Friday, September 15, 2017

Wise Investment

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, September 16, 2017.

Two Stories:

The first is a classic tale of almost but not quite, of could of, should of, of a free choice that was immediately and always regretted.

A man came to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good deed do I have do to have eternal life?" 17 "Why ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. But to answer your question--if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments." 18 "Which ones?" the man asked. And Jesus replied: "'You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. 19 Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.'" 20 "I've obeyed all these commandments," the young man replied. "What else must I do?" 21 Jesus told him, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22 But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

If we're going to “get” this story, it's important to feel the weight of the young man's angst. He did not walk away laughing. He wanted what Jesus offered. He wanted it badly. He could almost taste the excitement, the drama, the deep satisfaction ahead on the path Jesus mapped out.

Unfortunately, he already owned a great treasure—money. He was rich. Usually, I think of wealth as an advantage. Money is helpful. Your plumbing springs a leak. Money will bring a plumber to your house, and the leak will go away. When I'm hungry, just a little bit of money can obtain a blueberry milk shake. If I'm sick, money will obtain the services of a doctor. Money is a very helpful thing. And more money is even more helpful.

Except when I have to choose between hanging onto my money and some grand adventure, some great and noble cause. When I have to choose between my money and something else I really, really want, then the more money I have the more difficult the choice.

Jesus offered this man the chance of a life time, a wild, holy adventure. But to buy into the adventure he would have to give away all his money. The man wanted the life with Jesus. He wanted the wild, holy adventure, but he couldn't bring himself to pay the price. What he had was too good. He couldn't let it go. So he went away sad and conflicted, still feeling the allure of the Jesus adventure but choosing to hang onto the good stuff he had.

The Gospel of Matthew tells another story, and tells it multiple times.

From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. 22 But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. "Heaven forbid, Lord," he said. "This will never happen to you!" 23 Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's." Matthew 16:21-23 NLT

Jesus told his disciples he was going to pay the ultimate price as part of his participation in the mission of God. Peter understood the implications of Jesus' words and began to remonstrate. “Don't talk like that. That can never be! You are too good for that.”

Jesus immediately pushed back. “Peter, you sound like Satan talking. I'm going pay the ultimate price. And I'm okay with that. I have no interest in “saving my life” from some meager, uninteresting future. I see clearly mission. And I'm good with it.

The young man saw the high price of the wild, holy adventure and finally decided it was too high a price, a decisions that he immediately and forever regretted.

Jesus saw the high price of the wild, holy adventure and boldly announced his embrace of the cost. Bring it on. Jesus was ready to pay with his life for the privilege of participating in the mission of God. Sure, there was the moment of indecision in the Gethsemane. This was no easy choice. But he did it and triumphed.

Because we are Christians, we see this bold embrace of suffering in pursuit of the goal of salvation as an expression of the character of God. While people in our culture sometimes have a great difficulty making sense of the Bible's telling of the story of God, this much is clear: God spent the richest treasure of heaven in pursuit of the salvation of humanity. We can appropriately say that God would rather die than live without us. He spent everything he had to buy us.

And he is satisfied. God has no second thoughts about his investment.

The young man who came to Jesus counted the cost and decided he couldn't pay. God counted the cost of saving humanity and said, yes, I'll do it. That's how much God treasures humanity.

Who are we? The objects of divine desire and yearning. And pleasure and happiness.

As we become engrossed in this vision we make our own investments. We provide care:

Health care professionals do their thing.

Business people build financial systems that enable people to benefit from their labor. Seattle has billionaires, but the people who make our milk shakes at Kidd Valley Burgers cannot afford to live here. Altering this in the direction of equity is complicated and very difficult. We need brilliant business people with heart to figure it out and make our city a better place to live.

Social workers and counselors and psychiatrists provide the specialized, extra help that some people need just to stay alive. These people with special needs cannot take care of themselves. Still they are humans. They are part of our family. We count on specialists who have the skills to help these complicated humans to live the best they can given their limitations and disabilities.

Firefighters. Right now the Norse Peak Fire is still burning out of control in the dense forests thirty miles from our house. We honor the people who work to limit the raging fires all over the West.

We rely on engineers to create and maintain all the apparatus of modern life. Phones. Bridges. Tunnels. Cars.

The wheat harvest. I read an article this week in the Seattle Times about the wheat harvest happening on the other side of the state. Those farmers are feeding the world. But it's more than farmers. Feeding the world takes a thousand skills from farmers to machine creators and manufacturers and dealers to rail companies and shipping companies. All are partners with God in investing in human well being.

Some of our members are working at the Gates Foundation, working to change the world, to make it better. To cure or limit malaria and other strange and scary diseases. To increase access to healthy food and clean water.

Families care for each other, especially for family members with special needs. This is so many of us. In every family there are people who need a bit of extra care.

Writers who have caught the vision of Jesus, the satisfaction of God in saving humanity, use words to make the world better.

All these are ways we can join with God in his investment in humanity. The story of the rich man highlights the question: will we choose the richest, sweetest life or will we hang onto to something of lesser value because it seems to offer security? The question is will we? Not can we. Not are we able. But, will we?

One of the marks of a wise decision is that after we have made the decision we are still glad. That afternoon. The next week. The next year or decade. Wise choices leave us feeling glad over the long haul.

The rich man who sought Jesus' advice made a choice and then regretted it.

God, the ultimate rich person, made a choice to spend wildly to save humanity. And God is deeply satisfied with this choice.


Let's choose joy and satisfaction. Let's be about our father's business.  

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Where Is God?


Sermon manuscript for September 9, 2017 (The original title of this sermon was Ascending Liability. But the sermon morphed from my original conception, so I've changed the title here to reflect the actual content.)
For Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 John 2:1-2

It's been a rough week.

First there was Hurricane Harvey and the flooding of Houston and other communities in coastal Texas. I have a friend who lives in Houston who gave periodic updates on the rising flood waters until eventually he had six inches of water inside his house.

Here in Seattle we have had murky skies and ash falling on our cars and even sifting through the screens on our windows. Reminders of the wildfires that are raging all across the countryside just over the mountains to the east.

Again, a friend brought home the reality of this fiery devastation. She lives in Montana and posts pictures and facts from the fires there. Over a million acres has burned so far this year.

Meanwhile

Thursday night a magnitude 8 earthquake hit Oaxaca, Mexico. At least 65 people are reported dead from the quake.

A third of the entire nation of Bangladesh was under water and over a thousand people died in floods in India.

A rough week.

Where is God in all this?

Many of my friends are quick to exclude God from all this stuff. Hurricanes happen. We can explain them using what we know of interactions of pressure systems and temperature regimes in the ocean. Earthquakes happen. Especially along subduction zones like the one that runs down the west coast of Mexico. Leave God out of this, they say. God does not cause hurricanes and earthquakes. They argue this way out of a concern to defend the reputation of God. But the Bible does not exclude God. God sends storms and earthquakes, fire and hail.

Even when we dismiss this active language and insist that what the Bible really means is that God allows storms and earthquakes and fire and hail, we come back to the other words, the words that give us hope:

The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. 8 O taste and see that the LORD [is] good: blessed [is] the man [that] trusteth in him. 9 O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for [there is] no want to them that fear him. 10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good [thing]. ... 15 The eyes of the LORD [are] upon the righteous, and his ears [are open] unto their cry. 16 The face of the LORD [is] against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. 17 [The righteous] cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. 18 The LORD [is] nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. 19 Many [are] the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all. 20 He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken. 21 Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate. 22 The LORD redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate. Psa 34:7-10, 15-22 KJV

Sitting in my dry house untouched by the raging fires except by the smoke and bits of ash it is easy to say, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” But what about my friend in Montana watching her entire state go up in flames? What about my friend in Texas starting the clean up process in his flooded house? What about the relatives of others in this congregation whose lives have been disrupted by the earthquake in Mexico? What about the millions of people—nameless to me—whose homes have been invaded by the floods in India and Bengladesh? They lack no good thing?

These words make no more sense as literal language than do the words about God sending storms and earthquakes, fire and hail. They make far more sense as a declaration of the ultimate purpose of God. It is God's desire that his children lack no good thing. But the actual, lived experience here in this world is far more complicated.

So I come back to the words of Jesus:

God sends his rain on the just and the unjust. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. You be like that.

The ancient prophets argued that nature favored good people. Bad things happened to bad people. Good times came to those who were good. There is some truth in this, of course. Living wisely and righteously usually produces better results than living foolishly and wickedly. But nature is a hopelessly blind judge. Floods and earthquakes, fire and hail—they happen to all sorts of people.

It is also true that nature blesses people indiscriminately. The glory of sunrise, the blessings of harvest, the beauty of moonlight, the pleasures of health and strength come to all humanity. We, as believers, affirm that it is these sweet things which express the purpose of God.

Nature is recklessly indiscriminate both in its loveliness and in its horror. Both in its bounty and in its storms. Jesus challenged us to see God's benevolent intentions in the blessings of nature and then to mirror the generosity of God.

Sometimes, we are most immediately aware of Jesus' call when we are confronted with the kinds of so-called “acts of God” that have surrounded us this past week.

The first pictures coming out of Texas were visions of devastation. Roads under water. Cars immersed to their roof tops. Then came the pictures of the human response. People helping people.

In southern California, first there were the photos of raging fire, then news of convicts fighting fires, earning a dollar an hour. Men who in other situations had acted like the devil showed in this emergency, the genuine goodness still living in their hearts and hands.

In Mexico and Bangladesh humans banded together to carry out the will of God—survival, rescue, sustenance.

Where is God in the earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and other suffering that haunts our world? God is present in those who rescue and help and heal. And God is present in those who devote themselves to work of prevention. Much of the suffering of the past week was theoretically avoidable. We know where flood zones are and could require developers to build on higher ground. We know how to build houses that will not collapse in earthquakes.

If God intends salvation, if God favors life, then it is the essence of faith to join with God in the present work of rescue and fire suppression. And we can work with God in building communities that are more resilient and more protective. We can be the angels of God, working for salvation and hope.


Let us be about our Father's business.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

Work Forward


A better title might be: the vineyard waits.
Sermon manuscript for September 2, 2017

Texts:
Jeremiah 7:1-7 and Matthew 21:28-32





Jesus told this parable: A man was having breakfast with his two sons. Dad told the older boy, “Son, go work in the vineyard today.” Astonishingly, this older son answered, “No, Dad, I won't do it.” The son's response was bold and rude. “No!”

Apparently without much ado, Dad turned to his younger son. “Son, I really you to work in the vineyard today. Will you do it?” Unlike his older brother, number two son promptly responded, “Sure, Dad. I'm on it. You can count on me.”

But this is not the end of the story.

After leaving the kitchen the older son changed his mind and headed out to the vineyard where he worked all day. Curiously, the younger son who had been so agreeable at breakfast, never stepped foot in the vineyard.

Buried in this simple story are two radical Christian convictions. The first: In the kingdom of heaven high-sounding religious or spiritual claims are worthless. Service is what counts.

This conviction was eloquently proclaimed by many of the Hebrew prophets. Our Old Testament reading comes from the Prophet Jeremiah. God ordered him to stand at the entrance of the temple and deliver this radical, combative message:

Listen up, all you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven's Armies, the God of Israel, says: "'Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don't be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD's Temple is here. They chant, "This the temple of the Lord. This is the temple of the Lord. Don't be fooled. I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever. "'Don't be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It's a lie! [Jer 7:1-8 NLT paraphrased a bit]

In the eyes of God, religious and national identity are irrelevant. Sure these elements of identity have their place in our ordinary lives. We are glad we live here and not in Russia. We have a special loyalty to our country, the United States of America. We love our mountains and plains, our cities and our literature. We take special delight in Aaron Copelands Fanfare for the Common Man, imagining that that piece of music is especially American. We love our nation and we should.

But it is also vital to remember that before God all the particulars of nationality and religious identity are trivial. God does not favor one religion over another. God does not favor one nation over another. What matters is moral performance. This is the stern truth highlighted by these passages. God is not fooled by religious labels. We cannot sweet talk our past the keen judgment of God. God is watching.

Let's remember that when Jeremiah stood at the entrance of the temple and said, “Don't imagine that this temple buys you anything with God, he was speaking in a setting where nationality and religious identity were one. Like “Christian America” imagined by some people. The temple was the center of Jewish national and religious identity. And Jeremiah thundered against a false confidence that a connection with the temple bought favor with God.

This truth applies with special force in today's political environment where many church leaders have “blessed” the president because they imagine he has a Christian identity. God does not care about supposed religious identity. God cares about moral performance. A “profession of faith” is worthless or worse than worthless if a person's moral performance contradicts that profession of identity.

This truth applies to us in the church. When the denomination fails to contradict the worldly patterns of male dominance, the church's “true church identity” will not blind the eyes of the heavenly Judge. God will not bless us for being Adventist if we use the power structures of the church to defend the prerogatives of men addicted to power.

Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that because we are the “true church” we get a pass on being honest and compassionate.

Jeremiah's rebuke of Jewish national pride was underscored by his astonishing report that God had ordered him to stop praying for Israel. When Jeremiah was speaking the nation of Israel was surrounded by the armies of Babylon. The “good life” enjoyed by the nobility and priesthood and wealthy people was seriously threatened. Naturally, they wanted Jeremiah to pray for them, to pray that God would hold off the Babylonians. But God told Jeremiah to quit praying.

There was no point praying for mercy until the leaders of the nation began to practice mercy. There was no point in asking God to protect the good life of the one percent unless they used their power to make things better for the underprivileged and disadvantaged. Until those with wealth and status began using their power to make things materially better for families touched by bad luck and misfortune, God was not accepting prayers on behalf of the good life of Israel's leaders.

Most of us are privileged. Most of us are enjoying the good life. Jeremiah's warning speaks to us. Not “those other people.” Neither American citizenship nor Adventist or Christian identity put God in our debt. What matters is moral performance. It is a stern word. And it is true. If we are wise, we will pay attention.

This is one half of the story. It is an unavoidable truth.

There is also another truth written brightly into this story. Remember Jesus' story. A man had two sons. He asked both sons to work in his vineyard. The younger son said, “I will” but did not actually do any work. But even though the older son had said, “I won't,” he later changed his mind and spent the whole day working in the vineyard.

Jesus went on the apply this story.

"I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn't believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins. Matthew 21:31-32

Jesus point here is simple and liberating: Our identity up to this point does not determine our future. We were scoundrels? Well, it's not too late to start doing good. We said we did not give a rip about “those people?” We can start caring. We made a mess of things? We can start making beauty.

In the kingdom of heaven our history is less important than our future. Our heritage does not have to be our destiny. Today and tomorrow and through the coming week, we will have opportunity again to go work in God's vineyard.

It doesn't matter what we did last week. The week ahead of us beckons. God invites us to join him in his vineyard. Let's show up.


That would be really good.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Turn North, Again.

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 26, 2017

Texts: Deuteronomy 2:1-7;  Acts 16:6-13

A few weeks ago, I was on my bicycle heading home. I was coasting downhill on a road that crosses through a wetlands area. Ahead I noticed a kid standing in the weeds on the right side of the road down at the bottom of the hill. It seemed odd for him to be just standing there, not doing anything. I got closer and noticed his skateboard. Then got even closer and saw that there was another kid behind him. The second kid was on the ground on one knee and leaning over.

I slowed to check on them. “Did you crash?” I asked. Then I saw the kid's knee. It was pretty banged up. His arm had some road rash. His shirt was ripped on the shoulder. He wasn't gushing blood. He could even smile. But he was hurting. The standing kid assured me they were going to be okay. They had called his mom and she was on her way. The kid on the ground winced at his pain and insisted he was going to be okay.

I could see the mix of pride—they were tough. And pain. It really did hurt.

They were lucky he wasn't scraped up worse than he was. The hill is long and steep. In fact, the hill is fast enough that on my bicycle I quit peddling about a third of the way down and just focus on not crashing. I can not imagine riding a skateboard down that hill. The smallest pebble or irregularity in the pavement would be disastrous. But these boys could imagine trying. They went for it. And oops!

Someone landed in the weeds.

Mom got called. At least they didn't have to call 911.

Falling. It's the price of glory.

In our congregation we have serious bikers. One of the ways I know they are serious is their stories of trips to the hospital, the pictures I've seen of them wearing neck braces and casts. When you skate or ride a bicycle you don't aim to crash. You aim at glory. But it is almost guaranteed that if you aim at glory frequently enough, some time you will crash.

So what do you after you crash? I guess that depends on how bad the crash was. You might call mom. You might have to call 911. If you're lucky, you'll collect a cool story of a miraculous, narrow escape and you'll get back on your bike and ride on.

Like Alycia's fantastic “dismount.” She and David were mountain biking. She hit something, flew over the handle bars and LANDED ON HER FEET!!!!!!! David wishes he had a video. I wish he had a video!

What do you do after such a fall? Get back on the bicycle.

What do you not do? Spend a lot of time thinking about the fall or crash. If you do, you'll quit skating or riding. You'll quit dreaming.


This principle applies with great force to spiritual life.

How shall we respond to our spiritual and moral falls? After the fall, get up and go at it again again. Aim again at glory.

Some of us deal with addictions of various sorts. Alcohol. Drugs. Anger. Sexual misconduct.

I am not minimizing the damage that addictive behavior does to ourselves and to our families and friends and even to larger society. When we get drunk we are setting ourselves up to cause harm, sometimes awful harm. When we fall again to the seductive call of a drug, it's a terrible fall. It's a dangerous fall. There's no telling how much damage we might cause ourselves and others.

Still, the question stands: What shall we do afterward? When we have crashed, when we are hunched over on the ground bloody and hurting, what is the next step?

Let's refuse to squander life and energy in remorse and regret and self-hatred. Let's turn our lives again toward holiness, toward life.

Call someone. Get rid of our stash. (Don't flush it down to toilet. Put it in the trash where it won't pollute Puget Sound.) Make an appointment with a counselor. Go to an AA meeting. Take action toward wholeness—and know that God cheers every step you take in the right direction.


Let's look at our two Scripture passages.

The story of Israel. God rescued them from Israel and directed them north toward Palestine, the Promised Land. But they were a mess. They kept screwing up. It finally got so bad that God suspended the journey north. They had to wander around in the desert for decades. Their story was the typical story of addiction. Repeated, weary failing. Two steps forward, three steps backward. It's depressing to read.

After four decades, God tells Moses, “You've been wandering long enough. It's time to resume your march toward the Promised Land. Head north.” So they did.

But like real life, their story continued to be up and down, backward and forward, failure and then, try again. The constants were the destination: Always the Promised Land was their destination. And turning again toward glory after they failed. Over and over and over again.


The New Testament reading adds adds an important element to this story.

In Acts 16, we read about the Apostle Paul on one of his missionary journeys.

Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time. Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there. So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas. That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.

The church celebrates Paul as the Great Missionary Apostle. He was called by God in a dramatic fashion. Under the call of God, he sets out to preach the gospel. But notice in this passage, his failures. He tries to go to different places and it doesn't work out.

He doesn't give up and go home. He tries again. And again. And again.

Finally, he has a vision that he interprets as a call to yet another place. He and his disciples follow this lead and the missionary trip continues.


Sometimes we imagine that if we are faithful to God, life will be smooth sailing. But here in the story of Paul we see that even the most famous missionary in the history of the church had abortive efforts, failed attempts. He dealt with these failures by simply trying again.

So let's devote ourselves to the pursuit of holiness.

And when we fail. Get up and go again.


Knowing that just as God kept company with Israel through their great failures and kept company with Paul through his small failures, God will keep company with us.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Perfect

8/12/2107
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Sermon manuscript for 8/12/2107 at
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Text: Matthew 5-7
Occasion: Megan's baptism.

If you go to Megan's mother's Facebook page and click on photos then click on the appropriate album, the first picture that comes up is an archer. String drawn, bow bent, arrow aimed at the target out of the picture to the right.

Studying the picture I can feel the tension in Megan's right arm, the responsiveness in her left arm as it tracks with her eye which is drilled on the target. As I imagine the last few seconds before the release, I can almost feel in my own head her hunger for a bull's-eye. She remembers hundreds of releases. She remembers the last time she stuck it, dead center. Again. She wants it again. Feels it in her arms. Looks for that perfect place, then lets it fly.

Bull's-eye!

YES!

Let's do it again. And again. And again.

When I was a kid, my mother read us a kids book featuring Native Americans. One of the stories featured people in the lake country of Minnesota. The boy featured in the story is invited to accompany his father and uncle on a night hunting trip. They make a small fire in a basket of sand attached to the front of their canoe. When a deer stops to stare at the fire, visible only as a pair of eyes, the father shoots it with his bow and arrow. The son is astonished. “How can you aim an arrow when you cannot even see it?” The boy asks.

The father responds, “Can you point your finger in the dark?”

The bow and arrow had lived so long in the father's hands they were mere extensions of his body. He only had to see where he wanted the arrow to go. This mythical union of bow and arrow and body is the ambition of every archer. We dream of the place where our only quest is to see clearly the target with the full confidence our arrows will follow our eyes.

This is the point of practice. To train our arms and legs, indeed every muscle in our body, to unite with our eyes in seeking the target. Every archer dreams of burying an entire quiver-full of arrows inside that small red circle at the center of the target, a whole quiver-full of bull's-eyes.

That would be heaven.

This is also our ambition as Christians. We dream of our bodies acting as flawless expressions of our spiritual vision. We dream of a day when every interaction with other people expresses the integrity and generosity of Christ. When every words we speak is true and courteous. When every thought is pure and noble.

That would be a glorious day. That would be even more exciting than a whole quiver-full of arrows.

In our New Testament reading today, we heard the words of Jesus that form the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, the constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven. Allow me a paraphrase: Line up your life with my teachings and you'll be pleased with the long term results. Don't line up your life with these teachings and you'll wish you had.

What does it mean to line up our life with the teachings of Jesus? Jesus offered a number of specific instructions. Use your words to build and heal, never to destroy or deceive. Be faithful in your relationships. Recognize the moral significance of the cultivating desires. Tell the truth. Always. Simply.

Then Jesus offered this simple, comprehensive challenge: Be perfect. Just like God. What is the perfection of God? Jesus summarized it this way: God sends rain on the just and the unjust. God shines his sunshine on the deserving and the undeserving, on Republicans and Democrats, on Russians and Americans, and even on North Koreans. Be like God. See every human being as a human being. Even if you are a police officer and deal with the most broken and dangerous human beings, work to remember that even as you thwart their evil, even as you protect the public and yourself—remember these criminals are broken HUMAN BEINGS and deserve some measure of respect because they are the children of mothers like your mother. They are children of the same heavenly Father who gave you birth.

It is an incredibly high ideal. Be perfect, just like God.

Let me go back to the archer for a minute.

Imagine you are a beginner at Sunset Lake Camp. (That's where Liz took the picture of Megan.) The instructor lays out the rules to keep everyone safe then shows you how to hold the bow and arrow. Then because unlike Megan, you are a bit clumsy, the instructor gives you some personal attention, adjusts your fingers, touches your elbow to move it into a better position. You shoot and your arrow gets lost in the trees off to the left. You shoot again and your arrow goes into the dirt. You shoot a whole quiver full of arrows and none of them even hits the hay bales holding the target. What does the instructor do? Gives you another quiver full of arrows and sets you back to shooting.

Over time you learn to control your bow. The arrows begin finding the hay bales and then the target and then you hit a bull's-eye. You do a little dance. And then try to do it again.

By the end of camp you've hit the center of the target three times. What do you dream of all winter long? Returning to camp and signing up for archery again. You dream of putting an arrow in the cneter of the target and a second arrow smack against it. And another arrow smack against those two. A whole quiver full of arrows in a tiny circle at the center of the target.

Not all of us are archers but we are all Christians. As Christians we dream of landing every word, every act, even every thought smack in the center of perfection. It is the only goal worth our devotion.

Be perfect, Jesus says, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

When I was in college and seminary, this challenge by Jesus often formed the center of fierce arguments. The arguments were driven by fear. What would happen if you didn't achieve perfection? Some people insisted it was possible to reach perfection with the help of the Holy Spirit. Others argued perfection wasn't possible and it wasn't really the goal anyway. Jesus talked about perfection just to highlight how screwed up people were so they would accept forgiveness.

I laugh those arguments now.

Of course, flawless perfection is not possible. But it is the only goal worth aiming at. Archers don't dream of hitting the target sometimes. They dream of hitting the bull's-eye every time. It's why they sign up for archery at camp.

As Christians, as devotees of Jesus, we aim at moral and spiritual perfection. We aim to be like God. If our aim was only to be “pretty good” why call it Christian.?

Part of the emotional force lying behind my school days arguments about this saying of Jesus was our fear of failure. What would happen to us if we did not manage to put every arrow in the center of the target? In the world I grew up in, failure to put every arrow in the center of the target meant that at the end of the week the instructor was going to throw me into hell. With this threat hanging over our heads no wonder we tried to come up with a standard other than perfection.

But what does the instructor really do at the end of the week at camp? The instructor commends you for your improvement and hopes you'll come back next year and make even more progress. The instructor knows that when you come back next year, you'll devote more energy to your grand goal of sinking every arrow in the center of the target.

In the middle part of the Sermon on the Mount, chapter six, Jesus offers a series of pictures of God. Every one of them designed to give us reassurance. Don't pray desperately because God is always watching and already knows your needs. Don't worry about your future because God will take care of you. We do not have to struggle to win the affection and favor of God. Like every good mother and every good father, God regards us with abundant affection and warm regard from our first day to our last.

On the other hand, Jesus also taught that the best life comes from pushing ourselves to do the right thing. The best life comes from vigorous, persistent moral effort. Aiming at perfection.

It's easier to eat ice cream than it is to go for a walk. But for most of us the walk will contribute more to our long term happiness, especially if we do it frequently.

It's easier to spend money than to save money. But for most of us the savings will contribute more to our long term happiness, especially if we make it a habit.

When someone offends us or hurts us, sharp words are an easier response than peace making words. But usually the peace making words will do more for our future happiness.

Following impulsive desires is easier than cultivating our desire for goodness. But goodness will build a happier life.

Telling the truth is sometimes harder than making up stuff, but telling the truth yields better fruit.

Practicing seeing our enemies as children of God is difficult but it pays enormous dividends.

Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Because we are children of God.
And because life words better that way. For us. And for the world around us.

Sure, we will miss the target sometimes. We will lose some arrows in the woods.

But God gives us another day, another quiver full of life.

Tomorrow, we begin another week as children of God. Let's take this gift of life and aim again at the very highest ideal. Let's aim to be perfect just like God.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Tell the Truth

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, August 5, 2017

Texts:  Malachi 3:5-10, Matthew 5:33-37.




Tell the truth.

That's what we do, right?

We do what we promise. We acknowledge when we have made a mistake.

We tell the truth.

That's what we do.

That's the way it is in the kingdom of heaven.

To quote Jesus:

You have also heard that our ancestors were told, 'You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the LORD.' But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, 'By heaven!' because heaven is God's throne. And do not say, 'By the earth!' because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, 'By Jerusalem!' for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, 'By my head!' for you can't turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, 'Yes, I will,' or 'No, I won't.' Anything beyond this is from the evil one. Matthew 5:33-37.

No need to get all fancy and emphatic. Just say what you mean. And mean what you say.

Tell the truth.

We can easily imagine complicated situations.

When the cashier at the grocery story asks, “How are you?” do I have to explain that my dog just died or my child was just diagnosed with a learning disability or that my car just cost me $853 and I had other plans for that money? Or can I just say, “Fine, thank you.”

A story I read again this week in preparation for today's sermon:

Roddie Edmonds was shipped to Germany near the end of WWII. He and his unit were caught up almost immediately in the Battle of the Bulge and captured. They were shipped to a POW camp. Edmonds was the senior officer among 1275 prisoners. Toward the end of the first day in camp, the camp announced that the next day only Jewish soldiers were to line in the morning after roll call.

Edmonds who was a Christian told his men they were not going to comply with the order. The Geneva Convention said the only identification the Germans could require was name, rank, and serial number. So the next morning all 1275 Americans stood at attention.

The German officer was furious. He hollered at Edmonds, you can't all be Jewish.

“We are all Jews here.” Edmonds insisted.

The officer pulled his pistol and pointed it at Edmonds forehead. You will order your Jewish soldiers to step forward. Edmonds reminded the officer of the Geneva Convention, then said. "If you shoot, you'll have to kill all of us, and you will have to stand for war crimes after we win this war."

The German officer put his gun away and Edmonds Jewish soldiers were saved. It is not known how many of Edmonds soldiers were actually Jewish. Perhaps as many as 200 were.

Was that telling the truth?

These are interesting diversions. Do we have to tell the truth when someone asks, “How are you?” Do we have to tell the truth when doing so will get someone killed? These kinds of questions are most just distractions. The challenge Jesus issues is: tell the truth.

Keep it simple and pure. Tell the truth.

Among citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the purpose of a contract is simply to help us remember our promises. We do not use words as clever devices to trick people. Rather we use words to communicate clearly our intentions, our convictions, our decisions.

"Yes."  That's what we say when we mean, yes.

"No." That's what we say when we mean, no.

"I don't know." That's what we say when we don't know.

We tell the truth.

When it's to our advantage, we tell the truth.

When it's to our disadvantage, we still tell the truth.

Sometimes, in the complicated pressure of a moment, we might distort the truth. If that happens, later when our conscience wakes up and we realize we have departed from the truth, we confess our error. We make amends. We apologize. We return to the truth. When we have confidently and honestly said something that was incorrect. We own it. We acknowledge our error. And return to the truth. At the heart of our theology is an ineradicable conviction that God tells the truth. Since we are children of God, truth telling is what we do. It is what we return to every time we slip.

Truth is our native tongue.

It is the indispensable homage we pay to God.


So, let's tell the truth.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Manage Your Eyes, Not Their Lives

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for July 29, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-8, Matthew 5:27-30


So let's jump right into it. If a man can't keep his peeping eyes out of women's dressing rooms, he should have himself blinded. If a man cannot keep himself from groping women, he should cut his hands off.

This idea is not original with me. It's a straightforward paraphrase of what Jesus said 2000 years ago.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Jesus makes many extreme statements. It would be a bad idea to turn them into literal rules.

Jesus said, “Take no thought for the morrow.” Don't even think about your future. Obviously, we don't want our children to do that literally. First question of an evening on a school night is, do you have any homework for tomorrow? When we teach our children about money, one of the foundation principles is savings. Part of every pay check should go for the future. A future so far out there that our kids can scarcely imagine it.

Still we appreciate Jesus' caution about robbing ourselves of enjoyment today by fretting about tomorrow. We understand Jesus' words to be a poetic summons to practice trust in God.

Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other.” None of us can imagine literally doing this. If he's bigger, when he strikes you on one cheek, RUN! If things are a bit more even, if he strikes you on the cheek, prepare to defend yourself.

We do not take Jesus words about offering the other cheek literally. But we do take them seriously. We cultivate an attitude of forgiveness. We recognize the futility, the foolishness, of thinking we can make life better by hurting those who have hurt us.

These extreme statements by Jesus capture our attention. They call us to rethink our “natural” ways of thinking. Aim higher. And higher. Jesus is the supreme Spiritual Cross Fit trainer, pushing us way beyond what we thought was possible.

Which brings us to today's New Testament reading:

If your eye gets you into trouble, gouge it out.
If your hands get you in trouble cut them off.

What is Jesus trying to tell us?

Let's start with the most obvious and simple. Central in the creation order is the glorious, fiery attraction between men and women. Part of this magnetism is the powerful allure of feminine beauty. For most men, female beauty is nearly irresistible.

It is a short step from our awareness of our desire to imagining that our desire for a woman is permission from that woman for us to enter her space. From there it is another short step to imagining that if my desire is illicit, it's all her fault. Men make women responsible for male desire.

Jesus emphatically rejects the notion that women are responsible for managing male desire. Men are responsible for their own eyes and hands. Female beauty is neither permission nor command for men to do anything. It is simply a glorious, lovely fact.

It is part of the charm of creation. It what makes the world go round.

But, Jesus says. Do not confuse your desire with permission or command to engage with the person I desire.

I am responsible for where I place my eyes. I am responsible for what I do with my hands. Morality begins and ends with my management of myself. In the religion of Jesus morality, goodness, integrity is rooted in our own hearts not in the outward circumstances.

When we embrace this ethic, it creates a wonderful freedom. Freedom for happy relationships between men and women. Freedom for women to engage freely in the full range of society. Freedom for them to achieve their highest potential, and in the process enrich our entire society.

When men and women cultivate respect for one another, acknowledging the special charms and unique allure without in any way confusing my desire for the other person's permission, we are creating a safe world. Safe for ourselves. Safe for our children. Safe for those among us whose gender and sexuality does not match the usual, neat binary divisions.

Self-restraint is the very foundation of a holy, happy, healthy community.

Because we are sexual beings, self-control and mutual respect go a very long way toward creating a healthy society. And this challenge by Jesus goes far beyond sexuality. It touches the foundation of all harmonious relationships. We do right because that's who we are. Period.

We don't refuse to murder because the person who has so provoked us deserves kindness from us. No. We do not murder because we are not murderers.

When we see a nice bicycle on someone's porch, we don't leave it there because we might get caught if we stole it. No, we leave it there because we are not thieves.

We do not mock our political opponents because we are not mockers. We tell the truth because we are not liars. We obey the law, because we are lawful people.

If our eye causes us to sin, let's not blame the person or thing we have seen. Let's deal with our own hearts. And maybe, just maybe, we should quit looking. After my sermon on not calling people idiots, several of you said to me, but when I watch TV news and I see such and such, I can't help myself. I explode with anger and ugly words—in my mind if not out loud.

Well, then maybe you should quit watching. I do not watch any TV news. I read, but I do not watch because of that emotional impact, which can often distort the facts.

Last week Hanz talked about all the spankings he received when he was a kid. I got my share, but it sounded like he got more. If you are a parent and you are frequently spanking your child, the problem is not your child. Find a different and better form of discipline.

And if you are a guy who invades the space of women, stop it. Cut your hands off—metaphorically, of course—but still, cut your hands off. The problem is not the attractiveness of women. The problem is you. Fix it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was biking to an appointment in Ballard. I was peddling up a section of 50th Street that is quite steep. I noticed a young woman running up the hill on the other side of the street. Her power moving uphill was impressive. She was a serious athlete. I stopped for a light and she crossed the street in front of me. As she ran in front of me I noticed she had beautiful, long legs. Once across the street, she turned and continued on up the hill moving crazy fast. The light changed and I stood on my peddles and did my own push up the hill. It was so steep that even though I was on a bike and she was on foot, I did not gain on the runner. In fact, she was pulling away from me. Finally the slope eased and I peddled past her. And again appreciated her amazing athleticism and her beauty.

I had already begun work on this sermon series. And as I continued on to my appointment I thought of the freedom she represented. In Saudi Arabia this young woman would have been forbidden to go running on a sunny afternoon in her shorts and T-shirt. In certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn dominated by Orthodox Jewish culture, she might well have been stoned. Some of us attended Adventist schools where she would have been called in by the girl's dean and admonished. But here she was free to luxuriate in the sun and warmth of a Seattle summer afternoon. Free to run like a gazelle. No one bothered her. No one grabbed her. She was free to run and dream of glory in whatever race she was training for.

The highest vision Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount is human living in the image of God. Jesus calls us to practice with one another the generosity of God. Our highest ambition is not to see how much we can seize, how much we can grab from others. Rather, responding to the call of JEsus, our highest ambition is to see how much we can give, how grand and magnanimous we can be.

For me that girl flying up 50th Street is a picture of the beauty and freedom available when we embrace the principles of the kingdom of heaven. Most of us will never be able to run as strongly as that young woman. But we can delight in .her freedom and pledge ourselves to do all we can to ensure that the same freedom is there for our sisters and daughters and granddaughters. God gives freedom. We partner best with God when our generosity expands the freedom available to all God's children. This is the wisest, best use of our eyes and our hands.