Friday, October 20, 2017

Loving People Who Cannot Be Fixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every problem responds to the divine power of Jesus.

Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 24 News about him spread as far as Syria, and people soon began bringing to him all who were sick. And whatever their sickness or disease, or if they were demon possessed or epileptic or paralyzed--he healed them all. Mattew 4:23-24 NLT (Accessed via Blue Letter Bible.Org)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing happens. Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Gospel offer any guidance for this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Loving Those Who Cannot Be Fixed

Beginning idea for this coming Sabbath's sermon.

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wise Investment

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

Two Stories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health care professionals do their thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Where Is God?

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

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

It's been a rough week.

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

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

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


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

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

A rough week.

Where is God in all this?

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

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

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

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

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

So I come back to the words of Jesus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us be about our Father's business.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

Work Forward

A better title might be: the vineyard waits.
Sermon manuscript for September 2, 2017

Jeremiah 7:1-7 and Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus told this parable: A man was having breakfast with his two sons. Dad told the older boy, “Son, go work in the vineyard today.” Astonishingly, this older son answered, “No, Dad, I won't do it.” The son's response was bold and rude. “No!”

Apparently without much ado, Dad turned to his younger son. “Son, I really you to work in the vineyard today. Will you do it?” Unlike his older brother, number two son promptly responded, “Sure, Dad. I'm on it. You can count on me.”

But this is not the end of the story.

After leaving the kitchen the older son changed his mind and headed out to the vineyard where he worked all day. Curiously, the younger son who had been so agreeable at breakfast, never stepped foot in the vineyard.

Buried in this simple story are two radical Christian convictions. The first: In the kingdom of heaven high-sounding religious or spiritual claims are worthless. Service is what counts.

This conviction was eloquently proclaimed by many of the Hebrew prophets. Our Old Testament reading comes from the Prophet Jeremiah. God ordered him to stand at the entrance of the temple and deliver this radical, combative message:

Listen up, all you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven's Armies, the God of Israel, says: "'Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don't be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD's Temple is here. They chant, "This the temple of the Lord. This is the temple of the Lord. Don't be fooled. I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever. "'Don't be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It's a lie! [Jer 7:1-8 NLT paraphrased a bit]

In the eyes of God, religious and national identity are irrelevant. Sure these elements of identity have their place in our ordinary lives. We are glad we live here and not in Russia. We have a special loyalty to our country, the United States of America. We love our mountains and plains, our cities and our literature. We take special delight in Aaron Copelands Fanfare for the Common Man, imagining that that piece of music is especially American. We love our nation and we should.

But it is also vital to remember that before God all the particulars of nationality and religious identity are trivial. God does not favor one religion over another. God does not favor one nation over another. What matters is moral performance. This is the stern truth highlighted by these passages. God is not fooled by religious labels. We cannot sweet talk our past the keen judgment of God. God is watching.

Let's remember that when Jeremiah stood at the entrance of the temple and said, “Don't imagine that this temple buys you anything with God, he was speaking in a setting where nationality and religious identity were one. Like “Christian America” imagined by some people. The temple was the center of Jewish national and religious identity. And Jeremiah thundered against a false confidence that a connection with the temple bought favor with God.

This truth applies with special force in today's political environment where many church leaders have “blessed” the president because they imagine he has a Christian identity. God does not care about supposed religious identity. God cares about moral performance. A “profession of faith” is worthless or worse than worthless if a person's moral performance contradicts that profession of identity.

This truth applies to us in the church. When the denomination fails to contradict the worldly patterns of male dominance, the church's “true church identity” will not blind the eyes of the heavenly Judge. God will not bless us for being Adventist if we use the power structures of the church to defend the prerogatives of men addicted to power.

Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that because we are the “true church” we get a pass on being honest and compassionate.

Jeremiah's rebuke of Jewish national pride was underscored by his astonishing report that God had ordered him to stop praying for Israel. When Jeremiah was speaking the nation of Israel was surrounded by the armies of Babylon. The “good life” enjoyed by the nobility and priesthood and wealthy people was seriously threatened. Naturally, they wanted Jeremiah to pray for them, to pray that God would hold off the Babylonians. But God told Jeremiah to quit praying.

There was no point praying for mercy until the leaders of the nation began to practice mercy. There was no point in asking God to protect the good life of the one percent unless they used their power to make things better for the underprivileged and disadvantaged. Until those with wealth and status began using their power to make things materially better for families touched by bad luck and misfortune, God was not accepting prayers on behalf of the good life of Israel's leaders.

Most of us are privileged. Most of us are enjoying the good life. Jeremiah's warning speaks to us. Not “those other people.” Neither American citizenship nor Adventist or Christian identity put God in our debt. What matters is moral performance. It is a stern word. And it is true. If we are wise, we will pay attention.

This is one half of the story. It is an unavoidable truth.

There is also another truth written brightly into this story. Remember Jesus' story. A man had two sons. He asked both sons to work in his vineyard. The younger son said, “I will” but did not actually do any work. But even though the older son had said, “I won't,” he later changed his mind and spent the whole day working in the vineyard.

Jesus went on the apply this story.

"I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn't believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins. Matthew 21:31-32

Jesus point here is simple and liberating: Our identity up to this point does not determine our future. We were scoundrels? Well, it's not too late to start doing good. We said we did not give a rip about “those people?” We can start caring. We made a mess of things? We can start making beauty.

In the kingdom of heaven our history is less important than our future. Our heritage does not have to be our destiny. Today and tomorrow and through the coming week, we will have opportunity again to go work in God's vineyard.

It doesn't matter what we did last week. The week ahead of us beckons. God invites us to join him in his vineyard. Let's show up.

That would be really good.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Turn North, Again.

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 26, 2017

Texts: Deuteronomy 2:1-7;  Acts 16:6-13

A few weeks ago, I was on my bicycle heading home. I was coasting downhill on a road that crosses through a wetlands area. Ahead I noticed a kid standing in the weeds on the right side of the road down at the bottom of the hill. It seemed odd for him to be just standing there, not doing anything. I got closer and noticed his skateboard. Then got even closer and saw that there was another kid behind him. The second kid was on the ground on one knee and leaning over.

I slowed to check on them. “Did you crash?” I asked. Then I saw the kid's knee. It was pretty banged up. His arm had some road rash. His shirt was ripped on the shoulder. He wasn't gushing blood. He could even smile. But he was hurting. The standing kid assured me they were going to be okay. They had called his mom and she was on her way. The kid on the ground winced at his pain and insisted he was going to be okay.

I could see the mix of pride—they were tough. And pain. It really did hurt.

They were lucky he wasn't scraped up worse than he was. The hill is long and steep. In fact, the hill is fast enough that on my bicycle I quit peddling about a third of the way down and just focus on not crashing. I can not imagine riding a skateboard down that hill. The smallest pebble or irregularity in the pavement would be disastrous. But these boys could imagine trying. They went for it. And oops!

Someone landed in the weeds.

Mom got called. At least they didn't have to call 911.

Falling. It's the price of glory.

In our congregation we have serious bikers. One of the ways I know they are serious is their stories of trips to the hospital, the pictures I've seen of them wearing neck braces and casts. When you skate or ride a bicycle you don't aim to crash. You aim at glory. But it is almost guaranteed that if you aim at glory frequently enough, some time you will crash.

So what do you after you crash? I guess that depends on how bad the crash was. You might call mom. You might have to call 911. If you're lucky, you'll collect a cool story of a miraculous, narrow escape and you'll get back on your bike and ride on.

Like Alycia's fantastic “dismount.” She and David were mountain biking. She hit something, flew over the handle bars and LANDED ON HER FEET!!!!!!! David wishes he had a video. I wish he had a video!

What do you do after such a fall? Get back on the bicycle.

What do you not do? Spend a lot of time thinking about the fall or crash. If you do, you'll quit skating or riding. You'll quit dreaming.

This principle applies with great force to spiritual life.

How shall we respond to our spiritual and moral falls? After the fall, get up and go at it again again. Aim again at glory.

Some of us deal with addictions of various sorts. Alcohol. Drugs. Anger. Sexual misconduct.

I am not minimizing the damage that addictive behavior does to ourselves and to our families and friends and even to larger society. When we get drunk we are setting ourselves up to cause harm, sometimes awful harm. When we fall again to the seductive call of a drug, it's a terrible fall. It's a dangerous fall. There's no telling how much damage we might cause ourselves and others.

Still, the question stands: What shall we do afterward? When we have crashed, when we are hunched over on the ground bloody and hurting, what is the next step?

Let's refuse to squander life and energy in remorse and regret and self-hatred. Let's turn our lives again toward holiness, toward life.

Call someone. Get rid of our stash. (Don't flush it down to toilet. Put it in the trash where it won't pollute Puget Sound.) Make an appointment with a counselor. Go to an AA meeting. Take action toward wholeness—and know that God cheers every step you take in the right direction.

Let's look at our two Scripture passages.

The story of Israel. God rescued them from Israel and directed them north toward Palestine, the Promised Land. But they were a mess. They kept screwing up. It finally got so bad that God suspended the journey north. They had to wander around in the desert for decades. Their story was the typical story of addiction. Repeated, weary failing. Two steps forward, three steps backward. It's depressing to read.

After four decades, God tells Moses, “You've been wandering long enough. It's time to resume your march toward the Promised Land. Head north.” So they did.

But like real life, their story continued to be up and down, backward and forward, failure and then, try again. The constants were the destination: Always the Promised Land was their destination. And turning again toward glory after they failed. Over and over and over again.

The New Testament reading adds adds an important element to this story.

In Acts 16, we read about the Apostle Paul on one of his missionary journeys.

Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time. Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there. So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas. That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.

The church celebrates Paul as the Great Missionary Apostle. He was called by God in a dramatic fashion. Under the call of God, he sets out to preach the gospel. But notice in this passage, his failures. He tries to go to different places and it doesn't work out.

He doesn't give up and go home. He tries again. And again. And again.

Finally, he has a vision that he interprets as a call to yet another place. He and his disciples follow this lead and the missionary trip continues.

Sometimes we imagine that if we are faithful to God, life will be smooth sailing. But here in the story of Paul we see that even the most famous missionary in the history of the church had abortive efforts, failed attempts. He dealt with these failures by simply trying again.

So let's devote ourselves to the pursuit of holiness.

And when we fail. Get up and go again.

Knowing that just as God kept company with Israel through their great failures and kept company with Paul through his small failures, God will keep company with us.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Sermon manuscript for 8/12/2107 at
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Text: Matthew 5-7
Occasion: Megan's baptism.

If you go to Megan's mother's Facebook page and click on photos then click on the appropriate album, the first picture that comes up is an archer. String drawn, bow bent, arrow aimed at the target out of the picture to the right.

Studying the picture I can feel the tension in Megan's right arm, the responsiveness in her left arm as it tracks with her eye which is drilled on the target. As I imagine the last few seconds before the release, I can almost feel in my own head her hunger for a bull's-eye. She remembers hundreds of releases. She remembers the last time she stuck it, dead center. Again. She wants it again. Feels it in her arms. Looks for that perfect place, then lets it fly.



Let's do it again. And again. And again.

When I was a kid, my mother read us a kids book featuring Native Americans. One of the stories featured people in the lake country of Minnesota. The boy featured in the story is invited to accompany his father and uncle on a night hunting trip. They make a small fire in a basket of sand attached to the front of their canoe. When a deer stops to stare at the fire, visible only as a pair of eyes, the father shoots it with his bow and arrow. The son is astonished. “How can you aim an arrow when you cannot even see it?” The boy asks.

The father responds, “Can you point your finger in the dark?”

The bow and arrow had lived so long in the father's hands they were mere extensions of his body. He only had to see where he wanted the arrow to go. This mythical union of bow and arrow and body is the ambition of every archer. We dream of the place where our only quest is to see clearly the target with the full confidence our arrows will follow our eyes.

This is the point of practice. To train our arms and legs, indeed every muscle in our body, to unite with our eyes in seeking the target. Every archer dreams of burying an entire quiver-full of arrows inside that small red circle at the center of the target, a whole quiver-full of bull's-eyes.

That would be heaven.

This is also our ambition as Christians. We dream of our bodies acting as flawless expressions of our spiritual vision. We dream of a day when every interaction with other people expresses the integrity and generosity of Christ. When every words we speak is true and courteous. When every thought is pure and noble.

That would be a glorious day. That would be even more exciting than a whole quiver-full of arrows.

In our New Testament reading today, we heard the words of Jesus that form the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, the constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven. Allow me a paraphrase: Line up your life with my teachings and you'll be pleased with the long term results. Don't line up your life with these teachings and you'll wish you had.

What does it mean to line up our life with the teachings of Jesus? Jesus offered a number of specific instructions. Use your words to build and heal, never to destroy or deceive. Be faithful in your relationships. Recognize the moral significance of the cultivating desires. Tell the truth. Always. Simply.

Then Jesus offered this simple, comprehensive challenge: Be perfect. Just like God. What is the perfection of God? Jesus summarized it this way: God sends rain on the just and the unjust. God shines his sunshine on the deserving and the undeserving, on Republicans and Democrats, on Russians and Americans, and even on North Koreans. Be like God. See every human being as a human being. Even if you are a police officer and deal with the most broken and dangerous human beings, work to remember that even as you thwart their evil, even as you protect the public and yourself—remember these criminals are broken HUMAN BEINGS and deserve some measure of respect because they are the children of mothers like your mother. They are children of the same heavenly Father who gave you birth.

It is an incredibly high ideal. Be perfect, just like God.

Let me go back to the archer for a minute.

Imagine you are a beginner at Sunset Lake Camp. (That's where Liz took the picture of Megan.) The instructor lays out the rules to keep everyone safe then shows you how to hold the bow and arrow. Then because unlike Megan, you are a bit clumsy, the instructor gives you some personal attention, adjusts your fingers, touches your elbow to move it into a better position. You shoot and your arrow gets lost in the trees off to the left. You shoot again and your arrow goes into the dirt. You shoot a whole quiver full of arrows and none of them even hits the hay bales holding the target. What does the instructor do? Gives you another quiver full of arrows and sets you back to shooting.

Over time you learn to control your bow. The arrows begin finding the hay bales and then the target and then you hit a bull's-eye. You do a little dance. And then try to do it again.

By the end of camp you've hit the center of the target three times. What do you dream of all winter long? Returning to camp and signing up for archery again. You dream of putting an arrow in the cneter of the target and a second arrow smack against it. And another arrow smack against those two. A whole quiver full of arrows in a tiny circle at the center of the target.

Not all of us are archers but we are all Christians. As Christians we dream of landing every word, every act, even every thought smack in the center of perfection. It is the only goal worth our devotion.

Be perfect, Jesus says, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

When I was in college and seminary, this challenge by Jesus often formed the center of fierce arguments. The arguments were driven by fear. What would happen if you didn't achieve perfection? Some people insisted it was possible to reach perfection with the help of the Holy Spirit. Others argued perfection wasn't possible and it wasn't really the goal anyway. Jesus talked about perfection just to highlight how screwed up people were so they would accept forgiveness.

I laugh those arguments now.

Of course, flawless perfection is not possible. But it is the only goal worth aiming at. Archers don't dream of hitting the target sometimes. They dream of hitting the bull's-eye every time. It's why they sign up for archery at camp.

As Christians, as devotees of Jesus, we aim at moral and spiritual perfection. We aim to be like God. If our aim was only to be “pretty good” why call it Christian.?

Part of the emotional force lying behind my school days arguments about this saying of Jesus was our fear of failure. What would happen to us if we did not manage to put every arrow in the center of the target? In the world I grew up in, failure to put every arrow in the center of the target meant that at the end of the week the instructor was going to throw me into hell. With this threat hanging over our heads no wonder we tried to come up with a standard other than perfection.

But what does the instructor really do at the end of the week at camp? The instructor commends you for your improvement and hopes you'll come back next year and make even more progress. The instructor knows that when you come back next year, you'll devote more energy to your grand goal of sinking every arrow in the center of the target.

In the middle part of the Sermon on the Mount, chapter six, Jesus offers a series of pictures of God. Every one of them designed to give us reassurance. Don't pray desperately because God is always watching and already knows your needs. Don't worry about your future because God will take care of you. We do not have to struggle to win the affection and favor of God. Like every good mother and every good father, God regards us with abundant affection and warm regard from our first day to our last.

On the other hand, Jesus also taught that the best life comes from pushing ourselves to do the right thing. The best life comes from vigorous, persistent moral effort. Aiming at perfection.

It's easier to eat ice cream than it is to go for a walk. But for most of us the walk will contribute more to our long term happiness, especially if we do it frequently.

It's easier to spend money than to save money. But for most of us the savings will contribute more to our long term happiness, especially if we make it a habit.

When someone offends us or hurts us, sharp words are an easier response than peace making words. But usually the peace making words will do more for our future happiness.

Following impulsive desires is easier than cultivating our desire for goodness. But goodness will build a happier life.

Telling the truth is sometimes harder than making up stuff, but telling the truth yields better fruit.

Practicing seeing our enemies as children of God is difficult but it pays enormous dividends.

Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Because we are children of God.
And because life words better that way. For us. And for the world around us.

Sure, we will miss the target sometimes. We will lose some arrows in the woods.

But God gives us another day, another quiver full of life.

Tomorrow, we begin another week as children of God. Let's take this gift of life and aim again at the very highest ideal. Let's aim to be perfect just like God.