Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Waters of Babylon

Jeremiah 29:4-7
Matthew 18:23-34

Listen carefully to this Psalm.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" 4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! 7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!" 8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! Psalm 137:1-9 ESV

Their world had been upended. Homes smashed. Children killed.

How do you move forward in life after something like this?

They are filled with outrage. Understandably.

No, they will not sing. No, they will not feast. They will nurse their wound. How can they not. They will pray that God will punish those who defeated them and those who cheered their defeat.

Smash them, God. Punish them. Damn them. Stone them.

Happy is the person who snatches their children and deals out unspeakable violence.

And we watching the movie of this event—we understand their outrage. We share in their cries for justice.

Then as the movie comes to the final scene of unspeakable violence, we look away. We become sick to our stomachs. We lose our sympathy for these exiles. We see that they have become the monsters they hated. They have become child killers, rapists, murderers. The victims at the beginning of the movie have become the monsters at the end.

We weep.

This is what happens in some Christian circles. Fulminate against various sinners. Fornicators. Perverts. And what happens. These very things we have hated on and condemned and damned turn out to be descriptions of our secret selves. Pornography use is highest among conservative Christian men. Abuse of power is common in the Christian church.

There is another passage in the Bible, a word from a prophet, that offers a very different picture of the people of God. The video starts the same. The Jewish people whose homes have been smashed and whose children have died in the war. People who have been dragged a thousand miles from home and settled in immigrant villages in Babylon.

A prophet named Hananiah is preaching. God hates the Babylonians. God loves you. God is going to rescue you. This place is not your home. Don't get sucked in. Don't settle down. Don't mix with your neighbors. In two years God is going to take you back to Jerusalem where you can be with your own people. You won't have to put up with all this Babylonian nonsense.

Then a letter arrives from the Prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem.

Don't listen to Hananiah. Settle down. Build houses. Have kids. Celebrate marriages. Make babies. And pray for the prosperity of your town. Because if it prospers, you will prosper. I have plans for you, God says. And those plans are set right in the place where you are. You are living in the center of God's will by doing right and doing well right where you are.

This is our place. Not heaven. Not some imaginary place here on earth. This is our place. What are we to do here? Work for the prosperity, the happiness, the success of this place.

We cannot do what God has called us to do if we are dominated by anger.

Consider Matthew 18.

The evil debtor was evil because he focused his attention on what was owed him instead of focusing on what he had received. Both were true. But one fact was the source of life, the other was a source of death and destruction.

What are we feeding ourselves?
Are we feeding ourselves indignation?
Do we imagine all the harm that is done by people unlike us?
Black people. Brown people. Poor people. Teenagers. Foreigners.

We will eventually come to mirror the people we hate. Not the actual people, but our imagination of them. Hatred binds us to the people we hate in a deadly dance. The longer we dance the dance of hatred the more the hated one will shape our own characters.

When we live in Babylon, we should love Babylon.

Let us reject the spirit of Psalm 137. Let us sing the songs of the heavenly Zion. If we sing sweetly enough, grandly enough, citizens of Babylon will want to learn our songs and eventually will taste our values, the values of the kingdom of heaven. Let us sing so frequently, so brightly that our songs become the most enticing fantasy of the world around us.

When this happens, salvation is here, because the “fantasy” celebrated in our songs is rock solid reality. It is the reality of the Eternal Empire, the place of our highest, noblest dreams.  

Friday, November 3, 2017

Resisting Church Authority

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, November 4, 2017

Texts: Jeremiah 21:11-14, Matthew 23:1-13

Five hundred years ago, a theology professor, Martin Luther, got into an argument with a popular preacher named Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was preaching that a person could reduce their punishment in the after life by giving money to the church. Luther argued that what mattered with God was the inward work of faith and repentance. Luther summarized his views in a document listing 95 statements. The document is called The 95 Theses. Legend has it that he posted these statements on the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.

The argument escalated. Church officials and rich and powerful lay people got involved. Eventually Luther, the theologian was called before a grand council of the church, interviewed and then ordered to recant. Take it all back. Submit to the authority of the General Conference in Session.

He refused.

And western Christendom split between his defenders and accusers. This split is called the Reformation. It was the beginning of Protestant churches.

Adventists have seen ourselves as the spiritual heirs of the great figures of the Reformation. We celebrate the courage of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Huss, and Jerome. Theologians who were true to their reading of the Bible instead of submitting to the church-approved interpretations of the Bible.

Now, a hundred fifty years plus into our own church history, Seventh-day Adventists confront the inevitable questions that arise when a group sees itself as the descendant of protesters. How shall we respond to people within our own denomination who believe that some element of our belief or practice is wrong?

Another way to ask the question is: what is the nature of church authority?

Today's Old Testament and New Testament readings highlight the complexity of the question. Let's begin with Jeremiah

"Say to the royal family of Judah, 'Listen to this message from the LORD! 12 This is what the LORD says to the dynasty of David: "'Give justice each morning to the people you judge! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Otherwise, my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins. 13 I will personally fight against the people in Jerusalem, that mighty fortress--the people who boast, "No one can touch us here. No one can break in here." 14 And I myself will punish you for your sinfulness, says the LORD. I will light a fire in your forests that will burn up everything around you.'" Jeremiah 21:11-14

A central conviction of the Jewish people was that God had chosen the family of David as the royal family for all time. And that God had chosen Jerusalem as the Holy City, the holiest place on earth. Their dream of the grand climax of all things—the end of the world—was the day when all nations would pay obeisance to Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the Temple would be ackoweldged as the capitol of all nations.

Then we read the words of Jeremiah.

Give justice each morning to the people you judge! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Otherwise, my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins.

The privileges God had given were not automatic. They were not unconditionally guaranteed. In the eyes of God, royal authority was dependent on royal character. And the primary measure of royal character was how the royal family used its power to help the little people, people with meager resources.

In the Adventist Church the “royalty” are the clergy. In our system clergy have the most power. Traditionally, like Catholics and the Church of Christ and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and many other denominations, we have claimed that our church is the one true church. Further, we have argued that truth is determined by the vote of the clergy. No matter what you think, the final court of appeal is the vote of the assembled clergy at our General Conference session.

Which brings us to our New Testament reading.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. 5 "Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. 6 And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. 7 They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called 'Rabbi.' 8 "Don't let anyone call you 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don't address anyone here on earth as 'Father,' for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don't let anyone call you 'Teacher,' for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. 13 "What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces. You won't go in yourselves, and you don't let others enter either. Matthew 23:1-13 NLT (Accessed through Blue Letter

This passage highlights the importance of careful interpretation. Note the opening words

"The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you,

It sounds like Jesus is endorsing the absolute authority of the teachings of religious officials. “They are the official interpreters, so do whatever they tell you.” I can see the clergy looking at each other and smiling. Elbowing each other and whispering. “Did you hear that?” They are all thinking, this Jesus fellow is not so bad. He's right. We do have the correct interpretation. It is rebellion to contradict us or disobey us.

Then Jesus continues,

but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.

They crush people with unbearable demands. Wait. Are we really supposed to obey “unbearable demands?” No. These words echo the words of Peter in Acts 15, when the church leaders were debating how much of Jewish tradition to impose on Gentile believers. Peter said, “Why would we even think of imposing on our Gentile brothers and sisters a burden we ourselves were unable to bear? Enough already!” Acts 15:10.

When clergy impose unbearable burdens, we are free to ignore them. Sometimes, like Martin Luther of old, we are obliged to actively resist them.

Jesus goes further.

8 "Don't let anyone call you 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don't address anyone here on earth as 'Father,' for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don't let anyone call you 'Teacher,' for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant.

We could fixate on specific terms here. “Rabbi,” “Father,” “Teacher.” But that would obviously miss the point. The point of these titles is status and authority. We can be tempted to yield to the assertions and claims of people with titles--Rabbi, Father, Teacher, president, professor—without subjecting those claims to the tests of truth and love.

In the kingdom of heaven formal authority yields to the higher authority of truth and love.

It is tempting for us to use our status as a substitute for persuasion and honesty. When someone in authority agrees with us, it is tempting to use their status as a substitute for doing our own careful thinking and research.

Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day because they imagined their status as a platform for the exercise of power. Then Jesus pointed to the right use of status: The greatest among you must be a servant.

The enduring legacy of the Reformation is not a list of theological propositions. Rather it is an open door to the ever relevant challenge of Jesus: What are we doing with the power God has placed in our hands? Are we committed to the preservation of our church documents--”the 28” or “The Church Manual”--even when they imposed unbearable burdens? Or will we join Jesus in bending every resource toward serving those with less—less power, less orthodoxy, less money, less health, less status?

Greatness, in the kingdom of heaven, is measured in units of service not in units of orthodoxy.

Application: Consider the recent attempts to require a loyalty oath and the recent letter by Jim Pederson, president of the Northern California Conference, which cited church authority alone as reason to exclude some people from church membership.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Most Important Texts

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for October 28, 2017. Preliminary draft.

Imagine it's the night before your daughter heads off for her freshman year of college. You're in the kitchen talking, and asks the most delicious question in the world: Mom, do you have any advice?

Your first reaction is to begin a three hour dissertation. You want to give your eighteen-year-old all the wisdom you have acquire through your decades of mistakes, successes, and reading. But you catch yourself. You know that at some point during that three hour dissertation your daughter's eyes are going to glaze over and she will quit listening.

So you limit yourself to a single bit of advice. Something simple enough she will never forget it.

Something profound enough that it will be relevant all her life.

You decide to give her a Bible verse. A memory verse from her childhood. Something that is already rooted deep in her brain.

What verse would you cite? What single passage would you wish to live most brightly in your daughter's mind? In your son's mind?

Another scenario: You are running for political office—state senator or governor. A reporter is interviewing you. “I understand you are a person of faith, a member of a church. If you were going to cite one Bible verse to illustrate the core of your religious convictions, what verse would that be?”

This could be a complicated question. Do you mention a Bible verse that non-church people will like or do you mention the Bible verse that means the most to you? Is there a difference between those two realities?

A third scenario: you are at the end of life. To everyone else in the room it appears you are comatose. You have heard the medical judgment. You will not recover. You are in a place of no return. You cannot speak, but your mind is still alive. You have moments of inner lucidity, times when you are aware that you are in a place of no return. You are aware that you are waiting for the next step of the journey, a step that comes eventually for everyone. In that place, what Bible verse would you most like to light up your mind?

Three texts: One for your college-bound daughter. One for an inquiring reporter. One for your last hours.

The Bible is a marvelous source of nourishment for our souls. It offers wisdom for our youth, slogans to guide our public policy, and solace in our times of weakness and loss. The wisdom of the Bible is so varied, so diverse, we can words there appropriate to nearly situation, every circumstance of life. This also means it requires wisdom to use the Bible appropriately.

If we ask the question what is the most important passage in the Bible, there are a several of obvious candidates. Micah 6:8. He has showed you O Mortal what is good and what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Or Jesus' declaration, “Love the Lord your God with your entire being. This is the first and great commandment. The second is similar. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or perhaps we could reference John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him might not die but instead have everlasting life.

But when we specify the circumstance and ask what is the most important Bible verse for this person in this specific situation, other verses may come to mind.

For kids headed off to college, I might propose Proverbs 23:29-30

Who has anguish? Who has sorrow?
Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining?
Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine.

I especially like the phrase: Who has unnecessary bruises.

I saw an article earlier this week in the Seattle Times about a group of mothers who are responding to sexual assault charges against their sons. These mothers asked the obvious questions: were their sons really guilty of the actions they were accused of. If they were guilty was the punishment—legal and social--appropriate. I was particularly struck by one incident. One of the mothers said her son had been expelled after having sex with a student who said she had been too intoxicated to give consent.

Later in the day when I was thinking back on the article that one sentence kept coming back to my mind. A woman charged a man with assault because she was too intoxicated to give consent. I wondered was the man too intoxicated to act responsibly? After asking that question and thinking of the trauma experienced by these two young people—the woman violated, the man shamed—I couldn't help thinking of the proverb.
Who has unnecessary bruises? Those who linger over wine. 

Or beer. If I could give kids headed off to college one Bible verse, this might be it. Guys, if you get drunk, you are likely to do stuff that is really, really stupid and maybe evil. You may bruise others. You may bruise yourself.

All the Bible verses about love and justice and mercy become useless in the mind of a person who has had too much to drink. If you are going to love your neighbor, you have to be reasonably sober to do so. Guys, if you're going to be with a woman, don't get drunk. The alcohol will poison your capacity to act in a noble, loving way. Gals, if you're going to be with men, don't get drunk. Because if you do you dramatically increase the risk of sexual assault.

If you don't want unnecessary bruises—whether those bruises are on your body or in your soul—if you don't want unnecessary bruises, don't get drunk. After a glass or two, alcohol becomes stupid juice. Don't go there.

Memorize Proverbs 23:29

Who has anguish? . . .

Who has unnecessary bruises? . . .

Those who linger over wine.

Don't hurt yourself. Don't hurt other people. Don't be stupid. Don't get drunk. That's Bible. :-)

I'm going to skip over the second scenario: a Bible passage we might cite as a slogan for public policy, a passage that embodies wisdom for those who are strong and smart and capable. I preach on the responsibilities we carry as privileged people nearly every week. Instead, I will consider the third scenario. What words of the Bible would we want to illuminate our minds when we face the end of our journey?

When I keep company with people facing the end of their journey, I come back again and again to the first words of Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The value of this picture is where it places the responsible action. Sheep are responsible for almost nothing. Which is a good thing because they are incapable of carrying out any responsibility. When sheep get sick because they have eaten some poisonous weed, we don't blame the sheep. We figure the shepherd was negligent or ignorant. It is the shepherd's job to make sure the pasture is safe. When a mama sheep rejects its lamb, it is the job of the shepherd to notice and rescue the lamb. If there are dogs in the neighborhood, it is the shepherd's job to make sure the fence is secure. If a sheep gets out, it is the shepherd's job to go find it.

There are times in our lives—lots of times—when we need to be reminded of our duties, our responsibilities. It is our assignment to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with God. It is our responsibility to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are obliged to tell the truth. To speak graciously and kindly. To be faithful in our relationships. But everyone of us will come to the end of our abilities. We will not be able to do justice—or even injustice. We will not be capable of acting mercifully or unmercifully. The time comes when all we can do is receive.

At that time, the Bible offers these words of reassurance. The Lord is my shepherd. God takes on the responsibility. And because God IS a shepherd and is not merely a sheep owner it is not only his duty to feed us and protect us and sustain us, it is God's pleasure to do so. When we pass beyond the limits of our capacity to act and do, God is our shepherd. We will lack nothing.

Those are the best words I can think of, the most important words, to take with us on that final mysterious journey. And they are good words, indeed.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Loving People Who Cannot Be Fixed

Sermon for Green Lake Church, Sabbath, October 21, 2017
Text: Matthew 26:36-44. This passage and others below access through

Tuesday morning Myrtle called me and invited me to join her at her sister-in-law's house. Her sister-in-law, Theda, was in her last hours. When I arrived there were several people in the living room, gathered in the face of the inevitable. I stepped into the bedroom. Granddaughter Christine was sitting by the bed stroking Theda's hand. On the other side of the bed, a friend was standing, his hand on Theda's arm. Keeping company.

We recited Psalm 23 together. We prayed. We anointed her. Not praying for healing, simply affirming our faith in God and praying for rest and ease of soul. Speaking of God together in her presence.  And then we returned to silence. To stroking her hand. To resting a hand lightly on her shoulder. Keeping company.

This is what families do when someone we love is approaching the mysterious portal called death. We keep company. We keep company with our elderly dear one. We keep company with each other. At some point in the process we let go of our petitioning, our asking for healing, and just keep company with our beloved and with each other. It is the right thing to do. The best thing to do.

Thursday afternoon, again I was reminded that we do not live forever here in this world. I led a graveside service for Bernice Wilson. She was in her nineties. She was known and loved by oldtimers here at Green Lake. Her great grandson was remembered fondly by some of you. Thursday afternoon, on your behalf, I said farewell. It's an essential part of the work of being a minister. Leading funerals. Her son-in-law, Herb, said a few words of remembrance, recalling her birth in the midwest, her moves to California and then Seattle, her years at Boeing, her spoiling of her grandchildren.

She had lived long and well. It was time to go. So we said farewell, dreaming aloud of the better land where there will be no death, no sorrow, no pain.

This is the way life is here. No matter how many healthy practices we embrace, no matter how good our genes, no matter how skilled our physicians, there is a limit to life. There comes a time to say farewell.

Because I am a preacher, my mind ran to the Gospel and I was suddenly struck with startling realization. In the Gospel, no sickness remains unhealed. No problem remains unsolved. When we read through the Book of Matthew there is no story of an incurable disease.

Every problem responds to the divine power of Jesus.

Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 24 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. Mattew 4:23-24 NLT (Accessed via Blue Letter Bible.Org)

And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. Matthew 9:35

Jesus never met a problem he couldn't solve. Blind? No problem. Sight restored. Lame? No worries. Now you can dance and high jump. Sick? Cured. Possessed by demons? Set free. Haunted by guilt? Forgiven. Hungry? Fed.

The Gospel adds to this glorious picture of the power of Jesus this additional glory: He passed along this heavenly power onto his disciples.

Jesus called his twelve disciples together and gave them authority to cast out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and illness. ... 5 Jesus sent out the twelve apostles with these instructions: "Don't go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, 6 but only to the people of Israel--God's lost sheep. 7 Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!  Matthew 10:1, 5-8 NLT

The Gospel is the story of divine power exercised here and now, in this world.

Which prompted me to ask myself, how do I connect the Gospel—this story of universal healing—with the world I live in.

In the Gospel no one suffers from age-related dementia. No one is on the long, slow decline that happens when we make it successfully in our eighties and nineties and hundreds.

Healing happens in our world. There is the routine healing we experience through the wonders of medicine. Decades ago my wife dragged me to the doctor who took one look at me and said to her: shall I call an ambulance or do you think you can get him across the street to the hospital. A couple of days of powerful antibiotics and my pneumonia morphed from a life-threatening infection into a very annoying interruption of my plans.  And I gave thanks for medicine.

I know many of you can tell similar stories. Dramatic hospital onsets of disease turned back by the miracles of modern medicine. Trauma effectively reversed through the skill of emergency room staff and months of physical therapy. We get new knees and hips and shoulders.

Then there are the occasional miracles. Recoveries of health with no medical explanation.

Healing happens. Yes.

But not often enough. Eventually, for everyone of us, there is a malady that is not healed.

As I meditated on this reality, I wondered, what can the gospel teach us when no miracle is available? Jesus healed everyone he met. He told his disciples to do the same. How can we be faithful to this charge?

The first step which seems obvious to me is that we do what we can. We can't heal with a prayer, but we can get our friend to the doctor. We can't multiply five loaves into food for five thousand but we can make donations to organizations that address problems of hunger. We can lobby for government policy that makes health care accessible. We can use our dollars to ease trouble in the lives of others.

We can do that. And it's fun to do that. It's fun to make a difference.

Last Sunday, Karin and I drove an hour from our house to an appointment. She dropped me off there and headed on north to another event. As I got out of the car, she suddenly realized she didn't have her purse. No driver's license. No phone. No credit card. I handed her my phone and I gave her some cash. Because, I said, you never know. And sure enough the people she hung out with decided they should all chip in to help with the expenses of the event. The cash I had given her was enough. I felt pretty good. I had solved a problem.

But what do we do when a problem cannot be fixed? What is the Christian response to sickness that cannot be cured, to people who cannot be fixed.

Does the Gospel offer any guidance for this?

In the Gospel there is one story of someone asking for divine help and not receiving it.

Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, "Sit here while I go over there to pray." 37 He took Peter and Zebedee's two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. 38 He told them, "My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me." 39 He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, "My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine." 40 Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, "Couldn't you watch with me even one hour? 41 Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!" 42 Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, "My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done." 43 When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn't keep their eyes open. 44 So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. Matthew 26:36-44 NLT

Every time someone asks Jesus for help, the person receives it. Now Jesus is asking. He asks his disciples to keep him company, to share his pain, but they can't do it. They fall asleep. Over the last two millennia, Christians have accepted the fact that God said No to Jesus as a necessary part of the story. But we have always lamented the failure of the disciples. Surely they could have kept him company. That much they could have done.

Here is the lesson for us from the Gospel when we confront pain that cannot be alleviate, illness that cannot be cured, disabilities that cannot be fixed: Let us make sure those who suffer do not suffer alone. Let us keep one another company.

This week on Facebook, I saw Liz Joseph talking with a mother who has a three year old child with special needs. As is often the case, the dad has left, so mom is left to manage life and care for her child alone. Liz has a ministry to people like this mom. She steps into their lives so they are not utterly alone. It is a beautiful ministry. It is living the message of the Gospel.

When we can fix problems, we should do so. When people can be cured, we should make certain they have access to that healing. When things can be fixed, the healing, compassionate ministry of Jesus is our model, our guide. Let's do what Jesus did. Let's make things better.

And when we confront hurt and wounds and disabilities and diseases that are not healed. When heaven has said no, let's remember that in the Gospel the only person ever refused was precisely the one most favored by heaven.

Let us make up for the neglect of Jesus 2000 years ago by making sure people do not endure heaven's no alone.  When we keep company with people who cannot be fixed, we are keeping company with Jesus. There is no higher calling.

We are surrounded by people who are carrying in their lives the “no” of heaven--the disabled and mentally ill, and those suffering from dementia and ravages of old age, and those being slowly eaten alive by ALS or cancer or some other dark and scary malady. A tiny number will experience miracles of healing. All of them—every single one of them—can be accompanied in their journey.

When we keep company with these precious ones who carry the weight of heaven's no, we are keeping company with God.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Loving Those Who Cannot Be Fixed

Beginning idea for this coming Sabbath's sermon.

In the Gospel all who ask (and some who do not ask) are cured. No one copes with incurable pain, irremediable mental illness or disability, or inexorable aging. So what can we learn from the Gospel stories regarding a holy response to incurable maladies? Hint: In the Gospel, the only person whose plea was refused was the Son of God.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wise Investment

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, September 16, 2017.

Two Stories:

The first is a classic tale of almost but not quite, of could of, should of, of a free choice that was immediately and always regretted.

A man came to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good deed do I have do to have eternal life?" 17 "Why ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. But to answer your question--if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments." 18 "Which ones?" the man asked. And Jesus replied: "'You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. 19 Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.'" 20 "I've obeyed all these commandments," the young man replied. "What else must I do?" 21 Jesus told him, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22 But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

If we're going to “get” this story, it's important to feel the weight of the young man's angst. He did not walk away laughing. He wanted what Jesus offered. He wanted it badly. He could almost taste the excitement, the drama, the deep satisfaction ahead on the path Jesus mapped out.

Unfortunately, he already owned a great treasure—money. He was rich. Usually, I think of wealth as an advantage. Money is helpful. Your plumbing springs a leak. Money will bring a plumber to your house, and the leak will go away. When I'm hungry, just a little bit of money can obtain a blueberry milk shake. If I'm sick, money will obtain the services of a doctor. Money is a very helpful thing. And more money is even more helpful.

Except when I have to choose between hanging onto my money and some grand adventure, some great and noble cause. When I have to choose between my money and something else I really, really want, then the more money I have the more difficult the choice.

Jesus offered this man the chance of a life time, a wild, holy adventure. But to buy into the adventure he would have to give away all his money. The man wanted the life with Jesus. He wanted the wild, holy adventure, but he couldn't bring himself to pay the price. What he had was too good. He couldn't let it go. So he went away sad and conflicted, still feeling the allure of the Jesus adventure but choosing to hang onto the good stuff he had.

The Gospel of Matthew tells another story, and tells it multiple times.

From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. 22 But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. "Heaven forbid, Lord," he said. "This will never happen to you!" 23 Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's." Matthew 16:21-23 NLT

Jesus told his disciples he was going to pay the ultimate price as part of his participation in the mission of God. Peter understood the implications of Jesus' words and began to remonstrate. “Don't talk like that. That can never be! You are too good for that.”

Jesus immediately pushed back. “Peter, you sound like Satan talking. I'm going pay the ultimate price. And I'm okay with that. I have no interest in “saving my life” from some meager, uninteresting future. I see clearly mission. And I'm good with it.

The young man saw the high price of the wild, holy adventure and finally decided it was too high a price, a decisions that he immediately and forever regretted.

Jesus saw the high price of the wild, holy adventure and boldly announced his embrace of the cost. Bring it on. Jesus was ready to pay with his life for the privilege of participating in the mission of God. Sure, there was the moment of indecision in the Gethsemane. This was no easy choice. But he did it and triumphed.

Because we are Christians, we see this bold embrace of suffering in pursuit of the goal of salvation as an expression of the character of God. While people in our culture sometimes have a great difficulty making sense of the Bible's telling of the story of God, this much is clear: God spent the richest treasure of heaven in pursuit of the salvation of humanity. We can appropriately say that God would rather die than live without us. He spent everything he had to buy us.

And he is satisfied. God has no second thoughts about his investment.

The young man who came to Jesus counted the cost and decided he couldn't pay. God counted the cost of saving humanity and said, yes, I'll do it. That's how much God treasures humanity.

Who are we? The objects of divine desire and yearning. And pleasure and happiness.

As we become engrossed in this vision we make our own investments. We provide care:

Health care professionals do their thing.

Business people build financial systems that enable people to benefit from their labor. Seattle has billionaires, but the people who make our milk shakes at Kidd Valley Burgers cannot afford to live here. Altering this in the direction of equity is complicated and very difficult. We need brilliant business people with heart to figure it out and make our city a better place to live.

Social workers and counselors and psychiatrists provide the specialized, extra help that some people need just to stay alive. These people with special needs cannot take care of themselves. Still they are humans. They are part of our family. We count on specialists who have the skills to help these complicated humans to live the best they can given their limitations and disabilities.

Firefighters. Right now the Norse Peak Fire is still burning out of control in the dense forests thirty miles from our house. We honor the people who work to limit the raging fires all over the West.

We rely on engineers to create and maintain all the apparatus of modern life. Phones. Bridges. Tunnels. Cars.

The wheat harvest. I read an article this week in the Seattle Times about the wheat harvest happening on the other side of the state. Those farmers are feeding the world. But it's more than farmers. Feeding the world takes a thousand skills from farmers to machine creators and manufacturers and dealers to rail companies and shipping companies. All are partners with God in investing in human well being.

Some of our members are working at the Gates Foundation, working to change the world, to make it better. To cure or limit malaria and other strange and scary diseases. To increase access to healthy food and clean water.

Families care for each other, especially for family members with special needs. This is so many of us. In every family there are people who need a bit of extra care.

Writers who have caught the vision of Jesus, the satisfaction of God in saving humanity, use words to make the world better.

All these are ways we can join with God in his investment in humanity. The story of the rich man highlights the question: will we choose the richest, sweetest life or will we hang onto to something of lesser value because it seems to offer security? The question is will we? Not can we. Not are we able. But, will we?

One of the marks of a wise decision is that after we have made the decision we are still glad. That afternoon. The next week. The next year or decade. Wise choices leave us feeling glad over the long haul.

The rich man who sought Jesus' advice made a choice and then regretted it.

God, the ultimate rich person, made a choice to spend wildly to save humanity. And God is deeply satisfied with this choice.

Let's choose joy and satisfaction. Let's be about our father's business.  

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Where Is God?

Sermon manuscript for September 9, 2017 (The original title of this sermon was Ascending Liability. But the sermon morphed from my original conception, so I've changed the title here to reflect the actual content.)
For Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 John 2:1-2

It's been a rough week.

First there was Hurricane Harvey and the flooding of Houston and other communities in coastal Texas. I have a friend who lives in Houston who gave periodic updates on the rising flood waters until eventually he had six inches of water inside his house.

Here in Seattle we have had murky skies and ash falling on our cars and even sifting through the screens on our windows. Reminders of the wildfires that are raging all across the countryside just over the mountains to the east.

Again, a friend brought home the reality of this fiery devastation. She lives in Montana and posts pictures and facts from the fires there. Over a million acres has burned so far this year.


Thursday night a magnitude 8 earthquake hit Oaxaca, Mexico. At least 65 people are reported dead from the quake.

A third of the entire nation of Bangladesh was under water and over a thousand people died in floods in India.

A rough week.

Where is God in all this?

Many of my friends are quick to exclude God from all this stuff. Hurricanes happen. We can explain them using what we know of interactions of pressure systems and temperature regimes in the ocean. Earthquakes happen. Especially along subduction zones like the one that runs down the west coast of Mexico. Leave God out of this, they say. God does not cause hurricanes and earthquakes. They argue this way out of a concern to defend the reputation of God. But the Bible does not exclude God. God sends storms and earthquakes, fire and hail.

Even when we dismiss this active language and insist that what the Bible really means is that God allows storms and earthquakes and fire and hail, we come back to the other words, the words that give us hope:

The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. 8 O taste and see that the LORD [is] good: blessed [is] the man [that] trusteth in him. 9 O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for [there is] no want to them that fear him. 10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good [thing]. ... 15 The eyes of the LORD [are] upon the righteous, and his ears [are open] unto their cry. 16 The face of the LORD [is] against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. 17 [The righteous] cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. 18 The LORD [is] nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. 19 Many [are] the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all. 20 He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken. 21 Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate. 22 The LORD redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate. Psa 34:7-10, 15-22 KJV

Sitting in my dry house untouched by the raging fires except by the smoke and bits of ash it is easy to say, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” But what about my friend in Montana watching her entire state go up in flames? What about my friend in Texas starting the clean up process in his flooded house? What about the relatives of others in this congregation whose lives have been disrupted by the earthquake in Mexico? What about the millions of people—nameless to me—whose homes have been invaded by the floods in India and Bengladesh? They lack no good thing?

These words make no more sense as literal language than do the words about God sending storms and earthquakes, fire and hail. They make far more sense as a declaration of the ultimate purpose of God. It is God's desire that his children lack no good thing. But the actual, lived experience here in this world is far more complicated.

So I come back to the words of Jesus:

God sends his rain on the just and the unjust. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. You be like that.

The ancient prophets argued that nature favored good people. Bad things happened to bad people. Good times came to those who were good. There is some truth in this, of course. Living wisely and righteously usually produces better results than living foolishly and wickedly. But nature is a hopelessly blind judge. Floods and earthquakes, fire and hail—they happen to all sorts of people.

It is also true that nature blesses people indiscriminately. The glory of sunrise, the blessings of harvest, the beauty of moonlight, the pleasures of health and strength come to all humanity. We, as believers, affirm that it is these sweet things which express the purpose of God.

Nature is recklessly indiscriminate both in its loveliness and in its horror. Both in its bounty and in its storms. Jesus challenged us to see God's benevolent intentions in the blessings of nature and then to mirror the generosity of God.

Sometimes, we are most immediately aware of Jesus' call when we are confronted with the kinds of so-called “acts of God” that have surrounded us this past week.

The first pictures coming out of Texas were visions of devastation. Roads under water. Cars immersed to their roof tops. Then came the pictures of the human response. People helping people.

In southern California, first there were the photos of raging fire, then news of convicts fighting fires, earning a dollar an hour. Men who in other situations had acted like the devil showed in this emergency, the genuine goodness still living in their hearts and hands.

In Mexico and Bangladesh humans banded together to carry out the will of God—survival, rescue, sustenance.

Where is God in the earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and other suffering that haunts our world? God is present in those who rescue and help and heal. And God is present in those who devote themselves to work of prevention. Much of the suffering of the past week was theoretically avoidable. We know where flood zones are and could require developers to build on higher ground. We know how to build houses that will not collapse in earthquakes.

If God intends salvation, if God favors life, then it is the essence of faith to join with God in the present work of rescue and fire suppression. And we can work with God in building communities that are more resilient and more protective. We can be the angels of God, working for salvation and hope.

Let us be about our Father's business.