Friday, March 20, 2015


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists (Final draft)
For March 21, 2015

Luke 8:40-56

Last Tuesdays I got to hang out with a couple of God's favorite daughters, Jackie and Lisa, at a place called Aurora Commons. Aurora Commons is like a family room for people on Aurora Avenue who have no family. It's a living room for people who have no house. (Aurora Commons was the organization that received the offering at this past season's Candlelight Christmas Concert.)

Jackie and Lisa are pretty. Their attractiveness is all the more striking when they are at Aurora Commons. On Tuesdays, most of the people who come in are men. They're a rough crowd. Drug addicts, lost souls, people with mental illness. They are not clean. Some people come in just to hang out. If they're tired they may fall asleep on the couch, knowing that for a couple of hours they are in a safe place. If someone needs need help filling out an application or finding information on the internet, the women help them. If you need a clean shirt or new socks, you can find that, too. Jackie and Lisa are skilled at helping people connect with resources that make their lives a little more bearable. But what strikes me most forcefully, dazzles me even, every Tuesday is the welcome these daughters of God extend to everyone who who comes through the door. These beautiful women touch every person. The prostitutes, the men who look like lost puppies, the tough guys with tattoos and swagger. Lisa and Jackie are very deliberate. They work the crowd, stopping to visit with every person. They look them in the eye and touch them. Touch their shoulders, hug the women. They are like angels of God. I think God must be very proud of them.

Watching them challenges me. Am I taking time to really see people? Do I extend the welcome of God to everyone? Do I give this kind of rich attention to the people I live with? When you see your kids first thing in the morning, do you greet them before you mention how late it is and the school bus will be here soon? At work, are the people there first persons to you and then employees or coworkers or bosses?

The daughters of God at Aurora Commons set a very high bar for seeing the face of God in every human being.

Now a Gospel story about two daughters:

Jairus was the synagogue ruler, which in a small town in Galilee in the time of Jesus was probably the most prestigious position a person could hold. I'm guessing it was like being the mayor and the doctor in a small town in Nebraska.

The light of his life was his twelve-year-old daughter. And he thought she was the sweetest, prettiest, smartest girl in the world. Part of that magic, of course, was that she adored her daddy. He could come home from difficult meetings to the smiles and hugs of his little girl and life was perfect.

Then she got sick. The first day or two he didn't worry. His wife made chicken soup and applied other customary remedies. Surely, this was a passing thing. But it wasn't a day or two later, Jairus' daughter was deathly ill. Jairus' was frantic. He watched her in terror as the disease wracked her body.

Then he heard Jesus was back in town. He hurried out of the house. When he arrived where Jesus was he pushed through the crowd. He was an important person, people gave way. Reaching Jesus, Jairus fell on his face. “Sir, please, I beg you. Come heal my daughter. She is about to die.”

The crowd is astonished. Jewish people do not bow to each other. They do not even kneel in worship. Kneeling is a rare thing. When this important man knelt in front of Jesus, a murmur rippled through the crowd. Did you see? He's kneeling. Those who were close could hear the catch in Jairus' voice. Please, sir. Please. Please. Come. Come now. Please hurry. I don't think she has much time. Please, will you come?”

Every dad in the crowd got caught up in the drama. They imagined their own darling daughters. They remembered the times they had stood by their own girls when they were sick in bed, had stood there helpless, angry at God for taking their beautiful girl.

Every dad in the crowd who has heard Jairus' words becomes his ally. Hurry Jesus. Hurry. Don't let her die. Jesus and Jairus begin moving toward Jairus' house. But the crowd is thick. Their movement is slow. Even with the help of his new allies, the dads who heard his request, who now share his urgency, it is impossible to move quickly through the crowd.

Then about the time they manage to get Jesus out of the very center of the crowd and begin making good progress, Jesus stopped.

He looked around him in the crowd. “Who touched me?” he asked

Apparently, Jesus said this fairly strongly, maybe even sternly. It was not a rhetorical question. And people answer him, all denying that had violated his space. After a minute, Peter gets a bit impatient with Jesus. “Master, we're in the middle of a mob. It's like a Japanese subway at rush hour. What do you mean, 'Who touched me?' All kinds of people have touched you and each other. Why are you asking 'Who touched me?'

“Somebody touched me.” Jesus said. “I felt healing power leave me.” Jesus searched the faces around him again.

At that point, a woman comes out of the crowd. Like Jairus, she kneels—or more accurately, she falls on her face. “I touched you.”

Jesus draws out her story. She had been bleeding for twelve years. She had endured physical pain and weakness. Far worse, for twelve years she had been untouchable to her husband. She had been excluded from all social events—weddings, funerals, religious events, parties, dances.

She had been a pariah. She had spent all her money on doctors, chasing a cure without success.

Then she had heard about Jesus. He could cure anything. Leprosy, blindness, epilepsy, lameness. He had even raised the dead. Surely he could cure her. But, her problem was unmentionable in public.

I remember in the early days of AIDS, a young man in our congregation was diagnosed. When the disease became debilitating, he went back to his parents' home in another state. They urged us to never mention the real diagnosis. If their friends knew their son had AIDS they would be completely cut off. As far as I know the silence was never broken, not even after he died.

This woman's bleeding problem would have been something like that. Maybe in the small town everyone knew, but no one, certainly no man could admit they knew it.

She was imprisoned in an unbreakable pit of isolation.

But Jesus could help her. That much she knew. If only she could get to him. Then she had the brilliant idea. If she could just touch the edge of his garment, that would be enough. She wouldn't embarrass herself or the Master. She would just sneak through the crowd and touch him.

Probably she knew the story of the centurion's servant who was healed just by Jesus speaking the word, even at a distance. Surely a touch would be enough.

So she threaded her way through the crowd, imagining that everyone knew her secret, imagining that everyone was watching her. She tried to make herself smaller and smaller.

Then she was there. She reached between Peter and John and managed to brush his robe with her fingers. She pulled her hand back. Already there were two or three people between her and Jesus. But she could feel it. Something inside was fixed. She was healed.

As she was telling her story, the men in the crowd are growing disgusted. How could this loathsome woman dare contaminate this public space with her disgusting presence? The dads in the crowd who had become the allies of Jairus and were trying to help rush Jesus along to heal the beautiful twelve-year-old girl were angry. This loathsome woman was putting that beautiful girl's life at risk. Jesus needed to hurry. He did not have time to waste on a repulsive woman.

The woman was completely vulnerable. It was all out there now. She had broken powerful taboos by wading through this crowd—a crowd comprised mostly of men. She in all her ugliness had interrupted a mission to save a beautiful daughter. There on the ground in front of Jesus perhaps she already imagined stones landing on her back.

Then Jesus says the most astonishing word, “Daughter.” Or as the one translation puts it, “My daughter.”

“My precious one, my beautiful one, my dear one, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

Before she began telling her story, this woman was invisible to the men in the crowd. She was a nobody. Then Jesus causes her to become visible. As she tells her story, the men see a loathsome, sick woman. They saw ugliness, disease, impurity. They see an interruption in their plans to act as heroes and help save a beautiful girl.

Then Jesus speaks. “My daughter. My precious one. My dear, God is very pleased with you. You are, indeed, healed. How could you not be, with such a magnificent faith.”

Go in peace. Walk out through this crowd knowing you are safe and clean and whole and beautiful.


As the woman turns to move back through the crowd, messengers arrive from Jairus' house. It's too late. Your girl is dead. No point in bothering Jesus further.

Jesus overhears the messengers and says to Jairus, “Don't worry. Just believe. Your girl, too, will be made whole.”

The mob finally arrives at Jairus' house. Already the place is full of people mourning. Jesus chases them all out. He asks Peter, James and John and the parents to be with him in the bedroom.

He takes the young girl's hand and says, “Young lady, get up.”

The parents and the disciples watched the heart-breaking corpse become again a beautiful daughter. Joy rippled outward from the bedroom. The beautiful girl was alive! Mom and Dad were happy. The crowd was happy. Jesus was happy. The daughter lived.

Go with me back to Aurora Commons. I told you about two beautiful daughters of God, Lisa and Jackie. I didn't tell you about Patricia.

Patricia graduated for University of Oregon, moved to Seattle and got a job. Life was good. Then mental illness began to warp her life. She had a psychotic break and was hospitalized.

Her story wandered. One of her best jobs involved travel to exotic places. Places she still dreamed of visiting again, not that she thought she actually had much chance of doing so, but it was nice to remember and to dream.

The clientele of Aurora Commons is a pretty rough crowd. Patricia was different. Her body language agreed with her story of education and successful work. Her face hinted, but just barely, at the truthfulness of her story of mental illness.

After she learned that I was a pastor, she mentioned that she had been filled with the Holy Spirit. I asked her to tell me about that. Her telling took her back to mental illness. It had wrecked her life. She could no longer work. She had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She had even been to jail. Life was hard.

The first time she had been hospitalized, she had been devastated. Sitting in her room at the hospital, staring out the window, she realized life as she had known it was over. She was insane. The future was completely black.

Then completely out of the blue she was enveloped in an ocean of warmth and light. She sensed God assuring her it would be all right. She would make it through. For a little while the fear and dread, the grief over her lost life, was all gone. She was perfectly at peace.

This divine visitation did not heal her, but it has sustained her through 12 years of craziness, in and out of psyche hospitals. Even in and out of jail.

Through all this chaotic darkness she has hung onto the assurance God gave her in that sweet vision. It's going to be all right. You're going to make it. For these twelve years she has been able to come back again to this assurance: God is with her. God will be with her. The disease is not the last word, the ultimate word. God will not condemn her for her disease. God will heal her.

Patricia is an only child. An only daughter.

As I listened and watched her face, I began to see a daughter. I felt the ache of her mother's heart.

If you just walked into Aurora Commons and just took a quick glance around you would see a lot of ugly people. People with addictions. People who cannot hold jobs. People who have problems. People who ARE problems.

But if you had the privilege of sitting and hearing their stories, these misshapen, loathsome forms would slowly morph into beloved sons and daughters. To your astonishment you would find yourselves looking with the eyes of God and you would find yourself in the presence of radiant beauty.

May God give all of us the gift of seeing with the eyes of God. May we see every woman—even ourselves—as a precious, beloved daughter.

Friday, March 13, 2015

How to Get Help from God

Preliminary manuscript for the sermon at Green Lake Church on Sabbath, March 14, 2015. I'll revise the sermon at least once more.
Bible passage: Luke 7:1-17)
(Special guests for the day: students from Cypress Adventist School)

Monday morning, I was lying in bed, thinking about getting up. Monday is my day off. I actually had an option to sleep a little longer, but as usual the instant I wasn't actually sleeping, Rexie was her feet right beside the bed wiggling herself. (Some dogs wag their tails. Rexie's tail wags her whole body.) Sure enough, it worked. She wiggled herself, and I got out of bed, got dressed and headed outside to feed her.

Rexie loves to eat. So every morning she does her breakfast dance. And every morning it works. She wiggles herself and I get out of bed, get dressed and head outside to feed her. It is entirely predictable. If you asked Rexie, what do you have to do to get breakfast at the McLarty house, she would answer without hesitation, “Wiggle yourself.”

As I was filling my thermos in the kitchen, another breakfast expert began her routine. Mama Cat sleeps in the broom closet (with the door closed to prevent unhappy events in the night). As soon as she heard Rexie and me in the kitchen, she started meowing. And just like Rexie's dance it worked. I opened the door of the broom closet. She stepped out and circled me meowing. She jumped up on the laundry room counter and stood beside her bowl, whipping her tail. I filled her dish and she started scarfing her food while Rexie and I headed outside.

Mama Cat loves to eat. If you asked her what you have to do to get breakfast at the McLarty house, she would tell you, meow and flick your tail about and rub your head on things while staring at Farmer John. It works every morning when I'm home.

When I open the back door a living roadblock forms at the foot of the steps. From all over the yard twenty chickens race toward the steps. They make really weird noises, they cluck and squawk and squeal. They make sounds I didn't even know chickens were capable of. And they cock their heads sideways and stare at me with beady eyes. They pack so closely together I can hardly walk without stepping on them.

I carefully shuffle my feet through the mob and follow, some of the repeatedly getting right in front of me, practically getting under my feet. Finally, I break into a run to get ahead of them and out to the barn where the feed bin is.

At the barn I'm greeted by Jack the Cat. He croaks at me then waddles rapidly toward the shelf in the back of the barn where I feed the barn cats. Rexie bounces around the feed room eagerly anticipating breakfast. The mob of chickens also invades the feed room.

I get a scoop of chicken food and head outside to the place where I feed the chickens. The birds follow on my heels. If I don't walk fast enough some of them will get in front of me and trip me. I walk out back behind the barn and spread their food.

If you asked the chickens what you have to do to get breakfast at the McLarty's they would tell you that you have to mob the first person who comes out the back door in the morning. Make crazy chicken noises and follow that person everywhere he goes until he scatters food for you behind the barn. It works every morning. It's a sure thing.

Back in the feed room, I encounter Jack Cat again, croaking. Yes, I know cats are supposed to meow. I need one of you kids to come to our house and teach Jack how to do it. He sounds more like a big frog with laryngitis than a cat.

I pick Jack Cat up and lift him onto his shelf above easy reach of the dogs and feed him.

Then, FINALLY!!!!!!, I feed Rexie. And the McLarty universe is filled with happiness.

Rexie did her morning dance, and finally got her food.

Mama Cat did her morning routine of meowing and flicking her tail and rubbing her head. And it worked she got food almost immediately.

The chickens mobbed the back door and continued to mob me every step I took until I spread their food behind the barn.

Each animal has a technique and it works.

But those of you who know our household well, may have noticed some gaps in my listing of animals.

I told you about feeding Rexie, but we have two dogs, and I didn't mention Gypsy, the old mama dog.

I described feeding Mama Cat in the laundry room and Jack Cat in the barn, but what about Schmanner Cat?

And then there is George. George is Bonnie's favorite rooster. He is old and a bit decrepit. He does not run around in the yard. He lives in a special pen behind the barn. He does not crow. He does not make funny noises and he does not follow me around.

What about breakfast for Gypsy, Schmanner Cat and George? What do they have to do to get breakfast?

Kids, listen carefully. This is the point of the whole sermon.

Gypsy is old. She sleeps more than she used to. She has gone deaf so she does not hear me get up in the morning and cannot hear me if I call her. She does understand sign language, so if I wake her up and signal to her to come, she will go with me to get breakfast. Or I can bring her food inside. Last Monday, I let her sleep and I brought her breakfast inside.

If you ask Gypsy what you have to do to get breakfast at the McLarty's house, she will look at you without understanding. You don't have to do anything. You can go with John when he signals you to come or you can sleep until John brings breakfast inside. And if you're still not hungry, John will put your food up where Rexie can't get it, and you can eat breakfast at 11:30 or whenever you happen to get hungry.

Schmanner Cat gets fed in the barn. When she is in the barn, she meows very loudly—actually it's more like yowling because she is Siamese. She jumps up in the rafters, then back onto her shelf. She sticks her face out toward you then turns and checks her dish. On days she is in the barn, Schmanner Cat has her own breakfast dance. But on Monday, Schmanner Cat was not in the barn.

I could have fed Jack Cat and then gone out to sit on my stool and enjoy the sunrise in peace and quiet. No loud cat making noise and demanding to be petted. I couldn't have argued, if Schmanner Cat does not do her dance, I'm not going to give her breakfast.

But, of course, I didn't think that. Instead, I went and checked the garage. Sure enough, she had gotten shut in the night before when Karin came home from work. When I open the garage door and called, she answered. She walked across the rafters, jumped down onto the refrigerator, then onto my shoulders for a ride to the barn.

She climbed off my shoulders onto her shelf and I fed her.

If you asked Schmanner Cat what you have to do to get breakfast at the McLarty house, her answer would have been similar to Gypsy's. It's the wrong question. Breakfast for animals at the McLarty house is not something animals do. It's what the people do. You can meow like Schmanner Cat or croak like Jack Cat, you can haunt the feed room day and night like Jack or get locked in the garage like Schamanner cat does regularly. No worries either way, you'll get breakfast because that's what the people do there. You can be chunky and fat like Jack or lithe and athletic like Schmanners. Either way, you'll get breakfast.

Then, there's George. At breakfast time, he just stands at the edge of his pen, waiting. He doesn't make noise. He doesn't dance around. He doesn't go to breakfast. Breakfast comes to him. Because that's what people do in the McLarty universe.

Our New Testament Scripture this morning is Luke 7.

After traveling around Galilee, Jesus came back to the town of Capernaum. A centurion in town had a servant who had been part of his household for a long time and was very close to him. The servant was sick and about to die. When the centurion learned that Jesus was back in town he asked the elders of the local synagogue to ask Jesus to come and heal the man's servant. The elders were happy to oblige. They found Jesus and urged him to come with them and heal the servant. “This centurion deserves your help,” they said. “He is a good man. He loves our nation. He has even provided the funds to build our synagogue.”

Jesus headed out with the elders. When they were nearly to the centurion's house, the centurion sent friends with another message: Don't trouble yourself to actually come to my house. I am not worthy to have you actually come under my roof. That's why I didn't come and make my request directly to you. If you simply say the word, my servant will be healed. I know how authority works. I am an officer under orders. I have soldiers under me who follow my orders. I tell one, Go, and he goes. I tell another, Come, and he comes. I give orders to my servants and they do what I say.

When Jesus heard this he was amazed. Listen, he told the crowd, I have never seen such great faith, not even among all the people of Israel. these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

When the friends returned to the centurion's house, they found the servant sitting up in bed, completely well.

If we used this story as a guide for how to get help from Jesus, there are several salient points:

First, it helps to be an important person—like the centurion. Notice that the servant was healed because the important person, the centurion liked him.

Second, it helps to get other people to support your request. The centurion enlisted the help of the leading religious figures in town.

Third, other people are more likely to support your request if you're a good person. The elders were very happy to present the centurion's request to Jesus because he was a good man. He had been generous to them. He had provided the major gift for the synagogue fund-raising campaign. He liked the Jewish religion.

Fourth, and most important, faith matters. Jesus declared that this centurion, a non-Jew, a foreigner, a “non-church member” to use language we might use today had given the most impressive demonstration of faith he had ever seen.

If we applied this in our world today: What do you have to do to get God to help you? Be a good person. Be an important person in the work of the church. Give lots of money or lots of time. Get other people to prayer with. Use the internet to get thousands of people praying in support of your prayer. And last, make sure you have absolutely confident faith. Don't harbor the least question or doubt.

Then comes story number two.

The next day Jesus visited the town of Nain. A huge crowd of discipels went with Jesus. As they were approaching the city gate, they met a funeral procession headed out of the town toward the cemetery.

The person who died was a young man, the only son of his mother. And his mother was a widow. Jesus stopped the funeral procession and spoke to the mother. Don't weep. Jesus said. Which seemed like a weird thing to say. Who wouldn't weep in her situation. She was now completely alone in the world. And in her world a woman alone was the most desperate of all persons. She had no rights. No income. No resources. Prostitution and begging were her only likely sources of money for food.

Besides the economic precariousness of her situation, she was utterly socially isolated. Her son had been her whole world, now he was gone.

So Jesus' words appeared to be a mockery, but Jesus did not mock people. After telling mom not to cry, Jesus stepped over to the funeral litter, laid his hand on the corpse and said, “Young man, get up.”

Just like that, the young man sat up and started talking! I wonder if the people carrying him dropped him? The funeral was over. It turned into a big party. I'm sure people started dancing. Hallelujah!

So kids, let's do a compare and contrast exercise. What is the same in both of these stories. What is different? First, let's look at what is different.

In the first story there was great faith. The centurion had great faith. The elders must have had some faith.
In the second story there was no faith at all.

In the first story, lots of people joined together in asking for help.
In the second story, no one asked for help.

In the first story, the main characters were important people.
In the second story, except for Jesus, the people were nobodies. The woman was a widow. In that society, widows were invisible, without rights and with resources. The young man was a widow's son. He was a nobody who was the son of a nobody. We don't know Mom's name or the son's name.

With all these differences, what is the same? In both stories, the person who needed help was precious. The servant to the centurion, the son to his mother. In both stories the person who needed help was precious to Jesus. In both stories, help was given.

If we had only the story of the centurion we might think the only way to get help from God is to have great faith, or have important people support you in your request. We might even think we would have to be good and generous people in order to expect help from heaven.

If we had only the story of the centurion, we might think about getting help from God like Rexie thinks about getting breakfast from the McLartys. If you are Rexie, you know the key to getting breakfast is wiggling yourself. If you are Mama Cat, you know the key to getting breakfast is to meow. If you are Jack Cat, you know that the key to getting breakfast is hanging out in the feed room 24/7 and croaking like a frog with laryngitis.

But since we have the second story, the story of the Widow of Nain, we know that getting help from God is like getting breakfast at the McLartys. Just as breakfast is not limited to animals that wiggle themselves and meow and haunt the feed room, so God's help is not limited to good people, to people of faith, to people who attend church or are connected with people of faith.

It is God's nature to help. That's what God does. That's how God rolls.

Life is better when we have faith. Life is better when we are connected with good people and important people. God delights in our confident prayers. But God is not made helpless by our weaknesses. God is not shut out of our lives by our inability to hope or trust. If we cannot make it to breakfast, God brings breakfast to us.

And we will find our greatest joy and deepest satisfaction when we practice this attitude toward one another.

Kids, this week, at school look around your classroom and ask yourself which kid in my class could I make happier? Parents, ask yourselves, how could I surprise my kids with mercy? Husbands and wives—maybe even ex-husbands and ex-wives—ask how could I act more like God in my interaction with that other person?

God delights in providing healing, in interrupting funerals and turning them into parties. Let's consider how we can cooperate with God in this divine scheme.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ignore Prefectionism

When we read or listen to exhortations about perfection, our attention inevitably is drawn to our own imperfections. This is true whether the exhortations are based on passages in Ellen White or citations from Scripture. 

I refuse to read or listen to such exhortations. Instead I pay attention to those things that help me take one step in the right direction.

I pay special attention to evidences of God's generosity, graciousness, and compassion. The more attention I pay to this overflowing goodness, the easier it is for me to be generous and gracious in my attitudes toward others. I fret less about my failures and the failures of others. I am freed to devote my energy to planning another act of holiness. Which I think is the real goal of all that perfectionistic literature, anyway. 

I encourage people to simply ignore preachers who quote passages from the Bible and EGW that promise or require perfection. Instead, let us give our attention to the next step--the single next step--to which God invites us. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Place of Prayer

The place of prayer matters. Some places are more conducive to prayer than others. We do right to cultivate respect and appreciation for places of prayer. It is also appropriate to be careful not to allow appreciation for places of prayer to substitute for participation in prayer. Especially as we beautify places of prayer, it is important to beware of the possibility that admiration for the place may mask our native hunger for the practice of prayer. Hours or minutes spent deliberately cultivating attentiveness to God is time well spent.

If you look at the place where I pray (seated atop a wooden block, atop a plastic barrel) you are unlikely to be charmed. But if you look at what I see from where I pray, I'm confident you, too, like me will be enchanted.

The Place of Prayer

Take this cup. (Hot beverage is an essential aid for prayer outdoors in cold weather.)

What I see at prayer: Dawn as the smile of God

Saturday, March 7, 2015

My Father Is Pleased with You

This morning as I watched the eastern sky brighten, I experienced the fruit of years of greeting every dawn in contemplative prayer. On bright mornings like today, the warm glow readily speaks to me of God's affection and approval. But even on mornings when the sky is leaden, the air thick with moisture and the temperature hovers in the 30s, my time on my stool facing east is suffused with an awareness of the smile of God.

Today, may your Sabbath-keeping be similarly lighted with a sweet awareness of God's kindly regard.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dawn Meditation

I watched the lake at dawn. Cloud-softened sunlight dancing sparkles across the ripples. Sheets and strings of glitter shifted across the dark mirror of the water. Ducks launched tiny circles of seismicity, ringlets of light. I tell you this because it was too rich to go unremembered, and maybe, by trying to tell, I will remember until tomorrow's dawn.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Higher than the Holy Book

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, February 21, 2015
At Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

One Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples were walking on a path through a grain field. The disciples picked heads of grain, rubbed the husks off in their hands and ate them. Pharisees observed this and protested to the disciples, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath laws?”

Jesus cut in and answered for his disciples, “Surely, you have read the story of how David fed himself and his men when they were starving hungry. David went to the house of God and ate the holy bread. He also gave it to the men with him, even though it was unlawful for anyone except the priests to eat it.

Then Jesus said, “The Son of man is Lord, even of the Sabbath.” Luke 6:1-5

This may sound like a quaint, ancient tale, completely irrelevant to people living in 2015. In fact, it addresses the most burning question in religion today. Before we consider it's modern application, let's set the cultural stage for the ancient story.

It was customary in the Middle East that if you were walking along by some food crop, you could help yourself to a snack. You couldn't fill a bag with your neighbor's produce, but you could pick some grain and munch on it. You could help yourself to an apple from a tree beside the road. So the people who challenged the disciples were not worried about what the disciples were doing—picking and eating grain—but when they were doing it—on the Sabbath day!

The people who scolded the disciples, the Pharisees, were the conservative believers of their day. One of their highest values was to maintain a clear wall of distinction between the people of God and the people of the world. For the Jews, the Sabbath had become one of their most important banners. It was their flag. Respect for the Sabbath was an essential mark of Jewish faith and identity. Over the previous couple hundred years devout rabbis had developed very strict rules for the observance of the Sabbath. They studied every Bible command regarding the Sabbath and worked out in great detail precisely how those commands should be interpreted and applied. These applications had become increasingly strict. In Jesus day, the major conservative movement, called the Pharisees, was hyper-conscientious in their rules for Sabbath-keeping. These were the people challenging the disciples.

It is important to note that the conservative scholars did not invent their concern for Sabbath-keeping out of thin air. The Jewish holy book was quite explicit.

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you are to labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work, you or your children or servants or foreigners in your household. Exodus 20:8-10

Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest. Exodus 34:21 NIV

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed. Exodus 23:12 NIV
Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day. Exodus 35:2-3

Conservative rabbis reflecting on these Sabbath commands came up with a list of 39 specific activities that were prohibited on Sabbath. These rules were a natural development of the commands explicitly stated in the Bible. At their core, the rules were believed to be the logical application of the plain reading of the text.

When Jesus' disciples picked heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands and blew the husks away, they were breaking the Sabbath rules which specifically prohibited reaping, threshing and winnowing.

(Now, if you are not a Sabbath-keeper, the whole story is mysterious. Is it really possible that anyone could actually care about whether some guys rubbed some grain in their hands before eating it? Don't be silly. But I'm not being silly. It did matter.

Last Friday, I attended the military burial service for Colonel David Grauman. The feel of the service was not heavy and tragic. The leader of the service joked with the family a bit. But the color guard executed every move with utter precision. When they folded the flag, their movements were precise. When they raised their rifles to shoot the salute, they moved in perfect formation. As someone with no military experience of any kind, it was all very foreign to me. But for people who have served in the military it would have been familiar. And if any item of the service had been improvised, if any step in folding the flag had been omitted or muffed, the offending service member would have expected a stern reprimand later.

Perhaps we can best understand the Sabbath rules if we compare them to the rules in the military that govern how one salutes, how one folds the flag, how one addresses superiors. You don't mess with those traditions.

Jesus jumped in as soon as the Pharisees stated their condemnation. He did not leave it to his disciples to take on the challenge from the conservative scholars.

My guess is that if the disciples had responded to the Pharisees, they would have said something like this: Yes, we know our religion forbids reaping and threshing and winnowing grain on Sabbath. But come on. How far are you going to push that? Pretty soon you're going to be forbidding eating on Sabbath because picking food up off a plate is harvesting. You can't really call what we did “reaping, threshing and winnowing.”

The disciples would have tried to minimize their actions. They would have tried to argue that the Sabbath law didn't really reach all the way to their specific actions. Their actions that Sabbath afternoon were a special case that was not covered by the standard Sabbath rule. Surely God wouldn't be that picky.

The problem with this kind of argument is that eventually the hyper zealous always win. Even if the majority of people in a religious community think a more relaxed, flexible approach is the wisest way to interpret the commandments, young zealots will end up determining the public culture because they will be the most emphatic, the most active in pushing their views. They will appear the most devout. They will claim the moral high ground. They will ultimately win the cultural argument.

Religion advances as it is passed from one generation to the next. Part of the necessary contagion that causes faith to leap from one generation to another is an element of fiery zeal. If our religion consist only of watering down the rules of a previous generation or softening the words of a dead prophet, our religion will die. It will not offer our children the essential fire required for a vital spiritual life.

On the other hand, when we confine our religion in the increasingly rigid regulations of a fossil religion, eventually the only way forward for our children will be to shatter the system.

So how did Jesus respond to the conservative challenge which attempted to keep his disciples in the tight box of traditional Sabbath regulations?

First, Jesus did not minimize the violations of his disciples. Jesus did not argue that they didn't really reap, thresh and winnow. Instead, Jesus bluntly challenged the entire conservative approach to rules and regulations. Jesus rejected the conservative instinct to guard against the loss of any rule or regulation once given by God. And curiously, Jesus appealed to the Bible in making his case.

“Haven't you read about David?” Jesus asked. “Surely you know his story.”

The story is found in 1 Samuel 21.

David was the most famous warrior in the nation. He was a member of the royal court. But King Saul had become insanely jealous. More than once in a fit of rage, King Saul had tried to kill David. The fits hardened into a fit intention to eliminate David. David ran for his life. He came to the town where the tabernacle (the Jewish place of worship) was located and asked the priest for some bread.

The priest said he didn't have any regular bread. The only bread he had on hand was the holy bread which only priests were allowed to eat. The rules in the laws of Moses were very clear. There was no ambiguity. There were no exceptions. This bread was to be eaten only by priests.

The priest gave David the bread and David shared it with his men.

The inescapable moral of the story: If David could eat holy bread and share it with his men, then obviously, there can be nothing wrong with me and my men violating the Sabbath commandment in order to feed ourselves.

The respective prohibitions on lay people eating the holy bread and my disciples picking grain on the Holy Day are spiritually equivalent. Since the Bible approved of David's violation of holy restrictions, you are obviously out of place to reprove my disciples for a similar violation.

At the end of his telling this story, Jesus said, “So, you see, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Here is how I interpret Jesus' statement about the Son of Man. By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus highlighted his role within humanity. What Jesus did was applicable to all humanity. What was right for Jesus was right for every person. What was required of Jesus is required of us. What was allowed to Jesus is allowed to us.

Just as David included his men in the privileges he assumed in eating the holy bread, so Jesus included all humanity in the privileges he protected when he defended his disciples eating on the holy day.

The error of the Pharisees was their presumption that preserving the binding authority of the Sabbath rules was a higher value, a more noble virtue, than tending to human need.

In this story and repeatedly throughout his ministry, Jesus taught the opposite. The supreme test of religion is its efficacy in serving God's children. In a parallel Sabbath story in the Gospel, Jesus announced, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” God did not make people so they could keep Sabbath. God made the Sabbath to serve the well-being of humanity.

This same principle applies across the entire range of religion. God did not make people so they could populate and fund the church organization. God founded the church so it could enrich the lives of God's people. God did not create people so prophets could have devotees. God spoke through prophets to challenge complacence in evil and to encourage goodness. God did not make people so they could read and revere the Bible. God made the Bible to serve the well-being of people.

Now a most pointed application: So, if some statement in the Bible diminishes human well-being, we are morally obligated to reinterpret it or disregard it. In this story, Jesus pointedly rejected the validity of Sabbath laws when they were interpreted in a way that contradicted the basic human need for nutrition. Jesus did not get rid of the Sabbath. That would lead to another kind of impoverishment. But Jesus taught us the proper response to zealous conservatives who would push the application of some particular Bible passage in ways that damaged people. He cited other Scripture that demonstrated God's highest regard for human well-being.

Sometimes when conservatives seek to contain the work of God within the rigid walls of ancient commands, we have have to boldly declare there is a higher authority than ancient laws, a higher authority than quotations from prophets no matter how venerable. Human well-being is in and of itself a mighty authority.

Let's be clear. Under the powerful influence of Jesus, Christians have been doing this for two thousand years. Even the most conservative Christians ignore or reinterpret passages in the Bible. We have been doing it so long we don't even realize we're doing it. It is this ignoring of some Bible passages or radical reinterpretation that makes Christianity a humane religion.

If we try to revive a pure, perfectionist Bible religion, we will end up with something that looks like ISIS.

We are appalled at the savage behavior of ISIS. We recoil in horror at their practices of execution, slavery, and the subjugation of women. These are ghastly behaviors. We may be tempted to think: Those people are unspeakably evil. We would never do anything like that.

But let's be careful. The individuals involved in ISIS are not are not morally different from any other large group of people. The group includes good individuals and bad individuals. What makes ISIS so bad is their radical commitment to obey every word in their holy book. It is their religious conservatism that has turned them into monsters.

Public executions, the enslavement of women, cutting off the hands and feet of convicts—these things are commanded by their holy book. And that is why they do them. They don't do these things because they are trying to be more wicked than anyone else.

Most Muslims are repulsed by this savagery, but they have no good religious answer to ISIS, because in Islam no one is allowed to question the prophet. No one is allowed to say out loud about some passage in the Koran, “That passage is obsolete. That is a commandment we must not obey.”

In Islam, unquestioning obedience is the only acceptable response to the Koran. Most Muslims know in their gut that beheadings and capturing women to serve as sex slaves and cutting off the hands of petty thieves is evil behavior. But in their religion, there is no tradition of arguing with God. No tradition of arguing with the holy book.

In our religion, the great heroes did argue with God. Abraham and Moses, the two greatest figures in the Hebrew scriptures, argued boldly with God. Moses even got God to change his mind. Then we come to Jesus in the New Testament and find Jesus boldly superseding rules and regulations that came straight from the commands of God in the Old Testament.

If we Christians argue that the highest religion is unquestioning, unthinking obedience to whatever command our eyes fall on in the Bible, we are using the same kind of logic that fuels ISIS. If we read the Bible with the same commitment to unquestioning obedience to every command that characterizes the theologians behind ISIS, we will turn into monsters.

The Bible explicitly commands public executions, usually by stoning. In fact, every man in the community is to actually participate in the killing. When Boko Haram raided a girl's school in Nigeria and captured two hundred girls to serve the desires of their soldiers, they were acting in harmony with procedures outlined in the Bible!

Note this quotation from an ISIS theologian:

Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.

Compare this quotation from the Bible:

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. Numbers 31:17-18

We proudly think of ourselves as Protestants, people who live by the Bible and the Bible Only. The Bible was the tool used to pry open space in Europe for people to be Christian without being under the tyranny of the Roman church system. But the most famous founders of Protestantism, Luther and Calvin, approved public executions of people who disagreed with them. Those executions included burning people alive. Luther and Calvin advocated these executions because they believed this was required of them by the Bible.

In our own time, Christians in America are the strongest supporters of the death penalty. Not because Christians are meaner and crueler than other people, but because they believe the Bible tells us so.

It is time for us to stand with Jesus and say, NO! Continuing an execution system that occasionally kills innocent poor people must be rejected. It does not matter that one can find Bible passages approving capital punishment. The principles of justice demand that we end immediately a system that we know sometimes kills innocent people. If we respect people the way Jesus respected people, we will refuse to use the Bible to justify injustice.

A couple of years ago, a Republican in Arkansas called for legislation to that would allow parents to seek execution for their rebellious children. Where did he get this crazy idea? Deuteronomy 21:18-21. It is important to recognize that we can say it is crazy only if we acknowledge that some words in the Bible viewed through the lenses we now wear are crazy. In Islam if you say that something the prophet said was crazy, you are guilty of blasphemy. In Christianity, if you say that, you are standing with Jesus and Moses.

In America now, there is vociferous Christian movement advocating limiting education for girls. This movement is fueled by the belief that patriarchy, which is obviously every much in evidence in the Bible, is an unalterable rule. We must stand and shout, NO!

How do we respond to these ideas and rules in the Bible that would damage people if they were actually applied today? We do not become mealy-mouthed, mumbling hazy explanations that our kids can see right through. No. We boldly, confidently pledge ourselves to the way and the values of Jesus.

The truest, wisest words of Scripture are those that highlight the goodness—compassion, mercy, responsiveness—of God. The highest obligation imposed on the disciples of Jesus is to join Jesus in serving humanity.

When Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He makes humanity the master of the Sabbath. We are not tools in the hand of Sabbath. Sabbath is a divine gift we are called to use in our cooperation with God. Every Sabbath as we experience respite from the pressures of the world, we are also called to offer respite to one another and to our neighbors.

Sabbath invites us to rest and to give rest. Sabbath invites us make sure the foreigner and even the donkeys enjoy the same heavenly rest we do. Sabbath is a reminder that the ultimate evidence that we have been filled with the grace of God is the grace that flows from us into the lives of others.