I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/24/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13. 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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These days, it’s easy for me to feel sleepy; like there’s not quite enough coffee in the world to get me up and running. Numbness feels safer than engagement. With all the world has gone through in the last few years, that makes sense. Being emotionally checked-out seems like a reasonable choice. Why get your hopes up when the future feels so unpredictable? Why invest when life feels so out of control?

Distant from life, distant from God. God often feels more like a good idea than an explosive presence. More like a fond memory than a new life that is overwhelming and transforming my very being. The spiritual power of the early church and the original Quakers feels muffled in my own life. These days, I am a lot like the man in the Wilbur Rees book, who says:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. 

Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk, or a snooze in the sunshine. … 

I want ecstasy, not transformation. 

I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. 

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. 

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

I’m just trying to get by. Feed my kids. Do my job. Avoid catastrophe, and maybe help some people along the way.

And then I read something like Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and I am shaken out of my slumber. I am reminded that there is so much more to life than getting by. There is so much more to being a human than being nice and productive. There is a much deeper mission available to me, to us, than being merely good citizens and neighbors. There is so much more to life, to God, to the mystery that is this life, than can be fit inside my puny paper sack.

I know that there’s more to life, because – like you – I have received Christ Jesus, the Lord. I have tasted and seen. I have witnessed what the Holy Spirit is capable of doing in my life, in my community. It’s not a theory for me. I cannot be content with three dollars worth of God. Not if I’m going to be alive and honest about who I really am.

Paul writes to the Colossians, and to us: You have come to fullness in Jesus. You were buried in his baptism. You were also raised from the dead with him, through faith in the power of God. 

When we were dead in our sins, hating God and destroying ourselves, God made us alive with Jesus. He forgave us everything. He nailed all our sins and selfishness to the cross, obliterating their power and making us brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. We were dead, but we became alive. We were lost, but God found us. Jesus led us in triumphal procession, gloating over the powers of sin and death. He made a public display of their defeat: the triumph of life in our lives.

So what happened? Why do I feel so numb? Why does that life seem so impossible now? Why do I retreat into fear and self-regard? Having seen the things that I have seen, having witnessed the power of God, why am I unwilling to place my life fully in God’s hands? Why do I settle for three dollars worth of God, as if that could ever satisfy me?

Have I – have you? – been taken captive through philosophy and empty deceit? Have I – have you? – been lured back into worldly ways of thinking? Behaving in ways that Christ liberated us from and God raised us up out of? Have we traded the infinite majesty of God’s presence and power in our lives for a pound of God in a paper sack?

It’s about control. One of the most alluring promises that this society offers is that idea that we can have agency, control over our own lives. Yet even as it promises us this, we witness with our own eyes, again and again, that it simply isn’t true. The system is teetering. Nobody knows what will happen next. Yet we cling all the more to this idea that we can steer our own lives and destinies, if we just try hard enough. If we’re good people. If we deserve it.

Is this the philosophy and empty deceit that Paul warns us about? Do we want the warmth of the womb rather than a new birth?

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us that we will get what we ask for. We will get what we enduringly, stubbornly ask for. Just like a man who wakes his neighbor up in the middle of the night to get snacks for a sudden visitor – he’ll get help, even if it’s just so the neighbor can get him to go away. If he’s persistent, he’ll get what he’s looking for.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

Are we asking for the right things? Are we seeking the full gospel, the full presence of Jesus in our lives? Are we searching for transformation and wholeness?

Or are we settling for three dollars worth of God?

Jesus has conquered the powers of sin, death, and hell. We have been baptized into his death, participating in his labors. God has raised us up with Jesus, to be brothers and sisters. Have we forgotten?

The baptisms must continue. A funny thing for a Quaker to say, perhaps, but this is the core of our tradition. The Quaker life – the Christian life – is one of repeated baptisms, immersions into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We can’t hold onto the womb of this life if we want to be born into the life that is coming.

If we’re not born again – and again, and again – we can’t grow. The life of discipleship with Jesus is a road that, in the words of JRR Tolkein, goes ever on. Am I willing to keep walking with Jesus, despite the fact that I can’t see what lies around the bend?

What does it look like for you, to leave that wretched paper sack on the ground behind you? To abandon the puny ecstasies of self-help and religions of control? To venture out onto the road with Jesus, who makes no guarantees about the details of the journey, but promises new life if you follow?

Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Let’s pray for the courage to release the settled lives of human control, and to embrace the path of discipleship with Jesus – the road that goes ever on. Let’s pray with him, in the words he gave us:

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.