Monday, October 20, 2014

Countermanding the very Words of God - revised

Countermanding the Very Words of God:
Biblical Guidance for the Church
in its Ministry to People with Sexual and Gender Irregularities

By John McLarty

Sometimes, to do right we must countermand the very words of God. This sounds blasphemous, but it is plainly taught in the Bible.

Example one: Jesus in Matthew 5

Jesus declares, “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” So Jesus supersedes the words of God in Deuteronomy 24:1 with his own dictum.

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ “But I say to you, do not swear at all . . .“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Here Jesus contradicts the explicit language of Numbers, warning people that if they follow literally what God said in Numbers regarding oaths, their words will be “from the evil one.”

Finally, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Here Jesus contradicts God's prescription for justice, a prescription that is stated three times in the Pentateuch. Jesus calls instead for radical mercy.

You might counter, Jesus was God. As God, he had the authority to contradict or supersede words God had previously spoken. But if we mere mortals dared to challenge God that would be blasphemy.

My response: Not always. Consider the story of Abraham.

Example two: Abraham and Sodom

God tells Abraham he is going to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that judgment (doom) is at hand. God does not ask Abraham for his opinion. God simply announces his intentions. Instead of bowing and agreeing, Abraham challenges God, accusing him of injustice.

Surely you wouldn't do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn't do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Genesis 18:24-25.

Abraham does not approach this conversation with God as a sycophantic courtier. He is not the president's lawyer inventing legal justification for “enhanced interrogation.” To press it further, Abraham does not respond to God with an “Oswald Chambers-like” submission. Abraham knows God has the power to do whatever he wants, but having the power does not automatically confer the right. For Abraham, God's overwhelming power does not confer indisputable authority. God must conform himself to justice.

God readily agreed to Abraham's conditions limiting God's freedom to act destructively against the cities, and when the investigating angels couldn't find even the ten righteous inhabitants specified by Abraham, God honored Abraham's scruples by evacuating Lot and his family before the fire fell (Genesis 18, 19).

We could appropriately argue that God intended Abraham to act the part of “savior” in this story. God announced an investigation, Abraham knowing the moral plight of the Sodomites, stepped in to plead for them. In this story, God was deliberately setting up Abraham as a type of the Savior. Interpreted this way the passage makes my point even more strongly: The mission of Christians is not to join God in his work of “investigating” and “condemning.” Our job is to join the God the Savior in advocating for mercy.

Example Three: Moses and the Idolatrous Israelites

The people of Israel were camped at Mt. Sinai. Moses was up on the mountain communing with God. After Moses had been on the mountain for weeks, the people began to fret. They wanted a visible god to lead them. So Aaron made a golden calf and the people began dancing around this idol in worship. God informed Moses of this problem and then gave him a direct order,

Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” Exodus 32:10

In the case of Abraham and Sodom, Abraham challenged God. Here, Moses defies God. He countermands the very words of God. There is no hint of diffidence or ambiguity in God's command. Moses understands it perfectly. But instead of obeying and getting out of the way, Moses questions God's judgment. “God, I don't think you really want to do that. If you do it, you'll be sorry.” Later, Moses upped his protest. “I will not step aside. To kill them, you're going to have to go through me.”

God backed down.

Both Abraham and Moses are celebrated as righteous men. Their challenges to the very words of God are recognized as acts of righteousness. These leaders were honored by God for their obedience and also for their bold challenges.

Example four: Joshua and the Gibeonites

The people of Israel invaded Palestine. At Jericho, acting on orders from heaven, they annihilated every man, woman, child and animal—except Rahab and everyone in her hotel. After Jericho, the Israelites destroyed the city and people of Ai. Both of these savage exterminations were ordered explicitly by God. When tribal groups throughout Palestine heard the news, they formed a league to fight the invaders. The Gibeonites, however, tried a different tactic. They sent a delegation to ask for a peace treaty with the Israelites.

When the emissaries arrived, Joshua interrogated them. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

The ambassadors answered, “Your servants have come from a very distant country. Stories of your exploits have reached even as far as our country. We've heard about what your God did to the Egyptians and to Hesbon and Bashon. We have come offer ourselves as vassals. We're prepared to pay tribute. We just want to be on your side. We want to connect with the God who is able to do what your God does.”

Joshua responded, “God has forbidden us to make treaties with any one in this area. How do we know you live far enough away for us to even consider making a treaty?”

The Gibeonites managed to convince Joshua and the elders that they did, in fact, live far away. Joshua and the elders agreed to a treaty. A few days later the Israelites discovered they'd been fooled. The Gibeonites lived only three days away from the Israelite camp. The Israelites were outraged. They marched to the region of Gibeon to annihilate these deceiving Canaanites.

Once in the Gibeonite neighborhood, however, Joshua restrained his army. “We gave our word,” he said. “When we make a promise, we keep it. Even to pagans. Even if they tricked us.”

The army was outraged at Joshua's refusal to exterminate these worthless people. They threatened mutiny, but Joshua was adamant. “Yes, they are Canaanites. Yes, they fooled us. Yes, they are on God's extermination list. Yes, God forbade us to make a treaty with people like this. But, no, we are not going to break our word. A treaty is a treaty. An oath is an oath.”

Joshua summoned the Gibeonite leaders. “Why did you deceive us, saying you lived a long way away?”

The Gibeonites answered, “Your servants had heard definite, detailed reports about the command your God gave you to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land. We've seen your God's power in Egypt and in the battles against Sihon, king of Hesbon, and Og, king of Bashon, and Jericho and Ai. We are helpless against you militarily. We did the only thing we could think of to save our lives. We are in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right.”

So Joshua saved them. He imposed severe “tribute.” They were consigned to serve as temple slaves in perpetuity. But they were alive.

God's command to wipe out the people of Canaan was so emphatic, so clear and unmistakable, the pagan people themselves had memorized it. There was nothing fuzzy in God's directions. God had ordered the Israelites to exterminate these wicked people. When Joshua saved the Gibeonites, he was countermanding the very words of God. Was he right to do so?

A few generations later, King Saul violated the treaty Joshua had made and tried to carry out God's command to exterminate the Gibeonites. During the reign of the next king, David, God sent a famine to punish Israel for Saul's effort to obey God's extermination decree. To atone for Saul's actions against the Gibeonites David executed seven of Saul's descendants. Only after this act of retribution against Saul's family did God revoke the famine decree. Whatever else we make of this story, it clearly demonstrates God's endorsement of Joshua's contravention of God's explicit command regarding the peoples of Canaan. Joshua, a type of Christ, disobeyed the divine command and saved the condemned people. Saul, a type of Satan, attempted to carry out God's verdict of condemnation. Is there any question about which of these leaders is a more appropriate model for leaders today? (For an example of the righteous breaking of an oath for destruction see the story of Jonathan and the honey in 1 Samuel 14.)

Doing right is more important than obeying God.”

Of course, as believers, we would say this differently. We would say that doing right is the truest, purest interpretation of God's words. If obeying God's words leads someone to mistreat people, we would argue the perpetrator has misunderstood God, that God's words didn't really mean what they thought. But I put it the other way, because sometimes we are so sure we know what God meant by what he said, that our consciences are anesthetized. When American Adventists expressed support for the American use of torture during the Iraq war, they imagined they were merely showing respect for Paul's words about the ruler and his sword. The whole world could see that American practices of rendition and torture were evil, but some of my own church members thought they saw justification for these things in the Bible. When Charlie Fuqua, an Arkansas Republican, proposed legislation that would allow parents to seek the death penalty for an incorrigible child, he was attempting to be faithful to his understanding of the words of God recorded in the Bible.

These examples of people misusing the words of God show that it is not enough to ask, “What did God say?” Sometimes a better question is, “What is right?” Adventists are champions of God's Law. We see the divine law as an explication of eternal principles. The foundation for the law is so universal, so noble and exalted, God himself is not free to violate it. Obviously, if God is bound by the eternal law of love and justice, we mere mortals not free to violate it even if the Bible orders us to do so.

If our consciences—feeble and scarred as they are—warn us against an injustice, courageous leaders among God's people will join Abraham and speak up, even if there are words in Scripture which can be cited in support of the injustice. We will not allow traditional understandings of the explicit words of God to seduce or coerce us into complicity with institutional or societal injustice. We will refuse to be seduced into imagining that our cooperation with injustice is the will of God.

In the Bible, one criteria shows up repeatedly for countermanding the words of God: mercy. Abraham argued to save Sodom on that basis. Moses saved Israel from the understandable wrath of God. In the case of the Gibeonites, Joshua faced two contradictory, legally-binding claims: God's verdict of destruction and his own oath of protection. Certainly customary justice would privilege God's command over a human's oath. However, mercy triumphed, setting aside the very command of God.

Example five: Jesus and the Sidonian Woman

When the pagan woman from the neighborhood of Sidon asked for Jesus' help, he ignored her. When this did not dissuade her, Jesus announced that helping her would violate his God-given mission. Then Jesus compared her to a dog which meant the gospel was not to be preached to her (See Matthew 7:6). Jesus could hardly have been more explicit about her place outside God's favor. In face of this reiterated, explicit rejection citing God as the authority, the woman refused to yield. Instead of submitting to plain meaning of Jesus' words, the woman turned them back against him: even dogs get crumbs. Finally, Jesus capitulated. Jesus (God) bent to the insistence of this mother who demanded mercy for her tormented daughter. To dramatize the divine capitulation, Jesus said to the woman, “May it be for you as you wish.” (Not “as I wish.” Not “as God's wishes.” “As you wish!”)

We believe Jesus' words expressing exclusion were a dramatic set up for his eventual gracious response to this mother. We believe his initial rejection was only apparent. Its purpose was to demonstrate all the more powerfully the universality of the kingdom of heaven. God was speaking through the mother when she rejected the explicit words of Jesus and demanded mercy. Her words, not the initial words of Jesus, were the truest expression of the purpose of God. (Of course, Jesus was deliberately eliciting her words.) Which brings us back to the truth captured in Jesus' twice repeated quotation from Hosea: “You would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'”

Some real-life applications

Occasionally, devout, conservative Christians talk to me about their quandary regarding their homosexual friends and children. They read the Bible's explicit condemnations of homosexual acts. On the other hand, they have a gut sense that our condemnation of all homosexual unions is wrong. They know the words of Romans 1 do not describe their homosexual friends. What to do? How can it be righteous to set aside the explicit words of the Bible to accommodate this virtually unalterable human condition? I point my devout, conservative friends to the story of Joshua and the Gibeonites. Yes, like Joshua's soldiers, we can quote words of God to justify condemning the class of people we call homosexuals. Or we can act like Joshua and put the full weight of our influence and leadership into protecting and welcoming these vulnerable people who seek sanctuary among us. Surely Joshua, a type of Christ, is a more righteous model for us than his soldiers.
When we ask if there are any words in the Bible that can be used to justify excluding people, we are acting like Jesus' disciples who wanted Jesus to send away the Sidonian mother. We are acting like Joshua's soldiers who wanted to be God's enforcers. The Bible is crystal clear that it was Joshua and Jesus who did right, not the soldiers and disciples. We are called to follow the example of Joshua and Jesus.

Our treatment of homosexuals cannot be separated from the lessons of Christian history in regard to slavery. The Bible explicitly condones and regulates slavery. For centuries, Christians used these words of the Bible to justify the status quo of slavery. We now know they were tragically wrong. No matter what Deuteronomy or Ephesians says about the legitimacy of slavery, Christians now decry its immorality. Even though there is no explicit warrant in the Bible for abolition, Christians now agree this non-biblical stance is right. What was explicitly allowed by the words of the Bible is now universally condemned as immoral.

Something similar has happened in regard to the death penalty. The Bible prescribes death by stoning for Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, rebellious sons, homosexual unions, women unable to prove their virginity at their wedding, blasphemers, witches, and rape victims if the rape occurred within the city limits. The people of God rightly judge any attempt to impose these Bible commandments in our day as barbaric and immoral.

We fail to cooperate with God when we use his words as weapons for defending the privileges of the privileged or as cudgels for keeping less-privileged people in their place. We partner with God when we use the Bible as an instrument of mercy or as a device for opening prison gates. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read Isaiah's words as his mission statement:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to
the poor;
He has sent Me
to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to
the blind,
set at liberty those who are oppressed
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.

When the people fully realized what Jesus was saying, when they understood the full measure of his radical mercy, they rushed to throw him off a cliff. I pray we will not be equally offended by the radical mercy of God in our day. I pray that we will instead rush to join him in his mission, welcoming the unattractive, protecting the threatened. To reference another of Isaiah's prophecies (Isaiah 56), we are called to participate with God in providing sanctuary for even the eunuchs and aliens in God's house of prayer.

John McLarty is senior pastor of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle, Washington and author of Adventist Spirituality for Thinkers and Seekers published by Review and Herald.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jon Henderson Chaplain PUC

Jon's sermon title Adam and Steve was wonderful beyond any words to describe. It went way beyond dealing with the issue of homosexuality, it was an exquisite, charming, true presentation of God and the Gospel.

I hear good preaching at my church every month on the weeks I don't preach. Still, this sermon transported me like nothing I've heard in a very long time.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kindness of Barbarians

Kindness of Barbarians
Sermon Manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, October 4, 2014

Texts: Joshua 6:16-23
Matthew 1:1-6a

And Joshua saved Rahab the harlot alive, and her father's household, and all that she had; and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day; because she hid the messengers, which Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. Joshua 6:25

By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. Hebrews 11:31

Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? James 2:25

About three thousand years ago, a woman named Rahab ran a hotel/brothel in the city of Jericho. Jericho is perched in the hills on the west side of the Jordan River. And the town was buzzing with rumors about a wild bunch of people called the Hebrews who were moving north on the east side of the river. The Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt, the world super power of the time. Some forty years ago, their God had rescued them from Egypt through a series of astounding miracles. Now these Hebrews were not far away on the other side of the Jordan River.

So far, no one had been able to resist them. Not the super power, Egypt, or the smaller desert kingdoms.

Jericho was ready. Their army was on full alert. They had impregnable walls. Still, given the success of the Hebrews and the rumors about their terrible power, the whole city of Jericho was on edge.

So one evening when a couple of strangers showed up at Rahab's establishment, it didn't take Rahab long to figure out they must be Hebrews. Others suspected the same and the authorities were notified. Rahab knew the police were coming and she managed to get the men away from the other guests without creating a scene and sneaked them into hiding up on her roof just before the police showed up.

“Yes, the men were here,” she told the police. “They left just a little while ago headed back out of town. If you hurry you will probably catch them.”

The police believed her and took off after the fugitives.

Later that evening when things had calmed down, Rahab went back up on the roof to talk to her visitors.

“I know the LORD has given you this land,” she told them. “We are all afraid of you. Everyone in the land is living in terror. For we have heard how the LORD made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed. No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. For the LORD your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. “Now swear to me by the LORD that you will be kind to me and my family since I have helped you. Give me some guarantee that when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families.”

“We offer our own lives as a guarantee for your safety,” the men agreed. “If you don’t betray us, we will keep our promise and be kind to you when the LORD gives us the land.” Joshua 2

The Hebrews crossed the Jordan River. They marched around Jericho every day for a week. Then on the seventh day, the walls miraculously fell down. Joshua, the Hebrew leader, had given very strict instructions: slaughter everybody. Destroy everything. Except for Rahab and Rahab's house. And everybody in Rahab's house.

Curiously, later Bible writers ignore the genocide. They do not remind us of what the Hebrew army did to the people and animals of Jericho. The prophets do invite us to remember the fierceness of God's wrath toward Jericho or the savagery of the Hebrew army. The prophets draw no lessons from the stories of slaughter in the books of Joshua and Judges. The stories remain. They are part of the history of the people of God. It is a dark history, a caution against pride. Our religion came from a people who at one time made genocide part of their religion. We are not proud of that, but it is the truth. So the stories remain in the Bible, but the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament find no inspiration in them, no wisdom.

Except for the part about Rahab—her story is a source of bright, exalted theology.

She was a barbarian, a Philistine, a pagan, a prostitute. She has become of the richest examples of the work of the Messiah!

And there's more.

Rahab is introduced at the beginning of the story as a prostitute. According to Jewish law, that made her worthy of being stoned to death. Identifying Rahab as a prostitute makes a strong point: Rahab comes into the story with an ignominious reputation. No glory. No honor. Shameful.

Then she saved the spies. A single act of heroic kindness. After that prostitution is never mentioned. Instead, she is accorded the highest honor a Jewish woman could think of: She is identified as one of the “mothers” of the Messiah. The Messiah, the hope of Israel, the Son of God, will come from her descendants.

Rahab begins the story as twice condemned—Canaanite and prostitute. Her kindness creates a new identity. She now has full citizenship among the people of God and the exalted status of mother of the Son of God.

And there's more.

Rahab was a woman, obviously. In classic Jewish legal thought a woman's legal standing flowed from her father or husband. Rahab has no father and no husband in this story. She is a single woman, running her own business.

Because of her one act of heroic kindness, she is given the status of head of household. Joshua does not spare Rahab merely as an individual. Everyone who comes under her roof is granted protection as a member of her family. She becomes perhaps the most exquisite model of the work of Christ in all of Scripture. King David is viewed as a model of the royal identity of the Messiah. The high priest is viewed as the model of the priestly function of the Messiah.

Rahab is the model of the role of the Messiah as the head of the church. Just as she created a refuge, a sanctuary, a safe place in a dangerous and doomed city, so Jesus calls his church to be a refuge, a sanctuary, a safe place in a dangerous and doomed world. Rahab's kindness saved not only the spies, it saved her family and friends and neighbors and continues to save people through the inspiration her kindness gives.

Rahab becomes a model of the heart of God.

What is the purpose of God's house? To be a beacon of hope. Here, we practice being kind, confident that the better we learn the lessons of kindness, the better we will understand God.

The story of Rahab cautions against becoming so enamored with our religious or national identity that we are blind to the obligations of kindness.

This weekend, there is a group of men meeting in Fresno, California, with the specific intent to oppose the ordination of women to serve in church leadership. They are sincere, of course. But they have failed to learn the lesson of Rahab.

They would have opposed honoring Rahab for her work in saving the spies. They would have opposed treating her as the head of household, capable of providing sanctuary for all who came under her roof. They have fallen for the most seductive temptation in religion—the notion that defending particular religious traditions is more important than showing kindness. They are attempting to use all the power of their religion to protect the privilege they enjoy.

It is a tragic failure of moral vision.

On the other hand, there are health professionals from Loma Linda University working to save people from the Ebola virus in Africa. Their kindness is the very highest testimony to the God we worship.

The highest truth is not the particular details of theology in our particular religion. Those details, those distinctive beliefs have value. I happily preach them and teach them. They find their highest validity when they fuel our kindness, our radical commitment to human well-being. When our religion fuels kindness for strangers, when kindness is the inevitable, natural outgrowth of our religion, then we can have high confidence in the validity of our religion.

Kindness is God's highest value. Don't believe those who imagine that God is more concerned with his glory or authority than he is with the blessedness of his children—all his children.

Let's practice kindness and remind ourselves that the more thoroughly kindness pervades our outlook, the closer we are to knowing the heart of God.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Born again

Sermon manuscript (final) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Communion Sabbath, September 27, 2014

Texts: Psalm 87 and Luke 3:23-38

There was a bear cub up a tree near Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, and it was crying. It cried for hours, bawling, calling its mother. Mom did not show up. It's crying broke the heart of park rangers, but they have a strict hands-off policy. There was nothing they could do but observe.

Eventually the cub climbed down from the tree and began foraging for food.

This was not good. Bear cubs are very cute. People like to rescue bear cubs. Unfortunately, adult male bears are immune to the cuteness factor. Old males tend to see cute little cubs as dinner. And Katmai National Park is crawling with bears, including grumpy, hungry old males.

This particular cub was in a bad fix. His mother had been vigorously pursued by an amorous male. Eventually, she sent her cub up a tree and took off with the male bear. And never came back. The cub was doomed. With no mom, he was likely to be eaten by a male bear. Or if that didn't happen, he would starve to death come winter.

Then something miraculous happened. A mama bear named Holly took the orphan under her wing. Holly had a nine-month old cub of her own. She added the orphan cub to her family. When rangers first saw the orphan with Holly and her cub, they thought maybe she was just tolerating it. Then they saw Holly nursing both cubs. Since then they've observed Holly protect the cubs from old male bears. They've seen the two cubs sharing a fish together. The erstwhile orphan is an orphan no longer. He has been born again. He is now Holly's cub.

One of the richest treasures of Christian theology is this truth: we can be born again.

Our first birth gives us many treasures: a family name, a genetic inheritance, nationality, ethnicity. Birth determines or influences every aspect of our lives—whether we are tall or short, skinny or fat, smart or not so smart, rich or poor, musical or can't carry a tune, color blind or sensitive to colors.

When we are born again, none of this changes. We have the same family of origin, the same cousins, the same BMI. We can still sing . . . or not. We are still American or Canadian or Eritrean or Brazilian. We are still Scot or Alaskan or Southerner. We still take pride in our ethnic or national heritage. We will still open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day depending on how it was done in the home we grew up in.

These elements of our identity that flow from our birth are treasures. Being born again does not erase them. Being born again does put them in their proper place. All of these identities become subordinate to our supreme identity as children of God.

Because we have been born again we recognize all of the rest of God's children as our brothers and sisters.

Republicans and Democrats have differing views on how to rank values in shaping legislation. And even when they agree on underlying values, they will frequently differ on the best approach to embodying those values in civic life. But as Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans, we see our political opponents as brothers and sisters. They are part of our family. We are part of their family. We see one another as dearly-loved children of God.

Similarly, when we have theological disputes, those who have been born again see the people with “wrong” views as dearly loved children of God. The status my opponents enjoy as children of God imposes on me the obligation to show them respect. To listen carefully to their arguments.

One of the fascinating aspects of the bear cub story is the interaction between the two cubs. According to rangers, the aggressive behavior of old male bears begins very early. Male cubs fight. They don't share. But in Holly's household they do. Holly's natural-born cub and the orphan have been observed sharing fish together. The generosity of Mama Bear has created a new kind of bear culture.

In the same way, as born again Christians, people adopted into the family of of God, we are called to mimic God in forming a new kind of human community, a community where people show to one another the same grace we have received from God.

Have you ever felt bereft? Have you been excluded, shunned? Parents are not perfect. Some dads are like old male bears. They are dangerous for their children. Some moms are like the delinquent mother bear in this story. They abandon their children or worse. It's not common, but it happens. Sometimes our parents fail us. Sometimes we who are parents fail.

When these things happen, when biological parents fail us, Christianity offers another path to the security of belonging to safe, secure family: We are born again. This new, secure identity is one of richest gifts of the ministry of Jesus.

God is like Holly, the mama bear, prowling Katmai National Park looking for orphan cubs to adopt, orphans to feed and protect and teach. God is looking for us. Holly looks dangerous. She is fully equipped with the massive claws and teeth that make brown bears such formidable carnivores. For a little orphan cub Holly's formidable teeth and claws and bulk are marks of her capacity to allow an orphan cub to be born again, to be a happy, secure member of a new family.

Years ago, my wife got a call from our daughter who was in eighth grade at the time. “Mom, there's a dog here that's been abandoned. She is sitting under a bush out by the street. She watches every car that goes by on the street or comes into the school drive. She pays no attention to any of the people. She just watches the cars. I think she's looking for the car that dumped her. She's been here all day.”

When Karin came to pick Shelley up after school, the dog was still there. Still intently watching every car. Karin was reluctant, but Shelley persuaded her they had to rescue the dog. They got the dog into the car and brought it home. She was well-mannered, but clearly not happy. They put up posters. They advertised on Craig's List. No response. No one claimed the dog.

So Gypsy lived with us.

It appeared to us the dog had been in a pretty rough environment. If I picked up the broom, the dog would run hide in the farthest corner she could find.

My purpose in picking up the broom was to sweep the floor.

But Gypsy, back in those early days when she had first arrived at our house, if she saw me pick up the broom, she would cower in the farthest corner she could find. The terror evoked by the broom diminished over time, but for years the mere sight of the broom would make her nervous.

Which means she experienced a lot of nervousness. Because at our house, with all the traffic—animal and human—in and out, our kitchen floor constantly needs sweeping. Every morning, the very first thing I do, before I sit down at the table before I eat anything, before I go outside, the first thing I do is sweep the floor, to make a welcome environment. I have no hostile intentions. Still, for years in the morning Gypsy would need to find a hiding place while I swept, lest I attack her with the broom.

But not any more. The other day I was sweeping the floor. Gypsy was lying in the middle of the floor. I swept closer and closer. She didn't move. Didn't lift her head. Barely opened one eye. I swept between her legs. She closed her eye. I swept along her back. She didn't stir.

The transformation was complete. She was at home. She knew the broom master. She had no fear.

Sometimes being born again is a magic moment of ecstatic transformation. In a moment our view of God and the world is radically renewed.

For most of us, however, being born again is like Gypsy's transformation. We live with God for a long time and through the years of living with God we come to a deep-seated confidence that the being in charge of sweeping the dirt out of the universe has only kindly intentions toward us. We are at home. We are beloved. We are no longer orphans. It takes a life time to become fully-assimilated members of the household of God. At home with God and with God's family. This is what it means to be born again.

In the New Testament we read that Jesus gave himself to humanity. And through Jesus, God, the Almighty, the King of Heaven, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, was present and giving as well.

Jesus dramatically epitomized this divine presence and kindly regard at the Last Supper with his disciples. He gave them bread and said, “This is my body.” He gave them wine, outflow from crushed grapes, and said, “This is my blood.” When we eat and drink, we are remembering the self-giving of Jesus, the self-giving of God. We are taking in the life of God and are pledging to pass it on.

Sharing Communion together is an affirmation that all of us are no longer orphans. We are at home in the household of God. We have been born again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Joy to the World

Joy to the World
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, September 12, 2014

Texts: Psalm 150, Mark 1:1-12

Thursday morning I wheeled my bicycle out of my office. Before heading outside I stuck my head in the door of the day care room across the hall. I waved to my favorite little guy in the room. (He's my favorite because he knows my name and always waves.) One of the staff people, Kate, came over to say good morning. She was holding a little girl, Ava. Ava is new to day care and she was crying. Kate explained that saying good bye in the morning was sometimes difficult. Little people wanted to stay with mom.

What do you do when you see a little girl crying? You do what you can to cheer her up. I took my helmet off, so I would be less scary. She turned her head to watch this funny old man. She was still sniffling, but at least I hadn't made things worse. Since she was looking my direction, I explained I was going to ride off on my bicycle. Kate carried her out into the hall to show her my bike. I asked Ava if she wanted to ride in the panier on the back of my bike. She shook her head, but I could see she was slowly coming away from the pain of saying goodbye to mom. Kate asked if Ava had a bike at home. She nodded her head. I asked if she had a green bike? She shook her head no. A blue bike? No. A pink bike? She almost smiled. And slowly nodded her head yes.

It was the beginning of joy. A small beginning. Mom was still absent. But there were other facts deserving of her attention. Like pink bicycles and funny old men and a nice woman named Kate who would hold you and let you cry when you needed to.

The sniffles stopped. We talked for a few more minutes. How tall was her bike? Did her brother have a bicycle? Kate talked about her new yellow bike. Someone who was moving out of state had given it to her. Ava finally managed a little bit of smile. Her cuddling in Kate's arms expressed satisfaction rather than grief.

I headed off to work on my sermon rather proud of myself. I had helped put a smile on a little girl's face. That's not bad for a morning's work. Jesus did things like that. He was famous for making people smile.

Once he was teaching in Peter's house in Capernaum. The placed was jammed with people. People eager to learn from this master rabbi. Other people eager to detect error and heresy in Jesus' words. But critic or fan, Jesus mesmerized them all.

Well, he did until there was a commotion on the roof. Dust started drifting down from a spot in the center of the ceiling. People began crowding away from a rain of dust and clods and sticks. Whatever Jesus had been saying was forgotten. What was happening? A minute or two later you could see hands reaching into the growing hole in the ceiling. Hands ripping up the ceiling. The hole got larger. You could see the heads silhouetted against the blinding light of the Mediterranean sky. Finally the destruction stopped. The hole was filled with a lumpy shape as the people on the roof lowered something into the room.

Once the shape was below the ceiling, people could see it was a litter with a person on it. The people on the roof continued feeding rope until the litter was on the floor. On the litter, a paralyzed man.

Jesus stepped over, and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

The words surprised the crowd. The man's obvious problem was that he was not ambulatory. He was lying on a litter, apparently carried here by his friends. The man needed healing of some sort. But forgiveness? Where did that come from. The crowd may have been puzzled by this direct, immediate statement by Jesus, but perceptive people in the crowd could see it touched a deep chord in the man.

The man visibly relaxed. A smile spread on his face. The crowd murmured approval.

We love it when we see someone go from tight and pained to ease and comfort. We love it when people are happy.

But not everyone there at Peter's house was happy. The experts in the crowd, the scholars, the brainiacs started muttering to each other: “Who does this guy think he is. Only God can forgive sins.”

Jesus didn't blink. He read the protest in their faces and immediately pushed back.

“What do you think?” he said. “Is it easier to say to someone, 'You're forgiven.' or to say, 'You're healed?'”

It's a fun question full of double meanings.

You could take it to be a simple question about words: In which case, both statements are equally easy. You are forgiven. You are healed. Either way, easy to say. But clearly Jesus meant something more than this.

It could be a question about power. Which takes more power, forgiving someone or healing someone? You could spend all day arguing that. Plus you could argue whether healing and forgiveness are sides of a single coin of human need. Is it easier to heal physical maladies or to lead someone to the full experience of radical forgiveness?

Or it could be a question of authority. If a person has the power to heal, does that confer the authority to forgive? Do humans have the authority to speak forgiveness?

Jesus deliberately stirs all these questions together and throws down his challenge:

I have just announced to this man divine forgiveness. You scholars dispute my authority to pronounce forgiveness. You think only God can do that. Well, watch me do something else only God can do: And he says to the man on the litter. “Get up, pick up your bed and get out of here.”

The man blinked his eyes. Then just like that, he jumped up, grabbed the litter and pushed his way through the crowd out into the sunshine.

Leaving behind a thrilled, happy crowd and some very annoyed brainiacs.

Even after the excitement died down a bit and people were again listening to Jesus teach, the conservative religious leaders were muttering among themselves. “He has no right! That was blasphemous!”

They had a carefully constructed description of reality. Jesus violated that construct. Jesus' words and actions spread contagious joy in a world of pain and hopelessness. The happy effect of the ministry of Jesus was obvious. But these scholars were so committed to their ideological construct, they were blind to the waves of joy swashing around them. They paid more attention to the scowls on the faces of their fellow experts than they did to the smiles on the faces of the crowds of ordinary people who found new life and joy in the ministry of Jesus.

In the past year or so, I've had conversations with two different people who told me they were deeply suspicious of happy people and happy churches because they were afraid these happy people and happy churches were not sufficiently attuned to “the truth.”

We are Christians. The dominant emotion stirred by the ministry of Jesus 2000 years ago was joy. Authentic Christian ministry today should also be characterized by joy. Christian ministry is supremely a message of mercy, grace, welcome, healing, wholeness and hope. Jesus' ministry today is a ministry of joy. It is not the bad news about evil people conspiring to take over the nation or the world. Our message is not that the world is getting worse and worse. If that's true, there's no call for us to announce it. Rather we are called to step into the tears of this world and whisper hope and healing. Our message is the good news that no matter what happens, no matter who wins elections, no matter what calamities erupt, God is at work to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. And a salient trait of his kingdom is joy.

When is the last time you heard someone tell their story of religious conversion? Was a story of darkness or light? Sadness or happiness? Over and over when I hear these stories, I catch the notes of joy.

On Thursday, I was visiting with someone because a mutual friend wanted us to meet. After we had visited a while I asked this person if she had any interest in church. Nope. She said. Any interest in God? Nope. She said again.

A little later I asked, “Has God ever showed up in your life?” “No,” she said. Then paused, “Well, there was one time.” She told about a crisis that ended with joy. That seemed to her to be God showing up in her life. That story prompted her to think of another, again a tale of crisis and unexpected aid. The mere memory put a smile on her face.

The essence of authentic Christianity is joy

Now let me turn this story about Jesus on its head. The villains in this story are religious conservatives. They are so obsessed with their doctrines, they are blind to the wonder and joy erupted by Jesus' ministry. Using these frowning Pharisees as a negative example, for 2000 years preachers have cautioned against falling into the trap of valuing our religious traditions more than the joy and freedom of Jesus.

But here in Seattle, the greatest risk is that we will be blinded to wonder and joy by fundamentalist scientism. Thorough-going atheism dismisses the ecstasy and bliss of believers as magical thinking. Wishful thinking. Fundamentalist scientism is the gloomy perspective that insists there is no goodness at the heart of reality. Stuff happens. Period. Some of it's pleasant. Some of it's unpleasant.

That's all.

Some of these gloomy atheists sound just like the Pharisees. They are so committed to their ideology they can walk right through the middle of joy and not be touched.

This is tragic. Jesus offers better.

Believers are real people. We know the full range of human experience. Joy and grief. Confidence and fear. Hope and despair. We still live here in this world with all its complications. But when you listen to believers you will find us coming back again and again to the bedrock of faith in God. And when we get there, when faith fills our vision, we experience joy.

Like the little girl at day care, we are grief stricken at times. We are heart broken. Just this week two people closely connected with our church lost parents. That hurts. We keenly feel the pain of loss, of disappointment, of injustice. These things are as real as mom's absence while Ava is at day care. But faith is also a connection with reality.

Faith becomes the bicycle, the vehicle of joy, that takes from grief to joy, from shadows to light. Faith assures us that just as Kate held Ava until she could find a new focus for her life, God holds us in our hard times. Faith is aware of the pain of this world and points to other realities, realities as durable and solid as the things of this world that break our hearts and crush our spirits.

There is no “scientific” proof of the realities seen by faith. That's okay. When we have tasted the joy of the kingdom of God, the cold, rigid structures of Phariseaism and scientism have little appeal. We happily join the crowds cheering the wonders and sweetness of Jesus.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sermon for Sabbath, September 6

Below are two posts. One is an editorial I published in October 2002. The other is the manuscript for today's sermon. The two are related.

The General Conference president is declaring spiritual war on Adventist scientists who point out inconvenient truth in the realm of geology and paleontology. The president thinks the church can solve the  problem by getting rid of the scientists. I think history and the religion of Jesus say otherwise.

First Strike

Note: The editorial below regarding the Iraq War was first published in the October, 2002, Adventist Today. I was editor of the journal at that time. As we respond to the recent, horrific actions of ISIS, we Americans need to keep in mind it was our choice to go to war in Iraq that set up the circumstances which allowed the beheading of journalists by ISIS. The Iraq war resulted in the decimation of the previously thriving Christian community in Iraq and the death of scores or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and a few thousand Americans. Saddam Hussein was a monster, but a lesser monstrosity than that unleashed by our military action.

The Editorial

Through the early months of 1994, the government of Rwanda prepared their people for violent action by an intense information campaign. Through radio station RTLM the Hutu population was reminded of all the bad things Tutsis had done in the past and were warned of Tutsi plots of future hostile action. If the Hutus didn’t eliminate the Tutsis, then surely eventually the Tutsis would harm the Hutus. It was either strike first or be a victim.

The Hutus chose to strike first. In four months, they killed 800,000 Tutsis. With machetes.

This kind of violence is repulsive, repugnant. For Adventists, it is particularly haunting because many of the killers and the killed were Adventists. One of the men accused of taking part in the genocide was a conference president. He is charged with cooperating in the killing of his own pastors and church members who were seeking sanctuary on church property.

In Rwanda, the largest religious body is the Roman Catholic Church. Second largest is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Both are world-wide communions that claim a spiritual identity transcending national, political and tribal identities. Both affirm the teaching of Jesus: “This is how everyone will know you are my disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). But while there were individual acts of great heroism motivated by Christian principle and spiritual identity, in general members of both dominant denominations readily cooperated in the killing of their co-religionists. Adventists who had been baptized together, shared the Lord’s supper and engaged in evangelism together were united in the horror of bloodshed, some as killers, some as victims.

That was 1994 in Africa. Now the president of the United States is doing everything he can to convince the American tribe that we face immediate and dire threats from Saddam Hussein and his tribe of Republican Guards. We are repeatedly reminded of Hussein’s past cruelties. If we do not strike first, we will be struck.

The remedy is to launch a war.

In recent years growing numbers of Adventist young people have been attracted to the US military by its offers of income and education. There are about 200 Seventh-day Adventists in Iraq who enjoy more religious and political freedom than Christians in surrounding nations, some of which are regarded as American allies. So when the United States invades Iraq, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Adventists will be shooting guns, laying mines, dropping bombs. And tragically, Adventists will probably be among their victims. I wonder what will happen to the Adventist churches in Iraq, and to the Adventist children and grandmothers, when the bombs begin to fall?

The United States will not attack Iraq with the blunt edges of machetes. We will use the precise weaponry of modern technology. But the transition from knives to smart bombs is not a moral advance. Of course, the US will attempt to minimize civilian casualties. Even Mr. Bush, in his rhetoric, makes a distinction between the Iraqi people and their evil leader. But war is a terribly blunt instrument, no matter whose hand wields it.

And if the United States attacks Iraq, Adventists will be bombing Adventists.

What can we do? We can implore our president to back away from the rhetoric of war and especially the strong doctrine of first strike. We can renew our historic witness for peace by encouraging our young people to find education and careers outside the military, especially as the nation moves toward an unabashed militaristic stance. We can call our church community to reckon with the teachings of Jesus when debating political issues.

There is plenty of room for argument about just what Jesus meant when he spoke of turning the other cheek when we are struck. But I don’t see how there can be any serious debate among followers of Jesus over whether we should strike first.