Friday, October 19, 2018

Good Living in Bad Times

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For October 20, 2018

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 3:3, 7-8, 10-14, 18-20

2000 years ago, before Jesus was “a thing,” there was a preacher named John the Baptist. His preaching created waves of excitement across Palestine--among both Jewish and non-Jewish populations.

His preaching was connected with widespread expectation of the appearance of the Messiah--the long promised, long-expected, super-hero of that lived at the heart of Jewish culture, religion, and theology.

The end was near. Or rather, a new beginning. God was going to break into this dismal world with something bright and new and powerful. The excitement spread. The crowds gathering around John the Baptist grew larger.

John’s preaching was framed in the classic denunciations of the ancient prophets. His words were sharp, definite, confrontational.

When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, "You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God's coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire." 

This was hell fire-and-brimstone preaching. It was thunder and bombast.

Note John’s fierce rejection of self-congratulation based on ethnic/religious identity. You tell yourselves, “We are children of Abraham. We’re good.” “You better shut that nonsense up.” John said. “God doesn’t care who your daddy is. God doesn’t care about your DNA or passport or church membership. God is watching your way of life. Prove you’re a child of Abraham by living out Abraham’s highest ideals.” (Note: Even Abraham did not live up fully to his ideals. You’re going to have to do better than Abraham did if you expect God to be impressed by your doing.)

John was preaching for effect. He did not want the people to “like” his preaching. He wanted them to reshape their lives. Like any good coach he was aiming at improved performance. And fortunately, his students asked the right question.
The crowds asked, "What should we do?"
We imagine ourselves as the spiritual heirs of John the Baptist. We, too, are heralding the coming of the Messiah. We, too, proclaim the coming of a New Age, a New Era. We urge people to repent, to change the direction of their lives, to get ready for the return of Jesus. We are thrilled when people hear this message and ask the question:

“What should we do?” What’s the answer? What’s the special preparation we are to make for the dawning of the age the Messiah?
John replied, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry." 
What is the proper lifestyle of those who are getting ready for the coming of Messiah? Generosity. Kindness. Compassion.

All of us have some measure of blessing in our lives. Health, smarts, beauty, a pension, an American passport, some investments, a graduate degree, friends. John told the crowd. “Consider the blessings in your lives and ask yourself how you might touch someone else’s life with that blessing. What sacrifice are we able to make to bless others?” This is the central characteristic of people living in the light of the Messiah.

I received an email this week from a woman named Emme. She had read an article in Adventist Today that described the best of our life together here at Green Lake Church. She had posted a link to the article on her Facebook page. After reading the article, a number of her friends commented, “I would love to go to a church like that.”

What did Emme and her friends find so attractive?

The article described acts of service performed by people in our congregation, acts of generosity to strangers, acts of enduring faithful service within the context of family. I wrote of the church celebrating the amazing accomplishments of our gifted kids. I also mentioned our regard and respect for the people among us who care for children who will not graduate or perform in recitals or win athletic awards. Here, in this community, all children are precious, not just the “above average” kids.

Here we devote a lot of attention to worship. We work to create worship services that feed our souls and give voice to our deepest values--loving God and loving people.

Of course, we aren’t flawless. But we do have high ambitions, holy aspirations. We want to be like God--practicing generosity, faithfulness, and integrity. We know that we are keeping company with God as we rear our children, help our neighbors, build airplanes, write code, heal the sick, drive buses, or sell cars. Every day, in everything we do, we aim to make the world a little bit better. This is how we live in the light of the Coming of Jesus.

When the crowd asked John the Baptist about what they should. John’s first response was generic, something that applied to everyone. Practice generosity. If we have two shirts, share one. If we have two sandwiches, share one.

Then there came a more specific question.
Tax collectors came to be baptized and asked what they should do. John replied, "Collect no more taxes than the government requires."  
In that world, tax collectors were independent contractors. They were businessmen. With the advantage of having the powers of the state behind them.

John’s answer acknowledged the legitimacy of their work. Governments need taxes to provide service. And a business has to collect money if it is going to survive. According to John, It was okay to receive money. To take money. But there was also a moral limit.

It is not morally permissible to take everything I can get, if I’m in a position of power. The primary function of morality in the teachings of Jesus--and foreshadowed here in the words of John the Baptist--is to limit the power of the powerful. Christian morality is not about keeping little people in their places. It is about curtailing and directing the power of the powerful.

Collect taxes, but don’t overdo it. Charge enough to make the business viable, but don’t gouge your customers. Make a profit, but not a killing.
Then some soldiers spoke up.  "What should we do?" they asked. John replied, "Don't extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay." 
The soldiers were members of the Roman occupying force. They were essentially the police force. They had power. John directed them to use their power ethically and with restraint. In today’s world where there are heartbreaking stories of police misconduct, it is vital that we as a church celebrate and honor the work of the great majority of police officers who respect the law and the people they serve. It is also our responsibility to speak against police misconduct. Whatever the color of our skin personally, together as a church, we stand with our brothers and sisters, people of color, in their protests against police brutality.

With John the Baptists, we say to those charged with keeping the peace:  Do justice. Do right.

Now we come to the most startling element of John the Baptist’s preaching.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother's wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. 20 So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. 
When public persons engage in egregious evil it is the obligation of the church to speak up. We must be clear about the difference between our values and the values on display in the world around us.

When the president of the United States mocks women, we say, No. That is evil speaking.

When the president of the United States celebrates violence against news reporters. We say, No! That is evil doing.

When a candidate for the Supreme Court lies about his high school drinking parties, we say, No! Lying is wrong. Even if lying will get you a highly coveted job, it is still evil. We are a community of truth.

When the president of our denomination uses innuendo and insinuation to defame congregations and cast suspicions on pastors, we stand up and say, “Stop it.” That is unworthy of any minister, much less the president of the church. Presidents and judges are rightly held to higher standards than ordinary people. Their words have consequences.

Our highest commitment is responding to the call of God. That begins in generosity and compassion. But it moves unavoidably into standing bold and unbending in the face of evil and oppression practiced by the powerful. We stand for truth. We stand against lies, the encouragement of violence, and the idolization of a mythical golden age in the past. Our eyes are on the coming Age of the Messiah, the better land is ahead and beckons us.

Here and now we pledge ourselves to the practice of the values of the kingdom of heaven--to generosity and compassion, to truth and justice, to nobility and dignity.

When these values appear beaten down in the world around us, we come here to church and reaffirm their reality, their beauty, and their ultimate triumph.

God will win.

Truth will win.

Love will win.

And we pledge ourselves to speak the truth and to practice love.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Spirit and Power of Elisha

Sermon for the ordination service of Andreas Beccai at the Volunteer Park Adventist Church in Seattle. September 8, 2018

The movie opens with a panoramic shot of wilderness. It’s a wide valley, a sea of yellow and brown grass stretching up to where juniper trees begin dotting the hills on either side. Down through the center of the valley runs a thread of green, a desert river lined with trees and following the river, a road, a dirt track.

We see dust kicking up. Something moving on the road. As the camera zooms in we see two men, walking. Closer still we hear them talking.

One is Elijah, the most celebrated prophet in Jewish history. Elijah was so great, so famous, that he was seen as the symbolic predecessor of the Messiah. The other was Elisha, Elijah’s servant and heir apparent.

They’re chitchatting. Conversation wandering and easy. Then the old man stops. He turns and looks at Elisha.

“We know it’s coming.” he says. “God is going to take me away. So, what can I do for you before I’m taken away? What do you want from me before I go?”

Elisha does not hesitate. He has been thinking about this for months at least, maybe years. “I want a double portion of your spirit.”

You have been mighty for God. I want to be even mightier. You announced a nation-bending drought and it happened just as you said. You brought down fire from heaven. You pronounced curses that caused kings to grovel. You have been mighty for God. I want to be mightier.

The old man smiled. It is exactly what he would want to give this young man. It’s what he would pray for the person who was going to take his place.

Andreas, this old man takes great pleasure in seeing you exceed me. I watch you do things in ministry I have touched only in my dreams. Just this morning at Green Lake Church I sat and watched someone else preach. As Hanz was preaching, I was thinking this is how I preach . . . in my dreams. And I remembered when you were at Green Lake Church. And after just a few months, people were asking when you were going to preach next. If I had been younger I might have been touched with jealousy. As an old man I was filled with delight.

Elijah looked at Elisha on that desert road, and heard his request: I want to do what you have done--only better. I want to serve God like you--only better. Elijah heard and smiled. And when I hear your passion for ministry, I take great delight.

The camera zooms back out. We watch the men continue walking and talking. Then we see dark, roiling clouds sweep in from the west. Ominous walls of swirling cumulus clouds. Then out of the blackest cloud comes two horses, their manes are whipping curtains of fire. Their bodies gleam and sparkle and flash. Their exhalations are flame. They are pulling a chariot that appears to be on fire, a diaphanous vessel of light. Instead of wheels it rides on pillows of blazing glory. The chariot swoops down to the men, pauses, Elijah steps into the fire and it swoops up and away and disappears back into the clouds.

Elisha cries out, “My father, my father!!!! The chariot and horses of Israel.”

As he stands there looking after the chariot. Elijah’s robe floats down from the sky and plops on the ground beside him.

He walks back the way the men had come, reaches the place where they had crossed the river. He shouts to the sky, “Where is the God of Elijah?” and swats the water with the old man’s robe. The water parts and Elisha walks across the empty space opened before him.

That night he replays the days events and remembers what Elijah had told him about the grand showdown on Mt. Carmel. He remembered the stories that had been told around the dinner table in his parents’ home about those days.

The prophet had marched into the royal palace and announced, “No more rain until I say so. That’s what God has sent me to say. Shame on you for doing evil. Shame on you for failing to resist evil. Shame on you. Repent!” And with that he disappeared.

The drought lasted three years. It broke the nation.

Finally, Elijah confronted the king again. “Meet me on Mt. Carmel. Be there. And summon the the entire people to be there, too, including those phony prophets your wife is so enamored with. Be there!”

And the king, instead of arresting the prophet, obeys.

And there on Mt. Carmel Elijah summoned fire from heaven--fire so hot it burned up even the rocks of the altar.

How do you double that? He had asked for a double measure of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah said he would get it. What would it look like? How do you double fire from heaven that had the entire nation on its face in dumb-struck terror?

It began in the morning. While Elisha was eating breakfast, the elders of the town arrived. They had a problem. The water from their springs and from their wells was brackish. It was nasty to drink. Bad for irrigation.

Elisha healed their water.

A preacher's widow came to Elisha and told her story. Her husband had been one of the prophets, one of the seven thousand people who had remained faithful to Yahweh while Elijah was hiding up in the village of Zarephath.

Her was dead. Her two sons were going to be slaves soon. Payment for family debts. It was hard being a single mom in that world.

Elisha asked what she had in the house. All she had was a jar of oil. “Go borrow all the jars, jugs, and pots you can from your neighbors.” She and her sons borrowed and filled their house. She went back to Elisha. “I’ve filled my house with pots and jars and jugs. Now what?”

Use your little oil jar and fill all of the containers with oil. Then sell the oil and pay your debts.

The doubled spirit of Elijah did not produce a bigger bang, more spectacular drama. Instead it flowed it in sweeter service and wider healing. Elisha brought no fire from heaven but sweet water from a spring. Not a national drought, but a single mom’s oil jar turned into an oil well.

Andreas, there will be days when you will crave the power of Elijah. You will hunger to do something dramatic for God, to shut up evil doers and evil sayers. You will hunger for a display of God’s power. But it may be that God will call you instead to bring sweet water out of a brackish spring. God will call you to help a single mom turn her oil jar into an oil well.

There will be no fire. No hordes of thousands on their faces in terror at the mighty power of God. Instead, the ilttle of people of God will comfort and aid in your ministry. Instead of being whisked away by a fiery chariot into the clouds you will be called to ride among your people in a creaking oxcart. And God will ride with you. Be there.

Another Elisha story.

The kingdom of Damascus was constantly threatened Israel’s northern border. At one point the king of Damascus began sending raiding parties across the border to ambush caravans and carry off goods and people to sell in the markets of Damascus. It was a successful project for awhile, then suddenly his raiding parties started coming back empty.

Repeatedly, they’d set up on a road they knew was a popular route only to find themselves sitting there for several days staring at an empty road. Finally, the king in exasperation summoned his cabinet together.

“Someone here is a traitor,” he said. “One of you is giving the king of Israel our secrets. Who was it?”

Finally, with great trepidation, one of his courtiers spoke up. “It’s not us. It’s the great prophet, Elisha. He tells the king of Israel your pillow talk with your wife.”

“Go get him.” The king barked.

I imagine the army commanders groaning. They are not oblivious to the lunacy of the king’s order. They are supposed to organize a raiding party to go kidnap the guy who is telling the king of Israel the secrets of the raiding parties. But they were soldiers. They had their orders.

They heard the prophet was in the town of Dothan. So thinking, here goes nothing, they put together a special forces raid on the the town. And surprise, surprise, when they arrive, the prophet is still there. Apparently God had not bothered to tell Elishah about this raid.

In the morning, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, went up on the roof and saw the surrounding army. He raced back down in a panic. “Elisha! Elisha! We’re surrounded!

The prophet seemed curiously calm. “Come on, Gehazi, let’s go back upstairs.”

Sure enough, from the roof, they could see the raiding party surrounding the city. Chariots and horses covering every possible exit. “Count them.” Elisha orders. So Gehazi begins. One, two, three, . . .

Elisha interrupts him. “Not to worry, Gehazi. We have more on our side than they have on theirs.”

Gehazi stared at Elisha. Had he gone completely nuts?

Elisha prayed. God open his eyes. Suddenly Gehazi saw out beyond the invaders another army, chariots and horses riding in the sky, ten times the number of the invaders.

Andreas, it is one of our most constant duties to help our people see the invisible chariots of God. The chariots of evil are readily visible. It is easy for them to occupy our entire field of vision. Pray and preach that they may see the heavenly chariots.

It may happen in your own life that enemies will come for you, people who are annoyed by the work God has called you to do. Part of you will be terrified. Naturally. After the initial panic, call to mind the chariots of Dothan. There are more with you than there are with them. Take your time. Let God work.

Let’s follow this story. Elisha prays for God to smite the invaders blind. God does so. Elisha goes out and offers to lead them where they want to go--not exactly true. He leads them to the capital city of Israel and into the central square of the city. There surrounded by armed and ready Israelite soldiers Elisha prays for God to open their eyes.

The king asks the prophet, “What shall I do with the these soldiers? Shall I kill them?”

Andreas, it will happen that your enemies or the enemies of your people will fall into your hands. Your word will decide their fate. Remember the story of Elisha.

Elisha said to the king, “If you had captured these soldiers yourself, you would be obliged to treat them as prisoners of war. You would be obliged to feed them. So feed them and send them home to their master.”

The king of Israel did so and the Bible reports. War stopped.

For awhile.

Andreas. In dealing with enemies, remember your highest calling: To make peace.

Another story: Elisha and the ax head. 

A group of students planned a trip to the woods along the Jordan River to get wood to build an extension on their school. At some point in the day, one of the young men is chopping away at a tree when the head of his ax comes off and sails out into the river. Oh no!!!! It was a borrowed ax and ax heads in that time were pricey items easily worth several years of disposable income for a poor student.

The student went and found Elisha. Elisha asked the student to show him where the ax head had fallen. The student pointed. Elisha tossed a stick into the water. The stick sank and the ax head floated. What a fantastic miracle!

But there is another lesson in this story. What was Elisha doing there in the woods with a bunch of young men who were cutting trees?

At the beginning of the story we read that when the students decided to go to the woods, they invited Elisha to go with them. Why? They were not expecting him to swing an ax. It was just that life was better when Elisha was around. Elisha was like God’s chariot. Not his war chariot, his everyday, go to market chariot. Elisha bore in himself the presence and favor of God. No matter what they were doing, the people wanted Elisha around.

A reflection of the ministry of Jesus.

Elijah was seen as the symbolic precursor of the Messiah. John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus, was seen by the New Testament believers as a metaphorical Elijah. And we Adventists imagine ourselves as a last day Elijah preparing people for the future coming of Jesus.

It would be better to be Elisha, to incarnate here and now the life of Jesus.

But there is a flip side to the glory of identification with God. One of the worst stories in the Old Testament occurred during Elisha’s time. There was a famine. Not a judgment from heaven. Nothing supernatural about it. It was one of those random things, something bad happening to good people. People were starving. In the capital city the people were reduced to cannibalism.

One day, a woman accosted the the king when he was out on his daily rounds. She begged him to help her. Her story?

She and a neighbor woman had agreed that the only way any of their family were going to survive was by eating their littlest children--kids who were going to die anyway because of the famine. So they killed her son and ate him. Then when it was time to eat her neighbor’s son, she hid him.

The king recoiled in horror. He decided to kill Elisha. The king couldn’t get his hands on God, so he would deal with God’s ambassador. God had allowed or sent this famine. God was responsible for mothers eating children. Something had to be done to express his horror at what God was doing (or not doing).

Andreas, Sometimes, if we do our job well, if we represent God faithfully, people will take out on us their anger at God. They would attack God if they could, but since God is not available, they take out their outrage, their desperate impatience with evil and heartbreak on God’s ambassador--and that’s what the church makes of us.

There are times when we must hold the reasonable anger of people toward the God we represent. Do not let it destroy you. But neither give in to resentment or self-pity. God does not manage the universe in ways that make sense to us sometimes. He does not explain to his ambassadors what he is doing.

Elisha lived long. During his ministry, he worked every miracle Jesus worked. He gave sight to the blind. He multiplied loaves of bread to feed a crowd. He raised the dead. He healed leprosy. Like Jesus after him, Elisha won the hearts of his people.

Elijah was the harbinger of the Messiah. Elisha was the Messiah.

Let’s replace our aspirations to be like Elijah, pulling fire from heaven and intimidating evil doers with a holy ambition to relive the ministry of Elisha. Let’s replace our arguments about the future return of Jesus with a demonstration of the living, present Jesus. Let us so live that when people go to cut trees they want us with them. When they get into debt they come crying to us. When the water in their lives turns brackish they imagine we might be able to help.

Elisha got old and feeble. It happens even to good people. (smiles) Other people had to feed him. He needed help to get up to the bathroom. The king came to see him. When the king saw Elisha lying there in bed, weak, breathing with difficulty, he wept. He exclaimed, “My father. My father. The chariot and horses of Israel.”  The same words Elisha shouted when he saw Elijah disappear into heaven.

When the king saw the little old man lying in that bed, and contemplated life without him, he was filled with dread. Elisha’s departure felt like the departure of God.

Andreas, as you engage in the ministry God has called you to, I pray two things for you: First, I pray that you will be kept safe and holy by the heavenly chariots. May the heavenly armies attend you and keep you.

And two, I pray you will be filled with the spirit of Elisha--that you yourself will be transformed into the oxcart of God, prosaic, pedestrian, vessel conveying the presence and favor of God.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Shepherds, Not Sheep

Sermon for Green Lake of Seventh-day Adventists for September 1, 2018

Texts: Ezekiel 34:1-6 and Matthew 9:35-38 

Hymns: 001 – Praise to the Lord.  358 – Far and Near the Fields Are Teeming

[Eze 34:1-6 NLT] 1 Then this message came to me from the LORD: 2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn't shepherds feed their sheep? 3 You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. 4 You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. 5 So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. 6 They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.

[Mat 9:35-38 NLT] 35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 He said to his disciples, "The harvest is great, but the workers are few. 38 So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields."

The other day Karin told me she had seen Don Mehrer wandering the adjacent property with a five-gallon bucket in his hand. She couldn’t figure out what he was doing. It seemed kind of odd. A day or two later she saw Don again and asked about the bucket thing.

Don grimaced and complained. “It’s hard to be an owner.”

He was picking up trash that had been dropped, especially cigarette butts. Why do people just drop cigarette butts? Do they think they’ll just evaporate or something?

People drop cigarette butts. That’s kind of a mystery.

Don picks them up. That could be an even greater mystery. Why is Don wandering around next door picking up cigarette butts?

Because he’s the owner. It’s what you do when the place belongs to you.

I have my own cigarette butt story, proof of my ownership. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, every morning when I’m home I walk a few blocks up the hill from our house to Ella Bailey Park which has a grand view of downtown Seattle.

Like lots of other people I enjoy the park. I sit there in the mornings on my stool and wait for sunrise or put up with the rain. Then I do something else. Before I leave the overlook, I pick all the trash, which usually means picking up cigarette butts. I do it for two reasons. I want my meditation space to be clean. And I figure I own that park.

True, I share ownership with a million other Seattleites. But it’s my park. I own it. So I don’t hope someone else will pick up the litter. I do it.

Jesus saw his disciples as co-owners of the kingdom of heaven. We are not merely helpers.

To pick up the metaphor from today’s scripture readings: We are not sheep. We are shepherds, participants with Jesus in his mission of seeking lost sheep and feeding lambs.
There is no shame in being sheep. There is a special glory in being shepherds.

Last spring, on our annual geology tour, our caravan of four vehicles was driving toward Grand Canyon. I was in the last car. We came on the scene of an accident. The first car, the one with Dr. Grellman in it, was pulled off on the shoulder. Of course. Dr. Grellman is an ER doc.

Two of the cars continued on so we could buy groceries for the weekend, leaving Dr. Grellman and the other two cars to meet up with us later.

Why did Dr. Grellman’s car stop? Because we were in the middle of nowhere. No ambulance had arrived. And he was an ER doc.

I would not have stopped. Other people were already there. I have no expertise in treating trauma. I have a hard time finding a pulse.

Another time, one of our tour members got something in her eye. It was becoming a serious problem. Others had tried to help her, but could not find and fix the problem. Dr. Grellman fixed it. Because he was a doctor. That’s what he does.

At times like that, I’m jealous of my physician friends. I wish I knew what they know. I wish I had the skills they have. It must be a pain sometimes. There’s an emergency and suddenly everyone is looking at you.

In our house, my wife is the medical expert--for people and for animals. When I get splinters in my feet, I ask Karin for help. When I notice something wrong with a horse, I don’t try to figure out what’s going on. I simply call Karin.

On the other hand, when there is a plumbing problem, I get the call. Karin and the kids count on me to fix everything from faucets to septic systems. Their life is better because Dad is a plumber. A couple of weeks ago, one of my daughters called me. Something was wrong with her kitchen faucet. She wanted to fix it. Could I walk her through the process on the phone?

When there’s a car question in our family, we all know who to call. We call Karin’s brother Carl. That’s Eric Lundstrom’s dad. What kind of tires do we need on the car? Don’t bother thinking. Just call Carl. He’ll tell you exactly what you need.

When I have trouble with my phone, I call my son.

When I need help understanding some piece of contemporary culture, I call my oldest daughter.

There is no shame in needing a doctor.
There is glory in being a doctor.

There is no shame in having a plugged up toilet.
There is glory in unplugging it.

There is no shame in being a sheep.
There is glory in serving as a shepherd.

In today’s New Testament passage we heard reference to a classic metaphor, God as shepherd, people as sheep.

Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 

One way to read this passage is to feel our own confusion and helplessness. We wish we had a shepherd. But that is not message the Gospel writer wants us to get. The writer wants us to stand with Jesus and look through Jesus’ eyes and see the helplessness and confusion of others and join Jesus in the work of being a shepherd.

To make his point Jesus messes with the metaphor. In fact, he completely switches the metaphor (which was common in the literature of that time.)

 "Jesus said to his disciples, "The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields." [Matthew 9:35-38 NLT]

Jesus does not say, “All of you are sheep. I am the shepherd.” Jesus says, in effect, “I am a shepherd and I want you to be shepherds, too.” Or even more strongly, “I am a shepherd, and the work is too much for me. I need your help. There is more work than one person can do--even a miracle-working, God-man like Jesus Christ. There is more work than we--here Jesus would have motioned, indicating the twelve disciples--more work than we can do. So pray. Pray for more workers. Pray for more shepherds.”

Jesus--the Risen Christ, the Lord of Glory, the King of Kings and Lord of lords--Jesus cannot fix breakfast for a two-year-old. But we can. Jesus cannot run to the drugstore for a neighbor. But we can. Jesus cannot find the bug in the software, but some of you engineers can. And we need you.

In First Peter, we read that church people are to act as shepherds modeling their service on the service of Jesus, the “Chief Shepherd.” We do what Jesus did. We serve as Jesus served. That’s our calling. (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Being a shepherd is hard work. It will mess with our convenience. This spring, when I saw the car Dr. Grellman was riding in pulled over I immediately knew what was happening. And I knew we didn’t have a choice. We were in a bit of hurry to get to our campsite before it got too late. But we had a doctor among us. And a doctor was desperately, urgently needed. So we stopped so the shepherd could take care of the wounded sheep.

Sometimes being a shepherd is exhausting, draining work. Sometimes it takes us to the very edge of endurance. It is important that we not romanticize shepherding. We honor the work of shepherding. We cultivate an appreciation of its glory. But we are not blind to its cost.

Tuesday morning I was sitting in meditation in the park a few blocks up the hill from our house. I was writing a poem about a man whose life is made very difficult by mental illness. I noticed a message. I checked it. It was from a mother who was worried about her son whose life is shaped--or perhaps I should say is misshaped--by mental illness. There was a crisis. Would I please pray?

Of course, I prayed. That was the easy part. Then I spent some time contemplating the decades of shepherding practiced by this mother. She has intervened over and over and over again. Spending scarce money, consuming hours and days of her life in a never-ending struggle to keep her son alive.

He is a perennially lost sheep. Sheep is an always-on-duty shepherd. It is exhausting.

Just yesterday, I received a message from someone else I’m close to. Her husband spirals in and out of crisis. She wrote of the great weariness of coping with his mental illness, the exhaustion that comes from going to the rescue the umpteenth time. She is the shepherd. Her husband is the sheep. Being a shepherd is hard work.

On Tuesday’s I volunteer at Aurora Commons, a center that serves street people along Aurora Avenue. This last week the place was unusually crowded. People milling about. People slumped on couches, in a drug-induced haze. One of the regulars was on a manic phase. Spouting long lines of eloquent laments memorized from movies, restlessly pacing the place.

There were some tense moments when verbal altercations threatened to escalate. Only the skilled, practiced intervention by the chief shepherd of the place calmed things down.

I’m haunted by the people I see on Tuesdays. They are a drain on society. They take more than they give. For many of them, this will be true all of their lives. Providing even the barest minimum for their survival is draining. Still, they are sheep. They need shepherding. And we who are sane, we who are not addicted, we are called to be shepherds. We are called to tend the lost sheep.

Let’s be clear. It is more work to be a shepherd than to be a sheep. It’s easier to be a sheep. But I have never met someone who having tasted the glory of shepherding wished to become again, a sheep.

Taking care of a mentally ill person is exhausting and bewildering and perplexing. It is miserable, at times. But I have never met someone who would prefer to be the mentally ill person instead of being the caregiver.

There is deep satisfaction. There is very difficult and exhausting work. And there is glory.

Here among us there are some who carry a staggering weight of shepherding, of caregiving of various kinds. Let’s honor them. Let’s figure out what we can to help them, to ease a bit of the load they carry.

Jesus said to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into the field. Let’s pray that prayer. Then let’s open our hearts to the call of God and do what we can to be part of God’s answer to that prayer.

As Don said, “It’s hard to be an owner.”

That’s true.

And it’s hard to be a shepherd.

That’s true.

And there is glory, too.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Who Will You Call?

Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 11, 2018.

Texts: Proverbs 17:17; 18:24; 27:6,:9, 10, 17. The language represents a melding of several translations.
Luke 6:12-19
2 Timothy 1:1-4

Tuesday evening I went for a run in our neighborhood. Many streets were blocked off-- with cones or trash cans. One street was closed off with two cars completely the street. What was going on? It was Magnolia’s night out. Neighbors came together to party, share food, play games in the street, connect with one another.

On one street there was a long table set up and people were sitting at the table eating, like it was a grand dining room. It looked like a lot of fun.

The idea behind this is that we will be better neighbors if we know each other. Which, of course, is true.

I like to think of church as a grand block party. It is a festival of the Holy City. And each congregation is a holy neighborhood. We come together each week to strengthen our connection with one another.

In the Gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” This morning I want to talk about church as a society of friends, to echo the language of the Quakers. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are the family of God. We are a holy priesthood. A holy people. We are a gathering of friends.

Some of you here this morning have been friends with each other for fifty or sixty years. Others are new friends. You’ve gotten together in the last year. For most of us, social connections are one of the primary blessing of being part of church.

When I was in college a popular singing group invited me and a couple of other young radicals to travel with them and speak during their concerts. One memorable trip, we headed east over the mountains to some place in North Carolina. We ran into snow. The heater quit working. We huddled together and prayed as the driver of our van navigated the slippery roads. The next afternoon, we presented our concert. The music group finished a song and I was on for a brief commentary. I do not remember what I had planned to say, but as I stood in front of this auditorium full of students I was ambushed by a sudden realization. The song we had just heard was false. And the little speech I had planned was going to be equally false.

The song was this:  

If you know the Lord,
You need nobody else,
To see you through
the darkest night.
You can walk alone,
you only need the Lord
To keep you on the road
marked right.
Take time to pray, every day;
And when you're heading home,
He'll show you the way.
If you know the Lord,
You need nobody else,
To see the Light,
God's wonderful Light.

We always need somebody else. That’s the way we are made. And we will have a happier, healthier spiritual life if we deliberately cultivate friendships.

Of course, those who sing this song, are singing its poetry. Its language is exaggerated to express how much we depend on God and how rich and constant God’s support is. Still, as a young radical committed to truth and careful definitions of theology, I knew the words of the song contradicted the actual life of the church.

The church exists in large part because faith grows most luxuriously in the garden of the holy community. Here at Green Lake Church, I’m constantly touched by the warmth and vigor of our faith. Not “my faith.” Rather, “our faith.” I hear you express solid confidence in God. You know for sure that goodness will blossom, that love will triumph, that God is at work even in the shadows to accomplish something glorious. And your faith gives strength to my own heart and in sermons I hope to reflect back to you that sweet faith which lives in this place.

On Facebook, I have 2000 friends. Most of them are people I don’t know which is to say, they are not friends. And even the people I do know are far too many for me to keep with. They are not my friends. Sure, if I had the opportunity to sit down and learn their story, I would greatly enjoy the experience. But I do not take time to learn their story.  If they disappeared I would not even notice.

Here at Green Lake Church we have 500 plus members. I cannot keep track of 500 people. Again, I would enjoy getting acquainted with everyone on our church roster, but there is not enough space in my head for 500 people.

But 500 people can keep track of 500 people. And when one of you tells Hanz or me about a special need in someone’s life, we committed to acting on that information and responding. But let’s be clear: our response is on your behalf. We are actually carrying forward your caring intention, when we serve someone you have called us about.  

Let’s take a few minutes to give close attention to the words of this morning’s Old Testament reading.

17:17  A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.18:24  A person with many acquaintances may still come to ruin,but there is a friend who sticks closer than a sibling.27:6; Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.27:9  Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and heartfelt counsel from a friend brings pleasantness to life. 27:10 Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you— better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.27:17  As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.

I would like to add one more proverb, a truth that might get obscured in our world: Friendship takes time. And focus.

Attending church does not create friendships. It gives us opportunity to meet people, to begin acquaintances. But friendship requires time together outside Sabbath morning. Conversation and activity together. Shared life.

In the New Testament there are two very dramatic models for holy friendships.

Paul. Longed for Timothy to come. He remembered good times together. Paul did not merely “wish” for Timothy to come. He picked up the phone and called him, or I should say, he picked up the quill ad wrote him a letter. I miss you. Please come soon.

Jesus. Nearly the first thing Jesus did when he began public ministry was to collect an inner circle of friends. He had thousands of followers and tens of thousands of people who were fascinated and admiring. Out of that mass of people, he chose just twelve to be with him constantly. Then among the twelve he chose three-Peter, James, and John, to be his special inner circle. Jesus needed friends he depended on his friends.

On the last night in Gethsemane, he repeatedly called on his three closest disciples to keep him company. They failed him. But the story stands. The Son of Man, the King of Glory, needed friends.

And we who count ourselves Christian, we are not above our Master. We need friends.

Friends don’t just happen. They are cultivated.

Like flowers.
Like skills.
Like physical prowess.

Let’s deliberately cultivate friendships. Look around the place where you are, here at Green Lake Church. Consider who you would like to be friends with.

Invite them for coffee.
Invite them for a Bible study.
Invite them for a hike, a trip to the zoo, to come serve with you feeding the homeless.
Make time together.


I sometimes hear people complain that when they absented themselves from church, no one called them. It would be nice if we were better at noticing absent people and quickly getting in touch with them. But the reality is if you disappear from church, you probably will not get a call. People will assume you are an adult and that the reason you are not here is because you have a another place you would rather be, a place that seemed better to you. So, being polite people, we are not likely to annoy you by asking, “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you in church?” You may wish we would do that, but the odds are, we won’t.

Instead, I ask, who have you become so close to, that if you go away, ore are kept away, you would unhesitatingly pick up the phone and call.

We cannot control what others will do in our absence. We can control what will be our reflexive instinct when bad stuff happens. Let’s build friendships that will sustain us through difficult times.

Build friendships so that when you need a word of encouragement, when you need some counsel, when you need some help, you will automatically pick up the phone and call.

If you are not here, I will assume you are some other place that is good and happy for you. Like Adrian who is attending the Everett Forest Park Church. Ellen, who is tending a romance in Spain. Rohan who runs sound occasionally a Volunteer Park.

If you have done your work of building friendships, when you need the church, you will call. You won’t call the office. You will call particular people who have become your friends through sharing life together.

I want to specifically celebrate people who are helping us to build friendships here at Green Lake.

Bryan Carli who has organized campouts.

Karen Baker who has organized a hike and pizza making party at her house.

The Mehrers and their ice cream party.

The Lacys who provide burgers and ice cream at the conclusion of a hike up north.

Ken Fairchild and Mark Haun who organize Sabbath afternoon hikes.

This work of helping people develop rich, deep friendships is as crucial to the life of the church as is music or preaching.

Jesus called his disciples friends. Let's engage in the necessary disciplines to cultivate and sustain our friendships here in the Christian society of friends.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

In the midst of the sea

Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 4, 2018

Psalm 107:23-31
Psalm 46
Psalm 93:3-4
Mark 4:35-41

4a.m. Thursday morning a week ago, I was sitting in the cockpit of a 27-foot sailboat in open water off the British Columbia coast. The captain was below trying to get some sleep while I tended the helm.  

Huge rolling swells came from behind. 6 feet? 8 feet? 10 feet? Other waves came at us from about 30 degrees off the stern shoving us sideways. The sailboat leaped and wallowed and porpoised. A nearly full moon stood in the sky, abeam, to the starboard, lighting the maelstrom. Sparkling in the spray that leaped from the crests of the waves.

It was magic.

I began reading sailing stories in the pages of National Geographic when I was in high school. I read Two Years Before the Mast and Dove. Later I read Cruising World and dreamed of epic voyages of my own.

It never happened. I did get to sail a twelve-foot dinghy on a lake at summer camp--Indian Creek Camp in Tennessee. That was pretty much it until July 23 when I left Ketchikan in the Wild Card, a Santa Cruz 27. The small blue sail boat that had been part of the R2AK, the Race to Alaska. Adam Clemons was bringing it back to Seattle and he invited me to come along as crew.

It was the chance of a lifetime.

When I signed on with Adam, I imagined long hours of sailing before the wind. I worried about getting bored. I took a thick book to read and made sure I had a couple more books on my phone. I took shorts for hot afternoons and a broad brimmed hat to protect my face from the sun.

The journey was other than I expected.

The first night out we sailed all night taking turns sleeping and manning the helm. Wind escalated. Waves got higher, ten to twelve feet. Fog closed in on us. I spent my hours on watch assiduously following the compass. And being mesmerized by the waves. It was all dark and mysterious and enchanting. And a little scary.

Most nights we anchored in quiet bays and coves and woke to perfect stillness, broken only by the call of gulls and crows. We had long downwind passages. For those of you who know the course, I will say that we did the entire Grenville Channel, 70 kilometers, under sail, at times reaching a speed of nine knots over land due to the combination of a twenty-knot following wind and a five knot following current.  

But it was the night watches on open water that that were the most glorious. And Thursday morning was the best of those. Hours in the heart of the sea, surrounded by a universe of immense waves--at least they were immense to me, a novice sailor on my first voyage.

In those hours of moonlit and sometimes fog enshrouded sailing, I had plenty of time to think. And my thoughts often ran to the words of two Bible passages.

First, I recalled Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
An ever present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear
though the Earth shakes
and the mountains are heaved into the heart of the sea
Though the sea roars and foams
and the very mountains tremble with their heaving. Psalm 46

The sea was, indeed, roaring and foaming around me. The waves were like racing mountains around me. I sometimes needed to remind myself that I was safe, because it didn’t look like it. As I worked on my sermon another passage came to my attention. Psalm 93:3-4.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the LORD on high is mighty!
Psalm 93:3, 4

Grand words. Grand truth.
Riding our tiny ship in the heart of the maelstrom, another set of words came to me even more frequently than the Psalms. They are the words of an old hymn based on today’s New Testament reading.

No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;

The Gospel story:

At the end of a long day of teaching and healing Jesus directed his disciples to get into a boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee. Other boats followed them. Once they were underway, out on the lake, away from the crowds, away from the pressure of listening and healing and teaching, Jesus was overcome with sleepiness. So he lay down on a seat at the rear of the boat and immediately drifted off into sweet sleep.

There is nothing like it.

On several afternoons, when I ended a shift at the tiller, I would settle myself on the port bench seat, cover my face with a tepee of seat cushions and drift off into sweet sleep. Why not? The captain was at the helm I had not a worry in the world. The rocking of the boat was perfect for sleeping.

Jesus slept.

Then a storm swept in. Wind howled. Waves built. The disciples feared the ship would swamp. At some point in their terror they woke Jesus. “Don't you care that we are going to sink? We're going to die!” they exclaimed.

Jesus sat up. Shook the sleep from his head, then spoke. “Peace. Be still.”

The waves and wind obeyed. The air and water calmed. The maelstrom was replaced by a great calm.

For two thousand years we who call ourselves Christian have gone back to this story as a metaphor for presence and action of God in our own personal storms. We are the disciples, naturally terrified the threatening chaos that engulfs us. Then we remind one another of this story, this picture of Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat. Asleep because he had no worries.

We assure ourselves that we, too, can sleep. We can rest because we are sailing with the Master. The storms are real. Yes. But the Master is capable. He and we will prevail. And we rehearse the words of the old hymn,

No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;

Jesus is unsinkable, and since we are with him, so are we.

The song writer explicitly expanded his story-telling to include metaphorical storms:

Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;

If I had been out there on the water by myself, i would have been terrified. My only sailing experience was fifty years ago in a twelve foot dinghy that I got to sail on the lake occasionally while at summer camp. I did not know how to manage this sailboat we were in. I knew nothing about sailing in open water surrounded by waves higher than my head. I knew nothing about sailing in twenty-knot winds. I knew nothing about navigating rock- and island-strewn coastal waters.

So, if I had been out there by myself I would have been terrified. With good reason. But I was not out there by myself. So I was not terrified.

I figured if Adam Clemons, the captain, could sleep, we were okay. So instead of worries, I gloried in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I reveled in the power and grandeur of the waves. Especially at 4 in the morning when I was at the helm all by myself.

This is the first lesson I brought home.

The second lesson:

My job was to hold our course, consulting the compass every minute or so. I was also supposed to pay attention to the wind so I could alert the captain if it changed direction.

I did pretty well. I held our course true. Proof of this was the GPS track we recorded. I held course except for the one time I had to fiddle with one of our devices and was distracted for two or three minutes. More on that later. But for the most part I held our course, and I enjoyed the wild beauty of the night.

A little before dawn fog enveloped us, completely obliterating the moon. The compass remained my only fixed point of reference.

When we are in a storm, we cannot steer merely by fighting the waves. We steer by paying constant attention to the compass.

On both of my long night watches, we had moonlight for a while and I could take some sense of direction from the moon. But then fog closed in and the compass was the only reference point. On the Thursday night, we had our sail up but the wind had died. We were still being tossed and heaved by somewhat chaotic 8-foot seas. I had to do something with one of our steering devices. I could feel the waves shoving us around, so I frantically finished what I was doing and settled back on course--I thought. I double-checked the compass. In the minute or two I had been distracted we had turned exactly 180 degrees.

I managed to get us turned back around without getting a wave in over the side. And settled down again to keep our bow pointed due east at 90 degrees.

It is easy to become fully occupied by the waves and winds that threaten us. Beware. We cannot steer by fighting the waves. We cannot aim our lives wisely by fighting evil. We must steer by the two great commandments: Love God with our entire being, and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is our compass.

When news makes us angry or irritable, let’s give our attention to the commandment:

The only time I lost control of the boat, it was because I was trying to do something to counter the waves that were shouldering our boat sideways. I was fighting the waves. And in the process, I ended up headed the wrong direction.

So we can get so engaged with fighting evil that we lose sight of our course. Let’s bring our attention again and again to the compass direction give by Jesus.

Let us remember again and again and again,

To love God with our whole being

And to love our neighbors as ourselves.