Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Charge

The Charge

For the ordination service of Ron Sidney at Kirkland Adventist Church
Sabbath, August 29, 2015

When our Master moved from the obscurity of his faithful service in the carpenter shop toward public ministry, God sent him first to the Baptizer. There at the Jordan River, Jesus the Sinless One dramatically declared his union with the people of God. By accepting baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus joined with his sinful people with reservation or qualification. He declared himself to be one of us.

Among Adventist clergy, ordination makes a similar statement. We who are ordained ask you to join the likes of us—men with checkered histories, men who are a mishmash of greatness and pedestrian weaknesses. We invite you to become one of “the brethren.”

(Side note to the congregation: And I pray and am working toward the day when this clergy fellowship includes sisters as well as brothers.)

When you accept ordination, like Jesus at his baptism, you, too, are making a public declaration of your place in this people of God. You are joining people like us—people whose intentions are greater than our accomplishments, people who sometimes descend into smallness, people who sometimes confuse our desires with the will of God. You are joining us in all that makes up our identity. You are especially joining us in our hope and mission.

As an ordained minister, you will carry within you and on you the people of God. And just as God announced at Jordan, “You are my beloved son.” So God says to you today in recognition of your willingness to join with us in service, “You are my beloved son. With you I am very pleased.”

My first charge to you this afternoon is this: Keep these words with you. Your Father in heaven is very pleased with you. He is pleased you have yielded to his call. He is pleased you are his servant. God has great plans for you, but first, before plans and achievements and success is this word from the Father's heart: You are my beloved son. I am very pleased with you.

Keep these words always in your heart, so that they may keep you.

Jesus went straight from his baptism to the sternest imaginable graduate school—the desert of temptation. After graduating from there, he headed into Galilee and began his public ministry. Everywhere Jesus went people were dazzled and charmed. Here's Matthew's prose description of these early days of Jesus' ministry:

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. Matthew 4:23-25.

Matthew invoked the poetic words of the ancient prophet:

In the land of Zebulun and of Naphtali,
the land beside the sea, beyond the Jordan River,
in Galilee home of the Gentiles,
in that place live,
the people sitting darkness saw a great light.
On those huddled in the land of death's dark shadow,
the light has dawned.
Matthew 4:15-17

This was the ministry of Jesus. It is our ministry, your ministry. May your words, your work, your life always be light for the people God commits into your care.

Which brings me to my second charge: Cultivate the light. Spend time every day gazing at the glorious face of God. Become radiant through basking in God's radiance.

You will encounter darkness. It is the nature of life in this world.

There will be mornings when the night before included getting home from a late meeting at 11:00, then caring for your sick wife until midnight, then being roused from bed at 3 a.m. to clean the vomit up from the shag carpet in the hall way outside your bathroom because your five-year-old wasn't able to make it to the bathroom before the explosion happened. There will be mornings when you don't take time for prayer and contemplation of the divine loveliness.

It may happen that heaviness in your own soul will be so great that you go for days or weeks or maybe even months without communion with God. You will carry the weight of your people. The trouble of the world will haunt you, sometimes even threaten to crush you.

My charge to you is this: go back to the light. Every morning seek God's face. And when you realize it has been awhile, don't waste time scolding yourself, just return. Go back. Sit in God's presence and bask in his smile, rehearse his promise: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”

Spend time in the smile of God. Hear his reassurance, you are his beloved son. Saturate your soul in the light of heaven, then return to your calling to an agent of light. Shine the light on those who sit darkness.

In Matthew 13, said to his inner circle, the twelve disciples:

Every scribe who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Matthew 13:52

In your study and contemplation, be sure to mine the rich heritage of Christian theology stretching back across two thousand years. Devote attention to the distinctive treasures of theology and spiritual practice God has brought to light here among Seventh-day Adventists.

Teach your people the glorious vision of the character of God. Teach them, show them, that divine love is the very first word of creation theology and that when God has finished his work and evil and pain have vanished, the same word of divine love will be the last word, the greatest word. Let nothing obscure this most important—and even most distinctive treasure of Adventist theology.

Paint a vivid picture of God's law as the essential, natural principles of life throughout the universe. Give your people confidence that God requires nothing of humans that is not already integral to the divine character and expressed in divine action. Help them understand the necessity and sweetness of ordering their lives after the divine pattern.

Teach your people to keep Sabbath and enjoy it. Lead them in tasting divine grace and favor in the Lord's Supper. Teach them to pray and study and serve.

Be a good scribe. Work with the ancient treasures and make them understandable and attractive. Discover new gifts, new truths, and new ways of voicing our faith.

Preach hope. Jesus is coming again—Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Redeemer, Jesus the One who would rather die than live without us. Assure your people we have not been abandoned. Jesus will return. Goodness and love will triumph. And we with them.

One final picture I would leave with you.

When it was time for Jesus to finish his work, when he wished to make a grand, final, emphatic declaration to the people of God in Jerusalem, he sent his disciples to go and find a donkey. Jesus mounted the donkey and rode into the Holy City surrounded by hosannas and hallelujahs.

It was Jesus the crowds sang. It was the donkey who carried him.

It is still the same. The disciples today—needed another donkey to join us in carrying the Christ in triumphant procession toward the Holy City. We looked around and found you. Today, in this ordination service we are consecrating you, a mere donkey, to the weighty and glorious task of bearing Christ.

Our people accord us great honor. They trust us to hear their stories and teach their children. They invite us to pray with them in their darkest places and to rejoice with them in the happiest times. The respect and confidence of our people is one of the most precious experiences in ministry.

When things go well and you are surrounded by the appreciation and affirmation of your people, when your heart is full of your awareness of the divine call, remember the parade is about the rider and not the donkey.

And if dark times come and you question whether there is any value, any importance, in your calling, remember that Jesus cannot ride without a donkey. He needs you. There is some piece of God's work that only you can do. March on.

Be faithful to the one who has called you.

Carry the Christ and his message.

Always.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sufficient Evidence

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, August 29, 2015

Old Testament text:

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him.

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished.

If you help the poor, you are lending to the LORD--and he will repay you!

Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need.

Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to poverty will be cursed.

The godly care about the rights of the poor; the wicked don't care at all.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. 9 Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.

Proverbs 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; 21:13; 22:2, 9, 22; 28:27; 29:7; 31:8-9


New Testament (sermon) text: Luke 16:19-31

If I were going to make a movie of the second half of Luke 16, the opening scene would be based on the classic cartoon picture of hell. You would see the devil walking around with his pitchfork. Flames would be flickering up through the black grate that formed the floor. People would be wandering around in misery or sitting on fireproof benches. If you turned the sound up, you'd hear some moans and groans. You might hear flames crackling. But mostly you'd hear grumpy voices, people complaining.

“I can't believe I got sent here. It is NOT FAIR! I'm not half as bad as Andy and unless he's lived to a hundred ninety-three, it looks like he managed to snag a ticket to the other place. The system is so rigged.”

“Oh yeah.” his buddy retorts. “You think you got it bad? My fifth wife showed up down here. I wish she was in heaven. I think she dropped out of church just so she could be sure and end up here to torment me.”

As the camera zoomed in on conversations, you'd hear more complaints, protests, and endless comparisons. “I was reasonably happy here until they moved Jack Scary Face in next to me last week. If I had realized I'd have to live in the same neighborhood of hell as that guy I might have tried a little harder to make it to heaven. What were they thinking. I was a reasonably law-abiding guy. Well, at least I was WAY BETTER than Jack.”

As the camera wandered here and there catching snippets of conversation, hints of faces and body language, the only thing that would keep the weight of misery from crushing you would be the dark humor of it. Everyone in the place knew they deserved better than they got. Everybody was better than who ever was next to them. All of them could think of people who deserved torment more than they did. I might have been cruel to cats, but you were cruel to dogs. (Sorry about that, cat lovers.)

Then camera would pull back slowly and you could see that hell was located on an immense plateau bordered on all sides by cliffs that fell away for thousands of feet into smoky, unfathomable depths. Then startlingly, you would see that perhaps a hundred yards to the west, maybe even less, another mesa rose up from the smoky depths. The top of this mesa was a dazzling vision of cascading streams tumbling over white rocks, luxurious moss lined ledges. Giant redwoods and Doug firs stepped back from the stream on the left. Toward the right was a meadow carpeted with more wildflowers than you see in Grand Park in a good year. People were happy. As the camera zoomed in you heard laughter and banjos. You saw dancing and eating. People were handing each other treats and urging, “Ooh, you've got to try this. This is amazing!”

Your eye is drawn back to the dark plateau of hell. Standing at the very western edge as close to heaven as he can get you see a small figure. The camera zooms in. It's a dignified old man, dressed in fine clothes. His hands are cupped. He's calling toward heaven.

“Father Abraham. Father Abraham!”

Astonishingly, we see a response on the other side. At the visual and social focal point of mesa, there is a grand throne and seated on it a very impressive man with a long white beard. It's Father Abraham. (Abraham fills the same role in Jewish lore that St. Peter occupies in Catholic cartoons about heaven and hell.)

Father Abraham is engaged in happy, animated conversation with someone. They break off talking and together look over toward the lone figure standing at the very edge of hell.

Father Abraham cups his ear with his hand. “What was that?”

“Could you send Lazarus over here with a bit of water. It's really hot and dry over here. I'd really appreciate it if you could just have your good man Lazarus there bring me some water.”

Abraham looks at the man he's been talking with. The man, obviously Lazarus, shugs his shoulders.

Abraham starts laughing. “What was that?” he calls back.

“Please send Lazarus over here with a spot of water. I could really use a drink.”

“Tell what,” Abraham hollers back. “It appears you and Lazarus here must be old friends. Lazarus has just been telling me how hard life was for him back on earth, how he was destitute, what with his bum feet and his scoliosis. He was constantly dependent on other people. So I'll send him over with the same amount water you used to give him when he was sitting in the sun begging.”

As Father Abraham is hollering this message across the Grand Canyon that separates the two worlds, we watch the rich man's face. At Abraham's first words, “You must be old friends,” the rich man's face brightens. Lazarus did remember him! That was a good sign. But when he heard Abraham's suggestion that he would send over the same amount of water the rich man used to share with Lazarus, the rich man's face grew quizzical. He struggled to remember how many times he had arranged for the beggars at his gate to get water. Surely, there must have been occasions, really hot days, days when he wasn't fully engaged in other pressing business, surely there were some times when he had sent one of his servants out with a water jar. But as he searched his memory his face went dark.

Yes, there had been beggars at his gate. Every person of means had beggars at their gate. That's the way society worked. The poor people sucked off the rich. He remembered how annoying they were. Slowly he recalled how angry he used to get. Why didn't they go beg somewhere else? Why didn't they buy their own farms? He was especially repulsed by the beggars with deformities. They were so ugly with their twisted feet, their misshapen legs, their arms burned off at the elbow, their eye sockets reminding him of open graves. He hated them.

Father Abraham was talking again. “Actually, old man, I know that when Lazarus here was lying at your gate he got no water from you and no food. I know that back when the two of you were in close proximity, when it was possible for the two of you to share life, it didn't happen. The most Lazarus got from you was the friendly licks of some of the dogs that scrounged crumbs under your table. So really, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to send Lazarus to help you out. And besides, you can see the chasm between us is far to deep for anyone to cross. I'm sorry. But people don't go back and forth from your place to here. That's just the way it is. You understand.”

The rich man was quiet for a few minutes. Everything Abraham said was true.

Finally, he rallied himself. “Okay, I get it. I blew it. I own that. And I can see that Lazarus can't cross the canyon between us, but would you at least do me this favor? I have five brothers back home. They still have time. They are still in the land of the living. Would you be able to send Lazarus back to warn them? Let them know how things are so they won't end up here?”

Now, put yourself in Abraham's shoes, or rather in his seat. Imagine you are receiving this request. What would you say? Would you send Lazarus to warn the brothers?

Up to this point in the story, Jesus is following a classic theme in Jewish theology—the grand reversal. This is prominent in the words of several of the prophets and in the famous songs of Hannah and Mary. When God acts decisively at the end of the time, the high and mighty are going to be brought low. The lowly are going to be raised up. The entire pecking order of humanity is going to be upended.

Hannah's song.

4 The bow of the mighty is now broken, and those who stumbled are now strong. 5 Those who were well fed are now starving, and those who were starving are now full. The childless woman now has seven children, and the woman with many children wastes away. 6 The LORD gives both death and life; he brings some down to the grave but raises others up. 7 The LORD makes some poor and others rich; he brings some down and lifts others up. 8 He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor. For all the earth is the LORD's, and he has set the world in order. (1Samuel 2:4-8, New Living Translation. Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.org)


Mary's song.

For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. 50 He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. 51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. 52 He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. (Luke 1:49-53, New Living Bible, accessed through Blue Letter Bible.org)



Mr. Rich Man had lived in luxury, and Lazarus lived in misery. Now their status has been reversed. Lazarus has exchanged his miserable life for bliss in paradise. Mr. Rich Man exchanged his luxury for misery in hell. Jesus' listeners would have expected this.

But now the Rich Man shows a bit of concern for someone other than himself. Surely this counts for something, right?

Well, maybe. But notice what happens even in these conversations from hell. The Rich Man continues to regard himself as privileged and the poor man as his natural servant. “Hey, Abraham, send Lazarus over here. Well, if he can't come here, send him to my brothers.” The rich man, in the very core of his being still sees Lazarus as the natural servant and himself as naturally deserving of whatever service Lazarus can provide.

Even in hell when everything has been stripped away, the rich man is still able to see beyond himself only with great difficulty and then only as far as other people in his own very limited circle. Even after the grand reversal he is completely unable to recognize the dignity, the nobility, the preciousness of the people who all this time have been invisible to him. He still cannot see them, even looking across the chasm into the exalted light of heaven.

So, should Abraham pay any attention to the rich man's request? Should Abraham send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's brothers?

Notice what happens next. Abraham does not address the worthiness of the man's request at all. Abraham doesn't discuss whether or not it would be fair to impose yet again on Lazarus.

Instead Abraham refuses to send Lazarus because it wouldn't do any good. Even if Lazarus rose from the dead, he would still be just Lazarus. Nobody. The brothers would not be able to hear a message from a nobody—even if that nobody had just risen from the dead.

“They have the voices of the prophets, the words of Scripture.” Abraham assured the rich man. “They have the instruction and wisdom they need.”

“No, no, no.” The rich man protested. “They won't read the Bible. They won't pay attention to that. But if someone rose from the dead . . . now, that would get their attention.”

Abraham shook his head. “It's no good. If they won't hear it from Moses, they won't hear from Lazarus.”

It's a sobering story.

Are there people in our lives that we just don't see? Are there human needs we could attend to . . . if we will just do it?

Don't wait. Don't develop a leather-hard heart.

All of us are rich in some way. We have something we can share. There are people whose lives can be touched with soothing water if we will pay attention. So pay attention.

There are people who will find new hope and maybe new life, if we share a bit of what we have—brains, money, social connections, the status of good looks, the power of influential friends. Let's ask God to help us see the Lazaruses in our lives, the people we can touch now with hope and help and healing.


This is what our holy book teaches. It is what Jesus modeled. It is God's plan for our lives and the lives of those around us.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Beautiful Rene

My head was thick and my eyes bleary with the effects of a bad cold. Urgent chores at home had kept me from breakfast. So when I walked into Aurora Commons* I was moderately miserable. Rene took one look and demanded with beguiling authority, “Did you have breakfast? Do you want me to make you some pancakes?”

“Sure, I'll have some pancakes. Thanks.”

“You want some eggs, too?”

“Yes, that would be nice.”

She added my order to her backlog and went back to the griddle. I greeted others. Chatted with Andy, the director for the day. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Rene at work. She filled a plate with pancakes, buttered them, added eggs and handed the plate to another hungry soul. I saw plates of pancakes here and there around the room. Rene greeted everyone that came within her circle. I laughed inwardly as I saw her patting the pancakes with her hand after flipping them on the griddle. I couldn't tell if she was showing affection to the pancakes or was checking their cooking progress.

She dished several other plates. Finally, she tapped me on the shoulder and handed me my plate. I poured Aunt Jemima, then walked across the room and sat with another of her customers, a hard- looking man that I thought I recognized. I tried to start a conversation. He refused to talk. Instead he simply shoved a container of syrup toward me. At least I guessed it was syrup. The container was a glass jar. The liquid was brown with mysterious specks in it. He handled it with a dry dish rag like it was hot. After some minutes of silence, he said, “It's seasoned with nutmeg.” And lapsed back into silence. I added some of the mystery juice to my pancakes and kept eating.

A little later Rene came back to check on me. She touched my shoulder. “Is it good?” I nodded and made happy noises. She, in turn, was obviously pleased with my pleasure in her cooking. She headed back to the griddle. Andy said she had been cooking pancakes for all comers all morning.

I had not met Rene before, but I'm at the Commons only an hour or two per week. She was obviously a regular and knew many of the folk that came in and out. She added sparkle and warmth to the place. For the time I was there last Tuesday, she was the matron, the mother of us all. The world of Aurora Commons was better because she was in it.

I thought of the stark contrast between Rene's identity inside Aurora Commons and outside on the sidewalks along the Avenue. There she is a street walker. A figure in Seattle's criminal underbelly, a visible testament to human brokenness. Here she is beautiful, admirable, noble.

So which is she? Matron or street walker? Care giver or parasite? Scrappy survivor or temptress? I don't know enough about the world of Aurora sidewalks to offer meaningful commentary on that . world. I don't understand prostitution, drug addiction, unemployment, human trafficking. But I do know that inside, within the walls of Aurora Commons, Rene is beautiful and nurturing. She is admirable and admired.

Maybe this is a model for church. Some of us have details in our lives that are sketchy at best, maybe even base and despicable. Our current lives are not our ideal lives. Still we come to the House of Prayer. For an hour or two inside these walls we bask in a different identity. In worship we know ourselves as beloved daughters and son. In community with one another we experience admiration and appreciation from our sisters and brothers. We kindle again our hope that God's promise of transformation and redemption reaches even to us. In the physical space, the rituals, and the humanity of church we taste, we know by direct experience, the Gospel.

*Aurora Commons is a drop-in center sponsored by the Awake Church. It offers sanctuary to the street walkers, homeless, addicts, mentally ill and everyone else in the vicinity of Aurora Avenue and 90th Steet.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Woman and her Money--a perfect picture of God

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 1, 2015

So Thursday morning about 7:30, I'm sitting on a dock across the street at Green Lake. I'm there for prayer and meditation. The sky was blue. The temperature was in the upper sixties. The lake was still except for ripples raised by the white shells of the rowers. It was glorious, tranquil, charming. Contemplation was easy.

At the opposite end of the dock a couple of boys were setting up to fish. The older looked like he was maybe eleven or twelve. The younger eight or nine. It took a while, but finally they managed to get a hook in the water. A few minutes later, I heard the older brother say, “You watch the pole. I need to run home and get something.”

I returned to my contemplation. Five or ten minutes later a woman came onto the dock. She was dressed in running clothes, had a German wire-haired pointer on a leash. She greeted the boy.

“Hi Ean, where's Nate?”

“He went to get something.”

“Did he go home?” she asked incredulously.

Something about the interaction piqued my interest. Who was this woman? It seemed obvious she and the boys had not started their day together. They had not yet seen each other. Still, her interaction with the boy was warm and comfortable.

Here's how the conversation went:

“How long has Nate been gone?” She asked.

“I don't know.”

“He left you here all by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“When is he coming back?”

“I don't know.”

“I see your bike. Where's your helmet?”

“I forgot it.”

“What? You rode here without your helmet?”

“Yes.”

“Did you have breakfast?”

“Yes.”

“What did you have?”

“Cereal.”

“How long are you going to be here?”

“I don't know.”

“You're sure Nate is coming back?”

“He said he was.”

“You're okay here by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“You warm enough?”

“Yes.”

“Tell Nate to call me, okay?”

“Okay.”

She started to walk away. “Oh, by the way, good morning.”

Ean gave her a little wave.

I laughed. She had to be Mom.

I'm guessing the boys' parents are divorced. The boys spent the night at Dad's house. Maybe they're spending the week or the summer at Dad's house. The conversation gave no hint that the boys were headed back into Mom's world later that day. Still, Mom did what moms do. She interrogated Ean in the interest of making sure her boy was okay.

Where's your helmet? Are you warm enough? Are you okay here by yourself? Did you have breakfast? All those questions were mom-speak for I love you. I care about you. You are precious to me. That last bit, “Oh, by the way, good morning.” came from some book she had read. You're supposed to say good morning. So she said it. But the questions—they came straight from her heart.

Maybe she wasn't mom. Maybe she was Aunt Julie. In the world I grew up in the difference between Aunt and Mom was slight. Aunt Velma and Aunt Louise were as likely to interrogate me about my well-being as Mom was.

If Mom didn't see you eating, when she does see you, even if it's on the dock at Green Lake, she's going to ask, did you have breakfast? When she sees your bike lying there and no helmet, she's going to ask, where's your helmet? That's what moms do? At least most of them. Certain behaviors go with the territory. They are automatic.

It's the same in the story we heard in our Gospel reading today. Jesus began telling a story about a woman. She had ten coins. She lost one. What is going to happen next?

Maybe we need a little background to understand the story. The coins were not dimes or quarters. Each coin was worth a day's pay. How much do you make in a day? At $15 an hour, that's $120. Now, if you make a hundred or two hundred dollars an hour, that's not much. But for the person making $15 an hour, $120 dollars is a lot of money.

In the culture of first century Palestine, most peasants did not handle cash. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and bartered for what they couldn't make or grow. So, ten drachmas, ten silver coins was a significant amount of money. Losing one of those coins was a huge loss. This was disaster.

How did she lose it? When did she lose it? How long has it been missing?

Panic!

Let's call her Maria. Her husband was poor. Her dad had been poor. Her relatives were poor. The neighbors were poor. There are no closets in Maria's house. Maria had nothing to put in a closet. Her only clothes were on her back. Her only pot was on the stove. The entire family slept in a pile in the one room that comprised her house. We would probably call it a hut.

Maria had one treasure, these ten coins. Maybe they had been her wedding dowry. Maybe they were her life's savings? Whatever, they were irreplaceable. She can't just go work an extra day and replace it.

She was startled when she noticed it was missing. She immediately began searching, confident she would find it. She looked beside the stove. She looked under the bed. She looked outside next the log where she sat when she shelled peas yesterday. Panic began to build.

She managed to calm herself. Then started over.

She hauled the bed outside. And the cook pot. She carried out the stack of kindling she had beside the stove. She lit a lamp and then began sweeping, carefully studying the floor as she went. Finally she found it. She fixed the gold coin back to the necklace she wore. Hauled the bed back inside. Set the cook pot back on the stove. Replaced the kindling beside the stove.

Then she ran next door to tell Elizabeth and across the street to tell Naomi. Within minutes the yard was full of women chattering, recounting their own stories of losing and finding, of urgent searching. Of finding. They were happy together.

In the same way, Jesus said, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who turns toward righteousness, one rascal who begins to ask how his actions affect others, self-absorbed parent who begins paying close attention to her children, one self-important clergy or science professor who begins to regard persons as more valuable than ideas.

When a person repents God is delighted.

Jesus makes this same point three times in three stories in Luke 15. The common titles of the stories are “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin” and “The Lost Son.” But stories really about the Shepherd, The Woman and the Father. In this story of the Lost Coin, Jesus is telling us if you want to understand God, study this woman. We don't need the story to know that sometimes coins get lost. The story is not about the coin, but about the woman's search for the coin, her finding the coin, her happiness at finding the coin. Jesus point is that God is like that woman.

At the core of our faith is this conviction: human character matters to God. When a person turns toward goodness, the ripple of happiness created by that turning runs to the very heart of the universe. The happiness of God in response to a person's turning toward the light is as certain, as assured as the happiness of a woman who has found her lost treasure.

This is the essential core of the theology of Jesus. Jesus makes this point repeatedly. Shepherds respond to lost sheep by searching and finding them. Women respond to lost coins by searching for them anid finding them. Neighbors respond to emergencies by helping their neighbors. Dads take delight in providing good gifts for their children. Doctors do not scold their patients for getting sick. Auto mechanics do not act outraged when I bring them my car—AGAIN!

In worship we celebrate this conviction. God delights in our turning toward goodness. This truth is more important than outrage at the latest ideas of our political opponents. This truth is more important than balancing the scales of justice.

God delights in restoration and correction, not vengeance and punishment. We are invited to contemplate God's character and to cooperate with God in delighting goodness, especially the fragile, tentative goodness of someone who is just turning toward the light after having spent time in darkness.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Two Different Religions in a Single Denomination

Divergent religious views:

GOD IS THE GREAT AUTHORITY
(God Alone)
Headship Theology

Many theologians have taught that the great goal of God is obedient subjects (1 Cor. 15:28). In this view, religion is a hierarchical system for transmitting divine authority. The higher up the pyramid, the greater your authority (i. e., your right and obligation to order the lives of others). The further down the pyramid, the greater your obligation to practice unquestioning obedience. When authority is the great value in a religious system, inevitably inferiors will be sucked into cooperation with evil directives issued by their superiors. (Think priests cooperating in the Inquisition, Christian Americans cooperating with their government in the internment of Japanese Americans or obeying the Fugitive Slave Act. Think of Adventist parents who have exiled their gay children because a minister told them it was obligatory to do so.)

In this view, in paradise every human is finally, immovably settled into placed in the pyramid (or annihilated).



GOD IS LOVE
(God with us)
Immanuel Theology

In this view, God's goal is virtuous partners (Rev. 3:21). Religion is a community created by God to nourish and savor goodness. Members of the community earn respect and honor by incarnating goodness. When goodness is the great value, everyone has standing to challenge any order that appears at variance with moral law. The core of goodness is love, not just "agape love" which is the principled regard for the well-being of others, but also "eros love" which includes affection and desire. God longs for communion with people. God enjoys sharing life and labor with people.

In God's ultimate dream humans are elevated. They are not on their faces before the throne. Rather God welcomes all the saints (men and women, people of every tribe and nation) to participate with him in the divine reign. (Rev. 22:5).


Adventism and classic Christianity have been dominated by excessive attention to God as The Authority and the church as a hierarchy. It is time for us to affirm GOD IS LOVE, and learn to live now in the light that comes from the shared throne.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Earning Respect

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, July 18, 2015.

Texts: Psalm 113, Luke 14:7-14.

Late Tuesday afternoon I was navigating the streets of Renton, moving very slowly because of the traffic. I wasn't paying much attention to the radio playing in the background. 94.9 was serving the usual buffet of bad news: Greece. Iran. American political bickering. Yemen. Problems in health care. Yada, yada, blah, blah, blah.

Then a name penetrated the fog. Scott Jurak. Suddenly, the radio had my full attention. Among long distance runners, Scott Jurak is legendary. He won the Western States 100 mile race a record seven consecutive times. The announcer was interviewing Scott Jurak about his recent completion of the Appalachian Trail. Scott had just run 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine. It takes most people five or six months to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail. Scott Jurak did it in 47 days.

One of the nice things about sports is that frequently arguments about greatness can be settled directly. We can argue all day long about whether my team or your team is the greatest. Then game day comes and someone wins.

If it is the womens US Soccer Team, they won decisively! They are the greatest.

It's natural for us to rank ourselves. We pay attention to who gets honored, who has the highest status. This human attention to status and rank shows up in the story we heard today in our New Testament reading.

When Jesus noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honor near the head of the table, he gave them this advice: "When you are invited to a wedding feast, don't sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, 'Give this person your seat.' Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table! "Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, 'Friend, we have a better place for you!' Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. Luke 14:7-10 NLT. (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com)

At first glance this is simply common sense advice. Don't set yourself up for embarrassment. But as you would expect, Jesus was doing more than giving mere common sense etiquette advice. He highlighted one of the most profound principles of the kingdom of heaven: status is earned, not demanded. In the kingdom of heaven there is no ring to kiss, there is no insignia which requires a salute, there is no title which confers absolute authority.

In this teaching, Jesus echoes passages in the Old Testament which portray even the authority of God as contingent on congruence with moral law. God is to be praised BECAUSE he acts righteously. And the supreme demonstration of righteousness is concern for the poor and oppressed.

As we read in our Old Testament scripture (Psalm 113) God lifts the poor from the dung hill. He gives women who have been regarded as cursed by God, the highest honor in their society. We praise God because God does these kinds of things.

In the kingdom of heaven, greatness—high rank, high honor—is the fruit of righteous action. And the most exalted righteous action is lifting others.

11 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." 12 Then he turned to his host. "When you put on a luncheon or a banquet," he said, "don't invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. 13 Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you."

Sometimes in religion, theologians have pictured God as primarily concerned with authority. In this approach to religion, the highest virtue is subservience to God. The highest religious practice is making signs of obeisance to God—bowing, crawling on one's knees, kissing the ring of a clergy person, obeying without question every demand uttered by a preacher.

This view of God has been most dramatically and grotesquely displayed in our day by the Taliban and ISIS. However, even within Christianity, there are movements that attempt to portray the religion of Jesus as a structure of authority. In our own church, people like Doug Bachelor and Steve Bohr have turned Christianity upside down. They have pictured God as a benevolent tyrant demanding unquestioning subservience. They have preached that the religion of Jesus is a power structure that requires a show of obeisance from lay people generally and women specifically. They picture Jesus as an ally of their self-importance. They are wrong.

We are called to something better. We are called to the vision Jesus voiced: to welcome among us those who cannot repay our welcome. To lift those who have no resources.

There is a ranking in the kingdom of heaven. There is greatness and honor among us. The highest rank belongs to those who serve. Especially to those who serve by raising others. When we do that, we have indeed become like God.

At school you will find yourself naturally, easily drawn into circles of students who share your academic focus, your political views, cultural background and economic status. There is nothing wrong with these natural affinities. Still, Jesus calls us to deliberately look beyond them. Let us be deliberate in seeking to include in our circle of privilege others who cannot be there without our welcome.

At the level of society, we are all challenged by this vision of Jesus. We live in the most privileged country in history. We who call ourselves Christian are invited by our Master to ask: how can we include others in our circle of privilege?

The mark of authentic Christianity is how far we reach, how richly we welcome those with no natural claim on us. The evidence that we have taken note of the goodness of Jesus is our own generosity, our own welcome, our own kindness to the least, the lowliest, the farthest from any natural claim on privileges like ours.

If Scott Jurak walks into a room of runners, people will naturally gravitate toward him. They naturally admire someone who embodies our highest ambitions. Aspiring runners will hope that association with Jurak will somehow rub off on them and improve their own performance.

If the Womens Soccer team visited us today, we would rightly honor their achievement. They are champions.

When we mimic the work of Jesus, when we lift the lowly, we, too, will rightly be called champions. God himself will invite us to place of honor at the heavenly table. And there will be great joy.



Saturday, July 11, 2015

Jubilee

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, July 11, 2015

Texts:

Leviticus 25:8-17
Luke 13:10-17




Last week was 4th of July, our national day. We celebrated our freedom. Liberty. Freedom. Independence. These are important words for us as a people. We like to think of ourselves as the people in the world who are most free. We celebrate our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

On the other hand, we are also a violent people. We have often imagined that freedom meant holding the gun instead of having the gun pointed at us. We have been infatuated with a vision of cowboy justice in which the wrongdoer is summarily executed. Our love of vengeance and punishment has led us as a nation to incarcerate more people than any other nation on earth. The United States has more people in prison than either China or Russia—nations we have rightly criticized for their human rights record.

This contrast between our love of “my freedom” and our willingness to take away “their freedom” stands in stark contrast to the vision of freedom articulated by the ancient prophets and modeled by Jesus.

Let's consider two pictures of freedom in the Bible.

The Book of Leviticus in the Bible is a potpourri of all kinds of ancient rules and procedures. It is a bit notorious for its mix of strangeness and wisdom. For the modern person, reading through this book can be a difficult exercise. Then you come to the end of the book. And there you come across the passage we read for our Old Testament scripture this morning: the Sabbath rules.

It is an astonishing vision of a perpetual renewal of freedom.

Jewish life was ordered in cycles of Sabbaths.

Every week, the seventh day was a park in time, a social/spiritual space protected from the demands of ordinary life. Every Sabbath people were set free from the tyranny of employers, even the tyranny of existence. For one day, the people were to quit working, quit striving, quit chasing an adequate retirement, quit chasing an advancement, quit chasing wealth. Every week, for one day, every person was to live perfectly free. On Sabbath there were no slaves, no employees. Astonishingly, there were not even any beasts of burden. There were no bosses, no employers, no kings, no tyrants. Every week the nation luxuriated in this experience of freedom.

Every seventh year came a sabbatical year. Israel was an agrarian society. Everything was based on agriculture. Against this background, the entire community was commanded to interrupt the cycles of planting, cultivating and harvesting. For a year, the fields were to be allowed to go fallow. It was an agrarian sabbatical.

Then there was the super Sabbath, the Jubilee. At the end of the seventh cycle of seven years there was a grand Jubilee. In this year the land was redistributed. Since land was the basis for wealth, this was a grand wealth redistribution project.

The Books of Moses tell of the distribution of the land after the conquest of Palestine. It was like the Homesteader Act in the United States offering free land to anyone who would go and work it. The entire nation started off with an a golden opportunity. Land was the source of wealth and everyone one was given property.

In the natural course of life, if you give everyone equal opportunity, some are going to thrive and prosper. Some are going to struggle. Over time, the natural trend is for the sources of wealth to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This is not an evil process. It is the fruit of hard work, luck, and family culture. The people at the bottom have less and less. The same amount of effort on their part will produce less and less economic benefit. While for those at the top, the same amount of effort will produce greater and greater wealth.

When one becomes wealthy enough, passive income will completely supply one's needs. You don't have to work, unless you want to. Nice!!!

This disparity in wealth ends up creating a profound disparity in freedom. Those at the bottom are free to work. And work and work some more. Or starve. They have no margin. A single bit of bad luck will throw them into the tender clutches of payday loan providers and ruthless creditors. While those at the top are increasingly free to spend their time studying philosophy and music, climbing mountains and pursuing education.

Then comes the Jubilee. The poor are made free again. They or their children or grandchildren are given another shot at acquiring wealth through hard work. The playing field is somewhat leveled. Hope comes alive again.

In the practice of Jubilee, the entire society participates in creating Sabbath freedom. The entire community is transformed and renewed. Freedom touches every person, every family, every household.

This vision of glorious freedom, this vision of a society in which freedom for the lowly is renewed over and over—this vision was picked up by the prophets and used as a metaphor for Grand Goal of all history. This persistent renewal of freedom provided a concrete example of the overarching purpose of God.

People struggling at the bottom, people born in poor families, people born without connections, without a family history of hard work, people born without keen intellects or without healthy bodies were promised a new birth of freedom. There would be a better world where their efforts or their children's efforts would produce good success. A world where they, too, could make music and voice ideas and ideals and hopes.

This was the pattern of history mapped out by the Sabbath cycles of Israel. This was the pattern of life God dreamed of for his people.


Let's leap forward hundreds of years. Let's go from the primitive world of Leviticus, a time when the people of Israel were nomads living in tents or an agrarian people scattered in tiny hamlets in a wild and dangerous country. Let's come to the time of Jesus. The Jewish people were now a civilization. They had a deep, rich theological and religious heritage.

By the time of Jesus, the notion of Jubilee had become deeply embedded in Jewish theology (though it had disappeared from their civil society). The weekly Sabbath so thoroughly permeated Jewish society it had become a central definition of who they were as a people. They were Sabbath keepers.

Which brings us to our New Testament reading.

One Sabbath, Jesus went to synagogue, as usual. And as usual, he preached. At some point in the service, he noticed a woman with severe scoliosis. The way I imagine it, she was bent over so far she walked with two sticks to hold up her torso as she shuffled about the village.

If you watched her for more than a few minutes, you would feel in your own gut the compression, the pressure on your stomach and lungs. You would begin to hurt.

Jesus was preaching, saying beautiful and inspiring things. People loved it, like they usually did. But he interrupted the sermon. He noticed this woman and stopped talking. He invited her to the front of the synagogue. I imagine she came with great timidity. She felt her deformity, her ugliness. She was used to lurking at the edge of social events, hiding in the shadows at weddings and funerals. She was weird. She was cursed. Still, the preacher, the famous preacher, had summoned her. So she planted her sticks and heaved herself to her feet and shuffled forward.

There, in front of the congregation, Jesus placed his hands on her and announced, “Lady, you are released from your bondage. You are free.” Immediately, she was healed. She straightened her back. She turned her head back and forth. Then she turned her torso back and forth. Then she dropped her sticks. She stepped in a circle to the right, then to the left.

The crowd gasped. “Glory be!” the woman exclaimed. “Hallelujah!” She started laughing, then covered her mouth in embarrassment. This was church, after all.

She walked gingerly back to her place in the synagogue, wondering every second if it was real, if it would last.

The synagogue became a bee hive of murmuring and whispering. Who had ever seen such a thing?

The synagogue ruler stood and demanded people come to order. This was church not a clinic.

“Look,” he said. “God gave us six days to do our work, six days to do the ordinary stuff of life, to take care of ordinary business. Come on those days for healing. Sabbath is for worship and for study. Let's keep Sabbath special.”

Jesus spoke up. “Come on. Don't be hypocritical. Every person here unties his ox or donkey twice or three times every Sabbath and leads it to the watering trough. Four times, if it's hot. If you would do that for a donkey or a cow, surely it is right that I should untie this woman, this daughter of God who has been bound by Satan these eighteen years.”

All the people were delighted, the Gospel says. And all dignitaries who were opposed to Jesus adversaries were confounded.

God wants us to be free. The point of religion is to be a mechanism for setting people free. But sometimes it gets turned into an instrument of bondage.

Like many of the older members in this congregation, I grew up in constant fear of condemnation. I imagined God was constantly watching to see if I screwed up, to see if I, at every moment, was putting out one hundred percent effort in the pursuit of holiness. I lived in perpetual dread of the judgment. Then I received a new vision of the compassion and affection of God. I knew that God was pleased with me.

I was set free. The inner change was so profound that all my friends noticed. My behavior didn't change, but I changed.

People asked, “John what happened to you?” They rejoiced with me.

But a few people were like the synagogue ruler. They were terrified. They could see I was no longer leashed and bound and they were afraid for me because I as no longer afraid. I guess they feared that if I wasn't afraid, if I was happy, I would race off into a wild and stupidly wicked life.

They, too, asked, “John, what has happened to you?” But asked in worried tones.

I had been in bondage for over eighteen years and now I was free.

Some of you have experienced that kind of bondage. You have been told by parents or teachers or preachers or siblings or someone else that you are defective, unworthy, hopelessly broken. You are ugly, wicked, lazy, stubborn, hopeless. Those words have defined your existence. They have formed a cage. You have been trapped.

Jesus says to you this Sabbath and every Sabbath: You are free. Those words of bondage are false. They come from the enemy. God's word is you are free.

This story also addresses directly the issue currently being debated in the Adventist Church. This past Wednesday, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists voted not to approve the ordination of women. Those who opposed women's ordination are committed to keeping women “in their place.” They imagine that exercising this kind of domination is doing the work of God. They imagine that God's goal for his people is subjugation and subordination. They join the synagogue synagogue ruler in urging people to leave freedom for the secular world. Women can be doctors and judges and presidents and professors, but inside the church women must remain cloistered, subservient, second. Religiously women must not be free.

They are wrong. They are violating the spirit of Sabbath. They are contradicting the message of the prophets and the mission of Jesus.

I stand with Jesus in proclaiming freedom. I invite us as a congregation to stand with Jesus.

We are a Sabbath keeping church, a Sabbath keeping congregation. The essence of Sabbath is the proclamation of freedom. On Sabbath, we are set free from the ordinary human patterns of subordination. According to the commandment, even the ranking of humans above animals is set aside. On Sabbath, we may not even order our animals to work. They are free to luxuriate in divinely-appointed freedom. How much more our daughters and wives and mothers and aunts and lovers and friends.

As a Sabbath keeping church, we are committed to the radical message of freedom. We oppose systems of control and subordination. On Sabbath all of us together savor the freedom which is ours as members of the family of God. And on Sabbath we pledge ourselves to doing all we can to shape our world in the direction of Jubilee—the world of perpetual liberation, the dream of God.