Friday, January 16, 2015

Worthy

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 17, 2015

Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16, 2 Kings 5, Luke 4:16-22


Within just a few months from his first sermon, he was drawing crowds of thousands. Of course, it wasn't just his words. He was also working incredible feats of healing. Then Jesus visited his home town. On Sabbath, he went to synagogue, as was his custom. And as was the custom in synagogues of that time, the visitor—in this case the home-town-boy-made-it-big visitor—the visitor was invited to address the congregation.

The lectionary, that is the scheduled reading for the day, was a passage in Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor;
he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives,
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the year of God's favor.

Jesus handed the scroll bad to the attendant and sat down. (In that worship culture, a rabbi stood to read the Scripture, then sat to do his commentary.)

Jesus paused. The congregation waited eagerly. This was their own kid. He grew up here in Nazareth. He had been friends with their kids. Eaten dinner at their table. Now he was famous. People said he was an amazing preacher. They could hardly wait for him to start. This was exciting.

“Today,” Jesus said, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

That was nice. It was encouraging, reassuring. Jesus preached that the people of Nazareth were living in God's favor. The waiting time was over. God was pleased with them. The audience understood Jesus to be announcing the imminent end of Roman subjugation. Soon, very soon, the Messiah was going to appear and vanquish the forces of evil. God's people—that is the good Jews of Nazareth—were finally going to be vindicated before a skeptical world. They were going to be proved right. The remnant people of God—the despised, ignored, insignificant people of God—were going to be shown to be the REAL people of God.

You could feel enthusiasm and exuberance rippling through the congregation. It was a great sermon. Jesus had the people with him. Then he pulled a surprise.

“I know you will quote the proverb, Physician heal yourself. You are wondering why aren't you doing the same kinds of miracles here that rumors say you performed in Capernaum? You figure you are just as good as the people of Capernaum, how come God has seen fit to accomplish through me here the same kinds of miracles I performed in Capernaum.

It's a good question, but it obscures the greatest challenge confronting us today: Just who are God's people? We are all Jews, the children of Abraham, heirs of the promise of God. Yes, but what do you make of the story of the Widow of Zarephath?

Jesus then launched into a famous Bible story.

There once was an evil king named Ahab. He was married to an evil queen named Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel were devotees of a false religion. They were ruthless in the use of eminent domain to take property from their citizens. They oppressed the poor.

The one lone voice that spoke in opposition to the evil king and queen was the Prophet Elijah. At one point God ordered the Prophet Elijah to announce to Ahab that there was going to be a ruinous drought as a punishment for all the wicked things Ahab and Jezebel were doing, especially their corruption of worship.

As the drought began to pinch the agriculture of the kingdom, the king attempted to find Elijah and arrest him. But he couldn't find him. Ahab even sent ambassadors to neighboring kingdoms looking for Elijah. No luck.

Where was Elijah? At first he was hiding in the wilderness, camping by a stream where he was fed miraculously by God. When the stream dried up God told him to go to Zarephath, a hamlet in the kingdom of Sidon north of Israel. There he was to find a widow and board with her and her son.

Elijah found Zarephath. He waited outside of town until the widow came out. He told her he would like to board with her. She regretfully refused. She was at that very moment gathering sticks so she could go home and bake the very last bit of flour she had in her house. After that she and her son would face starvation. The drought had driven the price of food far beyond her ability to pay. Food was so scarce that no one was giving anything to beggars. So, sorry. She could not give him any food.

“Look,” Elijah said, “I understand your predicament. But make my food first, then make food for yourself and your son. Because this is what God says—your flour bin will not go empty or your oil bottle dry until the famine is over.”

The woman had nothing to lose. If the wild man talking to her was a charlatan, and after she made food for him there was nothing left, oh well. She and her son would merely die one missed meal sooner. On the other hand, if the wild man really was a prophet and the promised miracle actually happened, it would be the salvation she had been praying for.

She made Elijah's food first, and somehow the flour stretched and the oil lasted. And they all lived happily ever after.

It was a wonderful story until Jesus applied its moral. Why did God send the prophet to the pagan town of Zarephath? Why did God trust a pagan woman to be the savior of the prophet? Why did God save a pagan widow from the famine?

What did all this say about Jewish specialness? What did it say about the flow of God's favor?

Jesus audience squirmed. This was not the sermon they were expecting. Jesus was not finished.

“Do you remember the story of Naaman?” he asked.

This story happened ten to twenty years after the story of widow. Naaman was the commander of the army of Syria, the nation just north of the Jewish kingdoms. His army frequently conducted raids into the kingdom of Israel chasing plunder—slaves, gold and silver and livestock. Then he was diagnosed with leprosy. This was worse than a death sentence. It was a horror. It was living death. There was no treatment. No cure.

So what does Naaman do? He heads south to Israel to request healing from Elisha—the successor of Elijah. The prophet healed him and sent him home. It is the only recorded healing of a leper during the time of the Jewish kings.

The audience understood Jesus' point, and they were furious. Jesus was arguing that God's favor was indiscriminately given to pagans and Jews alike. That was preposterous. It was wicked. It bordered on blasphemous. They charged the platform, grabbed Jesus and shoved him ahead of them toward the top of a precipice, planning to throw him off.

As they reached the precipice, Jesus exerted his magic power and released himself from the hands that were holding him. The crowd fell back and Jesus walked calmly back through the crowd to the house where they were expecting him for Sabbath dinner.

This story has forceful implications:

Most of us enjoy privilege of some kind. Many of us are Adventists. One of the deep historic convictions of our church is that we God's favorites. Just like the Jews. Just like the Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Church of Christ . . . and I could go on. Just like Muslims. Each group imagines that God's favor belongs us. Not to all those other people, but to us.

Jesus says otherwise.

Yes, God was present among the Jews. God blessed their worship and spoke through their prophets. Jesus did not deny God's presence among the Jews. He insisted it was also present elsewhere.
God was present in Jewish synagogues and among the huts of Zarephath and in the palaces of Damascus. Jesus' audience was deeply offended. When we understand the implications of what Jesus said, it may make us uncomfortable. It will certainly challenge our denominational pride.

Who is welcome at the heavenly table? If the commander of the army of Syria and the hopeless widow of Zarephath are welcome, who could not be welcome?

Today, we celebrate communion—the Lord's Supper.

There is a very long tradition in Christianity of using this occasion to ask haunting questions of worthiness. Who is worthy to eat the Lord's Supper? Who is worthy to receive the body and blood of our Lord? I know there are people here who find the communion service terrifying. They wonder, “Am I worthy? How can I be sure? What if instead of receiving a blessing I'm bringing a curse on myself?”

Jesus dismisses all these kinds of questions. There is no select group who has a unique welcome at the Lord's Table.

At the communion table, Jesus preaches the same message he preached in Nazareth: quit building imaginary castles of privilege in the air. Don't imagine yourself insiders in the castles of privilege or outsiders. Turn from visions of castles with walls and gates and focus your attention of the happy welcome God extends to all. Every category of worthiness is dissolved in the glory of divine light.

The Holy Supper is a festival celebrating God's extravagance, there is no human worthiness ticket required..

So come. And know that the more apparently unlikely your place at the table, the more delight God will take in seating you and serving you. We come with our flaws and our perfections, our glorious strengths and our disabilities. We come because we are welcomed and desired. Yes, even us.




Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saving our Souls Through Worship

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 10, 2015
Luke 4:5-8



The devil took Jesus up on a mountain top up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. “Look,” the devil said, “I'll give it all to you. The whole thing. Complete power and authority. You can run the world just the way you please. You want to abolish slavery? Done. You want to put all the bad guys in prison? Done. You want to eliminate armies? You can do it. You can have absolute total control. All I require is that you pay obeisance to me. Acknowledge that you got from me and it's all yours.”

Imagine the devil made a similar offer to you. If you lean to the right politically, you could eliminate the income tax, get rid of food stamps, rein in the EPA and privatize Social Security. If you lean to the left you could reverse Citizens United, eliminate corporate tax loopholes, create a single-payer health care system, permanently block the Keystone pipeline.

You would be free to unilaterally edit every law, streamline, reorganize or eliminate any government agency. You could fix everything. There would be no dissent allowed. If you were offered unlimited power over every human being in the world, would you take it?

When you read commentary on this passage in the Gospel, frequently you'll encounter discussions about whether the devil could actually deliver on his offer. Did the devil have the capability to give Jesus the kind of power he was offering? Another question is the matter of trustworthiness. If the devil had the power to had over power over all the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus had bowed, would the devil have delivered. I suppose these are legitimate questions, but they don't appear in the Gospel story.

In the story as it's told in the Gospels, Jesus did not question the capability or honesty of the devil. Jesus went straight to the cost and refused to pay.

“You ask me to worship you? Are you kidding? I worship God and God alone. No deal.”

It was clean, simple, profound.

Jesus' practice of worship protected him against seduction. Similarly, we, too, can avoid investing our souls in foolishness through the practice of worship God.



In February, 1968, I was a tenth grader at Memphis Junior Academy, an Adventist parochial school. The city was electric with tension. The first day of February two garbage collectors, Echole Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in the compactor of their truck.

It was an accident. No one intended their death, but it was an accident waiting to happen. Cole and Walker were Black men. The Black garbage men in Memphis worked in miserable conditions, for miserable pay with no benefits. It was late in the afternoon, their shift was over and the truck was headed back to the terminal. It was pouring rain. There was no room in the cab for Cole and Walker so they climbed into the compactor area at the back of the truck. Some where along the drive, a short activated the compactor. The driver stopped the truck and hit the kill switch, but it was too late. The men were crushed.

Ten days later, the garbage collectors went on strike.

The Mayor, Mr. Loeb, refused to recognize the union. When they marched on city hall, he shouted at them to go back to work. He announced defiantly that he would never kowtow to an illegal rabble of whining employees.

February turned into March. The garbage was piling up. I remember the pile in our backyard by the alley gate.

The strike drew national attention. Daily, strikers marched demanding the city respect their dignity as human beings.

Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town. Good white folk muttered among themselves about how wrong it was for some outsider to get involved in our business. At school we talked about the strike and about race relations in general. As you would expect in a whites-only school, most of the students shared their parents' scorn for the Black sanitation workers—we called them garbage men. We insisted to ourselves that these garbage men should be grateful for the more than ample wages we gave them. What, did they think they should be paid like White people?

The hostility of white people in Memphis against Dr. King was even more rabid than right-wing hatred of President Obama today.

The beginning of April, Dr. King came back to Memphis for a major march at the beginning of April. At school we traded rumors about plans to assassinate Dr. King. The haters recited these rumors with great glee. Someone was going to “take care” of that troublesome outsider! Only they used other words than outsider.

What made Dr. King do it? What prompted him to expose himself to the hatred and violence of the White population of Memphis?

The answer is found in the concluding paragraph of his speech the night of April 3.

He gave a long, stirring speech talking about the challenges facing the strikers and the call on all people to come to their aid. He referenced the story of the Good Samaritan and asked, What would happen to these people beat up and left by the side of the road by those in power in Memphis? Finally, Dr. King addressed the risk he faced in coming to Memphis.

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I have been to the mountaintop…

Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Mason Temple. Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3, 1968

All big decisions carry a cost. There are no free passes. The question is when you have paid the cost, when the transaction is history, will you be glad you paid?

Jesus refused the devil's offer of an easy path and ended up paying with his life. Jesus was satisfied with the deal he got.

Dr. Martin Luther King knew he was putting his life on the line. He knew that coming to Memphis and standing with the sanitation workers was putting his life at risk. He did it any way. He paid. Without regret.

The day after that speech, Dr. King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Where did he find the courage to stare death in the face? The key to his courage, to his wisdom, is in those few sentences at the end of his speech there in Memphis.

I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. . . . Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

This is what we do in worship. We go up on the mountaintop. We survey the promised land. We fill our eyes with visions of the glory of the coming of the Lord.

And the glory of that vision steals us against the allures of ignoble offers and opportunities.

Dr. King did not arrive in Memphis because of moment of adrenaline-pumped courage. This was not a mother or dad racing into a burning house to save a child. This was not a soldier making an instantaneous decision to jump on a hand grenade to save his buddies. This was the culmination of a long march toward glory. In 1955, Dr. King was a pastor in a comfortable parish in Montgomery. He could have lived out his days as the respected, appreciated pastor of nice congregations. Instead, he fed his soul with the grand visions of the Bible prophets. He allowed his inner vision to be captivated by the pictures of justice and equity painted by Isaiah and Amos and Micah.

He could have settled for a comfortable life, a respectable career. Instead, through worship, he was drawn to greatness because over and over and over again he turned his attention and admiration to the glorious vision described by the prophets of a world of justice and equity.

May that be true of us as well.

The devil would tempt us to settle for a comfortable respectable life as a congregation.

In worship we are called higher. Jesus could not be seduced by the devil because Jesus resolutely devoted himself to the worship of God—and nothing less. It can be tempting to worship power, money, comfort, respectability. These are good things. There is nothing wrong with them . . . unless we turn them into idols. Unless we worship them. Unless we give them the attention and admiration that belong to God alone.

God is good. Beauty, harmony, strength, intelligence, integrity—all these point toward God. Gentleness, compassion, tact, winsomeness, sweetness—these, too, are attributes of God. God is the sum of virtues and beauties.

Every week, in worship we celebrate this conviction. In worship we declare with joy God is good.

We also kindle again and again our desires to embody the glory of God in our own lives. We are made in the image of God. It is our natural destiny to live out the divine character. In worship, we feed this hunger to live worthy of our divine Creator.

The more clearly we see the divine glory, the more resolute and skillful we will be in living it out.

So in worship we rehearse the goodness of God. We declare the goodness of God. We discuss and ponder. We sing. God is good. We intend to be good.

I would encourage you to be intentional in worship more often than once a week here at church. The ideal would be to make time in your life every day—some special time when you contemplate the goodness and glory of God.

Friday night, at the end of your week, begin the Sabbath by celebrating the goodness of God.

Saturday night as you end the Sabbath, begin your week by celebrating, giving attention and admiration to the goodness of God.

Worship is deliberately focusing our attention and admiration on the goodness of God. When we practice worship that goodness will come to suffuse our lives and shape our minds. We will become immune to the seductions of the devil. We will become devotees of righteousness. We will live lives worthy of our Maker.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Adventist Church and Homosexuality

The Adventist Church and Homosexuality
A proposal by John McLarty

(This is a revision of an early version of this piece.)

I have been quite outspoken in my criticism of common conservative approaches to applying their understanding of the Bible to issues of irregularities in sexuality. I have read nothing in articles by scholars at the Adventist seminary or respondents on Facebook or middle-aged “reformed” homosexuals that would persuade me the conservative position is true to Scripture or to human experience.

A few of my conservative friends have responded to my criticism with a very appropriate challenge: If you don't like current Church policy, what do you propose the Church do? If someone made you King of the Church for a day and charged you with writing formal policy that would be included in the Church Manual for the global, incorporated Adventist denomination, what would you write?

Below is my attempt at spelling out the policy I would write in that situation.

Let me be clear: I am not writing my personal convictions. My thinking is deeply rooted in and shaped by the Adventist theological heritage. However, I have taken elements of that heritage and pushed them so forcefully that conventional thinkers would see my conclusions as a contradiction of the heritage rather than as the natural development of that heritage. If a leader required the Church as a whole to embrace all the details of my own personal theology it would severely damage the living community that is the real church. While I dissent from some aspects of conventional Adventism, I am unwilling to destroy the Church in an effort to “improve” it.

Church policy is a political animal. It has to balance tradition, exegesis, regional variations, money, and temperamental differences. Effective policy change—change that brings people along instead of cutting them off—must be evolutionary. No wise policy will appear wise to an ideologue because wise policy is always a messy compromise among people and values. It is never pure. And it should be always open to change.

So with these qualifications in mind, I will propose the following as church policy to be voted by the church bureaucrats at the General Conference:

Preamble

God's ideal for humans as portrayed in the first two chapters of Genesis is that every man and every woman find a happy, life-long home in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage that produces good children who will in turn have grandchildren who continue to live out their lives in happy, life-long monogamous fruitful marriages. In its worship and teaching the Church honors this glorious ideal. The Church encourages all persons to live as close to this ideal as possible.

Not every person in the Church can live this ideal. Among our members, there are marriages that endure but are less than happy. There are childless couples and people who are single for decades. There are divorced people, homosexuals, and people who have been married several times. There are people of indeterminate gender. There are people with disabilities for whom marriage is impossible. All of these people are members of our churches. They respond to our evangelism. It is the duty of the Church to provide opportunities for worship, spiritual encouragement and pastoral care for all of these people.

How does the Church both honor the ideal portrayed in Eden before the fall and minister in Christ's stead in the real world we live in today.

First, we recognize that clergy are symbols of the ideals and commitments of the Church. The higher the ecclesiastical dignity of an office, the more closely must the office holder live to God's ideal. Therefore:

  1. The Church will provide a distinct, separate ordination for clergy who serve as presidents of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference.
  2. Clergy serving in leadership (i.e. presidencies) above the local congregation must be married and parents. If they are divorced or if the majority of their children have rejected the church, this should be seen as a major impediment to continued service in any position above that of a local congregation. Further, because of their role as symbols of the ideals and commitments of the church, no one who is obese may serve as a president.
  3. Departmental directors would have the same spiritual rank and pay rate as pastors serving local congregations.
  4. Single persons may serve as leaders—either clergy or lay—in local congregations where direct knowledge of their gifts, piety and integrity would counterbalance the deficiency in their symbolic function.
  5. The church would not ordain homosexuals to the clergy.

In the Western Adventist Church there is significant conflict regarding God's will in regard to homosexuality. In light of this conflict, we decree:

  1. Just as Adventist clergy have historically been forbidden to perform marriages in which only one of the persons is Adventist, Adventist clergy are prohibited from solemnizing homosexual marriages. [Personal note from McLarty: just as there are a few pastors who quietly disregard the rules regarding “mixed marriages” there would be pastors who would quietly disregard the rules regarding homosexual unions. At present, this disregard of rules is tolerated as long as it stays off the public radar screen.]
  2. Adventist Churches may not allow their buildings to be used for performing forbidden marriages.

We, the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church gathered in council, refrain from promulgating rules for how congregations are to manage their response to homosexuals and to people who divorce and remarry. Congregations are charged to respond to these situations in light of God's ideals, Adventist tradition, and the well-being of the individuals and congregations in each case. [McLarty's note: Some congregations would be accepting. Most would maintain traditional norms.]

My Commentary on the Above Proposed Polices

Even-handed church law

If we are going to bar practicing homosexuals from our congregations we ought to bar divorced and remarried people from our congregations. Then we ought to bar from being elders and pastors all who come short of Paul's requirement: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him.” And as a church which officially embraces healthy living as part of our mission and doctrine it is simply inconceivable that we would allow obese men to serve as presidents within the church. [Commentary on the commentary: I think what I've written in the first part of this paragraph is logical. It also highlights the sickness of focusing on standards. While holding “elders” responsible for the behavior of their children is biblical, it is socially sick. But if we are going to hold homosexuals to “biblical” standards, then it follows we ought to hold the “elders” to biblical standards as well.]

There is already precedent for allowing exceptions to full agreement with the doctrines of the church.

There is a loud clamor in official church circles these days declaring that belief in 6 days/6000 years is an absolute requirement for being Adventist. Ted Wilson declaims, “If you don't believe in a short chronology you are not Adventist.” But I have personally heard Fernando Canale (a conservative theologian at the Andrews University Seminary) say that if a scientist believes all the rest of our doctrines and keeps Sabbath and pays tithe but does not believe in a short chronology, he would baptize such a person into the Adventist Church. Michael Hasel was present and did not demur.

If the recent creation doctrine can be set aside in exceptional cases, why can we not, in exceptional cases, set aside our doctrine about the absolute necessity of heterosexual marriage?

This approach requires from homosexuals an acknowledgment of the church's ideal of marriage—which is heterosexual, life-long marriage. Homosexual unions are other than this ideal. This approach requires from traditional members a recognition of the fact that the ideal is not possible for all people and that non-traditional relationships are righteous even if not ideal. (Of course, the actual ideal—life-long, heterosexual, monogamous, HAPPY marriage, is absent in many church homes.)

The inhumanity of enforced celibacy

We rightly lament the damage to persons that flows from the Catholic requirement of celibacy for participation in the ordained ministry. Yet we require life-long celibacy by homosexuals as a requirement for participation in church life. This is inhumane. The inhumanity of this requirement is highlighted by the fact that church officials who vote on the doctrines and policies intended to impose this obedience on homosexuals have themselves typically been active sexually for at least twenty years. Even the homosexuals we promote as advocates of celibacy have had decades of sexual engagement.

But something further needs to be said. The requirement of celibacy is not merely a restriction on genital activity. It requires sexual beings to carefully avoid deep friendships and real intimacy because of the “threat” and appearance these kinds of close relationships create. The Bible declares it is not good for man to be alone. Yet we say to a whole class of men: you must remain alone for your entire life. Who are we to contradict this declaration in our zeal to support other declarations in the Bible?

If God calls an individual to such a solitary life, let's us support them in that strenuous calling. But it is evil for us to impose this when we know that we ourselves could never bear it.

Jesus said something to the Pharisees about laying burdens on others. It was not a compliment. It is the height of spiritual arrogance to teach others there is an onerous requirement for salvation that they must meet—a requirement which we ourselves have never even contemplated attempting.


For Now

This is not my imagination of the best the church can be. I do not propose these polices as a picture of an ideal church life. I have written this to attempt to provoke a response, to challenge conservatives who selectively apply which “biblical rules” to enforce in the church. Especially, I would emphasize that this is not my idea of some final destination for the corporate church. It is a description of a place where we might be able to live together for awhile. I expect that over time the church will follow society in learning to place homosexual relationships within a moral framework analogous to the moral framework for heterosexual relationships. Attentiveness and loyalty will be affirmed. Promiscuity and unfaithfulness will be condemned.

We will come to see the picture in Genesis—a man and woman together in a life-long, happy monogamous marriage that produces children—as an ideal, not a standard. We will acknowledge that no one—let be more emphatic, NO ONE—lives the ideal. In our world no marriage is untouched by sin and pain and every marriage eventually is broken, either by death or divorce. The ideal is not available to us as a lived reality.

My sermon on Matthew 19 can be found here: http://greenlakesda.org/2014/10/legally-dumb/

An article I wrote for my church newsletter that explains the foundation for my theology can be found here: http://greenlakesda.org/2014/10/foundation-of-my-religion/


Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Straight and Narrow


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 3, 2015
Scripture: Luke 3:7-14

The other days I was headed south on Green Lake Way and stopped at the traffic light at 50th. In the bicycle lane was a cyclist, also stopped. But instead of doing what any normal bicyclist would do and putting one or both feet on the ground while he waited for the light to change, he was standing on his pedals, balancing by gently rocking back and forth. I kept watching, waiting for him to fall over, but he didn't. He managed to balance there for a minute or two, both feet on the pedals, going nowhere.

We have some serious bicyclists here at Green Lake. Dick commutes rain or shine. David is a crazy mountain biker. Mitch was a national champion mountain biker.

Let's imagine we invite our amazing bicyclists to a simple, little contest. We go over to the Phinney neighborhood just west of Aurora Avenue. We head up to Phinney Avenue at the top of the hill, to the corner of 60th and Phinney. Sixtieth is a perfectly straight shot down from Phinney Avenue toward Aurora. The contest is this. We have some special bicycles with front wheels that don't turn. They have been carefully built. The front and back wheels are in perfect alignment. They go perfectly straight ahead. The challenge for our expert bicyclists is how far down 60th Street can they go without falling over or crashing into the parked cars.

Do you understand the challenge? How far do you think they can get down the street?

As difficult as it is to stand on your pedals waiting for a red light to turn green, that is still easier than riding a bicycle with a front wheel that will not turn.

The way you keep a bicycle up right is to turn from left to right to left to right. It is the variation back and forth that keeps you up right.

This is a picture of repentance.

We heard in our New Testament reading about the work of John the Baptist. John baptized people with “a baptism of repentance.” Frequently people imagine repentance as a dramatic change. An alcoholic becomes clean and sober. An abusive husband becomes a gentle, responsible lover. A thief becomes an honest worker.

I've known people like this. Meth addicts that found recovery and productive lives, gangsters who became disciples. Their dramatic transformations are inspiring, wonderful. They illustrate repentance at its extreme.

For most of us, however, repentance is nothing like that. Rather repentance is more like riding a bicycle. Repentance means the frequent readjustment in the direction we want to do. Carsten Johnsson, one of my professors in seminary decades ago said, “The one perfection available to Christians is the perfection of repentance.” The essence of repentance is turning toward God, toward goodness, toward compassion, toward virtue, toward health, toward discipline, toward loyalty.

It is not possible to set a life direction and follow that initial setting without variation. Not if we want to stay upright and on the right path. Just as riding a bicycle requires constant movement of the handle bars, so holy living means constantly readjusting, tinkering to make things better. We do not repent because what we did yesterday was bad. We repent because today requires turning again toward God and goodness. This afternoon requires to make another response to the irregularities and demands of the road.

We have some good drivers in our congregation, people who drive for a living. Imagine you're driving a big truck down a straight stretch of freeway in eastern Washington. You aim the truck perfectly straight ahead in the center of the lane and lock the steering wheel in place. How long will your truck stay in the lane? A minute? Two minutes? It depends on the road surface and wind who knows what other factors. Good driving means constant readjustment. Pointing the vehicle again in the desired direction.

It's the same in life. Good life, virtuous life means reorienting again and again toward good goals, noble dreams. The idea of repentance is pretty simple. Notice how John defined it: If you have two coats, share one. If you have the power of a government contract behind your business, don't take advantage of your advantage. If you are a policeman, don't abuse your power. Be content.

These are common sense applications of the fundamental moral vision. The idea is simple. The complication is the application. John the Baptist called on his listeners to repent—to turn again and again and again toward goodness.

It's still perfect counsel for us. The perfect life is a life lived by constant turning—steering again and again toward God and goodness.

As we begin a new year, I invite you to spend a bit of time redirecting your life. Think again about your highest goals. Consider what is your highest calling. Check yourself. Are you spending your time and money on the things that matter most to you? Do you need to make some readjustments?

Are you treating your family the way you meant to do when you started out in romance?

Can you improve the quality or quantity of time you devote to cultivating your spiritual life?

This new year, will you change your patterns of exercise or diet?

Will you read books that are more inspiring?

Will you avoid talk radio and talking head TV that feed anger, frustration and annoyance?

Will you cultivate compassion? Will you practice integrity?

Whether you're steering a bicycle or a Mack truck, the key to success is constant, frequent readjustment, turning again and again toward our goals.

It's precisely the same in life.

Ask yourself how you are using the power you have. We all have power of some kind. Financial power, social power, relationship power. What are we doing with our power. Are we using it to serve or using it compel others to serve us. This year, how can you use your power more effectively for the benefit of others?


Be content. Wow! That's a hard one. As the final word in repentance, it comes as an invitation to turn again and again back to our privileges. This year let's take time to savor the gifts that come your way. Sunrises and sunsets. Good food. Good friends. Good books. The privileges of being born in a particular family and nation. Give thanks that God takes pleasure in your life, in your constant turning again and again toward goodness. Then get up and point your life once more toward love and the divine Lover.

Friday, January 2, 2015

View from the Tree

Green Lake Church Gazette article for January, 2015

Sometimes, it's good to climb a tree and get a different view. Somethings that are obvious from high in a tree are invisible from the ground.

In the words of the children's song, Zacchaeus was a wee little man. He was also rich, having made his money the old fashioned way, mining a government contract for personal wealth. Along the way he had managed to earn the scorn and hostility of large segments of the population. The famous rabbi, Jesus, was coming to town and Zacchaeus wanted to see him. However, the density of the crowd coupled with Zacchaeus' short stature and low social standing made direct access to Jesus impossible.

The tax contractor scurried ahead of the crowd, found a tree and climbed up. Sure enough, Jesus came along, and Zacchaeus got his chance to see.

As Christians we freely use the gospel stories of Jesus' interaction with people as windows into the purposes and wishes of God. We understand Jesus' invitation of himself to Zacchaeus' house for lunch as a parable of the divine desire for communion with us. We imagine God calling out to us, “Come, let's do lunch together at your place.”

Because of the story of Zacchaeus, we imagine God wishing to enjoy a leisurely hour or two sitting at our table eating soup and crackers or a sandwich and potato chips. God wants our company. God is captivated by our stories of triumphs and dreams as well as by our tales of tragedy and heartbreak.

But this Gospel story has an important complication. Yes, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus' house for lunch, making explicit his wish to fraternize with the tax collector. And yes, the pleasure was mutual. Zacchaeus was thrilled to entertain his famous guest. Thus far the story is sweet and uncomplicated. But as soon as the camera zooms out to take in the reactions of the crowd, things get messy. The Gospel reports, “All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'”

Not a few people. Not some people. Not most of the people. The negative reaction is so pervasive, the Gospel reports that “everyone” began to mutter. Nobody was happy except Zacchaeus and Jesus.

Have you ever felt like Zacchaeus? Ever been on the outside of the divine circle of approval? Have you ever wished for an encounter with God, but were intimidated by a wall of people between you and divine approval? Occasionally, I hear stories of people who grew up in church, but never quite fit the mold. They asked too many questions. They could not manage being conventional. Impulse control was not their strong suite. Alcohol or marijuana or some other drug was seductive beyond their ability to resist. They had the wrong line of work. They were ugly. They were too pretty. They were poor. They were too successful. Whatever it was that set them off as different, when they imagined coming to Jesus, they always faced an intimidating wall of human disapproval.

If you have ever found yourself attracted to God exemplified in the stories of Jesus but repulsed by a wall of less-than-welcoming people, try climbing a metaphorical tree. The story of Zacchaeus gives us permission to find an unconventional viewpoint, to bypass approved channels, to disregard the official guardians of orthodoxy and find our own vision of the smile of God. And you can count on it, when you climb that metaphorical tree, when you get a glimpse of the divine face, you will find a welcoming smile.

Some of my friends think this is too rosy a picture. They fret that I'm putting into the story a meaning that isn't really there. It's an understandable concern. However, my interpretation of the Zacchaeus story is reinforced by its context in Luke's Gospel. Immediately preceding the story of Zacchaeus are other stories: the persistent widow who has to force action from a reluctant judge (she pushes through a wall of social/legal inertia), the story of the disciples (a wall of people again) turning away mothers and children, the tax collector who sneaks into the temple to pray (braving the wall of righteous scorn), an attempt by the crowd (the wall, again) to shush a blind beggar's cries for help. In every case, there are hurdles and beyond the hurdles a divine welcome. The story of Zacchaeus is followed by the parable of the talents. The horror in the parable is tragic misreading of the character of the king (God).

In this series of stories Luke presents a coherent, compelling vision of God's character. If we are part of the crowd—the company of people publicly associated with Jesus—these stories all raise the question: will we applaud Jesus' extravagant grace or will we mutter about the sinners Jesus shares lunch with? Will we seek to protect Jesus' reputation and the purity of the church or will we act in concert with Jesus to welcome sinners and mothers and kids and other needy people? Will we celebrate the generosity of grace or protest its wastefulness?

In the Zacchaeus story Jesus does not wait for the crowd to approve before he welcomes himself to Zacchaeus' house. If we see ourselves as Zacchaeus in the story, if we are hungry for the face of God, then this story assures us God's face is turned our direction with a smile. When God spots us hiding in a tree, peering through the leaves wondering if, perhaps, at the heart of the crowd is a personage magnetic enough to explain the enthusiasm of the crowd, God will smile in response.

Yes, he has drawn a crowd and is pleased they have come. And now, looking at you, alone in the tree, God says, “Yes, you, too. Come, let's do lunch.”



Saturday, December 27, 2014

Arduous, Happy Journey


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
for Sabbath, December 27, 2014.

Matthew 2:1-11

They were rich and happy. That they were rich was obvious. You could tell from all the silver on the harness on their camels. You could tell from their clothes. You could tell from the size of their caravan.

They were happy, but we'll get to that later.

According to legend, there were three of them. Their names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. The Bible calls them Magi which probably means they were wealthy, religious philosophers from Persia. They are the three men on camels you see in nativity scenes.

They are sitting in an caravansary, an inn, in Jerusalem, the fabled City of the God. Most people who travel in the Middle East have stories to tell, and 2000 ago, travelers had even more stories to tell. Still, it was these three noble men, kings perhaps, tribal leaders, Magi, who were the center of attention. All the other stories and story-tellers had been eclipsed.

Balthasar is telling how their journey began:

I was up on the roof looking at the stars just like I do every night. Suddenly, as I was looking toward the southwest, a new star appeared. Just like that. Out of nowhere. I couldn’t believe it. I rubbed my eyes. Shut them. And looked again. It was still there. It was brighter than Venus. And besides Venus was a morning star at that time.

You ask me, could it have been a star I hadn’t noticed before? No. I’ve spent forty years studying the stars. I know what’s up there and this star had never been there before. And no, it was no shooting star. It stayed in the sky.

I sent servants running to all over the city to tell my friends—other philosophers and scientists—to go outside and look to the southwest. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going crazy. But they saw it, too. By ten o’clock my house was full of people talking about the star.

It was a wild night. I mean it’s not every night that a new star appears.

We talked until nearly dawn. By the time everyone had left I knew that I had to go. This star was a summons. This is what I have lived for.

At this point Melchior picked up the story.

How did we know what the star meant? How did we know we were supposed come to Jerusalem and find a king?

Well that’s actually two different questions. How did we know what the star meant?

For over a thousand years our people have handed down a prophecy by a man named Balaam. His prophecy is also in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here’s what he said:

This is the prophecy of Balaam the son of Beor, the man whose eyes are open, who heard the words of God, who knew the knowledge of the most High, who saw the vision of the Almighty: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab. . . Edom shall become his possession, . . . and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he who will have dominion. Numbers 24:15-17

This prophecy is just one piece in a network of prophecies that that center on the idea of a Messiah, a king who will be the sum of the best virtues of all kings. A king who whose reign will be so glorious that forever will be too short a time for its unfolding.

The Jewish prophet, Daniel, who lived in Babylon about 500 years ago predicted a succession of empires that led up to the Roman empire. Daniel ended his prophecy with these words:

At the time of those rulers the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will never end. It will never be conquered, but will completely destroy all those empires and then last forever. Daniel 2:44

Before Daniel, the Jewish prophet Isaiah who lived right here in this city, had written:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end. He will establish David’s throne on a foundation of justice and rule justly forever. Isaiah 9:6

Another prophet wrote:

Many nations will come and say,
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the Temple of the God of Jacob,
so that he can teach us his ways,
and we can obey his teachings.”
His teachings will go out from Jerusalem,
the word of the Lord from that city.
The Lord will judge many nations;
He will make decisions about strong nations that are far way.
They will hammer their swords into plow blades
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nations will no longer raise swords against other nations;
they will not train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under his own vine and fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid
because the Lord All-Powerful has said it.
Micah 4:2-4

Other prophecies among our people back in Persia confirm these glorious vision. Even Roman poets have pictured a glorious future, a golden age, when peace and justice will be the norm.

I’ve been studying this stuff for most of my life. When I saw that star, I knew in my gut that this was the announcement of the birth of the king. And I knew I was going to attempt to find this royal child and pay my respects. My friends thought I was crazy. But Balthasar and Caspar had the same conviction. So we put together the expedition, and here we are. And we are going to stay here until we find the king.”

The group broke up and everyone headed to bed. The next morning the Magi ate early and headed out into the city to continue looking for the king. Around noon as they were talking with a shop keeper, a messenger approached and said King Herod requested them to come to his palace for an interview.

The messenger led them into the palace by an obscure rear entrance and ushered them into the king’s audience chamber. He greeted them warmly and inquired about their trip. He quizzed them about the economies in Damascus and Babylon, then asked them whether they had had any success in their search for the child king. He told them he had heard about the new king and that he had inquired of the Jewish scholars at the temple. According to these experts, the new king was not to be born in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem just a few miles distant.

The exact words of the prophecy were:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
Matthew 2:6 quoting from Micah 5:2

Listen,” Herod said, “it would be one of the high points of my reign if I could pay respects to this Great King. Go to Bethlehem and search diligently for the child. When you find him, send me word so that I, too, may go and worship him. And gentlemen, I would count it a favor if you would treat our conversation as confidential.”

The Magi were led back out the hidden entrance and into a busy street.

It was dusk before they were ready to leave. No one in those days traveled at night, but the Magi set out headed south toward Bethlehem. As the sun set there was the star, apparently directly over the town of Bethlehem. They were overjoyed. It was a clear sign that they were on the right track.

They reached Bethlehem and found an inn for the night. In response to their queries, the innkeeper immediately told them about a couple named Mary and Joseph.

The next morning the Wise Men, the Magi, visited the house of Mary and Joseph. They listened to the stories of the visit of the shepherds, the curious blessing of the aged priest Simeon in the temple. The rich old men presented their gifts. They bowed and paid obeisance to the infant Jesus. Then headed home, avoiding Jerusalem because God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.

And for 1500 miles Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar rode in the deep satisfaction of that visit. Mission accomplished. They had seen the Messiah. They had worshiped. They were happy.

How do I know they were happy? Because they poured everything they had into a grand venture, a venture that summoned them. They had been beckoned, enticed, and had said, yes.

This is one of the essential elements of authentic Christianity—enticement.

The Gospel of Matthew pictures this over and over. Crowds were drawn to listen to Jesus' teaching, to be touched by Jesus' healing.

Our calling as a church is to entice one another ever farther, ever deeper into the journey of following Jesus. Like most journeys, this journey may have surprises, shocks even. Still, our greatest joy will be found in pressing on, assured by the words of the Bible and the testimony of the church, that this is a good journey and that when we see the Christ we will be fully satisfied.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Chosen Trouble

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, December 20, 2014

Wednesday morning I left the house early headed for Seattle. It was dark and raining. Headlights and tail lights reflected in the water on the highway. 3.64 miles from my house, heading down a slight hill, I noticed an animal dead on the shoulder of road just outside the white line. A wing was extended and my first thought was, that's an owl.

I sometimes remove dead animals from the road in our neighborhood. It's a sign of respect for the life, of reverence for the beauty of creation. I place the animals in the bushes where the ordinary processes of nature will recycle them. This seems more dignified than being turned into an ugly spot on the pavement. I have a special fascination with big birds. In addition to wanting to show respect by removing them from the ugliness of their highway destiny, I find the allure of getting close too strong to resist. Handling a hawk or duck, touching its feathers and examining its intricate coloring is pure magic. It's illegal to possess the feathers, but I don't think it's illegal to pick up a bird and examine it.

All this ran through my head in a few seconds. A half mile down the highway I turned into a side road. Did a U-turn and headed back to check out my sighting. Drove past the spot, did another U-turn and pulled off on the shoulder with my headlights pointed at the bird. I don't know why I thought it was an owl. In my lights it looked like duck. I went to pick it up, and the duck's head was missing. Then I realized, no, it really was an owl. It was lying on its back. A duck in that position would show off its long neck. An owl on the other hand is so compact, it's just a single lump of feathers. I spotted its beak and could make out the outlines of its face.

I had never touched an owl before. Never seen one up this close. Even though it was dead, there were no marks on it. I picked it up. It was still warm. Instead of putting it in the bushes, I put it in my car figuring I would show it to a few of my bird friends before disposing of it properly. (Carolyn, the church administrator is an officer in the Audubon Society. My friend, Brian, is an insane birder. I figured I'd show it to the kids in the Day Care.)

With the bird lying on its back on the floor on the passenger side of the car, I headed on into Seattle. The traffic was terrible. The trip took twice as long as usual. The sky grew lighter. Somewhere near Southcenter I happened to glance down at my dead bird and was startled to see him standing up. He was a bit wobbly on his feet, but he was clearly not dead!

Now what? I had visions of the headlines: Man attacked by owl. I-5 closed by the resulting accident. I had pictures in my head of massive flapping wings and sharp talons. This was not good! But what could I do, I was in the center lane of I-5. I had to keep driving.

Of course, I now glanced at my bird every few seconds to assess the risk of attack. He appeared to be pretty lethargic. He never lifted his wings. He faced away from me. Once or twice he looked my direction and opened his left eye. Other than that, he just stood there swaying a bit, looking like he might be a little drunk. Which would make sense given the fact I was pretty sure he had been knocked unconscious by a collision with a car wind shield.

Fifteen minutes later, he was still just standing there. I looked at the clock. Maybe Brian would be awake. Even if he weren't, this was important enough, I'd wake him up.

“Brian, I have a problem. I picked up a dead owl. But now it's resurrected itself. It's standing on the floor of my car. I don't know how badly hurt it is. Do you know if there is any place that rescues injured owls?”

Brian didn't know, but he promised to get online, find out and call me back.

Then I began thinking, I need some kind of container to put this bird in. Sooner or later if he doesn't die, he's going to try to get out of the car. He's going to be flapping against the glass. I called Anne, the director of the Day Care. She's an animal lover, maybe she had a dog crate I could borrow.

She did not have a dog crate, but she did have a cat crate. I explained my problem. She said she'd get to the church as soon as she could.

When I pulled up here at the church, Fred was still sitting in the same spot on the floor of my car. When I opened my door and got out, he didn't look, didn't move.

Anne arrived with big leather gloves, a pillow case and a cat crate. She cautiously opened the passenger door, slipped the pillow case over the owl, carried him inside, then transferred him to the cat crate.

I took him around to show the kids at the day care then got busy figuring out my next move.

When I picked up the owl, it was a dead bird. It was a beautiful thing which I was going to own for a few hours until I properly disposed of it. I was in complete control. I could of simply set it back down in the bushes at the edge of the road and left it to the crows and other scavengers. Once I put it in my car, as long as it was dead, I was free to dispose of it any time. It was not a problem.

But now, it was alive. Suddenly I was not in control. A living creature you have taken in suddenly imposes obligations. I was stuck. I couldn't just let it go. I had driven it 35 miles away from its home. I had taken it from the country into the heart of Seattle.

And besides, I couldn't just release it until I knew it could fend for itself.

Carolyn told me about a rescue place in Arlington. That was a long way away, but I called them anyway. At least they could advise me. No answer.

Brian called me back and told me about a rescue place in Kent—South Sound Critter Care. The lady there urged me to bring the bird in as soon as possible. I groaned. It was an hour's drive away. That was going to be two and half hours out of my day.

I began scolding myself. Why did I pick up the stupid bird? I should have just looked at it and put it in the bushes. Let nature take its course. But, I had picked it up. I had brought with me into the heart of the City. And now it was alive. It was my problem.

I remember years ago, I had visited some people who had a huge parrot or macaw. While they were out of the living room I had walked over to the bird, it climbed off its perch and onto my arm. The bird and I were having a pleasant conversation when the people came back into the living room.

I put the bird back on its perch and visited with the people. At the end of our visit they offered me the bird. The man was sick and facing a very uncertain future. “That bird never lets strangers approach him. He's dangerous. He obviously likes you. Would you take him?”

I was flattered. I was even tempted. He was a really cool bird. But I had the presence of mind to say that I should check with my wife before taking another animal into the house. Karin delicately suggested I do a little research on the care required by such birds. Thanks to google, I discovered that birds like that needed four or five hours of contact time daily with their person. FOUR TO FIVE HOURS!!!!!!!!

I told the bird's people thanks but no thanks.

Unfortunately, with this owl, I had not considered the possibility that it would resurrect itself and become a dependent, living creature and rearrange my entire day.

I briefly considered just keeping it in the crate until Thursday. But my schedule Thursday was no more convenient than Wednesday. I could take the bird back to where I found it and release it. But that was as far away as the rescue center.

I was stuck. What an idiot. I glared at the bird which was invisible inside the crate in a dark corner of my office.

I talked with Carolyn, took care of a few urgent phone calls, then carried the cat crate with its bird cargo out to the car and headed for Kent, wondering if the bird would still be alive when I got there, wondering if this whole thing was a waste of time. But what else could I do?


In the Christmas story there are some surprises like my owl who resurrected himself. Joseph falls in love with a young girl named Mary. Only after he is hooked, hopelessly in love, only then does he get the news she is going to have an inconvenient pregnancy.

Jesus is born. The angels sing. Rich men from Persia show up to honor the child.

Then King Herod gets in a snit and the holy family barely escapes slaughter.

Would Mary have agreed to this project if she had known the full extent of tragedy and horror she would confront?

Would Joseph have stuck with Mary if he had known her son was going to expose the whole family to the threat of death?

I like to think he would have. Every time we allow ourselves to love, we are taking a huge risk. We are exposing our hearts to the risk of disappointment and grief. Still, that's what lovers do. They take risks. They dare.

The decision to have a child is always a risky matter. Perhaps if you have your children when you are a teenager, you can avoid the scary awareness of all the things that can go wrong. Commonly, we parents dream our children will be healthy and beautiful and smart and ambitious and righteous. Of course. But especially if we are a little older when we have children, we know we are signing up for a risky adventure. Problems happen. Difficulties arise. Illness and accidents invade our lives. Knowing this, perhaps only vaguely, still we embrace the adventure. It's who we are. We become parents.

Let's take this the next step. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was the Son of God. According the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was the Son of generations of fathers going all the way back to Adam—who was the son of God. While the teenage Mary could not possibly have understood the challenges she was signing up for when she agreed to be the mother of Jesus, God the Father knew full well what was ahead.

The injustice and trauma in Jesus life were expected by God. God proceeded anyway. It's what parents do.

At the heart of our faith is the conviction that God has devoted the best resources of heaven to saving people. God sees the mess people are in and God responds. God neutralizes guilt so that wrong doers can imagine a new life beyond their moral failures. God promises healing to those who are harmed by intention or by accident. God gives special reassurance to those in poverty, those who suffer from mental illness, those whose irregularities have made them pariahs.

Our mess is not just our problem. It's God's problem.

The owl drunk with a head injury, standing unsteadily on the floor of my car, had a problem. Because of the culture I am part of—a culture shaped by the life-affirming values of this church, and the animal-affirming values of our house—I was stuck. Since my dead owl had come back to life, I had a problem.

The owl's problem was my problem. But here is the radical difference between the message of the owl story and the message of the Christmas story.

The owl tricked me into getting involved in his life.

The Christmas story declares emphatically that God gladly, boldly, deliberately got involved in our lives. We are not a dead owl that came to life in God's cosmos, bringing with us unexpected inconvenience.

According to the Christmas story we are the treasured, desired children of God.

According to classic Christianity, God knew the difficulties, the pain, the massive injustice that would arise from the life of human beings. God proceeded anyway. The challenge of saving humanity, of redemption, atonement, peacemaking, restoration—all of that—is not something God is stuck with. God did not pick humanity up from the side of the road, imagining that he was holding in his hands something beautiful and fully in his control only to be astonished when we came to life and disordered the tidy beauty of the universe.

Rather God looked ahead at the creativity and energy of humanity. God saw that we would pervert our freedom. God saw the full range of possibilities, and said, “Let's do it.” I hope this is not being too irreverent, but I imagine God saying, “What would my life be without my children? Safety and unruffled order is nothing compared to the wild adventure of having children.”

Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is redolent with sweetness and charm. Sweet baby Jesus, holy infant, tender and mild. Christmas also declares that our problems, our needs, our tragedies and struggles with injustice—all this is not a problem that has taken God unawares. These are not dead owls that have resurrected themselves in God's car and imposed themselves on God. Rather the heartbreak of humanity, and even the challenge of healing evil and restoring the world—all this has been freely chosen by God because this mess is your life, and you are God's prized son. You are God's precious daughter.

We are all baby Jesus. Loved and treasured.

This is what we mean when we say, Merry Christmas.