Saturday, May 7, 2016

Just Like God

Sermon for Sabbath, May 7, 2016 at St. George, UT.

When breeding animals, we expect the offspring to reflect the qualities of the parents.

It is the same in the spiritual realm. If we have fully embraced God as our Father, we will take on his character. And the overarching attribute of God is prodigious generosity. At least, that seems to be the clear meaning of Jesus' words:

You know the saying:  Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for people who are spiteful to you and torment you. This is how you live as children of your Father in heaven. Because he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good. God sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
If you love those who love you, how could you imagine you would be rewarded for that? Even drug dealers do that! And if you pleasantly greet your own people, how is that remarkable? Even pagan foreigners do the same. Instead, be perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.  Matthew 5:43-48

Let us bask in the generosity of our God and pay it forward in our interactions with others. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Human Greatness

I know remarkable people. Scientists with brilliant minds and habits of focus, discipline, and tenacity. Musicians whose artistry lifts my soul in ways that are so commanding and mysterious it borders on the miraculous. Mothers in the middle of decades of caring for a disabled child. Athletes so beautiful, fluid, and strong that in another era would be called children of the gods.

These people are exemplars of human greatness.

I know other humans whose greatness is no less admirable once we learn to see it. It takes a special eye to see it, a vision akin to that of an artist or musician or scientist--both gift and fruit of practice and learning. I'm thinking of my friends who pushing back against suicide. Every night they make a new decision to go to bed without taking a lethal dose. Every morning they decide to stay alive at least until evening. They could buy peace with death. Instead they choose to live for one more day, one more night. In keeping themselves alive they put off for a little longer the bereavement of God that comes at the death of his children, especially the ones he has drawn so closely to in the pain of their struggle.

 This morning, sitting on my stool at dawn, I moved back and forth from joyous contemplation of the shining sky to heart ache and astonished admiration of my friends who have made it through one more tortured night.

I salute their greatness.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Advocating Adventism: A Manifesto:

I am an Adventist advocate.

When I say I am an Adventist, I mean my family history and Adventist church history have been intertwined for generations. I'm also referencing my membership in this congregation, my education in Adventist schools, my employment as a pastor, and the habits of my life. All of this makes me Adventist, but it is not enough to make me an advocate. Being an advocate comes from my conviction that being Adventist is good for you. It is a superlative way of being human. It is this conviction—that you are better off being Adventist—that makes me an advocate, a promoter, a sales person, an evangelist. I think we have something so good everyone (or at least nearly everyone) would benefit from joining with us.

Many of the treasures of Adventism are shared treasures: God, the Bible, the Gospel, the Ten Commandments, baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the Golden Rule. These are common across Christianity. Our promotion of healthy habits and our critiques of meat, tobacco, and alcohol are shared with many non-Christians. Our extensive network of health care and educational institutions and our integrated global organization is reminiscent of the Catholic Church. Our prohibition of pork echoes the same prohibition in Judaism and Islam. Our Sabbath-keeping is a direct descendant of Jewish belief and practice.

So why be Adventist?

Sabbath-keeping is one reason. Being Adventist helps you keep Sabbath. And keeping Sabbath is a really valuable thing. There is a growing chorus of voices inside and outside Christianity lamenting the loss of Sabbath rhythm from our lives. Productivity, creativity, mastery are essential for the richest human life. But when they become unregulated drives, they become a cancer, displacing other human values like family, friendship, worship, play, wonder, compassion.

We have experienced the benefits of Sabbath-keeping in my own family. I'm a preacher. So, obviously, my professional duties interfere with the full Sabbath experience. Sabbath is my busiest, most intense day. Still, Sabbath practices—specifically the Friday night parties—comprise part of the glue that sticks our family together. Until the kids scattered, every Friday night we had haystacks or strawberry shortcake. We made music. We kept company together at the table set with our best dinnerware. Sometimes friends and neighbors joined us. We did this as part of our religion. It was not optional. It wasn't merely “a good idea.” Our Sabbath practices were central to our identity as an Adventist family.

Sabbath-keeping is nearly impossible to maintain apart from participation in a Sabbath-keeping community. Individuals or isolated families seldom manage to sustain a rich Sabbath-keeping experience. If you want the benefits of Sabbath-keeping, you will probably have to pay the cost of participating in a Sabbath-advocating church. And most Sabbath-keeping churches are Adventist.

Given the intensity and ubiquity of demands for 24/7 production and drive, Sabbath stands as a counter reality, a sweet, steady tradition that nourishes family, soul, and body. Our communal Sabbath-keeping provides access to the blessings of Sabbath even to those who lack the ordinary faith of Adventists. Our While those without faith don't enter as deeply into Sabbath rest as people with a sweet, devout faith, nevertheless, their participation in our community gives them a taste of Sabbath blessing. Even an atheist can keep Sabbath with us, and through that Sabbath-keeping experience soul-rest and a bit of the transcendent. Surely, even a mere taste of the transcendent is better than nothing at all. So be Adventist to sustain your own enjoyment of Sabbath and to join in stewarding this spiritual treasure for others.

A second treasure: Adventist theology provides resources for happily, confidently affirming the goodness of God. In contrast to much dark theology that pictures humans as repugnant to God, who condescends to pardon and save us in spite of our fundamental reality, Adventism highlights the Creation story. God delights in his human children (and the rest of creation as well). God's saving response to human failure and sin is exactly what one would expect of the divine creator parent. The human predicament is God's predicament. God is radically committed to human well-being just as any good parent would be. The crucifixion means at least this much: God would rather die than live without us.

God is loving. God is also lawful. God is bound by the constraints of morality. It is inconceivable that God would do evil or condone evil. If God appears to command or condone evil, humans are right to resist the divine word. Adventists have followed the Enlightenment rejection of divine right monarchy. The whim of the king is subordinate to the fundamental principles of law. This view of God has obvious implications for how we regard human authorities. When America was wrestling with the question of slavery, Adventists joined the abolitionists in rejecting centuries of Bible interpretation in favor of slavery. Slavery was immoral no matter what Abraham did or what customs were spelled out in the Levitical code. It was not possible for God to be on the side of slavery because God could not be a party to immorality. Period. This understanding of the divine character continues to serve as a guide for interpreting the Bible. It has obvious implications for responding to contemporary issues as well.

Adventists reject eternal torture in hell. Why? Because a moral, loving God could not do such a thing. Classic Christian theology was strongly influenced by elements of Greek philosophy. It was this philosophical background that allowed Christian theologians to say with a straight face that God created many humans for the express purpose of burning them in eternal hell fire. Christian theology rightly insists that God is loving and righteous. Adventism teaches that the words “loving” and “righteous” tell us something important about God. It is not possible for God (or anyone else) to be both righteous and a torture-master. Righteous authority cannot act in unrighteous ways. A government—heavenly or earthly—that practices torture loses its moral authority. If eternal torment were true, God would be an evil monster. We would not worship such a deity. So Adventists deny the notion of eternal hell fire. It is not possible. (Some of us—heretics—take this further. We deny hell fire all together.)

God is love. Among Adventists this is not one assertion among many. It is the supreme affirmation about God, an affirmation which serves as an interpretive filter or at least as a counter-balancing truth for all other theological assertions and interpretations of the Bible. The Adventist commitment to this truth is almost reason enough to claim your place among us.

Adventists are creationists. For many Adventists “creationism” has referred to the belief that all rock formations containing fossils were created 4000 years ago in Noah's Flood. However, for some of us “creationism” refers to the theological conviction that humans (and all of nature) are the creation of God. This means the “image of God” is found in the reality of humanity. God is expressed in both men and women. God is not exclusively or even preeminently male. The essential connection between God and humanity undergirds all the divine commands. Adventists understand the Bible's laws as descriptions of the character of God. Because humans are formed in the divine image, laws are also descriptions of the ideal human character. Laws which are good and necessary for humans also set limits on conceivable activity by God.

All the enduring commandments in the Bible are understood to be applications and developments of the character of God. Obviously life works better when people honor their parents, refrain from stealing, killing, cheating, lying. Adventist rules go beyond what is explicitly stated in the Bible. We discourage the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs—because life works better than way. We advocate a plant-based diet. We talk about exercise and sleep, about healthy habits for parenting and marriage. We are working to create a culture of forgiveness and grace. And a culture of disciplined, structured living. We are working to create this kind of culture because life works better this way. People are happier and healthier.

Creationism also means (at least for some of us) a high regard for nature. We promote direct engagement with nature through time spent in the out-of-doors (think Sabbath afternoon hikes and camping trips) and through science. We regard science as the structured scholarship of God's “Second Book.” We seek to pass on to our children a love of the world and a commitment to act as wise stewards of nature.

We are Jesus people. We open our hearts to the challenging words of Jesus that call us beyond revenge and retribution. We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has changed the world and painted the definitive vision of God's intentions for the future. In our worship and theology we celebrate the goodness of God. In our church culture we seek to support one another in the cultivation of patterns of living that nourish our relationships, our bodies, and our souls.

Our ambition, our aspiration is to be a people shaped by the life and words of Jesus, a community that interprets the Bible through the lens of an exalted vision of a loving God, a community that seeks to live out here in the real world the implications of that vision.

This is why I am an Adventist advocate. That is why I invite everyone to join us in this glorious quest.

(Note: If you know Adventism well, you will realize the “Adventism” I am promoting is a developmental Adventism. I am not advocating a fossil Adventism—an exact replica of the religino of the early Adventists. I do not imagine the Adventism of our ancestors is better than the Adventism of their children. Perhaps we should call this Adventism Five Point O. Or Third Adventism. Or Seattle Adventism. Whatever we call it, to me it's obvious that the seed of a religion is not better than its fruit. And it is this mature fruit of our faith that I advocate.)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Mother, Nature, God

Very rough, preliminary draft 
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, April 23, 2016

I was sitting at the lake across the street on Wednesday morning. The sun had just climbed above the eastern horizon, painting magic in the sky and water. A coot did its hurky jurky swim across the path of light painted by the sun. I reached for my phone to take a picture. Too late. The bird had already moved too far for a good picture. Then from around a clump of reeds on my left a female mallard appeared. Right next to the shore with nine tiny ducklings in tow. She brought them right to the edge of the water in front of me, clearing hoping for a handout. I refused. She lingered, the tiny ducklings mimicing her big duck behavior, dipping their heads and throwing water over their backs, bobbing for whatever kind of stuff ducks eat. Eventually she moved them on down the lake edge to my right, keeping in the cover of bushes and reeds to avoid the eagles and other predators in the neighborhood.

I was impressed. How does a mother handle NINE ducklings?

The Seattle Times a few days ago had a picture of a couple of adult geese supervising a troop of four goslings crossing a road. That seemed manageable. But NINE ducklings? All by herself?

I don't know how they do it, but somehow mothers manage. They're amazing.

King David was an old man. He was slipping. The administration of the kingdom was beginning to reflect the king's failing mind. A bizarre example of this failure came when one of his sons raped his half sister Tamar. The king learned of the rape. He was furious, but he did nothing. Nada. Zip. Not even a slap on the wrist.

Two years passed. Finally, Tamar's full brother Absalom decided if the king was not going to act, he would. Absalom killed his brother, then fled the country.

David mourned for both of his sons, the son who was dead and the son who was gone.

One day a woman comes to the court begging for royal intervention. The king hears her case.

My husband has been dead for a long time. I have two sons. They are all I have. They were good boys. But they got into a fight when they were working out in the field. The older boy hit the younger with a rock. My son didn't make it. He died. Now my relatives are demanding I hand over my son so he can be put to death. They insist this is the only way to preserve justice. They claim they are pro-life and quote Moses:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image. Genesis 9:6

And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. Leviticus 24:17

They say that if I spare my living son I'm dishonoring my dead son. But I think they just want to eliminate my heir so they can get their hands on the property. And what will I do? Where will I go? What will I have?

King David ruled in her favor. Your son will not be executed. She pressed him. She knew how fierce was the public opinion against her son, how determined the righteous people back in her village were to see that “justice was done.” Those “good people” were would not stop until they had executed that evil murderer.

“No,” the King said. “I promise. Nothing will be done to your son. Go back home. You have full royal protection.”

Finally, the woman dropped her pretense. This was not really about her sons. It as about the King's son. The King's general, Joab, had put her up to this. Why, the woman asked, did not the king apply this principle to his own two sons. One was dead. One was gone. He could not bring the dead son back to life, but he could bring his exiled son back home. Why not do it?

So the king did. He brought his exiled son home.

The woman's story was simple and clean. The story of David and Absalom is messy and complicated—because it is real life. Still the mother's perspective stands as a vivid, powerful statement of theology.

If we make a movie about two men and through the lens of the camera we see one man kill another, it is easy to think that justice would be served by punishing the murderer. And what better punishment than execution. We could quote the Bible: If a man sheds blood, by man shall his blood be shed. But if the camera pulls back and we see not merely two men, but Mother's two sons, everything gets more complicated. Is it really justice that instead of losing one son, mother loses both sons?

And then when the camera pulls back ever further and we see that not only does mother lose two sons, but grandmother also loses two sons and great grandmother, and eventually the God Mother, justice gets redefined. And execution is seen for what it is—another terrible breach of the moral fabric of the universe. If execution is going to be justified you compensate for all the terrible, heart-breaking ripples that flow outward from that act we first imagined as a simple, clean punishment.

Taking account of Mother changes theology. It makes it better.

Another tale: King Solomon and the two prostitutes and their babies.
The moral of the story: A true mother will choose life.

Two ways to see and experience nature:
Cold, rational nature.
Mother Nature.

With the eyes of faith we see Mother Nature as the truest revelation of the purpose of God. Just as we dismiss passages in the Bible that portray God as coldly indifferent. We vigorously oppose reformed theology with its coldly rational notions of predestination and eternal torment. We reject classic theology which has embraced Greek notions of the impassibility of God. We believe in a tender-hearted God.

One of the most poignant visions of God in all of Scripture is captured in Jesus' words reported in Matthew 23:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who have kill the prophets and stone heaven's messengers, how often would I have gathered your children together like a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not come.

This paragraph comes at the end of the sharpest, most strident rebuke recorded in the Gospel. Jesus lambasts the religious leaders for their love of authority and influence. He mocks their willingness to impose on others burdens they would never think of hoisting onto their own shoulders. He compares them to decorated graves—beautiful on the outside and inside, full of dead, dry bones. Jesus blames the religious leaders for the spiritual and political failure of the nation.

Then, after this diatribe, after this sharp and severe language, Jesus ends with this mother's lament. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I called. How hungrily my heart has reached for you.”

Jesus sounds like a mother. Like an ideal mother. Like the perfect mother in a children's book. “You are mean and hypocritical and disgusting and repulsive. Please, won't you come home.” Only a mother would talk like this. And God.

God calls. Like a mother.

Always. To everyone.

And we, having learned God's way, join in singing and sharing the invitation.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Earning Heaven

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, April 16, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 11, 65, and Matthew 19:23-29

Last Sunday, after Karin left for work at 6:30 a.m. I went outside to feed the dogs and cats and other critters. The sky was the color and weight of lead. The temperature was in the high thirties. It was a perfectly miserable day. (I know. I know. For some of you a gray, cloudy, cool day is perfect. I envy you. For me, dark, gray, cool days are an almost unbearable weight.)  At eight o'clock, the sky was still heavy and dark. So did the logical thing: I decided to head for Christoff Peak or Norse Peak.

I took my time loading my pack. Down coat, insulated pants, stove, hot chocolate mix. Snow shoes. Crampons.  You never know what kind of conditions you'll find up high. And since I freeze easily, I always have to carry a ton of extra gear just in case I get lost or break a leg. Finally, I called the dog. We climbed into the car and headed out on Highway 410 toward Crystal Mountain. A mile before Green Water, the clouds thinned. I had come to the edge of the gloom. Blue sky and sunshine gleamed ahead of me. I turned off the highway, parked, and headed up the trail to Christoff Peak.

In sharp contrast with the damp, gray sky back home, here sun filtered through the trees. In places where the sun had warmed the ground and trees, the air was fragrant with the scent of fir and soil and forest duff. As I climbed the air warmed. I pulled off layers, unbuttoned my shirt. Eventually, I came to the snow. I stepped into my snowshoes and kept ascending. Snow crunched under my feet. Sun warmed my shoulders.

After a mile or so on the snow, I reached the summit. It was heaven. The sun had melted the snow off the rocks at the very top. I sat on sun-warmed rocks, heated water for hot chocolate, then sat back and basked in the sun, sipping my hot chocolate and eating a Cliff Bar. (Yes, I admit it. I ate a Cliff Bar. And I wasn't even starving to death.) Across the valley Mt. Rainier loomed in the glimmering air.

Some of you will remember John Denver's song, “Almost Heaven.” Sitting on top of Christoff Peak last Sunday, basking in the sun, gazing at Mt. Rainier, sipping my hot chocolate, nibbling my Cliff Bar, tossing pieces of jerky to Rexy. Yes, it was almost heaven.

What did I have to do to earn this bit of heaven?

If you mean what did I have to do to earn the right to visit this peak, the answer is simple: I was born into ownership. The peak sits on National Forest land. Since I'm an American citizen, that land belonged to me the minute I was born. I have done nothing to earn it. I don't need to do anything to earn it. It's already mine. Others arranged the ownership for me.

If you mean, what was required of me so that last Sunday I could sit there above the clouds, basking in sunshine and glorious mountain vistas—if that's what you mean—the answer is not so simple. Sunday, I drove 20 miles hoping to escape the clouds and gloom of the lowlands. I hiked a few miles and a few thousand few of elevation. I carried snowshoes and crampons on my pack.

And realistically, the work required to sit on the top of Christoff Peak began years before last Sunday. Last Sunday's hike was the culmination of years of hiking and running, developing physical capacity. Just as important last Sunday was navigation ability. Once I hit the snow, the trail was completely hidden. For the first time ever I navigated using the GPS and maps on my phone, a skill my son taught me when he was home at Christmas time.

You could say I earned the exquisite pleasure of last Sunday's feast on top of Christoff Peak through a life time of outdoor activity. That hour of enjoyment cost me a life time of practice.

And I will tell you, it was worth every bit of effort.

Which takes us to our scripture.

A man approached and said to Jesus, “Good Master, what good thing should I do to so that I may have eternal life?”
Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good except God. But to answer your question, if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
“What commandment?”
“You know,” Jesus said. “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do no give false testimony. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man said, “All these things have I observed from childhood on. What do I still lack?”
“Well,” Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come and follow me.”
When the young man heard Jesus' words, he left, sorrowful, because he had great possessions.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, a rich man can barely make it into the kingdom of heaven. Further, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
When his disciples heard this, they were astonished. “Who then can be saved?” They asked.
Jesus looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
Peter spoke up. “Seeing that we have forsaken all and followed you, what are we going to get?”
“This I tell you for sure,” Jesus said. “You who have followed me, in the new world, when the Son of man sits on the throne of glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And every one who has forsaken houses or brethren or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my name's sake, will receive a hundred times what they have forsaken and will inherit everlasting life.

When this rich, young, devout man came to Jesus he was already doing the right thing. He was behaving in the way decent, rich young men were supposed to behave. But it wasn't enough. He was dissatisfied. He wanted a deeper, richer satisfaction. He wanted to be involved in something that was so meaningful and satisfying he could do it for all eternity.

So Jesus told him what he could do.

But when the young man considered it, it looked too expensive. The satisfaction Jesus offered was going to cost everything he had. And the young man couldn't bring himself to pay. He couldn't SEE that it was worth it. Unfortunately for him, neither could he shake the vision of glory Jesus mapped out in front of him. Adventure. Radical action. Meaningful work. Excitement. A way of life so rich it would continue to satisfy for all eternity. He wanted what Jesus offered. But it seemed too expensive.

He carried a hunger in the very core of his being and only way to satisfy that hunger was the pay the price. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. So he walked away sad.

One way people have interpreted this story about the rich, young ruler is imagine the guy was a proud, arrogant man. They imagine that his claim to have kept the commandments was pretense and hypocrisy. He was a sinner bound for hell. But I don't think so. I don't think Jesus was giving this young man instruction on how to avoid hell fire. Jesus was telling him how to live.

The commandments he had been following were fine as far as they went, but they were too meager. Don't murder. Don't commit adultery. That's good. But it's meager. Do no wrong is fine as far as it goes, but even rocks do no wrong. Eternal life. Life that is worthy of living forever is life characterized by generosity.

After the young man walked away, Jesus remarked to his disciples, “It's easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Whoa,” the disciples said. “If that's how it is for rich people, then how could regular people like possibly be saved?”

I imagine Jesus laughing as he says, “On the human level this is obviously impossible. But with God anything is possible.”

I hear a double meaning in this statement. When it comes to salvation—that is escaping hell—leave it to God. God is our savior. And God is really good at it. Don't try to figure out how you earn a place in heaven. You already have one. Just as when you were born you already owned Christoff Peak, so you already own a room in the heavenly mansions. You own it because God delights in giving good gifts to his children. With God, salvation is possible. In fact, it is probable, predictable.

On the other hand, salvation also means joining God in his way of life. A room in the heavenly mansions is just a start. It won't do you much good until you learn to enjoy it. Just like owning Christoff Peak doesn't do you much good unless you put in the time and effort to get there on a beautiful sunny and and sip hot chocolate and nibble on a cookie.

The way we prepare to enjoy our heavenly condo is by practicing here the principles that will characterize the society of heaven.

One of the vivid pictures of the glorious future God imagines for his people is found in Isaiah 11.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

God's vision is a kingdom of peace. A kingdom of cooperation and generosity. We can begin practicing now for life in that kingdom.

This week on Facebook, several of my friends shared a passage from Ellen White, the Adventist prophet. She was writing about the Balaam who beat his donkey. After several paragraphs of commentary about the dignity of animals and the profound immorality of mistreating animals, she concluded with this:

There were beasts in Eden, and there will be beasts in the earth made new. Unless the men who have indulged in cruelty toward God's creatures here, overcome that disposition and become like Jesus, kind and merciful, they will never share in the inheritance of the righteous. They would, if there, exercise the same spirit that had not been overcome here. All disposition to cause pain to our fellow-men or to the brute creation is Satanic. --Ellen White. In Signs of the Times, November 25, 1880.

That's pretty strong language. If you are cruel to animals here, you're going to have to learn a better way or you can't be allowed in heaven because in heaven no one is allowed to abuse animals. Which kind of makes sense. You don't people walking down the streets of heaven kicking sleeping dogs. You don't guys with BB guns running through the woods eliminating all the song birds. That would kind of ruin heaven.

What is heaven like?

The Bible gives us different pictures. The prophet Isaiah paints pictures of agrarian bliss. Everyone living in their own home on their own land, resting at lunch time under their own fig tree. Or bears and cows and lambs and wolves and leopards and children all happily coexisting.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:6-9
The prophet John in the Book of Revelation pictures heaven as an intense urban experience, even more urban than Dubai.

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
Having the glory of God: and her light [was] like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
And had a wall great and high, [and] had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are [the names] of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred [and] forty [and] four cubits, [according to] the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. And the building of the wall of it was [of] jasper: and the city [was] pure gold, like unto clear glass. . . . And the twelve gates [were] twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city [was] pure gold, as it were transparent glass.
And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb [is] the light thereof.
And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.

What unites all these pictures is the certainty that in this new world, righteousness will be the norm. Generosity, kindness, honesty, faithfulness, kindness, mercy, and justice will become completely routine and normal. They will become unremarkable because they will be as common as air, as regular as sunrise and sunset.

The prophets paint these visions of the glorious kingdom of God, then call us to begin practicing for life in that kingdom. The visions of heaven are intended to entice toward God. The prophets hope that they can paint such vivid pictures of the glory of righteous generosity that unlike the rich young ruler, we will happily jump at the chance to give it everything we've got.

Which brings me back to last Sunday. What prompted me to get in my car and head for the mountains even though the sky was dark and heavy? Visions. To be more specific, web cams.

After feeding the animals last Sunday morning, I went back inside and checked the Crystal Mountain webcams. The first one I checked was the lowest one. It appeared gloomy. But several others looked like they were showing sunshine. I checked more closely. The temperature at the base was 32 degrees. The temperature at the top was 40 degrees. And the sky was clear. Wow. Less than an hour from my house there was bright sunshine. And the temperature inversion—warmer at the top than at the bottom—was a weather pattern I recognized. I could climb out of the clouds. I could hike into the sunshine.

I double-checked the Paradise web cams. Sure enough, the web cam pointed at the mountain showed glorious sunshine. The web cam pointed toward the west showed a blanket of cloud hiding the lowlands.

It was the glorious vision of those web cams that enticed me out of my warm house.

Instead of getting lost in theological arguments about earning heaven, let the bright vision of the peaceable kingdom of God, the place where generosity and goodness are entirely normal—let this bright vision entice you into pouring everything you've got into the mission of Jesus.

When we do this, we will be satisfied. We have already entered the kind of life that is eternal. The joy that awaits us will be worth every imaginable cost.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

God and Nature

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, April 2, 2016

Job 38:1-11
Matthew 6:525-30

Several years ago Brian Pendleton and I were hiking up from Summerland up to Panhandle Gap. We overtook a woman hiking alone, a good-sized pack on her back. She was stopped surveying the scenery, which is breath-taking there.

She was hiking the Wonderland Trail, all ninety miles and 20,000 feet of it. I guess you could say it was a “bucket list” kind of thing. She had always dreamed of hiking it. She had retired and now, at sixty-six, she was living her dream. She had allowed three full weeks for the entire circumnavigation. And at the rate she was going, she was going to need the whole time to complete the trip.

Brian and I headed on up the trail, climbing toward the Gap quickly leaving her way behind. From switchbacks we looked down at her inching up the trail, moving at a turtle pace, carefully placing her trekking poles, deliberately stepping, avoiding loose rocks.

She had told us her girls were going to join her for a short section. Friends were going to hike with her on another section. But for most of it, it was going be just she and the Mountain, and the trail and the woods and the tumbling creeks and the grey jays. Sunshine in the day—hopefully—and stars at night.

As Brian and I watched from our perch high above her we envied her. We were moving fast and light covering miles quickly. We were going to enjoy hot showers and soft beds that night, but we envied her those days on the trail. Day after day of grandeur, magnificence, wonder, awe. Even at the cost of carrying a pack, even at the price of moving slowly, it would be worth it.

One of the bits of hard-won wisdom of among experienced backpackers is that it takes three days before you fully enter the experience of the out-of-doors. The first few days, you're adjusting to your pack. You trying to find a comfortable arrangement of the pack on your back. You're learning to load and unload your pack. It's only on the third day that you begin falling into rhythm. You forget the pack and your legs and the effort and you find yourself engrossed in the beauty and the quiet, the magic and wonder of being part of the great outdoors.

Built into the very core of our faith as Adventists is a deep appreciation of nature. In the world I grew up in, a nearly universal Sabbath practice was a Sabbath afternoon walk. I grew up in Memphis. Far from mountains and oceans. There were no national forests near by. No national parks. Still almost every Sabbath, if the weather was nice, at some point in the afternoon we would head to a city park and walk trails, taste sunshine, and dream of wildness.

Adventists have long spoken of nature as God's second book. (The Bible was the first book.) Biologists and astronomers were akin to theologians. They were students of the handwriting of God.

Nature remains prominent in our religion—we argue over geology with the same intensity that theologians in other eras debated the nature of Christ or the meaning of obscure Bible passages. In fact, our denomination has a special agency devoted exclusively to issues related to science and faith, with a particular focus on earth history, i.e. geology. It's called GRI, the Geoscience Research Institute.

Our deep, theologically-rooted appreciation of nature is a natural bridge between our faith in God and the culture of our city (Seattle). Our neighbors love nature. So do we. Our neighbors have experienced wonder and awe in the same places we have—on the trails and peaks and beaches that are the natural treasure of neighborhood.

What does our theology—our belief in God—add to our appreciation of nature? What can nature teach us about God?

In the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, there is a classic story that begins as a typical argument about suffering. The hero of the book is a man named Job.

Job was a good man, widely respected for his integrity and generosity. On top of that he had been the wealthiest man in the region and received the respect that naturally flows toward those who enjoy the power of wealth. Then he lost everything. He lost his entire fortune—all of it, down to the last penny. Then he lost his children—all killed in a single mind-numbing catastrophe.

Why? He asked. What could he have possible done to deserve this?

Friends come to visit. After sitting with for seven days, speechless in the face of his terrible losses, Job's friends finally speak up. Life makes sense, they insist. Bad things come to those who deserve them. You must have done something to earn your bad fortune.

Job protested endlessly. He had not been a jerk. He had been honest, generous, faithful. God punishing him unjustly. At one point Job declares, “I wish God, for just a minute, would come down here. Not as God but as a man. Let's stand face to face in a court. I would prove him wrong. I would prove that God has been unjust to do all these things to me.”

Eventually, God himself shows up. Curiously, God doesn't answer a single question Job has asked. God does not explain where Job “messed up.” God does not explain what intentions actuated him. God does not even hint that there is logical explanation. Instead God asks a series of questions about nature.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know.
Have you ever commanded the morning,
and caused the dawn to know its place?

Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell tell, if you know all this.

Where the way to the dwelling of light?
And darkness, where is its place,
From whose womb comes the ice?
And the frost of heaven, who gives it birth?

Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades,
Or loose the belt of Orion?

To paraphrase God—which is a risky thing to do –God says, “Job when you are immersed in nature, you don't think, if I just had another piece or two of information, then I'd understand it all. Instead, you know that every bit of information you acquire merely confronts you with exponentially more questions. Direct experience of nature does not lead to a mere scientific theory, a new entry in a biology textbook or a new diagram in your journal about the movement of glaciers. Job, God says, When you come into raw contact with nature, when we you are caught by a thunderstorm and lightning is flashing all across the sky, when you and your camels are caught in a sandstorm that lasts for a day and a night and the air is so thick you can hardly tell the difference between day and night? Does your mind go looking for theories? No. You are engulfed in wonder and awe and sometimes terror.

It's the same Job, with all of life.

Of course, there is a place for understanding, for tracing mechanisms and causation, for writing theories and creating equations that describe the patterns we observe. But after we have done all that, the deepest, richest response to nature is wonder and awe, a soul-stirring appreciation for beauty, power, and the irrepressible drive of life.

Even the Apostle Paul, who had the equivalent of a Ph. D. in Jewish theology and was fascinated with words and even the letters of the ancient Hebrew texts, found in the majesty and grandeur of nature a solid place for thinking about God.

So to conclude, two things: First, I encourage—no, I urge you—go outside. Experience nature directly. Don't limit yourself to watching the Discover Chanel or Nature's Deadliest Catch or beautiful photos on the internet. Go outside. Regularly. Daily. Weekly. Feel some rain on your face. Let the sun touch your skin. If your body is up to it, go out on a trail.

Second: Bask in the glory that is ours. Savor it. Receive it as gift. The daffodils, the cherry trees, the crab apple trees, the warmth and light, skunk cabbage sprouting, humming birds nesting and birthing. Gifts. Treasures whispering the affection of the heavenly lover.

Let God speak to you. Let God touch you through nature.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lifting the Shroud

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, March 26, 2016

It was a very dark day. The best man the world had ever known was dead. Not just dead, killed. And not killed by just some random lunatic, executed. Put to death by the formal vote of the supreme court of the land, a judgment ratified by the chief executive.

How could a people go so wrong? It had happened before. It would happen again. But this time seemed like the worst.

For three and a half years Jesus had toured Palestine, enthralling crowds with his preaching, healing every kind of malady, even raising the dead. It was one of the most magic moments in human history.

But he rebuked the arrogance of the religious and moneyed elites. He echoed the words of the ancient prophets, insisting that those with privilege—the privileges of money, political power, religious and social status—those with privilege were charged by God to use their advantages for the benefit of others.

Maybe the privileged could have ignored his rebukes if he had been less popular. They could have dismissed Jesus as a harmless, crazy dreamer. But the crowds, the thousands of people who instantly gathered every time Jesus stopped moving, the masses who adored Jesus made him dangerous. At least in the minds of the rich and powerful. They were sure Jesus would use his power over the masses to stir a revolution to benefit his friends. After all, that's how the elite had been using their power for centuries. They could not imagine Jesus was any different from them.

So they had him killed. Accused him of thinking like they did. Framed him for ideas he did not have. Convicted him of making the kind of plots they would have made if they had possessed his power. And they killed him.

And it was dark.

For Jesus' friends--the people who had been enthralled by his preaching, the people had begun to imagine there was another path besides the will to power--the death of Jesus was the death of hope. If Jesus couldn't change things, change wasn't possible. If Jesus couldn't advance the cause of righteousness, maybe righteousness itself was a mere fantasy.

It was a very dark day.

Jesus was crucified. Executed.

Ordinarily, when a person was crucified, their bodies were not buried. If they were evil enough to deserve crucifixion, they were too evil for the dignity of burial. Their bodies were thrown onto a garbage heap outside of town.

But Jesus had friends and admirers even among the powerful people. A few devout, wealthy people had heard the glory in Jesus' preaching. They shared his vision of a world where the lowly were lifted, a world where wealth circulated widely and generously, and righteousness was normal.

One of these righteous, good people was a man named Joseph. He went to the governor and asked for the body of Jesus. The governor was used to saying yes to wealthy, well-connected people, so he said yes to Joseph, and Joseph buried Jesus in a new tomb Joseph had just completed constructing.

The tomb was a room carved into a limestone outcrop in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. Joseph, with the help of servants or some of Jesus' disciples—the Gospel doesn't tell us—wrapped Jesus body in a burial shroud along with a huge amount of spices and herbs traditionally used for burials there. Then just at sundown, they closed the tomb by rolling a huge stone over the entrance.

Then they went home for the worst Sabbath of their lives.

Hope died. They were left with numbness and pain. Blackness. Screaming silence.

Death collides with love. When we love someone, there is never enough time. No matter how long our time together, we are never ready to say, “That's enough.” Thousands of people loved Jesus. His execution blighted their souls. His death created an aching, withering emptiness.

But it was even worse than that. Because Jesus was also their hope. How do we live without hope?

Maybe they didn't eat supper Friday night. Or if they ate, maybe it was merely nibbling, playing with food because it was in front of them, but they had no appetite. Sabbath morning, they had a hard time getting out of bed. Why bother? What was there to get up for. What was there to live for? The world was not getting better. The best and brightest hope for humanity had just been killed, executed.

The sun rose. But it didn't make things brighter. Maybe they didn't eat much for breakfast. Maybe not much for lunch. It was hard to breathe. Hard to be awake and impossible to sleep. That was Sabbath. The bleakest Sabbath ever. The most miserable day in the universe.

Saturday night, the ladies talked. The women who had traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem with Jesus. The death had been so sudden, the reversal from the enthusiasm of the week so violent they had not been able to respond appropriately.

Joseph had buried Jesus was traditional spices—a ton of them. But the women had not had time to do anything. They had failed to do the necessary things for their own goodbye. So Saturday night they made their own plans to honor Jesus with the proper attentions a dead loved one deserved.

Sunday at first light they were headed to the tomb.

Arriving, something was wrong! Were they at the right place?

The grave was open. The stone was rolled back from the entrance.  They stooped and went inside. Empty!

While they were jabbering to each other, wondering what on earth could have happened, a couple of men suddenly appeared. Angels.

The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, "Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn't here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day."

Right! He had said this. He had said this very thing. Why didn't they think of it before?  He's not in the tomb. He must be resurrected! They raced off to tell the guys.

The men, the famous disciples whose names we know—Peter, James and John, Andrew and Matthew—the guys didn't believe the women. What do you mean the grave is empty? How could it possibly be that he is risen?

The women told them again what they had seen and what the men in shining clothes had said. The women reminded the men of the words Jesus himself had spoken. But it was too much. The guys couldn't believe it.

But neither could they deny it. Jesus had said something about dying and rising. It hadn't made sense. It still didn't make sense. But the words were there, floating at the edge of their memories. So Peter and John raced off the check it out. An hour and a half later they were back. They had seen no men in shining clothes. But they had seen the tomb. They had gone inside. It was empty. Jesus was gone.

The rest of the day passed in confusion. Jesus had died. They had seen it. Love had been crushed. Hope had been killed. The pictures were seared into their minds. And the tomb was empty. The women had seen men in shining clothes and heard them announce that Jesus was risen. They gradually remembered together words Jesus had spoken, words that had made no sense, and so had made no impression. He was going to be killed. He was going to rise. He had said those things, but they hadn't heard them because they couldn't make sense of them. Not then.

But now, the tomb was empty.

Well after sundown, there was pounding on the door. They looked at each other. Who? What now? Someone peaked through the crack, or called through the door, “Who is it?”

It was friends. They opened the door and two friends from a hamlet outside Jerusalem practically jumped through the door shouting.

“We have seen him. We have seen him.” The story tumbled out.

They had been walking home from Jerusalem that afternoon.

Some stranger joined them. He seemed friendly enough. They thought nothing of it. He asked about the latest news. He seemed utterly clueless, like some redneck from Galilee—excuse me Peter. From his questions it appeared he had heard nothing about Jesus, nothing about the triumphal ride last Sunday, nothing about Jesus chasing out the money changers and merchants, nothing about the crucifixion. Nothing.

“So we told him everything. Then he explained everything. He seemed like a brilliant scholar. He ran through dozens of prophecies, basically saying that the whole thing had been planned. It had all been prophesied.

“By the time we got to our place in Emmaeus it was getting dark, so naturally we invited him to join us for supper and stay the night.

“We put some bread and wine on the table and sat down to eat. He picked up the bread and said the blessing. And BOOM! It was him! How many times have we watched him bless the bread? How could we have missed it? It was him. It was his voice. It was his hands. It was him. He is alive!”

“So where is he? Everyone shouted at once.”

“We don't know. The instant we recognized him and started from our chairs, he disappeared. Poof! Just like that! But we saw him. We heard him. We felt him. He is alive!”

And for two thousand years this has been the song of the church. He is risen. He is alive.

Some of us have heard his voice, have felt his presence. Others like the disciples in that upper room that evening have only the testimony of our friends.

Still, we come together in worship and with one voice shout against the darkness of death, He is risen.

Some of us have had our children are stolen from us. Still we sing, “He is risen. Death will one day die.”

We have seen our hopes crushed. We have felt the insuperable weight of despair. Still we come together and declare, morning is coming. Righteousness, justice, God and love will triumph. And we, too, will be victors. Because . . . He is risen.

One Wednesday I had lunch with three college students. At one point, one of them asked me, “Do you think Christians make too much of heaven? Do you think Christians use talk about heaven as a substitute for actually doing something to make the world better?”

The question put a long pause in our conversation. What to say?

Finally, I said, “For people like you and me whose lives still include all kinds of opportunities to choose, to decide, to change things, to make things better, heaven can be a lazy-making idea. If we tell ourselves, God's going to fix things so I don't need to bother. Heaven can be a bad idea.

But if heaven is the ideal that shapes our choices and our drives, we cannot give it too much attention.

And some time, you will reach places in life where all of your strength and beauty and intelligence and luck and privilege stand helpless in the face if unalterable grief and injustice. And then you will need heaven.

And even if you don't personally reach that impasse, most people in the world live there every day. They are not sitting around in cafes wrestling with the questions, “What career should I pursue? What city shall I live in? How will I spend my money? What fund should I invest my retirement funds in?

For most people, the promise of justice and even life itself lives only in the reality of heaven. So let's be careful—we who live in privilege and comfort, we who have health and money and youth—let's be careful not to make light of the truth that makes life worth living for millions who know nothing of our privilege. If not for ourselves, then at least for our brothers and sisters who live in difficult places let's keep alive the glorious, shining faith: He is risen. He is alive. He will save us.