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.




Better Than Getting Even

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for Sabbath July 22, 2017

I saw a picture on Facebook this week of Andrew Gagiu playing in a string quartet in a coffee house called Muddy Waters. The caption he wrote for the picture was “Sibelius in a coffee shop. Because why not?” When you're a musician, you make music. And a coffee shop is a venue begging for music.

Wednesday night I was at a meeting of the Green Lake Foundation. Frequently, in these meetings someone will point out the huge amount of volunteer service performed by someone else on the committee. And usually, the rebuttal to this affirmation comes when others on the committee point out that the person giving the commendations also makes heroic contributions of time and expertise to the work of the Foundation and more generally to the life of the congregation. Service, volunteering time and money and expertise, is a normal characteristic of being a member of this church. It's at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.

The Gospel of Matthew has five teaching sections. The first, and most famous, is in chapters 5 through 7, and is called the Sermon on the Mount. I like to think of it as the constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven.

After presenting some foundational principles, Jesus lays out some rules for Christian living. His first rule is something everyone agrees on, Don't murder.

“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.”

As far as I know murder is prohibited in every human society. Even in a place like Saudi Arabia whose practice of the death penalty seems barbaric to us, even there, murder is prohibited. In Communist China, in liberal Sweden, even in places like Somalia, murder is regarded with repugnance. Murder is evil.

When Jesus stated, “You have heard that our ancestors were told, 'You must not murder.'” the crowd listening nodded their heads. Yes, we've heard that. We believe that.

I imagine Jesus asking the crowd, “Are you with me? Are you sure murder is wicked?”

“Yes.” The crowd called back.

He cups his ear with his hand, listening. “I can't hear you.

“Yes!” they call back good-naturedly.

“Good.” Jesus says. “So we're all agreed. Murder is evil. We shouldn't do it. So don't do it. Do not take the life of another.”

“But let's think for a minute. You didn't need me to tell you not to murder. You knew that already. For most of you, murder would be impossible. It would never even cross your mind. If it did, you would be appalled, horrified. I could sleep in your house and not worry about getting my throat slit in the night. You're good people. You would never murder me. You wouldn't even murder your brother who ripped you off when your father died. You wouldn't even murder your husband if he cheated on you. Most of you would not even consider murdering your husband if he beat you black and blue. Murder is awful, ugly, reprehensible, repugnant, disgusting, repulsive, abhorrent, unthinkable. Right? Right. I know it is. And you are decent people, so I'm safe.”

Then Jesus takes it a step further.

What is murder? Diminishing someone else's life. Draining the life out of them. And while murder in the literal sense is the monstrous final act of taking life, there are other ways we diminish life. And the most common is words.

If someone calls you an idiot, especially if it's someone you respect or someone you depend on—a teacher, a boss, your husband or wife, your parents, your kids—wow. It sucks the life out of you. It leaves you feeling worthless, damaged.

If that's how you feel when someone calls you an idiot, then don't use the word yourself. Or any other word that shrinks the life of another.

Don't call people slackers or losers, or fool or idiot. Don't say words that diminish other people.

Just don't.

And don't share posts on Facebook that use words like this.

Given the way social media permeates our lives, it is more important now than ever in human history that we embrace the Christian discipline of avoiding words that cut and slice, words that wound and ridicule.

In response to my post on Facebook announcing this week's sermon someone responded,

I love your choice of the word "obliterate". I have lost count of the times I have seen violent and hyperbolic synonyms of "destroy" applied to persons in the political (and religious) arena as indications of intent or expressions of gloat. The short list includes: annihilate, axe, butcher, cripple, crush, decimate, demolish, devastate, eradicate, exterpate, mangle, mutilate, nuke, pulverize, ravage, ruin, shatter, smash, snuff out, thrash, trash, vaporize, and waste. I am sure there are a few others that I should have recalled, but didn't.

..I forgot a few: injure, massacre, murder, and terminate. One would think we were talking about a contact sport.

Let's be crystal clear: Abrasive, crude language is evil. It is not Christian, not if by Christian we are referring to our highest ideals and values. Crude speech is evidence of a crudeness of heart. This principle is indisputable.

Jesus explicitly labels demeaning language as a damnable evil. So let's avoid it.

Jesus does not stop there.

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. Matthew 5:21-24

Jesus calls us far beyond merely avoiding sharp, demeaning language. Every week as we prepare for worship, we should examine our lives for unresolved conflict. If we think of someone who is angry with us, someone who thinks we did them wrong. If there is someone like that in our memories, Jesus urges his followers to go seek reconciliation before continuing with their worship traditions. First be reconciled with that person, that real, live human being, someone you can touch—be reconciled with that person then come and worship.

As I meditated on this passage this week it struck me that if someone considers murdering another person, they imagine getting rid of a bad person. When someone murders another human being, it's usually because the murderer imagines the other person has done them some great evil and they are merely getting even. The murdered person got what they deserved. That's what the murderer thinks.

It's the same when we call other people names. We holler at them because they have done us wrong. They have annoyed us or harmed us or cheated us or failed us. We have suffered some loss, some wound because of them, so we imagine they deserve to receive some of their own medicine. We get even.

But we need to be careful about this getting even. When we have gotten even with someone, we have sunk to their level. Getting even never means elevating ourselves or the people with whom we are getting even. Getting even means everyone ends up in a lower place. Retribution is like gravity. It always takes people down.

Jesus called us to something better. When we pursue the kind of reconciliation Jesus describes here in these verses, we rise. And if the person with whom we are seeking reconciliation responds, they also rise. Getting even takes everyone down. Pursuing reconciliation raises everyone. This is our calling as Christians.

Later in the chapter Jesus comes back to this theme. Love your enemies. Jesus says. Do good to those who harm you. Then this: Act like God. Be as generous as God.


It's a impossibly high standard, still it is our goal.

Because we are Christians. That's what we do.

Musicians make music.
Christians seek reconciliation.
We can't always accomplish it, but our goal of is reconciliation. That's who we are.

Wednesday evening I had an hour before the quarterly meeting of the Green Lake Foundation, so I went for a run around Green Lake. I had just started running when I saw a couple of familiar faces coming my direction. It took me a second to place them. It was Matt and Betsy. We hadn't seen each other in awhile so we stopped and chitchatted a bit. Matt runs hundred mile races. Last October he ran the 120 mile Big Foot Race between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens. They asked about my running and made happy noises about the race I completed in April. I asked about their running. Betsy was slightly apologetic. She had planned to run the Big Foot 100K this weekend, but then decided she had not trained adequately. So instead of running she and Matt volunteered to operate an aid station that is a seven mile hike from the nearest road.

They told me about a thirty mile loop in the mountains east of Enumclaw.

This is what runners do. They imagine trails. They talk about trails. When they can't run, they h elp other runners run. Every achievement becomes the foundation of a greater, faster, farther dream.

It's the same for us as Christians. We have a holy ambition. We aim to use words as agents of reconciliation and healing. If our words were helpful yesterday, we hope they will be even more helpful tomorrow. If we managed to accomplish some work of reconciliation, that success fuels our ambition for even greater accomplishments in the cause of justice and peace.

Our ambition is nothing short of becoming like God.

When a runner stumbles in a race, he or she gets back up and starts running again.

If we stumble so badly we cannot continue in the race, we dream of another race.

And if we cannot run in another race, we volunteer to help someone else run.

We take great delight in the community of running. We experience the triumphs of the greats as our triumphs. Their victories are the victories we would win if we had their genes and their opportunities. They run. We run. It's what we do.

So in Christianity.

We use healing, life-giving words. We offer encouragement, consolation, hope. It's who we are. It's who we want to be. Just like God.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Sweet Dreams

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, July 15, 2017

Texts: Jeremiah 31:15-26; Luke 15:1-6. 



Maurice was worried about his youngest son. His oldest son, in his early thirties, had a major position with Sprint. He was in charge of bringing on line some new technology that I didn't quite understand. The minister's daughter was an architect and in her first year in her firm won a national design award. She was doing very well, thank you.

But it was the youngest son, Maurice was worried about. He had started out at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, then enrolled in aeronautical engineering at the University of Alabama with the plan of completing both degrees. This younger son had finished his degree at Oakwood but was still four classes short of completing his degree in engineering at the University of Alabama. Part of the reason he had not yet finished his engineering degree is that he was already working as an engineer going to school only part time.

Our conversation happened while we were at a conference last week. Over a couple of different meals, Maurice described his efforts to talk sense to his son. The son had been offered a job by another firm there in Huntsville. It offered $17,000 more a year. The son wanted to take the new. Maurice and his wife were trying to persuade their son to decline the offer and finish his degree. Remember he was only four classes short. If people were trying to recruit him now, without the degree, there would be more offers after he finished his degree. And it would never be easier to finish his education than now.

After awhile, Maurice's wife joined us. The kids get their brains from Mom, Maurice says. She's an IT genius. The three of us shook our heads together as we commiserated about the short-sightedness of young people. We understood the allure of $17,000. But we were sure that this younger son would some day be very glad he had buckled down and finished that degree. And together we hoped he would be willing to stay in his current job long enough to graduate.

An abiding characteristic of parents is a hunger to see our children succeed.

When our little one starts pull herself up and standing on rocking legs, we eagerly watch for her first steps. We listen for first words. We brag about first songs.

We take pictures of kids holding books pretending they are reading. And if our kid is one of those early readers, we take soul-filling pride in their accomplishment.

And if our kid is preparing for his comprehensives or getting ready to go on stage for her masters recital, we hold our breath, hoping they will wow their professors and the rest of the world. (And we laugh at ourselves for thinking of them as “kids” when they have so far surpassed us. Still, we cannot completely forget that we changed their diapers and cleaned their vomit out of the carpet.)

It is the very essence of being a parent to dream of our kids' success. At some point in our lives, our highest ambitions transfer from anything we might imagine for ourselves to what we imagine for our children. And no matter what they achieve, we dream of something higher and brighter.

This hunger for the success of our children never goes away. No matter how successful they are. No matter how messed up they are.

I visited with another denominational executive. Jack also has three kids. His daughter, the middle kid, is making him proud. She's married working for the church. Doing well. The youngest, well, he's an artist, and therefore starving—well, between jobs. Just got laid off from the nonprofit he was working for, saving the world, because that what dreamy artistic kids do. The nonprofit figured out they could get unpaid interns to do the work they had been paying Jack's son to do. He's a good kid. Dad just holds his breath, hoping he'll land well. The conversation went elsewhere, but I brought it back. Jack had mentioned his eldest earlier in the conversation, and I noticed the current evasion. I had to ask. “Your eldest, is he doing okay?” I saw the pain on Jack's face. I felt the hesitation. “We're praying.” he said. And waiting, I added in my head. Waiting and hoping and aching.

There were no details. That was left to my imagination. Drugs? Unemployment? Mental illness? Crime? Relational messes. There are a thousand ways children can break our hearts. There are only a couple of ways we can respond. We hurt. And we long for something better.

And if some night in our dreams, our son gets a job or our daughter goes to rehab or our kid is released from prison, it is the sweetest dream. And when we wake, we say “My sleep was very sweet.”

With this background, let's consider our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.

A cry is heard in Ramah--deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted--for her children are gone."

The setting for these words is the failure of Israel. The nation of Israel had been conquered by the kingdom of Babylon. The initial military defeat turned into complete obliteration. The Babylonians deported the entire population en masse. Huge numbers of people, especially young men, warriors, were slaughtered.

The nation, personified as the mothers, wept. Inconsolably. How do you find tears enough to grieve the loss of an entire generation?

The prophet Jeremiah had predicted this disaster. More than that, he had tried to avert the disaster. He had begged and cajoled and scolded the people trying to persuade them to take the necessary actions to avoid this calamity.

He had preached against idolatry and its immoral sequelae . He had railed against the oppression of the poor, the failure to provide for the widows and orphans, the perversion of justice which turned the courts into agencies for the protection of the privileged. He denounced the use of religion as a ritual of national self-affirmation. He thundered. He implored. And watched helplessly as the nation failed.

A cry is heard in Ramah--deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted--for her children are gone."

This lament, this awareness of doom, dominates the book of Jeremiah, but here in the vision of chapter 31, this doom is background. It is not the last word. After recording this lamentation, Jeremiah writes,

But now this is what the LORD says: "Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you," says the LORD. "Your children will come back to you from the distant land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future," says the LORD. "Your children will come again to their own land.

You children will come home. They screwed up. Disaster happened. But that is not the final chapter. They will come home.

In the vision, Jeremiah hears this command:

Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Mark well the path because your children are coming home. I will bring them back. They will live together in peace and happiness. I will give rest to the weary and joy to the sorrowing."

Jeremiah ends the passage with these words:

I woke up and looked around. My sleep had been very sweet. Jeremiah 31:15-26

Sweet, indeed.


Jeremiah's sweet dream is a picture of God. God's dream for humanity is success. Plan A is a straight line from birth to success. Plan B is a straight line from wherever we are to success. The vision of God is the triumph of his children. And that vision always begins at the point where God's children currently are. There is no place any human can reach that does not have a path from there to triumph, from there to joy. This is the central conviction of theism. God has good plans that include us and every other human being.

And when we help one another toward wholeness, toward holiness and health, toward happiness and nobility we are participating in the happiness of God. 

Our New Testament reading is the story of the Good Shepherd. One sheep from his flock of a hundred gets lost. After securing the 99 in the sheep pen, the shepherd goes looking and keeps looking until he finds the lost sheep and brings it home.

And when he returns with the sheep on his shoulders, there is great rejoicing.

I shared lunch on Tuesday with Brianna, a friend of one of my daughters. She taught this last year at a small Adventist high school in New England. She told me stories of heart breaking human dysfunction and her sense of inadequacy as she gave a listening ear to these kids who came from places of domestic chaos. She talked of her hunger to see them succeed, to transcend the messes of their childhood and go on to lives of happiness and doing good.

Listening to her, I saw a vision of God. Affection for her kids. Ambition for her kids. Devotion to her kids. I imagined God watching her at work and telling himself, now that is a woman after my own heart. That's my idea of a perfect human being. And God smiles. And if God takes a nap in afternoon after watching Brianna at work, his sleep is very sweet.

The world offers many reasons to lament. We ache for the failure that haunts the human condition. But we can also participate in the sweet dreams of God. We can be shepherds finding lost sheep. We can be teachers cooperating in the work of God, helping his children succeed. This is our highest calling. 



Friday, June 30, 2017

Favored Nation

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for 7/1/17

Texts: 2 Samuel 7:8-16. Acts 22:22-29

Thursday morning I was bicycling past the Shilshole marina. I couldn't keep going. The collection of sailboats, masts rising into the blue sky, hulls cutting the still water, compelled me to stop. Beckoned with siren strength. I stopped and framed a few pictures.



The beauty was mesmerizing. I would have stayed longer admiring the loveliness of the boats and water and sky except that there close to the water the day was still too cold for standing around in shorts and a tee shirt. I peddled away with the opening lines of Woody Guthrie's song running in my head. (Edited slightly to include our corner of the continent.)

This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York Island. From the Doug fir forests to the Gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me.

On a sunny, summer morning is there any place the world quite as lovely as our neighborhood? No wonder we sing songs of celebrating this beautiful land.

And I recalled other sunny days on other American shores. My first congregation, in the town of Babylon on the south shore of Long Island, was just a couple of blocks from the water. I'd walk along Shore Avenue and admire the boats moored there and listen to the slap of halyards on aluminum masts. And wonder how was I so lucky to work in such a charming place.

Once when the kids were little we spent a week in Florida, playing in the sand, going for walks in the balmy evenings. Later we lived in Southern California, not far from the beach. We loved it. Every corner of our country is charming. And vast miles in between. When I drive across the sweeping prairies of eastern Colorado and Nebraska and Kansas, my soul breathes. I relish the immense dome of the sky and the spectacular mountains of clouds that build on summer afternoons into thunderheads that can reach 75,000 feet into the sky.

What a glorious land.

Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.

This land is our land. This land is a gift to you and me. Our sense of divine favor echoes the words of our Old Testament reading:

"Now go and say to my servant David, 'This is what the LORD of Heaven's Armies has declared: I took you from tending sheep in the pasture and selected you to be the leader of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have destroyed all your enemies before your eyes.
Now I will make your name as famous as anyone who has ever lived on the earth! And I will provide a homeland for my people Israel, planting them in a secure place where they will never be disturbed. Evil nations won't oppress them as they've done in the past, starting from the time I appointed judges to rule my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies. "'Furthermore, the LORD declares that he will make a house for you--a dynasty of kings! For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong.
He is the one who will build a house--a temple--for my name.
I will secure his royal throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. If he sins, I will correct and discipline him with the rod, like any father would do. But my favor will not be taken from him as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from your sight. Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.'"  2 Samuel 7:8-16

To paraphrase the prophet:  David, your throne is a gift from God. This land is God's gift to your people. Your sweet place is a gift. You did not do it"all by yourself."

David was a warrior. He had spent years enduring hardship and danger. He had demonstrated courage and loyalty. If any king ever “earned” his throne, David did. But the prophet reminded: God gave you your throne.

The people of Israel had been a warrior people. They invaded Palestine and endured fierce battles. They slaughtered their enemies. Yes. But they also suffered their own casualties. They might have been tempted to think, this land is our land. We grabbed it for ourselves. Again, the prophet's words call to mind the truth: the land flowing with milk and honey, their land, was a gift. The sweetness of their land was to remind them of the generosity of God.

American Christians have often drawn parallels between America and ancient Israel. Just as the Israelites were a chosen people, blessed by God and given a land, so we imagine ourselves to be a chosen people, blessed by God and given a land.  And truly this is a special place. Let us keep forever alive the conviction that this land is a gift, a precious gift. It calls for gratitude and for stewardship.




Many writers have compared the United States to the Roman Empire. One of the important parallels is highlighted in our New Testament reading.

Paul had quietly worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem when he was recognized by people who hated him. They accused him of desecrating the temple and gathered a mob that began beating him. Roman soldiers were summoned. They took him into protective custody and hauled him back to their post followed by the mob. There Paul asked to speak to the crowd and the officer gave him permission. He spoke in Hebrew and the people listened until he said God had appeared to him in a vision and sent him to the Gentiles.

The crowd listened until Paul said that word. Then they all began to shout, "Away with such a fellow! He isn't fit to live!" They yelled, threw off their coats, and tossed handfuls of dust into the air.
The commander brought Paul inside and ordered him lashed with whips to make him confess his crime. He wanted to find out why the crowd had become so furious.
When they tied Paul down to lash him, Paul said to the officer standing there, "Is it legal for you to whip a Roman citizen who hasn't even been tried?"
When the officer heard this, he went to the commander and asked, "What are you doing? This man is a Roman citizen!"
So the commander went over and asked Paul, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?" "Yes, I certainly am," Paul replied. "I am, too," the commander muttered, "and it cost me plenty!" Paul answered, "But I am a citizen by birth!"
The soldiers who were about to interrogate Paul quickly withdrew when they heard he was a Roman citizen, and the commander was frightened because he had ordered him bound and whipped. Acts 22:22-29

One of the features of Roman empire, was the sturdiness of its laws regarding citizenship. Paul appealed to this law when he was threatened with examination by torture. Ancient Israel also prided itself on its laws. In a truly great nation law is higher authority than any personality. Even the president is subordinate to the law.



In 2000 presidential election, the decision came down to the uncertain numbers in Florida. The numbers were so close that any method of checking and recounting would have a statistical measure of uncertainty greater than the margin of victory. Each side hired lawyers. The case went to the supreme court. Meanwhile the nation waited.

I vividly remember the waiting and my happy pride in what was happening.

The most powerful office in the history of humans was up for grabs. The election results were ambiguous. In many nations this situation would have led to tanks on the streets. People would have died. Cities would have been ravaged. Instead, grown-ups went to work as usual. Kids went to school. Tourists continued to fly into Seatac Airport. Except for a few politicians and lawyers life went on as usual. In a contest for the most powerful position in the history of humanity, we acted as a nation of laws. We allowed our courts to make a decision even if we disagreed with it.

And we avoided the catastrophe of civil war or riots. I was proud to be an American.




Laws don't always work the way they are supposed to. We as a nation sometimes violate our own laws. One egregious example was the imprisonment of our citizens of Japanese descent during WWII.

And sometimes our laws are themselves unjust and wicked. Witness the 246 years of legal slavery here in our fair land.

Because this land is a gift from God, it is our obligation to aim at godliness. It is our calling to aim at higher justice, a better community. Always. In 1988 we took a step in the right direction when Congress voted the Civil Liberties Act which included a formal apology and some compensation to the Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned. Even though most of the president's party opposed the act, he signed it into law. It was a step in the right direction.

In 2008 we took another small step in the right direction. The U. S. House of Represetatives formally apologized for slavery. It was a small step. But it was a step in the right direction. I'm glad we did it.




In 1883, Emma Lazarus authored a poem for a literary and art auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty. The poem was titled, “The New Colossus.”  In 1903, the poem was engraved on a plaque and  installed inside the pedestal of the statue.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, [a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes]
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
--1883 Emma Lazarus
When I read these words, I'm proud to be an American. What a high ideal. These words could have been written by Isaiah or by Amos. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” What a noble ambition. To be a nation that defends the lowly, that cares for the needy, a nation committed to truth and justice, a nation that welcomes the tired and poor from all around the globe. Let us never grow weary in pursuing these noble ambitions.




On Thursday, after I left the marina I headed to Picolinos cafe in Ballard (32nd Ave NW and NW 65th St.) to work on today's sermon. I sat at a table in the North end of the cafe. At the far south end of the room was a map of the world.. Africa and Europe were in the center of the map, China and India off to the right.  It was a relief map. So I noted the Himalayas running across the top of India and the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. None of that held my eye. I noted them mostly so I could tell you I saw them. What held my eyes with irresistible allure was the chain of mountains running up the West coast of South America thru Central America. In Mexico the line of mountains widened out becoming the mountain West in the US. The Rockies, Sierras, Coast ranges, and the Cascades. My eyes landed in Seattle. I couldn't actually see Seattle at the scale of the map and the distance I was from the map. Still my eyes landed at the place Seattle occupies, east of the Olympics, west of the Cascades, northwest of Mt Rainier. Nestled between the salt water of Puget sound and the fresh water of Lake Washington.

Given a vision of the whole world, my eyes wandered home to this place built by volcanoes and accreting terranes and sculpted by Canadian glaciers and the floods caused by pineapple expresses.  And by Scandinavian engineers. My mind came to this fair place, this sweet corner of the world we call home. And I gave thanks. And I pledged myself anew to faithful stewardship of this gift from God. May God grant us gratitude and faithfulness to his glorious ideals worthy of the magnificent gift he has given.






In 1883, Emma Lazarus authored a poem for a literary and art auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty. The poem was titled, “The New Colossus.”  In 1903, the poem was engraved on a plaque and  installed inside the pedestal of the statue.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, [a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes]
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
--1883 Emma Lazarus

When I sing this land is your land, this land is my land, I'm thinking of our glorious landscapes, yes, and I'm thinking of our ideals. Our ambition to be a truly great nation—a nation that defends the lowly, that cares for the needy, a nation committed to truth and justice, a nation that has welcomed the tired and poor from all around the globe.

We have been favored by God. We are called to extend the favor to others.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Good People, Smart People

Sermon manuscript (preliminary) for Sabbath, June 17, 2017, at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Texts: 1 Kings 4:29-34, Mark 6:34-38

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a Sabbath School class in St. George, Utah. The text under consideration by the class was 2 Peter 1. The discussion moved to verse 5:

Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge.

The teacher asked, “What is this knowledge that we are to add to our virtue?” I replied, “The knowledge necessary to respond to human need. If I am going to help my neighbor get his car going, I need to know something about cars. If I am going to repair a child's defective heart valve I must have all the knowledge of a pediatric surgeon. If I'm going to help a friend with her clogged drain, I need a little knowledge of plumbing. As Christians we are called to respond to human need, we are called to help people. It is not enough to want to help people. We need all kinds of secular knowledge to turn our desire to help into useful action.

Someone in the class challenged me. “Do you really think Peter was thinking of the acquisition of secular knowledge when he wrote this passage?”

I had to admit she had a point. In the context of 1 Peter, “knowledge” probably referred to deep, spiritual insight, not to knowledge of cars or cardiac surgery or plumbing. But when we step back and look at the Bible as a whole, secular knowledge is pictured as one of the expected virtues of the people of God.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is the story of Solomon.

God gave Solomon very great wisdom and understanding, and knowledge as vast as the sands of the seashore. 1 Kings 4:29

Solomon was so knowledgeable, people came from all over the world sit at his feet. Distant kings sent ambassadors to spent time in Jerusalem. To this day Solomon is celebrated as a wise man, the Wisest Man who ever lived.

It's important to note that the Wisdom of Solomon was not religious knowledge. People did not come to hear him preach. They came to hear him talk about all kinds of things including biology.

He could speak with authority about all kinds of plants, from the great cedar of Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows from cracks in a wall. He could also speak about animals, birds, small creatures, and fish. 1 Kings 4:33

When the knowledge tourists came to Jerusalem, they could not miss the temple and the life-encompassing ritual and the moral ideals that lived at the heart of Israel's culture. Solomon's religion made an impact on his visitors. But it was not Solomon's religion that brought them. It was his secular knowledge which was demonstrably superior.

The story of Solomon is instructive for us. We are most likely to gain a hearing for our faith, when we demonstrate secular competence. Adventists sometimes gain a hearing because our health practices have been shown to actually improve longevity. Think of the contrast between secular regard for Adventist health practices and secular opinion regarding Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal of blood transfusions even when they will save life? Or the Christian Science denial of the reality of disease. Adventist health practices in broad outline have been confirmed by modern science. And people think, if you're right about that, what else might you be right about?

There is a second lesson in Solomon's story. The text states that Solomon could speak “with authority” about all kinds of plants and animals. When it comes to secular knowledge, a person has authority only as far as they turn out to be right. Because we can check on them. Solomon's statements about plants and animals and birds could be investigated. We could go check out the cedars in Lebanon and see if what he said was accurate. We could go watch the birds and see if what he said was correct. He was an authority only if what he said checked out.

This is obviously true today.

If someone says that the glaciers on Mt. Rainier are shrinking, we can climb up there and check it out for ourselves. If someone claims a vegan diet can fuel the life and sport of an ultramarathoner, we can go find ultramarathoners and ask what they eat. If someone says that adding fish to your diet can help an ultramarathon runner improve their speed, we can become an ultramarathoner and add fish to our diet to see if it helps. When the church claims Noah's Flood built the Phanerozoic portion of the geologic column, it diminishes our credibility to speak of God because even the church-employed scientists cannot offer a plausible explanation of how Noah's Flood could have done this. (Phanerozoic refers to the portion of the geological column that has lots of fossils, the Cambrian and later.) 

It would be silly to try to settle these questions by intense Bible study or by studying the writings of our prophet. These questions can be answered by direct study and investigation.

The story of Solomon illustrates the right role of the Bible and religion in our lives.

Solomon became known as the Wisest Man who ever lived because he studied the realm of nature intensely.

And he was also one of the dumbest men who ever lived because he ignored the moral/spiritual guidance available in through religion. (The thousand women he "married" vitiated the moral and spiritual culture of the nation.)

He did not need the words of prophets to instruct him in biology. And biology was completely ineffective in guiding him in the moral and spiritual realm.

It is the same today. The Bible is not a useful guide for doing science. We become knowledgeable in the sciences the same way Solomon did—through vigorous study and investigation.

On the other hand, science is not a useful guide when it comes to moral and spiritual culture. It is possible to a brilliant person AND to be a fool.

The purpose of the Bible is to make us good.
The purpose of study is to make us smart.
Both are important. And neither will adequately substitute for the other.

Some Christians make our faith appear fanciful by attempting to use the Bible as the source for their “science.” Some scientists and engineers make science appear to be inhuman by insisting that virtue, beauty, and goodness are illusory because we cannot learn these things through science.

If we pay attention to the Bible story, we see even the ancient people were well aware of the value of both study and direct investigation and the value of faith and visions. Both are valuable. They are useful for different things.

This same interaction of concrete, hard fact and faith and vision shows up even in the stories of Jesus.

It is common for us to give a lot of prominence to Jesus' statements about faith.

To Jairus after he received news his daughter had died: “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith, and she will be healed.” Luke 8:50

I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. Mark 11:23

These passages and others like them challenge our notions of common sense. But then we encounter other statements by Jesus:
In the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him he needs to send the people away. It is late and they need to find something to eat. Jesus tells his disciples. Well, if the people are hungry, just feed them. In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples respond, “Should we g buy a bunch of bread?” Jesus asks, “Well, how much do you have on hand? Go see.” The disciples head off and eventually come back and report all they have is five loaves and two fish.

The point I would draw out of this story is that important information, crucial information, really, must be acquired in the usual way. Go and see. Go count. The numbers are not “revealed.” There is no vision. Go, count. Do your homework.

The story moves forward. Jesus performs a miracle. But the miracle was no substitute for the ordinary work of counting. Further, in preparation for the miracle, Jesus directs his disciples to seat the people in groups of hundreds and fifties. When the dinner is finished the scraps are collected and again counting features in the story. There were twelve baskets of left overs. How do we know? Through a vision? By revelation? No. Because they were counted.

One last story in the gospels that features counting. I've referenced it several times in previous sermons. After the resurrection, several of Jesus disciples head north to Galilee and go fishing. While they are fishing, Jesus appears on shore and miraculously fills their nets. When they haul the fish to shore, they count them, 153 large fish.

They are in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. This is the most astonishing fact in the history of humanity. Jesus is alive. But the disciples are still fishermen. They were not satisfied to say, “We caught a bunch of fish.” No. They caught 153 large fish. They knew the number because they counted.

Even in the presence of Jesus, the ordinary activity of using our brain is still required.

How does this play out in our life?

Here in our congregation we have a lot of engineers. People who build planes and write code and map traffic patterns. We don't want our engineers to substitute faith for knowledge. We want our airplanes to be built using accurate, hard information. We don't want software engineers getting their code sort of correct. We depend on them to do it exactly right.

We want our engineers to be like Solomon—world-renowned for their knowledge and accuracy.

We have doctors in our congregation. We count on their faith to inspire them to do the greatest possible work of healing using all the available tools. But we don't want our doctors to substitute prayer and faith for knowledge and skill.

We have business people and scientists, musicians and counselors. In each of these areas their work depends on the acquisition and smart use of information. No amount of faith will substitute for the disciplines of learning and study.

Bible knowledge is not enough to do the work that God has called us to do.

The Bible inspires us to acquire knowledge and to use that knowledge to make the world a better place. But the Bible itself does not give us the information.

I mentioned the Sabbath School class in Utah where we talked about knowledge and its role in the Christian life. Curiously, the teacher was a geologist, someone who has devoted his life to the study of rocks, in particular the sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in Utah. He has also devoted himself to the local Adventist Church, having served as one of the indispensable leaders for thirty years. He seems to me to be an ideal embodiment of a believer who is serious about the pursuit of knowledge. He knows that Noah's Flood did not create the Navajo Sandstone. And he believes that God is active and present with us. His life is a nearly perfect example of someone devoted to learning and to faith.

We are at the end of a school year. Some among us have graduated. Finished school. Congratulations. Now take all that knowledge you have acquired and spread hope and help and healing in the world. Make things better.

For those among us who are scientists, we honor your work of chasing knowledge. You honor our faith most by continuing to push the edges of knowledge. When people around you suggest that we can't really know anything, don't listen. Keep pursuing knowledge. If the people in the church suggest that your work as a scientist is unimportant or untrustworthy, push back. Tell them the story of Solomon.

I am concerned that many Christians are creating the impression that people must choose between knowledge and faith, between being smart or believing in God. I appeal especially to our young people to resist this erroneous thinking. Let's create an entire society of people who are so successful in our science that the whole world honors it. And let's create a society that is so effective in supporting and fostering holiness and goodness that the world gathers to learn our secret.