Saturday, February 17, 2018

Diligent. Happy.

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
February 17, 2018

Texts: Proverbs 3. Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. . . Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.

Proverbs 6. Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! 7 Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, 8 they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. 9 But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up? 10 A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest-- 11 then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.

Matthew 25:1-10.

On the evening of May 12, 1862, three Confederate navy officers left their ship in the care of their Black crew and went ashore for the night. It was an entirely reasonable decision. The ship was docked in Charleston harbor. A safe place surrounded by Confederate forts. They had been sailing with this crew for some time. The head of the crew was Robert Smalls, a skilled coastal pilot. They had no doubt about his ability to manage the ship in their absence. Smalls and the rest of the crew was a slave, a loyal servant.

The officers were correct in their evaluation of Robert Smalls' abilities. They misread his loyalty. His loyalty was not to the supposed masters but to his family. Robert was married. He had two kids. He knew that at any time, his family could be ripped apart, because that was the nature of slavery. He had been dreaming of freedom for years—for himself, his wife, and his children. Now, he had a ship in his hands and the skill to use it.

It was bold and dangerous. He would be taking the ship through lines of Confederate warships. He would sail right under the guns of Forts Jackson and Sumpter. If he was caught, the torture and abuse he and the rest of crew would experience is beyond description here in church. But this was his chance. The chance he had been preparing for for years.

At two in the morning, he directed the crew to fire up the boiler, then they pulled away from dock. They stopped at a wharf some distance down the river and picked up Robert's wife and sons and several other escaping slaves then headed toward the open water beyond Forts Jackson and Sumpter. He knew the local waters like the back of his hand. From his close cooperation with the captain of the ship he knew all the signals and codes used to pass various check points. No one on shore suspected anything until he was beyond the range of the forts' guns. He hoisted a white flag and steamed straight toward the Union blockade where he surrendered the ship. He and his family and the others with them were given their freedom.

One night. One chance. And Robert and his family were free.

Another story. Apparently completely unrelated:

I was reading in yesterday's Seattle Times about the men's Super-G, the super grand slalom. Norwegians have dominated the event, winning the gold for the last four Olympics. No one could touch them. In Pyeongchang, this week, the sixteen year Norwegian streak was broken. An Austrian, Matthias Mayer, won gold. He was followed in second place by Beat Feuz, of Switzerland. Feuz was only 0.13 seconds behind Mayer. The defending Norwegian champion, Kjetil Jansrud, came in third, 0.05 seconds behind Feuz.

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to spend four years training and dreaming of winning gold and then to miss it by 0.13 seconds or to miss winning the silver 0.05 seconds. Wow. The blink of an eye. A single wobble of a ski. If we imagine life as a series of Olympic events, most of us might as well sit down and not even try. For most of us, no amount of training would ever bring us to the podium to receive a gold medal in the Grand Slalom or figure skating or cross country skiing or speed skating. Even for the most highly trained athletes in the world, winning Olympic gold is a rare and elusive thing.

But fortunately life is not like the Olympics. Life seldom comes down to a single crucial moment. We create our lives through our habits.

If you go skiing regularly, push yourself a bit, hang out with people who are better than you are, over time you will become a good skier, maybe even a great skier. There are no short cuts. On the other hand, if you put in the time and effort, most likely you will become skillful. You will be ready for those days when there is fresh powder on the slopes, the sky is sunny and the temperature is just a little below freezing.

In our Old Testament reading we were reminded of ants.

Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter.

Right now, as I'm preaching, at my house, the ants are busy. For several days now, they've been scurrying about on the window sill next to our kitchen table. I'm impressed by their busyness. I hardly ever notice one just sitting there. They're scurrying about, looking for food I presume. (So I make sure there is nothing to tempt them on the table or counters.)

Watching the ants and reading the words of our Scripture, I'm reminded of this congregation.

The people in this congregation continually amaze me. They are busy. If they have kids, their kids are involved in a dizzying array of activities. If they are older they are taking care of their parents and their neighbors and their friends or strangers.

At work, they are making a difference. We are holy ants.

In the creation story in Genesis Two, Adam is instructed to work the Garden and take care of it. Work—shaping our environment, making the world a more just, verdant, and peaceful place—this is God's plan for our lives. This is the path to happiness. This is what it means to be holy.

The Sabbath commandment, which forms a key portion of our identity as a denomination, sets Sabbath-keeping in the context of work. Work six days, and rest one. Many of us are workaholics. And we desperately need the stern command of God: Stop working and rest. But it is also true that the Sabbath commandment dignifies our labor. Sabbath is holy leisure surrounded by holy work.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked people with various disabilities who will never ever be able to work. God has placed these precious people in our congregation and in our society. They are worthy of the care required to sustain their lives. Their well-being depends on our industry, our energy, our work. Our work is dignified and ennobled by the presence among us of these people who depend on us.

Today, I want to honor the energy and skill and diligence of those who work. You make life possible for these dependent ones. You make the world go round.

Recently I was in conversation with a young pastor. He described with warm enthusiasm his practice of beginning every sermon with two questions: What have you done this week to make God love you more? What have you done this week to make God love you less? After asking these questions, he attempt to persuade his listeners that there was nothing they could do to make God love them more or less.

I agreed with this preacher that God's love is overflowing and that we do not earn it. However, I also pointed out that his questions were misleading. They suggested that behavior should be beneath the notice of Christians. That celebrating good behavior is inappropriate in church. But even the Apostle Paul, with his passionate and complicated theology eventually comes back at the end of his letters to the down-to-earth reality of good behavior. He reminds his readers that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. He even goes so far as to insist that if someone in the church community chooses not to work, they should be barred from the communal meals.

Religion is about God. Yes, of course. It is also very much about human well being, about living well. The commandments, properly understood, describe the way of life most conducive to human thriving. Jesus' ministry of healing showed his concern for the ordinary, down-to-earth, nitty-gritty realities of being human.

Since that was Jesus' way, it is also our way as the Kingdom of Jesus. We care about the quality of life experienced by those around us.

Which brings me back to the story of Robert Smalls, the man who sailed the steamer out of Charleston harbor to freedom. We can think of it as wonderful good luck. Those officers left the ship for the evening and left Smalls on board. How lucky! Or what a blessing from heaven! But it is important to note that Smalls had been preparing for this moment for all his life. He had become a skilled pilot. He knew the local waters, the channels, the shoals. He knew the ship. He knew its boiler and all its systems. He had learned all the signals and codes used by the captain of the ship as he moved through the various coastal defenses and check points.

Smalls was not merely lucky. He was ready.

The rest of his story demonstrates his fitness for this wonderful exploit. Like anyone who wins Olympic gold, or silver or bronze, or even qualifies to compete, he had prepared.

The Union Navy immediately began relying on his skill and knowledge. Fairly quickly he was promoted to captain in the US Navy and played an important role in a number of naval battles. After the war he was elected to the state assembly in South Carolina and then was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. Robert Smalls was an ant—busy and industrious. Self-motivated. He saved his people once. He served his people all his life. He is a model for us.

We do not know what opportunities and crises lie in our future. But we can cultivate habits that lead to holiness and happiness. We are not going go to the Olympics. But all of us are engaged in something far more noble and important than the Olympics. We are building lives. We are partnering with God in service.

So let us encourage one another in doing good. Let us spur one another toward wisdom and diligence. Let's busy ourselves in the noble work of ending oppression and setting the captives free.

We can do no less as children of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Loving Those We Cannot Fix

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for January 27, 2018

I noticed a bumper sticker on the rear window of a minivan parked in the Chase Bank parking lot in Ballard. What Would Jesus Do? Since Ballard is not exactly a major center of Christian piety, the sticker got my attention. (For my non-NW friends: Ballard is one of the most atheistic neighborhood in the US.) I then noticed another sticker right next to the What Would Jesus Do? sticker. This adjacent sticker had been damaged and hard to read. I looked closely. It was also a Jesus sticker. It read, “Jesus would drive in the RIGHT lane except to pass.”

I laughed and laughed. Only in Ballard—or Fremont—would I see a bumper sticker citing Jesus in support of proper freeway driving technique. They should have included one of the famous quotations by Jesus about traffic management:

“Nathaniel 13, verse 8: Why you take you donkey to town, do not take up the whole road. Leave room for your neighbor to pass.”

Bartholomew 4:6. “You hypocrites! You prohibit donkeys in the temple out of regard for God, but tie your donkeys in narrow streets making passage impossible for your neighbors. Fools, do you not know that obstructing your neighbor who is made in God's image is the same as obstructing God?”

Of course, I'm making up these “quotations” from Jesus. Jesus never said anything about traffic management in Jerusalem or in Seattle. Jesus never said or did anything that would offer a distinctly “Christian” approach to driving.

When we ask the question, What would Jesus do?, very often there is no specific example in the Gospel that provides a straightforward answer to the question. Instead, Jesus becomes a stand-in for our highest ideals. The name, Jesus, gets wrapped around our ideas of what is noble and wise and compassionate. Jesus was wise, compassionate, honest, good. When we ask What would Jesus do? We are asking what is the wise, compassionate, honest, good thing to do. And our answer to the question says more about us than it does about Jesus.

I faced this hermeneutical challenge as I worked on this week's sermon.

I began with pictures in my head. Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara. Each of these persons was born with special challenges. Each of them has received intensive therapeutic intervention. And each requires and will always require special help. We cannot fix these people. Not if “fix” means getting them to a place where they will be able to manage their own lives without special assistance.

These people are not going to grow up and take care of their parents. They are not going to earn enough money over the course of their lifetimes to pay for their care. Some will never manage their own money. Some will never speak. Some will never be able to change their own diapers. Not even if they live to be sixty years old. They will not become “productive members of society.” They will always be takers. Always.

With these people filling my mind's eye, I asked the question: What would Jesus do?

When I took this question to the Gospel I immediately ran into a problem. In the Gospel, Jesus solved every physical, material problem he faced. Paralyzed for 38 years—no problem. Jesus made the man's legs work. Blind? No problem. Jesus cured the blindness. A son who had demonic fits or seizures all his life? Not to worry. Jesus fixed it. Jesus solved every physical, material problem he encountered. Miracles were routine.

So when we looked at my collage of images of friends with severe challenges and asked what would Jesus do, the first part of the answer was easy: Jesus would heal them, fix them, make life easy for them. Which gives us no help at all. Because our friends cannot be fixed. Our friends have genetic disorders, chromosomal abnormalities, severe learning disabilities, and profound mental illness. And we cannot fix them. We cannot do what Jesus did. We cannot do what Jesus would do.

Jesus healed people. We are left to care for them. Jesus fixed problems. We manage problems. This is our life as the people of God. This is our life as the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus has placed among us people we cannot fix.

I have friends who attend the Bethel Church in Redding, California. This church specializes in miraculous healings. My friends have witnessed miracles. They experienced for themselves healing from incurable conditions. I love their stories. I do not deny the occurrence of miracles. But the town of Redding still has a hospital. And it is not empty. Redding has assisted living facilities. And people are not moving from assisted living back to independent living. Even in the neighborhoods surrounding Bethel Church there are children with severe disabilities. Even in the Bethel Congregation itself there are families serving as caregivers.

When we consider our children and friends and neighbors and parents who have special needs and we ask what would Jesus do? The stories of healing in the Gospel are not especially helpful. Because we cannot fix the people we know.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a theologian who expressed great admiration for the provision in the law of Moses regarding gleaning. According to the law, if you had a grain field, at harvest time, you were obliged to leave the corners unharvested. After you did your first gathering, you were prohibited from going back over the field a second time to make sure you had gathered every last stalk of grain. Instead, those unharvested corners and missed stalks were to be left for poor people who had no fields. Once you were finished with your harvest, they could harvest those corners and gather any grain that had been dropped in your harvesting process.

The theologian applauded this approach, making a veiled political point, saying this divine method of helping the poor meant no one got something for nothing. The poor people experienced the dignity of work.

The theologian was correct as far as he went. Those who can work, should work. But he left out Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara. If my theologian friend ran the world, a lot of people would die because they are unable to go out to the fields and gather. They are unable to cook. They are unable to turn on the water faucet. They cannot change their diapers, even at age 25.

Most of us have heard the phrase, “Give people a hand up, not a hand out.” Certainly, where we can, we should give a hand up.

One of the proudest moments of my life came during a performance by a brilliant musician who had been close friends with my sister back when we were kids. This singer paused in her performance and publicly thanked me for giving her a hand up. It happened during her freshman year in college. She was floundering, academically and socially. Then she attended a coaching group I led. She embraced a number of good habits. She got her feet under her. Grades and social life improved. She developed a solid spiritual life. And went on to a great career. She credited her turnaround to that coaching group.

I love the story. I gave a little help and it seems to have made a big difference.

But the story is useless—maybe even worse than useless, maybe even cruel—if I tell it in front of someone whose child will never speak or someone who is in college only because of the special assistance provided to blind students. My friend had the capacity to take care of herself, with just a little bit of temporary support. She got “fixed.” That's wonderful and completely irrelevant when we consider the needs of Quinn, Joel, Bryden, Orin, Alex, Cara, and Kara.

A friend is visiting us from Texas. He has a brother with schizophrenia. The brother began attending a church. The church embraced him. They demonstrated authentic “Christian” caring. They made him a part of their church family. They helped him with rent occasionally. Helped him find jobs. Took him on mission trips. For a number of years, this church's embrace of Paul's brother was a perfect example of the power of a loving church. They were a beautiful church. And life for Paul's brother was better because of the care that church provided. Then the brother went off his meds—meds he had been taking for years. He quit all medication, completely and permanently. His mind went out of control. He ended up hospitalized. People from the church—still demonstrating the love of God—went to see him. But he sent them away. He was hostile and fearful. He broke off all contact with the church because voices in his head warned him they were aliens out to get him.

They still loved him. They could not fix him. Still they loved him. That's what the church of Jesus does.

Late Friday night, my friend Paul was asking me about today's sermon. I explained my difficulty. I could not think of any problem Jesus could not fix. So how did I get at the question, What would Jesus do, in the context of people we cannot fix.

Then it came to me.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross on that final Friday afternoon, he looked down at the small group of friends who were gathered. In the group were Jesus' mother, Mary, and his most intimate disciple, John.

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple he loved standing there, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" And from that time, the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:26-27

The problem Jesus' mother faced could not be fixed. She was a widow and soon to be childless. And faced decades of life with no one and nothing. What could Jesus do? What did Jesus do?

He asked his most intimate disciple to take care of her. Till the end of her life. Forever.

This is the picture of God's will for us in the face of those we cannot fix. Let us care for them. That's what Jesus would do.  

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Judgment Day

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For 1/20/2018

I was sitting in the Top Pot donut shop in Ballard, writing. At a nearby table three people were busy in conversation. Apparently they were security supervisors for a large retail complex. The lead guy was mapping out strategy and procedures for the other two people.

They talked of helping people. I heard about some guy who got stuck in a bathroom and security came to the rescue. Some other people got stuck in an elevator. People needed help with this emergency or that. They talked of how to make sure everyone who needed help got it in a timely fashion.

Then there was the other part of their work. Checking every stairwell top to bottom every shift because people sometimes sneaked in and camped there. And they had to watch for bad guys. They had to be aware when someone was casing the place looking for an opportunity to steal.

Listening in on their conversation reminded me of my own work with security. For fifteen or sixteen years, I served as the head of the security department at our annual Western Washington Adventist convention called Campmeeting. We had thirty employees. When I got there, many of the guys imagined themselves as policemen. They were eager find and bust the bad guys. Too eager, in my opinion. So I set about changing how we viewed ourselves. I told my employees that we were not a police department, we were the Happy Department. Our job was to make sure everyone on campus had a good time. Help little old ladies move into their accommodations. Help mothers find their lost kids. (We became really, really good at that.) Check bathrooms and make sure they were servicable. And yes, in the evening, we had to enforce the curfew and chase teenagers back to their tents.

Thinking of ourselves as the Happy Department helped change the atmosphere of the campus, a little. We had less and less “enforcement” work to do over the years. There were fewer conflicts that we had to manage.

But for all my talk about being the Happy Department, sometimes we had to become enforcers. We had to stop the bad guys.

One old guy had been coming for years. He created minor headaches, and was surrounded by an aura of suspicion. We heard third and fourth hand reports of him flirting with young girls. Then he proposed marriage to a minor, a young woman who was willing to tell me her story. We banned him from campus. Forever. Judgment day. And after that the campus was a happier place.

Another man raised my suspicions but I knew of no definite offense. I had not even heard of any allegation of wrong-doing on his part. But I was worried. Then a kid I knew told me something specific. I called the police. There was an investigation and this man went to the big house. Day of judgment. And then the campus was safer. Tragically, the world was a better place because he was not in it. That is sad. It is also true.

Sometimes being the Happy Department required us to be tough with the bad guys.

I love the language of our Old Testament reading this morning from Psalm 96.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops dance in mirth.
Let the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD,

Just a couple of pages later, we find similar language in Psalm 98.

Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the earth and all living things join in.
Let the rivers clap their hands in glee!
Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the LORD.

Rivers clapping their hands. Trees singing. Fields dancing. Mountains rejoicing. A happy world.

Some of you spend time on the water. Sailing, cruising, kite-boarding, kayaking. Have you ever been out on the water on a sunny day? The sky is blue. Here and there pillows of cottony-white cumulus clouds are floating in the blue. A slight breeze ruffles the water and keeps you from getting hot. It's late afternoon. The sun sprinkles sparkles across the tops of waves. At that moment the whole world seems just right. The whole world is happy.

That's the picture these scriptures paint.

More relevant to the season. Imagine you are a skier—many of you don't have to imagine. Imagine it's a Tuesday after a big snow. You have the day off and head to the slopes. There's twelve inches of powder. It's 28 degrees and sunny. No wind. Because it's a Tuesday, it's not crowded. You own the slopes. You're in the middle of a run and pause before resuming your flight. Sunlight is every where, a million diamonds sparkle in every direction. Overhead, an intense blue sky. It's quiet. A couple of jays swoop across the slope and land in the tree beside Inside you. Off in the distance you hear a couple of kids squealing and giggling as they dig themselves out after a fall.

This is the world imagined by the poet in this Psalm.

Mountains dancing. Trees singing. Rivers clapping their hands. Waves shouting hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skipping with delight.

How do we get there? What is the path from this place to that place?


Each of these Psalms follows the same line. Mountains dance. Trees sing. Rivers clap their hands. Waves shout hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skips with delight. Why?

Oliver read the words for us:

because God is coming!
God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with justice.

Judgment day. We can hardly wait. Finally, everything will be set right. Hallelujah.

This is not the whole story. There is another picture of judgment. We heard it in our New Testament reading that Violet read for us.

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, "I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. "And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. "What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. "Beware that you don't look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father. Matthew 18:2-10 New Living Translation (Accessed through Blue Letter

God is watching. God takes special delight in little ones. We are most in tune with God when we tend and care for the little ones.

God is watching. God takes special umbrage when little ones are harmed. You don't want to have God walk around the corner just after you have called a child stupid. You don't want to run into God as you walk away from a child in need. You touch a child—and it would be better for you to have been hauled out into Elliot Bay and dropped overboard with a pair of concrete boots on. God is watching. And the Bible declares over and over that God is watching with the intent of ultimately overruling the decisions of the powerful in favor of the powerless. God will reverse the advantages conferred by wealth and status and size and intelligence and beauty and nationality and ethnicity.

Those on the bottom will be lifted up. And those on top will find themselves on the bottom.

Nearly all of us here are among the privileged. Compared with other people in the world we are privileged beyond calculation. We were born in the right country to the right parents with sound minds and bodies and opportunities to turn work and study into financial security. We are blessed.

In the judgment, God will ask how we used those privileges. God will ask if we noticed those beneath us in the pecking order of the world.

Many of read in the news this week of the horrific domestic abuse by David and Louise Turpin. These parents turned into monsters to their own children. The grandparents of the kids have reported that the children memorized long passages of the Bible, some memorizing the entire book. I'm afraid I know where this story is going to go. I'm afraid we will learn these parents thought they were doing right.

Echoing Jesus, I would say, it would have been better for David and Louise if they had died of snake bite out in western Texas. Or heat stroke.

Yesterday morning, Don and I were talking. He said, “Someone should have shot those people.” Then he challenged me: You think God would be okay with that?”

Inwardly, I laughed. Don had me. I'm a pacificist, all around nice guy. I think of the church as God's Happy Department. We want to make the world better and save everyone in the process. We are called to serve the world. Mostly that means smiling service.

But sometimes, it means thundering opposition. Because we are the people of God, we strongly oppose every act of oppression. We denounce evil, especially the use of power to advantage the powerful, the use of wealth to advantage the wealthy, the use of law to advantage the mighty. Do not balance budgets on the backs of hungry children. Do not preserve our comfortable lives at the expense of our grandchildren. Do not harm children.

Instead, let us join with God in cherishing and nourishing every little one—both those who are literally little—children. And those with fewer advantages, smaller privileges than ours.

As we do this we will find ourselves cooperating with God. We are preparing the world for the glorious day of judgment when the earth and all that is in it will sing for joy. When the fields will dance, when the ocean will sing and all the trees will clap their hands.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Grown-up Jesus

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, January 6, 2018
Texts:  Deuteronomy 6:1-7, Luke 4:14-21

A week or so ago I visited a construction sight owned by a friend. Around behind the house, grubbing in the dirt, working to tunnel a drain pipe under an existing sidewalk, was my friend's grandson. Home for the holidays and hard at work.

When we think of kids coming home for the holidays, it's natural to think first of gatherings around the table or in the living room. But shared meals, as rich as they are, are only part of what it means to be family. Shared work is also part of the story.

And the more grown up they are, the more we rely on them.

I remember years and years ago, when there were challenges with the family computer, it was “dad to the rescue.” That has now completely changed, of course. In all things electronic, I go to my kids for help and advice.

If I have trouble with my phone, I consult my son. If I need to buy a computer, I just find out what computer my daughter bought, and I buy the same one.

This movement from dependent childhood to masterful maturity shows up in the story of Jesus.

The Gospel begins with the stories of Jesus' birth—the shepherds and wise men and angels. The Gospel passes over the growing up. There is no teenage Jesus in the Gospel. We make up stories of Jesus faithfully and uneventfully working in his father's carpenter shop all through his teen years. In the devotional telling of this story, there are never any family arguments, not disagreement between Joseph and his maturing, smart stepson Jesus. Maybe. My guess is that Jesus was a little more normal than our legends imagine.

The Gospel skips over all that and with one brief exception takes us straight to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus' public works begins explosively. Almost instantly he gathers large crowds with his preaching and healing. After weeks or a few months, Jesus finally returns home to Nazareth, the town where he had worked in the carpenter shop for twenty years.

They invite him to speak in the local synagogue. He accepts. He reads the day's scripture reading.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
for the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the LORD’s favor has come. Isaiah 61:1-2.

The congregation relishes these words. They imagined themselves to be the poor people who would receive good news. They were the brokenhearted who would be comforted. They were the captives who would be freed. They were the recipients of divine favor.

What was there not to like?

Then Jesus launched into his sermon. Before he finished the audience became so furious, they rushed him, grabbed him and dragged him out of town and were going to shove him off a precipice.

Why did they get so angry at Jesus?

Because he talked just like the ancient prophets. He sounded like Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jesus rejected the self-congratulation that lay at the heart of their religion challenged them to see other people as the poor and brokenhearted and captives.

The good people of Nazareth were happy to claim Jesus as their native son as long as he was doing good work in other towns. He was making them look good. But they couldn't take it when he challenged them to make greater effort in the direction of the ideals proclaimed by the prophets.

This story of Jesus is replayed in every generation in the church. We are people of the prophets, the people of Jesus. We are custodians of the words of the Hebrew prophets”

But let justice pour down like a flood,
And righteousness like a mighty river. Amos 5:4

He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Micah 4:3

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. Jeremiah 22:3

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:44-45

We do the best we can to live out these high ideals. We aim to do right. We build our lives, make the necessary compromises to get along in the world. We become comfortable with our way of life. Then our kids become teenagers and young adults. They read these ancient words and they come back to challenge us. They demand that we do better.

I plead with you who are young among us: keep your ideals alive. Speak out loud your highest, purest moral convictions. Unsettle us with your uncompromising vision. My prayer for us who are older, for us who have settled into the best routines we could manage as we balanced the demands of ordinary life and the call of the Gospel—my prayer for us is that we will be more receptive to our children than were the residents of Nazareth. We will not be able to live out fully the highest ideals of our children. (They will not either, but let's not tell them that. Let's allow them to discover this on their own.) We may not be able to achieve all that our kids dream of, but I pray that we will encourage their vision and do all that we can to bend toward their ideals. How can we do less as the church of Jesus Christ?

This fall, a group of people from Green Lake Church, heard the call to mission, the call to use the gifts God had given them to do something good in a far away place. I've asked Brian McGrath to share with us some of their experience.

Friday, December 22, 2017


Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, December 23, 2017

A week or so ago I stepped into the Urban Bakery, a coffee shop at the corner of Green Lake Way North and Wallingford Ave on the north side of the lake. It was early. The streets were pretty deserted. The cafe was empty except for two other old guys. While I was waiting on my sandwich, I eavesdropped on their conversation. As is common these days, their talk focused on their worries about national affairs. At one point, one of the old guys said, “I'm not worried about myself. I've had a great life and I'm pretty well situated. It's my grandkids and the world they will inherit. That's what I'm worried about.”

At some point, as we mature, our ambitions and even our desires change. We turn from fascination with our own successes, our own triumphs, to the triumphs and successes or our children and grandchildren. Our highest ambition is to see the well-being of our grandchildren.

We endow scholarships and chairs at universities. For the kids.

We fight for the preservation of public land so succeeding generations can taste some of the wildness and beauty that nourished our own souls.

We fund programs that help disadvantaged children because we hope that hidden somewhere among those anonymous faces is the genius who will cure some incurable disease, the composer who will write the music that thrill audiences for ten generations.

Full human maturity comes when our own lives are nearly forgotten in our ambition and longing and joy in the children yet to come.

This happy ambition for the next generation is expressed throughout the Bible story and reaches its climax in the Christmas story.

The prophet promised:
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders.
His name will be Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.
The fruit of his reign will be everlasting justice. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The Gospel says:
Shepherds were out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. The angel said, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people. Today, in the city of David, a Savior is born, Christ the Lord. And this will be your sign: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." Then vast choir of angels appeared, praising God and singing, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 2:8-14)

The prophet promised:
The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

The Gospel says:
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for the child in her womb is conceived of the Holy Spirit. She will bring forth a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins." Thus was fulfilled the word of the prophet, “The virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is means, "God with us." Matthew 1:20-24

A prophet said:
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, (Numbers 24:17)

The Gospel says:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him." When these Wise Men finally found their way, they entered the house and when they saw the child with his mother, Mary, they fell down and worshiped Him. They had opened their treasures and present to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2)

One of the notable women in the Old Testament was named Hannah. She was a beloved wife and was childless. In response to her prayer and the blessing of the high priest, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel, one of the greatest of prophets. In celebration, she offered this pray/song. She sees the impact her son will have on his world and celebrates it as if it were already accomplished.

Do not act with pride and haughtiness.
Do not speak in arrogance!
For the LORD is a God who knows what you have done;
he has judged your actions. (In the birth of this miracle child)
The bow of the mighty will be broken,
those who stumble will be strengthened (because of the birth of this miracle child)
Those who were well fed are now starving,
those who were starving are now full.
The childless woman now has seven children,
and the woman with many children wastes away.
The LORD gives both death and life;
he brings some down to the grave but raises others up.
The LORD makes some poor and some rich.
He brings some down and lifts others up.
He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.
He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor.
For all the earth is the LORD's, and he sets the world in order. …
Those who fight against the LORD will be shattered.
He thunders against them from heaven;
the LORD judges throughout the earth.
He gives power to his king;
he increases the strength of his anointed one." 1 Samuel 2

Then Mary is visited by an angel and told she, too, will have a miracle child. She echoes the words of Hannah in her prayer/song.

"Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. 47
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! 48
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. 51
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. 53
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich empty away. Luke 1

Now, I will light the final candle of this Advent season, the Christ candle, the light expressing our conviction that the baby born in a barn and cradled in a feed box was the embodiement of the fullness of God. And we pledge ourselves to see in every infant the embodiment of heaven's promise and its care our highest duty.

Lighting the Center Candle, the Christ Candle

Christ is born.
God is with us.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Manufacture of Joy

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for December, 16, 2017

Texts:  Psalm 16:5-11, Luke 2:1-10

A couple of weeks ago I headed into the bedroom. It was probably 10:30. I was beat. I was thinking only of sleep. Karin was already in bed, reading her Bible. I dropped my head on the pillow, closed my eyes and headed off to oblivion.

A couple of minutes pass. I'm almost asleep. But Karin interrupts. “Why do you think God chose the shepherds for the angels to visit?” I tired ignoring her, but it didn't work. She was wide awake with excitement about the story of angel choirs and shepherds.

Shepherds lived at the bottom of the social pyramid of the time. They were at the bottom of the social ladder. Nobodies. Angels interrupted their night. Gleaming, dazzling angels. Singing Joy to the World. How cool was that? How wonderful?

Karin couldn't sleep thinking of the wonder of that fantastic encounter. And she wouldn't let me sleep because the magic of the story was too rich to be enjoyed alone. So she peppered me with hypothetical questions—why did God do that? What did I think the shepherds thought? What kind of faith did the shepherds have? What did I think of the shepherds? Why did God choose these guys to receive this heavenly favor?

I grunted one-syllable answers to her theological ponderings. Trying to give her a hint. Finally, I promised I would check on the shepherds in the morning, but for now, I insisted, I was going to sleep.

The next morning I did check in on the shepherds. In the freshness of dawn I pondered the message of this sweet, beautiful story.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord's glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. "Don't be afraid!" he said. "I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. Luke 2:8-10 NLT (Accessed through Blue Letter

After a few more words of explanation, this single angel was joined by a vast choir singing,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased." Luke 2:14

When God steps into our world, it is good news, it is an occasion of joy.

A little later in this same passage in the Gospel of Luke, we read that Mary and Joseph went to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus when he was six weeks old. While they were there, two old people came up to them. One was Anna, a very old widow.

She had been told about this baby in a vision. She came into the temple and headed straight for the Holy Family. I imagine her taking the baby in her arms and cooing and ahhing over this beautiful baby, checking out his tiny fingers, examining his cheeks and nose and lips, stroking his forehead.

She was in an ecstasy of joy. Finally, reluctantly, she returns the baby to Mary and shuffles out of the temple to spread the news. He has arrived. The Messiah has been born. Our thousand-year-old hopes are turning into concrete reality. It's happening!

We can see the sparkle in her eyes, we can hear the excitement in her voice.

The Jesus story is happy story. The Jesus mission is the creation of joy. The story of the birth is tidings of great joy. And this is our foundational story. We are people of the happy story.

One test of the authenticity of our Christianity is the presence of joy. Does our faith make us happy? Does our faith help us make others happy? Righteousness leads to joy.

In the ancient story of Job, Job complained that he had been treated unjustly by God. He suffered disaster and catastrophe that were completely undeserved, in fact, Job protested, they were the opposite of what he deserved. At one point in his complaint, Job lists the marks of his righteousness. One of the definitive marks of his righteousness is this:

I assisted the poor in their need
and the orphans who required help.
I helped those without hope, and they blessed me.
And I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.
Job 29:12-13

What does it mean to be righteous? To create joy in the lives of others, especially the poor and needy. This is the authentic Christian connection of the gift-giving at Christmas time. The point of the gifts to create joy in the lives of others. And naturally when we work joy in the lives of others, it has a reflex effect on us.

Wednesday night I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my year-end giving. I was going through my list of favorite charities, sending fifty dollars here, a hundred there. In the great scheme of things my few dollars will not do much, but it was a great joy to sit at my computer and spread the joy. I imagined my dollars doing a little something to make the world better, to ease the challenges of a widow in Bangladesh or a student in India. I imagined my dollars helping to protect some of my favorite wild places. Giving made me happy.

Terri has helped us as a congregation connect with some special families at Greenwood Elementary School which is located just two and a half miles from where we sit. Most of these families are immigrants, people who have landed here among us fleeing unimaginable danger or crushing poverty. Life where they used to live was so bad that a life of poverty and hard work in Seattle was worth going half the world away from home.

Many of us have given money to help ensure the children of these families have enough to eat during the holidays. Your dollars will create joy among those who receive them. Your giving has already created joy in your own hearts. That's how we are made. When we water the souls of others our own souls are watered.

Joy to world. Joy to you. Joy to them. This is the religion of the baby Jesus. This is our religion.
Some years, when my girls are home, they go on a baking spree. The kitchen is turned into a factory of joy. They make batch after batch of cookies and bars and other confections. They discuss the various neighbors they are baking for. The Poiriers, the Popkes, Peggy, Louise, Jim and Connie, MaryAnn and Don. Who is allergic to nuts? Who likes blackberries.

They are not merely making cookies, they are manufacturing joy. Their own joy in giving. The joy of others in receiving. This whole business of giving and receiving takes us to the heart of the Gospel. This is the central meaning of the Christmas story.

God in Christ gave us heaven's best. In the giving God tasted unfathomable joy.

And we who receive the gift?

We are filled with joy.

Joy to the world. Joy to you and me.

The very essence of Christmas is the manufacture of joy.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary, Did You Know?

Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, December 9, 2017.
Texts: Ruth; Matthew 18

All week a song has been playing in my mind:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Mary did you know,

Mary did you know, Mary did you know
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I am
Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know
By Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene. 

The Christmas story is a fantastic fusion of ordinary and extraordinary, of pedestrian and sublime. It is the literary equivalent of jalapena chocolate covered caramels or a sweet-and-sour curry. A curious combination of opposites.

Reading through the grand visions of the Hebrew prophets, we are primed to expect the birth of a king. And we think we know what a royal birth looks like?

Instead when the actual birth happens it is a peasant birth. A working class couple making do in a difficult situation. The baby has feed box for a bassinet, a stable for a nursery, cows and horses for attendants.

For two thousand years Christians have practiced giving our attention to this glorious confusion. This little person who nurses and sleeps and cries and poops and pees is, in fact, the incarnation, the embodiment of God.

Mary, did you know that when you kiss you little baby you have kissed the face of God?

The question itself highlights how preposterous the claim is. Every mother looks at her baby and knows that this child is a magnificent addition to the grand history of humanity. This little one is destined for greatness. But Mary, your son will be greater than all other sons, greater than even a mother's heart can imagine. When you kiss your baby you are kissing the face of God. Mary can you know that? Is it possible for even a mother's heart to hold this truth?

A baby. A regular, ordinary little human being. This child is the fulfillment of the visions of Isaiah and Zechariah and Daniel. This child is the ultimate embodiment of the hope and values that served as foundations of the Jewish temple service and monarchy.

As wonderful as this story is, it is not the first time the Bible features the birth of a child as a grand forward move by the kingdom of heaven.

The story of Ruth and Boaz is one the great romances of all time. In the first chapter of the story we are confronted with the utter blighting of Ruth's life. A Jewish family moved to the nation of Moab because life was unsustainable in Israel—Dad and mom and their two sons. Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion. In their new country they settled down. Life goes well. Elimelech's business prospers. But the good times were interrupted. Naomi's husband, Elimelech, died. But her sons, Mahlon and Chilion took after their father. They were industrious and smart. The family acquires a enough wealth to support a marriage. And both sons marry. Happily.

Then the sons die. Leaving Naomi widowed and childless—the most vulnerable, precarious possible situation a woman in that society could find herself in.

Naomi decided to head home. She sent her daughters-in-law back to their families and she made plans to go back to the land of her brothers and cousins hoping to find some corner that will allow her to live out her days of grief. But Ruth refused to abandon her mother-in-law. So the two women traveled back to Israel together.

There in that foreign country, the homeland of her mother-in-law, Ruth goes to work to provide for herself and her mother-in-law.

She was noticed a good man who also happened to be wealthy. Romance blossomed. There was a wedding.

To wrap up the story, instead of writing, “They lived happily ever after,” the ancient writer reported, “Ruth had a son.” At news of the birth the neighbor ladies crowded into the house. As grandmother Naomi cuddled her grandson against her bosom, these neighbor ladies exclaimed, “Naomi has a son again!”

The writer goes on to point out that this child of the foreigner Ruth, this grandson of Naomi, proves to be the grandfather of the famous King David. This half-breed child is the ancestor of the most iconic persons in all Jewish history.

Who is this baby? The son of a Moabite woman who according to Jewish law was excluded from Jewish citizenship for ten generations. Who is this child? The grandfather of King David, the George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower of the Jewish people.

The story of Jesus brings together similar contrasts. Another favorite song asks, “What child is this who laid to rest is sleeping?” Who is this baby?
The Hebrew prophets cast two dueling visions of the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Daniel Chapter Two, the kingdom of heaven is imagined as a giant stone that flies inthrough the atmosphere and obliterates all opposition and resistance. The rock grows into a world-dominating mountain. It is a picture of irresistible, overwhelming force. It's a seductive vision. Wouldn't that be nice? We imagine God showing up and smashing all the bad people, while we stand us off to the side cheering him on.

In this vision, we could imagine God as a heavenly bulldozer driver, pushing aside all obstacles and opposition.

Then we read the words of Isaiah 9.

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven's Armies will make this happen! Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

God works through a king. And before the king takes the throne and leads his armies he is first a child. An infant facing the risks of whooping cough and measles. Back then before vaccines small pox and polio stalked the land snatched children from their mother's arms.

In this vision God is a mother nourishing her child, a nanny fostering the success of her young charges. We imagine God anxious and worried as he watches the death-defying antics of his son--climbing trees and throwing rocks at hornet nests. Leaping on the back of a wild horse just to see if he can hang on longer than his friends. We imagine all the ways the son's future can be ruined through physical, social , and spiritual mistakes.

In this vision, the kingdom of heaven comes through hope, a desperate, hungry hope.

God is no bulldozer driver. Instead we picture God as a coach, a math teacher, a dance instructor using every possible method to motivate and inspire her students. In this vision, God's hunger for the triumph of goodness is no less than it is in the vision of God the bulldozer driver plowing over the bastions of evil. But in this vision, God knows the longing and hunger of every parent to see the triumph, the success of their children and grandchildren.

When we live with this vision we slowly come to see children—all children, the ones who go to bed in feed boxes and the ones cocooned in the swankiest nurseries on Mercer Island, the children who already at eighteen months give evidence of precocious intelligence or musical gifts or unusual sweetness and the children who give evidence of disabilities and troubles—when we receive the Christmas vision deep into our souls children are transformed—all children. They are all ours. And we hunger for their triumph and with great satisfaction we do all we can to encourage that triumph.

In Matthew 2 we read of the Persian nobility who traveled a thousand miles to pay homage to the newborn king. All of the Jerusalem was oblivious, but these foreigners, they were open to the heavenly secrets and they came to worship.

And for two thousand years we have repeated their worship. Metaphorically, we have brought our gifts to lay at the feet of the Christ child and we take great delight in our giving.

But there is yet a more direct path to the Christ child, a path drawn on the map by Jesus himself.

Jesus' disciples asked, "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Jesus called a little child to him and stood the child in their center and said, “Anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then Jesus added this:

Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.
(Matthew 18:1-6)

May God grant us the ability to see with heaven's eyes, to see every child as the incarnation of Jesus. May we know that when we kiss the face of our babies we are kissing the face of God.

God grant us the courage and drive to ensure that every child is kissed with food and shelter, clean air and open spaces. May our vision of holiness include doing all that we can for all the little Jesuses God has placed in our care.