Friday, February 17, 2017

Pedestrian Visions, Direct Encounters with God - 2

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, February 18, 2017

Texts: Genesis 18, Hebrews 12:28 – 13:3, Matthew 25

I grew up in Memphis. Winter there is a little like winters here in Seattle. Most of the time it's above freezing. We get rain not snow. Except for rare occasions which completely shut down the city. Winter is dreary. Unlike Seattle, Memphis does not have the magic of mountains carving the horizon, holding snow, inviting you to come and ski or snowshoe. There are no vast areas of public land where you can hike, camp, wander. Visually winter was a bleak time. 

I was not a fan of winter. I was not a fan of gray skies. I did not enjoy cold—even moderate cold. But there was one bit of visual magic in my memories of Memphis in the winter. My cousin lived on the south edge of town. I remember wandering fields with him and his dogs. A sweep of rolling pasture, rich brown grass spreading out under a soft sky, the gray overhead thinning in places to white and even swathes of shy blue. The dogs ranging ahead of us.

There were no strong lines in this picture. None of the drama and majesty of the mountains. Just an enchanting, beckoning play of light and subtle color and a sense of space and room and freedom.

I don't know if I would have remembered these scenes . . .  Maybe I wouldn't have even noticed them in the first place . . . except for the magic of art. More specifically, watercolor. Hanging over my bed from as far back as I could remember was a large watercolor of ducks at a winter gathering spot. Ducks on the water. Ducks in the air. Scattered across the marsh were islands of golden brown grass. After grad school we moved to Long Island, New York. There again, I tasted the magic of winter skies above sweeping marshes. And watercolor paintings that distilled irresistible beauty onto paper. 

In my mind the magic of days under winter sky and long, rich moments transfixed in front of a painting that brought sky and water and marsh grass and ducks and hunters and dogs or boats got all mixed together until now I cannot tell which memory in my head has come from the human artist and which has come from the Creator artist. 

The artists have not created some fictional beauty that is available only on paper. They train my eyes and heart to see. Now when I find myself looking out across some marshy landscape in the gloom of winter, I see colors I would have never noticed if the artists had not educated me to see. I notice beauty in the play of shape and light that would have been completely invisible to me if I had not spent hours contemplating watercolor paintings. 

When I'm out in the field, enchanted by the soft beauty of winter sky and winter grass, I thank the artists for teaching me to see. When I'm staring in rapt appreciation at a watercolor painting of such a landscape, I thank God for creating the glory reflected on the paper.

The Bible is a work of art. It is like a masterful watercolor. It evokes the glory of God. It trains our eyes to see.

Our Old Testament reading today is a classic, foundational story.

Abraham was a wealthy Bedouin. He lived in the grass lands of upper Palestine. His animals and herders spread out over several square miles. Cows, camels, donkeys, horses, goats, sheep. On the day of the story he's sitting at the entrance of his tent surveying the world. Perhaps he was thinking a strategy for improving the ox herd or how to get the best price for camels at the next market gathering in Damascus. Because he's a rancher, he's always thinking about markets and breeding. Because he's a chief, he has all kinds of people challenges to manage. Because he's rich, he has time to think. Time to ponder questions beyond mere survival. Questions of God and justice, purpose and destiny. 

This particular day he's sitting at the entrance of his tent, thinking. Suddenly, he notices three men out on the track that ran through the region. He jumps to his feet and hurries out to greet them. He invites them to stop awhile.

To state the obvious: There was no Facebook or Instagram. No Twitter. No New York Times. No Washington Post. No Kiro News. No NPR.

People back then craved news just we do. Humans like to talk. To hear the latest. In that world, travelers were valued news carriers. News. Newness. Someone whose story you didn't already know.

It's not surprising that Abraham invited them to come sit for awhile. Wash their feet. Rest their legs. Get out of the sun. Have something to eat. And talk.

They accepted. And the four men retired to the shade of the oak tree while Abraham's wife and servants prepared dinner. When dinner was ready, Abraham stood like a waiter, watching his guests plates. Refilling them every time there was any empty space.

It would have been fun to listen in on that conversation. Maybe we could have hidden in the kitchen with Sarah and listened. The reason I'm so curious about the conversation is that I know these travelers were not what they seemed. 

I imagine Abraham asking, “So where are you coming from? Where are you headed?” And what would these visitors have said? “We left heaven this morning, visited Antartica, then stopped by a place that will some day be called New York, then checked on Jerusalem and Damascus before coming here.” Would the visitors have made up bald lies like we do when we are trying to trick one of our friends into showing up for a surprise party? Would they have practiced careful evasion, diverting questions and giving non-answers. Given Abraham's hunger for news, I can't imagine him being satisfied with evasion and non-answers. 

Abraham would have wanted to know the latest intrigue in the palace at Damascus, and the current price of camels in the market there.

From the story, as we have it, it appears that the visitors managed a persuasive disguise all the way through dinner. At some point, one of the guests asks about Abraham's wife and predicts she will have a son. Abraham and Sarah hear this as the sweet flattery of a guest. It is so crazy, given Sarah's age--like 90 years old—that Sarah starts laughing in the kitchen. No, the guest insists, I'm not joking. You will have a baby next year. 

Finally, it's time to hit the road. The guests get up and Abraham walks with them to see them on their way. It is only there, out on the track that leads off toward the valley cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, that God finally drops his disguise. 
By now Abraham has become so comfortable with his guest, that when the guest “comes out” as God and announces a devastating judgment on the cities of the valley, Abraham protests. “You can't do that! Just imagine the collateral damage. Think of all the innocent civilians! What if there are fifty good people in the city? Would you destroy those fifty just so you can get all the bad guys?

No. God says. I'll check it out. If there are fifty good people in the city, I will spare the entire city.

Abraham thinks, wow, that was easy.

Listen, what if there are only 45?

God: I will spare the city for 45.

Abraham keeps bargaining. And God keeps dropping the number of good people needed to justify sparing the entire city.

Commentators have fun trying to figure out the precise identities of the three visitors. Was this the pre-incarnate Jesus and two angels? God the Father and a couple of angels? The three members of the Trinity all dressed up as travelers? I'll leave that debate to others. What is crystal clear is this:  when Abraham invited the three travelers home for lunch, he was welcoming God into his encampment. When he dished food on their plates, Abraham was feeding God. When he washed the feet of his guests, he was handling the feet of God. When he asked about the price of camels in Damascus, he was talking to God.

And for more than two thousand years Bible scholars have reminded us that sometimes God shows up incognito. Sometimes God is not obvious.

Sometimes encounters with God are so powerful and overwhelming, the person is immediately and irrevocably changed. This was the kind of experience Isaiah experienced. We examined that story in last week's sermon. Isaiah was never the same after that vision.

This kind of overwhelming, immediately transforming experience is something that happens to us. We cannot program it. We cannot practice for it. We can't put it on our calendar for later this spring. It is at least as unpredictable as an earthquake. 

Most encounters with God are more like the visit of God to Abraham. It seems like just ordinary life. If we were watching a movie of God's visit to Abraham, when the moment comes that Abraham realizes he is talking with God, we would be as astonished as Abraham. What? How? I thought . . .! We would replay the scene in our mind over and over. Were there clues we missed? How could someone enjoy and entire dinner with God without knowing it was God?

Some approaches to spiritual life and religion emphasize the distance between God and humanity. Any hint that someone has diminished the chasm between God and the ordinary is labeled blasphemy. 

Islam is haunted by this obsession with “blasphemy.”

In Christianity, scholars have frequently equated “holiness” or the quality of God with “otherness.” Difference. Not us. Not ordinary. In Greek Orthodox theology scholars write about apophaticism—the notion that God is far exalted above every human conception, that every attempt to speak of God is automatically, inescapably false. 

There is a place for all this transcendent, exalted stuff. But the story of Abraham tells a different story. God looks like a traveler. God looks like someone who could use a shower and a good lunch. God looks like someone who would enjoy a hour resting in the shade. God looks a lot like us.

The Bible is like a heavenly watercolor distilling for us a vision of heavenly beauty that is so subtle we might miss it without the education of our eyes by the art of the book.

In Adventist circles, it is common for people to made a great fuss about about “inspired” and “not-inspired” writings. Supposedly, God is in the inspired writings but not in the “not-inspired” writings. If you had been in Abraham's kitchen listening to the guests would you have ignore what the guests said until after you found out they were divine? If so, you would have missed nearly all of the heavenly conversation.

Central to the Gospel—that is the stories and teachings of Jesus—is the conviction that God shows up in humanity.

The kingdom of heaven is made up of . . .  not “gods” or angels . . .  the kingdom of heaven is made up of children. Ordinary, diaper-filling, sleep-disrupting, heart-breaking, noise-making glorious children.

We cannot command God to show up in dazzling power. We cannot program a life-transforming, overwhelming experience. But we can practice treating every child as a “god,” god with a lower case perhaps, but still the habitation of divinity, or the camouflage of divinity or the temple of God.

Maybe only one out of a hundred of the children we encounter is actually God in disguise. Still would we treat each child like royalty rather miss out on one opportunity to entertain God?

In the grand climax of the final sermon cycle in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus echoes the lesson of the story of Abraham and his visitors. In the story of the sheep and goats, Jesus declares that we encounter God in ordinary human need. We engage with God as we respond to the pedestrian needs of real, live human beings. We distance ourselves from God when we turn away from humans in need.

Since this is Black History month, I want to make a specific application of this truth to the issue of race. 

In the world I grew up, Memphis, deep south, the 1950s, racism was blatant and universal. My siblings and I rode the city bus across to attend school. I remember my puzzlement about the black women. They got on the bus at the same stop we got on. But they always walked to the back. Even when there were no seats back there. I was naive. I did not know this was the way it was “supposed” to be. 

Our mother was a stay-at-home mom. In addition, we always had a maid at our house, a black woman. I wondered, who takes care of the maid's boys and girls while she was at our house? As I moved into my teens, I remember debates among my parents' friends about paying social security taxes for domestic help.

At the heart of this unequal treatment was a failure of vision. The Federal Constitution counted each slave as three fifths of a person. We simply did not see the face of God in the face of our Black neighbors, the people who swept our floors and mowed our lawns and worked in law offices and doctors offices in the parts of town with deficient streets and impoverished housing.

We were blind. 

Even in church.

When we painted pictures of God, God had blond hair and blue eyes. Even angels were blonds. So even in church, we failed to see. When we rehearsed the story of Noah, we remembered that Noah's son Ham was cursed along with his descendents. And we knew that Black folk were the descendents of Ham. If God had cursed them, who were we to argue? We used the Bible to blind ourselves and celebrate our blindness.

But God is calling us to higher ground.

Black folks are not the descendents of Ham. They are descendents of Abraham's visitors. 

We are learning to see. Black children, just like white children, and Asian children, beautiful children and ugly children, and gifted children and disadvantaged children, --all children are those who comprise the kingdom of heaven.

We can prepare for the kind of encounter Abraham had with God. We can practice hospitality. We can practice attending to people. We can give attention to eloquent words that call us higher, beautiful words that help us see.

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman? --Sojourner Truth, Delivered 1851 at the Women's Convention, Akron, Ohio 

We hear Sojourner's words and we promise ourselves, if we had been there, we would have seen. We would have felt the pathos of her lost children. We would have felt the bite of the slave driver's whip on her back. We would have felt her hunger and demanded an end to the system of slavery.

My plea is that we will hear her words and promise ourselves, that since we are here, we will do what we can here and now. We will spend time in contemplation Bible's vision of the beauty of God dressed in humanity. We will practice welcoming God, no matter what his disguise.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ocean of Divine Favor

Column for the February, 2017, Green Lake Church Gazette

It was another morning waiting for dawn. The sky was murky. Occasionally the crescent moon found a thin spot in the clouds. The brightening in the east was hesitant, timid. Still, darkness retreated. Gray warmed toward orange, then gaps in the clouds leaped to life with pinks and purples and yellows and reds and oranges. For a brief moment the sky was gloriously aflame.

As the day advanced, the clouds would thicken. This was, after all, Seattle in January. Rain would come. But I carried with me all day the vision of that golden, fiery sky and the conviction it called up in the core of my being: we live in an ocean of divine favor.

My central ambition is to imbibe as deeply as possible this blessing, to take it in and savor it, enjoy it, relish it, allow it to suffuse my entire self, and then to share it, to pass it along, to pay it forward. This is the essence of my religion. It is a hopeful, radiant vision.

Always, I dream of expressing more richly the reality of God's favor and grace. I aspire to exemplify in my own life the sweetness and generosity of the heavenly lover which means I can always imagine better, higher, purer. But since I am swimming in the ocean of divine grace, the space between what I have accomplished today and what I can imagine accomplishing does not haunt me with remorse or guilt. I have no taste of condemnation in my mouth. I simply keep alive the dream of living out ever more fully the divine favor that surrounds me.

That morning watching the dawn my enjoyment was qualified somewhat by another awareness. I know that many people who are precious to me live in an atmosphere of divine wrath. Like me, they learned from classic Christianity that all humanity is the target of a divine scowl. God hates sin. All humans are intrinsically, fundamentally sinful. So God has an essential hatred of our humanity. In this religious perspective, the default destiny of every human is damnation, a destiny that can be avoided only by mastering certain religious prescriptions. For some Protestants the requirement is believing a particular theory about the meaning of the death of Jesus. For some old time Adventists the requirement was flawless behavior, including eating a perfect diet. Old time Adventist perfectionists and American evangelicals are united in their conviction that humans live in an atmosphere of divine wrath. It is time to replace this fear of a dark and scowling God with a clear vision of God as light and life and love.

Hear the testimony of the Gospels:


Jesus pictured God as the abundantly generous supplier of sunshine and rain. The ubiquity of these gifts of the heavens is a statement about the character of God (Matthew 5).

Jesus pictured God as an attentive parent, someone who is aware of children's needs and moving to supply them even before the kids themselves could think to ask (Matthew 6).

In Matthew 7, Jesus said the ordinary instinct of a parent to provide for the ordinary needs of their children is a reliable pointer toward the profound goodness and generosity of God.


While Jesus was preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, a man with an “unclean spirit” disrupted the service, shouting fear and belligerence at Jesus. In response, Jesus drove out the unclean spirit and left the man whole (Mark 1).

Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee. In the wild country on the far side, they encountered another victim of an “unclean spirit.” Like the man in the synagogue this man raged his fear and hostility. And like Jesus in the synagogue, Jesus rescued him, giving him back his sanity and his life. Without request, without permission. That's just the way Jesus was. As Christians, we insist, that's the way God is. (Mark 5)


In just one chapter, 15, Jesus gives three pictures of God. God is a shepherd who will not rest until all sheep are safe in the fold, a woman who will not rest until all her treasures are back in her possession, a father whose door is ever open to his sons. The shepherd is not scowling while he hunts his sheep. The woman is not frowning as she sweeps her house in determined pursuit of the lost coin. The father is not a “hazard” to be crossed in pursuit of “safe-at-home.” In each of these pictures, the “lost one” has nothing to fear from wrath. Because there is no wrath. Instead we observe divine hunger for restoration and return.

A young man was being carried out for burial just as Jesus was entering the town. Jesus did not ask permission. He received no request. He stopped the procession and resurrected the young man. It seems Jesus can't help himself. It is his nature to heal and save. Indiscriminately. Prodigiously. As Christians we agree that Jesus is the best picture of God. It is the nature of God to heal and save. God is like the dawn.

I have discarded the dark doctrines of total depravity, “the close of probation,” “not one in twenty,” divine wrath, universal guilt, and “salvation only if _______.” (You can fill in the blank.) I have replaced all these gloomy conceptions of God with the Gospel picture of God as the radiant sun and vivifying rain. Let's bask in God's light. Let's marinate our souls in the heavenly rain. Let's enjoy this ocean of divine favor and pass it on.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Psalm 113 (all)
Luke 22:19-20; 24-27 

Thursday afternoon, I headed east from Enumclaw on Hwy 410. The sky was gray and dark and wet. On both sides of the highway industrial forests spread out in various stages of their life cycles from current harvest to thirty-year-old woods. Snow littered the ground.

Eventually, I reached the national forest. There were fewer clear cuts. Between the cuts, the trees were larger. Still, No individual tree stood out. They were indistinguishable bits in the sea of green.

Just past the Skookum Falls viewpoint. I parked, pulled on my microspikes and headed up the Palisades Trail. As usual, I had snowshoes strapped on my pack. But if you had been there watching me, you would have noticed an additional odd item strapped on top my snowshoes. A stool!

About a mile up the trail, I dropped my pack. Set up my stool. Pulled out my stove and heated some water. Then sat down to eat a sandwich, sip my hot water, and keep company with a great tree. The greatest tree in the Dalles Creek valley, maybe the greatest tree in the entire White River drainage.

It is a huge Doug fir. Winter or summer, even when I'm running and trying to make time up the trail, when I come to this tree I stop. I take a moment to pay respect to this great citizen of the green world. It is nearly invisible, standing in a forest of large trees, its top hidden in a jungle of green overhead. It's trunk is one among thousands in the valley. It is ordinary. Until you stop and pay attention. The more attention you pay, the grander the tree becomes.

How big? Yesterday, I took a tape measure with me. It has a circumference of 21 feet. is 18 feet around. Much bigger than I had previously guessed.

I spent half an hour yesterday in the company of this tree, letting its greatness touch me, inspire me, awe me.

I let words run through my mind. Dignity. Longevity. Immense. Magnificent. Huge. Wondrous. Elegant. Quiet. Enduring. Alive.

I gave the tree my full attention, letting my eyes and mind drink in its grandeur. I traced furrows in the bark, noting their patterns. I drank in the color changes up and down and across the trunk. I used my imagination to climb higher in the tree, above where the trunk was obscured by the green, feathery canopy. In short, I practiced contemplation. Sitting on my stool, I quieted my soul and kept company with this truly great tree. I gave it intense, persistent, respectful, affectionate attention.

I contemplated its patience and endurance. Its dignity and strength. It's grandeur and beauty.

The tree's greatness is stealthy. I have passed it dozens of times. I've stopped and touched it. Paused and admired it. But yesterday I went further. I climbed the slope behind it and found places where I could see its entire height. I watched its perfect trunk climb skyward, tapering slowly. As I studied it from this distance, I could see that even among its large neighbors, this tree was unique.

I imagined having a conversation with a younger Doug fir in the forest: “Young tree, if you are looking for a model for your future, be like that tree. If you dream of being a truly great Doug fir, practice living like that one.”

But enough about trees. Let's talk about people.

A week ago I spent half an hour in the presence of a truly great person. We were standing in someone else's kitchen chitchatting and I asked about her work. Not the work she gets paid for. I already knew about her career. I asked about her other job. Being a mother.

The longer we talked the larger she grew.

I thought of all the times I walked past that Doug fir, never realizing how truly great it was until I stopped to measure it, spent time sitting beside it in contemplation, climbing the slope to survey it from different angles.

As I listened to this mother, with every paragraph she became greater and greater and greater. Yes, she benefited from the assistance of professionals. But at nearly every step, she had to fight for that help. She had to fight entire systems to get the help her child needs.

It was not the first time I've been in the presence of human greatness. A geologist friend in Colorado has cared for his son for fifty, going on sixty years now. A carpenter friend here in Washington, shaped his entire life for more than two decades around the needs of his daughters. And mothers. I cannot count the mothers I know who have loved and served and cared and hoped and fought for years and decades. With no applause. No acclaim. No obvious reward.

At some point in our conversation last week, I said to the mother, “I could never be a mother.” I was struck by her response.
Yes, you could. You would.”

She was dismissing her heroic service as the natural, instinctual goodness that God has planted in the human heart. If your children have special needs, you become a special provider. That's the way God has made people.

And the reason God made people that way is because that's how God is. That's who God is.

When we enter the kind of service good mothers give, we are entering most deeply into greatness—human greatness and divine greatness. At least that's the way Jesus saw it.

Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me." After supper he took another cup of wine and said, "This cup is the new covenant between God and his people--an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you. . . .
Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them.
Jesus told them, "In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they call themselves 'friends of the people.' But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves. Luke 22:19-27

Great people serve. Great people take care of others.

Where did Jesus get this idea? Did it originate with him? Was this a brand new idea that Jesus invented? No. Jesus' idea that serving others is the highest mark of human goodness came from his vision of God—a vision rooted in the words of the Old Testament prophets and in the actual care Jesus received from Joseph.

The great tree that Jesus sat under, the tree that provided the inspiration for his magnificent moral vision was the magnificent tree of divine goodness.

In Matthew 5, Jesus noted that God sends rain to good people and to bad people, to the just and the unjust. The gifts of seasons are not pulled from heaven by worthy people, they are poured from heaven by our generous God.

In Matthew 6, Jesus pictured God as an attentive parent who is aware of children's needs before the kids themselves are.

In Matthew 7, Jesus insisted that the goodness and generosity of ordinary, decent parents is a pointer toward the profound goodness and generosity of God.

These presentations by Jesus are an echo of the Hebrew prophets. Throughout the Old Testament, over and over and over, the prophets picture God as the champion of the poor, the friend of widows and orphans. God's greatness is explicitly described as his character of providing for poor people and animals. God is not pictured as the friend of the rich. Not because the rich are bad or because God doesn't like rich people. There are plenty of good rich people in the Bible. But God does not go out of his way to announce his friendship for the rich because they do not such an intense need his friendship. They're doing all right. Life is going well for them.

Like a good mother, God gives special attention to the children who need special care. So the poor, the falsely accused, the sick, the people who can't afford a lawyer, the people who cannot buy a place at the table—these are the people specially befriended by God. At least, that's what the prophets say.

Over and over and over again.

One of the most important functions of religion is to help us pause in the race of life and pay attention to authentic greatness, especially the most magnificent greatness of all—the greatness of God.

Church is like a stool set on the trail beside the greatest Doug fir inviting passersby to pause, to stop, and spend some sweet moments in contemplation of true greatness, divine greatness.

This is why we come together in worship. Here we spend time in contemplation of the character of God. We give close, sustained, communal attention to the mightiest tree in the universe. We worship the God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. We worship a God who delights far more in reconciliation than in vengeance, a God who prefers mercy to punishment, a God who finds ways to save sinners, and restore the fallen.

Here in worship we delight in the truth of the beautiful God, the true measure of what is great.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Holy Courage

Sermon manuscript (revised) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists 
For Sabbath, January 24, 2017

It was the end of March, spring time in Memphis, 1968. The azaleas were approaching their peak bloom. The days were gloriously warm and bright. The street we lived on was lined with massive elm trees that arched across the street. They were vivid with new baby leaves. There was one flaw in this glorious spring. The garbage was piling up by our back gate. In our neighborhood, garbage trucks drove the alleys instead of the streets. But for the last six weeks, there had been no garbage trucks in the alley. The garbage men were on strike.

This was not acceptable. If the mayor goes on vacation, nobody notices. If the garbage men miss one day, it's trouble. If they miss a week, we are in deep mess. There had been no garbage collection in Memphis for six weeks!

We were mad at the garbage men. What right did they have not to work? What business did they have demanding better pay. After all, they were mere garbage men. And on top of that, they were black. Lots of black people in Memphis were unemployed. So these garbage men were supposed to grateful for any paycheck at all. Yes. They worked in miserable, dangerous conditions. A couple of garbage men had been crushed to death in a compactor. That's what precipitated the strike. But hey, accidents happen. Get over it.

The garbage men refused to get over it. The mayor demanded they return to work. They refused. The main newspaper in town, the Commercial Appeal, cheered the mayor on as he swaggered and talked tough. The white population cheered every insult the mayor hurled at the recalcitrant strikers.

The garbage men—sanitation workers—held on. They refused to obey the mayor. They refused to agree that they deserved lower pay than the white drivers of their garbage trucks. They refused to agree that their families should live in poverty while they collected the garbage in the alleys behind large homes on tree-shaded streets.

But it was hard. All the powers were arrayed against them. The mayor. The police with their dogs and mace and billy clubs. Major local businesses. Justice hung in the balance.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to encourage them, arriving on Friday, March 29.

Monday and Tuesday at school, I listened to the rumors swirling among my classmates. A group of white men had bound themselves with an oath to guarantee Dr. King would not get out of town alive. Communist agents were in town to agitate the black people and provoke them to violence. The strikers were quitting their strike. Dr. King was wasting his time.

Wednesday came. Wednesday night Dr. King addressed a huge crowd. He cited the Hebrew prophets and their bold protestations against the perversion of justice by the powerful. He talked of the ultimate triumph of non-violence, about the glory and risk of that present moment in the great march of history toward justice and peace. Police violence would not win. Mace and billy clubs would not triumph. Not ultimately. Not if the people stayed united and true to their principles.

Then at the heart of his sermon, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man was traveling the wild, desolate road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was jumped by thieves and robbed and beaten. Two religious dignitaries passed the injured man. First a minister, then a deacon. They could see he needed help. They probably wanted to help. But they asked the very sensible question, “What will happen to me if I help?”

Then along came another man, a Samaritan—a Muslim in Christian America, a Black man in White America, a Mexican in Anglo America, a Jew in neo-Nazi America, a Republican in Seattle (I say this with a good-natured smile)--this other man changed the question. He did not ask what will happen to me if I help. He asked what will happen to him if I do not help?

The question asked by the religious dignitaries—what will happen to me—is a sensible question. But it was not the right question. The right question was, “What will happen to him, if I do not help?” Dr. King applied the question to the situation in Memphis. He challenged his audience, “What will happen to the strikers who have risked their families and their entire future struggling for justice if you do not help? What will happen to the children of these strikers, if we leave them to struggle alone? What will happen to this city if we fail to come to the aid of those who need us now?

What will happen to them if we do not help?

This question remains one of the most probing questions we can ask. It is the burning question facing us right now across the United States and Europe. The entire western world is being seduced by the allure of the reasonable, smart-sounding question: What will happen to us if we help? The world is richer than ever before in history. There is enough food, enough money, enough money. But we are weary with helping.

Still, the noble challenge presented so clearly by Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan and given new voice by Martin Luther King confronts us: what will happen to them if we do not help?

What will happen to the children born in a poverty they did not earn if we do not help?
What will happen to senior citizens who spend their entire careers working in day care?
What will happen to the people who have manicured our lawns and washed the dishes in our favorite restaurants and cleaned the bathrooms in the airports we passed through on our way to our vacations in Mexico? What will happen to them when they get sick or old?
What will happen to families coping with mental illness?
What will happen to grandmothers raising grandchildren because the middle generation got lost in addictions?
What will happen if we do not help?

Across the nations that used to be Christian, there are louder and louder voices celebrating the privilege of the privileged and denouncing the need of the needy.

I am not optimistic in the short term about our ability to avoid a sharp lurch into the ditch of fear and narrow self-interest. But I am confident of this: We—the members of this family, citizens of the Beautiful City, devotees of Jesus—we will ask the right question. We will not allow the teachings of Jesus to be muted.

When Dr. King talked about asking the sensible question, “What will happen to me if I help?” it was not a theoretical exercise. The air was full of threats. He knew people wanted him dead. Men heavy with hatred and guns. Coming to Memphis was a dangerous move. Still he came because the brothers in Memphis needed help. Their struggle for justice faced deeply entrenched opposition. So Martin asked the right question, What will happen if I do not help. And he came to Memphis knowing there he was wearing a target.

Helping sometimes requires great courage, holy courage. But that is the native culture of the Beautiful City.

In our New Testament reading we heard the cynical challenge to Jesus from the religious conservatives of his day.

Some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him. They advised him to leave town. (They, of course, cared nothing about Jesus' well being. They were trying to scare Jesus into leaving town. They wanted to get rid of his bothersome presence.) Jesus laughed them off. Go tell that old fox that I am going to keep doing what I do. I will be casting out demons and healing people here. And three days from now I will be in Jerusalem doing the same thing. If you are going to do me in, you might as well do it in Jerusalem, that's where all good prophets go to die.

The same thing is happening today. Religious conservatives are trying to silence the annoying teachings of Jesus. A famous evangelical preacher New York recently told an interviewer, the teachings are Jesus are not the main point of Christianity. Jesus saves us from out guilt. That's the big thing. Those teachings about loving our neighbors and laying down our lives for our friends and serving the least of these—all of that is quite secondary. What matters is getting myself saved.

We do not agree. We do not believe the most important question is what will happen to me? We join Jesus and Martin and the ancient prophets, Amos and Jeremiah, in asking what will happen to them? And not just on Judgment day off in the future, but today. Here. Now.

What will happen if we do not help.

We do not wait until it is convenient to ask the question. We do not wait until we have power. We simply own the question as central to our religion as followers of Jesus. We claim this question as central to the constitution of our spiritual city: What will happen to them if we do not help?

When people threaten us with the power of the swaggering, belligerent Herod, we reply, “Tell the old fox we will continue our ministry. We will continue to do what we can to heal and help. And we will not be silent.”

It may cost us. But that is what courage is for. To pursue truth and justice.

May God help us.

Friday, December 30, 2016

After Christmas

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, December 31, 2017

OT: Isaiah 40:1-5
NT:  Luke 2:25-38

There was an old priest in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was just and devout, a genuinely good man and intensely spiritual.

His whole life he had lived with a lively anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. He carried in himself the longing and expectation of his people. For a thousand years his people had been hoping for the break of dawn, the launch of a new day.
The day when swords would be regarded as mere raw material for better things.
Lions and lambs would happily pasture together.
Courts would become trustworthy instruments of righteous judgment.
Money would be an instrument of peace.
Righteousness would be the very air people breathed.
Democrats and Republicans would bow together in devotion to goodness and beauty.
Illness would be cured.
Disability would be converted into magical new strengths and skills.
Depression and bi-polar disorder would be transformed into dazzling powers of sensitivity and creativity.
Addictions would morph into sweet, healthy hungers and achievements.
For a thousand years Simeon's people had tasted the hard edge of reality and had cultivated the sweet taste of the Messianic vision. For much of his life Simeon had participated in this communal longing and hope. Then at some point in his hours of prayer and contemplation, a heavenly voice had assured him he was going to experience it in his life time. “You are going to see it,” the Voice said.  “You will live to see the face of the Messiah.”

It was reason enough to get up out of bed on bad mornings. It kept him going when grief and calamity weighed heavy. As he got older, his mind wandered more and more frequently to the promise. Was it for real? Would he really see the Messiah?

Then came the divine nudge. Go to the temple. Today. Now. And Simeon went.

There in the temple he spotted Joseph and Mary and Jesus. Jesus' parents had brought their baby to be circumcised and dedicated to God. Approaching the family, the old priest took Jesus in his arms and lifting his face toward heaven, said,

“Take me, God. I'm ready to go. I am rich enough, now, for an entire life time. You have kept your promise. I have seen the dawn of the day which will brighten the face of all humanity
A shining sun for the Gentiles,
A gleaming splendor for your people Israel.

For the old priest, this brief encounter in the temple was the crowning experience of his entire life. And we—the church, the people sometimes called Christians, the people shaped by the Gospel—we hear the words of Simeon and say, “Amen. Yes, it is so. Messiah is born. Dawn has begun infiltrating the dark.

The old man was not loony. He was not oblivious to facts. In his words to the parents of Jesus he mentioned the heartbreaking fall of many. He warned Mary that her own soul would be pierced, as in stabbed, sliced, lacerated. Between this sweet moment in the temple, between this first glimmer of dawn, and the final extinction of darkness and evil, there was a long stretch. Simeon knew it and spoke of it. But he refused to allow the facts of evil and pain to obscure the glory of the counter truth. There was a hint of light on the eastern horizon and it portended the approach of noon day sun.

It is the same with us. We have just spent a season of celebration of the birth of Jesus. Joy to the world. Peace. Love. The beginning of the inexorable triumph of goodness. All this glory resident in the baby born in a manger 2000 years ago.

Now we look toward the new year. Our moment in the temple with Baby Jesus is over and we are back in the real world. There may be the glimmer of dawn on the eastern horizon, but here in our neighborhood the world is still haunted by darkness.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Mika asked me, “How ya doing?” It wasn't a formality. He was probing. So I told him the truth. “Terrible.”
“Anything I can do to help?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Not unless you can fix the universe.”

Maybe it's just because we are in the dark months, with short days and skies heavy with dark clouds, but I have been feeling the weight we carry as a congregation. We have sons and daughters who are breaking our hearts. They have such rich potential. We can see their skills, their abilities, their capabilities, if only . . .  If only they could find a way out of their addiction. If only they could escape the seductive allure of some ideology, some theology, some sparkly attraction that is short-circuiting their glorious potential. We hope until hope seems utterly fanciful and cruelly deceptive. But how can we not hope when it's our kids?

We watch our parents decline. It's never pretty. Sometimes it seems just plain cruel, like God or the universe is toying with our loved one like a cat toys with a mouse.

Right now, some of us are dealing with weird, mysterious disabilities and ailments. Moms and dads are exhausted with the care and exhausted with the search for answers, for diagnoses, for treatments, for cures.

Some of us have close connections with far away places where the cry of human need is even sharper than it is here in our favored place, places where human need shrieks and moans. Bombs and starvation, economic collapse with all the misery in every other area of life that goes along with it.

The sword pierces our own souls. Also.

This is true. It is factual.

It is against this backdrop that we come to church and rehearse the words of the old priest. With him we declare,

We have seen the dawn of the day which will brighten the face of all humanity
A shining sun for all nations.

The Christmas holiday may be past, but we will not forget the birth. We will not relinquish our faith that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the entire cosmos has been altered. Dawn is creeping up the eastern sky. As people of the light we have seen and bear witness. We bear witness to this glorious truth even when our souls are pierced. Maybe especially when our souls are pierced.

This is the grand central conviction of our worship.

Tuesday of this week I visited with someone who is engaged in an intense spiritual search. At some point we talked about devotional practices and as we talked I understood more clearly than ever the difference between prayer on the one hand and meditation and worship on the other. Both are important, but they are not the same.

When I described my meditation practice, my friend responded by talking about the twin elements of prayer—petition or asking—and thanksgiving. But neither of those are accurately describe what I was talking about.

I used my favorite food to illustrate.

When Karin went to Europe a few years ago to travel around with our daughter, our friend Gerry begged her to bring him some chocolate. He is allergic to chocolate produced in the US, but he can eat European chocolate. Hence his petition.

Karin brought home some good chocolate for Gerry. Gerry thanked her.

Both the asking and the thanking were entirely appropriate—even necessary. But if all Gerry did was ask and thank, he would be a deeply impoverished man. Imagine, he's holding some of Europe's finest chocolate and he's talking. He goes on and on and on about how grateful he is. Gerry likes to talk, but I know there is something Gerry likes even more than talking. And that is chocolate. So at some point in his long thanksgiving, I tell him. “Gerry, quit talking and eat your chocolate!”

This is what we do in meditation and worship. We taste the delicious promise of God. We savor the conviction that day has dawned. Darkness is doomed. God will triumph. Love will win. In worship and meditation we enjoy the day, we bask in the favor and promise of God.

As we enter the New Year, I encourage us to make time regularly, daily if at all possible, to savor the truth spoken by the old priest in the temple 2000 years ago. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the triumphant march of goodness. The values Jesus lived and taught will some day displace grasping individualism. Some day power will be used only for good. God guarantees it. Let this conviction permeate our entire being. Let it sound louder in our souls than the clamor and rancor so common around us.

Every week let's celebrate afresh the truth that Christmas is the beginning of the world God is building. Christmas is the dawn of the world that holds our hearts and orders our lives.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

City of Love

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, December 24, 2016

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 1:18-23

The gospel of Matthew begins with the grandfather of the Hebrew faith, Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.

The genealogy continues through fifty-two generations, concluding
Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah.
Jesus, the son of Abraham.
Jesus, the son of Jewish kings. Jesus, the son of a Canaanite prostitute.
Jesus, the son of David. Jesus, the son of Ruth, a beautiful, virtuous Moabite.
Jesus, the son of Mary.

Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus, the hoped-for champion of virtue and lowly people.
Jesus, the Servant of God, the instrument of divine will.

Jesus Immanuel.

As we heard in our Gospel reading this morning:
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.
In the person of this little human being, God became visible, palpable. God came close. It is the testimony of the church that if you picked up this baby and squeezed it in a tight embrace, you would be squeezing the sweetness of God. If, three decades later, you followed Jesus of Nazareth around with a video camera, the Youtube videos of prodigious healings that you would upload would be videos of the healing power and presence of God. Your videos of mesmerizing preaching would be videos of the words of God. You videos of hostility to Jesus would be videos of hostility to God.

Jesus was and is Immanuel. God with us. The stories of Jesus are declarations, pronouncements: God is with us. Our pain is present to God. Our acts of injustice are visible to God. Our aching longing for a better world is a mirror of the divine heart.

Since God is with us, it is also true that we are with God. Our own hearts tell us something of the divine heart. Our hunger for justice is evocative of the hunger of God. Our refusal to “be okay” with abundance and overflowing plenty for the few and paucity and privation for the many echoes the denunciations of heaven. Even our outrage at the normal process of getting old and diminishing vitality and function is an expression of the devotion of heaven to life and growth.

The birth of Jesus, seen through Christian eyes, is a defiant push back against the normalcy of evil, injustice, pain and death. Things ought to be better. Because Jesus was Immanuel, he looked at the world through the lens of human experience. Jesus knew—by experience—what we know.

And there is more. Through the eyes of faith and the words of Scripture, we have learned to see in babies, the face of God. Every human is indistinguishable from God. This is the foundation of authentic pro-life values. We owe support and protection to every human because that human looks like God.

Perfect, laughing babies.
Twenty-eight-year-old guys who can function only when they are on their medication, and frequently they are not on their medication.
Grandmas who are the special friends of their grandchildren.
Grandchildren whose addictions are breaking grandma's hearts. 

Every single human being is precious. Every single human being bears the image of God.

We see this truth most vividly in the story of Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of Mary, the son of God. This truth undergirds our Christmas generosity, our Christmas love. Why is it that a central feature of “Christmas stories” is love expressed in surprising ways, love shown to someone who might at another season have been repulsed or not even seen? Because the central truth of the Christmas story is just this deep truth: God is with us—incognito, hidden in ordinary human beings.

Last Friday night we celebrated the grand story of Christmas in words and music. Our annual concert was as glorious as always. Maybe better than ever. Then we took an offering. You gave $2500 dollars to help provide care for women who make their living on the street a couple of miles from here. These are not beautiful women, not cute girls. They are not “hot,” to use contemporary jargon. They are women driven by crushing necessity to sell themselves because they think that's all they have to offer.

You owe them nothing in at least one telling of the story. You did not abuse them when they were young women. You did not offer them drugs. You have not told them they are worthless. But in the light of Christmas we see differently. We owe every child food and shelter and a chance at life, at least every child we can touch with our influence and money.

We are privileged. These women are our neighbors, walking the streets just blocks from where we sit, walking the streets in search of enough money to live for one more day. Our privilege and their need creates an obligation. And last Friday night you made a payment on that obligation. You gave dollars that will make a difference, dollars that will pave the way for a few women to exit their bondage and take steps toward a new life.

That's what love does.

Last Sabbath morning, Page Byers from Greenwood Elementary was here to thank you for providing gift for the families of children at her school. Those cards will provide food and basic needs for families living within a few miles of our beautiful sanctuary. Can we imagine, sitting here this morning, being able to provide dinner for our families only because of the kindness of strangers? Many of the poor families at Greenwood Elementary School came here from other countries. Can you imagine the conditions in the places they left behind—life so difficult that living in your car in a strange country is better than staying home?

If it weren't Christmas, we might not notice the needs of these neighbors of ours. We might be tempted to think, they should have just stayed where they were and starve there instead of coming here. Or more likely, if it weren't Christmas, we would have simply been unaware. We would not have felt their hunger. We would not have noticed their need. But Christmas with all its lights and music and candy and cookies also beckons us to notice God in the babies, the babies living in rough places, babies born to parents not yet married, babies at risk. Christmas teaches us to love.

You gave more than a thousand dollars to provide life-sustaining assistance to our neighbors. Christmas helped us to love.

Tomorrow evening, many of you will provide a special Christmas dinner for people with meager resources. You will be sharing bounty and sharing love.

That's Christmas love. That is honoring the Christ child.

At Christmas time, we do not think of these acts of generosity as extraordinary goodness. Generosity is normal in the City of Love. Of course, we fail sometimes. We are not always generous. Sometimes our hearts are hard. Sometimes we are not generous because we are unaware of how we can assuage aching human need. Here in the City of Love, we expect one another to be generous.

The Mayor of our City, God is generous. In fact, it is his most dramatic trait. God gave his son. And in giving his son, gave himself. And invites us to join with him in the giving.

This is the message of Christmas. This is what we do. Most of the time. It is what we aim to do always.

At Thanksgiving time, when you provided food and money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Throughout the year, you pack and distribute care packages for homeless people. You give hundreds of volunteer hours providing programming for children and grandchildren here at the church. You volunteer as a ski instructor for disabled people. You pay tuition for young people who otherwise could not attend the school of their choice. You care for parents and children and spouses whose lives are a bottomless pit of need.

You practice the family value: those with special needs receive special care. You are the hands and wallets of God.

Over and over and over you treat people as if they bore the image of God. Because, in fact, they do.
They are the Jesus in our present world. They are worthy of love and care. And you, as part of the community of Jesus, provide it. That's the meaning of Christmas. That kind of loving care brings joy to the heart of God. Like any grandparent, God takes the greatest delight in his children living out in their world the highest values of heaven.

The greatest value of all is love.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 9, 2016

City of Hope

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for December 10, 2016

The gospel of Luke begins the story of Jesus with the birth his cousin, John the Baptist.

Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were old. And they were childless. One day Zacharias was doing his duty as a priest in the temple when an angel showed up, scaring him nearly to death.

“Fear not, Zacharias,” the angel said. Your prayer has been heard, and your wife, Elisabeth, is going to give birth to a son. When he arrives, give him the name John. You will have joy and happiness, of course. And many others besides you and Elizabeth will also experience great gladness at his birth, because he will be a great man of God. He will never touch any form of alcohol. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. He will turn many people to God. His ministry will remind people of the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and inspire wicked people to follow the wise path of justice. He will help people prepare to be with the Lord.”

Nine months passed and sure enough Elizabeth gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard the good news and came to celebrate. On the eighth day when it was time to circumcise the child, all the neighbors and relatives assumed the baby would be named after his father Zacharias. But the parents said no. His name is John.

For the entire pregnancy the dad, Zacharias, had been unable to speak, having been struck dumb by the same angel that announced the birth of this son. But now his speech was restored and he gave a grand prophecy:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
God has come to save us from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
God will perform the mercy promised to our fathers.
God will remember his holy covenant;
To grant us deliverance from our enemies so that we might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest.
You will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
To his people knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of their sins.
God in his tender mercy will bring the light of heavenly dawn to our dark world
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
To guide our feet into the way of peace.

Peace shows up again at the birth of Jesus. The night Jesus was born there were shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks in the darkness. Suddenly they were enveloped in light. First an angel appeared and announced the birth of the Messianic child. Then a whole choir of angels appeared and sang a glorious anthem. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth . . . peace.”

The text here is ambiguous. Did the song promise peace and goodwill to humans or did it promise peace to humans of good will?

I think the ambiguity is deliberate and instructive. Guiding feet in the path of peace was the work of John the Baptist. It was the work of Jesus the Messiah. It is the work of all their spiritual descendants.
What is the path of peace Zacharias saw as the center of the mission of his son and the Messiah?

The Gospel describes the ministry of John the Baptist this way:

John began preaching in the desert and huge crowds came to hear him. His preaching was riveting, convicting.
When the people asked, “What shall we do?” John said, “If you have two coats, share with someone who has no coat. If you have plenty of food, find someone with less and share.”
Tax collectors asked about God's call on their lives and work.
“No corruption.” John said.
Soldiers, members of the Roman occupying army, were also moved by the preaching. What about us? They asked.
“Don't abuse your power. Don't strong arm people. Don't accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”
John's preaching was so compelling people wondered if he were himself the Messiah.

What is the path of peace? How do we prepare to be with the Lord?

Share. Practice generosity. Resist the allure of corruption. Don't misuse the power that lies in our hands. Do right. Make peace.

We prepare to enjoy peace with God by making peace on earth here and now. We deepen our enjoyment of the generosity of heaven by practicing generosity on earth.

This has important political implications. If our greatest concern is free loaders and how to exclude them, we have not yet learned the culture of the City of Peace. In the City of Peace, the greatest concern is to make sure that no one is poorly served. Yes, freeloaders warp their souls and damage the larger community. And it is appropriate, necessary, to limit the problem. But the threat of freeloading by poor individuals is small compared to the threat of discovering that we, the wealthiest nation in the history of humanity, failed to care for the disabled and disadvantaged, or to use biblical language, failed to provide for the fatherless and widow and foreigner. The threat of freeloading by poor people is far less than the threat of gaming the system by the rich and powerful.

To guide our feet in the path of peace.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth . . . peace.

Peace is one of the essential fibers of the cultural fabric of the City of God. Our city is a City of Peace.

The Gospel begins with such promise. John's sermons were so inspiring people imagined that he himself was the Messiah.

Then Jesus appeared, and thousands of people showed up for his rallies. Thousands of people found hope in preaching and healing through his touch. It was a luminous time. The world was full of light.

But the religious conservatives grew increasingly uncomfortable. Jesus was too generous. He made God appear too gracious. Jesus threatened the privileges of the powerful.

Eventually, the religious conservatives managed to seize control of society. They came up with a plan to shut down the generosity of Jesus.

This is the reality that lies behind today's New Testament reading.

Jesus had been preaching and healing for three years. He is heading into Jerusalem in the heart of a grand, enthusiastic procession. People are shouting words from the Psalms. They are euphoric.

Glory to God in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Jesus lets the people sing and dance. Why not. It is true that he carries the divine promise that generosity and grace will eventually displace acquisition and vindictiveness. Let's us keep that in mind. It's worth singing about.

But even Jesus is not able to always keep the ultimate triumph of goodness front and center in his mind.

As the procession reaches the top of rise and the road heads down toward Jerusalem, Jesus sees the entire city spread out before him. It is supposed to be the City of Peace. It is supposed to be the Beautiful City, the City of God. But it has been taken over by religious conservatives and power elites determined to preserve their privileges. They will eliminate Jesus at the end of the week. Their continued resistance to the path of peace will turn their city, forty years in the future, into the City of Death.

And Jesus looking and knowing, weeps.

If only you had known, you of all people, at this time, this moment of opportunity, the path to peace. But it is too late. Your eyes are blinded. You cannot see the path. You cannot find the way to peace.

In less than seven days, Jesus was dead. The world was dark. Peace suddenly seemed very far away.

That's the way our story goes. The path to peace is long. It is sometimes very difficult.

But the gospel does not end there.

Resurrection morning comes. And the Gospel of Matthew ends with the stirring challenge from Jesus: Go into all the world and teach them what I have taught you. Guide their feet into the way of peace.

We rehearse the Christmas story, the story of the birth of the Prince of Peace, to give ourselves courage. Peace will triumph.

We rehearse the story to give ourselves wisdom. What do we do in the face of the apparent triumph of swaggering power? We practice peacemaking.

What do we do when the media amplifies voices of hostility, rudeness, and aggression? We sing again the Christmas songs.

Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth