Saturday, June 15, 2019

Rich People and Jesus

Sermon for Green Lake Church, Sabbath, June 15, 2019

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4: 

Jesus left Judea and returned to Galilee. 
This fulfilled the word of the prophet Isaiah: 
In Galilee where so many Gentiles live, 
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. 
And on those who lived in the land of the shadow of death 
a light has dawned. 
From then on Jesus began to preach, 
"Repent and turn to God, 
for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." 

One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers--Peter and Andrew--throwing a net into the water, for they were fishermen. 
Jesus called out to them, 
"Come, follow me, 
and I will show you how to fish for people!" 
At once, they left their nets and followed him. 
A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. Jesus called them to come, too. 
Immediately, leaving the boat and their father behind, they followed him.

Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, 
teaching in the synagogues 
and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. 
He healed every kind of disease and illness. 
News about him spread as far as Syria, 
and people soon began bringing to him all who were sick. 
And whatever their sickness or disease, or if they were demon possessed or epileptic or paralyzed--he healed them all. 
Large crowds followed him wherever he went--people from Galilee, the Ten Towns, Jerusalem, from all over Judea, and from east of the Jordan River.  
(Matthew 4:12-25 paraphrased and elided.) 

On the people sitting in darkness, a light dawned.
Morning came.

Jesus visited towns throughout the region of Galilee and everywhere he went joy sprouted up like flowers in a Seattle spring after the gloom of winter. You could trace his route by the noise of jubilation and happiness and excitement.

If we were to set this story in our world, Jesus would travel around Washington. Leaving Seattle he would travel to Aberdeen and Forks and Morton and Darrington. In every town he would heal people of cancer and heroin addiction. He would fix genetic disorders and cure schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. Can you imagine the joy?

Now, imagine that you were a young person, two years into your career at Amazon or Paccar, and Jesus invited you to leave your job and come assist him in healing cancer and heroin addiction and genetic disorders and schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Would you do it?

I think so.

If  you could not bring yourself to step off the career path and join the Jesus Movement, you would say no with deep regret. You would have wished you had the guts, the courage, the daring, to be part of something so grand, so epic.

A couple of months ago I was sitting with a group of strangers. The conversation turned to Alex Honnold and the movie Free Solo about his climb of El Capitan. I had said something about my own climbing back when I was young, before I had children and had to think about the responsibilities of being a parent. Somebody, a young person, asked if I had been a dirt bagger. I laughed with embarrassed regret. Clearly I had exaggerated my youthful adventures.

“No,” I said, “I was never a dirt bagger. Not even close.”

You know what a dirt bagger is, right? According to the Urban Dictionary, a dirt bagger is someone “who casts off the restraints of a conventional life to pursue their passion (usually something dangerous and off the wall like base jumping, rock climbing, surfing etc.) Often you will find them living in vans, buses, caves or tents. Usually broke but always smiling.

Peter and Andrew, James and John, were holy dirt baggers. They left their conventional lives, their careers, and joined Jesus living out of his van--spreading jubilation, excitement, happiness--healing, restoration, recovery.

If you were young again, and you were invited to be a dirt bagger with Jesus, how could you resist such an invitation? And if you did resist. If you decided to stay on at Google or Bank of America or the University, every time you remembered saying no, you would feel a twinge of regret. What would it have been like to be part of the joy train led by Jesus?

Peter and Andrew, James and John, were young people. So we might think, being a dirt bagger with Jesus was just for young people. But there is a fascinating passage in the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus began a tour, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons;  Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples. Luke 8:1-3, paraphrased and elided.

Tradition imagines Jesus male disciples, The Twelve, as mostly young. But these women, are generally regarded as older, middle-aged women who had husbands and families and still became temporary dirt baggers with Jesus--with this important difference. Dirt baggers are usually dirt poor. These women were not poor. In fact, the text specifically says they were wealthy. They had money to fund the Jesus campaign.

Which brings us to one obvious application of the Gospel to us--to us who have careers and houses and investments and the obligations of being parents and grandparents and caregivers:

The jubilation train that was the ministry of Jesus was built squarely on the foundation of people like you and me who did not leave their nets and their boats and follow Jesus. People who were at least relatively rich and had the resources needed to support Jesus' ministry.

Jesus declared he owned nothing, not even a place to lay his head. But he did sleep and eat--which means he counted on rich friends.

One time he borrowed a boat as a platform for preaching to a crowd gathered at the beach.
Someone had to have the boat so he could borrow it.
Jesus had friends near Jerusalem, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who owned a house and gave him a welcome place to stay away from the stress of the conflict with the ruling elites. Jesus counted on Martha’s hospitality and Mary’s sweet attentiveness and Lazarus friendship.
In Jericho, Jesus invited himself and his disciples to the home of Zacchaeus, a wealthy man who had a large enough place to entertain the entire crew.
For his grand entry into Jerusalem just a few days before he died, Jesus borrowed a donkey from a stranger.
And finally, when he was executed, it was two rich men, Nicodmus and Joseph, who provided a decent burial.

The ministry of Jesus was entirely dependent on the generosity of rich people--rich people who did not become holy dirt baggers, rich people who did not leave their homes and careers and responsibilities, people who used their wealth to enable the glorious ministry that could best be described as the glorious light of dawn on a dark world.

All of us can be part of the shining, glorious ministry of Jesus.

Last Sabbath Karin and I visited someone in the hospital. The patient had made a lot of money and had given away a lot of money and then had experienced serious financial reverses. He was battling a serious illness and had traveled to Seattle for treatment. While here his family stayed in a place provided by the Green Lake Church Housing Ministry. In his former life, free housing would have been unneeded. But now, a free place to stay made a big difference, offering some measure of ease in this very difficult time. 

Your generosity housed that family. Your generosity was the ministry of Jesus, the ministry of healing.

On the fourth Sunday of the month, you serve a meal to about 70 people whose lives are so hard, they show up in a church basement, hungry.

When you put money in the blue buckets you are easing the weight of life for orphans in Thailand.

I cannot recount all the ways you participate in the ministry of Jesus. But I can say this: Keep it up. Jesus needs you. Just like he needed Martha and Zacchaeus and Nicodmus and Joseph and the strangers who owned the donkey and the fisherman who lent him a boat and the kid who gave up his lunch.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus counted on his rich friends. They enabled his spectacular ministry.

Jesus still needs rich friends.

And that is who we are.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven

Green Lake Church, June 8

Proverbs 3:13-17
Matthew 13:10-17

[Pro 3:13-17 NLT] 13 Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. 14 For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold. 15 Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 She offers you long life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left. 17 She will guide you down delightful paths; all her ways are satisfying.

[Mat 13:10-16 NLT] 10 His disciples came and asked him, "Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?" 11 He replied, "You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. 12 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. 13 That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don't really see. They hear, but they don't really listen or understand. 14 This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, 'When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. 15 For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes--so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.' 16 "But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

These are words spoken by Jesus to his disciples.

You have been given access to a secret. They have not. You know because it was told to you. You did not discover this secret. You did not figure it out. It is not a code that you deciphered. The knowledge was given to you. The secret was revealed to you.

So count yourself blessed. Privileged.

What is this secret that belongs to the disciples of Jesus? What is the secret of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Many of Jesus’ teachings are not unique.

“Tell the truth.” This is not an especially “Christian” idea. Buddhists, Muslims, many atheists, Hindus--people from all kinds of religious and philosophical backgrounds agree that we ought to tell the truth.

Jesus gave truth telling special prominence. He said we will be judged by every word that we speak. Words matter. Telling the truth matters. But even if Jesus hadn’t told us, we would still know that.

“Honor your parents.” Jesus highlighted the fact that this obligation takes precedence over religious acts. He pointedly challenged the hyper-religious people of his day: Don’t give money to the church if that money is needed to provide proper care for your parents. Still, it’s obvious that we don’t have to be Christian to know that we ought to care for our parents. Many cultures teach this. Many practice this.

What is the special Secret of the Kingdom? What is the insider knowledge that is available to the citizens of the kingdom of heaven? It’s important to note that this knowledge is not attained. It’s not acquired. Jesus told his disciples the Secret was given to them. It was a gift, not an accomplishment.

The secret is not a formula. It is not a theological treatise. Jesus told us the secret by telling stories.

The phrase the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven is found in Matthew chapter 13. but the collection of stories that I think best illustrates what the secret is is found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 15.
A collection of three stories.

For some of us these stories are deeply familiar. we imagine everyone knows the stories like we do. but I know that some among us here today are not so familiar with those stories. So I'd like to tell them again. If you know the stories well join me in your hearts and let's rehearse them again. If you are not familiar with these stories please hear them is the very heart of the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven as the special Jewel the lies at the heart of the teachings of Jesus.

There was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. At evening when he penned them up for the night, one was missing. He secured the 99 in the pen then headed back out into the dark to hunt for the lost sheep. He refused to come home until he found his sheep. And when he found his sheep he did not throw a temper tantrum about the stupid sheep that kept him up half the night. No. He woke up his neighbors so they could celebrate with him. "I found my sheep!" he said.

God is that kind of shepherd.

Some of Jesus’ critics complained that he hung out with unsavory people. Jesus did not pretend the people he was hanging out with were “all right.” Of course, they were messed up. They were sick. Sick in their souls. Sick in their minds. Sick in their social habits. But then, Jesus said, I’m a doctor. And where do you expect to find the doctor . . . with sick people, obviously.

God is that kind of doctor.

Jesus saw his city, his people, headed toward ruin. He could see that the Jewish people were going to self-destruct. He did not whip up anger. He did not encourage disgust or resentment. Instead, he offered this lament:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have called. I long to gather you to myself like a mother hen summoning her chicks.

God is a mother hen.

The sun shines on good people and bad people.

That is God smiling on all God’s children.

Birds find their dinners and that is God feeding them. Flowers are exquisitely perfumed and extravagantly dressed and that is evidence of the generosity and care of God.
This is the secret of the kingdom of heaven. God is generous.

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who had ten coins--her entire wealth, her security. She lost one. When she didn't immediately find it she emptied her house and swept it until she found it. God is the woman and we are the coin. When we are lost God searches and God finds. He does not quit searching until he finds.

Note that the woman's well being was bound up with that coin. The queen was not dispensable. Her searching innocence was not voluntary. She had to have that coin. She could not let it go. So God is with us. We matter to God. God would be diminished to lose us. And to lose our neighbors. And to lose our enemies.

Refugees on our southern border are precious coins to God.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fleeing ethnic cleansing in Burma are coins to God.

The homeless people here in our midst who create such a mess and are such a problem, they, too, are coins. They are precious to God. And thus, because we are part of the family of God, they are precious to us . . . even if we scratch our heads wondering how to manage them.

This week we have seen pictures of the American president and the English queen. Lots of glitter. Lots of evident wealth and power. This is how the world works. Comfort and money flows to the top.

We imagine God is like that. But the secret of the kingdom of heaven is that God is like a mother whose heart is owned by her child--whether that child is an accomplished scientist or brilliant musician or is in and out of jail with the problems associated with mental illness. Every human is a precious coin. Our distress distresses God. Our needs haunt the heart of God. The important story is not the state dinner with its important personages and silver and china. The story that holds the attention of God is the plight of his lost coins.

The last story is the story of two sons and a father. The title of the story is The Prodigal Son. A man's younger son asked for his share of the father's inheritance, a shocking, disgraceful request. Astonishingly, the father says yes. He gives the younger son his inheritance in cash. The soon takes off for a far country to where he wastes his money on wine, women, and song. Of course, his money runs out. There is a recession and the son hires himself out to a farmer as a swineherd--a pig feeder. He is so hungry he's envious of the pigs for their food.
Eventually, in his desperation, it occurs to him that the servants in his Father's house are much better off than he is. I will go home and apply for a job as a servant. As he approaches home his father races out the door to greet him, wraps him in a rich embrace, calls for a servant to bring a robe and a ring for his finger. He orders the preparation of feast to celebrate his son's return.

Meanwhile, his older brother has been out working on the farm. When he comes back to the house and finds party preparations underway he is outraged. This scoundrel who wasted your money and insulted you! You are throwing a party for him?

The father goes out to persuade the older son to come into the party.

He reassures his older son. Look the entire estate is yours. But my son was dead and now he is alive. How could I not throw a party?

What is God like? God loves even warring brothers. God loves the scoundrels. And God loves those who are annoyed by the scoundrels. God loves all his sons and all his daughters and the way a model parent does.

This is the secret of the Kingdom of heaven. You are precious. I am precious. And they are precious. Because we all are children of God.

This is the secret we have been given. Let's pass it on.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Wrench Ministers

Sermon for Green Lake Church, June 1, 2019.

Exodus 23:1-9
Matthew 6:1-8

On the second day of our trip to the desert the air conditioning quit working. Karin said, “We cannot do this trip without air conditioning!”

It was Friday. We were in northern Utah driving south toward St.George where our tour started on Sunday. What to do?

While I drove, Karin called Gerry Bryant, Elyse Lambeth’s dad. He has lived in St. George for a long time. Could he recommend a mechanic that might be able to fix our air conditioning. Gerry gave us the number for Redlands Auto Repair.

Karin called the mechanic and explained our problem. I could manage the tour on Monday without the truck, was there a chance they could they could work us in?

When I dropped the truck off on Monday morning, and talked with the owner, Dan, I realized he was the same mechanic who had rescued me on a previous trip, in a different vehicle.

Sure enough, before lunch, he called and said the truck was ready go.


That’s what mechanics do. They save vacations. When you take very old vehicles on very long road trips, it is not uncommon to need some assistance. And over the years I’ve developed a profound appreciation for the skill and willingness of auto mechanics. I think of them as ministers and imagine wrenches as the symbol of their craft (though, in today’s world, a computer might be an even more relevant symbol).

Wrench ministers.

In the Adventist Church we have long honored the work of teachers and health professionals as authentic ministry. The work of healing and teaching is no less “Christian,” no less an expression of the mission of Jesus and his church than is the ministry of preaching and praying.

One of our prophet’s books is titled, Ministry of Healing. I’d like to write a new book titled Ministry of Auto Repair or more simply Ministry of Wrenches.  
On our Talking Rocks tour, we spent time considering the grand questions of theology--God, nature, prayer, spiritual life, cosmology, philosophy of science. It was church in the wilderness. But we needed our cars to get there. And people like Dan make cars work so we can venture out into the wild places and hold our deep conversations.

Over the years I've broken down on the road a number of times. I've been touched by the willingness of mechanics to set aside more routine work and deal with my emergency and get me back on the road. It's what they do. I honor them for it.

The ministry of wrenches.

Ordinary goodness. And a beautiful model of godliness.

Our Old Testament reading today gave us a list of rules for righteous living. Notice how earthy they are. The heart of our religion is not complicated, abstract theories about the nature of the universe and the hidden activity of God. The core of our faith is devotion to simple, concrete goodness.

You must not pass along false rumors. Facebook? Political accusations? Theological accusations? Just this week, a friend from a church far away from here emailed me about a problem in their church. The pastor had chosen a book for their small group discussion. Someone in the church “had heard” that the author of the book had some unacceptable ideas. On their face, the accusations were highly unlikely. When I asked about their source, it turns out the person spreading the accusations was a collector of heresy rumors. They did not bother to verify them. It was so satisfying to whisper the rumor. Do do that.

You must not cooperate with evil people by lying on the witness stand.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong.

When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.

Do not slant your testimony in favor of a person just because that person is poor.
Even if your motive is “good” don’t bend the truth. Facts matter.

If you come upon your enemy's ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner.

If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.
Do the right thing because it’s the right thing.
In a lawsuit, you must not deny justice to the poor.
Earlier, we were reminded to tell the truth. Don’t bend the facts out of “compassion.” On the other hand, beware of the power of wealth to skew public justice. Legal outcomes should be based on justice not how much money one has to employ legal counsel.

Be sure never to charge anyone falsely with evil. Never sentence an innocent or blameless person to death, for I never declare a guilty person to be innocent.

"You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it's like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
Nearly all of us have been in trouble sometime and needed help. Remember that when confronted with human need. We cannot meet every human need. But we can remember that neediness is part of the human condition--part of OUR human condition when we are responding to needy people. Like Seattle, Salt Lake City has a large population of street people. In the part of town where my daughter lives addicts are plainly visible. Desperate people are on the sidewalks. My first reaction was disgust. Come on, people, get your life together! Then I remembered my highway emergencies. The only way I could get my life together was with the very substantial help of skilled professionals. Maybe some of these street people fit in that same category.

Exodus 23:1ff

Now I want to turn our attention to our New Testament text.

When you give to someone in need, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. When you pray, don't babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don't be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!

Matthew 6:ff NLT

After our tour we drove east to Kansas for our oldest daughter’s graduation. We had a grand time. Then we helped her with her house. She had just a couple of weeks earlier gotten some water in her basement for the first time in all the time she had lived there. So, I got busy addressing drainage issues on the property. Her kitchen cabinets badly needed attention, so Karin worked on restoring them. We spent several days working on the house--why? Because that’s what parents do.

We see needs in our kids lives and we take action.

Jesus used this kind of instinctive parental action as a picture of God. When we pray, we expect God to hear because that what a good father does. When we are in trouble we expect help from God because we’ve always counted on Mom.

What is God like? God is like a responsive, capable mother or father.

That is the consistent, explicit teaching of Jesus.

What does it mean to live godly lives? What does holiness and righteousness look like? Performing ordinary acts of goodness. Like the goodness described in our Old Testament passage. Like the goodness practice by auto mechanics who respond to travelers in trouble.

All of us have skills we can use to ease another person’s emergency.

Let’s be like God. Let’s  do it.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Hope and Meaning Beyond Suicide

Originally published July, 2003 in memory of Cindy. Republished Sabbath, 2/23/2019 in memory of Naomi Prasad.

I attended the memorial service on Sunday afternoon for Cindy. The church was packed. Cindy’s husband had written a eulogy which was read by his sister. It was the sweetest, most eloquent celebration of a wife that I have ever heard. As the reading went on, I kept thinking, every woman should have something like this written about her. I hoped that she heard many of those words in her life.

As the service continued, however, I was haunted by one glaring omission: No one ever mentioned the word suicide. No one ever hinted that Cindy's death was not an accident, not the result of a socially-acceptable illness like cancer or heart disease. No one spoke the hard truth: Cindy leaped from a bridge.

But that's what she did.

What can we say when we confront the heartbreaking reality of suicide? Cindy’s suicide was not a “cry for help.” She no longer believed help was possible. Her leap was a declaration that she could not bear the pain any longer, and she could not muster any hope that it would get ever better. Her leap from the bridge was an expression of utter helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain.

How do we, the living, keep hope alive in the face of such desperation and pain? What do we do with our own grief and bewilderment when confronting the reality that someone dear to us found life itself too much to bear?

Our faith does offer consolations. It does not answer our most urgent questions: Why? What did I miss? What could I have done? Faith does not fill the aching void. But the consolations, even if meager, are real.

The first consolation is expressed in Jesus’ words about Lazarus: He is sleeping.

Cindy no longer suffers under the crushing weight of hopeless, agonizing depression. Her mind no longer churns and writhes. The torment of the depression is over. She is at rest. Her rest comes at an enormous cost–to her husband and child. To her friends and church family. To the heart of God. To us. People who commit suicide cannot calculate the cost of their action to those who are left behind. The pain of their depression shrinks their universe until scarcely anything else exists outside their pain. They cannot comprehend, they cannot feel, the pain of others, the pain they will create. But we who carry the pain of their departure can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that they are finally at rest. After months of sleeplessness, months of anguish and tortured misery, Cindy no longer hurts, and we who love her find tiny comfort in knowing that truth. She sleeps. She is at rest. She does not hurt.

A second consolation is pictured in Jesus’ words: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Cindy’s leap was wrong, but God knows that in the fog of her pain and tortured mind she was unaware of the harm her action would cause to others. The very fact of her suicide is evidence that pain had overwhelmed her reasoning and judgment to the place that she could not know what she was doing. She could not know the impact of her act. She had no malevolent (evil) intentions. She was running from pain . . . which kind of makes sense. We all move away from pain when we can.

As I contemplate Cindy's dark act, I bring to mind also the radiant words of Jesus, "Father forgive her. She did not know what she was doing."

A third consolation I find in the Bible is the way God has dealt with others’ loss of faith.

When the prophet Elijah fell into depression and ran into the desert hoping to die, God twice sent an angel to feed him. God did not try to shake him out of his depression. God did not even argue with him. At least, not at first. God allowed him to cycle through the worst of the depression and then gave him another assignment, reinstating him as prophet.

Then there is the story of Samson. Samson’s life is a tale of repeated failing. He fails morally and strategically. His life is a mess. And then he commits suicide, the final failure. But God, instead of writing "failure" as his epitaph, uses his suicide as a masterstroke against the enemies of Israel. Later in the Bible, Samson is included in the list of faithful heroes in Hebrews 11. God somehow figured out a way to use Samson no matter how screwed up he became. Cindy’s loss of confidence that God could sustain her through the darkness of her depression will not keep God from blessing her years of faithful service in her church where she worked with children and young people. Our brokenness does not make God helpless. Cindy's lack of faith in the moment of suicide does not require God to remove her from his list of the faithful. And certainly we will not erase our own memories of her beauty, goodness, and service.

Beyond consolation there is also this lesson:

The church was packed for the memorial service. Hundreds of people heard the beautiful eulogy. Hundreds listened to the testimonies of friends whose lives had been touched in wonderful ways by Cindy. But Cindy heard none of it.

At funerals it is customary to work hard at remembering and speaking of the good things we saw or imagined in the lives of those who have died. Too often, when not attending memorial services, we work at remembering and speaking of people’s defects and failures. God calls us to make our conversation wholesome and helpful (Ephesians 4:29). Let’s learn to say good things, sweet things, encouraging things. And say them now.

Beyond suicide we can find comfort in God’s tenderness and the ease of torment for the one we loved. We find hope in God's forgiveness. We find purpose in God's call to serve in his place as lovers. We pledge ourselves to do good and to say sweet and good words . . . now.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Ordinary Path to Glory

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for December 22, 2018

Texts: Exodus 2:5-10, Luke 2:1-7

Years ago, before smartphones, we were headed over Blewett Pass. We had four horses in a 25-year old horse trailer. Our tow vehicle was a fourteen year old Ford van. We were almost to the summit when the motor quit. We managed to back down to broad shoulder area where we were off the highway.

What to do? It was late in the afternoon. Besides the four horses we had four kids and three dogs. We waited a while thinking maybe it was just overheated and would start after it cooled off. No luck. Karin did not want to be stuck up there on the pass in the wilderness, so she decided to go for help leaving me with the kids, horses and dogs. She flagged down a passing car--a Cadillac with two old people in it.

The angels in the Cadillac dropped her off at the first place with a phone, the Ingalls Creek Store, which had snacks and a couple of gas pumps. There was a pay phone outside. Karin went into the store to ask for a phone book. The people asked what she needed. She explained our van and horse trailer were broken down up at the pass. A man who was there in the store asked what was her plan for the horses.

She didn’t rightly know.

Dean Dewes said he lived across the street. He had a pasture where we could camp and care for our horses.

It was after dark when Karin and the tow trucks made it back to where we were stranded up at the pass. One truck hauled the van away to a garage in Leavenworth. The other tow truck hauled our horse trailer to Ed’s pasture.

We tied out our horses. (The pasture did not have a secure fence.) Set up our tents and about midnight settled down to sleep.

One last element in the story that connects our experience with Christmas night of long ago:
Karin and the girls slept in the tent. Garrett and I spread our sleeping bags under the stars. We lay down and looked at the sky, and suddenly the sky began to dance with Northern Lights. Shimmering, waving, enchanting. A perfect ending to a difficult day.

Which reminds me of this morning’s New Testament reading.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. . . . 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David's ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2:1-7 NLT

We can picture Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and stopping at the first inn. There was no vacancy. But no worries. This is the Holy Family, so we know there will be room. They just need to go to the next inn. But there is no vacancy there, either. How can this be? They are the mother and father of God. Their baby, the Son of God is going to be born this evening. Obviously, there has to be a room. Surely God would not allow the Holy Family to arrive in Bethlehem only to discover there is no vacancy! But that is, in fact, what happened. There was no room in the inn.

Sometimes we “horriblize” this. How terrible! The innkeeper should have realized how special these people were. The innkeeper should have given up his own bed. Instead, he turned away the Lord of Glory.

I’ve read meditations this week that spiritualize this and urge us to be careful not to copy the innkeeper. Let’s not allow our lives to be so full that there is no room for the Christ Child.

But I think all this misses the point. The “no vacancy” was not some evil thing. It was certainly a difficult spot for Mary and Joseph. It was an emergency for them. But it was an ordinary emergency. Like a car breaking down on a lonely stretch of road. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time. And that is just the point. Joseph and Mary, the father and mother of God, had trouble like the rest of us. If we are alive, we will encounter difficulties.

Sometimes when trouble happens we try to think, What did I do wrong? Where did I miss God’s guidance? Often the answer is simply: I did nothing wrong. I did not miss God’s guidance. Life has problems. Evil people have trouble. Good people have trouble. Jerks run into difficulty. Saints run into difficulty. That’s life. It’s okay.

Trouble is ordinary. It’s normal.

And the innkeeper? He did not fail. He did not screw up. His beds were full. That was legit. It was not evil when he refused a bed to the Holy Family. There was no call for him to turn out a customer already inside so he could accommodate this late-arriving family.

But he did what he could.

The text does not say it was the innkeeper. But I like to imagine it was.

“Look, I’m sorry. Every bed in the place is occupied. In fact, there are two people in every bed. I have nothing to offer you. No. Wait. I’m embarrassed to offer it, but you could bed down in the barn. It would be a roof over your heads and walls to keep out the wind. And you’ll be off the street safe from prowlers. I’m sorry but it’s all I’ve got.”

All he had. The best he could offer. And it was enough.

So baby Jesus was born in a barn. Which was way better than being born outside the barn.

The innkeeper did what he could. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t dramatic. But it was helpful. He did what he could.

With this simple act, the innkeeper goes from villain to hero. He sheltered the Lord of glory.
Not in a palace. But he didn’t have a palace to offer.
Not in a motel room. Because he didn’t have a room to offer.
He sheltered the Lord of Glory in a barn. Because that’s what he had.
How terrible?
No. How wonderful.
He did what he could.

This story portrays essential Christianity. First, it acknowledges that in human stories that God writes--in the stories where people perfectly follow the guidance of God, trouble still comes. God is with us in the trouble. God does not always lead around the trouble.

Second, we become heroes in the stories God is writing by doing what we can. By acts of ordinary goodness.

I received a call just yesterday from someone who asked me about helping someone in the church. I was struck by his explanation: he wanted to do this because he had been in a similar difficult spot once and knew what it felt like. Metaphorically, he had tasted no vacancy, so he wanted to offer room in his barn.

I listened in on a conversation about someone connected with the church who is in difficulty and learned of this person and that couple and this other person who has reached out to help. In small ways. But real ways. Performing ordinary acts of goodness.

Christmas is the perfect season to remind ourselves that at the very heart of our faith is a tenderness toward people in trouble. They are our people.

Refugees on our southern border and starving children in Yemen. They are still part of us. They are our people. Even if we don’t have room in the inn, we can still offer them shelter in the barn--whatever that looks like. We can do what we can.

Closer to home:

Our children struggling with mental illness or addiction.
Our friends who lose their jobs or lose their health or lose their minds.
Our people.

Neighbors whose lives have been ripped apart by personal disasters.
Church members whose lives have battered by all the various troubles that are available in this world. They, especially, are our people.
Let’s do what we can.
Their troubles are ordinary.
Let’s make sure our goodness is also ordinary. Frequent. Generous.

Like the innkeeper.

Like God.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

God Behind the Camera

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for December , 2018
Texts: 1 Kings 10:1-7, 10, John 7:31-32, 45-51, and Matthew 2

Bill used to be a minister. He left the ministry and God, went into business, and was quite successful, amassing assets of hundreds of millions of dollars. In recent years Bill rediscovered faith and God and church. A family event brought him to Seattle and because he attended Green Lake Church 35 years ago we had coffee together. He talked of his personal journey and of his current work on mega-projects to help the disadvantaged.

A few days later I spent time with a Green Lake family facing a sudden, shocking diagnosis. We talked together of the terror of death and of a business dream that didn’t work out and the threat of bankruptcy. Being sick is expensive.

Two wildly different lives brought together here in this place.

I thought of these two stories as I meditated this week again on the story of the Wise Men from the East.  

According to ancient legend there were three men living in Persia. Old men. Deeply religious and philosophical. They saw a vision of a star in the west. They understood the star to be the sign of the birth of the Jewish Messiah King.

Their convictions were so strong and their resources were so deep they organized a caravan to travel west to pay their respects to the newborn king.

The caravan headed west across the desert in Iraq then south through Syria and Lebanon to the city of Jerusalem. There, they inquired of the whereabouts of the new king. No one knew anything.

Finally, they get a hot tip. The baby was supposed to be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. They rode the few miles to Bethlehem and found the child. They were ecstatic. They had traveled a thousand miles to find this baby. And here it was. The fulfillment of a lifetime of hoping. The satisfaction of months of seeking.

We looking through their eyes--we, too, delight in the Christ child. And influenced by the teachings of the adult Jesus and by 2000 years of Christian theology, when we think of baby Jesus, we are reminded that every child born to woman is also a child of God.

The Wise Men give us eyes to see the divine light that shines in the face of every baby.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you . . .

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God

. . .
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect lamb?
That sleeping child you're holding is the great I am
Mary did you know? Mary did you know? Mary did you know? . . .
Songwriters: Buddy Greene / Mark Lowry
Mary, Did You Know? lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Capitol Christian Music Group

One of the great traditions of Green Lake Church is baby showers. When a baby is born, we place a white rose on the communion table. And we hold a baby shower. Donna van Fossen knits (crochets?) a baby blanket. People buy gifts. People give money. Sometimes the mom and dad are well-known to us. Other times the connection is rather tenuous. But if the baby can be called a child of Green Lake, we hold a baby shower because every baby reminds us of Immanuel, God with us.

We looking through the eyes of the Wise Men see Christ in every baby. We see God among us.

Just yesterday I met one of our members here at the church. I asked about her new grandbaby. She eagerly pulled out her phone and showed me a picture of the most beautiful little girl in the whole world. If the picture didn’t tell you that, grandma would be happy to spell it out in so many words. The Wise Men on their camels had nothing on this grandmother in fiery passion.

Because it is Christmas time, we easily see God in the person of babies. Of course. Baby Jesus was the divine son of God. And every baby boy and girl is thus an invitation to see the face of God.

We pull out our cameras and take pictures of these beautiful exemplars of the glory of God. We look through the eyes of the Wise Men and see in the baby the face of God.

But what if we turned the camera around? What if we point the camera at the Wise Men? Where is God then?

Right in front of us.

Just as the Baby is Immanuel God with Us. So these Wise Men themselves are portraits of God. These rich Persians who have traveled a thousand miles in a camel caravan to see the baby, they, too, are exquisite pictures of God. Their adoration of the baby is the adoration of God.

And by extension, Grandma’s adoration of her grandbaby is a mirror of the adoration of God for every baby.

In the passage in Matthew that I quote probably more frequently than any other Jesus urges us to show indiscriminate kindness because doing so mirrors the habits of God who sends his rain on the just and unjust, his sun on the good and evil.

God gives out of his wealth, making every act of generosity by those who are wealthy, a mirror of God. God is the generous father, the loving mother. Every impulse of love that arises in our hearts toward the little ones is a mirror of the heart of God.

Baby Jesus is a picture of God. And so are those three Persians in the manger scenes, dressed in their luxurious robes and holding out their extravagant gifts.

And the reality is that the Wise Men and their wealth are an indispensable part of Jesus' story. Later, when Jesus' life and ministry was dependent on the action of a rich man. In John 7, we read that the Sanhedrin was moving to formally condemn Jesus, prematurely ending his ministry. Their efforts were thwarted by Nicodemus, a wealthy, powerful man.

At the beginning of my sermon, I mentioned Bill, a church member who is very wealthy. And I mentioned some other church members who are struggling financially and are now facing crisis. We are all part of one family. Church is a place that teaches us to hang onto one another.

It is Christmas season. Everywhere we can see creches, imaginary scenes of the birth of Jesus. Some purists might point out that the Wise Men and shepherds arrived at different points in the story. Yes, of course. But the creches capture the essential truth--adoring middle class parents, excited shepherds (who would have been at the bottom of the social ladder), and rich Persians--all crucial actors in the story that is our story.

Jesus brings together all in one story, one community, one family.

Just as the story of Jesus would not be complete without the dramatic wealth of the Wise Men, so church is not whole with some among us who possess extraordinary wealth. And just as the Wise Men found their highest purpose in life in using their wealth to connect with a peasant baby a thousand miles away, so we who have means find our highest purpose in using some of our wealth to touch the lives of people who appear to be insignificant. We are bound together in one family. We have one story together.

So let’s mount our camels and ride. Let’s find babies who need our help and deserve our admiration. And let’s lie back in the manger straw and know that we, too, are precious beyond words. All of us are indeed, Immanuel. God in the flesh.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Good Living in Bad Times

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For October 20, 2018

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 3:3, 7-8, 10-14, 18-20

2000 years ago, before Jesus was “a thing,” there was a preacher named John the Baptist. His preaching created waves of excitement across Palestine--among both Jewish and non-Jewish populations.

His preaching was connected with widespread expectation of the appearance of the Messiah--the long promised, long-expected, super-hero of that lived at the heart of Jewish culture, religion, and theology.

The end was near. Or rather, a new beginning. God was going to break into this dismal world with something bright and new and powerful. The excitement spread. The crowds gathering around John the Baptist grew larger.

John’s preaching was framed in the classic denunciations of the ancient prophets. His words were sharp, definite, confrontational.

When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, "You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God's coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire." 

This was hell fire-and-brimstone preaching. It was thunder and bombast.

Note John’s fierce rejection of self-congratulation based on ethnic/religious identity. You tell yourselves, “We are children of Abraham. We’re good.” “You better shut that nonsense up.” John said. “God doesn’t care who your daddy is. God doesn’t care about your DNA or passport or church membership. God is watching your way of life. Prove you’re a child of Abraham by living out Abraham’s highest ideals.” (Note: Even Abraham did not live up fully to his ideals. You’re going to have to do better than Abraham did if you expect God to be impressed by your doing.)

John was preaching for effect. He did not want the people to “like” his preaching. He wanted them to reshape their lives. Like any good coach he was aiming at improved performance. And fortunately, his students asked the right question.
The crowds asked, "What should we do?"
We imagine ourselves as the spiritual heirs of John the Baptist. We, too, are heralding the coming of the Messiah. We, too, proclaim the coming of a New Age, a New Era. We urge people to repent, to change the direction of their lives, to get ready for the return of Jesus. We are thrilled when people hear this message and ask the question:

“What should we do?” What’s the answer? What’s the special preparation we are to make for the dawning of the age the Messiah?
John replied, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry." 
What is the proper lifestyle of those who are getting ready for the coming of Messiah? Generosity. Kindness. Compassion.

All of us have some measure of blessing in our lives. Health, smarts, beauty, a pension, an American passport, some investments, a graduate degree, friends. John told the crowd. “Consider the blessings in your lives and ask yourself how you might touch someone else’s life with that blessing. What sacrifice are we able to make to bless others?” This is the central characteristic of people living in the light of the Messiah.

I received an email this week from a woman named Emme. She had read an article in Adventist Today that described the best of our life together here at Green Lake Church. She had posted a link to the article on her Facebook page. After reading the article, a number of her friends commented, “I would love to go to a church like that.”

What did Emme and her friends find so attractive?

The article described acts of service performed by people in our congregation, acts of generosity to strangers, acts of enduring faithful service within the context of family. I wrote of the church celebrating the amazing accomplishments of our gifted kids. I also mentioned our regard and respect for the people among us who care for children who will not graduate or perform in recitals or win athletic awards. Here, in this community, all children are precious, not just the “above average” kids.

Here we devote a lot of attention to worship. We work to create worship services that feed our souls and give voice to our deepest values--loving God and loving people.

Of course, we aren’t flawless. But we do have high ambitions, holy aspirations. We want to be like God--practicing generosity, faithfulness, and integrity. We know that we are keeping company with God as we rear our children, help our neighbors, build airplanes, write code, heal the sick, drive buses, or sell cars. Every day, in everything we do, we aim to make the world a little bit better. This is how we live in the light of the Coming of Jesus.

When the crowd asked John the Baptist about what they should. John’s first response was generic, something that applied to everyone. Practice generosity. If we have two shirts, share one. If we have two sandwiches, share one.

Then there came a more specific question.
Tax collectors came to be baptized and asked what they should do. John replied, "Collect no more taxes than the government requires."  
In that world, tax collectors were independent contractors. They were businessmen. With the advantage of having the powers of the state behind them.

John’s answer acknowledged the legitimacy of their work. Governments need taxes to provide service. And a business has to collect money if it is going to survive. According to John, It was okay to receive money. To take money. But there was also a moral limit.

It is not morally permissible to take everything I can get, if I’m in a position of power. The primary function of morality in the teachings of Jesus--and foreshadowed here in the words of John the Baptist--is to limit the power of the powerful. Christian morality is not about keeping little people in their places. It is about curtailing and directing the power of the powerful.

Collect taxes, but don’t overdo it. Charge enough to make the business viable, but don’t gouge your customers. Make a profit, but not a killing.
Then some soldiers spoke up.  "What should we do?" they asked. John replied, "Don't extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay." 
The soldiers were members of the Roman occupying force. They were essentially the police force. They had power. John directed them to use their power ethically and with restraint. In today’s world where there are heartbreaking stories of police misconduct, it is vital that we as a church celebrate and honor the work of the great majority of police officers who respect the law and the people they serve. It is also our responsibility to speak against police misconduct. Whatever the color of our skin personally, together as a church, we stand with our brothers and sisters, people of color, in their protests against police brutality.

With John the Baptists, we say to those charged with keeping the peace:  Do justice. Do right.

Now we come to the most startling element of John the Baptist’s preaching.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother's wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. 20 So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. 
When public persons engage in egregious evil it is the obligation of the church to speak up. We must be clear about the difference between our values and the values on display in the world around us.

When the president of the United States mocks women, we say, No. That is evil speaking.

When the president of the United States celebrates violence against news reporters. We say, No! That is evil doing.

When a candidate for the Supreme Court lies about his high school drinking parties, we say, No! Lying is wrong. Even if lying will get you a highly coveted job, it is still evil. We are a community of truth.

When the president of our denomination uses innuendo and insinuation to defame congregations and cast suspicions on pastors, we stand up and say, “Stop it.” That is unworthy of any minister, much less the president of the church. Presidents and judges are rightly held to higher standards than ordinary people. Their words have consequences.

Our highest commitment is responding to the call of God. That begins in generosity and compassion. But it moves unavoidably into standing bold and unbending in the face of evil and oppression practiced by the powerful. We stand for truth. We stand against lies, the encouragement of violence, and the idolization of a mythical golden age in the past. Our eyes are on the coming Age of the Messiah, the better land is ahead and beckons us.

Here and now we pledge ourselves to the practice of the values of the kingdom of heaven--to generosity and compassion, to truth and justice, to nobility and dignity.

When these values appear beaten down in the world around us, we come here to church and reaffirm their reality, their beauty, and their ultimate triumph.

God will win.

Truth will win.

Love will win.

And we pledge ourselves to speak the truth and to practice love.