Divergent religious views:
GOD IS THE GREAT AUTHORITY
Many theologians have taught that the great goal of God is obedient subjects (1 Cor. 15:28). In this view, religion is a hierarchical system for transmitting divine authority. The higher up the pyramid, the greater your authority (i. e., your right and obligation to order the lives of others). The further down the pyramid, the greater your obligation to practice unquestioning obedience. When authority is the great value in a religious system, inevitably inferiors will be sucked into cooperation with evil directives issued by their superiors. (Think priests cooperating in the Inquisition, Christian Americans cooperating with their government in the internment of Japanese Americans or obeying the Fugitive Slave Act. Think of Adventist parents who have exiled their gay children because a minister told them it was obligatory to do so.)
In this view, in paradise every human is finally, immovably settled into placed in the pyramid (or annihilated).
GOD IS LOVE
(God with us)
In this view, God's goal is virtuous partners (Rev. 3:21). Religion is a community created by God to nourish and savor goodness. Members of the community earn respect and honor by incarnating goodness. When goodness is the great value, everyone has standing to challenge any order that appears at variance with moral law. The core of goodness is love, not just "agape love" which is the principled regard for the well-being of others, but also "eros love" which includes affection and desire. God longs for communion with people. God enjoys sharing life and labor with people.
In God's ultimate dream humans are elevated. They are not on their faces before the throne. Rather God welcomes all the saints (men and women, people of every tribe and nation) to participate with him in the divine reign. (Rev. 22:5).
Adventism and classic Christianity have been dominated by excessive attention to God as The Authority and the church as a hierarchy. It is time for us to affirm GOD IS LOVE, and learn to live now in the light that comes from the shared throne.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Saturday, July 18, 2015
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, July 18, 2015.
Texts: Psalm 113, Luke 14:7-14.
Late Tuesday afternoon I was navigating the streets of Renton, moving very slowly because of the traffic. I wasn't paying much attention to the radio playing in the background. 94.9 was serving the usual buffet of bad news: Greece. Iran. American political bickering. Yemen. Problems in health care. Yada, yada, blah, blah, blah.
Then a name penetrated the fog. Scott Jurak. Suddenly, the radio had my full attention. Among long distance runners, Scott Jurak is legendary. He won the Western States 100 mile race a record seven consecutive times. The announcer was interviewing Scott Jurak about his recent completion of the Appalachian Trail. Scott had just run 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine. It takes most people five or six months to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail. Scott Jurak did it in 47 days.
One of the nice things about sports is that frequently arguments about greatness can be settled directly. We can argue all day long about whether my team or your team is the greatest. Then game day comes and someone wins.
If it is the womens US Soccer Team, they won decisively! They are the greatest.
It's natural for us to rank ourselves. We pay attention to who gets honored, who has the highest status. This human attention to status and rank shows up in the story we heard today in our New Testament reading.
When Jesus noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honor near the head of the table, he gave them this advice: "When you are invited to a wedding feast, don't sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, 'Give this person your seat.' Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table! "Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, 'Friend, we have a better place for you!' Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. Luke 14:7-10 NLT. (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com)
At first glance this is simply common sense advice. Don't set yourself up for embarrassment. But as you would expect, Jesus was doing more than giving mere common sense etiquette advice. He highlighted one of the most profound principles of the kingdom of heaven: status is earned, not demanded. In the kingdom of heaven there is no ring to kiss, there is no insignia which requires a salute, there is no title which confers absolute authority.
In this teaching, Jesus echoes passages in the Old Testament which portray even the authority of God as contingent on congruence with moral law. God is to be praised BECAUSE he acts righteously. And the supreme demonstration of righteousness is concern for the poor and oppressed.
As we read in our Old Testament scripture (Psalm 113) God lifts the poor from the dung hill. He gives women who have been regarded as cursed by God, the highest honor in their society. We praise God because God does these kinds of things.
In the kingdom of heaven, greatness—high rank, high honor—is the fruit of righteous action. And the most exalted righteous action is lifting others.
11 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." 12 Then he turned to his host. "When you put on a luncheon or a banquet," he said, "don't invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. 13 Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you."
Sometimes in religion, theologians have pictured God as primarily concerned with authority. In this approach to religion, the highest virtue is subservience to God. The highest religious practice is making signs of obeisance to God—bowing, crawling on one's knees, kissing the ring of a clergy person, obeying without question every demand uttered by a preacher.
This view of God has been most dramatically and grotesquely displayed in our day by the Taliban and ISIS. However, even within Christianity, there are movements that attempt to portray the religion of Jesus as a structure of authority. In our own church, people like Doug Bachelor and Steve Bohr have turned Christianity upside down. They have pictured God as a benevolent tyrant demanding unquestioning subservience. They have preached that the religion of Jesus is a power structure that requires a show of obeisance from lay people generally and women specifically. They picture Jesus as an ally of their self-importance. They are wrong.
We are called to something better. We are called to the vision Jesus voiced: to welcome among us those who cannot repay our welcome. To lift those who have no resources.
There is a ranking in the kingdom of heaven. There is greatness and honor among us. The highest rank belongs to those who serve. Especially to those who serve by raising others. When we do that, we have indeed become like God.
At school you will find yourself naturally, easily drawn into circles of students who share your academic focus, your political views, cultural background and economic status. There is nothing wrong with these natural affinities. Still, Jesus calls us to deliberately look beyond them. Let us be deliberate in seeking to include in our circle of privilege others who cannot be there without our welcome.
At the level of society, we are all challenged by this vision of Jesus. We live in the most privileged country in history. We who call ourselves Christian are invited by our Master to ask: how can we include others in our circle of privilege?
The mark of authentic Christianity is how far we reach, how richly we welcome those with no natural claim on us. The evidence that we have taken note of the goodness of Jesus is our own generosity, our own welcome, our own kindness to the least, the lowliest, the farthest from any natural claim on privileges like ours.
If Scott Jurak walks into a room of runners, people will naturally gravitate toward him. They naturally admire someone who embodies our highest ambitions. Aspiring runners will hope that association with Jurak will somehow rub off on them and improve their own performance.
If the Womens Soccer team visited us today, we would rightly honor their achievement. They are champions.
When we mimic the work of Jesus, when we lift the lowly, we, too, will rightly be called champions. God himself will invite us to place of honor at the heavenly table. And there will be great joy.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, July 11, 2015
Last week was 4th of July, our national day. We celebrated our freedom. Liberty. Freedom. Independence. These are important words for us as a people. We like to think of ourselves as the people in the world who are most free. We celebrate our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press.
On the other hand, we are also a violent people. We have often imagined that freedom meant holding the gun instead of having the gun pointed at us. We have been infatuated with a vision of cowboy justice in which the wrongdoer is summarily executed. Our love of vengeance and punishment has led us as a nation to incarcerate more people than any other nation on earth. The United States has more people in prison than either China or Russia—nations we have rightly criticized for their human rights record.
This contrast between our love of “my freedom” and our willingness to take away “their freedom” stands in stark contrast to the vision of freedom articulated by the ancient prophets and modeled by Jesus.
Let's consider two pictures of freedom in the Bible.
The Book of Leviticus in the Bible is a potpourri of all kinds of ancient rules and procedures. It is a bit notorious for its mix of strangeness and wisdom. For the modern person, reading through this book can be a difficult exercise. Then you come to the end of the book. And there you come across the passage we read for our Old Testament scripture this morning: the Sabbath rules.
It is an astonishing vision of a perpetual renewal of freedom.
Jewish life was ordered in cycles of Sabbaths.
Every week, the seventh day was a park in time, a social/spiritual space protected from the demands of ordinary life. Every Sabbath people were set free from the tyranny of employers, even the tyranny of existence. For one day, the people were to quit working, quit striving, quit chasing an adequate retirement, quit chasing an advancement, quit chasing wealth. Every week, for one day, every person was to live perfectly free. On Sabbath there were no slaves, no employees. Astonishingly, there were not even any beasts of burden. There were no bosses, no employers, no kings, no tyrants. Every week the nation luxuriated in this experience of freedom.
Every seventh year came a sabbatical year. Israel was an agrarian society. Everything was based on agriculture. Against this background, the entire community was commanded to interrupt the cycles of planting, cultivating and harvesting. For a year, the fields were to be allowed to go fallow. It was an agrarian sabbatical.
Then there was the super Sabbath, the Jubilee. At the end of the seventh cycle of seven years there was a grand Jubilee. In this year the land was redistributed. Since land was the basis for wealth, this was a grand wealth redistribution project.
The Books of Moses tell of the distribution of the land after the conquest of Palestine. It was like the Homesteader Act in the United States offering free land to anyone who would go and work it. The entire nation started off with an a golden opportunity. Land was the source of wealth and everyone one was given property.
In the natural course of life, if you give everyone equal opportunity, some are going to thrive and prosper. Some are going to struggle. Over time, the natural trend is for the sources of wealth to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This is not an evil process. It is the fruit of hard work, luck, and family culture. The people at the bottom have less and less. The same amount of effort on their part will produce less and less economic benefit. While for those at the top, the same amount of effort will produce greater and greater wealth.
When one becomes wealthy enough, passive income will completely supply one's needs. You don't have to work, unless you want to. Nice!!!
This disparity in wealth ends up creating a profound disparity in freedom. Those at the bottom are free to work. And work and work some more. Or starve. They have no margin. A single bit of bad luck will throw them into the tender clutches of payday loan providers and ruthless creditors. While those at the top are increasingly free to spend their time studying philosophy and music, climbing mountains and pursuing education.
Then comes the Jubilee. The poor are made free again. They or their children or grandchildren are given another shot at acquiring wealth through hard work. The playing field is somewhat leveled. Hope comes alive again.
In the practice of Jubilee, the entire society participates in creating Sabbath freedom. The entire community is transformed and renewed. Freedom touches every person, every family, every household.
This vision of glorious freedom, this vision of a society in which freedom for the lowly is renewed over and over—this vision was picked up by the prophets and used as a metaphor for Grand Goal of all history. This persistent renewal of freedom provided a concrete example of the overarching purpose of God.
People struggling at the bottom, people born in poor families, people born without connections, without a family history of hard work, people born without keen intellects or without healthy bodies were promised a new birth of freedom. There would be a better world where their efforts or their children's efforts would produce good success. A world where they, too, could make music and voice ideas and ideals and hopes.
This was the pattern of history mapped out by the Sabbath cycles of Israel. This was the pattern of life God dreamed of for his people.
Let's leap forward hundreds of years. Let's go from the primitive world of Leviticus, a time when the people of Israel were nomads living in tents or an agrarian people scattered in tiny hamlets in a wild and dangerous country. Let's come to the time of Jesus. The Jewish people were now a civilization. They had a deep, rich theological and religious heritage.
By the time of Jesus, the notion of Jubilee had become deeply embedded in Jewish theology (though it had disappeared from their civil society). The weekly Sabbath so thoroughly permeated Jewish society it had become a central definition of who they were as a people. They were Sabbath keepers.
Which brings us to our New Testament reading.
One Sabbath, Jesus went to synagogue, as usual. And as usual, he preached. At some point in the service, he noticed a woman with severe scoliosis. The way I imagine it, she was bent over so far she walked with two sticks to hold up her torso as she shuffled about the village.
If you watched her for more than a few minutes, you would feel in your own gut the compression, the pressure on your stomach and lungs. You would begin to hurt.
Jesus was preaching, saying beautiful and inspiring things. People loved it, like they usually did. But he interrupted the sermon. He noticed this woman and stopped talking. He invited her to the front of the synagogue. I imagine she came with great timidity. She felt her deformity, her ugliness. She was used to lurking at the edge of social events, hiding in the shadows at weddings and funerals. She was weird. She was cursed. Still, the preacher, the famous preacher, had summoned her. So she planted her sticks and heaved herself to her feet and shuffled forward.
There, in front of the congregation, Jesus placed his hands on her and announced, “Lady, you are released from your bondage. You are free.” Immediately, she was healed. She straightened her back. She turned her head back and forth. Then she turned her torso back and forth. Then she dropped her sticks. She stepped in a circle to the right, then to the left.
The crowd gasped. “Glory be!” the woman exclaimed. “Hallelujah!” She started laughing, then covered her mouth in embarrassment. This was church, after all.
She walked gingerly back to her place in the synagogue, wondering every second if it was real, if it would last.
The synagogue became a bee hive of murmuring and whispering. Who had ever seen such a thing?
The synagogue ruler stood and demanded people come to order. This was church not a clinic.
“Look,” he said. “God gave us six days to do our work, six days to do the ordinary stuff of life, to take care of ordinary business. Come on those days for healing. Sabbath is for worship and for study. Let's keep Sabbath special.”
Jesus spoke up. “Come on. Don't be hypocritical. Every person here unties his ox or donkey twice or three times every Sabbath and leads it to the watering trough. Four times, if it's hot. If you would do that for a donkey or a cow, surely it is right that I should untie this woman, this daughter of God who has been bound by Satan these eighteen years.”
All the people were delighted, the Gospel says. And all dignitaries who were opposed to Jesus adversaries were confounded.
God wants us to be free. The point of religion is to be a mechanism for setting people free. But sometimes it gets turned into an instrument of bondage.
Like many of the older members in this congregation, I grew up in constant fear of condemnation. I imagined God was constantly watching to see if I screwed up, to see if I, at every moment, was putting out one hundred percent effort in the pursuit of holiness. I lived in perpetual dread of the judgment. Then I received a new vision of the compassion and affection of God. I knew that God was pleased with me.
I was set free. The inner change was so profound that all my friends noticed. My behavior didn't change, but I changed.
People asked, “John what happened to you?” They rejoiced with me.
But a few people were like the synagogue ruler. They were terrified. They could see I was no longer leashed and bound and they were afraid for me because I as no longer afraid. I guess they feared that if I wasn't afraid, if I was happy, I would race off into a wild and stupidly wicked life.
They, too, asked, “John, what has happened to you?” But asked in worried tones.
I had been in bondage for over eighteen years and now I was free.
Some of you have experienced that kind of bondage. You have been told by parents or teachers or preachers or siblings or someone else that you are defective, unworthy, hopelessly broken. You are ugly, wicked, lazy, stubborn, hopeless. Those words have defined your existence. They have formed a cage. You have been trapped.
Jesus says to you this Sabbath and every Sabbath: You are free. Those words of bondage are false. They come from the enemy. God's word is you are free.
This story also addresses directly the issue currently being debated in the Adventist Church. This past Wednesday, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists voted not to approve the ordination of women. Those who opposed women's ordination are committed to keeping women “in their place.” They imagine that exercising this kind of domination is doing the work of God. They imagine that God's goal for his people is subjugation and subordination. They join the synagogue synagogue ruler in urging people to leave freedom for the secular world. Women can be doctors and judges and presidents and professors, but inside the church women must remain cloistered, subservient, second. Religiously women must not be free.
They are wrong. They are violating the spirit of Sabbath. They are contradicting the message of the prophets and the mission of Jesus.
I stand with Jesus in proclaiming freedom. I invite us as a congregation to stand with Jesus.
We are a Sabbath keeping church, a Sabbath keeping congregation. The essence of Sabbath is the proclamation of freedom. On Sabbath, we are set free from the ordinary human patterns of subordination. According to the commandment, even the ranking of humans above animals is set aside. On Sabbath, we may not even order our animals to work. They are free to luxuriate in divinely-appointed freedom. How much more our daughters and wives and mothers and aunts and lovers and friends.
As a Sabbath keeping church, we are committed to the radical message of freedom. We oppose systems of control and subordination. On Sabbath all of us together savor the freedom which is ours as members of the family of God. And on Sabbath we pledge ourselves to doing all we can to shape our world in the direction of Jubilee—the world of perpetual liberation, the dream of God.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
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."
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
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
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
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 Bible.com.
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.