Saturday, July 14, 2018

Perfect People

When God was figuring out who to pick as the mother of Jesus, he picked an ordinary peasant woman. We can embellish the legend endlessly. We can make up all kinds of fanciful stories. But the facts are very basic: Mary was a young Jewish woman engaged to a man named Joseph. And she was just right to serve as the mother of Jesus, or as we say in Christian circles, to be the Mother of God.

She was perfect.

So, is the height of perfection being a young peasant?

When God was looking around for someone to lead the people of Israel out of slavery across forbidden international borders into freedom, he picked the most highly educated man in the world at that time. Moses was heir to the very best of the highest, richest culture of that time. He was adopted, to be sure. But his adoption was like being adopted into the Bush or Kennedy clan. His education was the equivalent of a degree from Harvard and Stanford and Berkeley and MIT all rolled into one. He was a graduate of the Navy SEAL course.

Moses was perfect.

Some of you who know the story well might protest, but don’t you remember that he killed a man in his rage against the enslavement of his people? Don’t you remember the time when he disobeyed and struck the rock when he was supposed to only speak and God got so mad at him that he refused to let him enter the Promised Land? And don’t you remember that his marriage was problematic? And don’t you remember that he failed to lead his people into consistent, cheerful righteousness? Don’t you remember all that?

Yes. I remember. All those things are part of Moses’ story. But he was perfect. Perfect for the job God called him to. He set his people free. He led them out of Egypt. He was perfect.

Nebuchadnezzar wrote a perfect story.

Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon. When he took over the throne from his father, things were already going very well. Babylon was on the make. Nebuchadnezzar was a brilliant military leader. His armies bulldozed nearly every army that opposed them. The empire spread across the Middle East like spilled milk running for the corners of the kitchen floor. He was a masterful administrator. In an era of city states he built a nation that spanned thousands of miles.

He knew what it was like to be top dog. When he bragged about his prowess and his success, it was true. Except for one detail. He imagined he had done all this on his own. “I did it myself,” he told himself and others. He was the perfect model of arrogance.

Then he went mad and was kept like an animal in a zoo. Seven years later his sanity returned. He returned to the throne, humbled. A perfect model of the mighty brought low.

He wrote the story of his conversion and published it, circulating it across the empire. God thought the story was so perfect, he included it in the Bible.

The king of Babylon was perfect.

Ruth was perfect. She was born in the wrong country. She was a native of Moab. But she married a Jewish man who had come to Moab as an economic refugee. When he died, she migrated to Israel to take care of her mother-in-law. She was so good that God chose her to be one of the great, great, great grandmothers of Jesus, a grandmother of God.


Mary and Moses and Nebuchadnezzar and Ruth were very different from each other. Different nationalities, different genders. They had different social status, different educational levels. They had very different characters. And each was perfect for something.

You, too, are perfect. And I am. Each of us is uniquely shaped for some special task.

In our New Testament passage for today, we read about Jesus choosing his twelve disciples. Twelve guys that were to serve as his inner circle, his cabinet in the kingdom of heaven. At the time of this selection, Jesus was routinely surrounded by crowds of thousands of people. He had no shortage of candidates for the position. He chose these twelve.

They must have been perfect for the job. If they were not perfect, then we would say that Jesus made a mistake in choosing them. Jesus did not have to choose anyone. But he did choose. And when he chose, he chose these guys. So they must have been perfect.

I said this to Hanz as I was working on the sermon this week, and he responded with the standard Christian answer. They weren’t perfect. Rather Jesus chose them so he could make them perfect. Jesus chose them so he could save them.

But I argued that even it is true that they had defects of character, flaws in their humanity, these defects and flaws were part of their perfection. Jesus needed a collection of ordinary people to serve as a model for the church. If this first official gathering of “Christians” consisted of people with no observable weaknesses, they would be useless as models of the church. Their flawlessness would become an impediment to the accomplishment of the mission of Jesus.

Jesus made a perfect choice.

His disciples were perfect.

Just like you.

I hope two things for us this week.

First, that we will savor the glory that is ours. We are perfect. We are perfectly shaped for some task that will make the world a sweeter, better place. Especially today, on the Sabbath, when we remember that God looked at creation and said, “It is very good. I am very happy.” Today, enjoy the truth that you and your children and your cousins and neighbors are perfect.

Don’t start saying, “But . . .” I know all about the “buts.” And so does God. But for today, you are perfect and so are they.

Second. Let’s consider what we can do with our perfection. We are perfectly shaped for some special task. Let’s busy ourselves in that direction. Let’s do what we can to cooperate with Jesus in his mission to extend the reach of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Poor You Will Have With You Always

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For June 30, 2018

Texts: Deuteronomy 15:6-11, John 12:1-8

Poor people are much in the news. Here in Seattle we're confronted by burgeoning homelessness. On our nation’s southern border there is the ugly spectacle of legal brutality intended to terrorize poor people in Central America to deter them from seeking sanctuary in our country. Across Europe there is fierce debate about how to respond to waves of desperate poor people fleeing Africa and the Middle East. Even Canada is roiled by arguments about poor people seeking sanctuary. Poor people. They are a big problem.

The media world is full of passionate words about poor people. Since we are Christians, it is good for us to consider what the Bible has to say about poor people.

Let’s begin with the story that includes the famous phrase uttered by Jesus:  “The poor you will have with you always.”

The story:

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus--the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus' honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus' feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.  But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, "That perfume was worth a year's wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor." This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Jesus replied, "Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."
[John 12:1-8 NLT Accessed via Blue Letter Bible. Com].

Judas used a publicly-professed concern for the poor to argue against an extravagant personal gift for Jesus. But he wasn't really concerned about the poor. He was concerned about the pocketbook that he managed. This reminds me of contemporary protestations: We should care for our veterans before we give money to lazy people on welfare. I agree that veterans should be first in line, but many who say such things actually oppose giving “their money” to anyone through the agency of government--including veterans. More recently I have read protests that we should spend money on citizens instead of on desperate foreigners. I think this prioritization is correct. However, the protest is disingenuous because many of those speaking this way oppose giving their money to anyone through the agency of government--especially those Americans who need food stamps.

Many who oppose spending “our money” to help the poor cite these words of Jesus: the poor you will have with you always. They interpret Jesus’ words this way: poor people exist. Always have. Always will. Jesus was telling not to stress over poor people. Leave them alone. Let them figure it out themselves.

But this flies in the face of the explicit meaning of the passage of Scripture Jesus was quoting.

The LORD your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you. 7 "But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. 9 Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the LORD, you will be considered guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. 11 There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:6-11 NLT. Accessed through]

God's preference is for people to be rich. God wants all of us to have enough money for housing and food and transportation and birthday gifts and vacations and medical care and art supplies and music lessons. Especially music lessons.

This is what God prefers for people.

God's call is for his people to be generous. As we are blessed we are to bless. We are to be partners with God in generosity.

When we see poor people we can recall that God wants people to be rich and see the poor people as those who are outside God's favor. Cursed. Or we can see people who are poor and remember that God's call is for us to be generous. Two radically different visions.

In the Bible God never takes the side of the rich against the poor. Never. Why? Is it because God doesn’t like rich people? No. It is because God sees the rich as an extension of himself. Just as it is God’s duty to be beneficent, so it is our duty. The passage we have just cited clearly declares God wants his people to be rich. Rich is good.

God doesn’t take the side of the rich, because God does not take his own side. God does not defend himself. And rich people are an extension of God. God imagines the rich as his partners, as his people, as his staff. And since we who are rich are God’s people, God’s partners, God’s staff, we are obliged to practice God-like generosity to the poor. We are to represent God to the poor. According to the Bible writers in both Old Testament and New, when rich folk fail to practice generosity to the poor God is outraged. Why? Because neglecting or abusing the poor is an act of treason against the Kingdom of Heaven. If we neglect the poor we are siding with the enemy of God. It was the enemy who delighted in oppression. It was the enemy who used people for his own benefit without regard for their needs.

The rich are supposed to be God's allies, members of the royal court. Our behavior reflects on God. Repeatedly, over and over and over again, God is declared to be the champion of the poor, the friend of the poor. And we who are rich find our place closest to God when we act as champions of the poor and friends of the poor.

When we embrace poverty as a call for us to act with God-like generosity, this does not automatically provide a simple, clear path to a solution for the problems of the world. But it will shape our hearts and words as we work on solutions. Sometimes we must practice tough love and leave people to bear the consequences of bad choices. Sometimes a “fix” is impossible. I have friends with severe physical limitations. They cannot work. They will never, ever be able to work. Still we must care for them. I have friends who are bound up in addiction, friends whose minds are gripped by mental illness. There are no simple solutions to these problems. Still, we are called to see in every instance of human brokenness and desperation an invitation to go more deeply Into the heart of God and practice seeing these people as our brothers and sisters. They are family members God eagerly desires to come join us at the table.

Here in the family of God we do not speak of poor people or desperate people or foreign people as enemies. We carefully guard against using language that expresses disdain or scorn. We speak of them as children of God in need a special care. Even criminals are still the children of God, worthy of deliberate, wise, lawful intervention. Because of their brokenness we need the services of law enforcement. We cannot have a civil society without the service of our police officers. There are human problems that cannot be solved with gentleness. Still, at every point we remember that the people we are dealing with are the children of God, brothers and sisters for whom God has reserved a place at the table.

As we wrestle with the daunting challenges of poverty and human desperation may we act as partners with God, as allies with the Supreme champion of the poor. May we do all we can to make a place at our table for all the children of God.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Beautiful Children

Note this is last week's sermon. I'll post this weeks sermon later today. JM
Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, June 23, 2018
1 Kings 1:32-37
Matthew 14:14-21

Hymn suggestion. 101. Children of the heavenly father

I spent this week working in the primary department (ages 7 to 9) at camp meeting. I knew only three kids--Violet and Lars from Green Lake Church and Austin, a member of North Hill Adventist Fellowship, the congregation I pastored from 1998 through 2012.
Then there were the kids I was getting reacquainted with: Austin, and his cousins, Torie and Jack.

When they divided the kids into smaller groups for an activity I worked on learning the names of the kids in my group. When I came around to Austin, instead of asking his name, I said his name. He glared at me and demanded, “How do you know my name?”

I explained I had known his parents before he existed, even before they were married. I could have added a couple of other details from my memory that would not have been appreciated by a nine year boy!  I remembered his mother having to chase him down because of his wildness on stage during chidlren’s story. I also refrained from saying out loud what I saw now: he was a cool kid. Confident and bold. Lithe, agile, sharp, active, alive!

Then I came to a girl who seemed vaguely familiar, but just barely. When I asked her name, she looked at me with a bit of annoyance or perhaps indignance. Like how could I NOT know her name?

The wounded indignance in her eyes woke up my memory. Torie, how could I forget you? She was Austin's cousin. I had known her parents before she was born, before they were married, before they were even a couple. How could I not remember her? Beside Torie was her little brother Jack. The truth was, since Torie and her brother were placid babies and never made any commotion they had not commanded my attention as infants when I was their pastor. They were just everyday, average kids.

But that was before I spent a week watching them. Listening to them demonstrate superlative memory skills. Watching them interact with other kids. Torie had grown into a remarkable person. She looked out for others around her, exhibiting a calm responsible, mother hen nature. Watching her, I saw an angel hiding stunning intelligence behind a soft, gentle countenance.

And brother Jack--a striking physical contrast to Austin visually. Austin was lithe and dark. Jack was a red head. A sturdy chunk. I was utterly enchanted with his sweetness and goodness and intelligence. Both Torie and Jack fascinated me with their combination of a charming sweetness wrapped around a core of strength and confidence. Even this morning when I call them to mind I’m fascinated by their combination of stillness and strength. Their sweetness and boldness. How can a person hold those things together so naturally and easily.

As the week progressed I learned a lot of names. Our usual attendance was about fifty, with a few new kids every day and other kids leaving with their parents or grandparents. After a couple of days I had learned the names of 80 percent of the kids which was helpful when they were misbehaving. :-)

Also, as the week progressed. I found myself increasingly enthralled with these kids.

At first they were a sea of faces, cute in the way that all children and puppies and ducklings are. As days passed, the sea of faces became individual faces, distinct persons, I was enchanted, charmed, mesmerized by this collection of unspeakably beautiful people.

Noah -- a small guy, hair white-blond, big eyes, a smile that was friendly and impish. The longer the week went, the more radiant and magical his smile seemed.

Lillian--also small. Dark skin, dark curls. Dark eyes that gleamed like fire. When there was noise in her neighborhood, she was always part of it. She was busy. And captivating. When I was up front I found my eyes returning to her neighborhood--back row on the right--not just because she was often making a commotion, but because of her beauty. Our programs were far too slow for her. It was my job to keep her quiet and every message I picked up from her body said quiet was not something she did very well. I was both delighted she was part of our department and sorry she had to endure our endless exhortations to be quiet, pay attention, eyes to the front. Her ebullience was obviously irrepressible.

Then there was Aela, Allen, Grayson, Violet, Daniel, Naomi, Topaz, Levi, Elijah, Tomer, Lilly, Jasper Andrew, Kylie, Natasha, Josie, Evelyn, Alex, Kevan, Caleb and another forty kids.  

Every day, individuals became more vivid. More beautiful. More precious. More magnificent.

I'm sure it was kids like this that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Allow the children to come. Do not hinder them. Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to this kind of people.”

Once the disciples asked Jesus how to measure greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus replied by calling a child over. “Be like this kid,” he said. There he added this, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

I like to imagine Jesus looking at this kid, maybe taking the kids head in his hands and staring at his face, contemplating the beauty and life and curiosity and busyness and intelligence and goodness shining in that kids face. I imagine Jesus being charmed beyond words by this vision. Then he says, see here in this face is the glory of God. It this body is the kingdom of God. Be like this. Protect this magnificent incarnation of the kingdom.

The feeding of the 5000. Children were there. The Bible does not count them. Maybe because they were too wiggly. But the Bible notices them. I'm not aware of any other reference to children at gatherings of philosophers or ancient religious teachers. Children were there. The kingdom of heaven had ALWAYS included children.

The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. To these people. These real people. These beautiful people. That’s what Jesus saw. That’s the heavenly vision.

Vision is not information. It is not a scientific counting. It is artistry. It is framing.

It is true that some children at campmeeting were not so immediately beautiful..

Kids with learning disabilities,
Kids with developmental problems.
Kids with faces already marked with fear or anger.

They were there. They needed my afternoon and sympathy and, yes, guidance. For some of them I had to work to see their beauty. And even my “beautiful kids” could also be seen as rowdy problems instead of as beautiful citizens of the kingdom of heaven, if that was the way my eyes were focused.

But I saw the beauty, and I bear witness. I saw the Kingdom of Heaven.

Our Old Testament passage makes a lovely point about children.

King David had a number of sons. He was old and failing in health and in function. His decline inspired a couple of different efforts by sons with the connivance of royal advisers to take over the throne. Finally, David agrees to formally yield the throne to his designated successor.

After David has announced this decision, his most trusted confidant comes in to see him and greets David with these words, “May his throne be greater than yours!”

The whole premise of monarchy is the myth that the monarch is the best--the wisest, smartest, fittest, strongest. Everyone has to carefully protect the myth of the throne. . . . until it is time for his heir to take the throne. In that instant, the rules reverse. It is the next king, the king’s heir who is the wisest, smartest, fittest, strongest--at least in hope. Only when contemplating the glorious future of the king’s heir is it permissible to speak of someone greater than the king. And then it is not only permissible, it is close to obligatory. It is sweet music to the king's ears.

So we and even Jesus himself dream of children who will do greater things than we have done. As we watch their enchanting beauty, their dazzling intellect, their sweet spirits, we take hope. We see already hints of the kingdom to come and pray that even now it is taking root among us. As we contemplate the beauty of these children we take fresh resolve to do all we can to help these children thrive and triumph.

This has pointed application in the life of the church today. Some imagine that the best of Christianity is in the past--back at Pentecost or in the days of the apostles. People speak wistfully of “apostolic Christianity.” But the best Christianity was not in the days of Jesus or in the days of the apostles. If it were, would not God have called his work finished and ended the flow of miserable human history?

Some Adventists imagine that the best of Adventism was back in the days of the pioneers. They idolize a mythic historic Adventism. But if the best days of our faith are in the past, we might as well close church and be done with it. And if we imagine that our religion is better than what God will accomplish in and through our children (or “their” children --whoever “they” is), we ought to simply sit in lament and acknowledge that we have been miserable failures. We have failed to provide the sanctuary needed by our children so they could cultivate the graces and virtues God intended.

The future belongs to our children whether we like it or not. We cannot determine the future. We cannot determine what values and beliefs, what doctrines and policies, will endure. That is in the hands of our children and grandchildren. Let us join Jesus in trusting the children. Let’s practice looking at children and seeing the Kingdom of Heaven already present among us.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Lord God Made Them All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a happily ever after ending.

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

This story reminds me of a story in the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord God made them all.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Lord God Made Them All

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

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

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Working like God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Productive work and joyful, happy Sabbath keeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This passage in Deuteronomy continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Let Everyone Who Has Breath Sing

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

Psalm 150
Luke 15:17-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 104 offers these words:

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

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

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

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

The ancient poet continues:

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

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

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

And there is more.

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

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

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

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

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

This theme reappears late in the book.

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

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

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

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

Let everyone who has breath, sing. Hallelujah.