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.


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.



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.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Diligent. Happy.

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
February 17, 2018

Texts: Proverbs 3. Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. . . Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.

Proverbs 6. Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! 7 Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, 8 they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. 9 But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up? 10 A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest-- 11 then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.

Matthew 25:1-10.

On the evening of May 12, 1862, three Confederate navy officers left their ship in the care of their Black crew and went ashore for the night. It was an entirely reasonable decision. The ship was docked in Charleston harbor. A safe place surrounded by Confederate forts. They had been sailing with this crew for some time. The head of the crew was Robert Smalls, a skilled coastal pilot. They had no doubt about his ability to manage the ship in their absence. Smalls and the rest of the crew was a slave, a loyal servant.

The officers were correct in their evaluation of Robert Smalls' abilities. They misread his loyalty. His loyalty was not to the supposed masters but to his family. Robert was married. He had two kids. He knew that at any time, his family could be ripped apart, because that was the nature of slavery. He had been dreaming of freedom for years—for himself, his wife, and his children. Now, he had a ship in his hands and the skill to use it.

It was bold and dangerous. He would be taking the ship through lines of Confederate warships. He would sail right under the guns of Forts Jackson and Sumpter. If he was caught, the torture and abuse he and the rest of crew would experience is beyond description here in church. But this was his chance. The chance he had been preparing for for years.

At two in the morning, he directed the crew to fire up the boiler, then they pulled away from dock. They stopped at a wharf some distance down the river and picked up Robert's wife and sons and several other escaping slaves then headed toward the open water beyond Forts Jackson and Sumpter. He knew the local waters like the back of his hand. From his close cooperation with the captain of the ship he knew all the signals and codes used to pass various check points. No one on shore suspected anything until he was beyond the range of the forts' guns. He hoisted a white flag and steamed straight toward the Union blockade where he surrendered the ship. He and his family and the others with them were given their freedom.

One night. One chance. And Robert and his family were free.

Another story. Apparently completely unrelated:

I was reading in yesterday's Seattle Times about the men's Super-G, the super grand slalom. Norwegians have dominated the event, winning the gold for the last four Olympics. No one could touch them. In Pyeongchang, this week, the sixteen year Norwegian streak was broken. An Austrian, Matthias Mayer, won gold. He was followed in second place by Beat Feuz, of Switzerland. Feuz was only 0.13 seconds behind Mayer. The defending Norwegian champion, Kjetil Jansrud, came in third, 0.05 seconds behind Feuz.

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to spend four years training and dreaming of winning gold and then to miss it by 0.13 seconds or to miss winning the silver 0.05 seconds. Wow. The blink of an eye. A single wobble of a ski. If we imagine life as a series of Olympic events, most of us might as well sit down and not even try. For most of us, no amount of training would ever bring us to the podium to receive a gold medal in the Grand Slalom or figure skating or cross country skiing or speed skating. Even for the most highly trained athletes in the world, winning Olympic gold is a rare and elusive thing.

But fortunately life is not like the Olympics. Life seldom comes down to a single crucial moment. We create our lives through our habits.

If you go skiing regularly, push yourself a bit, hang out with people who are better than you are, over time you will become a good skier, maybe even a great skier. There are no short cuts. On the other hand, if you put in the time and effort, most likely you will become skillful. You will be ready for those days when there is fresh powder on the slopes, the sky is sunny and the temperature is just a little below freezing.

In our Old Testament reading we were reminded of ants.

Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter.

Right now, as I'm preaching, at my house, the ants are busy. For several days now, they've been scurrying about on the window sill next to our kitchen table. I'm impressed by their busyness. I hardly ever notice one just sitting there. They're scurrying about, looking for food I presume. (So I make sure there is nothing to tempt them on the table or counters.)

Watching the ants and reading the words of our Scripture, I'm reminded of this congregation.

The people in this congregation continually amaze me. They are busy. If they have kids, their kids are involved in a dizzying array of activities. If they are older they are taking care of their parents and their neighbors and their friends or strangers.

At work, they are making a difference. We are holy ants.

In the creation story in Genesis Two, Adam is instructed to work the Garden and take care of it. Work—shaping our environment, making the world a more just, verdant, and peaceful place—this is God's plan for our lives. This is the path to happiness. This is what it means to be holy.

The Sabbath commandment, which forms a key portion of our identity as a denomination, sets Sabbath-keeping in the context of work. Work six days, and rest one. Many of us are workaholics. And we desperately need the stern command of God: Stop working and rest. But it is also true that the Sabbath commandment dignifies our labor. Sabbath is holy leisure surrounded by holy work.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked people with various disabilities who will never ever be able to work. God has placed these precious people in our congregation and in our society. They are worthy of the care required to sustain their lives. Their well-being depends on our industry, our energy, our work. Our work is dignified and ennobled by the presence among us of these people who depend on us.

Today, I want to honor the energy and skill and diligence of those who work. You make life possible for these dependent ones. You make the world go round.

Recently I was in conversation with a young pastor. He described with warm enthusiasm his practice of beginning every sermon with two questions: What have you done this week to make God love you more? What have you done this week to make God love you less? After asking these questions, he attempt to persuade his listeners that there was nothing they could do to make God love them more or less.

I agreed with this preacher that God's love is overflowing and that we do not earn it. However, I also pointed out that his questions were misleading. They suggested that behavior should be beneath the notice of Christians. That celebrating good behavior is inappropriate in church. But even the Apostle Paul, with his passionate and complicated theology eventually comes back at the end of his letters to the down-to-earth reality of good behavior. He reminds his readers that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. He even goes so far as to insist that if someone in the church community chooses not to work, they should be barred from the communal meals.

Religion is about God. Yes, of course. It is also very much about human well being, about living well. The commandments, properly understood, describe the way of life most conducive to human thriving. Jesus' ministry of healing showed his concern for the ordinary, down-to-earth, nitty-gritty realities of being human.

Since that was Jesus' way, it is also our way as the Kingdom of Jesus. We care about the quality of life experienced by those around us.

Which brings me back to the story of Robert Smalls, the man who sailed the steamer out of Charleston harbor to freedom. We can think of it as wonderful good luck. Those officers left the ship for the evening and left Smalls on board. How lucky! Or what a blessing from heaven! But it is important to note that Smalls had been preparing for this moment for all his life. He had become a skilled pilot. He knew the local waters, the channels, the shoals. He knew the ship. He knew its boiler and all its systems. He had learned all the signals and codes used by the captain of the ship as he moved through the various coastal defenses and check points.

Smalls was not merely lucky. He was ready.

The rest of his story demonstrates his fitness for this wonderful exploit. Like anyone who wins Olympic gold, or silver or bronze, or even qualifies to compete, he had prepared.

The Union Navy immediately began relying on his skill and knowledge. Fairly quickly he was promoted to captain in the US Navy and played an important role in a number of naval battles. After the war he was elected to the state assembly in South Carolina and then was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. Robert Smalls was an ant—busy and industrious. Self-motivated. He saved his people once. He served his people all his life. He is a model for us.

We do not know what opportunities and crises lie in our future. But we can cultivate habits that lead to holiness and happiness. We are not going go to the Olympics. But all of us are engaged in something far more noble and important than the Olympics. We are building lives. We are partnering with God in service.

So let us encourage one another in doing good. Let us spur one another toward wisdom and diligence. Let's busy ourselves in the noble work of ending oppression and setting the captives free.

We can do no less as children of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Loving Those We Cannot Fix

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for January 27, 2018

I noticed a bumper sticker on the rear window of a minivan parked in the Chase Bank parking lot in Ballard. What Would Jesus Do? Since Ballard is not exactly a major center of Christian piety, the sticker got my attention. (For my non-NW friends: Ballard is one of the most atheistic neighborhood in the US.) I then noticed another sticker right next to the What Would Jesus Do? sticker. This adjacent sticker had been damaged and hard to read. I looked closely. It was also a Jesus sticker. It read, “Jesus would drive in the RIGHT lane except to pass.”

I laughed and laughed. Only in Ballard—or Fremont—would I see a bumper sticker citing Jesus in support of proper freeway driving technique. They should have included one of the famous quotations by Jesus about traffic management:

“Nathaniel 13, verse 8: Why you take you donkey to town, do not take up the whole road. Leave room for your neighbor to pass.”

Bartholomew 4:6. “You hypocrites! You prohibit donkeys in the temple out of regard for God, but tie your donkeys in narrow streets making passage impossible for your neighbors. Fools, do you not know that obstructing your neighbor who is made in God's image is the same as obstructing God?”

Of course, I'm making up these “quotations” from Jesus. Jesus never said anything about traffic management in Jerusalem or in Seattle. Jesus never said or did anything that would offer a distinctly “Christian” approach to driving.

When we ask the question, What would Jesus do?, very often there is no specific example in the Gospel that provides a straightforward answer to the question. Instead, Jesus becomes a stand-in for our highest ideals. The name, Jesus, gets wrapped around our ideas of what is noble and wise and compassionate. Jesus was wise, compassionate, honest, good. When we ask What would Jesus do? We are asking what is the wise, compassionate, honest, good thing to do. And our answer to the question says more about us than it does about Jesus.

I faced this hermeneutical challenge as I worked on this week's sermon.

I began with pictures in my head. Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara. Each of these persons was born with special challenges. Each of them has received intensive therapeutic intervention. And each requires and will always require special help. We cannot fix these people. Not if “fix” means getting them to a place where they will be able to manage their own lives without special assistance.

These people are not going to grow up and take care of their parents. They are not going to earn enough money over the course of their lifetimes to pay for their care. Some will never manage their own money. Some will never speak. Some will never be able to change their own diapers. Not even if they live to be sixty years old. They will not become “productive members of society.” They will always be takers. Always.

With these people filling my mind's eye, I asked the question: What would Jesus do?

When I took this question to the Gospel I immediately ran into a problem. In the Gospel, Jesus solved every physical, material problem he faced. Paralyzed for 38 years—no problem. Jesus made the man's legs work. Blind? No problem. Jesus cured the blindness. A son who had demonic fits or seizures all his life? Not to worry. Jesus fixed it. Jesus solved every physical, material problem he encountered. Miracles were routine.

So when we looked at my collage of images of friends with severe challenges and asked what would Jesus do, the first part of the answer was easy: Jesus would heal them, fix them, make life easy for them. Which gives us no help at all. Because our friends cannot be fixed. Our friends have genetic disorders, chromosomal abnormalities, severe learning disabilities, and profound mental illness. And we cannot fix them. We cannot do what Jesus did. We cannot do what Jesus would do.

Jesus healed people. We are left to care for them. Jesus fixed problems. We manage problems. This is our life as the people of God. This is our life as the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus has placed among us people we cannot fix.

I have friends who attend the Bethel Church in Redding, California. This church specializes in miraculous healings. My friends have witnessed miracles. They experienced for themselves healing from incurable conditions. I love their stories. I do not deny the occurrence of miracles. But the town of Redding still has a hospital. And it is not empty. Redding has assisted living facilities. And people are not moving from assisted living back to independent living. Even in the neighborhoods surrounding Bethel Church there are children with severe disabilities. Even in the Bethel Congregation itself there are families serving as caregivers.

When we consider our children and friends and neighbors and parents who have special needs and we ask what would Jesus do? The stories of healing in the Gospel are not especially helpful. Because we cannot fix the people we know.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a theologian who expressed great admiration for the provision in the law of Moses regarding gleaning. According to the law, if you had a grain field, at harvest time, you were obliged to leave the corners unharvested. After you did your first gathering, you were prohibited from going back over the field a second time to make sure you had gathered every last stalk of grain. Instead, those unharvested corners and missed stalks were to be left for poor people who had no fields. Once you were finished with your harvest, they could harvest those corners and gather any grain that had been dropped in your harvesting process.

The theologian applauded this approach, making a veiled political point, saying this divine method of helping the poor meant no one got something for nothing. The poor people experienced the dignity of work.

The theologian was correct as far as he went. Those who can work, should work. But he left out Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara. If my theologian friend ran the world, a lot of people would die because they are unable to go out to the fields and gather. They are unable to cook. They are unable to turn on the water faucet. They cannot change their diapers, even at age 25.

Most of us have heard the phrase, “Give people a hand up, not a hand out.” Certainly, where we can, we should give a hand up.

One of the proudest moments of my life came during a performance by a brilliant musician who had been close friends with my sister back when we were kids. This singer paused in her performance and publicly thanked me for giving her a hand up. It happened during her freshman year in college. She was floundering, academically and socially. Then she attended a coaching group I led. She embraced a number of good habits. She got her feet under her. Grades and social life improved. She developed a solid spiritual life. And went on to a great career. She credited her turnaround to that coaching group.

I love the story. I gave a little help and it seems to have made a big difference.

But the story is useless—maybe even worse than useless, maybe even cruel—if I tell it in front of someone whose child will never speak or someone who is in college only because of the special assistance provided to blind students. My friend had the capacity to take care of herself, with just a little bit of temporary support. She got “fixed.” That's wonderful and completely irrelevant when we consider the needs of Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara.

A friend is visiting us from Texas. He has a brother with schizophrenia. The brother began attending a church. The church embraced him. They demonstrated authentic “Christian” caring. They made him a part of their church family. They helped him with rent occasionally. Helped him find jobs. Took him on mission trips. For a number of years, this church's embrace of Paul's brother was a perfect example of the power of a loving church. They were a beautiful church. And life for Paul's brother was better because of the care that church provided. Then the brother went off his meds—meds he had been taking for years. He quit all medication, completely and permanently. His mind went out of control. He ended up hospitalized. People from the church—still demonstrating the love of God—went to see him. But he sent them away. He was hostile and fearful. He broke off all contact with the church because voices in his head warned him they were aliens out to get him.

They still loved him. They could not fix him. Still they loved him. That's what the church of Jesus does.

Late Friday night, my friend Paul was asking me about today's sermon. I explained my difficulty. I could not think of any problem Jesus could not fix. So how did I get at the question, What would Jesus do, in the context of people we cannot fix.

Then it came to me.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross on that final Friday afternoon, he looked down at the small group of friends who were gathered. In the group were Jesus' mother, Mary, and his most intimate disciple, John.

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple he loved standing there, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" And from that time, the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:26-27

The problem Jesus' mother faced could not be fixed. She was a widow and soon to be childless. And faced decades of life with no one and nothing. What could Jesus do? What did Jesus do?

He asked his most intimate disciple to take care of her. Till the end of her life. Forever.

This is the picture of God's will for us in the face of those we cannot fix. Let us care for them. That's what Jesus would do.  

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Judgment Day

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For 1/20/2018

I was sitting in the Top Pot donut shop in Ballard, writing. At a nearby table three people were busy in conversation. Apparently they were security supervisors for a large retail complex. The lead guy was mapping out strategy and procedures for the other two people.

They talked of helping people. I heard about some guy who got stuck in a bathroom and security came to the rescue. Some other people got stuck in an elevator. People needed help with this emergency or that. They talked of how to make sure everyone who needed help got it in a timely fashion.

Then there was the other part of their work. Checking every stairwell top to bottom every shift because people sometimes sneaked in and camped there. And they had to watch for bad guys. They had to be aware when someone was casing the place looking for an opportunity to steal.

Listening in on their conversation reminded me of my own work with security. For fifteen or sixteen years, I served as the head of the security department at our annual Western Washington Adventist convention called Campmeeting. We had thirty employees. When I got there, many of the guys imagined themselves as policemen. They were eager find and bust the bad guys. Too eager, in my opinion. So I set about changing how we viewed ourselves. I told my employees that we were not a police department, we were the Happy Department. Our job was to make sure everyone on campus had a good time. Help little old ladies move into their accommodations. Help mothers find their lost kids. (We became really, really good at that.) Check bathrooms and make sure they were servicable. And yes, in the evening, we had to enforce the curfew and chase teenagers back to their tents.

Thinking of ourselves as the Happy Department helped change the atmosphere of the campus, a little. We had less and less “enforcement” work to do over the years. There were fewer conflicts that we had to manage.

But for all my talk about being the Happy Department, sometimes we had to become enforcers. We had to stop the bad guys.

One old guy had been coming for years. He created minor headaches, and was surrounded by an aura of suspicion. We heard third and fourth hand reports of him flirting with young girls. Then he proposed marriage to a minor, a young woman who was willing to tell me her story. We banned him from campus. Forever. Judgment day. And after that the campus was a happier place.

Another man raised my suspicions but I knew of no definite offense. I had not even heard of any allegation of wrong-doing on his part. But I was worried. Then a kid I knew told me something specific. I called the police. There was an investigation and this man went to the big house. Day of judgment. And then the campus was safer. Tragically, the world was a better place because he was not in it. That is sad. It is also true.

Sometimes being the Happy Department required us to be tough with the bad guys.

I love the language of our Old Testament reading this morning from Psalm 96.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops dance in mirth.
Let the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD,

Just a couple of pages later, we find similar language in Psalm 98.

Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the earth and all living things join in.
Let the rivers clap their hands in glee!
Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the LORD.

Rivers clapping their hands. Trees singing. Fields dancing. Mountains rejoicing. A happy world.

Some of you spend time on the water. Sailing, cruising, kite-boarding, kayaking. Have you ever been out on the water on a sunny day? The sky is blue. Here and there pillows of cottony-white cumulus clouds are floating in the blue. A slight breeze ruffles the water and keeps you from getting hot. It's late afternoon. The sun sprinkles sparkles across the tops of waves. At that moment the whole world seems just right. The whole world is happy.

That's the picture these scriptures paint.

More relevant to the season. Imagine you are a skier—many of you don't have to imagine. Imagine it's a Tuesday after a big snow. You have the day off and head to the slopes. There's twelve inches of powder. It's 28 degrees and sunny. No wind. Because it's a Tuesday, it's not crowded. You own the slopes. You're in the middle of a run and pause before resuming your flight. Sunlight is every where, a million diamonds sparkle in every direction. Overhead, an intense blue sky. It's quiet. A couple of jays swoop across the slope and land in the tree beside Inside you. Off in the distance you hear a couple of kids squealing and giggling as they dig themselves out after a fall.

This is the world imagined by the poet in this Psalm.

Mountains dancing. Trees singing. Rivers clapping their hands. Waves shouting hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skipping with delight.

How do we get there? What is the path from this place to that place?


Each of these Psalms follows the same line. Mountains dance. Trees sing. Rivers clap their hands. Waves shout hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skips with delight. Why?

Oliver read the words for us:

because God is coming!
God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with justice.

Judgment day. We can hardly wait. Finally, everything will be set right. Hallelujah.

This is not the whole story. There is another picture of judgment. We heard it in our New Testament reading that Violet read for us.

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, "I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. "And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. "What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. "Beware that you don't look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father. Matthew 18:2-10 New Living Translation (Accessed through Blue Letter

God is watching. God takes special delight in little ones. We are most in tune with God when we tend and care for the little ones.

God is watching. God takes special umbrage when little ones are harmed. You don't want to have God walk around the corner just after you have called a child stupid. You don't want to run into God as you walk away from a child in need. You touch a child—and it would be better for you to have been hauled out into Elliot Bay and dropped overboard with a pair of concrete boots on. God is watching. And the Bible declares over and over that God is watching with the intent of ultimately overruling the decisions of the powerful in favor of the powerless. God will reverse the advantages conferred by wealth and status and size and intelligence and beauty and nationality and ethnicity.

Those on the bottom will be lifted up. And those on top will find themselves on the bottom.

Nearly all of us here are among the privileged. Compared with other people in the world we are privileged beyond calculation. We were born in the right country to the right parents with sound minds and bodies and opportunities to turn work and study into financial security. We are blessed.

In the judgment, God will ask how we used those privileges. God will ask if we noticed those beneath us in the pecking order of the world.

Many of read in the news this week of the horrific domestic abuse by David and Louise Turpin. These parents turned into monsters to their own children. The grandparents of the kids have reported that the children memorized long passages of the Bible, some memorizing the entire book. I'm afraid I know where this story is going to go. I'm afraid we will learn these parents thought they were doing right.

Echoing Jesus, I would say, it would have been better for David and Louise if they had died of snake bite out in western Texas. Or heat stroke.

Yesterday morning, Don and I were talking. He said, “Someone should have shot those people.” Then he challenged me: You think God would be okay with that?”

Inwardly, I laughed. Don had me. I'm a pacificist, all around nice guy. I think of the church as God's Happy Department. We want to make the world better and save everyone in the process. We are called to serve the world. Mostly that means smiling service.

But sometimes, it means thundering opposition. Because we are the people of God, we strongly oppose every act of oppression. We denounce evil, especially the use of power to advantage the powerful, the use of wealth to advantage the wealthy, the use of law to advantage the mighty. Do not balance budgets on the backs of hungry children. Do not preserve our comfortable lives at the expense of our grandchildren. Do not harm children.

Instead, let us join with God in cherishing and nourishing every little one—both those who are literally little—children. And those with fewer advantages, smaller privileges than ours.

As we do this we will find ourselves cooperating with God. We are preparing the world for the glorious day of judgment when the earth and all that is in it will sing for joy. When the fields will dance, when the ocean will sing and all the trees will clap their hands.