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You do not know what you are asking

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/17/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 10:35-45. 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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Can you remember the last time someone came to you and said, “Hey, I need to ask a favor,” and you knew before they said anything more that you didn’t want to do whatever it is they were about to ask you?

Jesus knew what James and John were going to ask him, when they came to him and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus had just gotten done telling the Twelve what was about to happen to him – that he would be jailed, beaten, condemned, and executed as a criminal, and that after three days he would rise again.

But the Brothers Zebedee either weren’t paying attention, or they were suffering from a very strong case of denial. Because the very next thing, they approached Jesus asking for plum positions in the new revolutionary administration. Basically, they ask him, “Jesus, when you’re king of Israel, will you appoint the two of us as your top lieutenants?”

Jesus says to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” And they absolutely don’t. They think the path that Jesus is about to walk is one of human kingdom. Human authority elevates the ruler above the subjects. Human empires establish a hierarchy of dominance. The more powerful you are, the richer you are and the more people you control.

But Jesus tells the Twelve,

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

The kingdom of God changes the story. Jesus inverts the pyramid! Those who are at the top are the people who have lost everything, those who are poor. The princes of this empire are those who can’t even control their own lives, much less the lives of others. 

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who weep. 

This is the kingdom where Jesus will come to reign, not because he has conquered his enemies with the sword, but rather by opening the channels of self-emptying love, which swallows up the power of death, sin, and hell.

The disciples can’t see it yet, but they, too, are on this path of self-abandonment. “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus says something ominous to the disciples. He says: “You’ll drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism. Don’t you worry about that.” Maybe for the disciples these words were encouraging; but for us as readers, it is disturbing. Because we know what Jesus’ cup and baptism are. We know the way he is going. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

So Jesus promises the disciples his cup and baptism. One thing Jesus can’t do, though, is promise a seat at his right or his left in the kingdom. The Brothers Zebedee ask Jesus to allow them to sit in positions of prominence when Jesus comes into his glory. But what they still can’t wrap their heads around, is that Jesus’ glory will be darkness. His crown will be one of thorns. His throne will be the cross. Those who sit at his right and left in his glory will be common criminals, bandits, insurrectionists. They will die alongside him, not because they deserve some special distinction, but precisely because they are the lowest of the low.

You do not know what you are asking.

It makes me wonder: Do I know what I am asking? Do I really have a grip on what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Am I prepared to join those who are last, forgotten, powerless? Am I able to drink the cup and be baptized by Jesus’ baptism?

For me, it’s encouraging to realize that the Twelve were in no way prepared for the path of crucified love that Jesus would demonstrate for them. On their own, they were not able to drink this cup. But through the power of the resurrection, through Jesus’ presence among them, through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were clothed with power from on high. The disciples received power that allowed them to become powerless, selfless, fearless, bold. They became like Jesus, pouring out their lives for others.

This story reminds me that I can’t hope to make myself like Jesus. I don’t know what I am asking. Yet I have hope that, like the first disciples, Jesus will guide me, transform me, and make me like him in this world. Our faith is that the Holy Spirit will fill us with power and conviction – with a joy that we could never muster on our own.

The good news of the kingdom is that we don’t know what we are asking, but God knows us down to the marrow. We can’t imagine what it means to drink the cup, to follow Jesus all the way to the end. But we don’t have to. It’s not a matter of our own strength. Jesus has promised us: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” He has promised to walk with us. He is showing us the way. Through all the challenge and bewilderment, he will give us joy as we walk with him. Even as the kingdom of God is nothing like we expected.

If You Will, You Can Become All Flame

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/10/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 10:17-31. 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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This is a passage that is uncomfortable to preach on. It doesn’t get a lot of air time. Because the truth is, most preachers, including myself, have not – and do not want to – sell all of our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus with the complete abandon of the original twelve disciples.

Peter says to Jesus, “look, we have left everything and followed you.” And they had. Peter and Andrew, and James and John, we know, had left behind their family fishing business – their social and economic basis in life – to spend all their time and attention following Jesus. The disciples may have been confused about Jesus’ mission – and they acted awfully dopey sometimes – but they had skin in the game.

A lot of us Christians today, we know a lot about God. We have a lot of information – way more than Peter had. We’ve got the New Testament, which they didn’t! We’ve got apps, and videos, and commentaries, and even little Quaker churches to give us all the information we need to follow Jesus. But it seems like knowledge isn’t power. Because, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t left everything to follow him. In so many ways, I’ve held on to what is mine.

There have been times in my life when I didn’t have much. At certain points in my life, I put my sense of God’s leading ahead of money, career, possessions. I could argue that when I went to seminary, I did give up everything to follow Jesus. I gave up financial security. I moved to a land that I did not know, where I had no social connections. I surrendered relationships that were important to me. I gave up a lot to follow Jesus.

Yet today, would I say with Peter, “look, I have left everything and followed you”? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would. Because the choice to surrender and follow Jesus is not a one-time event. It’s not something you do once and then you’ve accomplished it. The journey of discipleship is a way of life, lived in community – and communion – with others.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I hear Jesus’ words to surrender all, and I get defensive. I say, “that’s just not realistic, Jesus. I can’t walk away from everything to follow you. I have responsibilities.” That was the answer of the young man in the story. He wanted to inherit eternal life, but what he wanted even more was to inherit his father’s estate and social networks.

How hard it is for those who are rich to enter the kingdom of God!

Why is it so hard? 

It’s hard because you and I are double-minded. We want to have it both ways. We want to enter the kingdom of God, but we don’t want to participate in the divine economy. We don’t want to rely on God. We don’t want to rely on people. Money is better. For those of us who can afford it – those of us who have wealth – it feels a whole lot safer to take refuge in our retirement accounts and ridiculously valued Bay Area homes. After all, Jesus doesn’t offer a pension, right?

Well, that’s not what Jesus says. The good news of the kingdom is not that we all have to be poor and wretched. That sounds like pretty bad news to me! The good news is that, in following Jesus, we have an opportunity to inherit a truly different experience of life. 

The kingdom of God comes with real, tangible benefits – material things! A new family, new friends, homes to live in, jobs to work, land to farm – with persecutions, Jesus is quick to add. The kingdom of God is not a fairy tale. It is not a promissory note, to be redeemed later on, in the spirit realm. It is objective reality right here in the Now. And in the age to come, eternal life.

How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! Because we get Jesus’ message all wrong. Jesus says, “sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me,” and what we hear him saying is, “sacrifice everything, endure epic, heroic pain, and then you can be a member of the spiritual elite.” 

That’s nonsense! The kingdom of God isn’t about sacrificing the things we want as some sort of aesthetic exercise. This isn’t about becoming spiritual supermen and wonder women. It’s not some sort of hot pepper eating contest, where you win by enduring the most suffering. Jesus is here to set us free! Following him leads to a far more grounded, empowering, truth-filled life. In surrender, we find liberation.

This reminds me of a story from the sayings of Abba Lot, one of the early desert fathers. The story is brief. It goes like this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and contemplate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

I feel a resonance in this story, connecting us to Mark’s gospel this morning. Just like the rich man, Abba Lot says, “I am doing my best. I follow the law. I am a good person. What more is there?” And Abba Joseph says, “There is more. So much more!”

Do you want more?

The rich man discovered that he didn’t. Abba Lot discovered that he did. And his life became a burning flame that consumed all of his prayers and fasts and contemplation. It set him ablaze, it separated him from himself – drew him out from the stupor of self-regard. Abba Lot gave up everything, he laid it all down, and in that moment the Holy Spirit lifted him up and gave him all things in Christ.

So I don’t know about you. But I say my little office. I pray and contemplate. I live in peace as far as I can.

I do not murder. I do not commit adultery. I do not defraud.

I’m not a perfect man, but I follow most of the rules.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Do you feel the question, too? It’s there. It is alive in our hearts: “There must be more than this.” Right?

Jesus is saying to us this morning: There is. So much more.

If we will, we can become all flame.

There is so much more to be found in God’s kingdom than being a “good person.” There is so much more than following the rules. Do you want more? Will you ask God to set you ablaze?

I believe, Lord – help my unbelief!

We want this More, but we flee from it. We flee into our safety, our wealth, our dysfunctional relationships, all the ways that we guard ourselves from the feeling of falling, the loss of control.

And we say to one another, “Who then can be saved?”Abba Joseph answers us, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Jesus reminds us, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

A Minute to Learn; A Lifetime to Master

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/26/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50. 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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Have you ever played the board game, Othello? Great game. I played it a lot in grade school. I remember the game’s motto, printed on the little cardboard box: “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master!” And I think that Othello delivered pretty well on its basic promise: It’s a game that even a young child can pick up very quickly. But it is also a game that continues to be interesting, complex, and rewarding for many years to come.

Reading our passages from James and Mark this morning, I am reminded that Christianity is a lot like this. Our faith is not that complicated. Even a small child can understand it. God loves us so much that he sent his son Jesus to be with us, to die for us, and to live through us in his resurrection. In response to God’s love, we are called to love God with everything we’ve got, and to love the people around us as we love ourselves.

Not complicated, right? No. It’s not hard to understand. Practically everyone – kids, adults, and old people – can grasp the plot here.

But when it comes to practicing it? That’s more challenging. Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.

I like James because he’s so practical. He reminds me of Dorothy Kakimoto. He doesn’t mince words; he tells us his message directly and clearly. He says, “Are you suffering? Pray. Are you happy? Sing! Is someone sick? Get the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another for healing. Prayer works.”

It’s not complicated. Take care of one another. Depend on one another. Love each other. How hard is that?

Based on my own experience of life in community, it can be hard. We humans struggle to do these simple things. The Christian walk isn’t hard to understand, yet we often fail to move our feet. A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.

We need no-nonsense spiritual fathers like James. We need people who can remind us of our simple faith. A road that is made by walking, which isn’t hard to understand. Showing love to one another in practical ways, in the daily life of community. Pray. Sing. Visit the sick. Mourn the dead. Confess sin. Lend without expectation of return to those who need it. Care for children and educate them in the love and faith of Jesus. In all these ways and more, we become the body and blood of Christ, poured out for one another and for the world.

Did that surprise you, just now, how I made the leap from the mundane to the sublime? From caring for one another, to being the mystical body of Christ, the Word made flesh in our daily lives?

James focuses on the simplicity of the faith. The get-it-done spirit that we all need to get out of our heads and just do the work. But we are also reminded that these simple, even mundane acts, echo in eternity. 

When we gather together to worship God, we join the four creatures before the heavenly throne, crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” When we sign hymns of praise, we participate in the songs of the angels. When we visit the sick, we attend to Christ himself. And when we care for one another, when we support each other in this walk of Christian faith, God uses us to transform lives forever.

Our reading from James concludes with these words: 

“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

These simple acts of care and accountability may not be hard to understand, but their impact cannot be understated. As brothers and sisters in Christian community, we are responsible to one another, and we are responsible for one another. 

And the stakes are high. In our reading from Mark this morning, Jesus doesn’t mince words, does he? He says anyone who puts a stumbling block before someone who is seeking to follow God would be better off taking a long walk off a short pier! On the other hand, he says that anyone who performs even the most humble act, even giving someone a cup of water to drink, in the name of Christ, will be of great consequence, too. You will by no means lose the reward.

What is Jesus saying here? What’s the meaning behind Jesus’ extreme language and violent imagery? Faith and I were discussing this last night, and I had to admit: Jesus can be a little hard to understand sometimes.

But even if some of the language is off-putting, I think that the message of both James and Jesus is clear: The walk of discipleship is serious business. This is not a game. Our actions have real consequences, both for ourselves and others. We are responsible for one another, and we will be held accountable.

A lot of times, we resist this reality. We live in a culture that teaches us that we are independent, autonomous individuals. At worst, this society encourages us to “follow our bliss”, regardless of the consequences for ourselves or the people around us. But James, always practically-minded, pulls us back to reality. Our lives are not our own. We have been saved by Christ for a purpose. And our actions echo in eternity, for good or for evil.

Jesus doesn’t want his disciples walking blind. We need to know how serious this journey is that we are on. There’s no room for the selfishness that gets in the way of our own salvation, and the salvation of those around us. Our destiny is tied up together. We are one body, we live in one Spirit.

This is a call for us, as Berkeley Friends Church, to walk the path. Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. God is calling us into that lifetime journey of spiritual mastery – not as autonomous individuals, but as part of a living organism. The church of Jesus Christ. Real people. Real actions. Real responsibility. To God and one another.

So are we feeling happy today? Let’s sing. Do we feel sadness and doubt? Let’s pray together. Are there those among us who are sick, or in financial trouble, or depressed? Let’s show them our love and support. Are there those who are wandering from the truth and need to be called back into the fold? Let’s shepherd one another, submitting to one another in all humility and love.

I know it can be hard to believe, but this community really matters. In the eyes of the world, we are nothing; but in the eyes of God, this community is a powerful bulwark, a great Sequoia, rooted in God’s life and with branches fanning out into the communion of the saints in the heavenlies. The worship we perform; the actions of justice and mercy that God inspires; the care we show for one another; the shepherding we provide to each other when we stray – this is our true life’s work, God living in us.

So don’t be discouraged when you look upon our community life and see such a simple, unassuming group of people – almost not worth noticing by the powerful, glamorous, and successful of this world. Don’t be fooled by our small numbers and quirky appearance. That is not what God sees. Despite all appearances, we are caught up in the most important thing there is, the very mission of God.

A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Step by step, day by day. Let’s love God. Let’s love one another, and all the people God places in our lives. Let’s pray, and sing, and visit one another. Let’s care for children, teaching them how to be friends of Jesus. Let’s bring healing: physical, emotional, and financial. And when one of us goes astray, let’s go after that lost sheep. Because this is the life of the body. Our God and the whole host of heavenly witnesses rejoice when even one lost sheep is found.

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.

Alive in the Resurrection

This is a word of encouragement that I delivered at the memorial service for John Maurer, held in-person on Sunday, 8/29/21, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this message was: Luke 20:37-38.

The resurrection is a mystery. We don’t really know what it means. We don’t understand it. Too often, as religious people, we pretend that we do. We act as if we had answers about what happens to a person after death. Stories to tell children to ease their fear. Stories to tell adults to ease their pain.

But the truth is, we don’t know the details. We can’t understand them yet, because the great day of the Lord is still coming. The fulfillment of God’s dream for the cosmos is still on its way. The consummation of the resurrection is hinted at, but not quite here.

It’s in Jesus that we have our best glimpse into what resurrection means. What it meant for him, it will soon mean for us. We know that Jesus suffered death, just like each one of us will. We also know that after three days in the grave, God raised Jesus from the dead. God restored him, gave him a new body that will never die. And that body has become the source of life and resurrection for the whole creation, for all of us who trust in him.

What does this mean? What will this resurrection look like? What will it be like for us to become like Jesus, sharing the fullness of his victory over the grave?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery. It’s something we can’t even imagine right now. But Jesus points us to this mystery. And he lets us know that the resurrection is nothing new. The resurrection is an expression of who God is from the beginning. Jesus tells us that our God is the God of the living; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are all alive in him. To God, they are all alive.

To God, our friend John Maurer is alive. He partakes in the body of Christ, the life of the resurrection.

What does that mean? I don’t know. But God knows, and in Jesus this life is being revealed to us.

The apostle Paul writes that, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

We’re gathered together today in this love. Love for our friend, John Maurer. Love for one another. The love that we have discovered together in the resurrected Jesus, who is the firstborn from the dead. The firstborn of many brothers. Brothers like John.

In this love, we find strength to wait patiently for the revealing of God’s transformation of all things. In faith, we imagine what it means that, to God, John Maurer is alive. And in hope, we seek to become more like Jesus, so that we can be alive to God in the same way.

You’ve Got One Wish – Make It Count!

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/15/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14. 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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Can you think of a time that you made a wish? We’ve all done it, right? You’re supposed to make a wish when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake. Or when you see a shooting star. Or when you find a lamp in a cave and this weird blue creature who speaks with the voice of Robin Williams starts singing and… Oh wait, that was a Disney movie.

Anyway, think back to a time when you made a wish. What was it?

Now think again. Imagine you have another chance to make a wish. But this time, you know it’s going to come true. Whatever you ask for will be yours.

What is it? What would you ask for?

In our reading this morning from First Kings, Solomon has just become king of Israel, succeeding his father David to the throne. He’s very early in his reign. He’s just settled some old accounts and secured his position in the very dicey transition of power from monarch to monarch. And it says that his kingdom is now firmly established.

Solomon was a man who sought the Lord, who came before God in prayer. And God appeared to him one night in a dream and said to him: “Ask what I should give you.”

Imagine you’re Solomon. What would your answer be?

Solomon’s answer is surprising. It’s surprising, because it is not some variation on the theme: “More.”

Because that’s what most of us want, most of the time. “Give me more.” More of whatever it is we have. More money. More autonomy. More attention. More success. More, more, more – give me more.

It shows a lack of imagination, doesn’t it? It’s easy to see life in terms of what we already have. Or maybe the things that others have, that we want.

Solomon shows he has a keen imagination. He has a healthy sense of his own limitations, an awareness of the impossible. And Solomon realizes that he already has enough. He doesn’t need more. What he really needs is the ability to deal rightly with that which God has already given him.

Solomon realizes that more important than riches or armies or palaces or wives, the most important thing that he has in his care is the people of Israel, God’s own chosen nation. He understands that God has established him as king, not for his own pleasure or vanity, but to serve as God’s instrument – to be a shepherd to his people, guided by the Lord. And so Solomon asks God for wisdom.

And the text says that God is very pleased with Solomon’s answer. God grants him not only greater wisdom than anyone else before or since, but also all the other things that he might have asked for, but didn’t: Riches, honor, and a long life.

What would you ask for? I want to say that I would ask for wisdom, just like Solomon. But am I being honest with myself?

What are we, as a community, asking for? When God says to us in the silence, “ask what I should give you,” what is our response?

Do we ask for more? Bigger? Better? Do we ask God to baptize our own will, the choices that we have already made, the assumptions that we already have? “God, we already know what we want. We’ve already made up our minds. Just make us successful!”

The wisdom of Solomon is knowing that what we have isn’t the point. What we want isn’t necessarily what God wants. And what feels good in the moment isn’t necessarily what God blesses.

Early Quakers understood this. Wisdom, discernment, a humble seeking of God’s will, this was at the heart of their faith. Early Quakers believed that God’s leading is more likely at work when we feel called to things that we don’t want. Because God’s will is not about our personal pleasure, or even our beliefs about how the world ought to be. Discerning God’s will involves releasing our own desires and allowing God to show us his desire for us in this particular moment and circumstance.

Solomon was the wisest king that Israel ever had, because he understood priority – that which comes first. Solomon knew who he served. He knew that his first calling was to obey the voice of God. His responsibility was to serve the people of God, whom he had been given authority to shepherd.

As followers of Jesus, we know an even wiser king than Solomon. We know a shepherd who is even more reliable. We know a person who has laid down his life and his ego to be a good shepherd to us. And because Jesus has laid down everything to embody the wisdom of God, God has given him everything, lifting him up to the highest position in the cosmos and making him king of kings and lord of lords.

What will you say when God speaks in your heart: “Ask what I should give you”? Will you be like Solomon, aware of your responsibility to shepherd the sheep, to care for the people, to move as Jesus leads, so that the whole body can be built up?

“Ask what I should give you.”

Lord, give us wisdom. Lord, teach us to follow you. Teach us to serve and shepherd one another as you lead us. Lord, bless us as a community that listens for your will, abides in your love, and seeks first your kingdom. Amen.

God is Near

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/8/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 6:35, 41-51. 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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God is near to us. He’s at the front door, knocking for us to let him in. He’s at the dinner table with us, breaking the bread and pouring the wine.

Jesus is the bread of life. God is near to us, because when we eat this bread, when we receive Jesus within us, we will never be hungry again. We will never be thirsty again. We will never die. Because the life that is in us is the life that was with the Father from the beginning.

Do you remember what God did for the Israelites, in the desert, after he delivered them from slavery in Egypt? Do you remember how he led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night? Do you remember how he fed them with manna from heaven, and quenched their thirst with water from the rock?

Jesus is the new manna. He is the bread from heaven that God sends to fill and sustain us on our journey together through our own wilderness. Jesus is the rock. He is the water, springing within us like a well, until we are completely restored.

Jesus is the bread. He is the wine. He is the water and the rock.

Jesus is God with us.

He is near to us. He is within us. He’s inside us. Ordinary water, you have to drink. But this water comes from within. He gushes up from inside us, filling us with goodness. Jesus transforms us. When we have eaten the bread of his body, we become like him, and we give life to others.

God is near. Closer to us than we are to ourselves. Because he has sent us the bread from heaven. Because Jesus is the house of God, with angels ascending and descending. Because the one God promised has come and is risen. We will never be abandoned. The Spirit of God is among us; the living Jesus stands in the midst.

Feeding us. Guiding us. Protecting us with his shepherd’s staff.

The word of God is near to you – Jesus is in your mouth and in your heart. Like bread, like wine, like a great wind, and like fire. Like a still, small voice.

God is here. We show up because he shows up. Because we are the sheep who hear and recognize the voice of the shepherd.

We are gathered together in the presence of Jesus to be fed by him. To eat his body and drink his blood. To feast on the word of God. And by his grace and power, to keep it.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Come to Jesus. Come to the rock. Come to the spring of water that gives overflowing life. Come to the bread from heaven, that we may eat of it and never die.