Friday, July 22, 2016

Did God Order Genocide?

After a recent sermon, I received this question: We often tune into the Greenlake church service since our family attend there. I have a question about last Sabbaths sermon, if you don't mind. I thought I picked up that you do not think the God ordained mass killings in the Old Testament were ordered by God. Did I hear that right? If so how do you come to that conclusion? I appreciate any help you can give me on that.

It is a profound question. Here is my answer.

On one hand, the Bible clearly states God ordered the genocide.

Jericho and everything in it must be completely destroyed as an offering to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and the others in her house will be spared, for she protected our spies. Joshua 6:17 NLT

And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land: And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves: lay thee an ambush for the city behind it. Joshua 8:1-2 KJV

A “plain reading” of these Bible passages leaves us with a simple answer to the question, “Did God order the genocidal acts of Israel?” Yes. But, I counter, there are a number of other passages which Adventists (and many other Christians) “explain” in ways that avoid the plain meaning.

God hardened Pharoah's heart. Exodus 9:12

And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. 2 Samuel 24:1

Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee. 1 Kings 22:23

If we take the plain reading of the Bible in the above texts, God is an active participant in evil. So Advnetists (and others) have reinterpreted these texts in various ways to avoid saying that God actually did the very thing the Bible says God did. Since these statements are in the same historical context as the passages that say God ordered the genocide, I see no reason not to employ the same methods of interpretation. Which means we acknowledge the text says “God did it” or “God said it” but actually God did not do it or say it.

Some argue that moral revulsion to genocide is a purely modern thing, that if we had been back there in history, we would have had no problem with God ordering genocide. But the Bible itself includes strong protests against the notion of divinely-ordered or divinely-caused genocide. When God announced genocide against Sodom, Abraham protested such an act would be wrong for someone who had the title “Judge of All the Earth.” God bent to Abraham's protest and agreed the presence of even ten good people will be sufficient to prevent the divine blast. When the angels could not find ten good people, they evacuated the four “good” people, thus validating Abraham's fundamental instinct of objection to the slaughter of the innocent and guilty together—which is one of the inescapable effects of genocide.

When God explicitly ordered Moses to step aside and allow God to perpetrate genocide on Israel in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, Mosed refuses to step aside. And God backed down. Moses was  right and God was wrong. Or God as portrayed in the plain reading of the story. Usually this story is reinterpreted this way: God did not literally intend to annihilate Israel. Instead, God's words to Moses dramatized the evil the people had done and prepared the way for Moses to act as a savior, thus prefiguring the work of Jesus. I like this interpretation, but we must acknowledge it is a departure from the plain reading of the text. According to the text, God announces genocide and Moses adamantly protests and blocks the divine plan.

When we consider the genocide against the Canaanites, we note the divine pronouncement of doom was so well known the Canaanite peoples themselves knew of the decree. One group of Canaanites, the Gibeonites, tricked the Israelites into signing a mutual non-aggression treaty because of their familiarity with the divine order of genocide. Even though the divine decree was utterly clear, Joshua faced down his entire army when they insisted on obeying God and wiping out the Gibeonites. Joshua deliberately, forcefully opposed the divine verdict of doom. Curiously, when decades later, King Saul decided to do what Joshua had refused to do, God sided not with King Saul but with the Gibeonites. (See Joshua 9 and 10 and 2 Samuel 21.)

So when we say that genocide is immoral and unworthy of God, we are standing with Abraham, Moses and Joshua. Our opposition to genocide is not a modern invention. It is rooted in the most profound human sense of justice and righteousness.

Given the examples of Abraham, Moses, and Joshua, our own rejection of the idea that God really, truly ordered the annihilation of entire populations is on solid biblical grounds. We are insisting that the entirety of the Bible be brought into the discussion.

I argue that the opposition of these men to the command of God is the ancient writers' way of challenging the deeply-embedded conviction of their people that God condoned genocide. It seems to me there are at least a couple of plausible interpretations of the texts: Either God ordered genocide, then changed his mind when confronted by people more merciful than he was or God never actually intended to the genocide in the first place.

I prefer the second interpretation. I don't think God ever commanded genocide against the Canaanites.

Some people, explaining why the Canaanites needed to be annihilated, say that it was because the Canaanites were so debauched that they had to be eradicated to prevent the moral collapse of all humanity. There are problems with this idea.

First, and most important, when we come to the writings of the prophets we find them repeatedly challenging the notion that the Jewish people were superior to their neighbors.

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, Sodom and her daughters were never as wicked as you and your daughters. Sodom's sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. She was proud and committed detestable sins, so I wiped her out, as you have seen. "Even Samaria did not commit half your sins. You have done far more detestable things than your sisters ever did. They seem righteous compared to you. Shame on you! Your sins are so terrible that you make your sisters seem righteous, even virtuous. "But someday I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria, and I will restore you, too. Then you will be truly ashamed of everything you have done, for your sins make them feel good in comparison. Yes, your sisters, Sodom and Samaria, and all their people will be restored, and at that time you also will be restored. Ezekiel 16

A second point I would make is that if the purpose of the genocide was to eradicate the risk of spiritual contamination of Israel, that purpose utterly failed. The genocide was actually rather very limited. Only a few cities were annihilated but large swaths of the land were left in the control of the Canaanites. For example, Jerusalem remained in Canaanite hands until the time of David. (See the book of Joshua for details.) And through their early years, Israel was a raunchy, violent society. (See the book of Judges.)

I take as my principle text for understanding God, the three stories in Luke 15. In this chapter there is no hint of punishment or damnation. Instead, the first two stories end with all gathered in, one hundred sheep in the fold, ten coins back on the necklace. The last story ends with the Father's declaration to the older son, the one who is most persistently alienated from the generous heart of the Father: Son, all that I have is yours. Not will be, could be, or might be. But is.

This Father never ordered or condoned genocide. He never will.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Keeping Sabbath

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for July 23, 2016.
This is a preliminary version. Comments and criticism welcome.

Deuteronomy 30:11-16
Matthew 13:44-46

Insert Grand Park Photo

Last Sabbath, I made the mistake of stepping into the kitchen where Mark Haun and Eric Lundstrom were engaged in a Sabbath School conversation. They immediately accosted me: we're looking for some people to hike Grand Park with us this afternoon. Did I have any plans that would prevent me from going? I didn't. And I made encouraging noises about going-subject to checking with Karin, of course.

Mark and Eric took off right after church. Karin and I left much later. And to be honest, I pretty much forgot Grand Park. I was sleepy and all the way home I was dreaming of taking a nap. I could barely keep my eyes open.

We pulled in the driveway at home and saw Mark's and Eric's cars in the driveway. I groaned.

Inside, the kitchen was full of people. Mark and Eric had teamed up with my son Garrett to plan the hike. I was going, right?

I groaned. I was sleepy. The sky outside full of clouds. I got on line and checked the web cams at Crystal and Paradise. More clouds. I did not want to go hiking in gray weather. Karin tried to cheer me up by offering food. I wasn't particularly interested. I wanted a nap.

Mark and my son ganged up on me. “Quit looking at the computer.” They said. “Let's just go.” Mark assured me there would be enough flower power in the meadows it would make up any amount of clouds. My daughter chimed in, “Dad, do you ever wish you had not gone on a hike? Even if it rains, do you ever really wish you had stayed home?” She had me there.

I left Karin to go to a local park with the daughters and grandkids and I joined the three young men. They really needed me to go, because the typical way to do this hike is to have two parties that drive to opposite ends of the trail and exchange keys in the middle.

The hour drive was brutal. Sleep kept calling me. Finally, we were on the trail, starting out at Sunrise on Mt. Rainier.

Insert photo of crag and fog

As always, my grumpiness about the weather and every other problem in the world slowly dissolved in the rhythm of walking and the magic of the place. Fog swirled among rugged crags. I've hiked the trails at Sunrise so many times, that every step has the sweet familiarity of home. There are even funny memories of stumbles that almost ended badly, and days I failed underestimated the amount of needed insulation. And every step is redolent with memories of sunny days and endless miles.

In a meadow called Berkeley Park we came across a bear. I was so excited. I've never seen a bear that close in the wild. Ever! It wasn't close enough to be scary. It ignored us and continued its rooting around in the meadow.

We passed an enticing rock face that Garrett had to try his rock climbing fingers on.

Insert Fremont Peak photo

About nine o'clock as we entered Grand Park, the clouds thinned. The sun painted utterly enthralling colors on the slopes of Fremont Peak. The clouds on the western horizon appeared to billowing clouds of blazing white smoke. The meadow itself was suffused with shimmering light cut by the beckoning single line of the trail headed north.

Except for the small, clean line of the trail, everywhere we looked was glorious wildness.

Insert trail pic

Garrett remarked that in the part of the world where he lives (in the mountains in another country) a meadow like this would have a hundred trails snaking here and there across the meadow. There would be plastic bags snagged in the branches at the base of the trees. The mountains and sky would still be grand, but you would have to carefully keep your eyes away from the earth to avoid the spoilation and defilement.

I've been there. I have seen places that have not been kept. The memory of those unkept places, those spoiled treasures, makes me appreciate even more deeply the unspoiled treasure we have. I'm a keeper of the public lands on the north side of Mt. Rainier. I pick up every piece of trash I see—which fortunately is very little. The tens of thousands of people who use the trails there have embraced the ethic of land keeping. On our ten mile hike last Sabbath afternoon, I found only one piece of trash.

I gave thanks for the land keepers.

None of us who hike those trails played any role in creating the landscape. The mountains were built hundreds of millions of years ago. The National Forests and National Park were created 120 years ago. Our public lands are treasures. It is up to us to keep them.

Keeping them is work.

There is the work of protection.

Some people dump stuff. It is up to us to work to prevent dumping and when it happens, to clean it up.

Alpine meadows are quite fragile. Many high meadows were degraded by hikers and horses requiring the Park Service and Forest Service create carefully routed trails to preserve the meadows. I tasted the sweetness of the their work last Sabbath afternoon as Garrett and I hiked across Grand Park enchanted by the pristine, breathtaking beauty.

Our public lands are under constant pressure from commercial interests. Administrators face a daunting balancing act as they juggle the competing demands for “use” and “preservation.” Protecting our public lands is not simple or easy. BUT those lands are a treasure so precious they deserve every bit of effort put into them.

Have you tasted the sweetness of this treasure?

I know some of you have. Some of you have spent many happy days in the forests and on the lakes and slopes and peaks of our region. I was looking at family pictures with the Jonsens and Hasselbracks. Most of the pictures were taken on camping trips.

Even those of us who have not spent time in the wilderness—we have still savored the sweetness of our local public lands. I meet you running and walking around Green Lake across the street. I hear about picnics at Golden Gardens or Alki Beach. Public land—it's where we create family memories and nurture the links of friendship. It's where we feed our souls.

Keeping our public land means protecting that special space from encroachment. We fight to make sure these special places will be available to our children and grandchildren.

Keeping our public land also means enjoying it.

Mt. Rainier will exist whether you ever visit it or not. Because the area around the mountain has been designated a national park, Grand Park will always be there. You will always be able to get on line and find pictures of it. But if you listen closely enough to people who have walked through it, likely you will discover in your own heart a growing hunger to taste it for yourself. It will not be enough to listen to people talk about it. The pictures, instead of being satisfying, will be enticing. If you pay enough attention to the glory of Grand Park, you will start telling yourself. I must go there. I will put it on my bucket list. I can't let Mark and Eric have it all to themselves. I will go there.

Keeping the park moves beyond protecting it from encroachment and moves toward enjoyment.

It is the same with Sabbath.

When you listen to people talk about their experience of Sabbath keeping, a few of them might sound like I did when Mark and Eric were trying to get me to enjoy Grand Park last Sabbath. I complained I was tired. I groused about the clouds. (Part of the reason I complained about the clouds is that the last time Mark dragged me along for a hike through Grand Park, for nearly the entire hike the sky was depressingly heavy. It wasn't just cloudy. It was gloomy. The sky itself was morose and gloomy.)

You can probably find a few people who have tried Sabbath keeping who report it was a gloomy, morose experience. But the vast majority of people who have tried Sabbath keeping have discovered the magic treasure of special time.

Most of us live crazy busy lives. Occasionally, we wonder if we're too busy. We wonder if there is some way to order our lives so there is more space to enjoy the treasure of relationships, the treasure of shared meals. We who are old urge parents with young children: take time with your kids now. They will be gone before you know it.

Sabbath keeping is one way to experience the sweetness we know should be part of our lives.

One of the values of regular Sabbath keeping is the way it begins pulling into our lives deep, almost bodily memory of rich time. Because I have hiked and run the trails at Sunrise so many times, every step now is not just today's step, every step now evokes the multiple-level memories of steps last year and last decade.

When we keep Sabbath regularly, every particular Sabbath meal evokes memories of hundreds of previous Sabbath meals. Every Sabbath worship service connects with our life history of participating in church. Every Sabbath afternoon hike or nap or picnic, takes us into a stream of joy that connects all our Sabbath memories together.

Regular Sabbath keeping brings together our earthly friendships, our worship, our meals, our experience in the out-of-doors. And because it is Sabbath, all of this connects with God. Our meals and worship, our hikes and naps and picnics are holy, enriched by the blessing of Sabbath.

Some of us, hearing these words, will start to scold ourselves. We start thinking, “I should be more diligent in my Sabbath keeping. And because we “should” be more diligent, thinking about Sabbath increasing our discomfort. It increases our stress. We start scolding ourselves. Please don't.

Scolding other people does not usually produce useful change in their lives. And scolding ourselves probably won't increase the quality of our lives either. When you think about Sabbath keeping, let it serve as an invitation. Pay attention to the benefit Sabbath keepers report. Let their words entice you, beckon you.

If we pay attention to something beautiful and desirable long enough and intensely enough, we are likely begin moving that direction. And when we move that direction the tastes we get will call us deeper.

When you're considering Sabbath keeping, the difficulty of pulling it off might seem daunting. You might be like me in the kitchen last Sabbath afternoon, grousing about the difficulty, feeling the challenge, feeling the effort. I felt the weight of the clouds. I felt my own tiredness. Those problems completely obscured the sweetness of the treasure waiting for me in Grand Park.

Then my daughter challenged me: “Dad, have you ever wished you didn't go hiking? Have you ever gotten out on the trail and wished you had stayed home?”

I couldn't answer. I could have stayed home. I could have gone to bed and taken a nap. And it would have been wonderful. The nap would have been heavenly. But she was right that there has never been a time when I went for a hike or run in the mountains and then later wished I had stayed home, wished I had taken a nap instead. That has never happened.

I invite you to taste the same kind of truth in Sabbath keeping. I have never met anyone who kept Sabbath and regretted doing it. Sabbath is a treasure so rich that every bit of effort we put into keeping it comes back to us in joy.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Blessed are the pure in heart

A sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
June 25, 2016

Texts: Psalm 24, Matthew 5:8, 2 Chronicles 28, Matthew 15:1-20, John 1:18; 1 John 4:12

I was working on today's sermon at Starbucks in Enumclaw. Sitting on a bench outside. I heard people asking and giving directions. I noticed the license plate of the car was from out of state. I listened more closely. They were asking for directions to Mt. Rainier. I heard references to Highway 410 and Crystal Mountain. I joined the conversation.

“You're wanting to see Mt. Rainier, right?”


“Listen, follow the directions these people gave you BUT ADD THIS BIT:  A few miles after you enter the park you will see a big sign for a place called Sunrise. It won't say anything about Mt. Rainier, but take that road. You have to go to Sunrise to see the mountain.”

They thanked me and headed off.

Often when Karin and I have been up at Chinook Pass at the northeast corner of the park or near Stevens Canyon Road which is the turn off for Paradise on the east side of the park, people have stopped and asked us, “Where is Mt. Rainier?”

They have driven out from Seattle. They have a map and figure if you go to the place on the map called Mt. Rainier National Park, the mountain will be kind of obvious. Except that it isn't. Highway 410 crosses the north side of the park. You cross the entire park and go another couple of hours to Yakima and in that entire distance there are only a couple of turn outs where you can pull off the road and get a glimpse of the mountain in the distance. People who have driven out from Seattle rightly expect better views of the mountain than that. And better views are available. But you have to turn off at Sunrise. It is your only option on the north side of the park. If you don't take that road, you won't get satisfying views. That's just the way it is.

If you do take the Sunrise turnoff and drive ten miles up the road, you reach the Sunrise parking lot and stunning, breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier. From there you can head up on the Burroughs Mountain Trail and get so close to the north face of the mountain you can hear rocks and avalanches falling. You can feel the mountain's immensity.

It's quite curious to me. From downtown Seattle, the mountain dominates the sky. You drive south on I-5 and the mountain looms. You head east on Highway 164 toward Enumclaw, the mountain fills your vision. You leave Enumclaw on Highway 410 and the mountain disappears. In the 40 miles from Enumclaw to Chinook Pass, there are only occasional glimpses, tantalizing glimpses. The mountain, all 14,000 feet of it, seems to hide.

Unless you turn off Highway 410 onto the Sunrise Road.

Blessed are those who turn, they will see the mountain.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Most people who drive two hours from Seattle to Mt. Rainier National Park want to see the mountain. And most people who come to church want to see God.

If you want to see the mountain, you have to make the turn and the drive. If you want to see God you have to practice purity. This is not some arbitrary rule. It's just the way the universe works.

Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God. Cursed are the impure in heart. Their vision of God will be hindered, obscured, distorted. People with impure hearts can go all the way to church and discover God is curiously invisible.

I was visiting with an old man. He was really old--approaching one hundred years old. We talked church. He lamented the way the church has departed from its original vision. I asked what that original vision was. When he told me, I laughed a bit. His version of “original” was a bit idiosyncratic. He lamented cultural changes that were contrary to his tastes. And he confused those cultural tastes with original, essential Adventism. As a point of historical fact, the church he was describing was the church of the 1950s and 1960s, not the 1800s. Then he became quite explicit. The people who were participating in these changes were going to be lost. God was going to kill them.

I protested that God is a father and a father who kills most of his kids would not be a very good father. Yes, he acknowledged, God is a loving, generous father. But, he insisted, we need to remember God has two natures. There is the kind God and then there is the God who kills people. Think of all the people he killed in the Flood, my friend said. Remember Jericho. And God is going to kill a bunch more, too, at the end. Remember the Adventist prophet, Ellen White, said not one in twenty church members had a saving relationship with God. That's a 95 percent failure rate. And that was back in her day before things got bad. God is going to have to kill all those messed up church people. I said I disagreed. The old man acknowledged our disagreement. He wished he could share my optimism, but he was pretty sure God was going to kill a whole lot of people. That was God's job. That's what God is like. My question: is it really?

Did my friend have a clear vision of God? Did he have an accurate vision of God?

Does God have two natures—kind and generous father one day, merciless executioner the next?

Most people reject the notion of two natures. One person said to me, this idea of two natures makes it sound like God is schizo. But if God does not have multiple personalities, we are left with the live question: what is God really like? There are a lot of different versions of God espoused by people. Which is more accurate? Which description comes closer to the real thing?

If we get a clear vision of God, what will we see? Answering this question can get quite complicated, even if we ask the Bible prophets. Consider this story from 2 Chronicles 28.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. He did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the LORD, as his ancestor David had done.
Instead, he followed the example of the kings of Israel. He cast metal images for the worship of Baal. He offered sacrifices in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, even sacrificing his own sons in the fire. In this way, he followed the detestable practices of the pagan nations the LORD had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the pagan shrines and on the hills and under every green tree.
Because of all this, the LORD his God allowed the king of Aram to defeat Ahaz and to exile large numbers of his people to Damascus. The armies of the king of Israel also defeated Ahaz and inflicted many casualties on his army.
In a single day Pekah son of Remaliah, Israel's king, killed 120,000 of Judah's troops, all of them experienced warriors, because they had abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors.
Then Zicri, a warrior from Ephraim, killed Maaseiah, the king's son; Azrikam, the king's palace commander; and Elkanah, the king's second-in-command. The armies of Israel captured 200,000 women and children from Judah and seized tremendous amounts of plunder, which they took back to Samaria.

If you were going to explain to someone what God is like based on this story, what would you say? This sounds like the version of God preached by people like Pat Robertson or Doug Bachelor. God punishes people by causing really bad stuff to happen. God causes people to be slaughtered in war as punishment for their sins.

This is an especially attractive idea when other people are losers. They were bad people any way. We don't have to worry about them. In fact, we can be happy for their loss and suffering. We are insulated against empathy because we know we would never be evil like those people. But this story has a curious twist in it.

When the army of Israel arrived back home full of exultation over their victory and proud of the huge amount of loot and captives (who would become slaves) a prophet shows up.

A prophet of the LORD named Oded was there in Samaria when the army of Israel returned home. He went out to meet them and said, "The LORD, the God of your ancestors, was angry with Judah and let you defeat them. But you have gone too far, killing them without mercy, and all heaven is disturbed. And now you are planning to make slaves of these people from Judah and Jerusalem. What about your own sins against the LORD your God? Listen to me and return these prisoners you have taken, for they are your own relatives. Watch out, because now the LORD's fierce anger has been turned against you!"
Then some of the leaders of Israel--Azariah son of Jehohanan, Berekiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amasa son of Hadlai--agreed with this and confronted the men returning from battle. "You must not bring the prisoners here!" they declared. "We cannot afford to add to our sins and guilt. Our guilt is already great, and the LORD's fierce anger is already turned against Israel." So the warriors released the prisoners and handed over the plunder in the sight of the leaders and all the people. Then the four men just mentioned by name came forward and distributed clothes from the plunder to the prisoners who were naked. They provided clothing and sandals to wear, gave them enough food and drink, and dressed their wounds with olive oil. They put those who were weak on donkeys and took all the prisoners back to their own people in Jericho, the city of palms. Then they returned to Samaria. 

Mercy triumphs over vengeance. Justice is not punishment but healing. The Bible has lots of stories that make God appear vindictive, severe, murderous, even. Then there is this other theme—mercy. Frequently, mercy is presented as a contradiction of God—a contradiction that God himself approves.

When something bad happens and people cheer the misfortune of the cursed, a prophet, a righteous hero, will stand and shout, No. Mercy! And God bends to the cry for mercy. Over and over again.

What is God really like? When we get a clear, unobstructed view of God what do we see? Mercy.

This appears most vividly when we come to the Gospel, the story of Jesus. We believe God has engaged with humanity throughout history and that the Bible is a record God's dealings with humanity. God was revealed through the ancient temple services and through the words of the prophets, but as Christians we regard the teachings of Jesus as the highest, clearest revelation of God.

In the words of the Gospel of John,

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, who is near to the Father’s heart: He has revealed God to us. John 1:18

What is God like in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus uses various metaphors to picture God: judge, employer, master, king, shepherd. His favorite picture of God is as a provident, attentive father. In Matthew 6, Jesus repeatedly assures us the heavenly father is watching and will provide for us. In Matthew 7, Jesus says God is more generous than our highest idealization of the perfect earthly parent.

In the Old Testament, the vision of God is frequently terrifying, intimidating. When people see God it is like finding yourself on top Mt. Rainier when the wind is blowing fifty or sixty miles an hour with ten feet of visibility. You know you're going to die.

In the teachings of Jesus, the vision of God is beckoning, inspiring. Like finding yourself on top of Third Burroughs on a perfect day in August, thrilled with the immensity of the mountain, the ruggedness of the rock, the dazzling glorious white of the snow.

Which vision is more authoritative? We unabashedly stand with Jesus.

How does this beautiful vision of God come to fill our vision? How does this glory displace the notions of doom and threat?

According to Jesus: Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God. The path to this exalted vision of God is through the practice of purity of heart.

First, let's consider what Jesus meant by a pure heart. This is a no easy path.

Being pure in heart is more than being religious. In fact, Jesus specifically challenges the notion of  religious purity. While the forms of religion can be helpful. They can also be used to obscure the vision of God. Jesus was quite pointed about this.

Once, the religious rulers scolded Jesus for failing to follow a traditional washing practice before eating. Jesus pushed back hard. According to the Gospel Jesus turned from the religious leaders and spoke directly to the crowd:

Listen. It is not what goes into a person's mouth that makes them “unclean.” It's what comes out! What you eat passes through the body and out. But what comes out of the mouth is actually coming from the heart. Evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are the things that make a person unclean or impure. Matthew 15

When we practice impurity, we obscure our vision of God. We diminish our capacity to see God. Sometimes religion itself can make our spiritual glasses opaque. Our religion can blind us to God. In my life time, devotion to the King James Bible has played that role. The King James translation is a wonderful translation. But some people turned it into an idol and worshiped the book instead of God. Some translation reformers have worshiped the notion of “the newest and latest translation.” In both cases advocates have imagined that God was contained exclusively in their particular box. People have done the same thing with music. We have imagined that “our music,” the music that is most helpful our own hearts and souls, is the only musical language acceptable to God. And we have turned our critical ear against those who speak a different musical language. And in the process we have hidden God behind a cloud bank.

We prepare ourselves to see God by pursuing purity of heart. By pursuing moral, spiritual vitality. I suppose we could define this purity as the virtues that contrast with the vices Jesus listed. Instead of evil thoughts, we practice good thoughts. Instead of murder, we practice nourishing and protecting life—the unborn, the foreign born, the poor born, those of different races. Instead of adultery, we practice faithfulness. Instead of thieving, we practice generosity. Instead of lying and slander, we practice honesty and kind words. Practicing these habits enhances our capacity to see God.

In the First Epistle of John, we read these words.

No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. 1 John 4:12

Remember the passage from the Gospel of John we read earlier? “No one has seen God, but Jesus has made him known.” Now, here we read no one has seen God, BUT God's love is brought to full expression--is made visible—when we love one another. When we practice purity of heart, not only do we find ourselves in the light of God's presence, we bring God to light for those around us.

Let's go back to my old friend. His vision of God—the idea that God will kill a lot of people—is rooted in the religious culture of the church he grew up in. It is the same vision I grew up with. As did many of you.

It is a vision of God that is very much alive in the world. I had posted a note about my conversation with the old man on Facebook. I received this response from a young friend, someone about thirty years old:

As much as I hate to admit it, this centenarian fellow is probably right to some degree. The Bible is rife with examples of a violent God. . . . I wish God was like you describe. Let's hope Centenarian is missing something.

I believe the Centenarian is missing something: Actually, he is missing two things.

He is missing the minority report found all through the Bible that mercy is the last, best, final word of God. He has not noticed that God regards mercy as the highest form of justice. Retribution and punishment can be successfully challenged.

There is one other reason my old friend cannot see clearly the triumph of mercy. He needs God to remain his partner in despising people who are wrong.

My old friend was quite emphatic. He disdained all these people who don't practice religion just the way he prefers. He wanted me to explain why so many people—even in church—refused to do things the way “we have always done them.” Those people—the ones who had tinkered with his religion, the ones who had failed to keep all the traditions just the way my old friend remembered—those people needed to be punished. Part of my friend's insistence on the deadliness of God is his own severe judgment on people he disagrees with. His heart is dirtied with religious animosity and that hostility obscures his vision of God.

The news is constantly reminding us that evil is afoot in the world. We are daily confronted with stories about people that awaken our sense of outrage and horror. We naturally want to smash the evil. We want to bomb, shoot, kill the bad people who cause such horror. These reactions are natural.

Jesus calls us higher. Jesus calls us to practice purity, to deliberately fill our hearts with goodness, faithfulness, generosity. Let us practice the bold mercy of the prophet Obed: Let's push back against the natural hunger for vengeance and murderous victories. Let's join Jesus in pursuing mercy. Let's join Jesus in practicing divine purity.

Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

After the Revolution

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For July 9, 2016

Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die;
save them as they stagger to their death.
Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.”
For God understands all hearts, and he sees you.
He who guards your soul knows you knew.
He will repay all people as their actions deserve.

Proverbs 24;11-12

The week began innocently enough. On Sunday I flew to Lawrence, Kansas, to spend the week helping my daughter work on the old house she has just bought. We worked until one or two in the morning most nights. It wasn't all work. Between the two of us we managed to eat a gallon of ice cream. On Tuesday morning I went running. Out through the neighborhood of old houses, down to the river where a levee runs for miles.

It was a perfect Kansas summer day. Temperature in the 80s. Blue sky with puffy white clouds. Cottonwood leaves dancing in the sunlight.

We worked through Wednesday and Thursday and all of Thursday night. Got on a plane early Friday morning and arrived home. There on the kitchen table was the Seattle Times with the headline about the shootings in Dallas. And I caught up with the news from the week.

A bombing in Baghdad killed 200 people.
Twice police shot Black men in acts of apparent gross police misconduct.
Another bombing in Baghdad killed 35 people.
A shooter in Dallas shot police who were providing service at a protest against police violence.

I wanted to go back to Kansas. And sanding and painting my daughter's house.

But here we are, in this house of prayer for all nations, confronting the twin realities of a glorious world and heart-crushing evil.

This past Monday was Fourth of July, the celebration of the American Revolution.

American history celebrates our founding rebellion. There was a wicked king in England who imposed onerous taxes on his far-off subjects in America. The king also interfered with the administration of true justice and the righteous application of law. The taxes and other grievances became so unbearable the Americans went to war to get rid of the evil king. With the help of the French, the Americans won the war. They got rid of the wicked king and his rapacious army. Everyone in America was now free and goodness and justice spread across the land.

That's the way the story was supposed to go.

The point of rebellion is to replace evil power with a good power. But it seldom works. The rebellion is the easy part. Identify the bad guys and eliminate them. Kill them. Then goodness will blossom everywhere.

It didn't work in the American Revolution. Slavery was expanded after the revolution. Women were still owned by their husbands. Children were worked to death in factories. Poor men were crushed by rich men. Life was about the same as it was before the Revolution. Getting rid of the King of England simply changed the name of the oppressor.

Creating a good society by killing bad people was attempted in Bible times. The Hebrew people entered Canaan. This was the promised land. It was the land where God's people were going to live happily ever after. No more enemies. No more false gods. No more false religion. The first step toward this earthly paradise was the eradication of the bad people. The Israelites obliterated whole cities, every man, woman, and child. In places they even killed all the animals, the donkeys and cows, and I suppose the dogs and cats.

We have a name for this horror: genocide.

Unfortunately, it didn't work. The Israelites discovered that every evil that was out there was also “in here.” As they tried to deal with evil by crusades against whole cities, they ended up attacking Israelite cities where evil had been perpetrated.

Injustice, idolatry, greed, tyranny lived not only out there, but in here. This is still true.

This week's events highlight the need for a better, higher vision. We cannot build a better world with weapons. Yes, sometimes when egregious evil arises we must use violence to fight it off. But need for that kind of defensive violence is rare. And the act of violence—even defensive, justifiable violence—never builds goodness. We cannot grow tomatoes by pulling weeds. We cannot feed hungry children by killing mosquitoes. We cannot build a happy, prosperous community by killing bad people.

There is a higher path.

In the Bible, the prophets struggle to give voice to this higher, more noble way of life.

In the book of Deuteronomy we find these words:

"Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
"Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land.
Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 19:18; 33-34

The Bible is full of stories and ideas that emphasize the difference between Israel and everyone else. There are commands to be separate, to be different. Israel was not like “other people.” Instead they were the special people of God.

But there is another line of thinking, another vision. When you look at foreigners, remember you were a foreigner.

When you think of Jerusalem as God's city, instead of thinking, God is here not there. God is with us and not with them, think this city belongs to the world and the whole world has citizenship here.
A song. A psalm of the descendants of Korah. On the holy mountain stands the city founded by the LORD.
He loves the city of Jerusalem more than any other city in Israel.
O city of God, what glorious things are said of you! Interlude
I will count Egypt and Babylon among those who know me--also Philistia and Tyre, and even distant Ethiopia. They have all become citizens of Jerusalem!
Regarding Jerusalem it will be said, "Everyone enjoys the rights of citizenship there." And the Most High will personally bless this city.
When the LORD registers the nations, he will say, "They have all become citizens of Jerusalem." Interlude
The people will play flutes and sing, "The source of my life springs from Jerusalem!"

This vision—the vision of a single citizenship for all humanity—will change how we interact with each other. Iraqis and Americans are parts of a single whole.

We appropriately lament the death of 4500 American service personnel in the Iraq War. Let's enlarge our vision and feel the weight of the Iraqi people killed as a direct consequence of that war—100,000 people.

We who are white must remember that Black people and Hispanic people and Asian people are people. All of us together are the family of God.

As Christians, as people who claim kinship with God, we are not allowed to look away from the injustices suffered by those who are a different color or who have less capable legal representation.

Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die;
save them as they stagger to their death.
Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.”
For God understands all hearts, and he sees you.
He who guards your soul knows you knew.
He will repay all people as their actions deserve.
Proverbs 24;11-12
We are Sabbath-keepers. Traditionally, we have reassured ourselves this is our proof that we are indeed law-abiding people. But it is not enough.

The law of God reaches its ultimate test in this challenge: Let us love our neighbors as ourselves. And who is my neighbor? More than anyone else, my neighbor is the one who is suffering, the one who could use some help.

We who find ourselves at home at the Master's Table demonstrate our true citizenship, our true identity as children of this home, by extending the welcome. We eat the truest bread of heaven when hand it to others.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Echoes of Fathers Day

Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
June 25, 2016
A sermon manuscript

A psalm of David. Let all that I am praise the LORD; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the LORD; may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle's!
The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.
The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone--as though we had never been here.
But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him. His salvation extends to the children's children
of those who are faithful to his covenant, of those who obey his commandments!
Psalm 103

"You parents--if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead?
Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not!
So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.
"Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.
Matthew 7:9-12

I walked into a jeweler's store near my house to get batteries replaced in a couple of Karin's watches.  The woman behind the counter took my watches and looked them over. headed toward the work bench. The last time they replaced batteries it had taken a little while, so I  asked if I could leave them and pick them up later in the morning. I said I was just around the corner working at Starbucks . She asked what I was doing at Starbucks.

 “Writing,” I said.

 “What are you writing?”

“I'm working on a novel about a preacher and his son. The preacher is a man of great integrity. Kind. Generous. Devout. Honest. Now, in his old age he is facing an excruciating dilemma. His son has died in a car accident. Tomorrow, Jim is going to preach his son's funeral, and Jim, the preacher has to choose between the gospel he has preached for forty years and his son.

The son, Keith, was a good man, but not a believer. Because of his integrity, Jim cannot even hint that his son will be saved, not unless he also admits the gospel he has been preaching for forty years is inadequate.  If it were a funeral for anyone else, Jim could hide behind the idea that judgment is up to God and leave it at that. He could say that only God knows the heart. But this was his son. And Jim did know his heart.  And Keith did not believe. They had talked and talked. Keith knew the gospel and had decided it did not ring true. He understood Romans and refused to believe it was the word of God. If Jim preached hope of eternal life in the face of what he knew about his son it would be a denial of the gospel he had preached through four decades.

So Jim faces the terrible choice of saving his religion or saving his son, a terrible, awful dilemma.

 “I know people like that,” she said. “One of my friends has been devout all her life. Now her son has come out as gay. She doesn't know what to do.”

I left the watches and headed back to Starbucks where I lived with Jim's agony.

Working on this sermon, I replayed that conversation in my head. As a dad, if I were faced with the choice of saving my kids or my theology, which would I choose? Which do we love more, our religion or our kids?

This past Sunday was Father's day. One of my girls gave me a card, the sweetest possible card. According to her card I was the perfect dad. She did not mention the time I swatted her across the room when she bit my leg. She overlooked the times I was an hour late picking her up from school. She graciously neglected to mention other failings and imperfections. For the moment, and in that beautiful card, I was the perfect father. That's what we do on Father's Day and Mother's Day, right? We celebrate the good stuff. We omit reference to failures and inadequacies. We recall the best. We practice selective attention.

The Bible builds its vision of God on similar selective vision.

In Psalm our Old Testament reading this morning we heard these words

The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Psalm 103

Not all fathers are tender and compassionate. And even tender and compassionate fathers are not unfailingly tender and compassionate. But we build on the goodness we have observed in fathers we know and imagine a God who is even better.”

Karin talks of the special relationship she had with her father. Her mother was strong, smart, and good. But when Karin needed some tender compression, when she needed empathy, she went to papa. When she had messed up, she knew she could find sanctuary in papa's presence. An embrace. Understanding. Shelter.

God is like that. God is the perfect father, the daddy we who are older wish had been, the kind of dad younger men aspire to be, the kind of father some of us wish we had.

The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate

Throughout the Bible, the most frequent metaphor for God is Father. Old Testament and New Testament. Moses and the Psalms. Jesus. All repeatedly invoke"father" as a word picture of God. Which raises the question, what kind of father? Answer: God is the Father's Day dad. The sum of the best we can imagine a dad to be.

Regrettably, I acknowledge there are other kinds of dads.

My friend John Benedetto used to tell me  stories of abuse he received at the hands of his father. I still shake my head in disbelief and horror when I recall John's stories.

My friend Russell endured unspeakable abuse from his mother and beatings from his father throughout his entire childhood. I don't know how he functions as a human being. It is difficult. He has fractious relationships. No wonder.

I tell these stories just to make it clear that I am aware of the dark side of fathering. if we are going to understand God as father we must decide what kind of father we mean. Not every version of father is worthy of serving as an illustration of the character of God.

Rooted deep in humanity is a conviction that fathers are supposed to be protectors and sustainers. As the Psalm states, the natural, good character of a father is tenderness and compassion. It is when fathers are like that that they serve as reliable illustrations of God.

This human knowledge is endorsed in the Gospel. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus frequently pictures God as a father. In every instance, Jesus assumes that "father"means the Hallmark version of father. Every time Jesus mentions God as father, Jesus is offering reassurance, confidence, and hope. Jesus does sometimes speak of God's authority, but when he does, uses other metaphors like kings and  judges. “Father,” for Jesus is not an "authority figure." Father is an attentive provider.

 When we drink deeply from this vision of God, we view some traditional religious concerns in new light.

The question: what do I have to do to be saved, gets turned on its head and becomes what could I possibly do to be lost? Can I be forgiven changes into "richly forgiven I am!

In the most famous “father” story in the Bible, there is a father and two sons. One, the younger son, son is a total jerk. He asks his father for his share of the inheritance. He can't wait for dad to die. He the wants the money now. Dad gives him the money. And this younger son goes off to a foreign land where he blows all his money on parties, drugs, and women. When his money is gone, he ends up working for a farmer feeding a pigs—the ultimate come down for a Jewish young man. He is so destitute he envies the pigs their slop.

He suddenly thinks, “Wait. Even the servants in my father's house eat better than I do. I'll go home and ask for a job as a servant.”

He heads home. Entering the neighborhood, while he's a long way off up the road, his father spies him. Dad races down the driveway to meet him. Embraces him and welcomes him. Dad orders a calf to be slaughtered and preparations for a feast started.

Meanwhile the older brother is out taking care of the farm. He comes back to the house, sees all the preparations for the feast, and learns it is a welcome-home party for his ne-er-do-well brother. The older brother is ticked off. He refuses to come into the house.

At this point, we realize the prime villain in the story is not the younger son. He has already been redeemed. He has seen the light and come home. The villain is the older brother, the responsible one.

Noticing his son's absence, dad goes out and begs the older brother to join the party. The older son huffs, “All these years I have slaved for you and did you ever give me a calf or even a goat for a feast with my friends?”

The story ends with one of the most magnificent speeches in all literature. The father says, “Son, everything I have is yours.” --the rest of the inheritance, the entire farm, the whole operation. It's all yours.--  Son, you're being a jerk. Still, everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate. Your brother who was dead is returned to me alive.”

Everything I have is yours.

In this story who is saved? In the end, who is at home in the father's house? Everyone. The only question is, will the older son join the party.

The Father's Day dad is perfect. A paragon of strength and virtue, compassion and hope, faithfulness and understanding. And this kind of dad is successful. He saves his family. He saves his kids. All of them. This is the best picture of God.

 After last week's sermon, someone asked me in the lobby. “Are you a closet universalist?” I said, No, I'm not a closet universalist. I'm a very public “for all practical purposes universalist.” If someone genuinely, with informed consent, preferred damnation, I'm sure God would honor the request. But who, I wonder, would actually make such a choice?

In Corinthians 15 we read that all will be changed. At the last trump. No one is ready—as we are—for eternal life. So, at the Second Coming all must be fixed in preparation for their life in paradise. Everyone who enters Paradise will be changed to prepare them for happy citizenship there. How many people, given the option of repair, would decline it?

When we view God as father, the divine, perfect, Hallmark father, it is natural to ask who is God unable or unwilling to fix? Who is so messed up that God cannot heal them and create for them a welcome place in his house?

After writing this sermon I was back at campmeeting Friday evening. Pastor Mika and I were standing together talking when a young woman walked up. “You guys are from Green Lake Church, right?”

We did introductions. Then she jumped straight to it. Her uncle had told about a sermon I had preached. The uncle said she should hear it. She hadn't gotten around to watching it, but she wanted to know how Green Lake Church treated gay people. We talked for a few minutes. Her family had connections with our congregation a generation or two in the past. She talked about several non-Adventist congregations she had investigated in her search for a church home. But she was Adventist. No other church would do. Initially, I had thought her question was theoretical. I imagined her as a young person putting her church under the microscope of youthful idealism. But as she talked I realized she was asking a personal question: is there room in the Father's house for me?

What would you tell her? What would you have me tell her? Do we love our religion more than our kids?

The minister I described earlier, Jim, has preached Paul's gospel for forty years. That Gospel rescued his soul from darkness and gave him hope and purpose. Like the majority of Christian theologians through the centuries he had imagined the machinery of salvation that worked for him was the only apparatus available to God for the salvation of his children. If you did not believe and confess just the way it is described in Romans 10, there can be no salvation for you.

So Jim's son who could not believe Paul's theories was necessarily damned. Anyone like the young woman at campmeeting who could not embrace Paul's sexual ethic was damned.

I imagine traditional expressions of the gospel to be like a lifeboat discovered by floundering, shipwrecked sailors. As they clamber into the boat, they give thanks for their salvation and immediately fret that everyone who did not make it into the lifeboat must necessarily drown. But what those inside the boat cannot see is that God has an entire armada of whales swallowing people and spitting them up on the beach while the good folk in the life boat are still waiting to be picked up.

The preacher's son, Kieth, is outside the lifeboat of the church. That is true. He is outside the historic Christian formulas for salvation. He is not beyond the reach of God's whales.

The young woman at campmeeting is outside Paul's sexual ethic. Like nearly all of us she disagrees with some of what Paul wrote about sexuality. (Remember, according to Paul the highest spiritual life requires celibacy. Marriage was allowed only to hormone-driven people incapable of sustaining celibacy.)

Neither Keith nor the woman fit inside our understanding of good and wholesome religion. So what do we do?

Will we guard the door against the unworthy or will we join the father in scanning the distant road for the slightest hint someone is heading home? Will we, when we notice an absence in the party--will we leave the party, leave the comfort of our secure religion and go looking. And when we find a son or daughter outside will we remind them and ourselves, all that we have is theirs.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

In the Presence of Evil

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, June 18, 2016

Psalm 130
Revelation 6:1-11

Sunday morning Karin and I were sitting in the kitchen when Bonnie came downstairs with the news. There had been a shooting in Orlando, the most horrific mass shooting in modern American history.

I felt sick to my stomach.

It was like the morning when my son came in and told me planes were flying into the World Trade Center. I have never watched video of the event, but my imagination shows me planes and flames and people leaping to their deaths and other horrors.

It was like the day I heard on the radio that America had begun bombing Baghdad. And I felt the tearing of flesh and the devastation of families.

I sat there stunned. Silent. I did not look at video. I did not listen to the radio. I did not need to. People were killed. Huge, painful caverns were being created in families and circles of friends.

Evil was afoot.

Over the next hours I read comments by various people, friends on Facebook, the president of the North American Adventist Church. Over the next days, I heard on the radio and read in the newspaper comments by political figures, preachers.

I am a writer. I put things in words. But last Sunday, I hesitated. What could I say that would not be misunderstood? What could I say that I might not later regret when more information came to light? Were there any words that would not add to the storm of hurt, outrage, and horror? Finally, late, sitting on my porch in the twilight, I found in my heart these three sentences:

I am grieving. Holding my words, sensing they cannot be large enough to carry my grief, fearing they might say things unworthy or unwise. So tonight I grieve.

Today, a week later. I have only slightly more to say.

I have listened to the swirl of words. Outrage, anger, impatience, denunciations, ridicule, bombast, shouting. Gun control. Gun rights. Immigrants. Muslims. Gays. Young men. Gay rights. The evils of liberal thought. The noise is understandable. When we are suddenly confronted with horror, we react instinctively. So when I hear loud, angry voices in connection with Orlando I think, it's only natural. But it is not wise. It is not beautiful. Mostly, it is not helpful. Anger is a blind guide.

When we are in the presence of evil, if we are not careful, our words and actions will be shaped more strongly by the evil in our environment than by the holiness of our faith. It is possible, if we engage to quickly with evil, that our own efforts to fight evil will be tainted, permeated even, by the very evil against which we war.

Sunday, as I heard the news from Orlando, I found myself in the presence of evil. So did you. How shall we respond?

First, silence. And in our silence, grief.

People died. People were killed. Shot. Lots of people. Everyone who died created a circle of loss, a circle of pain. In our grief we connect with the mothers and dads, the sisters and brothers, the lovers and husbands and wives and grandmothers and friends and co-workers and colleagues who were bereaved by bullets on Saturday night.

As Adventists, we understand our grief as an echo, a mirror, of the grief of heaven. God is bereaved by every death. God's living intimacy with his human children is interrupted by death. Their voices have been stilled not just on earth, but in heaven itself. They no longer pray or worship. Every death leaves God with an emptiness. The emptiness of a mother. The aching grief of a father. God is bereaved. We are bereaved. Our grief is a participation in the grief of heaven.

The first words appropriate to grief are silence.

In our silence we pay attention to the loss. We acknowledge there are no words adequate for the loss. No words “can make it all better.” In our silence, we keep company with those struck dumb with grief. And our awareness of the sweep of grief includes even God.

If we discipline ourselves to be silent. If we take time to grieve in the face of evil, I think we will feel the terrible contradiction between our faith and the world around us.

As believers we hold to the vision of God: The promise that justice will triumph, the promise of redemption. We know the words of Scripture:

The lion and the lamb will feed tranquilly together.

They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.

The high and exalted will be brought low; the lowly will be exalted.

There will be no more sorrow, crying, grief, or pain.

The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as waters fill the sea.

In all things God is working for the good of those who love him.

In the days of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will fill the whole earth and he will reign forever.

When evil leaps suddenly into glaring attention in our world, if we take a few minutes to be quiet, we will be struck with the contrast between the news and the good news, between reality and the Gospel. We will be troubled. We SHOULD BE troubled. This is not how it should be.

We will direct some of our anger and frustration at God. Where was God? Where is God? By raising our questions in the presence of God, our natural anger will be elevated. Our impulses to strike and wound and kill will be tempered by holiness.

Evil often does invade our lives. News media specializes in bringing evil to our attention. Sometimes the horror that confronts us is unspeakably evil. We are dumbfounded by the monstrosity of wickedness. When this happens, if we will quiet ourselves as our first reaction. If we quiet ourselves and seek company with the God whose world is the venue of this evil . . . If we refrain from immediately starting to shout about all those other people who are wrecking the world . . . If we give attention to the difference between the world of God's hope as pictured in the visions of the prophets and the world that is tangibly with us . . . We may hear the question: What can I do? What can we do? How can I help?

One of the common characteristics of the presence of evil is the way it swamps our mind. The noise and horror of evil can be so powerful that we react as if it were everything, as if it were the whole of reality. If we start speaking and acting while this sense of overwhelming evil is still with us, we risk being seduced by the very evil that we loathe. Our actions may mirror the evil we hate.

It is appropriate for us to allow our outrage at particular instances of evil to goad us out of complacency and into action. But let us find our guidance for what to do in the beautiful vision of the prophets not in the ugly horror of the evil that is present with us.

We cannot escape the presence of evil. If we turned off our TVs and refused to read the newspaper and disconnected the internet, evil would still find us. It is part of the inescapable reality of this world. This truth lives at the center of our faith. Jesus was crucified. Our master, the Holy One, was executed as a criminal. We live under no illusions that our privileges or even our virtues make us immune from horrific evil.

On the other hand, as followers of Jesus we embrace a radical commitment to the pursuit of goodness. We may die, but we will not become killers. We may be mistreated, but we will not become haters. We are vulnerable. We grieve. But we will not allow fear or outrage to dictate our words, to own our lives.

In the presence of evil, we remain committed to the ideals of Jesus.

Stubbornly. Resolutely. So help us, God.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Exam

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, June 11, 2016
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Daniel 1; Matthew 25

Seminary programs are designed to begin in the fall. I started in the spring. In the seminary bulletin the class descriptions frequently came with footnotes about prerequisites and proper order. You could not take exegesis classes until you had taken Greek and Hebrew. You couldn't take Old Testament Three until you had taken Old Testament One. I, of course, blithely ignored all these stipulations and signed up for classes that looked interesting.

Two or three weeks into the quarter I was summoned by the dean. When I was ushered into his august presence, he was not smiling. In fact, he was rather huffy bordering on irate. What did I think I was doing signing up for New Testament exegesis classes before taking Greek? I replied that even though I had not been a theology major in college, I had taken Greek. And had pretty good teachers, thank you.

That was NOT good enough. Everyone entering seminary was required to take Greek or pass an exam proving their competence. His scowl deepened. He was clearly offended that I was messing with his system.
“I'm happy to take the exam.” I said.
“But you have already enrolled in classes. You can't continue in the classes you are taking until you've passed the exam.”
“No problem, I said. “I'll take the exam now. Do you have one ready?”
He wasn't ready for that. “Well, you don't have to take it today. We'll schedule it.”
“Whenever you like,” I said.
He set the exam date for a couple days out and I went back to class. I took the exam and then heard nothing. A couple of weeks passed. Three weeks.
Finally, I went back to see the dean. The secretary sent me into his office. “I was wondering if my exam has been graded yet.”
He glowered at me over his glasses. “Do you speak Greek?”
“What do you mean? I took Greek in college.”
“I'm working on some Greek manuscripts doing collation—that is compiling a comprehensive catalog of variants. I have a grant to hire a few students. Would you be interested in joining our team?”
“Sure. That sounds great.”

I never did find out what my score on the exam was. But I think I passed.

Exams can be terrifying if you're not ready. If you are ready, an exam is a validation.

In graduate education a thesis or dissertation defense is an occasion for demonstrating mastery. Real questions are asked. You better be prepared. But the presumption is that the student will shine. And if the student shines that makes the teacher look good.

Our OT reading today features a final exam.

Daniel, and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, had been taken to Babylon along with thousands of other Jews. They were selected for a special program that trained junior royalty from conquered nations in the language, culture, and knowledge of Babylon. It was a three year program with a comprehensive exam at the end.

Right off the bat, the four Hebrews made waves. The king had appointed a sumptuous royal diet and plenty of wine for the trainees. This was part of the assimilation program. If these trainees were going to join the Babylonian nobility, they might as well begin getting acculturated now.

Daniel and his friends said, no. They wanted their own special diet. And only water to drink.

The way I understand this story, it was a question of identity. By insisting on a special diet, Daniel and his friends were keeping alive their distinctive identity. This sense of being special, of being different, influenced every other aspect of their lives. They didn't study like Babylonians. That is they studied harder. Longer.

I was amused at a comment I heard from some culture historian a few months ago. He noted the Enlightenment in England and the explosion of science and innovation in the late 1700s came at about the time coffee houses appeared.

Before that, people spent their days drinking beer. Everyone was slightly drunk all the time. When you switch your beverage from a sedative to a stimulant, it will have an impact on your productivity, especially your mental productivity. Mornings, while their buddies were dealing with hangovers from the night before, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were getting miles ahead in their studies.

If you get a couple extra hours of productive study every day for three years, it will pay off come exam time.

And sure enough. At the end of the three years, in the comprehensive exams conducted before the king, Daniel and his friends shone. Their scores were ten times higher than the scores of those who had tried to study through the haze of drunkenness.

Sometimes, difference is an advantage.

Let me state the obvious: The performance of Daniel and his buddies on their comprehensive exam was not magic. There was no “trick” or gimmick. Neither was it an accident or “miracle.” It was the natural result of three years of wise habits. The exam put on display the persons these four guys had been building block by block over the course of those three years.

Graduates, you have completed a course of study. Eight grades of elementary school. College. A Ph. D. You are already started on your preparation for you next exam. Even if that preparation is simply a respite from the pressure of study.

For most of you school will begin again next fall. You will begin again getting ready for some future comprehensive examination. If you aren't going on in school, you'll look for a job. Where habits will be just as important as they were in school. To a large extent your success or failure will depend on your habits. The exam that matters is not scrutiny to see if you ever goofed, if you ever slacked off, if you ever made a mistake. The exam that matters is the view of your habits. Did you come back to the pursuit of your goals over and over. Did you act in agreement with your true identity? Did you live as an agent of the kingdom of God, a member of the royalty of heaven, a disciple of Jesus?

Thursday evening, after an afternoon working on this sermon, I was headed home and listening to an audiobook. A nineteen-year old woman was at some kind of school in pre-war France that trained young women in the graces and manners of well-bred women. Isabelle had been expelled from a whole series of schools which had tried to squeeze her into their idea of a model young woman.

A teach at this final school was scolding Isabelle. “Why haven't you learned anything?” She exclaimed. Isabelle retorted, “It has been said that if a student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught.”

I laughed and laughed at her impudence. Given her history, I suspect it was not merely defects in teaching that were the problem. But her comment highlights the reality that teachers are crucial. A good teacher can make a huge difference. I benefited from some teachers like that. I left their classes ready for all kinds of things—like a surprise Greek exam. Because of the quality of teaching I had enjoyed, I knew I was ready for any exam. An exam would not be a threat. It would be an opportunity to demonstrate the mastery drilled into my head by Drs. Springett and Holbrook.

One of the values that has animated Mr. Dunston and Mr. Roberts through their years of teaching is a drive to see their students excel. When kids leave Cypress Adventist School and go elsewhere, they outperform their peers. They are a credit to the teaching they have received. I don't know if they are ten times better than other students. But they are measurably, noticeably advanced. A credit to their teachers and their school.

Thank you Mr. Dunston and Mr. Roberts for you long and faithful service.

Our NT reading (Matthew 25) also features a test.

There was a wedding in the works. Part of the custom of that time and place was for a group of bridesmaids to be in waiting. Sooner or later—or later or even later—the groom's party would show up. The bridesmaids would join the parade and they would all head to the groom's house for the festivities.

In this story there were ten maidens, all of them dressed and ready. All of them had little lamps that were essential for the night time parade. They were all beautiful. They were all sleeping.

Then there is a commotion. The groom is arriving. They wake up and trim their lamps. Oh no! They have been asleep so long, the groom has taken so long to arrive, their lamps are flickering. Their oil is running out. For five of the maidens, no problem. They have little flasks with extra oil. They refill their lamps and step out to join the parade. The other five maidens rush out to buy oil. By the time make their purchase the parade has already entered the groom's house. The door is shut and they are excluded from the party.

What made the difference? The foolish virgins lived to the test. They figured how long it would take for the groom to arrive and they were ready for the wait. The wise virgins made no such calculations. They simply did what you do when you have a lamp with limited reservoir capacity. They brought lamps and extra oil. It's like the rule about head lamps. You take a headlamp AND extra batteries. You can go on a hundred hikes and never need those extra batteries. But being responsible means putting them in your pack.

Don't live to the test. Live to your duty. Do the right thing, the wise thing, and the test will take care of itself.

The Bible is full of stories about Judgment Day. Sometimes religious people can get caught up in these stories and live with a lot of anxiety. What if the Judgment reveals some flaw, some overlooked error that they have failed to correct. But this is a misunderstanding of the teaching of these stories.

God is not playing a game of “Gotcha!” The judgment is not about finding that one forgotten offense for which you did not apologize, that one character flaw who failed to notice in yourself.

The message of the judgment is that our lives here and now matter, the entirety of our lives, especially our habits. In Matthew 25, after this story of the ten maidens, there are two other stories of judgment. In both of them the decision of the judgment is based on unremarkable, prosaic labor. There was no drama in the preparation. No gimmicks. No magic formula. There was simple, uncomplicated faithfulness.

For the maidens who had batteries for their headlamps—extra oil for their lamps—the time of the grooms arrival was unimportant. The groom could come whenever he wanted. They were ready for his time table. They didn't insist he bend to theirs.

In the second story, three servants were given money to invest. Two of them got busy and did what they could. And their master was well pleased with their performance. One servant was scared to do anything, so he did nothing. The master was NOT pleased.

In the third story, the winners had no idea there was going to be a test. And even if they had known there was going to be a test, this knowledge would have not been much help because (in the story) they would have misunderstood what questions were going to be on the test.

The final judgment simply revealed the pattern of their lives. The question was: were you generous. Everyone thought the test was about who you gave to. But what mattered was the giver not the recipient. In this story, the crucial question is: how generous are we? How readily did we give? Not how discerning were we in our giving?

You have graduated. You have demonstrated mastery, intellectual excellence. What will you do with the skills and knowledge you have gained? Jesus invites you to be generous. Pour yourself into endeavors worthy of the gifts you have received.

Figure out the universe.

Heal disease.

Feed the hungry.

Inspire holiness.

Create beauty. Make music. Paint pictures. Create joy, health, happiness.

Cooperate with God in extending the reach and impact of the kingdom of heaven.

Do this, and the Great Final Exam—whenever it comes—will be a glorious affirmation of your life.