Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wisdom for the Graduates

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, June 30, 2015
Texts: Psalm 106:21-23, Luke 13:6-9

(In our service today, we pay special tribute to all our graduates. We honor their academic achievements and call them to service.)

The story begins, “A man planted a fig tree in his garden.”

Some of you will hear this and immediately imagine putting your kids in the car and going to Sky Nursery or some other local plant dealer or maybe to Home Depot or Lowes or McClendons. There you will wander among the enticing specimens until you find just the right tree. You go through check out, then scratch your head trying to figure out how to get it home. You manage to fit the pot on the floor behind the passenger seat tipped at a forty-five degree angle so the branches are in the face of your kid sitting in the back on the left side of the car. That kid is not happy.
You get home and dig a hole for this tree. The ground is rocky. You have to use a pick or digging bar. After excavating a hole large enough to bury your car, you empty into it the two bags of top soil you bought. You are surprised that the two bags which loomed so large in the trunk of your car appear to be merely teaspoons of dirt in the hole. But it's what you have. You slide the tree out of its pot and carefully set it in place on the little bump of topsoil. You fill the hole with water, then begin shoveling the remaining dirt into the hole.
You baby your tree through the year, watering it in summer, wrapping it with burlap during cold snaps. It survives the first winter and leafs out, but no figs.
Oh well. Next year.
The second summer still no figs.
The third summer. STILL no figs.
You google “barren fig trees.” You learn everything there is to learn about encouraging fig trees to fruit. Years go by. You spend money and time chasing your dream of figs.
If this is what comes to mind when you read the opening line of this story, you'll miss a key element of the story.

“A man planted a fig tree in his garden.”

This man is a landowner, a wealthy farmer. Like a major apple grower in eastern Washington or an almond farmer in central California. He is an executive farmer. When the Gospel says, “He planted a fig tree,” the word plant in that sentence means something similar to the word “play” in the sentence we played in the Superbowl this year. The man planted the tree vicariously. He said to Manuel, “Manuel, I think a fig tree would work great here on the terrace. Can you make sure we get one in the ground this season?”
Manuel dug in the rocky soil. Manuel added soil amendments. Manuel kept it watered through that first summer. The next summer, at some point, when the farmer noticed there were no figs on the tree, he was glad Manuel was taking good care of it so that surely next year there would be figs.
The next summer again, at some point the executive farmer, the land owner, noticed there were no figs on the tree. Oh well.
Of course, all this time, Manuel was managing the irrigation on the farm. He made sure the tree was getting adequate moisture. Manuel did the pruning.
The third summer, the farmer again notices the lack of figs on the tree. “Hey, Manuel. What's up with this tree? We should have figs by now. This tree is taking up space and water that could be put to better use. Cut it down and let's get something here that will produce.”
It was an easy decision for the farmer. He was an executive. He was used to making decisions with an eye to productivity only. The farmer's only interest in the tree was what it could produce. The farmer had no personal investment in the tree.
Manuel, of course, also wanted the tree to produce. But Manuel was attached to the tree. He had spent three years watching it nearly every day. He had directed irrigation water. He had watched for bugs. Manuel was attached to the tree. Manuel wanted fruit, of course. He was, after all, a gardener. He wanted fruit yes. But he specifically wanted to see THIS TREE produce fruit.
Manuel objected to cutting down the tree. “Not yet. Give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I'll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down."

The end.

Jesus' story does not tell us if the gardener was successful. He does tell us if the tree started producing. The story leaves us hoping. We don't want the tree cut down. We hope Manuel will be successful. We don't want him to be disappointed. We hope for the tree.
This story offers profound wisdom for graduates.
In our society, graduation marks the acquisition of power. Graduation opens the door for advancement. You graduate from preschool, and this opens the door to kindergarten. You graduate from kindergarten, and the door opens to first grade. We pass through high school and a diploma opens the door to college or a job. A bachelors' degree increases your employability or sets you up for graduate school. A master's or Ph. D. again opens doors. (At least we hope it does.)
With each advance, we acquire greater power to make a difference, to shape what happens in the world. Higher education frequently opens the door to higher status in society, increased opportunity to influence what happens to other people.
As a Church, the question we ask is, “What are you going to do with that power?”

Who is the landowner? Who is the gardener?
In classic Christian interpretation, God is the landowner and Jesus is the gardener. The story is a warning to the Jewish people in the context of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has been preaching for three years and still the nation hasn't repented. They have one more year before their final judgment.
But what does this story say to us? The landowner and the gardener represent two different views of God. The fig tree represents people.

The landowner, the executive farmer, is concerned about production only. The tree produces or does not produce. If it doesn't produce, cut it down. Get rid of it. Applied to people, God is watching. If you don't produce, beware, God will cut you off.

The gardener is concerned with production and with the tree. Applied to people, Jesus aims to see people reach their greatest potential. If they are unproductive, Jesus asks what can be done to help them grow. How can they do better?

Since we are Christians, we understand Jesus to be the supreme revelation of God. The other picture of God, the vision of God as the stern, even ruthless landowner pursuing the sole objective of maximum production is something we pointedly reject. That is not what God is like. That is not a model for moral behavior.
The highest morality is characterized by hope and mercy. Yes, in this story there is an awareness of limits. At some point, even the gardener would agree the tree needs to be cut down. But that is seen as exceptional, unlikely, undesirable.

Graduates, your education has given you power. The power of knowledge and skill, the power of credentials. How will you use that power?

Will you act like the landowner—ruthlessly eliminating everyone who fails to live up to their potential, everyone who is less productive than you imagine you would be if you were in their place? Or will you join Jesus, in cultivating people, in working to help them live better?

Will you work in hope?

This is our highest calling. This is the truest purpose of education.

(We can find support of the idea of two views of God elsewhere in the Bible. Moses at Sinai bluntly countermanded God's verdict of annihilation, Abraham defended the Sodomites, the Woman of Tekoa persuaded David to overturn the law of capital punishment, the Syrophonecian woman blithely dismissed Jesus' statement of the limits on his mission. In each of these cases, the explicit statement of God's will—which was destructive—is reversed or qualified and the reversal or qualification is clearly shown to be the “higher will” of God.)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Care and Feeding of Saints

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for June 6, 2015
(This is a pretty rough draft.)
Text: Luke 10:38-42

Once upon a time, Karin and I and a few friends climbed to the top of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park. You reach the summit by creeping along a knife-thin ribbon of rock that drops away on both sides in cliffs hundreds of feet high. The summit area itself, a large, flat rock bench is surrounded almost 360 degrees by vertical cliffs that, on the valley side, drop almost 1500 feet straight down. It's like you're floating in the sky. From the summit of Angel's Landing, the views of the Zion Canyon and the surrounding areas are magnificent. We were there late on a Sabbath afternoon. The weather was a bit iffy and we had the summit pretty much to ourselves. We fell into conversation with four college students. One of them mentioned he was studying drama. As the conversation continued, something prompted us to ask, “Can you do something for us? Can you recite something?” He hesitated just briefly, then agreed. He stepped a few feet away. Gathered himself, then launched into into a poem. The first line captured me, and the spell built through the entire performance. I don't remember now any of the words. I can't recall what the actor said. I do remember the astonishing power, the enchantment, my wish that it would never end. I was in Zion National Park again a few weeks ago. It was grand and beautiful, but I didn't climb Angel's Landing. The actor would not be there and I would be disappointed.

Here in Seattle most of us are familiar with the idea of the Ten Essentials. If you're going out in the mountains, you must take the ten essentials. Water and calories. Extra clothes. A headlamp. A map and compass. One thing I have never seen on any such list is an actor. And if I had not been there on Angel's Landing for that performance, I would never have imagined an actor could add the slightest value to the experience of the great outdoors. But I was there. And I bear witness: If you know a gifted actor who has devoted himself to his craft, if you know someone who has practiced and rehearsed, someone who has studied and submitted to the discipline of a teacher, take him to some rocky peak. Then wait for the magic.

Another story about the power of art. I purchased a book written by a New Mexico lawyer who was a Christian and an environmentalist. The book was his account of a week-long solo trek through a canyon in southern Utah. When I heard about the book, I knew I had to buy it. It brought together so many of my favorite things—desert, backpacking, contemplative Christianity, environmental ethics. It had to be good. It wasn't. I kept telling myself I had to like it. I would pick it up and read a few pages, but the writing was quite pedestrian. Days or weeks later I would pick up again, thinking maybe this time it would be better. It wasn't. The writing never did manage to hold my attention, but after a few weeks I realized that every time I noticed the book sitting on my desk my eyes were captured by the photo on the dust jacket.

It was a picture of a slot canyon. That's nice. I like slot canyons. I like pictures of canyons. But over time I realized this photo had a magic beyond merely the red rock and sinuous shape characteristic of that country. The photo itself was magic. It had a power beyond the mere subject matter. I became curious. What gave it such magic? Why was it so beckoning, so commanding. I went searching for information. It turned out the photo was by Elliot Porter. Then I understood.

In his day—1970s and 1980s—Porter was the most famous color photographer in America. He specialized in landscapes, creating lyrical, poetic visions of nature. I knew he was a professional photographer. I knew he had devoted his life to his art. But as that single photograph enchanted me over and over and over, I gained a much deeper appreciation of the power of his art.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling toward Jerusalem. The entourage arrived in a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

Other gospel stories tell us about a man named Lazarus who was a very special friend of Jesus. Lazarus had two sisters, Martha and Mary. So we think this is the same Martha, the sister of Lazarus. If so, Jesus stopping here would have been very much the expected thing. He had been there before. Every time he passed through that town, he stayed at Martha's house.

As would have been normal in that culture, while the men were in the living room listening to Jesus, Martha was in the kitchen cooking up a storm. I imagine she had a whole tribe of other women working with her. Martha was a good general. She was busy and knew how to keep other people around her busy as well.

At some point in this process, she stepped into the living room to see if any of her guests would like some water and she saw her sister, Mary, sitting there among all those men, right next to Jesus, hanging on his every word.

“Jesus,” Martha said with confident indignation. “doesn't it bother you that I'm slaving away in the kitchen and sister Mary here, is sitting on her tusch doing nothing? Tell her to get and help me.”

Let's turn this into a movie.

We begin with a few scenes from Martha's and Mary's childhood. Martha is the older sister, responsible, focused. Mary is the dreamer. Martha has to constantly remind Mary to be busy. They're weeding the garden and Mary has gotten distracted by a caterpillar. They're working in the kitchen and Mary has stopped to talk to the dog.

You can hear the exasperation in Martha's voice, “Mary, we don't have all day. You can talk to the dog later!”

Jesus arrives in the village. We see him and his entourage—a large group of people walking into town. Martha runs out of her house to say hello, then runs back inside to get dinner on. Women in the traveling company wander into the kitchen to help out. Martha gives everyone directions while somehow also accomplishing enough work for two people herself.

The camera switches back to the living room of the house. There is a close up of Jesus talking, then the camera pans left. We see Lazarus and Jesus' disciples, Peter, John, Judas, Thomas. There are other nameless men from the village and the traveling company. People are asking questions—not the “gottcha” questions of the religious experts, but genuine questions about the great issues of theology and the personal realities of spiritual life. Jesus' words were irresistibly charming and persuasive. It seemed to people that just listening to Jesus talk made you a better person, a happier person, a more hopeful and generous person.

Then the camera wanders slowly back to the right, and we see Mary. She's the only woman in the room full of men. But we are not surprised she's there. We could feel it coming. We see her listening with rapt attention.

The camera switches back to the kitchen and Martha. We see Martha head into the living room to offer water to her guests, and we know what's going to happen.

Ever since they were five and three years old respectively Martha has been telling Mary what to do. Martha is a general. If you were looking for a wedding coordinator or someone to organize the reception for your daughter's wedding, Martha would be your first choice. Everything would be done—just right and on time. Part of that focus means making sure other people stay on task.

“Jesus,” Martha says, hands on hips, “doesn't it bother you that I'm slaving away in the kitchen and sister Mary here, is sitting on her rear doing nothing? Tell her to get up and get busy.”

“Martha, Martha.” Jesus says, “You are all stressed out over the thousand details of entertaining this crowd. There is really only one thing worth that kind of obsession. Mary has chosen that one thing, and it will not be taken away from her."

Martha was a bit deflated. Not many people could boss her around, but Jesus could. Jesus had spoken. She yielded and headed back into the kitchen. Mary kept listening.

It's a classic story about the tug of war between being practical and being visionary, between being an activist and being a mystic, between praying and doing.

When I read this story in preparation for today's sermon, I heard in this story an affirmation of the spiritual, visionary, mystical heart of our faith. Religion tells us to do good, to get things done, to be busy. Yes. It also asserts that all this doing and busyness is subordinate to something greater—the ineffable experience of God.

Most of us agree that the Ten Essentials are a useful, truthful descriptions of how we should engage with the outdoors. And most of us, I'm pretty confident, would recognize the value of a photographers eye and an actor's voice.

Elliot Porter with his photography and that actor on Angel's Landing were not less valuable than extra clothes. They were not even less valuable than food and water. As human beings, we need more than bread alone.

Because our ordinary needs are so demanding and obvious, we can sometimes forget their subordination to the glory of art and faith.

This spring, I spent a week in the desert with a geology student. Late in the week, he told me of his spiritual journey. He had grown up in the Catholic Church. Happily went to church every week. Graduated from high school and went to work, still happily involved in church. Then he headed off to university. The culture there was strongly atheistic. He was told he had to choose between engagement with the “real world” and the fantasies of church.

When it's put that way, any self-respecting scientist is going to go with reality. But reality—rocks and numbers and chemistry and physics did not satisfy his soul. So now he asked me, was it possible to live in both worlds? Was it possible to respect the knowledge of science and to connect with the other world, the world of spirituality?

He ended the week by attending church. It was a first step back toward the glory hinted at by the poet on Angel's Landing. Above the rock and the glorious canyon there was another reality—God.

Just this week, I received an email from a university student. He dreams of getting his Ph. D. and teaching English literature. In his email he said, “I believe that all great literature reveals something of God to those who are discerning. I want to help students see the light that shines through the words.”

This student is not an Adventist. A friend had given him a copy of my book on spirituality and it spoke to him. He wanted to be part of a community that saw God in that light. But, he asked, is there actually room for me in the Adventist Church? Is there room for someone who sees truth not just in the Bible but also in the Tolkien and Beowold and Harry Potter?

Is there room for me in your church? Can I recite my poem, can I show my picture in your church?

The world is like Martha, constantly demanding that we be busy. We must be constantly productive, constantly striving to control the world, improve our situation.

But people are hungry for something else, for poetry that stirs the soul, for photographs that enthrall us, for an experience of God that satisfies the soul.

Our job as a church, is to join with Jesus in saying, those who pursue these hungers have chosen the best. Here at church we push back against the imperious demands of realists and reductionists. Beauty and grace are precious. Faith, hope and love are worthy of our time and attention.

Here in church we keep alive the secret knowledge that above all other beauties and wonders is the glory of God. Here in church we bold assert that our hunger for God is a reflection of the desire of the All Mighty.

We understand the clamor of the necessary. We understand the urgent needs of the world. We ourselves endeavor to feed people and clothe them and heal them and provide them with all the blessings of technology. We are not scornful of the tangible, material world. We simply insist there is something higher and more beautiful. Here, we honor the quest for God.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Great and Famous

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
For Sabbath, May 23, 2015
Texts: 1 King 17:8-16, Luke 9:46-50

[Luk 9:46-50 NLT] 46 Then his disciples began arguing about which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus knew their thoughts, so he brought a little child to his side. 48 Then he said to them, "Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest."

49 John said to Jesus, "Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn't in our group." 50 But Jesus said, "Don't stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you."

Many of you have already heard the news: In May of 2012, scientists from UW were checking out ammonite fossils on Sucia Island in the San Juans. Someone came across a chunk of fossilized bone. It was interesting, but not exactly front page news. It was interesting enough that the scientists got a permit to cut the bone out of the native rock and haul it off to the lab at the Burke Museum for further examination.

When the bone had been completely separated from the surrounding matrix, things got really exciting. It was a dinosaur! More specifically, it was in the group of dinosaurs called therapods. Finally, it was newsworthy and made the front page of the Seattle Times on Thursday.

Finding a dinosaur bone in Washington was so unlikely that when the scientists first saw the bone, they didn't even think “dinosaur.” They just thought big bone. A big bone is interesting, but it's not exactly front page news. Then two years of tedious work revealed that the big bone was, in fact, a genuine dinosaur bone, the very first dinosaur fossil ever found in Washington state.

Other recent items from the news. One of our TV stations posted a series of photos in connection with the 35th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. In one of those photos who should show up front and center but Marlene Land and one of her granddaughters.

Twice in the last six months or so, Scott Callender has been quoted in the business section of the Seattle Times.

Last week, Marlan Kay filled an eight-minute segment on King TV as part of their Stroke Awareness programming.

We have famous people sitting here with us. Fame is a quirky thing. It's easy to equate fame and greatness. Famous people are great and great people are famous. But we know that's an artificial connection. Marleen was laughing about her “fifteen minutes of fame” which resulted from standing on the deck at the Johnson Volcano Observatory at just the right moment when a photographer was snapping pictures. And this weekend dramatically reminds us that tens of thousands of American veterans of offered great service while remaining unknown and unrecognized.

Fame is an accident. Greatness is not.

In our New Testament reading today (Luke 9:46-48), the disciples of Jesus were arguing about which of them was “the greatest.”

In Luke 9, Jesus over hears his disciples—the twelve men who served as his inner circle—arguing about which of them was the greatest. It was probably inevitable that in a group of twelve guys who made up the inner circle of a rabbi who is drawing crowds of thousands, there would be some jockeying for position. More than one of them would imagine he would make the best prime minister, the smartest senior vice president, the most reliable senior adviser.

On this particular occasion the subtle maneuvering had come into the open.

Can you get inside the story? Can you imagine what it would be like to be one of the twelve disciples? Part of the reason they were disciples, part of the inner circle, was their strong drive to be involved in ministry. They admired Jesus and they wanted to play a major role in advancing his cause. Most of them were sure they would do the best job.

Imagine they did the modern thing and called in a consultant to help them figure out which of them was the greatest. Imagine you are the consultant. They ask you, as the wise, outside consultant to evaluate the team and make recommendations for ranking the twelve. Who should be in first place, who in second and third?

If you were given this assignment, what kind of criteria would you use to assess the disciples and their relative greatness?

Of course, in real life they did not call in an outside consultant. Jesus, himself, stuck his nose into their argument.

First, he gets their attention by calling a kid over. “Hey young man, come over here for a minute, okay?” (It could have been a young woman, but given the culture of the time, I'm guessing it was a boy.)

The kid comes over, smiling. Jesus has him (or her) stand in the center of the group. That certainly gets the attention of the group. They don't do kids. They are important people, involved in an important mission.

Besides, in that society, kids in general did not have the kind of status they do in our society. They were truly nobodies. But here, the disciples have been debating who was the greatest among them, and Jesus calls a kid into the center of the conversation.

“See this kid? He's a nobody, right? But listen, if you receive this kid in my name—as a representative of me—then when you receive the kid you are receiving me. And if you receive me, you are also receiving God who sent me. Do you get that?”

The disciples were arguing about which of them had the highest qualifications. Jesus turns their questions of greatness upside down. Instead of measuring your greatness, let me ask you a different question: How good are you at detecting greatness? If a great person came into your neighborhood, would realize it?

It remains one of the most challenging questions. Can you detect greatness?

Especially, are you sensitive to the greatness that comes from human connections rather than human accomplishment?

When you receive this kid, Jesus said, you are receiving God. If you invite this kid to your house, God will show up in your kitchen. If you take this kid to the playground, God will be sitting in the adjacent swing. Do you realize THAT? Can you see that?

What does it mean to “receive” a kid? Does it mean to pay attention? To listen? To support with a scholarship? To believe in? To see their potential? When you receive a kid, you receive God. You enter into contact with greatness, superlative greatness, supreme greatness.

The disciple, John, hearing immediately, gets what Jesus is saying and asks about a particular practical application of this truth.

“We saw someone working in your name, but he wasn't part of our group. We ordered him to stop. Was that the right thing to do?”

This person we saw, he wasn't authorized. He didn't have permission. We weren't monitoring his work so we figured that was not a good idea, but now I'm wondering.

It's pretty easy to see that this applies to the world of religion. Every denomination imagines it is the authorized representative of God. We don't trust people who speak for God but are not part of our system, not under our control. Jesus blithely dismisses such concerns. It the person is not against us, he must be for us. Trust God to manage his people. You don't have to do that.

Now, back to dinosaurs.

I was running along the Hop Valley Trail in the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park. The first few miles of the trail ran across a broad, flat valley. Then the trail dropped steeply into a narrow valley where a bit of moisture occasionally showed above the sand and rock in a creek bed. On both sides of the creek bed, the ground sloped steeply upward toward impressive cliffs of red rock.

I left the trail and clambered up to check out the rocks along the base of the cliff. The cliffs were formed of sandstone and all along the cliff face were the beautiful, regular lines of crossbedded sandstone. I admired the lines and shapes then began working my way back down the slope toward the trail on the floor of the canyon. Just before I got down to creek bed I climbed around a huge, pickup-truck size rock that had tumbled down from the cliff. And there on the west facing side of the rock I saw a curious distortion in the regular patterns of the sandstone. I moved closer to the rock for a better look. Sure enough, I spotted other distortions in the regularity, wrinkles and wiggles where there should have been smooth straight, parallel lines.

Could it be? Had I found dinosaur tracks? I took pictures and when got back to St. George a couple of days later, I showed the pictures to Dr. Bryant, who is an expert on that area. He immediately confirmed my find. Yes, those were dinosaur tracks.

Naturally, I posted pictures of my find on Facebook. A bunch of people looked at the pictures and then commented, “Those don't look like tracks to me. How did you know those were dinosaur tracks?”

It's true, they don't look like animal tracks to me. But Dr. Bryant had taught me last year how to see tracks in those curious squiggles and wiggles in the sandstone. Under Dr. Bryant's tutelage I had acquired “new eyes.” His teaching was good enough, that when I came across the characteristic marks in that remote canyon in the Kolob region of the park, I thought dinosaur tracks instead of wiggles and squiggles.

Jesus is our teacher. He is training us to see greatness. He is training us to see every person in light of their connection with God.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Called to the Table

Called to the Table
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
May 16, 2015, International Sabbath

Imagine I have in my hand an avocado. Your fingers can feel the hint through the skin of just-right ripeness. You take a knife, slice it, then pull apart the halves. It looks as beautiful as it felt. You smell it. Again, perfection. You finish peeling it. You slice it onto a plate, then glance around the kitchen. No one is watching. You pull a fork from the drawer, skewer a slice and then . . .

Then you do something unthinkable. You add an alien chemical to this organic perfection. The chemical itself is a combination of a toxic gas and an explosive metal. NaCl. Salt.

You sprinkle salt across the slice on your fork, then put it in your mouth. It is so yummy, you consider eating the entire half before anyone else comes into the kitchen. It is supreme gustatory bliss.

Curious, the way God made the world. Salt and avocado. Baking soda and chocolate chips. Vinegar and cucumbers. Lemon and sugar.

Perfection is the fruit of combination, the union of stark disparities.

This beauty of combination shows up in theology as well.

The Bible is the story of God's work among the Jewish people. The story of creation leads directly to the story of Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people. The story moves to the establishment of the temple and priesthood among the Jews. We read about the Jewish kings and the grand messages of the Jewish prophets.

The Bible story reaches its grand climax with the stories of Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was born to a Jewish mother in the quintessential Jewish town of Bethlehem. Christians understand the significance of Jesus through the lenses of the Jewish temple service and the Jewish monarchy and the Jewish prophets.

Those of us who grew up hearing and reading the Bible stories, are used to thinking of the Jews as the good guys and their enemies as the bad guys. When Moses goes to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel from slavery, we know that Moses is the good guy and Pharoah, the king of Egypt is the bad guy. When David goes out to fight Goliath, the Philistine giant, we instinctively cheer for David. When Sennacharib, the king of Assyria, invades Israel and an angel slaughters his army, we—or at least the boys—cheer. Our side, “our team,” is —the Jewish people. That's the natural effect of reading the Bible. The Jews are God's people. Their enemies are the enemies of God.

Then you read more closely and you see another truth. All of the people are God's people. The prophets insist that God's ultimate dream is not the obliteration of the enemies of God's people, but the transformation of all people into the people of God.

Isaiah the prophet describes God's vision of the end of time in these words:

18 In that day five of Egypt's cities will follow the LORD of Heaven's Armies. They will even begin to speak Hebrew, the language of Canaan. One of these cities will be Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. ... 20 It will be a sign and a witness that the LORD of Heaven's Armies is worshiped in the land of Egypt. When the people cry to the LORD for help against those who oppress them, he will send them a savior who will rescue them. 21 The LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians. Yes, they will know the LORD and will give their sacrifices and offerings to him. They will make a vow to the LORD and will keep it. 22 The LORD will strike Egypt, and then he will bring healing. For the Egyptians will turn to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas and heal them. 23 In that day Egypt and Assyria will be connected by a highway. The Egyptians and Assyrians will move freely between their lands, and they will both worship God. 24 And Israel will be their ally. The three will be together, and Israel will be a blessing to them. 25 For the LORD of Heaven's Armies will say, "Blessed be Egypt, my people. Blessed be Assyria, the land I have made. Blessed be Israel, my special possession!" [Isa 19:18, 20-25 NLT] Accessed through Blue Letter

God looks toward Egypt, toward the city that is devoted to the worship of the Sun God, and declares that that city of false worship will learn to worship the true Light of the World. Those people, the nation famous for having enslaved the Jewish people will find themselves at home in Jerusalem.

Then God looks north toward Assyria. The Assyrians are the baddest of the bad boys in the Bible. They were ruthless, ferocious. Enemies of Israel and even of Egypt. God looks at Assyria and says, those people, too, will be my people.

And how does God describe Israel's role is this fantastic vision of the end? Israel will become the host. Israel will set the table at which all people from everywhere will discover their shared privilege as children of the Most High God.

Here is a picture of our work. Let's look to the north as far as we can see and invite them to come to the table God has planted among us. Let's look as far to the south and to the east and west. Let's welcome all to the table. Let's make peace.

Democrats and Republicans. Blacks and Asians, Rednecks and intellectuals, devotees of Hillary and fans of Ben Carson, people whose imaginations have been captured by ISIS and people who imagine being born in the Saudi royal family entitles them to power and privilege. Let's scout the world for the unlikeliest guests and extend the welcome.

Come to the table. God invites you. We invite you. Let's sit and feast together, then together seek to live out God's vision of peace and justice.

Some of us may wonder about our own place at the table. We are haunted by guilt or shame. We have done wrong and doubt whether God would actually welcome us. The prophet Isaiah insists that yes, you are welcome. God would be disappointed to look around his table and not see your face.

Some of us may have been told by significant other people—parents, boyfriends, church leaders, teachers—that we don't belong, that we are not right, that there is no place for us in a perfect world. God disagrees with that rejection. God invites you to his table.

We enjoy the sweetest, richest communion with God when we join God in welcoming one another. This is our privilege. This is our glory.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Daughters of God

I'm preaching today in St. Geroge, Utah. I think I will preach the sermon titled "Daughters of God." It is the same sermon I preached at Green Lake on March 20 of this year.

Reading through, I find myself cheering. Cheering the beautiful daughters of God who work at Aurora Commons. Cheering God who sees in every woman a precious daughter.

May you, too, come to see yourself with the eyes of God. May you have some sense of how precious you are to him. And may you in turn learn to see one another with the eyes of God.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

What Does It Mean to be Christian?

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, April 18, 2015 at Green Lake Church
Text: Luke 9

Herod, the ruler appointed by the Roman emperor to govern Judea, had a problem. He had ordered the execution of an immensely popular preacher named John the Baptist. It could have caused significant unrest, but after the execution things seemed to go along smoothly. Then Herod began hearing tales again of a preacher with dazzling charisma.

According to the reports Herod was receiving this new preacher not only preached spell-binding sermons, he also worked miracles, astonishing miracles, unbelievable miracles. Even taking into the account the tendency of peasants to exaggerate the powers of holy men, even if Herod regarded the general populace as hopelessly gullible, the reports commanded attention.

Herod queried his counselors. “What did you make of all these reports? What's going on? I beheaded John the Baptist,” Herod said. “So who is this guy?

Some said they had heard John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. There were rumors that this new preacher was the ancient prophet Elijah risen from the dead as a harbinger of the last days. Other rumors claimed the preacher was some other ancient prophet resurrected.

One really weird thing was that it seemed like this preacher was all over the place. It was like he was showing up in multiple places at once. They would get reports on the same day from places several days to the north and several days to the south. How as this possible? (Remember, in those days top speed of movement was a horse. And as far as we know Jesus didn't have a horse. So his top speed would have been walking.)

The story in the Gospel of Luke (that's one of the short biographies of Jesus in the Bible) leaves Herod wondering, wishing he could actually see this amazing preacher.

It's a fascinating little snap shot. All three of the principle stories of Jesus in the Bible—Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention Herod's perplexity. Did someone in Herod's household become a Christian and pass this story along? Did one of Herod's government ministers? We don't know. But we know the story was widely circulated in the church.

Some of Herod's perplexity was understandable. He was, indeed, getting reports of simultaneous appearances and miracles at places that were many miles apart. And the reason he was getting those reports is that miracles and preaching was, indeed, happening simultaneously at places miles apart.

To make sense of these appearances, we have to back a bit in the story.

The lead up to this scene in the royal palace where Herod is trying to figure out the who and what of this sudden new outbreak of preaching fervor begins a week or two earlier.

We can begin with the story of Jesus out in a boat with his disciples. They were crossing the Sea of Galilee at night. A huge storm came up and threatened to swamp the boat. The disciples were terrified they are going to drown. While all this went on Jesus was sound asleep in the back of the boat. The disciples shook him awake. “Master! Wake up! We're going to sink.”

Jesus stood up in the boat and spoke directly to the storm. “Be still. Be calm.” The winds quieted. The waves relaxed. The disciples stared at Jesus with drop-jawed amazement. Hours later, they came ashore in a wild area and were met on the beach by a raving maniac, a man screaming and gesticulating, clearly possessed by demons. Jesus ordered the demons out of the man. The demons left and the man who had been banished from society became suddenly calm and responsive.

Again, the disciples were astonished. Of course. Who wouldn't be?

A day or two later Jesus was back in Capernaum. In an afternoon, Jesus healed a woman of a bleeding problem that had persisted for 12 years despite every possible medical intervention. Then Jesus raised a 12-year old daughter back to life.

Miracle after wonder after astonishing demonstration. So of course reports of Jesus' ministry had reached the royal palace. But it was not this series of wonders and miracles performed personally by Jesus that got the attention of King Herod. What created the stir that rippled even into the royal palace was what happened next.

Jesus called twelve of his helpers to a meeting and commissioned them to head out into the countryside and replicate what they had seen him do.

They were to preach the gospel, heal the sick and rescue people from demons.

And they departed, and went through the towns, preaching the gospel, and healing every where. Luke 9:6

Jesus had been drawing crowds of thousands. Now Jesus—in the person of his disciples—was drawing many times that many people. Miracles were happening all over the region of Galilee. It was this explosion of “Jesuses” all over Galilee that provoked the conversation in the royal palace.

What does it mean to be a Christian?

In the sixties and seventies, conservative Protestants decided that the label Christian applied only to people who held certain specific interpretations of the Bible. They wrote books and articles insisting that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses were not Christians because those groups had some different ideas about the nature of Christ and the meaning of the crucifixion among other things. Adventists got caught up in this debate and we worked really hard to prove that we were really Christian. And by “Christian” we meant the philosophical/theological definition of conservative Protestantism.

More recently, there has been intense argument in some circles about perspectives called “The Emerging Church.” Again, conservative Protestants and conservative Adventists have tried to argue those people are not really Christian because they have some ideas that contradict traditional Christian theories.

I am a bit amused by all this emphasis on theological definitions. In our Scripture reading this morning we see what being Christian means. A Christian is someone who does what Jesus did.

Jesus does not invite his disciples to sit in a circle around him and endlessly watch and wonder. Jesus has them watch and wonder for awhile. Then Jesus sends them off. Go, do what you have seen me do.

This is what it means to be a Christian. Do what Jesus did.

Now, some of you will make the obvious protest: We can't do what Jesus did. We cannot heal the sick with a word or touch. We cannot banish demons with simple commands. We have never been able to raise the dead.

My question is what are we doing with what we have?

This week Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments made headlines with his announcement that he was going to do something about the crazy disparity between the wages received by workers and the CEOs who profit from their work. Price announced that over the next three years he was going to raise the pay of his employees until everyone in the firm made at least 70,000 a year.

Mr. Price has not cured AIDS. He has not eliminated cancer from the world. But he has taken concrete action to increase human happiness and well-being. He's making it possible for his employees to afford to live in Seattle.

It seems to me that is in line with what Jesus called his disciples to do.

People who are working to raise the pay received by the little people, the hidden people, people who clean bathrooms, make our burritos, care for little children—these people are moving in the direction Jesus called his disciples to go.

When people devote themselves to care-giving, to the care of children, the disabled, elderly and feeble spouses—they are moving in the direction mapped out by Jesus for his disciples.

We are called to preach the gospel. What does that mean? The gospel is the good news that God is for us, not against us. God's aim is reconciliation not obliteration. God's plan is restoration not shame and condemnation.

We preach this. We live this. This is our calling as disciples of Jesus.

When we deeply appreciate that this is God's desire, this is God's ambition for the world, then our calling becomes clear. We are to use the tools available to us—brains, citizenship, culture, education, talent, good looks, family connections—to cooperate with God in spreading healing and hope.

The story ends with the disciples returning from their mission of preaching and healing and sitting with Jesus to share their stories. The meeting gets interrupted by people needing continued help, still it is a bight picture. Jesus invites us to be heroes of goodness, then come together ad celebrate the good stuff that happened.

In the Book of Revelation, the grand finale of human history is pictured as people gathered around the heavenly table, telling stories of the adventures of goodness. What does it mean to be Christian? At least one meaning is our deliberate preparation to share stories of our adventures cooperating with God in fixing the world.

Friday, April 3, 2015

He Is Risen

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, April 4, 2015
at Green Lake Church, Seattle.
Texts:  Isaiah 11:1-9, Luke 23:50-24:11

Thursday morning, before dawn, I was at my usual spot on the west side of Green Lake watching for the dawn. The sky dark because the sun was still below the horizon. Further darkening the gloom were thick clouds and a pouring rain. Not the standard Seattle mist and drizzle. This was real rain. Great drops dimpling the surface of the lake in front of me. I could feel water running down my rain pants into my shoes. I was tempted to bail, get back on my bicycle and finish my morning prayers in the warm comfort of my office. But I knew I was going to preach today about waiting and hope, so I had to stick it out.

One of the many privileges I enjoy as a pastor is being paid to watch for the dawn. Every morning you pay me to take my seat in the darkness and watch the sunrise. Some mornings, all that happens is the black-gray sky becomes a little less dark. Night time becomes day time, sort of. Thursday, sitting there in the rain under a lead-gray sky, I wondered, will the sun really rise? Will it break through?

I rehearsed the words of blessing: Grace and peace. I prayed grace and peace for the people who came to my mind, friends dealing with cancer, job loss, loneliness, unfulfilled desires for their children, grief. I recalled people I met at Aurora Commons facing homelessness because their Taco Bell wages don't equal rent. People dealing with various forms of mental illness.

I sat in the darkness with my friends and God, praying grace and peace.

Then it happened. The sun pierced the clouds. Spangles of light rippled across the lake. Blue sky spread. The darkness was gone.

I pulled out my phone and took a few pictures, climbed on my bike and headed into my day.

It's my job to watch for the dawn.

Yes, darkness happens. Sometimes, here in the Northwest, the gloom is so oppressive that there is a clinical term for its effect: Seasonal affective disorder. But the light is coming.

Most people are too cumbered with obligations to give their full attention to the sunrise. Getting the kids ready for school, getting yourself to the office on time, those are inescapable duties. Perhaps by the time the sun wakes up, you're already behind the pharmacy counter at the back of Safeway or deep in a Boeing plant miles from the nearest window. And even if there were a window nearby, you are not paid to gaze out the window. So, every morning, I watch and bear witness to the light.

In a larger sense, this is the calling of the church. We watch for the dawning of the light. We are called to be celebrants of the light. Our annual celebrations of Christmas and Easter are celebrations of the light.

Yes, darkness happens. There is drought in California and ISIS in the Middle East. Our friends are dealing with cancer and we are mourning the loss of loved ones. So, we come to church and remind ourselves and the world: He is risen. The last word is not death but resurrection. Not defeat but the triumph of goodness.

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The heart of our religion is not a tomb. It is not a crucifix or the crucifixion. Those things are reminders that good life, even the best life, includes heart break and disappointment, injustice and failure. Darkness happens. Evil happens. Murders and mayhem, war and disaster wreak havoc. But the final word of our faith, the ultimate word, is resurrection. New life.

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

In the Gospel of Luke we read that late Friday after Jesus had died, a rich man named Joseph went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Ordinarily, the bodies of people who were condemned to crucifixion were discarded in the garbage dump. But Joseph requested the Roman governor to allow him to provide a proper burial for Jesus. If we were watching the movie, we would feel the tension accompanying the request. We would be hoping with Joseph that Pilate would grant the request. We would have already watched Pilate cave in to the demands of the mob and condemn Jesus to death even though he knew Jesus' accusers were lying through their teeth.

Knowing that Pilate is a weak man and maybe an evil man, we expect him to say no. But we also see Joseph's obvious status. Joseph is used to hearing yes.

So how is it going to play out? Yes or no? Is Pilate going to bend to the blood thirst of the high priest or the goodness and political clout of Joseph. Will Pilate grant Joseph Jesus' body?

Joseph wins. Pilate says yes.

A large group of women was present at the cross. They watched men wrap Jesus in a burial shroud provided by Joseph. They followed the men as they carried Jesus to the tomb. They saw Jesus placed in the new tomb, a room carved into a limestone outcrop. Then, since it was about sundown, they headed home.

The darkness was complete. Goodness had been smashed. Evil had triumphed.

Early Sunday morning the women headed back to the tomb. One way we cope with death is to say a proper farewell. Grief is the inescapable cost of love, and expressing our grief is part of continuing to love the one who is gone. The women were heartbroken at Jesus' death. Unlike the men who were still hiding in their upper room worried about whether they would be next in line to be arrested, the woman cared only about saying a proper farewell.

Part of Jewish custom was to pack the body with spices. There had been no time to accomplish this on Friday, so at first light on Sunday, the women headed out with their spices to show final honor to the man who had been their hero.

When they arrived at the tomb, to their astonishment, the tomb was open. The great stone which had closed the entry was rolled to the side.

Cautiously, they peeked inside. Nothing. They stepped inside for a closer look. No, Jesus was not there. They clustered together, jabbering, questioning each other, wondering, when suddenly two men in dazzling garments were standing there with them. Angels or gods? Magicians?

Startled, terrified, the women fell on their faces to pay obeisance to these supernatural beings.

Then the men spoke. “Why are you looking for Jesus here?” they asked. “This is a cemetery.”

Which reveals a certain divine sense of humor. Why were the women looking for Jesus HERE? Because this is where they last saw him. They had watched Joseph and the other men place Jesus in this very tomb late Friday afternoon. So, of course, they looked for him here.

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” the angels asked. Again, a bit of divine humor until we realize it's a rhetorical question. Then just in case the women did not understand, the angel said, “He is not here. He is risen.

“Don't you remember?” the angel continued. “Remember what he told you while he was still up north in Galilee? Remember how he said he was going to be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise again. Don't you remember?”

As the reality of the empty tomb and the angel's words sank in, the women did remember. They jumped to their feet jabbering, laughing, hugging each other. “He's not dead. He's alive! Let's go tell the guys.”

They ran back to the city, to the room where Peter and John and the other guys were hanging out.

“Jesus is alive!” the women shouted. “We were at the tomb. It's open and empty. We saw angels. They told us Jesus is alive. Don't you remember what he said when we were still in Galilee? That he was going to be arrested and crucified and would rise again on the third day? Don't you remember?”
The men did not remember. They did not believe. Though I will give them this: Peter and John did not dismiss what the women said. It was unbelievable, of course. Who ever heard of the dead rising from the grave? Still, Peter and John raced off for the tomb to check it out. That's something.

It turned out the women were correct. The tomb was empty. Jesus was gone. And not just gone. Jesus was risen. The last word was not crucifixion. The last word was not burial. The final word was not grief but celebration. He's alive.

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

This is heart of our religion. God's last word is resurrection. God's loudest word is resurrection.

It's easy to obsess over the darkness. When you're sitting in the dark and the rain is pouring down, dawn seems impossible or at least improbably remote.

Our calling as devotees of Jesus is to keep watching for the dawn. Don't study the darkness. Let's not become experts in human failure. Let's make sure our greatest expertise is the cultivation of hope. Let's master the skills of healing and creating, making and building, soothing and feeding. That's the call of the resurrection.

One of the deepest truths that flow from the resurrection, maybe the most challenging of all the teachings of Jesus, is this: God's final word is not death, but resurrection, restoration, reconciliation, mending the world, making things new.

When we become aware of human evil, human brokenness, human failure, where does our imagination take us? Do we imagine that the remedy is death.

When we hear of a murder, we want someone killed. We hear about the chaos, heart-break, injustice, cruelty in Syria, we are tempted to imagine the wise response is bombs and drones and missiles and Special Forces. Some of us are tempted to imagine the remedy for deadly ideologies is more death—death administered by the United States instead of by President Assad or ISIS or one of the dozens of local militias? It's tempting to imagine that killing is the path to peace.

What is God's imagination in response to the deadly chaos of the Middle East? Resurrection. New life. People healed and made righteous. God does not dream of obliterating the people in the Middle East. God dreams of healing.

As devotees of Jesus we are called back again and again to the resurrection. We are invited to meditate on God's response to deadliness and death—resurrection.

Let me apply this closer home. Have you ever hurt someone else? Have you blundered in ways that left you crippled with guilt and shame? Do you find yourself wondering if God wishes you would go away? Do think God's response to your failure is eradication? Annihilation? Do you imagine God is as scornful of your failure as you are or your ex-wife is or you children are or your parents are?

Please hear the message of the resurrection: God's response to human failure—your failure, your parents' failure, your spouse's failure—God's response to failure, no matter how grievous, is resurrection.

To echo the words of our OT reading, when God looks at the problem of lions eating lambs, his remedy is the transformation of lions, not a program of eradication. When God sees the problem of cobras biting children, God does not get rid of the snakes, he transforms them into friends of children. When God sees your capacity for doing harm, when God reviews your actual track record of doing harm, God does not imagine a future without you. God imagines a future where you are restored to the full glory God intended in creation. God dreams of resurrection for you.

This is the message of the Gospel of Luke: He is risen. And with him, we are risen.

He is risen.

He is risen, indeed.