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In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/11/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, & Mark 12:38-44. 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

It can be hard to believe, in times like these. Hard to believe in a God that allows a world of migrant caravans, smoke-filled skies, climate-fueled natural disasters, and a rising movement of authoritarian nationalism. It can be hard to believe in a Christianity that so often sides with the wealthy, the powerful, the violent and the arrogant. Based on what we see on the national and world stage, it can be a challenge to believe that human beings are capable of anything beyond self-interest, self-preservation, and self-deception.

There’s this spiritual weight that has fallen over us as a people. We feel the temptation to despair. Despair tells us, “things won’t get better – they’ll always get worse. People don’t change, what’s the point in trying?” As human beings, we don’t lose hope because life is hard; we lose hope because life seems to have lost all sense of possibility, all long-term meaning and legacy.

It was this kind of lurking despair that Elijah found when he encountered the widow in Zarephath. The land was dying. The food was almost gone. No one and nothing could save her or her child. It hadn’t rained in the whole region for years. The famine was severe. What more could be done? Maybe it was just time to give up and die.

When Elijah showed up a the gates of Zarephath, he found this widow doing the only thing she could do: gathering sticks to start a fire, to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. And as she stands there, gathering kindling to prepare the last of the food available to her family, a stranger appears. Begging for food. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”

I don’t know what the widow thought when Elijah approached her, asking for bread. I don’t know, because it doesn’t say in the text. But I know what I would be thinking if I were in her place. “Bring you a morsel of bread? Bring you a morsel of bread? My family is getting ready to starve to death, and you want me to give you food, stranger? Go sell crazy somewhere else – we’re all stocked up here!”

The widow is kinder than I might have been. Maybe because she’s afraid. She says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” That sounds familiar. Have you ever done that? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I know I have. “Sorry, man – I don’t have any cash on me.” Technically true, but really a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to help.”

And why should she, right? Why should she want to help? Generosity flows out of hope, and hope seems in very short supply these days. The widow tells the stranger, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare [the remaining food] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“That we may eat it, and die.” Things are getting real in Zarephath.

But then Elijah makes a promise – an outrageous promise: Give me some food, and God will take care of you and your son. He says:

“Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

Can you believe this guy? “Don’t worry lady – go make me some food right away. If you do, God is going to make your handful of grain and final drops of oil last for years!” Would you believe a stranger telling you this kind of stuff?

The text is very sparse on details. It doesn’t give us much insight into the widow’s emotional reactions to this whole conversation. It just says that she did what Elijah asked, and that God made good on Elijah’s promise. The prophet stayed with them for many days, and the three of them had enough to eat. The jar of meal never ran out, and the jug of oil never ran dry.

The widow at Zarephath trusted in Elijah and his God, and that leap of faith – that leap of utter desperation – paid off. Elijah truly was a holy man, and God was faithful.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about some other “holy men.” In Mark 12, the important holy men of Jerusalem are demanding to know by what authority Jesus has disrupted the holy precincts of the temple by chasing out the money changers. In response, Jesus tells a parable, comparing the religious leaders to murderous thieves. They try to trip him up with questions about paying taxes, and the nature of the resurrection, and debates about the identity of the messiah.

At the end of all this, Jesus warns his listeners to watch out for these self-serving religious leaders, who live at the center of power in Jerusalem:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Elijah ate what a widow had to offer, receiving her food as an offering to God. And as a sign of God’s favor, God miraculously multiplied the meal and oil, saving the lives of the widow and her son. We see echoes of this story in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. When we offer up what we have to God, there is enough to go around.

The religion of the temple in Jesus’ time was of an entirely different character from the prophetic faith of Elijah. The widow’s gift to Elijah was a leap of faith, but tithes to the temple were a tax imposed by a wealthy elite. Elijah lived on the margins, fleeing the wrath of a corrupt king; the temple was the very seat of power.

In the traditional Jewish cosmology, the temple was the holiest place in the holiest land on earth. The story of Elijah and the widow takes place in the least holy place possible – among the gentiles in Sidon. The temple was home to the best and brightest; Zarephath was full of unclean outsiders who had nothing left and were preparing to die. The rulers of the temple demand religious devotion and economic sacrifice, but Elijah comes begging and offering good news to the poor.

The second part of our reading from Mark is the famous “widow’s mite” story. It says that Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched people putting money in. Lots of rich people came by and donated large sums. And then finally a poor widow came and put in a couple of copper coins – practically nothing. And Jesus says to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The most common reading of this passage is to interpret Jesus as praising the widow for her faith. While the other, wealthy, donors all gave out of their abundance, the widow gave in a self-sacrificial way. Through her willingness to surrender everything for her faith in the temple, she demonstrates the kind of risk-taking that Jesus wants to see in his disciples.

There’s a beauty in this interpretation, and I think it can be a legitimate way of thinking about the text on a certain level. But when we look at the context of this passage in the Gospel of Mark, when we look at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and all the struggles and debates that this action unleashed, the story of the widow’s offering starts looking less like a model of faithfulness and more like an example of economic oppression.

Superficially, it would seem that the widow’s gift at the temple has a lot in common with the widow’s gift to Elijah at Zarephath. In both cases, a marginalized, impoverished woman living on the edge gives everything that she has to live on. They both give it to holy men who claim to have a higher purpose for asking for the resources they need to live. But the holy men of the temple do not possess the same character as Elijah.

The widow at Zarephath took a leap of faith to feed a prophet on the run, a prophet being hunted by an abusive and unfaithful king in Israel. The widow at Jerusalem gave away everything she had to live on to satisfy the demands of an abusive and unfaithful temple system – men who “devour widows’ houses, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” The faith of Elijah relieves poverty and famine, but the temple’s tithing system exacerbates it.

Where do we find ourselves in these scriptures? Do we live in the faith of Elijah? The faith of the margins? The prophetic faith that stands with the poor, the widow, the hungry? Or have we been seduced by the spectacle and violence of the temple?

The religion of the temple is still very much alive in our world today. It is the faith of Wall Street, the faith of the Pentagon. The faith of Silicon Valley. It’s the prosperity gospel that tells us we all get what we have earned – that the rich deserve to run the show, and the poor deserve to eat their last meal and die. This kind of religion centers the people and institutions that already have a lot, and says they should be given more. This is the kind of faith that devours widow’s homes and for the sake of appearances says long prayers.

Jesus and Elijah offer us an alternative this way of empire. They stand in the prophetic tradition. The way of the wilderness, the revelation of the burning bush. Theirs is the way of utter dependence on God, the way of the cross. It’s a way of liberation. To walk with Jesus is to hear the voice of God calling to us on the tattered edge of empire, commanding us to say to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” The prophetic faith of Jesus turns its back on the center, the holy, the important, the wise, in order to embrace those who are rejected and despised by the world.

In days like these, when the skies are filled with smoke and refugees stream northward seeking refuge and safety – in times when political power seems bankrupt of moral authority – we are tempted to despair, to gather sticks so that we can cook our food and die.

In our hunger for a faith that can speak to our distress, Jesus and Elijah present us with two different paths we can choose. Will we put our faith in the God of Moses – who challenges oppressive structures and liberates his people from slavery? Will we walk in the faith of Jesus, who surrendered everything – his life, honor, and dignity – to open the door to healing and reconciliation?

Or will we pick the way of the temple? Will we be like the scribes, riding high on our own sense of moral authority? Will we place burdens on the poor and the marginalized that they cannot bear? Will we side with the economic and political system that is choking our planet and tearing families apart? Will we allow our hopelessness to congeal into cynicism? Will we seek personal advantage in a time of societal breakdown?

As followers of Jesus, we don’t have to guess about which path we are called to. Our God is the holy one of the wilderness. He stands with the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed, the migrant caravans and the child laborers who make our clothing and electronics.

Our God dwells with those who our economic system is crushing. On the cross, Jesus bears the suffering of the weeping parents and hungry children. In his resurrection power, he invites us into the ministry of reconciliation, turning away from the glitz and glamor of celebrity and power and toward the daily needs of those who have been cast away by our society.

Will we heed this call? Will we become like the prophet Elijah, approaching the widow at Zarephath for food, offering good news to the poor?

The prophet does not command obedience through their own wealth and power. Elijah did not come to Zarephath as someone superior and worthy of respect. He came as a homeless beggar. Like Jesus and the early disciples, he carried nothing with him but the clothes on his back and the good news of God’s salvation. Liberation for the poor, and justice for the oppressed.

In these times of darkness, when we are tempted to despair, Jesus and Elijah offer us a way forward. A way of life and peace. A way of releasing our fear and embracing trust in God. By serving those most in need – by embracing our place as humble beggars in the house of God – we can find our way through this time of drought and famine. Together with the unexpected friends that God will reveal to us, we might even find hope.

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God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

God Doesn't Need Your Religion - Just Love
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/4/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ruth 1:1-18, Hebrews 9:11-14 & Mark 12:28-34. 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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“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus spent all of his ministry preaching the arrival of the reign of God. All of his words and actions revealed the presence of God’s power, love, and justice. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God has drawn near.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus says this to one of the scribes. One of the Pharisees. A member of a group that Jesus criticizes a lot. The scribes and Pharisees, middle-class people who could read the Torah and write dense legal theories about how to follow it correctly.

Jesus fought so often with the scribes and the Pharisees not because he was so different, but because he had so much in common. In fact, if you were going to categorize Jesus in terms of the ideological camps of his day, you could be forgiven for numbering him among the Pharisees.

Just like the Pharisees, Jesus had an extremely high regard for scripture. In fact, just before our gospel reading this morning, Jesus had been publicly debating with the Sadducees – a highly conservative, priestly party that denied the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus rebukes them, he does so on the basis of two things: the Torah – the written testimony about God – and the power of God himself.

He says to the Sadducees, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus didn’t accuse the Pharisees of being ignorant of the Bible. Jesus was with the Pharisees in his respect for the scriptures. They had that in common. Where Jesus parted ways with the Pharisees was their lack of responsiveness to the power of God. The God who inspired the scriptures is far beyond, far greater than the scriptures. God won’t be held hostage to human legal theories derived from the Bible. Just as Jesus is lord of the sabbath, the Holy Spirit is lord of scripture.

This is really important. We get lost whenever we forget this. Because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that our sacred texts are almost infinitely malleable. European Christians have used the Bible to justify the crusades, manifest destiny, and slavery. We’ve also used it to build the theological basis of the civil rights movement, anti-slavery societies, and nonviolent action for peace.

This may sound scandalous to some, but there is no “clear meaning of scripture.” Our fallen natural minds simply can’t comprehend the love of God, regardless of what is written down in a book. We’re not qualified interpreters. We’ll twist those holy words to justify our worst impulses. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

The scriptures, of themselves, can’t save us. Without the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading, we are utterly blind and lost. In fact, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, in the absence of the Spirit, the words of scripture can become death to us. Without the power of God, the scriptures can be used as a dangerous weapon. The good news is that, guided by God’s love and wisdom, the scriptures can be a force for healing and liberation.

So when Jesus rails against the Pharisees he’s not railing against their respect for scripture, or the intense study they devote to understanding it. When Jesus gets into his Epic Rap Battles of History with the Pharisees, it’s not about the letter – it’s about the Spirit. It’s about the power of God to move mountains, change the rules, and scandalize us by valuing mercy more than correct religious practice.

Our scripture readings this morning are all about this dynamic power of God to change structures, relationships, and all the moralistic rules that hold us back from being truly moral beings. From Jesus’ dynamic and radical teaching from the Torah, the wisdom of the Book of Hebrews, and in the story of Ruth and Naomi, we hear of how God transcends and upsets all our expectations about what holiness should look like.

In these stories, we discover a God who cares more about love than about rules, more about justice than correctness. We encounter a God who we can trust, because he doesn’t think in the same categories we do. God won’t be boxed in by our limited minds and legalistic straight jackets. And if we’re willing to listen and pay attention, he will free us from our slavery to rules and forms. He’ll bring us into the real life and substance of the gospel.

This gospel of liberation is available in the most unlikely times and places; it emerges in the lives of the most unlikely of people. Ruth was a person like that. A person who lived on the margins in every way. She was a widow in an age where, for a woman, who your husband was determined everything. She was childless in a time when childbearing was the measure of a woman. And from the perspective of the Jewish people, she was an outsider. A Moabite. A descendent of Lot’s incestuous affair with his daughters. As a Moabite, Ruth was unclean and unfit to enter the congregation of Israel.

And let’s be realistic. Even if Ruth were a Jew, she’s married into the most marginal family she could have picked. Naomi and her boys fled famine in Bethlehem, selling their land and abandoning their heritage in Hebrew society. These were not fancy people. These were people living on the edge.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for this family, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her alone with her two young sons – who are apparently both very unhealthy, probably from living as poorly-fed refugees for most of their lives. Somehow, these two manage to take wives from the local Moabite people – Orpah and Ruth. Despite this bit of good luck, things don’t end well for Mahlon and Chilion. Not too long after they get married, they both die, leaving Naomi alone with her two widowed daughters-in-law.

Naomi had lost everything. She was probably in her forties – too old to expect to find a new husband, as her childbearing years were soon to be behind her. The only shred of hope she had left was to head back to her homeland of Israel and see if she could beg for food there. Word on the street was that the famine had ended and there was enough grain to go around. For Naomi, it was time to go home.

As she began to make her way back to Bethlehem (which was maybe 50 or 60 miles from Moab), Naomi released her two daughters-in-law from any responsibility they might feel towards her. Naomi knew that she was headed back into a very hard situation in the land of Israel – poverty and begging. As an older, childless woman, she didn’t have much hope of integrating back into Hebrew society. Orpah and Ruth, at least, had their youth. Naomi urged them to stay in their homeland – to return to their mothers’ houses and seek out husbands who could provide for them economically and give them the chance to bear children.

Orpah weeps at the thought of leaving Naomi to face their cold and dangerous world all by herself. But she sees the wisdom in Naomi’s decision. After a tearful farewell, Orpah returns to her mother’s house and to her people.

Ruth is a different story. Ruth stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi’s side, no matter how much Naomi tries to convince her. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth isn’t interested. She says,

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

This is a remarkable scene. One of the most beautiful and memorable passages in all of scripture. These words could be wedding vows, couldn’t they? But they’re not. They’re the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. People who have probably only known each other for a couple of years at most. Ruth is ready to sacrifice everything to stand with Naomi, to abandon her people, land, and gods, and to adopt Naomi as her true family and the Lord of Israel as her true God. All of this, even as Naomi’s situation looks impossible. This commitment may very well cost Ruth her future.

This is unnatural – supernatural – love. This is love that breaks the rules. This is covenantal love that defies the divisions between people, that flies in the face of danger, poverty, and death, to show solidarity and commitment to another. This is love that breaks the written rules of Hebrew tradition in order to demonstrate the life, power, and spirit of the God of Israel.

The love and courage of Ruth is remarkable in every way. As a poor, widowed, foreign woman, she reveals the character of God in her commitment to Naomi. And as we will eventually see by the end of the story, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and an ancestor to Jesus himself. From the story of Ruth, we learn that God uses the stone that is rejected – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner – as the cornerstone of the kingdom of God.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

We human beings like to make things complicated. With all our texts and translations. Our rituals and rules. Our notions of who’s in and who’s out. We like to feel in control.

But that’s not what the gospel is about. The good news of Jesus – the good news from A to Z, from creation to the Red Sea to the cross to the end of time – that good news is very simple, and utterly challenging. When the scribe asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all,” here’s what Jesus says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God. Love him with everything that is within you. Love him with your whole body, your whole mind, all the passion that is within you – love him. And love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

OK, got it!

We like to make things complicated, so that we can make them easy. But reality is simple, and much, much harder. Love God with everything we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our immigrant neighbor. Our gay neighbor. Our Muslim, atheist, Republican neighbor. Love them as we love ourselves. Love God, and love even our enemies, with everything we’ve got. There is no command greater than this.

Religion tends to be about how to follow the rules correctly. How to feel justified, and know that we are on the right path. That’s the kind of religion that Israel had in the Temple. Through their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they sought to be at peace with God. But how did the scribe respond to Jesus?

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

God doesn’t need our sacrifices. God has already provided us with the ultimate sacrifice – his son Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus himself is present forever as our high priest, offering intercession for us in the heavenly realms. It is written, “[Jesus] entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

That is our sacrifice: Love. The Love who was nailed to a cross for our sakes. The Love who intercedes for us and offers us peace – with God, with one another, even with our enemies.

Love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love neighbor as much as we love ourselves. There is no greater commandment than this.

Let us walk in the footsteps of Ruth, who risked everything to become a living expression of the love of God. Let us demonstrate the faith and courage of the scribe, who – despite all his religious and scholarly training – was open to the radical truth of the gospel – beyond rules and rituals. Let the Spirit of love, life, and power enter into us, so that our God-loving, enemy-blessing lives may become the fulfillment of the law.

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This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/21/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.

Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.

It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.

The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.

The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.

They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.

It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.

For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.

In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.

They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.

They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.

All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.

Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.

Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.

The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.

Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.

In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.

So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:

Again [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.

James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”

And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.

In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.

This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.

This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.

This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.

Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.

These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.

As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.

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Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/30/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29, James 5:13-20, & Mark 9:38-50. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!

Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/26/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, Ephesians 6:10-20, & John 6:56-69. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“The flesh is useless.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” This is what the en-fleshed Word of God says to us. “The flesh is useless.”

At first glance, it’s hard for me to make sense of this. After all, Jesus is the Word become flesh. Jesus is the one through whom we know just how much God loves this world of flesh and bone. By Jesus’ presence, we know that God embraces the whole creation – humans, plants, animals – so much that he is willing to become part of us.

Jesus says that the flesh is useless – but clearly God loves this created world very much! Earlier in John’s Gospel, it says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. He’s also a human being, just like any of us. He was born. He grew from a tiny baby to a full-grown man. He had friends and enemies. He experienced joy and suffering. In his life on earth, Jesus didn’t know everything all from the start. He learned and grew, just like we do. (If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.)

Jesus is fully human, even as he is fully divine. That’s a basic statement of faith that we receive from the early church, but it’s still so profound that I have a tough time wrapping my head around it. Jesus is man and God. He is spirit and flesh. He is life itself, and yet he experienced death.

In our passage from John this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that “the flesh is useless.” And yet at the same time, what is his command to the disciples? What does he tell them is the way to encounter the Spirit? “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus says that this is the true manna from heaven. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This is the way to life.

So, clearly Jesus’ flesh is not useless. On the contrary, his flesh and blood are the key that opens up everything, that makes the Spirit’s work in the world possible. So why does Jesus say that the flesh is useless, when his flesh and blood are clearly so useful?

It seems like Jesus is talking about two distinct things: there’s the kind of flesh that is useless, and then there’s his flesh which brings life and connection to the Spirit of God.

And this makes sense. Because, though I’ve been saying this whole time that Jesus is a man just like us, he’s also a little different. He’s different, because he came into this world with an open heart. All the rest of us, when we’re born into this world, are immediately sucked into the confusion and brokenness of our society. From the very beginning, we’re baptized into the patterns of alienation that define fallen human society. We are children of Adam and Eve, children of the fall, children of the serpent who has deceived us.

Jesus’ life is different, because he has always been a child of God. He was never a child of the fall, a child of the serpent. Jesus never rejected his Father’s love. He never gave into fear and hatred. Jesus is God’s answer to the fall. He is the good flesh that God created in the beginning. In Jesus, the created order is redeemed. The Spirit is present and moves unimpeded. The curse of the fall is broken. The fissure between earth and heaven is healed.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Gattaca. It’s a dystopian movie about a near future in which everyone who can afford it genetically modifies their children to be smarter, stronger, healthier. Of course, not everyone is super excited about this, and some decide to have children the old fashioned way. So there’s a scene where a doctor is convincing some parents to have their child produced through genetic enhancement. He tells the couple, “your child will still be you, only the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never achieve such a result.”

Now this is a dystopian movie, so I admit that the comparison is rather strange, but I think that Jesus is kind of like this. He’s still us. He’s a real human being, with all our hopes, fears, and limitations. But he’s the best of us. He’s what we look like when we have been enhanced by God’s love – freed from the crippling disease of sin, that has plagued our human family for so long.

When Jesus says that “the flesh is useless,” he’s not saying that the creation is bad. He’s saying that the creation is broken and needs to be healed. Jesus is pointing to the fact that the body is meaningless when cut off from the spirit.

This past week, a good family friend died. His name was Dan Patterson, and he was like an adoptive uncle to me. I remember how he encouraged my love of reading, buying my brother and me the best books throughout our childhood. I remember traveling as a family with him to New York City. I remember his love of Opera and theater. I remember his fierce cynicism about our fallen human nature and his passionate critique of injustice wherever he saw it.

And now, he’s gone. That is to say, all that’s left is flesh. A dead body. The breath is gone, and all that’s left is a corpse. And when I think about all that we’ve lost, I want to say with Jesus, “the flesh is useless!” Without the spirit, the life, the presence of my friend Dan, what’s left? “It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” I want my friend back.

The message of Jesus to us this morning, is that real life is only possible when we are filled with the breath and spirit of God. The spirit, the breath, gives life. I can’t just be a body. I’ve got to breathe. I’ve got to be filled with the breath of God, the spirit. I can’t just go through the motions. Without the presence and love of the spirit, all that exists is death and decay. I’m just a corpse, breaking down.

This is what Paul was talking about in our reading this morning from Ephesians. He tells us, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” If we’re going to be more than just a corpse, we have to be clothed by the Spirit.

King Solomon understood this, too. For everything that he did wrong, God gave Solomon wisdom to understand what a vital and amazing thing was the presence of God in the midst of Israel. When the Spirit of God descended on the Temple, it says that God filled the sanctuary like a cloud. The power of his presence was so intense that the priests couldn’t even stand to minister there. The power was so heavy, all they could do was bow in awe and worship. “For the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

The house of the Lord. The dwelling place of God on earth. Solomon understood how crazy this entire concept was. How could the creator of the entire cosmos, a being who is deeper and wider than anything the human mind can comprehend – how could God come to dwell in a house made with human hands? Solomon was bowed down in awe and astonishment together with the priests, and he said, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

The Temple in Israel was an important teaching tool for God. Like the desert tabernacle before it, it was a place where the flesh of this world could be touched and redeemed. A place where the Spirit breathed and gave life. In the old covenant, this was the place where the effects of the fall were overcome. Reconciliation between people and God was possible where the Spirit breathed into flesh.

In the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, we no longer need a building to serve as God’s dwelling place. The church itself – the people of God gathered here, and in hundreds of thousands of other places this morning – is the temple of God. Our bodies are the dwelling place of the most high. Our lungs are filled by his Spirit. The spirit gives life. Together we feed on the body and blood of Jesus, and our own flesh is transformed.

Without the spirit, we’re just a corpse. We’re no good for anything but burial. But we don’t have to worry about that, because the Spirit is present here with us, ready to breathe into our lives. This temple, this gathering of Jesus followers, is ready to be filled by the glory of the Lord.

Are we ready to be filled? Are we ready to truly come alive? Are we ready to become the redeemed flesh and blood of Jesus in the world? Are we ready to become children of God, together with Jesus?

I would like to invite us into a time of open worship, in which we wait on the Spirit of God to come and fill us, inspire us, guide us into greater truth and faithfulness. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Breathe life into this body that longs to live in you.

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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, & Mark 6:14-29. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

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God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages

God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/24/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, & Mark 4:35-41. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble. Those who know your name will put their trust in you, for you never forsake those who seek you, O Lord.”

We give thanks this morning, that we worship a God who cares for his children. A God who stands up for the weak, the poor, the oppressed.

We give thanks, because we need this liberating God of the oppressed. We know that we live in a country that is full of oppression. We can no longer close our eyes to the violence being done to black and brown lives every day in our streets. Nor can we ignore the outrageous violence, torture, and cruelty being done to our brothers and sisters at the border. Men, women, and children locked in cages. Parents shackled to walls. Children stolen from their parents in the middle of the night as a form of punishment. Punishment for seeking asylum. Punishment for fleeing poverty and violence in their native lands.

We give thanks this morning to the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows what it is to suffer. Who knows what it means to lose a child. Our God is no stranger to violence, torture, and state-sanctioned oppression.

So we give God praise this morning, for the way he cares for us. He loves those whom the world hates. And he sees what is being done to his children.

We are thankful this morning, because we know that the God we worship is not a weakling. Our God is not a God of sentimentality. He is a God of action. His love is powerful, able to change time and circumstances. He proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He liberates the oppressed. He is able to do these things, because he created us and called us “good”, and he is determined that the world will be made good once again. Through his love and power, God has promised to bind up our wounds and heal this broken earth.

“The Lord is known by his acts of justice.” That’s who God is. It is true to say “God is love.” It is equally true to say, “God is justice.” It is in this knowledge that the psalmist cries out, “Rise up, O Lord, let not the ungodly have the upper hand; let them be judged before you. Put fear upon them, O Lord; let the ungodly know they are but mortal.”

Let not the ungodly have the upper hand, O Lord. Let them be judged before you. Let them know they are but mortal.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. Our God does not stand idly by while cruelty and sadism reign. God judges the wicked. The avenger of blood will remember the children locked in cages. He will remember the infants ripped from their mothers’ breasts. God will remember the government officials who implement obscene border policies and then lie to the world about why these injustices are happening. God will not forget those who grow rich off the prison industrial complex that has spread like a cancer across this land – even to the border.

“The wicked shall be given over to the grave, and also all the peoples that forget God. For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.”

What does it mean for us to be the people of God in the midst of this wicked and violent generation? For those of us with the privilege of citizenship, what does it mean to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are oppressed for their lack of legal status? For those of us who are white, how does God call us to submit ourselves to our black and brown sisters and brothers in Christ who are bearing the weight of entrenched racism and state violence? What does it mean for us to be made in the image of the God who stands with the outsider, the foreigner, the poor?

Our God is not a weakling. He hears the cry of the oppressed. He calls us into action, to participate in the ministry of reconciliation, healing, and justice. God’s love changes things – it comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. The light of Christ is a balm to those who are suffering for righteousness, but it is a burning flame to those who hate God and neighbor.

Our scripture readings this morning encourage us to hear and act on God’s call to justice and reconciliation. They remind us that we aren’t in this struggle alone. God’s love is powerful, and we are called to become agents and ambassadors of this love in the world.

This means we don’t have to be afraid. As hard as it may be to believe, despite all the horror that we see around us, God is ultimately in control of this world he created. And his justice will not sleep forever.

This is something that Jesus’ disciples learned during a nighttime voyage across the sea of Galilee.

Jesus and a little fleet of fishing boats were moving across the water, when a huge windstorm came out of nowhere and the disciples’ sailboat was being swamped. It looked like the ship might go down.

Meanwhile, Jesus was in the back of the boat, asleep on a cushion. So here are the disciples, running around and struggling to keep the boat above the waves, and Jesus is somehow sleeping through the whole thing! Finally, the disciples wake him up. I imagine them shouting over this freight train of a storm, “Wake up, Jesus! How can you sleep through this chaos? We’re all gonna drown and you’re taking a nap!?”

And it says that Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind. “Peace! Be still!” The storm stopped immediately, and there was dead calm. After the noise and tumult of the storm, the silence must have been deafening – and probably a little creepy. It says that the disciples were filled with “great awe” and said to one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In times of darkness and fear, we’re all like the disciples. We cry out to God for help. We’re upset, because God seems to be asleep in the back of the boat while all hell is breaking loose. We need help, and we need it now. Families are being ripped apart. People are dying. Where are you, God?

I don’t know what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do when he woke up. Maybe they thought he would lend a hand in bailing out water from the boat. They surely didn’t expect that he could speak a word and silence the storm. The disciples were frustrated that Jesus was sleeping through the storm, but they couldn’t foresee what Jesus would do to deliver them.

Like most of us, the disciples didn’t really believe in miracles. They had seen Jesus heal people and change lives in unexpected ways, but still they couldn’t wrap their heads around a God who intervenes in history, making the impossible possible. Despite everything Jesus had shown them, they weren’t expecting a miracle. They were relying on their own strength to ride out the storm and keep their little sailboat afloat. And the ship was going down.

Until it wasn’t. Jesus woke up. He rebuked the wind, and the storm stopped immediately.

Whoa.

In some ways, Jesus’ act of deliverance must have been even more terrifying than the storm he delivered them from. The disciples all thought they wanted to see Jesus display his power. They wanted to see their big, bad messiah in action. Preferably in battle. But when Jesus actually does perform a miracle, the disciples are often confused or even terrified.

You know, we all want to see a miracle. But we want a certain kind of miracle. We want miracles that we can contain and control, miracles that we can understand on our own terms. We want miracles that make things go our way, that fulfill our wishes for how the world ought to be.

Real miracles aren’t like that. True miracles challenge what we know about the world, ourselves, and God. When God’s power and deliverance shows up, it breaks down our whole sense of order and control. The presence of God humbles us, because it’s not something we ever could have anticipated.

So, when we cry out for justice, we have to ask ourselves: Are we truly ready for God to act? Are we prepared for something totally unexpected? Do we really believe that God can rebuke the wind and silence the storm? Do we have faith that, despite all appearances, there is a life and power at work behind the scenes – a boundless love that can deliver us from evil and transform our society?

Do we believe that God will judge the world? All the things being done in darkness will be brought to light. Everything done in secret will be revealed. God will judge the wicked and lift up the oppressed. Are we ready for the power of God to break us down so that we can be remade in Christ’s image?

Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation! This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! God is not asleep as some suppose. He is here to judge the world – to bind up the wounds of the broken and stay the hand of tyrants. As the apostle John writes, The son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil. We share in this ministry with him.

Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. God will judge those who put children in cages. God will destroy the works of the devil. The spirit of Jesus will restore our world. He will reunite families, heal the sick, and abolish borders. The Holy Spirit is alive and moving in this place. The light of Jesus shines to convict us of our sin – all the ways we have turned away from God – and gives us power to turn our lives back towards God.

Will we accept this invitation? Will we become followers of Jesus in both word and deed? Will we embrace the miracle that disrupts our lives, allowing the love and justice of God to take full control?

I would like to invite you to join me in a time of open worship. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Come, living Jesus. Move in our midst. Work on our hearts. Show us how to be your children, living in your truth, mercy, and righteousness.

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