Friday, June 1, 2018

The Lord God Made Them All


Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, June 2, 2018
Texts: Deuteronomy 22:1-4, 6. Matthew 12:9-12; 10:29-31



Monday morning Karin and I were camped at French Beach Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. Late in the morning we returned to our campsite from a walk on the beach. I went to get something out of the car. While rummaging around in the back seat, I heard a beep. At first I didn’t pay it any attention, but it continued, somewhat irregularly. It sounded like an electronic alarm, maybe a low battery signal or something like that.

I opened the front door and listened. It continued. Beep. Pause. Beep. Pause. Beep. I looked under the front seat to see if we had dropped some electronic gizmo. Nothing. I stuck my head up in the space beneath the dash and above the accelerator and brake pedal. The beeping was close, but it did not seem to be coming from under the dash. I checked the instrument panel again to see if some indicator light was flashing. Nothing.

I stepped back, puzzled. Then I noticed something on the floor between the drivers seat and the driver’s side door. A bit of fur or a large moth. I look more closely and then it beeped. Or chirped. It was a hummingbird, a tiny hummingbird, sitting there chirping its distress.

When I reached down to pick it up, it did not fly away or even scramble. I called Karin over and we began trying to figure out what to do with it.

The car windows had been down three or four inches, so I figured the bird had flown into the car in the early morning and then been unable to figure out how to escape. It was now 11:30, maybe four or five hours after the bird trapped itself. Hummingbirds have incredibly fast metabolisms. They have to eat all the time. This bird was probably starving to death. It appeared uninjured. It was just too weak to fly. It could flap its wings, but the wings moved in slow motion for a hummingbird and provided no lift.

We tracked down a park ranger who offered the bird some sugar water. The hummingbird drank it eagerly, but was still too weak to fly. Not to worry, the ranger said. There was a local animal rescue organization which would send out a volunteer to fetch our bird and transport it to a shelter where it would be nursed back to health and released. The ranger made the call and Karin and I left for the rest of our day’s adventures. The next morning the ranger gave us an update. The bird had arrived safely at the shelter and was being cared for there. A complete recovery was expected.

It was a happily ever after ending.

It is a wonderful tale of rescue and redemption. A whole network of humans cooperated to extend the life of this tiny bird that weighed less than my car keys.

This story reminds me of a story in the Gospel.

On a Sabbath, Jesus went into their synagogue, where he noticed a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus, "Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?" (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.) And he answered, "If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn't you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath." Then he said to the man, "Hold out your hand." So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus. [Matthew 12:9-14 NLT. Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com.]

Jesus did not tell the Pharisees that they should be kind to animals. He took that for granted. Even these hard-core fundamentalists had a deep, instinctive regard for animals. If a sheep fell into a well, the whole neighborhood would mount a rescue operation. No one would ask questions about Sabbath keeping until the rescue was successfully completed. An animal in trouble was a summons to engagement.

For Jewish people, in addition to this basic human instinct they had the words of the Bible. God had commanded people to respond to animals in need. Even animals were part of the household of God.

If you see your neighbor's ox or sheep or goat wandering away, don't ignore your responsibility. Take it back to its owner. 2 If its owner does not live nearby or you don't know who the owner is, take it to your place and keep it until the owner comes looking for it. Then you must return it. 3 Do the same if you find your neighbor's donkey, clothing, or anything else your neighbor loses. Don't ignore your responsibility. 4 "If you see that your neighbor's donkey or ox has collapsed on the road, do not look the other way. Go and help your neighbor get it back on its feet! ... 6 "If you happen to find a bird's nest in a tree or on the ground, and there are young ones or eggs in it with the mother sitting in the nest, do not take the mother with the young. [Deuteronomy 22:1-4, 6 NLT, accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com]

At first glance, we might think these rules are motivated solely by concern for the neighbor. Animals were important elements of the economy. If something happened to your neighbor’s donkey or ox that could have a devastating financial impact. But while the economic concern is valid, the text clearly goes way beyond that kind of crash capitalist concern. Along side concern for our neighbor’s property, the text clearly expresses a profound regard for the welfare of the animal itself.

Part of being human is care for the rest of creation. Part of being Christian is agreement with the words of the hymn:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Regard for animals is deeply rooted in American culture. All the way back in 1641, the Massachusetts General Court enacted a legal code titled "Body of Liberties." Sections 92–93 prohibited "any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use." The law also mandated periodic rest and refreshment for any "Cattel" being driven or led.

These early American settlers were Puritans. They were strict devotees of the Bible. The Bible required humane treatment of animals, so they wrote into their laws an obligation to treat our animals in a moral fashion.

I began with a story about a lost little hummingbird. It’s a sweet story, a cute story. It is hard to imagine any American not cheering on our rescue operation. But this story is not really about hummingbirds.

What is the price of two sparrows--one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31 NLT (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com)

Wednesday evening, Cypress Adventist School held its graduation service a the Edmonds Church. The speaker was Marilyn Jordan. Her talk was funny and affectionate. It was full of good advice and affirmation of the potential and value of the graduate. She wrapped up her speech by exhorting him to be kind to animals. Every good person is kind to animals, Marilyn said.

Which is true. Every good person is kind to animals.

And if it is true, that good people are kind to animals, how much greater is the truth that good people are kind to humans—whether those humans were born in Seattle or Tegucicalpa or Dakar. Whether they are successful or losers, capable or crippled.

The Lord God made them all.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Lord God Made Them All


This is my working synopsis of the sermon for this coming Sabbath, June 2, 2018.

My texts: Deuteronomy 22:1-4, 6. Matthew 10:29-31; 12:9-14



One morning while camped at a provincial park on Vancouver Island, I found a hummingbird inside our car. Apparently it had flown in through an open window but been unable to find its way out. By the time I found it, the bird was desperately weak and unable to fly. We hailed a passing park ranger. The ranger provided some sugar water which the hummingbird eagerly drank. Still the bird was too weak to fly. So a volunteer from a local animal rescue organization came to fetch the bird and transport it to a shelter where it would be nursed back to health and released. It was a wonderful tale of rescue and redemption—this network of humans cooperating to extend the life of a bird that weighed less than my car keys. We would know, even if Jesus had not said it, that people are even more precious than birds. And our networks of care become the fingers of God.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Working like God



Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, May 26, 2018.

Texts:  Deuteronomy 14:22-29, John 5:8-19


Yesterday I was at Cypress Adventist School to present a chapel talk. Since I’m freshly returned from vacation in southern Utah, I told the kids about one of my favorite vacation activities: hunting for dinosaur tracks. I showed them a picture of my latest find—a rat-sized critter that lived in the ancient sand dunes that covered Utah and eastern Nevada.

The kids were full of questions. I was full of enthusiasm. Near the end of chapel, one of the girls raised her hand. She asked the best question of all: “Can you get paid to find dinosaur tracks?”

I laughed. I don’t know if she was curious about whether I got paid or if she was already imagining a career for herself of dinosaur hunting. Either way it was a fun question.

Unfortunately, I had to acknowledge that there was no pay in if for me. At least, no monetary pay. This was vacation. If I got paid for doing it, it wouldn’t be vacation any more. I must confess, it would be a very tempting line of work. But still, if it were work, then it wouldn’t be vacation. Vacation is a respite for the weight of responsibility of work.

The kids at school were only a few days away from the end of school. I remember the agony of waiting through the last month of school when I was a kid, desperately hungry for the arrival of summer vacation.

I’m not much of a kid any more, but I still eagerly anticipate vacation.

The notion of vacation—time away from work—lives at the very center of our religion. We got back to the creation story of Genesis One and highlight the end of the story.

On the seventh day God finished his creation work. He rested from all his work and blessed the seventh day. He declared it holy, because on that day he rested from all his creation work. Genesis 2

Much of Christianity is obsessed with human brokenness and guilt. We are sinners doomed to hell—Oh no! How can we escape damnation?

A religion anchored in Sabbath keeping starts from a very different place: We are made in the image of God. We are invited into a rhythm of life that mirrors the rhythm of the divine life. Labor and rest. Effort and celebration.

Productive work and joyful, happy Sabbath keeping.

Sabbath is not a remedy for sin. Sabbath is not medicine for the disease of life. Sabbath is a treasure. Sabbath is a treat. Sabbath reminds us that work is a good thing, but it is not the only thing.

Sabbath is a weekly message from God: well done, good and faithful servant. God is pleased with our creating, building, care-giving, teaching, composing, fixing, marketing. This whole enterprise we call civilization would grind to a halt without our work. So work hard. Study hard. Be creative. God is pleased with our labor. We are pleased with our labor.

When Friday evening comes, celebrate. Let’s congratulate ourselves on another week of work. God takes pleasure in our celebration.

In the Book of Deuteronomy there is a very curious passage. We read it for our Old Testament reading this morning.

Deuteronomy 14:22-29
"You must set aside a tithe of your crops--one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year. Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship--the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored--and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the LORD your God. "Now when the LORD your God blesses you with a good harvest, the place of worship he chooses for his name to be honored might be too far for you to bring the tithe. If so, you may sell the tithe portion of your crops and herds, put the money in a pouch, and go to the place the LORD your God has chosen. When you arrive, you may use the money to buy any kind of food you want--cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or other alcoholic drink. Then feast there in the presence of the LORD your God and celebrate with your household.us

God wants us to celebrate, to savor the riches that come to us from our labor and the blessing of God. What good is wealth that is never enjoyed? One of the sweetest realities of wealth is the ability to say, “We have enough.”

God wants us to party. After the party we will return to our labor. There is always work to be done. The festivals described in the Bible are punctuation in the larger flow of work. But notice how important the punctuation is. God directs us to devote a seventh of our time to celebrating. And one tenth of our income.

This passage in Deuteronomy continues:

And do not neglect the Levites in your town, for they will receive no allotment of land among you. "At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year's harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all your work.

God wants us to enjoy the fruit of our work. And if in our enjoyment we turn too obsessively inward, if we imagine that our bounty is “just for us,” the text reminds us that Sabbath keeping is fundamentally a social justice issue. We do not work just to create occasion for our own personal weekly or yearly vacation. Our work creates the community that provides for a Sabbath holiday for all.

Because we are children of God, because our values flow from the character of God, we are not satisfied to merely “get ours.” When we rest and look around and see that others do not have the same opportunity for a holy vacation, we are not satisfied. We want the people who care for our children in pre-school to have happy vacations. We want the people who clean the restrooms at work and mow our lawns and deliver our pizzas and pack our Amazon boxes to enjoy the richness of life that comes from an appropriate cycle of labor AND rest, work AND vacation.

Our enjoyment of Sabbath awakens us to our obligation to do what we can to extend that privilege to others. We are not comfortable to enjoy our privileges at the expense of others with less privilege. Rather our privilege imposes on us the obligations of royalty, the obligation to serve those with less.

The same with our tithing. Our tithe supports our festivals and is to be shared with those who have less.

In our New Testament reading we heard the words of Jesus. When he was challenged about the legitimacy of easing the burdens of others on Sabbath, he replied,

My father is always working, so I’m just doing what God does.

It’s important to hear these words correctly. Jesus was not doing what God was does because Jesus was divine. Jesus was doing what God was doing because Jesus was human. And to be human is to be in the image of God. To be fully human means to act like God.

In creation, God worked for six days then took a vacation day, a Sabbath, and shared that Sabbath rest with humanity.

Because we are in God’s image, this is the pattern of our lives. We work and rest. We are busy, then we Sabbath. And we do what we can to share that Sabbath experience widely.

In our working--creating, making, building, shaping, writing, composing, developing, organizing, directing—in all this activity we are keeping company with God, we are living out the divine image. Then we cap it off by keeping Sabbath. We pause and contemplate what we have done. We give thanks for the gifts that underlie our achievements and success. We remember that rest is for all, for the whole of our family, even those who are not successful, not productive, not smart and beautiful and resourceful. In our Sabbath-keeping we remember that our family is a large one—as large as all humanity.

Today, as we keep Sabbath, as we enjoy worship and meals and holy leisure, let’s savor God’s favor and consider how we may act as agents of the kingdom of heaven to extend ever further the reach of divine love.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Let Everyone Who Has Breath Sing


Let All Who Breathe, Sing!
Sermon for Green Lake Church for May 19, 2018
Choir Festival

Psalm 150
Luke 15:17-27

When we lived on our farm in Enumclaw, the first sign of spring was music, frog song. Before the sun gained any strength after its winter journey to the south, Long before the roses bloomed and the barn swallows and violet greens arrived, even before the crocuses raised their flowers--while the back pasture was still a colorless swamp and the calendar warned of months of rain and possible snow—in February already, I would come home late at night, turn off the radio, climb out of the car, and step into darkness made rich and sweet by the music of frogs singing in the ditch. The music always evoked a smile. Spring was coming. Love was in the air.

The heart of our faith is a singing conviction that the Eternal Spring approaches. Alas, sorrow, injustice, catastrophe, and heartache are still very much with us. Not yet does justice roll down like the great river. Not yet has death been vanquished. Not yet do we see the unhindered glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. Still, in worship we sing of the glorious future, and in our united voices we taste already the advent of our God and the triumph of love.

Music is far more essential to faith than is theology—our words and theories about all things pertaining to God. Music takes us so close to God that many religious distinctions are effaced. Even the most sectarian among us—those who imagine that we should read only books written by people who share our denominational pedigree—even these radical sectarians gladly sing hymns and anthems written by people of all sorts of religious persuasion.

Today is our annual choir festival. We honor the service of our choir and more broadly celebrate the gift of music which stands central to our life as a congregation and indeed stands central in our religion as Christians.

In preparation for today, I asked people to tell me about music that touches their soul. Here are some of what they wrote:

Karen Baker: There was always music growing up: singing, piano, and other instruments. There is something so powerful in literally sharing breath and space to sing together. Sometimes goosebumps and/or tears come in the midst of a choir singing Randall Thompson's Alleluia surrounded by all the parts. Then there was the sacredness of a hot summer evening in Texas at an outdoor pop concert when the 3rd encore piece is "Be Thou My Vision." The band walked off in middle leaving everyone finishing the piece a cappella and then leaving in silence through the dark as we all acknowledged the holiness of our shared space and song.
Or the power of spontaneous song (Don't Look Back in Anger by Oasis) that became a rallying cry in Manchester after the bombing last May.

Some other favorites: the sound of rain on a tent, sharing the dawn with the chorus of birds at Able Tasmin Park, New Zealand, bagpipes skirling through the hills on my first day living Scotland (I mean, c'mon!), or sitting at a pebble beach enjoying the rhythm of the waves crashing followed by the light percussion of the small stones being pulled back into the ocean...And of course the grunts and coos of a newborn!
Sharon Roberts: My first clear memory of music is listening to my father and his quartet practice barber shop harmony in our home. “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” is running through my memory now.

Friday evening meant fruit soup on toast to the soundtrack of George Beverly Shae and more quartet music from the Blackwood Brothers on the stereo. “Ezekiel saw a wheel, way up in the middle of the air! An the little wheel run by faith, and the big wheel run by the grace of God...”

My mother shared her love of musical theatre, playing her prized cast recordings of Porgy and Bess and Showboat.

I discovered classical King FM when I was in middle school, and soaring operas like Turandot and Madama Butterfly became part of my internal soundtrack, along with the folk and rock music I listened to on KJR on my little transistor radio.

Then at Auburn Academy I fell in love with a boy with curly red hair who could play the piano like nobody else. And I set about introducing this classical boy to all the music that I loved.

For most of 43 years, date night for the two of us has involved music more often than not.

About 20 years ago, I added hearing my daughter sing at church or choir concerts to my list of favorite musical memories.

So, give me church music, classical, gypsy jazz, rock, folk, new age, Celtic reels, opera, show tunes, there is room for all of it, right along with birdsong and the ocean roar.

One more from my friend Burt Williams. In response to my request to “tell of the music that thrills your soul,” Burt wrote:

The symphony—you know, the one on a stage with violins and cellos and French horns and trombones and harps and timpani. Most recently, the San Francisco Symphony offering up “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, which concluded with a wordless women’s chorus completing the final movement a capella from the lobby of the second tier of Davies Hall, finally evaporating into total silence.

Or the time on Highway 6 a hundred miles west of Ely, Nevada, when I stopped to attend to a personal matter and discovered that there was simply no sound—no vehicles, no jets overhead, no birds, no insects, no breeze in the sage brush. Just. Nothing.

Several people mentioned singing the hymn “For All the Saints” in a college church with hundreds or a thousand other young people and in that experience discovering the grandeur and immensity of the human community called church which stretches around the world and across the millennia and includes even us, even me.

Others wrote of hearing for the first time and then singing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah and being completely overcome with tears and breathless wonder at the power and glory of the music and the reality beyond the music.

Laura Leeson wrote of the contemporary praise song, "By Faith" (Keith and Krysten Getty). It was the theme song for a Week of Prayer at an Adventist high school. Laura was part of the praise group leading music that week. The song permeated her entire being and still lives as one of the sweetest, richest expressions of her faith.

I’ll share other comments in the next Green Lake Church Gazette. I’m guessing all of us could tell some story of the richness that music adds to our lives.

Psalm 104 offers these words:

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
You are dressed in a robe of light. You stretch out the starry curtain of the heavens; 3 you lay out the rafters of your home in the rain clouds. You make the clouds your chariot; you ride upon the wings of the wind. . . .

You clothed the earth with floods of water, water that covered even the mountains. 7 At your command, the water fled; at the sound of your thunder, it hurried away. 8 Mountains rose and valleys sank to the levels you decreed. . . .

Right now the island of Hawaii is growing as lava emerges from Mt. Kilauea. We can watch online video of lava flows bulldozing houses and pushing fiery ribbons of lava into the ocean. Here in our own neighborhood we have the dramatic example of Mt. Rainier reminding us that mountains grow and shrink over time. Lava and ash builds the volcano and erosion cuts it down. The Psalmist invites us to feel in these natural forces the mighty hand of God. And then to sing.

Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name!

The ancient poet continues:

The birds nest beside the streams and sing among the branches of the trees. ...

The trees of the LORD are well cared for--the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 There the birds make their nests, and the storks make their homes in the cypresses. . . .
You send the darkness, and it becomes night, when all the forest animals prowl about. 21 Then the young lions roar for their prey, stalking the food provided by God. 22 At dawn they slink back into their dens to rest. 23 Then people go off to their work, where they labor until evening.

The whole wonder of life, the rhythm of the days and seasons, all of it speaks of God. And when nature evokes wonder and calls us to sing, it is the handiwork of God that is beckoning us.

And there is more.

The prophets imagine a day when the entire earth will be at peace. Justice will roll down like the mighty river. People will turn their implements of war into garden tools and farm machinery. In that day, the joy will be so contagious, so pervasive, even the trees of the field will begin to dance.

You will live in joy and peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands! Isaiah 55:12

In the Bible’s final book, we read again of music. The scene is the throne of God and the vast assemblage of heavenly beings that comprise the royal court. The poet writes:

Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), 10 the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever). And they lay their crowns before the throne and say, 11 "You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased." [Rev 4:9-11 NLT]

This “saying” would be more aptly expressed, as “singing.” The realm of heaven is continually noisy with the hallelujahs of the redeemed, people who know what it is like to saved.

This theme reappears late in the book.

After this, I heard what sounded like a vast crowd in heaven shouting, "Praise the LORD! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. 2 His judgments are true and just. . . . He has avenged the murder of his servants." 3 And again their voices rang out: "Praise the LORD! [Rev 19:1-3 NLT]

As Adventists we have developed a keen debater’s sense of theology. We know correct from incorrect, As we move beyond the childhood of our religion, it is time for us to push ever deeper into the wonder and glory that can be most fully expressed by singing Hallelujah.

Thank you to the organist and choir and other musicians who help us taste the glory of the kingdom of God even here and even now.

Let everyone who has breath, sing. As skillfully as we can. Let us join the human and heavenly choirs, and, indeed, the choir of ocean and birds and wind in the trees, and even the silent singers of ineffably vast desert valleys and sweeping luminous skies.

Let everyone who has breath, sing. Hallelujah.



Friday, March 30, 2018

He Is Risen


Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, March 31, 2018

Texts:  Isaiah 25:4-9. Luke 24:18-24. 

The way the story begins it could have happened in Seattle last Sunday. A couple of guys were on a seven mile hike. But it didn’t happen in Seattle and it didn’t happen in 2018. It was Sunday afternoon the weekend Jesus of Nazareth died 2000 years ago. And the setting was the forested hills of western Washington but the desert road from Jerusalem to a little village named Emmaus.

The two men had been devotees of Jesus, disciples. They were dragging themselves back home after the worst Sabbath in the history of the universe—or at least the worst Sabbath they had experienced or could imagine. On a sunny afternoon in July the hike up to Panhandle Gap in Mt. Rainier National Park is not long. The beauty of the place and the loveliness of the air make every step a delight.

But when your world has been shattered, seven miles is a long way. It’s a long time. For Cleopas and his friend, the two guys in this story, this was the horriblest, terriblest, miserablest weekend in the history of the universe.

And it wasn’t just Cleopas and his friend. Dozens, scores, hundreds of people had spent the last three years in the company of Jesus. They had listened to his teaching and been stirred to the very core of their being. They had watched his interactions with every kind of person and been charmed. They had observed healings. Some of them had even participated in healing, working miracles through the power that flowed through Jesus. They had been there when people completely pervaded with demonic presence had been set free and restored to happiness and freedom. Their own feet had danced as they witnessed crippled people recover the use of their legs and begin leaping about in ecstatic joy.

Jesus lived at the center of a pulsing movement of goodness and healing. For a thousand years prophets had spoken of a golden age to come, of a time when oppression would cease and justice would rise. The prophets foresaw a wave of mercy sweeping the earth.

For Jesus’ companions and followers, it was easy to believe the prophets. In the ministry of Jesus you could see the prophetic vision taking form.

Then came the horror of Friday and the crucifixion and the extinction of hope.

It was the horriblest, terriblest, miserablest Sabbath in the history of the universe.

On Friday when Jesus was crucified, it seemed that hope itself had been butchered. On Sabbath, the disciples gathered here and there to cling to each other, to grieve together, to despair together, to be miserable together, because it was better being miserable and hopeless together than alone.

Sunday morning, the men were still lost in misery. There was nothing to do but be miserable. But the women had work to do. They had duties. The duties of proper grieving. They took spices and returned to the tomb early Sunday morning to complete the work of preparing Jesus’ body for the long dark descent into the netherworld.

At the graveyard—a place where tombs had been cut into the rock—they found the grave standing open and empty—the great round rock door rolled aside. Double checking they verified the tomb was empty. Then a vision of angels informed them that, of course, the tomb was empty because, as they should remember, Jesus had predicted he would die and rise again.

The women raced back to town and to the gathered men to report their finding.

The men, naturally, thought the women were crazy, so Peter and John raced off to the tomb to check for themselves and eventually came back to report that they, too, found the tomb empty. The women were right.

Now, it was late in the afternoon, and the two disciples, Cleopas and his friend, were hiking the seven miles back to their house in Emmaus.

It was a miserable hike. Long. Way too long. They were dragging their feet, walking at half their usual speed.

A stranger came up behind them then slowed his steps and joined them in their miserable march. “What are you guys talking about?” he asked.

Cleopas and his friend told him. They were talking about Jesus of Nazareth, of course. He was the best man who had ever lived, the most powerful healer ever to appear in Israel. They had hoped that he was the Messiah. That he would inaugurate the day of the Lord spoken of so glowingly by all the prophets. But alas, the religious leaders had persuaded the governor to order his crucifixion on Friday. They buried the best man who ever lived late Friday afternoon.

That was all terrible and horrible. Then curiously, this morning some women had found the tomb empty and they were trying to figure out what to make of that.

The stranger chided them for being so glum. Didn’t they realize this was all in agreement with the divine plan? The messiah was indeed supposed to do and teach the very things that Jesus did and said. But there was more. The Messiah was also supposed to die at the hands of evil men. And then he would be resurrected. He would triumph over death. He would rise again!! This was all foretold by the ancient prophets.

Cleopas and his buddy listened with growing amazement as this stranger expounded on the ancient prophecies. Arriving back at their village, they invited the stranger to stay with them for the night. He accepted their invitation.

When they sat down for supper, they invited the stranger to say the blessing for the food. As he lifted his hands and began pronouncing the blessing, they suddenly realized who this was. It was Jesus. And in that same instant the stranger disappeared.

Cleopas and his friend stared at each other wild-eyed. Jesus! That was Jesus! Wow! He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

They jumped up from the table and raced back toward Jerusalem to share the news. He is risen. We have seen him. He is not dead. He is risen.

This time the road was long for an entirely different reason. They could scarcely contain themselves in their excitement. They could not wait to announce to the rest of the disciples their news. He is risen. We have seen him. He is not dead. He is risen.

Hallelujah.

The story of Cleopas and his friend is our story. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.
The tomb could not hold him. He is risen.
Neither conservative priests nor evil governors could thwart the ministry of Jesus.
He is risen.

When we go back into the story, we find other details that add to the drama. The priests had worried about a resurrection or at least a pretended resurrection so they had the governor post a guard team at the tomb to make sure no one stole the body.

Their terror, their failure, added to the luster of the story.
The soldiers fell as dead men before the dazzling light of the heavenly messenger sent to summon Jesus from the grave. He is risen.

This is our story. He is risen.

This is our faith.

When the devil did his damndest and killed the Lord of Glory. God’s answer was resurrection.

When our hears are crushed by tragedy and injustice and it appears that goodness has finally been killed off for good, we push back against the apparent triumph of evil, shouting He is risen. The tomb is empty. Christ is risen.

God wins.

We win.

Love wins.

He is risen.

Hallelujah.

Hallelujah!


Friday, March 2, 2018

New Selves



Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for March 4, 2018

Texts:  Ezekiel 36:24-29, Colossians 3:10-14

I visited the farm last week. I pulled into the driveway and drove back to the barn. My four-year-old granddaughter came out of the barn carrying a sack of potatoes that looked like it was half as big as she was. At her side was the dog, Rexi, smiling and wagging her tail. My granddaughter tripped and fell forward, dumping the sack of potatoes on the ground and landing on top of it. She got back to her feet, picked up the sack of potatoes again, cradling it in her arms as she came to the car.

Now, here is the fantastical part of this story. That was not really a sack of potatoes she was carrying. It was a cat. And not just any cat. It was Jack. Jack came to the farm fifteen years ago as a wild animal. Fifteen years later, Jack is still mostly wild. If you have visited our farm, it is unlikely you have ever seen him. Jack is afraid of people. If someone he doesn’t know comes around he disappears. Completely. He tolerates me but if I make any sudden movement, he leaps away.

So when I saw Kyra carting him out of the barn like a sack of potatoes, I was surprised. And when I saw her fall, drop him, and land on him, then saw him stay put until she could get back to her feet and scoop him up in her arms again, I was astonished beyond measure.

Jack is a new cat. After watching his performance with Kyra, I can’t call him a wild cat anymore. He has a new identity. He’s a lover cat.

Being Christian is about being new people. In the most dramatic stories of our faith, people go from being killers to being healers, from being thieves to being trustworthy and generous, from being evil to being good.

The Bible story that illustrates this change most beautifully is the story of the Apostle Paul. First he was Saul the persecutor, devoted to eradicating the followers of Jesus. Then he became Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ.

A friend of mine has a story like that. When he first began attending church he was a homeless meth addict. After his fourth or fifth time in rehab he managed to escape the addiction. He went to college and then began work as a geologist.

His new identity was radically different from his old identity.

Like Jack he became a new being. A new person.

But for most of us, life is not so dramatic. We talk of our identity in Christ, but there has been no movie-worthy change in our lives.

What does it mean for us to be new creatures in Christ Jesus?

Let’s return to the barn yard.

I mentioned that when my granddaughter came out of the barn with the sack of potatoes that turned out to be Jack the Cat, she was accompanied by the dog, Rexi.

Rexi is a loving dog. But this is not a change. Rexi has been a loving dog ever since she was born. She was born under our kitchen table. We have known her all her life. And she has always been a lover dog.

How can we speak of newness in Rexi’s life?

Only this: every morning, Rexi starts over being a loving dog. When I lived on the farm, every moring the minute I opened my eyes, Rexi was there wagging her tail ready to greet me.

Now, when there are two little kids who can be holy terrors, she keeps them company. She makes them know they are loved.

Most of us are more like faithful dogs. The newness in our lives is the rising of the sun and another opportunity to do it again. To thump our tail, to smile, to bring joy.

I’ve known many other people who were born in the church. They have spent decades in the church, living exemplary lives at home, at work, at school. What does newness mean for them? It means waking up in the morning to do it again. Again, today they are aware that they are children of God. Again, today, they will extend kindness to people around them. Again, today, they tell the truth, they will fact-check every statement they are tempted to share on Facebook. Again, today, they will do good work. Again, today, they will practice forgiveness.

Our newness consists in living out again today, our identity as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.


Friday, February 23, 2018

Arguing with Jesus




Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, February 24, 2018

Texts: Exodus 21 and Matthew 5.  (Please note the startling contrast between these two chapters.)


Will D. Campbell was a standing there as a witness when young Black people walked into a Walgreens Drugstore in Birmingham, Alabama, seated themselves at the lunch counters and waited to be served a sandwich.

This particular Walgreens had two floors and there was a lunch counter on each floor. Campbell positioned himself on the ground floor.

A hostile White crowd gathered.

It is important to wrap our minds around this. Sixty years ago, here in the United States a Black person could not walk into just any restaurant and expect to be served. And in the South where I lived, a Black person could not walk into ANY restaurant and receive service—unless the restaurant served only Black patrons. A Black family on a road trip could not pull into just any gas station and purchase gasoline. In Memphis, where I grew up, a Black person stepping into First Baptist Church or Westminster Presbyterian Church or First Adventist Church would be invited to leave and go to another church in town. They would be given the address of a Black Baptist church or a Black Presbyterian Church or the Black Adventist Church.

Segregation was written into law and any gaps in the law were covered by the unwritten rules of Southern culture. Finally, after 250 years of brutal slavery and a hundred years of barbaric mistreatment under Jim Crow laws—laws and practices that were defended and blessed by White preachers, Black folk rose and pushed back. And part of that push back involved walking into Walgreens and sitting at lunch counters and asking to be served a sandwich.

It was a revolutionary act. It was defiance.

Will D. Campbell was a white man and a Baptist preacher, one of the few who from the beginning understood and supported the drive for equality and justice. As Campbell stood there in Walgreens watching the sit in, a young man stepped out of the hostile semi-circle of jeering white hooligans. He marched up to the back of a young Black woman sitting on one of the stools. He held a bottle in his hand and threatened to pour battery acid down her back if she didn’t get up and leave. Suddenly a middle-aged white woman pushed her way through the crowd. She got right up in the hooligans face and began haranguing him. “What would your mother think, young man, if she saw you picking on a young woman? What would your grandmother think? Do you have a sister? Do have any cousins? Are all of the women in your family so crude and vulgar that not a one of them would defend the honor of their family by slapping you in the face for acting like a school yard bully here in public? Shame on you.” She said. “Shame! You coward. You loser. What are you doing here at Walgreens in the middle of the day? Why aren’t you at work? You’ve got nothing better to do during work hours than come here to Walgreens and pick on a young woman. Shame!” She glared at him until he lowered the bottle and slunk back into the crowd, then headed for the door.

With the humiliation of this hooligan, much of the energy of the crowd evaporated. All of them felt something of their pettiness. They could not sustain their belief that their mob behavior was a noble White endeavor.

When Campbell, the preacher, wrote about this experience. He talked of the woman’s use of words and her moral and social arguments as beautiful illustrations of the power of non-violence. This was Christianity at its best in defending the defenseless, in protecting the vulnerable without being seduced into violence.
But that’s not the whole story.

Since the crowd there on the ground floor had lost a lot of its angry steam, Campbell went upstairs to the other lunch counter. There, too, a crowd of hostile white hooligans was gathered in an arc behind the young Black folk sitting at the counter waiting to be served.

Like had happened downstairs, one hooligan stepped forward to harass the people sitting on the stools. This time, the hooligan’s target was a young black man. The hooligan taunted and jeered and insulted, to the great pleasure and applause of the thugs backing him. Then he began slapping the Black man, hollering at him to get out. Finally, the hooligan grabbed the Black man and yanked him backwards off the stool. The Black man began scrambling on his hands and knees toward the exit trying to get away from his assailant. The hooligan pulled out a knife and raised it to stab the Black man in the back as he was trying to get away. At that moment, a young man, who from his dress appeared to be a college student, stepped forward and punched the hooligan with his fist. He hit the hooligan so hard he went over backward and lost his knife. The Black man made his escape. And again, like happened downstairs, the loss of their Goliath caused the Philistines to lose heart. The White thugs were unnerved by the failure of their champion and began moving away.

Will D. Campbell was a loud and public advocate of non-violence. But when he recounted this story, he acknowledged the limits of non-violence. The middle White woman downstairs used words and moral arguments and saved the day. The preppy-looking young man upstairs could not have pulled that off. He used the tool he had—his fist—and saved a life. And helped move his city toward greater justice.

With these stories in mind, let’s hear again the words of our New Testament reading.

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

"You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.
Give to anyone who asks, and do not turn away from anyone who wants to borrow.
Mathew 5:7-10, 38-42

If you had been there in that Walgreens Drugstore in Birmingham, Alabama, with Jesus on your cell phone, what do you imagine Jesus would have told you?

If you had been a server behind the counter, your Christian obligation would have been clear. Jesus told us to give to anyone who asks. So, even though you would be defying your boss and a hundred years of Southern culture, if a Black person sat on a stool at your lunch counter and requested a sandwich, as a Christian you would have been obliged to serve the sandwich.

Let me ask a trickier question. If you were a young Black person sitting at the counter, and the manager of the drug store asked you to leave, could you, as a Christian, in good conscience, refuse his request? Jesus said, give to anyone who asks. The manager is asking you to leave because your presence is upsetting other customers. So would it be your Christian duty to yield to the manager’s request?

Obeying Jesus is not simple.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who make peace.

Was it a Christian duty for the young Black people to “make peace” by meekly disappearing?
Was it a Christian duty for the owners of Walgreens to make peace by declaring their lunch counters were open to all people regardless of color?

Then there is a question that Jesus never addresses:

Jesus says that if you hit me on one cheek, I’m supposed to offer you the other.

But what if I’m standing here and see you hit one of my friends on the cheek. And if my friend offers you the other cheek, what then is my obligation as a bystander? Does Jesus expect me to let you hit my friend?

Was the woman who shamed a hooligan into retreating from his threatened violence and the college guy who floored a hooligan with a punch—were these two people, the woman and the college guy, both acting in a Christian fashion?

In the current setting, how do we bring the wisdom of Jesus into our debates about access to guns?

Jesus did not articulate a political philosophy. Jesus did not offer any legislation. Moses gave extensive legislative guidance to the Jewish people. He laid out rules for conducting law suits and criminal trials. He addressed economic questions. Mohammad did the same thing for his followers. Jesus did not. Both Moses and Mohammad wrote specific rules for conduct in war. Jesus did not such thing.

Jesus did not tell us what to do with murderers. Jesus did not specify rules for warfare. Jesus did not address the conduct of criminal trials or offer specific direction regarding a Christian economy. Instead Jesus gave us a bunch of impossible commands.

Do not resist an evil person!
If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for one mile, carry it two.
Give to anyone who asks.
Do not turn away from anyone who wants to borrow.
You cannot run a family this way. You can’t run a church this way. You cannot run a city this way. You cannot run a nation this way. If we turn these words into literal, objective standards, we will ruin our own lives and the lives of anyone who depends on us. You cannot obey Jesus without doing harm.

On the other hand, the words of Jesus have over and over again provided inspiration for people who have accomplished great good.

When I visit with the older women who work at the Day Care here in our building, they find inspiration for their consistent, skillful care for the children in Jesus’ words about welcoming children.

Our society offers little honor for those who work with children. The low status of childcare workers is expressed in the wages we pay them. But in the eyes of Jesus, there is no greater work.

I spend an hour or two a week at Aurora Commons, a drop-in center for homeless people on Aurora Avenue. The clients have all sorts of problems, mental illnesses of all kinds, addictions, criminal histories. They are not pretty people. But when I watch the staff, I am amazed at their tenderness, their affection, and sometimes their tough love. Where does this come from? Part of the answer is that the staff have been influenced by the words of Jesus.

They are not obeying Jesus. They are partnering with Jesus in caring. They have been inspired.

One of the most troubling aspects of Christian participation in the current political climate is the way that people who are most outspoken about Bible authority and Bible norms ignore the words of Jesus. When the president of Liberty University—a very “Christian” school—during chapel raises his jacket to reveal a pistol on his belt and laughingly boasts of packing, it raises disturbing questions about what Bible he is reading.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for making his own “Bible.” Using scissors and paste, created a work he titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He read from it every evening before going to bed. In this personalized Bible, he eliminated all the passages that spoke of miracles or theology. He kept all of Jesus’ moral and spiritual commands and many of his parables. He cited the book as proof of his being a Christian—even though he did not believe in the doctrine of the trinity or the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

Many Christians today appear to go the opposite direction. They speak loudly and passionately about the parts of the Bible that prescribe capital punishment and celebrate war and genocide, but they ignore the passages that call us to the highest ideals of generosity, compassion, and mercy. Many Christians are far more committed to Moses and the Ten Commandments than they are to Jesus and the Beatitudes.

Did you hear the contrast between our OT and NT readings this morning?

We are Christians. We respect the words of Moses and Isaiah and David. But we insist that the highest spiritual vision is not found in the legislation of Moses but in the poetry of Jesus.

Moses wrote, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Punish proportionately. This is good legislation.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” This is divine inspiration. Our highest ambition is to move the world toward this holy love.

Even when we speak politically, our highest goals are redemption and justice, not retribution and punishment.

When Jesus said, Do not resist the evil one. Give to everyone who asks. And lend to anyone who wants a loan, he was not giving us rules to obey. He was calling us to partner with God in creating the Holy City. When we spend time with the words of Jesus—when we argue with them, when we wrestle with the question of how on earth we can apply them here and now in the real world—these words will shape our souls. They will influence our characters. They will make us better people.

Recently I had lunch with a young man, just catching up with what was going on in his life. His parents are from another country. His teen years were pretty rough. He lived in a culture of human failure. Then his life was touched by one of our Green Lake families, and he saw a completely different vision of what it meant to be human, of what it meant to be a man. He escaped the influence of the gangsters. He went to school and got a job. It was rough. Both the work world and academia were alien environments for him. Because he wanted to make a career in information technology, he was put in touch with a Green Lake member who works for a tech firm. The member became a mentor and tutor for him. At one point the young man came to an appointment with his mentor/tutor but he had not finished the project he had been assigned. He apologized to the mentor. It was finals week and he just wasn’t able to get all his school work done and the project assigned him by the engineer. The young man apologized, saying, “I don’t waste your time.” The engineer said, “You’re not wasting my time. I just want to help you succeed.”

As the young man told me about this conversation, his face lit up. Those words have burned in his mind for the last couple of years. No one in the world he came from would invest in someone else like that. The engineer was going get nothing out of this. It was simple altruism. Doing for another person, because that’s who we are. That’s what we do.

Those words continue to fuel this young man as he juggles work and school. Then as our conversation continued, he told me of another dream. Yes, he still wanted to get a degree in computer science and make a career for himself. But I heard something new this time. Once he finishes his degree, he said, he wants to go back home, back to the place his parents came from, and set up an institute to help the young people there thrive. He spoke of paying forward the kindness he has received.

This is the fruit the religion of Jesus bears. Jesus’ exalted words elevate us. Among us, helping someone is natural. We want each other to succeed. And if there is something we can do to help someone, we figure that’s what we are here for. That’s what it is human to do. This is the Jesus effect. This is where Jesus’ words take us. As we open our lives to the inspiration and wisdom hidden in Jesus’ impossible words, we ourselves become branches on the tree of life. Our efforts, our words, create ripples of life. And who knows how far they will spread.

I understand why Christians ignore the words of Jesus. As our New Testament reading illustrates, Jesus’ words are difficult. We cannot simply obey Jesus. Jesus words, taken literally, do not make good politics. They don’t even work as rules for our life together in church. But when we pay attention to them, when we argue with them, we will be stretched to highest imaginable goodness. As we stay with the words of Jesus, meditate on them, ponder them, and, yes, argue with them, we will be shaped ever more closely into the image of God.

Our public speech will be tempered by the wisdom and goodness of Jesus. We will lose our fascination with punishment and retribution. We will lose our illusions that we deserve better than the ninety percent of humanity with fewer privileges and less wealth. We will seek to cooperate with God in his peacemaking. Our politics and our speech will become more gracious, more disciplined, more just.

In the words of Jesus himself, we will become the children of our Father in heaven. And our own legacy will be other children whose efforts to do good will be our most glorious legacy.