Friday, May 12, 2017

God's Crew

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, May 13, 2017
Daniel 1:1-4
Mark 9:17-27

Thursday morning I was sitting on the dock across the street. It was raining so I was holding an umbrella. A duck paddled past, then I watched a shell leave the boat house at the south end of the lake and head my direction. As it got close I could it was by rowed by five or six women. I glanced at my phone. 5:56 a.m.

Wow. That's dedication.

Every morning they are out there early, working on their stroke, working on their coordination, developing their strength and stamina. Preparing for the final test: a race.

Our Old Testament reading featured four guys preparing for a final exam, Daniel and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The text says,

God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature. They became remarkably wise. And God gave Daniel the special ability to interpret the meanings of visions and dreams. Daniel 1:17.

How do you think God gave these guys knowledge and wisdom? How did God give them mastery of all kinds of literature?

I'm going to guess they they read books. Lots and lots of books. While other students were getting drunk, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishel, and Azariah were hitting the books. Babylon had a huge library. These guys wanted to read it all.

They studied math. And philosophy and Babylonian religion. They studied multiple languages. I don't know what kinds of science they had in those days, but they knew how to build massive walls and impressive bridges. They had agricultural science and astronomy. These guys studied all that.

For three years they hit the books. They studied. And studied. And studied. My guess is Daniel was something of a coach. He'd quiz his buddies. If they didn't know as much as he did he'd push them to read the book again. Go over that list of formulas once more. Study that vocab list for a few more hours.

Then comes the exam.

If this were a movie we would watch as several of their buddies were quizzed by King Nebuchadnezzar. We'd wince when students stumbled, when they didn't know the answers or worse when they confidently gave an answer which turned out to be wrong. We can imagine the king jumping on one of the students who had slacked on his studies.

“I spent three years of education on you, and this is the best you can do? How did you get into this program any way?”

The king was a hard man. He expected a return on his investment.

Finally, it was Daniel and his friends' turn. At first, the guys answered slowly, carefully. They did not want to get anything wrong. They mulled over every question before answering, making sure they understood what the king was asking, making sure to answer the question fully.

But as the interview proceeds, we can see them becoming more and more confident. They've got this. They have been studying non-stop for three years. They have been quizzing each other. They know the material, all of it. They are ready. The king asks questions and they answer, smoothly, calmly, confidently.

The tone of the questions changes. It begins to sound more like a conversation. Instead of merely asking the questions listed on the guide in front of him, the king asks questions about their answers. The king explores what they know, asking questions that he himself doesn't know the answer to because he wants to know the answer, and he figures these guys will know.

Finally, it's over. Daniel and Friends are ten times smarter than the next highest student. They were dazzling, crazy smart.

And God was happy. This was a perfect first chapter in the story God intended to write. This story is going to reach its grand climax when the King of Babylon becomes a devotee of the God of Israel. And the story is going to happen because of the fantastic scholarship and integrity of Daniel and his friends.

If we were watching a movie of this scene, our bodies would tense when we saw a student hesitate. We want them to succeed. We want them to know the answers. We cannot help ourselves. In the moment of that movie our happiness gets linked with the success of the students.

In the Gospel, there are two parallel stories. One features a mother and her daughter, the other features a father and his son. In both stories the children are horribly ill, and in both stories the kids don't say a word. In both stories it is the parents who live at the center of the drama.

In Mark 9, a father brings his son for healing. “Master, I have a son with terrible problems. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. Whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. He foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.

How long has this been going on?” Jesus asks.

“Since he was a child. Sometimes he is thrown in the cooking fire. Sometimes the demon throws him into an irrigation canal or the lake and he has nearly drowned. So please sir, if you can, have compassion on us and help us.”

What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”
“Oh sir, I do believe. Help my unbelief.”

We could paraphrase the dad's words: Don't let my unworthiness get in the way of healing for my son. I will do anything, believe anything, say anything. Just heal my son. He is my whole life. Heal him. Please, please, please.

In Matthew 15 we read the story of Jesus on vacation. Along with his disciples, he had headed north up into the neighborhood of Sidon where no one knew him, looking for a little down time. But somehow word leaked out and a mother showed up at his door. The minute he steps outside she starts following him begging for help.

“Have mercy. Please have mercy. Teacher, help me. Have mercy. For the love of God, have mercy.”

Her clamoring annoys the disciples and they ask Jesus to get rid of her, to send her away. Jesus stops and explains to his disciples that he can't send her away. She's a mother, after all. The only way to get rid of her would be to give her what she needs, to heal her daughter. But Jesus was not supposed to help people like her. She was a Canaanite. Jesus' mission was to the Jewish people. She was not Jewish. So he wasn't supposed to help her which meant he couldn't get rid of her.

As Jesus was explaining all this to his disciples, the woman pushed through the circle of disciples and planted herself in front of Jesus. “Please sir. Please. Help me.”

“Look, lady,” Jesus said, “it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.”

“True,” she answered, “but even dogs are not begrudged the crumbs. Please help me. Please, just speak the word so that my daughter who is home can be made well.”

“Wow!” Jesus says. “Wow!” Your faith is amazing. May it be according to your will.”

Twice in the Gospel, Jesus places his will in second place. Jesus allows his another person to overrule his declared intention. In the story most often cited in church, Jesus yielded to God. When he was in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified, he asked to be spared the agony of the coming crucifixion. Then said to God, “nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.”

The other time Jesus bends his declared will to that of another is here when Jesus says to this mother, “Not my declared will (to be true to my mission to the Jewish people) but your will be done.”

Obviously, as believers, we regard this as theater. We know how the story is going to end from the very first sentence. If someone's need is brought to Jesus' attention, we know that Jesus is going to meet that need. But if we jump to that conclusion too quickly we miss the force of the story. Jesus said no, then said yes in response to the bold pleading of a mother. The mother's desire becomes the clearest, purest expression of the will of God because God is like a mother.

When our children are sick, our deepest, sharpest desire is their healing.

When our children are doing okay, our deepest, sharpest desire is for them to do even better.

When our children are doing fantastic, our deepest, sharpest desire is for them to do even more fantastic.

It is our conviction that God's desire for humanity is mirrored in the hunger we have for the triumph and success of our children.

When God watched Daniel and Friends acing that test in the court of Babylon, God was pleased to no end. God was thrilled. That is why the story of their triumphal exam is part of the Bible story.

Kids, when you act kindly, you make God glad.
When you practice helpfulness
When you work to master a skill, God smiles and says, “That's my girl. That's my boy.”
When you follow your curiosity and become an expert on chickens or the planets
When you build a really cool project
When you practice the piano or practice pitching a baseball or shooting a basket ball or kicking a soccer ball
When your words are courteous and respectful
When you tell the truth
When you do your best
You make God glad.

And then count on it, God and your mother will urge you to do even better.

On Thursday morning when I was watching the girls in the boat . . . they were followed by a motorboat. In the launch a woman was standing, I could hear her shouting as they rowed. “Sit deeper. Reach. Watch your teammates.” She would call different rowers by name and tell them to do something or stop doing something. She kept up a constant commentary.


She wanted the girls in the boat to do better. Yes, they were on her team and that was something. They had showed up at 5:30 in the morning to practice. That was something. They were strong and motivated. That was good. But the coach's job was to help them do better, so they could taste the excitement of winning.

Kids, on behalf of God, we—the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the aunts and uncles—but especially the mothers—we urge you on.

More skillful

Please hear all this exhortation, all this urging, as a vote of confidence and as an expression of how deeply you live in our hearts. We, together with God, love you with all our heart. We cannot help ourselves. At every point in your lives, whether you pass or fail, whether your first or last, we treasure you. And beyond every triumph and every success, we can only dream of greater things.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Allies of God

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, May 6, 2017, for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Exodus 18:12-24, Matthew 21:1-5.

The descendants of Jacob moved from Palestine to Egypt to escape the ravages of a severe drought and famine. It was a good move. They settled in a rural area away from the urban centers and prospered. Then a different Pharaoh came to the throne. He saw these foreigners as a threat to the real Egyptians. He imposed restrictions on them, but that wasn't enough. Finally, he stripped them of their citizenship and put them in labor camps.

Even this was not enough. Their birth rate was higher than the “real Egyptians” and Pharaoh fretted that eventually they would be so numerous they would threaten the Egyptians place as top dogs. So Pharaoh announced an eradication campaign. All male children were to be killed by throwing them in the river.

A Hebrew couple, Amram and Jocabed, had a son. Naturally, they did not want to lose him to the river. They hid him as long as they could, but eventually he was too big to hide, too active, too noisy. What to do?

Jocabed came up with a wild scheme. She would obey the law—that is she would put him in the river. But not to die.

She made a basket boat, put baby Moses in the little ark, and hid the boat in the rushes near the place where Pharaoh's daughter bathed.

She posted Moses' older sister, Mariam, to stand guard and went home to pray.

Pharaoh's daughter showed up at the river at her usual time. She spotted the basket floating among the rushes and sent one of her maids to fetch it. When the lid of the basket was opened, Moses began wailing.

“Ah, it must be one of the Hebrew babies,” the princess said. While the princess and her maids were cooing over this little kid, Miriam sidled up. “Would you like me to find you a wet nurse to feed the baby?”

The princess turned, surprised. “Why yes, that would be lovely.”

Miriam raced home and called her mom.

Jocabed ends up getting hired to care for her own baby at home. After he was weaned, the princess took Moses into the palace and raised him as her own son, giving every advantage a prince could possibly have.

Fast forward eighty years. God finds Moses out in the desert herding sheep and sends him back to Egypt. “Go tell Pharaoh, 'Let my people go!'”

Moses obeys and engaging in tense hyper test of wills with Pharaoh. Moses wins. Pharaoh tells him to get out. Take his people and leave! And they do. We call it the Exodus.

At first glance, this is a classic good guys/bad guys tale. Moses and his people are the good guys. Pharaoh and his people are the bad guys. For two thousand years Christian preachers have used this story as a pattern for understanding the place of Christians in the world. We preachers see ourselves as Moses and our people are the Israelites. This makes other people the Egyptians, the bad guys.

But if we look at the story closely, the simple distinction blurs. Are the Egyptians the bad guys? Well, not the princess. She saved Moses' life. She set him up as a member of the royal household. She directed and funded his education, preparing him for his role in leading Israel.

Are the Egyptians the bad guys? Several times when Pharaoh was adamantly refusing Moses' demands for freedom for his people, Pharaoh's advisers urged him to yield to Moses demands and let the people go. Is it fair to see these advisers as “the enemy” when they were actively attempting to persuade Pharaoh to agree to Moses' demands?

When the Israelites finally headed out of town, they took with them vast wealth from the Eyptians. It was this treasure that made possible the construction of the sanctuary—the wilderness temple. Shouldn't the Egyptians get at least a little credit for this?

Here's my point: God used some Egyptians as allies in accomplishing his objectives for Israel. God used an Egyptian princess to set Moses up for success as a national leader. God used the university of Egypt to provide Moses with the best education available at the time. God relied on the wealth of Egypt in the construction of the wilderness sanctuary.

If we take the story at face value, the Egyptians were indispensable to the accomplishment of the mission of God. Yes, the people of Israel are central in the story. But they are not alone. They are not sufficient. The Egyptians were indispensable allies.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus is his ride into Jerusalem. Jesus decides to make a dramatic royal display. He is going to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. One problem. Jesus doesn't have a donkey. His disciples don't have a donkey. Jesus sends a couple of his disciples to “requisition” a donkey. They do so, and Jesus does the famous “Triumphal Entry.” He rides from Bethany into Jerusalem, riding right up to the entrance of the temple. Jesus could not have done this without the assistance of allies.

In the story of Jesus and the donkey, we don't confuse the roles of leading actor and supporting actor. But neither do we forget the supporting actor.

The New Testament unabashedly affirms the centrality of the Christian church in the story of God's mission in the earth. We are called the light of the world, the salt of the earth.

Early Adventists saw themselves in the prophecies of Revelation. We imagined that we were the true inheritors of the apostolic mission. Unfortunately, this sense of being special developed into full-blown ownership of the work of God. What is God up to in the world? Us. Where did we see the mission of God advancing in the world? Only in our own numerical success. But we can do better.

If we compare ourselves to Israel in the days of Moses, we should expect that some of our brightest leaders will have received their education outside our culture, outside our social circles. If we compare ourselves to Christ himself, we will recognize that we can accomplish our work only by relying on the faithful service of others.

What is our mission? What does God call us to do?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19

How do we know if someone is part of “God's people?” The primary evidence is not their religious or political label but their participation in the mission of God. All who are working to advance the cause of justice and mercy are allies of God. They deserve our honor and cooperation.

Note: in the service Karen Baker will talk about her family's experience as part of a Buy Nothing group. These groups are an example of people outside of church doing work that embodies some of our best values. The people so engaged are allies of God whatever their religious labels or lack there of.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Not One in Twenty

The false myth of the good old days of Adventism.
(This is a re-posting of something I wrote previously.)

Sometimes I hear people pine for the good old days when the Adventist church was characterized by a wonderful zeal and a pure commitment to the proclamation of Jesus and his end time message. 

According to Ellen White, such mythic purity never existed. 

In 1893 she wrote, "It is a solemn statement that I make to the church, that not one in twenty whose names are registered upon the church books are prepared to close their earthly history, and would be as verily without God and without hope in the world as the common sinner" (GCDB, February 4, 1893 par. 9). To paraphrase: 95 percent of church members were in a state of damnable spiritual corruption. 

Perhaps one might argue this was late in the development of the church--by 1893 James White had been dead for 12 years. Surely things were better when the church was younger. Maybe. In 1867, EGW wrote, "Names are registered upon the church-books upon earth, but not in the book of life. I saw that there is not one in twenty of the youth who knows what experimental religion is. They serve themselves, and yet profess to be servants of Christ; but unless the spell which is upon them be broken, they will soon realize that the portion of the transgressor is theirs" (1T504, repeated in MYP 384). Again, just to make sure you get the math: in 1867 ninety-five percent of the young people on the church books were lost.

These statements apply to the laity. What about the clergy, the men and women who lived in poverty and devoted their lives to preaching the three angels messages. 

"Every minister should study closely the manner of Christ's teaching. . . . There is not one in twenty who knows the beauty, the real essence, of Christ's ministry. They are to find it out. . . . Then all this tame sermonizing will come to an end; for frequently this is an exhibition of self, rather than the fruit that the teacher bears who has been at the feet of Jesus and learned of Him" (6MR 72; PaM 281.2). 

So back in the good old days, 95 percent of the preachers did not know the real essence of Christ's ministry. Their preaching was an exhibition of self. Ninety-five percent of the young people were damnably self-absorbed. Ninety-five percent of the church members were as "verily without God" as common sinners.

So, without apology, I am boldly in favor of a church that is different from the church of the pioneers. I advocate progress, change and reform. The church of 95 percent failure is not a trustworthy model for our life today.

(Doing the research for this blog entry reminded me of the evils of Messages to Young People. The tone of that book was consistent with the notion that 95 percent of Adventist youth were damned. No wonder my teenage religion was characterized by fear and anxiety.)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Secret Siblings

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, April 29, 2017, for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Genesis 16:1-11, Matthew 2:1-11.

The Bible reports that Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael quickly recedes into the background (along with six other sons born in his old age to a concubine) and the Bible becomes the story of the Isaac branch of the family of Abraham. The Hebrew people (grandchildren of Isaac) emigrate to Egypt, are enslaved, then rescued by God. The Hebrew people become a kingdom with David as its most illustrious monarch. Among Hebrews prophets arise—Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel. And from the Hebrew royal line comes the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, father of the Christians. This is the story that features in our worship. It is the story we rehearse and claim as our own. But what about the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael? God had promised Abraham that Ishmael, too, would father a great nation. God would honor his friendship with Abraham by showing kindness to Abraham's “other son.” Did God forget his promise? Skip forward in time to one of the greatest Hebrew prophets, Isaiah. In one of his visions of the New Earth, the prophet writes regarding the descendants of Ishmael, “They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar,
And I will glorify the house of My glory.” When the vision of God reaches its glorious climax, the hidden siblings of Israel are publicly welcomed and honored. God keeps his promises, even to the second class family members, even to those who appear lost beyond recall, distant to the point of invisibility. As children of God we are invited to partner with God in welcoming our secret siblings.

As Karin and I were planning our move to Green Lake Church, we knew one thing would be different from every other church we had pastored. We would have relatives in the church. Erik and Katrina and Brian and Naomi. Never before had any one in our churches had connections with our families or even with our pasts.

Shortly after we arrived I was greeting people at the door and I met a woman named Edith Burden. I did a double take. Burden? Are you related to H. O. Burden? She was. Another relative.

Then I met with a woman whose husband was in a Seattle hospital with a scary diagnosis. I had heard about her because some people were critical of a specialized ministry she was involved in. I visited her at the hospital. We talked for a long time. I was fascinated by the potential of her ministry. At some point she said, “You do know we are related right?”

I felt like an idiot. We had been talking for an hour. I did not recall we had ever met, much less that we were cousins. I try to say nice things about everybody I meet because who knows—they might be relatives!

Family is special. We carry a special sense of responsibility for our relatives. If one of our nieces or nephews flies into town, they know they have free airport shuttle service and a free hotel room at our place. Some people in this congregation have taken this family responsibility to great extremes. You have literally saved the lives of relatives. If I ask why you do it, you shrug your shoulders and say, “What else could we do.” Help was needed. Help was provided. That's part of the way family works—when it works the way it's supposed to.

Family connection is central to the Bible story. The book of Genesis features genealogies, family histories. And the most important genealogy is the record of the ancestors of Abraham and the record of the descendants of Abraham's grandson Jacob. You are in the story if you are part of that family. You are peripheral to the story if you are not in that family.

This story of the family of Abraham's grandson plays out through the rest of the Old Testament. The descendants of Jacob split into two nations. The Bible keeps track of both nations until the northern kingdom goes extinct.

The story continues and sets up the story of Jesus. Jesus is the descendant of David, and Abraham and Adam . . . who is the Son of God.

This is the story that stands at the center of our worship. We claim the Bible story as our story. We claim the promises to the Jewish people as promises to us. We imagine ourselves as part of the beloved family. When God talks of never forgetting Israel, we read those words as applying to us: God will never forget me. When God promises to forgive Israel, we apply those promises to ourselves. We are “spiritual Israel.” we say. We claim this connection because of the Apostle Paul.

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. Rom 4:13 NLT

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. Rom 4:16

Abraham is the father of all who believe—the spiritual father. We are spiritual children of Abraham. This is nice. It allows us to apply to ourselves all the good promises of mercy and protection God gave to the ancient Jewish people. We are in the family.

This is wonderful. It also carries a risk. Sometimes we who have been taken into the family appoint ourselves as custodians and guardians of the purity of the family. We imagine there is only one family of God and we are it. And the only way for anyone to be part of the family of God is to submit to the name and identity of our particular family.

I remember reading an encyclical by Pope John Paul II in which he carefully explained that while the Catholic Church had charitable feelings toward other Christian bodies, those other Christian bodies were not really churches. Because there was only one church and the church of Rome was it. It reminded me of Adventist literature which makes exactly the same claim. We—our denomination—we are the one true church, the one actual, visible church of God, and everyone else is a spiritual outsider.

We base these notions of “one true people of God” on the Bible story of the Jewish people. The Jews were the people of God. Jerusalem was the city of God. Now we—Adventists or Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Jehovah's Witnesses or Church of Christ—we are the new people of God. Our denomination is the New Jerusalem.

But let's look a little closer at the Bible story.

Abraham had no children and he was getting old. Sarah, his wife, suggested he take her maid, Hagar, as a concubine so he would have an heir. Abraham agreed and Hagar got pregnant. But things didn't go so well. Hagar got uppity and Sarah got mad. The abuse from Sarah was so bad, Hagar ran away. An angel found her out in the desert and sent her back home with this promise: Your son will be great. His descendants will become an uncountable multitude.

When Ishmael was a teenager, God appeared to Abraham and announced that Sarah was going to have a son, and this son was going to be the one to inherit the promises God had made to Abraham. Abraham protested: What about my son Ishmael?

“I will bless him to,” God said. “I will make his descendants into a great nation.” With that Ishmael pretty much disappears from the Bible story. He reappears when Abraham dies, participating in the funeral honoring his father. Then silence. Decades, centuries of story roll on with no record of Ishmael and his descendants. Until we come to the prophet Isaiah. In chapter 60, this great gospel prophet is describing how it will be in the New Earth and he writes:

“They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar,
And I will glorify the house of My glory.”

Ishmael is the secret sibling, the unknown relative. When God's vision reaches it grand fulfillment, the entire family will be gathered including the secret siblings, the brothers and sisters we did not know we had, the cousins that were completely invisible to us.

This idea of secret children of God pops up all through the Bible story and features especially in the stories of Jesus.

When Jesus is born the royalty that shows up to pay homage are strangers from the East. We have no idea who they were. We don't know their fathers. We don't know their religion. We don't know their nationality. These mysterious royal figures echo the person Melchesideck whom Abraham honored as his spiritual superior. Both the Kings from the East who honored Jesus and Melchesidek who received tithes from Abraham highlight the fact that there is a spiritual reality completely independent of the “people of God,” the corporate body that is the focus of any particular holy story.

Jesus repeatedly made a point of “expanding” the holy family.

The Centurion who had more faith than any Jewish person Jesus had met.
Jesus made the most unveiled assertion of his identity as the Messiah to a Samaritan woman.
Jesus pointed to the Good Samaritan as a premier example of what it meant to be obedient to God.
Out of a group of ten men healed of leprosy only the Samaritan returned to give thanks.
Jesus challenged his Jewish audience: Many will come from the east and west and sit down at the heavenly banquet, but you will be left out.
It was a crippled woman, someone who bore the external marks of divine disapproval that Jesus called “a daughter of Abraham.
Zacchaeus had divided loyalties. He collaborated with the Roman occupiers and was dishonest to boot. Upon his repentance, Jesus announced this man, too, was a son of Abraham.
Luke 4, Jesus preached a sermon in his home town. The audience loved it until Jesus pointedly highlighted God's favor to a couple of foreigners, the Widow of Nain and Naaman. The audience got so mad they tried to kill him.

So what? What does all this have to do with our lives?

First, we think of ourselves as special. We find a special place in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. That's us, we say, pointing to certain passages. This is a good thing. If we are special, it will help us act like special people. We are the Jesus people. We can count on the special favor of God

Then what? Part of being Jesus people is learning to see our secret siblings, learning to recognize our family connection with all sorts of people.

The Bible centers its story on the family of Jacob, more specifically, the part of that family which is connected with the lineage of Jesus. Those people are supposed to remember they are family and show each other the kinds of mutual respect and support that is appropriate in a family.

Then the Bible points us outward. The circle of family gets wider and wider. We discover more and more secret siblings until we come to the Gospel of Luke.

Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus back to King David and to Abraham—the greatest heroes of the Jewish story. Then Luke keeps going. According to the Gospel of Luke Jesus' family is not only the family of Abraham and David. Luke traces the genealogy all the way to Adam the Son of God.

Our family is the family of humanity. Every human is part of our clan.

We are special. And we are called to extend the benefits and privileges we enjoy as widely as possible.

Our house is a house of prayer for all nations.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Juvenile Heroes

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, April 22, 1017

Texts: 2 Kings 5 and Matthew 14, Mark 6, John 6, and Matthew 18

Two stories. Two of my favorite stories.

The girl was a maid-in-waiting for a wealthy woman in Damascus. I don't know her name, so I'll call her Deborah. I'm going to guess she was twelve years old. What is that—sixth grade? Already she was working full time. Her job was to be instantly responsive to every wish of the Lady of the House. Fetch her slippers. Serve her tea. Scratch her back. Comb her hair. Remember where she left stuff. Day and night, seven days a week. That was the life of a domestic slave. At twelve years old Deborah was already doing what she would do for the rest of her life.

Maybe sometimes she dreamed of her old life, the life before slavery. Back when she lived with her parents and her brothers and sisters on a farm in Israel. But that seemed like ancient history now. Even if she could escape and find her way back to the town where she grew up, it's possible there would have been no home to go to. Her parents may well have been killed when the Syrian army invaded and captured a bunch of people as slaves.

But here's the crazy thing. In this story, Deborah is not a victim. She is the hero. She changed her world.

Her mistress' husband was the chief general of the army of Syria, one of the most powerful men in the nation. He was very successful. Under his leadership, the army had won many victories. But he was doomed. He had leprosy.

Leprosy was a slow disease, but it was crippling. And there was no treatment. Naaman was going to lose his ability to function. The nation was going to lose his service, his expertise. And there was nothing any one could do about it.

If we turned this story into a movie, we would see the king and Naaman talking. The king asking, “What are we going to do? I don't know how we are going to manage without you. Do you have any one in the army who can take your place? How long can you hang on?”

We would watch scenes where his wife is crying, asking, “What's going to happen to us?”

Then the scene would change. Mrs. Naaman is in her bedroom. Deborah is helping her undress and get into her night clothes. Mrs. Naaman sits on a stool while Deborah massages her shoulders. Mrs. Naaman is talking, as usual. “What am I going to do? What is going to happen to us? Why did this happen? What made the gods angry with us?”

Deborah continued kneading her shoulders and listening. Finally, Mrs. Naaman runs out of words, and Deborah speaks.

“You know what I wish? I wish Mr. Naaman could go see the prophet in Israel. Elisha is the most amazing prophet in the whole world. You would not believe the miracles he has performed. If Mr. Naaman could see the prophet, the prophet would heal him. I'm sure of it.”

“You really believe that?”

“For sure. Once, one of our neighbors couldn't get pregnant. Elisha blessed her and they had a son. Then a few years later when the boy had a sun stroke and died, Elisha raised him back to life.”

“For real?”

“For real. That boy was a friend of my older brother.”

Mrs. Naaman told her husband about the conversation. Naaman did some discrete investigation, and sure enough, there were credible stories of amazing miracles. This prophet, Elisha, was truly amazing.

Naaman talked to his king. The king of Damascus wrote a letter to the king in Samaria and sent Naaman south.

There was lots of drama. But in the end, Naaman was healed of his leprosy and came back to Damascus a devotee of the God of Elisha. For the rest of his life, the commander of the army of Syria knew that his life was a gift from the God of Israel and his wife's maid.

Girls matter.

The second story.

Jesus and his disciples headed out of town for a bit of rest and recuperation. They were way out in the country, miles from anywhere. They thought they would be able to camp in peace. Enjoy a little down time. But they couldn't keep themselves a secret. People found out where they were and crowds began gathering. Jesus didn't have the heart to tell them he was on vacation. The crowd was there, so he went to work. He spent the entire day healing and teaching. And all the time more people were arriving.

Late in the afternoon, Jesus told his disciples. “These people must be getting hungry. It's time to serve supper.”

“Serve supper?” the disciples protested. Even if you authorized us to spend all the money we have, there's no where to buy food for this many. There is no Costco, no Safeway. How on earth are we going to serve supper without any food?”

“Well,” Jesus said, “just how much food do you have?”

“Five loaves and two fish. That's it. To feed this crowd???? No way.”

“Nevertheless, bring it here,” Jesus said.

This is the way the story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The gospel of John adds one more fact. When Jesus asked how much food do you have, it was the disciple Andrew who announced the five loaves and two fish. More specifically, Andrew said, “There is a boy here with a lunch. His lunch is five loaves and two fish.”

So, when Jesus says “bring it here,” the “it” is a boy's lunch. Jesus takes the boy's lunch, blesses it and begins pulling fish and bread out of the basket.

Fish, fish, fish, fish. Bread, bread, bread, bread, bread. Jesus pulled fish and bread out of the boy's basket and dropped them into other baskets which the disciples used for distribution.
It was a miracle! A fantastic miracle. Built on the generosity of that boy. He could tell his friends for the rest of his life about the afternoon when his lunch fed 5000 people. Wow! How cool is that.

In that culture children did not count for much. In both of these stories the men in the story are named. Naaman the general and Elisha the prophet. Jesus, Philip, Peter, and Andrew are named. But the girl and the boy—no names. They did not count to the historians. But they counted to God. God accomplished his great miracle through the faithfulness and goodness of a nameless girl and a nameless boy.

Kids matter. Kids mattered back in Bible times and they still matter. Jesus showed a decided preference for kids.

About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?"
Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, "I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. "And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.
But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:1-6

Who is great? We can start a good argument. Money maker? Because money is the foundation of the systems we depend on—health care, transportation, environmental protection, social services, grocery stores, gas stations, electricity—every one of these systems depends on a steady flow of money. So, maybe the greatest people are those who generate the most wealth.

But then we could argue teachers are the most important. If you're going to generate wealth it is very helpful to be able to read and count.

No, no, no, someone else protests. The most important people are farmers and fishing crews. Money is useless if there is no food to buy. Your kids can't learn if they are hungry. So surely, farmers are the most important.

Who is the greatest? Who is most important, most significant, most worthy of honor? Jesus said, children.

Kids we need you. God needs you. Thanks for being here.

Since it's earth day, I found a couple of examples of young people who are making a difference in the world in connection with the environment.

In 1997, a sailing captain, Charles Moore, discovered a vast swath of ocean littered with plastic junk. Lots of it. Subsequent research mapped the garbage. It covered tens of thousands of square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. One estimate I saw, said there was 100 million tons of trash in this Pacific Garbage Patch or Vortex. When I first read about it, I was very discouraged. We are ruining the ocean and the problem is so huge there is nothing that can be done about it.

Then two or three years ago, I read about a Dutch teenager, Boyan Slat. He was working on a plan to begin cleaning up some of the hundred million tons of plastic trash. My first reaction was skepticism. How could a 19-year old clean up the oceans? But he paid no attention to all the people who said it couldn't be done. He developed a system to collect the plastic. He created a foundation and raised money. He has already tested a prototype in the North Sea and hopes to deploy the first pilot project in the Pacific this year.

Not bad for a kid. All the adults, the experienced engineers and environmentalists thought the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was so impossibly huge there was no point in even thinking about it. Now, a kid is well on his way to doing something about it.

Kids matter.

Deepika Kurup, was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, but her family was from India. She remembers their summer visits to India when she was a kid. She saw children drink water that was so dirty she not have even touched it. Back home in the US she read about water problems all over the world. 760 million people lack access to clean water. When she was in 8th grade she began working on a solution. Current water treatment processes were slow and expensive or required large infrastructures.

She invented a process that harnessed solar energy to remove bacteria, organics, and other classes of contaminants from drinking water.

Kurup's initial idea that won her the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist in 2012 is based on using a photocatalytic compound for water purification. This project involved a photocatalytic composite made up of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, hollow glass microspheres, and Portland cement. In 2012 Kurup's photocatalytic composite was able to reduce the amount of total coliform from 8000 colony-forming units to 50. In addition, it oxidised Methylene blue at a faster rate than standard solar disinfection methods.[7]
She improved her method and after 3 years developed a pervious photocatalytic composite using sand, TiO2, Portland cement and silver nitrate.This photocatalytic pervious composite showed 98% reduction in total coliform bacteria immediately after filtration. Exposure of the filtered water to sunlight with a photocatalytic composite disc resulted in 100% inactivation of total coliform bacteria in just 15 minutes.[8] This project won her the 2014 United States Stockholm Junior Water Prize. She also is the National Geographic winner in the 2015 Google Science Fair. --Wikipedia

She has created a nonprofit aimed at deploying the technology in the real world where people are dying for clean water.

Way to go, Deepika!

Girls matter.

Kids, the world needs you. It needs your brains, your hands, your heart, your character. God is calling you to great things. We, the church, pledge ourselves to do all we can to support you in responding to the call of God and the great need of the world.

You are the greatest citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

He Is Risen

First draft of sermon for Sabbath, April 15, 2017 at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Luke 24

When I walked outside on Thursday morning, there was color in the sky, a bit of blue decorated with wisps of pink and orange and salmon and peach. But by the time I finished my chores and exercises, and sat on my stool for a time of meditation and prayer, the sky had gone monochrome. Shades of grey. I was disappointed, then I noticed the trees. Below the sky, to the east stands a solid wall of trees. A backdrop of dark, towering Doug firs. In front of the firs stand alders and maples and a few cottonwoods. For months I have noted dull gray of their trunks and branches. Thursday morning, as my eyes dropped from the monochrome sky to this wall of trees, my heart skipped a beat. I almost got up from my stool in excitement. The maples and alders and cottonwoods were not gray. They were green, a light, almost iridescent, green. I imagined I could feel the throb of new life rising in the sap.

It is the magic time of year. The time when even nature itself seems to whisper hope and resurrection.

In the Bible story of Abraham is a wanderer, a pilgrim. God promises that someday he (through his descendants) will possess the entire land of Palestine. But for Abraham, the land is always a foreign country. He is a wanderer, a stateless pilgrim, an undocumented alien.

Decades pass. Abraham's wife, Sarah, dies, and for the first time Abraham owns a piece of his promise. He purchases a field and a cave as a burial place. Now he owns it. It is a dramatic act of faith. This purchase of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite is Abraham's way of saying, yes, I believe the promise. This land will be my country, my people's country. There is a future here, a long future, a bright future.

This confidence in the power and good intentions of God becomes more fully developed in the writings of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Let's hear again this morning's Old Testament reading:

O LORD, I will honor and praise your name, for you are my God.
You do such wonderful things! . . .
You turn mighty cities into heaps of ruins.
Cities with strong walls are turned to rubble.
Beautiful palaces in distant lands disappear and will never be rebuilt.

This is a celebration of God's power. At this point in history, Israel was a smallish nation. Like Taiwan or the Philippines next door to China or Mexico next door to the United States. They were an independent nation but always at risk of domination or subjugation by their powerful neighbors, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria. They were constantly afraid of being squashed.

But not to worry, the prophet assured them. God was more powerful than Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria combined. Those beautiful palaces in Babylon—gone in an instant if God so decreed. The great cities along the Nile River in Egypt—turned into rubble at the mere whisper of Yahweh.

God was mighty. Stronger than every enemy, every foreign nation. Take heart.

But sometimes the enemies are not across the border. Sometimes the enemy does not speak with an accent and wave a different flag. Sometimes the enemy is here. Sometimes the enemy is our own people, our own system. Even when the oppressor and the victim share the same accents and same passports, the oppressed can count on God, the prophet says.

You, O Lord, are a tower of refuge to the poor,
a tower of refuge to the needy in distress.
You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.
For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall,
or like the relentless heat of the desert. . . .
As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.

Because we are a church, because we see ourselves as the people of God, we aim to order our lives in harmony with the principles of God's kingdom.

But even if we learn to cooperate perfectly with God, even if we are able to eliminate every act of injustice and every systematic unfairness, even if we organize help for every poor person, provide adequate help for every person with mental illness, even if we were able to remedy every problem caused by human blindness and immorality, we would still face the dark truth that life is fleeting. Here on earth, love and life are temporary.

Which brings us to the final paragraph of this prophetic message:

In Jerusalem, the LORD of Heaven's Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet . . .
There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shroud of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever!
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. . . .
In that day the people will proclaim, "This is our God!
We trusted in him, and he saved us!
This is the LORD, in whom we trusted.
Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!"

Hope is a constant theme in the Old Testament. God will vanquish enemies. God will topple oppressors. God will rescue the poor and widows and orphans and immigrants and even eunuchs and residents of Babylon, Egypt, and Philistia. Then there are the few passages that say God will even one day triumph over death.

It is this final triumph that forms the very center of our faith as Christians.

Jesus, the rabbi, teacher, healer, prophet, Messiah. Jesus who had raised people from the dead, was himself dead. Buried in a tomb closed with a solid rock door and an official Roman seal.

Then very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.
They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn't find the body of the Lord Jesus.
As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes.
The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, "Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive?
He isn't here! He is risen!

The women--Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several others--rushed back from the tomb to tell the disciples what had happened.

But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn't believe it.

That same day two of Jesus' followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them. But God kept them from recognizing him.

He asked them, "What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?" They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.
Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, "You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn't heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days."
"What things?" Jesus asked.
"The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth," they said. "He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him.
We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.

"Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said."

Then Jesus said to them, "You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn't it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?" Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on, but they begged him, "Stay the night with us, since it is getting late." So he went home with them.
As they sat down to eat, he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them.
Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!
They said to each other, "Didn't our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?"
And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them. The two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread. And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them. "Peace be with you," he said.

But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost!
"Why are you frightened?" he asked. "Why are your hearts filled with doubt?
Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it's really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don't have bodies, as you see that I do."
As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet.
Still they stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder. Then he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?"
They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he ate it as they watched.
Then he said, "When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled."
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said, "Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day.

Beneath the dark clouds of war and atrocities, beneath the dark clouds of illness and disability, beneath the cacophony and clamor that demands our attention, we focus our eyes on the vivid green radiance of the story of Jesus and the divine promise.

Death will.

We will rise.

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Law and Love, Text and Mercy

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for April 1, 2017
Texts: Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Luke 18:18-22

Thursday, I listened to a speech by an old lawyer to a group of lawyers. He began by reminding them of their core values--law and justice—and then told stories of times when brave lawyers had used the law to provide justice for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. I was reminded of our core values—Law and Love. The very best stories in Christian history feature brave people who have used the Bible (divine law) in support of love. The Fernando and Anna Stahl, Adventist missionaries who stood on the Bible to fight for justice for the miserably oppressed Indians in the Andes. Martin Luther King, Jr. who cited the Old Testament prophets in fighting against the oppression of his people and American brutality in Vietnam. The Quakers who listened to the inner voice of God and cited the words of the Bible in their struggle to secure better treatment for the insane and liberty for slaves. It is never enough to be only “people of the Book.” We must also be people of God—whose most noteworthy attribute is love. The highest form of obedience to the commandments is mercy.

Thursday morning I was in a room with a thousand lawyers. The annual breakfast of the King County Bar Foundation to raise money in support of pro bono work. The speaker was Morris Dees. One of the co-founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. One of his great accomplishments was bankrupting the KKK.

He began his by reminding his audience of their core values—law and justice. He remembered standing in the school yard as a kid in the rural south. Every day he stood there with his hand over his heart and pledged,

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(Dees is old enough that his schools pre-date the addition of the phrase “under God.”)

Liberty and justice for all. Dees says that his teacher, even then, even in that place, the rural south where segregation was beyond question, his teacher quietly insisted that “colored folks” to use the polite language of that time and place, the “colored folks” did not enjoy liberty and justice. And that wasn't right.

She did what she could. She could not change the system. She could not single-handedly change the culture. But she could speak the truth. She could plant the seed of truth in her students.

Dees says he went to law school just to escape working on the farm. Somewhere along the way he became deeply infected with a vision of justice. Justice for all. That vision has shaped the rest of his life. He has been a master of using the law as a weapon for fighting injustice. He is a master craftsman using the tool of law to fashion a more just world. One of his greatest accomplishments was bankrupting the KKK. In another landmark case he made it possible for Vietnamese immigrant to fish in peace off the coast of Texas.

Sitting there listening to Mr. Dees talk I was reminded of our twin commitments as Seventh-day Adventists. We have long prided ourselves on being people of the Book. We are Bible people. We teach our children to memorize Bible passages. We pride ourselves on reading through the entire Bible. Our most prominent distinctive trait—Sabbath keeping—flows directly from a fierce loyalty to the literal, concrete words of the Bible. The Bible says “the Sabbath is the seventh day,” and that Jesus rose on the first day. So, we start at Easter Sunday and count, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—Saturday. That's the seventh day so it must be Sabbath. It is simple, straighforward application of the words of the Bible to actual life.

We are people of the Book.

But there is another pillar in our life. That is a bedrock conviction that God is love.

For 1800 years Christians took the words of Paul very literally. Paul wrote that God arbitrarily loved Jacob and hated his older brother, Esau. The theological label for this is predestination. For 1800 years most Christians believed in predestination, that is, that God picked some people to be saved and other people to be lost. This was especially prominent among the Protestants—people like Martin Luther and John Calvin who insisted that theology must be based on the Bible and the Bible only. There are a number of passages in the Bible that talk about God's sovereignty. God does what God wants—even going so far as to arbitrarily decide, even before they are born, that some people are going to be saved and some are going to be damned.

Adventists looked at that and said, “That's not right. That cannot be right. How could a loving God create people for the very purpose of torturing them in hell? No way.” Recognizing the profound contradiction between this doctrine and our conviction that God is love, we searched out other Bible passages that support a different interpretation. Instead of using the Bible to support the immoral doctrine of predestination, we used the Bible to support the moral doctrine of freedom and choice.

It was the same with the doctrine of eternal hell fire. For 1800 years most Christians believed that people who did not go to heaven would be tortured alive in the fires of hell for ever and ever and ever. Preachers would cite Bible verses in support of this horrible idea. They still do.

Adventists said, “No way. A loving God could not do that.” No amount of explaining could ever bring us to agree with a just and loving God could practice eternal torture. And we found Bible verses to support our conviction.

Law is a necessary, good thing. Bible texts are necessary and good things. But none of that can overturn the dictates of love. Instead, we read the Bible through the lens of love. When we confront injustice that seems to be supported by the Bible, we look for other texts, counter principles in the Book. When we read through the lens of love, the Bible becomes a priceless tool in our effort to cooperate with God in the cause of mercy and humanity.

In Luke 10, a theologian asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“That's easy,” Jesus answered. “What does the law say?”

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Right, Jesus said. “Do that and you will live.”

But it can't be that simple, can it? In my mind, I can hear the theologian protesting, But what about circumcision and Sabbath-keeping and sacrifices and avoiding adultery and not stealing? What about the sabbatical and jubilee years? I could imagine a theologian in that time and place asking those kinds of questions. But he doesn't. Instead, he asks the kind of question I would ask. “Who is my neighbor?”

I know the Bible tells me to love, to love God and to love my neighbor. And I understand loving God. But this neighbor thing. Who is my neighbor? How far are you going to push?

This is where the parallel between civic law and the Bible shows up.

If you search the Old Testament looking for an answer to this question you can easily find support for two very different answers to this question.

There are many passages that warn about the dangers of foreigners and outsiders and even Jewish people with wrong ideas. A couple of weeks ago we read here in this church, the passage in Deuteronomy 13 that says if you hear anyone suggest participation in false worship, it is your solemn obligation to out them and then to join the entire community in stoning them to death. You must do this even if the person in error is your spouse or your child or your best friend. The point of this command was to keep Israel pure, to prevent any contamination from outsiders. If we take this passage as definitive, our neighbors are only those who share with us in pure, true theology. Everyone else is an enemy.

On the other hand, we have passages like our Old Testament reading today. “You will always have poor people among you. So always be generous.”

The people of Israel were directed to set up six cities as special court cities. These courts were to provide ready access to judicial protection to any one—Jews and non-Jews, foreigners who had settled in the land and foreigners just passing through. Everyone was to have equal access to justice. (See Numbers 35).

So who is my neighbor? Whom am I obligated to love? Jewish people with pure lives and proper theology? Or all the people in the land—including poor people and foreigners? Which is it?

Jesus answered the theologian with a famous story.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Somewhere along the road, thieves jump the man, rob him, beat him, and leave him for dead. Two Jewish people pass, both clergy. They do not render aid. They do not stop.

Then a Samaritan stops.

For his Jewish audience, this is a surprise. Samaritans are a despised people.

The Samaritan dresses the victim's wounds, loads him onto his donkey, and carries him to Jericho where he cares for him through the night and pays for his ongoing care at the inn.

When the theologian asked who is my neighbor, he was acknowledging the weight of the commandment. The divine law obliges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. True religion obliges us to devote ourselves to God in worship and to devote ourselves to our neighbors in service. But how far are we supposed to take that? It is a reasonable question.

On one of my desert trips, my car developed a heating problem when I was fifty miles from the nearest pavement. I could go only four or five miles before it would overheat. I had plenty of water with me. I would drive until the engine got hot, then stop and wait for it to cool off, then go again.

In the hours it took to reach the pavement, seven or eight cars passed me. Every car stopped. “You okay?” I laughed and explained. “You sure you have enough water?” they would always ask. “Yes. I'll be okay. I just have to take it slow.”

Now let's imagine this same problem developed on a busy highway. How many cars would stop? How many cars would pass? If we see a car stopped, we know we can't stop for every stop car or we would never get any where.

We cannot save everybody. So the theologian's question is reasonable. Who is my neighbor? Whom am I obliged to love?

It is a reasonable question, but it is not spiritually transformative.

The transforming question is: whom can I help? What can I do to help? Can I be a neighbor?

This applies to church. Who is worthy to be part of our church? It is a reasonable question. But it is not transformative.

A better question is how far can we go in extending the welcome of God? Whom can we serve, given our vision of love and our loyalty to the book. Are we going to use the book as a tool to exclude unworthy people or will we use the book to stretch ourselves, to be more radical as partners of God.

When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, the early Adventists faced the reality that sometimes law can be used to further injustice. The fugitive slave act required people in the north, both local law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens to assist in the apprehension of slaves who escaped from bondage in the South. The Bible supported slavery. The official law of the land defended slavery. But the principle of love said otherwise. What would Adventists do? I'm pleased to say Adventists publicly declared their intention to defy the law. They aided the slaves in their escapes. They refused to cooperate with the law and law enforcement officials in the practice of injustice.

May God give us courage and wisdom to continue to push forward in our twin devotions to the book and to God, to the law and to love. Let's pledge ourselves to cooperate with God in his radical generosity. Let's use law and the Bible as instruments of righteousness and never as weapons against the vulnerable and disadvantaged.