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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:13-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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

Jesus came to John, to be baptized with water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God doing a new thing now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God doing a new thing in you?

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

Image of A Forest Road from Above

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

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

God-With-Us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You Separate the Wheat from the Chaff?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/8/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:1-12. 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’re in the time now that the world calls Christmas. This whole stretch between Thanksgiving and the 25th of December, this is what secular, Western European consumer culture thinks of as “the Christmas season” – or, if you like, “the holiday season.”

And that’s all fine and good for playing jingle bells and selling us more stuff on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and “I-Ate-Too-Much Tuesday,” or whatever other retail-oriented holy day they try to lay on us next. This “holiday season” is just fine and dandy for a culture that has turned our father’s house into a den of thieves.

But for us as the church, we are nowhere near Christmastime yet. We have not arrived at the birth of the Christ-child. Instead, we’ve now entered into the season of Advent. Advent is a time when we are waiting. We’re in anticipation. Expectation. It’s a time of reflection and repentance, a time to examine ourselves as individuals and as a community. It’s a time to be called deeper into a life of discipleship, a life that more fully reflects God’s love and justice.

In short, this is the season of John. John the Baptist, the wild man who left a life of privilege in Jerusalem and dedicated himself to prayer, fasting, and prophetic teaching in the wilderness of Judea.

We are in the season of baptism. Immersion. A time of cleansing from our old ways of thinking – a radical reorientation into the path of Jesus. It’s a time to confess our sin, change our attitudes, and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child, the light of God within us.

In those days, before Jesus had left his family and his work as a carpenter to become an itinerant preacher, John’s ministry was already in full-swing. People were coming out to him from across Judea and Jerusalem, to hear his fiery message of repentance and redemption. To hear the message about the coming messiah. To prepare themselves for the reckoning that was coming upon Israel, and indeed the whole world.

The people who came out to hear John were receiving the message with joy. They were being baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. They were preparing themselves for the one who would come to redeem Israel.

Now it’s interesting, because it seems like just about everybody was coming out to hear John preach. Rich and poor, young and old, socially conscious and socially awkward. Everybody wanted a piece of this guy.

But John wasn’t happy to see everybody. Some of the people who came out, John questioned their motivations and intentions. Just like Jesus, John had some very harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadduccees who came out to visit him beside the Jordan.

“You snakes in the grass! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John could see that the uptown religious people – the Pharisees – weren’t there to change their lives in the radical way required by the kingdom of heaven. Maybe they thought they could come and practice one more ritual that would make them even more holy. Maybe they heard John was a lively and entertaining preacher. They were there for incremental self-help, not for the full-bodied transformation that God offers.

And the Sadducees – why were they there at all? Their place was in the Temple, with the important people and all the money. The Sadducees, the ultimate hedge fund managers of their day – maybe they were curious about what John was up to. After all, he used to be one of them. 

John came from luxury and power, the top of the Temple hierarchy. His father was a high priest, a son of Aaron. John could have had everything, but he threw it all away to go preach along dusty roads to the poor and unclean. The Sadducees as a class represented everything John rejected – form without substance, wealth without conscience, and spiritual adultery with violent political power.

What did John have to say to these spiritual tourists and gawkers? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

The Pharisees thought that they could fulfill the law of God by following every jot and tittle of the law, keeping themselves clean and pure. The Sadducees thought that they owned the law. They were gatekeepers of the Temple, the performers of animal sacrifice. They saw themselves as the custodians of God’s dwelling place on earth. Who could be more important?

Both groups saw themselves as children of Abraham. Heirs of the promise, God’s promise to bless and prosper forever.

But John’s message to all of them is: “Don’t think your ancestry will save you. Don’t think your spiritual lineage will justify you. Don’t think your religious observances will spare you from the wrath that is coming on Jerusalem and Judea. This story doesn’t depend on you.”

Because the insider religious crowd and people will lots of wealth and political power – we like to think that we’re doing things for God. “Isn’t God just so lucky to have us? What would he do without us?”

John tells us exactly what he will do. He’ll raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

If we think that we’re doing things for God, we’ve got it all wrong. God does not depend on us. God does not need us. He loves us, he longs for us, but he does not need us in any pragmatic or instrumental sense. God’s plans do not hinge on our action or inaction.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying our actions don’t matter. But they matter a whole lot more to us than they do to God. God’s gonna figure it out. God’s got the whole world in his hands. This is the God who created the entire universe out of nothing. He’s got it on lock, don’t trip.

What’s at stake here is not God’s kingdom. God’s making it happen. Period.

What is at stake is the part we’re going to play in this whole unfolding drama of history. Are we going to join up, go to basic training, and do what it takes to become trustworthy soldiers in the Lamb’s War? Or will we keep on serving ourselves, mistreating our neighbors, and bowing to the power of money and Empire?

We already know how this story ends. We know that the kingdom of God has come near and will be fulfilled. We know that love wins.

But when this victory comes, when God reigns triumphant and all things are made new – will we be a part of that story? Will we be part of that newness? Will we hear our master’s voice saying to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”?

That was the question, that was the message that John had for everyone who came out to see him: Now is the time. Time to make a choice. Time to decide what our life is going to be about.

It’s time to prepare ourselves, because the baptism of spirit and fire is coming. Jesus is going to sort things out. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary. But he’ll burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.

You know, I’ll admit that I had to look up what a winnowing fork is. Because this is not something I run into in my daily life as a 21st-century city-dweller. But it turns out that a winnowing fork is sort of like a rake, and you use it by throwing whole heads of grain up into the air. 

And the idea is that when the wheat goes up in the air, the inner part of the wheat – the heavy grain – will fall to the ground, where it can be collected. The light, chaffy parts – all that stuff that surrounded and protected the wheat, but which is now dead and useless – all that stuff will just blow away. No need to even bother with it anymore.

Where is the chaff in us? What are the parts of our lives that seemed important, that felt like they lent us protection but are in fact holding us back from following God and loving our neighbors with our whole hearts? Where are all the dead places that are ready to be blown away by the breath of God?

Where is the wheat in us? Here in this community. In your heart. Where’s the wheat? What does it look like for that wheat to be gathered? To be planted, watered, and nurtured? To grow and bear fruit worthy of repentance? What does it look to live our lives as true children of Abraham, children of the promise?

God doesn’t need us, but he will plant us so that we can bear fruit. God doesn’t rely on us, but he loves us and desires to welcome us into his kingdom. That kingdom has come near. Now is the time to prepare ourselves to receive it.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

The Bible Says Jesus Is King – But What If We Don’t Want One?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 23:33-43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6. 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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Jesus is king. He’s the messiah. He’s the rightful heir to the throne of David. He’s the fulfillment of the promise. He is the king of Israel, the king of all the nations, the king of the universe.

Jesus is king. He is sovereign. He answers to no human authority. All things are subject to him. In him, all things hang together. He is Lord.

Does this make you uncomfortable? Does all of this hierarchical, patriarchal language make you cringe a little bit? Does all this talk of kingship run against your modern American sensibilities? After all, this country fought a revolution so that we wouldn’t have to bow down to kings anymore!

In a country where we say we believe in democracy and equal rights for all, what do we do with this talk of kings and lords and power and sovereignty? We’ve seen all the ways that unaccountable power can run amok. Why on earth would we want to think of God in terms of being the ultimate, absolute monarch?

Jeremiah would agree. He had seen quite enough of the kings and lords and rulers of Israel. Men who abused their position for their own selfish interest. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Through Jeremiah, God denounces the kings of this world. The way the lords of this world live as parasites off of the people they claim to shepherd.

To these false shepherds, these petty kings, God says: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” The day is coming.

Jesus stood in the tradition of Jeremiah in his analysis of power. He saw the same abuse of power, the vampiric sucking of the rich elites who consume the lives of working people. His friends. His family. The desperate thousands who came to him for relief.

Jesus lived in a land ruled by an illegitimate petty dictator. A strongman propped up by the violent domination of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew what a false shepherd was. He saw Herod murder his friend and mentor, John the Baptist. He watched as the Temple elite sought to kill him, and finally delivered him up to the Roman authorities for execution. Jesus knew what the false shepherds, the petty kings of this world, are capable of when their power is threatened.

Jesus was so threatening to these false shepherds, that they nailed him to a cross. Crucifixion, a dread punishment reserved for insurrectionists. Once they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Jesus knew the evil that the false shepherds were capable of. Jesus knew the horror that kings bring. Jesus knew that his father never wanted Israel to have a human king in the first place.

Jesus remembered the days of Samuel, before Israel had a king. God was king. The people were ruled directly by him, guided by the prophets who spoke the words of God. God’s plan for Israel was that he would rule them directly. No strong men; no presidents, princes, or billionaires. God wanted to teach Israel a totally different way of living as a society. A way without human domination and top-down hierarchies.

But the people demanded a king. They wanted to be “strong,” like the peoples around them. They wanted a warlord to go before them and fight their battles. They wanted empire. They wanted to be mighty, not the vulnerable people of the God of the Tent. And so God gave them a king: Saul, who would begin a long line of greed, violence, vanity, and imperial ambitions. A lineage of horror that would ultimately culminate in the Babylonian captivity. When given the option, that’s what we picked.

God is the good shepherd, but we didn’t want that. We couldn’t wrap our minds around the great mystery and power that is God. We preferred to shrink our rulers down to size. We chose to abandon God’s rule and to submit ourselves to the false shepherds that feed off of us to fuel their own ambitions.

So if this talk of kings and lords makes you uncomfortable, you’re right. There are a lot of good reasons to be skeptical of kings. Not just back then. Not just in ancient Israel, or even in the days of Rome, but today. We have good reason to be skeptical of top-down, hierarchical leadership. Right? We’ve seen the results.

In Syria and Yemen. Burma and Western China. In Flint, Michigan and along the route of the disastrous Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. We’ve seen what the princes of this world – presidents and princes, senators and billionaires – are capable of.

Most tragically, we’ve seen the results of the Christian church chasing after violent, coercive, hierarchical power. We’ve seen how the church, just like Israel, has often chosen human kings to lead us rather than submitting ourselves to God’s presence and power.

The church’s prostitution to power started, some would argue, when we picked cooperation with the Emperor Constantine rather than continuing to be a suffering church of outsiders. Things got worse as we moved into the middle ages. The church became fully fused with state power. Popes shepherded the kings of Europe and launched so-called holy wars of aggression against Muslims, Jews, and even fellow Christians.

The crusades never really stopped. Even today, most Christians support endless war in the Middle East, and around the globe – anywhere that the kings of this world choose to send us. Much of the Christian community has put its faith in the power of empires and armies, presidents and premiers – in the kingdoms of this world rather than in the direct leadership of Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we don’t want Jesus to be our king. We don’t want him, because Jesus doesn’t offer us the violence and domination that we’ve come to expect from our rulers. He doesn’t beat up the bad guys. He doesn’t save us from suffering. In fact, he calls us to join him in the path of the cross. He calls us to love our enemies. He shows us a way of surrender, loss of control, and downward mobility.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is king. This is good news precisely because Jesus is nothing like the kings of this world.

They promise us glory, he is revealed in failure. They promise us security, his throne is the cross. The kings of this world – presidents and congressmen and billionaires – they promise us a boot stomping on the face of our enemies, forever. Jesus calls us into an endless life of love that encompasses even those who hate us.

What does it mean for us to live in the kingdom of Jesus? What does it mean for us to join the failed insurrectionist hanging on the cross by Jesus’ side – because that is, of course what we are: failed insurrectionists who chose to follow the false rulers of this world rather than our faithful Lord Jesus. Will we join the failed insurrectionist nailed to the cross beside Jesus? Will we say together with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

God foretold the coming of Jesus through the prophet Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

Jesus is king. He is the righteous branch of David that Jeremiah foretold. He is a king for all the nations, a ruler who will execute justice and righteousness. A king who is close to us, present with us, not unfamiliar with our struggle and suffering. A king who has endured everything to show his love for us, and who invites us into his mission of love and cosmic redemption.

Jesus is king. Praise him. Honor him. Obey him. Recognize that he is here in our midst. Open your eyes to see that he is still being crucified by the false shepherds. The spirit of Herod and Pilate and Caesar is alive, and crushing the life of our people.

But the spirit of Jesus is more powerful, more enduring, more life-filled. He is the ocean of light and love that flows over this ocean of darkness. He is our peace. He is our hope – the only ruler worth obeying.

Jesus is alive and present in his resurrection power. Jesus has triumphed over the powers of darkness, hatred, and death. Jesus is our present and living king.

Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

Hate Your Boss? There’s An Alternative

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and Acts 16:11-40. 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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There’s a saying that I’ve heard many times, and it’s true: People don’t quit a job, they quit a boss. There’s nothing worse than a lousy manager. Well, maybe there’s one thing that’s worse than a bad manager: Multiple bad managers.

Have you ever been in that situation? Where in a work situation you were answering to multiple people? Each one of them with their own priorities and perspectives. Their own ideas about how you should best do your job. Maybe even conflicting with one another in the instructions they give you?

It reminds me of that scene from Office Space, the classic movie from the late 90s. The main character is being interviewed by consultants, and he tells them: “I have eight different bosses right now. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation – is not to be hassled – that and not being fired. But you know, Bob, that’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

Sound familiar?

Well the good news of the kingdom of God is that we have just one boss. That’s what freedom means. It means being free to serve only one boss, one Lord. It means not being tossed to and fro by the opinions, objections, and hangups of all the many people in our lives who’d like to tell us what to do. It means submitting ourselves to God, accepting the judgment of God, and being liberated from the judgment of everyone else.

We see that in our reading this morning, when Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “I’m free with respect to all.” Nobody tells Paul what to do. Nobody but the Holy Spirit. Because he is a slave of God, he is freed from all human masters.

That’s what the gospel is. It’s freedom. It’s peace. It’s knowing where we belong and who we need to obey. It’s having a perfect boss, better than any human leader, who guides us not out of a desire for control or domination, but out of love. We worship a God who leads us from a place of knowledge, compassion, and creativity. This is a leader we can trust.

So the children are free. We’re free to follow God and disregard the vain fashions of this world. We’re liberated from the domination of money. We’re released from this world’s addiction to coercive power. We’re free when we dwell in the abundance and life-giving power of Jesus.

Our readings this morning are helpful. They’re clarifying. And when we think about freedom, we need some clarification. We need some clarification, because America has a very different conception of freedom from the liberty that we find in the gospel. The freedom of the American Dream is wholly distinct from the freedom that we find in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection. The liberty of the kingdom of God is rooted in love, using our freedom to build up the lives of others and share the blessings of God’s abundance.

That’s what we read in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” He says, I became what the Jews needed me to be, so that they could hear and accept the message. And when I spoke to Gentiles, I adapted myself to their way of life. I changed. I humbled myself so that I could speak and demonstrate the gospel in ways that would touch their hearts and enliven their minds.

To the hipsters I became like a hipster. To the parents with small children, I became like a dad. To the surfers, I learned how to shred. To the tech bros, I learned jargon. To the Quakers I spoke calmly and slowly. “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

From the Christian perspective, freedom is not an end unto itself. It is a means. Our freedom is a tool, a privilege to be spent in the service of others. We have only one boss, one leader, one Lord, and this gives us enormous freedom. We were given this freedom for a reason. Not for self-indulgence, but to comfort and heal, to convict and proclaim the good news of God’s love. God is healing our wounds so that we can become healers.

For the world around us, for those who are pursuing the American Dream, freedom is about “me.” Freedom is about what I want, when I want it, as much as I want. Freedom is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It’s about having things on my terms, and not letting anyone tell me what to do. It’s about becoming an army of one. Answerable to no one.

The freedom of the gospel is the opposite of this self-centered fantasy. The good news is Jesus, the crucified, homeless messiah. It’s a story that centers “the least of these” – the people that our society doesn’t value, doesn’t want to see, and often tries to dispose of.

Those are the people that Jesus went to, when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. These are the folks that Paul was reaching out to when he met Lydia, a non-Jewish worshiper of God, who was gathered with other women at a prayer meeting outside the city gate. Women. Unorthodox, Gentile believers in God. The unclean. The enemy. That’s who God loves.

It’s this kind of enemy-love that Paul and Silas showed when they stayed put in their jail cells after the earthquake. They could have run. Maybe we think they should have run – after all, they were clearly being freed by God through a miraculous earthquake, a very strange earthquake that not only opened up all the doors of the jail, but even released them from their chains!

But Paul and Silas were free men. They were free citizens of the kingdom of God. They were free from the reflexive self-preservation that enslaves most of us. They saw past their own need to get out of that jail cell, realizing that the Holy Spirit had opened a bridge into the heart of their jailer. A man who would be killed if he let his prisoners escape. Paul and Silas were free enough to say, “Wait, jailer! Don’t kill yourself! We are still here!”

In this situation, most of us would probably say that the “least of these” in this situation were Paul and Silas. They’re the ones locked up for doing nothing wrong. In this story, we would see the apostles as the oppressed and the prison guard as the oppressor.

But Paul and Silas had been given eyes to see that it was the jailer who was truly in chains. The prison worker was trapped in a life of servitude to the rulers of this world. So when the earthquake came, it was a prophetic earthquake. It revealed that which was already true. Paul and Silas were free after all, and it was the jailer who was on the knife’s edge.

And they truly were free! It turns out that Paul and Silas didn’t even have to be in jail in the first place. They were Roman citizens. They were not subject to the beating and imprisonment without trial that they were being subjected to. You’d think that they would have mentioned their status when they first got in trouble. But for some reason they didn’t. Perhaps it was a prophetic silence, just like that of Jesus when he stood before Pontius Pilate. Perhaps they could sense that, though they were free to avoid persecution, God was going to do something important with their suffering. As Paul would write to the Corinthian church – they became weak so that they might win the weak.

The kingdom of God is a life of victory. It’s a life of power. It’s a life of connection and community. Because we have one boss, one God, one father. There’s only one voice we answer to. It’s the voice of love.

The voice of love calls us to surrender the freedom that this world offers. The freedom to be separate. The freedom to avoid discomfort. The freedom to stay safe while others suffer.

Are we living in the freedom of Jesus? Are we living in the liberty that Paul and Silas experienced? Do we have just one boss – the powerful spirit of love who liberates us from the fear of this world?

Are we living in the freedom of the kingdom? Power that allows us to become weak. Strength that permits us to become vulnerable. Compassion that draws us to the margins. Vision to see that our enemies need God’s love more than our revenge. Do we live in that kingdom?

Are we ready to fire our bosses? All the rules and systems that this world lays on us, to keep us in line as compliant producers and consumers? Are we ready to fire our eight bosses and submit ourselves to one Lord, our holy center, the living presence of God? Do we want to be liberated from what this world calls freedom – the selfish rat-race of consumerism and domination? Will we embrace the cross of Jesus, finding as he did that true freedom lies in being poured out as an offering for others?

We Don’t Need A Rulebook, We Need a Savior

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 15:1-11; 22-31. 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

Who gets to call themselves a Christian? Who gets to define what that means?

Back in 2006, I enrolled in the Earlham School of Religion – a Quaker seminary in Richmond, Indiana. I was a pretty new Quaker, and was still learning a lot about my faith. Like a lot of Quakers, I was drawn in by a sense of God’s presence in the meeting for worship, but I still had a lot of questions about what my faith actually meant.

I don’t know if this is normal, but I didn’t consider myself a Christian when I first arrived at seminary. Don’t get me wrong – I was wrestling with the Christian tradition. I was reading the Bible, and I was really impressed with Jesus. Reading about him in the gospels, I knew that in all his words and actions, there was life. God was present.

But I didn’t know whether I could call myself a Christian. I wasn’t sure I qualified. I wasn’t sure I was a churchy kind of person – or if I even wanted to be.

I did eventually get there. Early in my second semester, I realized that I could, in fact, identify as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a part of the Body of Christ.

How did this happen? What made me think I could count myself among the saints, in the same community as Thomas Kelly, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, George Fox, and Francis of Assisi?

At that time, I didn’t know whether I could affirm the whole Nicene creed. I didn’t know what I thought about the resurrection, or how to understand the atonement. I didn’t have things figured out and sorted into neat and tidy boxes. No doubt there are people who wouldn’t accept me as a “real” Christian, even now.

But during that first long winter at seminary, in the midst of all my doubts and struggle, I came to call myself a Christian. I found myself saying, “Jesus is Lord.”

Jesus is Lord. What does that mean? For me, it means that Jesus is my leader. He’s my teacher. My master. He’s the person I look to with absolute devotion, absolute loyalty and obedience. He’s the one I want to be like. He’s the measure that I gauge my life by. He’s the cornerstone that breaks me open and exposes my cowardice and hypocrisy. He’s the way, the truth, and the life.

Jesus is Lord. I became a Christian when I discovered him, accepted him, came to obey him. Not doctrines about him. Not rituals meant to remind me of him. Not a form of church organization inspired by him.

Him. The heart of my faith. A living relationship with the risen Jesus of Nazareth, alive and present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is Lord. This is the most basic article of the Christian faith. This is the heart of our confession. That Jesus is alive. He is present. He can be known, loved, and obeyed as teacher and lord.

Our faith is not a set of rules that we studiously conform to. We don’t place our trust in a law passed down from the mountaintop, written down on stone tablets, and forever adhered to without any further communication from God.

Our faith is the law written on our hearts by God. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us. It is a relationship, as real and as tangible as any other relationship in your life – with your brother, your sister, your mother, your father.

Realer. It’s even more real than those relationships, because this relationship with our Holy Center redefines and illuminates everything else. This relationship unites us into a body, one people.

This is the life that the early church was experiencing when Peter and Paul and Barnabas discovered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even among the uncircumcised Gentiles. “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.”

The early church had a lot of really religious people in it. People who obeyed the law of Moses. People who followed all the rules. They kept the law.

But the big surprise, the great reversal, is that God doesn’t tie himself down with the rules. Many who are last will be first, and the first will be last. The eldest son who kept all of his father’s commandments is scandalized when the prodigal son is welcomed back with open arms.

The Gentiles – the unclean, sinful, wayward, godless Gentiles – are welcomed into the kingdom of God as first class citizens. Because Jesus is Lord.

The good news of Jesus is not a new law. It is not better rules. It’s not a more perfect religion. It’s the immediate, direct presence of Jesus in our midst.

The good news is not a program that we can accomplish. It’s not deeper meditation, or better activism, or even kindness to strangers. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the transformation that comes when we hand our lives over completely to the living presence of God and say, “here I am, Lord – use me!”

The kingdom of God is a relationship. It is dynamic. It is contextual. And just like any relationship, it evolves over time. When God liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, he led them out into freedom in the wilderness. He gave them the law through Moses. Because that’s what they needed right then. That’s was where the relationship was at.

But as we read in the Book of Acts this morning, we see that the relationship evolves. In Jesus, God is moving us into a new phase. An age in which the living presence of God departs from the holy precincts of the Temple and takes up residence in his people, the church. In us.

Jesus is Lord. That’s the heart of the gospel. Our relationship of love and obedience to him.

Jesus is Lord. For us religious people, this can be hard to hear, because religion so often is about laying claim to having the best set of rules to live by. Do we dunk or do we sprinkle? Wafers or whole grain bread? Do we preach prepared sermons, or only extemporaneously? Do we tithe a tenth of our income to the church? Do we always give money to every person who asks for it? We like to have answers to these questions.

But here’s the only answer God gives us: Jesus is Lord. This is not an abstraction. God did not send Jesus to give us another legal code or set of rules. Jesus came and God raised him from the dead so that we would learn to listen to him.

The kingdom of God is listening to him. Knowing him. Becoming his friends. Obeying him, in a dynamic student/teacher relationship. We become a community in Christ when we hear and obey him together.

A legal code can’t do that. A “biblical worldview” can’t do that. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit and our readiness to listen and obey that ushers in the kingdom.

That’s what the early church discovers in Acts 15. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. The religious people were reading the words of the Bible and applying them as best they could. But in Jesus, we discover that we have so much more than a book. We have a savior. A resurrected, living, present savior who speaks to us directly.

The book can help us to recognize his voice – but the point is not to follow the book, it’s to follow Jesus!

This calls for discernment. It’s easy for individuals, and even whole communities, to mis-hear what the Spirit is saying. The early church knew this. So they held a big meeting in Jerusalem to listen, speak, and pray for God to direct them as a community. It was basically the same thing as Quaker meeting for business.

The whole church gathered to listen to what the Spirit had to say. And they found that God was blessing the Gentiles’ entrance into the church. And even those who had opposed the unorthodox lifestyles of the Gentiles were convicted by the presence of the Holy Spirit. What God has made clean, who can call unclean?

At this council of Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit clarified the minds and spirits of the apostles, the disciples, the whole body of believers. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to those present, that the rules had changed. Citizens of the kingdom of God are not obligated to keep the many and complicated purity codes of the Torah.

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials…” Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, or blood, or strangled animals. And don’t involve yourselves in sexual immorality. Other than that, focus on sharing the good news of Jesus and live in peace with one another.

Jesus is Lord. The life of the kingdom is a living relationship with the resurrected Jesus. Hearing him. Obeying him. Moving with him as he guides us and continues to evolve our relationship.

We don’t have everything figured out. We disagree about important things. But what binds us together is that Jesus is Lord. What makes us one body is the one Spirit of God breathing in us. Our unity is in listening to Jesus, following him as he guides us in our own time and place.

We have different challenges than Moses and the Hebrews, wandering in the wilderness with God. Our circumstances are different from those of the early Church and the early Quakers. Yet we live in times just as important and challenging as theirs. We don’t need a set of rules to follow, we need real-time guidance from the one who created it all. We don’t need a rulebook, we need a savior.

As we enter into a time of open worship, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to come and move in our midst. Teach us, God. Bind us together and show us how to be faithful to the life you’re calling us to in our time and place.

Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about us? Are we gathered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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