Saturday, October 1, 2016


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, October 1, 20162016

Exodus 2:15-21  Let's begin the scripture reading with the second word of the second sentence, “Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in the land of Midian. When Moses arrived in Midian, he sat down beside a well. . . .”
Luke 22:15-20

It would make a perfect romantic movie, a chick-flick I think they call it. Right up there with the Princes Bride. The adopted grandson of a wicked king strikes a blow for his enslaved native people. He kills a wicked, abusive supervisor. Then he has to run for his life.

He ends up in the remote wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. Afraid. Alone. But alive.

This particular afternoon, weeks into his fugitive existence, he is sitting in the shade at a well. A group of young women bring their sheep to the well to water them. They have filled the troughs and the first batch of sheep is just beginning to drink when other shepherds arrive. A bunch of guys. They rush toward the girls' sheep waving their arms and shouting. The sheep scatter and the girls go after them. The guys laugh and jeer. “Thank you for filling the troughs little girls. That was very kind of you.” The language went down hill from there. The girls gathered their sheep at a safe distance from the jerks.

The stranger gets to his feet, pulls a sword and marches toward the guys. His eyes flash fire. His body screams threat and indignation. “Get your sheep out of here or I'll turn them into lambchops and when I'm finished with them I'll turn you into worm food. Move.”

The guys are astonished then terrified. They had no idea who the stranger was, but everything about him said warrior, commander, boss. And his sword did not look like a toy.

They moved their sheep away. Not far enough. Moses drove them far from the well. Then he turned and beckoned the girls. They came shyly bringing their sheep. Moses grabbed the rope and hoisted bucket after bucket of water from the well as effortlessly as if it were a teacup. The girls didn't know what to think. Who was this stranger, this handsome stranger, this commander?

Their sheep watered they moved off toward home, chattering all the way with amazement.

At home their father wanted to know why they were home so early.

“Well, there was the guy. He chased away the other shepherds and filled the troughs until all our sheep were done.”

“What?” their dad exclaimed. “A stranger protected you and watered your sheep and you left him sitting by himself at the well? Go find him. Bring him home for dinner.”

The girls were only too happy to comply.

Moses came to dinner.

And stayed the night.

And accepted a job.

And married Zipporah, Dad's oldest daughter.

And they lived happily ever after.

Well, not completely ever after. There was that time when Moses' brother and sister family wanted to get rid of the black woman. It's not clear if they were opposed to Zipporah because she was black or they figured they could use her blackness to incite other people to be sympathetic to their allegations.

But it didn't work. Moses obeyed the expanded version of Genesis command. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and brothers and sisters and be one with his wife. Moses and Zipporah began their romance with a fairy-tale meeting and preserved their union through all the drama of Moses life.

Romance seems to part of the very essence of being human.  Whether it's Hollywood or Bollywood or Shakespeare or Homer or the modern Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, every human story involves romance, our consuming guiding hunger for love and connection. As we watch these stories or read these stories our own hearts are captured. We find ourselves holding our breath hoping they make it, hoping again for the triumph of love.

In the Bible this theme of romance is linked directly with God. Our hunger for magical union—AND ENDURING UNION—is presented as a mirror of the hunger of God. God is a lover, a persistent, hopeful, we could even say, stubborn lover.

It is against this backdrop that we make the best sense of the command, “Don't commit adultery.” When we link our hearts and lives and bodies in romance, violation of that trust, turning our attention to someone else always rips and tears at the very fabric of our being. I remember reading the comments of a secular counselor. She was responding to a question about whether an affair is ever justified. Her answer: First, I tell clients who ask me this question, 'you must recognize that someone is going to get hurt. Always. Inescapably.

It is a law of humanity. Hence the commandment: Don't hurt each other. More than that, be stubborn in faithfulness.

Be faithful so you don't hurt each other.

And more, be faithful, because that is the way of God and you are God's children.

Because we are Christians we look especially to Jesus as the clearest exhibition of what God is like. With this idea of romance—and enduring faithfulness as the sweetest, truest flower of romance—let's turn our attention to the last supper.

Jesus had gathered a family, a whole gang of lovers. The intense relationship among these men reminds me of what I have read of the bonding of the members of a military unit who have braved combat together or among miners who have spent years watching out for each other in the dark shafts of coal mines or police who have shared risk and service together. They have become family. They have become one unit, one group, a unique intensity of union.

Over three years of intense ministry, constant service, occasional threat, frequent opposition and challenge Jesus and his twelve friends had become one. Jesus knows he has reached the end. He is going to die. So he plans a special meal.

That evening at the table he makes a speech.

“With great desire I have anticipated this dinner. Take this wine and share it among you, knowing that it symbolizes my blood. My ministry, indeed my very life, finds meaning in the family gathered here at the table. I will die before I let you go. I live in you. Drink, all of you. Even you, Judas. Drink.”

Faithful. Jesus was faithful. And when we take the bread and drink the fruit of the vine, we are receiving that faithfulness. We are saying, Thank you. Yes. Yes.

And we are pledging ourselves to carry forward the romance of Jesus. We will do all that we can to extend the love of God to all. We will die before we will kill. We will give before we allow someone to be be driven to theift by their need.

And will join Moses in protecting the vulnerable who would be driven from the well by coarse, bullying rowdies.

Today, at this table, let's take fresh resolve, fresh inspiration to join in the romance of God.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Fall Lecture Series at Green Lake Church

Life and Work among the Disadvantaged 
October 7-8. 2016

Trevor Gardner will speak Friday night and Sabbath afternoon. Shelly Ngo will speak for Sabbath School and the worship service. Both will help us see into a world most of us have never experienced. They will talk about how faith has impacted their work and how their work has impacted their spiritual and religious life. Their presentations may re-shape how you view the world.

There will be a soup supper Friday evening at 6:30p before the presentation. There will be a potluck lunch on Sabbath followed by the final presentation and Q&A. We plan to live-stream all four presentations.

See the bios below.

Trevor Gardner is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law. Professor Gardner writes in the area of criminal justice with a focus on policing. His research addresses a variety of related topics including racial profiling, community control of police, racial peer-group identification among African-American police officers, and decriminalization movements among local governments.
After completing undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, Professor Gardner earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he served as Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal. He then worked as a trial attorney at the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, litigating juvenile and adult criminal cases from presentment through disposition.

Professor Gardner left criminal practice to join academia, earning his master's and doctoral degrees in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Shelly Ngo is a writer, speaker, and social media strategist for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Prior to her job at the prosecutor's office, Shelly worked as the director of marketing and communications for the international relief and development organization World Vision, which operates in nearly 100 countries worldwide.  She earned a master's degree in communication leadership and digital media from the University of Washington, and undergraduate degrees in journalism and political science from Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA.  Shelly is the mother of four teenaged children, the owner of a corresponding number of pets to teenagers, and a fan of the all-too-rare afternoon nap.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Honoring Parents

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, September 17, 2016.

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17, Mark 7:6-13

Wednesday, I was talking with my brother, Gary, about plans for my dad's memorial service. He is the family historian and the designated organizer of the service. We talked about various elements we wanted in the service. We discussed Dad's oversized virtues and how to celebrate them. Then Gary raised a very delicate question: there will be some people present who were wounded by Dad's defects. How can we honor Dad without trivializing the hurt these people experienced? The stories of Dad's generosity and drive and diagnostic prowess are true and multitudinous but I appreciated Gary's sensitivity. Dad blessed many people but he wasn't flawless. So how do we appropriately honor him and those who were impacted by his flaws.

A delicate question, indeed.

The fifth commandment declares, “Honor your father and mother.”

It is a basic human virtue. Families and societies build on this virtue. Even if this were not stated in the Ten Commandments, it would still be just as essential for healthy, happy life. Honor your parents.

As I was working on my sermon this week, it struck me that I have usually read this commandment through the lens of a couple of passages in the New Testament.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. (Ephesians)
Children, obey [your] parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. (Colosians)

When I think about the words, Honor your parents, I have usually imagined children, kids, little people like the beautiful crowd that comes up here for children's story.

Monday morning I was sitting at the kitchen table working on paying bills, when suddenly I became aware of a conflict. My daughter-in-law had given my three-year old granddaughter some instruction which I didn't hear. And my granddaughter gave some response, which again I didn't hear. I became aware of the conversation as I heard my daughter-in-law say,

“Kyra, what did I tell you?”

At about the same time, my son walked into the room and joined the contest.

“Kyra, can you say, 'Yes, Mother?'”

No, Kyra could not say that.

So the conversation continued. There was a lecture about the right way to respond when mother gives directions. There was an explanation of the consequences of refusing to respond with respect and obedience. I was glad to be a bystander instead of the responsible adult.

Such conversations are not infrequent in our house. For some reason, my grandkids appear to have received a genetic inclination to stubborn resistance to adult direction. :-) So it falls to their parents to educate them on the importance of showing proper respect and deference.

Honor your father and mother. That's the command. That's what kids are supposed to do. Parents are constantly trying to figure out how to shape their kids so they will give proper honor and respect to parents and teachers and other authority figures. It's a pretty universal ambition of parents. And we happily look to the Fifth Commandment for divine backup. The commandment says, Honor your parents. So we imagine God backing us up as we try every technique we can think of to get our kids to show us proper honor and respect.

That's how my brain used to process this commandment.

However, this week, meditating on the commandment, a different perspective came into view.

The Ten Commandments were not aimed at children. They were not aimed at slaves. They were not aimed at women. They were aimed at people with power—which in the world in which the Ten Commandments were given, generally meant men, men with property and money and family.

The Sabbath commandment explicitly mentions children and servants and animals and in the process makes it clear that the commandment is directed to the men who have power over children, servants, and animals. Men, don't make these others work on Sabbath. Men, take Sabbath off, and make sure that all the creatures whose lives you control also enjoy Sabbath rest.

The last commandment again mentions animals. It also mentions women. And makes it clear that the force of the commandment is aimed at men with power. Do not take your neighbor's treasure. Do not scheme to get your hands on your neighbor's livestock or your neighbor's wife.

When we read, Honor your parents, we should understand this command is addressed to us, not to our children. This is not God backing up parents in their perennial battles with rambunctious, strong-willed children. This is God challenging grownups who manage their own lives—who are free to make their own decisions about time and money and words—this is God challenging us to honor our parents.

The command is directed to those of us with power. In the ancient  culture it would have been aimed primarily at men. In our culture where power is more widely distributed, the command applies more broadly. But lets' be clear, the primary target of this commandment is grownups not little ones. The commandment is aimed at those of us who usually sit still in our pews not at the ones who are squirming. :-)

It is directed to people who have full power to honor or not to honor. The command calls us to look at ourselves. Will we honor our parents? Will we ignore them or scorn them or hate them or mock them?

We are free to choose. Let's honor our parents. Because, as the commandment reminds us, this honoring is crucial to healthy, happy life.

How is honoring our parents linked with healthy, happy life?

First, it helps to counterbalance the notion of radical individualism that is eating at our social fabric. When we honor our parents, we are remembering that our life is a gift. We did not spring from the dirt. We did not create ourselves. We were born. When life works the way it is supposed to, a mother and father gave us life and thrilled at our birth. For years, every breath we have taken has brought joy to a man and woman whose hearts we own, ineluctably, irrevocably, incurably. Our failures have crushed those same hearts. Our hopes have been their hopes. They have hoped for us even when we were too busy or too preoccupied or too beaten to hope.

When we honor our parents, we are giving attention to some of the most deeply-rooted natural human goodness God has planted here in the world. Another word for honoring our parents is gratitude.

Honoring our parents, this special form of gratitude, is like making a contribution to public radio. If you listen to NPR you have heard their fundraising appeals. They make quite a point of the uniqueness of their business model. They give everyone the program. You listen for free with no contractual obligation. The programs are broadcast whether we give or not. As the fundraiser begs and pleads for the listeners' money, the listeners remain free not to give. If you give, it is your own choice. 

It's like this with honoring parents. They remain our parents whether we honor them or not. The life they have poured into us is ours whether we acknowledge it or not. Giving gratitude and honor to our parents does not create the goodness of our parents. Their goodness is a given.

The question is, will we see it? Will we honor it?

If we do, our lives will be even more richly blessed by the goodness to which we have turned our attention.

Few earthly parents are flawless. Honoring our parents does not require us to pretend our parents are flawless. It simply means that at least on occasion we turn our full attention to the gifts we have received from them, the good things that have come our way because of our parents.

Some parents have done such damage to their children, that the children must avoid all contact with the parents. This is rare. But it happens. In these cases, the children must take extraordinary action which I won't attempt to address in this sermon. My concern is the great bulk of us who have ordinary parents who have the ordinary mixture of goodness and brokenness that is the common lot of humanity.

The commandment is aimed at normal life and normal people. For us honoring our parents is crucial to the cultivation of our well being. Honoring our parents means acknowledging that no matter how hard I have worked, the capabilities I have poured into my work came from somewhere else. They were gifts before they were habits and achievements.

Second, honoring our parents means given attention to the gifts and deliberately turning our attention from flaws and defects and wounds and holes and neglect. Letting go of history so we can build a future.

This kind of deliberate focus sets us up for worship.

Christian theology declares God is perfect. God is our father in heaven who supplies our every need, the mighty defender who protects us from all harm, the eternal judge who insures justice for all. That is what we sing. That is what we proclaim in our theology books.

But that is not what we experience. In our own lives or in the lives of people we love or at least in the lives of people we read about in the newspaper or on line, every need does not get supplied. Not every person is protected from harm. “Justice” seems unduly influenced by money and power.

When we honor God, we are deliberately focusing our attention on the good things in creation. Just as in honoring our parents, we interpret their actions in light of the kind of good intentions we know ourselves to have as parents, so in honoring God we interpret the world through the lens of what we know of the heart of a good father or mother.

God intends blessings. God's will is peace and justice. Evil and pain, poverty and war and oppression are contradictions of the purposes of God.

When we honor our parents we are practicing looking in the direction of their best intentions, their highest evident virtues. And the more attention we give, the easier it is for us to move that direction.

In the same way, in worship, we give our attention to the highest virtues of God. We contemplate generosity, mercy, truthfulness, faithfulness. And in our contemplation God draws us to himself and shapes us in his image.

When Gary and I talked about our dad's memorial service, Gary was right to be sensitive to the reality that Dad was not perfect and that his imperfections left marks on other people. And he was right to want to portray as vividly as possible Dad's larger-than-life virtues. Gary was quite explicit in his desire to take this opportunity to put Dad's virtues on display because of the potential for this display to impact others. Gary and I both know people who are believers and church members because of the goodness of our father. We know people have gone on to make a major impact on the world for good because of ways our dad invested in their lives. We believe that when that kind of generosity is examined and celebrated, those who see will themselves be ennobled and elevated. Honoring our father will affect our characters. Publicly honoring him has the potential to call others to higher living.
Let's study our parents to find their greatest virtues and then give appropriate attention to those virtues and the love and affection that connected those virtues to our lives.

Let's honor our parents.

Let's give ourselves in worship to the most glorious visions of God.

And pray that God will shape us into parents worthy of honor, Christians worthy of the name.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Don't Feed your Greed. Instead Love your Neighbor.

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

Texts: 1 Kings 21:1-7, Luke 12:13-21

Last week, I placed five imaginary chocolates here on the piano. Today, I'm going to put them in the shelf in the back of the lectern.

In their place, I have another treat for you.

This is a piece of blackberry pie. Not just any pie. This pie came from the kitchen at our house. It's is my wife's recipe done to perfection by my daughter. The crust is exquisite. The filling pops with incredible flavor—the berries are from a special place in our back field where the berries are different from berries elsewhere in our neighborhood. The berries in the small section of our berry row are amazingly flavorful. Building on these special berries, Bonnie has added sugar and lemon in exactly the right proportions to balance tartness and sweetness. The texture of the finished pie is heavenly.

On the plate beside the pie is a couple of scoops of Alden's Organic All-natural Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. On top of the pie is whipped cream. Not Miracle Whip. Not some white stuff squirted out of a can. No, this is real cream, the kind that comes in glass bottles. My did the whipped cream. He added just the right bit of sugar and vanilla, then hand-whipped it to a soft, creamy consistency.

I'll take just a bite. Bliss. While you're dreaming about blackberry pie. I'm going to talk about the tenth commandment: Do not covet.

What does it mean to covet? Today's Old Testament reading illustrates what the word means.

Ahab was king of the nation of Israel. He was a successful king if you measured him by military and financial accomplishments. At some point he looked out his window at the property next door to his palace and thought, “That would be a perfect place for an intimate garden. I'll buy it.” So he goes next door for a conversation with his neighbor. “Nathan, my friend. I see you have a very fine place here. How much do you think it's worth?”

Do you mean what do I think someone might offer me or are you asking how much money would tempt me to sell?

How much would you take for this place?

It's not for sale.

Look, Nathan. I'll give you good money and I will find another property for you, one that would be even more suited for your vineyard, a place with more room, better access to water, better views.

You name it. Whatever you want I'll give you, just sell me your place.

It's not for sale.

This property has been in our family for generations. Selling this place would be disrespectful to my ancestors. I'm sorry, but no.

Ahab was upset. He was used to getting his way. After all, he was the greatest. He went back to his palace, crawled into bed and fell into a deep funk.

Sometime later in the day, his wife Jezebel came in. What you so gloomy about?

He told her.

What??!! she said. “Are you king or not? You can do anything you want. You can have anything you want. But leave it to me. Just get up and wipe that pout off your face.”

Jezebel arranged to have Nathan framed for blasphemy. The stratagem worked. Nathan was executed by stoning for blasphemy. And Ahab confiscated the property.

And lived happily ever after. NOT.

Stories of this kind of greed do not end well. They never do. Even if the coveting strong man appears to win, we don't end the story there. We keep telling the story until we come to the part where it all blows up. Because we know that might does not make right. We know, deep in the core of our being, that just because someone can, does not mean that someone should.

Coveting means looking at the treasure that belongs to our neighbor—looking so long and so intently that we begin to scheme to snatch it. We begin think how to use our power to overwhelm their power and take the best of their lives for ourselves. This is coveting. Don't do it. It is evil. Wicked. Repugnant. Don't!

It is easy to find modern examples of this kind of thing.

The current drive by an oil company to build a pipeline across Indian land in the Dakotas, sounds curiously like the story of Ahab. The company, with the power of money and government behind it, is determined to take Indian land for its own use.

Just this Wednesday, the Seattle Times had a front page story about poor people from Asia who are confined on fishing boats off Hawaii in a weird version form of legal American slavery. Why? Because they can. Years ago, a loophole was written into American law that allowed boats off Hawaii to hire people without the protections offered elsewhere to people employed on American boats. According to the report, the living conditions on many of these boats are squalid and miserable.

Why does this happen? The employees are desperately poor. The employers are driven by greed. They are determined to make the most profit they can, even if it means stealing from the lives of their employees.

This evil. And everyone knows it is, once it's brought into the light of day. This is the value of news reporting on this kind of abuse. The question for us is how do protect ourselves against the allure of covetousness?

The oil company does not have any animus toward the Indians whose land they are violating. They just want the money, the income, they will get from building the pipeline. These boat owners have no evil intentions toward the employees they are exploiting and abusing. I'm sure if we learned about the owners of these companies we would find they are nice people. They take care of their children. They are nice to their dogs. How is it that they have gotten sucked into this kind of covetousness? How can we avoid falling into the same kinds of evil?

Most of the Ten Commandments are expressed negatively. Which makes sense. It's easier to detail the few things that are prohibited than to list all the good things that deserve our attention. So the commandments say, don't worship idols, don't murder, don't steal, don't cheat, don't give false testimony. But when Jesus was asked to summarize the moral law, he switched to the positive. What is the great commandment? Love God with your entire being. Anything else? Sure. Love your neighbor as yourself.

The antidote to coveting is practicing loving our neighbor. When we deliberately focus our affection and admiration on another person we are made immune to the allure of covetousness. We avoid covetousness, all sorts of other stupid sin, but focusing our attention in loving appreciation toward God and neighbor. Our lives go where we look. So, let's point our lives toward goodness. Point the front wheel of our bicycles toward love and generosity, toward compassion and kindness.

Years ago my son was taking horse riding lessons. I couldn't figure out why he needed lessons. He could ride far, far better than I could. But he wanted to become even more skillful so we signed him up with a well-known teacher. I was standing beside the arena during one of his lessons. As far as I could tell, Garrett and the horse were doing everything they were supposed to. Suddenly, the instructor hollered at him.

“Where were your eyes?”

Garrett pulled up his horse while the instructor lectured him.

I couldn't believe it. Over the years various family members have tried to improve my horse riding. They have directed me to do things with my hands. Hold the reins a certain way. Pull or don't pull. Raise your hands. Lower your hands. I've been told, “Push him over with your knee. Sit back in the saddle.” There have been other commands equally as incomprehensible, but as far as I can recall, the skilled riders in my family have never ever told me to do something with my eyes. Most of the time, they just give me commandments. DON'T DO THAT!

But apparently once you've mastered the basics. Once you're doing more than just trying not to fall off, eyes become important.

The instructor told Garrett, “Your horse will go where your eyes go.”

It's the same with life. We go where we're looking. So let's look toward goodness. Let's aim to be generous and frugal, to be industrious and creative. And when we notice riches in our neighbors' lives, let's rejoice in their good fortune and ask ourselves what can we learn from their good success.

Let's learn to look at our neighbors—the people around us, the people we work with, our classmates at school, those who sit near us in church—let's learn to look with love, with affection and respect and admiration. How do we do this?

First, by the simple act of listening.

Long ago and far away, I was upset about what the administration of an organization where I worked. I made an appointment with one of the vice-presidents. I had a prepared speech, the bullet points of my protest. I was ready to speak truth to power—that's a high-flown label for grousing about the boss. :-)

At the appointed time, the secretary sent me into his office. I was ready. I could feel the adrenaline rising. But before I began going through my list, I made the mistake of asking how he was doing. And he began telling me. His life was in crisis. I don't remember any details now. It may have involved his kids or his parents or his marriage or all of the above. The details don't matter now. The more carefully I listened, more he poured out his woes. In his position he probably didn't have many people to talk to. I never did get to my laundry list of complaints that day. I had to deal with them later. But I was struck with the power of simply inquiring and then listening.

When we listen to people, when we hear them, when we pay attention to their stories, we are unlikely to find our attention grabbed by their possessions. Instead of coveting, listening will lead us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Love your neighbor as yourself. You know how sweet it is to be heard. So listen. Practice listening. Practice asking questions and then shutting up and listening, waiting to hear. It is one of the sweetest ways to practice loving.

What shall we do?

Love our neighbor. Give affectionate attention to our neighbor. Listen to our neighbor. Learn their stories. Learn about their parents and their children and their dogs and their cats and iguanas. Listen so carefully, so gently, they find it safe to mention the places where they hurt. Hear their dreams and hopes and ambitions. Love your neighbor.

Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Pay attention to your neighbor until you can see their greatness, their nobility, their value. Pay attention to your neighbor until you understand how it is that God could love them so dearly.

This is a perfect preventative for coveting.

At the beginning of my sermon I talked about a wonderful piece of blackberry pie. I'm hoping you can still imagine it. Maybe you can even still taste it, still feel the smooth texture of the cream and the sharp bite of the blackberry flavor on your tongue.

Last week, in the lobby after church, several people told me they were still salivating over the chocolate I described at the beginning of the sermon. Their hunger for the imaginary chocolates I set on the piano stayed alive throughout the entire sermon. They could not take their eyes or their taste buds off that chocolate that was displayed here on the piano. (in imagination)

Today, at the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned chocolate again. But unless you are an absolute chocolate addict, my guess is you have not given it any more thought. For sure I haven't been thinking about the chocolate pieces I hid in the back of the lectern. Instead, I've been dreaming of the blackberry pie and ice cream and whipped cream.

I forgot the chocolate because I cultivated my attention for something else.

The allure of coveting will evaporate as we give our attention to the actual humanity of our neighbor. As we practice loving our neighbor, the notion of snatching their treasures becomes unthinkable. Alien. Absurd.

When we are focused on money, it is easy to forget that employees or neighbors or people who need welfare are human beings. But when we turn from our spreadsheets and pay attention to the actual human beings who are being served or neglected, who are being enslaved, suddenly our moral duty becomes clearer. The more vividly we see real human beings, the easier it will be to join with God in his generosity and kindness.

The apostle Paul writes

When we love our neighbor we keep the law because all Bible commandments can be neatly summarized in this one command: love your neighbor as yourself. Romans 13:8-10

This is direction enough for life. Let's do it. Let's practice listening, giving, and loving. This is our holy ambition. This is our heavenly calling.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Shedding unconscious delight

How do you take a picture of perfume? This morning, on my walk to the lake, I followed a mother, child on her front in a snugly, dog at her side on a leash, and loose on the thick moist air in her wake a most delicious perfume. I followed as long as it was polite, enchanted. When we bathe ourselves in heavenly sweetness through the practice of contemplation, we are perfuming ourselves, readying ourselves to shed delight.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Do Not Fall for Idols

Sermon manuscript (preliminary) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, September 3, 2016.

Texts: Deuteronomy 4:20-29, Acts 17:22-29

A few years ago I received a phone call. “John, can you lend me a thousand dollars. I need to fly to Dubai to meet someone who wants to donate to my ministry.”
Freddy needed the money. He had been a minister and lost his job. Since then he had been eking out a very meager existence. He had set up a non-profit and raised a few dollars to support his work, but he was hungry and needed money.
Now, in answer to his prayer, he had gotten connected with someone through the internet who wanted to donate to his ministry. This mystery donor was a very wealthy man whose headquarters was in Dubai. He was prepared to make a contribute of upwards of $20,000, but he wanted Freddy to meet him in Dubai to talk over the details.
So, Freddy begged, was there any way I could spot him the thousand dollars for a plane ticket?

I still laugh at myself for how long it took me to say, No. I liked Freddy so much and I so wanted good things for him that I entertained played with the idea for a while. Fortunately, my wife was more clear-minded. As soon as she heard about it, she indignantly said, “Thou shalt not bow down to any idol!” Well, she didn't say exactly those words. But it meant the same thing.

Wealthy Middle Eastern donors do not seek out poor preachers in Florida as avenues for their charity.

Freddy was participating in his own deception. He wanted it to be true, so even though it was patently bogus to anyone with a grain of sense, he was prepared to believe—and to be scammed.

It is not just poor people who are seduced by the idol of fabulous wealth. A friend who was quite comfortable financially lost everything he had chasing the promise of an income in the billions of dollars. From some distance away, the illegitimacy of the investment scheme was crystal clear. But up close, staring the promise of Bill Gates-sized wealth in the face—my friend could not resist. He bowed and in bowing lost everything.

Against this kind of allure, we need the sturdy, uncompromising, emphatic word of the command: Do not worship idols.

The value of this command is not that it brings some new information. The problem with idols is not that they are so tricky. The problem with idols is our hunger to be deceived. The command simply distills what we already know. And what our brothers and sisters know. And our friends know. And our parents know. In regard to money, Do not worship idols is an ancient way of expressing our modern proverb, If it's too good to be true, it's too good to be true. Sometimes even after doing due diligence fraud happens. People lose money. And all investing carries some measure of risk.

But when easy money is dangled in front of us, beware. Do not bow. Don't fall for an idol.

There are all kinds of other metaphorical idols, seductive promises of well-being and happiness. In working on this sermon, I made lists of idols. I imagined clever ways to illuminate our tendencies toward idolatry. Then I turned to the story of Jesus and his test against the allure of idolatry. And I deleted my list. Because we cannot cure idolatry in the long run by labeling idols.

In the Gospel, Jesus ministry begins with a three-part test. Three great temptations, three invitations to idolatry. In the first the devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread. “Use your magic. I dare you!”
Jesus refuses.

In the second test, the devil invites Jesus to leap from a some high place on the temple down into the courtyard, counting on angels to cushion his fall, and thus proving his specialness. Jesus refused. Of course.

Then there came the straight-forward idolatry test. The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised, “Bow to me and I will give you all of this.”

Jesus answered, “It is written, Worship God and God only.”

Note, Jesus did not quote the negative version of the commandment: Do not fall for idols. He quoted a positive version: Worship God and God only.

Sometimes we need the cold, hard slap of the negative commandment to wake us up, to shake us free from the seductive allure of an idol at a moment of crisis. But the command doesn't tell us which way to go. It does not provide much guidance. Don't go there . . . okay. Which direction shall I do? The command, Do not fall for idols, doesn't say.

But the version of the command Jesus quoted does give direction.

Worship God. Give your attention to God. Admire God. Adore God. Contemplate God. Meditate on God. Let the bright glory of God's goodness and generosity, God's benevolence and affection, hold your vision and shape your soul.

Through contemplation of the divine glory holiness will become natural to us. Truth and courtesy will be our normal way of speaking. Generosity and kindness will be our instinctive way of being. Forgiveness will be habitual. The more we give our attention to the glory of God, the more our own characters will be radiant with divine goodness.

And this is our ambition. We want to be a holy people, a people like God.

Worship—private, personal contemplation and our gathering here at church—turns our eyes toward God and that habitual vision shapes our souls.

Last Sunday, about 6 p.m. at the end of a long run, I stepped out of the woods onto the shoulder of Highway 410 only to find my way blocked by a six or seven bicycles sprawled on the ground between the trailhead and my car. Among the bicycles sat a woman and a guy. The woman's legs were dirt splattered. The guy's shirt was wet with sweat and grime.

We fell into easy conversation. They had gone up the Palisades Trail and then down the Ranger Creek Trail, about fifteen miles with 3500 feet of elevation gain.

Which is crazy. I've hiked the Palisades Trail dozens of times. It is no place to ride a bicycle. It has rocky places where the trail drops two or three feet over the boulders. It is criss-crossed with roots. At one point the trail climbs a hundred feet up stairway built on top a massive log. What are these people thinking, peddling bicycles up a trail like that? Even the bikers themselves agree this is a pretty crazy trail. Here is the description of the trail from the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance web site:

“Palisades is fairly technical singletrack with exposure. The upper section features breathtaking views off a sheer cliff face, and the middle section is somewhat similar to Tiger Mountain's Preston trail - fast, flowing descent with lots of roots. The lower section is an extreme switchback-laden, rock-garden-riddled, and steep wooden staircase hike-a-bike (some describe it as a bit of a buzz-kill). Well drained throughout, buff and smooth up top, rugged and rooty in the middle, and rocky and loose on the bottom.”

“Ranger Creek is a great trail to ride. Fairly technical singletrack with exposure, beautiful forests, good climbing, fun descents, technical sections and crazy switchbacks that will challenge the most advanced riders.” Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance web site.

Why would anyone drive from Seattle all the way to out here to ride a bicycle on a crazy trial like this?A couple of reasons come to mind. These people hang out with other people who dream of riding their bicycles in crazy places. They hear stories about crazy rides. They watch YouTube videos about sick bicycle rides. They tell their own stories of crashes and triumphs. They show off their scars. And they cherish the exhilaration of that bombing down a trail and making a two foot drop without crashing.

The bikers I was talking to had done the Palisades Ranger Creek loop and it wasn't enough. So they had loaded their bikes in the truck and driven up Corral Pass Road to the trail head there. Then they rode the Dalles Ridge Trail to the top of Ranger Creek for another fast, scary ride down.

These two were guarding the bikes while others in the group were driving back up to Corral Pass to retrieve their truck.
When I expressed amazement that these people would ride these trails, I was merely pretending. I'm not really amazed. It is what I expect. If you know people in the mountain biking community you know these kinds of exploits are common. This is what they live for.

They “worship” mountain biking mastery. That is they give it attention, frequent, admiring attention. Failure, crashes, bonking—that is collapsing from complete exhaustion—are accepted as simply necessary costs for pursuing their grand ambition.

This is how it is for us.

Our ambition is holiness. We want to peddle the bicycles of our lives the way God peddles his bicycle. We aim to love our enemies the way God loves his enemies.
We aspire to forgive as God forgives.
We want to be as generous as God, as creative as God.
We tells stories of integrity and honesty, of altruism and compassion, of brilliant creativity and faithful service.
Of course, in any endeavor this bold, this exalted, there will be crashes and failures. When that happens we pick each other up and help each other to get back on our bicycles and start peddling again.

We worship. We give admiring, adoring, envious attention to the glory and goodness of God. We aim our lives at divine love. We build our resistance to the allure of idols by devoting ourselves to worship.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Perfume of Heaven: Advice to Preachers

The Perfume of Heaven
John McLarty
Published in Best Practices

The door of Church of the Advent Hope in Manhattan opens directly on the sidewalk on 87th Street. On a sunny Sabbath morning in the spring of 1987 I was standing there with a deacon greeting. I noticed a woman striding our direction from Park Avenue. She was dressed, headed somewhere to impress someone. As she got closer I could hear heels clicking on the sidewalk. Then she was past us, gone, pursuing her morning mission whatever it was. But in her wake, floating on the air, she left a dazzling, enchanting perfume. Its sweetness and magic were so powerful I almost ran after her to ask what it was.

I don't remember what she looked like. I don't remember her age. But still today thirty years later, I remember the captivating, beckoning aroma.

We preachers are like that woman. We make noise in our passing. We aim to make an impression. Then we are gone, on to the next mission, the next assignment, the next church. And what people remember most is the aroma. They recall, sometimes so viscerally they cannot put it into words, the ineffable spirit that prompts our words and shapes our lives.

One practice that I have given increasing attention to in the last two decades is taking care to always speak respectfully of the sinners I imagine are absent from my congregations. Several times, I have spoken with reckless abandon about “evil people” who were not present in my congregation. Only later to regret my words. Not because the activities I had condemned were unworthy of condemnation, but because the people I was speaking of deserved more respect as persons.

When I have visited pedophiles and serial murderers in prison, I remember that I am coming to them as Jesus in the flesh. Of course, their wickedness is repugnant. Still, I work to keep alive the promise of redemption and transformation. The challenge for us as preachers is to demonstrate in the pulpit the same hope and respect we would instinctively practice if we were meeting sinners face-to-face.

It can be tempting in our preaching to rip and tear on really evil people, people are widely scorned. We are certain no one in our congregation is a pedophile or human trafficker or drug dealer. No one in our congregation is an atheist or ruthless business executive. No one in our congregation has had an abortion. And thinking that none of these people are present we speak with a bluntness and dismissiveness we would never use face-to-face, not realizing the atheist we have just mocked is the son of our head elder. The ruthless businessman we have pilloried is the uncle of our Pathfinder leader. The pedophile is sitting on the left, third row from the back. And the woman who had an abortion is sitting fifth row from the front on the right.

In our preaching, we must speak clearly. We are called to exalt holiness and to condemn evil. We are also called to evince love and respect in every sentence. When our members hear our pastoral concern for outrageous sinners, they find space in our sermons to hope they, too, may find grace. Over time, as our sermons give evidence that everyone is held in our hearts with respect and affection, worship services will be suffused with the aroma of grace. Our members will be called back again and again to the pursuit of holiness by the sweet perfume of our words. The fragrance lingers for decades, beckoning our people to follow.