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Do We Really Want Jesus to Captain the Boat?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 6:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sounds familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Day of Pentecost Has Arrived – What Should We Do?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/23/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Acts 2:1-42. 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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Today is Pentecost Sunday. Seven weeks after Easter, Pentecost is the day that Christians celebrate as the birth of the church, the day when the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised came and filled his disciples with wisdom, power, and boldness. It was a day when thousands came to faith in the Lord Jesus, and became a new community in him.

Pentecost isn’t a holiday that Christians made up, of course. It had been a Jewish festival since God brought them out of Egypt. It’s one of the celebrations that God commands Israel to observe in the Torah. 

We Christians know this festival by the name Pentecost, which is a Greek word that means “fifty.” Called by its Hebrew name, Shavuot, this festival falls fifty days after the Passover. It commemorates the giving of God’s law to Israel at Sinai.

Just as Passover celebrates God’s physical salvation of his people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot is a celebration of God’s spiritual salvation of his people. By giving them his law through Moses, God made those who were not a people a holy nation. Those who had been powerless slaves to Pharaoh became a people blessed and set apart by God.

Shavuot is a reminder that physical liberation is essential, but not sufficient. Spiritual liberation must occur. We must have an inward encounter with God, coming into a living relationship with him, if we are to be truly free. God did not create us for liberty without holiness. God has called us, his people, to a whole new way of life. One where we are weaned off the false Gods of the world and given power to live as a nation of priests – following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.

In the old covenant, it was the law of Moses that made this possible. The statutes and rules given by God, written down on tablets of stone. The festivals, the sacrifices, the distinction between clean and unclean – these were all ways that God was preparing Israel for a life of holiness – set-apart-ness – creative difference from the fallen world that God would redeem through them.

It is not an accident that Jesus was crucified in the season of Passover. Passover is the remembrance of how God saved the people of Israel with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, smashing Pharaoh’s army and parting the Red Sea for his people. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was an even greater triumph, bringing salvation to all of humanity, liberating us from all the Pharaohs of the world, freeing us to worship God without fear and be remade in his likeness. In Jesus, all people – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female – can finally become truly whole, truly holy, integrated and complete, just as God intended from the beginning.

In the cross of Jesus, God parted the Red Sea one last time. God tore apart the barrier between God and people, the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies. God broke down the ultimate dividing wall, making himself available to all people directly. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God triumphed once and for all over the power of sin, death, and the devil, and brought us all out of the grasp of Pharaoh, Caesar, and Mammon. It was a new Exodus, made available to the whole world.

But the journey wasn’t complete yet. Just as the people of Israel made their way to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the people of God in Jerusalem were about to receive the new law, the fulfillment of the law: the presence of the Holy Spirit. Filling them. Transforming them. Creating in them a new humanity in the image of Jesus Christ.

The day of Pentecost, Shavuot, is about that spiritual liberation. It’s about the transformation of heart and mind that comes after passing through the Red Sea of terror and death. It’s about the new creation, a new life in God – nothing like the life that came before. 

Because now we are his. Now we are his holy people, set apart and different from the world. A people knitted together so tightly in the Holy Spirit that we have become one body in Jesus. One flesh. (No wonder Jesus so often used marriage imagery to describe the kingdom of God.) One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One heart.

This transformation that took place in the lives of those one hundred and twenty disciples that morning was so intense, so powerful, that it raised a ruckus in the city of Jerusalem. These friends of Jesus couldn’t be ignored. 

They were filled with life, and truth, and power. God gave them words to speak to all the people present in the holy city for the festival – people who had come from around the whole ancient world. The Holy Spirit gave them words in the many and varied languages of those who needed to hear the message.

And they heard it. Thousands of them. It says that on that day alone, three thousand people came to have faith in the Lord Jesus and become part of the disciple community, the body of Christ. 

They heard the message that Peter and the apostles preached. About the messiah who came and was crucified by the people who he came to save. About the way that God raised him up, and in his resurrection conquered death once and for all. They heard the message: that the time of salvation was here at last, for any who would embrace the message.

They heard. And it says that “they were cut to the heart.” They could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit on these disciples of Jesus, who had been clothed with power from on high. They felt the resurrection power in their midst, just as clearly as you can feel heat radiating from a bonfire. The burning bush was back again. Sandals off! Everything had changed. 

And those who heard the message and experienced the presence asked the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

What should we do?

Peter said to them:

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Repent. Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It all comes together. Jesus began his ministry with John the Baptizer by the river Jordan. A ministry that was a call to repentance, pure and simple. Change your life! Embrace God’s call to holiness and justice! Abandon your hopes for greatness as the world measures it, and cling to the promises of God.

That was the message of John the Baptist: An invitation to join the flight from Egypt. An invitation to make our way through the Red Sea, through the waters of repentance. To trust in God’s promise and power to save.

We have experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. What should we do? 

Repent. Be immersed into the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, and we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Come to the waters. Come to the edge of the Red Sea. Pass through and enter the desert of transformation with our God. Embrace God’s physical liberation – the practice of righteousness and justice – resurrection! – and you will receive the Holy Spirit: the power of God who gives all truth, love, and ability to do the will of God.

What should we do? What are we, as Berkeley Friends Church, to do with this call that we have from the lips of the apostles and from the heart of God’s Spirit?

For those three thousand who came to faith in Christ on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, their whole life had led them to this moment. They knew that in the presence of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, nothing could ever be the same. They knew that the world was about to turn. The only choice for them to make was whether they would turn in God’s direction. Would they stay behind in Egypt, or would they risk the desert with the pillar of fire and smoke to guide them?

What will we choose?

Do we recognize the moment we are in? There is no time but this present time. This is our day of visitation. The Holy Spirit is here for us. “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Will we embrace the promise of God? Will we trust him?

It’s not too late. Repent. Be immersed into the name of Jesus Christ. Receive forgiveness. Receive the Holy Spirit. We can become something new in God.

We have to. The present form of this world is passing away. Something new is coming. The world is about to turn. 

Repent. Be immersed into his name. Receive forgiveness and transformation.

What will that mean for us? Where is the pillar of cloud and fire going to lead Berkeley Friends Church? When he makes all things new, what will we become? What will happen to us when we pass through the waters?

We don’t have to worry about that now. God has a plan for us, just like he did for Israel. Just like he did for the early church. God has a plan to bless us and make us a blessing to the world. We don’t have to make it happen. For now, just turn around. Repent. Be immersed. Receive the Holy Spirit.

In the words of George Fox, from his Epistle X:

“Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves, and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts and temptations, Do not think, but submit, and then power comes in. Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone, and then content[ment] comes.”

We have already received salvation in the cross of Jesus. We have participated in the liberation of Passover, the flight from Egypt, the journey through the Red Sea. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered the power of sin, death, and the devil. Pharaoh has been undone. We have been set free.

Now comes the journey to Sinai. We are in the desert. Nothing stands between us and the holy mountain, the endless love of God. Will we dare to approach?

We have heard the message. We know what God asks of us. We have received the promise of the Holy Spirit. God is present with us – we are his people, and Jesus stands in the midst of us.

Do we want to be led? Has the message cut us to the heart? Are we asking God, with a broken heart, “what should we do?”

What should we do? God, you are here. Lead us. Guide us through the desert. Make us the people and the community that you created us to be.

Birth is Messy, But We Have a Mother We Can Trust

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/9/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 John 5:1-6. 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’ve heard about what God is like. God is like a flashlight, shining in the dark. He’s like a loaf of bread. He’s like a best friend, a mama, a daddy. That’s what God is like.

Scripture provides us with a lot of comparisons, to imagine God’s character. Jesus says that God is like a mother hen, caring for us, her baby chicks. The prophet Hosea described God as a mother bear, ready to fight for her cubs. That’s what God is like.

But the authors of scripture don’t stop with just describing what God is like. They don’t stop at simile. The apostles tell us that, in Jesus we have moved beyond the realm of metaphor. We have transcended the old world, when to look upon the face of God was to die. In Jesus, we have seen God and lived. The apostle John writes that, in Jesus, God is come in the flesh and in glory – “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The apostle Paul reaffirms this idea in his letter to the Colossians, when he writes that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The image of the invisible God. 

The image of something is not “like” something. It’s not like saying, “God is like a flashlight.” An image is not metaphor, it is faithful representation. To say that Jesus is the image of the invisible God means that he truly demonstrates who God is. When we look at Jesus, we behold God. When we imitate Jesus, we become like God. When we follow Jesus, we walk in the footsteps of the Lord.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Who else is the image of the invisible God?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning, in the first chapter of Genesis, it is says that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” In the image of God he created us.

The church teaches that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, at once both God and man. We don’t know how this works, but we have seen and experienced it to be true. Through the incarnation, Jesus has conquered the world – the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Throughout the centuries, different groups of Christians have emphasized different parts of Jesus’ identity – human and divine. Some have made him so Godlike that it’s hard to see him as a brother – his humanity gets erased. Others have brought him so down to earth, that it can be hard to see how he’s different from any other historical “great teacher.”

But the church affirms that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Jesus is the living word of God, come in the flesh. He is also a human being, just like you and me.

Just like you and me.

Jesus is us. He’s the best of us. The fullness of us. The completeness of us. He’s what we were created to be. Fully human, fully divine – united to God in a family relationship. Sheep of the shepherd. Branches of the vine. Children of the father. 

To know Jesus is to become like him. And to become like Jesus is to become fully ourselves. Dwelling in the divine, and embodying him. Becoming sons and daughters of God by adoption. God wants to make us like Jesus.

This is why, in our reading this morning, John says that “everyone who has faith that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” When we know and love Jesus, we know and love his father. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Before, we did not know God, but now we know him, because we have met Jesus. And Jesus gives us this commandment: That we love one another. 

God’s commandments are not a heavy burden. When we listen to God, when we follow his commandments, he frees us to love one another as brothers and sisters. He empowers us to become children of God. We participate in Jesus’ triumph over the powers of darkness and death. Standing in the faith of Jesus, we experience the victory that conquers the world.

The last verse of John’s words to us this morning are a little strange. He says that Jesus came by water and blood – “not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.” What is John talking about here?

These are the kind of verses that generate a lot of discussions among theologians. How does this passage relate to Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, in John 3, when Jesus teaches that everyone must be born of water and the Spirit? Is John talking about the relationship of water baptism and spiritual baptism – the spirit and the flesh? Is this a reference to the water and blood that came from Jesus’ side as he died on the cross?

Maybe.

But when I read these words this morning, I am reminded of what birth is like. Real, actual, non-metaphorical birth. When George, and Francis, and Amos were born, it was messy. There was a lot of water. There was blood. It was kind of scary. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen, even though we had trained people with us to help us. Because birth is uncertain, even dangerous.

And so when I hear John saying to us that Jesus is “the one who came by water and blood… not with the water only but with the water and the blood,” I can only say, “amen.” That’s how birth is. Watery. Bloody. Scary. Amazing.

I think of Jesus on the cross, and the victory that he won there: Over the world, over the power of sin, death, and the devil. Was that a kind of birth?

What does this birth mean for us? What does it mean for us, as his brothers and sisters by adoption? What does it mean for us as we obey his commandments? As we become more and more like him. How is God calling us to be born, “not with the water only, but with the water and the blood”?

This sounds scary. It sounds painful. But we don’t have to be afraid, because the one giving birth to us is God. The one caring for us, acting as midwife, is the Holy Spirit. We can trust our mother. We can trust the midwife. We can trust our brother Jesus, who has shown us the way and gives us power to be born again, triumphing over all the confusion, and pain, and obstacles that hold us in the darkness.

We know we love God when we love one another. We conquer the world when we trust that Jesus is the Son of God. 

Because Jesus was born, we can be, too. Because Jesus died, we can live. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can become sons and daughters of God, coming through the water and the blood. 

The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is the truth.

Like Sheep Among Wolves

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 10:11-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Sheep are herd animals – so much so that, in English, we even use the same word for the singular and plural – one sheep, two sheep, a flock of sheep. When we think of sheep, we’re usually thinking about a group of them, not a single individual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Like Jesus in a World that Hates the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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