Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dawn Meditation

I watched the lake at dawn. Cloud-softened sunlight dancing sparkles across the ripples. Sheets and strings of glitter shifted across the dark mirror of the water. Ducks launched tiny circles of seismicity, ringlets of light. I tell you this because it was too rich to go unremembered, and maybe, by trying to tell, I will remember until tomorrow's dawn.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Higher than the Holy Book

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, February 21, 2015
At Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

One Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples were walking on a path through a grain field. The disciples picked heads of grain, rubbed the husks off in their hands and ate them. Pharisees observed this and protested to the disciples, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath laws?”

Jesus cut in and answered for his disciples, “Surely, you have read the story of how David fed himself and his men when they were starving hungry. David went to the house of God and ate the holy bread. He also gave it to the men with him, even though it was unlawful for anyone except the priests to eat it.

Then Jesus said, “The Son of man is Lord, even of the Sabbath.” Luke 6:1-5

This may sound like a quaint, ancient tale, completely irrelevant to people living in 2015. In fact, it addresses the most burning question in religion today. Before we consider it's modern application, let's set the cultural stage for the ancient story.

It was customary in the Middle East that if you were walking along by some food crop, you could help yourself to a snack. You couldn't fill a bag with your neighbor's produce, but you could pick some grain and munch on it. You could help yourself to an apple from a tree beside the road. So the people who challenged the disciples were not worried about what the disciples were doing—picking and eating grain—but when they were doing it—on the Sabbath day!

The people who scolded the disciples, the Pharisees, were the conservative believers of their day. One of their highest values was to maintain a clear wall of distinction between the people of God and the people of the world. For the Jews, the Sabbath had become one of their most important banners. It was their flag. Respect for the Sabbath was an essential mark of Jewish faith and identity. Over the previous couple hundred years devout rabbis had developed very strict rules for the observance of the Sabbath. They studied every Bible command regarding the Sabbath and worked out in great detail precisely how those commands should be interpreted and applied. These applications had become increasingly strict. In Jesus day, the major conservative movement, called the Pharisees, was hyper-conscientious in their rules for Sabbath-keeping. These were the people challenging the disciples.

It is important to note that the conservative scholars did not invent their concern for Sabbath-keeping out of thin air. The Jewish holy book was quite explicit.

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you are to labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work, you or your children or servants or foreigners in your household. Exodus 20:8-10

Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest. Exodus 34:21 NIV

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed. Exodus 23:12 NIV
Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day. Exodus 35:2-3

Conservative rabbis reflecting on these Sabbath commands came up with a list of 39 specific activities that were prohibited on Sabbath. These rules were a natural development of the commands explicitly stated in the Bible. At their core, the rules were believed to be the logical application of the plain reading of the text.

When Jesus' disciples picked heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands and blew the husks away, they were breaking the Sabbath rules which specifically prohibited reaping, threshing and winnowing.

(Now, if you are not a Sabbath-keeper, the whole story is mysterious. Is it really possible that anyone could actually care about whether some guys rubbed some grain in their hands before eating it? Don't be silly. But I'm not being silly. It did matter.

Last Friday, I attended the military burial service for Colonel David Grauman. The feel of the service was not heavy and tragic. The leader of the service joked with the family a bit. But the color guard executed every move with utter precision. When they folded the flag, their movements were precise. When they raised their rifles to shoot the salute, they moved in perfect formation. As someone with no military experience of any kind, it was all very foreign to me. But for people who have served in the military it would have been familiar. And if any item of the service had been improvised, if any step in folding the flag had been omitted or muffed, the offending service member would have expected a stern reprimand later.

Perhaps we can best understand the Sabbath rules if we compare them to the rules in the military that govern how one salutes, how one folds the flag, how one addresses superiors. You don't mess with those traditions.


Jesus jumped in as soon as the Pharisees stated their condemnation. He did not leave it to his disciples to take on the challenge from the conservative scholars.

My guess is that if the disciples had responded to the Pharisees, they would have said something like this: Yes, we know our religion forbids reaping and threshing and winnowing grain on Sabbath. But come on. How far are you going to push that? Pretty soon you're going to be forbidding eating on Sabbath because picking food up off a plate is harvesting. You can't really call what we did “reaping, threshing and winnowing.”

The disciples would have tried to minimize their actions. They would have tried to argue that the Sabbath law didn't really reach all the way to their specific actions. Their actions that Sabbath afternoon were a special case that was not covered by the standard Sabbath rule. Surely God wouldn't be that picky.

The problem with this kind of argument is that eventually the hyper zealous always win. Even if the majority of people in a religious community think a more relaxed, flexible approach is the wisest way to interpret the commandments, young zealots will end up determining the public culture because they will be the most emphatic, the most active in pushing their views. They will appear the most devout. They will claim the moral high ground. They will ultimately win the cultural argument.

Religion advances as it is passed from one generation to the next. Part of the necessary contagion that causes faith to leap from one generation to another is an element of fiery zeal. If our religion consist only of watering down the rules of a previous generation or softening the words of a dead prophet, our religion will die. It will not offer our children the essential fire required for a vital spiritual life.

On the other hand, when we confine our religion in the increasingly rigid regulations of a fossil religion, eventually the only way forward for our children will be to shatter the system.

So how did Jesus respond to the conservative challenge which attempted to keep his disciples in the tight box of traditional Sabbath regulations?

First, Jesus did not minimize the violations of his disciples. Jesus did not argue that they didn't really reap, thresh and winnow. Instead, Jesus bluntly challenged the entire conservative approach to rules and regulations. Jesus rejected the conservative instinct to guard against the loss of any rule or regulation once given by God. And curiously, Jesus appealed to the Bible in making his case.

“Haven't you read about David?” Jesus asked. “Surely you know his story.”

The story is found in 1 Samuel 21.

David was the most famous warrior in the nation. He was a member of the royal court. But King Saul had become insanely jealous. More than once in a fit of rage, King Saul had tried to kill David. The fits hardened into a fit intention to eliminate David. David ran for his life. He came to the town where the tabernacle (the Jewish place of worship) was located and asked the priest for some bread.

The priest said he didn't have any regular bread. The only bread he had on hand was the holy bread which only priests were allowed to eat. The rules in the laws of Moses were very clear. There was no ambiguity. There were no exceptions. This bread was to be eaten only by priests.

The priest gave David the bread and David shared it with his men.

The inescapable moral of the story: If David could eat holy bread and share it with his men, then obviously, there can be nothing wrong with me and my men violating the Sabbath commandment in order to feed ourselves.

The respective prohibitions on lay people eating the holy bread and my disciples picking grain on the Holy Day are spiritually equivalent. Since the Bible approved of David's violation of holy restrictions, you are obviously out of place to reprove my disciples for a similar violation.

At the end of his telling this story, Jesus said, “So, you see, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Here is how I interpret Jesus' statement about the Son of Man. By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus highlighted his role within humanity. What Jesus did was applicable to all humanity. What was right for Jesus was right for every person. What was required of Jesus is required of us. What was allowed to Jesus is allowed to us.

Just as David included his men in the privileges he assumed in eating the holy bread, so Jesus included all humanity in the privileges he protected when he defended his disciples eating on the holy day.

The error of the Pharisees was their presumption that preserving the binding authority of the Sabbath rules was a higher value, a more noble virtue, than tending to human need.

In this story and repeatedly throughout his ministry, Jesus taught the opposite. The supreme test of religion is its efficacy in serving God's children. In a parallel Sabbath story in the Gospel, Jesus announced, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” God did not make people so they could keep Sabbath. God made the Sabbath to serve the well-being of humanity.

This same principle applies across the entire range of religion. God did not make people so they could populate and fund the church organization. God founded the church so it could enrich the lives of God's people. God did not create people so prophets could have devotees. God spoke through prophets to challenge complacence in evil and to encourage goodness. God did not make people so they could read and revere the Bible. God made the Bible to serve the well-being of people.

Now a most pointed application: So, if some statement in the Bible diminishes human well-being, we are morally obligated to reinterpret it or disregard it. In this story, Jesus pointedly rejected the validity of Sabbath laws when they were interpreted in a way that contradicted the basic human need for nutrition. Jesus did not get rid of the Sabbath. That would lead to another kind of impoverishment. But Jesus taught us the proper response to zealous conservatives who would push the application of some particular Bible passage in ways that damaged people. He cited other Scripture that demonstrated God's highest regard for human well-being.

Sometimes when conservatives seek to contain the work of God within the rigid walls of ancient commands, we have have to boldly declare there is a higher authority than ancient laws, a higher authority than quotations from prophets no matter how venerable. Human well-being is in and of itself a mighty authority.

Let's be clear. Under the powerful influence of Jesus, Christians have been doing this for two thousand years. Even the most conservative Christians ignore or reinterpret passages in the Bible. We have been doing it so long we don't even realize we're doing it. It is this ignoring of some Bible passages or radical reinterpretation that makes Christianity a humane religion.

If we try to revive a pure, perfectionist Bible religion, we will end up with something that looks like ISIS.

We are appalled at the savage behavior of ISIS. We recoil in horror at their practices of execution, slavery, and the subjugation of women. These are ghastly behaviors. We may be tempted to think: Those people are unspeakably evil. We would never do anything like that.

But let's be careful. The individuals involved in ISIS are not are not morally different from any other large group of people. The group includes good individuals and bad individuals. What makes ISIS so bad is their radical commitment to obey every word in their holy book. It is their religious conservatism that has turned them into monsters.

Public executions, the enslavement of women, cutting off the hands and feet of convicts—these things are commanded by their holy book. And that is why they do them. They don't do these things because they are trying to be more wicked than anyone else.

Most Muslims are repulsed by this savagery, but they have no good religious answer to ISIS, because in Islam no one is allowed to question the prophet. No one is allowed to say out loud about some passage in the Koran, “That passage is obsolete. That is a commandment we must not obey.”

In Islam, unquestioning obedience is the only acceptable response to the Koran. Most Muslims know in their gut that beheadings and capturing women to serve as sex slaves and cutting off the hands of petty thieves is evil behavior. But in their religion, there is no tradition of arguing with God. No tradition of arguing with the holy book.

In our religion, the great heroes did argue with God. Abraham and Moses, the two greatest figures in the Hebrew scriptures, argued boldly with God. Moses even got God to change his mind. Then we come to Jesus in the New Testament and find Jesus boldly superseding rules and regulations that came straight from the commands of God in the Old Testament.

If we Christians argue that the highest religion is unquestioning, unthinking obedience to whatever command our eyes fall on in the Bible, we are using the same kind of logic that fuels ISIS. If we read the Bible with the same commitment to unquestioning obedience to every command that characterizes the theologians behind ISIS, we will turn into monsters.

The Bible explicitly commands public executions, usually by stoning. In fact, every man in the community is to actually participate in the killing. When Boko Haram raided a girl's school in Nigeria and captured two hundred girls to serve the desires of their soldiers, they were acting in harmony with procedures outlined in the Bible!

Note this quotation from an ISIS theologian:

Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.

Compare this quotation from the Bible:

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. Numbers 31:17-18

We proudly think of ourselves as Protestants, people who live by the Bible and the Bible Only. The Bible was the tool used to pry open space in Europe for people to be Christian without being under the tyranny of the Roman church system. But the most famous founders of Protestantism, Luther and Calvin, approved public executions of people who disagreed with them. Those executions included burning people alive. Luther and Calvin advocated these executions because they believed this was required of them by the Bible.

In our own time, Christians in America are the strongest supporters of the death penalty. Not because Christians are meaner and crueler than other people, but because they believe the Bible tells us so.

It is time for us to stand with Jesus and say, NO! Continuing an execution system that occasionally kills innocent poor people must be rejected. It does not matter that one can find Bible passages approving capital punishment. The principles of justice demand that we end immediately a system that we know sometimes kills innocent people. If we respect people the way Jesus respected people, we will refuse to use the Bible to justify injustice.

A couple of years ago, a Republican in Arkansas called for legislation to that would allow parents to seek execution for their rebellious children. Where did he get this crazy idea? Deuteronomy 21:18-21. It is important to recognize that we can say it is crazy only if we acknowledge that some words in the Bible viewed through the lenses we now wear are crazy. In Islam if you say that something the prophet said was crazy, you are guilty of blasphemy. In Christianity, if you say that, you are standing with Jesus and Moses.

In America now, there is vociferous Christian movement advocating limiting education for girls. This movement is fueled by the belief that patriarchy, which is obviously every much in evidence in the Bible, is an unalterable rule. We must stand and shout, NO!

How do we respond to these ideas and rules in the Bible that would damage people if they were actually applied today? We do not become mealy-mouthed, mumbling hazy explanations that our kids can see right through. No. We boldly, confidently pledge ourselves to the way and the values of Jesus.

The truest, wisest words of Scripture are those that highlight the goodness—compassion, mercy, responsiveness—of God. The highest obligation imposed on the disciples of Jesus is to join Jesus in serving humanity.

When Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He makes humanity the master of the Sabbath. We are not tools in the hand of Sabbath. Sabbath is a divine gift we are called to use in our cooperation with God. Every Sabbath as we experience respite from the pressures of the world, we are also called to offer respite to one another and to our neighbors.

Sabbath invites us to rest and to give rest. Sabbath invites us make sure the foreigner and even the donkeys enjoy the same heavenly rest we do. Sabbath is a reminder that the ultimate evidence that we have been filled with the grace of God is the grace that flows from us into the lives of others.










Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sweetly Ignoring What You Say


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 31, 2015

Psalm 1
Luke 4:31-37


Trilly Bean might as well have died and gone to heaven. She landed at the McLarty house and was claimed by our eldest daughter, Bonnie. There is no higher bliss available to an animal than to live at the McLarty house. Trilly's good fortune came about like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. Bonnie out in the back pasture checking on her cows. The dogs bean barking over in the neighbor's woods. Their barking was purposeful, focused. She went to investigate. What were they after?

She found them clustered at the base of a tree. Looking up, she could see a kitten. She called the dogs off. Ordered them to sit at some distance from the tree, then coaxed the little cat down to within reach. She wrapped it in her coat and brought it to the house. I was not pleased. I did not want another animal at our house (not that that has ever mattered much!).

Bonnie went through the usual routine of checking with the neighbors and posting signs around the neighborhood in pursuit of the owner of the lost kitten. No luck.

We named the cat, Trilly Bean. She was Bonnie's cat. Bonnie fed her. Paid her vet bills. Let Trilly sleep in her room.

In a typical display of cat integrity and loyalty, Trilly began hanging out at the neighbor's place—the neighbor on the other side from the woods—because the neighbor fed her any time she showed up. Eventually Trilly lived full time next door, except when she was sick or needed shots. Then she is Bonnie's cat.

Bonnie forgave Trilly for her ingratitude and fickleness because Louise, the neighbor, had been recently widowed and Trilly was her only friend.


Another story.

Rexie is an Australian shepherd. She was born at our house. Her mother, Gypsy, has been my wife's dog for thirteen years. Even before Gypsy got pregnant, our daughter-in-law had made noises about wanting a dog, specifically a puppy from Gypsy. I had quietly protested to my wife. I love my daughter-in-law, but she was married to my son. I knew he had dreams of adventure. I figured that if we gave our daughter-in-law a puppy, sooner or later we get stuck with the dog when they headed off on some exotic adventure. My wife failed to see the wisdom of my counsel. She protested that Katrina loved dogs. No make that, Katrina LOVED dogs. And Katrina would LOVE to have one of Gypsy's puppies.

Katrina picked out Rexie. This raised my protest level. I figured that if Katrina was going to get a puppy, she should pick the dog I would pick, that way when it ended up living with us, life would still be manageable. But no. Katrina picked Rexie. Katrina was absolutely certain that Rexie was the perfect dog. Alas!

Rexie headed off with my son and his wife to Lincoln, Nebraska, for their final year of college. Life was good.

Then they finished school and announced they were moving to India.

I announced they needed to find a home for Rexie.

Karin and Bonnie emphatically overruled me. Rexie already had a fall-back home. Bonnie figured Rexie would become Karin's second dog. I didn't even bother arguing. What would be the point? I did grumble.

After Rexie moved in, I sat her down and explained that I didn't really want her in our house. We had plenty of dogs already. More than enough. We had two other Australian shepherds, her mother and her sister. Both of them were cuter than she was. Every other dog in the house had a better personality. I thought she should move to India.

She looked up at me with very sad, uncomprehending eyes. She could not understand why everyone did not love her. She tried really hard to be good. She tried really hard to get everyone to like her. She did more tricks than any of the other dogs. She could dance and bow. She liked to play tug-of-war.

Her most intense efforts at winning affection were aimed at Bonnie. But Bonnie had two dogs of her own. Bonnie was nice to Rexie, paid her more attention than anyone else in the house. But there was no way Rexie was going displace Bonnie's own dogs from their favored positions in Bonnie's heart. Watching this, it appeared that Rexie figured third place in Bonnie's affections was better than any other option. She knew she couldn't take first dog place in Karin's heart. And I wasn't even worth considering.

Then this past Fall, Bonnie left. She took with her, her two dogs. The house suddenly changed. Now there were only two humans and two dogs in the house. Rexie studied the situation. It didn't a genius to figure out an appropriate strategy. One of the humans was my wife. Gypsy already owned her. other human was me. I did not have a dog. I did not have a horse. I did not have any cows. I did not own a cat. None of the chickens belonged to me. For several years I had even been without a goldfish.

Rexie decided I was going to become her person.

I tried explaining to her that I did not need a dog, did not want a dog, was not in the market for a dog. Besides her sister who had gone to Wyoming was cuter than she was. I think that just made her more determined.

Every time I sat at the table to eat, Rexie was with 12 inches of my chair. When I went outside in the morning, Rexie followed me everywhere I went. When I went to get in my car, Rexie asked to come along. Rexie slept beside my bed until I banished her. Whereupon she camped just outside the door in the hall. When I took a shower, she lay just outside the bathroom door.

When she could get my attention she would give me these pleading, beseeching looks. Please, love me. P-L-E-A-S-E LOVE ME!

I kept explaining my lack of interest. She kept following me around, greeting me when I came home. Wiggling her entire body to prove her delight in my presence.

Bonnie came home for Christmas. Rexie was glad to see her, but made it clear that Bonnie was not an acceptable substitute. I was her person.

Bonnie left. The house was back to two dogs and two humans. Rexie pressed on with her single-minded devotion. So finally I capitulated. Rexie is my dog. I proved it the other evening. I got home late. Rexie had rolled in something. She stank. I figured we'd have to give her a bath before we could let her in the house for the night. Karin got home after I did. I told her that Rexie needed a bath. Karin announced, “I'm tired. I'm going to bed.”

So what did I do? I gave Rexie a bath. She's my dog.

Now a Bible story.

Jesus had just arrived back in the town of Capernaum. He had been traveling around the region of Galilee preaching and healing everywhere he went. This particular Sabbath he was back in Capernaum, which functioned as his headquarters for ministry in the region.

As usual Jesus read the scripture, then sat and began preaching. Without warning a man near the back of the synagogue, stood up and began shouting.

“Go away! Why are you interfering with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

The man exuded hostility. If you were making a movie you would cut back and forth from close ups of Jesus' face and the man's face. Jesus is handsome, attractive, full of dignity and compassion. The man's face is contorted, scrunched. Ugly.

Likely his body exhibited some kind of tic or twitching. His words were accusing. “What are you doing here? I know you have it in for people like me. You hate us. Well, the feeling is mutual. Leave us alone. Who invited you here to mess up our lives?”

Luke writes that he was demon possessed.

Jesus ignored the actual content of the man's words.

“Be quiet!” Jesus demanded. “Come out of the man!” At that, the demon threw the man to the floor as the crowd watched; then it came out of him without hurting him further.

The people were astonished. “What words these are! With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!”

In the Gospels there are several stories of Jesus' interaction with people who were possessed by demons or spirits. Two features show up in every story. First, none of these people ever ask for help or express the slightest warmth toward Jesus. If they do speak, their words express hostility and fear. They do not like Jesus. They don't trust Jesus.

The second feature common to every account of Jesus interacting with people troubled by demonsis this: Jesus delivers them. Jesus ignores the actual content of their speech which expresses fear and antipathy and gives them the help they obviously need.

Because we are Christians, we regard Jesus as the number one earthly model of God. The way Jesus treated people is the way God treats people. Jesus showed us God.

In light of this story, what do we have to do to get God to help us? To save us?

It is very common among Christians to imagine our relationship with God is like Rexies relationship with me. If we are persistent, if we do just the right thing, we can finally win God over. If we beg and plead. If we stubbornly exhibit our choice of God, eventually God will claim us as his own. Sometimes theologians develop clear statements of just how a person can secure the favor of God.

Some theologians will quote the Book of Romans.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9

If you are going to be saved, you have to express your faith, you have to have a correct understanding of the atonement. This is great news for some people. They say the right words. They believe what they are supposed to believe. They have it made. They know that God will have to claim them because they have followed the right formula.

Other theologians will quote Matthew 25 and the story of the sheep and goats. Jesus declared that if we show kindness to needy people that will earn us the approval of God and a place in the eternal kingdom of heaven. If you want to be saved, you have to show compassion and respond to the needs of people around you. This is great news for people with large hearts and practical temperaments. They consistently show kindness to people in need. They can be sure of the favor of God and salvation.

Still other theologians quote Jesus words about the kingdom of heaven being made up of children and people who have hearts like children. So make your heart like that of a child and you can be sure God will have to claim you.

Then there is the passage in Revelation that links salvation with keeping the commandments.

What links all of these ideas together is a common vision of God. They all imagine God is like me. And people are like Rexie.

My default position in regard to animals is, we already have enough. We do NOT need another animal. Not another cat, not another dog, not another horse, not another cow. I have even given up on goldfish. They are all too much trouble.

But God is not like me. God does not have enough. God is not working to keep heaven from being overrun with too many or with the unworthy. God does not have to be cajoled or manipulated into opening the doors of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the very definition of the kingdom of heaven is its welcome. The doors stand open. Always.

God is like Bonnie. Ever on the look out for another possible denizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. What does an animal have to do to get Bonnie's favor? Exist in her universe. That's it.

Even cats with fickle loyalty. Cats whose only claim on our hospitality is that our dogs barked at her in the neighbor's woods.

In Rexie's story, Rexie's determined work in gaining my attention and winning my affection is the centerpiece of the story. Rexie is the hero. She figured it out. She stuck it out. She had the drive and sticktuitiveness to win me over.

In the cat story, Trilly is not the hero. The cat did not beg to welcomed. The cat showed no special appreciation for Bonnie's climbing a tree to rescue her from the dark and stormy night and the dangerous dogs circled at the bottom of the tree. The story of the rescue of Trilly Bean is the story of the goodness and compassion of Bonnie, not the worthiness or even the unworthiness of Trilly Bean.

So with God. The gospel is the story of God's quest for people. It is not a manual on how we can pursue God. God is not a schmuck who can be persuaded if you use the right formula and are persistent enough.

Turning our attention again to the Gospel story: Can we imagine any people less deserving of the attention of the Holy Rabbi Jesus than people who have allowed themselves to become possessed by demons? Can we imagine any behavior less likely to recommend a person to Jesus than a person interrupting Jesus' preaching to shout hostility and slander? Still Jesus rescued the demoniacs. Jesus provided what they needed. Jesus saved them.

May I summarize this story like this: Jesus sweetly ignored what the people said and gave them life and a future. As we think of God's response to all kinds of people, let's be confident that God will not allow people's inability to mouth the right words to keep him from giving them life and a future, from giving us life and a future.

As we allow this vision of God to shape our minds and hearts, we will be sweeter in our interactions with each other. We will be more rapturous and joyous in our worship. We will do a better job representing Jesus in the world.



Friday, January 16, 2015

Worthy

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 17, 2015

Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16, 2 Kings 5, Luke 4:16-22


Within just a few months from his first sermon, he was drawing crowds of thousands. Of course, it wasn't just his words. He was also working incredible feats of healing. Then Jesus visited his home town. On Sabbath, he went to synagogue, as was his custom. And as was the custom in synagogues of that time, the visitor—in this case the home-town-boy-made-it-big visitor—the visitor was invited to address the congregation.

The lectionary, that is the scheduled reading for the day, was a passage in Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor;
he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives,
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the year of God's favor.

Jesus handed the scroll bad to the attendant and sat down. (In that worship culture, a rabbi stood to read the Scripture, then sat to do his commentary.)

Jesus paused. The congregation waited eagerly. This was their own kid. He grew up here in Nazareth. He had been friends with their kids. Eaten dinner at their table. Now he was famous. People said he was an amazing preacher. They could hardly wait for him to start. This was exciting.

“Today,” Jesus said, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

That was nice. It was encouraging, reassuring. Jesus preached that the people of Nazareth were living in God's favor. The waiting time was over. God was pleased with them. The audience understood Jesus to be announcing the imminent end of Roman subjugation. Soon, very soon, the Messiah was going to appear and vanquish the forces of evil. God's people—that is the good Jews of Nazareth—were finally going to be vindicated before a skeptical world. They were going to be proved right. The remnant people of God—the despised, ignored, insignificant people of God—were going to be shown to be the REAL people of God.

You could feel enthusiasm and exuberance rippling through the congregation. It was a great sermon. Jesus had the people with him. Then he pulled a surprise.

“I know you will quote the proverb, Physician heal yourself. You are wondering why aren't you doing the same kinds of miracles here that rumors say you performed in Capernaum? You figure you are just as good as the people of Capernaum, how come God has seen fit to accomplish through me here the same kinds of miracles I performed in Capernaum.

It's a good question, but it obscures the greatest challenge confronting us today: Just who are God's people? We are all Jews, the children of Abraham, heirs of the promise of God. Yes, but what do you make of the story of the Widow of Zarephath?

Jesus then launched into a famous Bible story.

There once was an evil king named Ahab. He was married to an evil queen named Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel were devotees of a false religion. They were ruthless in the use of eminent domain to take property from their citizens. They oppressed the poor.

The one lone voice that spoke in opposition to the evil king and queen was the Prophet Elijah. At one point God ordered the Prophet Elijah to announce to Ahab that there was going to be a ruinous drought as a punishment for all the wicked things Ahab and Jezebel were doing, especially their corruption of worship.

As the drought began to pinch the agriculture of the kingdom, the king attempted to find Elijah and arrest him. But he couldn't find him. Ahab even sent ambassadors to neighboring kingdoms looking for Elijah. No luck.

Where was Elijah? At first he was hiding in the wilderness, camping by a stream where he was fed miraculously by God. When the stream dried up God told him to go to Zarephath, a hamlet in the kingdom of Sidon north of Israel. There he was to find a widow and board with her and her son.

Elijah found Zarephath. He waited outside of town until the widow came out. He told her he would like to board with her. She regretfully refused. She was at that very moment gathering sticks so she could go home and bake the very last bit of flour she had in her house. After that she and her son would face starvation. The drought had driven the price of food far beyond her ability to pay. Food was so scarce that no one was giving anything to beggars. So, sorry. She could not give him any food.

“Look,” Elijah said, “I understand your predicament. But make my food first, then make food for yourself and your son. Because this is what God says—your flour bin will not go empty or your oil bottle dry until the famine is over.”

The woman had nothing to lose. If the wild man talking to her was a charlatan, and after she made food for him there was nothing left, oh well. She and her son would merely die one missed meal sooner. On the other hand, if the wild man really was a prophet and the promised miracle actually happened, it would be the salvation she had been praying for.

She made Elijah's food first, and somehow the flour stretched and the oil lasted. And they all lived happily ever after.

It was a wonderful story until Jesus applied its moral. Why did God send the prophet to the pagan town of Zarephath? Why did God trust a pagan woman to be the savior of the prophet? Why did God save a pagan widow from the famine?

What did all this say about Jewish specialness? What did it say about the flow of God's favor?

Jesus audience squirmed. This was not the sermon they were expecting. Jesus was not finished.

“Do you remember the story of Naaman?” he asked.

This story happened ten to twenty years after the story of widow. Naaman was the commander of the army of Syria, the nation just north of the Jewish kingdoms. His army frequently conducted raids into the kingdom of Israel chasing plunder—slaves, gold and silver and livestock. Then he was diagnosed with leprosy. This was worse than a death sentence. It was a horror. It was living death. There was no treatment. No cure.

So what does Naaman do? He heads south to Israel to request healing from Elisha—the successor of Elijah. The prophet healed him and sent him home. It is the only recorded healing of a leper during the time of the Jewish kings.

The audience understood Jesus' point, and they were furious. Jesus was arguing that God's favor was indiscriminately given to pagans and Jews alike. That was preposterous. It was wicked. It bordered on blasphemous. They charged the platform, grabbed Jesus and shoved him ahead of them toward the top of a precipice, planning to throw him off.

As they reached the precipice, Jesus exerted his magic power and released himself from the hands that were holding him. The crowd fell back and Jesus walked calmly back through the crowd to the house where they were expecting him for Sabbath dinner.

This story has forceful implications:

Most of us enjoy privilege of some kind. Many of us are Adventists. One of the deep historic convictions of our church is that we God's favorites. Just like the Jews. Just like the Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Church of Christ . . . and I could go on. Just like Muslims. Each group imagines that God's favor belongs us. Not to all those other people, but to us.

Jesus says otherwise.

Yes, God was present among the Jews. God blessed their worship and spoke through their prophets. Jesus did not deny God's presence among the Jews. He insisted it was also present elsewhere.
God was present in Jewish synagogues and among the huts of Zarephath and in the palaces of Damascus. Jesus' audience was deeply offended. When we understand the implications of what Jesus said, it may make us uncomfortable. It will certainly challenge our denominational pride.

Who is welcome at the heavenly table? If the commander of the army of Syria and the hopeless widow of Zarephath are welcome, who could not be welcome?

Today, we celebrate communion—the Lord's Supper.

There is a very long tradition in Christianity of using this occasion to ask haunting questions of worthiness. Who is worthy to eat the Lord's Supper? Who is worthy to receive the body and blood of our Lord? I know there are people here who find the communion service terrifying. They wonder, “Am I worthy? How can I be sure? What if instead of receiving a blessing I'm bringing a curse on myself?”

Jesus dismisses all these kinds of questions. There is no select group who has a unique welcome at the Lord's Table.

At the communion table, Jesus preaches the same message he preached in Nazareth: quit building imaginary castles of privilege in the air. Don't imagine yourself insiders in the castles of privilege or outsiders. Turn from visions of castles with walls and gates and focus your attention of the happy welcome God extends to all. Every category of worthiness is dissolved in the glory of divine light.

The Holy Supper is a festival celebrating God's extravagance, there is no human worthiness ticket required..

So come. And know that the more apparently unlikely your place at the table, the more delight God will take in seating you and serving you. We come with our flaws and our perfections, our glorious strengths and our disabilities. We come because we are welcomed and desired. Yes, even us.




Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saving our Souls Through Worship

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 10, 2015
Luke 4:5-8



The devil took Jesus up on a mountain top up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. “Look,” the devil said, “I'll give it all to you. The whole thing. Complete power and authority. You can run the world just the way you please. You want to abolish slavery? Done. You want to put all the bad guys in prison? Done. You want to eliminate armies? You can do it. You can have absolute total control. All I require is that you pay obeisance to me. Acknowledge that you got from me and it's all yours.”

Imagine the devil made a similar offer to you. If you lean to the right politically, you could eliminate the income tax, get rid of food stamps, rein in the EPA and privatize Social Security. If you lean to the left you could reverse Citizens United, eliminate corporate tax loopholes, create a single-payer health care system, permanently block the Keystone pipeline.

You would be free to unilaterally edit every law, streamline, reorganize or eliminate any government agency. You could fix everything. There would be no dissent allowed. If you were offered unlimited power over every human being in the world, would you take it?

When you read commentary on this passage in the Gospel, frequently you'll encounter discussions about whether the devil could actually deliver on his offer. Did the devil have the capability to give Jesus the kind of power he was offering? Another question is the matter of trustworthiness. If the devil had the power to had over power over all the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus had bowed, would the devil have delivered. I suppose these are legitimate questions, but they don't appear in the Gospel story.

In the story as it's told in the Gospels, Jesus did not question the capability or honesty of the devil. Jesus went straight to the cost and refused to pay.

“You ask me to worship you? Are you kidding? I worship God and God alone. No deal.”

It was clean, simple, profound.

Jesus' practice of worship protected him against seduction. Similarly, we, too, can avoid investing our souls in foolishness through the practice of worship God.



In February, 1968, I was a tenth grader at Memphis Junior Academy, an Adventist parochial school. The city was electric with tension. The first day of February two garbage collectors, Echole Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in the compactor of their truck.

It was an accident. No one intended their death, but it was an accident waiting to happen. Cole and Walker were Black men. The Black garbage men in Memphis worked in miserable conditions, for miserable pay with no benefits. It was late in the afternoon, their shift was over and the truck was headed back to the terminal. It was pouring rain. There was no room in the cab for Cole and Walker so they climbed into the compactor area at the back of the truck. Some where along the drive, a short activated the compactor. The driver stopped the truck and hit the kill switch, but it was too late. The men were crushed.

Ten days later, the garbage collectors went on strike.

The Mayor, Mr. Loeb, refused to recognize the union. When they marched on city hall, he shouted at them to go back to work. He announced defiantly that he would never kowtow to an illegal rabble of whining employees.

February turned into March. The garbage was piling up. I remember the pile in our backyard by the alley gate.

The strike drew national attention. Daily, strikers marched demanding the city respect their dignity as human beings.

Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town. Good white folk muttered among themselves about how wrong it was for some outsider to get involved in our business. At school we talked about the strike and about race relations in general. As you would expect in a whites-only school, most of the students shared their parents' scorn for the Black sanitation workers—we called them garbage men. We insisted to ourselves that these garbage men should be grateful for the more than ample wages we gave them. What, did they think they should be paid like White people?

The hostility of white people in Memphis against Dr. King was even more rabid than right-wing hatred of President Obama today.

The beginning of April, Dr. King came back to Memphis for a major march at the beginning of April. At school we traded rumors about plans to assassinate Dr. King. The haters recited these rumors with great glee. Someone was going to “take care” of that troublesome outsider! Only they used other words than outsider.

What made Dr. King do it? What prompted him to expose himself to the hatred and violence of the White population of Memphis?

The answer is found in the concluding paragraph of his speech the night of April 3.

He gave a long, stirring speech talking about the challenges facing the strikers and the call on all people to come to their aid. He referenced the story of the Good Samaritan and asked, What would happen to these people beat up and left by the side of the road by those in power in Memphis? Finally, Dr. King addressed the risk he faced in coming to Memphis.

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I have been to the mountaintop…

Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Mason Temple. Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3, 1968

All big decisions carry a cost. There are no free passes. The question is when you have paid the cost, when the transaction is history, will you be glad you paid?

Jesus refused the devil's offer of an easy path and ended up paying with his life. Jesus was satisfied with the deal he got.

Dr. Martin Luther King knew he was putting his life on the line. He knew that coming to Memphis and standing with the sanitation workers was putting his life at risk. He did it any way. He paid. Without regret.

The day after that speech, Dr. King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Where did he find the courage to stare death in the face? The key to his courage, to his wisdom, is in those few sentences at the end of his speech there in Memphis.

I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. . . . Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

This is what we do in worship. We go up on the mountaintop. We survey the promised land. We fill our eyes with visions of the glory of the coming of the Lord.

And the glory of that vision steals us against the allures of ignoble offers and opportunities.

Dr. King did not arrive in Memphis because of moment of adrenaline-pumped courage. This was not a mother or dad racing into a burning house to save a child. This was not a soldier making an instantaneous decision to jump on a hand grenade to save his buddies. This was the culmination of a long march toward glory. In 1955, Dr. King was a pastor in a comfortable parish in Montgomery. He could have lived out his days as the respected, appreciated pastor of nice congregations. Instead, he fed his soul with the grand visions of the Bible prophets. He allowed his inner vision to be captivated by the pictures of justice and equity painted by Isaiah and Amos and Micah.

He could have settled for a comfortable life, a respectable career. Instead, through worship, he was drawn to greatness because over and over and over again he turned his attention and admiration to the glorious vision described by the prophets of a world of justice and equity.

May that be true of us as well.

The devil would tempt us to settle for a comfortable respectable life as a congregation.

In worship we are called higher. Jesus could not be seduced by the devil because Jesus resolutely devoted himself to the worship of God—and nothing less. It can be tempting to worship power, money, comfort, respectability. These are good things. There is nothing wrong with them . . . unless we turn them into idols. Unless we worship them. Unless we give them the attention and admiration that belong to God alone.

God is good. Beauty, harmony, strength, intelligence, integrity—all these point toward God. Gentleness, compassion, tact, winsomeness, sweetness—these, too, are attributes of God. God is the sum of virtues and beauties.

Every week, in worship we celebrate this conviction. In worship we declare with joy God is good.

We also kindle again and again our desires to embody the glory of God in our own lives. We are made in the image of God. It is our natural destiny to live out the divine character. In worship, we feed this hunger to live worthy of our divine Creator.

The more clearly we see the divine glory, the more resolute and skillful we will be in living it out.

So in worship we rehearse the goodness of God. We declare the goodness of God. We discuss and ponder. We sing. God is good. We intend to be good.

I would encourage you to be intentional in worship more often than once a week here at church. The ideal would be to make time in your life every day—some special time when you contemplate the goodness and glory of God.

Friday night, at the end of your week, begin the Sabbath by celebrating the goodness of God.

Saturday night as you end the Sabbath, begin your week by celebrating, giving attention and admiration to the goodness of God.

Worship is deliberately focusing our attention and admiration on the goodness of God. When we practice worship that goodness will come to suffuse our lives and shape our minds. We will become immune to the seductions of the devil. We will become devotees of righteousness. We will live lives worthy of our Maker.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Adventist Church and Homosexuality

The Adventist Church and Homosexuality
A proposal by John McLarty

(This is a revision of an early version of this piece.)

I have been quite outspoken in my criticism of common conservative approaches to applying their understanding of the Bible to issues of irregularities in sexuality. I have read nothing in articles by scholars at the Adventist seminary or respondents on Facebook or middle-aged “reformed” homosexuals that would persuade me the conservative position is true to Scripture or to human experience.

A few of my conservative friends have responded to my criticism with a very appropriate challenge: If you don't like current Church policy, what do you propose the Church do? If someone made you King of the Church for a day and charged you with writing formal policy that would be included in the Church Manual for the global, incorporated Adventist denomination, what would you write?

Below is my attempt at spelling out the policy I would write in that situation.

Let me be clear: I am not writing my personal convictions. My thinking is deeply rooted in and shaped by the Adventist theological heritage. However, I have taken elements of that heritage and pushed them so forcefully that conventional thinkers would see my conclusions as a contradiction of the heritage rather than as the natural development of that heritage. If a leader required the Church as a whole to embrace all the details of my own personal theology it would severely damage the living community that is the real church. While I dissent from some aspects of conventional Adventism, I am unwilling to destroy the Church in an effort to “improve” it.

Church policy is a political animal. It has to balance tradition, exegesis, regional variations, money, and temperamental differences. Effective policy change—change that brings people along instead of cutting them off—must be evolutionary. No wise policy will appear wise to an ideologue because wise policy is always a messy compromise among people and values. It is never pure. And it should be always open to change.

So with these qualifications in mind, I will propose the following as church policy to be voted by the church bureaucrats at the General Conference:

Preamble

God's ideal for humans as portrayed in the first two chapters of Genesis is that every man and every woman find a happy, life-long home in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage that produces good children who will in turn have grandchildren who continue to live out their lives in happy, life-long monogamous fruitful marriages. In its worship and teaching the Church honors this glorious ideal. The Church encourages all persons to live as close to this ideal as possible.

Not every person in the Church can live this ideal. Among our members, there are marriages that endure but are less than happy. There are childless couples and people who are single for decades. There are divorced people, homosexuals, and people who have been married several times. There are people of indeterminate gender. There are people with disabilities for whom marriage is impossible. All of these people are members of our churches. They respond to our evangelism. It is the duty of the Church to provide opportunities for worship, spiritual encouragement and pastoral care for all of these people.

How does the Church both honor the ideal portrayed in Eden before the fall and minister in Christ's stead in the real world we live in today.

First, we recognize that clergy are symbols of the ideals and commitments of the Church. The higher the ecclesiastical dignity of an office, the more closely must the office holder live to God's ideal. Therefore:

  1. The Church will provide a distinct, separate ordination for clergy who serve as presidents of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference.
  2. Clergy serving in leadership (i.e. presidencies) above the local congregation must be married and parents. If they are divorced or if the majority of their children have rejected the church, this should be seen as a major impediment to continued service in any position above that of a local congregation. Further, because of their role as symbols of the ideals and commitments of the church, no one who is obese may serve as a president.
  3. Departmental directors would have the same spiritual rank and pay rate as pastors serving local congregations.
  4. Single persons may serve as leaders—either clergy or lay—in local congregations where direct knowledge of their gifts, piety and integrity would counterbalance the deficiency in their symbolic function.
  5. The church would not ordain homosexuals to the clergy.

In the Western Adventist Church there is significant conflict regarding God's will in regard to homosexuality. In light of this conflict, we decree:

  1. Just as Adventist clergy have historically been forbidden to perform marriages in which only one of the persons is Adventist, Adventist clergy are prohibited from solemnizing homosexual marriages. [Personal note from McLarty: just as there are a few pastors who quietly disregard the rules regarding “mixed marriages” there would be pastors who would quietly disregard the rules regarding homosexual unions. At present, this disregard of rules is tolerated as long as it stays off the public radar screen.]
  2. Adventist Churches may not allow their buildings to be used for performing forbidden marriages.

We, the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church gathered in council, refrain from promulgating rules for how congregations are to manage their response to homosexuals and to people who divorce and remarry. Congregations are charged to respond to these situations in light of God's ideals, Adventist tradition, and the well-being of the individuals and congregations in each case. [McLarty's note: Some congregations would be accepting. Most would maintain traditional norms.]

My Commentary on the Above Proposed Polices

Even-handed church law

If we are going to bar practicing homosexuals from our congregations we ought to bar divorced and remarried people from our congregations. Then we ought to bar from being elders and pastors all who come short of Paul's requirement: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him.” And as a church which officially embraces healthy living as part of our mission and doctrine it is simply inconceivable that we would allow obese men to serve as presidents within the church. [Commentary on the commentary: I think what I've written in the first part of this paragraph is logical. It also highlights the sickness of focusing on standards. While holding “elders” responsible for the behavior of their children is biblical, it is socially sick. But if we are going to hold homosexuals to “biblical” standards, then it follows we ought to hold the “elders” to biblical standards as well.]

There is already precedent for allowing exceptions to full agreement with the doctrines of the church.

There is a loud clamor in official church circles these days declaring that belief in 6 days/6000 years is an absolute requirement for being Adventist. Ted Wilson declaims, “If you don't believe in a short chronology you are not Adventist.” But I have personally heard Fernando Canale (a conservative theologian at the Andrews University Seminary) say that if a scientist believes all the rest of our doctrines and keeps Sabbath and pays tithe but does not believe in a short chronology, he would baptize such a person into the Adventist Church. Michael Hasel was present and did not demur.

If the recent creation doctrine can be set aside in exceptional cases, why can we not, in exceptional cases, set aside our doctrine about the absolute necessity of heterosexual marriage?

This approach requires from homosexuals an acknowledgment of the church's ideal of marriage—which is heterosexual, life-long marriage. Homosexual unions are other than this ideal. This approach requires from traditional members a recognition of the fact that the ideal is not possible for all people and that non-traditional relationships are righteous even if not ideal. (Of course, the actual ideal—life-long, heterosexual, monogamous, HAPPY marriage, is absent in many church homes.)

The inhumanity of enforced celibacy

We rightly lament the damage to persons that flows from the Catholic requirement of celibacy for participation in the ordained ministry. Yet we require life-long celibacy by homosexuals as a requirement for participation in church life. This is inhumane. The inhumanity of this requirement is highlighted by the fact that church officials who vote on the doctrines and policies intended to impose this obedience on homosexuals have themselves typically been active sexually for at least twenty years. Even the homosexuals we promote as advocates of celibacy have had decades of sexual engagement.

But something further needs to be said. The requirement of celibacy is not merely a restriction on genital activity. It requires sexual beings to carefully avoid deep friendships and real intimacy because of the “threat” and appearance these kinds of close relationships create. The Bible declares it is not good for man to be alone. Yet we say to a whole class of men: you must remain alone for your entire life. Who are we to contradict this declaration in our zeal to support other declarations in the Bible?

If God calls an individual to such a solitary life, let's us support them in that strenuous calling. But it is evil for us to impose this when we know that we ourselves could never bear it.

Jesus said something to the Pharisees about laying burdens on others. It was not a compliment. It is the height of spiritual arrogance to teach others there is an onerous requirement for salvation that they must meet—a requirement which we ourselves have never even contemplated attempting.


For Now

This is not my imagination of the best the church can be. I do not propose these polices as a picture of an ideal church life. I have written this to attempt to provoke a response, to challenge conservatives who selectively apply which “biblical rules” to enforce in the church. Especially, I would emphasize that this is not my idea of some final destination for the corporate church. It is a description of a place where we might be able to live together for awhile. I expect that over time the church will follow society in learning to place homosexual relationships within a moral framework analogous to the moral framework for heterosexual relationships. Attentiveness and loyalty will be affirmed. Promiscuity and unfaithfulness will be condemned.

We will come to see the picture in Genesis—a man and woman together in a life-long, happy monogamous marriage that produces children—as an ideal, not a standard. We will acknowledge that no one—let be more emphatic, NO ONE—lives the ideal. In our world no marriage is untouched by sin and pain and every marriage eventually is broken, either by death or divorce. The ideal is not available to us as a lived reality.

My sermon on Matthew 19 can be found here: http://greenlakesda.org/2014/10/legally-dumb/

An article I wrote for my church newsletter that explains the foundation for my theology can be found here: http://greenlakesda.org/2014/10/foundation-of-my-religion/


Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Straight and Narrow


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 3, 2015
Scripture: Luke 3:7-14

The other days I was headed south on Green Lake Way and stopped at the traffic light at 50th. In the bicycle lane was a cyclist, also stopped. But instead of doing what any normal bicyclist would do and putting one or both feet on the ground while he waited for the light to change, he was standing on his pedals, balancing by gently rocking back and forth. I kept watching, waiting for him to fall over, but he didn't. He managed to balance there for a minute or two, both feet on the pedals, going nowhere.

We have some serious bicyclists here at Green Lake. Dick commutes rain or shine. David is a crazy mountain biker. Mitch was a national champion mountain biker.

Let's imagine we invite our amazing bicyclists to a simple, little contest. We go over to the Phinney neighborhood just west of Aurora Avenue. We head up to Phinney Avenue at the top of the hill, to the corner of 60th and Phinney. Sixtieth is a perfectly straight shot down from Phinney Avenue toward Aurora. The contest is this. We have some special bicycles with front wheels that don't turn. They have been carefully built. The front and back wheels are in perfect alignment. They go perfectly straight ahead. The challenge for our expert bicyclists is how far down 60th Street can they go without falling over or crashing into the parked cars.

Do you understand the challenge? How far do you think they can get down the street?

As difficult as it is to stand on your pedals waiting for a red light to turn green, that is still easier than riding a bicycle with a front wheel that will not turn.

The way you keep a bicycle up right is to turn from left to right to left to right. It is the variation back and forth that keeps you up right.

This is a picture of repentance.

We heard in our New Testament reading about the work of John the Baptist. John baptized people with “a baptism of repentance.” Frequently people imagine repentance as a dramatic change. An alcoholic becomes clean and sober. An abusive husband becomes a gentle, responsible lover. A thief becomes an honest worker.

I've known people like this. Meth addicts that found recovery and productive lives, gangsters who became disciples. Their dramatic transformations are inspiring, wonderful. They illustrate repentance at its extreme.

For most of us, however, repentance is nothing like that. Rather repentance is more like riding a bicycle. Repentance means the frequent readjustment in the direction we want to do. Carsten Johnsson, one of my professors in seminary decades ago said, “The one perfection available to Christians is the perfection of repentance.” The essence of repentance is turning toward God, toward goodness, toward compassion, toward virtue, toward health, toward discipline, toward loyalty.

It is not possible to set a life direction and follow that initial setting without variation. Not if we want to stay upright and on the right path. Just as riding a bicycle requires constant movement of the handle bars, so holy living means constantly readjusting, tinkering to make things better. We do not repent because what we did yesterday was bad. We repent because today requires turning again toward God and goodness. This afternoon requires to make another response to the irregularities and demands of the road.

We have some good drivers in our congregation, people who drive for a living. Imagine you're driving a big truck down a straight stretch of freeway in eastern Washington. You aim the truck perfectly straight ahead in the center of the lane and lock the steering wheel in place. How long will your truck stay in the lane? A minute? Two minutes? It depends on the road surface and wind who knows what other factors. Good driving means constant readjustment. Pointing the vehicle again in the desired direction.

It's the same in life. Good life, virtuous life means reorienting again and again toward good goals, noble dreams. The idea of repentance is pretty simple. Notice how John defined it: If you have two coats, share one. If you have the power of a government contract behind your business, don't take advantage of your advantage. If you are a policeman, don't abuse your power. Be content.

These are common sense applications of the fundamental moral vision. The idea is simple. The complication is the application. John the Baptist called on his listeners to repent—to turn again and again and again toward goodness.

It's still perfect counsel for us. The perfect life is a life lived by constant turning—steering again and again toward God and goodness.

As we begin a new year, I invite you to spend a bit of time redirecting your life. Think again about your highest goals. Consider what is your highest calling. Check yourself. Are you spending your time and money on the things that matter most to you? Do you need to make some readjustments?

Are you treating your family the way you meant to do when you started out in romance?

Can you improve the quality or quantity of time you devote to cultivating your spiritual life?

This new year, will you change your patterns of exercise or diet?

Will you read books that are more inspiring?

Will you avoid talk radio and talking head TV that feed anger, frustration and annoyance?

Will you cultivate compassion? Will you practice integrity?

Whether you're steering a bicycle or a Mack truck, the key to success is constant, frequent readjustment, turning again and again toward our goals.

It's precisely the same in life.

Ask yourself how you are using the power you have. We all have power of some kind. Financial power, social power, relationship power. What are we doing with our power. Are we using it to serve or using it compel others to serve us. This year, how can you use your power more effectively for the benefit of others?


Be content. Wow! That's a hard one. As the final word in repentance, it comes as an invitation to turn again and again back to our privileges. This year let's take time to savor the gifts that come your way. Sunrises and sunsets. Good food. Good friends. Good books. The privileges of being born in a particular family and nation. Give thanks that God takes pleasure in your life, in your constant turning again and again toward goodness. Then get up and point your life once more toward love and the divine Lover.