Friday, January 13, 2017

Holy Courage

Sermon manuscript (revised) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists 
For Sabbath, January 24, 2017

It was the end of March, spring time in Memphis, 1968. The azaleas were approaching their peak bloom. The days were gloriously warm and bright. The street we lived on was lined with massive elm trees that arched across the street. They were vivid with new baby leaves. There was one flaw in this glorious spring. The garbage was piling up by our back gate. In our neighborhood, garbage trucks drove the alleys instead of the streets. But for the last six weeks, there had been no garbage trucks in the alley. The garbage men were on strike.

This was not acceptable. If the mayor goes on vacation, nobody notices. If the garbage men miss one day, it's trouble. If they miss a week, we are in deep mess. There had been no garbage collection in Memphis for six weeks!

We were mad at the garbage men. What right did they have not to work? What business did they have demanding better pay. After all, they were mere garbage men. And on top of that, they were black. Lots of black people in Memphis were unemployed. So these garbage men were supposed to grateful for any paycheck at all. Yes. They worked in miserable, dangerous conditions. A couple of garbage men had been crushed to death in a compactor. That's what precipitated the strike. But hey, accidents happen. Get over it.

The garbage men refused to get over it. The mayor demanded they return to work. They refused. The main newspaper in town, the Commercial Appeal, cheered the mayor on as he swaggered and talked tough. The white population cheered every insult the mayor hurled at the recalcitrant strikers.

The garbage men—sanitation workers—held on. They refused to obey the mayor. They refused to agree that they deserved lower pay than the white drivers of their garbage trucks. They refused to agree that their families should live in poverty while they collected the garbage in the alleys behind large homes on tree-shaded streets.

But it was hard. All the powers were arrayed against them. The mayor. The police with their dogs and mace and billy clubs. Major local businesses. Justice hung in the balance.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to encourage them, arriving on Friday, March 29.

Monday and Tuesday at school, I listened to the rumors swirling among my classmates. A group of white men had bound themselves with an oath to guarantee Dr. King would not get out of town alive. Communist agents were in town to agitate the black people and provoke them to violence. The strikers were quitting their strike. Dr. King was wasting his time.

Wednesday came. Wednesday night Dr. King addressed a huge crowd. He cited the Hebrew prophets and their bold protestations against the perversion of justice by the powerful. He talked of the ultimate triumph of non-violence, about the glory and risk of that present moment in the great march of history toward justice and peace. Police violence would not win. Mace and billy clubs would not triumph. Not ultimately. Not if the people stayed united and true to their principles.

Then at the heart of his sermon, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man was traveling the wild, desolate road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was jumped by thieves and robbed and beaten. Two religious dignitaries passed the injured man. First a minister, then a deacon. They could see he needed help. They probably wanted to help. But they asked the very sensible question, “What will happen to me if I help?”

Then along came another man, a Samaritan—a Muslim in Christian America, a Black man in White America, a Mexican in Anglo America, a Jew in neo-Nazi America, a Republican in Seattle (I say this with a good-natured smile)--this other man changed the question. He did not ask what will happen to me if I help. He asked what will happen to him if I do not help?

The question asked by the religious dignitaries—what will happen to me—is a sensible question. But it was not the right question. The right question was, “What will happen to him, if I do not help?” Dr. King applied the question to the situation in Memphis. He challenged his audience, “What will happen to the strikers who have risked their families and their entire future struggling for justice if you do not help? What will happen to the children of these strikers, if we leave them to struggle alone? What will happen to this city if we fail to come to the aid of those who need us now?

What will happen to them if we do not help?

This question remains one of the most probing questions we can ask. It is the burning question facing us right now across the United States and Europe. The entire western world is being seduced by the allure of the reasonable, smart-sounding question: What will happen to us if we help? The world is richer than ever before in history. There is enough food, enough money, enough money. But we are weary with helping.

Still, the noble challenge presented so clearly by Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan and given new voice by Martin Luther King confronts us: what will happen to them if we do not help?

What will happen to the children born in a poverty they did not earn if we do not help?
What will happen to senior citizens who spend their entire careers working in day care?
What will happen to the people who have manicured our lawns and washed the dishes in our favorite restaurants and cleaned the bathrooms in the airports we passed through on our way to our vacations in Mexico? What will happen to them when they get sick or old?
What will happen to families coping with mental illness?
What will happen to grandmothers raising grandchildren because the middle generation got lost in addictions?
What will happen if we do not help?

Across the nations that used to be Christian, there are louder and louder voices celebrating the privilege of the privileged and denouncing the need of the needy.

I am not optimistic in the short term about our ability to avoid a sharp lurch into the ditch of fear and narrow self-interest. But I am confident of this: We—the members of this family, citizens of the Beautiful City, devotees of Jesus—we will ask the right question. We will not allow the teachings of Jesus to be muted.

When Dr. King talked about asking the sensible question, “What will happen to me if I help?” it was not a theoretical exercise. The air was full of threats. He knew people wanted him dead. Men heavy with hatred and guns. Coming to Memphis was a dangerous move. Still he came because the brothers in Memphis needed help. Their struggle for justice faced deeply entrenched opposition. So Martin asked the right question, What will happen if I do not help. And he came to Memphis knowing there he was wearing a target.

Helping sometimes requires great courage, holy courage. But that is the native culture of the Beautiful City.

In our New Testament reading we heard the cynical challenge to Jesus from the religious conservatives of his day.

Some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him. They advised him to leave town. (They, of course, cared nothing about Jesus' well being. They were trying to scare Jesus into leaving town. They wanted to get rid of his bothersome presence.) Jesus laughed them off. Go tell that old fox that I am going to keep doing what I do. I will be casting out demons and healing people here. And three days from now I will be in Jerusalem doing the same thing. If you are going to do me in, you might as well do it in Jerusalem, that's where all good prophets go to die.

The same thing is happening today. Religious conservatives are trying to silence the annoying teachings of Jesus. A famous evangelical preacher New York recently told an interviewer, the teachings are Jesus are not the main point of Christianity. Jesus saves us from out guilt. That's the big thing. Those teachings about loving our neighbors and laying down our lives for our friends and serving the least of these—all of that is quite secondary. What matters is getting myself saved.

We do not agree. We do not believe the most important question is what will happen to me? We join Jesus and Martin and the ancient prophets, Amos and Jeremiah, in asking what will happen to them? And not just on Judgment day off in the future, but today. Here. Now.

What will happen if we do not help.

We do not wait until it is convenient to ask the question. We do not wait until we have power. We simply own the question as central to our religion as followers of Jesus. We claim this question as central to the constitution of our spiritual city: What will happen to them if we do not help?

When people threaten us with the power of the swaggering, belligerent Herod, we reply, “Tell the old fox we will continue our ministry. We will continue to do what we can to heal and help. And we will not be silent.”

It may cost us. But that is what courage is for. To pursue truth and justice.

May God help us.

Friday, December 30, 2016

After Christmas

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, December 31, 2017

OT: Isaiah 40:1-5
NT:  Luke 2:25-38

There was an old priest in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was just and devout, a genuinely good man and intensely spiritual.

His whole life he had lived with a lively anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. He carried in himself the longing and expectation of his people. For a thousand years his people had been hoping for the break of dawn, the launch of a new day.
The day when swords would be regarded as mere raw material for better things.
Lions and lambs would happily pasture together.
Courts would become trustworthy instruments of righteous judgment.
Money would be an instrument of peace.
Righteousness would be the very air people breathed.
Democrats and Republicans would bow together in devotion to goodness and beauty.
Illness would be cured.
Disability would be converted into magical new strengths and skills.
Depression and bi-polar disorder would be transformed into dazzling powers of sensitivity and creativity.
Addictions would morph into sweet, healthy hungers and achievements.
For a thousand years Simeon's people had tasted the hard edge of reality and had cultivated the sweet taste of the Messianic vision. For much of his life Simeon had participated in this communal longing and hope. Then at some point in his hours of prayer and contemplation, a heavenly voice had assured him he was going to experience it in his life time. “You are going to see it,” the Voice said.  “You will live to see the face of the Messiah.”

It was reason enough to get up out of bed on bad mornings. It kept him going when grief and calamity weighed heavy. As he got older, his mind wandered more and more frequently to the promise. Was it for real? Would he really see the Messiah?

Then came the divine nudge. Go to the temple. Today. Now. And Simeon went.

There in the temple he spotted Joseph and Mary and Jesus. Jesus' parents had brought their baby to be circumcised and dedicated to God. Approaching the family, the old priest took Jesus in his arms and lifting his face toward heaven, said,

“Take me, God. I'm ready to go. I am rich enough, now, for an entire life time. You have kept your promise. I have seen the dawn of the day which will brighten the face of all humanity
A shining sun for the Gentiles,
A gleaming splendor for your people Israel.

For the old priest, this brief encounter in the temple was the crowning experience of his entire life. And we—the church, the people sometimes called Christians, the people shaped by the Gospel—we hear the words of Simeon and say, “Amen. Yes, it is so. Messiah is born. Dawn has begun infiltrating the dark.

The old man was not loony. He was not oblivious to facts. In his words to the parents of Jesus he mentioned the heartbreaking fall of many. He warned Mary that her own soul would be pierced, as in stabbed, sliced, lacerated. Between this sweet moment in the temple, between this first glimmer of dawn, and the final extinction of darkness and evil, there was a long stretch. Simeon knew it and spoke of it. But he refused to allow the facts of evil and pain to obscure the glory of the counter truth. There was a hint of light on the eastern horizon and it portended the approach of noon day sun.

It is the same with us. We have just spent a season of celebration of the birth of Jesus. Joy to the world. Peace. Love. The beginning of the inexorable triumph of goodness. All this glory resident in the baby born in a manger 2000 years ago.

Now we look toward the new year. Our moment in the temple with Baby Jesus is over and we are back in the real world. There may be the glimmer of dawn on the eastern horizon, but here in our neighborhood the world is still haunted by darkness.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Mika asked me, “How ya doing?” It wasn't a formality. He was probing. So I told him the truth. “Terrible.”
“Anything I can do to help?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Not unless you can fix the universe.”

Maybe it's just because we are in the dark months, with short days and skies heavy with dark clouds, but I have been feeling the weight we carry as a congregation. We have sons and daughters who are breaking our hearts. They have such rich potential. We can see their skills, their abilities, their capabilities, if only . . .  If only they could find a way out of their addiction. If only they could escape the seductive allure of some ideology, some theology, some sparkly attraction that is short-circuiting their glorious potential. We hope until hope seems utterly fanciful and cruelly deceptive. But how can we not hope when it's our kids?

We watch our parents decline. It's never pretty. Sometimes it seems just plain cruel, like God or the universe is toying with our loved one like a cat toys with a mouse.

Right now, some of us are dealing with weird, mysterious disabilities and ailments. Moms and dads are exhausted with the care and exhausted with the search for answers, for diagnoses, for treatments, for cures.

Some of us have close connections with far away places where the cry of human need is even sharper than it is here in our favored place, places where human need shrieks and moans. Bombs and starvation, economic collapse with all the misery in every other area of life that goes along with it.

The sword pierces our own souls. Also.

This is true. It is factual.

It is against this backdrop that we come to church and rehearse the words of the old priest. With him we declare,

We have seen the dawn of the day which will brighten the face of all humanity
A shining sun for all nations.

The Christmas holiday may be past, but we will not forget the birth. We will not relinquish our faith that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the entire cosmos has been altered. Dawn is creeping up the eastern sky. As people of the light we have seen and bear witness. We bear witness to this glorious truth even when our souls are pierced. Maybe especially when our souls are pierced.

This is the grand central conviction of our worship.

Tuesday of this week I visited with someone who is engaged in an intense spiritual search. At some point we talked about devotional practices and as we talked I understood more clearly than ever the difference between prayer on the one hand and meditation and worship on the other. Both are important, but they are not the same.

When I described my meditation practice, my friend responded by talking about the twin elements of prayer—petition or asking—and thanksgiving. But neither of those are accurately describe what I was talking about.

I used my favorite food to illustrate.

When Karin went to Europe a few years ago to travel around with our daughter, our friend Gerry begged her to bring him some chocolate. He is allergic to chocolate produced in the US, but he can eat European chocolate. Hence his petition.

Karin brought home some good chocolate for Gerry. Gerry thanked her.

Both the asking and the thanking were entirely appropriate—even necessary. But if all Gerry did was ask and thank, he would be a deeply impoverished man. Imagine, he's holding some of Europe's finest chocolate and he's talking. He goes on and on and on about how grateful he is. Gerry likes to talk, but I know there is something Gerry likes even more than talking. And that is chocolate. So at some point in his long thanksgiving, I tell him. “Gerry, quit talking and eat your chocolate!”

This is what we do in meditation and worship. We taste the delicious promise of God. We savor the conviction that day has dawned. Darkness is doomed. God will triumph. Love will win. In worship and meditation we enjoy the day, we bask in the favor and promise of God.

As we enter the New Year, I encourage us to make time regularly, daily if at all possible, to savor the truth spoken by the old priest in the temple 2000 years ago. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the triumphant march of goodness. The values Jesus lived and taught will some day displace grasping individualism. Some day power will be used only for good. God guarantees it. Let this conviction permeate our entire being. Let it sound louder in our souls than the clamor and rancor so common around us.

Every week let's celebrate afresh the truth that Christmas is the beginning of the world God is building. Christmas is the dawn of the world that holds our hearts and orders our lives.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

City of Love

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, December 24, 2016

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 1:18-23

The gospel of Matthew begins with the grandfather of the Hebrew faith, Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.

The genealogy continues through fifty-two generations, concluding
Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah.
Jesus, the son of Abraham.
Jesus, the son of Jewish kings. Jesus, the son of a Canaanite prostitute.
Jesus, the son of David. Jesus, the son of Ruth, a beautiful, virtuous Moabite.
Jesus, the son of Mary.

Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus, the hoped-for champion of virtue and lowly people.
Jesus, the Servant of God, the instrument of divine will.

Jesus Immanuel.

As we heard in our Gospel reading this morning:
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.
In the person of this little human being, God became visible, palpable. God came close. It is the testimony of the church that if you picked up this baby and squeezed it in a tight embrace, you would be squeezing the sweetness of God. If, three decades later, you followed Jesus of Nazareth around with a video camera, the Youtube videos of prodigious healings that you would upload would be videos of the healing power and presence of God. Your videos of mesmerizing preaching would be videos of the words of God. You videos of hostility to Jesus would be videos of hostility to God.

Jesus was and is Immanuel. God with us. The stories of Jesus are declarations, pronouncements: God is with us. Our pain is present to God. Our acts of injustice are visible to God. Our aching longing for a better world is a mirror of the divine heart.

Since God is with us, it is also true that we are with God. Our own hearts tell us something of the divine heart. Our hunger for justice is evocative of the hunger of God. Our refusal to “be okay” with abundance and overflowing plenty for the few and paucity and privation for the many echoes the denunciations of heaven. Even our outrage at the normal process of getting old and diminishing vitality and function is an expression of the devotion of heaven to life and growth.

The birth of Jesus, seen through Christian eyes, is a defiant push back against the normalcy of evil, injustice, pain and death. Things ought to be better. Because Jesus was Immanuel, he looked at the world through the lens of human experience. Jesus knew—by experience—what we know.

And there is more. Through the eyes of faith and the words of Scripture, we have learned to see in babies, the face of God. Every human is indistinguishable from God. This is the foundation of authentic pro-life values. We owe support and protection to every human because that human looks like God.

Perfect, laughing babies.
Twenty-eight-year-old guys who can function only when they are on their medication, and frequently they are not on their medication.
Grandmas who are the special friends of their grandchildren.
Grandchildren whose addictions are breaking grandma's hearts. 

Every single human being is precious. Every single human being bears the image of God.

We see this truth most vividly in the story of Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of Mary, the son of God. This truth undergirds our Christmas generosity, our Christmas love. Why is it that a central feature of “Christmas stories” is love expressed in surprising ways, love shown to someone who might at another season have been repulsed or not even seen? Because the central truth of the Christmas story is just this deep truth: God is with us—incognito, hidden in ordinary human beings.

Last Friday night we celebrated the grand story of Christmas in words and music. Our annual concert was as glorious as always. Maybe better than ever. Then we took an offering. You gave $2500 dollars to help provide care for women who make their living on the street a couple of miles from here. These are not beautiful women, not cute girls. They are not “hot,” to use contemporary jargon. They are women driven by crushing necessity to sell themselves because they think that's all they have to offer.

You owe them nothing in at least one telling of the story. You did not abuse them when they were young women. You did not offer them drugs. You have not told them they are worthless. But in the light of Christmas we see differently. We owe every child food and shelter and a chance at life, at least every child we can touch with our influence and money.

We are privileged. These women are our neighbors, walking the streets just blocks from where we sit, walking the streets in search of enough money to live for one more day. Our privilege and their need creates an obligation. And last Friday night you made a payment on that obligation. You gave dollars that will make a difference, dollars that will pave the way for a few women to exit their bondage and take steps toward a new life.

That's what love does.

Last Sabbath morning, Page Byers from Greenwood Elementary was here to thank you for providing gift for the families of children at her school. Those cards will provide food and basic needs for families living within a few miles of our beautiful sanctuary. Can we imagine, sitting here this morning, being able to provide dinner for our families only because of the kindness of strangers? Many of the poor families at Greenwood Elementary School came here from other countries. Can you imagine the conditions in the places they left behind—life so difficult that living in your car in a strange country is better than staying home?

If it weren't Christmas, we might not notice the needs of these neighbors of ours. We might be tempted to think, they should have just stayed where they were and starve there instead of coming here. Or more likely, if it weren't Christmas, we would have simply been unaware. We would not have felt their hunger. We would not have noticed their need. But Christmas with all its lights and music and candy and cookies also beckons us to notice God in the babies, the babies living in rough places, babies born to parents not yet married, babies at risk. Christmas teaches us to love.

You gave more than a thousand dollars to provide life-sustaining assistance to our neighbors. Christmas helped us to love.

Tomorrow evening, many of you will provide a special Christmas dinner for people with meager resources. You will be sharing bounty and sharing love.

That's Christmas love. That is honoring the Christ child.

At Christmas time, we do not think of these acts of generosity as extraordinary goodness. Generosity is normal in the City of Love. Of course, we fail sometimes. We are not always generous. Sometimes our hearts are hard. Sometimes we are not generous because we are unaware of how we can assuage aching human need. Here in the City of Love, we expect one another to be generous.

The Mayor of our City, God is generous. In fact, it is his most dramatic trait. God gave his son. And in giving his son, gave himself. And invites us to join with him in the giving.

This is the message of Christmas. This is what we do. Most of the time. It is what we aim to do always.

At Thanksgiving time, when you provided food and money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Throughout the year, you pack and distribute care packages for homeless people. You give hundreds of volunteer hours providing programming for children and grandchildren here at the church. You volunteer as a ski instructor for disabled people. You pay tuition for young people who otherwise could not attend the school of their choice. You care for parents and children and spouses whose lives are a bottomless pit of need.

You practice the family value: those with special needs receive special care. You are the hands and wallets of God.

Over and over and over you treat people as if they bore the image of God. Because, in fact, they do.
They are the Jesus in our present world. They are worthy of love and care. And you, as part of the community of Jesus, provide it. That's the meaning of Christmas. That kind of loving care brings joy to the heart of God. Like any grandparent, God takes the greatest delight in his children living out in their world the highest values of heaven.

The greatest value of all is love.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 9, 2016

City of Hope

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for December 10, 2016

The gospel of Luke begins the story of Jesus with the birth his cousin, John the Baptist.

Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were old. And they were childless. One day Zacharias was doing his duty as a priest in the temple when an angel showed up, scaring him nearly to death.

“Fear not, Zacharias,” the angel said. Your prayer has been heard, and your wife, Elisabeth, is going to give birth to a son. When he arrives, give him the name John. You will have joy and happiness, of course. And many others besides you and Elizabeth will also experience great gladness at his birth, because he will be a great man of God. He will never touch any form of alcohol. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. He will turn many people to God. His ministry will remind people of the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and inspire wicked people to follow the wise path of justice. He will help people prepare to be with the Lord.”

Nine months passed and sure enough Elizabeth gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard the good news and came to celebrate. On the eighth day when it was time to circumcise the child, all the neighbors and relatives assumed the baby would be named after his father Zacharias. But the parents said no. His name is John.

For the entire pregnancy the dad, Zacharias, had been unable to speak, having been struck dumb by the same angel that announced the birth of this son. But now his speech was restored and he gave a grand prophecy:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
God has come to save us from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
God will perform the mercy promised to our fathers.
God will remember his holy covenant;
To grant us deliverance from our enemies so that we might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest.
You will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
To his people knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of their sins.
God in his tender mercy will bring the light of heavenly dawn to our dark world
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
To guide our feet into the way of peace.

Peace shows up again at the birth of Jesus. The night Jesus was born there were shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks in the darkness. Suddenly they were enveloped in light. First an angel appeared and announced the birth of the Messianic child. Then a whole choir of angels appeared and sang a glorious anthem. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth . . . peace.”

The text here is ambiguous. Did the song promise peace and goodwill to humans or did it promise peace to humans of good will?

I think the ambiguity is deliberate and instructive. Guiding feet in the path of peace was the work of John the Baptist. It was the work of Jesus the Messiah. It is the work of all their spiritual descendants.
What is the path of peace Zacharias saw as the center of the mission of his son and the Messiah?

The Gospel describes the ministry of John the Baptist this way:

John began preaching in the desert and huge crowds came to hear him. His preaching was riveting, convicting.
When the people asked, “What shall we do?” John said, “If you have two coats, share with someone who has no coat. If you have plenty of food, find someone with less and share.”
Tax collectors asked about God's call on their lives and work.
“No corruption.” John said.
Soldiers, members of the Roman occupying army, were also moved by the preaching. What about us? They asked.
“Don't abuse your power. Don't strong arm people. Don't accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”
John's preaching was so compelling people wondered if he were himself the Messiah.

What is the path of peace? How do we prepare to be with the Lord?

Share. Practice generosity. Resist the allure of corruption. Don't misuse the power that lies in our hands. Do right. Make peace.

We prepare to enjoy peace with God by making peace on earth here and now. We deepen our enjoyment of the generosity of heaven by practicing generosity on earth.

This has important political implications. If our greatest concern is free loaders and how to exclude them, we have not yet learned the culture of the City of Peace. In the City of Peace, the greatest concern is to make sure that no one is poorly served. Yes, freeloaders warp their souls and damage the larger community. And it is appropriate, necessary, to limit the problem. But the threat of freeloading by poor individuals is small compared to the threat of discovering that we, the wealthiest nation in the history of humanity, failed to care for the disabled and disadvantaged, or to use biblical language, failed to provide for the fatherless and widow and foreigner. The threat of freeloading by poor people is far less than the threat of gaming the system by the rich and powerful.

To guide our feet in the path of peace.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth . . . peace.

Peace is one of the essential fibers of the cultural fabric of the City of God. Our city is a City of Peace.

The Gospel begins with such promise. John's sermons were so inspiring people imagined that he himself was the Messiah.

Then Jesus appeared, and thousands of people showed up for his rallies. Thousands of people found hope in preaching and healing through his touch. It was a luminous time. The world was full of light.

But the religious conservatives grew increasingly uncomfortable. Jesus was too generous. He made God appear too gracious. Jesus threatened the privileges of the powerful.

Eventually, the religious conservatives managed to seize control of society. They came up with a plan to shut down the generosity of Jesus.

This is the reality that lies behind today's New Testament reading.

Jesus had been preaching and healing for three years. He is heading into Jerusalem in the heart of a grand, enthusiastic procession. People are shouting words from the Psalms. They are euphoric.

Glory to God in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Jesus lets the people sing and dance. Why not. It is true that he carries the divine promise that generosity and grace will eventually displace acquisition and vindictiveness. Let's us keep that in mind. It's worth singing about.

But even Jesus is not able to always keep the ultimate triumph of goodness front and center in his mind.

As the procession reaches the top of rise and the road heads down toward Jerusalem, Jesus sees the entire city spread out before him. It is supposed to be the City of Peace. It is supposed to be the Beautiful City, the City of God. But it has been taken over by religious conservatives and power elites determined to preserve their privileges. They will eliminate Jesus at the end of the week. Their continued resistance to the path of peace will turn their city, forty years in the future, into the City of Death.

And Jesus looking and knowing, weeps.

If only you had known, you of all people, at this time, this moment of opportunity, the path to peace. But it is too late. Your eyes are blinded. You cannot see the path. You cannot find the way to peace.

In less than seven days, Jesus was dead. The world was dark. Peace suddenly seemed very far away.

That's the way our story goes. The path to peace is long. It is sometimes very difficult.

But the gospel does not end there.

Resurrection morning comes. And the Gospel of Matthew ends with the stirring challenge from Jesus: Go into all the world and teach them what I have taught you. Guide their feet into the way of peace.

We rehearse the Christmas story, the story of the birth of the Prince of Peace, to give ourselves courage. Peace will triumph.

We rehearse the story to give ourselves wisdom. What do we do in the face of the apparent triumph of swaggering power? We practice peacemaking.

What do we do when the media amplifies voices of hostility, rudeness, and aggression? We sing again the Christmas songs.

Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth


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.