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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.)

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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.

Related Posts:

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

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?
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.)

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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.

Related Posts:

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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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How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.
We’ve seen horrifying things this weekend. Nazi banners, shamelessly unfurled just a short drive from the nation’s capital. Armed gangs of white nationalists in the streets of an American college town. Unchecked violence. Murder in the name of radical hate. All this comes as a reminder that white supremacy is one of the founding doctrines of the United States. Our nation remains captured by the demonic influence of systemic, generational oppression of non-white – and especially black – people.

It should go without saying: White supremacist ideology is not merely mistaken. It is evil. It is anti-Christian. White supremacy is a blasphemy against the image of God in humanity. It is impossible to embrace white supremacy and to be a follower of Jesus, the crucified Jewish Messiah.

American racists often hide behind a veneer of Christian piety, but white supremacy is utterly incompatible with the way of Jesus. The Nazis understood this. In Nazi Germany, and in many other countries where other versions of fascism emerged, Christianity was actively corrupted, subverted, and opposed where it dared to challenge the authority of the fascist state. Adolf Hitler’s inner circle of rogues and radicals were generally atheist or pagan, preferring the false gods of their imagination to the humble Jew who died on a cross.

The the quasi-fascist Donald Trump regime is similarly anti-Christian in its convictions. It’s impossible to love God while hating others. No follower of Jesus can incite racial hatred, threaten nuclear war, and spread lies and fear in the way this administration has done. We see Nazis parading through American streets. White nationalists dictate policy in the White House. GOP leadership in Congress either does not have the courage to confront this evil, or is actively encouraging a politics of hate, violence, and fear.

How are we to respond? As friends and followers of Jesus, how will we challenge white supremacy? 

There’s not one answer for each of us. Our family is expecting a newborn baby any day now, so I probably won’t be joining protesters in the streets anytime soon. Others of us are already being called to be physically present in the streets where many of these struggles are taking place. There is both room and necessity for a diversity of gifts, actions, and tactics as we seek to be faithful in these times of hatred and fear.

In this diversity, though, there is an unmistakable unity. While we all have particular parts to play, the character of Jesus does not change. He sends us into the world according to the spirit of love, not according to the fearful spirit of the world. Each one of us has different roles to perform, but all of us are called to walk, and speak, and act in the spirit of Jesus.

What are the marks of a Christ-like response to evil? How can our communities identify the way of Jesus, and encourage one another to walk in it?

The way of Jesus is always marked by love. Love for neighbor. Love for enemies. Love in the face of violence and persecution. The love of Jesus isn’t intimidated or overcome by fear. It doesn’t give in to slogans or posturing. It rejoices in the truth. The love of Jesus seeks healing and reconciliation for everyone, even the people who nail him to the cross.

Many of us – myself included – are tempted by the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that we can destroy evil by attacking the evildoers is a powerful one. Especially for men in our society, there is an expectation that we prove our strength and care for others though our willingness to inflict violence on people who threaten our loved ones.

Jesus was the strongest man the world has ever known. His life, death, and resurrection repudiate the false narrative of redemptive violence. Through his courage, God has shown us that true love is cruciform. His love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So must we. If you and I wish to follow in the way of Jesus, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that our violence can transform the world. We may be called to die for love, but never to kill. Jesus calls us to be light in the midst of the darkness of white supremacy and Nazi ideology. As friends of Jesus, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with those who are being directly impacted by personal and structural racism. All followers of Christ must stand against violent ideologies and powers.

The tools of our resistance cannot be different from those that Jesus himself has given us. He has commanded us to heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor. Through his faithfulness on the cross, he has shown us how far we must go to seek the healing of others, even those who despise us. Being willing to die for our friends is challenging enough; Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, too.

No one who is paying attention can deny that we have enemies. Those who promote race hatred and fascist violence – whether in the streets or in the White House – are enemies of God and his people. Yet our response, as maddening and unnatural as it is, must be to seek healing and transformation even for those who seek to destroy us. Not because we would choose this for ourselves. Not because we are sure it will “work” as a strategy. But because Jesus himself has borne the cross of genocidal oppression. He has shown us the way from death into life, and it comes through love of enemy. 

This is a truth that most professing Christians have failed to embrace. The way of Jesus is one of good news for the poor and oppressed. Sight to the blind, liberation for the captive, resurrection from the dead. We obtain this resurrection through indiscriminate love.

What does it look like to love a Nazi who is pepper spraying you, beating you, running you over with a car? What does it mean to be the face of Jesus to a soul that is twisted by the evil of white supremacy? These are hard questions, and I don’t pretend to have easy answers.

Rather than trying to provide a pre-packaged solution, I urge all the friends of Jesus to turn ourselves over to the wisdom, compassion, and power of the Holy Spirit. She alone has the ability to transform us from frightened children, lashing out at every threat, to mature imitators of Christ’s joy, compassion, and power. We need her now more than ever.

Holy Spirit, come. Transform our hearts. Inspire our response to the evils that afflict our nation. Make our lives good news to the poor and oppressed. Teach us how to love the world so much that we are willing to lay down our lives and privilege, in imitation of our friend and savior, Jesus.

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How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?
The good news of Jesus isn’t just that Jesus loves me. Of course that’s part of it, but the rabbit hole of God’s love goes way deeper than that. The really radical gospel message is this: God loves my enemies. To be like Jesus, I have to love my enemies, too.

I often don’t let this sink in enough: the incomprehensible nature of God’s love. The message that Jesus loves me, that he loves those whom I love – that’s nothing special. Any God, any religious system is going to provide that. In any human religion, the center of the moral universe is always me and mine. But Jesus points completely beyond me. His message removes me as the center of the moral universe. God himself becomes the center.

The God that Jesus points to doesn’t belong to me. He doesn’t belong to those whom I deem good people. He’s the God of all people, all creatures, all creation. God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

God loves my enemies as much as he loves me. Even when they’re hurting me. God loved the enemies of Jesus, even as they were nailing him to the cross. Jesus loved his enemies so much, he was willing to lay down his life and to suffer a shameful death.

To me, that’s still incomprehensible. I have to admit, I don’t get it. To write these words is one thing; digesting their truth is another.

What it will take for me to truly believe and embrace that God loves my enemies? Jesus died for his enemies. If I’m going to be like Jesus, I have to be willing to die for my enemies.

I must be prepared to lay down my life. Not because I have to, and not because I feel guilt. Certainly not because I feel righteous. I must be ready to give up everything out of love for those who hurt, betray, and steal from me. If I am to be like Jesus, I must love those who threaten me.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. It doesn’t just feel superhuman and supernatural, but inhuman and unnatural. Nothing in my genetic makeup encourages me to love my enemies, and to pray for those who persecute me. There’s no natural instinct to risk myself for the sake of those who hate me.

And yet that’s exactly what God calls us to do. What seems natural to us, what has become natural in this fallen world, is in fact unnatural. God created the universe good, in unity with itself and with the Creator. But we live in a broken version of the love and symbiosis that God built into the creation.

The fallenness of our present reality manifests itself in how we respond to enemies. In this broken nature, forgiveness is impossible. Violence and hate are easy. It’s hard to act on what we know is right.

I need God’s guidance to respond to this world with love. I need the Spirit’s help to be able to tell the difference between justice and vengeance. I need God’s grace to see the face of Jesus in those who disappoint me, make me uncomfortable, and threaten my life.

For me, this will mean baby steps. I want to embrace Jesus’ courage on the cross, to ask God’s forgiveness for those who want to attack and kill me. But I should probably start by forgiving those who stole my lawnmower.

I need to be faithful in small things if I want to be prepared for big challenges.

Most of all, I need others to be Christ to me. I need people in my life who forgive me when I’ve done them wrong. People who show kindness to me when I’ve intended evil to them. My salvation is linked to those who show the love of Jesus when I’m only filled with hate.

I thank God for the way that he reaches out to me through others. I’m grateful for those who shine God’s light on both the righteous and unrighteous. Even when the unrighteous person is me.

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What if my Religion is just Self Help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is that journey?

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

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

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

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

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Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Do You Think You'll Age Like Wine?
Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

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