paul, not me, not you. Jesus.

The Great Commission is not about replicating our opinions. This is not about building a religious empire or gaining superiority over other people. What Jesus has called us to do is to bring other people to learn from him. To come to him. To be transformed by him. To become a brother and sister to us in Jesus. Because he loves us, and we must learn to love the whole world like Jesus does.

Jesus says that we are to baptize others – to immerse them. Into what? Into our denomination? Our ideology? Our ego? No. We are to immerse our lives and the lives of those we meet into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That we may be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one.

We are to teach others to follow Jesus. Not us, but the living and resurrected Jesus. The foundation and cornerstone of our faith is that he is here, alive, ready to teach his people himself. And just as Jesus has invited us, we are to invite others. He calls us to join him in that teaching ministry.

What Jesus is saying here is that, if we want to practice the Great Commandment – to love God and love people – we must practice the Great Commission. We must share the victory announcement of the Kingdom of God. We must share the joy and peace and love we have found in Jesus. 

We have to say his name.

Why is this so hard? Because it is, right? It’s hard to talk to people about Jesus. It feels so personal, so intimate. It’s hard to talk about how much he means to us. Sometimes it’s even hard to talk about our relationship with Jesus with people here in this church. It’s even more challenging to share these things with people in our workplace, or in our family, or folks we are just getting to know.

Why does it feel like a burden to share the cornerstone of our lives, the reason for our hope and faith? Maybe we’re afraid others will judge us. I’ve felt that, have you? 

Sometimes, I worry that people will think less of me. Maybe if I talk about Jesus with a coworker, it would be inappropriate. They might think I’m a religious fanatic – or maybe just annoying. I know I don’t want to risk that kind of shame. I don’t want to feel vulnerable like that. I bet you don’t either.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tempted to justify my fear by telling myself that I really am obeying Jesus in my own way. I tell myself, “Well, maybe I’m not talking explicitly about the details of my faith with others – sure, I’m not telling them about my relationship with Jesus – but I’m showing my faith through the way that I live. I’m loving God, and loving people. And that’s what really matters, right? I’ll go ahead and follow the Great Commandment, and I’ll let others do the whole Great Commission thing.”

I get this. Because, at first glance, the Great Commandment seems selfless. It’s unquestionably selfless and pure to love God and love people, right? Not even an anti-religious person could really argue with that one! But the Great Commission, that’s a little different. It seems kind of ideological. And so many religious groups have used it as a proof text for why they need to be standing on street corners and BART stations, going door to door to try to get other people to accept their ideology. Right? The way it’s often been used and interpreted, the Great Commission can seem pretty salesy. 

But if we’re truly practicing the Great Commission, it’s just as ego-free as the Great Commandment. Because the Great Commission is about love. It’s about sharing God’s message with others, so that each person we meet has an opportunity to experience the love, and forgiveness, and power that we have received through Jesus Christ. 

We can’t love others if we won’t teach them to follow Jesus. We can’t love others if we don’t share the good news that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death; that he’s risen from the dead and here to teach his people himself. 

We can’t love God if we aren’t willing to be seen with him in public. We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves if we won’t share the message of salvation that means so much to our own lives. We have to say his name.

This is a heavy lift in our culture. At least in the circles I run in, it can feel like there’s an unspoken agreement that we should leave religion at the door. Religion is a private matter, like sex. It’s fine if you want to do it, but please keep it to yourself.

So it makes sense that those of us gathered together as Berkeley Friends Church are not so different from the first disciples. We’re scared of what Jesus is asking us. It says, “they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some of us are doubting right now. And all of us, each and every one of us, has doubted at some point or another. Probably at many points along the way, am I right?

Jesus wasn’t concerned with the doubting. He didn’t stop and chastise the disciples who doubted. Jesus didn’t have time for shame. He kept bringing the disciples back to the cruciform love of God. He kept sharing his commandments: Love God. Love one another. Love your friends. Love your enemies.

Go and make disciples of all nations – even the Romans, who nailed me to a cross. Go and make disciples. Teach them to follow the way of love that I have taught you. Immerse them into the life that I have given you. Go, and make disciples.

We could never do this on our own. It would be impossible to overcome the flow of our culture and swim against the current if all of this were just a nice idea. But the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. We are empowered to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and love our neighbors as ourselves. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Because Jesus is with us always. Always. Even until the end of the age.

What does it look like for us to be faithful to Jesus’ Great Commission? What does it mean for us to be sent and to go? 

How are we making disciples of all nations – all people regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, or language, or national origin, or any other facet of their identity? 

What are we doing to bless the people that God has placed in our lives, immersing them into the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

How are we being called to teach the spiritually tender people that God has connected us with. How are we teaching them to obey the risen and living Jesus?

The ways we share the victory announcement of the kingdom will vary depending on each person, each situation. We rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us. But if we are to continue in love, if we are to embrace this life-transforming relationship that we have with Jesus, we have to say his name.

Is It Too Late for Berkeley Friends Church?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 12:1-9 and Hebrews 11:8-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

A couple of years ago, Faith and I were living in Washington, DC. We had a pretty good life there. We both had work we enjoyed. Our kids had school and childcare that met their needs. We loved our home and had some good friends. We felt comfortable.

We were at rest in our lives, but we were uneasy in our spirits. As well as things were going for us, we felt a yearning for more. More life. More spirit. More of God’s presence leading us, guiding us, flowing through our words and actions.

Even when everything rational told us that we should feel full, something gnawed at us, telling us we were empty. Our feet were firmly planted, but we could sense that God was calling us to take another step.

So when Dorothy Kakimoto reached out to us, asking us if we were open to exploring coming to serve as pastors at Berkeley Friends Church, we were ready to have that conversation with you. And as it became clear that God was clearing a path for us to join you here in California, we were prepared to embrace that invitation.

It would have been easy to resist that call, to turn away from the opening. There was a temptation to choose the easy, safe path – to continue doing the things that were mostly working and hope for the best. But we could sense that, in the words of Frank Herbert, “that path leads ever down into stagnation.” We could be safe, or we could be faithful; we had to choose.

In our readings this morning, we hear about Sarah and Abraham – back when they were still called Sarai and Abram. They had a choice to make. On the one hand, they had their safe, stable, predictable life in Haran. That’s where their family was, where they had gained their wealth and security. But they heard God calling them to set out on an adventure.

God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Go from everything that you’ve ever known. Go from those things that make you safe and comfortable, into a place you’ve never seen. Go, because you can trust me. Go, and I will be with you. I will bless you in every way. Go, and all the families of the earth will be blessed, too.

That’s a big leap of faith for anyone. But especially for Abraham and Sarah. Because they were very old, and they had no children. As far as they could see, their family had no future. They thought they were the end of the line. Yet they could hear the call of the Spirit of God. They felt the hunger for more. They could sense that there was a great adventure that they were being invited into.

God told Abraham and Sarah to go, and they went. They went out of the land where they had lived their whole lives, into a new place. The Lord showed them where their descendents would someday live – not as a wandering family, but as a great nation. 

And here’s an interesting part. They got to pitch their tent in the promised land. They got to drink from the rivers and eat from the fruit trees of Canaan. And while they camped in this land, God promised them that it would someday be a homeland for their family.

But then God called them to keep moving. It says that, after building an altar to God in the land he had promised, Abraham moved on. First to the east, and then south towards the Negeb. Abraham and Sarah had taken the big risk, and they had seen the promised land. But now they had to keep moving, because the promise was not only for them, but for all their descendents, for the next generation and on, and on.

I see this story in my own life. I see how God has called our family to uproot and travel to a land we don’t know, so that we will be blessed, and others will be blessed through us. I know that we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but we are on the path. We are living the adventure, with God leading us day by day.

We had something good in Washington, DC. We got to pitch our tent there, and we ate some of that promised-land fruit. But God wasn’t done with us. We had to keep moving, to cooperate with the grander, more beautiful vision that God has for us. 

If we wanted to be faithful, we couldn’t cling to our own comfort; we couldn’t accept just getting by. We had to let go of our own personal experience of the promised land so that we could become a blessing to the world. Because the promised land is not just for us; God wants to invite the whole world. God is giving us a hope and a future beyond our own little family as we know it today. God is expanding the circle, blessing all the families of the earth.

Can you see yourself in this story? Can you see Berkeley Friends Church? How are we, as a community, like Abraham and Sarah? Can we hear God calling us to a new adventure, a risky path of going where God calls us and discovering the promised land where God will lead us? Could God use Berkeley Friends Church to bless all the families of the earth, just like Abraham and Sarah?

I believe so. Because we’re a lot like Abraham and Sarah. As a community, we’re wealthy. We’re successful. We’re comfortable. We’re old. And, let’s admit it: we’re afraid that maybe we don’t have a future.

Abraham and Sarah thought that their family would die with them. That they would have no children to carry on their story. They were living their lives in a defensive crouch, waiting for the end.

So it must have come as a big shock when they discovered God calling them into a new adventure. At the age of 75, God was telling them, “Go! Try something new! Take a big risk, and I will walk with you. I will bless you. I will give you life, a hope and a future.”

Where did they find the courage to do this? What vision did they see that energized them to set on this long journey – a journey that still to this day is not over? 

The author of the Book of Hebrews says that Abraham and Sarah perceived something that no one else around them could. They experienced a hope that, at the time, must have seemed totally unrealistic. But on the basis of faith, they acted. They took the big leap and found that the God who spoke to them was trustworthy. 

God filled Abraham and Sarah with a powerful vision. He gave them eyes to see the future glory of God’s kingdom. A chain of events that God would use them to set in motion. A family history that would culminate in the savior of the world, Jesus Christ. 

And so in this hope, they set out on their great adventure. Hebrews says that they “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” They knew that they would not personally reach the end of the story, but by faith they knew how the story ended.

Even more than Abraham and Sarah, we know how this story ends. We know that the Lord Jesus has sat down at the right hand of the Father. We know that, in spite of all the terrible shakings we are witnessing right now, that the God we worship created the entire cosmos, and he sees ahead to the end. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

This is the reality that Abraham and Sarah experienced, leaving their home in Haran thousands of years ago, back when the Middle East was still the Fertile Crescent. This is the faith, hope, and love that gave them the courage to risk abandoning everything they knew – even in their old age – to embrace the great adventure that the Spirit whispered in their hearts.

Do you hear that whisper? What is the adventure that the Spirit is beckoning us to discover together? What are the risks that we must take, the safety that we must abandon, to be reborn in our descendants and become a blessing to our city, our nation, our cosmos?

You are not an accident. We are not an accident. It’s not random coincidence that we’ve been drawn together at this point in history. God has called us to be Berkeley Friends Church, to be this particular community in Jesus Christ. The Spirit has called each one of us here. God has a purpose for us, and he is ready to guide us together.

2020 is a time of shaking, the likes of which we’ve never experienced. In times like these, it’s natural to want to retreat to the beforetimes. It can be tempting to say, “Oh, boy – I’ll sure be glad when this is all over. When the pandemic ends, we get a vaccine, and we can all go back to the way things were before. Lord, take me back to 2019!”

There’s no going back to 2019. Things will never be like they were before. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s a good thing. We knew in 2019 that our community needed a change. We knew that God was calling us to something deeper. We had that hunger that Abraham and Sarah experienced, that deep desire for more of God, more of his life and power and spirit in our lives. We wanted more, and we knew the status quo couldn’t get us where we wanted to go.

Well, good news: The status quo is gone. 2020 has swept all of that away. We are in brand-new, uncharted territory. We don’t know what comes next. All we do know is that we serve a God who sends us out. We serve a God who invites us into the risky path of vulnerability, discovery, and adventure.

We stand with Abraham and Sarah on the border of Haran, looking out at the road ahead. We stand with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee as he calls our name. We stand with the apostles, as the Holy Spirit fills the whole house and joins us into one body, one community. Together with all the saints, we “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Do you hear that voice? Do you hear the call? Do you feel the hope breaking through the fear? Are you ready for the adventure?

The years to come will not be like those that came before. Our community will change in ways we can’t even imagine right now. This is a good thing. We are blessed – and God will make us a blessing to the world.

Let go of your fear. We don’t have to die without descendants. God has given us a future. The future will be different. We will have to change. But God will care for us. Open yourself to the adventure. God wants to bless us and make us as numerous as the stars.

Say “yes” when God says “go.” Say “yes” to God’s adventure. Say “yes” to the stretching and struggle and upheaval that stands before us. Because we will pitch our tents in the promised land and eat from the fruit trees there. We will set up our altar and give praise to God in the land where he is leading us. We will journey onward, led by the Spirit and trusting in Jesus to prepare a place for us. There is a home for us, and many are yet to be gathered.