Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary, Did You Know?

Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, December 9, 2017.
Texts: Ruth; Matthew 18

All week a song has been playing in my mind:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Mary did you know,

Mary did you know, Mary did you know
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I am
Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know
By Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene. 

The Christmas story is a fantastic fusion of ordinary and extraordinary, of pedestrian and sublime. It is the literary equivalent of jalapena chocolate covered caramels or a sweet-and-sour curry. A curious combination of opposites.

Reading through the grand visions of the Hebrew prophets, we are primed to expect the birth of a king. And we think we know what a royal birth looks like?

Instead when the actual birth happens it is a peasant birth. A working class couple making do in a difficult situation. The baby has feed box for a bassinet, a stable for a nursery, cows and horses for attendants.

For two thousand years Christians have practiced giving our attention to this glorious confusion. This little person who nurses and sleeps and cries and poops and pees is, in fact, the incarnation, the embodiment of God.

Mary, did you know that when you kiss you little baby you have kissed the face of God?

The question itself highlights how preposterous the claim is. Every mother looks at her baby and knows that this child is a magnificent addition to the grand history of humanity. This little one is destined for greatness. But Mary, your son will be greater than all other sons, greater than even a mother's heart can imagine. When you kiss your baby you are kissing the face of God. Mary can you know that? Is it possible for even a mother's heart to hold this truth?

A baby. A regular, ordinary little human being. This child is the fulfillment of the visions of Isaiah and Zechariah and Daniel. This child is the ultimate embodiment of the hope and values that served as foundations of the Jewish temple service and monarchy.

As wonderful as this story is, it is not the first time the Bible features the birth of a child as a grand forward move by the kingdom of heaven.

The story of Ruth and Boaz is one the great romances of all time. In the first chapter of the story we are confronted with the utter blighting of Ruth's life. A Jewish family moved to the nation of Moab because life was unsustainable in Israel—Dad and mom and their two sons. Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion. In their new country they settled down. Life goes well. Elimelech's business prospers. But the good times were interrupted. Naomi's husband, Elimelech, died. But her sons, Mahlon and Chilion took after their father. They were industrious and smart. The family acquires a enough wealth to support a marriage. And both sons marry. Happily.

Then the sons die. Leaving Naomi widowed and childless—the most vulnerable, precarious possible situation a woman in that society could find herself in.

Naomi decided to head home. She sent her daughters-in-law back to their families and she made plans to go back to the land of her brothers and cousins hoping to find some corner that will allow her to live out her days of grief. But Ruth refused to abandon her mother-in-law. So the two women traveled back to Israel together.

There in that foreign country, the homeland of her mother-in-law, Ruth goes to work to provide for herself and her mother-in-law.

She was noticed a good man who also happened to be wealthy. Romance blossomed. There was a wedding.

To wrap up the story, instead of writing, “They lived happily ever after,” the ancient writer reported, “Ruth had a son.” At news of the birth the neighbor ladies crowded into the house. As grandmother Naomi cuddled her grandson against her bosom, these neighbor ladies exclaimed, “Naomi has a son again!”

The writer goes on to point out that this child of the foreigner Ruth, this grandson of Naomi, proves to be the grandfather of the famous King David. This half-breed child is the ancestor of the most iconic persons in all Jewish history.

Who is this baby? The son of a Moabite woman who according to Jewish law was excluded from Jewish citizenship for ten generations. Who is this child? The grandfather of King David, the George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower of the Jewish people.

The story of Jesus brings together similar contrasts. Another favorite song asks, “What child is this who laid to rest is sleeping?” Who is this baby?
The Hebrew prophets cast two dueling visions of the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Daniel Chapter Two, the kingdom of heaven is imagined as a giant stone that flies inthrough the atmosphere and obliterates all opposition and resistance. The rock grows into a world-dominating mountain. It is a picture of irresistible, overwhelming force. It's a seductive vision. Wouldn't that be nice? We imagine God showing up and smashing all the bad people, while we stand us off to the side cheering him on.

In this vision, we could imagine God as a heavenly bulldozer driver, pushing aside all obstacles and opposition.

Then we read the words of Isaiah 9.

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven's Armies will make this happen! Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

God works through a king. And before the king takes the throne and leads his armies he is first a child. An infant facing the risks of whooping cough and measles. Back then before vaccines small pox and polio stalked the land snatched children from their mother's arms.

In this vision God is a mother nourishing her child, a nanny fostering the success of her young charges. We imagine God anxious and worried as he watches the death-defying antics of his son--climbing trees and throwing rocks at hornet nests. Leaping on the back of a wild horse just to see if he can hang on longer than his friends. We imagine all the ways the son's future can be ruined through physical, social , and spiritual mistakes.

In this vision, the kingdom of heaven comes through hope, a desperate, hungry hope.

God is no bulldozer driver. Instead we picture God as a coach, a math teacher, a dance instructor using every possible method to motivate and inspire her students. In this vision, God's hunger for the triumph of goodness is no less than it is in the vision of God the bulldozer driver plowing over the bastions of evil. But in this vision, God knows the longing and hunger of every parent to see the triumph, the success of their children and grandchildren.

When we live with this vision we slowly come to see children—all children, the ones who go to bed in feed boxes and the ones cocooned in the swankiest nurseries on Mercer Island, the children who already at eighteen months give evidence of precocious intelligence or musical gifts or unusual sweetness and the children who give evidence of disabilities and troubles—when we receive the Christmas vision deep into our souls children are transformed—all children. They are all ours. And we hunger for their triumph and with great satisfaction we do all we can to encourage that triumph.

In Matthew 2 we read of the Persian nobility who traveled a thousand miles to pay homage to the newborn king. All of the Jerusalem was oblivious, but these foreigners, they were open to the heavenly secrets and they came to worship.

And for two thousand years we have repeated their worship. Metaphorically, we have brought our gifts to lay at the feet of the Christ child and we take great delight in our giving.

But there is yet a more direct path to the Christ child, a path drawn on the map by Jesus himself.

Jesus' disciples asked, "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Jesus called a little child to him and stood the child in their center and said, “Anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then Jesus added this:

Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.
(Matthew 18:1-6)

May God grant us the ability to see with heaven's eyes, to see every child as the incarnation of Jesus. May we know that when we kiss the face of our babies we are kissing the face of God.

God grant us the courage and drive to ensure that every child is kissed with food and shelter, clean air and open spaces. May our vision of holiness include doing all that we can for all the little Jesuses God has placed in our care.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Text of my tiny book

Damn My Son

This story is fiction

It is another gospel

And it is true

Chapter One

Tomorrow, I'm supposed damn my son. It will be the worst moment of my life. Even worse than last Thursday. That's when we got the call. Eric was on his way home from work. A tree fell. Crushed his car. He was dead instantly. How do you think about living when your oldest son is dead? Every time I push my grandson in the swing, I'll think of his daddy who isn't there. Every time Sienna crawls into my lap, I'll be reminded of the father she'll know only through photos and stories. Thursday was the worst day of my life. But tomorrow will be worse. Infinitely worse. Tomorrow I will have to acknowledge there is no hope. Eric is damned.

I won't say the words, “Damn you, Eric!” Of course not. I won't even say the more polite version, “Eric is lost.” It will be unspoken. My parishioners are unlikely to hear it. I'm sure my relatives and friends won't. But Tom will be there. And he will hear. He will know what sits behind every word I say or don't say. I wish he weren't going to be there. But he can no more stay away than I can ask him not to come. With him listening I cannot escape. Either I confirm that Eric is lost—excluded from eternal life, barred from heaven, consigned to hell, damned—or admit that what I have preached in this congregation for the past twenty years, and believed in the core of my being for the past forty, is unsure. I will have to deny the gospel or damn my son.

Eric was not a believer. He no longer no longer believed the truth that he was a hell-bound sinner and that had Jesus died for his sins and offered him salvation. My son rejected the words of Scripture that declared there is eternal life only for those who “believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Absent that belief humans, including my son, are lost—or to use the older, bolder word—damned.

I lived in hope all those years. When Eric told us he did not believe, I resolved to love him more richly than ever. I would show him God's love. I would win him back for God through the richest, sweetest demonstration of grace I could provide. Every morning, every evening, Margie and I prayed for our kids and then for our grandkids, claiming them for Jesus. We knew it was just a matter of time. Jesus would win. Eric would recover his faith. He had always been such a good kid. I remember when he was eight years old. In front of the church, he recited the Sabbath School memory verses for an entire quarter, thirteen selected passages from the Bible. As he got older, his teachers at school loved him. Well, most of the time. In high school we used to talk about what he heard in Bible class. I didn't always agree with his Bible teachers. Some of them had fuzzy concepts of the gospel. But Eric understood the truth of the Cross. He knew there was salvation only in Jesus, that it was through faith in the name of Jesus that we stand righteous in the sight of a holy God. Eric knew that no matter what his Bible teachers said. Eric knew we do not earn our way to heaven. We don't work our way out of damnation. Salvation, heaven, eternal life—they are the gifts of God, given generously to all who believe. And Eric believed.

My son left home for college a believer. He went to Walla Walla University, an Adventist college. During his college years he became more aware of intellectual challenges to faith. Of course. He read Christian authors who implied that Paul contradicted Jesus. He was exposed to skeptical critiques of the authority of the Bible. But through all this he was supported in his faith by devout, competent teachers. He and his friends went to church, at least most of the time. He didn't have the fiery confidence in the gospel he had as a kid, but still he was in church and, I was confident, still a believer in the gospel. He was saved.

Then he was out of school, living in Seattle. He and his girlfriend moved in together. I was shocked. This was my Eric? He knew what Margie and I thought about this, but we were careful not to say too much. We just loved them. God was bigger than this. In addition to “living in sin,” they didn't go to church. I asked about church, thinking if I could just get him connected with the right congregation, he and Jenn would reconnect. No, he said. There was nothing wrong with the local congregations. Church didn't speak to him. It didn't add any value to their lives. The way he saw it, church was an artificial environment designed to keep alive outdated ways of thinking that couldn't survive on their own in the real world. He figured God was more concerned with justice than with theology. And the church people had it the other way round. They were obsessed with theology, with arcane religious theories. That hurt. I've been committed to social justice all my life.

Once when I pressed him a bit, pointing out the role of Christians in the fight for abolition and the effort to save unborn babies that are being killed by the millions through abortion, he blurted out, “Look, Dad, it's not just church. The whole idea of God doesn't make sense anymore.”

“Are you saying you're an atheist?” I asked.

He didn't want to talk about it. So what could I do?

I did what any parent would do. I loved him. I hoped. I prayed. He was still the same good son I had always known. At work people admired him. He was smart, honest, and cared about people. He and Jenn married. She's a good woman. She, too, grew up in the church. She went to the Adventist university in Walla Walla. She was smart. Maybe even smarter than Eric. And she didn't believe. They weren't mad at the church. They were just not interested. They didn't feel any need. She was a social worker and served the homeless at an agency in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. She had a soft heart. I figured when they had kids, they would come back to church.

But they didn't. Brayden is now four years old and Sienna is two. The kids are completely irreligious. They hear about Jesus only when we read to them. Eric and Jenn used to let me say grace at meals when we visited them. But God walked out the door of their house with us when we left.

Still I hoped. We hoped. We prayed morning and evening. Confident. Some day, Eric would come back to faith. God would bring him back. God would save my son. How could he not?

Chapter Two

I'm still replaying the phone call over and over. Jenn was on the phone. “Dad,” she said, “Eric is dead.” He had picked up Sienna from day care and they were headed home. Wind was toppling trees and snapping power lines all over the Seattle. Eric and Sienna were three blocks from home when the tree came down and crushed the roof of their Hyundai over the front seats. The paramedics said he was killed instantly. Sienna in the back seat was unscathed. Weird. I can still hear Jenn's voice. Her words sounded so normal. But what she said was so bizarre, so unreal. There should be a different set of words for saying things like that, maybe an entirely different language. Regular words seemed to mock the very facts they were announcing. I keep thinking regular reality is going to wake me up. I'm going hear words that will set the world back in order.

And now, tomorrow, I'm supposed to put together words for the funeral. I'm supposed to use regular words, the language we all understand, to make sense of this—what? Tragedy? Cruelty? Accident? Random event? Act of God? What words can I possibly use that will not become lies simply by saying them out loud?

I wish I could have someone else do the service. Let someone who still lives in the regular world struggle with putting words together. But I know my congregation expects me to preach. It's what I do--putting words around the big events—births and marriages, catastrophes and holidays, and farewells, deaths. For twenty years my people have counted on me to proclaim the truth, God's truth, in the face of all the ups and downs of life, through catastrophes and times of blessing. My job—no, my calling—is to proclaim the Word. Above all, I am called to preach The Gospel. This has been the one constant, the immovable anchor, the grand and noble fact that dwarfs all other concerns, all other claims for forty years. Since the day God appeared to me like Paul on the Road to Damascus.

It was the summer after my junior year at the University of Maryland. The Vietnam War was on. The world was crazy. We were crazy. I joined a few marches. I made noises about justice and peace. But really, I was just doing my own thing. I wasn't doing “seriously bad stuff.” Nothing worth talking about. Nothing remarkable for that time and place. Playing women for my pleasure. A little alcohol, a little pot. A lot of me. I didn't want to hurt anyone. It was just that I was smack in the center of my own little universe. I took care of ME [should be name].

If you had asked me, I would have told you I was a Christian. Of course. I had gone to church all my life. My friends were Christian. We all believed in God and the Bible and salvation and the Ten Commandments. I was even Christian enough to have twinges of conscience occasionally. Especially when a girl cried when I broke up with her. I didn't like hurting people.

Then on an afternoon in July, I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Art. I was struck by the incongruity of the classical artists painting with equal passion and mastery scenes of Greek gods and Mary and the crucified Christ. Did art make no distinction between myth and truth? Was the Bible just one more word, one more story, in the vast library of human tales?

I walked out into blinding sun, crossed to the mall and sat looking down toward Lincoln's tomb. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw a vision. I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. He looked right at me and asked, “Why did you do it?” I was puzzled. Then I saw myself pounding the nails into his hands. I felt the hammer in my hands. I was shaking. First with rage at this man who had so troubled me, then with tears. I looked at my hands. These hands? These lifted the hammer? I knew it was true. Jesus did not just die for me. I killed him. But it was necessary. It was either him or me. And when it came down to that, well, I would always do whatever it took to take care of myself. If one of us had to be nailed, it would have to be him. I don't know how the choice became so suddenly stark that afternoon on the Mall. It was as real as the trees in my front yard, as real as the desk in my office. I was there. I felt the hammer. I heard his voice. His eyes held mine. I could either own my sin and guilt, acknowledge the hammer in my hand, and then let it go into the grace that flowed from the cross or I could deny it. I could protest my innocence and keep the hammer in my hand.

I can't tell this story. People would think I'm crazy. It's not credible. No one else at the mall that afternoon saw and heard. It was completely subjective, inward. But to speak honestly of my experience—it was real. And my entire life since then is the outworking of that moment.

I have friends who preach the gospel because they have clearly understood the writings of the Apostle Paul. They know that Jesus Christ died for sinners. They know that our guilt has been laid on the Lamb of God, that through faith in the name of Jesus we are freed from guilt and condemnation and brought into eternal life. They know this from the text of the Bible. They are scholars. In seminary they mastered Greek and became knowledgeable in systematic theology. They are well-schooled in the Gospel, well-equipped to preach the Word. I am honored to be part of their company.

I, too, know the words of Paul in English and in Greek. I, too, have read the works of the Protestant reformers and of modern scholars like Stott and Piper and Platinga and Wright. I appreciate scholarship. I pay supreme respect to the text of the Bible, God's Word. But my gospel is not the fruit of scholarship alone. Jesus appeared to me personally. My skeptical friends can offer all kinds of psychological explanations of what happened that day. But I know in the very core of my being, I know in a place deeper than words can reach, that Jesus came to me, Jesus called me that day. And I have been true to that calling. I have been true to the gospel. It is the treasure which has defined my life.

Against all the modern dilutions and distortions, I have insisted that God meant what he said when he spoke through the Apostle Paul, “It is by grace through faith that you are saved.” “There is none righteous, no not one.” “Other than Jesus, there is no other name under heaven which brings salvation.” “If a man believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord he will be saved.” I did not invent these words. I received them. God spoke them in the Good Book by the Apostle Paul, yes, and God confirmed them to me personally in that almost unspeakable vision on the Mall.

So tomorrow, like I have so many times before in rooms full of grieving people, I will preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe. Death is not the end for those who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord. Resurrection is coming. Death will die.

But where does that leave my son? I have not pretended my family was perfect. My congregation and I together have prayed for the salvation of our children. They have known that Eric was not a believer. They assured me they, too, were praying for his return to faith. Like they prayed for their own children. They, too, have joined me in loving him and hoping. But in our hope and love we have never denied the gospel. We have never pretended faith was optional, that there was some other way of salvation besides faith in the name of Jesus Christ. We always encouraged one another that it was God's will to save and that God was working always to rekindle faith in the heart of our children. God would win. God would bring our children back. We prayed with stubborn confidence.

But Eric died last Thursday. Unbelieving. God failed. Eric did not return. Eric did not confess. Eric was lost, damned.

Tomorrow, like any decent preacher I will speak of hope, but if I am true to the gospel, that hope is for other people. Not for me. Not for Eric. If I imply that the promise of resurrection includes Eric, I will be no different from Joel Osteen or any other preacher who has traded in the Gospel for some feel-good substitute. If I give myself hope tomorrow, it will prove that I believed the gospel only as long as I thought it would work out right for my kids. Love for my kids will have superseded the Word of God as my final authority. If Tom weren't here maybe I could waffle a little, give myself at least some room to ignore the implications of the gospel. But Tom will hear. And because he is listening, I will hear my own words and know what they mean. Tomorrow I will have to damn my son to save the Gospel. But how can I do it?

O Eric, my son, my son. If only I could be the one destined for hell and you be assured salvation, I would do it in an instant.

Chapter Three

The doorbell is ringing. It's Tom. I don't know if I have the courage to face him. With everyone else, and even with myself, I can manage a certain amount of pretending, a certain amount of ignoring. I can imagine it was all a bad dream. The phone is going to ring and it will be Eric on the line, alive, not Jenn asking about another detail of life in the aftermath of death. I tell myself that on that afternoon as Eric was driving to day care to pick up Sienna, Jesus appeared to him and in the moment of that glorious vision Eric said yes to Jesus, like I did forty years ago. Eric believed. How can a dad not hope such things? How can a preacher of the Gospel fail to hope such things? But I know when I open the front door all that fantasy will vanish.

Tom hugged me. Long. I could feel his own agony in our embrace. With his hand he pulled my head onto his shoulder like I was a woman. And I sobbed. Still he held me. Then we wandered into the kitchen. He embraced Margie. Held her. After long minutes we sat. Margie asked if she could get him something to drink. Some tea maybe? She put water on. We chitchatted. Margie asked about his kids and grandkids. He asked about our other kids, deliberately avoiding Eric. But even those questions were delicate. It's not been easy. Sometimes believing children go places with their faith that seem unwise, unbalanced. And when faith—whatever its formal language—when faith walls off grandkids, it hurts. Still, with living children we have the solace of hope. There is time to fix things. Time for healing. The stories are not finished.

Margie set cups on the table for Tom and me, and a box of tea bags and honey and spoons, then excused herself. “I'll leave you guys to talk.”

We sat. Forty years of friendship between us. Forty years of connection. Every time I had been in the hospital he had been there. When I nearly left Margie, he was there screaming, No! When he lost William at birth, he called me. When he considered leaving the ministry, or was simply frustrated, he called me. When he got too big for his britches, when he became too infatuated with himself, it was my job to hint that maybe he was a naked emperor. (I've heard him say this to other people about me a dozen times, mocking himself, honoring me.) I was the voice in his head arguing against the arrogance of liberalism and scientism. (Again, this is what he says.)

I knew his mind. He knew everything I thought. What was there to say? What words could possibly be adequate for this? We sipped our tea. And sat. Together.

After awhile he asked me to tell him the story. He had heard bits and pieces, he said. But he couldn't get his head around it. What happened?

I told him. About the storm, which he already knew. It knocked down trees in his yard. About the drive to day care. About the tree: one hundred twenty-three feet tall, thirty-eight inches in diameter, five tons of weight. About the car. About the surgical precision, front seat crushed, back seat untouched. How quickly aid arrived. The impossibility of resuscitation. Jenn's call from the hospital.

He didn't say a word. He sat, head in his hands, listening.

“My grandkids didn't have God,” I said. “And now they don't have Dad.” My story ended. He glanced up. Shook his head, then dropped it again into his hands. “My God, my God,” he murmured, “why have you forsaken us?”

We sat silent.

“What am I supposed to say tomorrow?” I asked. “Do I turn my own son into one of those freaky sermon illustrations--he could have been saved, he was going to be saved, he was almost saved but then he was hit by a car, well, or by a tree, and now it's too late. So, listen up, everybody. Repent before it is too late. Don't leave this funeral without accepting Jesus as your Savior. Don't leave without believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Do I turn the tragedy of Eric's death into a triumph of the gospel by using his damnation as inspiration for some other sinner to repent and believe?”

It was a stupid question. I would never do such a thing. We both knew that. But it was the question my heart kept asking.

Tom said nothing.

“How do I live without hope? I've preached the gospel for 40 years. It is God's word. Paul's word. And my own experience. But the gospel has always included hope. Yes, there were the hard edges of truth, there is no other name, he who does not believe is condemned already, but those truths were addressed to people who could yet say yes to the Gospel. How do I live with no hope?”

Tom sat. Listened. Carried the weight of all this craziness. He raised his head, looked at me. I'm sorry friend, his eyes said. Then again he dropped his head into his hands. Keeping me company.

“My son, Eric. Oh my son, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place.” It was his mouth speaking, voicing aloud the cry of my heart, echoing the three-thousand-year-old lament of King David. He meant them as words for me, but they were his words, too. He would have willingly taken the tree in Eric's place, if God would offer such an exchange. He would have taken the tree to spare Eric. He would have taken the tree to spare me. His own hold on life is more tenuous than mine. He would have made the trade. Maybe he would have even taken Eric's damnation, but that confronted me with the question I had dreaded from the moment I thought about Tom showing up at my door, the question he had not once hinted at since he arrived, but which had screamed louder in my own head every minute that he said nothing, every minute he kept company with me in my grief.

“You don't think Eric is lost, do you?”

Chapter Four

Tom is messed up. I love him. But he's messed up. Going way back he has always had questions. He argued with professors in seminary. He argued with his friends. He fretted about problems in the Bible.
I remember just a few years after seminary talking to him about creation. He loved rocks. Was always reading about creation and evolution and the age of the earth and stuff like that. He had come back from a geology field trip saying our creation doctrine could not stand up to close scrutiny. I remember thinking if he can't believe it we're doomed. If with all his study he couldn't find enough evidence to allow for the Bible story of creation, what hope was there for regular people?

But then he was always troubled about something. Even the Gospel. He was always worrying about the exceptional people, people who could not possibly meet the requirement to believe. What about severely disabled people, he asked, how could they believe? And if they could not believe, how could they be condemned for that defect? He wanted to save everybody, the pagans in Asia before the missionaries got there, people with mental problems, babies who died in infancy, atheists whose lack of faith was caused by the abuse they experienced from church people. I admire his heart, but I worry about his—what should I call it—irreverence? Lack of faith? Arrogance?

A year with a gay housemate was the foundation of another set of his questions. How could it be right to require of others something—celibacy—that we—ordinary married clergy—could never contemplate for ourselves. When I asked him if he really trusted human stories more than the word of God, that stopped him. He wasn't willing to go that far. Not then. But that was decades ago. I'm not sure how he would answer now. I think he has less faith now. More questions. When we talk, he asks questions. He listens. He agrees with me when I protest against examples of extreme liberal thinking, but I can't think of when I last heard him express a straightforward theological opinion. Well, except for last summer.

I was fretting over Eric and Jenn. How could they raise my grandkids without Jesus, without any religion, any spiritual sense at all? I worried my grandkids would not be in heaven. Tom acknowledged my grief, but something in the way he responded made me question him. “You don't think atheists will be lost?”

“I'm a lawyer for the defense,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can get them off. If I were admitted to the court on judgment day, I could get them off. At least I could make an argument that would get a hearing in court. And if it didn't get a hearing, I think I would prefer hell to any place where my case would not be heard.”

“You think people can be saved even if they have rejected faith?” I couldn't believe what I just heard him say.

“Five times in the Bible humans argue with God and win. Five times deity bends to the will and words of humanity. And four out of the five, the human argument is ratified by the subsequent story. The way the Bible tells it, the humans not only get their way, they are right. Abraham argued to save Sodom from the destruction God announced. The old man failed to save the city, but God bent to the heart of Abraham's argument and sent angels to rescue the four “good people” that could be identified.

“God announced his decision to annihilate Israel after they worshiped the golden calf. God ordered Moses to step aside so the annihilation could begin. Moses bluntly refused, and God backed down. Then there's the curious case of the Gibbeonites. God included them in a general decree of annihilation for all Canaanites. They tricked Joshua into making a treaty with them. When the deception became public, Joshua's army insisted he obey the divine decree and obliterate them. Joshua withstood his army. He protected the Gibbeonites. And a later story in the Bible emphatically declares God's approval of Joshua's defense. Then my favorite. The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus asking for help for her daughter. Jesus and the disciples tried to get rid of her. Jesus explicitly told her that he was not authorized to help her. She was outside his divinely-appointed mission. She said, 'Do it any way.' And Jesus acquiesced, saying, 'Okay woman, may it be as you will.' As Christians, we can read this passage as God saying, Not my will but yours be done.

“Sodom was a bad town. The Israelites were idolaters. The Gibbeonites were under a highly publicized divine order of extinction. Jesus himself said God had not authorized him to help the Canaanite woman. But four Sodomites were saved. The nation of Israel and the Gibeonites were spared. The woman received the help she wanted. All good precedents for a defense lawyer.

“Classic Christianity can cite chapter and verse in their prosecution of unbelievers. It's easy to make the case for damnation. But I am a lawyer for the defense. The only plea bargain I will accept is one that leaves my clients alive. Our kids are damnable unbelievers according to the religion of Luther and Augustine and Paul and our church. I defy them all. God will not damn our children. If God does damn our children, I'll go with them. I have no interest in heaven if it is not large enough for our kids.”

I still remember the shock of his words. Just like that he dismissed the heart of the gospel and two thousand years of Christian theology. No interest in heaven unless heaven included his children? No bowing to God unless God welcomed his children? It was blasphemy. But even in his arrogance, Tom wasn't really capable of blasphemy. He wasn't shaking his fist at God, he just would not let go of his kids. And “his kids” included my Eric. But wasn't that idolatry?

I didn't know what to say. I think Margie came into the room and we used that as an excuse to break our conversation and talk of other, safer stuff.

A week or so later I asked about the idolatry thing. “Tom, you said you had no interest in being in heaven with God unless your children were there. Forgive me for asking, but isn't that idolatry?”

“Yes.” He wrote back. “You could say that. But again, as a lawyer for the defense, let me offer a different take. The dominant metaphor in the Bible for God is father. In the synoptics, every use of the word “father” evokes the picture of a provident, generous, competent daddy. God the Father is the one you run to not away from. In the story of the Prodigal Son, in the end the father has welcomed both sons, and his final words to the older son who is resisting his welcome are, 'Son everything that I have is yours.' Not will be or might be or could be. There is no “if.” Simply, 'everything I have is yours.' This father would rather die than lose his son. So when I say I prefer damnation with my kids to salvation without them, how am I acting any different from the divine Father as pictured in the stories of Jesus? I know the other passages, the Bible texts cited in support of the idea that God will ultimately fail to save most of his children. All my life I've listened to good people explain how it is that the God of love will be forced by “justice” or “the sovereignty of human choice” to damn most of his children. I've made those arguments myself. But that was before I signed on as a lawyer for the defense. What kind of defense attorney would I be if I took only cases that were easy? If standing with my kids all the way through the verdict is idolatry, then I will accept condemnation as an idolater. What kind of father would I be if I accepted a salvation that excluded my kids? If we are all damned, so be it. But I will never stand in heaven and agree to the damnation of my kids.”

Chapter Five

That was two years ago. We have talked less since then. There's no animosity, but I have been uncertain how to talk. How do you stretch a friendship as close as ours across a chasm this wide? When push comes to shove Tom will choose his kids over God. He will choose an emotional affection over the truth of the gospel. How do you discuss theology after that?

Oh sure, we still talk occasionally. Keep up on what the kids and grandkids are doing. He has sympathized with us as our Nashville kids have wrapped themselves deeper and deeper in the cult they joined. I am deeply perplexed. I was so pleased when our son-in-law began providing real spiritual leadership in their family. They were going to a church where the Gospel was preached. God's word was taken seriously. Grace was exalted. Sin was rebuked. He became an elder and devoted hours to Bible study. Then his church wasn't pure enough. They joined another, smaller congregation. Then the preacher there wasn't careful enough in his exegesis. Then we, Margie and I, became suspect. The son-in-law did not want us to spend time in their home. If we visited, we stayed in a motel and came for dinner when both parents were present (and he could monitor and dilute our influence). It broke our hearts. Tom cried with us. He listened and sympathized without condemning our kids or second guessing us.

Margie and I fretted with him over one of his grandsons. His muscles were refusing to develop properly. They had taken him to every possible specialist, run every test. Still, no firm diagnosis. No prognosis. Just worry. Endless wondering and fretting. Shared pain among friends.

But we stayed away from theology. And for preachers not to be able to talk theology puts a strain on things. Sometimes I couldn't help myself and I would share with him some outrageous example of the swelling secularity of American culture, about the assimilation of the Christian church to the values and mores of left-falling America. He usually agreed with my concerns, but I couldn't tell what he actually thought. It sounded to me like he was simply being agreeable, finding something in my words he could affirm. And all time I was wondering, does he still have greater loyalty to his kids than to God?

Is he a Christian? Is he saved?

But, of course, this evening that's not what I'm worried about. Tom is not the center of the service tomorrow.

“You don't think Eric is lost, do you?”

There. I said it.

“Dave, I know the gospel has saved your life and given you your ministry.” Tom said. “I know God called you. I don't want to take away from that. In your hands, the Gospel is a tool for giving hope, an instrument of healing and peace. You have blessed hundreds, thousands, with your preaching. You are a beautiful man, a beautiful preacher.

“Still, I don't think God will damn his grandchildren. Especially, if their only fault is failing to believe the correct theory regarding the death of Jesus. I regard Paul's gospel as a metaphor, one picture people can use to help themselves imagine God forgiving and embracing them. But I think God is bigger than the Gospel. God's hands are not tied by the Gospel—as we understand it or even as the Apostle Paul understood it.”

“But what about the words of the Gospel of John?” I asked. “How do you get past John's words, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

“If Joshua could defy a divine edict of destruction, I can push back against the damning words of Jesus. I will out-mercy Jesus, if that's what it takes. I will quote Jesus to himself. He said to the woman dragged into his presence as an adultress, 'I do not condemn you.' If he would not condemn her, how can it be right to condemn a good husband and doting father, who could not bring himself to believe a Christian theory?”

Tom went on, “I think mercy and justice are greater than the theories of the Apostle. I think God is very much like you. You would unhesitatingly give your life to save your son or grandkids from some earthly calamity. And which of your kids would you damn, if the judgment were placed completely in your hands? If God set up an execution—an electrocution—and put the switch in your hands and told you to push it when you were ready to damn you son, how soon could you bring yourself to push the button?”

“In the story of Job, there is this curious bit right at the beginning of the tale. Job had ten kids. They had regular parties. When a party was over, Job would offer sacrifices to purify his kids, just in case they had secretly committed a sin in their heart during the feast. The plain reading of the text means that Job's actions were efficacious. When he was done with the sacrifice, his children were, in fact, pure in the eyes of God. The kids themselves did nothing. They did not confess or repent or believe. They were purified by the magnanimous competence of their father. Is God any less magnanimous? Or less competent? I think God will find a way to save our children.”

Tom looked at the clock. “I better get out here. You have a terrible day ahead of you.” He hugged me again. Fiercely. Long. Then was gone.

Chapter Six

It's midnight. Eleven hours till the service begins.

Oh Eric, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place. How can I let you go? What good is heaven without you? How will I learn to look at your mother and without seeing your eyes and tasting again the bitterness of your absence? How will I learn to look at my hands and not see your hands? How long will it take for heaven to quit torturing me every time I am reminded you are not there?

Damn Tom! He makes it so alluring. Heresy. Cheap grace. Watered down gospel. Human wisdom above the word of God. Tom makes it all sound so possible, so believable. But aren't all his fine words just sweet fantasy? The Bible is so clear.

Tom can't be right. Lawyer for the defense? Take all the best lawyers in the world and add them together; they are no match for the simple words of the Bible. It is by faith we are saved. There is no other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved.

But then I replay Tom's words in my head. Of all the people in the gospels who were possessed by demons not one ever asked for help or expressed the least hint of faith. And not one was ever left unhelped. Jesus saved every one. If Jesus saved demon-possessed people, Tom argued, why wouldn't God similarly cure atheists of their unfaith, at the end in the great transformation? Doesn't the Bible promise that at the Second Coming everyone will be changed? Fixed. Renewed. Restored. Made perfectly whole. Who is so far gone that God cannot or will not fix them?
Could I, like Job, purify my children? Could my faith enough for Eric? Could I be the Canaanite mother demanding help for my child—a child who is not even present? Would heaven bend to my will the way Jesus bent to that mother?

Oh Jesus, save my son. He could not save himself. He did not ask. So I am asking. Imploring. Begging. Insisting. Save my son. Damnation looms. Damnation is only word I know how to say, but please, save my son.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Hiking, camping trips spring, 2018

I'm working on two or three group camping/hiking trips in the desert Southwest this spring. One will feature strenuous hiking. One will be more relaxed, featuring sights and wonders and shorter hikes. Let me know if you are interested. or call or text my cell. 253-350-1211.

Thank You

Sermon for November 25, 2017

Texts: 1 Chronicles 16:23-34, Luke 19:1-8

The plan for Thanksgiving was our usual. Everybody gathers at our house mid morning. We pile into vehicles with four wheel drive and head up into the hills to play in the snow and cut a Christmas tree. We're had some weather surprises. One year down here in the lowlands, the sky was heavy and dark and drippy, the temps in the 40s. Up at Suntop at 5000 feet, we had bright sunshine and the air temps were in the sixties. It was hard to cut a Christmas tree. It felt like July.
We faced treacherous ice on the road. And snow so deep, if forced us to stop short of our destination. But yesterday promised to be the worst ever.

The temperature at our house was in the 40s. It was pouring rain. And the forecast was rain all day, even in the mountains. I began imagining a lazy morning in our warm, dry house, leisurely visiting.

Others began arriving. Wrapped in rain gear, ready for adventure. Ugh!

My son and his wife were loading mountains of rain gear and layers of insulation in packs. I could see I was going to have no out. Then my sister informed me that my niece was thinking of staying home. So it became my job to talk the niece into going. It was my job to persuade her to happily embark on a journey into misery.

I really had only one option. I couldn't honestly voice hope that the weather in the mountains would be better. The forecast was quite definite . . . and miserable. I couldn't fake enthusiasm. “I can hardly wait to get out there in the rain and cold and gloom. I had only one arrow in my quiver: I quoted a proverb first uttered by Bonnie on a previous occasion when I was resisting an outdoor adventure because of inclement weather.

"Dad," she declaimed, "have you ever gone hiking and wished you hadn't?" She was right.

I have gone outside and nearly died of hypothermia. I've collapsed from exertion. I've gotten lost, gotten blisters, suffered nearly catastrophic falls, run out of food and water. I've run in terror from lightning strikes. Not every hike has gone as planned. But I have never wished I hadn't gone. Never, ever. Not even once.

So I told my niece, if you go, you will be glad you did. Or at the very minimum—you will not be sorry. You will not wish you had stayed home.

She yielded to the social pressure and joined the gang headed into the bleak outdoors.

We turned off the highway at Forest Road 75, drove until the ground turned white with old snow. Kept going to the pass where we climbed out of the cars into blowing rain mixed with snow. I tended the stove and made hot chocolate. Mark served his iconic pumpkin bread. Karin went in search of the perfect Christmas tree. The dogs raced around her. Parents hauled their kids up the track that climbed the ridge to the north. Then swooped down in Efrain's sled on the packed wet snow. We stayed mostly warm. Karin came back and dragged all of us out to where she had found three candidates for "the perfect tree."
Tree cut. Stove and cutting board stowed. Vehicles loaded. We headed home to heat and dry clothes and cranberries, mashed potatoes, and pie. And thanks.

This morning I'm glad I went. And I face a fork in the road. I could congratulate myself for having the strength of character to do something that felt like it was going to be unpleasant but my rational mind knew would end up being a net positive.

Or I could give thanks for the tradition and social pressure that dragged me outside.

It is true that I chose to go. It is also true that I would not have made that choice on Thursday without the help of family tradition and present social pressure. My adventure in the mountains was a gift from all the other people who were crazy enough join in on this wild adventure. Because they were part of the story, I had a memorable Thanksgiving outing.

Giving thanks is a recognition that every good is a gift. Sure, many good things are also accomplishments. But before they are accomplishments, they are gifts.

Last week Mitch Webster texted me a picture of his boys at the Mt. Baker ski area. Blue sky overhead. Snow underfoot a dazzling white. Table Mountain off in the distance. I thought, that's what I love. Blue sky and dazzling sunshine.

But then I remembered I live in Seattle. And that our city is shaped by rain. I remembered the words of friends declaring their affection for the soft skies and gentle light of cloudy days. I recalled the magic of all the lights along the waterfront on watery winter evenings.

Sunshine and rain. Two of heaven's gifts.

I give thanks for the twenty to thirty kids who gather here in the front of church every week for the children's story. In my mind's eye I see the light in their eyes, the beauty of their faces. I hear them answer questions giving evidence of their keen intelligence and curiosity. I think of the care and affection lavished on them from parents and grandparents, from aunts and uncles. And I give thanks for kids and for all those adults who enrich their lives.

Thursday night when we finally got around to dessert we were offered our choice of one of three different pies—pumpkin, blackberry, or apple. This year Karin used canned pumpkin, but the blackberries were from our yard and the apples from the neighbor's tree. Some of us sampled all three. Some ate only one or two kinds. Most of us added whipped cream and ice cream. Some refused all toppings. After people had eaten their pie, we had a long argument about which pie was the best. Each pie had its partisans. It was a lovely argument.

I give thanks for the bounty that blesses our lives. For the food. For the skill in preparation. For traditions that add special piquancy to our enjoyment.

Not all people everywhere are so blessed. Even here in our city there are people who do not have their own kitchens and their own tables and refrigerators full of food. I am grateful.

What do I have that I would not have if I had had a ski accident when I was 19 and was paralyzed from the waist down? From the neck down?

Take some time now. And text a thank you.

If you don't have a phone handy, take out your bulletin and a pencil or pen and write down the names of ten people who make you glad. People who have left a permanent, happy imprint on your life.

Text me a sentence or two you would be willing to have shared publicly expressing gratitude.

Discern the gift in everything pleasant, everything useful, everything helpful, everything delicious, everything beautiful.

Give thanks.

The gospel reading this morning was the story of Zachaeus. He received a great gift—the presence and attention of Jesus. Fairly quickly, his awareness of that gift turned into generosity. Which is the way of gratitude. When we are overwhelming grateful, we readily bless others. The richest reception of gifts comes when we know we have more than enough, enough to share.

This is where gratitude takes us. It is also true that the practice of generosity awakens our own sense of gratitude, and thus our capacity for joy.

Let's take a little while to share thanks.

Comments from Facebook and texts.

Comments from people in the congregation.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Waters of Babylon

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

Listen carefully to this Psalm.

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

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

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

They are filled with outrage. Understandably.

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

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

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

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

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

We weep.

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

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

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

Then a letter arrives from the Prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem.

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

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

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

Consider Matthew 18.

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

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

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

When we live in Babylon, we should love Babylon.

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Resisting Church Authority

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

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

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

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

He refused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we read the words of Jeremiah.

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

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

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

Which brings us to our New Testament reading.

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

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

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

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

Then Jesus continues,

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

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

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

Jesus goes further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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