Friday, December 2, 2016

City of Hope

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

For December 3, 2016

An individual bone is a thing of beauty. A skull is captivating. We can study the intricacies of the interlocking bones, trace the openings for nerves and blood vessels that nourished the living animal.

But a pile of bones becomes depressing. We begin to feel the weight of death. And a vast plain littered with a jumble of bones? It is a horror. It tugs at our eyes. We are compelled to see it. But it repulses our hearts. Why? How? When? What shrieking pain? What ocean of grief?

The prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of a vast plain littered with bones, like the American plains after the buffalo exterminators had rampaged through and vultures and time had had their way. Bleached, jumbled bones.

It was a bleak, heart-breaking vista. (See Ezekiel 37)

“Ezekiel,” the heavenly voice calls, “can these bones live again?”

The answer is, of course, not. But Ezekiel is a prophet and he knows that both in dreams and with God everything is possible, so he responds with a very diplomatic, “Lord, you alone know.”

So God tells the prophet, “Prophesy to these bones. Tell them, 'Bones, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. This is what God says, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you will live. I will wrap you with sinews and muscles. I will cover you with skin, and put breath into you, and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”'”

The prophet spoke as he was commanded. The bones rattled themselves together. Sinews and muscles grew themselves around the skeletons then were covered with skin. As a final act, the prophet called on the breath of God to blow into these beautiful bodies and the wind came and the bodies became people. The valley of dry bones became a parade ground of a vast triumphant army.

Then God speaks again to the prophet. In my imagination, God speaks in a whisper, bending close to the prophet's ear:

Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. You know what they say: We are wasted to nothing but dry bones. All our hope is lost. Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost. We have come to nothing. That is what they say.
But this is what I say: O my people, I will open your graves. I will bring you again into the promised land. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. I will settled you back in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

A bit of historical context will give even richer meaning to these words: Centuries earlier the Jewish people had split in a civil war. The northern kingdom, with their capital at Samaria, is commonly called Israel. The southern kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital was called Judah.

The Jewish people were split in two. Then the northern kingdom, the nation called Israel, the nation with the larger population was captured by Assyria. The population was deported and completely disappeared from history. Evaporated. Gone. Extinct. It was a devastating loss. The only thing that eased the sense of loss among the people in Jerusalem is that they could tell themselves that those Jews up north, those Israelites, were not real Jews. Those people up there are them—not us. And while it's understandable why God would allow that to happen to them, it could never happen to us. We have God's promise that our kingdom, our royal line will endure forever.

But now, a hundred fifty years later, Judah was staring at the same fate—extinction. Their capital city, Jerusalem was a pile of rubble. The vast majority of the Jewish people lived in various locations scattered across the empire of Babylon. Ezekiel himself, the prophet, did not live in “the holy land” or Palestine. He lived in town on the Chebar River in the realm of Babylon. There was no more Jewish “nation.” It appeared they, too, were headed for extinction.

It was against that backdrop that Ezekiel wrote his vision of the Dry Bones. Can dry bones live? Is there any hope of life in a sea of disarticulated skeletons? A sea of bones picked clean by vultures, washed by the rain, bleached by the sun. Is there any hope? I suppose you could convert them into bone meal for fertilizer? Can dry bones live? No, not in the ordinary course of things. Can dry bones live?Yes, if God does something out of the ordinary.

And the hope of the prophets has always been that God will do something out of the ordinary.

This is the heart of prophecy throughout the Jewish scriptures. The ancient Jewish writers recognized human frailty and evil. They understood our susceptibility to the seductions of greed and vengeance, the idolatry of wealth and power. The prophets know that individuals and societies sometimes take themselves down. Over and over and over and over the prophets rebuked those in power, the priests and royalty and wealthy and powerful for their abuse of office. The prophets challenged them to use their power to partner with God in caring for the lowly ones.

The prophets acknowledged that goodness was unlikely. The seductions were too enchanting, too deceptive. The allure would prove irresistible and doom would happen. Things would spiral down. Dark days. Night would come.

Yes. But this was not the last word. God would work a grand reversal. God would bring his people back from darkness. God would cure his people of their infatuation with power and narrowly enjoyed wealth. God would create righteous hearts among his people. Dry bones would live. The valley of dry bones would become the marching ground of the heavenly band.

Hope was the last word. God would make it happen.

This same prophetic rhythm plays through all the prophets of the Old Testament. Humans would fail. Humans would yield to the seductive allure of bullies and idols. The holy civilization would collapse. But that would not be the last word. God would change things.

Swords would be beaten into plowshares.
Every family would have its own pleasant home, its own flourishing fig tree, its own peaceable neighborhood.

This would happen, not because people finally got it. The prophets did not imagine that we would learn from our mistakes. No, the prophets' bold hope was that God would change the course of history. God would reshape humanity. Peace would reign because God would reign.

We make the most sense of the story of Jesus when we keep this prophetic heritage in mind. The first Christians were sure that Jesus was the heavenly agent who would accomplish this change of history. Jesus was the embodiment of the hope of the prophetic visions. Jesus was the one who would change dry bones into a living people.

With this in mind let's read again the words of our New Testament reading.

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. "Joseph, son of David," the angel said, "do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord's message through his prophet: "Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means 'God is with us.'" Matthew 1:18-24

Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophetic hope: God would enter humanity. God would change humanity.

This is the center of our holy civilization. We believe Jesus is the future of what it means to be human. Jesus is what God looks like when God walks among us.

When God comes among us, the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry eat, the poor rejoice, the foreigner finds welcome, the wealthy find delight in generosity, the wise find pleasure in teaching, the holy are know for their loving.

This much is exhortation. It is direction for us as we shape the culture of this Holy City, the church. We are a City of Hope. Our public face is hope. We believe goodness will triumph. We help one another hope. When the weight of death and sickness, injustice and disaster overwhelms one or another of us, the rest of us, the community stubbornly persists in hope. Hope is central in our culture. Hope helps to define us. We are people of hope.

We hope that Jesus will, indeed, ultimately have his way. We believe wars will cease. We believe the broken will be made whole. In our worship—both in our music and in our spoken word—we affirm over and over and over again.

The dry bones will live.

God's spirit will triumph.

Love and justice will flourish.

Our future is correctly pictured as a sunlit verdant plain, populated as far as the eye can see by happy, holy, healthy people. This is our hope. Now and always.

Friday, November 25, 2016

City of Mercy

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
November 29, 2016

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-12, Luke 10:29-37.

Synopsis: More and more, I come back to this statement by Jesus as the bedrock of my religion and worldview: “You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' I tell you, 'Love your enemies . . . thus living as children of the heavenly Father. Because he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” To paraphrase: We may have imagined it some great accomplishment when we have learned to distinguish between those who deserve our favor and those who do not. But such skill is a rather pedestrian achievement. A truly great accomplishment, one that marks us as most like God, is the practice of mercy. Mercy is generosity rooted in the heart of the giver rather than elicited by the virtue of the recipient. Church is a community pledged to the ideals of God. It is a city whose culture is shaped by the character of our founder. So, habits of mercy and generosity bring our civilization closest to our holy charter. They unite our hearts most intimately with God.

I met George last week. He's newly arrived from Nairobi for a couple of years of graduate study here at UW.

JR and his family moved here from Southern California, the neighborhood of Los Angeles.

+Several of us here, have a shared history of time at Church of the Advent Hope in New York City.

Nairobi. Los Angeles. New York City. Seattle. Each of these cities has its own character, its own culture, its own civilization. Even here in our own region, Bellevue, Kirkland, Seattle, Tacoma. Each of these cities has a distinctive flavor. For those who know them well, the mere mention of their names evokes a kind of gut response. Each city has its own personality, its own culture.

[In the worship service, I will ask people to text me brief descriptions of a favorite city, a city they have lived in, or even a city they have visited. I will ask them to give their favorite city a descriptive name. Los Angeles, the city of angels? Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love?]

These days I often imagine church as a city. In my mind I play with various names for this city. A name that all by itself evokes a mental picture of the culture of that city, the ideals the city is known for. If we were going to name the church based on what we would hope it would be when it was on its best behavior, what name would I choose? Names that run through my mind: The City of God. The Holy City. The Beautiful City. The City of Joy (my sermon last week). The City of Refuge (to borrow a term from the Book of Deuteronomy). The City of Light. Today, because it's Thanksgiving, I want to imagine the church as the City of Mercy.

Imagine you're on a trek in the Himalayas. The day's journey has taken you across two passes over 16,000 feet. You're exhausted. For the last four hours it's been raining and blowing. The temperature is just above freezing. The light is gone from the sky. Half an hour back you finally had to turn on your headlamp. You're starting to get nervous. Right now, you're not freezing, but you know the instant, even if you stopped for three minutes to get a snack from your pack, the instant you stop your body temperature is going to drop. Dangerously. Hypothermia is just ten minutes away. So stopping is impossible. Resting is impossible. And you're running out of gas. Lunch was a very long time ago. The snacks you've eaten since then seem to disappear into your gut without turning into energy. Your destination is a village. You wonder idly if you'll make it.

Then your partner calls out, “There it is.”

Ahead through the gathering gloom and rain and mist, lights. Too far away. But still lights. And maybe the shape of buildings. You relax a bit. You're still cold. Your muscles still complain about the length of the day. You still wish the rain would quit. But you quit worrying. Soon, you'll be able to stop moving without tumbling almost immediately into hypothermia. You'll be inside, under a roof, in a place where hot tea will be ready. Safe.

This is a picture of church. A beckoning city. A saving village. A place where, when you arrive, you can collapse and know it's okay. It you are shivering and wet, someone will offer tea. If you are exhausted, someone will offer a seat.

Jesus once pictured the church as a city on a hill. I like that picture. For those outside, it is a beckoning place offering safety. For those inside it provides shelter and nourishment and a place to serve. Every villager has an opportunity to participate in the culture of care, the culture of mercy.

One of the foundational convictions of the church is that we are privileged. This life we share together, this community is a gift. When we show mercy we are merely paying forward the rich blessing we have received.

The story of the church begins way back, long before Jesus. I like the language of our OT reading this morning, words addressed to the Jewish people newly arrived in the land of Palestine.

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you as a special possession and you have conquered it and settled there, put some of the first produce from each crop you harvest into a basket and bring it to the designated place of worship--the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored.
Go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, 'With this gift I acknowledge to the LORD your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.'
The priest will then take the basket from your hand and set it before the altar of the LORD your God.
"You must then say in the presence of the LORD your God, 'My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt. His family arrived few in number, but in Egypt they became a large and mighty nation. When the Egyptians oppressed and humiliated us by making us their slaves, we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. He heard our cries and saw our hardship, toil, and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful arm, with overwhelming terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey!
And now, O LORD, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.' Then place the produce before the LORD your God, and bow to the ground in worship before him.
Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household. Remember to include the Levites and the foreigners living among you in the celebration. "Every third year you must offer a special tithe of your crops. In this year of the special tithe you must give your tithes to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns.

The father of the Israelites, their ancestor, was a wandering Aramean. He had no citizenship. He was officially landless and stateless. He had no passport. Then it got worse. Their people headed south into Egypt which looked like a really good idea at the time, but then the government changed and suddenly they became a scary people, a problem. The government solved the problem by registering them all as slaves.

Life was unbearable where they were. And there was nowhere else they could go. They were stuck.

Then God rescued them and brought them into a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

They were to keep this history alive, Moses said. Regularly celebrate it. And shape their civic life in light of this history. Remember you were a foreigner, a stateless person, a person with no home, no settled place. Remember that when you deal with foreigners and homeless people. Remember. Do not forget.

We Americans are like those early Jewish people. Like them, we came from somewhere else. All of us. Even Native Americans or First Nations were not created here on this soil. They came from elsewhere. Probably via Russia or Siberia. And I don't have to remind the rest of us that we were first boat people before we were Americans. For most of our forebears, life back there was not so good.

Now we hold the most envied passports in the world. We did not earn these documents. They are gifts of parentage, of luck, of God. We are recipients of mercy. Of generosity.

Let's remember. Let's never forget. And may our memory of mercy received lead us to practice mercy.

Coming back to the Bible's picture of the people of God, there is a NT passage that echoes the mercy theme of our OT reading. It's found in 1 Peter 2:9

You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God's very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God's people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God's mercy." 1 Peter 2:9-10.

Who are we? What are we? We were nobodies. We lived in Nowheresville. But now through God's mercy, we are somebodies. We members of the people of God, citizens of the City of Mercy. Every element of our life together is suffused with the light and warmth of mercy.

Which brings us to our NT reading.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: "Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus replied, "What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?"
The man answered, "'You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.' And, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
"Right!" Jesus told him. "Do this and you will live!"
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus replied with a story: "A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
"By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.
A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
"Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him.
Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him.
The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, 'Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I'll pay you the next time I'm here.'
"Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?" Jesus asked.
The man replied, "The one who showed him mercy." Then Jesus said, "Yes, now go and do the same."

A theologian asked Jesus about salvation. Jesus answered, “Obey the commandments—you know, love God and love your neighbor.”

Love your neighbor. Show mercy to your neighbor. And every theologian knows we are supposed to love our neighbor, to show mercy to our neighbor. But just who are these “neighbors” who are worthy to receive my love and mercy?

When I hear the word neighbor, I imagine the guy who lives next door. The one that has come to the rescue of my family on more than one occasion when I wasn't around. I think about the woman across the street that I've been waving to in the morning while she is waiting with her kids for the school bus. We've been waving at each other for more than ten years now. If those people needed something, yes, I know I should show mercy. And there is the widow who lives next door. She's kind of crazy, but she's been part of our lives for almost twenty years now, so when she needs her lawnmower taken into the shop, I figure it's my responsibility to do it. Neighbors are people we know, people we trust, people like us, good people.

The theologian wondered just how far the circle of neighborhood reached. Just who is really worthy of my mercy, my neighborliness?

Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Then comes to the punch line: “Who was neighbor to the man in need?” Jesus asked the theologian. “The one who showed mercy,” the good theologian answered.

The theologian wanted to know who was worthy to receive his mercy, who was good enough to be his neighbor.

Jesus turned the question on its head. Are you good enough to be a neighbor?

One primary quality of mercy is that it is the overflow of generosity that lives in the heart of the merciful. Others do not earn mercy. We give it. Because we are full of it.

Our fathers and mothers were wandering people and now have passports in the richest most powerful nation in the history of humanity. We have been made so rich we can never give others the magnitude of mercy we have received. But we are mindful of our wealth and seek to share.

Our first question is not does that person deserve to be my neighbor. Instead we ask, am I good enough to act as neighbor?

Our aim as a church is to be a City of Mercy. A lighted village on a hill at the end of a long, cold trek.

We did not create this city. Jesus did. We who were not a people were transformed into a people by the mercy of God. We who had not received mercy, have now received it. And are glad. And are looking for opportunities to pay to forward, to taste again in our own souls the sweetness of the mercy we have received by letting it run through our hands into the lives of others.

And weary, freezing trekkers will see the glow of mercy and hurry to the warmth and light of our city. The City of Mercy.

Liturgy of Hope, Table of Peace

Below is the text of an inter-faith liturgy we will share on Friday night, November 25, 2016, at Green Lake Church.

Liturgy of Hope, Table of Peace

We have come to worship. What does that mean? It means we have come here to affirm together exalted ideals. In company with one another, we open our hearts toward goodness and virtue, nobility and beauty. We say, “Yes, that is so.” and further, “We are glad it is so.”

Of course, there are ideas that distinguish us from one another, particular beliefs about the nature of the cosmos–its history and operation. We acknowledge those differences, then, for now, lay them aside to celebrate together the glorious, pervasive ideals that form a shared treasure.

Outside this place, at times other than now, there is much work to be done. The world of politics and government needs our attention and action. The world of commerce also beckons with its immense possibilities and risks. Some of us are pursuing formal education. Some of us are retired and busy with that distinctive phase of life. Some are medical specialists. Some are police. Some may be soldiers. It each of these arenas, there is much work to be done. Busyness and vigorous action is required. We acknowledge the legitimacy of all these spheres of life. But we are wary of their potential to become all consuming. The urgency of action can so completely capture our attention that we lose sight of our highest ideals. The difficulty of the tasks confronting us and the apparent failures of goodness can weigh on us so heavily, the light within gets smothered. So we come together to help one another once again fill our vision with the glorious ideals that unite our humanity.

As an Adventist minister, the words I know best are the words of the Bible. So we will begin with those words. Then we will savor the words of other traditions, other religions. Words that have been shared with me by a number of friends. After each reading, we will pause. In that pause, I invite you to read again the words of the selection. Or pray them. Or meditate on them. Linger with them. Let these words soothe and nourish your soul. Let them beckon you to higher, brighter ambition and resolve.

Let us begin.

The word of Isaiah the prophet, son of Amoz, concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
Now it will come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the LORD's house will be established on the top of the mountains.
It will be exalted above the hills.
And all nations will flow to it.
Many people will come and say,
"Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us His ways.
We will walk in His paths."
For out of Zion will go forth the law,
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations, and rebuke many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
Neither will they learn war anymore. Isaiah 2:1-4

From the Prophet Isaiah:

There will come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch will grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
His delight is in the fear of the Lord,
And he will not judge by the sight of his eyes,
Nor decide by the hearing of his ears;
But with righteousness he will judge on behalf of the poor,
And with equity make decisions for the meek of the earth.
The fruit of his judgment will be
The wolf will dwell with the lamb,
The leopard will lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion together;
And a little child will lead them.
Cows and bears will graze together;
Their young will lie down amicably together;
The lion will eat straw like an ox.
The nursing child will play safely by the cobra's hole,
And the weaned child will put his hand in the viper's den.
They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:1-9

From the Gospel of Matthew

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.
Upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. . . .

Jesus went about all Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues,
preaching the gospel of the kingdom,
and healing all kinds of sickness and disease among the people.
His fame spread as far as Syria,
and they brought to him people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics;

and he healed them.
Matthew 4:16, 23-24

Malala Yousafzai. A young woman who was brutally attacked because of her pursuit of education and was later awarded the Nobel Prize, the youngest person ever so recognized.

“But then later on, I used to -- I started thinking about that, and I used to think that a talib [religious militant] would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do, Malala?' Then I would reply to myself that, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.'... But then I said, 'If you hit a talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and that talib. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others, but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' Then I said I'll tell him how important education is, and that 'I even want education for your children as well,' and I'll tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'"

From J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (movie script)

Sam: It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch nonfear, you are free.

“The source of love is deep in us and we can help others realize a lot of happiness. One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy.”

Around us, life bursts with miracles--a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops. If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere. Each human being is a multiplicity of miracles. Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms; ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap; a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos; a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings. When we are tired and feel discouraged by life's daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

From the Quran

They ask thee what they shall spend. Say: ‘Whatever of good and abundant wealth you spend should be for parents and near relatives and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer. And whatever good you do, surely Allah knows it well.’ (Al Quran 2:216)

And worship Allah and associate naught with Him, and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful. (Al Quran 4:37)

From The Oxford Book of Prayer

Lord, we pray for the power to be gentle;
the strength to be forgiving;
the patience to be understanding;
and the endurance to persist in the right no matter the consequences.

May we trust in the power of good to overcome evil and the power of love to overcome hatred.
Grant us the vision to see a world emancipated from violence,
a new world where fear no longer leads people to commit injustice, nor selfishness makes them bring suffering to others.

May we devote ourselves to making peace, praying always for the inspiration and the power to fulfill the destiny for which we and all people were created. -Week of Prayer for World Peace, 1978

A prayer of the Ojibway people of Canada

Look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
who are divided
And we are the ones
Who must come back together
To walk in the Sacred Way.
Sacred One,
Teach us love, compassion, and honour
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.
(from The Oxford Book of Prayer)

A Jewish Prayer
Grant us peace, goodness and blessing; life, grace and kindness; justice and mercy. Our Father, bless us all together with the Light of your presence, for in the Light of Your presence, you give us, Lord our God, law and life, love and kindness, justice and mercy, blessing and peace.

from The Oxford Book of Prayer

A Prayer
Lord, the wounds of the world are too deep for us to heal. We have to bring men and women to you and ask you to look after them--the sick in body and mind, the withered in spirit, the victims of greed and injustice, the prisoners of grief.
And yet, our Father, do not let our prayers excuse us from paying the price of compassion.
Make us generous with the resources you have entrusted to us. Let your work of rescue be done in us and through us all.
-from The Oxford Book of Prayer

From Henri Nouwen
Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, "How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?" There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.

from ​Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
Henri J. M. Nouwen "Enough Light for the Next Step"

Once in a while we meet a gentle person. Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu.

Gentle is the one who does "not break the crushed reed, or snuff the faltering wick" (Matthew 12:20). Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something. A gentle person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly, and touches with reverence. A gentle person knows that true growth requires nurture, not force. Let's dress ourselves with gentleness. In our tough and often unbending world our gentleness can be a vivid reminder of the presence of God among us.

​Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
"Dressed in Gentleness": Henri J. M. Nouwen

From Dorothy Bass

Can you sense how much this community of hospitable Christians, Jews, post-theists, mystics, Muslims, Buddhists, spiritual-but-not-religious folks and humanists has to offer the world at this moment? Can you imagine what we might offer for the next four years? You are all here. You do know that, don't you? This is OUR time. To witness to love. To embody grace. To do justice. To care for creation. And we can DO IT TOGETHER. All our voices. Different experiences, different theologies, but respectful, appreciative, creating a table of gratitude for the world. Harmonized. Not angry at one another. Together. No longer a political slogan. Reality.
We can do this. Dorothy Bass
From the Metta Sutta
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded.

From Jesus
You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
But I tell you,
love your enemies and bless those who curse you,
do good to those who hate you,
pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
thus living out the family values of your Father in heaven.
For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
If you love those who love you, how is that special? Even the disreputable do the same.
If you greet your relatives and friends, how is that noteworthy? So do despicable people.
But you, since you are children, be perfect like your Father in heaven.
–Jesus, Matthew 5:38-48

The readings we have shared come from various religious traditions. Each of these forms of spiritual life have distinctive details and theories. We have chosen readings that emphasize what is shared across religious and spiritual traditions. We have done this in part because of the present moment in the world when it seems that the impulses of sectarianism and nationalism have gained new energy and even legitimacy. When the people of the most prosperous and most powerful nation in history imagine their problems are caused largely by foreigners and poor people, people of faith cannot be silent. In all our religions we are exhorted to show special care for the poor and the foreigner. In worship, we remind ourselves of our connection with the exalted ideals of compassion and justice, generosity and honesty, love and respect, peace and prosperity. We have been blessed. In worship we remember this and pledge ourselves to pay it forward.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Serving God in Damascus

Manuscript for sermon at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists--Tentative. preliminary version.

Naaman was the leading general of the armies of Damascus. And Damascus was the leading military competitor of the Jewish kingdom of Samaria. There were frequent border skirmishes. We might compare it to the current relationship between India and Pakistan or Israel and Iran or North and South Korea. They were enemies.

The raiding parties took captives. The captives became slaves in the respective nations. It was like Boko Haram kidnapping those 200 girls in Nigeria. Finders keepers. To the victors the spoils. It was a barbaric, brutal world.

In that setting Naaman was a leper. Incurable, ostracizing, terrible. But he was such an effective general, he kept his position.

His wife had a maid, one of those captives seized in a raid across the border into Samaria. The maid said to her mistress, “If my master would go to Samaria, there is a prophet there who could cure his leprosy.”

When you have an incurable, untreatable illness almost any promise of hope is worth checking out. Naaman had his sources, spies in Samaria. He checked out the maid's claim. And it was true. The prophet Elisha was the most amazing miracle worker in the ancient world. In the entire Bible no one besides Jesus himself comes even close. Elisha could do anything.

Naaman talked with his king. Told him the story. Naaman would like to go see the prophet Elisha in Samaria. It would be unusual, the chief general of the kingdom of Damascus traveling to Samaria for medical assistance. But stranger things have happened.

The king sent Naaman off to Samaria with a pile of gold and silver and a letter to the king of Samaria. Mr. King of Samaria. I'm sending you my good man, Naaman, and am requesting that you arrange for the healing of his leprosy.

I would be very much obliged.

Yours in the grand fraternity of Royalty,

Signed, the King of Samaria

Naaman showed up in Samaria and presented his letter to the king. When the king read the letter he ripped open his clothes in a show of horror and perplexity.

What??!! Is the King of Damascus looking for a pretext to start a war? Might as well ask me to make camels fly and horses talk. Am I God? What makes him think I can cure leprosy?

Naaman tried to reassure the king. No, they were not looking to start a war. They had heard that somewhere in the Kingdom of Samaria there was a cure for leprosy. And the king was prepared to pay handsomely for the cure. No offense was intended.

About this time, a courier hands the king a note from the prophet Elisha.

“Why are you ripping up your clothes? Send him to me.”

Of course! The king sends Naaman off to the prophet's house.

Arriving outside the prophet's house, Naaman waits, expecting appropriate courtesies. Instead, after a few minutes a servant comes out the door and approaches the chariot.

“Hi. Are you Naaman, the guy from Damascus?”

Naaman is taken aback by the lack of formality.

“Yes,” one of Naaman's servants responds. “This is Naaman, chief general of the kingdom of Damascus, conqueror of nations north, south, east and west, spoiler of cities. This is Naaman, the neck on which turns the head of our lord, the King of Damascus.”

“Good.” Says Gehazi, the servant. “My master, Elisha, Prophet of Yahweh, directed me to give you this message: Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River and you will be healed of your leprosy.”

That was it. No fanfare. No conversation. No face time. No ceremony. No ritual. Just go wash yourself in the Jordan. Seven times. A word given by a servant.

Naaman exploded. “What? I, the chief general and first courtier of the kingdom of Damascus, I am treated like a common peasant and ordered by an invisible prophet to go wash in the Jordan River? This is outrageous. Besides the Jordan is a warm-water, muck-bottomed ribbon of dirt. The rivers in Damascus are crystal clear. If I were going to wash, and I'm not saying I would. But if I were going to wash in pursuit of healing, why not the beautiful rivers of Damascus?”

He ordered his entourage to hit the road. As the company moved up the road, Naaman's servants protested. “Master, if the prophet had directed you to perform some heroic feat, you would have surely attempted it. If the prophet had demanded a great payment, you were ready to pay. So why not do this simple thing. What can it hurt?”

It took a while for the general to calm down, but the logic of his servants was impeccable. So eventually, they turned their chariots and pack horses toward the Jordan River.
At the river, Naaman stripped and squished his way through the sucky near shore mud out to where the water was deep enough to dunk himself. He dunked seven times and came out of the river with the skin of a baby.

It was an astounding miracle. In all the rest of the Old Testament there is no other account of a healing from chronic leprosy. Even in the stories of Elisha, this is the only account of a healing from leprosy. Across the Middle East no miracle worker had this kind of power. No god cured leprosy. Elisha and his God, Yahweh, were unique.

Naaman was an instant convert. He would serve this God and honor this prophet for the rest of his life.

Naaman and his caravan headed back to the prophet's house.

This time the prophet welcomed him. History does not give us any details, but the suggestion is the general must have become a student, a learner, a disciple. The chief general of the kingdom of Damascus spent enough time with Elisha, the prophet of God, to learn what it meant to became a devotee of the God of Elisha.

It's what comes next that I want us to pay attention to.

After the healing, Naaman went back home, back to his job as chief general of the kingdom of Damascus. There in that place, in that role, he lived his life of devotion.

Where do we live our lives of devotion to God?

This election highlights the deep complications of human systems.

A huge majority of American evangelicals voted for a candidate who has very publicly repudiated many Christian values. A significant number of progressive and liberal Christians voted for a candidate who has deep ties with the wealthy elite who have prospered through the recent decades of wealth transfer from the middle class to the upper class.

There are no perfect politicians, of course. And no godly political parties. But during the campaign Mr. Trump's rhetoric was unusually blunt in expressing ideas that run counter to the teachings of Jesus--his claim to need no forgiveness, derision toward foreigners, lusty disregard for the dignity of women. Mr. Trump has now been elected. Which raises a daunting question for those of us who believe words matter and have high regard for the teachings of Jesus: Where do we go to faithfully live out our faith?

It seems to me the story of Naaman gives this answer: We live out our faith in the place where we already are. We live our faith in this country. In this city. In this job.

Sometimes we might be tempted to imagine there is some ideal place to serve God. A place where the people around us would be more supportive of faith, a place where the institutions and symbols of power were more favorable to our faith.


But the story of Naaman offers a different lesson: We can serve God where we are, even if “where we are” is in the heart of Damascus, the institutional enemy of our people, the institutional embodiment of opposition to our values.

It's natural to want a pure place in which to serve. Beware. Let's not allow our desire to be connected with only pure expressions of our faith to keep us from doing good in the real world, the messy world, that is immediately present to us.

Serve God in the place where you are.

I'm not saying you should stay in an unhealthy place if you can go to a place that works better for you. I am saying, don't imagine that because you are in a difficult place, serving Jesus is impossible or optional. If Naaman could serve God while remaining chief general of the kingdom of Damascus, you can serve God in the place where you are.

Just do it.

Now some words about how we do this.

Feed your soul. Daily. Many of us consume news daily. Every day we read a newspaper, watch TV news, check things on Facebook or other online sources. As you give attention to the news, it is likely you will find yourself outraged. You cannot believe people could be so stupid or evil, so short-sighted or perverse. The more news you consume, the more outrage and disgust you will feel.

All of this news will warp your soul, if you not careful.

If we are going to keep alive spiritually, we must feed ourselves on spiritually nourishing food. Rush Limbaugh is not uplifting. If you listen to Rush or other people like him, people who spew negativity, you will inevitably be tainted. Your view of the world will be warped. You will imagine the world to be much worse than it actually is. Your soul will be poisoned.

If we are going to follow the example of Naaman and serve faithfully in a place that is alien to faith, we are going to have to deliberately feed our souls.

One of the most essential spiritual practices is a daily time of devotion.

People have different names for this practice: Personal devotions. Daily quiet time. Morning watch. Meditation. Prayer.

I don't have strong attachment to any particular label or any particular practice. Over the past forty years I have tried a variety of techniques and practices. I have read the Bible in various languages. I've tried journaling and something called “lectio divina.” I've read Bible commentaries. I've read books by Ellen White and other authors. In recent years, I've practiced non-textual meditation outside.

I don't have a strong opinion about the relative merits of different practices. I do have a strong opinion that we are shaped by what we give our attention to. If we wish for our lives to participate in holiness, we will feed our souls on good things, regularly, deliberately.

We can't literally visit a great prophet like Elisha and get ourselves healed of leprosy. We can deliberately and regularly give attention to things that are beautiful, holy, inspiring. Then, having fed our souls we can join with others in serving people.

We can serve God where we are.

Let's do it.

City of Light, People of Hope

We--the church, the people sometimes called Christian--we are called by our Master to be like cities set on a hill. Sanctuaries. Refuges. Emergency rooms. Homes. A place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. In the current clamor, our fear of violence and hate, of government and taxes, of evil and Satan can swamp our minds. Our entire attention can be occupied with that which we dread, chasing rumors, checking facts, debating numbers. We do have work to do in the real and messy world--we, the church, the people some call Christians. We are obliged to be part of the work of shaping public policy and public discourse. We must get to that. But first, let us give lingering, worshipful attention to the prophets' vision of the beautiful city. Let's marinate ourselves in their hope--a City of Justice where foreigners, widows, and parentless children are well-provided for. A City of Light where a foreign, non-Christian military officer can be honored as more faithful than all the official bearers of the name (Mt 8). A Beautiful City where apostolic authority is rebuked and curtailed (Lk 9:50). A Generous City where the hungry are fed before they hear the growling of their own stomachs (Mk 8:3). A Safe City where the vulnerable are protected from good and righteous tyrants (Mk 14:6). A Noble City where insults are turned into occasions for instruction in serving (Lk 9:54). Let this Gospel vision permeate our being. Let this beauty swamp our hearts, bathe our souls, charm our minds. After deep, lingering contemplation of this vision, perhaps we might find wisdom to speak and act justly and full of mercy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Oops Is Part of our Religion, But We Can Do Better

Newsletter article for the Green Lake Church Gazette

If we are looking for the birthday of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, October 22, 1844, will serve as well any other date. Which, at first glance, is not very auspicious since our name for that day is “The Great Disappointment.” Still, the spiritual trauma of that day gave birth to the social and theological streams that became the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

A quick summary of the history:

In the early 1800s, a New Englander named William Miller was studying the Bible, especially the prophecies about the end of time. As he studied he believed he had stumbled upon the approximate date for the Second Coming of Jesus. He distrusted his conclusions, so he restudied the passages and double-checked his calculations. Every which way he approached it, he came up with the same answer. Jesus was coming back to earth in 1843, give or take a year or two.

He was amazed that no one else had seen this. How could it be that he was the only one? If it were true surely he should tell people. But if he was wrong, it would be irresponsible. So he kept quiet about it. But he experienced an intensifying inner conviction that he should tell others the good news. Finally, in an attempt to get the monkey off his back, he made a deal with God:

“You want me to tell people—you set it up.”

He figured that would take care of things. It was up to God. He was off the hook.

Shortly after he prayed this prayer, his nephew showed up at the house with an invitation to come preach at their church. Uncle William was not too happy about this, but a bargain was a bargain, so he preached. And the rest is history.

Other people got excited about his discovery. Invitations to preach started coming in. Over the next few years a huge movement sprang up as thousands, then tens of thousands of people caught Advent fever. Jesus was coming soon. In 1843, give or take a year.

Eventually, the entire nation was abuzz with Advent fever. People either believed it and thought it was the most wonderful truth they had ever heard or people dismissed it as fanaticism, fundamentalism, and a flat contradiction of Jesus' statement that the day and hour of the Second Coming was a mystery known only to God.

Sometime in 1843 someone came up with a refinement of Mr. Miller's prophetic scheme. This new interpretation pinpointed a specific date—October 22, 1844. That was the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, according to one Jewish calendar. And on that day, according to the theory, Jesus was supposed to come back to earth. Farmers were so certain of this prophecy they left their potatoes in the ground unharvested. Why have a barn full of potatoes if Jesus was coming back? They could use their time more profitably sharing the good news with their neighbors. People spent their life savings to spread the word.

Finally, the day arrived. It was like Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. It was the best day ever. Jesus was going come. War would end. Sick people would be released from pain and suffering. Crushing debt would be lifted. Arthritis would quit hurting. The scourge of addictions—in those days that would have been alcoholism—would disappear. Life would be happy. People would be holy and healthy. What a day!!!!!!

The day passed. Nothing happened.

For the true believers it was a big oops, a devastating, crushing disappointment. It shook their entire religion to its very core. They had been so sure of their understanding of the prophecies, that this failure called into question the Bible itself and even the existence of God. If they had been wrong about this, what else did they have wrong?

In the weeks and months after this Great Disappointment, the true believers came up with new interpretations of the passages they thought had predicted the Second Coming. These new interpretations were still full of complicated calculations and leaping conclusions based on obscure Bible verses. While these interpretations of obscure prophecies have not done very well under the microscope of biblical scholarship, the mindset that allowed these novelties also opened those early Adventists to all kinds of questions about traditional Christian theology that they would have ordinarily suppressed.

What kind of God, they asked, would keep people alive for billions of years just so they could be tortured. The obvious answer—God would be a monster—had been obscured by centuries of Christian tradition. These early Adventists were free to reject this venerable tradition. A flat, bold rejection of the notion of eternal hell fire has been enshrined at the very heart of Adventist theology.

They rediscovered the Jewish Sabbath, which, as modern biblical scholarship has emphatically confirmed, was the Sabbath of Jesus and the apostles, and therefore the authentic Christian Sabbath.

These theological innovators rejected the doctrine of predestination. Even though it had been a popular doctrine for at least 1700 years, and was strongly affirmed by the leading founders of Protestantism, the shattering of their religion allowed these early Adventists to ask the obvious question: How can it be just for God to give people life with the express intention of damning them? Once we step outside the circle of internecine Christian argument, the notion of predestination is crazy. Incredible. Unacceptable. Those early Adventists rejected it. God could not be like that.

These theological advances would have been very unlikely apart from the upheaval of “The Great Disappointment.” It was the shattering of their theological confidence that enabled them to question all kinds of certainties and traditions. If the thing they had believed so happily and enthusiastically was wrong, what else could be wrong? It was a great question. It remains a good question.

Since our forebears through intense and sincere Bible study had arrived at utter confidence that October 22, 1844, was the date of the Second Coming, we might expect their subsequent theology would have been characterized by a great degree of humility. We could hope these early Adventists would learn from that terrible disappointment and find a better way. Alas. Those early Adventists were also human. Instead of turning away from theological speculation, they redoubled their study of obscure Bible prophecies. They quickly worked out new theories of interpretation and defended these new ideas as adamantly as the earlier beliefs. Their certainty passed into the DNA of Adventism. In the church culture of my childhood it was assumed that if people disagreed with us, they were either incapable of correctly understanding the plain meaning of the Bible (i.e. they were unintelligent), or they were unwilling to admit what the biblical evidence showed (i.e. they were spiritually perverse). No one could honestly and understandingly disagree with us.

Which brings us to today.

The official Adventist creed currently has 28 statements. The unofficial creed includes many details of prophetic interpretation, including explicit condemnations of the Roman Catholic Church and American Protestant Churches as members of spiritual Babylon. The denomination has developed a “Church Manual” that is touted by some as an absolutely authoritative guide to doing church. Recently top bureaucrats in the church have taken to citing “General Conference Policy” as incontrovertible authority even in matters of morality and conscience. Each of these expressions of Adventist thought represents a temptation to imagine that we have it “just right.” The creed, Church Manual, and General Conference Policy have each been crafted through a critical review process. They have been developed in good faith by people of sound mind and good hearts who have been chosen as leaders in the church. Traditional Adventist prophetic interpretation goes back to the earliest days of Adventism and have been reinforced by generations of evangelists. It is easy to regard them as authoritative beyond question. But then we remember our history. Once before, in spite of thorough study with good hearts, we were wrong. We could be wrong again.

Oops is embedded in Adventist DNA as deeply as our confidence in the Bible itself. There should be no embarrassment in acknowledging that not everything we believe, not everything we say, not everything we publish is inerrant. We are Adventists. Our denominational birthday is October 22, “The Great Disappointment.” We could just as well call it the Big Oops. We knew we were right, but we were wrong. It is vital to recognize that this is not merely an Adventist reality. Christianity itself is full of “oops.”

It is common for Christians to imagine that the very best version of Christianity was “apostolic Christianity.” People will often pine for the glorious days of apostolic Christianity when the church was just as it should be. But this is fiction. The apostles made big oops.

The disciple John reported to Jesus: Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name. But he did not have authorization from you or even from one of us. So we told him to stop. Jesus said, “What? You stopped him? How could you? He was helping people. And helping them in my name. And you stopped him? John, don't you understand that he is our ally? Do not tell him to stop.” (See Mark 9 and Luke 9.) Similarly when a denomination today imagines it alone can authorize people to work in Jesus' name and do the work of Jesus, the denomination stands under the rebuke of Jesus. No one needs Adventist credentials or Catholic credentials or Lutheran credentials to work for Jesus. And if officials in a denomination denigrate Christian ministry because it is not under their control, they are acting “apostolic” in the worst sense of the word.

Another favorite story, one that we rehearse every time we dedicate a baby: Jesus was teaching and healing, doing the important work of shaping the spiritual lives of men. Some women approach, bringing their children to have Jesus bless them. The disciples stopped the women. It was their job to help ensure Jesus attended to the most important cases among the thousands of people who came seeking his attention. The disciples did not invent their status or function. They had been assigned their work by Jesus himself. And they took their work seriously. On this occasion, they officiously scolded the women for imagining that their children were important enough to merit the time and attention of Jesus. Men mattered. Men needed to be taught, instructed, responded to. Men were spiritual leaders and as such, they especially commanded the time and attention of Jesus. Women and children not so much.

But they were wrong. The apostles—disciples, brethren, elders—were wrong. Oops. Jesus publicly corrected them.

The disciples imagined it was their job use their position of authority as members of the inner circle of Jesus to enforce the natural ranking of their society and make sure Jesus served the important people first. The disciples were wrong. It was a big oops. So today, when men imagine it is their job to control access to the “inner circle” of Jesus, they are wrong. Excluding women from ordination to ministry is simply wrong. Sure, the apostles, first “clergy,” were all male. They were also all wrong. Oops.

In the story of “The Canaanite Woman,” the disciples were unanimous in their urging of Jesus to get rid of her. She was an annoyance. Jesus seemed to share their bias and told the woman he was not authorized to bless her. His divinely-appointed ministry was to Jewish people, not people like her. In this story even Jesus is wrong, if we take his words literally. If the disciples (and Jesus' first words) were right, the woman should have been excluded. But the woman was included, overturning both the authority of the apostles and the initial words of Jesus. Oops. The teaching of the Gospel in this passage clearly makes the authority of the apostles subordinate to authority of motherhood. The natural “authority” of humanity is higher than ecclesiastical authority wielded by modern day apostles.

Apostolic error and blindness did not end with the crucifixion or the resurrection or even with Pentecost. According to the story in Acts 10, the Holy Spirit had to overcome deep reluctance on the part of Peter to get him to go to the home of Gentile Cornelius. At Cornelius' house, the Holy Spirit dramatically bypassed apostolic authority and agency. Before members of the household were baptized and completely apart from any “authorization” or laying on of hands by the apostle, the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles in the same dramatic fashion that was observed on Pentecost, the very “coming of the Holy Spirit” that inaugurated or validated the mission of the apostles. Those who claim that full spiritual authority is dispensed only through apostolic channels, are ignoring the plain meaning of this story. The apostles often got it wrong, especially when it came to their view of their authority. They consistently exaggerated and misunderstood their authority. (Application to the male clergy of Adventism who fighting to exclude women from full ecclesiastical honor is obvious.)

Adventists may be tempted to dismiss all that I have written so far because we have not traditionally lionized apostolic authority. We give much greater prominence to “prophetic authority.” Because Ellen White had a prophetic gift, we imagine the Adventist Church is immune to the kinds of misunderstanding that have tripped up other Christians. Through the prophet, God has kept us correct. At least that's what we say. The story of the people of Israel during the life time of the prophet Jeremiah can help protect us from this kind of arrogance.

When Jeremiah was born, Judah was an independent nation. Then the armies of Babylon began threatening. Jeremiah called the nation to repentance. He warned that unless they repented, doom was unavoidable. The Babylonians broke the Jewish defenses and the Jewish king became a vassal of the king of Babylon. The Jewish people rebelled in an attempt to recover their God-ordained independence. The Babylonians returned, broke the Jewish defense and deported 10,000 people to Babylon. Again the Jewish people attempted to assert their God-ordained independence. Again the Babylonian army besieged the city. Against this background, consider this prophecy:

And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, and in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azur the prophet, which was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,
“Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of the LORD'S house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried them to Babylon. And I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went into Babylon, saith the LORD: for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”
Then the prophet Jeremiah said unto the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests, and in the presence of all the people that stood in the house of the LORD, even the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! The LORD do so. The LORD perform thy words which thou hast prophesied, to bring again the vessels of the LORD'S house, and all that is carried away captive, from Babylon into this place. Jeremiah 28: 1-6

The words of Hananiah were spoken in the name of the Lord. The hope for Israel he announced was well-supported in the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah before him. The doom of Babylon was also announced by previous prophets. But he was wrong. God did not break the yoke of Babylon. The captives did not come home—at least not for another seventy years, then to a city and temple that had been razed.

During Jeremiah's long prophetic career he frequently had conflicts with other prophets. He himself was charged with treason for the content of some of his prophecies. His predictions, especially late in his career seemed unbelievable and unholy because of their gloom.

What were people to do in light of the prophetic confusion?

Do not trust in prophecies that proclaim God's favor on this temple or this city. Instead do this: Provide for justice. Be careful to protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood. Jeremiah 7

Jeremiah came back to this theme more than once. The message above was delivered at the temple and was addressed to the people as a whole. Below is a prophecy Jeremiah gave at the royal palace.

Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word.
Say, 'Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, sitting on the throne of David, you and your officials and every citizen who enters through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue those who have been robbed from the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. Jeremiah 22.

All the debates about which scenario was correct—whether Babylon was going to break through Jewish defenses or give up the siege, whether the exiles in Babylon were going to come home soon or not—all these debates ultimately were of secondary concern. What mattered before God was social justice, morality, generosity toward foreigners, poor people, and those without the security of stable family life. If the Jewish people would devote themselves to this exalted moral vision they would find themselves acting in concert with the will of God.

Jesus made this same point in Matthew 24-25. He talked about end times and prophetic speculations. Then he told the story of the sheep and goats. The people whom the judgment revealed as wise people were not those who understood prophecy, but those who served. In fact, in the story it is precisely those who were most religious, who made clear distinctions between good people and bad people, between people worthy of help and people unworthy of help—these are the people who are revealed in the judgment to be fools.

Among Adventists it is common to cite the “presence” among us of Ellen White and the certainty of her prophetic guidance as proof that we are on the right track. We are the people of God. Our church is the exclusive corporate agency of God for doing God's final work in the earth. In making these claims, we ignore two obvious facts. First, she is dead. We cannot know definitively what she would say were she alive among us today. Just as Hananiah echoed the words of the true prophet Isaiah and was then denounced by the true prophet Jeremiah for uttering false prophecy, so those who quote Ellen White in support of optimistic assessments of the stability and triumph of the denomination may find themselves in error.

Second, Ellen White herself often made statements which contradict each other according to their plain reading. She wrote that the General Conference was the highest authority of God on earth. And she wrote that the General Conference was not the highest authority of God on earth. She wrote that no one is authorized to ignore the slightest detail of her words, then she scolded a missionary for following her instructions to the letter regarding drug use, an obedience that resulted in the death of the missionary's child. Famous debates among Adventists about the nature of Christ and soteriology have been fueled by passages in Ellen White that could readily be adduced in support of contradictory views.

When we devote ourselves to championing some particular prophetic interpretation or some bit of arcane theology like the interpretation of Daniel 8:14 or the correct scientific application of Genesis 6-9 or the correct interpretation of Paul's prohibition on women instructing men, we are skating toward irrelevance and ultimately toward folly. We are heading toward another oops.

We are most likely to avoid religious oops when we devote ourselves to the mission described by Jeremiah and Jesus:

Do what is just and right. Rescue those who have been robbed from the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me water. I was a foreigner and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. In prison and you did not abandon me.

When we devote our energy, our minds, our treasure to pursuing this vision we can expect the commendation of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That's better than oops.