Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Sabbath Between

In the Christian liturgical calendar this is the day between: The day between the colossal failure of Friday and the magnificent triumph of Sunday.

It is suffused with the light of Sabbath, the affirmation of God: It is finished. It is good. These words apply to the cosmos, they apply especially to us. God the Father says to us: I am pleased with you. You have done enough. God the Mother says to us: you are beautiful, what you have made is beautiful. God the Friend says to us: My heart has found sweet rest with you.

This Sabbath between affirms all this with proof, without demonstration. It overflows with the word of God: It is finished. It is good.

Tomorrow, we will enter again into our work of making God's words visible in the world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Donkeys of the Christ

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for April 12, 2014, the Sabbath before Palm Sunday.
Scripture readings:  OT: Isaiah 44:24, 27, 28; 45:11-13. NT: Mark 11:1-11

It is a very long hike, from Jericho, the City of Palms, to Jerusalem, the city of Tears. Fifteen miles and three thousand feet of elevation gain, to use language common here in the Pacific Northwest.

The way I imagine it, Jesus and hundreds of other people are up before sunrise. Palm trees stand silhouetted against the brightening sky. People blow on their hands in the morning chill. The crowd is excited and nervous. Rumors have it that the political elite in Jerusalem are planning to eliminate Jesus. There are also rumors that this Passover, in Jerusalem, Jesus will declare himself king.

Barely outside the city gates the parade is interrupted by an insistent, plaintive cry, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” It’s Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. The crowd tries to shush him, but he keeps shouting until Jesus orders his disciples to go find him. Jesus heals the man and he joins the parade marching toward Jerusalem.

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem went up a canyon. It was long and hot. In the afternoon, the crowd crowns the hill above Jerusalem. Jesus stops and they gave over the grand view of the Holy City spread out below them. Jesus told a couple of his disciples, “Go into the village just ahead of us. Right as you enter the village, you’ll find a colt tied in the street. No one has ever ridden it.

“Untie the colt and bring it here. Oh, and if anyone asks you what you are doing, just tell them the Lord needs it and will send it back shortly.”

So the disciples headed off toward the village. They found the colt tied up just like Jesus had described. The bystanders challenged them, just as Jesus had predicted. The disciples answered the way Jesus had told them to. The bystanders let them take the donkey.

Back to the hill crest where Jesus sat surrounded by the crowd. They threw their cloaks over the donkey. Jesus climbed on and the parade poured down the hill toward Jerusalem. It was the same people who had been walking with Jesus all the way from Jericho, but the crowd was different. Trudging up the long canyon they had been pilgrims. Now they were the entourage of a king. There was electricity in the air.

They spread their cloaks in the road to make a carpet for their king. They cut branches from trees and spread them in the road. I'm sure you've seen pictures of the crowd waving palm fronds in the air. Dancing. Singing. Ecstatic. Joyous. Shouting,
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
Hosanna in the highest.

The Gospel of Luke reports that the authorities tried to get Jesus to shut the parade down. Don’t you hear what the people are saying? They asked.
“Oh yes, I hear them.” Jesus answered. “And if I quiet them, the very rocks will begin shouting.”
One can suppress the truth for only so long.

The grand parade continues on toward Jerusalem. In the couple of miles between the tiny village of Bethphage and the gates of Jerusalem, the parade picks up more people. The excitement grows. Jesus rides through the city gates and keeps on moving. He rides straight to the temple. There he dismounts and sweeps into the courtyard with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. The vast temple court is filled with people and animals. It's Passover. Half the world is there.

Jesus stops and surveys the scene. He listens to the baaing of sheep and the mooing of cows, the haggling of animal merchants, the strident voices of money changers. Jesus He knows poor people from all over the Mediterranean world have come here to worship. People from what is today Spain and Lybia, France, Egypt and Italy, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Turkey–people from everywhere come here to worship. It is the trip of a lifetime, the ultimate expression of their devotion to God and their hope. And here, Jesus sees their devout dreams sullied, cynically manipulated. Jesus sees poor pilgrims getting ripped off in the temple courtyard.

Jesus' entrance with an entourage of hundreds or thousands created a stir. And as he stands surveying the scene, the commotion quiets a bit. People stare. Abruptly, Jesus shouts, “God has said, 'My house is to be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.'” He immediately launches into the crowded court, tipping over tables. Shouting, “Be gone!” Coins clatter across the pavement. He opens gates on pens. Goats begin scampering through the crowd. Cows bulldoze their way across the sea of humanity. I’m sure by now he’s shouting, the disciples following his lead, waving their arms and shooing the sheep and cows and goats toward the exits. More tables are flipped. More coins clatter on the pavement. The dealers and sellers begin hollering. Panic and pandemonium spread. People and animals charging for the exits before the terrifying wrath of Jesus. It's wonderful.

12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, 13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. 15 And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, 16 And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:12-16 KJV, accessed through

Then it's quiet. Jesus' followers are astonished. Did Jesus just do what they saw him do? New sound begins to fill the place. It's the sound of kids running toward Jesus, laughing and shouting. The wrath of the Lamb does not scare them. It merely creates space for them to be free. It is another rich picture of Jesus, Christ the King.

On an entirely different note: Karin and I were hiking this week in a park near our house. It's a place she likes to ride her horse with her girlfriends. Karin told me some organization is building a couple of new trails in the park. Late in our hike we came to where a new trail took off to the right and crossed a creek. Karin enthusiastically called my attention to this new trail and especially to the nearly-completed new bridge across the creek. She told me how eager she was to explore that trail and see where it went.

I listened dutifully, but my mind had already been captured by an entirely different picture. On the far side of the bridge was a small excavator.

I told Karin I wanted one of those. If I had an excavator like that I could build all sorts of trails. I freely acknowledge that this Bobcat excavator was not the highlight of our hike. It is not the preeminent scenic wonder of O'Grady Park. But some of you, especially some of you guys, will understand why, for at least a few minutes, the wild land wonders were eclipsed by my fascination with a digging machine.

In the story of the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is the obvious center of attention. The writer is focused on Jesus. During the parade, the crowds spreading garments in the road and waving palm branches were ecstatic about Jesus. When Jesus drives the moneychangers and merchants from the temple courtyard, Jesus is the hero. Then at the end of the story, when children come flooding into the temple court, they come because Jesus is there. He is the grand, beautiful, eye-catching center of the story. But this week as I thought about this story, I found my attention riveted on the donkey.

The whole story falls apart if there is no donkey. Jesus can't walk into Jerusalem, not if this is supposed to be a regal entrance. He has to ride. There was an ancient prophecy that described the Messiah riding a donkey, so it had to be a donkey, not horse, not an ox cart, not a sedan chair. They couldn't have the parade without the donkey.

The donkey shows up, Jesus mounts up and the parade begins. The crowd goes crazy with excitement and enthusiasm. It is the happiest day of their lives. And it required a donkey.

We are donkeys of the Christ. The central conviction of Christianity is that God was and is in Christ working for the healing and happiness of the world. Our calling is to serve as the donkeys of Christ. We are charged with making Christ present.

What is the point of this beautiful building? To provide access to God. Of course, we don't imagine God is only present here, or that we have any kind of monopoly on God. But we are donkeys of the Christ in this neighborhood. This beautiful building, our elegant music, our carefully planned liturgy are vehicles for the presence of God. They are donkeys of the Christ.

I like the idea of our building and worship serving as donkeys of the Christ. It affirms our efforts, our endeavors, play a vital role in the work of God. What we do here does, indeed, provide a special service on behalf of God.

Those who give money—you are acting as agents of the kingdom of heaven, helping to put on the grand parade.
Musicians—the parade would not even get out of the parking lot without you. Many of us experience our most intense connection with God through your gifts.
Sound crew and video crew. As persons you are nearly invisible. And every worship service is utterly dependent on your skillful, generous service.
Associate pastors
Painters. Have you noticed the bright new look of our walls?
Sabbath School teachers.
Craft makers.
Money counters.
Money managers.
Your work makes Jesus visible and present. You are donkeys of the Christ.

But this picture of us as donkeys of the Christ is like one of those magic pictures where you see two different pictures depending on the angle. As Christ's donkeys we are indispensable agents of the kingdom of heaven. Yes. But about the time we get cocky and full of ourselves, someone might point out that no matter how grand the parade, no matter how august the personage riding the donkey at the center of the parade, the donkey is still—well—still a donkey. When we put in a lot of effort to be the very best donkeys in the world, sometimes we might forget we are still mere donkeys. The point of the parade is to make Christ present, not to show case the donkey. So let's not get cocky or conceited. We're doing good work, important work, but let's beware of the danger of forgetting that our significance arises from our participation in something larger, grander than ourselves. The parade owns us. We do not own the parade.

On that afternoon, about two millennia ago, Jesus rode on a donkey in a grand parade, declaring in the most public way his conviction that goodness would ultimately triumph. He invited the crowds watching to join him, to shout hallelujah. As they did so, as they joined the celebration, they were joining God's grand project to bend the arc of history toward justice and righteousness.

Today, at the heart of our community, our worship, our building, our religion is our buoyant and stubborn confidence that ultimately, Jesus will triumph. Goodness will rule. Our hope and our commitment deserve a glorious party.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Dual Citizenship
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
March 29, 2014

Jeremiah 29:4-7
Romans 13:1-7


Jesus set an exalted ideal: view every human as deserving of care and sustenance, even when they are our enemies. In Jesus' vision, there are no particular societies. Nations and national identities become invisible. Other voices and other characters in the Bible, including Abraham, Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel and Paul acknowledge the value of specific societies and social structures. We serve God best by serving particular communities and working with concrete social structures. So, today, to fully live out the ideals of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must engage in the society of earth.

Daniel in the Lions’ Den
1 Darius the Mede decided to divide the kingdom into 120 provinces, and he appointed a high officer to rule over each province. 2 The king also chose Daniel and two others as administrators to supervise the high officers and protect the king’s interests. 3 Daniel soon proved himself more capable than all the other administrators and high officers. Because of Daniel’s great ability, the king made plans to place him over the entire empire.

4 Then the other administrators and high officers began searching for some fault in the way Daniel was handling government affairs, but they couldn’t find anything to criticize or condemn. He was faithful, always responsible, and completely trustworthy. 5 So they concluded, “Our only chance of finding grounds for accusing Daniel will be in connection with the rules of his religion.”

6 So the administrators and high officers went to the king and said, “Long live King Darius! 7 We are all in agreement—we administrators, officials, high officers, advisers, and governors—that the king should make a law that will be strictly enforced. Give orders that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human—except to you, Your Majesty—will be thrown into the den of lions. 8 And now, Your Majesty, issue and sign this law so it cannot be changed, an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.” 9 So King Darius signed the law.

10 But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God.

11 Then the officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help. 12 So they went straight to the king and reminded him about his law. “Did you not sign a law that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human—except to you, Your Majesty—will be thrown into the den of lions?”
“Yes,” the king replied, “that decision stands; it is an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.”
13 Then they told the king, “That man Daniel, one of the captives from Judah, is ignoring you and your law. He still prays to his God three times a day.”
14 Hearing this, the king was deeply troubled, and he tried to think of a way to save Daniel. He spent the rest of the day looking for a way to get Daniel out of this predicament.
15 In the evening the men went together to the king and said, “Your Majesty, you know that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, no law that the king signs can be changed.”
16 So at last the king gave orders for Daniel to be arrested and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to him, “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully, rescue you.”
17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den. The king sealed the stone with his own royal seal and the seals of his nobles, so that no one could rescue Daniel. 18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night fasting. He refused his usual entertainment and couldn’t sleep at all that night.

19 Very early the next morning, the king got up and hurried out to the lions’ den. 20 When he got there, he called out in anguish, “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God, whom you serve so faithfully, able to rescue you from the lions?”
21 Daniel answered, “Long live the king! 22 My God sent his angel to shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, for I have been found innocent in his sight. And I have not wronged you, Your Majesty.”
23 The king was overjoyed and ordered that Daniel be lifted from the den. Not a scratch was found on him, for he had trusted in his God.

24 Then the king gave orders to arrest the men who had maliciously accused Daniel. He had them thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. The lions leaped on them and tore them apart before they even hit the floor of the den.
25 Then King Darius sent this message to the people of every race and nation and language throughout the world:
“Peace and prosperity to you!
26 “I decree that everyone throughout my kingdom should tremble with fear before the God of Daniel. For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. 27 He rescues and saves his people;
he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”
28 So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.
New Living Bible, accessed through

It can be complicated, living with dual citizenship. But that is our calling. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and citizens of the United States (or China or Nigeria or Canada or Mexico).

But let's be clear. For us dual citizenship does mean exactly equal allegiance to two kingdoms. Here in church we unabashedly declare our supreme allegiance is to the Kingdom of Heaven. That's one reason we do not have an American flag in our sanctuary. In this space—in this house, in this family—particular national identities are unimportant. My precious American birthright gives me no status. In this house of prayer for all nations, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala has equal claim upon God and upon the affection and support of the community.

Sometimes there is a conflict between the claims of the Kingdom of Heaven and the claims of a particular national identity. When that happens, the Kingdom of Heaven is the unqualified master of our souls.

When there is a law or custom that requires us to pretend that some earthly citizenship is supreme, we unhesitatingly reject it.

This story also illustrates cautions against an opposite idea held by some Christians: that heaven is all that matters. Believe and pray. That's all that matters. Just this week I was yet another article about the heart-breaking connection between a certain kind of Christianity and perpetual poverty with its accompanying phenomena of divorce, obesity, diabetes, domestic violence and general misery. True religion does offer comfort and consolation in the face of difficulties we cannot change. As I have said often enough: If you call religion and opiate of the masses, and you say that scornfully, it must be that you have never experienced severe pain. Genuine Christianity is a wonderful consolation.

And it is far more than that. It is a stirring call to cooperate with God in making the world better. The story of Daniel is a brilliant example of that. He was the best man in his world. This was recognized by the king and even by his enemies.

God calls us to be the best men and women in our worlds. In the heart of Babylon—that is the regular, old, secular world—God calls us to be indispensably good.

In serving the empires of Babylon and Persia, Daniel was following the advice God gave through the prophet Jeremiah.

[Jer 29:1-14 NLT] 1 Jeremiah wrote a letter from Jerusalem to the elders, priests, prophets, and all the people who had been exiled to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. 2 This was after King Jehoiachin, the queen mother, the court officials, the other officials of Judah, and all the craftsmen and artisans had been deported from Jerusalem. 3 He sent the letter with Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah when they went to Babylon as King Zedekiah's ambassadors to Nebuchadnezzar. This is what Jeremiah's letter said: 4 This is what the LORD of Heaven's Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: 5 "Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare." 8 This is what the LORD of Heaven's Armies, the God of Israel, says: "Do not let your prophets and fortune-tellers who are with you in the land of Babylon trick you. Do not listen to their dreams, 9 because they are telling you lies in my name. I have not sent them," says the LORD. 10 This is what the LORD says: "You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you," says the LORD. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you," says the LORD. "I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land."

This world is our home. God wants us to settle in and prosper here. God wants us to work for the prosperity of the larger society. Because it will thus go well for us, and because a prosperous society is God's dream for the world.

2011 was not a particularly good time to become governor of California. Unemployment was in the double digits. The state budget had a $26 billion deficit. And this was on top of a state debt that had already piled up to $35 billion. People were beginning to talk about bankruptcy. The problem appeared to be unsolvable.

The new governor, Jerry Brown, went to work. He did the unheard of thing of asking the voters to raise their own taxes. And they did it. He cut state spending. And it hurt. Now, three years later, the state budget is in balance. Employment is recovering nicely. And the state is again pursuing forward-looking environmental initiatives, futuristic transportation projects and bold water projects.

Part of Jerry Brown's history was several years in a Jesuit seminary training for the priesthood. He left the seminary and went to law school. His life has been in politics, not the church, not religion. But throughout his political career he has pursued some bright ideals. He's not perfect, of course. Not all of his ideas have worked. And not all of them are good. But his recent leadership in the State of California has moved the place away from the brink of bankruptcy, but into a place for dreamers and inventors.

And that's a good thing. That is the kind of work we are called to do.

Last Sunday, Krystl Mitchell and Mark Murphy were married here at Green Lake Church. It was a beautiful service with magnificent music. At the reception there were long speeches. One of which I will remember a long time. Krystl's dad talked of his memories of his “little girl.”

He talked of walking the Burke Gilman trail with Krystl when she was just a tyke. She carefully picked up every snail and moved it off the trail so it wouldn't get hurt. In school, she made a point of befriending kids who were outsiders. No amount of peer pressure could bend her. She was determined to make things better. Then she went off to law school, still committed to making the world better. And she hasn't stopped yet. Now she is working as a prosecutor in Grays Harbor, seeking to maintain justice.

Krystl is a beautiful example of dual citizenship. She is a citizen of what we call “the real world,” the world where snails get crushed and socially awkward kids and ugly people get shunned. She is also a citizen of the kingdom of God, the kingdom where snails are precious and awkward kids and ugly people are see in their real value.

God calls us all to do our own work of saving snails, maybe building “snail fences.” To use our mind and muscle to serve.

This is our highest honor.

Money and Soul

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
April 5, 2014.
OT: 1 Kings 5:1-6, 10, 11.
NT: Luke 21:1-4.

Money is a powerful tool for turning our dreams into reality, for turning our values into life. The way we manage our money always expresses our fundamental values. A discerning observer could read our soul in our bank statement.

A note before I begin: Preaching tends to be a one way street: I talk and you listen. I like it when people talk back. Please feel welcome to comment or ask a question. If you have my phone number, feel free to text me. I value your input.

Imagine a warm spring day. Around us are the massive stone walls of the temple courtyard in ancient Jerusalem. Overhead, puffy white clouds float in a blue sky. The temple is throbbing with people, so many you can scarcely see the foot-worn stone pavement. Bustle and commotion. A hundred languages or more floating in the air. Turbans and robes and foot-ware reflect a hundred different cultures across North Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle East. Jesus is sitting here in the courtyard, watching. His disciples follow his eyes. They are learning to see what he sees, learning to see how he sees.

Right now, he is watching the offering box. People pour bags of coins into the slot. Little streams of gold and silver.

Contributing to the temple was both a civic and a religious responsibility. It was a marker of social status. And appropriately so. The temple was the preeminent expression of Jewish national and religious identity. Maintaining the buildings and the services of the temple took huge financial resources. It could not function apart from the patronage of the wealthy. Their gifts were appreciated. The very bench where Jesus sat watching was paid for by gold coins given by a wealthy Jewish donor.

The eyes of Jesus catch a furtive movement off to the right. He turns his head, and his disciples follow with their own eyes. They see a skeletally-thin woman with a couple of skinny kids in tow threading through the crowd. She must be a widow. No self-respecting husband would let his wife loose in this crowd. She's moving toward the offering box. Jesus and the 24 eyes of his disciples follow her progress.

Then she's there. She quickly lifts her hand and drops a coin in the box. It makes a different sound. It's not gold or silver. It's copper. A penny. She drops another, then lifts her eyes to heaven in a silent instant of prayer, then she's gone.

I don't want the story to end here. I imagine Jesus sending a couple of disciples after her to learn her story and offer financial assistance from the money bag we know they kept for just such purposes. It's easy to imagine this part of the story. It would fit with the rest that we know about Jesus. But we have to create this part of the story purely from our imaginations. The actual account in the gospel ends with her release of the coins and their clink in the offering box.

Except for this.

3 "I tell you the truth," Jesus said, "this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. 4 For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has." [Luke 21:3-6, New Living Translation, accessed through]

It's a delicious story. One that deserves its own movie. It's another example of Jesus undermining the traditional identification of actual value with social status.

Women were third class citizens in that society. Widows were several steps further down the yardstick of social value. Add poverty to the mix and this woman with her pennies is genuinely a nobody, a no account.

Jesus contrasts her with the rich, publicly-devout men who were depositing loads of gold in the offering box and Jesus says, “She gave more.” “She out did them.” It was an outrageous statement then. It's still an outrageous statement. It raises profound questions.

Imagine sitting there with Jesus if you were on the Temple Finance Committee. The reason you are on the committee is your long history of generosity toward the temple. You would have to be a man, of course, in that culture. You would have been a good man, a devout man, a kindly man.

When you saw the widow drop her two pennies into the box, you would have smiled. You would have agreed it was touching, sweet. But when you saw the owner of a fleet of cargo ships based in Alexandria pour a couple of large bags of gold coins into the box, you would have immediately started dreaming. That would cover the cost of new robes for the high priest or a new drain in the sheep washing area.

Two copper pennies would be cute. Yes, for sure. But two bags of gold could do real work.

That's one view of money. It is realistic. It's concrete. It's unarguable. More money, more work. More money, more impact. It's the way the world works.

Then you hear Jesus say the widow gave more and you start thinking. How can that be?

It doesn't take you long. You realize Jesus is talking about the soul of the giver rather than the dollars that were given.

In the temple budget, the widows pennies were vanishingly trivial. In the widow's life, those pennies were as large as the world because she used them to give her entire life to God.

If you looked at the woman and her gift only through the lens of your role as a member of the Temple Finance Committee, the woman's gift, and perhaps the woman herself, would appear utterly insignificant.

Jesus was looking at the woman's money from the other end of the telescope, so to speak. Instead of measuring the woman's gift by the amount of work it could accomplish, he measured it by the purity of the spring from which it came and the richness of soul it carried.

By these measures, this widow's pennies dwarfed the bags of gold brought by ship captains, merchants, and nobility. Her offering was full of soul. She packed her entire life into those two pennies and gave them to God. And walked away light as a feather. She might be a widow. She was desperately poor. Society scorned her. But when she dropped those pennies into the box, she declared her independence from the judgment of society, even from the obvious circumstances of her life. She acted the way rich people do. She did what she wanted with her money. And what she wanted to do was to participate in the mission of God.

She bought into the kingdom of God with her whole being. Her gift became an essential, eternal element of the work of God. She could tell herself that God himself depended on her to do his work. And she was happy.

Have you ever given all of yourself to something? It is usually the sweetest moment in life. In good marriages, the man and woman find their supreme happiness in leaping into pledge of their livevs to one another. Sometimes when I'm standing here on this platform with a couple during a wedding, their ecstasy is palpable. As they say their vows—I am yours. I will be yours. I give you my best, I give you myself.--as they say these words to one another, I feel their ineffable joy.

Runners who throw themselves into intense training for a marathon find a rare euphoria. The discipline takes over their lives. And in surrendering to that discipline they find a pleasure unavailable to them another way.

It's the same with our money management. When we make giving money away central in our management of our money, money becomes a rare source of pleasure.

Our money inescapably is intertwined with our souls—with our values, our sense of place in the world, our sense of God.

Obviously, there are a lot of ordinary, mundane things we must take care of. Housing and groceries. Clothes and transportation. Tuition and books. Phone and internet service. Vacation and dates. Retirement. Taking care of these responsibilities and needs is obviously important. They are a good use of our money.

And we are tempted to think, if I just had a little more, then I wouldn't need to worry, wouldn't need to fret. But if you ever do get that little bit more, you will discover that you still need a little bit more. No matter how much you get, you always need a little bit more. That's when we need to learn from this widow woman and her pennies.

The most direct path to being pleasurably wealthy is to give. When you reach the point in your life when you can boldly give money away, that's when you will know you are rich. That's when you will enjoy being rich. And if you are so secure that you can give away all of your pennies, you will have entered the blissful paradise of the half percent (that's an even more elite group than the One Percent!)

Generosity is the most reliable entrance to joy. This is true for individuals. It is also true for communities.

At the very core of our identity as a Christian community is our commitment to make freely available to others the riches of church. Our beautiful building, our rich worship in music, Bible reading and preaching, the opportunity for social connection—we make all this freely available. Most people who enjoy church take it for granted. They make use of it and pass on.

But a few experience the deep satisfaction of sustaining this work of God. This building, the life of this community, is an expression of the soul of their money.

How is it with you and your money? I know for some of us money is very tight. Others of us have a surplus. But for all of us, money is connected with the core of our being. It carries our lives.

And to all of us comes the invitation to participate in the mission of God. Here at Green Lake Church and elsewhere in the world. We may have tens of thousands of dollars at our disposal or only pennies. Whatever the amount, know this: your giving is honored by God as true partnership. Your generosity is noted and celebrated in the kingdom of heaven.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Interpreting God

Interpreting God
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
March 22, 2014

OT: Jonah 3:1-5, 10.
NT: Luke 21:5-11

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the evil empire, an arch-enemy of Israel. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. God ordered Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach doom. Jonah refused to go because he worried God would not carry through with his threat of doom. Under considerable duress, Jonah finally went. He preached doom in the streets of Nineveh. The people reacted by doing a searching moral inventory and renouncing their evil ways. Doom did not happen. Jonah was embarrassed and angry. God was happy. God's purpose in Jonah's prophecy was not to predict the future but to change it.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a prophet named Jonah. He was a respected leader in the kingdom of Israel. Israel was prosperous. The kingdom was a major regional military power. I presume that a major theme in Jonah's preaching was the importance of honoring God all the blessings God was pouring on the nation. Life was good.

Then, out of the blue, God gave Jonah an unusual message.

“Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are." Jonah 1:2

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. Assyria was an evil empire, and an arch-enemy of Israel. Asking Jonah to go preach doom against Nineveh would be like asking a good, flag-waving, gun-toting Southern Baptist preacher from Atlanta to go to Moscow and preach the downfall of Mr. Putin in Red Square. Or like asking an Iranian mullah to travel to Washington, D.C. And wave an Iranian flag out on the Mall while preaching the imminent doom of America.

Jonah understood his assignment. He was used to getting messages from God. He was a prophet, after all. So Jonah set out on a journey. But instead of heading north to Nineveh, Jonah traveled west to the port city of Joppa. There he found a ship leaving for Tarshish.

(Tarshish was a city in Spain at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea. If you sailed very far beyond Tarshish you'd come to the edge of the world where sailors who ventured too far fell off the world into an abyss populated by dragons and monsters.)

Jonah bought a ticket and went on board and settled in, determined to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.

The crew finished loading cargo, lifted their lines and sailed out of the harbor into the Mediterranean. The sails pulled into the sky. It was a beautiful day.

I'm guessing Jonah breathed a huge sigh of relief. Stiff-arming God is a pretty nervy thing to do. God had given Jonah a direct order and Jonah had said no. He had to worry at least a bit how that was going to go. But here he was on board a west-bound ship, putting miles between him and this crazy mission of preaching doom in Nineveh.

Then the blue skies turned gray. The brisk wind became a howling hurricane-force gale. The sailors dropped all but a tiny fragment of sail, just enough to keep the ship from broaching. Still the force of the storm threatened to break the ship apart. The sailors were praying to their gods for help. They threw the cargo overboard, hoping to lighten the ship and reduce the strain on the hull.

At some point in this all-hands-on-deck drama, the captain noticed Jonah's absence and went looking for him. He found him sound asleep down in the hold. Jonah must have been exhausted. I'm thinking it was the emotional strain of thumbing his nose at God. He must have lived in terror over the recent days, wondering what God was going to do to him for refusing the mission. When Jonah finally got on the ship and it left harbor, the load left his shoulders. He was home free. No shouting doom in the streets of Nineveh.

Now, the captain shakes him awake. “Hey, what are you doing? We're about to sink. How can you sleep? Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives."

A little later, as doom appears inevitable for the ship, the crew cast lots to see who had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots pointed straight to Jonah.

"Why has this awful storm come down on us?" they demanded. "Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?"

9 Jonah answered, "I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land."

10 The sailors were terrified when they heard this. He had already told them he was running away from his god, but they had not realized his god was the Lord of earth and sea and sky. This was serious!"What were you thinking?” they demanded.

And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, "What should we do to you to stop this storm?"

12 "Throw me into the sea," Jonah said, "and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault."

This is the second act of defiance in this story. Jonah defied God's order to go to Nineveh. Now the sailors defy the prophet's instructions about saving their lives. Instead of throwing Jonah overboard they work all the harder to get the ship to the land.

Despite their desperate efforts, the storm inexorably eats their ship. They can feel it breaking under them.

Finally, they face the inevitable. Jonah is going into the water with them or without them. If they don't toss him overboard, the ship is going to sink and they will all drown together or they can throw him overboard and take their chances that the storm will calm and they will be saved.

They still hate what they are going to do. These pagan sailors cannot casually sacrifice another human being even if doing so will save their own lives.

They prayed to Jonah's God. "O LORD, don't make us die for this man's sin. And don't hold us responsible for his death. O LORD, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons."

Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!

At that point, the sailors became true believers! What kind of God could turn a raging storm into sweet calm? They offered a sacrifice to Jonah's God and pledged themselves as his devotees for the rest of their lives.

But what about poor Jonah? Is this the end of his story? Is the moral of the story: disobey and die? You better do what God says or else? God gave Jonah an assignment. Jonah ran away. God tracked him down and nailed him.

If we stopped the story right here, it would make a great “fire and brimstone” sermon. Resist God's leading and DOOM! Refuse to go where God sends you? DOOM! You can run from God, but you cannot hide. So watch out! Is this the moral of Jonah's story?

Not quite. The sailors threw Jonah overboard. Jonah disappeared. The sea became calm. That's all the sailors knew. It was enough to make believers out of them. Meanwhile, God had a great fish waiting for Jonah. The fish swallowed Jonah. And Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of that fish.

I love what artists do with this. My favorite painting the fish's stomach is pictured as a large cave. Jonah is sitting on a large turtle shell. You can see the fish's backbone over Jonah's head. Jonah is not happy!

After Jonah had been there for three days, he decided he better talk to God.

As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple. (2:7)

God spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah up on shore. Once Jonah got his bearings, I'm guessing he wondered, “Now what?” God did not leave him guessing.

Then the LORD spoke to Jonah a second time: "Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you." (3:1-2)

Jonah did not mess around this time. No more fish rides! He headed straight to Nineveh and began preaching. "Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!"

Astonishingly, instead of lynching him or stoning him or ignoring him. The people listened to his preaching and believed him. Even the king of Nineveh believed Jonah. He made the dramatic gesture of stepping down from his throne and putting on burlap cloth himself. Then to push it as far as possible in that society, he sat on an ash heap.

He called his nobles together and they had a decree published throughout the city: "No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. 8 People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. Everyone must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. 9 Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us."

A question for you: Does God ever change his mind? Was this statement by the King of Nineveh a wise statement or a foolish statement? 

Did Jonah's message include any wiggle room in it? Did he say God is going to destroy Nineveh UNLESS you change your ways? No. Jonah's message was simple and emphatic. Forty days from now DOOM upon Nineveh.

The King of Nineveh set out to change God's mind. He enlisted his people in the effort. And amazingly, it worked.

When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.

God changed his mind. The prophecy did not happen.

Jonah got very upset with God.

"Isn't this just what I said I left home? I knew this would happen. That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.

Then Jonah speaks his bottom line:

Just kill me now, LORD! I'd rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.

Here is the moral of Jonah's story. God's highest value is the well-being of his children. Jonah's highest value is reputation—God's and his own. The book leaves us with the question: what is our highest value? Are we more like the prophet? Or more like God?

Another way to ask this question: Are we more worried about God's reputation than God is?

When people ask me my opinion about the return of Jesus to set up his kingdom of everlasting righteousness, I always tell them that I hope is today. This afternoon. Often Adventists will assure me that this cannot be. Jesus cannot come this afternoon.

Why? Because some of the bad stuff prophesied in the Book of Revelation has happened yet. Jesus cannot come until after “the time of trouble,” or “the great tribulation.” We have to have more wars, famines, pestilences, and false prophets. There has to be a national law compelling false worship from everybody. When people talk like this I wonder if they have considered the implications of the book of Jonah. Prophecies of doom are quite negotiable. Every terrible prophecy in the Bible is optional.

God is far more interested in saving people than in making himself look good by making sure predictions of doom actually happen. When we partner with God, we will quit insisting that doom must happen. Instead we will join with God in doing all that we can to avert doom, to minimize suffering, to promote righteousness, to enhance human well-being.

In Jonah's story, it is the pagan sailors who are most like God. In the face of an explicit statement by the prophet of God announcing divine judgment against Jonah and offering them a way to save themselves and consign Jonah to the judgment of God, they refuse to throw him overboard. They do everything they can to save him. They work to keep Jonah in the boat, even at great risk to themselves.

This is a model of the work God has given us.

What are you doing to avert doom?

You have something to contribute to the kingdom of heaven. I saw this vividly this week.

I participated with other family members in the funeral for Karin's uncle, Kenneth Stringer. Uncle Kenneth was brilliant, a master of numbers. His contribution to the Kingdom of heaven was to work with mathematician Frederick Stephan of Princeton to develop statistical sampling methods for auditing. This is not exactly the kind of missionary work I grew up imagining. It is not doctoring, nursing, preaching or teaching. But it did create reliable, powerful tools for helping foster accountability in the handling of huge sums of money. And accountability is part of the very foundation of good and just society.

In the funeral we talked a bit about Uncle Kenneth's intellectual genius.

Then we turned to another group of people who were present. None of them is famous for the books they have written. None of them have plaques and awards from prestigious professional societies hanging on their walls. But for the last five or six years they have been the absolutely indispensable caregivers, first for Kenneth's wife, then for Uncle Kenneth himself.

Cousin Bob told us that staff at two different hospitals told him they had never seen such compassionate, competent care.

As I thought about these two different visions of service—one arcane, abstract, and highly paid—the other concrete, direct and poorly paid, who could say that one is more valuable than the other. Both kinds of service contribute to the great goal of God which is highlighted in Jonah's story: the amelioration of human suffering, the advance of human well-being.

May God stir our hearts to participate with the sailors and God himself in doing our utmost to save and bless all we can.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Keeping Sabbath, a Divine Honeymoon

This is a revised manuscript for the sermon preached at Green Lake Church, Sabbath, March 1, 2014.
This manuscript is much closer to the sermon as it was actually preached than the original manuscript published on this blog.

Text: Exodus 20: 8-11

Synopsis. Sabbath zealots—people who are hyper strict in their observance of the Sabbath—are indispensable to protecting the specialness of the Sabbath among us. Even if we are not strict observers of Sabbath, whatever measure of respite we experience in our Sabbath-keeping is a gift that flows from the vigor and carefulness of the zealots. Sabbath is like a honeymoon, too precious to be littered with the affairs of ordinary life. It calls for planning. It makes life-shaping memories.

Visual set up: I set a small glass bottle of whipping cream, a mixing bowl, a bottle of vanilla and a hand-crank egg beater on a small stool.

I own 20,000 acres of forest land east of Enumclaw. My favorite spot on the entire property is a rocky prominence at the top of massive cliffs overlooking the White River. You hike through the woods for several miles, then the trail winds through a dense thicket of small trees and you come out on this rocky point. It's a perfect lunch spot.

If you are hiking with me and we sit on the rocks there and eat our lunch, and if after you have eaten your apple you pull back your arm to throw your apple core out into the great void, I will leap from my and fly through the air and snatch that apple core from your hand before you can let it fly. I'll smile and say, “I'll carry that out for you.”

Usually when you come to this overlook at the top of the cliffs, there is no litter. One reason is because I'm a litter zealot. If you are hiking on my property with me, I won't let you toss out anything. Apple cores, orange peels, egg shells? I'll carry that out for you. Every time I climb to this spot I scour it for trash. A tiny corner of granola bar wrapper. A cigarette butt. Orange peels. Banana peels. I pick them all up. Once I spent ten minutes picking up egg shell that had been left by someone who had eaten a hardboiled egg. Not just the big pieces. I picked up the tiniest bit of crushed shell, so that when we left the point was pristine.

Oh, this 20,000 acres I own—it's national forest land. We all own it, but I prove my ownership by being a litter zealot. A litter fanatic. Maybe, a litter-Nazi.

I know that most of you think I'm crazy for being so nitpicking that I won't even toss an apple core—and won't allow you to do it either if we are hiking together. But I also know that you like the culture litter zealots like me have created. You can't help thinking people like me are fanatics, people who pick up every piece of litter they come across on the trail, people who urge you to “pack out” the chocolate square you dropped in the sand, people who leap up and grab the apple core from your hand when you go to toss it into the trees. People like me are crazy. We are extremists. But we are indispensable agents in shaping Northwest culture.

I was reminded of the value of that culture Tuesday afternoon. I was talking with Ken up at Zoka's. He and Susana have just returned from three months in Mexico. The countryside around their village is beautiful. The food was fantastic. The people are friendly and helpful. The air was warm. The sky was blue. It was paradise. Except for one striking, disturbing aspect of life in rural Mexico: litter. There was garbage everywhere.

Why? Are the people there defective? No. Are they blind? No. Why is there garbage? Because of the culture. There is no compelling social drive against littering. So there is garbage everywhere.

It is the same according to my friends who live there.

It is somewhat like that in north Georgia. My dad used to live there. When I'd go for a visit, we sometimes drove to national forests in the area. It's beautiful country, but I was astonished at the trash. Every trail head had piles of garbage. Even miles from the trail head, the trails were marred with beverage cans, food wrappers and other stuff. It was jarring. Why would people do such a thing? Do the people in Georgia have more evil characters than the people of Enumclaw? Why is it that the national forest trails between Enumclaw and Mt. Rainier are almost entirely trash free and the trails in the national forest in north Georgia were heavily littered?

The difference is culture.

Whenever I come back to the northwest after hiking in the South, I always have a renewed appreciation for a culture that resists littering, a culture that supports clean trails and the protection of and respect for the natural world.

I don't expect you to agree with me about the importance of carrying apple cores out of the back country. But my zealotry, and the zealotry of others like me, keeps the center of the bell curve of Northwest culture far away from the litter-tolerance of Mexico, India and north Georgia. And you enjoy the benefit of a litter-free back country because of the power of that culture.

* * * * *

(Recall the visual mentioned above: the cream, beaters, bowl, and vanilla.)

Yesterday I was at Cypress Adventist School. I told the kids I was going to buy something special at QFC (a grocery store) that afternoon for supper. This special something came in a small glass bottle. Then I was going to Tracy's Produce to buy strawberries. Could they guess what was in the small bottle? They guessed pickles and mayonnaise. So I drew a picture of the small bottle on board. Someone guessed milk. I said that was close. Then they guessed yogurt, ice cream, buttermilk, butter. I said, “Yes, you are getting close. It's a dairy product.” One of the second graders guessed orange juice. I agreed that orange juice is very tasty and sometimes comes in glass bottles and is often in the dairy section of the grocery store, but that wasn't it. I tried giving them another clue. “At your house this treat probably comes in a metal can with a nozzle on top.”

Still no one had any idea. Finally I said to the guy who had guessed ice cream, “Take the “ice” off “ice cream” and you'll have your answer.” He still didn't get it. A girl sitting next to him shyly whispered, “Cream?”


We all laughed together, but I could tell the kids still had no idea what I was talking about. They had no mental connection between a viscous liquid in a glass bottle (or carton, for that matter) and the sweet, white fluffy stuff they could imagine squirting on strawberries.

Now, just for fun, allow me to take a poll: This past Thanksgiving did the white fluffy stuff you put on your pumpkin pie come from a can or did it come from bowl where it had been whipped and sweetened by one of the cooks in your house? (Note: To my astonishment, it appeared a majority of Green Lake Church members actually whip their cream rather than squirting it from cans. This has no theological significance; still it is amazing and wonderful!)

In March, whipped cream becomes part of the religion at our house. Whipped cream in the old sense of the word. Real cream, poured from a bottle into a bowl, whipped until it begins to have some body, sweetened with a little sugar, flavored with vanilla, then whipped again to perfection with soft peaks. And if the kids are home, you can't use an electric beater. The whipping has to be done by hand.

That's part of the magic.

Friday night feasts are a tradition at our house. And they are more than that. Friday night supper forms the very heart of our religious practice. As a clergy family, our Friday night feasts are more constitutive of our religion than is Sabbath morning worship. Right now, the three of us at home—my wife Karin and I and our daughter Bonnie—all have professional duties on Sabbath morning. Worship services are our job. But Friday night—that's different. Friday night we are not on stage. We are not performing. Friday night we feast, savoring the freedom and richness of Sabbath.

If we have the right combination of people, after dinner, there will be live music, people playing instruments, people singing. Other times the music comes from the CD player.

Most of the year, dinner is “haystacks.” (This is a traditional Adventist meal, basically a taco salad—rice, beans, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, olives, sour cream, salsa, chips. Did I leave out anything?) But in the spring, sometimes it's strawberry shortcake.

When our kids are home from wherever they have scattered around the globe, on Friday mornings, the first topic of conversation is supper. Who's cooking? What are we going to eat? What time are we going to eat? Who's doing the shopping? No one asks IF we are going to have supper together. No matter how chaotic the rest of our lives, we know that on Friday night, it's time to feast. Together. Leisurely. It's our tradition.

It is also our religion.

We learned it from our parents, yes. But if it were only a family tradition, I doubt that we would have maintained it. It is the demand of our religion to keep the Sabbath holy that creates this sweet open space in our lives. Time for feasting, for worship, for visiting with friends, for hiking, for enjoying sunsets. The experience of Sabbath is wonderfully rich. And this richness is the fruit of our religion.

The Sabbath is a central element of religion in the Bible—something that has pretty much disappeared from Christianity. Among most Christians, Sabbath-keeping has been transformed into going to church. That is, Sabbath-keeping means attending a religious performance.

Imagining Sabbath-keeping as going to church is like imagining whipped cream as something you squirt out of a can. Whipped cream from a can is convenient, but it is hardly the full experience.

Worship together is a rich part of Sabbath-keeping. But it is only a part of authentic Sabbath-keeping. According to the Bible and Adventist practice (which we learned from the Jews), Sabbath is an entire day that begins at sundown on Friday.

The ancient tradition of keeping Sabbath is one of the great treasures of the Adventist Church. For us Sabbath is a commandment, an obligation, a tradition, a habit that makes life sweeter, richer. Sabbath is a central element of our church culture. And culture matters.

* * * * *

The Bible begins with the story of the Sabbath. God spends a week creating the world, then . . . what? God keeps Sabbath. Here at the beginning of the Bible there is no command to keep the Sabbath. There is actually no explicit reference to human activity at all. There is the simple statement that God kept Sabbath and in doing so created the foundation for our weekly rhythm. Humans keep Sabbath because God keeps Sabbath.

This week I began reading a book on the Sabbath written by Joseph Lieberman, the senator for Connecticut who ran for vice-president in 2000. Lieberman, an observant Jew, makes exactly this point. Yes, Sabbath-keeping is a special treasure of the Jewish people. But even in the Hebrew Scriptures Sabbath is declared to be the treasure of all humanity, not only the treasure of the Jews.

Sabbath is not created by Sabbath-keepers. Neither the Jews nor Adventists nor the Seventh-day Baptists originated the Sabbath. When we keep Sabbath we are participating in a transcendent reality. God spend six days working, then rested and made the seventh day holy. Sacred. The primary meaning of these words is “special.”

Sabbath is not more righteous than other days. It is not more moral or more ethical. It is special. Different. Extraordinary. Without the frame of regular time, there can be no special time. Without a customary routine, what would be the definition of different? Sabbath interrupts the flow of ordinary time. That's what makes it extraordinary. This interruption is an invitation from God for us to leave our ordinary lives and step into a special place. In the protected place of Sabbath, we can give special attention to God, to one another. It is time for us to explore the big questions of life and philosophy—or to leave such questions alone and simply savor the richness and sweetness of the gifts that are ours. It's time for us to be with one another in a unique way.

How to keep the Sabbath?

The first Sabbath, the one described in Genesis One, was a honey moon. If we use that as an analogy, it suggests great anticipation and planning. Good food and good times. Intimacy and leisure.

So our Sabbaths should feature good food and good times. Intimacy and leisure. This is what we aim to experience in our Friday night feasts. A friend of mine, Tony Romeo, posted a video of Friday night at the Romeo home. It is a boring video. It's three generations of Romeos sitting around the wood stove, talking, dozing, rocking, playing with toys. It is companionable time, genuine leisure, a perfect picture of Sabbath-keeping.

Which brings me back to my story about litter zealots. If a culture is going to successfully resist the creep of litter across the face of nature it must have zealots like me, people who take their commitment to a litter-free environment to the extreme. Without outliers on the extreme end of non-littering, the press of litter would eventually make Washington look like Georgia. That's not good.

The same applies to the Sabbath. As a church we enjoy the freedom Sabbath brings to our lives, freedom from the pressure to achieve, perform, accomplish. Freedom from the authority of the boss. Even freedom from the pressure of genuinely important stuff. Keeping Sabbath holy means enjoyment of holy leisure. Some of us are very strict Sabbath-keepers in the tradition of the Puritans. Some of us, are rather casual in our Sabbath-keeping.

Here is my point: wherever you are personally on the scale of carefulness or casualness in your Sabbath-keeping, all of us are dependent on the zeal of strict Sabbath-keepers to keep Sabbath alive in our community. It is the zealots that prevent the creep of ordinary life and work from slowly obliterating the special freedom and leisure of Sabbath.

Let's be clear, the sweet experience of the Sabbath is not generally available to people apart from religious authority. There is a growing literature from modern writers talking about Sabbath keeping. Many of these writers are not members of Sabbath-keeping communities. And if they are not, their sweetest passages are full of longing and nostalgia. When they write about their actual experience of Sabbath-keeping it is meager and impoverished. They are like losers writing about the glory of victory. They think they can imagine how sweet it would be if only . . . But they are not actually living the sweetness they imagine.

On the other hand when you read literature about Sabbath-keeping written by Jews or modern Adventists, you usually will find their sweetest passages to be descriptions of actual life in their homes.

I have never known any one personally nor have I read about someone who had a rich, sustained experience of Sabbath-keeping apart from a religious community. I do not mean that individuals cannot keep Sabbath by themselves. I'm not arguing that solitary Sabbath-keeping is illegitimate or unreal. I'm arguing that people who keep Sabbath alone—if they do it with any frequency—are sustained in their individual practice by their sense of social or spiritual connection with a larger community—church or synagogue—that practices Sabbath keeping and teaches the moral obligation of Sabbath-keeping.

Our own children demonstrate that fact. My guess is that the children who grew up here in Green Lake Church would describe their childhood memories of Sabbath as sweet times. They enjoyed the Friday night feasts and the Sabbath-afternoon walks. But no matter how rich and sweet and pleasant those childhood experiences were, if those now-grown children are not involved in an Adventist church or Jewish synagogue, they no longer keep Sabbath.

Sabbath is a fragile, delicate treasure. It takes an entire church to keep it alive. And an essential element of that “entire church” are the Sabbath zealots.

Without Sabbath zealots pushing against the creep of a 24/7 world, Sabbath-keeping will disappear before the convenience of uninterrupted busyness. Like cream in a bottle, the entire concept of Sabbath sacredness (specialness) can get lost in the “progress” of life. But this kind of progress impoverishes.

A few concrete suggestions:

If you have children, pay attention to them. I often hear adults talking about kids being buried in their phones, texting instead of talking. I suggest banning electronic communications from the dinner table on Friday night. But that is not enough. That's the negative. Positively, let's make sure we listen to the young people at our tables. Listening has astonishing power. Do not exhort, cajole, instruct. Listen.

One question that I get repeatedly is about eating out on Sabbath. Should we or shouldn't we?

The Sabbath zealots argue eating out is a violation of Sabbath. We are enjoying our rest at the expense of others. We are participating in commerce. Our actions are affirming a 24/7 kind of society.

Those who argue in favor of eating out, will argue that this is the way the entire family, including mom, can relax together. It gives a defined time and space of leisure that they are unable to achieve at home.

I won't try to settle those arguments. I will say this: If you go out to eat on Sabbath, recognize that your pleasure is at the expense of people earning minimum wage, probably working two or three jobs, often working seven days a week, with a sick kid at home. All of the Adventists I know who eat out on Sabbath earn far more than minimum wage. Their life is materially better—vastly so—than the people who are serving them. You are sitting there enjoying your Sabbath bliss. And the dish washer has seen a day off in three years.

If you really believe it is appropriate for you to provide for your personal rest or the rest and fellowship of your family by eating, make sure you pay appropriately. Tip 40 percent.

That way, at least you can't be accused of having cheap opinions. If you believe in Sabbath and you believe in the value of eating out, put your money where your mouth is. Tip at least double what would be expected in ordinary time. Make the Sabbath service of your servers special by paying for it—generously.

In this world it is not possible for literally everyone to enjoy the rich blessings of Sabbath leisure. Adventists have always been aware of this because of our involvement in health care. In our world, it's not just medical care that must continue on Sabbath, bus drivers and police, power plant and network operators. Given the pressure of a 24/7 society, our activism in support of the Sabbath is all the more crucial. Among us, some people will need to work on Sabbath. That's an unavoidable fact. And given that fact, it is all the more vital that we encourage and honor our Sabbath zealots.

We don't want our children to be as ignorant of Sabbath bliss as they are of cream that comes in a bottle. We don't want them to have memories of Sabbath blessings that are no longer available because there is no church community supporting Sabbath practice.

God calls us to a weekly honey moon. A weekly experience of holy leisure and intimacy. If you are a Sabbath zealot, good on you. We need you. Keep up your good work. If you are one of those people who will toss orange peels off a cliff and hide discarded egg shells in the bushes behind the overlook, don't mock the zealots. Remember, the only reason the overlook, the special place, is unlittered and uncluttered is because of the carefulness and service of the zealots.

Together we will keep alive this very special treasure—a weekly honeymoon with God.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Holy Brains

Holy Brains
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For March 8, 2014

This is a preliminary version. I expect to revise it later this evening or in the morning. Any critical comments before tomorrow morning are most welcome.

Mark 12:28-34


Intelligence has enabled humans to produce a surplus of food, cure disease, ease pain, create the wonders of technology, invent calculus, write stirring literature and music. It is one of the greatest gifts. Used appropriately, human intelligence is the source of wonderful blessings. Misused it can wreak havoc. God calls us to cultivate our minds to the highest possible level and to use our intellectual prowess for good.

I called my sister in Boston this week. She works for a pharmaceutical company named Genzyme. I asked her which of her company's products has the best story. She told me to check out Cerezyme.

With the help of google, here's what I found.

Cerezyme is used to treat a genetic disorder called Gaucher's disease. Some of the problems this disease causes are anemia, fatigue, enlargement of the liver and spleen. It causes the bones to weaken. Patients have lots of trouble with their shoulders and hip joints.

For a hundred years after it was discovered, there was no treatment. The best doctors could do was to keep you company through the heart-breaking course of the disease.

Then some really smart people, researchers, figured out what was happening. The problem was a lack of a particular enzyme, glucocerebrosidase. If you don't have this enzyme, another chemical (a lipid, a fat) called glucosylceramide, accumulates in the bone marrow, lungs, spleen, liver and sometimes the brain.

Wow. How did they figure that out? Can you imagine the brain power involved in designing the experiments to figure this out?

Other really smart people figured out how to make a substitute for this missing enzyme. If patients are given this substitute they live normal lives. The problem becomes entirely manageable. They can live normal lives.

Information source:

That's the power of holy brains.

Intelligence is one of our greatest treasures. With our brains we can change the world. We can cure disease. We can make things better.

A few weeks ago, I invited a friend to go out to dinner with my daughter and me. I paid with my credit card, then John insisted on paying me for his share of the meal—with Bitcoin. If he had offered me cash, I would have been more stubborn in resisting his offer. But this was too cool.

I, of course, have no idea how Bitcoin works. I just handed him my phone. He downloaded and installed a program. Then he did whatever you do to pay someone with Bitcoin. When I checked yesterday, my vast portfolio of wealth now includes Bitcoin worth approximately $14.98 (as of 3:45 p.m., March 7, 2014).

When I stop and think about this transaction, I am dazzled at the brain power that brought it into existence.

How much intelligence went to work creating the internet and the devices? How many thousands of hours of sharply-focused brain power went into creating the code that makes Bitcoin work?

I read an article in Newsweek about Satoshi Nakamoto. The author of the article believed Mr. Nakamoto was the prime creator of Bit Coin. Mr. Nakamoto refused to talk to the reporter—or anyone else for that matter. So the reported talked to everyone he could find who might know something about him. I loved this description of Satoshi by his brother: "He is the only person I have ever known to show up for a job interview and tell the interviewer he's an idiot - and then prove it."

Source: Leah McGrath Goodman. Newsweek, March 6, 2014.

I laughed with delight when I read that. Here is a smart aleck who is really smart.

In the creation story, God told Adam and Eve to fill the earth and “subdue” it. They were to bring order to it. That is they were to use their minds and their muscles, their brains and their brawn to make things better. Can you imagine that? Even in God's perfect world, humans were supposed to use their brains and their brawn to make it better.

When we come to the Gospel stories about Jesus, we find the same vision. This time the problems are glaringly obvious. Jesus steps into a world where people are hurting. They suffer from physical disease, mental disease, hunger, pain, disability. Jesus goes about making things better. Then he commissions his disciples to carry forward his work.

Today, our worshiped has featured Cypress Adventist School. Faculty and staff, students and parents, we are delighted to have you with us today. We thank you for your work all through the school year. Supporting education is one way we show respect for the amazing gift of intelligence.

God wants all of us to do all we can to cultivate the gift of intelligence he has given us. Then God calls us to participate with him in making the world a better place, a more beautiful place, a healthier place. A happier place.

I was in a book and map store in Wallingford on Thursday morning. It's a dazzling place, full of all kinds of information about all kinds of exotic places all around the world. I was looking for a map for a backpacking trip in Grand Canyon this spring. The young woman helping me asked a few questions about Grand Canyon and we fell into conversation. It seemed pretty obvious that working as a clerk in a map store was not her highest ambition, so I asked her what her dream job would be.

“I'd like to work for a nonprofit in the developing world doing something to improve people's health.”

I asked about her major in college: It was international finance.

The most powerful force in changing the health of communities is raising their economic well-being. When the economy of a society goes up, every other measure of well-being also improves. Which brings together to brilliance of the software engineers who created and sustain Bitcoin and the brilliance and education of the scientists who provide a substitute for the missing glucocerebrosidase in people with Gaucher's disease.

What are you doing with your intelligence? What are you doing to participate in cultivating the intelligence of our young people?

Are you contributing to tuition assistance funds at Cypress Adventist School or other schools where our young people are learning?

Would you do a good job as a volunteer tutor?

Are you providing hospitality support for our student outreach programs, led by Pastor Andreas?

Once a scholar asked Jesus what is the greatest commandment. Jesus' answer:

“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only LORD. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer replied,

The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.”

Our minds, our intelligence, is the most powerful tool humans have. The religious question, the spiritual question is this: what are we doing with the brains God has given us?

Are we making our world better, more beautiful, happier. This is the work of holy brains. For smart people, it is an essential part of loving God and loving people. Don't waste the brains God gave you.