Archive for July 2021

Do We Really Want Jesus to Captain the Boat?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 6:1-21. 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

I’m imagining us together on the boat, on the Sea of Galilee. Headed toward the far shore. Rowing against the wind. Struggling in the dark.

I’m remembering all the powerful works of God we have seen together. We know that God is real. We trust in Jesus to teach us. We’ve seen him feed us among the five thousand. 

But right now, it feels like we are alone. How are we going to make it through this storm? What will keep this boat from capsizing?

It says that when they saw Jesus walking on the water, walking across the Sea of Galilee – at night, in the middle of a storm – the disciples were terrified. They could not believe what they were seeing. They had left Jesus praying on the mountainside. Who was this, walking towards them on the water?

But then they heard the voice of Jesus speaking to them from the storm. “It is I; do not be afraid.”And it says, “Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”

Teleportation. I love that. For anyone who is a fan of Star Trek, I’ve got news for you: Captain Kirk did not invent the transporter. God did. Beam me up, Jesus. And in this particular case, Jesus seems to have transported the entire boat that the disciples were in.

You see teleportation in the Book of Acts, too, when Philip is whisked away by the Holy Spirit after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch. Does this stuff really happen? It says, “…they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”

It seems fantastic, but there’s a ring of truth to it. Because that’s how God works sometimes. He takes us from where we are at, to where we are meant to be in an instant. 

Have you ever seen that happen? Have you seen enemies become friends in a moment of understanding and grace? Have you seen intractable situations transformed by unexpected insight and wisdom? Have you seen a community at loggerheads come suddenly into agreement – finding a way forward that none of the parties to the dispute had previously considered?

I feel like I’ve seen this kind of teleportation. I’ve seen the presence of Jesus change realities on the ground. I’ve seen him move the boat forward, through the storm, despite the fact that all our efforts just don’t cut it.

This sounds familiar.

We’re in the boat now. We’re in the storm. We are struggling in the dark, rowing towards our destination. We know where God wants us to be, to be a community filled with love, life, and power. A church that lives and shares the gospel of Jesus. A boat that moves wherever the winds of the Holy Spirit blow us. But it feels like the wind is against us right now. It’s not clear how our rowing can possibly get us to the shore of God’s shalom.

The good news in this story is that our rowing is not the decisive factor. Our efforts are not going to overcome the wind and the waves. But there is a presence hovering over the waters. There is a friend walking toward us. We have a captain who is returning to the boat, who will steer us safely – and quickly – to shore.

The early Quakers knew this experience, too. They had been in a great boat of institutional Christianity, with lots of people rowing in all sorts of different directions. But some English men and women could sense that there was something missing, that none of the oarsmen were making any headway, despite all their learning and accomplishments. Worst of all, they didn’t want to invite Jesus into the boat.

There was a group of people called the Westmorland Seekers, many of whom later became Quakers, who concluded that the best thing they could do was to put down their oars and wait. Wait to hear the voice of Jesus. Wait to feel the desire to bring the Teacher on board the boat. Wait for his presence to immediately bring the boat to land.

Francis Howgill was among the Seekers and later became an important Quaker leader. He describes his community’s experience of being moved and transformed by the Spirit of Jesus in this way:

The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. 

We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: 

‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? And will he take up his tabernacle among the sons of men, as he did of old? Shall we, that were reckoned as the outcasts of Israel, have this honour of glory communicated amongst us, which were but men of small parts and of little abilities, in respect of many others, as amongst men?’ 

And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God…

Francis Howgill was an old man by the time he heard George Fox preach and the Quaker movement really started to come together in 1652. Howgill was 34 years old by then! Most of the Quakers leaders were in their twenties, or even their teens. And you can hear it in Howgill’s words, can’t you? The passion. The fire. The sense of all things made new. Can you remember feeling that way? Do you remember when God gathered you up, as in a net, and drew you to land?

The young certainly don’t have a monopoly on such experiences of God’s power. After all, Moses was an old man when he stood before the Burning Bush of God’s presence for the first time. But there is something about being young, isn’t there? An openness, a sense of possibility – a holy desperation for what is real, and true, and solid. A hunger for the whole wheat bread of life, and a refusal to be tempted by the trinkets and baubles that the world offers us.

As we get older, it’s hard not to settle down, make compromises. To accept the ways of the world and learn how to get by in it. We might even feel that we have become successful. But as C.S. Lewis writes in his wonderful book The Screwtape Letters:

Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”

Have we become prosperous?  Have we become satisfied? Have we allowed ourselves to become knit to the world? Have we become so enamored with the act of rowing, that we have forgotten that the whole point of our little boat is to get the ship and its passengers safely to shore?

Have we forgotten that our Lord is walking towards us on the water, calling out to us, “It is I; do not be afraid”?

Every passing moment is another chance to look out on the water and, in the words of John, to want to take Jesus into the boat. Do you want him here with us? Do you want him to lead us?

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Do not be afraid, little crew of this little boat – our Teacher is stronger than the storm.

We just have to look up from our rowing and see him. We must hear his voice over the hissing of the storm. We have to want to take him into the boat. And immediately, he will be with us to teach and guide us. Immediately, he will bring us to shore.

Who’s the Boss?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/11/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was Psalm 24.

I recently watched an old video recording of a debate between John Lennox – a Christian apologist – and Christopher Hitchens – an anti-theist who argued vociferously against any belief in God. 

Over the course of the two-hour-long debate, the two men made a lot of arguments for and against God. Some of them were profound, others less compelling. One of the themes that kept coming up in the debate, from Hitchens, the anti-theist, was the idea of how horrifying it would be for there to be a divine ruler in charge of the whole cosmos.

For Hitchens, real freedom was about the ability of humans to go about our business without any heavenly Father watching us, evaluating us, or guiding us. Hitchens not only did not believe in God, but he felt that if God did exist, it would be a catastrophe. Because in his mind, we would just be slaves to an all-powerful divine being. For Hitchens, the only outcome of a world with God would be one where human beings grovel and God dominates us.

I think this idea of God says a lot more about Hitchens than it does about God.

I would argue that Christopher Hitchens, and other evangelical atheists, fall into the same trap that they accuse their theistic opponents of. For them, religion is wish-fulfillment – making a god in our own image. Yet Hitchens fell into exactly the same god-manufacturing trap that he accused us of. Hitchen’s imaginary, tyrant God is exactly the kind of deity you would expect if you put a fallen human in charge of the universe.

In our scripture reading this morning, in Psalm 24, we are told of the God who created the earth and the seas. The God who blesses his people and vindicates the righteous. This is the God who establishes justice in the land. This is the king of glory: the God whose arrival means peace – the end of conflict and the coming of righteous order. 

As limited and short-sighted human beings, we have a strong drive to be in charge. We want to ensure our own safety. We want to control our environment, and the people around us. All of humanity can relate to Simba from the Lion King, who says: “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!”

But the good news of the kingdom of God is that we have a king, and he is not us. Our king is not a boss, or the president, or a billionaire, or a member of our family. The good news is that there is a king before whom every knee will bow, and his authority supersedes the authority of all the rulers of this age. There is a king of glory – there is a master and commander and creator of this universe – and he is not us.

Our theme this morning is peace. On Friday, our church newsletter included an excerpt from the famous letter that Quakers sent to the English King Charles II in 1660. This document, the origin of what we now call the Peace Testimony, declared that Charles had nothing to fear from Quakers, because Quakers had renounced warfare altogether as incompatible with the Spirit and teaching of Christ.

King Charles had reason to believe that the Quakers might be trouble, that Quakers might be involved in plots to overthrow the monarchy. So George Fox and other leading Quakers made it very clear that they had no interest in seizing control of English society. They wrote:

And as for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less can we fight for them, but we do earnestly desire and wait, that by the word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ, that he might rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth, that thereby all people, out of all different judgments and professions might be brought into love and unity with God and one with another, and that they might all come to witness the prophet’s words, who said, ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’. (Is 2:4; Mic 4:3)

What is it that draws us into love and unity with God and one with another? What is it that creates a social reality where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more? Who is this king of glory that can bring peace to the city and to the nations?

The authors of the Bible understood that peace comes through authority. It comes through a kingdom. It comes from a society in which we do not each have our own way, but submit ourselves to one another, and to the sovereign.

Ever since the Fall, people have insisted on having human kings to unite and rule us. This was the best that we could do. The quintessential human peace is the Pax Romana, the Roman peace that came after conquest. The Roman idea of peace is one of order and quiescence imposed by overwhelming force.

This is the best that we can manage on our own. A peace built on the violence and domination of human sovereignty. In such a peace, war and fighting ceases, because there are men with weapons who are stronger than us, and who will punish us if we do not keep order.

But in the Book of Exodus, as God leads Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness, we learn that God has an entirely different form of kingship, a whole new kind of peace that he wants us to teach us:

Following the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Waiting for God to speak to the people from the Tent of Meeting. Listening to the prophets of God speaking the word of God to us. Obeying the voice of God, spoken to the people directly. Moving when he moves, living as he directs us. This is the kingdom of God. This kingdom establishes peace, based not on the violence of men, but in the power and presence of God.

The kingdoms of this world can bring us a cease-fire, a cessation of hostilities. And that’s a good thing. I am grateful to live in a society of laws where I don’t expect to be robbed or murdered with impunity at any given moment.

But this vision of society, this Pax Americana, falls far short of what the Creator offers us in Jesus Christ. The world offers us protection, but Jesus offers us shalom – the peace of God that restores and redeems the world from division, hatred, and warfare. This is the sword that heals.

This is the kingdom that the early Quakers referred to when – alluding to the vision of John’s Apocalypse – they envisioned a day when “the word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ, that he might rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth.”

This is the path that leads to peace. Being brought together under the kingship of Jesus. Becoming subjects of the kingdom of heaven, gathered together in the Holy Spirit. Becoming children of the Father, led by the pillar of cloud and fire, moving as he moves.

Lift up your heads, O gates! Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory.

He is our peace. A peace built not on violence or conquest, but upon the crucified, self-giving love of Jesus. Listen to him.