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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.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/27/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 5:1-11. 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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This morning we read an origin story. It’s a story about how Jesus got the band started. Peter – also known as “the Rock” –  and the brothers Zebedee – James and John – who Jesus gave the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” I’m honestly surprised that ancient church art doesn’t look like 1980s metal band album covers. These guys sound pretty rough-and-tumble, to be honest.

These were working-class guys. They worked hard. They worked with their hands. When Jesus first met them by the Sea of Galilee, they had just gotten done pulling an all-nighter out on the lake, repeatedly casting their nets for the family fishing business. They were exhausted, and frustrated. They had struck out, finding no fish at all. 

It’s not clear how tight a margin these fishermen were on, but not catching anything couldn’t be good. It might even mean that they didn’t get to eat that day. “Give us this day our daily bread,” indeed. How about some daily fish while you’re at it, God?

Anyway, here comes Jesus. It says that he commandeered Peter’s boat to do some preaching. It sounds like Jesus did this a lot – preaching from on board a boat, so that the crowds wouldn’t overwhelm him.

And after preaching for a while, he says to Peter: “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter reminds Jesus that he just spent the whole night fishing out there in that same spot and caught nothing. But despite his objections, he trusts Jesus, and casts his nets anyway.

The result is astonishing. It’s almost comical. Peter and his crew draw in so many fish that they were almost overwhelmed. The nets were starting to break, and they had to call over some other fishermen in another boat to help them take in the catch. And there were so many fish in those nets that, not only did the catch fill both boats, but the boats started to sink under the weight of it!

This was clearly a miracle. Jesus had to be a prophet. After a long night of fishing and catching nothing, here was a catch like no one had ever seen before. This had to be God at work.

And in the presence of God, Peter is afraid. It says that he gets down on his knees and tells Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Jesus responds to Peter by saying, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And it says that when they got back to shore, Peter, James, and John left everything and followed him.

I tell myself a story. Maybe you do this, too. I tell myself a story that everything is depending on me. I’ve got to excel. I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to provide. I have to make things happen. It’s on me. Will I do enough, be enough, deserve enough to provide for myself and others. Will I succeed in making things come out alright?

I was raised to believe that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. And so it’s really hard, those many times when I have been fishing all night and come up with nothing. At times like these, when I have tried and failed, repeatedly, I see just how much I am at the mercy of forces beyond my control. 

There are elections and natural disasters. Droughts and pandemics. All sorts of events that I just can’t foresee. My efforts are not the key factor. I’m weak and limited. I simply can’t control the outcome of my day, much less my whole life. 

So I get worried. I get worried about the small stuff and the big stuff. I get worried about how my team at work regards me. I get worried about my impact as a Quaker minister. I get worried about the future of our church, and how we can share the gospel with a new generation that sees the world differently. 

I’ve had my share of disappointments in life. There have been times when I have worked so hard, and yet things just didn’t go the way they were supposed to. I gave it my best, and I failed. Sometimes I’ve thought, “God, I just can’t do this. I’m not strong enough.” 

So I feel like I have some idea what Peter and his friends were feeling, when Jesus told them to head out into the deep waters and go fishing. I feel like I can relate to the pressure Peter was under – not just from the fact that they had had a bad night and might not get to eat that day – but the gnawing pressure of uncertainty: “Am I going to make it? Does my whole life amount to anything? Does God love me? Am I enough?”

I feel like I understand where Peter was at, which is why his response to Jesus is impressive to me. You see, I’d be tempted to tell Jesus, “you know what, teacher. That was a real nice sermon. But as a professional fisherman, let me tell you: We spent a lot of time drag-netting that area last night – there’s no fish there. Let’s get you back to land so that you can go heal some people. And I can get some sleep.”

But that’s not what Peter says. Maybe that sermon Jesus just gave really did make an impact. Because Peter doesn’t brush Jesus off. He’s worn out and disheartened, but he trusts Jesus. He says, “If you say so, Jesus. I’ll give it another shot.”

I am trying to put myself in Peter’s headspace when he feels the tug on the nets, and starts to try pulling them up and realizes what a massive haul he has. I’m trying to imagine Peter’s emotions as he smells the fish, coming up into the air. Seeing the silhouette of the massive haul still beneath the water and realizing that he is going to need another boat to help bring this catch in. I’m trying to wrap my head around what it must have meant to Peter, James, and John, to see two whole boats filled with fish, so many that the boats were beginning to sink.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” But so much! Just like when Jesus feeds the thousands. Not just enough; overflowing. Baskets and baskets of bread and fish left over. Fishing boats, sinking under the weight of God’s grace.

It says that the fishermen were amazed. It’s also implied that they were frightened. I know I would be. Frightened. Intrigued. Grateful. Changed?

When Peter, James, and John saw those boats sinking under the weight of the catch, something happened inside them. They were no longer fishers of tilapia and carp. This was the catch to end all catches. What they had just seen could never be surpassed. It was finished. Now it was time to try a new kind of fishing.

It says that, when they got back to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus. The piles of writhing fish. The boats. The family business. Everything. Peter and the brothers Zebedee started all over again with empty hands.

What gave them that courage? What possessed them to walk away from everything they had and knew, and to follow this teacher from Nazareth?

They knew that Jesus was a better fisherman than they would ever be. They had learned from experience that God could and would provide for them. The struggle to survive, to eat, to provide, was not a burden they had to carry any longer. They had discovered that people do not live by bread – or fish – alone, but by every word from God’s mouth. They could sense that Jesus was that word, and that they could live by him.

What Peter, James, and John experienced that day by the Sea of Galilee, we can experience, too. Maybe you have already experienced it. Have you seen God make a way out of no way? Have you seen him turn failure into success, hunger into fullness, despair into hope? Have you seen him part the Red Sea and turn water into wine? Have you seen that God does indeed provide your daily bread?

What does that do to a person? What does that do to you, when you know that God provides? What difference does it make in your life when you know, truly know in your bones and sinews, that you can trust in Jesus to lead you – that you can count on his promises – that you are safe with him?

The word of the Lord to us this morning is this: God will take care of the fish. God will provide for you. Do not be afraid. God has liberated you from concerns about the scramble for daily bread in order to free us for a much more significant labor. From now on, you will be fishing for people.

What are the fish to you? What is that daily bread that you’re trying to earn, to control? What are you afraid to lose? What are the fish, the boats, the family business, to you? What have you been clinging so tightly to – what do you need to let go, and let God provide?

God will take care of the fish. He will give us this day our daily bread. He will provide manna in the wilderness and water from the rock. He will make a way out of no way. He will not fail you.

Trusting in that – trusting in his promises – what might be possible? What could change? What could you walk away from, and what is it that you are being called to walk towards? What are the risks that you have been too terrified to take, that God is inviting you into now?

From now on you will be fishing for people.

What Does God Look Like?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/14/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 John 4:7-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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What does God look like?

A couple of minutes ago we looked at an image of a mama lion and a baby lion, and we talked about how this image could represent love for us. The love of a parent for a child. God’s love for us as a community. 

This is important, because the apostle John tells us that God is love. So when we know what love looks like, we know what God looks like.

What does it mean that God is love? It means that when we care for our brother or sister, we’re seeing God. When we share. When we protect. When we say we’re sorry. When we give a hug. That’s what God looks like.

When George and Francis and I walk together to the park, the rule is that we have to stay together, and when we cross the street we always hold hands. That’s the rule, because if we don’t hold hands, we might get hurt crossing the street.

So when I tell George or Francis to hold my hand, even if they don’t feel like doing it right then, that’s what love looks like. 

We can see God through the way that a father protects his children. We can also see it through how children take care of their father. 

Sometimes, I forget to hold someone’s hand, and George or Francis remind me. They say, “¡manos, papa!” And we remember to hold hands. Francis and George are watching out for me. They don’t want me to get hurt crossing the street. That’s what God looks like. Francis and George are showing me love by protecting me. That’s what God is like.

The apostle John tells us that we know God when we love other people. If we don’t show love to other people, then we don’t know God – because God is love.

So how do we know if what we are doing is love? How can we tell that our love comes from God, that we’re really seeing God?

John tells us that we can recognize God’s love in our lives when we remember Jesus. George and Francis and Amos are my sons. Jesus is God’s son, and God loves Jesus so much, just like I love my boys. I would never want to let anything bad happen to George or Francis or Amos, and God doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Jesus, either.

But God loves us so much that God sent Jesus here to be with us, even though he knew that we would hurt Jesus. God knew that people would kill Jesus, but Jesus came anyway. He became a man and lived with us, so that we would see what God’s love looks like.

Jesus coming to be with us was like God putting out his hand and saying, “Stop! Don’t cross that street without me. You need to hold my hand. I love you, and I am going to keep you safe. I’m going to set you free so that you can cross the street.” God says, “I love you, and we will get to the other side together.”

No one has ever seen God, but now we have seen him because we have seen the love he has for us in Jesus. Because of his love for us, we can walk with him no matter how scary the world feels sometimes.

No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God’s love is perfected in us. The love of Jesus shines through us, so that the people around us can know what God is like. 

And in spite of all the hurt and scared and confusion we see in the world, we know that God’s love in us can heal the world, until everyone is holding hands and walking together.

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 15:1-11; 22-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sabbath Isn’t About Religion – It’s About Liberation

Seeds blowing off a dandelion

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/25/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Jesus was in the synagogue, teaching. And just then, a woman appeared. A woman who had suffered from a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was deformed and hunched. Unable to stand up straight.

When Jesus saw her, he called her over – called her right to the front, where he was teaching. And he said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he laid hands on her, and immediately the woman stood up straight. And she began praising God.

Eighteen years, she had been waiting for this. Eighteen years of pain and disability. Eighteen years of wondering why God allowed her to be afflicted in this way. Eighteen years of believing that she would never be freed from this oppressive spirit.

But even as the woman was still speaking her praises, glorifying God in the presence of everyone there in the synagogue, the pastor had something to say.

The pastor had something to say. Because this woman’s healing didn’t happen in the right way. This act of liberation didn’t take place according to the rules. This blessing that Jesus performed, this laying on of hands and the healing that followed – in the mind of the pastor of this synagogue, that was work. And this was the sabbath, a day on which no work is to be performed.

So the pastor had something to say. But he didn’t say it to Jesus. He didn’t directly confront the man who had got him so upset, so indignant. No, it says that he turned to the crowd, and kept saying to them, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Didn’t you get the memo, brothers and sisters? This is not ‘Nam – there are rules. You don’t just come to the synagogue any day you please, asking for God to heal you. The sabbath is for rest, not for being healed. The sabbath is for worship, not for liberation. The sabbath is for the teaching of the law, not for practicing it!

It’s just like the Torah says, in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter five. You might have heard of it. The Ten Commandments? Where God says: 

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.

This is a day of rest!, says the pastor to his flock. Obey the word of God! Follow the rules, just like Moses taught you! Come some other day to be healed, not on the sabbath. Everything in good order!

But Jesus was not having it. This pastor may not have wanted to speak directly to Jesus, but Jesus was just fine confronting him in his own synagogue. And this is one of those places in the Bible where, I do believe it’s fair to say, Jesus was angry. He says: 

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

If your livestock deserve to be watered on the sabbath day, surely it’s OK for God to do a little healing. A little blessing. A little liberating of those who are in bondage, under the weight of satan’s yoke. Isn’t it?

Because you see, Jesus remembered the whole passage. Jesus remembered the whole text from the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus remembered the next verse, where it says:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Remember that you were in bondage in the land of Egypt. Remember that the Lord your God brought you out from there with his mighty hand. Remember what God has done for you, how he has healed you and set you free.

And therefore.

Therefore. Because he has set you free. Because he has liberated you from Satan’s yoke. Because he has delivered you from physical and spiritual affliction. Therefore.

Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

God has commanded you to keep the sabbath day as a day of rest, so that everyone may experience that liberation. Your sons and your daughters. Your male and female slaves. The resident aliens living among you. Even for the livestock! God has liberated you from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. He has liberated you from bondage to violence, greed, and empire. Therefore, let all experience that rest and peace, that freedom and wholeness that comes from God our liberator.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning, we hear a little bit of this “therefore.” We hear from Isaiah what the God of Abraham considers to be true religion. We hear about the fast, the sabbath that the Lord requires. What is it? “To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” The Lord God of Israel says:

If you remove the yoke from among you. If you feed the hungry. If you heal the afflicted. If you cease to speak evil and stop pointing fingers at your neighbor. If you loose the bonds of injustice and release the prisoners from their chains. If you turn your eyes away from yourself and see the needs of others, the Lord will guide you continually. He will satisfy your needs. He will restore you and heal the city where you live. He will make you whole.

This is the sabbath of Isaiah, the sabbath of the Lord God of Israel. He says:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day… If you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs… I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This is the sabbath of Isaiah, the sabbath of Jesus – when we turn from ourselves, from our own pursuits and personal interests, and seek instead the good of those around us. The good of the weakest, the poorest, the most marginal. When we look to the needs of others, when we love our neighbors as ourselves – that is the sabbath of God. There’s no condemnation on this sabbath, only healing.

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the sabbath day?

The sabbath day is a day of Exodus. The day of rest is a day of liberation. From overwork. From anxiety. From trauma. From oppression. It’s liberation from the bondage of our own self-centeredness. It’s the freedom the comes when we become channels of God’s love for others. We’re set free. So free that we forget our sins – and so does God.

And when Jesus said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

We should rejoice, too. Because we need this liberation. We need to be freed from the kind of religion that is more about our own righteousness than about God’s power. We need to be released from the crippling spirit of fear and self-centeredness. The anxiety that keeps us from looking outward with love and compassion to the people around us.

We need God to heal us from a worldview where we worry ourselves to death about keeping score and feeling pure. By receiving the word of Jesus, of Isaiah, of Moses, God invites us to live in peace with those around us. To engage the world with love.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

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The Kingdom Is Yours – Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

The Kingdom Is Yours - Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/11/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40. 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 like to think of myself as being a fearless person. Someone brave. A person who charts my own course and doesn’t let anything or anyone dominate me.

But that’s not true. The truth is, I’m deeply afraid. I’m frightened by the state of our country – where authoritarianism is gaining strength in our government and white nationalist terrorism is on the rise. I’m frightened by the condition of our planet, which is being transformed by climate change, plastic-clogged oceans, and the destruction of vital bioregions, like the Amazon rainforest.

I’m frightened by a society that seems to have no use for God – a culture where life is cheapened and human beings are viewed as producers and consumers rather than as children of God. A land full of non-religious people who worship at the altar of science and progress on the one hand, and deeply religious people who don’t seem to have any interest in loving their neighbors or following Jesus in any meaningful way. These things disturb and frighten me.

I also get scared in all the usual ways. I worry about whether my job will be stable. About whether my co-workers like me. About whether I’m being a good pastor, and if I’m being faithful to what God is calling me to. I want to be liked. I want to be respected. I want to contribute and have my contribution appreciated.

I worry about money. A lot. It’s hard, living in this society, not to relate to money as the all-important thing. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. It’s what pays the bills. Its presence or absence in my bank account is the difference between living in a house and living on the street. So even though our family has more than enough right now, I still worry. Because I don’t know what might happen tomorrow.

Like I said, I prefer to think of myself as a brave person. But I’m obviously not. Fear permeates so many facets of my life, my thought, the ways I interact with the people around me.

So I need this scripture this morning. I need to hear Jesus when he says to me, to all of us gathered here as his disciples, he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Do not be afraid. Our Father has been pleased to give us the kingdom.

What is a kingdom? It’s a relationship of authority. To be part of a kingdom means to have a king, a sovereign, someone in charge. In our case, as followers of Jesus, that sovereign is God. The one who created the universe. The Father who loves as his own children.

We don’t need to be afraid, because our Father is the king. Our Father is in control. Our Father is trustworthy. He created the universe. He sustains it. And he is qualified to keep his promises.

Do not be afraid. Our Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

But just like any gift, this kingdom that is being given to us requires a response. You can’t receive a gift without reaching out your hands to take hold of it. So what does it look like to do that, what does Jesus tell us we need to do to receive this gift of the kingdom?

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Oh, is that all? OK, no biggie… Wait.

What’s Jesus saying here? Why in the world would accepting the kingdom of God mean selling our possessions and giving to the poor? That’s terrifying. That’s crazy. Why would God ask us to make ourselves so vulnerable?

When Jesus says, do not be afraid, this is what he means. Do not be afraid of the world and its power. Do not be afraid of surrendering your money. Do not be afraid of what this world threatens you with, the fear that keeps you from stepping out of line.

Do not be afraid, little flock. Put your full trust in God. Throw all your eggs into one basked – God’s kingdom. Renounce your anxiety about the economic systems and social hierarchy of this world. Free your mind, and become sons and daughters of God. Become citizens of the kingdom.

Religious people like us often like to imagine that we can have it both ways. That we can be a part of God’s kingdom while still playing by the rules of the kingdoms of this world. That we can keep a foot in both camps – enjoying our heavenly reward, while also getting what’s ours according to the imperial economy.

That’s what Isaiah was dealing with during his ministry, just before the Babylonians smashed Jerusalem and carried Israel off into captivity. The people of Israel thought they were doing what God required of them. They performed all the sacrifices, and then some. Isaiah says that the people of Israel were “trampling” the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing in so many whole burnt offerings that the priests could barely manage it. The Israelites had gotten very good at the religion business.

Of course God loves us!, said the rulers of Israel. Of course he approves of our society. Just look at how many bulls and goats we’ve sacrificed on the altar! Listen to all the songs of worship we’re performing! Look at how many people have come to pay homage to the God of Israel!

But, Isaiah says, God isn’t impressed. Israel thought they could have it both ways, paying a tithe to God while propping up an economy that abused the poor, the weak, the widow, the fatherless. God’s not interested in this kind of prayer and praise, divorced from justice and compassion. He says,

Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations —

I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I hide my eyes from you;

even when you offer many prayers,

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Isaiah speaks to a people who thought they could have it both ways. They showed up to the Temple and performed all of their religious obligations. But then they returned home and nothing changed. The violence, the fraud, the selfishness. Isaiah spoke to a people who came to visit the kingdom of God, but maintained their citizenship in the kingdoms of this world.

Like Isaiah before him, Jesus is here to announce that there is no dual citizenship in the kingdom of God. There can’t be any compromise with the values and economies of this world. We have to choose. And choosing means a hard break. It means selling our possessions and giving to the poor. It means surrendering our fear of this world and allowing our only fear to be that of failing to live as children of God.

If that message scares you as much as it scares me, we’re still in chains. If the idea of surrendering the safety and security that our economic system and political system offers us, if that’s intimidating to you, it means we still haven’t quite turned in our passports to get a new citizenship in the kingdom of God.

But if we are ready to take that step. If we are willing to become a community that truly abandons everything to walk with Jesus. If we become the faithful servants who are up and awake when the master comes home at four in the morning, there is an amazing reward waiting for us. The gift of the kingdom is peace, love, and unshakable security. As the author of Hebrews says, it is a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

We have a choice to make, and the price is steep in the terms that this world understands. But the reward for choosing to become citizens of the kingdom of God is commensurate with the price we pay.

Here’s what Jesus says about how the Father will treat those who wait for him. He says, 

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.

Did you catch it? When I read through this parable the first several times, I kept missing it. The real surprise and joy of this passage. Reading it through once, twice, three times – I thought that the passage said that the servants who were waiting up for the master would dress themselves to serve. I assumed that the master, when he showed up in the middle of the night, coming back from a wedding party – I assumed that the servants would wait on him.

But that’s not what the text says. When the kingdom of God comes, the master will dress himself up to serve, while the servants recline at table.

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. Leaders become servants. The weak are lifted up. And Jesus – the ultimate leader – endures the cross so that we can join him at the wedding feast.

The kingdom of God isn’t just about surrendering our wealth; we give up our status, too. Following in the way of Jesus, we become servants, just like he is.

This is the way of liberation. This is freedom from fear. This is adoption as sons and daughters of God, the kingdom that Jesus promises.

Do you want that? Do you want to be truly free from fear? To become a child of God? What does it look like for us to walk that path together?

One thing is for sure: We can’t wait. Time is of the essence. Because we don’t know when the master will arrive. In the words of Jesus,

…Understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Are we ready? When the master comes, will he find us awake? If not, what needs to change in our life together so that we will be prepared?

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Something Is Shaking Loose – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #65

Dear friends,

I’ve been getting around this summer. I’ve done almost as much traveling in the last few months as I had in the whole year before that. So far this summer, I’ve taken multiple trips to Detroit, Indiana and Philadelphia. Reconnecting with my friends and fellow workers throughout the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, I’ve felt more plugged into the life of the whole body. As I grow in my role as a released minister with our geographically dispersed fellowship, I am both blessed and challenged by the work of nurturing our fledgling communities and ministries.

Friends of Jesus Fellowship is in a state of flux right now. It feels like all of our workers in all of our local and virtual sites are feeling something similar. Something is shaking loose. There is a new direction emerging, but it’s still not clear exactly where we’re headed. This can feel scary; we’ve invested so much work into the communities as we know them today. But we are also feeling a sense of divine accompaniment, trusting that Christ Jesus is walking with us, guiding us even when we can’t see the way in front of us. We would invite your prayers for our collective sense of clarity as a fellowship, and for the Holy Spirit to enliven and guide each of our local communities.

Here in Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area, we’re experimenting with a variety of ways of being community together. Through cookouts, worship, service projects and spiritual exploration through art, we’ve tried a lot of different ways of engaging with God together. It’s still not totally clear what things will look like for us in the fall, but we have a sense of being scattered across our urban region. Christ is inviting us to re-focus on the simple, patient work of making disciples. Beyond all strategies and programs, this work of transformation and growth is our primary calling.

Even as Friends of Jesus is experiencing a sense of creative mystery, I’ve personally been experiencing a lot of growth in my understanding of the work I’m called to. A part of that has been in my professional life as Web & Communications Specialist for Friends United Meeting. This summer, I’ve been spending a lot more time out at the North American FUM office in Indiana, which has helped to deepen my sense of purpose and connection with this international association of Quakers.

I’m growing in my understanding that there is vitally important work for me to do as part of the FUM communications team, and I’m looking forward to the months ahead as we undertake a comprehensive campaign to strengthen the organization. Together, I believe that we can energize, equip and connect Friends across the planet, and – near and dear to my heart – here in our North American context.

Here are some ways that you can be praying in the coming month:

  • That God would energize and inspire Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area to take risks and find companions in the way as we seek to make disciples in our local context.
  • That the Friends of Jesus Fellowship as a whole would feel Christ’s power and seek his guidance in becoming the beautiful bride that he is calling us to be. Let the Holy Spirit raise up new disciple-makers in each of our communities, teaching us to embody and share the good news.
  • That Friends United Meeting would be strengthened, both as an organization and as a worldwide body of dozens of yearly meetings from California to Cuba, Nairobi to New York. May God provide the funds, the staff, and above all the spiritual grounding that Friends United Meeting needs to fulfill its mission: energizing, equipping and connecting fellowships in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • That I would find the support and encouragement I need to sustain the work that God has called me to. May my family of prayer supporters, financial backers and ministry partners continue to grow through the unmistakable power of Jesus.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers, encouragement and love.

Grace and peace in the Lord Jesus,

Micah

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