Friday, June 16, 2017

Good People, Smart People

Sermon manuscript (preliminary) for Sabbath, June 17, 2017, at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Texts: 1 Kings 4:29-34, Mark 6:34-38

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a Sabbath School class in St. George, Utah. The text under consideration by the class was 2 Peter 1. The discussion moved to verse 5:

Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge.

The teacher asked, “What is this knowledge that we are to add to our virtue?” I replied, “The knowledge necessary to respond to human need. If I am going to help my neighbor get his car going, I need to know something about cars. If I am going to repair a child's defective heart valve I must have all the knowledge of a pediatric surgeon. If I'm going to help a friend with her clogged drain, I need a little knowledge of plumbing. As Christians we are called to respond to human need, we are called to help people. It is not enough to want to help people. We need all kinds of secular knowledge to turn our desire to help into useful action.

Someone in the class challenged me. “Do you really think Peter was thinking of the acquisition of secular knowledge when he wrote this passage?”

I had to admit she had a point. In the context of 1 Peter, “knowledge” probably referred to deep, spiritual insight, not to knowledge of cars or cardiac surgery or plumbing. But when we step back and look at the Bible as a whole, secular knowledge is pictured as one of the expected virtues of the people of God.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is the story of Solomon.

God gave Solomon very great wisdom and understanding, and knowledge as vast as the sands of the seashore. 1 Kings 4:29

Solomon was so knowledgeable, people came from all over the world sit at his feet. Distant kings sent ambassadors to spent time in Jerusalem. To this day Solomon is celebrated as a wise man, the Wisest Man who ever lived.

It's important to note that the Wisdom of Solomon was not religious knowledge. People did not come to hear him preach. They came to hear him talk about all kinds of things including biology.

He could speak with authority about all kinds of plants, from the great cedar of Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows from cracks in a wall. He could also speak about animals, birds, small creatures, and fish. 1 Kings 4:33

When the knowledge tourists came to Jerusalem, they could not miss the temple and the life-encompassing ritual and the moral ideals that lived at the heart of Israel's culture. Solomon's religion made an impact on his visitors. But it was not Solomon's religion that brought them. It was his secular knowledge which was demonstrably superior.

The story of Solomon is instructive for us. We are most likely to gain a hearing for our faith, when we demonstrate secular competence. Adventists sometimes gain a hearing because our health practices have been shown to actually improve longevity. Think of the contrast between secular regard for Adventist health practices and secular opinion regarding Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal of blood transfusions even when they will save life? Or the Christian Science denial of the reality of disease. Adventist health practices in broad outline have been confirmed by modern science. And people think, if you're right about that, what else might you be right about?

There is a second lesson in Solomon's story. The text states that Solomon could speak “with authority” about all kinds of plants and animals. When it comes to secular knowledge, a person has authority only as far as they turn out to be right. Because we can check on them. Solomon's statements about plants and animals and birds could be investigated. We could go check out the cedars in Lebanon and see if what he said was accurate. We could go watch the birds and see if what he said was correct. He was an authority only if what he said checked out.

This is obviously true today.

If someone says that the glaciers on Mt. Rainier are shrinking, we can climb up there and check it out for ourselves. If someone claims a vegan diet can fuel the life and sport of an ultramarathoner, we can go find ultramarathoners and ask what they eat. If someone says that adding fish to your diet can help an ultramarathon runner improve their speed, we can become an ultramarathoner and add fish to our diet to see if it helps. When the church claims Noah's Flood built the Phanerozoic portion of the geologic column, it diminishes our credibility to speak of God because even the church-employed scientists cannot offer a plausible explanation of how Noah's Flood could have done this. (Phanerozoic refers to the portion of the geological column that has lots of fossils, the Cambrian and later.) 

It would be silly to try to settle these questions by intense Bible study or by studying the writings of our prophet. These questions can be answered by direct study and investigation.

The story of Solomon illustrates the right role of the Bible and religion in our lives.

Solomon became known as the Wisest Man who ever lived because he studied the realm of nature intensely.

And he was also one of the dumbest men who ever lived because he ignored the moral/spiritual guidance available in through religion. (The thousand women he "married" vitiated the moral and spiritual culture of the nation.)

He did not need the words of prophets to instruct him in biology. And biology was completely ineffective in guiding him in the moral and spiritual realm.

It is the same today. The Bible is not a useful guide for doing science. We become knowledgeable in the sciences the same way Solomon did—through vigorous study and investigation.

On the other hand, science is not a useful guide when it comes to moral and spiritual culture. It is possible to a brilliant person AND to be a fool.

The purpose of the Bible is to make us good.
The purpose of study is to make us smart.
Both are important. And neither will adequately substitute for the other.

Some Christians make our faith appear fanciful by attempting to use the Bible as the source for their “science.” Some scientists and engineers make science appear to be inhuman by insisting that virtue, beauty, and goodness are illusory because we cannot learn these things through science.

If we pay attention to the Bible story, we see even the ancient people were well aware of the value of both study and direct investigation and the value of faith and visions. Both are valuable. They are useful for different things.

This same interaction of concrete, hard fact and faith and vision shows up even in the stories of Jesus.

It is common for us to give a lot of prominence to Jesus' statements about faith.

To Jairus after he received news his daughter had died: “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith, and she will be healed.” Luke 8:50

I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. Mark 11:23

These passages and others like them challenge our notions of common sense. But then we encounter other statements by Jesus:
In the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him he needs to send the people away. It is late and they need to find something to eat. Jesus tells his disciples. Well, if the people are hungry, just feed them. In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples respond, “Should we g buy a bunch of bread?” Jesus asks, “Well, how much do you have on hand? Go see.” The disciples head off and eventually come back and report all they have is five loaves and two fish.

The point I would draw out of this story is that important information, crucial information, really, must be acquired in the usual way. Go and see. Go count. The numbers are not “revealed.” There is no vision. Go, count. Do your homework.

The story moves forward. Jesus performs a miracle. But the miracle was no substitute for the ordinary work of counting. Further, in preparation for the miracle, Jesus directs his disciples to seat the people in groups of hundreds and fifties. When the dinner is finished the scraps are collected and again counting features in the story. There were twelve baskets of left overs. How do we know? Through a vision? By revelation? No. Because they were counted.

One last story in the gospels that features counting. I've referenced it several times in previous sermons. After the resurrection, several of Jesus disciples head north to Galilee and go fishing. While they are fishing, Jesus appears on shore and miraculously fills their nets. When they haul the fish to shore, they count them, 153 large fish.

They are in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. This is the most astonishing fact in the history of humanity. Jesus is alive. But the disciples are still fishermen. They were not satisfied to say, “We caught a bunch of fish.” No. They caught 153 large fish. They knew the number because they counted.

Even in the presence of Jesus, the ordinary activity of using our brain is still required.

How does this play out in our life?

Here in our congregation we have a lot of engineers. People who build planes and write code and map traffic patterns. We don't want our engineers to substitute faith for knowledge. We want our airplanes to be built using accurate, hard information. We don't want software engineers getting their code sort of correct. We depend on them to do it exactly right.

We want our engineers to be like Solomon—world-renowned for their knowledge and accuracy.

We have doctors in our congregation. We count on their faith to inspire them to do the greatest possible work of healing using all the available tools. But we don't want our doctors to substitute prayer and faith for knowledge and skill.

We have business people and scientists, musicians and counselors. In each of these areas their work depends on the acquisition and smart use of information. No amount of faith will substitute for the disciplines of learning and study.

Bible knowledge is not enough to do the work that God has called us to do.

The Bible inspires us to acquire knowledge and to use that knowledge to make the world a better place. But the Bible itself does not give us the information.

I mentioned the Sabbath School class in Utah where we talked about knowledge and its role in the Christian life. Curiously, the teacher was a geologist, someone who has devoted his life to the study of rocks, in particular the sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in Utah. He has also devoted himself to the local Adventist Church, having served as one of the indispensable leaders for thirty years. He seems to me to be an ideal embodiment of a believer who is serious about the pursuit of knowledge. He knows that Noah's Flood did not create the Navajo Sandstone. And he believes that God is active and present with us. His life is a nearly perfect example of someone devoted to learning and to faith.

We are at the end of a school year. Some among us have graduated. Finished school. Congratulations. Now take all that knowledge you have acquired and spread hope and help and healing in the world. Make things better.

For those among us who are scientists, we honor your work of chasing knowledge. You honor our faith most by continuing to push the edges of knowledge. When people around you suggest that we can't really know anything, don't listen. Keep pursuing knowledge. If the people in the church suggest that your work as a scientist is unimportant or untrustworthy, push back. Tell them the story of Solomon.

I am concerned that many Christians are creating the impression that people must choose between knowledge and faith, between being smart or believing in God. I appeal especially to our young people to resist this erroneous thinking. Let's create an entire society of people who are so successful in our science that the whole world honors it. And let's create a society that is so effective in supporting and fostering holiness and goodness that the world gathers to learn our secret.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Notables in the Kingdom of Heaven

Sermon manuscript (revised) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, June 10, 2017. Texts: Genesis 12:1-9. Revelation 7:1-9

A week ago Friday, I was hiking the Observation Point trail in Zion National Park with several other people. We stopped at about the half way point to admire the scenery and try to wrap our minds around the history on display. The cliffs surrounding us were two thousand feet from valley floor to the top of the walls. Two thousand feet of rock. Petrified dunes. The largest accumulation of sand anywhere in the world, any time in history. Piled in this place by wind.

I traced the sweep of the cross beds, noted the patterns of vertical fracturing caused by tectonic movement. And over and over came back to simple awe in the presence of such scale and beauty. It was a good day.

In the Book of Revelation, there are similar moments. Times when the entire body of God's people are enraptured at the glory of the edifice God has built.
I saw a vast multitude beyond counting, people from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. They stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes with palms in their hands. They shouted in exuberant ecstasy, “God saves. Jesus saves. God reigns. Hallelujah! The angels and the four curious creatures joined in, falling prostrate they were so overcome with admiration and awe. “Amen,” they exclaimed. “Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, might. All comes from God. All flows to God. Hallelujah! Paraphrase from Revelation 7
When God has finished building his dream, when the world is arranged according to the desire of God a mere glance at the glory of the edifice will evoke ecstatic wonder.

This moment will not arrive without complications and difficulties. This is highlighted in this same passage in Revelation. The first three chapters of Revelation speak of the church.  Chapters four and five are visions of heaven. Then chapter six again focuses our attention on earth. And it is a dark vision. Goodness and good people vanish. At the end of chapter six, the all humanity appears to have been seduced into the worship of power. Might and dominance have become the supreme virtues.

Against this dismal background, the prophet is given a vision of the heavenly perspective. An angel announces that far from being obliterated, the people of God have thrived. God sees 144,000 faithful ones. Which to us sees like a small number, but to John would have been a large number. But the news gets even better. This 144,000 is very specific. It is comprised of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Hundreds of years earlier, the Jewish nation split in two in a civil war. After awhile the northern kingdom, Samaria, was captured by the Assyrians and disappeared from history. Samaria was comprised of ten of the tribes. For hundreds of years they had been extinct. But here, the angel announces they have been resurrected. They are fully present, part of the final, glorious edifice of God.

The prophet hardly has time to absorb this good news when the angel invites him to turn and see this crowd of 144,000, this gathering of 12,000 from each of Israel's tribes. When John looks he sees that the 144,000 is actually an immense crowd, so vast his eyes cannot find the outer edges. There are simply too many to count. There are millions, bizillions, gadzillions.

Wow. Hallelujah. Look what God has done! This is the destination of the Bible story. This is where God is taking his children.

When I was sitting there on the trail, next to the two thousand-foot tall cliffs, one of the realities I tried to wrap my mind around was the fact that they were comprised of sand, very fine sand. Each grain had been transported by the wind from somewhere else. Much of this sand originated in the Appalachian Mountains. It was carried by rivers across the continent and dumped in a river delta in Wyoming. From there wind moved it south. Grain by grain. Then gathered it here in Zion where today it is carved into breathtaking cliffs.

How can I hold together in my head the twin truths that these are tiny specks of sand and grand, magnificent cliffs.

We face the same challenge in human history. The grand edifice of the kingdom of God pictured in Revelation is built of individuals. Human beings like you and me. In Revelation we see them in aggregate. There are no human heroes in the visions of Revelation. There are crowds, vast companies that no one can number. But every person in the crowd has a story. Every person arrived before the throne after a unique journey.

This truth is highlighted in our Old Testament reading.
The LORD said to Abram, “Leave your country and relatives and your father's house. Head out for a land I will show your. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless people who bless you and curse anyone who curses you. In you all families of the earth will be blessed.”
So Abram left, in obedience to the divine word. His nephew, Lot, went him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran.
Abram took his wife Sarah, and Lot, his brother's son, and all the wealth they had accumulated and all the people who had joined their household while they were in Haran. The company set off for land of Canaan and eventually arrived there.
Abram passed through the land to the place called Sichem on the plain of Moreh. Canaanites lived in the land, then. The LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “Unto your descendants I will give this land.” And Abram built an altar to the God who had appeared to him. From there Abram headed to a mountain east of the town of Bethel and pitched his tent there. (This place was between Bethel on the west and Hai on the east.) Here again, Abram built an altar to the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. From this place Abram moved on, always heading south. Genesis 12:1-9
Notice the details in this story. The details that have nothing to do with “theology.” His campsites. His neighbors. His nephew. This story is told the way a mother recounts stories of her children. Details are remembered just for the pleasure of remembering the full story. Or like the telling of stories that happen around the campfire when our tour group gathers again. We will remember Tom's sharing of Knock, knock jokes with Oliver and Violet. We will remember the quinoa-stuffed avocado Robert served along with gaspacho soup and quesadillas. These things have nothing to do with geology, but they were part of the trip.

When we say the Bible is the word of God, we are affirming that all this attention to the mundane details of a person's life expresses God's intense personal interest in individuals.

In the Bible story, Abraham is the hero. If we made a movie of the story, there would be only one star, Abraham. But to make the movie we would require hundreds of supporting actors and extras. These others, Sarah and Lot and Bethuel and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac and Eliezer and Ephron and the nameless “souls they acquired in Haran” and Abraham's 318 commandos would be absolutely essential to the story, to the literary and human edifice.

We rightly celebrate Abraham and allow his virtues to inspire us and his failings to serve as cautionary tales. But we if we shift our focus slightly to the left or right other people in the story would take center stage and Abraham himself would become a supporting actor.

One of my favorite pictures from my vacation features Oliver and Violet Morrow. In the photo you can't see their faces. They are squatting on a sandy stream bed. Violet is watching sand pour through the fingers of her left hand. Oliver is probing the sand with his right forefinger. Surrounding them, seen in the photo only as ankles and legs sprouting up out of sandals and tennis shoes, are adults listening to a lecture about how wind moves sand and creates something called lag deposits.

Watching the sand drift down from Violet's hand, I realized how small the grains of sand were. The sand was so fine that even in a very slight breeze, the Navajo Sand, the sand that comprises the glorious, magnificent walls of Zion—was being blown sideways and the cone of sand that built beneath Violet's hands showed a striking concentration of darker, heavier grains. The Navajo Sand is so fine, it is scarcely larger than dust. Thinking of the grand cliffs of Zion, I was offered two perspectives on those grains of sand. I could dismiss each one because it is nearly nothing compared to the glory and grandeur of the cliffs. Or I could see in each tiny grain, the grand edifice it helped to build.

So with people.

In the grand edifice God is building through history, we might consider our part to be insignificant. We might imagine that it is the work of the great heroes that really matters. In fact, God cannot build his temple without us. And no matter how great or notable any particular individual is, the work of God is so large that every individual, seen from the requisite distance becomes a tiny fragment, a fragment whose greatest glory is its participation in the unspeakably grand edifice of God.

So let us be faithful.
Let us be humble.
Let us be bold, in our participation in the mission of God.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Do You See This Woman?

Sermon manuscript for Saint George, Utah, Adventist Church
Sabbath, May 27, 2017

Texts: Luke 7. The woman who anointed Jesus.
Luke 19. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him,[fn] and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 
Luke 21:1-2.  And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.1 Kings 21:29.
1 Kings 21:29 Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime. 

Three stories.

The Woman

One of the Pharisees invited him to a dinner. Jesus went and they sat down to eat. During the meal some woman from the city, someone with a colorful reputation, shall we say, came in. She brought an alabaster box of ointment. She came up behind Jesus. She began sobbing. Her tears fell on Jesus' feet and she let down her hair and wiped his feet with her hair and massaged the ointment into his feet.
Naturally, the host saw this he was scandalized. Surely, he thought, if Jesus were a prophet, he would realize what kind of woman this is that's handling him.

Jesus interrupted the host's consternation. “Simon, I have a story for you.”
“Let's here it.”
“A creditor was owed money by two people. One owed him five thousand dollars, the other owed him fifty. When he realized these two debtors were hopelessly over their heads in debt, he frankly forgave them both. So which of these two men would love the creditor most?”
“Well, unless it's a trick question, the answer is obvious. The one who was forgiven most.”
“Exactly,” Jesus said.
“Now, do you see this woman? Do you really see her? Obviously, you know her name. This is a small town. You know her father's name. You know her reputation. You know her history. But look at her again and let me tell you what you did not see.
“When I arrived here, under your roof, you provided no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with tears and wiped them with her head. You gave me no kiss, not even the most perfunctory. Since I sat down she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil. She has anointed my feet with the sweetest smelling ointment that has ever touched my skin.
Can you see now? Obviously, she has received forgiveness. You know her sins. I invite you to see the wealth of pardon she has received.
“Honey,” you may go. “Your sins are, indeed, forgiven. You are free.”

The Government Agent

Jesus was on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, traveling in the mob of pilgrims that made this trek every year for Passover. He arrived at Jericho and pushed through the gates headed for the town center. His progress was very slow because of the crowd. At some point along the route, Jesus stopped and looked up into the branches of a tree hanging over the street. There in the tree was a diminutive man named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector for the city and was quite rich.

He had been wanting to see Jesus. He had heard the reports. He was drawn to what he had heard. But getting to Jesus was problematic. So, here he was up in a tree hanging over the street waiting for the teacher to pass. And there was Jesus staring up at him.

What did Jesus see? What do we think Zacchaeus thought Jesus saw? What did the people in the crowd imagine Jesus was seeing?

Tax collector. Collaborator with the Romans. This has application in our world. People who believe government is the face of oppression. If your neighbor works for the IRS or the BLM or the city building inspectors office. What do we see? The incarnation of the enemy?

“Zacchaeus, hurry down. I'm planning to spend the day at your house.

Zacchaeus hurried down, almost giddy with excitement. My house! He's coming to my house!

People in the crowd were not pleased. What is Jesus thinking? Didn't Jesus see who was up in that tree? Didn't Jesus see he was a sinner?

At dinner Zacchaeus made a little speech. “Lord, I am going to give half my wealth to the poor. If I have fraudently assessed any one, I will pay back. In fact, I'll pay back four times anything I have wrongly taken.

Jesus smiled and said, Today, salvation has come to this house. You, Zachaeus, are truly and fully a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

The King

Ahab was the worst king ever. He was married to Jezebel, the worst queen ever. Near the end of his life he commited one of his most egregious acts of barbarity. He wanted a piece of property next to the royal residence. The owner would not sell because it had been in his family for generations. So Ahab allowed his wife, Jezebel, to arrange to have the neighbor falsely accused of blasphemy and executed.

In response to this dastardly act, God directed the prophet, Elijah, to deliber a message of doom. God was finished with Ahab. His dynasty was going to come to an abrupt end.

After receiving the message from the prophet, the king made a great show of contrition. He put on sackcloth and was visibly upset and subdued for days.

So God appeared to the prophet again. “Have you seen Ahab?” God asked. “Go tell Ahab I have seen his contrition and I will delay the punishment I first announced.”

Have you seen Ahab?

Ahab was the worst king ever. This was true. It remained true. But in this moment God was paying attention to Ahab's contrition. For this brief time Ahab was pointed the right direction and God saw it. And wrote it down.


The woman at Simon's house had a messy reputation. She had earned the reputation. Simon was not inventing a false history when he scorned her. But Jesus saw something more. We are all more than our worst moments. We are even more than our bad habits. Somewhere even in a messy life there are aspirations to be better, to do better. Jesus saw those.

Zachaeus worked for the Romans. The implication is that he participated in the culture of his work place. He had used his official position to defraud people. That was true. And there was something more. Jesus saw that. Jesus read his hunger for holiness. When we look at people can we see those secrets hopes for goodness? Can we find ways to encourage them?

Ahab was a bad man. His dynasty needed to end. It did end, by divine order. Still, God noticed the sparks of goodness that lived even in someone as broken and messed up as Ahab. Sometimes we have to deal with bad people. Evil must be restrained. But when we take action to restrain evil can we keep alive our capacity to notice and honor even the slightest impulse toward goodness? When we do this we are partnering with God. The more frequently we practice this partnership with God, the deeper and richer will be our realization of our own place in God's eyes.

God is watching you. He sees your best hopes, your highest aspirations. And God is pleased. With you.

Friday, May 12, 2017

God's Crew

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

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

Wow. That's dedication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then comes the exam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

More skillful

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Allies of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam raced home and called her mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Not One in Twenty

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

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

According to Ellen White, such mythic purity never existed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Secret Siblings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our house is a house of prayer for all nations.