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Crossing the Greatest Divide

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/12/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 8:27-38. 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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During the decade or so when Faith and I lived in Washington, DC, we made regular trips back across the Appalachian Mountains to the west, sometimes to visit Faith’s family in Ohio, but even more often to attend Quaker events hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting or the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

I got to know the routes from DC through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia really well. I didn’t need GPS. And certain landmarks became so familiar, that calling them out became a kind of game. (For some reason, we would always celebrate when we saw the sign for Mount Morris – don’t ask me why; we’re weird.)

Anyway, one of the interesting features of this trip was that we would always cross the Eastern Continental Divide. This divide is an imaginary line drawn north/south across the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. On the eastern side of this line, any rain that falls will ultimately flow down into the Atlantic Seaboard watershed, and out into the ocean. Rain that falls on the western side, on the other side of the line, will eventually make its way down into the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s something amazing to me about that. That I can stand on a spot up in the Appalachian mountains and know that if I pour a bottle of water to my left, it will end up in the Gulf, and to my right it will end up in the Atlantic.

It reminds me of other great divides. Human divides. Choices we make that alter everything that comes after. These can be big, obvious decisions, like getting married, having a child, moving to a new country, or joining the military. They can be small things that don’t even seem significant at the time – ignoring that unknown phone number or deciding to take vacation one week rather than another. Life is full of choices, divides that separate what is from what could have been.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the greatest divide, the most impactful decision that they, or we, will ever have to make. This decision hinges on a question that Jesus asks his disciples – and implicitly, asks us: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus was, and is, a very mysterious character. Then, as now, there were many different theories floating around about his identity. John the Baptist. Elijah. One of the prophets. These were some of the options back then. Today, there are some other ideas floating around. Some say that Jesus is a great moral teacher, following in the Jewish prophetic tradition. For others, he is a mystical guru, teaching the hidden ways of the spirit. Still others find in him a political revolutionary, pointing us towards a new society.

And now, as then, Jesus asks us the question: “But you. You. Who do you say that I am?”

It’s easy to misunderstand this question. We live in a culture that is constantly asking us to “speak our truth”; to express ourselves; to give a status update; to define the world in terms of our own perspective rather than seek objective reality.

You can see this in the way the meaning of the phrase “that speaks to my condition” has changed over the centuries. For the early Quakers, if something spoke to their condition, it convicted them of sin and called them to repentance. It was a revelation of their own brokenness and a call to change. Today, the phrase has a very different meaning. If something speaks to our condition, it is something that affirms what we already thought or felt.

So when we hear Jesus say to us, “Who do you say that I am?” it is tempting to interpret this as an invitation to define Jesus in a way that best suits our own needs, our own feelings, our own worldview. But that’s not what Jesus is asking. He’s not asking, “What do I mean to you?” He’s asking, “Do you have any idea who I am, really?”

And it turns out that Peter does. He gives Jesus the correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus seems satisfied with this.

But in the next few verses, we discover that being able to give the right answer isn’t quite enough. Even the correct answer is subject to our own ego, to our endless capacity to define things in terms that “speak to our condition,” in the modern sense, rather than speaking to the possibly uncomfortable reality of the situation.

Just after naming Jesus as the messiah, Peter immediately reveals that he has the wrong idea about the right answer. When he said Jesus is the messiah, he thought that meant that Jesus would be a revolutionary who would defeat the Romans and establish a kingdom based on the righteous use of force.

So when Jesus starts telling everyone that he is going to suffer, be rejected by everyone important, and die – and three days later, rise again. Well, that’s weird. So Peter tries to set Jesus straight. “Jesus,” he says, “we just agreed that you are the messiah, right? So what’s all this talk of dying? The messiah is supposed to beat the Romans and establish a new kingdom of David!”

It’s here that Jesus, having just acknowledged Peter as someone who “gets it” turns around and calls Peter “Satan”, someone who is not only on the totally wrong path, but is trying to tempt Jesus into straying from the way of God.

Peter didn’t know that he was Satan. Peter thought he was trying to help. He was speaking his truth. He even had the right answer to the “Who do you say that I am?” question. But it turned out that his right answer was not enough.

Peter was standing right on the line of the continental divide, so to speak. His toes were touching the line, but his heels were still dug into the wrong side. His whole life was still flowing into the watershed of the fallen human experiment. Jesus was calling him into a new life, a new watershed, a new destination. 

Jesus is inviting us into a choice that alters everything afterward: the choice to not just believe about him, but to believe in him – to trust him and follow where he is going – even if it doesn’t “speak to our condition” quite yet.

This was one of the core insights of the early Quaker movement: Belief is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We can believe that Jesus is the incarnate word of God, born of the virgin Mary, crucified by Pontius Pilate, descended to the dead, and risen by the hand of God to glory on the third day. We can believe these things, and we will be right. Yet we will still be at risk of missing the point altogether, as so many Christians throughout the ages have.

Believing is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We have to cross the line from believing to obeying. We have to allow Jesus to shift our lives into an unknown watershed, one that may lead us down into suffering and death on our way to resurrection. It’s a valley that strips away our ideas of what should be, and grounds us in the reality of what God is doing.

For many of us, especially religious people who are happy to have the right answer to the questions, the temptation is to stand at the peak, with our toes touching the line. It’s easy to stand there, with a great view and a correct answer. To dwell in that mountaintop experience and refuse to come down. To be exalted, but unchanged. But if we truly believe in the answer that Peter gives, we know that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one whom God has anointed to be not only our object of worship, but our leader. Knowing who he is is not enough; we must listen to him.

This morning, let’s pray for the courage to cross the line into the other side of the divide. To step out of the pat answers that “speak to our condition,” and into the challenging discipleship that disrupts our lives and sets us on a new course forever. Let’s abandon the mountaintop of being right and imitate Jesus in his descent into humility and faithful risk. Following him down the mountain, we may find ourselves lifted up with him.

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.)

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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.

Like Sheep Among Wolves

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 10:11-18. 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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Sheep are herd animals – so much so that, in English, we even use the same word for the singular and plural – one sheep, two sheep, a flock of sheep. When we think of sheep, we’re usually thinking about a group of them, not a single individual.

Just like there is really no such thing as a lone sheep, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. Jesus doesn’t just call us as individuals, he calls us to community. We are gathered into one flock, under one shepherd.

That’s why we’re gathered this morning. This is a flock meeting. Our shepherd Jesus has called us together. We are learning that we can trust him, because he lays down his life for us. He guides us in the way we need to go. He protects us from the wolves.

Sometimes we don’t take the wolves seriously enough. The wolves are real. The wolves do tear, and devour, and scatter. Selfishness, addiction, confusion, pride, racism, and greed. The wolves are the spiritual powers of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and despair.

We do not live in a neutral world without moral consequence. We are in a spiritual warfare between the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, sheep and wolves. In the words of the apostle Peter, in chapter five of his first epistle:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

In Jesus, we stand triumphant over the power of sin, death, and the devil. The key words here are, in Jesus. As sheep, we aren’t capable of fighting the wolves ourselves. We survive their predation by hanging together as a flock. We escape the wolves by trusting our good shepherd to protect us. 

Sheep need shepherds. We need those who care for and protect the flock. We need those who help us determine which way the flock should move, and to warn us when wolves are threatening the community. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has raised up good shepherds among us. Men and women of spiritual depth and power, who thanks to God’s grace have been made trustworthy to care for the flock, as sub-shepherds to Jesus. These individuals should be honored and heeded and encouraged.

But a lot of discernment is in order. Not just any shepherd will do. There are so many hired hands, false shepherds who would gather us for the fleece. They would lead us out of self-interest and vanity rather than love. And when the wolves come, they will abandon us to our fate.

The church has a long history of discerning between false shepherds and true ones. From the first generation of Christians, the apostles and fathers of the early church warned against those who would turn human tradition into a new law – telling us, “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” There have always been those who would sell us easy, mechanistic spiritual laws rather than the challenging freedom that we find in Christ.

There were those who would tell us that God is so holy that Jesus could never have come in the flesh. Others said that Jesus is merely a human teacher, but not divine. All the ancient heresies of the early church period were the work of false shepherds. All of the paths that they offered tickled the mind and puffed up the ego, but led to spiritual death.

The early Quakers faced off against false shepherds of their own. In their day, it was the state church’s priests and bishops, who inherited their office as a title and made a living off of the mandatory tithes that all were required to pay them, under penalty of law. These were men who turned the gospel into a business. They used the mantle of Christ as a way to extract wealth from the flock of God – shearing the sheep with abandon, but having no interest in protecting them.

False shepherds aren’t just a thing of ancient church history. They’re a present-day reality that we must be on guard against. The false shepherds are on the loose in the form of prosperity gospel preachers and secular hustlers. People who want to sell us on the idea that if we just put the right “energy” out into the world, that we will get back whatever we desire. People who say that if you are poor, or sick, or unlucky, it’s because you haven’t got the right attitude, or that you don’t have enough faith.

The false shepherds are the political pundits and leaders who sow fear to boost their ratings and cement their power. They’re the social media influencers who use our outrage and horror to fuel engagement. The false shepherds step forward as leaders, only to lead us on paths of destruction.

They hand us over to the wolves. Wolves like militant nationalism, stock-market speculation, gambling, addictive video games and social media, pornography, and hard drugs. These false shepherds entice us into patterns of compulsive behavior that cheapen and destroy our lives.

But there is good news. There is a shepherd who is not false! We recognize his voice, because he lays down his life for the sheep. He won’t let any of us be lost. He is here to protect us. We can rely on him.

Jesus is the good shepherd – not just to us, but to the whole world. Jesus says that he has sheep who are “not of this fold.” In the context of John, Jesus is probably referring to the Gentiles – flocks beyond the people of Israel, who were traditionally thought to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Who are those outcast sheep today? Jesus is coming for them, too.

There will be one flock, one shepherd. As Jesus reconciles us to God, he gathers us together as one planetary community. No one is to be excluded. Every single one of us is invited to hear the voice of Jesus and become part of the one flock of God.

I’m tempted to say that Jesus calls us to be good shepherds, too. To imitate Jesus and lay down our lives for the flock. To go forth and preach the gospel, and bring those other sheep into the one flock – to gather all the peoples of the earth into the family of God in Jesus.

I’m especially tempted because it’s true. We are called to do all these things as friends of Jesus. That’s the Great Commandment: love God, and love neighbor. It’s the Great Commission: go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven. This is what it looks like in practice. We are called to imitate Jesus.

But I don’t think that this is what Jesus is saying here, in this passage in John. Jesus is not saying, “I am the good shepherd, come and be shepherds like me.” Jesus is saying, “I am the good shepherd; you are my sheep.”

We are his sheep. He gathers us into one flock. We hear his voice. He guides us to springs of living water. He feeds us on the bread of life. He restores our souls. He makes us one body in him.

We are the sheep, and Jesus is the shepherd. Our job is not to replace Jesus as the shepherd; our job is to be obedient, faithful sheep. Loving one another. Caring for one another. Listening to the voice of the shepherd as he leads us.

This sheepy-ness is the protection that we have from the false shepherds, from the hired hands that do not really care about the flock but seek leadership for their own reasons. This is our protection from the wolves: Reliance on Jesus, our one shepherd leading our one flock.

We humans are so wired to think we need more than that. The Jews wanted a king. The early church wanted archbishops and popes and ecumenical councils under the authority of emperors. The story of the people of God is one of continuous self-seduction with our sub-shepherds.

The Good news of Jesus is not the reign of sub-shepherds. God does not offer us a new temple, or a law, or sacrifices, or a political order. God offers us his son, Jesus, our good shepherd. God says, “this is my son, the beloved – listen to him!”

As the psalmist says, “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would hearken to his voice!”

Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are his flock. One shepherd, one flock, and Jesus will gather us together. We can participate. We can be the flock, but he is the shepherd. Know his voice. Listen to him. Hear him. Follow him.

We must stop looking for another answer, another leader, another ideology that will save us. Jesus is telling us, that’s a dead end. As long as we’re seeking something more than Jesus, all we’ll find is hired hands – gurus and preachers and politicians and TED Talkers and activists and CEOs – people whose interests are served by leading us for now, but who have no intention of laying down their lives for the flock.

Jesus lays down his life for the flock. Jesus is the voice we can trust. Jesus is the pillar of cloud and of fire that Israel followed in the desert. He is the water from the rock and the manna from heaven. He is the answer. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

So let’s not be distracted by arguments over Paul or Apollos or Cephas – human leaders through whom we have heard the word of God and come to believe. All of our true leaders point us to Jesus, the good shepherd. Listen to him!

Trust him. Follow him. We can walk without fear, because he is guiding us. The Lord will fight our battles. The good shepherd has already triumphed over the wolves of this world. We don’t have to accomplish anything on our own. Wait on the Lord, hearken to his voice, and watch as he accomplishes it.

Do You Feel Left Out At Church? So Did The Apostle Thomas

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/11/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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It was night time on the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus – at first she had thought he was a gardener, but it was Jesus. Mary had told the other disciples what she had seen. She told the Twelve, “I have seen the Lord!”

John doesn’t say whether the other disciples believed Mary, but there are some clues that they still had doubts. It says that they were gathered together in a locked house. They were afraid that the same people who arrested Jesus and turned him over to be killed might be coming for them next.

The disciples didn’t want to get in trouble. They didn’t want to suffer and die the way they had seen Jesus die just a few days before. The disciples knew that the priests and scribes and leaders of the people were out for blood. If they could do that to Jesus, imagine what they could do to Jesus’ disciples!

You can understand that, right? A couple of your friends – Peter and John – saw an empty tomb where Jesus’ body was supposed to be; that’s pretty strange. And then Mary says that she saw Jesus alive. It’s hard to believe. You’d want to believe, wouldn’t you? You’d want to believe that somehow, your friend and teacher wasn’t really dead. But you saw it happen. You saw him get nailed to a cross. They killed Jesus, and you might be next.

So, you might be cautious. You say, “Peter, John – tell us that story again. You say the tomb was empty? Did it look like there had been a robbery? How did the tomb robbers move that huge stone?”

You say, “Mary, I know you think you saw Jesus. We all see Jesus. On the cross! We can’t get that image out of our vision. It’s like we’re seeing him every hour, every moment. We understand, Mary. This is all just too much for you. You need to rest, Mary. Go lay down.”

The good news can be hard to believe, because bad news seems so much more plausible.

But Mary keeps insisting, “I have seen the Lord!” Behind the locked doors, despite all the fear, there’s a spark of hope. You aren’t sure what to believe. Could it be? Could Mary have really seen the Lord Jesus, raised from the dead?

And then, suddenly, everybody sees him. The doors are locked, but Jesus is there. He’s standing right there in the middle of the room, saying “peace be with you” and breathing on you. He’s breathing the Holy Spirit on you and giving you power to forgive others. He’s taking away your fear and filling you with hope. Jesus is alive! 

But poor Thomas, one of the disciples is out picking up pizza. He was gone while Jesus appeared to everybody else. And when he gets back, you’re all going crazy, saying, “Thomas! Thomas! You won’t believe it! We have seen the Lord!”

And here’s Thomas, holding a stack of pizzas in his arms. “You’re right. I won’t believe it. There’s no way Jesus is alive. There’s no way that he just showed up here while I was gone. Even if that were possible, there’s no way he left me out like that.” 

Thomas is angry. He says, “I won’t believe this crazy story of yours unless I see him for myself. I want to touch him. I want to touch the places where they nailed his hands to the cross. I want to put my hand into his side, where they pierced him. Then I’ll believe you.”

Have you ever felt like that? Has it ever felt like the church is a place full of people who believe crazy things that you just can’t? Have you ever felt left out, like Thomas did? Like everyone else has had this amazing experience of God and Jesus, but you just haven’t had that same experience?

The disciples loved Mary, but it doesn’t seem like they could quite bring themselves to fully trust the good news of the resurrection. Not just because she said so.

And even when all the others had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas still couldn’t believe. This was just too much to take on faith. He needed to see it for himself.

We know from John’s story that Jesus came back. He didn’t leave Thomas out. He didn’t make Thomas take the other disciples’ word for it. Jesus loved Thomas and wanted to see him. He wanted to be with Thomas. He wanted Thomas to know and believe that he had risen from the dead. Jesus was happy to make himself visible to Thomas, to give him the gift of his presence.

Jesus says, “Touch my wounds, Thomas. Put your hand in my side. I will give you what you need so that you can believe.”

Thomas is overwhelmed by emotion. He cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

And I know that Jesus is so happy to see Thomas, and to be seen by him. He’s so happy that Thomas can now feel on the inside of the story. He’s joyous that Thomas can believe. But he also reminds Thomas and the others: It would have been nice if you had trusted Mary from the beginning. Oh ye of little faith, why didn’t you believe her when she came bearing the good news? Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And this has been the line of most of the church for the last 2000 years: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, put another way, “Take our word for it. We have seen, and you can trust us.” The church, with its Bible and tradition and collective memory, proclaims the good news to us. Like Mary. Like the apostles. They testify to the good news, and ask us to accept it as a gift.

That’s hard for a lot of us. It’s hard for me. I am very much a Thomas-style Christian. I need to see. I need to touch. I need to hear. I need to experience the risen presence of Jesus for myself. It’s not enough to hear the stories, even from people who are trustworthy. I want to believe, but it’s so hard when he has appeared to others, but not to me.

The good news in our reading this morning is that both of these things can be true. We really are blessed when we believe without seeing. We are blessed when we trust Mary Magdalene who brings us the good news of the resurrection. We are blessed when we trust the great cloud of witnesses – the apostles, the saints, and the church through the ages. We are blessed when we trust them, even when we can’t see clearly.

But the good news is also that Jesus Christ is here to teach his people himself. That’s the emphasis of the Quaker movement. That’s the special value that we bring to the wider church – a church that often says “trust us, trust us, trust us”, but is sometimes skeptical that Jesus is really here for us like he was for his first disciples.

The good news that Quakerism lifts up is that God does not condemn us if we are like Thomas and the twelve apostles. If we need to see Jesus for ourselves, he will show up. Jesus will be present with us. This isn’t a burden for him; Jesus loves to do this for us. Jesus is available to guide us and teach us. We are blessed if we believe without seeing, but he will be present when we need him.

Have you seen the Lord yourself? Or are you a blessed person who has come to believe without seeing? 

Do you feel left out sometimes? Do you feel like you are missing something? Do you wonder if anyone else feels like you?

I have. I do. We have. We do. You are not alone.

Just like those first disciples, we are gathered together waiting on the Lord. Waiting to see what will happen next. To see how he will guide us. Learning how to trust one another as we trust him. Learning to say, “We are blessed, because we have come to believe without seeing.” And also learning to say, “We have seen the Lord!”

Living Like Jesus in a World that Hates the Light

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/28/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 11:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Jesus riding into Jerusalem was out of sync with the world.

The streets of Jerusalem were full of people, waving leafy branches and calling out “Hosanna!” They were amped up and ready for a show. They believed – or hoped – that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the new king of Israel. 

But the crowds had no idea what God’s messiah would be. They had made God – and his messiah – into their own image. A strong man. The Son of David.

Jesus arrived in the heart of God’s world, the holy precincts of the Temple. He arrived “after hours”. Nothing was going on, no one was waiting around to greet him. Jesus was irrelevant to the institutions and the leaders. Before Jesus started disrupting the operations of the Temple, clearing out the moneylenders. Before he started debating the priests and authorities in the midst of the holy place. Before he made himself such a nuisance that he could no longer be ignored, the leading men in Jerusalem were content to turn a blind eye.

But even before they decided to kill Jesus, he was already rejected by the world.

The Pharisees rejected Jesus because they rejected the sovereignty of God – his creative presence in the world. They didn’t believe God could or would do anything outside of their interpretation of his law. The Messiah couldn’t be Jesus, because Jesus didn’t slavishly obey the rules. In Jesus, we meet the image of a personal God – a God who acts in context, not hemmed in by a set of leather-bound legal statutes.

The priests and Temple administration rejected Jesus as a blasphemer – someone who offends against God’s dignity, someone who insults God. Why? Because he claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of Man. From the perspective of the priests, it was an insult to God that someone as lowly as Jesus, someone born in Nazareth, someone without pedigree and – most crucially – someone who was an outsider to their institution, would claim to be God’s anointed.

But what about the people? It sure seems like the crowds believed in him. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people were celebrating Jesus as a hero, praying that he would be God’s anointed one who would finally save them from the power of death, the sword of the Roman conqueror.

Jesus was the Messiah that they had been waiting for. The crowd – as ignorant, fickle, and dangerous as they were – were right to cry out “Hosanna” for him. But they, too, misunderstood Jesus – and when they soon came to realize that he did not come to bring the kingdom of David, but rather a different kind of kingdom, the crowd would collaborate with the priests and scribes to have Jesus put to death on a cross.

So the priests said, “No, you can’t possibly be the Messiah, because you’re not one of us.”

The scribes said, “You cannot be the Messiah, because you do not follow the rules.”

And the people said, “You cannot be the Messiah, because you do not fulfill our wishes.”

Jesus was out of sync with them all. He wasn’t what any of them had hoped for or expected.

Even the disciples, in their moment of truth in the Garden of Gethsemane, would flee and abandon Jesus. They believed that they were ready to fight and die at the side of a Davidic messiah; but they didn’t know what to do with a suffering servant.

No one understood Jesus, not even those he loved most.

Because we know that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah – the anointed one of God. Because we know that he is God’s word to us. Because we know that he is the original apostle, the one God sent to bring good news to us, we know that Jesus was not out of sync with the world. The world was out of sync with Jesus. The world was out of sync with God.

Jesus could never have been what the world expected him to be without betraying the very nature of his mission. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus said all of this quite openly.

Jesus knew what it meant to be a servant of God in a world that rejects the light and loves the darkness. As friends and followers of Jesus, we must never forget this.

As we remember what is called Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem this morning, I am reminded of another so-called triumphal entry. This time, into Bristol, England.

It was the year 1656, and the Quaker movement was growing by leaps and bounds. Quakers were disrupting the established religion of England, proclaiming the good news of the resurrection – the living presence of Jesus Christ – available to every man, woman, and child. England at this time was living under an unstable revolutionary government; one which had failed to deliver on its promises of social justice, liberty, and peace; one which feared that it might soon be ousted from power – as indeed it was just four years later.

In the midst of this cultural and political tinderbox, James Nayler rode into Bristol, seated on a donkey, with other Quakers around him shouting, “Hosanna” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel.” Quakers had done public signs like this before, but this time the political winds had shifted. After years of dealing with rowdy Quakers, the authorities had decided that the Religious Society of Friends was a fundamental threat to their ability to govern. 

And so James Nayler was arrested and sent to London, where he was tried and convicted of blasphemy. Parliament just narrowly decided against executing James, instead torturing him nearly to death. They left him to rot in prison. When they finally released him several years later, he was attacked on the road as he made his way home to the north of England. He died, a physically wrecked and broken man.

Most Quakers utterly abandoned James Nayler, and for centuries he has been a notorious part of the Quaker story. A cautionary tale of what can happen when individual Quakers “go too far” and “run ahead of their Guide.” The implication, repeated for centuries by the Quaker community that fled and abandoned Nayler in his moment of greatest vulnerability and suffering, has been that Nayler deserved what he got, and that Quakers need to be more careful.

I’m sure that’s what the scribes and the priests and the crowds thought when they crucified Jesus. I wonder, if it weren’t for the fact of the resurrection, if that might not be the story that Jesus’ own disciples would have been telling a few months later. “That crazy old Jesus. He had some really good ideas, but he just went too far. We tried to talk him out of it, but he just wouldn’t stop antagonizing the authorities. Anybody could have seen it coming.”

Jesus was tortured, humiliated, and executed for blasphemy. He was out of sync with the world to such a degree that the only response that he could expect was violent rejection. Jesus was the anointed one, sent to his people to set them free. To bring the word of God to them. To announce the kingdom of God. For a world that rejects the light and loves the darkness, that’s blasphemy. That’s spiritual insurrection.

As we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem this morning, and as we look forward to Holy Week – including the last supper; the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; the trial and conviction of Jesus for blasphemy by the high priests; his torture and execution by the Roman authorities; and finally his resurrection – as we remember all these things in the coming week, we have an opportunity to enter more fully into the life and mission of Jesus.

Are we in sync with a world that hates God, or do we risk being misfits and “dangerous” characters with Jesus? In a world where even Jesus’ disciples abandoned Jesus, and the Quaker community abandoned James Nayler, will we be different? What does it look like to practice steadfast loyalty to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ? 

Will we stand together, or will we flee and abandon one another when things get hard?

Jesus and James had to go it alone. They walked that lonesome valley by themselves. But the good news is that the Holy Spirit gives us power to become a community that is out of sync with the world, and in sync with God’s love. 

We are called to join Jesus and James in their witness as suffering servants, to lay down our lives for a world that does not yet know God, which loves the darkness and hates the light.

As we enter into this season of remembrance, prayer, and finally celebration on Easter Sunday, let us examine ourselves to see how we may be more faithful and persistent, supporting one another in this walk of suffering, triumph, and joy with the risen Jesus.

The Light of Jesus Shines on Everyone – Even our Enemies

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/14/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 1:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

That’s how the apostle John describes Jesus. Jesus is the true light. He is the word of God that was born into the world and became a human being. He became one of us.

He is the true light that enlightens everyone. He gives light to everyone.

Isn’t that amazing? But it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

I mean, is John really saying that the light of Jesus shines on the bad people? The light of Jesus shines on people who don’t believe? Is he saying that the light shines on the people who treated him with cruelty and even killed Jesus? This true light enlightens everyone?

This simple teaching from the apostle John has been hard to hear for many people throughout the ages. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would really come to save everyone, not just a select few.

Berkeley Friends Church is a Quaker church, and so we look back to the early Quakers to help us understand the teaching of the apostles. The early Quakers were women and men who lived a long time ago in England, before America was even an independent country. 

In those days, lots of people said that you had to be the right kind of person for Jesus to shine on you. You had to believe the right things and belong to the right organizations to experience the light of Jesus.

But the Quakers said: “No, that’s not what the apostles taught us. John says that Jesus is the source of everything we see and everyone we meet. He is our life, and his life is the light of all people.” The early Quakers pointed to the apostle John, who says: every single one of us has the light of Jesus shining on us.

That’s good news! Everybody is included in the light and presence of God. He is here with us. He was from the beginning, is now, and will be with us forever.

So why did people hurt and kill Jesus? If we are all being shined on – enlightened – by the presence of Jesus, why didn’t we treat Jesus with more love when he walked among us?

John says that “the world came into being through [Jesus]; yet the world did not know him.” Jesus was right here with us, walking and talking to us, and we didn’t realize who he was! His own people didn’t accept him.

We made a terrible mistake. We were so blind that we couldn’t see the light when he was standing right in front of us.

But, again, there’s good news. The light of Jesus was from the beginning, living a perfect life together with God. He shines on all of us, always. He’s always here for us. All we have to do is open our eyes and see. Open our ears and listen. If we do that, John says that Jesus will give us power to become children of God. Sons and daughters, just like Jesus.

That’s what the early Quakers said, too. They said, “You don’t have to be anyone special. You don’t have to look a certain way or have the right kind of car. You don’t have to eat organic food or go to the right school. If you open your eyes to the light of Jesus that is shining on you. If you open your ears to his voice. If you let his light fill you and guide your steps, you can be a child of God.”

We all have human parents, moms and dads who gave us life. We inherit so much from them. But the light of Jesus gives us power to become children of God. Brothers and sisters of Jesus. Receiving a much bigger life. Inheriting grace, truth, and love from our Father God.

John says: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Life is hard sometimes. But we don’t need to be afraid when people talk about how bad the world is. Because God created everything good, and he can make things good again. Everything that is broken can be healed in the light of Jesus.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Jesus is here. He is shining on you. Open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart, and you will see him.

Still Waiting for the Kingdom of God? Time’s Up.

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/24/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 1:14-20 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is Jesus’ announcement as he begins his ministry, a ministry that becomes public and active after the arrest of John the Baptizer.

The time is fulfilled. John has been carried away by Herod’s soldiers and locked in a dungeon. The greatest prophet of them all, the one in whom the spirit of Elijah lives again, has been removed from the field. The Way Preparer has completed his ministry; he must decrease as Christ increases. The time is fulfilled.

The kingdom of God has come near. John, and Elijah, and Moses, and all the prophets of God have prepared the way, calling us out of the shadows. And now the Light is arriving. The reign of God has come near to us.

Repent, and believe in the good news. Repentance was John’s message. Turn back from your evil ways. Turn away from all the compromises you have made with the spirit of this age and the kingdoms of this world. Repent! Experience a full life change. Prepare yourself for the coming presence and reign of God.

The ministry of John has been fulfilled. The time is fulfilled, and now it is time not only for preparation, but full participation. It is time to believe in the gospel – the victory announcement of God, proclaimed to us by Jesus in his three years of ministry, coronated on the cross, and vindicated through the power of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Believe in the gospel. Believe the news that we have received from Jesus – that God has triumphed over the power of sin and death. The battle has been won. The spiritual armies of the King of Kings will soon be arriving to judge, and heal, and reconcile all things. We must prepare ourselves.

The battle has been won. God is already victorious. The spiritual forces that have kept us in bondage have been thrown down. And the messengers of God, his prophets, his apostles, and even his own son Jesus, have raced to us as messengers. They say to us: “Don’t be fooled by the continued operation of this city you live in, that still follows the rules of the old regime! Their armies have been smashed in battle, and the true King is returning to settle accounts! Rejoice, o daughter of Zion. Behold, your king comes to you! For the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ!”

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand – even at the very gates. Repent, therefore, and believe in the victory announcement that we have proclaimed to you.

This was Jesus’ announcement to the very first disciples – Simon and Andrew, James and John. This was the victory announcement, the good news of God’s victory and coming kingdom. He said to these wide-eyed fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

These were humble men, for sure. But they had something to lose. Following Jesus meant leaving their family business behind, abandoning everything – livelihood, parents, everything that provided them with a sense of place and identity. They gave everything up to follow Jesus.

They believed the victory announcement. They believed in the gospel. They believed that the armies of God were on the march, and that the king would be returning very soon.

The early church operated under this same sense of urgency. This morning we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he urges his fellow disciples to regard the present age as the type of order that exists in a conquered city only as a sort of inertia. The former rulers have been defeated in battle; but for a period of time, amidst the confusion, the local officials and police continue to enforce the old laws.

As followers of Jesus, as people who have believed in the gospel of God, we know that – as Paul puts it – “the present form of this world is passing away.”

We have heard and believed the victory announcement, and what a different perspective this gives us! For those who believe in the gospel, we are practically living in a different universe from the vast majority who take the present ordering of society for granted. For Paul’s hearers, this order was the Roman Empire. The power of the legions and the might of the imperial economy. The culture of honor and shame, of rulers and enslaved.

Today, we hear the victory announcement in the context of a waning American empire. We inhabit in a world that depends on the might of NATO and the World Bank, the strength of the dollar, the extractive, fossil-fuel-driven global economy. We live in a city that goes about its normal operations, unable or unwilling to see that God’s triumph has changed everything. Unwilling to repent and believe in the victory announcement.

This past month, I had some health issues that were serious enough that I went into the doctor to get checked out. I really don’t like going to the doctor, so for me to go in meant that I was pretty concerned.

This gave me an opportunity to think quite a bit about my own mortality. About the fact that, one way or another, for me, the present form of this world is most certainly passing away. Whether I live for another fifty years or another five minutes, this life doesn’t go on forever.

It got me thinking. Thinking about what really matters. Got me thinking about how much I love my children, and how I want to be here for them. How I want to raise them to be friends and followers of Jesus. 

I’ve been thinking about the work I do as a servant of the gospel here at Berkeley Friends Church. About my life’s legacy. The legacy that all of us in Berkeley Friends Church might have, when we invite our friends and neighbors to discover the good news of Jesus Christ in these days of great shaking and revealing. I’m thinking about what it looks like for us to be fishers of people.

When I consider my inevitable death, there is so little that truly matters. So much of what occupies my conscious thought melts away as transient silliness. How much money do I have? Am I successful and rewarded at my job? What will the stock market do? Does this or that person like me? How long do I get to live? None of this really matters in the light of eternity. The present form of this world is passing away.

And this is the advice Paul gives us. He says, to quote Princess Elsa from Frozen: “Let it go.”

Are you married? Don’t worry about it. Are you mourning? Don’t get too caught up in it. Are you happy? Don’t let that distract you either. Is business up or down? Don’t get too attached to it. These are not the things that really matter.

Because we live in a city that has just received the victory announcement from the true king. We have learned that the present order has been stripped of all authority. Sure, the city may continue in the status quo for a little while longer, while we wait for the king and his army to arrive from the battlefield. But anything we do in the meantime, anything we build or come to rely on in this old order, is going to be swept away. A new order is coming. It is the only thing worth investing in.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

If this present order were to come to an end this year, if the kingdom of God came with full force, would you be ready? Is your life built on the things that are eternal, or do you have a sandy foundation? 

Are your energies focused on caring for others – tending the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the broken-hearted? Is your life dedicated to sharing the victory announcement, so that everyone has the opportunity to know life – real life – as it truly is, and not missing it chasing this twilight empire that is is crumbling around us?

The early Quakers shared this sense of demanding urgency with the first disciples and the early church. George Fox wrote to his mother and father, warning them not to get lost in the froth and confusion of the present age, but to pay attention to the voice of Christ within them to lead them. He wrote to them these words, which I will sing for you:

Ye have no time, but this present time: therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We have no time but this present time. There are so many whose hearts are thirsting for the good news of Jesus. Pray that God will tender our hearts to embrace repentance, so that we will become fishers of people.

As followers of Jesus, we are co-bearers of the victory announcement. But ours is not merely the task of announcing the gospel; we are co-heirs with Jesus in enacting it. We are to become fishers of people, drawing others into the same life and power and immediacy that we have discovered. We are not merely to live in freedom from this present age that is passing away; we are to actively participate, now, in the new order that is coming. Our job is to invite others into that new age.

Because the victory is already won. Our king is already triumphant. Jesus Christ is Lord, and the kingdom of God has come near.

The church often seems very comfortable with the idea that the kingdom of God was present for three years during Jesus’ ministry, and then for the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, it seems like many of us imagine that we have returned to a world that is fundamentally unchanged – still under the administration of the same powers that nailed Jesus to the cross.

But that’s not the truth. The powers have been defeated on the battlefield of Calvary, and we await the arrival of the king.

Are we as the church of Jesus Christ waiting for another victory announcement? Are we waiting for the second coming to start living in the life, power, and kingdom of God?

That’s not what the early church taught in the streets of Jerusalem and the highways of the Roman Empire. That’s not what Paul taught the communities he founded across the ancient world. That’s not the message of the early Quakers, or any other movement of the Holy Spirit that we can point to.

Jesus’ message to us two thousand years ago is still his message to us today: 

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

It’s time to get clear on what really matters. It’s time to re-dedicate our lives to the good news of Jesus Christ. It is time to reorient – to repent – so that we can be effective fishers of people, expanding the circle of God’s love, and teaching others to follow Jesus and become fishers themselves.

We have no time but this present time. The present form of this world is passing away.

Jesus is calling – and maybe not so softly and tenderly this time – Jesus is calling us: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”